Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Nature of My World

So this next part of the Philosophy Thursday series is where we get into the meat of the things that I want to write about. I would caution any reader of this blog series, and this post in particular, that it is actually quite difficult for me to write about this stuff. These are thoughts that I have had for a long time, but barely whispered them to anyone else. So it takes a lot of courage for me to continue with my philosophy series. Here they come: my innermost secrets. So don't judge too harshly.

Not that anyone is. I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of trolls (zero) that do not haunt this particular tiny slice of the interwebs. However, for some reason I am always steeling myself against some imagined eventual attack. Anyways, on with the philosophy.

We are all made of stars

Jostein Gaarder. Photo: Jarle Vines
(Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0
When I was in my early 20s, I discovered and became obsessed with the works of Jostein Gaarder. A Norwegian novelist, his plots always revolve around some aspect of Western Philosophy. My favourite of these is Maya. I don't remember much about the plot other than the fact that the beginning was not promising but that the book delivered big time. But I do remember that one particular idea caught me by surprise with its newness (new to me, that is).

One quotation in particular really struck me. I can vividly remember the time and place when I read it. I was on a commuter bus in Ottawa, on my way to my part-time, after class, data entry job for the government. I read it, and then just had to take the rest of that bus trip to stare out at the Ottawa River as the parkway sped past. This is it:

"Who could have guessed that the first bold amphibian was not only crawling one small step up the shore, but also taking a giant leap on the long road to the point where primates could see a panorama of their proud evolution from the start of that selfsame road? The applause for the Big Bang was heard only fifteen billion years after the explosion." -Jostein Gaarder

It was not just that quotation that gave me pause. It was the culmination of that, combined with other ideas. And soon those ideas would distill into the things that I believe today:

Burgess Shale Opabinia Fossil
In my late 20s, I had that feeling of being struck by a book again when I read Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Gould discusses the Burgess Shale and the multitudes of Cambrian Fauna that can be found in the form of fossil remains. He writes about how these different types of life could have, had their won out the evolutionary competition they were in, led to very different forms of life than what exists on Earth today (i.e. not humans). At the end of the book, he summarizes by saying that:

"OK, the very first Cambrian fauna included a plethora of alternatives possibilities, all equally sensible and none leading to us." p.316.

He also indicates that this means self-consciousness might not have existed on earth at all, due to the particular structures that evolved in the form of life that won the Cambrian (so to speak) and eventually led to us. Very interesting stuff -- best to read the actual book for a better explanation than I can give.

But the point is that in reading that book, it really struck me just how improbable not only humans are, but how infinitely more improbable I am. Think about it: how many minute tiny daily decisions had to happen not only for the thousands of my preceding generations to have actually coupled and produced something, but how many millions of generations of other species before that would have had to evolve in extremely specific ways for me to come about. It's mind-boggling.

Just a for instance: if my maternal grandparents had immigrated to the United States like they were originally supposed to instead of to Canada, my parents never would have met. And I never would have been at all. Now count down through the generations all the other millions of accidents that would have had to happen in order that I exist.

And your point being...?

Okay, all right. I know. This is all very Carl Sagan and you've probably heard it all before. That theory:

"The eye that surveys the universe is the universe's own eye." -Jostein Gaarder, Maya.

Not only just theory but the fact that once I was star stuff, now I am a human. Improbably. But I think the thing you haven't heard, perhaps, are my personal conclusions about all this.

The first thing I conclude is that there need not be any anthropomorphized god or intentional energy in this equation. (what I mean is that when I hear people say, "the universe wants me to take this job," or "The universe is trying to tell me something" -- that's intentional energy and pretty much just a placeholder for 'deity'). There need not be any fate here. It was not intention that I exist in my current form. It was not destiny that I am alive.

I don't think the universe has intention. I think rather that the universe is a thing that tends towards self-consciousness -- multitudinous and differentiated -- the way a flower will tend towards light: if you turn a flower away from the sun, it will eventually turn back. No matter how many times you turn a flower away from light, it will always turn back. But no one on this planet would ascribe intention to the action of a flower.

So, metaphorically, the universe has always turned towards looking at itself. Again, I'll leave it to Gaarder to explain that:

"The mere experience of being created is as nothing compared to the overwhelming sensation of conjuring oneself out of zilch and standing completely on one's own feet."

If we are star stuff turned conscious, then I am the universe creating itself. And observing itself.

What the heck does this have to do with ethics?

Well, a lot. At least for me.

This line of thought may be already familiar to you: if I am made of stars, and I am the universe who has created itself, then I am everything/everything is me. So I not only have a responsibility to answer to the entire universe for my wrongdoings against itself/myself, but everything in the world: all ethical wrongs and ethical rights, all shitty violent movies and wildly uplifting music, all crime and atrocities and moments of splendour are all my responsibility, right?

But that's a heck of a lot of guilt to take on, isn't it? And give someone else some credit for good in the world, will you?

It's a strange form of solipsism that I've been lead to, isn't it? A kind of cosmic egocentrism that can't be right -- doesn't exactly sit right with me.

There is something missing, something that I need to add to this in order to be an ethical being in this whole of (obviously) other individuals who are also perceiving the universe for itself in their own particular way. And so where do we go from here?

I think you know the answer to that by now! We go to next Thursday!

I promise that once I've finished with my Philosphy Thursday series, this will all make sense and connect: ambition and fortune and ethics and the publishing industry. You'll see! :P

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

RoboNomics Book II Foreword Online

So as you may notice from the sidebar, RoboNomics Book II is officially online!

And although Chapter 1 will not appear until September 1, there is a foreword for you to read! Yay! Fun. Once more for good measure:

Look at all those zeros! Not used to that anymore!

Okay. Bye.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I Should/Should Not Want These Things (Philosophy Thursday)

So I'm told that my last philosophy post on this blog was a little rambling and devoid of clear points at the end. I'll try and remedy that this time. It's been a probably -- even in writing yesterday's post on my other blog. I felt both times as if my brain had fallen out my skull. Afternoon is not a good, productive time for me. A fog, I tell you, a great mental fog settles over my every afternoon. That's what I'll blame it on! :P

So the point of last week's philosophy blog entry was that there are two types of usurpation: the material and the personal. I can want and take things that 'don't belong to me' and I can take up personal 'space' with a larger-than-life presence or personality so that nothing else can exist. And the final point I made is that these are things that the world tells me I simultaneously should and should not want.

I Should Want These Things

At least in my little corner of the world, I supposed to want all of the things. Capitalist economies have the tacit rule nowadays that they have to keep expanding, keep growing and my little part of that is that as long as I am making more money than the year before, I am supposed to spend more of it on crappy products and useless junk. Or less crappy products that are 'rare' or 'exclusive' and thus more expensive.

Now, I'm not here to argue against Capitalism. It's an economic system and I believe like all economic systems (which have yet to take into account the complexities of the human brain and human brains interacting at a massive scale), it only works on paper.

What I do want to say is that I get the feeling that material usurpation is meant to be my default within this particular economic system. I am meant to want things, even those things that are produced at the expense of other people's basic human needs like food, water, shelter, dignity, et cetera. Never mind that I have those things already! I should want more more more.

As for celebrity, I'm going to let someone smarter than I explain that bit:

(especially the last part: 22:00-ish onward)

I Should Not Want These Things:

So I have the sense that I am supposed to want 'mountains of things', I am supposed to aspire to a room-filling, difference-sucking presence. But I also get the sense that I am not supposed to want these things. There is a secondary theme running through my society that I have bumped up against: that I am supposed to be happy with what I have, make the most of my lot in life.

Perhaps cute photos such as the one at right are good reminders, but they are also trite and reduce complex feelings down to little mottos. Reading that motto every morning is not going to make you not want to buy pretty things, given the chance, and works I think only to repress any sort of desire that has been channelled into buying useless crap rather than allowing an honest examination of what made you want that stuff in the first place (usually a lack of personal fulfillment).

Oh boy...
But I digress. The point I'm trying to make here is that there is a notion underlying these mottos that I should not want more than you already have. Or in some cases, these mottos perfectly illustrate what I'm saying, like the picture at left: I should simultaneously be happy with my lot in life while also working hard to achieve that out-sized life.

So which is it? Am I not supposed to put the prospect of riches and of celebrity before myself in order to get motivated? Or am I suppose to be contented to live a life of obscurity, without any celebrated works or public pronouncements of my skilled excellence whether monetary or otherwise? Am I just meant to write for myself, as a hobbyist, and then at the end of my life have my works forgotten, buried in some desk draw (read: computer storage)?

This, my friends, is where my ethics kick in. A description of which I'll have to save for next week, as they take a lot of pixels to describe...

So see you next Thursday, when I finally get into the meat of the thing! :)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Long Ago and Far Away (when I grew up)

So I stumbled on a link to a Google Hangout with folks from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. It's not exactly the sort of thing I'd be interested in: it's presented in conjunction with something called Maker Camp (Make Magazine) and it contains a lot of technical insider information on how to make the creatures. Not precisely my field of expertise.

But I just had to watch it. And in watching it, a whole bunch of buried memories came flooding back to me.

I recently rewrote my biography for this blog's 'About' page as well as for my website and other social media pages. I wanted to have one blazing honest page of copy that helped to unify -- whether in long or short form -- my web presence. And in that story I cited some of my earliest influences: L.M. Montgomery, C.S. Lewis; in short, the folks who made me want to be a writer in the first place. But I forgot some of the most influential inputs to my child's brain. Chief among them was Jim Henson.

In particular, I have to admit that I missed some of his most iconic '80s hits: the Dark Crystal, the Labyrinth. But besides Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, I was a massive fan of the Jim Henson Hour. Does anyone remember that? And of course, in the whole show my favourite part was the Storyteller segment. No surprises there.

There was one episode in particular that sticks out in my mind: Monster Maker.

I would have written here that I don't remember why that particular storyline touched me so that all these years later I still remember some of it. But looking at that clip, it's pretty obvious why.

The other big influence in my young life was the PBS series Long Ago and Far Away. Basically a retelling of world folklore and other stories, it was filled with dragons, princesses, giants, and in one memorable episode, an army of animated sticks.

Perhaps it's obvious from this post, but I have to admit it anyway: I was something of a big TV fan as a child. And while I could never participate in any sort of visual art in a serious way, I owe a massive debt of gratitude to these TV series. Considering how some of them were produced with public funds, I consider them like the library: these freely available wells of inspiration, artistic resources that send ripples through my psyche and helped to shape who I am; helped determine the path I would take in adult life.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Usurpation of the Whole World

So last time we left off with Roxie and Pascal. And what the heck do they have to do with one another?

As Pascal states in his Pensees:

"Mine, thine. – 'This dog is mine,' said those poor children; 'that is my place in the sun.' Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of all the earth."

There are two ways that I think about this quotation, specifically where it refers to 'usurpation'. The first I'll call material. The second I'll call personal.

Material Usurpation

This is probably the more obvious of the two. It has to do with the usurpation of material and monetary wealth. In reference to the Chicago song, Roxie talks about how she'll be raking in the chips. She also talks about how she'll wear "a lavalier that goes all the way down to my waist" -- in reference to a particular style of necklace.

Yeah -- that's it!
Wherever I hear that particular line in the song, I always think about a diamond necklace. Don't know why -- have just always pictured it that way.

And whenever I think of diamonds, I inevitably think of how things particular items that I meant to think of as precious, shiny, covetable -- only ever conjure up images of the horrible ways they come to this particular continent. Conflict, exploitation. In a way, there is a certain amount of usurpation of human dignity, human health, human safety that occurs so that other humans, often halfway around the world, can adorn themselves.

And in terms of Pascal's quotation, material usurpation can also occur at a basic level. My place in the sun -- "This piece of earth is mine" implies a possession of land by one person so that someone else cannot possess it. So that no one else cannot possess it.

Two objections

Yes, there can be objections. First off, "Well everyone needs a place to have shelter, right?" No doubt. It's a basic requirements of human life. But that doesn't really negate the fact that it's the beginning of a slippery slope. How much is enough? It's a question that will require its own post to explore.

Second, "But I read the Secret and she said there's enough for everyone!" Ah, yes -- popularized quasi-theory predicted on the premise that human greed can get you anywhere. Or anything! Yeah, I think Roxie would be on board with that. Unfortunately, I want to talk about pretty much the complete opposite here.

Personal Usurpation

Anyways, plodding on. Personal Usurpation is more about the celebrity bit of the song, and it's more what I'm interested in -- since I think it leads to material usurpation. You that feeling you get when you're at some sort of big social gathering -- a cocktail party, a house party, a conference, a family reunion (hey I have a big family okay?) -- any situation where there is a bunch of people in a large room, all having conversations in groups or pairs, all adding up to a substantial amount of human hub bub?

And then all of a sudden there's one voice that carries above the crowd: a cackling laugh or someone just shouting -- but not angrily. And all of a sudden a hush falls and most people turn and look for/at the source of the sound, and you sort of realize that the owner of that voice wanted that to happen all along, so if only for a brief space of time they could be the center of attention?

Or have you ever been in a group of people having a conversation, and there's just one participant who just won't stopping talking about themselves long enough to let anyone else cut in?

Yeah. Me too. That's what I call "taking up too much room".

It's not that the person is necessarily a big person, actually taking up too much physical room. It's more than no one else around them are free to share of themselves -- everyone else's opinions and experiences and personalities are silenced in the onslaught of this person's trivial BS. It's a different kind of usurpation. Celebrities certainly take up too much room. Perhaps not of the share of the talk in a personal conversation, but too much of the room in our entertainment, on our radios and TVs and internets, and thus in our minds, so that other forms of entertainment are effectively minimized or eradicated.

So a desire to become a celebrity (or in my case, a misguided desire to become a celebrity author) is a desire to usurp the author space.

So what's the upshot of all this? The word usurpation has a negative connotation, so why is it bad to want things in life, even if they are things like unimaginable wealth and celebrity? Well, you know what comes next -- that is another chunk of theorizing for another blog post. See you next Philosophy Thursday! :P

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Place in the Sun: A Way into my Personal Philosophies

Lately I've been curating all of my many 'motivation' tracks and playlists into one master list. And it's got me thinking about all sorts of interconnected concerns that keep cropping up for me lately.

And so I'm going to start a series of posts. Possibly the most epic series of blog posts I'll ever write. Because we're going a journey, my friends. A journey through my thoughts about success, career, literature, all the way down the rabbit hole to the very centre of my personal beliefs; and then back out again to what this all means for the direction I intend to take with my writings, my life, my career and my place in this currently tectonic change taking place in the publishing industry.

Philosophy is my bag, even if I don't always use the language of the in-crowd and I can't exactly remember important philosophers' quotes off the top of my head. What can I say? I've filled my headspace with other (more important?) things. But it is the way I've always lived my life. Thinking deeply and at length about everything I do, everything I think about.

So this is your warning; your out. If you aren't into philosophy, best to get out of this post immediately! :P

A Way In

Specifically, all these yet-unnamed issues came to a head for me when I listened the song "Roxie" on my motivation playlist. Why did I consider this particular song motivational? What is it about a song about a would-be star who murdered someone that spoke to me?

When I was a teenager, my parents moved out of the house I grew up in and into an upgraded home across town. When we about to leave my childhood home, I made a crack about how it better stay intact, since that would someday the future S.A.Wilson foundation would want to make it into a museum.

Delusions of grandeur for sure. When I was 11 years old or so, I realized for the first time that being a writer, especially a decent writer, could very well mean a certain brand of guaranteed immortality. It's not the reason why I wanted to become a writer in the first place. But it certainly was the reason I wanted to become a well-known writer.

Especially in researching my favourite authors at the time (yes I researched. I was that kind of kid), the Brontes, and how they juvenilia survives to this day, I was preoccupied with the benefits authorhood could afford me. When I look back on those childish attitudes, I have to laugh. How much work I've done on my art since then and now! How much work is still to be done! I only thought about the things I would receive as benefit for such a career, and not the mighty price it costs! It's all theory when you're young -- it's all play. Nothing is about the work.

But somewhere along the line, even immortality wasn't enough. At some point along the way I became less interested in my immortality and more interested in this life. I wanted the potential monies that authorship could provide, and the potential notoriety. But besides all the issues of out-sized ego this desires implies, it has been said many times in many of the internet's dusty corners before: there are much easier ways than writing to become rich and famous.

My Place in the Sun

But whether concerned with lasting (books with everlasting editions) or more fleeting (interviewed by Oprah) forms of notoriety, it amounts to the same concern: finding one's 'place in the sun'.

The commonplace phrase 'my place in the sun' actually comes from Blaise Pascal's (yeah, that math guy) book "Pensées". In it, he writes:

"Mine, thine. – 'This dog is mine,' said those poor children; 'that is my place in the sun.' Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of all the earth."

There's a lot to think about in that one little statement, isn't there? Ownership of animals, of land -- possession of anything at all. And what does he mean, usurpation? What could be problematic about having a little space to oneself, right? And what the heck does all this have to do with Chicago?

Well, I'm actually going to leave you hanging for that explanation. This blog post is already longer than most of mine are, and I think I'd rather just let you mull over that little concept than dive into a massive discussion about it. I'll probably get a chance to write about this again sometime next week. Maybe I'll shoot for Thursday again. Philosophy Thursdays, what do you think? Good name for a title?