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Rated: E · Book · Personal · #2232494
Thoughts on the mysteries of the universe, the human soul, and cats
Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment proposed by Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to explore the uncertainty of the state of everyday objects when subject to the laws of quantum mechanics. In this problem, Schrödinger proposes that when a cat is placed in a box with a radioactive isotope and a vial of poison that will break when exposed to radioactive decay, the uncertainty inherent in predicting the state of a subatomic particle such as that emitted in radioactive decay will cause the cat to exist in the quantum state of being both alive and dead. This uncertain state will persist until someone looks into the box, collapses the quantum wave function holding the cat in both of these states, and sees the result.

Sometimes I feel like the guy holding the box with the cat in it, afraid to look in the box, and in constant trepidation over what my investigation will uncover. Other times I feel like the cat, trapped between uncertain possible futures. This blog is an attempt to explore the constant mysteries of life where ever they may come from and try to put a friendly human face on a cold, uncaring, and chaotic universe.

What would you do? Would you open the box to uncover the mystery and risk your curiosity killing the cat? Or would you let the mystery endure and build a story upon it, secure in the knowledge that whatever we learn, life goes on, in one state or another?
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April 21, 2023 at 11:48am
April 21, 2023 at 11:48am
During the time I lived in Hawaii I came to appreciate the simultaneously bold and delicate flavors of Hawaiian-grown coffee beans and would spend a lot of free time in a coffee shop with a particular roasting method that brought Kona to Mt. Olympus-levels of coffee perfection. The shop had a hulking, iron, 1950’s-era mechanical roaster right in the middle of the shop, which was tended by an Italian expatriate who would tend to the beans with his giant aluminum paddle, turning them over and over while I sipped my espresso in caffeine-fueled bliss.

He was a pleasant young guy, in his twenties. I got to know him from my frequent visits and found out that he was from a family of old-world coffee roasters, plying the skills that had been passed down through generations. It certainly showed in the quality of the shop’s brew. One day, he tried to recruit me as an apprentice. He was preparing to go back to Italy and didn’t want to leave the shop without a roaster. I declined as I already had a job. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by the prospect of learning the ancient Italian arts from a master roaster. Eventually, I had to leave Hawaii for other destinations, but I never forgot that shop.

Years later, I returned to the islands, and the shop was still there. But gone was the old behemoth of a roasting machine, and the Italian roaster along with it. Instead, I saw behind the counter a bank of high-tech computer-controlled roasters, rotating silently away as they turned green coffee beans into the vehicles of earthy aroma I had come to love. The coffee tasted the same as I remembered, but in this case, the results were achieved through the wizardry of digitally-controlled machines, rather than the gentle hand of a classically-trained roasting artist. As I sipped my espresso, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. The master roaster was obsolete. The coffee shop didn’t need him anymore.

This was my first experience witnessing an artist being rendered obsolete by technology. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of art created by Artificial Intelligence systems like Midjourney and DALL-E. I’ve seen the creations coming from these systems and have grudgingly come to admit that they are aesthetically pleasing. The technology has only gotten better.

So, what does that mean to us as writers? Systems like Chat-GTP are being used to create stories. At the moment, AI-generated stories are laughably bad, but like the visual art generators, the technology will probably improve. Will it be competition for us? Recently, Clarkesworld Magazine had to shut down submissions because they were being flooded with AI-generated stories. While this was undoubtedly a get-rich-quick scheme by someone or someones, how long until the technology improves to the point of its creations being indistinguishable from human creations?

One of the best definitions of art I’ve seen is this: “Art is generally understood as any activity or product done by people with a communicative or aesthetic purpose—something that expresses an idea, an emotion or, more generally, a world view.” I’m not going to go into the ethics of AI or at what point a machine is considered a person. However, it’s worth exploring the process of creation, and how it fits into the whole AI debate. Art is communication of a kind, from one person to another. It’s a way for those experiencing the art to see into the heart of the artist. But if the art is being created by a soulless machine, is it art? If the inspiration is only being felt on one side, does it count?

It all comes down to the creative process. I’m not saying that we can’t be inspired by something that humans were not involved in creating. We can be inspired by the sight of a mountain or the ocean, after all. But no one would call those things “art,” unless they are trying to attribute them to a divine being.

If you take into account the people who coded the AI, or even the individuals who gave the AI its prompts, they are too far removed from the creative process to be considered artists. To me, punching a few keywords into an AI, and then calling yourself an “artist” when it spits something out is like pitching a novel idea to Stephen King, and then calling yourself a co-author to whatever he writes.

In my opinion, AI-generated “art” is not art. AI is a black box with an impenetrable process, and until AI can communicate its self-awareness, pass the Turing test, or do whatever the experts in these things say it must do to be considered sapient, I would have to put AI “art” in the category of aesthetically pleasing objects, like the aforementioned mountain. Without a distinctive artist involved, our enjoyment of it only gets it halfway there. Experience it if you will, but realize that there is nothing at the other end of that experience.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my coffee, despite it no longer being art.
March 4, 2023 at 11:59am
March 4, 2023 at 11:59am
Last year, a theoretical physicist and intellectual whom I respect, Michio Kaku, said this about UFOs:

"The burden of proof has shifted," he said. "It used to be the burden of proof was on the people who believe in UFOs. Now the burden of proof has shifted to the Pentagon, to the military. Now they have to prove that these aren’t extraterrestrial."

I’m not sure what was going through Michio’s head, other than a misrepresentation of what burden of proof is. I'm not even sure what he means by "believe in UFOs." Believe what about them, exactly? He was always a bit on the fringe, with his contributions to hypotheses like string theory. But since then, the volume on the UFO conversation has cranked up quite a lot. You might say there is a lot more noise now.

The term “signal to noise ratio” comes from radio engineering, and it refers to the ratio of an intelligible information on a broadcast to the amount of background noise on the carrier signal. Simply put, the worse your signal to noise, the less intelligible your signal is.

Colloquially, this term could apply to the current UFO discourse. To date, there has always been, in my opinion, a whole lot of noise in the conversation about UFOs, or as the military calls them, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). Either of these rather mundane terms describe things we perceive, but cannot identify, hence the name. For many years, the nature of these phenomena has been left to cranks, wingnuts, and conspiracy loons to hyperventilate about, inspiring media offerings like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The X-Files. While I have enjoyed these shows, some people out there take them a little too seriously. Now, with respected scientists, government officials, and even military pilots adding their voices to the din, the UFO craze is reaching War of the Worlds levels of fever pitch.

I’m here to lend a little bit of sanity to the conversation, if that’s even possible with my tiny bit of signal in this ocean of noise. There is a corollary to this signal business: the more signals, the more noise. More radios, more cameras (on every phone!), more weather events from climate change, more airliners, more trash making its way into the sky, and most of all, more voices howling into the interwebs and raising the temperature. That’s a recipe for a whole lot of noise.

And what are we supposed to take away from this? Aliens? Ghosts? The Second Coming?

I don’t know what these fuzzy blobs are that always seem to be just outside the resolving power of our cameras, despite the continuing improvements in camera technology. But I do know about mistakes, optical illusions, and misperceptions. The atmosphere plays some eye-popping tricks when it gets into the mood. In all my years at sea, I have seen some weird things, like a ship sailing upside down in the sky, or a plane seeming to disappear from view in a clear blue sky, only to reappear at another location. I have seen crews wracking their brains trying to figure out what a strange light dancing on the horizon was, only to learn that it was somebody’s cell phone screen reflecting off the glass. I have seen things I can’t explain at all…and that’s it. I can’t explain it and there is no more to say. Should I engage in flights of fancy imagining what it could be?

Which brings me to the current UFO craze. There are videos, pictures, and a whole lot of statements from supposedly credible people authenticating this media. I have seen speculation all the way to Pluto and back as to what they are. What I haven’t seen are any facts. Blips, blobs, fuzzy balls and disks, blurry lights, but absolutely nothing definitive. But that doesn’t stop the speculators. The volume is so high, that last year, the US government actually got involved. Yes, decades after Project Blue Book was closed, taxpayer money is again being spent to run these phenomena down. Tasks forces are being stood up and directed to investigate. Congressional hearings are being held. The military is also investigating. I like to think that all of this is in response to a perceived threat to US airspace, but that’s not the vibe I’m getting. It sounds more like the cranks and wingnuts have gained sufficient political pull that the government is going to behave as if E.T. is pranking our military aviators. And what are we supposed to believe? That little green men traveled trillions of miles to dance just outside the range of our cameras and set off the more unbalance members of Earth’s population? Or is the explanation more mundane?

All of this comes back to the noise. There’s a lot of it, and very little signal. But the human brain doesn’t like silence, so it grabs ahold of the noise and treats it like gospel. And the noise is everywhere. It’s inescapable, so much so that I have to shut off my computer and run outside to touch grass lest it take over and drown out every other thought. I’m skeptical by nature and I like to think I wield Occam’s Razor like a katana (or more realistically, like a whiffle ball bat). But lately I feel like I’m using it to fight off a zombie horde. It would be so much easier to turn off my brain and follow Fox Mulder down the rabbit hole.

If someday, something extraordinary is revealed, that would be great! I’m here for it. But in the meantime, don’t listen to the noise.
June 9, 2022 at 5:47pm
June 9, 2022 at 5:47pm
In the movie “Jacob’s Ladder,” the titular character has to contend with monstrosities that plague him throughout the story as he tries to find out what happened to him during his time in Vietnam. It turns out (spoiler alert) that he never left Vietnam, and that the monsters stalking him are actually angels of death trying to carry him away after he was mortally wounded. Once he realizes this, the cosplaying angels become the avatar of his previously-dead son, who leads him away to the next plane of existence. After much thought after my previous post, I felt like I should discuss a lighter and more uplifting subject.

So of course, I decided on Death.

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius apocryphally said, “Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back.” This reflects the sentiment among snooty Roman patricians that everyone should face death with dignity, or haughty indifference depending on one’s own temperament. This attitude would not be surprising among people influenced by the Stoics. But Aurelius personifying death might reflect the Roman polytheism, which included the god Mors, who was himself (herself? themself?) derived from the Greek god Thanatos.

Thanatos was a thoroughly unpleasant character, widely disliked by the Greeks, which suggests that death was something they preferred to avoid, perhaps because it often came in unpleasant ways. There are even Greek epics about individuals sticking it to Death, such as Sisyphus, who tricked Thanatos into shackling himself and annoying the bloodthirsty Ares who noticed that soldiers were not dying properly on the battlefield. I’m not sure if this is meant to be comedic on the part of the Greeks, but it certainly comes off that way to my modern sensibilities, with Death incarnate looking like a bumbling idiot.

A far more common a personification is the Grim Reaper we are all familiar with. He is a mysterious figure derived from the biblical depiction of the one who “rides a pale horse.” The Grim Reapers have been featured in far too many artistic works to count, with his defining appearance in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” casting his image in stone for modern times and influencing more recent cameos like the one in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Bill and Ted pull a Sisyphus and trick the Reaper for a time, but in the end, they have to dance with the Reaper as everyone does.

In many works, a particular character might not look like a literal hooded skeletal figure wielding farm implements but would act as a metaphor for him. One character who exists as Death in subtext in my mind is Horatio, friend to the famous Prince Hamlet of Denmark. I don’t know if anyone else ever interpreted the character this way, but I did notice that characters other than Hamlet either ignored or told Horatio to go away, perhaps reflecting denial of Death’s inevitability. Only Hamlet acknowledges him as a friend, and Horatio is there at the end to usher him on his way. Earlier, Horatio even dissents with Hamlet on the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Perhaps it was not their time. In any case, Horatio is the last friendly face Hamlet sees before shuffling off the mortal coil.

There are many other depictions of Death, some even more famous than the ones I list here. But my favorite incarnation of Death is that depicted in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman. In this one, Death appears in the form of a Goth girl with a very pleasant demeanor. She appears to the newly departed and gently ushers them into the hereafter. In the series, Death is the older sister to the main character of the series, Dream, which ties neatly into a line from Hamlet: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Billy Shakespeare certainly made his mark. In any case, I think when the Grim Reaper finally comes for me, I could do a lot worse than a girl wearing black lipstick and an ankh, cheerfully inviting me to see what comes next.

Whatever happens next, I like to think I would face the end with an Aurelian smile, and a polite nod to the gatekeeper to eternity, whatever they may look like.
February 22, 2022 at 12:03pm
February 22, 2022 at 12:03pm
Many years back I read a story called “Johnny Mnemonic.” It was a cyberpunk story in which people move confidential information from one place to another inside their brains. They are paid for this service, but the catch is, they have to purge some of their memories to accommodate the data they are carrying. It kind of redefines disk cleanup.

Recently, anyone not living under a rock is probably aware of all the hype concerning cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The phenomenon has grown to the extent that celebrities like Matt Damon are now hawking these products. It is estimated that 16 percent of Americans have invested in some sort of crypto. The crypto phenomenon is clearly blowing up in a big way and whether it is here to stay remains to be seen.

While I am certainly a crypto-skeptic, I am not here to get into the technical aspects of crypto. WDC is a writing website after all, and what I would rather do is examine narratives. After looking into both the hype and criticisms of crypto, I found narratives that have endured since the beginning of time. Those narratives include cynicism about the systems of the world, desperation about our own situation, and to what extent we sacrifice our own humanity to improve it.

First, a quick history lesson. In 2008, the economy crashed. It crashed for many complex reasons, and affected many different people in different ways, but it left a lasting impact on our culture. The dot-com bubble had already imploded seven years before, and the few people who thought that the investor class had learned their lesson were quickly disabused of this notion. The so-called Masters of the Universe were no smarter than the common man when it came to making financial decisions. But what really stuck in the common man’s craw was when the government came to bail out those Masters of the Universe and left everyone else out in the cold. This was the moment when everyone realized just how unfair and rigged the financial systems were in favor of large institutions and how upward mobility was increasingly unlikely for anyone not already born into a gated community. In this environment of distrust, stagnating wages and exploding CEO pay, enter the blockchain. This is the technology which is the foundation for cryptocurrencies, NFTs and other related technologies.

Blockchain-based technology is being widely touted as the answer to the inequities of the traditional financial system. Here is a system that is supposedly decentralized, not controlled by any government or big bank, something with a low cost of entry which has no institutional gatekeepers. It is the libertarian dream of an unregulated financial network where no one is beholden to anyone else. It started with bitcoin but soon exploded into thousands of different entities. They had strange names like Ethereum, Binance and Doge. Billions of dollars poured into these entities. Because of its decentralized nature, it is difficult to calculate the value of the market, but some put it at four trillion dollars. Clearly this crypto phenomenon is not something to be ignored. Finally, here was something for the common man to put his sweat and toil into, something he could control, something where he called the shots. Finally, here was an equalizer against the titans of finance.

But something was wrong. It started at first with idle criticisms about crypto. Could you buy a cup of coffee with it? Could you buy gas for your car? Could you pay your electric bill with it? The answer was, “No, but you can store value in it, like an investment! Get in now before it goes to the moon!” Of course, this means that cryptocurrencies are not really currencies, but investment securities, like stocks. But wait a moment! Aren’t securities supposed to be backed up by something real, like a business, or real estate, or gold? The answer was usually, “The value of fiat currency, like the dollar, is made up too! And by extension, so is the value of stocks and bonds!” But you can spend a dollar. That means crypto is nothing more than a security backed by… nothing at all. We have a word for this type of investment; it starts with a “p” and rhymes with “Fonzie.”

It seems that the only way for anyone to get rich with crypto is to sell it someone else for a higher price, the Bigger Fool theory in action. And this seems to be what’s happening now. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs took a huge hit earlier this year. Soon after, crypto-related interests bought expensive ads for the Superbowl. Why? One term used in crypto spaces is something called a “whale.” This is usually an individual (or maybe institution) which owns a huge percentage of the available cryptocurrency, to the extent that they can actually control the market. A recent estimate puts .01% of bitcoin holders in control of 27% of bitcoin. Starting to see a pattern here? The same pattern we see with Wall Street? These whales need to prop up the market and sell their assets to the unsuspecting public while they can. Cue Matt Damon.

At the beginning, I mentioned the story of Johnny Mnemonic, and here’s where I bring it full circle. When the whales dump their assets after hyping them to the moon, the little people will be left holding the bag, and they will be scrambling to recover their value by selling their own assets to whoever they can convince to buy them. We’ve seen this before with less-common crypto, and there is no reason it couldn’t happen with the more established crypto. No doubt many small investors are starting to see the flaw in the system, but they will do everything they can to get their value back. To what extent will they push their failing products onto others? What lies will they tell, what trickery will they resort to, how many friendships will they betray to balance the books? I have already started to see this happen, both in online spaces and in real life. I don’t know whether this behavior will be the exception or the rule, but I suspect that enough this will be yet another thing that frays the social fabric we all live in. Trust in institutions is already dangerously eroded. Will trust in people soon follow? Johnny Mnemonic is told in a dystopian future where corporations control everything. The people who move data in their brains, must give up memories to do so. But memories are arguably what make us human, what define us. They are the record of the sum total of our lives. The data-movers must give up some of their humanity to do what they do. Now that we are living in a time when anything can be commodified, where all interaction becomes a transaction, recorded in perpetuity on the blockchain to be bought and sold, how much of our humanity are we giving up to enter this brave new world?

Johnny Mnemonic is a cyberpunk-genre story. Cyberpunk at its core is a commentary on the consequences of runaway, unchecked capitalism. I think that in recent years we have seen two facets of these consequences in real life, one when institutions overreach in their greed, and one in where individuals fail to consider the consequences of their actions toward others. This is the narrative that repeats itself over and over, with various overlaps. In the real world, we can already see how the flaws of smaller systems (crypto) have their seeds in larger ones (traditional finance), and how the dehumanizing factors of large systems that treat people as nothing more than assets and liabilities can manifest in smaller ones when those participating in the system forget that there are real flesh-and-blood humans on the other end of that transaction. The cyberpunk genre examines all aspects of these systems and how people try to navigate them. Cyberpunk may be the most prophetic of all the genres, as many things depicted there have shown up in real life in one form or another, such as the internet, social media, corporate ownership of DNA, and others. But while the genre addresses some systems as being inherently flawed (such as blockchain or capitalism) the main flaw in any system is almost always shown to be human.

I know this whole article is somewhat of a downer, so I will end on a hopeful note. A conversation about blockchain is raging online, with more pushback against the hype coming from crypto-skeptics. I don’t know if blockchain has a place in the future, but I do know that the issue of crypto and NFTs is going to be hashed out in the online arena, possibly gladiator-style. Cyber-sleuths are calling out more scams for what they are. Even a few celebrities have refused to get on the crypto bandwagon, such as Keanu Reeves, who expressed his contempt for the whole enterprise. But let’s not forget that behind all of the crypto-hype are humans desperately seeking financial security, sometime with the full knowledge that they are exploiting others, and sometimes not, following the age-old narrative of people whose moral compasses get bent, and end up getting swallowed by another exploitative system. As always, the biggest bug in the system is human, and no flashy technology can change that.

September 20, 2021 at 12:34pm
September 20, 2021 at 12:34pm
For this entry, I am taking a page from other bloggers and going over an article, responding to it point by point. I’m not sure if this is the best way to write a blog, but it’s certainly a way to claw yourself past a dry spell and maybe juice a little creativity and thoughtfulness in the process. Not the most original thing for me to do, but here it is.

Anxiety and depression is a subject that’s been done to death this past year, and yet the antidepressant med market is projected to continue to rise into the next two years. I’m saying to invest in Pfizer. No, not really. This isn’t an investment article. But to say that it’s been a trying time would be an understatement, among a pile of other understatements, and there is no denying that the times have taken a toll on our health. To that end, an article just hit Time magazine on the subject of anxiety:


A little over a month ago, I started feeling more fatigued than usual. Just about everything in my life—from getting out of bed to exercising to writing to coaching to reading—required a significant amount of activation energy.

Naturally there was the anxiety that accompanies the loss of employment due to the pandemic, but the job market is well on the way toward recovering. And many jobs have transition to the work-at-home model, which removes the stress of rush-hour traffic and making it into the office on time before Bill Lumbergh can make his way to your cubicle, coffee cup in hand, passive-aggressive admonishment on the tip of his tongue.

These struggles are not new. They were a common theme over the past three years in my reporting on The Practice of Groundedness, and they were a large part of what drove me to write the book. But they are intensifying. Google searches for the phrase “Why am I tired all the time?” have been at their historical highs between July 2021 and September 2021.

Ah, so you have a book to plug. Well, that’s okay I guess. As long as we benefit? As for Google searches, sometimes they’re a self-perpetuating thing.

There are, of course, many reasons for our collective fatigue: a year-and-a-half-long pandemic, social unrest and democratic backslide—to name just a few.

True enough. Maybe my personal issues figure into it as well. To what extent is generally being a train wreck a factor?

But even beyond these obvious drivers, I think there is something else going on: We are replacing excitement with anxiety.

Do tell.

Even the calmest, most equanimous people benefit from at least occasional periods of excitement. There is a reason that “flat-lining” is associated with death. We thrive with some degree of oscillation in our lives. The pandemic has, by and large, taken these punctuated bouts of excitement away.

So, the problem is actually boredom?

Attending concerts, sporting events, movies, even going to restaurants (let alone taking a proper vacation) are not as straightforward as they used to be.

Masks, vaccine mandates, and the trepidation of facing an invisible plague lurking among the masses interfering with our fun.

Consider this-all-too common example: You are feeling kind of sluggish and bored, so you go online and check trending topics on social media or visit any of the major news websites. You are not going to these destinations to learn anything specific, per se. You are going because you want a jolt to your otherwise flat-lining system. The jolt comes in the form of a horror story about politics, COVID-19, Afghanistan or any number of other unsettling topics.

The insidious doom-scroll. Of course we’ve been doing this for years, but when it’s all we have, it becomes a weight on our psyche to lug around. Maybe that’s why we’re all so tired. From lugging the weight. God, I really need to work out.

Put it all together and not only are we lacking many sources of positive and energizing excitement, but we are replacing them with negative and exhausting sources of anxiety.

The downward spiral. So now what?

The solution, I believe, requires three steps. First, we need to stop replacing our desire for excitement with anxiety.

Just don’t do it!

Second, we need to do everything possible to insert some positive excitement into our lives in a way that feels safe.

Now do something else…

Third, we need to be patient. While there is still much that we can do that is safe, it is also true that there is much we can’t.

Lord, grant me the strength to accept… yadda, yadda. I get it.

I looked up Brad Stulberg’s Amazon page, and it turns out he’s a regular publisher of self-help books. Self-help is a mightily crowded field, and I hope Brad isn’t suffering too much anxiety over it. This article gives a glimpse into a possible pervasive problem we are experiencing as a result of multiple negative inputs. It does read as bemoaning first-world problems, but that would too easily dismiss problems with real consequences, such as depression. The article doesn’t go into great detail (you have to buy the book, I guess.) But it hits on the real anxieties that keep us awake at night and grinds us down during the day. Brad suggests unplugging to deal with it. Perhaps that beats drinking oneself into a stupor every night.

In any case, Dune comes out late October. That’s as much excitement as I’ve experienced lately. I might do a blog post about it afterward. In the meantime, go look for something exciting to do (that won’t kill you) and leave off the doom-scroll.
March 28, 2021 at 10:56pm
March 28, 2021 at 10:56pm
I recently finished reading the Silmarillion, which is a series of stories written by J.R.R. Tolkien and posthumously published by his son, Christopher. This book is not an easy read, and reads like something between the Bible, and ancient Greek epics, which might have been what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote it.

What struck me about this work was the tone which pervaded the stories and became more prominent toward the end – that of sadness and loss. This loss refers to the loss of magic and mystery in the world, which is of course something endlessly discussed by scholars of Tolkien and fantasy nerds like myself. This theme runs through all of Tolkien’s works, including his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, where magic is being pushed out of the world by technology by way of industry.

This theme is common among the works of this genre, as if the authors ascending to the heights of prose to catch a glimpse of the dying light of fantastical worlds, now being drowned out by the harsh, neon glare of modern society. Some work clings to the magic, notably by the authors of “urban fantasy” such as Jim Butcher, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling. But these works simply transplant elements of magic into a modern setting and treat it as a utility, like electricity. Not to say it isn’t entertaining to read these things, but the Tolkienesque epic fantasy themes of change are absent here, the idea that as the world changes, so must the nature of magic itself, if it is to continue to exist.

However, I would invoke science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law which states,” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This would refer to a culture clash of sorts between two civilizations of hugely disparate technological advancement. But isn’t this simply another form of magic, one with future implications? What answers would sci-fi’s questions about the future bring in response to the fantasy’s requiem of the past?

Mysteries lurk in the shadows, out of the corners of our eyes, and even just off the edges of our phone sceens. Consider the continuing popularity of UFO sightings. Much attention is levied upon reports of Navy pilots who have recorded what the military calls “Unexplained Aerial Phenomena.” Tons of electrons are spilled daily posting speculation on the nature of these phenomena, never failing to ignore or discount rational explanations. Or consider the ongoing belief in phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, or Nemesis (also known as Planet 9 – 10). Myths like these persist despite the advance of science and rational thought and there are no signs that they are going to creep away into the mists any time soon. So, what do with them?

You write stories of course! You spin these myths into a larger narrative to delight and entertain, and to make commentary on the cultural impact of these modern myths. One piece that comes to mind is David Brin’s short story “Those Eyes,” in which the story is told from the point of view of alien visitors to Earth who engage in mischief and hijinks, only to discover that they face their greatest enemy in skepticism. This is also masterfully done by Neil Gaiman in “American Gods,” where old myths clash with the new. Both of these stories play with the trope of mythical beings who exist solely because people believe in them, and when the belief ends, so do the beings. These are the stories, among many, which blur the line between myth and reality.

So, where is this meandering essay going? I think Tolkien was too quick to write an eulogy to the loss of magic from our world. It persists to this day, flitting about just out of the corners of our eyes, creeping about in dark places where only fear can see, and dancing in the clouds, taunting pilots. It is still there for anyone who cares to look, whether in whispered narratives around a campfire, or blazing across the message boards of the internet. The magic is there for the taking. All we need do is make it our own.

February 5, 2021 at 11:36am
February 5, 2021 at 11:36am
What is flavor anyway? The most obvious answer is that it is how people perceive food upon consumption. All perception can be altered, of course. I recently saw a video clip from America’s Test Kitchen channel, where they got an actual chocolate expert to taste two different samples of chocolate while listening to two different musical clips. The taster gave a different impression of each sample, while acknowledging the music playing in the background. It turns out that ATK had tricked the taster. The two samples were identical! It seems that the taster’s perception of flavor had changed based upon the music he was hearing. I haven’t had the chance to test this phenomenon myself, but if it’s true, what else could alter our taste? Could it be things like the lighting? Ambient temperature? Our mood? Something we might be remembering at the time? Many people gobble down breakfast while rushing off to work, and I wonder how much more they might enjoy breakfast if they got up earlier and ate their breakfast slowly with their coffee while listening to their favorite recording artist. Might their day go a little smoother if they enjoyed their first meal?

Years ago, I made an effort to do more of my own cooking, and though I don’t have the expertise of a professional chef, I actually find my meals to be more fulfilling than when I eat out at restaurants, even good ones. And I even lost weight. I have a collection of cookbooks now, including two which are actual textbooks for a culinary school which go beyond simple recipes and actually discuss cooking theory – something very useful for one wanting to experiment. And experiment I did, sometimes with disastrous results. I once tried making a casserole that ended up as a suitable substitute for reinforced concrete, requiring me to soak my casserole dish in citric acid. My culinary history is littered with such mishaps, but the overall experiences have been more than rewarding. They have enriched my life, and dare I say it, the lives of people I have cooked for.

So, there you have it. Food is much more than something to quell our instinct to consume nutrition for survival. It is more integral to our everyday experience than most people realize. This goes to preparing as well as cooking it. I hope anyone reading this considered cracking open a recipe book and whipping up something in their kitchen. Watching friends and family members enjoy something you spent time, energy and love preparing makes it all worthwhile.
February 3, 2021 at 12:32am
February 3, 2021 at 12:32am
I've always had a fascination with Frank Herbert's Dune series of books. I found his universe strange, yet captivating, with people in it who have fired my imagination and even inspired my own attempts at speculative fiction. The different aristocratic houses, the bizarre cultures and weird races have made Dune a universe I have wanted to explore again and again. Though I was less impressed with Brian Herbert's continuation of the series, they are still entertaining.

While I've been thirsting for a look at the new movie, it won't hit theaters until October, where it was pushed due to the pandemic. I've missed movies this past year, and I was looking forward to this one, especially given that it was directed by Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve is fast becoming one of my favorite directors, eclipsing even Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, though he's still relatively new on the scene. I expect great things from him.

Which brings me to the central thing in the story, that which everyone seeks, the thing which must flow for the world to work. I'm talking about the vaccine, of course. I can't see this movie without it! I know it sounds puerile to complain about the distribution of a life-saving vaccine over a film when actual lives are at stake all over the world, but sometimes I grasp for normality in a world turned upside-down, and going to the movies is one way to feel normal.

In a way, the spice is an allegory for the vaccine itself: a substance that everyone needs to the extent that the world stops without it. Frank Herbert perhaps meant it as an allegory for oil, but it works for many of the things we need. I just hope we don't end up going to war over vaccines; we seem to be fighting over just about everything else.

Are you looking forward to Dune? Have you read the series' books? Fan of Villeneuve?

The spice must flow.
February 2, 2021 at 12:19am
February 2, 2021 at 12:19am
It's a new year, and a new month, and it's about time I started adding to the blog here at the Cat. That, I'm tired of looking at those nagging "Update Your Blog!!!" notifications. So here's to sharing my thoughts and opinions on subjects of public and private interest, such as they are. The trouble is, I'm the kind of person who carefully considers his words before committing them to the ether (which is why I don't use Twitter, the platform of choice for those lacking any restraint). I end up pushing back, and pushing back until it's been months since I've shared anything online, and I've become irrelevant to the conversation. While I won't share something every day, I hope to at least pique the interest of anyone casting a glance this way and hopefully moving them to consider a subject from a whole new perspective. What else is a blog for? Thanks for reading!
November 23, 2020 at 7:10pm
November 23, 2020 at 7:10pm
On Thursday, people all across the continent will gather together in the annual tradition of bingeing and gossiping. While the tradition dates back centuries, even before the Pilgrims allegedly stepped from the Mayflower onto the Rock of History, our contemporaries seemed to have claimed it for their own. Even Old-World cultures seemed to have adopted the practice. And why not? It’s a time for family and good cheer, and it conveniently takes place at a time when the harvest is almost universally agreed to take place (sorry Australia), and pantries across the world are overflowing with offerings to the gods of gluttony.

Needless to say, things are different this year. Gatherings have become verboten to protect the public health from the nasty bugs that are making their rounds. I had to cancel my own Turkey Day plans to protect the health of the vulnerable, and there are many in my family. Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one can get together at all. If the social circle is small and individuals take care to protect themselves and others from infection, the risk is manageable, though far too many are continuing to put themselves and others at excessive risk because America… or freedom… or something.

As I write this, my own thanksgiving plans are in flux, like some kind of shapeshifter that can’t decide on a form. Those that I would have over are seeing their own plans come together only to be cast aside, the proverbial battle plan that has encountered the enemy. I will probably do what I always do and invite a few friends and family from my already small social circle, in keeping with the safe practices of our current necessity.

This year, Thanksgiving comes courtesy of silicon and electricity, a softly glowing update to an old tradition where social distancing is the perpetual guest to all events. Why do we call it “social distancing” anyway? We can still talk to and even see each other thanks to the miracles of modern technology. I think a more appropriate term would be “physical distancing” to hopefully describe all our circumstances these holidays. Physical, not social distancing will be my norm.

And so it goes as we hurtle to the close of a year I want to leave in the street for the dogs, except I suspect even the dogs will turn their noses up at it. Though a solitary creature by nature, I will use these upcoming holidays to remind myself and others in my social circles that we all still ride this tumbling rock together, even if it will be at a couple of arms-lengths for the foreseeable future. So, this is one of the very few things I am thankful for this year: that the sun still shines, that cats still purr when you scratch them on the chin, and that we have never been better equipped to battle loneliness over the holidays during a pandemic than we are right now.

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