Sunday, October 14, 2012

Celebrities, Artists, Narcissists and the Illusion of Significance and Meaning

A few months ago on the New York Times Website, I found an essay about people telling each other about how busy they are and complaining about being busy all the time. It concludes that people engage in this behavior because it provides the illusion that they’re significant and their life has meaning. After all, if you’re so busy with commitments, you’re doing something important.

I’ve bought into this argument. I try not to complain about being busy and telling people I’m so busy when people ask me how I’ve been doing.

Having bought into so much, I’ve even bisociated this compulsion of busyness with narcissistic celebrities and artists, the ones that always want attention and have to be in the spotlight. . .but may not always have anything to show for it. Their crazy PR campaign may even have an element of an art piece.

Writers and artists capture meaning and stories in their works. Some of those works even capture enough attention to become part of tradition and cultural heritage. Art and stories become an attempt to contribute efforts into something permanent or to make that something permanent. It voices a desire for immortality and to influence the future.

I know that urge influences my desire to write and empowered career decisions I’d like to make in the future. Contributing to the transient and everyday doesn’t satisfy me. As Henry David Thoreau influenced me with a book after more than a century, I’d like to do the same for a young, impressionable mind. Even touching minds with an older person open to thoughts and experience would be cool.

I had told myself when I talked about my work and projects with people that I was simply sharing, working though a road block or even looking to see if others might have insight that I don’t. After all, that WAS what I was doing.

People would most of the time just ask why I don’t sit down and get it done. Definitely a two pronged analysis can be made:

  1. I want to look important and significant by complaining about my work
  2. People get annoyed by empty words and would rather see action and results
My explanations here definitely sound narcissistic, but I don’t think most people would see me this way. At least that’s the impression that people give me. A lot of these premises and conclusions come from overthinking more than anything. At least, I hope it’s more overthinking rather than narcissism.

Combine the elements mentioned in that opinion piece about busyness providing illusion of significance and meaning with the desire to contribute to the permanence of heritage and tradition through my writing. My sense of significance and meaning has a level of illusion to it until the future, possibly after my lifetime. Imagine people who either don’t have any material to present, still working hard on presenting said material or present material or lots of material that gets exposed to critics. Maintaining motivation with no or negative results can get discouraging and impact confidence or self-esteem.

In this case, an illusion can provide more benefits than negative. I have mentioned in the past that people often live with an illusion of inflated worth and meaning. The busyness linguistic illusion probably works into that. As does probably getting yourself seen, seen with adulated people, letting other people know about your big (maybe even highly pretentious) projects, coming off as a style maven, a trend setter, going to the big social events and all types of things.

These things may have a loose connection to permanence (you have to know people, after all). We have to ask ourselves, though, how much are people in the spotlight trying to maintain an illusion of significance and meaning? If an artist or celebrity didn’t have that outlet, what would happen? Does an artist or celebrity really just want a taste of that significance and meaning, or do they want to make it happen?

I like to think that they want to make it happen. I don’t think it’s that horrible that they want the illusion until it really happens. Sometimes people have to fake it until they make it.

Everyone, though, should get a chance to drink from that goblet of meaning and significance. There’s a reason why celebrities and attention-seeking artists get viewed as narcissists. . ..

LINKS OF NOTE: The ‘Busy’ Trap – New York Times, bisociation, Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Gratitude & Consideration: Improving Self Esteem & Society

A couple months ago at a college alumni function I learned a lesson that has improved my quality of life. It involved accepting responsibility for being a cool and good person. Someone else who went to school after me said that people told them that I was someone worth knowing. Always trying to come off as humble, I said something about not understanding how I developed a reputation that survived me, I'm not anyone special that has done anything significant.

An old friend didn't let me finish my sentence. They scolded me that I am worth knowing and that I should accept those types of compliments. The function ended soon after, but my friend's advice has stuck with me.

Maybe accepting compliments wouldn't hurt. After all, we give ourselves the worst criticism. Psychologically healthier people out there generate an illusion of inflated abilities, skills, experience and state of being. A lot of psychological studies make this argument.

I, on the other hand, have always had more of a negative or sober assessment of myself and situation. Having this old friend tell me I should accept compliments got me thinking that maybe I had an overly negative view of myself rather than realistic. What would it hurt to accept compliments indiscriminately for a bit?

A couple weeks later, I accompanied the wife to Lakes of a Fire (a local Burning Man-style event or more descriptively, an art, radical expression, trade/bartering and fire dancing event).

I went with her last year to Lakes of Fire for the first time. I had an OK time, something new but nothing that got me super excited or anything. It had nothing to do with the people or the event. I just had other things on my mind and hadn't gotten into the right mindset.

Accepting compliments elevated my experience this year. I said thank you and you’re welcome whenever I received and gave compliments or favors. Even once when someone complimented me on being awesome, I simply said “I know.” Yeah, kind of conceited, but we had a good laugh. Switching things up has its place.

I have more or less maintained this trait of gratitude and consideration, depending on the social milieu that I find myself in. I’ve also continued feeling a high subjective state of well being and having great interactions with people.

My theory goes along the lines that gratitude and consideration serves us more than just good manners and etiquette. For the subjective self, accepting compliments gets you to start believing them and even to engage in positive self talk that bolsters your elevated self esteem.

Self affirmations sound lame and even insincere, but having a stable self esteem goes a long way to improving quality of life for you and those around you. Fake it until you make it (or start believing it), they say. Just don’t let it go to your head so much that you start hurting other people.

I think the next part of my hypothesis touches on not hurting people. Both too much conceit and too much self abnegation in reaction to a compliment casts doubt on the complimentor. Showing too much conceit tells the complimentor they’ve misjudged someone’s sense of reality. Too much self abnegation tells the complimentor they’ve misjudged their own sense of reality.

People like to share concepts of reality and narratives, as long as their own reality checking facility doesn’t cast too much doubt. That kind of doubt causes a lot of cognitive dissonance and requires work to reconcile.

Someone else inducing that kind of dissonance and doubt with their own self appraisal makes it even worse. They’re supposed to know themselves better than an outside complimentor would know them. They have just distanced themselves from the complimentor.

More knowledge and familiarity means higher levels intimacy and comfort. Impractically negating established intimacy or advances of intimacy (lack of time, other commitments being practical reasons) becomes a slap in the face. It rejects the worth of knowing and getting to know the complimentor. As accepting compliments adds to positive self talk, rejection can contribute to negative self talk.

Accepting a compliment provides a compliment, both of judgment and the ability to build intimacy or camaraderie. Rejecting a compliment, however, can give insult. It casts doubt on a person’s judgment and their ability to build intimacy and camaraderie.

The original complimentor than accepts an unsaid compliment by saying “You’re welcome” and accepting gratitude. They have acknowledged being told they have a good sense of reality and judge of character. Their narrative has received affirmation and have made connection with another human, two of the most joyful experiences we can have.

People do everyone a favor by accepting compliments. They contribute to everyone’s self esteem and subjective well being by encouraging positive self talk all around.

Without a good practical reason to decline a compliment, accept them to better yourself and to improve the state of society. I guarantee that you’ll grab more joy from life. Just try it. You’ll see. I did.

LINKS OF NOTE: A lot of psychological studies argue positive illusions leads to better mental health, Lakes of a Fire, Burning Man

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tips for Developing Story from Nothing

I gave the following tips to a friend for starting development on a story from nothing:

  1. Try to relax for idea generation and let the ideas bubble up
  2. Put yourself in a different environment for idea generation, make yourself uncomfortable and accept the anxiety. Make the anxiety part of you as natural part of the process (getting up in the morning and working first thing helps me – have to push past drowsiness, but I think my mind also comes up with connections and ideas I wouldn’t come up with when fully awake)
  3. All ideas are valid for this part of the process. It’s not time for critical thinking. You can get critical later
  4. Look at it like a school assignment or a job:
    1. give yourself a deadline
    2. give yourself a quota of how many ideas you need to come up with
    3. Allot a certain amount of time that you need to work on it and WORK ON IT
  5. Don’t censor yourself: think it, write it down on your brainstorming sheet or word processor
Right now, it’s about quantity, not quality. Just get any idea down on paper or the computer screen. You can make it better later. What’s the saying out there? 10%-20% is the writing, 80%-90% is revising. And to become professional, there’s probably some amount that goes into networking and marketing.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

On the Isaac Asimov and Doctor Who Heritage in the Science Fiction Tradition

The trend over the last decade in science fiction movies for a focus on action and violence with pretty visuals has gotten me thinking about my own tastes. The latest example of the testosterone-drenched, American-mannered shoot first, ask questions later direction of Marvel's The Avengers has piqued my interest on this topic. i won't get into it about that movie; don't want to spoil and it didn't grab me in any stupendous way.

As an amateur writer, I like to think of science fiction and its trends as a tradition. Producers, consumers and critics of science fiction inherit a heritage and can contribute to it. As with any living tradition, science fiction receives all types of interpretations and has accumulated multiple branches of tradition based on tastes and preferences.

I like o think my tastes and preferences take me down the tradition of Doctor Who and Isaac Asimov. A quote from Asimov's Foundation series sums it up best:

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
I forget the exact context of the quote, but I think characters recite it multiple times. Throughout at least the original Foundation trilogy, the main characters solve problems with their minds and often through social manipulation. Rarely did they resort to violence of their own. Kinda sounds like cheating, but you work with what's available.

I had a long gap of not reading Asimov before giving the Foundation series a chance. Even then I only read a couple books from The Galactic Empire series, I, Robot and Robot Dreams. I haven't read the latter two in a long while, but I recollect a lot of ruminating and solving problems with the mind, not through violence or direct confrontation. Challenges presented as insurmountable by violence or direct confrontation kinda makes intellect and the indirect approach the only resort.

The Doctor in Doctor Who might as well follow this dictum from the Foundation series. After nearly fifty years of writers and a character with multiple personalities (not at once) because of regeneration, the Doctor and show has plenty of inconsistencies. Nonetheless, the Doctor generally uses violence as a last resort (even though the latest regeneration resorts to it more often with Daleks).


Even when comfortable with violence, The Doctor has his limits. His people, the Time Lords, sends him to destroy the Daleks at the time of their creation. They are calculated to exterminate the universe. The Doctor pauses, second guesses the course of action then chooses an alternate path because he didn't want to commit genocide. After all, who wants to commit that kind of irony.


To me, violence and direct confrontation gets old and boring. As Irene Adler in the latest BBC show, Sherlock says a couple times, "Brainy is the new sexy."

I also like to think that real intelligence works as a deterrent to violence. Getting injured or killed with other options available just doesn't feel like a good idea. Intelligence in my mind often leads to coming up with options and possibilities. I like to think discouraging violence is a great idea because preventing injuries and killing seems like a great idea, too. And encouraging intelligence, in my mind, makes for a good way to deter violence, and I like how Isaac Asimov and Doctor Who promote intelligence and argue that violence pretty much promotes incompetence and lack of intelligence.

LINKS OF NOTE: Doctor Who, Isaac Asimov, Foundation series, The Galactic Empire series, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, regeneration, Daleks, the Time Lords, Irene Adler, Sherlock

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Herbert's Dune and Patience: Do Adolescents Have More?

I have faint remembrances of aphorisms about differences between adolescence and adulthood. A theme sticks out to me: adolescents are less patient than adults. This theme probably has some truth to it, but I’m starting to think it’s not all true. Maybe the adolescent impatience of action comes from patient yet stubborn academic curiosity. Maybe it comes part and parcel with human nature and instinct.

A fellow writer and I had a passing conversation on the topic. They mentioned how they read Frank Herbert’s epic Dune at the young age of 12 or something like that. I had read the original Dune series something like seven or eight years ago (at around age 26 or 27).

We had very different reactions to it. They loved the book and couldn’t stop praising it, like many people I’ve met throughout life. Me, I found it compelling thematically but frustrating and a slow read. It also had a bunch of loose ends that Herbert or his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J Anderson really never addressed in later books (unless they did in prequels).

My friend and I also had this difference: they only read Dune while I read the whole Dune series. Except for God Emperor of Dune and the last two written by Herbert’s son and Anderson, I thought the writing only got better. It became more concise, clearer and did more showing than telling.

I put God Emperor of Dune in a complete category of its own. It had its own bits of drama, but it’s more of a psychedelic treatise dialogue about social philosophy. Reading it makes the rest of the series resonate. Yet it’s dense and a chore to get through, much like one of Plato’s dialogues. . .or maybe an answer to some of the dialogues.

Dune inspired my writer friend to love science fiction and to one day want to write science fiction works of their own. I understand it. Isaac Asimov gave me the same inspiration. In my teenage years, I only read a couple of Asimov’s works and didn’t really grasp the social philosophy thrown in there. I hadn’t even read his more philosophical work until I was older.

Asimov may not have written the vast epic world building political tracts that Herbert did, and I’m really happy about that. Nonetheless, Asimov imparted a sense of expansive human nature and the possibilities of the natural world. He challenged his humans with the totalitarian genius of robots and even struck fear into his humans by giving his robots creativity and the ability to dream (probably one of the tragic and shortest stories of Asimov’s, “Robot Dreams”).

Near the end of his writing career, Asimov seemed to breach into the same world building vastness of Herbert, just not as hard and dense. I wish Asimov had written more in this vast direction. Even though softer science fiction, Asimov started presenting some interesting ideas.

Frank Herbert wrote hard science fiction and he did it dense. He explained practically everything. The drama and topics didn’t necessarily all grow out of provable science. The whole Dune series had a lot of psychedelia to it and had some interesting theories of human potential. If possible, we have a long way to go to get there.

The aspects of ecology, extensiveness of history and play with politics between royal families and mercantilism feel based in social reality. Putting the interpretation that spice in Dune is comparable to oil in today’s world doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. Sure, people can’t eat oil, it doesn’t turn their eyes blue and it doesn’t provide the ability of prescience, but petroleum holds a lot of sway over the world and its nations.

In fact, I found all the dense detail Herbert put into Dune the difficult part. The plot wouldn’t go anywhere for pages. The book would go on and on explaining the thoughts of a character, the basis for a royal family’s actions, the existence of a ritual in a culture or go on and on about how a person with prescience experiences the galaxy.

My problem, I think, originates from the fact that I’m a fairly well read person, have read a lot of history and social philosophy, read a fair amount of psychedelia, kept up with politics and anthropology and have an OK grasp of science fiction. Back in the early to mid ‘90s, I even patronized a Bulletin Board System that was very Dune themed. The system operator went by Maud Dib and called something Kwisatz Haderach (but I forget what).

A lot of academia I studied in college had influenced Dune. On the flipside, Dune influenced much of the pseudo-intellectual works I researched in high school. Dune has become a point on the intellectual heritage I have followed. By the time I had read it, I had become familiar with a lot of the ideas around it. By the time I reached Dune, I had something of a skeptical “seen that, done that” attitude.

Only the cynicism of the characters struck me as new, and they just depressed and confused me. I’m an idealistic guy who has a hard time understanding why people can’t realize that if we just get along and do lots of research, we can make the world an awesome place. Why haven’t we done it already?

Otherwise, I got impatient and bored with the exposition. Just get to the plot, show me what’s happening and I can probably figure out the motivations and rules behind things as they develop.

I can also imagine Herbert having a checklist of things that he wanted to have happen in the book, but he would come up with a new idea that he’d throw in, but he had to integrate that new idea and come up with a reason why that idea had been there in the first place.

After reading his Wikipedia entry and learning that Dune started as two serials in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, this feeling makes a little more sense. Even though rewritten for the novel form, Dune still has a few vestiges of “Just in case you forgot this important fact. . ..”

I can see possibly having had a different experience reading Dune as an adolescent. Maybe I would have some familiarity with it, having been exposed to works influenced by the novel. A lot of the stuff pre-dating Dune, however, I would know nothing about.

In my adolescence, I had tons of time and had a hunger for knowledge and novelty. Dune’s vast world of knowledge could have fed me. At worst, it would have inspired me like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Cape Cod. In full disclosure, I didn’t finish reading either of those works in my adolescence.

Those two books played a big inspiration for me wanting to be a writer. I could sense the ambition behind them and felt they had a lot of understanding behind them that I just didn’t get. If I just plowed through them, maybe I could reach that understanding, too. I haven’t gotten there with the likes of Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson, though. Somehow they’ve actually become even more opaque as I’ve gotten older.

I don’t know what has changed since I was an adolescent. I’m not saying losing that kind of patience is bad, even though I miss having it. Does that stubborn patience to explore things that make no sense to us come as a human characteristic that dies as we grow older? Or, like my writer friend said in our conversation, do we just not have the time as adults to follow through on this curiosity? Are we so busy working and trying to accomplish things that we don’t have the patience we had once?

I feel like I get a grip on that curiosity and patience again here and there but really only once in awhile. Per the advice of a past college professor, I’ve taken up writing a half hour in the morning on my project. That’s when I think I stumble into that state of mind.

In the past, I could get very frustrated and angry about questions that would arise while writing. Nowadays, though, I’m amazed at how much I’ve written and how much more research I have to do for more understanding. Instead of focusing on not having it done, though, I feel joy that I’ve found a path in the woods that will eventually lead me somewhere.

Who knows? Maybe I’m finding that patience again.

LINKS OF NOTE: Frank Herbert, Dune, Dune series, Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, God Emperor of Dune, Plato, Isaac Asimov, “Robot Dreams”, spice, prescience, Bulletin Board System, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, Cape Cod, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Speculation or Reasonably Logical Connection?

Considering my bad time management and difficulty prioritizing over the last year or so, I think I've made some good progress on my bachelor's project. I've done more research than needed for the level of academic rigor required. With some good advice from a past teacher, I’ve started an early morning writing habit. Work is getting done.

Before this point, I had focused on developing my thoughts and molding the source material into usable form. Trouble now arises when I try to fill conceptual empty spaces between facts and coherent, cohesive conclusions. Each time I make this kind of attempt, I ask whether the new premise comes from utter speculation or whether I've made a reasonably, logical connection.

I don't know of any hard and fast rule for making this determination. In the past, I would research my ass off to find answers. I would follow three directions for my research:

  1. Primary and secondary sources directly addressing the historical events and people
  2. Materials regarding the phenomena at hand (ie utopianism)
  3. From Wikipedia to anywhere on the Internet to the physical library, whatever topic came to mind:
    • Social psychology
    • Cognitive science
    • Social/moral/political philosophy
    • Sociology
    • Anthropology
    • Economics
    • Cultural studies
    • Religion
    • Spirituality
    • Literary criticism
    • Literary theory
    • and the list goes on and on ad infinitum
I got some mileage through this approach. However, it got exhausting and results entered diminishing returns, probably about a year ago.

At the point of diminishing returns, I get less out of research the more work I put into it. It takes time to develop ideas and grind out demonstrable work, even if just brainstorming or drafting. Just sitting down at my creative desk with pen and paper at this point would more than likely just frustrate and throw me into a dead end.

At my day job, I have a good opportunity to let my brain free reign to ruminate and develop ideas to say sane. Otherwise I'd just focus on angsty, personal unproductive thoughts.

Brainstorming ideas is fun. My brain, at least, has an excellent talent for it. A lot of great results come from my brainstorming, and much of it has potential, too. These prospects get even better when they have a sound basis.

The problem arrives at this point:
  • Are the ideas I'm coming up with pure speculation or a reasonably logical connection?
  • Am I pulling an idea out of my ass that just sounds good or would be fun to write about?
  • Does my idea have grounding in history and theory, or am I just enamored with a theory that I want to force onto history?
  • Am I just using the first idea that comes to mind, or do I have an idea that will stand some test of academic rigor?
  • How do you test the academic rigor of these kinds of ideas?
For now, I'm testing these types of ideas by asking
  1. Is the idea simple and elegant, does it beg the minimum number of questions compared to other ideas and
  2. Does the idea lend coherence and cohesiveness to the larger argument and project?
This approach serves my purposes for now. Is it something that can serve your purpose or do have your own approach?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Researcher's Tribute to the Internet

The growth and development of the Internet and mobile technology has become invaluable for my bachelors project. Online books, some for free on Google Books or for low cost through Amazon, has increased efficiency when it all comes to time, energy and money.

  • Google Books archiving old books and magazines
  • Academic and industry journals, like JSTOR, making articles available for low-cost purchase as PDFs
  • At least the Massachusetts Historical Society providing me with a PDF copy of a historical document for less than plane tickets, room and board

It has all given me access to information so much easier than before. Who knows if I would have found between a quarter to half this invaluable information without the Internet in its current incarnation.

Maybe I could have reached my current point today without the Internet, but I doubt it. I had done a share of Internet research before getting out of college, but I didn’t get far at all. Dead end after dead end sending me in endless circles.

Yahoo!, Metacrawler and the other search tools didn’t cut it. Had they not developed the search algorithms well enough to fit my needs? Had they not developed the subject hierarchies well enough to intuitively lead me where I needed to go? Had the Internet simply failed to reach the critical mass for the information I needed to get posted? Heck, maybe I just didn’t have the base knowledge to ask the right questions.

Who knows how all these factors have mixed and influenced each other? I’d like to think that I could have reached this point on my own without the help of the Internet. I’m hard put to say that would be the case, though. The progress I’ve made acquiring source material in just the last year or so tells me that the Internet contributes a lot to my current accomplishments.

With all this in mind, I’d like to thank the Internet and the people who work hard to create, post and otherwise provide content. If I had reached these heights in some other way, it would take a lot more time and/or money. Thank you for making acquiring this information possible and doing it efficiently. I may not have gotten here without your help. Thank you.

LINKS OF NOTE: Google Books, Amazon

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Will Never Look at Bananas in a Supermarket the Same Way Again

Last year, a few friends, my wife and I spent March 16 to March 27 in Costa Rica as first time visitors. More specifically, we stayed on the Caribbean Atlantic Coast resort town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and frequented the close by area. We had a lot of fun with the touristy stuff, from partying in Puerto Viejo to snorkeling, hiking to a waterfall and so much more.

After all is said and done, though, the not so obvious environmental and social irresponsibility of international banana conglomerates will stay with me the most. Everyone in our little travel group all agreed that we couldn't look at a banana in the supermarket the same way again.

I can’t claim naïveté to this type of issue. Intellectually, I know the food industry, world-wide, doesn't have a very good history of caring about the small farmer, the community where they grow food or how they affect the world while getting food to the supermarket shelf. Corporations' main goal is to increase profits for themselves and their shareholders in an amoral fashion, non-shareholders and non-humans be damned.

Exposure to confirming concrete experience makes intellectual fact all the more real, including:

  • Seeing vast banana plantations
  • Hearing from a resident of Costa Rican (albeit an immigrant in the tourist industry) about how mass production of bananas affects the people and environment
  • Hearing about the "packaging" of bananas once they hit the supermarket shelf
Probably the most instructive example of this American detachment from the corporate supermarket sourcing of our food comes from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show making fun of skinned bananas wrapped in plastic wrap at the supermarket. Imagine my surprise when our tour guide notified us this plastic-wrapped banana is organic and better for the environment while the banana in its own skin is very likely not!

Bananas are one of Costa Rica's major sources of income, tourism being the biggest and coffee competing with bananas. Unlike coffee, though, the banana industry started in the hands of a United States businessman and stayed in control of the US. Minor Keith, while building the first railroad from the US to Central America/Costa Rica, planted bananas alongside the tracks to provide his workers with an easy source for food. Introducing the bananas to the US, he also found a welcoming market for the tropical fruit.

Fast forward to the present, it's a long way from Costa Rica to the US. Our flight from Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica, with a quick layover in Miami took a total of five hours. Add onto that time (or extrapolation of time taken to ship non-humans and non-pets), the time it takes to ship bananas from major shipping warehouses or population centers like Chicago, New York, LA, Boston or some small town supermarket.

Most foods, if not properly prepped or treated, will not last the trip, especially not bananas. If anything, lower temperatures will cause too many of them to ripen too quickly. Not enough profit for no frills shipment. Just look at what happens when you put bananas into the refrigerator or freezer.

Form of shipment that exerts least amount of cognitive load is to spray the bananas with pesticides and preservatives, pick and load them earliest possible chance then ship them up to the US quick as possible. Most people, if not all, understand that transporting bananas all that distance doesn't help with the rapid climate change issue we hear about everyday.

Most efficient way to ship organic bananas and not grate on consumer patience is to skin them then vacuum seal them into a tight plastic wrapping. Vacuum seal preserves the profit margin from the elements. Removing the natural skin before wrapping in plastic makes for a better looking product and reduces how much unwrapping the consumer has to do to protect profit margin from consumer irritation and desire for aesthetic pleasure. Who thought plastic vacuum sealing a piece of natural fruit would be the way to go?

Off the cuff facts we heard from the Costa Rican resident in the tourist industry include the following:
  • Native Ticos working at banana plantations picking the bananas make the equivalent of $1 to $2 an hour
  • Banana industry and plantations monopolized by Chiquita and Dole
  • These US-based corporations have no problem crop dusting the banana plantations with pesticides that are illegal in the US, which leak into sources of water and cause all types of health issues for the native population

As if paying native workers substandard wages and exposing them to harmful chemicals wasn't enough, the banana industry took land and repurposed it to something radically different, banana plantations. A particular case sticks in my mind: kilometers of space from a highway to the border of Panama in the southwestern area where we stayed to the border of Panama had started as a river valley where Ticos fished.

The pictures posted show the banana plantation in question from the highway all the way south to Panama.

These pictures don't do justice to the amount of land in question, similar to how no matter how much knowing injustice with intellect doesn't mean understanding. Pictures, themselves, just can't capture the fullness and depth of reality.

A map might provide a little more perspective to how many people were displaced by the market demand for bananas and the kind of drastic change to nature that greed and ignorance can cause:

View Larger Map

As much as I had intellectually known that big multinational corporations don't look out for the common good of communities where materials are sourced, this trip to Costa Rica struck the truth of the matter to my core. Worse than my darkest imagination, social and environmental injustice is real, and part of it is in Costa Rica.

I wish i had this raw perspective before going and hope other people have this real understanding without having to travel long distances. People should still travel to expand their perspective, understanding and resolve. The fact that this kind of expansion has to have negative connotations just makes me a sad.

This experience of mine in Costa Rica makes me proud to participate in a local, fair trade food co-op, Edible Alchemy. The 2-hour commute there and back feels minimal to bring further social and environmental justice to our world. It feels good to
  • Keep money in the local economy
  • Reduce pollution and the environmental impact of food reaching my belly
  • Support community rather than dollar-to-dollar interactions, both between me and the co-op and other members and between the co-op and their food sources
  • Encourage multi-culture agriculture practices rather than monoculture (our particular co-op switches up the produce and fruit that gets distributed based on what's available)
  • Help reduce farmer industry dependence on government subsidies, thus minimizing artificial manipulations of markets that causes further dependence on government subsidies and tax payer dollars
  • Encourage organic, low-impact agricultural methods reducing health and environmental impacts
  • Reduce unjust attacks on small farmers by big corporations through patent law to destroy competition
  • Reduce humanity's attempt to gain totalitarian control of biodiversity, which could risk the existence of life as we know it or even the chance of life surviving some type of natural disaster
  • Increase social and environmental justice in foreign lands by encouraging fair trade during times of the year that Midwesterners can't get proper nutrition from local sources
  • And amazing enough, saving on bulk items. Economy of scale doesn’t seem to benefit customers of Whole Foods and other commercial storefronts, but they do at Edible Alchemy

And that's all that I can think of right now! I bet there are plenty more benefits to myself and the world that I can't think of off the top of my head. I look forward to participating and seeing how much the world changes.

They have a saying in Costa Rica: Pura vida. It pretty much means, "It's cool. It's all good." Sadly the state of world agriculture markets suck. With co-ops like Edible Alchemy fighting the good fight, someday we'll be able to say the world agriculture markets are pura vida.

Links to Banana Sources that Help Me Feel Less Guilty:
Links of Interest:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Wife's C2E2 Panel: The Geek Girl and the Artist

The wife has become something of a gender geek activist. She has witnessed and heard plenty of frustrations regarding the under representation of female voices in

  • Sciences
  • Tech industry
  • Geek/nerd culture
  • Entertainment
The above list is not all inclusive.

She has decided to dip her toe into the arena by putting together a panel at C2E2: The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, called The Geek Girl and the Artist.

A quote from the Facebook event page to whet your whistle:

Topics addressed by this panel will include (but not be limited to): how geek culture shaped the panelists interests/focuses as artists; how geek culture shaped their identities as women; how the panelists view gender norms as playing a part in geek culture and vice versa; how to take niche geek interests and use it to inform artistic expression and professional pursuits; what are negative/positive aspects the panelists have experienced within geek culture and how they relate to their identities as both women and artists/communicators.
Oh yeah, she was guest on Loot the Room podcast to promote the panel.

It should turn out be interesting!

LINKS OF INTEREST: C2E2: The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, The Geek Girl and the Artist, Facebook event page, Loot the Room Podcast

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Ruminations on Sociability in Animals While at the Aquarium

I felt like a human this past Monday at the aquarium watching beluga whales. They had trainers interacting with them and all, but I still felt touched. So touched, in fact, that I came close to tears.

I tend to feel that way when characters in fiction or on TV and movies let their guard down with each other or by themselves. Maybe it comes from some voyeuristic tendency, as I don’t have this reaction interacting with other people in the moment. Maybe it has something to with the privacy created by people focusing totally on something other than me.

The whales and trainers got me going when the explanation of how the trainers win trust of the whales. Giving them fish and scratching their tongues, that’s all I remember from the list of things that the belugas like humans doing for them.

Trust built through bribery, trainers move onto teaching the belugas tricks and simple communication. I jest about bribery. The trainers and belugas reminded me a bit of building a relationship with a cat. More like I remembered someone telling me that cats have strong social tendencies, even though I often thought of cats as loners. Feral cats form colonies, though.

Not to sound like a crazy cat lady, but the wife and I have a great relationship with our cats. It has improved a lot since we had to chase the girl cat around a basement to stuff her in a crate and take her home. Now she sits next to me on a chair when I’m using the computer at the kitchen table. Now, seven or so years later, we have a family of four that loves spending lots of time together.

Per Wikipedia, belugas have strong social tendencies, too. Doesn’t come as a surprise considering their show. I didn’t know it at the time, though.

The trainers and belugas showed their great relationship. Trainers showed tons of warmth, generosity and sincerity. Belugas displayed tons of energy doing tricks and swimming around, only overtaken by their desire for food and affection. Their connection felt authentic, sincere, reciprocal, enthusiastic and warm.

Their interaction brought heart to the idea of a contract. We generally think of contracts as cold, boring pieces of paper that suck life out of people relating to each other. People and non-human entities make contracts to protect themselves from possible abuses or to make sure that one party does what the other wants them to do. Contracts focus on taking from the relationship what each party can get.

The belugas and trainers focused more on giving than taking. Maybe the whales didn’t so much. They REALLY liked getting fish and having their tongues rubbed, but they looked grateful and humbled by all the attention. Even as they looked impatient doing tricks, their irritation seemed not so much about getting food or a tickle. They wanted to engage the trainer and connect.

At the same time, the trainers looked a little bored when the belugas went off to do their tricks. They must have felt proud by the whales wowing the audience, but they looked bored and impatient to get back to connecting and interacting with the belugas.

The show returned life to contracts by focusing more on connecting through giving and taking rather than taking benefit from one or the other. Being social is fundamental for many animals, from humans to whales to cats, even to plenty of fish that come together to form schools.

Social instincts play such a central role, at least for me, that seeing it in action chokes me up a wee little bit. But I could just be sensitive.

LINKS OF INTEREST: beluga whales, Feral cats

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Storylab Chicago: Keeping Us Human through Storytelling

Last week at the prompting of a performer-of-many-trades friend, I had the delight of attending Storylab Chicago. The Black Rock Pub & Kitchen hosted the event and apparently welcomes Storylab every third Wednesday of the month.

Six storytellers provided fuel for laughs, reflections to ponder and even some sighs of sadness. The night provided a great opportunity for them to get up in front of the crowd to either have fun performing or challenging themselves with something new. At least one of the story tellers got up there because she challenged herself to do something new everyday in the year before her thirtieth birthday. Another story teller got up there as yet another avenue for creative expression.

I have the feeling my friend did it for a variety of reasons. She wanted to challenge herself. She wanted to share in the experience after spending time in the audience. She wanted to share with friends and strangers. She wanted to practice what she had learned in a class.

They have an egalitarian and populist method to get people signed up for performance at future Storylab events. I would have thought someone would have to take the Storylab Chicago's Storytelling for Everyone class, know someone who organizes Storylab or have some kind of reputation as a storyteller to get up there. After all, the place was packed and there is only so much time.

Anyone can get up there and tell their story. Well, there is a process to get up there, but essentially anyone can. You just sign up for the mailing list and put a star by your name. They probably won't let you get up there right away or at the next storytelling event. As I said, the place was packed and there's only so much time. Indicate you want to get up there and tell a story, though, and the organizers will get you scheduled to get up there at one of the future events. Bunch of people I was with wanted to try reserving a night just for their stories.

I like seeing the organizers of Storylab keeping up an oral tradition that we could see fall by the wayside otherwise. We all spend a lot of time on the Internet, doing the whole social networking thing. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Four Square, name your poison. We can easily spend hour on top of hours on these social network sites, sharing our stories, quips and opinions. A lot of our storytelling has transferred onto the Internet.

Suffice to say, Social Networking and the Internet provides an opportunity for people who don't have access to other people. It even provides an avenue of expression for people who may not care for verbal communication. We have seen great advances in society, science, the arts and a number of things because of the Internet and Social Networking. It has helped the human race evolve faster and more robustly than before. A lot of good has come out of the Internet and Social Networking.

But we can become dependent on these tools and maybe even addicted to them. Just look at people who REALLY get into World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. Others love to spend tons of time on Facebook and other social networking sites. I can easily spend my time doing research, reading the news, following the stock market.

Heck, I'll admit it, I'd rather communicate through e-mail or chat than talk on the phone. I have no idea why other than I spend too much time on the phone at work already. For many of us, we find a lot of enjoyment while using the Internet and sometimes just plain prefer it over the material world.

I have no grand argument as to why keeping up this kind of oral tradition strikes me as so important. Maybe I will one day. I just think keeping up this type of tradition, even if it has to be done intentionally rather than organically, helps us to hold onto an aspect of what makes us human on a live basis. We share in real time, sometimes without as much of a conscious thought, we're present and we come closer to feeling like there's some sense in the world, even if just for a few hours or even a couple minutes. It's an important feeling and activity.

It's something that makes us, I believe, more human.

QUOTES OF NOTE: Storylab Chicago, The Black Rock Pub & Kitchen, Storytelling for Everyone, storytelling, oral tradition, World of Warcraft

Monday, January 16, 2012

Good Short Literature at Your Fingertips: The Chicago Reader Presents 2012 Pure Fiction

Every year the Chicago Reader, the local independent culture and politics newspaper puts out the Pure Fiction issue. They released the 2012 Pure Fiction Issue this past Thursday.

I probably wouldn't have picked it up from the side-of-the-road box if I had my phone or some other reading material. Being an election year also contributed to my inspiration. I've got plenty of benefits industry magazines to read for staying "ahead of the game" and for decluttering the home that I don't normally read the indepth newspapers. But hey,a fiction issue makes for a good gateway back into reading a newspaper.

The first story alone, Sky Boys: Lunch is served 69 stories above Manhattan by Steve Trumpeter, has easily made up for the cost of a little more clutter. A piece of "ancillary" historical fiction dramatizing Charles C Ebbets' photograph Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper, it provides a work up to the photograph while also giving the reader perspective on the life and times of someone who had the career of putting together a skyscraper at the 69th story.

I've seen this photo in passing plenty of times. It always just sat in the background without grabbing my attention, though. This story transported me into the photograph. I imagined myself on top of those girders. Actually, more like I felt the fear of someone standing all the way up there. I could feel the paralysis that would overtake me if I looked down. The urge to grab onto a vertical pillar overtook me. Then there was the feeling of falling backwards to my doom after relaxing and trying to eat my sandwich. Pretty scary but a lot more fun to happen in my imagination than to experience it in real life.

The story spans about six or seven magazine-sized pages, and if I didn't have to sit in front of a computer to work or do work stuff at home, I would've flown through the story in about a half hour, enjoying every moment of it.

I've only read that story so far. Hopefully the other ones match it's muster or better. The other stories are:

LINKS OF INTEREST: Chicago Reader, 2012 Pure Fiction Issue, Charles C Ebbets', Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper

Friday, January 13, 2012

Finding Out I was Trying to Re-Invent the Wheel with My Research

Last night I bought a book for my bachelors project. Nothing too exciting in that statement. In many ways, though, this new book acts as a continuation on a book I bought and read more than ten years ago.

The authors of the new book don't say as much. They say that they're exploring territory that the first book and other books in the field didn't look at. The general field I'm trying to use, the sociology of knowledge, has something to do with my project.

The main thrust of the first book doesn't go in the direction that I need or my project, though. I think the direction of the second book will go where I need to go. Just from the preface, I feel like I'm going to learn the language and vocabulary that I need to talk about my project.

Researching without an instructor or having proficiency in research techniques causes this type of problem. Without either of these types of guidance, learning or coming up with a theory almost turns into re-inventing the wheel. Adult working has taught me that this approach wastes valuable time.

A Java programming book I read introduced the concept to me, but I was too naive at the time to understand. Apparently programmers like to share templates for menial subroutines. Much faster to copy and paste a simple template then move onto doing something more creative and higher level. It's out there. Why waste time re-inventing the wheel?

I have yet to start reading the main body of this new book. I just read the Introduction and Preface. It has gotten me excited so far. My situation frustrates me a little, not having been introduced ten years to this book written in the 1966. It is what it is, though. Life always has lessons for us.

Who's really to say that I have a lesson to learn here, though? I found the book while brainstorming how to articulate some thoughts in my mind by using Wikipedia. Maybe I hadn't found this book more than ten years ago because the technology, Wikipedia, wasn't there for me to explore my thoughts.

I couldn't even intelligently talk about my thoughts or the particular books given to me to read more than ten years ago. Maybe I didn't have the technology available to explore my thoughts in relation to the world of ideas without having to explain and justify myself.

Who knows? I didn't even really know what I was doing with this project more than ten years ago. I just wanted to write a dystopian novel to graduate college. I had primordial ideas. I originally wanted to write a thriller based on angst and boredom than some kind of heady meditation on social justice.

I appreciated what I have learned, though. The process has taught me how to learn. I've had some interesting experiences going through library and historical society archives. I've seen how the growth of the Internet helps researchers engage in more efficient research from their own den or kitchen table rather than having to travel everywhere. I've also learned how to prospect for sources through book references, journal article references and, heck, on Wikipedia!

All in all, I've come out well enough in the deal. And, who knows? Maybe if I hadn't been taking this long to make this progress on my project, maybe I wouldn't have kept up with online research processes as well as I have.

LINKS OF INTEREST: sociology of knowledge, Wikipedia

Friday, January 06, 2012

Tonight There Will Be Adventure that Hopefully Stimulates Me

Tonight I will be Ezekiel, the Elf Avenger, in a home brewed world that I don't know the name of. Ezekiel along with his companions has started a quest to bring the 5 desert sieges together to combine forces against some oncoming Doom (details unknown as of now).

Tonight will be session three of this campaign. Two sessions ago, we proved our mettle against the number 2 ranked gladiator team, negotiated with the leader of our siege and joined a caravan. Last session we fought off scavenger bird men out of their territory that attacked us.

I'm interested in seeing where we'll go tonight. The caravan has crossed the line of no return. We either have to reach the next siege, or we die in the desert. Can we do it?

Hopefully tonight's session will also revive the joy in playing D&D 4th Edition. Nothing to do with my fellow players, I'm feeling a little burnt out by the game. Not totally sure what it is. Could real life outside of the game effect the joy I'm getting out of the game? Is the game getting too repetitive? Is D&D 4th Edition really too combat oriented?

Does the game no longer stimulate me as much because I haven't participated in "real life" so much. I work a lot. I don't really go out so I can save money and pay off credit cards. I haven't read anything all that much for recreation. I frankly haven't done much for recreational activities (doing a lot of reproductive economic work at home like washing dishes, laundry and trying to remove clutter). I haven't worked on my bachelors project consistently for awhile (some amount of procrastination & the reproductive economic work just getting in the way).

Our current economy, personal finances and retirement accounts have sucked in tons of my attention, too. Feels like I'm not giving it enough attention, either. Feels like I should be reading more and keeping up on financial news, so I can make sure to buy and sell at the right times to maximize profit and minimize loss.

Heck, I hardly have the patience to read anything, anymore. Maybe trying to read with a bad cold and sinus allergies doesn't provide the optimum time to read. I remember loving to read at some point in my life.

I could probably go on and on about my time management woes. All I want, though, is to have a stimulating time playing a fantasy role playing game tonight. Hopefully I can get it.