Jul 14

Alone with myself

Altered StatesIt wasn’t long ago that I would have done anything to avoid being alone with my own thoughts. The thought of what might bubble up, when I wasn’t trying to look away to everything else, terrified me; if only because I had spent so much time avoiding myself. For years I was sleepwalking through life. If I happened to catch a glance at my doppelgänger self in the mirror, I didn’t linger.

But, my circumstances have changed. Many things that once scared me and drove me, have collapsed down to smaller proportions. The more I ran toward my own fears, the smaller they became, much like my own shadow. I still have fears and worries, but my worries are concrete and I am more grounded. And, after much work devoted to untangling various knots and maybe just making friends with the knots, I started to reconnect.

One of the first things to go, when you disconnect from yourself, is any creativity or sensitivity. When you detach from your own feelings, you develop a state of numbness because you want to avoid anything that might overwhelm, which could be anything when you’re holding it all down with white knuckles.

But, once I started to be more happy, I wanted to find out more about myself. I wanted to build a timeline of my own life, mainly because I could not remember much for long spaces of time. Even if I could remember the facts of my past, it didn’t feel like it belonged to me. I grew interested in knitting together a sense of my own story. I wanted to explore my own inner world that I had boarded up and abandoned. I wanted to move back home, I wanted to clear away the weeds, open up the windows, and dust out the various corners.

I came up with a plan to kickstart this inner exploration: floating in an isolation tank. Floating in complete darkness and silence with nowhere to go and nothing else to do; just alone with my own thoughts. If you’ve seen the William Hurt film, “Altered States“, you’re probably familiar with the concept. Luckily, Austin has a place where you can purchase 60-90 minute sessions of sensory-deprivation, Zero Gravity Institute. I don’t feel like saying much about it, except that you might give it a shot. The first session I had was very rewarding. After adjusting to the novelty of the situation, I had some of the most creative moments in recent memory. That’s where I arrived at the realization that it has been exactly 20 years since I started a small zine with two of my high school friends. It was called the Incredible Flaming Mechanism. We created 7 issues from 1994-1995, when we all went off to college. It was one of the most creative, exciting times in my life. I realized that I was coming full circle… from happy to unhappy to happy again and from creative to uncreative to creative again. So, my current idea is to do 7 more issues… from 2014-2015, so that I can close the loop. What do you think?



May 13

Grit and glitz

I had a chance to see Iron Man 3 over the weekend. It was enjoyable, but it made me think about how the creation of a sense of reality is key to film. Especially and ironically, it is essential to superhero films. Perhaps the more fantastic the film world and the premise, the more it should be made to feel real so that we are able to situate ourselves as viewer participants.

There is a tendency in superhero films to make everything too glitzy, too polished, presumably so that we think the superhero world is cool and fantastic. Maybe so that it seems so unlike reality. Maybe so that we can leave the mundane behind. But, I find that this makes it harder for me to become involved in the film.

The more polish and glitz, the more details there are to bring me out of the story and the characters. The more aware I am that we’re in a world that bears little resemblance to the real.

Superhero movies often belong to the “more is more” school of film-making. Take “The Avengers” as a recent example. Widely praised and loved by fans and critics, it’s ultimately a weak and forgettable film. In “The Avengers” there is an all-star team of superheroes (including a god), flying aircraft carriers, and an enemy from another dimension. All these things are true to the comic book, but it’s so over the top that it stops being interesting. Where can you go in terms of story? Maybe things which make sense in comic books stop making sense on film. Comic books being a low-resolution medium with lots of completion necessary… it makes sense that you need to punch things up to make things compelling. But in a film, it’s just too much. I don’t care. I can’t care.


Nov 12

Odds and ends

A quotation from John Ruskin from an article on the 40th anniversary of Civilisation:

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

Apr 10

“Damage” and Obsession

Louis Malle’s film “Damage” is a dark and magnetic meditation on love and obsession. How desire leaves us powerless. How love can destroy. The following video is the final scene.

“It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world. I travelled until I arrived at a life of my own. What really makes us is beyond grasping. It is way beyond knowing. We give in to love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters. Not at the end.

I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident at an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else.”

When I first saw this film I thought about it for days. I went and got the book it was based on (Damage by Josephine Hart) and read it in one marathon session. Propped up on my bed, unwilling to detach. Like the film, the dialogue is spare and not frivolous. No word is wasted. This focuses the emotional force of each expression. Ideas and feelings are suggested in the spaces between lines and between moments.

In the film, the characters convey a complex melange of feeling with each look they share. By observing the characters on screen we get some sense of the emotional intensity between them. At turns stricken or overcome. Restrained or unbound. And in our turn it resonates with the force of our own bodily memory. As people who have felt something powerful and intoxicating.

Love is not a trifling thing. It creates and destroys. In the words of Kierkegaard, “Love is all, it gives all, and it takes all.” Very few films seem equipped to show us the dual aspects of love. To love means ceding control of your life to something other than yourself.

The last few lines of the final scene are ambiguous. And this ambiguity is what leaves you thinking.

“I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident at an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else.”

She was no different than anyone else. That is a compelling statement. There are multiple interpretations for what he means. While under its spell does the object of love take on significance that is unrelated to reality? Do we somehow transform our own reality through desire so that individuals become intensely meaningful to us in a way that is beyond reason? What separates the man or woman we desire from any other in the world? Perhaps only the focus of our desire. Once desire has withered or become focused elsewhere we see them as what they were the whole time: another person. But, desire transforms a mere person into an object of religious devotion.

Another way to interpret that line is as a realization of the momentary nature of desire. Romantic love breaks out like a wildfire and enraptures each person. But, if the passion between two people is destroyed, no trace remains other than the memory of feeling. What do we find when we discover that things we once felt are no longer true? How do we reconcile the intensity of the dead past with the deadness of the living present?

Jul 08

Free Wall Street Journal: Part Deux

In the previous entry, I explained how you could read full articles at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by tricking wsj.com into thinking you originated from Google News. Basically, any WSJ traffic from Google News is allowed to view the full article.

My previous solution was awkward kludge, but it got the job done. Of course, I should have known there was an easier way to do it. The problem is two-fold: the Journal site checks the referer and the URL parameter. So, if you can change the referer and rewrite the URL’s to include the URL parameter, the entire site will be in subscription mode.

Step 1: Change the referer to appear as if traffic is originating from Google News. This is easy with the RefControl extension for Firefox. Just install the extension and set the referer for any traffic to “http://online.wsj.com” as coming from “http://www.google.com/news”. See screenshot below.

Using RefControl to changes referers

Step 2: Rewrite all URL’s on the WSJ site so that they include the Google News parameter. In other words, take all links on the site and add “?mod=googlenews_wsj” to the end. With the referer set manually and the modification in place, you should be able to view the full articles. So, how do you rewrite the URL’s on the WSJ site? I recommend creating a Greasemonkey script to do this, which should be pretty simple. When I get some more time I might do it and upload to my defunct userscripts library.

May 08

Creativity and sensitivity

Ran across this in a recent NY Times article on memory:

“A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers,” Dr. Hasher said. “We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”

In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

This phenomenon, Dr. Carson said, is often linked to a decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Studies have found that people who suffered an injury or disease that lowered activity in that region became more interested in creative pursuits.

Pardon the disjointed thoughts here.

Pronounced sensitivity to external and internal stimulus is a hallmark of what we regard as classical creativity or “original thinking”, but which might be better called creative aestheticism. Creative aestheticism is really only one type of creativity.

Continue reading →

Mar 08

Google Book Search a joy for antiquarians

Google Book Search is a project that exemplifies Google’s vision for information. For the past few years they’ve worked with various libraries and universities to digitize books, periodicals, and journals that might otherwise have remained untouched in their collections. Each resource is scanned by hand and rendered into indexable text. For older works whose copyrights have lapsed, you may read the entire thing online. Even for books under copyright, Google Book Search is a good way to search the contents of published works and is a great supplement to the usual search engine results for many research topics. Over the past few months, I’ve come across several books I might have paid for available online via Google Book Search. For any older books, this is now the first place I check. Here are a couple good books you may read online. They’re mostly aphorisms or concise wisdom, so it should be good for casual reading:

  1. The Maxims of Cháṇákya: The Maxims of Cháṇákya are an interesting record of thought by an early Indian statesman.
  2. The Maxims of Francis Guicciardini by Francesco Guicciardini. Practical and political philosophy by a contemporary of Machiavelli, the historian Guicciardini.
  3. The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus, a Roman Slave: From the Latin
  4. Maxims and Moral Reflections by François La Rochefoucauld

Feb 08

At a Long Enough Time Horizon

Yesterday I had an itch to set my thoughts careening by reading some good science-fiction. I went down to the library and picked up Vernor Vinge’s “Marooned in Real Time“. It did not disappoint. It was interesting enough that I ended up finishing it in one day. It has the perfect mix of intrigue and ideas that set your imagination afire. The basic plot is a murder mystery with the twist that it takes place as the cast of characters travels through time using bobble technology. Bobbles are basically stasis spheres, so you don’t really travel through time as much as everything remains in suspended animation while the world goes on without you. The characters in the book end up bobbling through millions of years of real time and are able to observe changes to earth geography and evolution in progress.

Far future earth evolution is exactly the kind of thing that’s fun to speculate about. How will life change? What new animals will arise from current forms? Will any creatures achieve sapience? Likewise, if we could travel through time for millions of years, how far could we go? What would happen to the universe? What would we see if we could stick around until the end of the universe?

The pleasant side effect of reading about the flow of millions of years is that it makes all of your problems shrink to insignificance. At a long enough time horizon, nothing really matters. When the going gets tough, this idea can provide relief and perspective. One of the humbling facts about existence is the knowledge that everything you do, everything you have, everything you know, is temporary… even humanity, even this world. If everything is temporary what is the proper attitude of life? How should this inform our conduct?

Dec 07

I can’t really explain it

…but there is something fascinating about faux-reality shows like The Hills or Laguna Beach. If I’m ever channel surfing and happen across one of these shows, I’ll get sucked in. It has the approachable mundane-ness of a reality show with the story line of a high-production television drama. I have a hard time watching shows that don’t seem real enough. I just can’t forget that I’m watching something fake. I think this is why I also enjoy shows like Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm (although CYE has become more fake and unreal recently). All of these shows have realistic characters, realistic lighting and environments, realistic dialogue, and realistic wardrobes and makeup. If television taps into some evolved social interest, it stands to reason that the more real the simulation, the more effective it will be in evoking sympathy and interest. Look for the lines between life and entertainment to blur further.

Crucial Minutiae has a good take on it that is worth reading.

Nov 07

Selections from Moby Dick

Last winter I finished reading Moby Dick. When you read a book that is justly revered you cross a line into understanding what all the fuss is about, though maybe even further from understanding. Moby Dick is the kind of book you could never imagine writing yourself.

Melville has this ability to capture and convey existential feeling so that it is beautiful and tangible. In Moby Dick, he does it better than the best philosopher.

  • Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish, Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
  • There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
  • To enjoy bodily warmth,some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.
  • There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:–through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.