Thursday, September 30, 2010

Open Mic Night

I wrote this in 1992. (It was originally entitled "The Reader.") Maybe should have posted it instead of the "Thud" post. The spirit of the staircase is apparently alive and well. :-)


Open Mic Night

He stands upon the podium and struggles to make contact.
From deep within his soul he takes
His one true self
His heart of hearts
Lays it bare
And tries to squeeze it through the microphone
Out the PA speakers
To the audience beyond
Reaching for his joy through theirs
That joy -- remembered, or imagined --
Of making contact
Of sowing the seeds of his soul.

But oh! It's a tough crowd tonight
And the silence is harder than stones

Behind the scenes of the Kobayashi Maru

Thought I'd tell a little about the reality that motivated me to write my philosophical Kobayashi Maru scenario.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about science and religion and am reaching a conclusion that is very hard to frame in words. The closest I can come is something along the lines of this analogy: the claim that either science is right or religion is right but not both is rather like the claim that an electron is either a particle or a wave but it can't be both. Both statements are intuitively obvious, and yet both statements are wrong. Understanding how electrons can be both a particle and a wave requires an enormous conceptual leap. Understanding how religion and science can both be "right" requires an even greater conceptual leap (and it's one of the reasons I chose to hedge by putting the word "right" in scare quotes). Because if you really want to get at the Truth with a capital T then it is not strictly correct to say that electrons are both a particle and a wave. But explaining why is very, very tricky, and I'm tripping over myself even now trying to formulate even that elementary thought so I'm going to stop there and tell you a story instead. This story is true.

I suffer from two chronic medical conditions. I have been taking medications for both of them for years. Recently one of these conditions has been getting worse, and one particularly awful incident a while back prompted me to consult my doctor to see if perhaps more drastic intervention was called for. (Dan, you may remember the episode I'm referring to.)

Since moving to the Bay Area I have a new doctor so he was able to look at my situation with fresh eyes. He suggested the possibility that both conditions might be related and have the same underlying cause, and that there is a new medication that might make both problems just go away permanently. That sounded good to me, so I had him write me a prescription. The result has been dramatic. Since I've gotten this new medicine both problems have indeed seemed to get noticeably better. Of course, this is not conclusive because both problems tend to come and go, but the change from one day to the next was striking. Before, the one problem seemed to be getting steadily worse. After (and it has been several weeks now) it has not recurred at all.

Here's the kicker: I got the prescription. I had it filled. But I haven't actually taken it yet. The full bottle of pills is still sitting on my shelf. Which is pretty frickin' weird. Because I emphatically don't believe in homeopathy or The Secret or God or any of that crap. And yet, the placebo effect seems to be working for me nonetheless.

Could all be a coincidence. Absolutely. But since this happened I have begun to notice lots of other weird things that I normally would not have paid attention to. Individually any one of them could easily be written off as just Random Shit that Happens to People All The Time. But collectively they add up to one hell of a lot of coincidences for one person. Maybe I'm just lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it). After all, someone has to be the luckiest person on the planet, and the odds against it being me are a mere seven billion to one. But it still seems pretty damn odd.


I've been writing Rondam Ramblings for over seven years now, which probably makes it one of the longer-lived continuously maintained blogs on the Web. It was not so much intended to draw an audience as to be a place for people who knew me to keep tabs on what I was up to, sort of like a Facebook page but before Facebook existed. Somehow along the way I've picked up, at last count, 26 followers, and who knows how many more have subscribed via FriendFeed and other channels whose existence I may not even be aware of. I have no idea who most of these people are. Whoever you are, thanks for reading. There is nothing as satisfying to a writer as having an audience.

I've been trying to return the favor by posting less personal stuff and more informative and thought-provoking material, but I guess I misjudged my audience pretty badly because my last post seems to have landed with a resounding thud. I was really hoping for some feedback because that post was, more or less, a true story, or at least a metaphor for one. There was no stranger in a dream weaving conspiracy theories, but there is a problem I need to solve that has the peculiar characteristic that describing the problem will almost certainly make matters worse. Some of the events that lead to this situation have bordered on the surreal. So the story is fictional, but it's based on reality. (Ironically, not getting any feedback is exactly what the real-world analog to the "conspiracy theory" would have predicted.)

I posted the story not so much because I expected free therapy but because I thought it made an interesting intellectual puzzle that would spark some discussion. Apparently I thought wrong. Trick is, now I don't know whether the silence is because the piece was crap, or because it was so thought-provoking that everyone is taking days to digest it, or because everyone is just out on vacation. The reason I'm posting this is to let you, my readers, whoever you are, know that I do care about making the content of this blog interesting and relevant, and not just a self-indulgent personal journal. The more you tell me about what you think of the content, even if it's just checking off the "bogus" box in the reactions widget, the easier that will be.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What would you do?

Imagine one evening you meet a stranger at a bar. You exchange the usual social pleasantries and begin to establish a rapport, until the stranger gets a strange gleam in his (or her -- take your pick) eye, says, "You know....", and starts to spin a yarn of the most cockamamie conspiracy theory you have ever heard. Elvis being alive and responsible for the assassination of JFK would sound downright plausible compared to the fantastic ridiculousness of the story you are being told. You sigh inwardly to yourself about having wasted yet another evening hanging out with a person who turns out to be a wacko. Until at one point the stranger says, "And here's the evidence that this is all true," and sketches out an experiment that you could do that would falsify the theory. "OK, let's try it," you say. And off you go...

And then you wake up. It was all a dream. You breathe a sigh of relief, get up, take a shower...

But for some reason you can't get this crazy conspiracy theory out of your mind. Of course it can't be true (can it?). No, of course it can't. But the more you think about the more you realize that, yeah, it could be true, and that you really have to do this experiment to convince yourself that you haven't lost your grip. So you do.

And the result is exactly what the stranger in your dream predicted it would be.

You are, naturally, surprised, but your worldview has not yet been shaken to its foundation. After all, you have not proved that the conspiracy theory is correct, you have merely failed to disprove it. There are any number of other plausible explanations for why the experiment turned out the way it did. But the fact that it turned out this way doesn't help you sleep any better at night.

So you do what any good Scientist would: you repeat the experiment. And you get the same result. You design other experiments to test the theory, and every single one fails to disprove it.

Now, normally this would be the basis of a great scientific discovery. But the problem is that this is a conspiracy. It turns out that the world really is out to get you. You really are surrounded by aliens and pod people. (Of course, they have human DNA. But their thought processes are utterly different from yours. But they all put on this act to make them appear as if they were Just Like You. Mostly.)

You pinch and slap yourself to make sure that you aren't in the middle of a nested dream. Nope. You're awake. This is as real as it gets. Everything you thought was true about the world is wrong. And you can prove it. Reliably. Repeatedly. But only to yourself because, well, everyone else in the world (as far as you can tell) is an alien. You have somehow taken the blue pill, but instead of waking up outside the Matrix you find that what you thought was the real world is the Matrix. But there is no higher level reality that you can escape to. This is it.

What do you do? You can't talk to anyone about it because, well, everyone is an alien, and their reaction to your describing what is going on will be exactly the same as your reaction was to the stranger in your dream: They will think you're nuts. They will shun you. If you make to much noise about it they will put you in the padded room.

Maybe you are nuts? How would you know? Every experiment you do indicates that you are sane. You remember what life was like before, so you can still play the game. You are socially functional. You have a wife and a cat and a nice house in the burbs. You go to work. You pay the bills. If there were someone else out there who had come to the same realization to which you had come, they would never know that you were not an alien. And conversely, you reason, you would never know that they were not an alien. So there might be others out there like you. But you can't find them.

Unless... you manage to find a way to penetrate their dreams. That is the one way that you might be able to communicate what you have learned without risking ostracism and isolation. But that, of course, is impossible.

Isn't it?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mourning the many victims of 9-11

On this the ninth anniversary of the most traumatic event in recent memory I mourn the loss of 2996 of my fellow human beings (because not all of the victims of the 9/11 attacks were Americans). But more than that, I mourn the loss of perspective that those attacks seem to have brought about. What is it about those 2996 that makes them more worthy of reflection than, say, the 4418 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq since 9/11? Or the (approximately) 400,000 people who died in highway accidents, of which 100,000 might still be alive today if we'd taken the money we have spent fighting the war on terrorism and used it instead to improve our infrastructure? Or the uncounted hundreds of thousands -- possibly over a million -- Iraqi and Afghani civilians who have died at our hands in the name of fighting terror? Or the uncounted tens of millions who die for lack of clean drinking water and basic medical care throughout the world on an ongoing basis?

That is, of course, a rhetorical question. It cannot be answered, because to do so would require one to face the horrible truth that not all men (women don't even enter the equation here) are created equal, and that by placing special emphasis on the victims of 9/11 we undermine the aphorisms that we Americans rely on for the moral authority to spread our influence around the planet. We are supposed to be fighting for freedom and equality, but both our actions and our rhetoric belie the fact that what we are really fighting for is the principle that American lives are worth more than non-American lives, and more particularly, that rich American lives are worth more than non-rich non-American lives. Because when 2996 people -- many of which were rich Americans -- die prematurely, that is cause for all manner of radical policy changes. But when 4418 American soldiers -- not a single one of whom was rich -- die prematurely that's just the cost of defending "freedom" (whatever that word might still mean in this era of ubiquitous surveillance and nearly unfettered government authority). And when hundreds of thousands of poor Iraqis die, or millions upon millions of poor Africans and east Asians die prematurely, that doesn't even register on the radar. Those lives matter so little that they are not even worth counting, which why no one actually knows how many Iraqis and Afghanis we have killed.

In the midst of all this carnage to which we Americans appear to be mostly blind, I am struck most of all by the spectacle of two little-known clerics who have been catapulted into the international spotlight not because they have done anything even remotely important, but simply because they have managed to offend a large enough number of people. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has become famous for offending Americans by daring to build a mosque on private property within walking distance of ground zero, and and Pastor Terry Jones has become famous for offending Muslims by threatening to burn Korans. And while both sides quibble over whose offense is more justified by God, people continue to die on the unsecured streets of Baghdad and Kabul, and on the unmaintained roads of the United States of America, and at contaminated wells and rivers throughout the world.

It is indeed a state of affairs worthy of mourning.