Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fetal Distraction 2: The Quickening

You know, right up until a few minutes ago, I still thought I might do a post this week.

Silly man.

We’re two weeks away and counting, lots of new baby preparations going on, and my todo list is still pretty big.  But, on the positive side, the mother’s mother (that is, the person who would be my mother-in-law were this a more “traditional” relationship) will be here tomorrow, and I’m taking a day off from work to pick her up from the airport, and plus I had some notes and even a sentence or two that I jotted down last week before I gave up then.  Overall, it didn’t seem irrational to produce a mere 1500 words even in the midst of this chaos.

But one of the guidelines we have around this house is: don’t set yourself up to fail.  (Or, put alternatively, know your limitations.)  And, if I try to squeeze in a blog post today along with all my other shit to do, I’m just going to be making myself crazy all day and end up coming up short anyway, and that’s no good.  I’ve got to work on keeping my stress level down, because stress is bad for pregnant women, and stress is contagious.

So today I’ll just be chillin’.  Next week may well be more of the same.  We shall see what we shall see.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fetal Distraction

Well, it’s exactly 3 weeks until the date that doctors and midwives tell us our daughter will be born, and things around the house are heating up to a fever pitch.  My “Saturday chore list” is getting out of control—pretty soon my “A1” todo’s won’t fit on a screenful of spreadsheet rows.

So there isn’t much of a blog post this week, and I suspect it won’t be the last time you, poor reader, are skimped out on—I even named the draft file of this post “Merrick1.”*  What can I do but advise you (yet again) to refer to the title of the blog? 

So, while it’s very exciting over here, preparing for the birth, it’s also very hectic.  You know, when we moved into this house, it was emotional for the folks who were leaving.  This was the house where many of them had grown up, the house where the patriarch and matriarch lived (parents to some and grandparents to others), the house where the family would gather to stay in touch and renew their family ties.  It held a lot of memories for them.  The mother promised them that we would treasure it as much as they had, that we would make this our family’s home in the same way.  She told them that we would be having at least one baby in the house.  It looks like that promise will be fulfilled—literally, as we’re planning on a home birth.

So hopefully you’ll bear with me over the next month or so if my writing schedule is a bit erratic.  Forging new family memories takes a bit of a time investment.

* Check out my post on naming for whence that name.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Relativistic Absolution

I have a horror of absolute statements.

It might even be a phobia, now that I ponder it.  It starts with my experience of certain people: my father was fond of absolute statements, as was the first person I took on as a partner after I started my own company.  Both of these people have something in common: they believe that if you state something with enough confidence, people will believe you.  It didn’t much matter whether the something was actually true or not.  This actually works, sort of, especially on strangers.  Unfortunately, people that have to listen to you on a regular basis quickly learn that the more confident you are (and the more absolute your statement is) the more likely you are to be full of shit.

So I myself learned to be more cautious when I state things.  With the result that many folks (including some of my closest friends) think I’m “wishy-washy.”  I dunno; maybe I am.  I certainly don’t like to be wrong, although I think many people think I feel that way because of pride, or a need for superiority.  The truth is, I just feel bad when I’m wrong.  If I tell you something, and then it turns out I was wrong, I’ve misled you.  That makes me feel crappy.  You came to me for information (and, the older I get, the more that happens, obviously), and here I went and told you the wrong thing.  Makes me feel like a right bastard.

In addition, my whole philosophy of life reinforces the concept that absolutism is useless.  Again and again in this blog I’ve talked about how I believe in two competing things at once: from my initial post on what I (only half-jokingly) mean when I claim to be a Baladocian, to paradoxical views on reality and perception, semantics, uncertainty, quotes, parenting, hype, and grammar.  (Wow, that list was even longer than I thought it was going to be when I started to write it.)  With that many posts about how two seemingly contradictory ideas can both be simultaneously true, is it any wonder that I tend to stay away from statements that pretend there’s only One True Way to view the world?

But if I had to pick one single reason why I don’t believe in absolute statements it would certainly have to come back to ... a book.  Now, there are five books which I think of as having changed my life.  Four of them are fiction: Stranger in a Strange Land, Cat’s Cradle, Legion, and The Dispossessed.  None of these are perfect—charges of sexism against Heinlein are mostly true, and Blatty’s books require a strong stomach in places—but each of them caused some fundamental shift in how I viewed the world.  The characters of Valentine Michael Smith, John (a.k.a. Jonah), Lt. Kinderman, and Shevek all have something in common: they are all thrown into strange settings (Earth, San Lorenzo, a supernatural murder, Urras) and their attempts to grapple with the bizareness they’ve been thrust into generate philosophical ramblings in addition to essential plot points.  The plots of these books are very good, but that’s not why I list them here; in terms of sheer plot, there are many other books I like better.  No, it’s the philosophical ramblings that are the important bits.  Smith’s handling of money and religion, Kinderman’s views on the impossibility of evolution, John’s exploration of truth and lies, Shevek’s reflection on language and possessions ... these are the aspects which challenged my worldview and caused it to shift, sometimes in large ways, sometimes in small.

But perhaps none of these shook up my brain patterns as much as Quantum Psychology, a book by “science fiction” author Robert Anton Wilson.  I put the term “science fiction” in quotes, because, although some of what RAW (as he’s often affectionately known) writes is definitely science fiction, much of it can’t be categorized so simplistically, and quite a lot of it (including Quantum Psychology) isn’t really fiction at all.  In fact, Quantum Psychology reads like a textbook ... but a textbook for a class like no class you’ve ever taken before, nor are particularly likely to, for that matter.  I find it difficult to believe that quantum psychology has ever been taught in a college setting, even in the most liberal of institutions.

And yet, after reading it, you’ll wonder why not.  Well, you’ll also know why not—primarily because few teachers could present it and few students would “get” it—but you’ll still marvel that we don’t all have to learn this stuff.  At least I’m pretty sure you will.  I know there are people who are simply not wired to handle this sort of introspection, and, if you happen to be such a person, I fancy you’ll proclaim it to be pretentious tripe.  And that’s no reflection on you personally.  Maybe one day in the future it would make more sense.  Or maybe you can’t get past RAW’s dismissive stance on the world’s religions (in the same way that staunch feminists will have serious problems looking past Heinlein’s rather primitive portrayal of women in Stranger in a Strange Land).  Or maybe you just don’t care to dissect the universe that much.  That’s okay.  As always, I refer you to the masthead.

But if you’re the sort of person who’s bothered to read this far (which of course you must be) I bet you would find QP just as fascinating as I did.  Now, there are many vital concepts to be learned from this book, but one of the most fundamental is also (perhaps unsurprisingly) one of the earliest presented: E-prime.  I’ll let Wilson explain it:

In 1933, in Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski proposed that we should abolish the “is of identity” from the English language.  (The “is of identity” takes the form X is a Y, e.g., “Joe is a Communist,” “Mary is a dumb file-clerk,” “The universe is a giant machine,” etc.)  In 1949, D. David Bourland Jr. proposed the abolition of all forms of the words “is” or “to be” and the Bourland proposal (English without “isness”) he called E-Prime, or English-Prime.

Okay, that’s what it is ... but what’s the point of it all?

The case for using E-Prime rests on the simple proposition that “isness” sets the brain into a medieval Aristotelian framework and makes it impossible to understand modern problems and opportunities.  ...  Removing “isness” and writing/thinking only and always in operational/existential language sets us, conversely, in a modern universe where we can successfully deal with modern issues.

Okay, so the problem appears to be with our friend (and nemesis) Aristotle again.  Remember him from the balance and paradox discussion?  He’s the fellow who told us there were four elements (when there weren’t), and five senses (when there weren’t), and two possible truth values ... when we know the world is more complicated than that.  Well, it turns out that Aristotle had another potentially problematic habit: that of describing how the world actually “is.”  Or, as RAW puts it, “the weakness of Aristotelian ‘isness’ or ‘whatness’ statements lies in their assumption of indwelling ‘thingness.’”  But the truth is, again, more complicated.  If you think about it, it doesn’t actually make any sense to talk about what something “is.”  We can talk about things we’ve seen, or otherwise experienced, or we can talk about our opinions on the world or the things in it, or we can talk about how things act, or how we remember they acted.  But what something “is”?  Once you let go of your Aristotlean prejudices, it doesn’t actually make any sense.

RAW givs us a few examples of where “is” can lead us astray.  “That is a fascist idea.”  As long as the proposition is put thus, it’s bound to lead us into an argument.  We could fight over the technical definition of “fascist,” or we could argue about the intentions and/or beliefs of the person who came up with the idea, or we could debate about whether people’s perceptions on whether or not it’s fascist override any consideration of whether it actually is fascist.  Now, what if we restate the proposition in E-Prime?  “That seems like a fascist idea to me.”  Well, not much to argue about there, is there?  I could claim you’re lying, I suppose, but honestly: why bother?  If it seems like a fascist idea to you, okay.  It doesn’t seem like a fascist idea to me.  Glad we had this little chat.

So, see how “that is a fascist idea” is an absolute statement, while “that seems like a fascist idea to me” is properly qualified?  And also how the absolute statement is problematic, while the qualified one is just fine?

I could go on (as RAW does), but just think about it.  Think about the last time you had an argument with someone, and see if the word “is” wasn’t intimately involved somehow.  “That is a very bad idea.”  “Republicans are all in the pocket of big business.”  “Gay marriage is destroying American family values.”  “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”  “This movie you recommended is crap.”  “You are so frustrating sometimes!”  The “is” is the part that makes it an absolute statement, and the worst part about that sort of absolute statement is that it involves us making judgement calls for things we can’t possibly back up, stating opinions as facts, and describing the very essence of things, when the nature of the universe mandates that all reality is mediated by our senses, so that the best understanding we can ever achieve is still just a mental picture of that reality.

Now, note that I don’t actually write in E-Prime—neither in general, nor even in this particular post.  In fact, go back and look for the places where I’ve used “is” (or “are” or whatnot) and notice how those statements are the very ones that provoke you, that are confrontational, that make assertions that I can’t actually prove and challenge you to apply your brain instead of just accepting whatever I say at face value.  If I had written this entire post in E-Prime, that would have made it very difficult for you to disagree with anything I said.  But maybe I wanted you to disagree.  Maybe I wanted to shake you up and make you think.

So, even though I think that E-Prime is a fundamental concept that everyone should understand, I personally believe that not using E-Prime has some value as well.  But, of course, that’s just my opinion.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chapter 19 (begun)

The Race

The mermaid-things retired to the far side of the inner lagoon, where the arms of the island stretched out to skinny sandbars, barely a pace across, and almost touched each other.  Looking at it now, Johnny wasn’t sure how The Slyph had fit through the gap.  On the deck, the humans (and Bones) gathered for their own huddle.  Roger started to strip off all her clothes.  Johnny looked at her with some surprise, but Larissa pointed out that clothes would just be extra drag, and Roger nodded curtly.  Aidan was giving Bones a complicated list of ingredients to gather, and fiddling in his own pouches for the rest.

“What are those things?” Johnny asked, to fill time and keep his mind (and his eyes) off Roger’s body.

“Scalas,” Roger replied, pulling off a boot.

“I believe the proper plural is ‘scalae,’” Aidan said.  He pronounced it “skah-lie.”

“The proper plural is ‘bitches who are going to get their fishy little asses beat,’” Roger answered with a snort.  “Now, are ye ready to help me out here?”

Aidan nodded.  “As soon as Bones returns with the remainder of the components I need for the rite, I can brew it in a very short amount of time.”

“Good.”  Roger was now pulling pants off and Johnny was studiously looking elsewhere.  He noted that Aidan seemed to view Roger’s body the same way Larissa did: he looked, but he didn’t respond.  Perhaps, as a priest, he was celibate.  Larissa glanced at him, but said nothing.

Less than a minute later, Roger was naked again, fiddling with her ponytail.  Her smallish breasts were thrust forward.  Not that Johnny was looking, of course.  Bones was back, laying out all sorts of bits and bobs in neat little piles for Aidan to sort through.  To a wooden pitcher, Aidan added three different kinds of powder, some silver things that looked like ball bearings, a dollop of the gunk they used to grease the fan, a piece of the pemmican that he cut into some intricate shape, and the guts out of one of Roger’s flares and the smallest of the ship’s barometers.  The Water Guide’s hands were a blur, so there might have been other scraps as well, and those liquid words chimed out, softly and smoothly.  At the end, Aidan raised his hands into the air, the chanting crescendoed, and Aidan clapped, but it was a thunderclap, and, indeed, when his hands drew apart, a little black cloud formed between them, and it actually began to rain into the pitcher; one brief, jagged fork of lightning arced down into the mixture, and the sound that accompanied it wasn’t thunder, but the electronic sizzle of a large bug zapper, or the flat crack you get when you attach the jumper cables to the last battery terminal.  Gradually the little cartoon thundercloud dissipated and its rain tapered off.  Aidan raised the pitcher and one eyebrow at Roger.  She threw her arms wide and planted her bare feet firmly on the deck, tossing her head back with closed eyes.

Roger upended the pitcher over her, covering her entire body with the glassy liquid that oozed out.  None of it hit the deck; it seemed to inch over her body as if sentient.  It was entirely transparent, but you could still see it somehow, sparkling in the half-light.  When it had covered her entire form in a thin sheen of aqueous film, Roger took a deep, gasping breath and lifted her head.  As she opened her eyes, the stuff, whatever it was, became invisible.  One second you knew it was there, even though you couldn’t actually see it, and the next it was as if it had never been.

Aidan turned her around and inspected her from every angle (again, seeming to be oblivious to her attractions).  “Roger, my dear captain, you are officially, completely, and by the grace of Shallédanu, slick.”

Johnny looked back and forth from captain to Guide.  “Meaning ... ?”

Roger smiled her devilish smile.  “Meaning I shall slide through the water like shit through a seagull.”

“Ah.”  Johnny paused a moment, hesitant to breach the subject, but knowing he must.  “And, if you, you know ... don’t win ... will they really eat you?”

Roger strode over and slapped Johnny on the back; Johnny was well used to this by now, and it hardly hurt at all any more.  “Aye, faster’n ye can say ‘Jack Ketch,’ that they will.”

“Ah.  And, what if, you know ... we don’t particularly want you to be eaten?”

Roger chuckled.  “Well, I’ll take that as neighborly concern on yer part, Johnny me boyo, and I’ll thankee kindly.  It’s a risk I knew I’d have to take, and I’ll take it gladly to get us where we’re goin’.  But don’t count yer good captain out quite yet, if ye follow my tack.”  Roger winked.

Johnny rolled his eyes.  “What do we need an ‘opener’ for anyway?” he asked.

Aidan stepped up.  “To open the way for us.  We thought we’d have to ask for both a pathfinder and an opener.  But apparently you can be our guide, so we were able to negotiate a much less dangerous bargain.  Trust me, son, compared to the compact Captain Roger and I thought we would have to make, this is quite reasonable.  There’s always a chance that Roger could lose, yes, and we would have to face very grim consequences indeed if that were to come to pass, but the deal that was struck means that I can do anything in my power to help her win now.  Actually, any of us can, although I suspect the majority of the burden will fall on me.”

“Yes, but why can’t ... look, maybe I could be the opener too.  I ... well, I opened something to get here.  Twice, even.  Sort of.”

Roger and Aidan exchanged unreadable glances.  “This I did not know,” the Guide said.  “It is good information to have ...”

“Although ye might have mentioned it sooner,” Roger mumbled under her breath.

Aidan ignored her and continued.  “Good information to have, but I don’t think it helps us in this particular instance.  Not just any opener will do for this task, Johnny.  Anyone can get into a place between places.  But getting back out again is more difficult, and almost always requires intervention from the natives.”

“Mister fancy-pants here means to say that we need the tubs o’ fishguts out there.”  Roger waved a hand at the monstrous mermaids in the distance.  “All ways here are their ways.”

Johnny stared at her.  “Did you just quote Alice in Wonderland?”

Larissa stepped in.  “Through the Looking Glass.  The Red Queen to Alice: ‘I don’t know what you mean by your way: all the ways about here belong to me.’”  Johnny reflected that this was possibly the most normal thing Larissa had said since they entered the sewers.

Roger stared at the little girl, confused.  “Well, I don’t know queens from quarterdecks, but, aye, it’s exactly like the little missy says.  All the ways are scalas’ ways, and nobody opens ’em but them as know their secrets.  And, by the bye, I’d not let on to Miss Ugly out there that ye have the power.  Else ye may find yerself being an opener in their employ yerself, if ye catch my spur.”

Roger strode over to the deck railing, put two fingers between her lips, and gave a piercing whistle.  Bones was hopping up and down on the crossbar beside her, flapping his wings and screech-squawking.  Aidan whispered as he passed Johnny: “all the ways are scalae’s ways” and then rushed to join her at the rail.  Johnny shook his head at Larissa.  “They’re all crazy,” he said.

Larissa answered simply: “Everything here is crazy.”

Johnny considered that for a moment.  “Yep, you’re right.  Can’t argue with that.  Let’s go be crazy too, I suppose.”

Larissa followed, but slowly.

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