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Friday, December 21, 2007

Fiction Fridays: Red Boy (part 1)

It's Friday, so here's some fiction. Also, I'll be taking holidays from now until the New Year, so there'll be no updates until January 7th, 2008.

Happy Holidays, one and all!

Red Boy

part 1

Five days. Five days was how long he'd waited, and practiced. Five days was how long ago he'd been in the accident at his uncle's factory. Five days was how long it took him to decided on his name, and put together his costume.

Dawson's mother thought he was going blind in his room, staying in there with the door closed every night, glued to his PlayStation, with his TV at the foot of his bed -- far less than the fifteen feet her old-fashioned sensibilities told her was the closest you should be. She also thought he was going deaf, with his stereo turned up loud to the latest Nickleback CD.

"Dawson! Dawson!" His mother poked her head through the half-open doorway. "Could you turn that down so I can talk to you?!"

Dutifully obeying with the remote in his left hand, Dawson dropped the volume by half, never taking his eyes from the ongoing game in front of him, or his right hand from the game controller. "Is that better, Mom?"

"Yes! Thank you! I don't know how you can think with all that racket. You know, if you keep listening to it like that, you're-"

"Going to go deaf? I know, Mom. I'm not deaf. I heard you yesterday."

His mother shook her head. "All right, but don't say I didn't warn you."

She favoured her son with a warm smile, half love, half bemusement, and turned to go. Then she turned back, readjusting the laundry basket on her hip.

"Is all your homework done?"

Dawson rolled his eyes. "Yes, Mom."


"Yes, Mom, just like yesterday. I'll show you later, after I'm done playing." As if to demonstrate his involvement, he winced and sucked air through clenched teeth, leaning to one side with the controller held up near his shoulders.

"Is that everything? You're gonna get me killed."

His mother sighed. "Yes, I suppose it is." She paused, then pushed ahead. "You're going to go-"

"Blind?" Dawson's eyes flickered into a distracted roll at his mother, sparing only a moment of his concentration on the game to register his annoyance.

"You told me that yesterday, remember?" He added a bit of extra "go-away-please" to his voice. "That's so not true. No one goes blind watching TV six feet from the screen. You don't need to be fifty feet-"

"I said fifteen."

"-whatever, fifteen feet away. That whole thing's just a product of your generation's adjustment to the rapid encroachment of technology into every aspect of your lives. It's knee-jerk, Mom. An urban myth."

Dawson's mother shook her head, feigning annoyance. Inside, she was pleased, and proud, of her son's intelligent discourse, but she was still a Mom, and knew she had to play her role.

"Well, just make sure you show me your homework tonight."

"Or you'll take the the video games away for a week. I know, Mom. Don't worry."

Once she was gone, down the hall and down the stairs, he closed his door, hard enough to be heard, and then turned up the stereo again. The game forgotten, and his mother handled for another evening, Dawson turned his attention back to the things he really wanted to spend time on. His name, his costume, and his powers.

After five days of this, a Monday to a Friday, he was sure he was ready.

As with all of my posts, but especially with the fiction, comments will be most appreciated.



Thursday, December 20, 2007

Animal Shave Problem Stoo

I've discovered a new webcomic that I intend to frequent: Animals Have Problems Too. I stumbled across the comic when asked to do a comparison of it and some other thing I didn't think was funny. (How did I get to the comparison site? From Evil Inc.)

This webcomic is my kind of humour. I like it. A lot. Animals Have Problems Too is slightly absurb, very dry, and frequently intelligent. Very few comics (web or otherwise) make me want to laugh out loud. Of the 150+ pieces I've viewed from this comic, I actually did laugh out loud (or otherwise reacted very strongly in a favourable manner) to a bunch of 'em. I even went so far as to forward a link to one of the comics to a friend -- and I never do that. I started at the most recent, went back a few, and by the time I'd viewed a handful, I wanted to read them all.

So, I went back to the beginning of the archive, and checked out the first 150. Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by the earliest few -- but what can you expect, the creator was just starting out. The comic picked up pretty quickly though, when Zach hit his groove, and never really disappointed me after that.

The art is deliberately mediocre, hand-drawn and scanned, and the lettering is deliberately atrocious. The experience, however, is distinctly positive, and the tooltips for the images when you hover over them are filled with extra Easter-eggy context. (Like this one.)

Interestingly, while in the early set, there is very little in the way of political cartoons (this one being a notable exception), the new stuff I sampled had large doses of politically motivated sarcasm. I'll be curious to see, as I peruse the rest of the archives, where in the comic's evolution the political overtones started to come out.

Out of the first 150, here are some of the standouts:

And finally: an incredibly sage observation.

(I wonder if it applies to me....)


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Until next time..."

Y'know, I think the very best thing about serialized fiction is not the stories, but the endings. In serials, there's a major delay (i.e. longer than turning a page) between chapters. This has the unique effect of putting a real, human-time emotional context into the reader's experience. The reader gets to mull over the story thus far before the next part is available to read. (And the irony of the delay of gratification thereof in contrast with the major resurgence of serialized fiction on the instant-access Internet is astounding, to say the least.)

So, modern serial storytellers, taking a page from their predecessors notebooks, have recognized the value of the cliffhanger ending. Dickens had it to the nth degree when his stories had people crowding the docks where printings of his latest installment were to be unloaded, calling out to the sailors about the fate of a beloved character. Of course, Chuck's delays were considerably longer than a day or two, and the selection of content for readers was waaaaaaaaaaaay smaller, but still, current serial writers have a lot to gain from their own unresolved endings.

Alexandra Erin, one the leading trailblazers of the Internet fiction movement, gave me two cliffhangers today: one in Tales of Mu, and one in Tribe. One of the nice things about Lexy's cliffhangers is that she uses them sparingly. Plenty of her episodes, while building and leading to a final climax, are also self-contained and self-resolving within their context, not relying on so obviously dramatic an ending. So, when I got these two (especially the one in Mu), I was quite pleased.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, over on his excellent Pulp and Dagger webzine, wrote an editorial about the cliffhanger ending. Specifically, he talks about falling (literally) as a tool to use to help stimulate the serial writer. I read it a couple of years ago, and the ideas he presented still stick with me. If I ever get to the point where I'm reliably producing enough fiction that I could support some serialized fiction without disappointing my legions of fans as they crowd the wharfs of the Web, I'll probably follow his advice.

In the mean time, as I come to the end of this blog entry, I'm recognizing that non-fiction blogs don't really lend themselves to cliffhangers. Or maybe they do?

"It couldn't hurt to try, could it?" Hydrargentium wondered, turning away from the screen in response to a strange noise behind him....

Or maybe not.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A groovy victim of progress

Throughout history, the march of progress has left countless items of interest ground under its heels. Witness the Nose Adjuster, the TRS-80, the Lava Lamp... uh, the Lava Lamp?

Yeah, the Lava Lamp. I realized recently that the current craze for energy efficient lighting -- specifically standard screw-in light bulbs, replacing incandescents with fluorescents -- will ultimately kill my enjoyment of my Lava Lamp. Why is that?

Well, a Lava Lamp's operation relies directly on the very inefficiences that people complain about with incandescent bulbs: too much energy lost to heat generated by the bulbs. Y'see, while a Lava Lamp uses the light from its appliance-sized 40W bulb (the kind you put in your refrigerator) to illuminate its groovy suspension of coloured fluids, it also requires the heat from the bulb to impart motion in the fluids. (The stuff in the bottom heats up, expands and thereby lowers its density, and floats in a blob to the top of the lamp. Then the blob, now further away from the heat of the bulb, cools down and contracts until it becomes denser than the fluid in which it is suspended, and drops back down to the bottom of the lamp to repeat the process.)

So, hopefully you can now see the problem. New fluorescent bulbs generate very little heat (which is part of what makes them more efficient), and once these bulbs have completely replaced the traditional heat-generating bulbs, I will be unable to enjoy my Lava Lamp. Oh, sure, I'll still be able to put a small fluorescent bulb in my Lava Lamp, and watch the glow, but there'll be no motion, which I'd say is more than half the experience.


Incidentally, I wonder what kind of bulb they use for this Lava Lamp?

Oh, and hey, have you heard this joke?

Q: How many stoners does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Wh- what? Dude... just, Dude.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Dinosaurs and society

Why do people get loud when they get upset? I do it -- I know that. I don't think I'd be off-base by suggesting that most people have done it at least once in their lives. (In fact, I imagine most people do it quite a bit.) But really, why get loud?

From a strictly logical (as in Spock-logical) viewpoint, getting louder rarely accomplishes the effect of being better listened to. Human nature is such that people listen less when yelled at. (And why is that? I dunno, but I'm not going into that right now.) So, logically, if people raise their voices when upset to be better heard (and therefore better listened to), they're performing the wrong behaviour for the desired effect.

I see two other options: A) random effect of adrenaline on the vocal apparatus; and B) purposeful but outdated effect on the interaction between communicating beings.

For the first option, we could suggest that being upset (and therefore excited) causes the voice to raise almost automatically, in a manner similar to how taking a deep breath causes the chest to expand, or perhaps more appropriately, to how being hit on the knee with a little rubber hammer causes the leg to kick. (That was one of my favourite parts about checkups when I was kid, the whole reflex hammer-on-the-knee test thing.) Basically, as an uncontrolled side effect of the extra adrenaline released into your system when you're upset, your voice gets louder.

For the second option, we have to look at possible reasons why, from a socio-evolutionary perspective, getting louder when we get upset might have been useful. I can see a couple.

There's the possibility that, at the primal level (when talking was used for only the basest communication, and society as a whole was so primitive that it barely justified being called as such), if a conversation got out of hand, the best response was a show of force -- but not a major one. No kicking, no hitting, no beating of chests or thumping the ground -- nothing like that so early into the conflict, but instead a raising of the voice to challenge the offender, scare off the interloper, etc. Certainly there are plenty of mammals (especially the more socially advanced ones) who use their voices in just such a manner: dogs going from a low growl to a viscious barking, cats graduating from a warning moan to the kind of nasty squalling noise that'll wake you up at three in the morning when two toms are squaring off over turf rights.

The other possibility is that getting louder is just a simple cue to indicate the speaker is feeling stronger emotions. Sure, we get loud when we get upset, but we also tend to get loud when we're happy, or when we're in pain, or when we've screwed with our emotion-response system by imbibing alcohol. (Whoo! Party!) So, getting loud just tells the listener (and others around us) that we're feeling strong emotions -- the question remains, though, about why this kind of information might be advantageous.

I'm sure there are a number of other plausible rationales, for raising your voice when you're upset, in the same vein. Maybe it's to attract more attention, bringing more people into the conversation to produce some kind of consensus, or perhaps to produce a feedback-like dampening effect, whereby a person's inhibition against loudness increases in direct proportion to the number of people in sight.

Definitely, all of this is speculation. If I stand by my socio-evolutionary model (which is the one that makes the most sense to me for the time being), then I'll have to assume that there used to be a good reason, but that reason has been left behind by the rapid pace of social change, and is now outmoded -- a social dinosaur, so to speak.

In fact, I think I like that idea for its poetic balance, if nothing else. Roaring like a dinosaur is a dinosaur's behaviour.


(It would appear there's some fun to be had pretending to be a dinosaur. I guess Calvin was right on.)

Raaah! Rwwwaaahhhhhh!


Friday, December 14, 2007

Fiction Fridays: Until the Fever Breaks (part 1)

I've decided, since my primary goal for writing is to write fiction, to dedicate Friday posts to fiction. (The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that I did not post last Friday. I was going to start Fiction Fridays last week, but my day was permanently interrupted before I got very far. So, here it is now.)

I have no illusions that I will be able to post whole pieces every Friday. I'm far too meticulous and labourious a writer to be able to do that. However, by instituting Fiction Fridays, I hope to force myself to produce something vaguely self-contained for the readers' entertainment.

Thus, for your edification and enjoyment, I present a little snippet from a story I came up with last week. (That sounds misleading. As of the writing of this post, what follows is all I have composed thus far. I can't guarantee there will be more, but I hope so.)

Until the Fever Breaks

part 1

Rohit felt hot. He sensed the sweat all over, swarming on his aching skin. Coherency broke through the haze of his thoughts, for a moment, and he reasoned that the blurring of his vision must be from the sweat running into his eyes. Then he roared, dizzy, and flailed his arms for balance.

The smoke returned to cover his mind. He could taste the hot metallic tang on the roof of his mouth. Through the blur, he made out a flash that clawed at the back of his eyes. Cringing, he threw an arm up across his face. Gathering his courage, he stomped a foot on the ground, and then charged.

Susie loved going to the mall. Her big sister, Polly, got to go all on her own, and hang out with friends. Polly told stories of all the cool people there, and all the awesome clothes, and stores with free samples for perfumes, and makeup, and cookies, and ice cream. Susie didn't get to go on her own, but when Dad had to go Christmas shopping for Mom, he needed a second opinion. Susie was glad to help.

She floated through the stores, sometimes holding her father's warm hand, sometimes following behind and gazing at the pretty dresses. Her father was careful, even when he seemed distracted, to know where Susie was, any time she wandered more than a foot away. "C'mon, Susie. Let's go see if there are pyjamas in the next store that Mommy would like."

"Daddy, please. I call her 'Mom'." Susie skipped over to catch up, slipping her right hand into her father's left.

Stumbling through the thick air, hot and oily in his lungs, Rohit exhaled a pent-up sob. It gurgled out of this throat, loud and liquid. He couldn't remember how this all started, didn't know where he was, but knew for sure he wanted to get away from the heat that consumed him. The sheen of sweat had evaporated from his burning skin, leaving a crust of salt that yielded less and less with every flexure of his agonized limbs. He felt something crash against his hardened shins, stumbled, and then kicked out blindly at the assault. He could barely see through the ash that seared his eyes, and his ears were filled with a muffled roaring like fire heard far away. His nostrils had given themselves over to the acrid burn, and now his skin was withheld from all but the heaviest of blows. Panic rose up in him, a fire all its own, as he recognized his exclusion from the world around him.

He kicked again, missed, then threw himself to the ground. He felt something solid across his midriff hold and then give way. He crashed amid the pieces, his head bouncing on hard concrete. He barely felt it.

continued in part 3

As with all of my posts, but especially with the fiction, comments will be most appreciated.


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Snow, wonderful snow!

Wow, it's snowing! I love snow. I love it when it's snowing hard, and I love it when it's just coming down as the faintest hint of flakes. There's something magical and free about little motes of pure whiteness falling from the sky.

I was downtown today, and the snow was falling, and the wind was blowing -- not so you'd call it a storm, but enough that people were pulling their collars up, hunching their shoulders, and tilting their faces away from the weather. Not me, though -- when it snows, I feel so good, it makes me feel warmer. If you'd seen me, I'd've been the person standing on the corner, chin up, eyes bright, and hair blowing in the breeze. Snow lifts me up, makes stand straighter, feel taller, invigorates me like few other things. I want to sing when it snows, and frequently do, and sometimes forget to keep it low enough so that people won't look askance at me as they pass by. I don't care if they do. It's snowing!

Some of my fondest memories involve trudging through the snow, headlong against the growls of winter. Snow builds up in my hair, melts against my forehead, and then freezes along my hairline. I reach my destination looking like Old Abominable in the Rudolph movie, and shake my head to let loose the storm in the entryway.

I love shoveling snow, too. It's hard work, but feels good to throw piles of the stuff around, working all the muscles in my body. And it's clear, as you work, that you've accomplished something -- every single shovelful is an obvious change in the landscape. The sense of achievement you get when you're finished, happily tired and leaning on your shovel, surveying the results of your labour? Priceless.

Then there's the morning wake-up, when you look out the window after the weather has passed. Everything, and I mean everything, is white. White on the rooftops, white on the roads, white on the trees, and the chimneys, and the cars, and the sidewalks. It's all white, and it's all clean, and it's all fresh. Sure, there are no leaves on the trees, and the green grass is covered, and the flowers are gone until May, but new-fallen snow has a beauty all of its own.

I love snow.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Shockingly un-funny

For no particular reason today, I've been thinking about shock humour. You know the type, where a "comedian" does something shocking, or says something shocking, to get a laugh. (You can probably guess by my use of quotes that I don't find this kind of person to be funny.)

It seems to me that people who rely on shock humour do so because they think it's funny. Simple idea, really -- I imagine most people who are trying to make people laugh do what they think is funny.

(This gives me an idea for a story, about a wildly successful comedian who doesn't think that anything she does is funny, but is very good at figuring out what other people think are funny. The conflict of the story relies on the tension between her success -- money, fame, etc. -- and her tedium that comes from always doing schtick for other people, but never herself. Now, all I have to do is figure out how superheroes fit into it.)

However, I think that people who use shock humour because they think it's funny do so for sadistic reasons. Specifically, such people think the shocks they deliver are funny because of the effect they have on the audience. In other words, what these shock jocks are laughing at is not the joke, but the squirming they provoke in others, the reaction to the joke. Really, it's a lot like laughing at a guy after you kick him in the nuts.

(Right now, approximately 50% of my readers are cringing, or bending slightly at the waist, or covering their genitals with their hands, in response to the above statement.)

Interestingly, there seems to be a not-insignificant audience for shock humour. Consumers of comedy do so because it makes them laugh. (I don't think it takes much to support this statement, so I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.) Since there seems to be continuing, profitable production of shock humour content, we can only assume that there must be an appreciable body of consumers out there who enjoy it. So what about them?

Well, I think people who get a kick out of shock humour are motivated by the same responses that drive the shock jocks. People who laugh at shock humour are laughing at other people's discomfort, whether they're witnessing the shocking, or performing it. They're all sadists.

But wait, isn't there another kind of response to shock that produces laughter, beside the "I get off on other people's pain" kind? Yes, there is. It's commonly accepted that many people will laugh at something that shocks or disgusts them, as a way of lessening the horror of the situation. "Oh my god, what did he just do? Ha ha ha." It's a form of nervous laughter. Honestly, though, the only kind of person who repeatedly exposes him- or herself to something unpleasant as a form of recreation is a masochist.

Either way you look at it, in humanist terms, shock humour ain't funny.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Death and meaning

I heard a guy on the radio last night talking about death. (Man, what is it with me? Half of my posts are related to death so far!) Specifically, this particular scholar (I didn't catch the name) had written a book about death, and its function in and effects on human society and emotional life. The scholar and his interviewer were discussing the difference between meaningful and meaningless deaths, about how the death of a pedestrian run down tragically by a drunk driver seems meaningless, death in vain, whereas the deaths of soldiers are generally considered meaningful and important, dying for a worthy cause and fighting the good fight. Even in our current era of "wars" that many people in the countries involved are against, most people prefer to honour the soldiers, dead and living, even as they vilify the policies (and the policymakers) that send the troops out into the field.

My own thoughts, listening to this interview, ran with the whole "meaningless death" issue. The author of the book stated that meaningless deaths are like an emptiness -- something that the human heart cannot stand. He cited the roadside memorials that appear more and more frequently, even on back roads that very few people travel, to mark the place where someone died in a crash. This got me thinking about how else meaning can be added to an otherwise meaningless death. I realized that, sometimes, people try to incite change as a reaction to what seems to have been a pointless death. Mothers Against Drunk Driving works very hard to create an awareness about the dangers of driving under the influence, and was started by a group of mothers who had lost children in drunk-driving accidents. Inquests are regularly called to investigate deaths that people feel should never have happened, frequently with the goal of providing recommendations for changes that might prevent similar deaths from occuring. Countless people have attempted to change their lives for the better, as a memorial response to a loved-one's untimely demise.

I am the kind of person who likes to try to understand why things and people behave the way they do. I like figuring out systems, and how they work. Cause and effect, return on investment, these things are of great interest to me. I'm also strongly convinced in the appropriateness and validity of the evolutionary model. Since I perceive the existence of humanity's social nature as an evolutionary adaptation (just like intelligence and language), I am inclined to look at how people and societies behave through an evolutionary lens.

As such, I found myself wondering about the evolutionary impetus that produced the whole "meaningful death" response. Certainly, the basic drive of species survival in a cooperative society easily begets a taboo against unnecessary killing, and conversely encourages people to only give up their lives for the most gain. Really, it's just an extension of the mother-dying-to-protect-her-young behaviour displayed by countless higher animals. The drive to add meaning (which we can interpret as evolutionary value) to a death, however, is a significantly more complicated response, one that requires the species to possess an advanced sense of cause and effect. Specifically, someone must be affected by a meaningless death, recognize it's lack of evolutionary value, and decide to use the emotional energy generated by the event as a catalyst to effect a positive change in society, and therefore the species as a whole.

This is really an awesome concept, to me. An evolutionary adaptation to turn negatives into genuine positives (which at its root is simply making lemonade out of lemons) provides the species with a far greater advantage than any other species without such an adaptation. Partly, this is simply a factor of the intelligence adaptation, learning from our mistakes -- but I've seen dogs do that too. Really, this behaviour is a much more advanced step in our evolution.

Of course, like all evolutionary adaptations that rely on the base advantages of intelligence and society, the drive to add meaning to a meaningless death can be corrupted, or, more appropriately, poorly executed. The most basic example of such a poor execution is patriotic revenge: one of your people killed one of my people, so now I'm going to kill you (even though neither of us are directly involved in the incident). The Hatfield-McCoy feud is a perfect example of such a corruption of the drive.

(Let me be clear, though, that revenge, in general, has a very important place in the checks and balances of evolution and society. People are far less likely to wreak ill on another if they know there will be some sort of retribution, and revenge is the most personal of retributions.)

So, where am I going with this? Well, I guess this is really just a lengthy observation that using a negative incident to generate positive change is a better thing to do than letting the negativity reverberate and linger.

Also, I think there's a kernel in here somewhere that describes the interrelationship between ethics and evolution. Or something like that.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Geek is the word....

I surprised some people in a conversation this weekend with a revelation about geeks. After self-identifying as a professional geek (aka computer nerd, programmer, etc.), I went on to prove my true geekiness by spewing little known facts about all sorts of topics, including the origin of the word "geek".

Having decided to write about this in my blog, I dutifully looked up the term "geek" in Wikipedia. (Do I really need to include a link to Wikipedia itself? I hope not, because I'm not going to.) I was surprised when I read the article, not because it proves me wrong -- it doesn't -- but because of how poorly written it is.

After the basic word-bite blurb that accompanies most Wikipedia article, designed to provide only the barest minimum of information for those too stupid, hurried, or uninterested to read more than a couple of sentences, there's a section titled "The definition of geek". The opening paragraph of this section is a lovely, and loving, treatise on the modern context of the word "geek". The passage tries to rationalize the modern geek lifestyle into an ideology of passion. Specifically, the description includes this definition of a geek: "one who is primarily motivated by passion".

Okay, now, let me make this clear. I work with geeks. I've worked with geeks ever since I got into this business. I went to college with a bunch of people who all wanted to be paid to do geeky things. I hung around with geeks in high school. I know geeks.

While a few of the geeks I've known might consider themselves passionate (mostly the ones who read Shakespeare), I'm pretty sure the majority have never had such a thought. Sure, geeks are "into things", usually in a very big way. All geeks, just like every other human being on the planet with a working endocrine system, are capable of being horny, even wild in bed. Plenty of geeks will get drunk, and dance themselves silly (although this is more likely to be at the company Christmas party than at a dance club). But "passionate"? I don't think so. "Passion" is for poetry and romance novels.

(And, quite frankly, I doubt there are many geeks who could even make their way through the first dozen pages of a romance novel, unless it was on a dare, or for a bet, where the payoff was a near-mint first printing of any issue of Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man.)

The thing is, the passage in this Wikipedia article is, itself, a work of geekly beauty. The author is clearly so into the concept of geekiness as a justification for his or her own socially inept existence that what has been crafted is a model of the geek paradigm. Not only does this paragraph describe and define geekiness, it is itself quite geeky. It's multi-layered (like an ogre). It's... meta-geeky.

Incidentally, I think the Wikipedia article on the work "geek" is symptomatic of the larger problem with Wikipedia (which is itself a microcosm of the World Wide Web): there's plenty of information there, but most of it is not directly usable, and most of it is biased. Of course, just about any writing is biased -- I imagine even the -pedia pinnacle, Britannica, has suffered from bias by times -- but still, I hope for better. (Why? No particular reason. Perhaps because I'm an optimist.)

Oh, and the original "geek" meaning with which I shocked the crowd? Back in the day (Which day is that, anyway?), the geek was a member of the circus sideshow. The geek's job was to put on a show, biting the heads off of live animals (most frequently chickens -- I wonder how Mike felt about that). Nice work if you can get it, I supposed, but I'd rather stare at a computer screen all day, thank you very much.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

We're all going to die... some sooner than others

I just finished a conversation with a co-worker about the Darwin Awards, which included relating a couple of stories from early in the archives, one about a genuine contender, and one about what the awards people call "Honorable Mentions" (or, as I would prefer to call them, "Honourable Mentions"). For those who don't know, a Darwin Award winner is a person who has removed him- or herself from the gene pool through his or her own stupidity. In other words, that person managed to do something stupid enough to die from the results of the action. (The classic example is the guy who died when the Coke machine he was rocking in an attempt to get a free beverage fell forward and crushed him. Get it? Stupidity leads to death.) The D.A. people also designate Honorable Mentions as people who have done spectacularly stupid things, but survived the experience (like the guy who attached a bunch of helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair, and got stuck floating for hours over Los Angeles).

So, why awards for stupidity? Sure, we can all laugh at their lack of intelligence (although we should, perhaps, ask why we are laughing), and take note of the actions described, so as not to make the same mistakes ourselves. However, the true reason for the awards is simple: celebrating the fact that these idiots have been removed from the gene pool, thereby limiting the stupidity of future generations. (I suspect, however, that stupidity will be plentiful for millenia to come.)

So, what I really want to talk about is why the Honorable Mentions don't get their own actual awards, instead of just being included peripherally. The way I see it, as long as these near misses lead to lessons learned, both for the self-made victims and for the voyeuristic masses, then the committers of these stupid acts should be fully lauded as well. Seriously, instead of just congratulating the people who have made things better for future generations, shouldn't we equally include those who have made things better for the present mob?

All of this also makes me think about the whole extra feedback loop that intelligence and language adds to the evolutionary process. Between the ability to reason and learn, and the ability to communicate what we have learned with others, humans have effectively short-circuited much of the life and death cycle of evolutionary effects. Sure, we still die (for now), but these two human traits have done more to keep people alive, who otherwise would have died without any chance of procreation, than any other evolutionary adaptation in the history of life on Earth. (I can't really say much for other planets, since we have zero empirical evidence.)

Personally, I am amazed every time I think about the effect of intelligence and language on human evolution. Especially when I walk down the street, and see a young couple walking down the street, hand in hand, whose genes clearly should have been left behind centuries ago, were it not for some other early genius who figured out how to cultivate grains, or set broken bones, or ride a horse. Most especially then.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I Am My Own Grandpa!

In her collection of short stories, A Bird In The House, the essential Canadian writer Margaret Laurence provides us with a figure from her childhood, much stronger than herself. Her mother's father, embodied as Grandfather Connor, the stubborn, ursine patriarch of her family, was a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, the grizzly, overbearing, self-made man, in his huge, rank, bearskin coat, is so potent that, for most of the stories in the collection, he is a catalyst for conflict, and an element of life that must be always be considered and worked around. For Laurence's protagonist, Vanessa, who is a reflection of the writer's own younger self, he is both an unavoidable part of the scenery and framework of her life, and part of the very challenges that Vanessa must act against in her struggle to grow and gain understanding of life and family.

As a writer, I have not been so lucky. There have, indeed, been strong figures in my life. Mr. Bill was an understated, self-made man, who brought himself up from lesser beginnings, and provided quiet strength and support at an important time in my early teen-aged development. My mother's long-time boyfriend, with his overgrown beard, waist-bound extra mass, and little tolerance for the excessive exuberance and unusualness of my childhood behaviour, could certainly be bear-like on occassion, at least to me, and he was definitely one of the most frequent figures from my younger years. However, he was still only a person, given to considerable generosity, and a wry sense of humour. Even though I was sometimes afraid of him, he was never a force, merely forceful.

These figures, and others, certainly had some profound effects on my upbringing, and helped to shape who I am today. I do not denigrate them in that respect. Thinking about writing, and using, as Margaret Laurence did, figures from my younger years, I had felt that there was no one that could be such a force. It seemed that I was not afforded any person of such a calibre to provide a solid core for any such stories I might write. Further introspection seemed warranted.

Then it hit me. Rather, I hit myself (by no means literally, although I have been know to deliver self-directed smacks to the forehead on occasion). There was, truly, a great force in the narrative of my life, one who refused to be denied, seemingly direct, predictably unpredictable, and unyielding, yet possessed with (and by) challenging motives and under-explored themes, and demonstrated capacity for growth and development. This singular figure could provide all the antagonism, all the energy and impetus any story could need, yet be as comprehensible in motivation as any person could be to me.

In the story of my life, I am that force.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

To grok, or not to grok... can you dig it?

Thanks to a link in Lexy's blog, I've discovered the win-win joy of Free Rice. Play a fun word game, generate page views that turn into rice for starving people. I can dig it.

In fact, I can grok it. That's the word that just came up in the Free Rice game, and, being the geek and R.A. Heinlein fan that I am, I knew exactly what it meant. (Well, as much as any non-Martian can.) I found its appearance in the game especially note-worthy, since most of the more difficult words that show up are old or archaic, but grok only dates back to the second half of the 20th Century.

Specifically, the verb "to grok" was coined by one of my all-time favourite authors, Robert Anson Heinlein, in what could be his most influential novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. What evidence do I have that this book was so important? Well, the fact that an entirely invented word from it found regular usage is always a good indicator. (Want another example? How about Joseph Heller's contribution to the English language, "Catch-22"?)

Of course, the most famous and widely-referenced inserter of words into the English lexicon is, unarguably, William Shakespeare. Olde Bill is also considered one of the greatest of English writers, if not one of the greatest of all time, in any language. Coincidence? I'm inclined to draw the conclusion that the ability to add well-used words to the language in which one writes is a significant indicator of the greatness of one's writing ability. Thus, I can say with some confidence that Heinlein was a great writer.

Now, "Stranger in a Strange Land" taught me a lot of things, about human relationships, about the importance of Science Fiction in a literary context, and all that other stuff that great literature provides. Lots of novels, though, have similarly contributed to my personal development and intellectual enhancement. Only this one also taught me a value meta-lesson about the art and process of reading.

I started reading "Stranger in a Strange Land" in my early teens -- I'm going to say thirteen, but it could have been later than that. I got about 100 pages or so into the book, and found I really wasn't hooked. Perhaps the writing style was a little more advanced (read, grown-up) than I was used to, perhaps the introductory themes failed to grab me, or perhaps I just wasn't into it right then. In any case, I ended up putting the book down, and picking up another, which I immediately got into. (What book? No idea? Could have been Beverly Cleary, for all I know.)

However, in the course of that summer, I went with my family on a road trip. I don't remember where we were going, but I do remember sitting in the back seat, finishing whatever book I was on, and looking in my travel bag for more. What did I find, but my copy of "Stranger in a Strange Land", still bookmarked at the place where I'd left off. So, I opened the book, stowed the marker, and began reading.

By the very next page, I was hooked. Michael Valentine, defending himself from a group of bad guys, reached out, gave a little twist, and one of the bad guys just went away. Heinlein described it as rapidly moving away from any and all viewers' perspectives, and then later had Michael further explaining what he did, but I got it right away -- he'd twisted his target on the axes of the four dimensions, at right angles to the three we move around in, and the man no longer moved around in the same three-dimensional space as the rest of us. It was cool.

More importantly, the lesson I learned was this: never give up on a book, just because the beginning isn't grabbing you. Never. Never ever. Any book you've decided is worth trying to read is worth reading to the end. Maybe the book ends up being a waste of time. Write it off as character building, learning from someone else's mistakes, and move on. Because maybe, just maybe, this could be a great book, and ditching it will make you miss out on its greatness.

So that's the rule I follow, for books especially, but also for movies and CDs (or albums, as I still like to call them). Each of these is a major work on the part of the creators, each has the potential for slowness, and each has the potential to move me and change me in ways I can only uncertainly guess.

What I'm saying is, you can't grok the book until you've grokked the whole book.

You grok?


Monday, December 03, 2007

The Ultimate Selfishness

I've been thinking a bit, recently, about suicide. No, not me personally, just suicide in general. Honest, really, no need for concern, I'd really rather not kill myself (or die any other way, thank you very much). My recent suicidal thoughts (wait, that really didn't come out the right way) came about from a conversation I had a few days ago.

It's pretty obvious that people commit suicide for only a handful of reasons: they're crazy, they're crazy, or they're crazy. That's pretty much it, the way I figure it. Since, from both an evolutionary and a creationist (or should I say design-ist) perspective, the fundamental driving force behind our existence is living, it's hard to see, within this paradigm, how anyone with a properly functioning brain (or capacity for self-awareness, anyway) could possibly commit suicide.

(As an aside, I can already hear people shouting -- or maybe that's just in my o'erweening head -- that there are plenty of reasons why people would willingly give up their lives. Yes, there are, and this is not the post in which these reasons will be discussed. Suffice it to say, for the sake of this argument, that committing suicide is not that same thing as giving up your life for a good reason.)

So, people commit suicide for a number of "reasons". (I use quotes here to indicate that, while the committers may call them "reasons", there's nothing reasonable about any such justification for suicide.) First there's the "poor me" excuses: my life sucks; I can't take it any more; I don't know how I could go on. Then there's the delusional mutterings: Jesus is waiting to meet me on the other side; I'm ready to transcend to a higher plane; I won't really die, this is just a temporary setback in my immortal self; the voices in my head are telling me to jump to my death. I don't think anyone is going to reasonably argue that the latter group is not a big bowl of mixed nuts. The former group, the self-indulgent whiners, well, that's another story.

Surely, some might say, a person's life is his or her own, to do with, or dispose with as he or she pleases. Yes, you could say that, but if you believe that about yourself, then you are selfish.

Selfish? Why is that selfish? Well, first, let's look at the definition of the word (from http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?selfish):

Main Entry: self·ish
Function: adjective
Date: 1640

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2: arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others <a selfish act>
3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function <selfish DNA>; also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication <selfish genes>
self·ish·ly adverb
self·ish·ness noun

Now, ignoring the whole DNA connotation, we can focus in one one particular aspect of the definition of "selfish":

concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's [self] without regard for others

Basically, this means that a person who exhibits selfish behaviour does so only with concern for themselves, without regard for others.

Now, when someone commits suicide based on the "poor me" justifications, they do so without consideration for the effect their actions will have on those around them. Think about it. Would it be okay for someone to spit in her mother's face, simply because she was unable to cope with the state of her life? How about someone setting his brother's car on fire? What about... well, I think anyone can get the idea well enough without my having to come up with more depraved and disturbing examples.

So, would any of that be okay? It's hard to say yes to that without being selfish. The effects of any such anti-social behaviour are strong enough that most of them are prohibited by law (even if such laws are not always enforced). In fact, the only violently anti-social reaction to one's own inability to deal with the state of one's life is suicide -- and that's only because the law does not have provisions for prosecuting dead people.

So, you kill yourself, oh poor you, you couldn't take it anymore... and you leave behind a wake of emotional destruction and turmoil that lasts for decades after you're gone. You don't care; you're not there to deal with the consequences. It's a bit like making a big mess in the kitchen of the house you've just sold, on your last day of occupancy before moving permanently to a third world country. Why should you care how big a mess it is -- you won't be around to have to clean it up.

Your parents spend potentially the rest of their lives mourning their loss and wondering what they did wrong in raising you. Your siblings beat themselves up over whatever inconsequential thing they think might have been the incident in your childhood that pushed you too far, and spend the rest of their lives worrying about their own children, trying to avoid setting off the suicide genes that may be lurking in their gene pool. Your husband or wife, regardless of how well you may have been getting along with him or her, feels guilty, and awful, and rejected, and also has to deal with the funeral arrangements, and consoling any children you've left behind, and trying to make up for their loss by being two parents at the same time, with no chance of reprieve in the form of a weekend visit with the errant parent -- and I won't even go into the financial strain your actions will cause. Friends will have their lives disrupted, and never be sure they couldn't have done something different that might have made a difference.

But you didn't care about any of that, you just cared about your own pain. How is it any different, really, than losing your job, fighting with your significant other, getting splashed by a car as it drives through a giant puddle beside you, and then not stopping to help when the nice old lady from up the block bumps against you as you walk by, trips on the curb, and cracks her forehead open on the sidewalk? Yes, you're in pain, emotional turmoil, your life sucks, the world seems like it's out to get you, but can you really turn your back on that much suffering? Can you just ignore it, and continue on, leave it behind you because you no longer care? You can? Really? Well then, you're selfish.