Wednesday, December 30, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-seven: Music

Music is probably one of the "realest" things there is, if "being real" can be considered a continuum and not just a binary thing. If you're having trouble imagining a spectrum of realism, think about how real chairs are: well, OK, on the one hand there are actually chairs in the world, but on the other hand there are just atoms arranged chair-wise. But those atoms are composed of protons, electrons, and neutrons, and those things are a little bit "more real" than the chair-like arrangements into which we place them. If you can dig that. Or it could be that, since words are imaginary, I'm just playing a pretty word game. Your choice, I guess.

The best definition for music that I ever heard was, "organized sound in time." Now, the sound of music (phenomenologically speaking) is just vibrations in the air wobbling your eardrum and then turning those wobbles from air vibrations into liquid vibrations, followed by tiny hairs in your inner ear picking up those vibrations and telling your brain that you're hearing sound. But what's behind that is a bunch of rhythms, and what makes music interesting is the arrangements of (and relationships between) those rhythms. I don't just mean time signature and beat, I mean the rhythm with which the air must vibrate to carry, say, a C#.

Now here's where the "realness" of music comes in: the relationships between those vibrations are a matter of mathematical proportion. While it's fairly arbitrary what names we give to our notes and what scales we use, these rhythms have a direct relationship to the bits of reality from which they are constructed. What precisely that means is up to the reader, but the fact remains that sound (or more generally, rhythm) is a direct expression of the properties of reality that produce it. There is a key difference, however, between rhythm as we perceive it and rhythm as it actually is, and here I want to illustrate the point by reference to some of the differences between Indian and Western music.

Both Indian and Western music are based on the physics of sound, but whereas Western music only recognizes twelve notes in an octave, Indian music recognizes twenty-two notes in an octave. Interestingly, both styles typically choose only seven notes in that octave range to play in a piece, and this determines the key of the piece. While the variations of Western music typically involve play with harmonic progression, Indian music tends to focus its complexity on melody and rhythm: in an Indian performance, the audience can keep a steady rhythm while the performers play around, and then they meet back up and the audience is impressed with how they each went and played with the rhythm and then managed to meet back in the middle. In a Western performance, the audience just kind of sits and listens while everyone stays in the same rhythm and plays different parts in harmony. And whereas Western music tends to have a "mood," Indian music has a time of day: Westerners have happy music, sad music, suspenseful music; Indians have morning music, afternoon music, night music. And that's just skimming the surface! (A more thorough read can be found here.)

The point is, a Westerner might call Indian music dissonant and arrhythmic, while an Indian might call Western music repetitive and dull. Each would describe their own music as rich and soulful and all kinds of other positive adjectives, while the other thing is "just weird." Which you like seems to be based only on where you grew up, the local style to which you have grown accustomed, like language or an accent: Indians have three distinct sounds which Westerners seem to translate all as the "D" sound, and Westerners seem to do this thing with migrating Rs (which is why a Bostonian will "wash the cah," while a Texan will "warsh the car").

But underneath that style is the same physics, the same vibrations, the same travelling disturbances through reality. Much like language is all about communicating ideas, music is all about communicating rhythms; but while ideas are only in our heads, rhythms are actually "out there in the world." I think that makes music and rhythmic expression a little bit more real, more interesting, more visceral, than the things that we do with language alone.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Family Togetherness > Ideology

I got into town late on the 23rd, and everything since then has been a blur of cooking, eating, drinking, wrapping and un-wrapping... y'know, family togetherness. But on the 24th, my family went to a Christmas Eve service at the local Episcopal church. I had just shown and explained my book to my mom and her girlfriend, and they seemed to be really impressed with the fact that I cranked out a word count in a month and then followed up to get my proof copy, but only now - now that I've written a book, it seems - do they understand that all my talk of God being imaginary means that I actually don't believe in God. Like, I've been an atheist longer than I've been an adult (if you count 21 as adulthood, that is), and so my mom seemed to hem and haw and hesitate about asking me to come to service, even though I haven't done so for years.

There was one exception, two years ago: my youngest brother and sister were in the pageant, so I put up with being bored for an hour to support them. Oh, I also went to a church when my choir director died - he was a great guy, and celebrating his life/honoring his death was worth acting against my "church is stupid" principle.

Well, I told my mom that I'd sleep on it, and so I did. I woke up thinking that I really didn't want to go, but it meant so much to other people, and it's really not all that much trouble for me. Oh, they also have a gay pastor at this church, which sweetened the deal for me: like Pat Condell, I don't want there to be gay clergy only in the sense that I don't want there to be any clergy, but I have no problem with someone wearing a certain set of clothes just because of how they choose to stick it in the naughty place. And maybe if churches become inclusive and permissive enough (which, historically, has defined what church is not all about), then my problems with churches will just go away and religion might become a positive thing in the world after all. Or maybe my head's in the clouds, I don't know.

Well, Christmas Eve slipped by, mostly. I had to help the kids accomplish their lists for the day: E had to finish a present for Mom, C had to clean her guinea pig's cage because it hadn't been done for weeks, that sort of thing. And my task was to make the Jell-O for Christmas dinner, since it was layered and required brief periods of attention between long spans of inactivity. Just my style! Anyway, I'm in the middle of making Jell-O (four of seven layers in), still wrapping presents, my brother A & my father haven't shown up yet, and mom tells me it's time to go to church. They're heading out the door right now! We gotta go!

Well, OK. I'm thinking to myself, "I could go to church and be bored but have a little bit more family togetherness - which we're getting anyway - or I could stay home and do useful things that actually accomplish something. Hmm..." So I said that I needed to get to a stopping point, but if Dad & A were going and the whole family would be there except me, then I would go. I called my dad and left a message as the rest of the crew headed out the door. Well, Mom calls me from the road to say that they have actually seen my father's vehicle on the way, then my father calls me to say that he's bringing A to church and wants to know if I'll be there.

Ugh. Fine. OK. "Yeah, I just got to a stopping point. I'll throw on my boots and coat and I'll be right along." I briefly consider a shot of rum - just to keep me warm, you understand - but then I think better of it. I'm only five minutes late, and according to the program, they're still singing the prelude hymn. I sit down amid hugs and whispered greetings and smiles, all of which I return, and then hear the priest say, "Blessed be the one, holy, and living God."

The congregation responds, "Glory to God for ever and ever."

The priest continues, "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen." (You see, I kept a program. It's all annotated an' shit.)

The first reading was from Isaiah 9, which seems to be all about the Lord's people coming together to live in peace while all those ungodly folk live their awesome lives in civilization. Read it. It's civilization versus the country bumpkin believer, and God comes along to lay low the people who actually try to improve their lives and feel good about themselves for it.

It wasn't all backwardness and foolishness, though. There was some humor, too! At one point, the pastor said, "Therefore, according to his command, O Father," which I totally heard as, "...according to his commando father." It gave me the giggles and I had to explain by passing notes. And at the end, when we were about to sing Joy to the World, the pastor realized that we skipped over Silent Night and said, "Wait! We forgot Silent Night! It's just not Christmas unless we sing Silent Night, after all." That gave more people the giggles, so I had no problem laughing along.

So, OK, an hour of boredom, but at least everyone's nice. There was no Hellfire or brimstone, no shrieking condemnations of difference, just a bunch of innocent god-walloping nonsense with a central message of love. I can't quite get behind that on account of the nonsense, but it could be a whole lot worse. And it made for a great conversation starter, too! At dinner, my mom started telling me how the congregation has shrunk with the gay pastor, and she told me about how she ran into one of the no-longer-attending families while she was out shopping and asked why she hadn't seen them at church. She responded that there had been some changes, at which point I said, "Huh. Cute. A bigot in civilized clothing." I got to talk about Conservapedia and their stupid project to remove liberal bias from the Bible, too. Then we actually talked about the Bible, and how it's a mixed bag and you can get whatever you want out of it depending on how you go into it. Good conversation!

There was something of a reprise last night at my grandparents' place (they have a 26-acre valley for a backyard, so this is where the sledding happens). I got to talk about my book again, and my mom brought up that I came to church, and then she brought up the Conservative Bible Project again and I got to talk all about it. So it was good, in the end, because the family unbeliever got to rally with the rest of the crew against what we all recognize to be idiocy. And at the end of the day, I really don't care what people believe, so long as they leave their unprovable crap at the door when it comes to telling others how to live their lives. There's a difference between "You should take your full course of antibiotics to cure an infection" and "You should refrain from sticking it in the naughty place in thus-and-such a way because it makes baby Jesus cry." They know the difference. They just... believe some things that I find silly.

Whatever. I probably believe some things that they find silly.

Oh, I had entirely forgotten about the Jell-O, but of course church didn't get blamed. I just went out to buy more and picked up where I had left off. It came out great!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Turning off my computer...

...and so begins my sojourn to The Frigid Northlands. Happy whatever you do, everybody!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Matter of Scale

I have to thank Silver Garou for pointing me at this video of the Universe as we see it:
It reminds me of the Total Perspective Vortex from Adams' Hitchhiker trilogy. Then there's this, from Rhodopsin:
The Universe is such a huge and awesome place! And while I'm at this, I should also mention that cl linked me to Symphony of Science a few weeks back, which is great stuff! What's not to love about auto-tuned prose from great science popularizers, set to ambient techno with imagery from science programs? Here's Our Place in the Cosmos, which features one of my favorite Dawkins quotes: "Matter flows from place to place and momentarily combines to be you. Some people find that thought disturbing - I find the reality thrilling."
Enjoy!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Writer's Remorse

I've been re-reading my response to Sarah Braasch, both in light of the comments left there (and in the DA thread), and because I re-read things often to try to get a different perspective on them. Well, now I've got a different perspective on my own words, and I feel compelled to say something about it. Here I go!

The more I read what I wrote, the more it comes off as a couple pages of "I don't like your style, young lady!" It strikes me more and more as finger-wagging nonsense, and I always get pissed when people do that to me, so why would I do it to anyone else? As both Sarah and Ebonmuse have said, the criticisms are valid ones - but what was I criticizing? Well, Sarah didn't genuflect before the facts in a manner suitable to my tastes - she didn't cite sources when making points. Why did that stick in my craw so much? Because... because... because facts matter, dammit, and if you don't keep track of where you get them from, then you might be wrong and then... and then... well, you'd be wrong.

But was Sarah wrong in anything she said? Umm... no. As Ebonmuse was kind enough to point out, the facts are on Sarah's side here - while her apocalyptic tenor* may indeed have been hyperbolic, I think such hyperbole is justified by the facts in this case. And ultimately, the availability of that justification is what matters to me, not whether it's laid out right the Hell then and there. Missionaries do in fact bring their death cult with them and tie it to what comforts of civilization they also offer, and their death cult is in fact anti-civilization, anti-health, and anti-sanity. How better to bring about the end of the world than by poisoning all that is best in it, both in practice when giving aid to people, and in the public mind by causing the disease to be consistently linked with the cure? Oh, and for clarity, disease=unevidenced superstition (but I repeat myself!), cure=secular civilization (oh, I repeat myself again!).

To be fair, nobody goes all the damn way to Africa just to ruin a bunch of strangers' lives. These missionaries, of course, have nothing but the best of intentions in their heart of hearts, I'm sure of it - but who's always saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? Must be someone who believes in Hell...

Anyway, I think I got a little carried away with my academic desire for citation. But this ain't Wikipedia, it's not even college, and so picking nits over something like that just seems inappropriate now that I've had a couple days to think about what I wrote. My first reaction to her piece was that it was moving and well-written, and while that admittedly does rely on the sort of background that she and I share (i.e. growing up amid religious insanity), we do in fact share that background, and I think appealing to that is no bad thing. As Sarah said, this is not academic writing, so my criticisms are at least a bit out of place.

I guess what I'm getting at is that everyone's an asshole from time to time, and I think I just took my turn. Sorry about that. I should have thought about what I was saying before I said it, and then I might not have gone off on a tangent about... nothing at all, really.

* - I try to use the phrase "apocalyptic tenor" at every available opportunity, because I read it here and it's awesome (it's also awesome here). But am I the only one who thinks of a giant Luciano Pavarotti destroying Italy when this phrase is mentioned? That would be quite an "apocalyptic tenor" indeed! Man, now I want to see giant Luciano Pavarotti wreck the Vatican... that would be awesome, too! Also, today's Dinosaur Comics is pretty awesome, too (fortune cookie moment).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Too Awesome Not to Share

This was just too amazing to leave alone on the internet:
click for big, source
So yeah, this site is just awesome. It might even be called "epic," in a "win" sort of way. For the win.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Whose Work Is Sarah Braasch Doing?

So I've been thinking about Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work, and re-reading it with a more critical eye. I started off liking it a whole bunch, but then again, I started off agreeing with Sarah in the first place. Now, I think the piece (as a stand-alone essay) expects perhaps a bit too much from the reader, or bites off more than it can chew. Maybe both.

I'm not troubled by the initial revulsion at the missionaries on the plane. I think it's an understandable emotional reaction all on its own, and the conversation Sarah relates between her and her friend shows a great opportunity for growth. My issue starts with "The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness."

I understand that First World folks can (and do) cop an attitude of entitlement, especially when they think they're helping others and see any inconvenience as ingratitude (or some such horse-shit). But this is never shown, we are simply expected to believe that an attitude exists without ever seeing it in action, rather than presenting it as a reasoned conclusion from any observation that was shared with the reader. Sarah says, "The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies," but aren't those the people who live in this country? And isn't the point of a hotel to accommodate its guests? And why on Earth is she complaining that children are being taken from an impoverished nation to a home with parents who can provide for them? I understand that the situation these children are being brought into is far from perfect, ideologically speaking; but I think it's a damn sight better than the destitution in which they would otherwise be raised.

Then there's this bit: "I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. ... I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution." Now, maybe she had no choice in terms of which hotel to stay in. I'm just saying, it makes for a rather awkward juxtaposition to say, "I'd sacrifice X to escape Y; but now I'm going to indulge in X without getting away from Y at all!" When you don't have a choice about Y, sure, you may as well do X anyway. Just sayin'.

Moving on, there's the conversation with the other missionary (from a story logic perspective, this would have been an excellent place to capitalize on that aforementioned growth opportunity). Sarah asks, "Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?" I didn't know that they could! But in any event, it doesn't seem like this particular one is doing anything of the kind. Sarah, by her own admission, isolated herself - she put herself in a position where she looked lonely, and this other person seemed to be trying to make friends with her. She reined herself in and remained civil, but it seemed unnecessarily strenuous for her to do so. Was she starting off in a confrontational mood, I wonder?

At the end of it, Sarah simply leaves as soon as her cigarette is finished, which is coincidentally when the missionary is at her most vulnerable. Why not take this opportunity to exercise a little patience and do some missionary work of her own? Moreover, what is this Christian likely to say to her friends about the encounter? Would she glowingly recount the friendly conversation she had with the atheist, who wasn't a fire-breathing Satan-worshipping demon but actually a nice person just like her? Or would she probably have something else to say? Perhaps something that reinforces her preexisting notions about atheists?

As for her conclusion and call to action, I'm half with her, half confused. On the one hand, I agree that the actions of missionaries cause direct and real harm, but on the other hand, Sarah doesn't seem to acknowledge how screwed-up the pre-existing superstitions and circumstances of these people often are. It's not like the Christians need to tell these Africans to believe in the supernatural, they do that on their own already. Really, the harm that the Christians do is... well, yeah, by mis-educating them on sex, they actively contribute to the spread of disease. By not correcting misogynist attitudes, they reinforce those attitudes. Christians are throwing fuel onto an already blazing fire of primitive superstitions, and the fact that the transplanted primitive superstitions are linked to the civilized help these people bring makes for a detrimental juxtaposition on the world stage. Sure.

However, I think her point would have been better served if she limited it to showing how the actions of American Christian missionaries are detrimental to their goals. They want to help people? Great! Go help people! Oh, but if you also want to spread your religion, then there's gonna be a problem. 'Cuz, you see, we checked, and it turns out that religion is bad for people. Her points at the end, backed up with some statistics (perhaps links to news stories concerning the torture of witches inspired by missionaries, or wars started over ideas spread by missionaries, or really any kind of data at all), would have admirably served this purpose. But "they are the apocalypse?" Sure, Christianity's a death cult and all that - as Pat Condell points out, the defining moment of Christianity is its founder's death, and all the benefits accrue after death, and so on and so forth - but I think a bunch of unsubstantiated sneering renders such an apocalyptic tenor a bit needlessly hyperbolic. To wax verbose.

So yeah, as I'm sure can be gleaned from the feedback Sarah's received already, the stuff she talks about isn't entirely unreasonable. However, to someone who doesn't have a background of experience that is remarkably similar to hers, to someone who doesn't know about the racism/sexism/elitism/entitlement that often runs rampant in God's chosen cults, this could come off as a bunch of condescending and confrontational bullshit. That objection could easily be removed with the simple inclusion of a few supporting facts, even anecdotes: perhaps a story of a missionary berating a hotel employee, if such a thing did in fact happen. A good piece of activist writing should educate the reader on problems, not simply state them and blame them on somebody. Or it could just be a rant, but then it ought to get the rant tag, so people know to take it with a grain of salt.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

From Metaphysics to Politics: High horses and the myth of identity.

I'd like to start today's philosophical sojourn with a thought experiment. Cut off your pinky in your mind's eye. Are you still yourself? Of course you are. What about your arm? Without your arm, you're still yourself. Both arms, both legs, even your torso - if you could survive as a Futurama-style head in a jar, you'd still be yourself. You'd have lost your gastroenteric and spinal nervous systems, and those go a long ways farther to influencing your "brainy self" than most people realize, but you'd still more or less be you.

The same goes for your hair color. If I woke up tomorrow with blonde hair, but otherwise the same, I'd still be D. If I woke up tomorrow with green skin, I'd still be me. If I woke up tomorrow in a body of the opposite sex, I'd still be who I am, that one thing about me would have just been changed independently of all other things.

How about your past? Take any day of your life, and delete it from your history. It could be the most important day of your life, but you were still you before it, and you'd still go through the changes you'd go through afterwards (although perhaps a radically different set of particular changes) in a continuously changing flux of "you." The same goes for each and every facet of your personality, every emotional reaction you've ever had, and so on and so forth. Take yourself apart, and where is the "you?" There is no "essence of you," aside from a constantly-changing patchwork mish-mash of atoms and the events those atoms have been through.

There is no such thing as "you."

Lots of people, yourself included, have "an idea of you." And as the philosophers Parker and Stone have reminded us, an idea doesn't need to have a referent in order to have effects in the world. The idea of you is a real idea, but it is not the same thing as you any more than your idea of a duck is an actual duck (for clarity, your idea of a duck is not a duck). Actually, when you get right down to it, there's no such thing as "a duck," either (just "atoms arranged duck-wise," which is practically the same thing but not exactly), because all language is language of convenience. So even though there's "really" no such thing as you on the one hand, of course there's "really" such a thing as you on the other. To remain intellectually honest, however, we have to keep both of these senses in mind when we talk about ourselves so that we can make sure that we're not confusing the two in our own minds, conflating them when speaking to others, or equivocating between them while trying to make a point.

Why do we need to do this? Well, to not do this would be careless and stupid, I think. Do you want to be careless and stupid? I don't know. I sure don't. But there's no law saying that you can't be careless and stupid, so to each his or her own, I guess. Keep that in mind for part two, coming soon! (Guess what? Soon is now!)

Much has been said lately, in the corners of the Universe that I frequent (I'm not just talking about the internet here), about all the wrongs that have been done to this group/person at the hands of that group/person. It's a real shame - I'm not being facetious or sarcastic at all here, it really is a shame. Suffering is a part of life, it's not all flowers and rainbows. But then people go and do something weird: rather than actually try to work together to do something constructive about it, some douchebags seem to want only to whine and whine. They seem, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to get outside their own heads and stop taking things personally. Yes, these things often affect them personally, and that's rotten, but even though it's very real in one sense, it's all in your head in another important sense. Both senses are valuable, because while the former can help you motivate others to be on your side, the latter will help you make your case without whining.

Now, I want to get one thing very straight at this point: some people talk about their problems because they want sympathy, and some people talk about their problems because they want solutions. Some people only respond to talk of problems with sympathy, and some people only respond to talk of problems with solutions. Doing only one or the other of these is incomplete, and that's the TL;DR version of my beef today. As emotional creatures, we need sympathy - so give it when you can! Really! Be sympathetic to your fellow human beings and their experiences. But problems are for solving, too, so offer solutions as well! And when you tell people about your problems, be grateful for what sympathy you do get, and also be prepared to make progress and move towards solutions, which will involve taking a little advice, because it's probably coming your way anyway. So be a little tough on yourself, swallow your pride, and take whatever comes your way as an opportunity to learn.

Or did you think you had the right to tell other people how they ought to respond to you? Or the ability to control how others think of you? You're not the main character, y'know. Everyone's got problems. Sure, lots of people don't know what it's like to be you, but you don't know what it's like to be anyone else, either, so stay off that high horse. Besides, at the end of the day, the world is under no obligation to take you seriously, and you're not entitled to anything. Every single part of you, every facet of your personality, every choice you've made, every word you utter, every action you take, is subject to question and ridicule. So what?

So what, ideed. This is not a rhetorical question, I really mean this: take anything that's happened to you, any injustice you've suffered, whatever storm you've weathered. Ask yourself, "So what?" And keep asking it. So it's wrong - so what? So, it hurts! So what? So this is bad for the whole world! So what? Keep asking so what, and you'll see that dwelling on the negatives is pointless - it's the wrong attitude to take. Yes, it hurts and is bad and is unfair, and yes, that sucks, and yes, that's awful. But so what?

So, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do something. "I shouldn't have to!" Wrong attitude, asshole. "I already am!" Really? Awesome! Again: so what? We'll go a better way this time: so I'm fixing problems. So what? So I'm making the world a better place! So what? So, things are going to be a little less awful now. So what?

So, hopefully, you're happy with what you're doing and you've found some meaning in your life. So what? Well, isn't that the point? Hasn't that been the point all along? How we survive is what makes us who we are, so how are you surviving? Are you throwing a tantrum, literal or metaphorical, petulantly tapping your foot as you wait for the world to conform to whatever idea of fairness or justice you think it ought to automatically respect? Or are you getting over your bad self, taking care of your own damn needs, and dealing with people by giving them what they need to get on your team and work with you? One of those approaches works. The other is stupid.

This is politics: dealing with people, giving others what they want in order to get them to give you what you want. It's not always fair, it often sucks, but it's how things work. And if you get enough people on your team, you can get things headed towards your way in the long run. Doing this in the best way possible requires an uncommon level of honesty and self-awareness that can only come from refusing to let your wounds define you. If you choose to forge your identity (and imaginary as it is, we all have an identity) from all the wrong that's been done to you, if you insist upon emphasizing your victim status, then you cannot reasonably expect anything other than continuous failure and misery.

But even if you do everything right, then you will still suffer failures and setbacks from time to time. That's just how things go sometimes. It sucks. And things aren't always this simple, I know. What I'm saying is, simplify things for yourself. Are you missing some advantages enjoyed by others in society? That sucks! So take them. If you got a sub-par education, go to the library and give yourself a better one. Shitty social circle? Make new friends. Low self-esteem? Start taking steps to improve your life and build your self-esteem on that. Heal your own wounds. Take control of your own life. You can't ever do it all the way, and you might not win, but you can start, and you can keep at it, and you can refuse to let the bastards keep you down. And then you can put yourself in a position to help others like you, because you'll have something to offer, even if it's only the wisdom of your years or the experience of what doesn't work. I mean, you can't fix everything right away; but you can't even start to fix the world until and unless you've started fixing yourself. And complaints never fixed anything.

This post was featured in the 47th Humanist Symposium.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Call Ripley! A little bit of Holiday Honesty, for a change.

I totally stole this from the Atheiskeptihumanist forums (so extra-special thanks to UberPest!). My "penance" is to tell you all to go register there! It's a pretty simple portmanteau, you can bookmark it if you can't spell it, and the community needs more members - which means that the earlier you get there, the more relevant you'll be! And while you're at it, you should also check out Atheist Nexus, too. It's like the Facebook of atheism. On to the news!

Boss Creations is dedicated to putting Christ back into Christmas. Don't laugh, this is Serious Business. OK, laugh because it's stupid and nobody with half a brain gives a shit. Also, laugh because they're literally jamming their symbol of medieval torture into a pagan symbol of a pagan holiday in a desperate bid for cultural relevance, just like the church did in metaphor when they tried to co-opt the holiday all those years ago. You see, the church can't torture people into believing any longer, so now they just bludgeon us all with symbolism - as Boss' front page says, "It's not just a tree - it's a movement!"
What. The. Fuck.

So I'm kind of alarmed by this whole thing, but I find their misguided attempt at cultural dominance to be cutely honest. I'd like to see Jesus up there, myself, beaten bloody with a little INRI above his head, maybe a banner wrapped around his naughty bits saying something like, "Blood Sacrifice is Just Awesome! Fuck Yeah!" Oh, for a fun time, ask any Christian away from the internet what INRI stands for - ten bucks says they won't know, but we need a statistically relevant sample, and I guarantee I'll come out on top across, say, a couple hundred randomized trials.

I also wish these nutters were somehow forced to accept the historical fact that Christmas was co-opted from pagan solstice celebrations. Seriously, the evergreen decked out with shiny baubles and fairy lights, the gift-giving, mistletoe, all that crap - pagan, pagan, pagan! The real killer, though? Christmas trees are against the Bible, for serious! Someone needs to inform Marsha Boggs, Boss Creations' owner-slash-crazy-ho-bag-in-residence, who apparently hates inclusion because it doesn't show her particular sect the special deference it does not deserve at all. I'd love to see the look on her face when Jeremiah 10:2-4 is read to her.

Of course, she'd probably do the Christian thing and ignore reason. She knows what she believes, don't confuse her with the facts. Christianity is whatever she says it is, godammit, and there's no way the Bible could be against her because... wait, there is no because, that's just a fact. Right, guys?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Outrages Are Outrageous!

Thanks to Rhodopsin for tipping me off to this tidbit: last Tuesday (12/8), the Canadian sci-fi writer Peter Watts got a little out of line with border patrol, and was brutalized out of all proportion for it. (other sources)

Now, I don't know if anyone told this guy, but the police run on authoritarian dick-waving. That goes double for border patrol, who imagine themselves the defenders of Our Glorious Nation against foreign threats. Sci-fi writers aren't exactly high up on the list, as foreign threats go, but creative types in general tend to have a problem with bowing to authority for its own sake, especially of the dick-waving variety. But the people who pursue power tend to be the people who want it, and provoking such types is usually risky business as they are wont to exercise said power at the slightest provocation - such as a foreign writer asking police why they're searching his vehicle.

What we have here, you see, is a misunderstanding: Watts, reasonably enough, didn't seem to understand that when an officer of the law wants to search your vehicle, the officer gets what the officer wants whether you like it or not. This makes no sense, but it's how things work. Watts also didn't seem to understand that disobeying a direct order from a police officer, such as "return to your vehicle immediately," is a crime. Could he have been justifiably cuffed and hauled in to station, at great embarrassment and perhaps some minor financial expense? Sure.

Should he have been beaten, maced, and then dumped over the border after posting bail with no coat or vehicle during the first major storm of the season, only to be charged with felony assault by his assailants? Hell fuck no!

OK, so now the tables have turned and it's border patrol who's out of line. In order to do things like not lose all of his everything and send the message that This Shit Won't Fly, Watts needs about three metric boat-loads of cash. He has maybe a quarter of a metric boat-load of cash at present, being the critically acclaimed but not really all that popular author that he is. So if you have some extra scratch lying around, you can make a PayPal payment to donate@rifters.com, or send a check in the mail to Peter Watts. He's made his books free on the internet, so you could download them and donate the money you'd save.

Actually, I remember being intrigued by his Rifters books ever since I read Anatomy of a Rifter some years ago... I think I'll toss a twenty his way with a Christmas download and finally take a look at what he's got to say. Rhodopsin, remind me if I forget, because this is important to me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bus Crazies Gone Wild!

So I was riding the bus to work this morning when I overheard a man talking to another man about teh innernet. These were Serious Men, who do things like Talk Shop, so I can understand the instinct to appear knowledgeable. For my part, well, I don't know - I'm not a doctor. But I have friends in high places - people who occasionally take the time to explain things to me, like how a computer works at the transistor level (it's a physical logic gate - so cool!) and stuff like that. Computers are still magic to me, at some ambiguous level - it's along the way from "transistor be logic gate" to "game go on screen" - but it's magic that I can at least listen to intelligently. And now I'm hyphenating too much - back to the story about making fun of posturing idiots.

So this guy says he couldn't do the research he needs to do because "they blocked all the social networking" and now he can't even "get on IM." He tried to Google what he needed, apparently, but it "brought up something else all on its own," and so he was all like, "delete delete delete!" Because it was, you see, "an adult, umm, it was a porn site." Well, fuckin' surprise. Apparently nobody ever told him that that's what the internet is for. I thought to myself, briefly, "Who does this yahoo think he's trying to fool?" But then I looked around on the bus and answered my own question. And now I think my elitism is showing. Oops!

So I started talking to Typhinius about this, because it was hilarious, and he courteously explained to me that if spam clogs all the tubes, then that will slow down my pixels. I countered that the law of supply and demand has created a preponderance of lesbian porn, and that if nobody watches it, then it's just going to pile up and start spilling out to all the other sites. We'd better get cracking! Keeping on top of internet porn is Serious Business!

Fast forward to work, and I'm talking video games with one of the tech guys, when one of the people who does actual work walks in and starts asking him for help with her home computer. She was using terms like "computer box" and "the button by the volume knob" (I'm not making this up, I swears it!), so I knew what I had to do. I practiced at poker face for a while, then when there was a lull in the conversation, I asked her, "Are you sure your spam filter is working properly? If too much spam clogs your tubes, then that could cause your pixels to slow down."

She looked at me and nodded - knowingly. Part of me died a little.

But then tech guy came to her rescue, and said with perfect sincerity, "Don't listen to D," as if I weren't even there! Whatever, he did the right thing, and I cracked up because I could no longer keep a straight face.

Speaking of non sequiturs, this reminds me rather of Our Lord Jebus. You see, the tubes are our brains, and the pixels are our thoughts, and Jebus is the spam. When spam clogs the tubes, your pixels slow down, they get all fuzzy, and it's hard to see what's going on. But this is OK, really, because thinking is hard. You don't want to bother with all that tough work, do you? So let Jebus clog your brain tubes with his blood or spam or whatever, and blur out all those sharp-edged pixels. It's the stupid man's anti-aliasing.

Or you could install Skepticism brand spam filters, and keep your tubes clear and flowing properly. Sure, you might not like some of the things that pop up on your screen now, but those things were there anyway - you just couldn't see them before because of all the Jebus spam! And then you'll know that when other people talk about lesbian porn overflowing onto other sites, they're talking out their asses, so you don't need to worry about that stupid apocalyptic crap. And then you can start worrying about things that actually need to be worried about, like misogyny and homophobia and hunger and poverty and disease. You know, real problems, not the made-up problems that the Jebusites are constantly fretting about.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Photoshop skills are not what they used to be...

But I guess that's what happens when you only do MS Paint diagrams for... uhh... years. Yeah, years. Jeez.

Anyway, I'm upset with a few elements of the cover. OK, four. Mainly the metal face bits, because I can't even follow a polykarbon tutorial right any more. But it's not total crap, and it will work as a cover for the proof copy so I can at least make sure I did the magic right on submitting things. Here, have a look-see:
I also decided, oh, about forty-five minutes ago that I wanted to do something besides plain black for the background - but I had accidentally made the background part of the layer I was working in, so I totally fucked myself. After that, it was mainly just saying, "Fuck it," and wrapping up so I could just get my damn proof copy already. So if anyone has awesome Photoshop skills - or any kind of awesome art skills, really - and feels like whipping up a 5x8" cover at 300dpi, it will probably be better than mine. And you'll get credit in the book, too! It's win-win, I promise!

Anyway, I guess that's what I get for trying to rush everything at the last minute and not sleeping since... umm... shit. I woke up on Wednesday morning and have been going ever since. Is it Friday already? I have shopping to do! Good thing I'm off work today.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What is this "sleep" of which you speak?

Everything is in order, continuity is established, and like three typos were fixed. Seriously, I scoured the whole thing in the last like twelve hours and it's all good. Now I just have to register at Create Space and upload! Oh, and the cover, too. And dedication, acknowledgments, about the author, etc.

Friday, for serious.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Update!

So I didn't hear anything from the NaNoWriMo people about what I got for winning this year. But then Rhodopsin picked up Borderlands (which is a sweet game, despite the fact that it's side-by-side split screen and Modern Warfare 2 controls - and you can't fucking change either of those things! Dammit!), and Silver Garou & I have been working on getting the achievements to unlock the ODST armor for our internet avatars (because unlocking sweet gear for your internet persona by playing games is like the best marketing gimmick EVAR). What does this mean? It means that D becomes very lazy. I managed to write enough to cover the Riley Williams segment just in case I wound up wanting to remove it, but other than that, I haven't worked on The Quantum Mechanic since the 30th.

But then I got an e-mail at like 9 pm last night stating that we winners do get a free proof copy, and since I want to get this ready in time for Christmas shipping, everything else is on hold until I've got that all ready. Just so y'all know.

By the way, "in time for Christmas shipping" means Friday. Like, this Friday. So I'ma get crackin'!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-six: Cordyceps, scourge of the jungle!

Cordyceps is one of my favorite kinds of parasite: a zombie parasite! That is, a biological zombie parasite, not a memetic zombie parasite (religion, nationalism, etc.). What do I mean by "zombie parasite?" I mean a parasite that overwhelmingly alters the behavior of the host, like rabies (which makes its host restless, vicious, and thirsty), in a way that makes it dramatically more likely to cause the parasite to spread. The common cold, influenza, ebola, these just straight up kill you (or get killed) and it's a pretty boring fight. But zombie parasites make you do things that you could imagine the parasite straight up asking you to do, and you say "Yes." Just like religion!

Check this out:
Footage from Planet Earth.
Cordyceps is a real monster, albeit a beautiful one. It can make floor-dwelling ants, which would normally spend their entire lives on or beneath the ground, climb. And it looks cool, too! Check out some of these sweet photos:
Seriously: so awesome. But don't ever mutate! You can click on any of those "source" links for bigger (and more!) images, and you can also go here for even more shots. Great stuff!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cross-Post: The Man with the Bag

My mom was fretting about there not being enough money this year for all the Christmas miracles she'd like to have happen. I tried to comfort her, so I asked what made Christmas magical in her youth, expecting that she'd reflect on things like family togetherness, a few nice surprises, and the hoopla of celebration; instead, she looked me in the eye and sadly said, "Santa," as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. My first thought was, "You child," but then I realized that calling her out on this would do no good, so I tried to constructively point out what really made Christmases good for her: the actual good things.

Anyway, the Santa Claus lie (and misinformation with intent to deceive is lying, no matter what your intentions are) is still being perpetrated upon my youngest siblings, so here's this.
Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one in my family who doesn't think it's OK to believe something false because it makes you happy. There are only two situations where we do this: the "Bunny, Tooth and Claus" trinity, and religion. My parents have asked me to keep mum once again about Santa Claus, insisting on perpetuating the myth in young E’s mind. I assured them that I would maintain my position of evasive neutrality – really, it would only do more harm than good at this point, and he’ll soon figure it out for himself, anyway. Plus, he’s not even my kid. After that, C’s practically in the bag. Next on the hit list: the Easter Bunny, and then the Tooth Fairy!

I want to take a minute to clarify something, though, lest it go misunderstood: I love winter festivities. Sure, a few people turn into raging dick-bags when discussing the proper etiquette of how to greet someone, and fuck the haters (I say “Happy Holidays” a lot because I don’t really identify with the religious reasons behind any of them and therefore don’t really wish well for any holy day in particular, but if someone wishes me Merry Christmas or Happy Chanukkah, I’m content to interpret that as a wish that I have a good time throughout the season), but by and large, most people get a whole lot nicer. Also, winter is awesome and gift-giving is one of my favorite traditions. On the one hand, yay free stuff; on the other, it helps you get to know someone and keep them in mind when you’re shopping for something you think they’ll enjoy. I also think that the history of the Santa Claus myth is a fascinating case study in memetic evolution; however, as with any other work of fiction, I think the myth is valuable as a myth and only as such.

A lot of people are willing to get on one’s case about such things (like my parents), and I find it puzzling that they treat this with such idiosyncratic uniqueness. One of the more idiotic attacks that I hear is that if I don’t endorse the systematic teaching of the Santa Claus myth to young children as fact, then I must hate fun. It should be obvious that one can enjoy an end without approving of every single means available to achieve it (disapproving of rape doesn’t mean that someone hates sex). Similarly, I don’t have to hate Christmas to harbor qualms about one or two aspects of certain groups’ celebration of it – for example, the over-commercialization of the season, of which many people of varying creeds disapprove.

A more subtle approach is to say that I’m simply being no fun on this one subject, in this one respect – I take it too seriously and am making a mountain out of a molehill. I can actually respect that position, so long as I’m afforded the opportunity to defend my own, which is my goal in this entry (and this isn’t really directed at anyone who’s likely to read it, it’s mainly shit I would tell my parents if I thought it would do any good). First and foremost, Santa Claus is a symbol, and symbols are important: they shape the way we think, teach us lessons, and often serve as paradigm cases upon which we may base more pragmatic beliefs or courses of action. As a symbol, I think Santa Claus is actually a good thing; it’s the treatment of this symbol – the teaching of it as literal fact to young children, the reasons for doing so, and the attitudes with which this practice is commonly regarded – to which I take exception.

I also want to take a moment to head off any accusations that this is a thinly-veiled rant against religion. I don’t want there to be any veil at all, really, but this isn’t about religion specifically - it’s about the perpetuation of a tradition which I think is both totally unnecessary and harmful to a certain degree, yet paradoxically enjoys what I think is an undue amount of respect in mainstream culture. It just so happens that this is the same kind of problem I have with religion. These two issues share a huge amount of overlap, I make no bones about this. However, I wish to confine the discussion here strictly to Santa Claus. Once again, this is a beef I have with parents in general, and mine in particular.

As I said, I like the Santa Claus symbol, because it appeals to the na├»ve intellect of children but also bears out on a more mature reading. He’s a magical man who lives beyond the reach of human civilization and gives gifts to people in accordance with their conduct by means impossible to us mere mortals. To the child, this translates as, “Behave well and get stuff you want.” And, really, I think that characterizes the experience of children in most decent households: good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior is reprimanded. Good symbol. Us adults know, however, that sometimes a severely unethical course of action, when rigorously pursued, can still net a positive result for the agent (for example, the Enron fiasco, wherein corporate pirates robbed a lot of innocent people of money they deserved and – injustice of injustices! – were only lightly reprimanded for it - the punishment in no way fit the crime).

Good behavior, on the other hand, often goes unrewarded for a very long time, and sometimes is never rewarded at all. Obviously, the karmic reciprocity embodied by Santa Claus holds little sway over real life, but I think that the symbol here serves not as a lesson, but as an example: should we not strive to make our society such that the good are recognized and rewarded, and the wicked are chastised? This is not a mechanism by which the world works, but rather an embodiment of values which I think many of us share. Reap what you sow, and all of that.

Additionally, I think there actually is a much deeper lesson that is instructive (as in the children’s example), rather than exemplary (for the grown-ups): you can cheat other people, but there’s no cheating reality. If you do a good job at something, then that will be reflected in the product of your labor; if not, then it’s garbage in, garbage out. There are exceptions to this, of course, but this is the general rule. OK, maybe this last one’s a stretch, but still.

The problems arise when we consider the teaching of this myth not as a symbol, but as a literal fact. In the first place, it’s a lie: misinformation with intent to deceive, plain and simple. This, on its own, is not much – it’s the context and the consequences of actions that determine their moral content, not their mere descriptions, but I think this should serve as a warning sign. Lies generally turn out bad. And let’s not forget the enormous, conspiratorial scale on which the Santa Claus myth is foisted upon young children.

When taken as literal fact rather than fable, the “be good, get stuff” ethic can be disheartening to children when compared to how things actually play out: if Santa Claus is really magical, and satisfies the wishes of children based on their behavior, shouldn’t you be able to get anything you want if you’re just good enough? And if you don’t get what you want, then doesn’t that mean you’ve been a bad child (or not good enough)? And how come Tommy, that spoiled brat next door, got what he wanted from Santa, but you didn’t? What’s this guy up to, anyway?

Of course, this isn’t the way it always goes down, but my point is simply that Santa isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s also the fact that a lot of kids, upon learning that Santa isn’t real, are heartbroken: obviously, this is a cherished belief, since they’re not saying, “Huh, I thought there was something strange about that whole story, I’m kind of relieved to learn it was all hooey.” This effect has a double-edge, I believe – on the one hand, it provides evidence that belief in Santa is a good thing while that belief is maintained (and that’s the killer); on the other hand, the more cherished the belief, the harder it is to let go of it.

So yeah, Santa’s got his up-side, sure, but there’s also a down-side which I think a lot of people underrepresent. It’s kind of a wash, though, as most of this business goes down at an age that many don’t very clearly remember, so who cares? Let’s look at the ostensive reasons behind Santa, then; or, just what this myth is used for. “Be good, or Santa’s gonna give you a lump of coal in your stocking.” That’s a threat, right there. A fairly innocuous one, to be sure, and almost always empty. However, what strikes me as sleazy is that the source of the threat is externalized from the threatener: Mommy or Daddy is threatening to do something you don’t like, but under the guise that it’s a threat from someone else, an all-seeing and implacable judge of right and wrong who – wait, I said I wasn’t going to talk about religion.

The other side of that coin is that when the kid gets stuff they really like, who gets the praise? Not the people who did the actual work to make the Christmas Miracle happen, but the unseen benefactor in the sky – err, I mean, at the North Pole. Dunno what I was thinking there, innocent grin is me! (Look, I find it tremendously ironic that Santa’s like training wheels for a monotheistic deity, but so few outgrow the latter as they outgrow the former. No further comment on that, I promise.) In all seriousness, though, I do honestly think that the substitution of a false and magical justification for good behavior, in lieu of a rational and Earthly one, is a bad thing – both for the fact that it’s empty and wrong, and for the precedent it sets at such an impressionable age.

Look, one may say, all of this is small potatoes. The whole point of Saint Nick is that it’s an entertaining fantasy that’s fun for kids to believe while the magic of childhood lasts. Right? Still bad, says I. The fact that it makes you feel good to think something is true does not mean you actually ought to think it’s true. Take romance, for instance. Say one of your coworkers fancies another: do you think it would be good to make that person believe the feeling was mutual, knowing that that’s false? Of course not, you’re simply setting them up for disappointment – either quickly, when they start to act on those affections and get embarrassed, or gradually, as they wait for the other person to act on affections which are simply not there.

The same principle applies, and the same thing happens, with jolly old Kris Kringle. Perpetuating the illusion just adds to the let-down. And the whole “magic of childhood” tack kind of rubs me the wrong way, too. The message, as best I can tell, is that “magic is fun, reality is boring” (or “childhood is fun, adulthood is boring”). I find that false, and frustratingly so. If magic were real, then it would be like any other part of reality: discoverable, usable, investigable. There would be nothing special about it, just like there’s nothing special about computers (which, to my mind, are a kind of magic). As far as I can tell, what’s exciting about magic is not that it’s magic, but that it’s different. Kids who know there’s no such thing as Batman can still have fun playing Batman with their friends, or Hell, playing Cowboys and Indians when they know that they are not in fact cowboys or Indians. I did. Shit, I still do this stuff whenever I roleplay.

“Something Different,” every now and again, is exciting. It breaks up the routine. And you don’t need to think it’s true to have fun, you just have to pretend and have a functional imagination. Plus, reality is fucking exciting, too – you just have to know where to look. Boredom sets into the boring mind, and all that good stuff. Plus, the “magic” of childhood never really has to die, anyway. I find that, as an adult, I have more access to the stuff I liked doing as a kid, and now that the responsibilities are my own (which, to be sure, carries its own price – a price I pay gladly, by the way), I can determine when and how I do those things to a much greater extent than I could as a child. Being a grown-up fucking rules (and screw you, Mom, cake is a breakfast food!).

The point with all this is that I don’t have a problem with Santa decorations, or Santa floats in parades, or any of that nonsense. Go nuts. Really. Please, just, do whatever you like – I like the Santa myth, and adults know what’s up, so it’s all in good fun (for real). But when it comes to treating it like fact in a misguided attempt to "magic up" your kid’s childhood, I mean, nothing good comes of that which can’t be had by more wholesome means, and the bad stuff could all be rather neatly avoided by treating it like a superhero comic and telling your kid that it’s not true, it’s just a fun story. That’s really the source of my confusion: why the Hell isn’t Santa Claus treated just like Batman or Spider-Man?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-five: Ye Olde Science Repository

I saw on Pharyngula today that the Royal Society is putting up a bunch of their oldest stuff online!
One of the world's oldest scientific institutions is marking the start of its 350th year by putting 60 of its most memorable research papers online.
They've got this super sweet timeline browser that takes you through the history with pretty pictures, and the papers touch on everything: meteorology, optics, medicine, anatomy, geometry, astronomy, everything! It's awesome!

OK, so this is really like sixty interesting things in one, but still: looking at the world to figure things out about it? Best. Idea. Evar! But enough out of me, go and learn!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Un-Deleted Scenes!

I've got all these handy navigation links in the chapters, but none for the Un-Deleted Scenes, so I've added that here (as well as a link from the Epilogue that points to this page). Here you go:
Rock most hard. Have a great one, everybody!

Dear The Internet: I Win!

Look, see? I also donated some money and have a halo because of it. Oh, and I have a winner's badge thinger over on the right, too. Hopefully I can get that back in sales, if the CreateSpace deal is still going.

So yeah, I'm still not done writing, I just crossed the finish line. But I will post what I have when I finish this last un-deleted scene, and then it's time to arrange all the parts together for publishing. I want my hardcopy before Christmas!

More later, as I finish this last vignette.

EDIT: Finished! Final wordcount is 50,475. Moved this bit so it's "after" the last un-deleted scene (which should appear right below this, if I've done my math right). Hooray! Enjoy!

The Quantum Mechanic: Un-Deleted Scene Six

UN-DELETED SCENE 6: Victor playtests the device.

On a rocky planet circling the Sun at odd angles, a battle has just ended. Victor puts his weapons away, eats his fill, and then resumes his journey. The destination is not so important as how he gets there, but at the moment, he needs to make up some time. He visualizes wheels in his mind, designs a simple but effective drive train, then goes down to all fours while the device goes to work.

Hard rubber forms into tires around cartilaginous wheels. The discs calcify, and Victor's hands and feet are fused over the axles. His knees lift up from the ground, and callused pads nudge the wheels into motion. He's off. Victors leg bones are re-shaped, pulled out of joint, and arranged into pistons to more effectively drive his body. Along his spine, improvised neural architecture translates his thoughts into the proper motions, and then suddenly, being a motorcycle comes as naturally to Victor as walking.

The road is in a state of severe disrepair. Chunks of pavement jut out at odd angles, potholes threaten to jar him out of his smooth and calculated motions, and the odd tree and crater disrupt the road entirely at points. Victor presses on, his weight shifting to pull wheelies, bunny hops, and occasional leaps and bounds. His path of travel weaves through and around the encroaching wilderness, leaving only the occasional squirt of lubricating saturated fat. But it is enough for a quick and clever observer to follow.

Something approaches from the horizon, vaguely behind him. It moves with frightening speed, faster than sound. Victor decides to make his stand on a nearby overpass. His pistons disengage, and he gradually decelerates as muscles weave themselves into braided coils. Multipronged chitinous hooks form at the ends, and launch themselves at the overpass as Victor rolls underneath. Victor pulls his weight back, tightens his cords, and lifts off the ground. One of his hooks loses grip, and he loses balance - the device compensates by using the gyroscopic inertia of the still-spinning wheels to correct his pitch. Coming down from his arc now, the wheels disengage and Victor curls up to roll to a stop on the raised concrete. New arms and legs have formed before his tendrils have completely retracted, and now the metals he has been carrying with him are put to use: tiny bits of acid-cut shrapnel are chemically welded to each wheel, and as a rocket launches, Victor's eyes plot an interception course. The rocket is fast, but stupid, and the weaponized wheel is a small price to pay to take the explosive out of the picture. Victor hurls it with great power and accuracy, then winds up for his pitch at the jet itself.

At this height and range, the jet cannot change course quickly enough to dodge the incoming projectile. Instead, it launches a guided missile upon its target's position. The wheel tears through a wing, then the jet veers off before jerking toward the ground for a crash that shall be drawn out over several miles. As it nears its quarry, the digital pilot notes that Victor is tricking the missile's guidance algorithms into striking the concrete of the overpass - the man will be damaged, but not for long. The pilot's last thoughts before impact concern transmitting vital data on the new talents displayed by the target back to central intelligence.

Victor comes to rest after being thrown by the blast, watches the dying aircraft sail off into the distance. He notices a couple of nearby abandoned vehicles, checks them for any remaining gasoline. Two have had their caps removed, all unspent fuel either siphoned off or evaporated. The third one has about a quarter tank left; he drinks up the fuel, metabolizes it into more stable compounds, then heads off to search the wreckage of the plane, snatching up vegetation in passing to add to his biomass. By the time he reaches the first scraps of metal, he is a hulking colossus, picking up the twisted wreckage one piece at a time and arranging them as spines upon his back. They will be useful later, but there is nothing for him to do with them now.

After following the trail left by the felled hunter, Victor finally comes upon his prize: the remains of the cockpit. He is in luck, for the computer failed to wipe its mind before dying. Victor analyzes what is left of the machine, divining its home from the clues left in the dead slab of its brain. Nearby is a mostly intact fuel tank, too; this will be handy in time. Victor places what is left of the plane's nose upon his head, a mocking mask of his erstwhile pursuer, then forms himself into a great snake and sets about slithering across the plain at great speed.

After some time, Victor nears a deep forest. There are eyes everywhere: in the sky, under the ground, and especially in the trees. Without losing speed, Victor shifts his true brain to the rear of his body, letting his leading body act as a decoy. He writes subprocesses to handle navigational problems, then watches as his body courses through the thickening wood before him. Soon, he hears a buzzing from uncomfortably close; a swarm of stinging metal insects is upon him, injecting all manner of deadly substances into his body: corrosive acids, neurotoxins, engineered bacteriophages, retroviral scramblers. With his true brain at the rear, Victor is able to quarantine the infections as they attack his body at the mechanical, nervous, cellular, and chemical level, attempting to screw him up and shut him down from every angle all at once. He sheds the infected portions, sprays a few weapons of his own into the air, watches the swarm crumple and fall. He is wounded, but not mortally so. He presses on.

Near to the ocean now, he must find a way to cross. Flight is dangerous, for he is slow in the air; swimming upon the surface leaves him open to attack from all angles; the sea floor is slowest, but safest. Victor decides to take the low road, pitches down the seaside cliff, sticky tendrils shooting out to grasp the cliff face and control his descent. Into the salty surf now, he hugs the rocky bottom, thousands of tiny finned appendages guiding his tremendous length at every step of the way. He has far to go, and not much to help him along the way. The jet fuel is metabolized a little at a time to fuel electrolysis which Victor uses to separate oxygen out from the water; the remaining hydrogen is also spent as fuel, in stages and stages. A trail of bubbles and tracks in the sand is all that Victor leaves behind.

But after a time, with quite a ways left to go, Victor is consuming his own biomass just to keep moving. High above, he hears a broadcast signal: he is being watched. His position has been pinpointed. It is only an eye, no threat to him and not worth pursuing, but his position has been compromised. He keeps moving, makes an estimate of the time that is left to him. Soon, he comes across a hydrothermic vent in the inky blackness of the deep. Velvet tubeworms and albino crabs are both a meal and a textbook to him, as he adds their biomass to his own and learns their metabolic processes. He refines them, streamlining the chemical act of eating to something more suitable to his ideas of efficiency, then digs into the sea floor as muscular cords weave themselves into a large, stretchy bladder. Victor improvises valves to suck the vents into himself, and when he is of a suitable buoyancy, he releases his grip upon the earth and shoots up to the light.

Higher and higher, he virtually screams past all manner of ecosystems layered between the surface and the depths, bursting from the water in a plume of salty spray. He rises into the clouds, slowing down now as he forms his body into a large airfoil. Flattening himself, waving through the air like a magic carpet, Victor finally lets his breath out and forces the gas out behind him. Let them look at the sea floor; he has risen above that and now surfs among the clouds. He sacrifices altitude for speed, descending into a flattening path of travel as he achieves an ever more aerodynamic shape, arranging his various metal fragments to cut through the air as precisely and usefully as possible. Gravity has a great deal of work to do for him, and he squeezes the inexorable attractant to the very last drop, even at the expense of his last bits of extra biomass.

The coast is in sight now, and off in the distance a gleaming tower looms. As Victor descends back to sea level, gliding upon leathery flaps, he loses sight of his enemy's citadel but remembers its location. Plunging into the sandy beach, he grinds down his most useful-looking chunks of metal into deadly blades, then sheds the excess as he goes off in search of food. He is able to photosynthesize fuel from starlight, but it is a slow process and he cannot maintain his speed for very long with light alone.

There is a flash in the distance, and a bullet tears into Victor's head before he even hears the shot. He has learned to hide his true brain away from all of the obvious places, so the injury is but a minor inconvenience. However, his sensory apparatus has been damaged, and so he is not able to anticipate the next several bullets to tear through his body. Pain soon gives control to instinct, and Victor flattens himself against the ground, weaving around the thin grass to avoid betraying his presence. Safe, invisible, motionless, Victor then sorts out the damage to determine the general directions of these newest assailants. Winged automatons descend from the sky, flaming swords in hand, ready to cut their quarry down at the first sign of motion.

Victor waits for the right time to strike. He is invisible, colored and textured as his surroundings, inviting his would-be killers to tread upon him. One soon does, and he works his way inside, inflating a viciously bladed dummy body to be cut down by his own hand as he infiltrates the neural architecture of his host. He then mimics the expected chatter for a downed enemy report, sees into the whole communication network that tracks the progress and elimination of his partners in this game. He is inside the machine now, and by the looks of it, the first to infiltrate the network undetected. In his hidden mind, he reflects briefly upon the difficulty of determining whether another player has infiltrated the network as stealthily as he has. He sees the snipers now, knows their precise positions, but they are no longer a threat to him. He is dead to the system, a cypher born anew into this subverted soldier. No other devices have made it this close to the citadel, so the cadre of clockwork angels is ordered to return to the gleaming city on the hill.

Victor flies into the air in his new body, slipping easily into formation with his companions as they make their way home. He sees the glorious city in all its splendor as they approach, all of the din and furor surrounding the ivory tower at its center. He realizes with glee as they approach that that is their destination: he has infiltrated the honor guard of the central processor, the guardian angels of that angry machine trying to destroy him and his fellow players. Victor analyzes the memories of his host, determines the power structure of the central processor. There are failsafes upon failsafes, and he cannot simply cut one cord to bring down the entire house.

But he can destroy the building.

As Victor's host and companions take up their positions, roosting around the very top parapets of the ivory tower, he waits. They settle into their hibernation routines, and then Victor springs into action. He pitches forward, dives down along the face of the edifice, and lights his flaming sword as he nears the foundation. At nigh-supersonic speed, he corkscrews through the walls and supports, cutting the outer wall and inner structure to ribbons. Before gravity can take its toll, he is out and free, the fleeing traitor with a glittering tail of pursuers as the central processor for the whole city comes crashing down behind him. They are on to him, but it is too late by far. Machines wither, crash, and die as their centralized brain has all its supports torn out from under it, crushed beneath its own weight. The world skips a beat, resets, and Victor stands before a gunmetal gray automaton crackling with orange lightning.

"Congratulations, Victor. You win. Again."

"Why, thank you," he responds. "It gets easier every time."

"Still," the Quantum Mechanic responds, "I would have expected another to surpass you by now, as you have surpassed others in your own time." Victor blushes, flattered by the game master. "So, how do you feel?"

"I feel great! Triumphant. It is good to defeat an enemy, if only an invented one."

"What do you mean?" The Quantum Mechanic's face is inscrutable as ever, but its shift in posture indicates confusion.

"Well, you know, the central processor is only an enemy because we call it an enemy, and it acts like one. In reality, it's just a part of the bigger picture. Playtesting and all that. It's a honing implement, not a true enemy."

"Well, on that analysis, all enmity is invented." Victor pauses for thought.

"You know," he says after a few moments, "That's right."

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Epilogue, part 2

Click here for part 1.

"Well, too bad," Gleck says. "Those people all had a chance at Heaven, and they were not worthy. They deserved what they got."

"What about you, Ben," Douglas asks. "Have you gotten what you deserve?"

"I - you - stop trying to twist my words! Look, I have no reason to help you, so I'm not going to. That's final!" Cameron sighs. Douglas strokes his chin. Alvina just stands and seethes at the miserable sadist in front of her, refusing to end the suffering of untold numbers of humans out of nothing more than sheer obstinacy.

"Very well," Douglas says at last. "I believe our guest needs some time to think."

"I need - " and he disappears. " - Nothing from you!" But now nobody is around.

Benjamin Gleck stands at the top of a mountain, alone. He shouts, but no one answers. He tries to expand his consciousness, but that heavy cloud weighs down upon him once more. He thinks. There has to be a way out. He looks around.

Of course! Gleck runs at full speed toward the nearest edge, and flings himself over. He laughs all the way down, thoughts of revenge and defiance running through his mind. He closes his eyes just before impact, and then - nothing. Nothing happens. He opens his eyes, and he is safely upon the ground. Funny, he didn't feel anything. He pinches himself. He registers pressure, understands that a fold of his skin is being squeezed between his thumb and forefinger, but he feels nothing. He looks around for a rock, grabs it, and then tries to smash his hand upon a boulder - the rock crumbles in his hand. He tries to smash his head upon the boulder, but he only registers a dull anaesthetic thumping. No pain. No sensation at all, only the understanding that his head is in fact bouncing harmlessly upon stone.

Ben screams to no one in particular, shouts after the wind, curses the rocks around him. He can't feel anything, he can't hurt himself, he can't even die. So he walks.

Benjamin Gleck walks for a very long time, through forest and valley, along rivers and over mountains. Day and night, rain or shine, he walks throught he world. He never feels hungry or tired, he does not eat and does not sleep.

How did this happen? He tries to sort out how his life has come to this insensate wandering, but the thinking is troublesome. He must stay strong in his faith. And so he walks. And walks. And walks.

He tires of walking, but there is nothing else to do but think. Food eludes his grasp, animals give him a wide berth, anything he attempts to use for a tool simply crumbles in his hand. He can only do two things: walk, or think.

Benjamin keeps walking.

He loses track of time, has no idea where he is or where he's been. He thinks he's on Earth, but he's not sure. Sometimes, he comes across the remnants of civilization: depressions where basements used to be, great wreckages of cities overrun by the wilderness that once surrounded them. It is not the world he knew. But he knows that the Quantum Mechanic is watching his thoughts, so he guards them carefully. He refuses to give his enemy the satisfaction.

One day, Benjamin finds a beach. He sits in the sand for a while, watches the waves lap at the beach. He finds round, flat stones in the surf, skips them out into the waves. He's not very good at this, and the waves do not help. He walks out into the ocean, breathes in the salty water, notices the cold impassively as the fluid fills his lungs. He stops breathing, feels no urge for air, and then walks along the sea floor for a while. He sees many shapes in the undulating distance, far-off shadows that could be any of a million things he has never learned.

Far enough below the ocean's surface, there are no distractions. There is only darkness. After many days of this, Benjamin cannot stop himself from reflecting on his life. He swims up towards the surface for what seems like days, finally seeing some light, then breaking through the waves into a great expanse of water. He is surely turned around. He has no idea where there is any land, which direction he is facing, or where he is. Treading water is a constant effort, unable as he is to expel the water from his lungs. It still does not help distract him. He stops struggling against gravity, and lets himself sink back down into the inky depths.

It's a waiting game, he realizes at some point during his descent. It's a waiting game, and there is no victory for me here. I cannot do anything until I give my enemy what he wants. I cannot eat, or sleep, or even die. He won't do anything to me except keep me limited to my human capacities, and protect me from the rest of the environment. And the Quantum Mechanic can wait as long as he likes. OK.

Now what?

Benjamin doesn't want to spend eternity wandering the world as a passive observer, struggling to stop himself from doing anything that would give his tormentor any amount of satisfaction. His enemy has reduced himself to a force of nature, and for Ben to get anything that he wants, he must give a little, first. That is painful. But he accepts that it is the rule, and so he gives a little.

"I'm sorry," he warbles out to the ever-darkening water around him.

Nothing.

Benjamin thinks. Words probably don't matter. Fine. He thinks some more. The Quantum Mechanic probably doesn't care about what I think, he only wants my cooperation. He wants those poor saps saved from Hell. And Cameron - that sniveling faggot wants to reunite with his long lost man-lover, and - and - and do all those things they're not allowed to do! That bothers Benjamin more than anything: how can they believe in God, know the scripture, realize the error of their ways, and then still have those desires? Ben tried to glorify their bodies, make it so they didn't need to have those thoughts any more, but they still had them anyway! What is wrong with them?!

Benjamin realizes that he has no answer for this question. "They're sinful" is no help, because what he's trying to explain is that very sin. "Why are they sinful" cannot be answered by "they're sinful." But why can't they just stop being that way? Can't they just do things God's way? Although, while they were on Earth, they were really doing things God's way: they knew their sin for what it was, and they abstained. Then Benjamin took them to a mock Heaven, just like so many people, and they just fell again. He tried to help them let go of their sin, but they just wouldn't stop!

Maybe Ben did something wrong. Maybe the glorious city with the Lord on the throne and the Son at his right hand wasn't enough; maybe God needed to do something. Why didn't he? Maybe Ben tried too hard to be like God in his defiance of the Quantum Mechanic. But isn't being godly a good thing? Maybe not for people, it isn't. But then how come Douglas seems to be having such an easy time of it? Why doesn't that guy try to keep everyone in line? Why doesn't he ask for anything back from the people who he's helped so much? What good is it to be like God, if you don't get any of the perks?

Benjamin prays for guidance, but to no avail. After time beyond reckoning of being alone with his thoughts, he has learned to recognize his own voice in his head, and he realizes that every voice coming to him in answer is only his own. God is not helping him. Maybe this is a test. But who is testing him? And what is the right thing to do? How could he know it? How can he make sure he doesn't get it wrong?

Benjamin's mind clears once more, but due to no effort on his part. He honestly has no idea. There are no answers for him here. And the old answers he received in his youth are no help. Maybe he needs to find some new ones. Maybe it's time to start things over.

The fact is, the Quantum Mechanic is holding him here. He knows this. He also knows that God has not intervened, and probably won't intervene on his behalf. He also knows that all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. This includes him, Benjamin Gleck. OK. What does he want to do? He wants to live his mortal life and then go to the side of the Lord. But he can't do that until he cooperates with the Quantum Mechanic.

OK. This is OK. He did some very harmful things to some very incorrigible sinners, but that was not his place to do. If there is a god - that is, God does not need his help. Benjamin thought that he was supposed to do the Lord's work, but then he overstepped his bounds. His actions exceeded his authority. Punishing sinners is not his duty. And besides, as long as those people are in his simulated Hell, there's probably no way for them to turn from their sinful ways, anyway. It's not enough to just punish them, he has to help make them better. And that means he must admit his mistake. To himself, to God, and to the Quantum Mechanic. And then he will help them rescue those trapped sinners, and then he will help make them into better people, and then he can live out his life and go to God.

Well, then. There are his answers. Now all he has to do is find his way back. Benjamin sits upon the ocean floor. At this depth, wrapped in these clothes, his lungs full of water, he does not swim so much as climb upwards, shoving the water beneath him, then reaching up and grasping for more height. Higher and higher he climbs, out of the depths and up to the air and the light. Off to the East, the sun is rising. He swims towards it.

After many days, Benjamin finds his way to the shore. He looks around for the nearest tree, does a handstand against it, and finally the salty water flows out. He has not taken a breath in many, many days, but the habit comes back with a little practice. He looks around. He has no idea where he is, or where he's supposed to go. He calms his mind, relaxes, and tries to reach out - just to look. No suppressive clouds this time. Good! Farther, farther - he recognizes the shape of the land. He's on the coast of Washington. Off in the distance, there is a house in Montana with smoke coming out of the chimney. Benjamin sets off towards it.

Alvina answers a knock at the door to see a serene looking Benjamin.

"Hello, Mister Gleck," she says evenly. "Welcome back."

"I, um," he stammers, unsure of what to say. He thinks for a moment. "Thank you."

"Come on in. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Water would be nice."

"Sure thing. Cameron's reading in the living room, Douglas is finishing up dinner. Would you like to join us?"

"Yes, I think so." Ben is on guard, steeled for any confrontation, but none ever comes. He walks into the kitchen to see Douglas stirring a pot of rice. "Hello."

"Hi!" Doug is all smiles and effervescence. "I trust you found what you needed?"

"I - " Ben stammers, puzzled. "Well, yes, I suppose. Weren't you watching?"

"Meh, yes and no. I just tried to make sure you didn't do anything foolish, but other than that, I pretty much left you to your own devices. Why do you ask?" Ben reflects briefly over all the silly motions he went through, trying to somehow antagonize or provoke the man he used to call his enemy.

"No reason," Ben finally says.

"Fair enough. If you'd like to take a shower, there are towels in the hall closet."

"Thanks."

Under the hot stream, it occurs to Benjamin that he can feel once more. He feels relaxed, a little sleepy, and rather hungry. After washing off the dust of the road, he towels off and finds a new suit next to the pile of rags he walked in with. He puts it on; it fits perfectly.

"So," Cameron asks at the table, "Did you have a good walk?"

"Yes, I suppose I did."

"That's good. And are you ready to help us?"

"I - " Ben pauses. "I did a whole lot of harm to a whole lot of people, Cam. I really feel awful about that. I don't - I don't know what I can do."

"Hey," Pleasance puts a hand on Benjamin's shoulder. "Listen, it's OK. Well, I mean, it's not OK, but it will be. Nobody's died yet. Not that we know about, anyway."

"I hope so."

"Everybody makes mistakes, Mister Gleck," Douglas says. "The trick is to see what you can learn from them."

"Yeah. Still - I wish I didn't have to learn this one the hard way."

"Well, sometimes that's just what needs to happen."

"I guess."

"So," Alvina chimes in, "Where are all these people, anyway?" Ben breathes deeply, blinks slow.

"I pretty much made them into brains in vats, sent them on a bad trip in their own minds, and flung them out into the darkness between the stars. I remember the vectors I sent them on, and about their times, but - well, I'm not too sure on some of the earlier ones. There were a lot of them."

"It's OK," she says, "We've got time."

"Yeah, I guess we do," he replies. "Hoo, boy. This is going to be a lot of work."

"Yes, it is," Douglas says. "And it won't end just by finding them - I don't expect that very many of these folks will be in quite as good a shape as our friend Cameron, here. We really have our work cut out for us. But it's work worth doing."

Benjamin nods, chokes back some tears. He has behaved in a very un-Christian fashion, just trying to do what was right. He realizes now that some of his ideas were rather strange - and if only he had taken the time to weigh the consequences if he was wrong, then maybe - no, no good can come of this. He did what he did, and now he has to deal with that. He's a very different person now. He closes his eyes, counts to ten, takes a couple of deep breaths.

"You still with us, buddy," Alvina asks after a few moments.

"Yeah," Benjamin replies. "It's just hard. Reconciling what I did with who I am now. It just seems so foreign. I don't know what I was thinking - I guess I got carried away."

"I think you'll be all right," Douglas says with a nod. "Welcome back to the civilization game, Mister Gleck."