Do I Embrace The Negative?

I told my friend Janis I had written what I considered a funny post called, “Retirement from Sex,” and she quickly replied, “Who’d wanna read that!”  I told my friend Marty at work about the movie Young @ Heart, a charming story about old people, and she quickly replied, “Who’d wanna see that!”  I love talking about global warming and the growing prices of gasoline, but I think I’m bumming my friends out.  My wife often tells me that I make her feel guilty.  Although I see dwelling on the negative as a way to pursue the positive, I’m starting to think I’m going to get nominated for Mr. Negative Man of the Year.

For example, when I hear the price of oil has hit a new record high, I know that it means economic devastation.  I know high oil prices are putting people in shipping and related industries out of business, that it causing food prices to skyrocket, and overall it covers the economy with a black cloud that depresses the whole population.  But I, in my weird Pollyannaish way, think, “great, this will force our society to invent new energy systems, create a green economy, and finally get us out of our dependency on buying oil from countries that want to blow us up.”   My friends see $5 a gallon gas at the pump and picture what it does to their budget.  I picture inventors all over the world getting busy and inventing new technology.  But I’m starting to realize that my friends are looking at me like I’m crazy.

While watching Young @ Heart I saw a crowd of Sisyphuses thumbing their noses at the Fates while rolling their rocks up the hill.  I figure Marty thinks about the horrors of time on the bodies of women and feels anything about getting old would be depressing.  I saw a movie that said, sure you will be old, wrinkled, hurting, diseased, dying but if you have the will you can rock on and give the grim reaper the bird when he comes to collect.

When I hear about global warming I think, “Wow, humans are powerful enough to change the whole global ecosystem, then we need to be smart enough to take responsibility for our actions.”  Sure, its a test of humanity.  We can fail, and civilization will go down the tubes, or we can transform ourselves and society and make a better world.

When I attack a book by my favorite author, like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, it’s not because I want trash a great writer, it’s because I want to let people know that there are other Heinlein books that are much better.  There are Heinlein books that I reread every other year, and have been doing so for over forty years.  I’m trying to compare the two and see which qualities of writing make a book stand out as a classic.

I think I really freaked out my wife when I told her I wanted to give up cable TV.  Susan worships at the alter of the video icon.  And it wasn’t as if I was planning to forsake TV altogether.  I was merely wanting to cut back so I’d have more time for other hobbies, like writing science fiction.  I pointed out to her that we pay $120 a month and 95% of the time we watch ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, shows that come to our high definition TV for free, and the other shows are easy to get with our 5 concurrent disc-out-at-a-time NetFlix subscription.

Of course, what are my alternative choices?  I could be depressed because gasoline prices are skyrocketing and pine away for $2 a gallon gas.  I could avoid any movies or social situations with old people, and pretend I won’t be ancient someday.  I could continue living like I’ve always have, and figure the problem of global warming belongs to the next generation.  I could play nice and say positive things about all books I read, as if all books were worthy of reading, each one a child you must love equally.  And I could give up any ambitions I have to be different and just accept I’ll be a couch potato addicted to TV shows the rest of my life.

I do think I see a pattern here.  I don’t think people like change.  They want to drive gas-guzzling cars until kingdom come.  They want to pretend all the conspicuous consumption they love so much doesn’t have any affect on others.  And most of all they want to feel forever young.  Well, my fantasy is to stop watching so much TV, give up reading crappy books, and learn to play the guitar so I can join a rock n’ roll band when I’m eighty-five. By then I also expect global warming will be turned around and we’ll all be using home-grown renewable energy, and the air will be clean, clear and cool.  I might be wrinkled.  My dick probably won’t work beyond peeing, and maybe not pee so well either, and I might need to truck around in a wheel chair, but I hope to play music like it’s 1965.

Jim

What is Your Personal Science Fiction Fantasy?

What is your personal science fiction fantasy?  Let’s say you die and wake up in front of a superior being and he/she/it tells you to pick your next life, what would it be?  You can pick anything from reality, your own imagination or from any fictional world you’ve encountered.  It’s a big multiverse out there – where would you’d like to go?

Would you want to time travel to the epic past to be another Solomon with a harem of hundreds?  How about just taking a chance by asking to be born a thousand years in the future.  Military SF is popular so would you volunteer to join up and serve in an interstellar military brigade?   Does being a pioneering colonist on Mars inspire your dream time?  I know, ask to be a rock star in England in 1965.

Now think hard.  Use your imagination.  You don’t want to be Dudley Moore in Bedazzled.

All of us spend a lot of time reading science fiction escaping our mundane life in exciting stories of the future and other worlds, but I’m reminded of a title of a Philip K. Dick book:  What if Our World is Their Heaven?  How do you know that the life you are living right now isn’t the one you picked the last time you died?

If you think about this for awhile you’ll see you will want to be reborn into a life of opportunity and not restrictions.  The reason we all aren’t still living some Old Testament fantasy is because its so limiting.  If you look at the history of mankind on Earth you will see the evolution of diversity of being.  Imagine if reincarnation is true – but instead of us all trying to get off the wheel of life and death we all anxiously die desiring to come back for more and more and more.  The Hindu believe we return to this life because of the sin of desire.  Obviously we’ve embraced desire over returning to Oneness.

The philosophical purpose of reincarnation is to provide a mechanism by which we improve our souls.  So should our science fiction fantasies follow this concept?  Do I love Have Space Suit – Will Travel because it’s a blueprint for improving my being?  Or do we merely choose our stories seeking to diversify our desires?

Growing up my number one science fiction fantasy was to live on Mars.  If I died and met that superior being now that wouldn’t be my wish.  No, my current wish is very different.  I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating my naval while listening to pounding hard rock music that stirs my emotions and vibrates my neurons into a higher state of consciousness and I know what I would tell that very superior being.

I’d tell ole SB to put me back in my own life starting in 1963 so I could live my life over and try again.  I’d want it to be the ultimate “if I knew then what I know now” experience.  I don’t know if the laws of reincarnation allow for reincarnating into oneself but that’s what I would want. 

Now this isn’t because I thought my life was so great and I’m unnaturally attached to it.  First off, I hope I would do everything different.  Sure being a colonist on Mars would be damn exciting but to be honest, I don’t have the Right Stuff.  I think those Hindus were right, the idea is to improve and not just party hardy.  I think a do-over would teach me a lot.  Maybe it would take several repeats of this life before I do have the Right Stuff to go on.

Now this isn’t avoiding making a choice in front of that superior being.  This is a very active science fiction fantasy.  Log some iPod time and fantasize this out for yourself.  Imagine your own do-over and think about all those decisions you made where you could have followed the other path.

With every novel we read we step out of our own life into another world.  With every movie we watch we reject this reality for fictional moments in another.  What does this tell us beyond showing us we have a desire to escape?  Has reality has just gotten too slow and boring for us and we need imagination to make it more exciting?  This reality is pretty far out.  As far as we know Earth is the most happening place in all the dimensions we know about. 

Reality has always been vastly more complex than any fiction.  Remember that when you’re making your wish in front of that superior being.  No one has ever imagined a Heaven better than Earth.  Think about that.  Think about those poor Muslim bastards who kill themselves for seventy-two virgins.  Does fresh quim really define paradise or is it just an unimaginative wish?  Why do so many on this planet want to believe this world is shit and the next one Heaven?

I don’t believe in superior beings or lives after this one.  Every day I am reborn into the same exact reality as yesterday.  Every moment is a then where I know what I know now.  I am facing the same decisions I made in 1963.  Mars is always there if I take the time to invent a way to go. 

Are our science fiction fantasies escapism or planning time?  What is your science fiction fantasy?  What does it tell you?

Jim

The energy for this essay was fueled by:

  • “The Weight of the World” by Neil Young
  • “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult
  • “Thank You Friends” by Big Star

Portraits of Reality or Fantasy?

On the Friday before Christmas I was practicing with my Nikon D50 camera at work learning how to use the RAW mode, a technique to maximize details. I’ve become the unofficial photographer even though I have limited photographic skills. This allows me to justify spending a bit of work time learning photography. Coincidentally that day, a lady at work wanted a new photo for our web page and I decided to use her for my tests using RAW mode. I soon learned that the goals of RAW filming conflicted with female psychology and I had to learn to use the Blur Tool instead. Thus photography becomes a lesson in reality versus fantasy.

One goal I have for taking pictures is to capture reality as accurately as possible. Mastering photography should train me see light and detail the same way Monet did for his painting. That might sound like a Zen koan conflict though, since Impressionist paintings seem far from accurate. Monet saw his landscapes with greater detail than any camera sensor and he understood what he saw – he just heavily compressed his final output, creating the essential paint pixels to give the impression of what he wanted us to see.

Monet could give the impression of a pretty girl with just a few strokes of his brush. What the lady at work wanted for her web portrait was just enough pixels to give a good impression of her image. She wanted enough detail so people could recognize her.

It is human nature to want to look good, but philosophically I’m fascinated by the RAW mode of reality, and I’m downright intrigued by our society’s rather neurotic compulsion to change how things look. We want High Definition TV for nature shows, but we want Photoshop photos of people, especially women.

I’m not a good looking guy, and my rosacea makes taking appealing photographs of me very hard. However, everyone I know has to look at me and they see far more detail than any photograph. So why should I pretend to look different and use the clone tool to even out my skin tone? It’s pretty obvious that we don’t look at ourselves, and when women look in the mirror they start dabbing make-up on their faces and when they see photographs they don’t mind at all if the photographer uses some Photoshop make-up on their images.

This is not an ethical conundrum but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not a psychological problem. On the web people often like to be anonymous, and prefer avatars or photos of anything but themselves to stand in for their likeness. Yet, try to imagine a world were women’s magazines only used RAW mode untouched photos and movie and television actors and actresses looked real rather than made-up?

Many years ago, in my late forties, I saw a Playboy Magazine for the first time in a very long time. I was shocked by the photos of the naked girls because they looked like faked photos of Barbie dolls being passed off as real flesh and blood women. And it was more than a visual shock, but a below-the-belt scare that made me feel like I had ED. The instant magic I felt as a teenager looking at Playboy was definitely not there. We knew the girls were airbrushed back in the 1960s, but there was enough impressionistic detail to make the centerfolds trick our brains into thinking we were seeing real girls. Obviously I’m older and my testosterone decline has caused the magic of paper women to fail.

Aesthetically though, at least for me, heavily Photoshopped images of women are no longer beautiful female humans but Jessica Rabbit clones. Not only that, but those cartoon images are what women, and maybe younger men, want to see plastered on the faces of women in reality. What’s Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers terrifying is an ad I saw in a photography magazine for a program that does this same kind of cartooning magic to kids. Talk about pod people!

The desire to make women look good in photos and the mirror is really a deep down desire to look young. So I have to ask isn’t it insane to change the look of actual youth? We’re moving into some weird territory here. We no longer want to pretend to look young, but animated. Is this a rejection of being human? I think we need to get both real and human. Maybe we should even use sexuality as a yardstick. In the real world a good looking women with wrinkles produces wood for me whereas women who follow in Tammy Faye Baker’s footsteps do not.

I think the beauty pendulum needs to swing back towards what’s real. I’m not saying that because I’m homely and want to promote my kind, but because psychologically I think we need to stay closer to reality. Fantasy is fun for Harry Potter books, but acting like magic exists is unhealthy. If everyone grows up seeing non-human fantasy characters in the movies, on television and in the magazines, what is reality going to be like in their mind’s eye?

JWH

Making PC Users PC – The Green Computer

        Ever since I saw An Inconvenient Truth I’ve been pondering ways to do my part to use less carbon.  Since I work with computers the first idea I had was to stop leaving my computers on 24-hours a day.  That isn’t easy since at work I manage four servers and have two computers for programming.  The best I could do was turn off my test computer when I wasn’t using it.  However, at home I discovered I could save about 20 hours of power a day.  Between those two computers I’m saving maybe 280 hours a week.

        It’s a shame that Microsoft promotes automatic upgrades at night.  Microsoft should tell people to turn their computers off when they aren’t using them and then develop programs that analyze usage patterns and run updates during the day.  Most business just let workers leave their computers on 24×7.  What a waste.  I work at a university and they leave all the lab machines and classroom machines on 24×7 so they can run patches, updates and changes at night.  But that’s wasting 16+ hours of energy a day per machine.  Even with power saving features these machines waste a lot of energy (as do TVs and other electronics that never shut off but go into a mode designed for a quick start).

        Simple solution – don’t run computers if you aren’t using them.  What about reducing the amount of power they consume while running.  I started googling around and found this ultra low-powered PC at Tranquil PC.  Tranquil claims it uses just 15-21 watts running Windows XP Home – about the power of a compact fluorescent bulb.   However, it uses a strange chip, the VIA C7-M that might be computationally low powered too.  Googling VIA C7-M I discovered a whole wealth of knowledge about Carbon Free Computing, a phrase that seemed new to me, which means the idea isn’t that popular since I read a lot of computer mags and websites.  Evidently seekers of the green PC are also aligned with the seekers of a quiet PC and solar power advocates.

        This computer I’m typing on is over three years old and I’ve been thinking about getting a new more powerful model.  The first decision I have to make is whether I should buy a new computer at all.   One quote I can’t locate the source says 80% of the energy related to the lifetime of a PC comes from manufacturing.  If that’s true then it has all kinds of major implications.  To gain the most energy savings means using a computer for as long as possible.  Second, if we want to further reduce that 80% factor, we have to convince manufacturers of PCs to work on lowering energy spent on making computers.  Third, succeeding at this endeavor will adversely impact the computer makers economically and indirectly hurt the economy.  Which is why you don’t see the President campaigning for the U.S. to become the international leader at reducing carbon production.

        Every economic decision becomes an ethical decision.  I have always noticed that the success of our economic system is based on a lot of inefficiency.  If everyone was honest and law abiding untold thousands of policemen and related professions would be out of work.  If everyone spent their money wisely how many people in the credit card industry would be out of work?  And it’s all interrelated.  The microcomputer has created millions of jobs since the 1970s.  Computer use has vastly increased energy needs creating more jobs in the power business and that impacts mining and manufacturing.  Becoming green and reducing carbon emissions means a new kind of economy.  Environmentalists have always countered this problem by saying new jobs and industries will be created, and that overall the economy will succeed.

        Will the world become green?  I don’t know.  I tend to think we will all continue on the same path because people don’t change until they are made to change.  This means our society will continue until it collapses and a new system will form out of the chaos.  To picture this just watch the news about Iraq – even there some kind of new order will eventually emerge.  Students of history know that civilizations come and go.  Personally, I’d rather make the hard choices now and remodel our current civilization so it survives.  However, I’m probably fooling myself.  I can’t even make myself lose weight when I know I’m approaching a health crisis.  Statistics show only one person in twenty, or five percent can lose weight and keep it off.  Does that mean only one person in twenty can make themselves into green people?

        Dieting makes a good analogy to going green.  To succeed we’d all need to watch our calories and carbon for the rest of our lives.  This will require discipline, attention to detail and dedication.  Which brings us back to the question:  Which is better for the environment – keeping my current PC or buying a new Green PC?  The same question applies to cars.  Which helps the Earth more, keeping my 6-cylinder Toyota Tundra or buying a Toyota Prius?  I don’t know.  If 80% of the carbon cost of a PC comes from manufacturing and the figure is similar for a car, then whatever we buy needs to be used efficiently for a long time.  The three year replacement cycle for cars and computers is carbon wasteful.

        Recently PC Magazine ran an article about building a green PC.  The whole focus was to reduce the amount of watts used.  The end results were nowhere near the efficiency of the Tranquil PC mentioned above.  And I have read elsewhere complaints about Microsoft causing increase energy use by pushing its new Vista operating system.  Most reviewers say Vista needs a discrete video card, a feature that often consumes more watts than the motherboard or CPU.  This brings up the idea of whether Linux, Windows or Macintosh operating systems are the best for the environment. 

To be fair, we have to consider use.  A gamer with a high powered rig using 650 watts will hate the Tranquil PC using 15 watts.  We can’t just say gaming is bad for the environment, so give it up.  Like the idea of carbon management and carbon credits, we have to give every individual the chance to save energy in their own way so they can spend it in whatever way they like.  For example, gamers could walk or ride bicycles for transportation so they can spend their energy credits on high-powered games.

For such energy/carbon credit systems to work we’d have to know what our energy allowance is.  I don’t know if anyone knows the answer yet.  Dieting only works when you know your daily calorie target and so we need to know how much energy we use now and how much less we need to use to save the world.  Each person on Earth causes X number of carbon molecules to be released in the atmosphere.  We could count up the total, divide by six billion and have the answer.  Then we decide what our diet should be and know how many carbon units we can use each day.  The trouble is that won’t work because people in Africa create far less carbon than someone living in the U.S.

While the Chinese are speeding along towards using energy like Americans, Americans should be working to use energy like the Chinese used to.  That’s not happening.

Cynical minded people will just say buy whatever kind of computer you want because nothing you do will matter.  Henry David Thoreau sat in his cabin by Walden Pond and saw progress barrelling down the track and knew it was going to crash into Concord.  Walden was the book he wrote warning the people of the time about the future.  No one stepped out of the way of progress.  Thoreau observed that we all have choices we can make in how we eat, where we live, how we dress, the work that we choose, and explained that these choices meant something.  Our times require that we all become Thoreaus, but I tend to doubt this will happen.

I think I’ll hang onto my present computer for awhile and continue to run Windows XP.  I’m going to study the Green PC and maybe build one in the future.  When I do, I think I’ll design it so it will last as long as possible and allow me to swap out parts, or even recycle parts from my present computer.  I’d also like to explore other energy saving ideas.  Is it better to play MP3 music through the computer or CDs through my stereo system?  Can I digitize all my paper using habits?  Are printers really needed?  Besides being green, these are interesting intellectual challenges.

 

Communicating Across Time

        I just finished reading Timescape by Gregory Benford and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the two books strike me as a perfect set for a meditation on time travel.  I doubt Henry David Thoreau ever thought about time travel, but any writer that produces a classic book is communicating across time, sending messages centuries into the future.  Imagine if Thoreau had some kind of magical book and we could send messages back to him sitting in his little shack by Walden Pond.  What would you tell him about life in the future and reading his book?  Timescape by Gregory Benford is about sending messages backwards in time, allowing the future to talk to the past.  Unfortunately, Benford tries to stick closely to a theoretical idea in physics which has limited application.  His story is timid by science fictional standards, but wonderfully ambitious by defying the traditions of the genre.

        I often want to communicate with the past.  I’m currently reading The Scarlet Letter and figure it would be great fun to show the Puritans an hour of MTV.  On the surface that sounds cruel, but I keep thinking if we could talk across the ages we’d realize new philosophical dimensions.  Of course we know about the tyrannical nature of religious societies just by watching the nightly news, but it helps to remember that Americans once wore funny religious clothes and treated women like Islamic fundamentalists.  The real test would be to have a time traveler show up today and let us know about the future and how our beliefs and actions are embarrassing to them.  Are the liberated women on MTV a step forward in women’s expression as individuals or are they freed women to act out men’s fantasies?

        The eight hundred pound gorilla in this essay is global warming.  Will the people of the future all lie in the beds at night wishing they could talk to us?  Benford’s story written in the 1970s and published in 1980 isn’t about global warming but another ecological catastrophe caused by the people of the 1950s and 1960s but which kills the people of 1998.  Yes, his future is now our past but that doesn’t make the book dated.  Timescape is #41 on The Classics of Science Fiction list – but it deserves to be higher.  The idea of sending messages to the past is just as original as any of H. G. Wells’ great primal science fictional ideas.

If you read the reader reviews on Amazon you will find most readers giving Timescape five stars but many giving it one star.  It’s a polarizing science fiction novel because it’s not a gee-whiz action story, but a quiet story about science and scientists.  Critics loved it but many fans didn’t.  I assume most adolescent readers would prefer a story about time travelers going back to hunt dinosaurs rather than read about a clever plot based on a theoretical sub-atomic particle called the tachyon.  I can also infer that most page turning readers don’t want to be burden by bad tidings from the future.

In Timescape a few 1998 people desperately try to get a message to a few scientists in 1963 hoping to save their world.  If the people of 1963 had listened to Thoreau message from 1854 the people in 1998 might not have ever needed to send a message backwards in time.  Walden is a timeless essay about paying attention to details and questioning the status quo.  Thoreau might be considered America’s original hippie, but he was a brilliant thinker, as was his friend Nathan Hawthorne who peered with nineteenth century eyes into the seventeenth century with A Scarlett Letter.  There are still puritanical threads woven into our twenty-first century philosophy.  The lessons of history have always been one way – think how dynamically philosophic history would be if we could tune in the future with tachyon radios.

I’m not shunning the Puritans when I mention them, they may have valid messages to send us too, points that we’re missing, and yes we’re still receiving their messages, for example, the current fad of Purity Balls.  The key is to study Thoreau and learn to discern the ecology of our thoughts like he studied the ecology of Walden Pond.  Are the Puritans four centuries away, or merely a few thousand miles?  Scattered across this earth are people living in situations that mirror all the times of history.  Every society might represent a different expression of innate programming to comprehend right and wrong – it may even be hardwired in our genes as Moral Minds suggests.  Classic books may be classic because they show characters at the cutting edge of ethical dramas.

Global warming will be the ethical issue of our times.  To overcome this obstacle we will all have to live life with the spiritual observational skills of Henry David Thoreau.  Science fictional books like Timescape illustrates that every casual decision we make today affects the people of tomorrow.  The emotional dynamics of how we judge our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter.  For years I have contemplated why some books become classics and others don’t.  I’m never sure how to define a classic, but I know if you are reading books that don’t make you think, that you can’t interconnect with the communications across time, then more than likely you are only reading for escapism and that book isn’t a classic.

The Lights in the Sky are Stars

    “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” – Bob Dylan

    I think people forget we live in a fantastically large universe. We’re bacteria living in a drop of water and imagine the few molecules we swim in are the crown of creation, the darling of God’s eye. Light polution has stolen the Milky Way from our lives and shrunk our universe. Most people never look up any more and speculate beyond the event horizon of their lives. Sense of wonder and philosophy has been replaced by gossip about Anna Nicole Smith. Is it no wonder that the uneducated of the world crave their old time gods? DVDs and iPods can’t give the young transcendence. We live in the most exciting time of all history but the only philosophers we have are ones that tell us how to cope with stress, lose weight, invest money, or quibble over left and right politics. Where are our transcendental explorers? Our population seems divided between people who want to ignore reality by partying till they die or those who ignore reality by feverishly studying ancient religious texts and praying for a rebirth in another reality – one that is simple and easy to understand.

    If you wake up to The Today Show, come home from work to the ABC World News Tonight, and go to sleep with Eyewitness News and Jay Leno, then your view of our monsterously large multiverse is rather tacky and small. Watch the Discovery Channel in High Definition – it is the Henry David Thoreau of our times. A telescope will help you learn how small you are and a microscope will teach you how big you are. Ask yourself this question: What should I be doing in this immense creation that has no guidebook or instruction manual. For most of history our philosophers have asked: “Why are we here?” Up till now people have answered that question by believing in the silly idea that we’re being judged on our behavior and assume the judgement determines our immortal life in the reality after this one. Imagine if ants thought one human judged their every action.

Get over it. There is no reason why. We’re not being judged and there is no reality after this one. This reality is our final destination – our only vacation from oblivion. We’ve all gone to Hawaii and all we do is sit in our hotel room and watch reruns of That 70’s Show. How lame is that. We need to remember every moment of our lives that the lights in the sky are stars.