Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Redmoon Winter Pagent

A group of friends and I went to see the Redmoon Winter Pagent in a warehouse at 1463 W Hubbard in Chicago, Redmoon Central, Thursday night, December 3, 2009. It cost about $18, including online service fees.

I had no expectations except that I thought it would be Cirque du Soleilish. Only substantiated thing I heard about Redmoon before the show was that they performed the Winter Pagent at the White House. Even considering that Obama hailed from Chicago as a candidate, I would think having the privilege of performing at the White House, out of all the performers from Chicago, has something to say about Redmoon.

The neighborhood and walk to the warehouse made me a little anxious. That part of Chicago has a lot of warehouses and factory-type spaces with a run down feeling since there's not a lot residential or retail front spaces. It would have made the perfect meeting place for some kind of seedy deal or meet up with someone you would rather not associate with. Not having the warehouse near a main road or even close to a side road didn't help much, either.

They have a sign at the road announcing Redmoon, though. Further into a parking lot, another sign points you down a very short little drive to another sign. This one points you to the front door.

Did I mention there isn't very much light except for around the signs and the dim street lights above the road?

To tell the truth, this darkness and seediness contributed to a segueway from regular, everyday life to the surreality of Redmoon's Winter Pagent. Coming from the sun of the day and the bright lights of downtown Chicago of the evening, this warehouse district and dark parking lot felt like falling down a rabbit hole or some other kind of unsettling, strange experience that dumps a person into a magical world.

And magic the Redmoon Winter Pagent had. The troupe creates a surreal, magical world littered with its own mythos. They likely draw from many traditions that I can't highlight because of my lack of familiarity and not-the-best memory.

They set the stage well with a pre-show faux picnic on the warehouse floor. Some members juggled, others threw harmless soft balls around and another rode an undersized bicycle around the stage floor space. Audience participation was encouraged: the juggler taught the basics of juggling to one member of our party and some audience members sat down on the picnic blanket and chatted with the picnickers. I think it was before this point that the announcer said that if we felt moved, we should feel free to get up and dance.

Things become hard to explain at this point because so many surreal, magical and not-of-this-world events and objects occur. Huge crazy vehicles roll out from backstage. People at a dinner with all types of pastries and cakes having a great time only for a giant baby to come out and silently demand cake from the revelers. A piano that moved around by a motor under the direction of someone pushing around a small foot pedal. People with pretty puppet swans walking around, flapping the wings and look pretty while Eastern-influenced music played. A huge vehicle with multiple drum sets and people playing horns. There was an underwater skit (imaginary underwater, that is) with old-style scuba divers generating bubbles from their oxygen tanks. An ending with a somber shadow puppet performance of an old woman in a rocking chair and stars in the background.

The troupe left the place in quite a mess with all the stuff they flung around. I almost expected them to turn the tables around by requiring the audience to pick up the mess. It would have added to the mindscrew and would have, in my opinion, been worthwhile to feel like our admission wasn't ripping off these really creative performers for their hard work.

Instead of getting us to clean up after their performance, they simply invited the audience to converse with members of the troupe while they cleaned. Good hosts, these performers.

The performance had very little to do with plot and a lot to do with mood, playfulness and sublimity. Even for adults, and possibly especially for adults, the performance projects an exaggerated size that young children face everyday with mundane objects, noises and themes. It also creates levels of nonsensibility and playfulness that adults forget to appreciate when approaching the world.

An exception to the playful nonsensibility occurred during the last part, the shadow puppet old woman rocking in a chair. That part, however, created a sense of bitter sweetness. There's just something peaceful about a life well lived and death from old age accepted.

The show had minimal acrobatics. It was nothing like I would expect of Circus du Soleil. The Redmoon Winter Pagent provided more of a psychedelic tour through the perception of a baby being exposed to the brand new world for the first time, just starting to understand and interact with the world them. With the shadow puppet old woman as a book end, the middle of the performance could also provide some element of an adult who remembers the craziness yet excitement of childhood, and they want to experience those moods during adulthood again.

Overall, though, the Redmoon Winter Pagent could receive multitudes of interpretations. They would all probably prove correct on some level, too. The Pagent doesn't revolve so much about taking meaning away from it. Rather, it injects an hour or so of a fun insensibility and sublime experience into our lives. It's something that we all need every once in awhile, whether child or adult.


Links of interest: Redmoon, Current Redmoon Productions, Redmoon Central, Cirque du Soleil

Friday, November 27, 2009

Social Karma (third of a three part series on karma)

At Shift Happens, a couple weeks ago, an audience member asked Emanuel Kuntzelman what he thought of social karma. The answer provided some food for thought because the audience member and Kuntzelman had two different definitions of social karma.

The audience member defined social karma similar to my extrapolation about individual people's karma with our interdependent web of existence. International corporations and governments will grow unchecked, destroy the environment and dictate our social experiences for the sum of a downward turn on the scale of karma. Failure to act leads to bad karma, and contributing to the good through action is the only way to create good karma. Makes sense to call this phenomena 'social karma,' as it affects networks and requires action upon and within networks to correct.

Kuntzelman provided a novel definition of social karma. Instead of karma referring to collective cause and effect in the interdependent web of existence, Kuntzelman defines social karma as our individual socioeconomic inheritance.

White, black, asian, Native American. American, European, Russian, African, Australian, Brazillian. Your birth in a country, state, county, town, parish, nation or wherever. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unitarian Universalist or whatever religion. Upper class, middle class, lower class. Freeman, slave.

Social karma, to Kuntzelman, are the physical characteristics we're born with and the behaviors and bearings we learn in our families and communities that determine how we are treated and are allowed to treat other people. Social karma affects the opportunities in our lives, the type of childhood we have and possibly, on the negative side, the challenges and limitations thrust upon us by the people, communities, social networks and society around us.

This use of social karma provides a good term to boil down the fact that social norms, prejudices, traditions, practices, laws and other social factors influence our expectations of how others should treat us and how we should treat other people.

The term doesn't necessarily provide us with any practical tool to directly affect the world or to provide further wisdom in any direct way. Rather, it bares open to us the advantages and disadvantages we experience in our everyday social experience that we wouldn't normally see on our own.

How often do we question things that we take for granted, especially when tainted with extreme happiness or extreme anger about our situation? Why blame the social system when we can pinpoint individuals that bring us pleasure or cause us pain? We all register pain and pleasure on such subjective levels that even the smallest gesture or injury can cause some of the most extreme reactions.

Since we all have social karma, however, we have all been influenced by the social dynamics in existence, by all the networks in which we mingle, from family to work to friends to school cliques to political groups to religious associations to even the varied histories we've inherited. Unless we become conscious of our social karma, it will continue determining our behavior as our social networks direct us on what feels like a natural path, from one semi-determined network to the next semi-determined network.

Frankly, after the barest research on Wikipedia, I think the word dharma from the same cultural and religious tradition as karma addresses these matters of social and cultural determination. Dharma creates an issue, though. Dharma, I believe, espouses that it is a virtue to follow these determined paths and not break out them. Doing so would cause chaos in society. No one wants an unstable, changing society, do they?

For someone who wants to change the current progress of society, using dharma as a vocabulary word might be counterproductive unless they can sell people on the term ‘dharma’ without following the determined path as virtuous part. Using social karma as a term to address subversive dharma could end up being more productive. In the end, it comes down to the dynamic between the producer/performer of transformation and the audience of transformation.

I would consider myself between producer and audience. Even though encouraging positive transformation feels good to me, I want to come up with a compelling argument for the transformation I feel good about.

Dharma and social karma will help me figure out a good rationale for my desired transformation. In the end, though, they simply provide linguistic tools to understand the social and cultural constructed status symbols that we use, surrounding ourselves with tools for protection and negotiation.

How could dharma and social karma be used by you and other people to help improve the world?


Links of Interest: Emanuel Kuntzelman, dharma

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Criticism of Self-Help Karma

The way that I understand how everyday American self help adherents understand karma bugs me.

The first part of the definition of karma with this crowd probably coincides well with the original ideas of karma. Something to the effect of "what goes around, comes around" or "what you put out, comes back."

I see a divergence, however, from my understanding of the spirit of karma after that point. More often than not, the everyday self-help crowd will take a passive approach. Karma comes to them as a coping technique, to make the day-to-day toil bearable rather than as a tool for improving the world.

This self-help crowd inteprets karma as non-contribution to evil equalling good karma. My issues arises when they also willfully ignore contributing to the good. In our interdependent, complicated world, ignoring the cause of good contributes and furthers the cause of evil.

I'll be the first to admit that if you simply treat the people around you well, you will likely have pleasant interactions with those very same people. Even better, your positive attitude will likely rub off on them, bettering their mood and encouraging them to treat other people well.

That infectious pleasant meme can go as far as the network extends depending on the willingness of everyone in said network. Some people just have negative dispositions and resist positivity.

We also all mingle within multiple networks throughout our days. Every person sits in the position of a hub between two or more networks. The two networks could even just be a family or work/educational network (or a friendship network).

Only the most "pathological" anti-social would try to cut themselves out of any network. Even then, despite our mechanized world, the anti-social has to interact with others at some point, even if through chat, text or e-mail. The anti-social has some kind of network, despite how formalized and minimal they make it. Even purchasing, selling and receiving services counts as social interaction.

By virtue of their interaction in a network, the anti-social have some kind of affect on the people around them. Non-interaction is still interaction.

Through the intersections of people as social network hubs, a super-positive karmic meme could even clash with an anti-social's negative karmic meme from their non-interactive karmic network. The anti-social can disperse that positivity into negativity.

I have only used simplistic reductionary reasoning so far (something I usually try to avoid espousing or spectating) to illustrate the impact of karmic degrees of separation impacting each other through non-interaction.

More sophisticated reasoning that takes into account the reality of the world reveals phenomena much more disturbing.

Non-interactive karma memes also relate to the passive self-help crowd. Corporations, especially international mega-corporations, and governments have, when not active, non-interactive relations with everyone and everything in our world. They all have impact on the health of our societies and environment.

[I consider the economy as part of the social sphere since it's essentially a psychosocial construct that affects how people relate to each other based on beliefs about material, mental and behavioral possessions. The attempt at making an objective science for economy, despite its correctness in many cases, relies on assumptive cognitive bias. Some examples of these assumptive cognitive biases are: people make rational political economic decisions or that people can be manipulated through marketing.]

Back in college, I had this romantic image of the noble savage or a tribe of them on an island or some kind of lush outback. It’s their island or lush outback, not anyone else’s. They don’t have to let anyone else on their island or into their lush outback. These noble savages can stay pure and not have their society and cultures altered.

Then I remembered how the Europeans came to America and slaughtered and enslaved tons of Indians.

Despite Africans being party to it, the demand for slaves by the European powers certainly encouraged the enslavement and shipping of many native Africans.

China’s invasion of Tibet.

Hitler decimating most of Europe after the European powers tried to appease him with Poland. Russia took Eastern Europe. And even before that, Napoleon, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great left their marks on the world.

Changes to the noble savage don’t have to originate from outright violent conquerors. These days, China’s demand for oil has jacked up the cost at the gas pump and to heat our homes in the United States. China’s desire for development has encouraged the influx of jellyfish in the waters between China and Japan.

9/11. From whatever side of the political spectrum you come from, you can probably think of some way that negligence either didn’t stop it from happening or encouraged it to happen. Whether the US government didn’t pay attention to the signs that it would likely happen or the US government and corporate interests alienated enough Middle Easterners to make them angry enough to blow up stuff, fault can still be pinned.

The manipulation doesn’t even have to be that direct or violent. Someone in a land of noble savages gets greedy. Maybe they just decide that the land is theirs, as a lone individual, not the rest of the country’s, simply by virtue that they say it is theirs. The “owner” sells or leases the land out to corporations or possibly even governments. Natives get kicked off their land to develop the land. The people of the county lose their freedom and become slum dwellers because they have nowhere else to go.

Or who knows, maybe the owner of the land might have the enlightened good sense to use the money they’ve gotten to culturally enrich the once noble savages. Fat chance of that happening, though. Hard to think of a land stealer being altruistic enough to give proceeds back to the people they stole from.

Even in more legitimate situations: the clothes that we buy fund these corporate take overs of third world countries. Maybe before the corporations arrived there, people didn’t have much free time to get bored, lie around or possibly culturally enrich themselves. Maybe they had to deal with serious but preventable disease and the more primal issues of getting food, securing themselves against nature, finding warmth and so on.

But there’s a certain degree of meaning that comes from facing off against the elements and surviving. At the very least, keeping busy trying to stay alive helps to fend off those feelings of alienation that we hope to address by buying stuff, watching TV, getting involved in pop culture, drugs, alcohol, sex and all the “addictions” of modern life. Sure, people in the modern world may live longer, but they’re also more susceptible to diabetes, cancers, cholesterol and blood pressure issues. . .and I’ve got one thing to say: Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

As we pull ourselves out of nature, becoming evermore mechanized and leisurely (at least, for the people who can afford it), the more we become susceptible to diseases, syndromes and neuroses of affluent leisure. Whereas the noble savage gets exercise through labor everyday and sees exercise as tedious, modern humanity doesn’t get enough exercise and makes it a leisure activity to hopefully encourage health and demonstrate their superiority.

While modern humanity progresses further down this leisure path, we enable our corporations and governments to bait other cultures down the same path. It doesn’t necessarily become a choice, though. Once ownership and an industrial economy enters a society, providing sweatshop labor to natives as a way out of poverty becomes a moral argument to the neoliberal or neoconservatism.

The money we spend on cheap goods, in ways that don’t seem to affect other people, enables these corporations and governments to enter into these non-modern cultures and modernize and industrialize them.

I’ve only highlighted the social degradation that can occur through non-interactive non-involvement. People love debating whether climate change is occurring. We don’t even have to go there to show the environmental damage caused by our corporations.

Rainforests get cut down without a thought to make paper and rubber products. Even for our modern world, there go great resources for developing medicines as clear cutting cause species to go extinct.

Monoculture destroys the fertility of soil. Crop rotation helps to keep soil healthy. Corporations love monoculture and keeping things on as simple of a system as possible. Even in the US, factory farms and ranches produce tons of meat and biomass for food and other products. To generate the most product efficiently in the case of beef, though, e coli is cultured into a virulent strain that can easily kill a human being if exposed to it.

The city of Los Angeles is trying to return to its native desert habitat. Chicago is trying to bring back the prairie. The process includes generating controlled fires.

Cities are following a trend of returning to the original environment, but I feel the impetus for this trend comes from the realization that the all the different parts of the environment evolved for a reason: it works within a balance. Look at what happened when the people of New Orleans built on the water and hurricanes struck.

Now I’m kind of wondering about the Back Bay area of Boston. It used to be a Bay until they made it land with landfill. Will that area always remain stable? Will Boston face some consequence from human ingenuity and hubris?

Just by being part of the United States economy on an unconscious level, someone will contribute to the degradation of cultures, the environment and the everyday lives of people. Low prices come at a cost: either from taxpayers sponsoring subsidies, the plundering of vast supplies of resources that will likely disappear or at the cost of human dignity, freedom and sense of meaning.

Non-interaction does not mean abstaining from contributions to evil or remaining neutral. Through non-interaction on an everyday level, we put out evil through complacency. At some point, that evil will come back to haunt us. . .or maybe not us, but our children.

I don’t see the shortsighted everyday self-help adherents taking these details into account when they think of karma. They should, they really should.

UPDATE: Recent article about finding vaccines in the Amazon and some politics that go into it.

Links of Interest: karma, noble savage, meme

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Shift Happens

Wednesday night last week, Greenheart put on an event called Shift Happens at the Chicago Center of Performing Arts at 777 N Green Street. The main draw for the event was a lecture by Emanuel Kuntzelman about collective positive transformation. Sandwiching the lecture, and possibly the main attraction for some people, local transformative, New Age and/or Eastern businesses put on an exhibition with complimentary hor d'ouevres and beer, wine and other drinks.

The night had a lot of potential. It mostly missed the mark for me, though.

The lecture by Emanuel Kuntzelman didn't totally grab me but neither did it bore me. It occurred in a theater with stadium seating around half the stage, very similar to the theater at the college I went to, Marlboro College.

Unfortunately, I fell victim to glancing off, head falling, eyelids getting heavy, almost falling asleep then snapping up my head into awakeness throughout most of the lecture. Common phenomenon for me, even with the most exciting lecturer for some reason. . .including Al Gore in The Inconvenient Truth.

Emanuel Kuntzelman can't be blamed for my glancing off. With a good stage presence, he presented a knowledgeable, general and, dare I say it, safely abstract lecture. Kuntzelman

+ Used words like karma

+ Discussed the year 2012 as the important date focused on by the Mayans

+ Showed derision toward the movie 2012 as just another disaster movie that probably doesn't show respect to what the Mayans had to say

+ Used a dry erase board to illustrate that we can do a "quantum leap" over the possible catastrophe and

+ Illustrated stages of personal transformative growth on an X-Y axes of individual-society and spiritual-material

As for solutions, Kuntzelman encourages

+ World travel to experience other cultures and perspectives

+ Read books and interact with people from other cultures and perspectives

+ Delve into transformative practices and scholarship

He didn't seem to want to provide actual concrete solutions other than to just broaden your perspective.

A cynical skeptic might see his lecture as more of a sales pitch than anything. Kuntzelman isn't just some scholar, academic, guru or adventurer that Greenheart found after some research. Kuntzelman founded Greenheart. Most, if not all, his very general methods for people getting inspired to bring about positive transformative change are offered as products by Greenheart.

Despite the voice of my skepticism, I still think Kuntzelman provides an additional service by making a presentation like he did.

It kind of reminds of some kind Christian Revival, the like that they had in the 17th and 18th centuries in the United States. The organizers of Revivals would feel happy accepting completely new converts to Christianity. However, revivals mainly focused on reigniting the faith of lapsed Christians or even Christians that just never really took it seriously as a religion.

Kuntzelman provided me with some invigoration for positive transformation. I just have been feeling flat, the tediousness of life and that the long-term projects I've been focusing on don't provide enough short-term reward. I'm just getting nowhere with them. The ideas I present with the project will be obsolete when I finally release the project to the world. At least I have those thoughts every once in awhile.

Even though Kuntzelman didn't fill time jam packed with newness or really any new concrete direction, he provided some new interesting ways to think of some old concepts and a boost of motivation. I haven't found much to do with that motivation, since I've already filled up my time with mostly mundane, materialistic things to do. Money's a little tight, too, but freed up time and brainstorming could probably find something transformative to do.

I probably won't do much transformative work until I set aside time for it. Even right now, instead of reading while commuting or eating, I’m patching together this blog entry on my Smartphone whenever the chance presents itself. It's a start, but I need to make something happen.

Emanuel Kuntzelman hasn't done anything directly to help me reach this point. Knowing that there's transformation going on out there helps, though.

I wasn't entirely impressed by the business exhibition, either. The complimentary beer and the bar service was real good. Unfortunately, only thing I remember about the beer I had was that it was a copper lager. I don't remember the beer company. Did they have a rep there or was the bartender the rep?

I signed up for an acupuncture trial, but the acupuncturist booth was pretty disorganized. A needle didn't touch me that night. They said that they would call out names when it was a person's turn. I didn't hear them call out any name. Apparently my wife had to keep pestering them to put her under the needle.

For all but one of the other businesses there, I just picked up pamphlets and fliers. I wasn't in the most social mood, so I might have scared people off. I don't know. Still. . .there probably should've been some kind of token effort to hawk their services and try to win a client, shouldn't there?

The only business at the exhibition that captured my attention was Mindful Metropolis. This is a monthly free magazine you can find on Chicago street corners.

It emerged from the ashes of the Chicago incarnation of Conscious Choice. Conscious Choice up and left Chicago near the beginning of 2009. Conscious Choice left behind an enthusiastic staff that wanted to keep going. With stuff left behind and the remaining staff’s knowledge, they started Mindful Metropolis about 4 or 5 months ago.

The guy representing Mindful Metropolis did an awesome job

+ Telling the story of the magazine

+ Providing us information about its content

+ Where to find the magazine

+ Editorial guidelines

and just about anything else we wanted to know. The guy also provided some great conversation and gave us a very warm reception while providing us with very useful information.

Mindful Metropolis started a little rough with a fairly boring layout, but over the months, it has become more interesting to look at. It covers a lot of topics that Conscious Choice but tries do so with even more of a Chicago focus. Mindful Metropolis doesn't try to create themes for issues but generally ends up doing so just by luck.

For instance, the April issue has a theme: composting. You wouldn't think that a theme would just come out a morass of different writers, but something like composting during a pre-summer or summer issue seems pretty obvious. Get enough professional writers together, and a good number of them will come up with article ideas focusing around the season that the article will get published.

I’ve read about 20 pages into the current issue. If I took the reading more seriously, I would have learned quite a bit about where to get a composting container and also would have found out where to go for getting trained in a Green Job.

So far, Mindful Metropolis feels a little too materialistic, and I’d like a little more of the spiritual/philosophical side of things. Still have a lot more to read in the one magazine and the other issues that I have, though. Pretty good chance I’ll find something more in the vein that I want to read.

Mindful Metropolis made a great exit to the exhibition. I enjoyed the lecture by Emanuel Kuntzelman and the copper lager I had, but the other exhibitors felt bland and unimpressive.

For all I know, these types of businesses don’t like to get all forward and gregarious or want to feel pressured to put themselves out there. This subculture does have a laid back reputation for a reason.

Nonetheless, to bring about positive transformation and bring people to higher, mindful consciousness, I think these types of business need to get a little bit more assertive about their services. Just imagine the change then.


Links of interest: Greenheart, Chicago Center of Performing Arts, Emanuel Kuntzelman, 2012 (phenomenon), 2012 (movie), Mindful Metropolis, Conscious Choice

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tricked my Perfectionism with Some Procrastination

Points to the wife for having the patience to deal with me over the last 24 hours. My behavior had befit an artistế. And sadly, my behavior had its benefits.

Last week, I posted a great article about procrastination. It addressed how perfectionism can lead to procrastination. I easily fit into that category of procrastination even if I work all the darn time on my project. Maybe it’s my way of procrastinating on emotional issues.

I have these big goals, but getting to them requires a lot of steps. I’m a dreamer who has trouble mapping out the route to the final destination. Or I was when I got out college ten or more years ago. Crap, has it been that long?

The above article made a great point about reality in terms of the perfectionist procrastinator. They’ll set their goals so high that they can’t be reached or takes superhuman effort to reach. Respectable enough to muster that much strength, but is it really worth it?

A lot of the times, no, it’s not. The perfectionist may feel like a cop out or failure by settling for a lesser goal. That smaller goal, a lot of people would probably find respectable enough or possibly just as superhuman as the huge goal.

And it’s not really worth your while to work the rest of your life on something you can’t finish in one big leap. Better to take smaller steps, get more rewards that will probably have a sum of more staying power than just accomplishing one big thing and even. . .oh, I don’t know. . .enjoy life.

I did some serious thinking after reading that article. Maybe I should just screw that project and go back to school. Thought about it. I bargained it down to maybe taking a class that might help the project, then I bartered the idea down further to finishing up some books that I was reading at the time. The one I had started reading soon before seeing the procrastination article felt like it had some potential.

Finished the book, Money, Morals and Politics: Massachusetts in the Age of the Boston Associates by William Hartford, last night. It provided some good information in an easy read.

I found it so gripping that I read ¾ of the book last night. Accidently stayed up until about 2 AM reading it. That, in itself, signals a hyperfocused moment.

The information still felt lacking, though, so I skimmed it, looking for something I missed. Realized that I didn’t miss anything in the book, even though a lot of the political quotes and back and forth went in one eye then out an ear. Still have a hard time remembering any of the details at the end.

I still had gaps in my knowledge about the topic of my project. Figured I should stick to the bargain I made with myself. The books filled in some bit of information but not enough to let me plow through the paper writing process.

Went to bed telling myself that I’m done with it. I’ll start looking into options for taking a class or going back to school. The thought continued from the moment I fell asleep to the second I awoke, almost like time didn’t pass. One moment, dark with the floodlight from our neighbors blinding us in bed then the sun blinded me.

Looked at a couple college Websites. Costs scared me. Decided not to worry about that part yet. Figured I needed to find somewhere to address the course of study that I want to follow. Don’t even really know what course of study to follow. Realize that I need to chop things down into smaller steps and take them one at a time. It would prove difficult, but I had to learn humbleness and patience.

Ran into an article this morning about our unconsciousness making decisions better than our conscious, especially during sleep. I kinda knew the jist of this article, having read about something similar in Rollo May’s The Courage to Create. Never had it work as well as it did for me today. . .well, kinda work, I guess.

Spent the morning brainstorming my interests and likes for fields and subjects, not censoring myself for practicality, whether I really like it or not, whether I was good at it or not or whatever. I just wrote down whatever came to mind. Came up with so many ideas that the wife had to tell me to calm down, and I had to remind her it was a brainstorming exercise.

At lunchtime came the game changers. The case in my current paper is actually fairly arbitrary. Yeah, it’s a utopian community, but there’s tons of them that have existed from the beginning of civilization. Even better, a huge explosion of them occurred at the same time as the one I’m writing about existed.

I could just stop researching and writing about the one community then move to one more local. I wouldn’t have to go back to Massachusetts or have friends go to the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society or wherever else to get primary sources.

I could just pick a community in Illinois and go to places in Illinois for primary sources. Oh heck, I could probably do just as well picking a community in Wisconsin, Michigan or Indiana.

So all is well. I’m all happy and feeling care free. Then I get an idea. Why don’t I put a couple search terms about the holes in my knowledge after reading Mr. Hartford’s book into Google? At the very least, it’ll provide me a couple minutes of entertainment and enlightenment.

Then oh crap, guess what I find? The fill for the holes in my knowledge.

Back to the research and writing desks, I guess. This damned albatross around my neck. . .it just abuses me to no end, and I keep coming back, begging for more. Why do I do it?


Links of Interest: article about procrastination, Money, Morals and Politics: Massachusetts in the Age of the Boston Associates by William Hartford, article this morning about our unconsciousness making decisions better than our conscious, especially during sleep, Rollo May’s, The Courage to Create, utopian, Boston Public Library, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

DorkCast

So during the approximately 20 hours of being trapped on a plane during our vacation, I had the opportunity to engage in more enriching leisure activities than usual. Probably the most inspiring of all those activities was listening to the Dorkcast podcast.

Three friends of mine, Jeffery Smith, Paul Schreiber and Shawn McDowell, have set up Dorkcast as a talk show about geek pop culture (comics, video games, tabletop role playing games and SFF TV and movies) and technology. Every once in awhile they invite guests or a huge crowd to join them.

I've listened to five episodes of the podcast thus far. As with blogs that interest me, I'm listening to each episode from the first one up to the most current one, chronologically. Integrating blog entries and apparently podcast episodes into an imagined personality provides me with enjoyment.

I also have an ulterior motive to listening from the beginning: these guys are friends, but I really haven't hung out with them beyond Dungeons & Dragons sessions. Listening to their podcast provides me with a passive way of painting a picture of them at a leisurely pace.

It probably creates an unbalanced dynamic between us. I might gain more knowledge about their opinions and personalities than they will have mine. Such is the dynamic of becoming public personality and associating with one, I guess.

But if they want to level the playing field, they could read this blog from the beginning. Probably still unfair, however, as reading is generally more of an active undertaking.

Personally, I can't have talk radio in the background when doing something that involves conscious focus. When doing something like cooking or brushing my teeth, however, listening to talk radio doesn't distract me from the primary activity.

I only have a couple real complaints about the first five episodes: they don't have the best sound quality. The panelists' voices often get lower than my I-Pod, headphones and possibly than my ears can register. Easy enough to infer what the person said from what their fellow panelists say, but I would rather hear what the original person said.

I mentioned the complaint to Paul. He said the problem comes from two sources. The mics aren't the best, so the panelists have to make up for the mic deficiency by speaking directly and loudly into the mics.

Compensating for mics with speaking technique, however, involves a learning curve. Not necessarily a complicated feat to accomplish, but not intuitive, either. Using the mics can require learning the technique or trial and error.

I also didn’t care for the fifth episode. Just about the whole episode consisted of the panelists choosing a super power they would love to have and a shit power that was useless. They also invited up people from a crowd to do the same. The first ten minutes of it were fun, but it got a little old.

Dorkcast works best when they discuss a topic for about ten minutes or so then move onto another topic. Maybe some discussions could go on for a good amount of time, but the whole cool power/shit power got a little self indulgent. There were some gems in there, though, including: using super speed to steel a drink from a bar and getting away, “I’d like to see you vibrate for 30 seconds” and a super fast person running into a cicada that then bored through their head.

Otherwise, I think Dorkcast could become a great resource. My life generally consists of work, researching and writing for my bachelors project, chores, eating, sleeping, watching some TV, dating the wife and some socializing when I get the chance. Sounds nerdy, but playing tabletop role playing games counts as my main form socializing, and I still consider it experiential research.

I don't have much time to keep up with technology, video games, comic books and other topics that Dorkcast covers. The show sums up some of the latest news in these topics with some thoughtful and amusing debate about them.

I kind of wish that they would cover more topics, but I think there's plenty of other sources for me to get this news if I wanted to do so. If Dorkcast just reported on the news of these fields, they'd just be repeating information that other sources provide.

The debate format works well. They provide food for thought on the topics they cover. I can't say how original their viewpoints get. Like I said, I don't allow myself the time to keep up with this stuff.

For a casual geek like me, though, the show provides enough information and viewpoints to keep up with the ever developing tech and geek cultures. I'm listening to episodes from just about a year ago. A lot of the stuff they bring up is either current events to me or brand new information.

They may even get ahead of the news curve, too, as they were discussing Microsoft Windows 7 last year when the new OS was released to the general public just today.

The podcast does a good job of keeping the dabbler in geek culture informed. For those immersed in geek culture, it might provide some good thought food and entertainment.

Links of interest: Dorkcast, Jeffery Smith, Paul Schreiber, Microsoft Windows 7

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Finding a Little Focus in Leisure

Last week, the wife and I took a real American vacation to Hawaii and visited some friends in LA. None of that holiday vacation travel or travel for a wedding this time!

We took a whole week off, rested a fairly small amount, packed tons of active things to do into each day and got 8 hours of sleep every night (not because we felt the obligation for our health but because we did so much and our bodies needed the sleep).

Only disappointment: We didn't find an ancient tiki doll (and here and here) lying around that could've possibly given us bad luck.

Probably the best part of the vacation was the time to engage in leisure activity. I'm not talking about catching up with friends, exploring Hawaii or taking part in physical activity, as much fun as all that provided.

Rather, I'm referring to leisure activities like speculating about technology and literary/TV/science fiction continuity with friends, reading science fiction for fun, plowing through episodes of Law & Order that I had taking up space on my laptop and even listening to Dorkcast, a podcast produced by a few friends.

Deep down, a life of leisurely consumption while a good amount of people live in poverty and squeak by week-to-week through their labor feels like a vice. Nonetheless, I hold dear those extended moments when I can engage in a variety of leisurely consumption. I feel more engaged and part of the world during those times.

Idealistic as I am, one of my main goals is to help the whole human race be able to have increased leisure without immorality or ill health. After all, immorality and ill health tend to take away from leisure.

On Facebook before the vacation, I mused about losing my focus. Increasing leisure for each and every human being is part of that focus. I'd like to explore the topic more before I get sucked back into the tedium of everyday life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Musings on Lack of Clarity in Primary Documents

I've complained aplenty over the years about the lack of clarity in the primary documents written by George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm.

Big issue I've had with Ripley has been his failure to define terms.

I guess it's the usual issue with human communication, though. Everyone in a conversation or argument believes all the participating parties share the same definitions and communication conventions. Then once argument or conversation devolves into semantics, people don't want to continue the interchange unless they're the more clever party or extremely committed to their cause.

I've gotten into reading one of Ripley's inspirations, William Ellery Channing, to try understanding more the intentions of Ripley and Brook Farm. People may not recognize Channing's name these days, but he has influenced a few people with sermons and some of his writings.

Channing's more well known sermons and writings include: “Self Culture” (probably one of the prime influences on Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists) and “Slavery”, which argued for the equality of all man and provided an allegedly well thought out argument against slavery based on humans being created in the image of God (even though Channing didn't like disruptive activism). I say allegedly because I haven't read the whole of “Slavery” yet.

Suffice to say, Channing fails to define things clearly through all his sermons and writings that I've had the fortune to read. Channing argues for teaching people a religious and moral education. He doesn't provide a definition for these kinds of education or even what form a religious and moral education should take.

As for the benefit these types of education, they lead to a more stable society and someone less likely to indulge in vice: like excessive drinking, beating family members, sexual licentiousness and so on and so forth. These forms of education also will help the individuals get into heaven and on the good side of God.

The last benefit probably creates the clincher for Channing and his associates. Easy enough to argue that the upper classes could attach themselves to this type of argument because (a) they weren't expected to need the moral and religious educations as much since they had other "social pressures" to worry about, according to the people espousing the need for religious and moral education among some classes of people (see the 7th screen [“screen” meaning number of times scrolled down from the top of the Webpage] in the Preface of Andrews Norton’s A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of the Trinitarians, Concerning the Nature of God and the Person of Christ (1819, 1833, 1859) and (b) if the middling and lower classes bought into the education, they would likely regulate themselves individually or by the family and work hard.

It didn't appeal to the middling and lower classes that much, though. I've tried finding information on why it didn't. I can't find a good argument against this approach by the people championing these middling and lower classes that practiced "infidelity." They either devolved into name calling their enemies aristocrats, citing past scholars for their own stance without any substantial criticism of the opposition, or they spent their energies trying to just open the ears of their opposition to reach enough of an understanding for a substantial debate.

At the same time, though, Channing didn't, in my opinion, make a compelling argument for buying into the moral and religious education. I say this as someone who agrees with him, too, on some level.

Maybe not necessarily the religious side, but I believe that receiving a moral education, learning to regulate and control yourself and trying to enrich the self leads to more fulfillment in life, whether you be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, atheist, agnostic or whatever belief system you subscribe to.

Part of my ambivalence about Channing's arguments for people getting these types of education and fitting into an undefined category for unclear benefits probably comes from my ambivalence about the supposed accepted religious beliefs of the time and also of trying to REALLY understand late 18th-century to early 19th-century America/New England/Boston area.

I generally follow a fairly humanistic empirical scientific theory approach to the world, the universe and metaphysics. There are things that I, as an individual, and the human race knows and understands about existence.

Existence holds a lot that the human race has built understanding around. It also holds a lot that the human race doesn't have an inkling about.

The existence of God, to me, is beyond the understanding of the human race right now. . .or, at least, to me. How do we go about arguing the nature of God, the big issue between the Unitarians of Channing of his time and the Calvinistic Congregationalists at the time, when we can't provide irrefutable proof of God's existence? And how do we know that we are seeing irrefutable proof of God unless we know the nature of God? Creates something of an epistemological catch-22.

These questions, in themselves, beg a whole lot more questions, and those will most certainly beg for even more bigger questions. The number of questions on this topic force my rationality to remain open and wait to see where the facts and human understanding lead us for an answer. Even then, human understanding remains ever fallible and worth questioning to make sure we haven't misunderstood those things that we hold most dear.

Some might call me a skeptic.

So yeah, my ambivalence of the benefit of Channing's argument for unity among people and getting a religious and moral education may stem from my near-instinctual skepticism about nearly all knowledge and understanding, especially anecdotal and subjective knowledge about non-social information.

Social fact deserves skepticism, too. Social existence and relationships among people, however, have a slipperier aspect to them because of their bases in numerous perspectives and behaviors.

Not only that, but us human beings have something of an instinct to rebel against other people categorizing ourselves with social labels. If someone does the categorizing, it will be the person doing it to themselves.

My skeptical ambivalence of Christianity and supernatural rationalism creates a gap the blocks me from seeing the full "story" and "reaching an understanding." Channing, in my opinion, doesn't provide an explanation or purpose to satisfy someone with this kind of ambivalence.

Did this kind of ambivalence exist anywhere in Boston, Massachusetts, New England or the United States at the time? The Deists, including Jefferson and possibly even other founding fathers ((even Washington pretty much went to church more for social graces than anything), held a fair amount of skepticism of the understandings of Christianity previously.

More-orthodox Christians attacked the Unitarianism of the time that they got doctrines wrong, which included Christ not being part of the Holy Trinity. Nonetheless, the Unitarians at that time still believed Christ was on the level of savior.

The Transcendentalists received insults calling them pantheists and un-Christian. The Transcendentalists simply saw Christ as the highest example of man connecting with the Divine, not as being Divine. The majority of the Transcendentalists, however, still had some degree of monotheistic belief, even if somewhat influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

But what did the middle and lowering classes think? They didn't all believe the same thing, obviously. According to George Ripley, , Orestes Brownson along with probably others I don't know believed that Unitarianism didn't appeal to the lower and middling classes because of a complicated theology. I also think that the religion didn't address the concerns of the middle and lowering classes, which I don't even have a clue about.

From my all too brief understanding of those times, the more orthodox Congregationalists of the Massachusetts area appealed more to the lower and middling classes. The orthodox had made a concerted effort, however, by working more often with the Democratic-Republican party.

The business class in Boston practically used the Unitarian movement to get the orthodox Christians out of town. Giving some of the most powerful chairs at Harvard to Unitarians pissed off the orthodox Congregationalists.

A big lawsuit in Dedham that established that the property of a church/parish (a parish was a political/civic district in Boston at the time) was the property of the parish, not the church made things even worse, sending the orthodox out of the city and looking for support elsewhere.

I'll admit: I haven't looked incredibly deep into ALL the different perspectives in the matter. I've been just trying to understand the matter as it directly applies to the guy, George Ripley, and the community, Brook Farm.

Trying to fully understand the matter by looking at all the perspectives scares me. I wouldn't want even more crazy questions to pop up. I'm a bachelor student, not a professional historian!

Nonetheless, I’m pushing through the fear. I’m having to check out other secondary sources. Those sources are easy. . .they tell you practically everything. At the same time, though, they can leave out details that may not support their stance and hypothesis.

Primary sources scare me. I have yet to find an organized way to go through them to find useful information. Maybe I haven’t found the most useful way to look through secondary sources, but at least secondary sources make it clear where they’re going and possibly how they’re connected to each other. Primary sources, though, they don’t always map things out usefully, the author makes a lot of assumptions that I can’t understand immediately and, as I’ve been complaining in this entry, don’t always provide useful context.

And don’t even let me get into primary sources that are handwritten. It’s like translating a foreign language!

I wrote this entry mostly months ago. It’s pretty much a primary source, itself. I fear for a person in the future who might use it to try figuring out me, my personality, my psychology and the context of things around me. As with most primary resources, skepticism must be used and then it probably has to be cross referenced with other primary sources.

It’s a lot of work. . .and, unfortunately, I’m having to teach myself the skills required to use primary sources efficiently. How quaint and precious, eh?
Links of interest: by George Ripley, Brook Farm, William Ellery Channing, “Self Culture”, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Slavery”, Andrews Norton’s, A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of the Trinitarians, Concerning the Nature of God and the Person of Christ (1819, 1833, 1859), supernatural rationalism, Deists, Thomas Jefferson, deist tendencies, even Washington pretty much went to church more for social graces than anything, Transcendentalists, Democratic-Republican party

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dream #14

More post dream commentary, since I can't distinctly remember the dream.

Rolled over in bed, quarter conscious and said to the wife: "Craps."

Wife: "What?"

Me: "I was rolling dice. You know, the game. I want to go back to sleep and roll more dice."

Is this really all I get after feeling so darned tired at around bed time, tons of random monkey brain thinking going on and having the intimation that some hardcore dreaming would be going on? And after all the reality checking that I'm doing at random times? Counting my fingers, trying to use pyrokinesis that I don't have except for possibly in dreams, trying to read the same thing twice?

Having a quarter-conscious conversation with the wife about a dream of playing craps that I can't even remember?

What a load of crap.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The_Lex v. The Wisconsin Historical Society: Weekend Two




This looks pretty advanced compared to what I was using

Took another trip to The Wisconsin Historical Society this past weekend. This time, I reserved a Zipcar, drove up Saturday morning, studied all day then drove back after a Nepalese dinner. Proved more efficient, more affordable and heck, even more fun as I got to listen to my iPod over car speakers.

Even after the $10 in tolls, $5 max per day parking fee at State Street Campus Ramp and mileage costs, the Zipcar route ended up more affordable than the bus and hotel route. Top that off with driving a hybrid Honda Civic that averaged 40 mpg even on the highway, I think I did quite well, even by environmental standards.

I decided to take the trip spontaneously. The last weekend I went felt kind of disappointing. Not only did I not find anything that felt useful, I didn't even finish looking at everything, just a bunch of letters with really bad handwriting. Leaving, I planned to come back some day. . .when I budgeted for it.

Come the past Friday, though, and I hankered to get back up there. All week I had been studying the books in my home library on the topic of Brook Farm, George Ripley and the controversy between the old school Boston Unitarians and The Transcendentalists. I had first gone up to The Historical Society to find a source that would shed a light on Ripley's inspiration to start Brook Farm. By Friday, I hadn't found the answer to that question at home, either. The compulsion to do more research at The Historical Society had dug its feet into my attention, and it wouldn't go away until I scratched the itch.

I get crazy like that.

During the five hours at The Historical Society, I spent them all in the microfilm room, reading those damned letters with bad handwriting.

First off, I want to thank JohnnyHank for the tip about using the microfilm machine from the last entry. The ability to move the part that holds the microfilm, the lense and the light helped a ton.

Since Ripley occasionally wrote upside down, sideways and whichever way he desired to end his letters back on the first page, rotating the view could prove valuable. Sure, whoever made the microfilm would put another copy of the first page at the end of the letter, this time upside down or sideways. Reading the upside down stuff out of order had its uses, nonetheless, especially when trying to find my place on the microfilm when I first arrived at The Historical Society.

The biggest benefit from JohnnyHank's tip was that he got me to question what I knew about the microfilm machine. When you don't know much, questioning what you know has its benefits.

Last entry, I wrote in the comments that I thought I was projecting the wrong side of the microfilm until I put it through the machine in reverse. At that point, I realized the text was printed on the microfilm at a 90 degree angle, and I thought that was the only issue.

Boy, was I wrong. The text was on the right side of the microfilm, but I had loaded the film incorrectly! I probably should have realized that originally when I couldn't rewind the film. The way I had loaded it, I could only advance the film.

This past weekend, though, while rotating the lense/film holder, I noticed a diagram on the machine that showed how to correctly load the film into the machine. After loading the film correctly, I could move it forwards and backwards, providing me a lot more freedom. The "prehistoric" microfilm reader also made for easier reading than a computer screen.

It makes for easier reading, at least, when you have the correct kind of light. The first machine I had was in a pretty bad position. It had too much overhead light from the fluorescents up above. I don't know exactly how to describe other than imagine driving at dusk time, when it's the hardest time of day and night to see. You think you know what you're seeing, but you're not so sure. Everything is obscured and illusionary. You have to concentrate and spend a lot of cognitive energy to make sense of everything around your car that you just want to pull over, take a breather and wait until the sun sets to see better again.

Or maybe I can better describe by saying the text looked especially smudged and blurry. It looked like someone wrote something with a pencil, erased it then smudged it all over the place with their hand when they tried to brush away the remnants of the eraser on a piece of paper.

The whole lighting situation got so bad that I had to move to another microfilm reader. Less light rained down on it, so I had an easier time reading it. The handwriting still sucked, but I didn't have to squint or think so hard to try translating what I read. I didn't have to try figuring out whether light was causing the problem with the interpretation or if I just found the handwriting troublesome.

Within a couple hours I had read or scanned through the rest of the letters and picked out ones that I wanted to scan onto my flash drive. I chose a long one written while in Europe that mentioned Brook Farm and a bunch of other ones that proved especially difficult to read. Most of those amounted to ones written by Ripley's wife at the time.

Scanning from microfilm proved a chore in itself. I zoomed the view of the microfilm much bigger than "fit to page" or 100%. I would guess that I had zoomed it into 125% to make reading it easier on the eyes once I had printed it out on paper, which I plan on doing, too, to further help not damage my eyes. Biggest problem with scanning the pages in at 125% is that I had to take two scans of every full page.

Things get even more complicated from there. I had to highlight part of the view on the computer of what I wanted to scan. This part got tedious because the person who made the microfilm copied the pages in a weird sequence. Maybe Ripley has some responsibility for the strangeness of the layout. The letter would start out with a view of one page, the next page on the microfilm would have two pages of the letter on it, the next microfilm page would only have one letter page, then two letter pages, one letter page, two letter pages, etc. etc.

To scan these varying layouts of one page, two page, one page, etc., I had to keep manually moving the microfilm reader attached to the computer. Advancing, rewinding, rotating, changing the brightness and a whole bunch of features I could control with the computer. Moving the microfilm side to side, though, I had to play with the reader manually.

Whoever makes that hardware and software needs to add in controls to move the film side to side. Not only would it be more convenient. Having that capability would also help to navigate the film more precisely.

Fat chance programmers will listen, though. In my experience these days, a good user interface has gone out the window as a priority.

I ran into a weird issue after a bit. The external microfilm reader for my computer had somehow slid too close to the reader connected to the computer to the left of me. The source reel for Ripley's kept getting stuck on the other machine, causing my reader to hiccup and fail to advance. The reel on the right would try to pull over some film, it hiccuped then just stopped.

After awhile of just trying to work with it, not knowing the problem and not wanting to bother the attendant, the reader and the computer simply stopped communicating. The computer wouldn't acknowledge the existence of the reader. The software shut down. The attendant fixed the communication issues by turning off the reader then turning it back on.

The collision between the machines kept occurring, however. Enough frustration led me to figure out the problem. Separating the two readers from each other fixed the problem for the rest of the day.

So by the end of my session there, with only a half hour left until The Society closed, I had scanned five letters, half page by half page. Even more annoying, each half page has its own PDF file. If I had Adobe Acrobat and not just the Reader, I can merge these files together instead of having these files all over the place.

Right now, I have all the half pages in separate folders according to which letter they correspond to. Handling the scans in this fashion gets on the nerves of my anal side. Beggars really can't be choosers, though, can they.

The scans I got, sadly enough, may not be very useful to me. In fact, the collection of letters may not help much with my paper. I've already written enough tonight, however. This part of the story will have to wait until another day.

Relevant Links: Adobe Acrobat, Brook Farm, microfilm, George Ripley, JohnnyHank, The Transcendentalists, The Wisconsin Historical Society, Zipcar

Sunday, June 07, 2009

My Trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society: Another Shout Out to Historians

I'm typing this one up on the Smartphone on the way home from Madison, WI. I came up last night straight out of work on a bus (with the L in Chicago su-cking!), stayed a night in a hotel that couldn't filter out the sounds of revellers at the bar across the street then got up this morning, had breakfast and got to the Wisconsin Historical Society at 10ish. An hour behind schedule, but it's the weekend.

I spent the day doing my first ever active historian work. A young guy and an older guy gave me an intro to the archives room then fetched me the commonplace book for George Ripley from the years 1822 to 1840.

George Ripley pretty much founded the Brook Farm Association of . . ., the socialist-Associationist community I'm currently trying to write about. I've written a little bit here and there about Ripley and Brook Farm. Most of what I've written lately has been to complain that Ripley should have kept more journals or, at the very least, provided much more articulate reasons as to his motivations for starting Brook Farm and why certain organizational processes were started there. That way, people like me could evaluate the results of Brook Farm better.

Ripley used his commonplace book to write down quotes, his thoughts on philosophers and critics and, near the end, he used it to work on projections for calculating, budgeting and figuring out the feasibility of crop growing on Brook Farm. I used to use my Palm Pilot for the same thing and have started to do so with my Smartphone.

I pored over the commonplace book for a half hour or so. Ripley organized it by subject pretty well. He probably did so for his own benefit, but it certainly helps the historian. He should have put more of his thinking and kept writing in it. I have the feeling that he just got too busy after 1840, trying to publish magazines, working on cyclopedic collections of philosophical and critical writing, trying to make Brook Farm work then working his ass off to pay debt leftover after Brook Farm dissolved.

The biggest faux pax on my part consisted of planning to use pens to take notes. The Society asks researcher not to. Doesn't take too much thought to understand their reasoning. Pens have a higher chance of leaking and exploding ink all over these mostly one-of-the-kind artifacts. Pencils and hands may smudge graphite on the documents, but I think there's a much smaller chance of the happening. I didn't to take any notes, though, so I didn't break any rules.

Even though if I destroyed that copy of the book, it wouldn't be as bad as other documents. Harvard University has the original copy, and this is just a copy. Yeah, getting another copy would probably be a huge pain the ass, but at least I wouldn't have been responsible for destroying a one-of-kind artifact that makes up our cultural heritage.

Doing that would just make me feel like a big jerk.

Done with the commonplace book for the moment, I went down to the microfilm room. No problem finding the microfilm I wanted since the older guy from the archives printed out a page that had the information for me. Just took me a minute or two to figure out the organizing system.

The first microfilm machine didn't help me, but the machine didn't do anything wrong. It was an old school machine that pretty acts as a projector on a screen with user interface device to navigate through the microfilm. The problem lay on the film: the text was published on the film so it was rotated 90 degrees to right-side up. I would have to twist my head 90 degrees on end then put some cognitive load on me to translate rotated print into correctly angled print. Gravity and our sense of balance really makes things difficult for us that.

Now that I think about it, my neck wouldn't have enjoyed twisting itself like that for hours on end.

I wandered aimlessly around the room until I discovered something amazing: computers set up to read microfilm. I've never seen that before! One of the staff helped set up one of the computers, showed me how to load the film then set up the computer so the text was rotated correctly. The coolest feature which I didn't have the opportunity to use: the microfilm computer will scan directly to a flash drive (hopefully in PDF form). Awesome!

The microfilm contained letters that Ripley and his second wife sent his sister, Marianne. First challenge from the outset: no table of contents, no index and no search feature. I have to find what I'm looking for by reading/scanning the whole text in some systematic fashion. I took probably the most obvious system: start at one page then read until there are no pages to read.

The second problem, and by far the worst of the two, all the letters were handwritten. Even worse, Ripley had horrible handwriting. His wife had more aesthetically pleasing handwriting, looking all neat and uniform, but she didn't allow for any white space in her letters. She made everything as tight as she could. Without the white space, it just looked like little pretty scribbles.

Ripley didn't even bother to stay neat with his handwriting. He wrote his letter like he signed it at the end. He had plenty of white space, but he just in a script and didn't think about making it easier to anyone else to read it. Sure, maybe he wasn't thinking of me or another historian when writing his sister, but how easily could his sister read his handwriting.

For both Ripley and his wife, reading the English was like reading another language that I'm trying to learn. There was stuff in there I could understand easily enough. As I learned different scrawlings I could read those particular scrawlings better.

When I came upon a scrawling I couldn't understand right away, though, I went into translation mode. Sometimes I just stared at the word until I could make it out. Other times I stared at the word, tried to pick certain parts, tried to pick out letters or just let the first word that it look like catch my attention. I would just keep whispering that word or let the parts that I picked out run around in my head. That sometimes worked.

A more holistic approach generally worked best, though. I would take chunks of words, legible and illegible, then through my understanding of the words I could, the logic of English syntax, sentence structure and probably other linguistic words I don't know or can't think of at the moment, and also visual pattern recognition of words, I could translate most of the gibberish.

Remember me saying that reading text at a 90 degree angle because the microfilm was published that way would cause a large cognitive load? I can't imagine how well my brain could on top of reading text at an angle, handle essentially having to interpret chicken scrawl. I think my brain might have exploded all over the microfilm monitor!

There's just one more element that made the microfilm research difficult. This one probably comes from reading any microfilm, however. The quality of the copied pages varies, from page to page. To adjust for easier reading, I had three settings: zoom, brightness and contrast. Zoom and brightness helped a lot, but I have no idea if the contrast setting even did anything. Having to change these settings for practically every page su-u-cked!

I sat at the microfilm reading computer for about four hours and didn't read the whole microfilm. I started reading it word-for-word. I didn't think I could just scan because the squiggles on the screen didn't even look like they spelled anything. Just squiggles!

I had set my phone to have alarm go off at 3, though. The last bus from Madison to Chicago left at 4:30, and I wanted to make sure to grab a bite to eat and some water before leaving on the 4 hour ride home.

When that alarm went off, I snoozed it for 5 minutes. I started scanning. Of course, I started finding references to my research topic at this point. None of them held relevance to the my writing, though. Argh!

I don't know if reading the microfilm word-for-word for about 3 hours primed my visual pattern recognition or not, but within that last half hour, I was able to get through quite a bit and get enough gist of it. Enough of a gist to know that what I'm reading didn't have anything.

Nonetheless, at 3:30, fighting against my nature, I accepted defeat and got out of there. I had just enough time to grab a burrito and some water then get on the bus home.

I will have to visit Madison at least once more to scan the rest of that microfilm. If what I believe is on there is on there (as another historian cites in a book on George Ripley), I must get that information!

After my experience today, I must give a shout out to historians out there and exhort my readers to do the same. Researching and writing history is a labor intensive vocation. The reward for it probably doesn't provide nearly the compensation that equals the labor power that goes into it.

So, historians, my hat goes off to you.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Movies Being Run by Venture Capitalist Attitude

My parents' generation complained about the music my generation listened to. I think as my generation grows older, we will complain about the movies made McG and the other moviemakers and today and onward. And apparently I come from the MTV generation.

A rant about the dearth of crappy movies in the theaters these days:

You know what probably makes for the crappy movies today? It has to do with a venture capitalist attitude rather than a quality craft attitude (I almost said quality art attitude, but these days, that means someone thinks the statement is more important than the entertainment factor).

The studios probably just throw money at these directors, producers, actors, etc. etc. thinking that something 1 out of 5 movies will make enough profit to make up for the crappy movies put out. Issue is that it probably costs more money to think critically about the talent to hire than to just throw money at a few of them.

Then they probably make the argument that they need to follow this model because the consumers have the demand for quantity rather than quality.

And the thing is, the mass consumer hasn't done what it needs to do to tell the studios to value quality over quantity.

I think some kind of organized movement needs to occur. A movement that will write letters to movie studios to value quality over quantity, and a movement that will work to enrich the population's ability to judge movies, literature and other artistic craftwork rather than just gobble up this crap that is even lower on the food chain than pop art.

Marxist criticizes art as a tool to manipulate the masses into accepting the status quo and power of the dominant class. Either the entertainment of today does a great job of getting the masses to accept the dominant class by making the masses dumber, or Marxist criticism could not have foreseen that capitalism did something worse than control the masses. . .it just made classes dumber and accepting of crap.

Well, I guess if being dumb and accepting of crap means inactivity, then I guess that's control in its own type of way.

Let's get smarter, people.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Malnutrition Posing as Burn Out

Around the time that I stopped writing, my consciousness felt like it was spinning out of control. I lost a lot of motivation. I felt down. I think I may have even felt a little paranoid or attributing unrealistic motivations to people, especially the wife. I intelligently didn't act overtly on my discontent except to voice my frustration about not understanding the things happening around me or engaging in healthy habits.

Feeling out of touch with my myself in all sorts of way, I started journaling privately again. I had a need to turn inward. If I couldn't pinpoint an issue with the world around me, maybe the issue lay within me. I also had plenty of things I wanted to write about that this blog would provide an appropriate venue, whether because of privacy issues or because my topics and meanderings wouldn't have appeal to a public audience. Frankly, I didn't feel as if my thoughts, reflections or activities really would fit here.

Actually, I didn't engage in many habits other than journaling until a few weeks ago. Going to Jamaica with the wife for a long weekend could possibly prove a healthy habit, but we've only done that once. If only. . ..

A few weeks ago, though, I really had hit a bottom. My wife had gone away for the weekend on a business trip. I pretty much just sat at home, watching tons and tons of TV. All the while, I wondered why I couldn't get my ass off the gear. I told myself to do it, and I just didn't do it. I wasn't physically sick, I just didn't do things that I told myself to do. I could move my arms, wiggle my fingers and toes and all that. I just didn't have the willpower to do the things I wanted to do.

A friend of a friend even was putting on a concert to fund raise for cancer or some other important cause. Many things I value there: a cause, socializing, bar and checking out new music. Did I want to go out? Nope, not one bit.

By the end of that weekend, I remember that I had taken some "whole" supplements to deal with coming off an ADHD medication. I had just come to Chicago, didn't have health insurance, didn't have a job and only had limited money to live on until I got a job. I didn't have to worry about losing the roof over my head or anything, but I still wanted to watch my money. . .and having an expensive medication to help me perform better didn't make it to the top of my list of priorities.

Funny thing: I performed better and accomplished more on the "whole" supplements rather than on the ADHD medication.

I had stopped taking those "whole" supplements, however, because I ended up dealing with another problem using something else. I thought that something else interacted with the "whole" supplement weird and that that something else would actually help fix what the "whole" supplement had supposedly fixed. So I went on my merry way for about a year.

Looking back, now, over the the last year or so, though, I can see that my performance and productivity had suffered. A couple weeks ago, though, I just needed something to kick me in the ass and get me going, doing the things that I needed and wanted to do, to bring that shininess back to the world, too.

I started taking the "whole" supplement again. It helped immediately. I started having the ability to focus a lot more.

When the wife and I went to Jamaica, I ended up taking the primary vitamin/mineral in the "whole" supplemented that I needed. I didn't want to face anything going through customs by bringing this "whole" supplement with me. It's a perfectly legal "whole" supplement, but I didn't want to have to deal with any trouble. I get anxious enough just flying in a plane or going through security. The pure vitamin/mineral had some interesting side effects that didn't make me too uncomfortable, and it still helped me to focus.

I started doing some more research after coming back from Jamaica. Since then, I've been making sure to eat foods with a lot more healthy stuff in them, from more protein to more minerals to more vitamins. It's some exciting stuff to read about and even more exciting to live through.

I feel great! I've got more energy, more focus, more happiness. I haven't been able to keep it up steadily, but I think that's just because I haven't been doing a great job getting enough protein for awhile now except at lunch. Tonight I made sure to have a protein shake, and I feel much better. My mood feels good and pleasant.

Too bad I've had a time crunch of spending some extra time after work, getting my grocery shopping done, cleaning the dishes and making lunch for tomorrow. At least I'm not getting down on myself for never having enough time. Tomorrow will be a better day, and I'll get home earlier since I don't have to grocery shop. Then I've got the weekend to work on my projects.

All is good, just as long as I keep making sure I put the good stuff in my body. Think of that next time you're feeling down, unfocused and unmotivated, find out what the good stuff is and put it in you.

Unfortunately, I can't provide advice on the good stuff because my professional capacity puts me into a strange capacity that might convince people to listen to me. I don't want someone to get all screwed up because I said try something, and they trusted me. I found out all this stuff by doing my own research and listening to my skeptical common sense about it all. I think you can do it, too. It just takes time and effort. It's not that hard.

So yeah, that's how I thought I was burnt out but was probably malnourished.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Figs and Bunny Pre-Mating Rituals

An e-mail I wrote to the wife in reference to some glazed and roasted figs she bought me on Monday from Pastoral:

Now I know why figs have become so mythological and "evil." These figs you got from Pastoral is the vegan answer to caviar. It's as sensuous as eating at Boka.

I probably won't be getting them to eat everyday, but they certainly make a good treat worthy of their infamy.

In other random inconsequential news: On Sunday night, the wife and I saw two bunnies performing a pre-mating ritual in the courtyard of a Catholic Church. It struck us as somewhat ironic.

I never thought pre-mating rituals could look so cute. The boy bunny would try to sneak up behind the girl, she would do this jump roundhouse kick, jump on his head and scratch it then she would go off to graze somewhere else. It went on like this for a couple minutes until we got bored and went home.

Highly entertaining, this thing we call nature, especially when it happens in the city.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Smartphone: A Great Writing Aid

I wrote the last entry mostly on my new Smartphone during my commutes to and from work. It works great since it has an application for creating and editing Microsoft Word documents. Using it I can do more productive things than reading.

I love reading, and reading can help me gather information to use later. I don't have any hard copy books or magazines that have relevance to my current projects to read. My Smartphone can't access Google Books in a useful way so can't read any relevant out of print books.

Reading the news would probably enrich and enlighten my life, but I need to move forward with my ambitions to actually use newsworthy information to make a difference in the world. I don't really have much power to make a difference beyond my immediate social and professional circles. No offense, family, friends, acquaintances, associates and customers, I want to change the world in a bigger way than we could do through in any association that you would also find fulfilling or useful.

I've done some work drafting up a new outline for the last paper of the bachelors project. I can't even remember the last time I had worked on an outline for one. Over the last I don't know how many months, I've been doing tons of research, trying to get a better idea of the intentions, goals and the rationale of the organization the founders of Brook Farm had for it.

I don't really have an articulate answer for these ruminations yet. Right now I have a jumble of information and references to get the information in my mind. All the information doesn't have an organizing principle yet, though.

The outlining I've done over the past couple days plus some mental ruminating has helped me a little to come closer to an articulate explanation. It has also helped come closer to figuring out yet another hypothesis to try exploring through the exploration of historical evidence through reason and rationality.

Using the Smartphone to work on the outline allows me to actually generate something during what would have been unproductive time or distracting productivity in the past. The ease of transferring work I do on the Smartphone to my phone helps to cut down on the unproductive work of transcribing something I wrote in one place onto a file in the computer. It also helps me avoid the hassle of copying and pasting, too. I just connect the Smartphone to my computer, open the file, edit it as usual then save it where I wish.

Yay for me finding another writing, organization and productivity aid. Now my brain and mind, the tools that generate and articulate the ideas can produce stuff so these aids can really help!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Indeterminacy of Serial World Building

As I mentioned in the last entry, I weaseled my way into copyediting a friend's entries on his Wiki, The Lands of Shadow. I don't believe I'll get credited anywhere, but that's cool. I've already received some benefit from working on it: brushing up on my writing skills and getting exposed to a couple interesting themes.

Working with a "living document" certainly fascinates me while irritating me somewhat (this is not, in any way, a criticism or bitch session). The wiki acts as a source document for my friend's Dungerons & Dragons campaign world. As a living document, it could change depending on how he wants the direction of his campaign storyline to go, how different parties relate to each other (player characters, non-player characters, institutions, social groups, kingdoms, nations), the storyline, landscape of the world and whatever else may change.

Allowing the wiki to have this kind of indeterminacy complicates matters for me, as a writer and as something of a Type A personality. My friend has passed over to me for editing an entry about one of his kingdoms. A part of the entry pertained to the process in which the kingdom's government appoints people to a particular post.

I found the explanation of the process vague and asked him to provide more details about it. He reiterated that he intends the wiki to act as a living document and that he's not sure entirely where he wants to go with the appointment process and how it will relate to the campaign plot. My personality flaws don’t like this feature, but my rational side says it’s cool.

The fact that I get a little worked up about this matter amuses me. Allowing indeterminacy into something that has drama as a main characteristic has at least one positive aspect to it. It allows for freedom.

In a blog entry I read about TV writing one time, the author encouraged telling only as much as needed about a character for that part in the story. As an example, they used a situation where a show introduced two brothers for a character but never mentioned any other siblings nor did they mention that the two siblings were the only siblings the character had. Not limiting the number of siblings allowed the writers to throw in another sibling when it helped the story.

In the case of my friend's campaign setting, not limiting the political appointment process allows for numerous possibilities. Maybe if it gets limited early, a player couldn't get appointed to that position but getting appointed to it would lead to a more interesting story.

Tension regarding the process for appointment could make an interesting plot point, especially if it gets shrouded in mystery. Revealing the process could take away the mystery and, thus, take away the tension.

Simply put, the creation of a story in a role playing game doesn't lie solely with the person running the game, the dungeon master or game master, whichever you prefer. Everyone plays it for fun and everyone comes to the game with different expectations of fun.

Setting up the appointment process to this one position in one way could appeal to one type of player but turn off another player. Having the appointment some other way could appeal more to another player. Leaving this detail open allows for adaptability, to mold the game into a form that allows maximum enjoyment for all.

This kind of freedom works to the advantage of serial storytelling or role playing. Explain just enough to allow things to progress in a fun and satisfying way, but don't explain so much that the options for more fun and satisfaction close off in the future.

When writing, I generally stick to a closed form with a limited run. I have a novel in progress along with a short story that has will require a lot of revisions. I also five papers written and another one to write for my bachelors project, all of them rough draft.

The novel and short story plan on having a good, tight story but won't reveal absolutely everything. I leave out mostly what happens after the story ends. Even though I leave both of them open to possible sequels, I plan on writing pretty tight stories. I won't tell the smallest details or anything like that, but I plan on establishing most of the setting and the events in the stories timeline.

Then again, telling the whole story and providing full details of a timeline allows freedom for change in future writings. After all, if the author wants to have fun and "experiment" with a different system or setting, they just start a new piece or even set a new story in the same setting, just in a different time period than the original story.

The important aspect probably comes down to continuity. Science fiction and fantasy culture focuses a lot on continuity in the fiction they follow. Breaking continuity in these genres can often frustrate fan culture to no end, so much to the point that some writers need to create a disconnect with their fan base to continue writing without compromising the story. I can be guilty of the over analysis vice, at times, even when I try to use it to try defending loose interpretations created by a show or piece of writing.

Fans can sometimes forgive the break from continuity or they can tolerate enough breaks until too many of them occur. Often the show or piece of writing has enough other virtues to make a wait-and-see attitude easy to follow and possibly worthwhile to slog through the irritating parts.

A lone movie or a solitary story without any continuity outside of the celluloid or the two covers proves easier to have consistent continuity. With no set intention to continue within that continuity for longer than a certain period of story, the plot, character, setting, culture, norms, practices and so forth can all be balanced for the good of the story told. As long as the story doesn’t have a sequel or prequel, the single story doesn't set a precedent for a continuity canon that future stories risk breaking or expose itself to over interpretation by a fan community.

Stories told by serial, however, which obviously can include ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, expose themselves to breaking continuity the longer the story continues. I have major respect for storytellers and TV writers that stay within continuity or break continuity well. Writers of serials that break continuity in a non-major way don't lose my respect if the story continues well enough.

I willfully concede that staying within continuity provides a big challenge. It grows even more difficult when multiple story lines exist and as the story progresses. Add to that all the different characters, nations, personalities, locales and the multitude of factors that exist. Increase the details and increase the interrelations of those details, keeping the continuity increases in difficulty.

I can't blame someone who wants to create a source document (or bible, as they call it Canada TV circles) for not filling in all the details. It allows for more freedom and adaptability in case interesting and fun storylines would require different details than had been originally conceived.

It would especially suck if a minor detail like how many siblings a character has only just bit you in ass because of the over determinacy. That situation might just possibly motivate a writer to break continuity in a very frustrating way rather than just not provide one small detail in the beginning. Wouldn't that just suck, having the writer “cheat” after the fact rather than not create a fact until it was needed?