philosophy

Boot

I have possessions, some small, some large, but nearly all of them are transitory. Electronics get worn out and become obsolete. A favorite pen will eventually run out of ink or fall apart. Chairs, no matter how comfy, get left behind during a move. And while other men might have Super Bowl rings or family heirlooms, I don’t have any such jewelry. Even my collection of physical books–you know, the paper kind–are giving way to electronic copies. It doesn’t mean I don’t treasure the ones I keep, but the knowledge within them is a far, far greater prize than the medium.

One thing that I have brought with me from place to place for almost a decade is a photograph. It’s not of me or of any place I’ve been. It’s neither a professional shot nor an amateur Polaroid. The picture is of a boot kicking out a car window, sole front and center, and cubes of shattered safety glass exploding out past the focal point in a glittering bubble. Inside the car, one can just barely make out my father’s face, shrouded in shadow. It’s a perfect line of motion, frozen. I bring it everywhere with me partially because it’s a conversation starter. What is this? Why? Who? What’s the story, man?

Well, what is the story? The car belonged to my parents’ friend, Charles, and the window had had a crack and needed to be replaced. Item number one on the to-do list was take the old window out. Of course, why gently remove a piece of glass if you can smash it–and why boot out the rear passenger window of a Volkswagen if you don’t plan on making an art project out of it?

For the longest time, I had assumed that my mother, not Charles, had been on the other end of the camera. The car is a Volkswagen Beetle, and I know we used to have a blue one when I was very small. I called it the Bu Bo-baxen. I am a marginally better conversationalist now.

But this is the other reason I have kept the photo for as long as I have. It’s a constant reminder of the malleability of memories. Even a photograph requires context. Without knowing who took the picture, when they took it, where they were, and why, it’s just a pretty picture. Some photographs include all this information in the picture. Wedding photos, for example, are a special kind of archiving; this happened to these two people in this place, at this time of day, and with these emotions. They’re the kinds of photos you can instantly understand when walking into someone else’s home. Ah, you say to yourself. Married, two kids, wealthy enough to have this kind of wedding, but not insane millionaires… and on and on. It’s the Darmok of our lives. Dick and Jane in Hawaii. Dick and Jane holding hands. Jane in her white gown. The happy couple, their feet in the sand. These kinds of photos are the most logical way of compressing tons of sensory and emotional information into an easy-to-transport package.

The same applies to the kind of moment captured in the photo I take with me from place to place, only with an important difference. As art, Jack in the Volkswagen, his boot through the window, is, to everyone but Jack (and possibly Charles, his eyes shielded), an almost entirely subjective experience. You can get the straight story from him, or you can get an interpretation from Emmett, his hands gesticulating. Sooner or later, however, the story will be lost, and all that will remain is the photo, compressed data awaiting extraction. The car, its window exploding.

Not to make too much of it, but go back in time and ask Leonardo about the real dope on the Mona Lisa, and he might have something to say. Now, though, we have the Mona Lisa Smile, which each of us interprets according to whatever bits and bytes of information our minds need in order to fill in the gaps during data extraction. It’s the same concept as Jurassic Park, where they used frog DNA to fill in the missing chunks of dinosaur code–only with an slightly smaller probability of horrible death.

That incompleteness is what makes the photo so valuable. It’s neither data that can be compressed further nor knowledge that can be learned. It’s neither purely in the domain of memory, nor is it purely art. The image remains, but the story, known to me now, still mingles with the memory of the story I’d created for it. Understanding the picture, for now, means understanding its changed nature, and means understanding who has it and why. The photograph remains in a wonderful little gray area, a node in the network of how I understand the world. My existence, in relation to the object, puts a lot of weight on it, perhaps unfairly. But once I’m gone, it is free once again to be just an object until someone else comes along and weighs it down again.

For Day 20

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Radio Radio

Serial Killer III: Radio Radio

Technologically, the mid-’90s was an exciting time to be young. By ’96, I had watched as the computers on our desks had gone from the single-unit Mac Plus, to alternately shrinking and expanding variations on the desktop tower. Monitors went from black and white to grayscale to 256-color to lifelike color. Games, at first simple distractions of shades and vectors, became immersive, story-driven works of art.

Our first 14.4 modem’s screeching, clicking and hissing echoed venomously through my parents’ newly built studios, but we harnessed the beast and rode it confidently into the Internet. As baud rates increased, exploration of the unknown went farther and deeper. Soon, my uncle’s stories about sending messages back to the States from Europe in the ’80s at (a bone-crushing!) eight baud drew laughs. When my friend Scott’s house was wired for DSL, I spent my first afternoon truly just screwing around on the Web. What happens if we type this? Where will this seemingly made-up url take us? And that continued at home, only for shorter bursts. But I found nothing that I, even at thirteen, hadn’t already anticipated. Human nature plus complete freedom and unlimited space yield pretty obvious results.

The big discovery for me in this era was the illusion of privacy–through a lower-tech medium than I’d expected. One warm spring day, I was helping my mother clean out her office and installing a newer, more reliable cordless phone. Cell phones weren’t universal yet, but having a cordless was standard. The new set installed, I began putting away the old one, when the handset fell off the cradle. I bent to pick it up and heard a sound coming from the earpiece. The years have tarnished the total recall of what I heard, but this is what I remember of it after gingerly picking up the plastic handset and listening to the conversation bubble through the light static:

… comin’ to me.

So what you do?

I hit that nigga with the pipe. Knocked the mothafucka out.

Well, that’s how it goes… So what you doing Friday?

Sometimes, all it takes to uncover a massive crime is luck and a little bit of battery power. Those old cordless phones could, with their telescoping antennae and the right environmental conditions, pick up other conversations on similar frequencies. While the phone still had a little juice left, I turned it on and went up to my room for higher ground and a better signal. I spent the next hour sitting at my desk and listening to hissing, popping and the occasional garbled transmission until even the background static faded out as the battery died.

Weeks later, I bought myself a scanner radio with a much wider range of frequencies. Tuning in late at night, I would reach into the invisible lost-and-found bin of the electromagnetic spectrum and eavesdrop on the lives of others. Police tracked a burglar across the city, a pair of medics tried in vain to save a woman who’d been hit by a car, and construction workers told jokes over their walkie talkies. And I listened.

In the years that followed, I used the lessons of the radio to safeguard my own privacy. I would only put out into the digital world those things that were approved for public consumption. But it went further than that. I also began boxing thoughts, ideas, and even parts of my personality within myself. The concept of the memory castle might be an apt description of how I began storing these things. Room by room, hallway by hallway, ideas had their place. Some I’d stored in common rooms, available at any time for use in conversation and writing. Others I merely hid in rooms, freely available to those who took the time to look. And still others I put behind doors, accessible only though an increasing number of locks and keys. But even that isn’t secure. Substances, discomfort, and lack of sleep can unlock doors more efficiently than the craftiest of questions. How do you keep the worst of your demons on lockdown when faced with that kind of security liability? The answer, it turns out, is obvious, given the source of the question: fragment and encrypt the information and store it in the clouds, far, far away from the castle.

Making the Perfect Grilled Cheese

The trick to making the perfect grilled cheese is simple: γνῶθι σεαυτόν. The Oracle in The Matrix had a sign above her door with (confusingly) the Latin translation: temet nosce. Know thyself. In its original context, the aphorism did not ask one to look inward and ask the question, “Who am I?” It wasn’t a question, after all. Instead, it implored the reader to find his or her own path–to know the destination before taking the journey. Applying this principle to grilled cheese is easy and can save you a lot of aggravation down the road. And one of the beautiful things about grilled cheeses is that, like pizza, there are many, many combinations from which to choose.

First off, you need to pick the right bread. Some people like a lot of bread, and may go with a focaccia or ciabatta, but some people may not like bread very much at all, and for that, there is a beautiful solution: quesadillas! And for the gluten-allergic or simply picky, there are myriad options out there. They may be harder to find, but they’re out there.

Next, you have to figure out how you want the bread to cook, and this can be a bit more tricky. Some people like their grilled cheeses cooked so that they’re very firm and crunchy. For this, the trick is dehydrating the bread by making sure the pan is dry. The bread may not brown evenly, but you’ll know it’s ready to turn over when you stick the spatula under it and hear a rasping sound like sandpaper. Some people like crispiness, but not the gum-cutting hardness of the previous method. For this, butter the bread. The more butter, the longer you have to cook it before browning and crispiness, but the tastier it will be. Some people, though even like a little bit of sogginess, which you obtain by frying the sandwich in oil or rendered fat.

Next, and perhaps most important, is the cheese. Typically, you’re going to find that most grilled cheeses made for mass consumption will be made with either American or cheddar, and sometimes jack cheese. Privately, though, people make grilled cheeses with just about any kind of cheese. Most people will use only one kind of cheese per sandwich, but some may put two, three, or even four–sometimes even five!–cheeses in one sandwich. The danger in mixing is that all cheeses might not get enough representation. It requires a thoughtful approach to sandwich building, but it can and has been done.

But wait! There’s more! You can even throw in little extras. For example, grilled cheese and ham is one of the most popular variants out there. But you can get as creative as you want. Bacon, tomato, avocado, onions, spinach, pesto, truffles (if you’re feeling decadent)–all of these and more are good. In fact, there aren’t, with probably a few obvious exceptions, any objectively bad extra ingredients. It’s a matter of taste.

Now that you’ve cooked your sandwich, enjoy it. It’s a simple food with endless potential.

Creating your grilled cheese was easy, but sharing it can be hard. Pretty much everyone loves grilled cheese, but it’s hard to find someone who will like it the way you make it. Most people can come to a compromise. “You can put avocado in it, but just cook it a little crispier, OK?” I think we’ve all heard that one at one point. But sometimes you just can’t find any middle ground. Pork products can really make a grilled cheese interesting, but some people can’t or won’t eat pork.

The option, then is to make two different sandwiches, which is fine–totally doable–and it won’t necessarily ruin the meal. It raises an important issue, though: the notion that you aren’t really sharing the same meal, and that you have to keep your pork to yourself. On one hand, great, more pork for me. On the other, not being able to share something you like is kind of a bummer. This goes for any aspect of the grilled cheese, and even how often you want one, so it’s important to choose carefully the people you eat with.

So, know yourself. Know your grilled cheese. Cook on!

Guilty Pleasures

“Guilty pleasures; Billy put, ‘half a melon heated up in the microwave’, very creative Billy!”

-Dr. Venture, The Venture Bros.

There’s something strange and off-putting about the term “guilty pleasure,” and for a long time I couldn’t put my finger on it. At first, the issue seemed to be that it is an overtly backhanded compliment. For example, I could say that The Sing Off is a guilty pleasure, because normally I loathe singing competition shows and am generally uninterested in reality television in general. What I’m saying is that while I find a certain medium irritating, this iteration is all right. It’s kind of an emotionally cheap thing to do, to avoid airing a real opinion about something by avoiding the word “because.” We say something’s a guilty pleasure and that’s the end of it because it leaves any and all reasons implied. I like The Sing Off because the judges display extensive knowledge of the subject matter and give constructive criticism to the contestants, because the quality of the performances is generally very high, and, emphatically, because it’s not a freak show. The latter, I refer to in the television sense of the word. I’ve been to a real Freak Show, and it was awesome. The television version typically showcases people you just end up feeling sorry for. The only time I’ve ever felt sorry for someone on The Sing Off is when I couldn’t decide which group had a better performance.

More damning, perhaps, is the idea that the “guilty” part comes from the idea that whatever thing you take pleasure in is not socially acceptable. I’ve heard “guilty pleasure” applied to everything from Britney Spears and colorful cocktails to ’80s hair metal and porn. Never have I heard it apply to something that might realistically cause a serious sense of guilt. For a complete list of actual guilty pleasures, consider Dan Savage’s column archive and imagine what it might be like to not be able to act on certain desires or to know that there might be one person in a hundred million with whom you could share your desires. That’s about as bad as sucking down lemon drops while listening to “Toxic,” right?

If we’re talking about the hangover, definitely.

The problem is a deeply seeded dishonesty, not just about the guilty pleasure in question, not just about what we find socially acceptable, but about our individual sense of guilt. If we’re lying to ourselves about what we like and don’t like, and are setting up obstacles to those things, those lies will mediate new experiences. I had a post some time ago about what is and isn’t authentic, and ended up being fairly inclusive about what was authentic or genuine, but this is one of the exceptions. When new sensory input is mediated by our own emotional and moral dishonesty, our experiences cannot be defined as authentic.

Whether it’s fluff, irony, desire, or something more sinister, let it be just that. Worry about the guilt later.

Science Fiction and the Soul

A friend and philosopher wrote in late to ask that I consider a topic for discussion: midi-chlorians. For those of you who aren’t big on Star Wars, those who scooped out parts of their own brains after the prequels, and for the rest of you, who purged the memories from your brain with alcohol, midi-chlorians are a newer addition to the Star Wars canon. I don’t want to blow through a full summary in the intro here, but to say that this addition was controversial is a gross understatement. If you really, really want to know what a midi-chlorian is in excruciating detail, you can find a suitable explanation on its Wookieepedia page. It’s nuts, and in case you don’t want your browser ever remembering that midi-chlorians exist, I’ll summarize it below.

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!

To start, let’s get that brief summary out of the way. George Lucas officially added the idea of midi-chlorians as canon with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Apparently, he’d wanted to introduce them much earlier, but couldn’t find a good way to do it. Because there is no good way to do it. He wanted there to be a rhyme and reason for Force sensitivity, and the best way he could figure was to create a kind of cellular mitochondria, present in all living things, but super abundant in Force sensitive folks, like Jedi. The midi-chlorians are not the Force itself, but a connection between the Force and, as Yoda said of Luke’s meat suit, “this crude matter.” To emphasize that Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vader) was super-duper special, Anakin’s midi-chlorian count was the highest ever recorded.

In a way, on its own, the midi-chlorian is kind of an interesting idea–a physical link between the body and the soul. A lot of other science fiction writers and filmmakers have touched on the idea of a subjective versus objective soul. Clearly, Lucas was talking about the latter, which is fine. There’s no proving or disproving either side. The trouble begins with his inclusion of the idea in the Star Wars universe. Most other science fiction and fantasy authors, faced with ideas that they can’t fit into their current long-running series, simply start a new project or write a stand-alone novel. Much to his fans’ frustration, George R.R. Martin has a few side projects going, but we thank him for not trying to shoehorn those extra ideas into his Ice and Fire series. Unfortunately, Lucas created an empire on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and apparently couldn’t find the time or inspiration to explore his creativity outside of those realms.

The next bit of trouble harkens back to a post I made a few days ago about science fiction versus science fantasy. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy. The root causes for many things in the original movies (IV, V, and VI) were never explained. We don’t really know how hyperspace works, nor do we need to; it gets our characters from one place to another nigh instantaneously, and reduces unnecessary exposition. The same is true with the Death Star, or any other space-bound craft for that matter. We kind of assume that the materials for the Death Star’s construction were strip-mined from somewhere. The Empire is a vast, black-gloved tyranny made up of thousands of worlds. Pull a few of them apart, and–bam!–instant Death Star. Just add sadness. A second one? Easy as eatin’ pancakes. How does gravity plating work? Who cares? Why don’t spacecraft need retro rockets? Who cares? Where does all the air come from? Who gives a crap? If we cared, we’d have more exposition than we ever wanted, and none of it would serve to advance the plot even a little bit. And that’s why Star Wars (the originals) works. It’s essentially Lord of the Rings in space–knights, wizards, unwilling heroes, trolls, and elves–except that instead of throwing the ring into Mount Doom, Vader’s has to throw the Emperor into the reactor core.

So what happens when we add midi-chlorians? Exposition, and a lot of it. Because they weren’t part of the original trilogy, we now have to tell half our audience (pretty much anyone born before 1994) why Anakin is Force sensitive, and why Luke is. This is time that could be spent in character development. In the Star Trek series, we get a ton of technical exposition about the ship, the inner workings of stars, Data’s brain, and the space-time continuum because these things are integral to the plot, because it’s science fiction–science as fiction. Mostly, anyway. We know that Betazoids are telepathic, but do we know exactly how or why that works? No. Why? We don’t need to. Geordi’s visor shattered the universe in Star Trek: The Next Genereation, and was also able to help the crew identify inter-dimensional newborns. In fact, his visor practically wrote more than a few episodes of that show. Midi-chlorians are introduced as a major reason that the Star Wars universe exists, but they end up playing no part in the driving action. We’re never going to need to know anything technical about them ever again. Seriously. There are plenty of books and comics, post prequels, of course, that mention them, but at heart all of these works are science fantasy. Wedging a science  fiction element into the existing science fantasy construct only serves to fracture the story and take attention away from the characters.

I wanted this post to be mostly on the subject of science fiction vs. science fantasy, but I want to take a chance and wrap it up with an idea I began earlier that I’m not sure holds every drop of water I’m about to pour into it. Which idea is that there is an almost de facto balance between the objective/subjective soul and science fiction/science fantasy within the sci-fi genre. As fiction within the genre leans toward fantasy, the soul is depicted more objectively, as an concrete thing that can be weighed and measured with the right equipment. And as literature leans more toward science, the soul is portrayed more as an abstract thing, mystical and necessarily outside the bounds of tangibility. Let’s start with the first two obvious examples: Star Trek and Star WarsTrek, falling well on the science side, mentions the soul, but almost every instance of its inclusion in canon, it is something beyond measurement or understanding. For example, Data’s journey, as an android, toward humanity is constantly fraught with questions of soul. Where inside that complex mass of circuits and flashing LEDs is the thing that makes Data Data? It was established by the end of TNG that the question was never going to be answered by a measure of his emotion (which is pretty much where the movies went horribly wrong in this aspect). In fact, it became clear after a while that there may be no answer at all. In Star Wars, even before the prequels, Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” As a crazy-old crazy old wizard, he is a religious and spiritual figure, and as such, he has the ability to see and sense the soul–and thus weigh and measure it.

In literature, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon sits on the science side of the spectrum, while Frank Herbert’s Dune sits on the fantasy side. In Altered Carbon, a person can have their consciousness swapped from body to body like renting a car, yet the soul is somewhat of a stickier wicket. Those rich and powerful enough to have their consciousness ride through the centuries, changing out of their old bodies like dirty underwear, are known as Methuselahs (a reference to the Book of Genesis). Their minds are typically intact, but it becomes clear that their souls are twisted and corrupted. Yet the nature of how this comes to be or where the soul exists is left as a big question mark. In Dune, by contrast, the search for the Kwisatz Haderach is essentially a mission to find the galactic messiah by creating it. But what makes a messiah, if not the soul–in this case a very carefully weighed and measured soul?

It’s no secret that fantasy and science fantasy writing is typically tied closely to religion and mythology. Herbert, for example, uses a crazy mishmash of Zen, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian stories and iconography to sew the Dune universe together. But Altered Carbon uses mainly philosophy, borrowed and fabricated, as its foundation. Star Trek does the same, and really only touches on religion with any consistency in Deep Space Nine, and the writers pretty much made up the Bajoran religion from scratch, using old pagan practices as a guide. And it was clear that George Lucas always meant for Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader to be an exceedingly special character, the prodigal father, maybe. But then in The Phantom Menace, he wanted Anakin to have been possibly conceived by midi-chlorians. So then he’s Jesus with a lightsaber?

Speaking of robots with a soul...

Speaking of robots with a soul…

The point, I think, is that there is redundancy in the storytelling. Telling us how Anakin is supposed to be special does nothing for us. In A New Hope, we needed no expositional dialogue to tell us that Luke was going to end up a hero, nor did we need his midi-chlorian count to know that his soul was incorruptible (well, until Dark Empire, but let’s keep things simple). The same should have been true of Anakin. The mytho-religious science fantasy of Star Wars should have been enough to show us that Anakin was a troubled soul.

The end result of exposition is that it cheapens the sense of adventure. In a way, it’s why the Book of Genesis and its long lists of A begat B begat C begat D and so on is practically unreadable. It may lend a sense of realistic credibility to the endeavor, but ends up reading like the IKEA manual for my desk.