Said by Dr. Morrison: "The physics is indeterminate but the math is determinate."

Dr. Morrison asked the class to state the first law of thermodynamics. There were fifty graduate students and zero answers. Fifteen or so seconds passed, tense on our side, amused on his side, before I was finally able to put myself back in that earlier place, and blurt out "The conservation of energy!" On the side of graduate students I take this episode to be more illuminating than humiliating. There is a qualitative difference between a graduate student in physics and an undergraduate student in physics. I assume -- no, I observe -- that there is also a qualitative difference between a graduate student in physics and a professor of physics. What did the class' failure demonstrate? That sometimes, in order to learn the advanced material, one must forget the basics.
Some time ago a fellow on FurAffinity asked me why I do not have an icon, and by extension why I do not draw myself. I begged out of giving an answer, saying that it would be long and self-absorbed. The "self-absorbed" part still stands, but I do have a short answer now: it is because, insofar as I am a fox, I am a fox made of words, and insofar as I am a fisher, I do not want to be seen.
A reply to a locked post by Mina about styles of communication online. I think it might read better without context.

While I wouldn't use your terminology, I think I see the distinction you mean. More, I find myself wanting the best of both worlds: the explicitness and engagement of the one, and the respect and gentleness of the other. Sure, the explicitness and engagement are used as excuses for assholish behavior, and the respect and gentleness are only shown towards insiders, but they're still worthwhile overall. I generally fail on at least one of those four counts, though. :/
If the success of your theory's agenda leads to the elimination of some term, then your theory abuses language. If the adoption of a theory entails holding some term or terms in uniform contempt, disdain and dismissal; if it takes some other word and makes it inescapable and indispensable; or if it enforces a style of writing, so that only work in that style can be recognized as a work of the theory: then it abuses language. Theory should enrich language, not diminish it. Take into consideration the theory that seeks to persuade you against an opinion, but beware the theory that seeks to make it unthinkable.
A comment else-journal.

A world in which a person can walk on water is an interesting one, but a world in which the symbol of walking on water can have as big an effect on humanity as the actual deed would is an incredible one. This is a world in which it is precisely symbols that have the power of miracles.

Maybe people yearn for a grander world. But maybe what they yearn for is the grandeur of this world, present but occluded. Or, because I really feel like I'm not articulating the thought well: one can feel meant for a better world, and one day discover that this better world is the one you already live in.
I had reason to think of this old email recently. It is from the summer of 2002, shortly before I cut off all contact with friends for about half a year, a period I called my capital-A "Avoidance." I realized later that the email was a circuitous way of asking Raki permission to criticize her, years before I learned how to say such a thing as "I'm angry at you." She didn't reply.

Many of my thoughts have no further life to live after I first articulate them. Not so for the idea of friendship first expressed here.

... )

Inland

Mar. 3rd, 2011 02:17 pm
There are questions which every person must, in one form or another, ask himself. Such are, 'What have I to do with my nation's politics?' 'Can I fully mean what I say?' 'What is worthwhile?' 'What do I know of others?' 'What have I learned?' and 'How shall I create myself?' To answer such a question is to explore oneself. The ones who can best answer these questions are the ones who have most thoroughly explored themselves. Yet there are some who have only begun this inner exploration. They can recite all that resides within their one horizon, but know of nothing beyond. They dwell always in the one region of their mind which is best-explored, this necessarily being the part which borders the outside world, and it is a region fully settled: they live in that coastal city you may call their behavior, unable or unwilling to live without all its conveniences. Ponder if you want the value of city life, with all of humanity's capabilities at hand, and the value of commerce, of contact and trade with those other lands across the oceans. Their value is real. But there may, there should, come a day when your answers cease to satisfy you, or when you come to see that they were not the answers you sought in the first place. Then you must turn away from the ocean, away from the city, and fix your gaze on the opposite horizon. Your truths lie inland.

A philosopher's business is with those questions which every person must ask himself, whether or not the question is posed in a familiar manner. He does not answer them: one who proffers such answers may be an activist, leader, priest, critic, therapist, parent, or teacher, but he will not be a philosopher. A philosopher, I may say, assists with those questions. He brings them up, questions them anew, reveals what paltry things pass as their answers -- but when he interposes his own answer, no matter how powerful, he ceases in philosophy. A philosopher knows that each person is a continent unto himself, a continent traversable by no-one else. The philosopher may be an outfitter for the ventures inland, one who provides you food, clothing, compasses (but not maps!), mounts, or even weapons. He may be a trainer, who can teach you how to hike, climb, swim, camp, hunt, forage, and cook, skills unnecessary in daily life but vital in exploration. He may even, on those rare occasions when his inner terrain resembles yours, be a guide for a short time. Or he may be nothing more than the braggart in the room, who tells incredible and incessant stories of the wonders he has found, and provokes you to find out for yourself whether they do exist, to prove him wrong or prove him right. But one thing he will never be is your cartographer.

Ani DiFranco sang, "Art is why I get up in the morning. But my definition ends there; you know, it doesn't seem fair that I am living for something I can't even define..." For years I said the same of philosophy. But now I have a late answer to the question of what philosophy is, an answer which came only as I started to find my feet as a physicist. Why this irony? Why did the answer come only now, when I no longer live for philosophy?
These are two things you should never have to justify: caring and not caring.
In my third year at Chicago, when tiny pieces of me were starting to break away, I visited Larry McEnerney for the last time. I had shown him The Nine Charioteers, perhaps hoping that he would sense the despair voiced in it. He began to articulate his thoughts about its structure, but stopped when I could only stare blankly, his uncanny teacher's intuition probably telling him that I was not in a position to understand my creation. Dr. McEnerney said instead, "You have great things ahead of you," then the conversation turned elsewhere. I did cherish that statement. That little thing gave some warmth in the cold places I was subsequently to go.

It was not his greatest gift to me, though. His greatest gift was the patient rebuke, repeated several times through the course of our encounters, for an arrogance developed over the course of a lifetime: a gentle rebuke, without anger or scorn, yet forceful enough to rattle that arrogance where very little else could. The memory of those rebukes, whose lessons I have still not fully learned, guards against the excesses to which memories of praise can lead a person. Praise will warm you: and if you are enchained, it will warm you in your chains.

Larry's statement was one of a series, the most recent of which came only a few months ago, when Dr. Rindler, my mentor from UT Dallas, encouraging me in my ordeal of changing advisors, wrote, "You have as brilliant a mind as any I have come across." What am I to do with this series, this wedge in the door of my self-knowledge? I only realized a few months ago, in the wake of learning to not adapt, that I have kept it more secret than any of my shames or regrets. I thought for a long time that I kept the praise secret out of an aversion to bragging, as though only civility kept me from revealing the thorough grooming I had received from an early age.

It's not a grooming that I can beg sympathy for. I benefited and continue to benefit, and my strongest aversion to that aspect of my development is a recurrent anguish that some of my friends, equally meriting such grooming, did not receive it... my blessings are not all internal. I brag that mine was not an easy clay to shape, that I resisted my schooling to a degree that few else who have still continued their schooling can claim, but the defiance was not complete. There was always that gap in the back of my defenses, through which slipped such notions as brilliance, superior intelligence, genius...

It is a strong river into which I was thrown so early, and you cannot rightly expect a child to resist it: the most you can hope is that he keeps his head above the water. But it has a chaotic flow, and can take one strange places. There was one step of this long grooming, a "Talent Identification Program" where middle-schoolers who did well on an early SAT took college courses over the summer, in which a wild sequence of coincidences and events took place. At an age when most children thus groomed would have started to wonder whether they were geniuses, I started to wonder whether I was a dragon.

I can't say it didn't make sense! What else but strangeness could explain all the strangeness? I never quite believed that I was a dragon, but held it as an aspiration instead. My draconity occupied a realm of speculation and fantasy below, but not less important than, the categories of knowledge and belief. In certain periods it is right for your fantasies to be more important to you than your beliefs. And I can say, with some assurance, that thinking about my draconity filled the same emotional role that speculating about a future brilliance did for others. One believes in dragons and in geniuses for much the same reason.
From a conversation with Rax.

Also: I acquired Barthes' A Lover's Discourse and have read portions of it. I dislike it. It is not a book about love, but rather a book about infatuation. I could go on at much greater length, but if you would find such a criticism overly harsh, then I will skip such exposition.

I would argue there are portions that are about infatuation, but I'm happy to hear critique of it --- I don't think it's perfect, just that it's been useful to me. I'm sorry it hasn't been useful to you!

Eh, on second thought, I don't want to go to greater length. The one thing I did say can stand as a summary for most of what the longer critique would contain.

On the other hand, this situation did provide the opportunity to clarify why I have such strong reactions toward books, most books in fact. Emerson says in Self-Reliance, "Who has more obedience than I masters me." This seems like just a bit of self-indulgent contradiction until you realize that the mastery he speaks of is not the mastery of a slave, child or wife, but the mastery of a text. The texts I master are the ones to which I show the most obedience: I become willing to follow their fancies and self-indulgences, accept their descriptions, and think in their terms, and one criterion for mastering a text would be to understand it (obey it) even more than the original author. So the fact that there are some writers, like Heidegger and D&G, who leave me with a feeling of revulsion, indicates that were I to show them such obedience they would abuse it. (I do not claim they abuse all their readers.) Similarly, when I come across writers toward whom I feel disdainful (like Barthes or Derrida), it indicates that I could offer them such submission, but they would not do anything worthwhile with it, they would neglect it. I do not claim that this is the only way or picture of reading, but it is one that explains the strength of my responses.

I really, really, really like your metaphor, and I think it's entirely reasonable that different people would find what Barthes has to do with that obedience either useful or not. Thank you.

Going a little bit further: after accusing Derrida elsewhere on your journal of feigning mastery of a text, I started to wonder what counts as true mastery. Extending the idea above, I think that disobedience of a text is only possible from a standpoint of mastery, because you can't disobey what you aren't in a position to obey. So what I see at play in Derrida is not only a feigned mastery but a feigned disobedience, as though he only learned enough from Austin to make a point of spurning him.

If I had critiqued Barthes it would have ended up similarly. There are times when the full articulation of an aversive response counts as a good criticism, but this was not one of them.
I don't much like writing about the mundane details of my life, but I think I owe it to my friends to do so. So, awhile back, I decided to write big updates every six months or so, to keep my friends up to date. I fell a little behind in doing so, but here I'm making up for it. And if you're curious why this appears on Livejournal too: all my important writing goes to Dreamwidth, but since the only thing this post is for is to give information to my friends, I don't mind it going up both places.

Friendship )

Living on my own )

Graduate school )

Writing and Drawing )

Miscellaneous )

[1] They call their abode "The House of Intransitive Verbs".
[2] Though I still maintain that cutting ties with her was one of the smartest things I've done in my life.
[3] Mainly because I started out afraid to phone people unprompted. My biggest struggles of the Dallas period were matters of overcoming fear.
[4] That was the year before the line acquired brand names.
[5] Also, I'm rather arrogant. Maybe you could tell.
[6] When a medium varies slowly compared to the wavenumber and wavelength of light, the light can be treated like a classical particle. This is called photon acceleration. The most nifty thing is that you straight up use angular frequency, rather than energy. This means that the moments of the distribution function take on new, unusual forms. I'll stop now.
[7] A slow process, if you do it right.
[8] And right now I'm trying to finish a short story rather than working on comics, so drawing is stalled for the moment.
[9] At first I was not happy with the seat I received, since it's the least private of them. But I'm the only person in the place with sufficient desk/table space, so it turned out well, and the absence of the others even secures some privacy.
[10] A fact I like. Rooms feel much more spacious without ceiling tiles, and the exposed infrastructure can be fascinating. This room has obsolete transparent water pipes still in place, with standing water in the bends.
Reading today's XKCD comic reminded me of a criticism I wrote of it back in 2008, prompted by Nick. Here it is. I think I went too far in a few places, but in others I made good points. There's much I could say in praise of the comic as well, but I think other people have that covered.

Considering the uneasiness I often feel when reading XKCD, which I've only managed to partly articulate, I'd love to see such a critique. Maybe we could tag-team the thing.

I'm definitely curious... I suspect the things that rub you the wrong way are the same things that do me.

Okay, I'll give it a shot. Of course, there's much positive that I could (but won't) say. *pulls snark muzzle off*

First, something that may matter far more to me than you: the author's naive attitude toward science. He seems to be unaware of one of the biggest shortcomings of science, the fact that only a practitioner of a science can accurately judge its strengths and weaknesses. This comic displays that well. Here's a rather arcane problem that arose within science, a problem whose derivation would (even nowadays) require graduate-level E&M and statistical mechanics training, based on a measurement that's way beyond the capabilities of any undergraduate lab. So, practically speaking, if you pursue a career in physics you have to take both the fact that a crisis existed in the first place, and the fact that the measurements of blackbody radiation gave unpredicted results, on authority. (You could look up the derivation and the data, but what good is that without understanding?) I have to resist the urge to make a parody of that comic which reads, "Science: If you had six-plus years of specialized training you'd know that it works, bitches."

However, the broader problem here is that Munroe speaks from a standpoint in which science is ideology. That standpoint allows him to write comics like this, complete with imagery that's Nietzschian in its arrogance. His is a worldview in which creationists and conspiracy theorists are deadly foes in need of battling, rather than comparatively unimportant manifestations of a much broader (culture of) ignorance. It's a worldview whose inhabitants can find this satisfying as a comic. This gets on my nerves because I think it's bad to turn science into ideology.

Oh well, I can at least get some smugness from the fact that I know more math and physics than Munroe does. (Seriously, his most sophisticated math jokes are about Laplace transforms. That's not even graduate level.)

Maybe I should gripe about the art some. It seems like Munroe actually tried to expand his abilities as an artist in the early stages of the strip, but nowadays he's content to pump out another shaded mountain every few months to keep the apologists fed. Although gender ambiguity being a fearful thing even in a stick-figure comic, you can recognize women by their hair.

As far as his sense of wonder is concerned... the best way I can summarize it is that it is safely confined. In XKCD, wonder is not something capable of transfiguring (revealing a new aspect of, renewing the beauty of) the everyday, but something that occurs away from the world, something that leaves it behind and thus leaves it (or rather its standing description and/or (mis)understanding) unchallenged. It's the wonder of a grade-school child, who builds a fantasy world inaccessible to adults, yet unknowingly populates that world with nothing but the tropes and archetypes built by those adults' preoccupations... a child who shows his affection for his heroes by turning them into ninjas and spies. (There's much more that can be said about XKCD's childishness... its frequent return to juvenile taunts as a subject in need of undermining, for instance.) It's the wonder of waking up before the dawn, admiring the sunrise, then spending the rest of the day exactly as anyone else does. It's the wonder of building a ball pit in your room in which to trade quotes from pop culture. It's the wonder of a person for whom a lack of philosophical introspection is scary, but taking that introspection seriously is scarier. Munroe is honest enough (and he's very, very honest, I think) that "ha ha only serious" moments frequently show up in which wonder appears, is given its minute, and is then put back into its drawer by the punchline: here and here are two good examples. I think it's rather telling that the comic's single most profound vision occurred as a sketch drawn in boredom... as the extra title is quick to tell you, as though Munroe were trying to excuse himself.

Wonder, like love, does not flourish within ideology.
Our ideas require upkeep.

A new perspective may be found (during a journey, say) but not taught. Instruction cannot change a person's position.

...not an inversion but a refiguring of values...

One ascribes those feats of learning to genius so as not to learn from their example.

If you are inept at metaphor, you will be inept at morality. During my life in graduate school a certain bad metaphor masqueraded as a theory, but I wish to say nothing about it besides the fact that my thoughts are considerably more advanced than viruses or bacteria.

I think that no important activity ever disappears from human life. Though for me cultivation has become figurative, it has lost few of its characteristics.

I recognize five successively rare levels of understanding of a subject, as a person in turn becomes able to use it, explain it, justify it, make it funny, and reveal its beauty.

My writing style involves the selective defiance of grammar.

Yet there are some who cannot commit to ambiguity: they mean a part of what their words do. I revel in ambiguity, straining to exhaust my meaning, and I exhaust myself in the process.

Aye, you gazed long into the abyss, but you flinched when the abyss found you adorable.

Ethics cannot be practiced as though it were a skill.

Superiority is the enemy of mastery.

During my last semester as an undergraduate I earned an infinity in a geometry class, and I have been spending it ever since.

Schedule ourselves as we try, we will always have our days and our nights.

Many times I had to struggle between inspiration and responsibility: to decide between a steady light and a distant, intermittent sound. By my tracks you may trace such decisions.

Boredom is a sin against intelligence: thus are our schools something diabolic.

But I would rather be as eccentric as Mercury, so that higher laws may be discovered in my orbit.

I complicate my ideas in order to not lose them during the trip.

I've asked some of my best questions while tired. Exhaustion is particularly useful when I forget that an assurance is less than an answer.

What one doesn't understand seems like a ritual, and what one misunderstands seems feigned.

After doing so much algebra, /* referring here to the elementary textbooks */ the experience would flow beyond the time spent in front of book and paper. I found my steps forming the rudiments of something that resembled dance, as I gave a tiny joyful dip every time I inverted a rational function, or drew back slightly, as though from a sudden, light impact, every time I cancelled a factor. Of course, one can distinguish between dance and play. By this point I could take multiple steps inside my head, so the pen restrained my body only intermittently. Beyond even that buoyant stage, the actions would enter my dreams themselves, and in doing so exhaust me far more than the waking practice. The night presented me with some formidable task, I think an operation on two functions with a half-dozen factors total; however, the coefficients were nebulous things that sometimes changed during the calculation, so that I always discovered a mistake before completing the problem. Thus I would ceaselessly calculate until morning, never solving the problem. I once regarded such dreams as a kind of nightmare, but now I recognize them to be my most advanced variety of practice -- the most advanced because they invariably leave me exhausted the next day. Dreams such as these make my methods reflexive. The exhaustion they bring is a low price for the permanency and quickness of skill attained with their help.

To acquire a skill, practice it while awake. To acquire a talent, practice it in your dreams.

Some people think that if the fox is immoral, the rooster is thereby moral. Rather, the import there is that in some relationships -- call them hierarchical -- either or neither party, but not both, can be ethical. We vie over everything valuable, morality included.

It is a poor experimentalist who sees only with his eyes.

I do not know why I hate silence. I have cultivated such rare talents to direct against silence, talents such as eloquence, rigor, expressiveness, even volume -- but there always exists a silence greater than I can break. When I find myself alone in basements and tunnels, or rather places of resonance, I sing. I voice myself and can thus accompany myself, but I can only do so while my voice holds out. A greater silence draws me out of every hiding, home and history included. Even if to nobody: what am I when I am exposed?

I savor fear: it sharpens my senses.

Nevertheless, I have to explore my foundations, locked, guarded and policed though they are.

I would tell you to study yourself, except I do not know whether you would do so in a school or in a college. For twelve years the magisters tried to convince me that learning is painful; fortunately, what I learned is that some suffer to know.

I once wondered what it would be like to be diagonalized. She or I, but not both, could bring my own values to the center and leave me otherwise empty. Whose basis am I now in? Whose basis might I be?

...to take my expansion to the next higher order, though the new term may prove too complicated.

...my joy: developing the rudiments of the ethical geometry in solitude, and applying them in friendship...

...a man of small angles and small deviations. He was a special case of himself. Eventually a final approximation had been made, putting him in exact form, a human being who could be solved. But has the equation of your life been written yet?

...and I spent a year of winter without friends. Everything bright in me turned colors of flames then fell away. In response to false springs I have bloomed irrationally.

My friends are something heroic: they have slain monsters in me.

My friends have sometimes been hurt by my words, and perhaps I will someday help them to heal. Etymologically, to write is to wound, and to read is to counsel. But what business do you have with your words' history?

...speaking to each other in concepts of endearment...

What others call comfort I name calm. (Have we existed together inside, and safe from, a storm?)

I always fall in a straight line. Once I learned that the landings became easier.

I can recognize a mood that a person rarely experiences by the stiffness of its (his?) expression.

:I once wondered at the disparity between thinking and doing in a certain essay.: There comes a time in every thinker's life when he commits to a greater task than he can achieve. When you spend much more time thinking than doing -- and that is not a bad thing! -- then you "do" unreasonably.

Most of us would correct, but not teach, someone we dislike. People will often learn more from your lessons than you want them to.

I walked all paths but arrived by one, which I call my own.

Stupidity is more complex than brilliance, but brilliant people do not like to acknowledge that fact.

Wonder is the easiest emotion to exploit.

:Take this paragraph apart.: I carried four white, male, and for the most part dead philosophers to Austin, namely Austin himself, Cavell, Thoreau, and Emerson. Austin taught me that I do in saying, and moreover do in writing. Cavell steals raccoon-like into grand and secure abodes, where I, with lesser dexterity, have often followed. Emerson shows me the greed and appetite of profuse thinkers. Finally, Thoreau I can call a philosopher without reservation. I love physics, so I refused to carry a history of philosophy to Austin, though after moving there I discovered that I had packed one away irregardless. I am a graduate student, not a philosopher, but I still cannot avoid philosophy: it is in my way.

Every action can be done ethically, but that does not mean every action should be done ethically. Not everything can be significant.

Often I mean myself. How could I communicate otherwise?

A good reason to understand the laws of physics is to weaken the laws of humanity.

The people in first-tier schools have more talent, those in the second-tier more dignity, and those in the third-tier more kindness than the remainder.

I dearly enjoy living as a counterexample to many a contemporary thesis.

I have sometimes felt betrayed by a friend. That is another reason for gratitude. Everything coming from humanity comes better from a friend.

Extreme moods are not conveyed well in extreme terms.

I can never be completely true to my capacity for reason, just as I can never completely honor what is good in me, and can never be completely faithful to what I am.

The art of thinking is to converse with yourself in a single identity, an identity you cannot be given.

Midnight: Who scattered the seeds of wisdom in such a cruel pattern? So that now beauty and wisdom only grow together in walled gardens, and the seeds that grow in city streets and urban cracks are gassed, trampled and hated? We hate urban wisdom. It grows in the cracks in us: it decays us. From the highest points of our structures we rage at what we overshadow. There are internal catastrophes waiting to happen, when what is loftiest in us will most surely collapse.

How shall we create ourselves?
I should speak with joy of the sudden appearance, of the beauty of an angle unanticipated. Do I?

I love this world. What is my love? Can I in any sense call it returned?

How do I make myself understood? I have complicated the task in the pursuit of density of meaning. My excuses are insufficient in the face of my friends' bafflement: I write for myself, yes, but in writing for them I also write for myself.

My disappointment needs expressing too.

I do not want to mask my vanity, my arrogance or my mediocrity. The effort spent in concealing them would be better spent undercutting them.

I maintain the continuity chiefly through text, and I measure the starts and ends of the stages of myself by specific acts of writing. The first essay from my past that I still read (from twelve years ago) seems like a refusal spoken through clenched teeth, saying that I will not yield who I am to circumstance. Call it a Declaration of Identity, written with the intent to fight. Next come my draconic rambles, coincident with my discovery of philosophy, slowly growing in length and complexity over the course of six isolated years. The most significant among them were the report on the discovery of flight (something that still resides in my list of values), an essay on being obligated to one's ideas (like the earlier declaration, a recurrent provocation of myself), and an enormous, impenetrable work on emotions (written as my ability to control those emotions reached its extremum).

Starting with a footnote on the death of my draconity, the next period of writing was an exploitation and sublimation of my capacity for insanity, in which density of meaning became my chief goal. The pieces standing out here are the mentioned footnote, a startled placing of myself bodily into the domain of ideas, a paean to my friends in which each received a paragraph, and a somber derivation of how little separation remained between me and insanity. Afterwards there were some pieces on writing, which now read to me like a slow recovery. And at present there is the project of giving form to my values, and thus form to myself, a slow process.

Continuity and convolution go hand in hand, I think. It is only a complex creature in whom portions can die without killing the whole. But the fight to define myself is over: there no longer remains any external agency which can obscure my sense of myself, now that I have faced all of the most powerful effacers of an identity, schizophrenia included.

I am misunderstood -- well then! -- am I prey to my friends' errors? Or are they merely one element of our interaction, one very finite element? I should not let my continuity be severed by anything so simple as my writing style.

If I have lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to you.
Wisdom is an eloquence of action. A single action is no more wise than a single word is eloquent.

...And I believe that cleverness may serve as a template for wisdom.

Nothing is essentially a vice.

The Friday before last, I spent some time with Dr. Rindler, the man who had been my mentor in Dallas, who had provided many good conversations about physics, indulged me in my notion of completeness, and demanded explanations from the top tier graduate schools when they rejected me. I spent much of the first thirty minutes of this long overdue conversation on the edge of tears, wanting desperately to tell him that I am thriving in graduate school, but constrained by honesty to tell him I am lucky. One question nearly made me break down: he asked, "Do the people here realize how special you are?" But I have not yet lived up to the promise of myself.
Note: I'm just grabbing the most interesting and/or coherent parts from these abandoned text files and deleting the rest. Don't expect it all to be stuff I still believe... or even, for that matter, stuff I can still explain. :P

It has been the mistake of everyone cradling a new insight, everyone who has followed a new path to its end, to stand in that new place and claim happiness.

Happiness is structural. It is an emotional correspondence to the relationships between one's parts and one's whole. What are the kinds of unhappiness, then...

It is a petty set of constraints under which can a life be optimized.

One can never go so astray as one can in adopting a metaphor.

The question of happiness is now an abusive one. To ask after happiness is to advance a two-pronged scrutiny, half of the scrutiny the probing of the questioner, who after all must have a reason to ask, and half the sudden need of the person asked to both evaluate and express himself. Are you happy? And can you ask the question without every answer preemptively rejected?
Ecstasy, low happiness, joy, exultation, satisfaction.

I sought the sky tonight. I sought the clearer darkness away from the city, to find stars more distant, and there I found myself in a broad sky looking up, thinking that in ecstacy there is need for such vastness. Around my teeth and tongue I rolled the new knowledge, what soon after moving I had suspected would be: that I am now happier than I have ever been in my life. Though still lonely, still a creature whose paths traverse emptiness. I should fill that void by traversing its entirety, but a needed rotation intervenes. I am sorry you stars my friends, but I need the daytime as well!

...that my triumph is not mine alone: that this is a happiness of the time after an end, after a landing. I cannot claim it as mine because I am already beyond it.

...finding a place of beauty, to prowl there... I can only rediscover joy.
A couple of years ago I realized that I was using this journal to write myself, and made that endeavor an explicit project. [1] That was a mistake, and I am abandoning the project. I'm not abandoning the aspiration of creating myself through my writing, which will remain, but rather the ambition of doing so in a systematic manner.

Two realizations spurred this decision. First, for a few years now I have rarely been able to find my words. I thought this was just a side effect of a difficult, crisis-ridden graduate school career. No doubt that played a part in the loss, but now I think it is also a result of misunderstanding the circumstances in which I could find words... I saw that in using them I was creating, and assumed thereby that I was in control of that creation. Second, the degree to which I can shape myself is more limited than I had thought. I recently made a huge change in my life, switching the advisor I work under in graduate school to one much more suited to my interests, abilities, and temperament. This change came only after I was pushed to an emotional extreme, dug in my heels, and thought to myself, "I will not adapt."

I had misinterpreted the success of the previous periods of my life as matters of successful adaptation. I started out high school skipping classes profusely and receiving multiple suspensions, and ended it a top student who could redesign his classes on request, at last taking twenty AP tests over two weeks. [2] I started out college a socially inept, mediocre student who did not actually know how to study, and (after a thorough breakdown) ended it taking and acing eight classes per semester while also keeping a healthy social life. When my first few years of graduate school were also rough, I figured that, while I was slow to adapt, I eventually did so more fully than most, and simply had to wait for the adaptation. Yet the single act I've done so far to best improve my life in graduate school was a matter of refusing to adapt, a matter of changing my circumstances rather than changing myself.

Refusing to adapt requires a major change in the way that I think about myself. In particular, I don't know to what extent I can write myself, what I can and cannot give form via words. Looking at the way my project was structured reveals that I planned too much, that I assumed an endless plasticity in myself... it was as though I had undertook not only to create myself as a piece of writing, but also to create the language in which I would be written. But I can't do the latter. At best, I can learn that language in which I can be written, [3] but I have to take it as something beyond my control.

Not that I have much left to do in place of the project. I dislike talking about the mundane details of my life, a dislike which won't soon fade. I do like talking about, reconstructing, significant events from my past (you can see a few of these reconstructions immediately below), so there will be some of those. Occasionally there are segments of conversations with friends that I find worth sharing, and I'll continue to do that as well. This is a good practice, as I suspect that the language I'll need to write myself is exactly the language in which I can converse with my friends. Also, over the next few days I will comb the files of the abandoned project and post the worthwhile fragments. Beyond that, I'll be at a loss, without a clear idea of what to write, except that it should no longer be systematic, and that (following the previous post) I don't need to hold it to quite such high standards.

In the spirit of greater conversation, I'll ask those of you who made it this far: do you recommend anyone on Dreamwidth for me to add to my reading list? I have been a bit slow in expanding my social circle here.

[1] "Writing myself" isn't so much a metaphor as a system of metaphors, like my "ecosystem picture" from a few entries down. Ask and I'll point you to relevant entries, but I don't want to explain this concept in detail right now.

[2] And I made the top score on twelve, failing only one, winning all sorts of silly awards as a result. This is, oddly, the first time I have told this fact to friends... there's no way to say it without bragging, and I am ashamed of bragging. But I would rather be ashamed than keep secrets.

[3] Which is English, yes, though not all English. But a good writer never stops learning the language in which he writes.
Something a friend said in conversation yesterday: "Our need for social interaction outstrips our ability to provide meaningful content." I think this is a good maxim for me, specifically, to keep in mind.
No, I didn't get shot.

Unrelatedly, my attitude toward Livejournal has softened a little. The advertisements still annoy me tremendously, and I plan to keep all my useful writing on the Dreamwidth account. However, I won't delete the LJ posts, and I will post mundane updates giving the details of my life on both journals, when I resume writing them. I think I'm some, uh, thirty-something months late on those.

Edit, April 2012: I'm back to being pissed off at the site. I hope you die, Livejournal.
I wonder what remains in me of friends who are now absent. Kevin, an amazing first friend, left something like a steady golden light, a sort of beacon, fitting for two child explorers of the nighttime. Casey, I suppose, would be an old leaf pressed into a book. Devin is a note tucked away in a place I won't forget, saying some such as, "Remember: you, though honest, deceive." A.J. met me with passion, with an anger greater than my thoroughly controlled own, and I imagine left behind a pair of brass knuckles. Raki, unwitting recipient of a neurotic's unhealthy friendship, remains as a shard of glass, sharp, embedded, what remains when the thin, transparent boundary between inside and out is shattered.

I had much cause to think of glass last night and tonight, after I broke into the apartment of my upstairs neighbor around three in the morning. The facts of the night do not cohere, at least not yet, so pardon me for giving little better than a list. The smoke alarm had sounded for twenty or more minutes, the apartment had filled with smoke from the oven, the lights were on, I tried knocking, my neighbor claimed to have been sleeping with ears plugged, though she was fully dressed when I poked my head through the broken window, the police were called anyway, so I should have done that anyway (though their response would have matched mine), and in the insomniac hours to follow I heard crying, then after a friend arrived laughing, from upstairs. As that friend arrived my neighbor knocked on my door to thank me, and told the friend that I had saved her life. That was an exaggeration.

What I remember most doggedly is the sensation of my foot going through the window, and a little moment of awe at my apprehension of its fragility. Even leaving the aforementioned exaggeration aside, I am confident that I did a good thing. But I feel something akin to panic when I realize that I do not know what it is, this good thing that I have done. I walked downstairs last night over a layer of broken glass, I laid awake thinking, among other things, of broken glass, and when I finally slept I dreamed of broken glass.

Lean Into

Aug. 1st, 2010 08:00 pm
I spent several of my childhood summers at Inspiration Point, an opera camp in the Ozarks. Many stories from there need to be told, but I will proceed slowly, as the material is too valuable, too rare to shape in bulk. For now: at Inspiration Point there was a place called the Red Barn. Built over a steep slope, its foundation contained the scene shop, with wide doors letting out near the stage, while its ground floor contained a maze of costumes and accessories, with smothering aisles of bewildering clothing and odd little rooms overflowing with shoes and hats. The top floor contained a slightly elevated platform holding most of the props, and more besides that platform, but I cannot remember the more, only the prop space. I revisited Inspiration Point two weeks ago, and once more explored the entire Red Barn thoroughly, but I still cannot remember anything on the top floor except the prop space.

At first I was afraid of the space because of the bats that lived above it, and while my mother accompanied me up there to show me that they were harmless, that wasn't to be the only fear that I braved to see that space. It contained marvels, objects which had enhanced the camp's productions, such things as ornate books, plastic fruit, toy pistols and pocket watches. I was particularly fond of the antique swords, which I would swing around imaginatively for the minute or so my arms could lift them. One day while roaming this space I found a new reason to be afraid of it, for I had not yet encountered Tarot cards. I found a deck of them, flipped through it, fascinated, until I reached one of the scarier cards, then bolted in fear. A combination of curiosity and pride eventually led me back, though for a long period I would refuse to look at the table that held the deck. Thoughts about the nature of courage, pre-philosophical you might call them, occupied my mind while the fear was still strong. By the time of my return, the remnants of the fear had turned into something sublime, and instead of courage I thought about continuity.

A later musing on continuity occurred as I drove home from Dallas today. A peculiar craving had snagged me all weekend, namely a desire for Taco Bell food, but the preferences of friends and family had precluded stopping there, until I found myself nearing home with the fixation still present despite a sizable meal a few hours prior. I wondered at this craving, my ideas not budging it, as though it were irreducible. However, I recalled by chance what may have been the first time I ate that food. That day Kevin and I had climbed, swum, explored, and, knowing us, probably discussed heroism; now, we were being driven home from the state park, lounging in the back of my mother's minivan with seats folded down. Our doubtlessly worthy efforts had left us drained and hungry, but there was cheap and copious food to be found on the way back, adding satiety to serenity. Kevin and I shared many profound moments, that one among them; and yes, some stupid corporation shared the moment with us, too. Having remembered this moment, the craving dissipated. I do not want to seek out a grown Kevin now, as I would rather miss the child than mourn the adult. But I suppose a discussion of sorts may still be had with him: I can still ask Kevin the child his thoughts about what Eric the child became.

I endeavor to maintain continuity in order to develop the good in my past while isolating the bad, but two major discontinuities hinder this effort. At twenty the major part of me died, after which there could be no continuity but purposeful continuity with what came before, leaving a self continued by inheritance rather than identity. More pertinently, before fourteen I was wordless, my writing having not yet begun. For all later times I can read myself, but for times prior I must remember.

When I returned to Inspiration Point two weekends ago their summer session had just ended, leaving people scurrying to pack and leave. I walked among the bustle, looking at my childhood locales both with impunity and without permission. I visited the costume shop, the sleeping quarters, the stage and the dungeon-like dressing rooms below them, and no one knew I did not belong there. By sneaking into my past, I discovered it to be real. I found that I can, by grace or cleverness, as it were lean into my past and dispel its wordlessness by giving it words such as these. And in my re-exploration of a sacred place from my childhood I encountered one of this world's perfections: the Red Barn was still there, the prop space was still there, the deck of cards was still there, and the card Death was still there.
While trimming archived directories, I found this piece from about two years ago, which I had intended to expand to a full entry. But I think it stands on its own.

What life can I find inside myself?

There are plants, at least. There are flowers and weeds: I know because they bloom occasionally. There are trees: some of the ideas have been growing a long time, their roots burrowing deep into my past. There's fungus: I can tell by the timely decay and recycling of ideas that are rejected and dead. But there isn't much in the way of fauna. There's so little, in fact, that when something mammalian appears (from some undefined outside) it does so with the force of revelation, giving me an idea that could be the basis of an entire academic or creative career, if only it would stay (rather than just leaving tracks or remembered glimpses).

Thoreau said, "With thinking we may be beside oneself in a sane sense." I extend that by claiming: with imagination we may be inside ourselves in a sane sense.
Every year or so I read through the entirety of my journal, as a means of maintaining continuity with my past. This time, I thought I would post a number of corrections to things I found which were (or became) untrue, misleading or misstated, as well as a number of answers to questions which were not, at the time they were written, rhetorical. The responses are heavily weighted toward older entries, as you would expect. Also, I was originally going to leave out links, but I found that Google searches for the quoted text strings actually fail.

Read or skip, as you prefer.

Anyway, the reading I did in the events of others' lives was enough to remind of an old theme in my life, the recurring feeling that I inevitably abandon my friends...

As it turns out, no, I don't -- in fact, I stand with my friends more determinedly than anyone else I know, said friends included. I abandoned Devin and Paul, both from high school, but they were not friends but responsibilities -- though to my shame, I allowed them to think otherwise. Raki I did not abandon; rather, I rejected her, about as violently as I was then capable. In fact, that rejection was one of the healthiest decisions of my life, considering how the sickness of that friendship weakened all my others. There are no other pertinent cases.

I came to believe that being in a sustained position of not knowing where one stands with respect to any other person, of not even having any particular standing with another, but still to want to insert oneself into the social patterns that can so easily be seen around oneself, is enough to ruin any person if maintained for too long.

Actually, I've come to thrive on the reality of not knowing where I stand with respect to the groups to which I belong. The inquiries and manipulations requiring to form, enforce or perceive a definite such stance would obscure me from myself, and concerns about how to insert myself properly would only make that insertion less interesting. The "ruin" I mentioned comes from being in such an indeterminate state with one's close friends.

That, then, reminded of one fantasy of death that I do have -- it is of walking, or more often riding my bicycle, through unknown roads until I finally collapse from exhaustion.

I no longer have this fantasy.

Often I find myself marvelling that I can ever feel disgust at material things or the people around myself when I myself am an entire world of sin and failure... *sighs* ...And it looks like another long, tiring weak of exploring this world.

Well, that was the inner tundra-like biome I inhabited at the time, one of "sin and failure". Exploring the world revealed it to be much larger than that one cold area.

Have I been poor game for that huntress Sleep?

On average, yes. But there have been times when I was a magnificent hunt, possessing a wakefulness sufficient to deny her best attempts.

My draconity has thus far contained a kind of complacency - among other things... an odd gap prevented me from fully applying my ideas about it, as I revised ever further the words which delineated the ideal; perhaps I knew that in the application of the idea (as opposed to the fact) of draconity lay its eventual disproof.

Yep. No more need for the "perhaps".

It was with pride that I gradually stopped asking for and expecting the same sort of material gifts that others got... though it was with dismay that I stopped seeking emotional consolation from anyone but myself. It has been some seven or eight years since I have been comforted by anybody; I can actually remember the last times...

This has changed, though I don't think my friends generally recognize when I'm seeking to be comforted.

And now I reach the part of the journal where my words convey the greatest suffering I have ever experienced, words written in the week or so preceding complete collapse, jagged things marking the harsh transition between two years in college and two years in and out of mental hospitals. I have nothing to amend in those words, but I bring them up to note that I left them undeleted so as to fight the shame I felt in them -- and now, amazingly, the shame is subdued. There may come a day when someone points out how very insane I was, how I became megalomaniacal, paranoid, messianic, manic, and all sorts of other irrational things, perhaps with the aim of implying that the insanity never quite departed. To this I can now respond: even if the effect of that insanity will always be with me in some way, I accomplished something amazing. Most people develop their minds over the course of an entire youth, never having to rebuild any of it, never seeing the structure of that mind particularly threatened. I did see it threatened -- torn down, in fact -- and reached a point where several psychiatrists had told my family that I would never be functional again. But what happened, instead? I rebuilt my fucking mind. Far from being ashamed, I am proud of that.

I can already tell that this will be the defining event of my life, because right now I have to either be healthy or get caught in a spiral of increasing drugged helplessness.

Hah, no. I am not so simple as to be defined by a single event, not even one so severe as that.

Almost every day within my memory strikes me with pain; sometimes I wince visibly.

I still have the odd trait that painful memories never become less so, but now I have a matching complement of joyful memories whose ability to make me smile also never fades. It is good that my memory is strong. I just needed to fill it out more.

I swear once again to renew this promise whenever it has been broken.

Fuck you, psychotic episode.

But what use is severance after that which is diseased has been excised? Why be reborn when no life is at an end? Why fly when you're not likely to survive the descent? The ornithopter flew, but only charitably could you say that it landed.

There was a period when these question were not quite rhetorical, when I desperately wanted to experience the form of inspiration I call "flight" regardless of its effects. Now, although I will continue to tug at similar but lesser experiences, and continue to transcribe the results of the former ones, the yearning for flight -- a yearning which would have been a compulsion if I actually knew how to do it -- has cooled. If it needs to happen again, it will happen, I think. May it never need to happen again.

Words are our living tools, in effect perceiving reality without our involvement, and each has its own range of senses with which to perform that task.

I no longer think this. We are always involved, whether or not that involvement is perceivable. I still describe ideas as living things, though.

In grade school, your classmates are your bullies. In high school, it's your teachers. As an undergraduate, you find that your textbooks and assignments take up the role. In graduate school, perhaps an internalization occurs: being bullied requires only one person.

It depends on the graduate student, but thankfully this internalized "bullying" is not universal.

I hope that the friendships I've started there (and elsewhere recently) last, because I really like these people (should I say "you people" yet?).

They did!

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that, at a given time, I could do only two of these things: work, school, and philosophy. So I accepted that two years of my life (of which a half-year is now completed) would be a low period.

I was wrong about this. The six seasons following this statement ended with my best writing yet -- which means my best self-creation -- and began with my second-best. Yet I worked, studied and thought all at once. When I adapt fully, I can do amazing things; unfortunately, I am slow to adapt.

And when it is the right time with the right mood, I will be in the city, a million people and as many sights, and find that it contains not a thing to distract me.

I was completely right. When one of those two types of inspiration (blooming and burning, I call them) is ready, there are no distractions.

Given my recent self-training in expressiveness, which has come such a long way, I ask myself: why do you remain so focused on understanding style?

When I wrote this I actually didn't know the answer! (Which is, in a sentence, that my particular method of creating myself is writing myself, therefore I must develop a style in which and with which to do so.)

So when I take down notes (which is rare anyway), I try not to keep them around, and burn the paper copies once I've transcribed those worth keeping.

That was a short-lived habit, actually. For a little while I did the same with my textbook work: when I finished the textbook, I would watch all the solutions burn. I later found that dropping them in a recycling bin is just as poignant.

Next semester I'm going to have an eyehole or tie sewn into a good down pillow, and carry it around hooked to my backpack.

Okay, that was silly of me to say. I still need to take a pillow to my office, though.

But my tendency has been to create and discuss philosophical ideas playfully, and regard physics knowledge as something awe-inspiring.

This difference no longer remains.

Back when I drew, blank paper... well, that's a subject for a later entry. Let it suffice to say my experiences with academic philosophy in some ways paralleled those with art, and that my experiences with art left me convinced that to earnestly try to become an artist would destroy me.

...And now I'm trying anyway. "Destroy" was an exaggeration, but drawing is harrowing for me.

For the anticipated future it will suffice to say this: I fear, deeply, that in a romantic relationship I would be either false, neglectful, or abusive.

As of the last five seasons, I no longer have this fear.

Hmm, I just reached a section whose correction needs to go unsaid. Hopefully there won't be any more of those.

To provide a brief, incomplete list of situations I've recently given life and hope to within my mind: being introduced to a new form of art; showing off the marvels of a physics laboratory; helping out with financial troubles; saving a friend from physical danger; being held in a time of pain; showing off odd pieces of clothing; making a video of my dog and I playing at wolves, then giving it away; meeting new and wonderful people through a friend; and finally, heh, presenting, after long work and thought, a piece of writing that touches personally.

I have now done all but two. Saving a friend from physical danger is unlikely, and making a video of me playing with my dog no longer seems worthwhile.

To be a dam or channel for humanity's impulses are equally unsatisfactory choices, when the river in question is a tainted one. I seek the alternative. I have not found it.

I still haven't found it. Perhaps that alternative does not exist, it being the alternative to "triumphing not over pain, but over the prevailing reaction to pain".

It is the exception when in the company of a friend I am not facing... away from the world. (That is the value of friendship to me.)

Wow. That changed.

Nothing on my journal is friends-locked, and nothing ever will be. Isolation protects me better than secrecy, at the moment. And if the worst happens, well, what's the worst that can happen?

As a small exception to that first statement, I left "A world ends nonetheless" locked for a year out of consideration for Raki, but it's now public along with everything else. I also removed the ban placed on her from commenting in my journal, after being sick of seeing it every time I looked at the preferences, and later found the worst that could happen was that Raki had been foolish enough to keep reading this thing.

Do I live up to my words?

Considering those words contain a code of conduct stricter than the Pentateuch, the best I can say is: for the most part, yes. But not always.

Do I live what I write?

Yes, I do.

The above is, I think, the most difficult integral I've ever evaluated. Usually the strategy on such integrals is to figure out which of the variables gives an easier integration, and do it first, but in this case I had to handle both at once, performing the following substitutions one after the other:



Doing just one leaves a mess that looks just as bad as before, but doing both produces an amazing cancellation. Not only that, I defined the second new variable as an implicit function of the remaining old variable, only later solving for the old variable explicitly. That's a trick I've never used before, and it entails some messiness with the limits of integration. The entire problem (involving conservation of momentum with a moving charge) took me about two and a half hours, and now I'm thoroughly proud of myself.

Problems like this are why it is said: differentiation is a skill, but integration is an art.
From a discussion with Dw about how and whether consciousness can be given a different structure.

[Consciousness] surely feels unitary: you spy the environment through a system of interpreters, and if the system breaks, where are you then?

True, I feel unified, but I need to be aware of both the limits of the unity and also the extent to which the arrangement I form within it is arbitrary, mutable and/or partial. The unity is bounded in that, as far as I can tell, my mind is larger than the conscious, unified portion of it, with some elements only coming into awareness during sleep or during unusual moods. And the arrangement is arbitrary in that another organization may also provide a description or explanation of unity, say the unity of an ecosystem or the unity of a flock.

The system in question (the interface, in your terminology), as far as I can tell, is fairly resilient: it fails me, but it does not break. I take the systemic failure that you mention to be one of apathy, that of knowing what you should do or want to do but being unable to do it. You and I both know that the interface between thought and action does not stand up well against repeated exertion of willpower: eventually, one fails to respond to one's own exhortations. But even then, the interface requires only rest to return to (at least partial) functioning, contrary to the idea that it is broken or damaged. The fact that we get bad results from the interface does not entail that it is broken, but that we do not know how to use it well.

Though I don't interpret the problem as a problem of interface, finding a solution to the problem of apathy is one of my main motivations in developing a different internal organization. My current personality simply cannot muster the discipline and devotion that my ambitions require. I have tried relying on willpower, but that engenders a cycle of alternating frenzy and collapse: I work hard until my will gives way, then I waste time until I have rested enough to exert more willpower. It is not a healthy or efficient way of acting, much less an elegant way (in the corvid sense) or wise way. Since power has proven inadequate, I have to look to other concepts to provide the solution to apathy, and an ecological system of metaphors may be rich enough to suffice. Also, I take the problem of exhaustion to be a special case of the problem of apathy, because I have found that being exhausted does not actually render me incapable of doing what I want to do: when exhausted, I'm not much slower at math, writing, or research than usual, and yet exhaustion usually stops me from doing those things.

Maybe that is an illusion, but then one has to uncover reality first. Travel around and past the distortion, but you have to know the terrain to do so... or at least a way of seeing the right path from the many others.

Not necessarily. As I argued earlier, in some cases it may be impossible to judge between competing systems of concepts without actually using those concepts. I have experience with the power-oriented organization of identity, but I don't know that I can weigh it fairly against the alternate organization without first implementing the latter, allowing it to shape my experience.

Ultimately, the best way to learn the terrain is to travel it.

I think part of the reason we organize internally according to power is because the thing seems so cohesive...

It does seem cohesive, but there are still gaps. What are individual thoughts, feelings and moods in a hierarchical identity? What are actions? (Clearly, the intent to act would be the king's command, but what would the act itself be?) I also think that another reason we organize according to power is because power (in the form of authority) is one of the few things that every human being knows thoroughly from experience.

More, the cohesion is a misleading one. I can pick a muscle of my body and tell it to contract, but it does not follow than my relation to my physical actions is one of command and servitude. If I were to try to walk by sending commands to individual muscles, I would fail at it due to the complexity of the motion, and the same is true of the majority of my actions. Nor do I perceive, either internally by introspection or externally by observing my behavior, that walking usually requires a command. I can cogently make this observation because there are times when complex physical motion requires an exertion of command over myself, namely when I am exercising and finding it difficult to continue. In that case evidence of an exertion of power appears both internally (in a resistance by the part of me that wants to rest) and externally (in the slowness or incompleteness of my responses to my coach's counting). There is causality between my thoughts and my actions, but it is one of power only in an overly broad sense of the word: my physical activity is more a matter of coordination than command. There is a sense in which you can say that a conductor commands a symphony, but someone who actually does say that may not understand music.

The benefit of a figurative description is its ability to aptly equate unlike things, and the description in question is a figurative one: a kingdom befigures a person. (Note, being figurative does not entail being false, arbitrary, subjective, or undecidable.) However, it requires the most subtle aspects of a person to be represented by another person (the king, or in similar models the driver of a chariot or master of a household), which I take to be a flaw of the representation. I think the ecological figure is better in that it equates a greater diversity of unlike things, although there are still cases where I have to equate something with itself inside the figure (specifically, my awareness with the awareness of a specific animal inside, which I take to be my core identity). Also, while the hierarchical figure includes the interface (using your three layer theory), my figure only describes the innermost layer. More on that later.

Perhaps in our case, it's also one of history: Cartesian dualism is very hierarchical.

Yeah, it seems to be a prevalent strain in Western thought. The book by Foucault I've been reading recently lists example after example in which some classical Greek thinker exhorts his reader to master himself the way a husband masters a household or a lord controls a city. The relation of lord to city, husband to household, and person to drives were all considered isomorphic. I guess the most famous example is Plato's image of the soul as the driver of a chariot, whose two horses are two classes of basic human drives. Also, human beings seem prone to internalizing power relations, for instance by equating morality with obedience to the law. Perhaps people organize themselves internally according to whatever is most prevalent and pervasive in their lives, and little, if anything, rivals power in that regard.

Since much above referred to it, here are some of the details of that alternative way of organizing myself internally, which I am trying to implement -- thus far, I have only done so partially, as I habitually revert to the old hierarchical organization, among others.

My ideas are the individual creatures within an environment; given that such ideas recur with minor variations, I can identify them as instances of a species. (I'll use "to be", "to identify", and "to figure" instead of a more precise "to be represented by" or similar constructs, for brevity's sake.) The sophistication of a thought corresponds to the complexity of the creature. I generally don't try to equate ideas with known species at this point, though. At any instant I take myself to only be a single such idea among the rest, usually a fox but sometimes a fisher instead, my awareness of my inner state being his awareness both of himself and his surroundings. This is what I meant by "reducing myself to the idea of myself" in the previous entry. The most significant aspect of that reduction is that while my ideas are part of my inner world, they are not part of myself.

The interactions among creatures figure the interactions among ideas, such as inference, analogy, elaboration, articulation... you could call the set of all such interactions reasoning, broadly construed. Predation is particularly important, as are the interactions among members of a given species, but there are also such interactions as sheltering, parasitism and symbiosis. Following both Cavell's idea that moods are to the world what the senses are to objects, and also my own realization that the range of what I can think differs significantly from mood to mood, I identify mood with place in the figure, characterized most readily by biome and climate. So a desolate mood would correspond to an arid location with little life, a despairing mood might be a swampy one with its own well-adapted ideas (that are not the ones I need, and ill-adapted elsewhere), a cheerful mood might be a temperate, thriving grassland or forest, and a thoughtful one might be the span of a river. These identifications are all tentative. The place (the mood, or more generally state of mind) is not only characterized by biome, but also by other conditions affecting an entire place, so that a sudden, excessive exhaustion during an otherwise good mood might be identified as a storm or cold snap, inhibiting the normal activity of the creatures within.

That's the outline of the new system of metaphors, as it stands. As far as the problem of apathy is concerned, the new system may allow me to distinguish more finely in my ability to control myself and exert power: individual creatures (ideas) can be killed (rebutted, rejected, discarded), but not so classes (species) of similar ideas. Thus I learn to accept the regular reappearance of harmful ideas I associate with my psychotic episodes: I cannot control their existence, but I can control how I interact with and deal with the ideas. More, while I have a free hand in responding to individual ideas, to such things as biomes and weather (moods and other, unnamed inner conditions) my only short-term option is to adapt. This addresses my tendency to respond to exhaustion in an unwise manner, namely forcing myself to keep working until I collapse. Perhaps more importantly, the system allows me to make finer distinctions among conditions which would normally be grouped under such broad headings as exhaustion, impatience and desolation, allowing less crude responses. (As a recent example, I contrasted a "cold" exhaustion in which I can choose what I attend to, but not work on it steadily, with a "wet" exhaustion in which I can work on something steadily, but find it difficult to reorient myself and start on a different task. The latter type of exhaustion limits my mobility, so to speak, the other my free energy.) Finally, the system of metaphors implies that ideas require nourishment every bit as constant and many-elemented as the nourishment of an animal. While my mind can make use of a number of resources comparable to that of an ecosystem, I have only come to identify and secure a bare few of those resources.

This inner organization has a fairly broad domain, but I still have to rely on many unrelated concepts to shape and make sense of my inner nature. I even, fairly regularly, have to resort to the notion of power, that an impulse is an unruly subject to be controlled. That's fine: I expect every body of concepts to have only a limited domain of usefulness, so I will need multiple such bodies to serve all my purposes and needs. I'm more dismayed by the fact that, despite how long I've developed this alternative, I can muster only a weak defense of it, and cannot defend the system more fully (to you, or to myself) without first implementing it. In response to such dismay I consider Emerson's remark, "Far be from me the despair which prejudges the law by a paltry empiricism." The ideas I develop now, as self-indulgent, subjective and tenuous as they are, are steps on the path to a less paltry empiricism.

Nora

Apr. 1st, 2010 06:34 am

Across the street from my grandmother's shop there once lived a kind old woman named Nora. During that span of my life (roughly my early years in grade school) my mother worked a second job as a costume designer for a Dallas theatre, so she would often use my grandmother's sewing machines, tables, and supplies of fabric, with me along to spend my time as I desired. There were always books to read, or games to play, or the overgrown plot out back which I never fully explored. Sometimes I would also cross that vast street and knock on Nora's door, because she was always home. We would eat snacks together and talk about things. Only scattered, unclear memories remain of her: the well-stocked, thoroughly organized pantry; the strange old technology, lacking all of the unobtrusive sleekness I knew; the dining room table that stood always ready for guests; the bedroom which was never quite as clean as the rest of the house. Notwithstanding the terrifying loneliness I sensed even then, I respected and wondered at the significance of every item, that each brought with it a series of memories to be invoked with a question. In that house, I behaved with a delicate awe quite unlike my usual heedlessness.

I remember the music boxes most clearly. Nora collected these, and had more than a dozen in her living room. All were purely mechanical, activated by turning some knob or handle. Most had a set of little prongs tuned to specific notes, twanged in sequence by a rotating cylinder. None were ever quite in tune. Whenever I visited Nora, before the snacks or the conversation, I would turn on every single one of those boxes, hunting the room thoroughly to make sure I had not missed any. Both Nora and I would then revel for a little while in the abundance of music. As I remember, it was not a cacophony, but rather the beautiful disharmony of an orchestra warming up. There are various little exercises which I do consistently, like performing estimates in my head before reaching for a calculator, or looking up a new word in the dictionary: these exercises ensure that my mind will always be able to do what I most need it to do. One such exercise is to recall what I felt when I realized that the house across the street from my grandmother's shop had been torn down.

In my fantasies I help my friends in big, decisive ways, by being the right person with the right resources at the right time. These are unrealistic fantasies, because the pivotal moments when a friend needs (and can receive) such help are vanishingly rare: I can think of only two times when I was able to decisively help someone with a single action. More realistic, and frankly more valuable, is the help I can provide in imperceptibly small portions, by providing consistent support, conversation, perspective or even just presence... the help which consists in being a kind gardener to those around me, helping what is worthwhile in them to grow. As one of many rewards for that activity, I may on occasion be invited inside someone else's head, to observe the objects there with a delicate awe, and to set the music there to playing.

***

It is a strange cord which ties me to my past, because the more strands I cut the stronger it becomes. I do not mean I should not cut at what ties me, but that I should cut wisely. I can be a better person than I have yet been shown.

From an email conversation about gender politics.

If I were in the same situation now, and didn't know how happy I'd been for the past two and a half years, I'd be reticent. I would feel like choosing to get surgery would not only be my personal choice, but a statement to those around me that I considered surgery a right thing to do and accepted the political system that defines people based on their genital configuration. And that would make me uncomfortable. In one sense, I don't have the option to accept or not accept that political system; it is no matter what I think about it, and the decision to fit into it in different ways while working to alter it is a personal choice. But it's one I periodically feel called on to defend, and I am glad I made the choice at a time when I did not have to defend it in this way.

In some ways that makes me go ugh, because if it's a correct choice, shouldn't I be able to defend it?


Heh, this will be the starting point for a long digression of my own. Until recently (recently being the last three-fourths of a year), if asked about gender, I would have said, first, that the gender binary should not exist; and then, if pressed, that I had not thought much about it. But two encounters brought into view the problems of this position.

The first was a discussion with a local acquaintance about his dislike of trans people (there's no way to put it that's both honest and kind to him). While I think he was rationalizing his dislike of specific people, I didn't have a good response to his argument: namely, that trans people reinforce the gender binary. (So when you do learn to defend the choice powerfully, let me know how!) However, the encounter did bring to mind the possibility that there is a psychological aspect to the position of anti-dualism: that its vehemence is evidence of the grip that the binary has over people, unreasonable adherence engendering unreasonable opposition. You do not passionately decry something which has no grip on you. And I have seen the anti-dualist position itself veer into judgmental and exclusive behavior, for instance in the move to exclude the transgendered from feminism. This opposition to the binary might itself be a form of living under its power.

(By the way, you came up in an earlier portion of that discussion as an example of why gender studies are worthwhile.)

The second encounter was a conversation in which a friend brought up casually how she had found it difficult to learn to be a woman when growing up in a mostly male environment. Presumably many people think in such terms, but this was, no lie, the first time I had met with them. And this was a woman who, to the best of my perception, had drawn only good from the concept, so that I was assured in an instant that "learning to be a woman" is not only intelligible but potentially beneficial. An unreasonably anti-dualist stance would claim that such learning is mimicking, that one learns to be a woman as one learns habits, not that one learns it in the sense that one learns a skill or a subject. (And how else would it be intelligible for a woman to speak of learning to be a woman?) If someone draws nothing but good from their (concept of their) gender, I am not justified in telling her the concept should not exist.

This brings me back to the argument to which I had no good answer. I have wondered why I have difficulty finding a middle ground between the argument itself, which claims that transitioning is just a blatant manifestation of the gender binary, and the powerlessly relativist answer, which claims that the only thing that matters is the happiness of the individual, refusing to note any broader significance. Now, in the articulacy provided by a rich conversation, I think that this difficulty arises from a move which I find deeply distasteful, namely a move away from decrying the binary. (To note the difficulty of this move, note that it is usually presented weakly as a matter of pragmatism, in a line such as "No one of us can eliminate the concept of gender, but we can work to dismantle it from the inside." The line moves the conversation forward, yes, but what does it concede?) So that perhaps I should not just present my task as that of dismantling the gender binary, but also of creating a better binary. Which is also to say, creating a binary, period.

I do not have an answer yet, but here is a sketch of an answer, written to some undetermined "you". Yes, transitioning involves the concept of a gender binary, but such a thing as a good binary is possible, and such acts as transitioning may help to create it. For the moment, set aside anti-duality as an unvarying principle, and consider what a good binary would be. It would not be exhaustive, but rather would have ample middle and outer ground. It would have varying importance: one person may find it useful only to make others' descriptions intelligible; another would find it a significant attribute, but hardly the most so; another would find in it guiding principles, and draw strength from its various aspects; yet another would step forth into their life with a vision of a new womanhood or new manhood. The misunderstandings produced by this variable importance would be a fact of life. Finally, it would not be tyrannical: having found oneself somewhere within this binary, one would not then be forced to live at that same point forever. The possibility of transition is essential to the idea of a good binary. You could help to create such a binary.

And yes, in the meantime, continue to dismantle the old one.

Deception

Mar. 1st, 2010 06:36 pm

In trying to reconcile a contempt for falsity with a proven ability to deceive, I have settled on the dictum, "Nothing deceives better than the truth." This dictum can be circumambulated in two ways. The first way suggests that lying is a crude form of deception, not only unethical but inept, and that if I wish those who encounter me to develop wrong ideas of me then nothing will serve that wish better than honesty. People have good noses for unusual efforts on my part to shape their perceptions, but are comparatively unaware of their own misapprehensions. The second way says that to find the truth, I should seek out those areas in which people are best deceived, advice which sums up much of psychoanalysis. Where people most willfully lie to themselves, most forcefully repress themselves, or most violently project and externalize, I may find good insights into their nature.

It only today occurred to me that there is another idea of deception, corresponding to a different type of trickster, which says that you have yet to fully exercise your powers of deception until you have tricked yourself.

From a discussion with Dw under the "At least an animal" entry.

Common to such solutions [to the problem of greed or power] would be that they require a certain indirect strength of being: not the strength of power or repression, but the strength of, when finding out that there are no final victories, to persevere - to keep outwitting (or redirecting, or what the solution may be) those forces, that the sum of the temporary victories keeps said forces from advancing.

That was a valuable comment, the kind to send me into several hours of prolonged, intense thought. I regret being so late in addressing it. The comment showed me a foolishness in my ideas about how I should respond to my failings. While I persist in believing that I must outwit those failings, turning their own natures against them, the very fact that I can outwit my failings indicates that I have been viewing them the wrong way. Namely, I have viewed my failings as enemies, as objects of recurrent struggle and conflict. However, to outwit or trick the same opponent multiple times is unlikely, and to trick the same opponent in the same way more than once is near impossible. More, just as there are no final victories against some aspect of myself, there are no final defeats -- even if I give in to some shortcoming this week, next week will not find me much less able to face the challenges of my life. Instead, spurred both by your comment and from related discoveries about the concept of akrasia, I have come to think: in the long run, my failings are not my enemies, but merely unworked or poorly worked material. They are the substance of myself that cannot yet accomplish the things I desire of myself, and I do not need to oppose but to shape them.

One failing that caused some grief this summer was the fact that I find it difficult to cook for myself. This failing -- I would not use such a strong word, were it not for the aforementioned grief -- generally results either in my eating cheap TV dinners and junk food, presumably making me less healthy, or in my eating out too frequently, draining the small income of a graduate student. When your comment reached me I had fallen into the habit of viewing the impulse to eat junk or eat out as a minor vice to struggle against, but in reality these impulses are only vices in some contexts. Realistically speaking, I will frequently be too tired, too distracted or too absorbed in thought to be able to cook for myself, and at such times eating out or eating cheaply (depending on what I can afford) is not only reasonable but smart. The failing is real; however, it is real not because certain impulses are inimical to me, but because I have not, to date, shaped myself wisely. I know from the testimony of friends that cooking can be a complex and rewarding activity, potentially as engrossing and enjoyable as a videogame or novel. But in my adolescence I only valued the most abstract skills and knowledge: such things as philosophy, physics, mathematics, writing, and drawing, with not a single practical skill among them. Should I develop the ability and desire to cook -- as I already have, to a small extent -- then I will rarely face a conflict between prudence and impulse, but rather a choice between impulses to cook or to eat out, to be made on grounds of prudence or expedience.

To generalize: my inner state may frequently resolve into a conflict between and impulse and some other consideration, but the fact that this is a conflict is conditional, not essential. Should I become wise, it is not that I would become stronger in this conflict; rather, it would cease to be a conflict altogether. That is not to say that all inner conflicts can (or even should) be transmuted away. I stand by the assertion that I cannot come to expect comfort or rest, that I will always have something within myself to struggle against. But if I continue to learn, grow, and improve, then exactly what I struggle against should change from year to year: I should not be forced to use tired old tricks against a canny old enemy. That would be a life of what is called resignation. Unending conflicts invariably become desperate ones.

For a less mundane example, there is apathy. This is unquestionably one of my worst failings: that I know there is something I should do, and yet do not do it. I have puzzled over apathy for years, and have not yet come to a full solution to it. But I have recently realized that apathy is only bad in the way that a blank page is bad. It is not an opponent but an emptiness, and my attempts to anthropomorphize it, to suss out its passions, reasons and nature as I successfully do with other vices, are attempts that always fail: I cannot create something out of nothing, much less something to struggle against. Instead, just as I stare at a blank line and wonder why the words do not come, I stare into an inner void and wonder why I cannot act. It is a worthwhile wondering, but the conditions needed for action are as multifarious and subtle as the conditions needed for inspiration. My body will tell me if I need food, sleep or shelter, but it will not tell me if my more abstract needs are not being met, or if one of my rarer inner resources is running low. I have often found that apathy is overcome by such a thing as companionship, reading or exploration, despite there being no clear connection between such goods and the action stymied by apathy. In both the short and the long run, viewing apathy as an enemy, even an enemy to be outwitted, is again wrong: the space that I vilify as apathy needs only to be filled, and my difficulty is the difficulty in finding the right substance to fill it.

Having mentioned the value of outwitting my failings rather than overcoming them, I should also give you an example directly demonstrating that contrast. So, here is an example that I have only recently come to articulate, involving a shortcoming that I have only recently outwitted: feeling disgusted by others -- by humanity, by strangers, and sometimes even by friends. Should I respond as had been my long habit, and attempt to address the disgust with an inner discourse on its unreasonableness and harmfulness, then the disgust would hardly be exterminated, but would instead gnaw at me for as long as the mood that unearthed it lasted. You've tried simply reasoning your way out of a failing: you know that an inner discourse does not prove effective for long. It is an example of meeting power with power, by meeting the power of an impulse or emotion with the power of an argument. In this case, I have found that disgust is instead killed by bringing it to light. Disgust simply cannot last when its object has the opportunity to address it. I call this response an outwitting because it subverts the implicit logic of disgust, namely that it should not be aired, because its object is too irrational or too unethical to handle it. If this reasoning were actually true, then bringing disgust to light would only lead to its confirmation and strengthening: the object of my disgust would disgust me further. Instead, I find that people respond in ways that require me to look at them in a new light. Granted, I have only three clear examples from my own life to support the conclusion that disgust dies when brought to light, but those plus some indirect evidence are enough for me to commit the idea to writing. By indirect evidence I mean: when the object of disgust is (as is most common) someone I don't know, say a chance encounter on the street or on a comment thread, then no such thing as bringing disgust to light can happen; still, I imagine its object taking that opportunity, I play through a little fantasy of what might happen, and find it partly as effective.

For years I treated my recurrent feelings of disgust as an enemy, where others might simply have vented it. But it, with other concurrent struggles, eventually brought me to the position of the earlier post: I should expect no final victory over these so-called enemies. The only force which will effectively undo such an enemy is its own subverted logic, as in the case of disgust: rather than come to master myself, meeting strength with strength, I should outwit myself. That path, now, brings me to the point I reached when thinking about your comment: when outwitted the enemy ceases to be an enemy, and the inner tension no longer resolves into an inner conflict. Disgust is a low, crawling emotion, often to be found a short distance beneath my conscious thoughts, and no doubt it will always remain in some quantity. But in bringing it to light, I have learned a little about judgment and criticism, and have begun to form an ethics of criticism, a set of considered standards for when and what. I have also better learned to adapt to the emotional vagaries of forthrightness, the frustration, indecision and guilt that come after I refuse to shelter disgust in secret. The feeling became a provocation to actions that would broaden my experiences, ethics and skills, as well as an indicator of a need to deepen my involvement with others, namely those others I had started to hold in contempt. The disgust proved to be good sustenance, good material for something better. I do not know, but I posit that my other internal struggles have the same reality: that they are only struggles in the short term, and if they continue to be struggles in the long term then it is because I have failed to properly work the substance at hand, the substance which in whatever way resists my efforts.

How far should I take this thought? If the clay of myself hardened into the wrong shape, then I may smash it. If the words of myself come out incoherent, then I may delete them. If a life that exists inside me is harmful, then I may introduce a better species of thought to prey on it. If I discover a better material, a better form or a better principle for the creation of myself, then I should not hesitate to dismantle, destroy or deface what came before, to reduce myself to nothing more than the idea of myself. After all, it is an idea that is most readily improved.

When Zarathustra descended from the mountain, he found that it was Christmastime.



...And once again I forgot to sign it.
I passed my qualifying exam!

Part of a conversation with Cube about identity and insanity.

...I don't have a character, much less one for each species. So I describe the identification as a set of affiliations, implying some degree of loyalty to humanity's present understanding of the two species. That understanding includes the literature tied to the animals (though tied very loosely, in the case of the fisher).

So less a pure furry and more one interested in furry (historical and present) as a lens for understanding humanity?

Neither. Not the former because if a pure furry exists, I don't know what it is. Not the latter, because understanding humanity is a side concern. I'm a furry in order to ensure that I'm at least an animal. I mean to imply that the development of humanity has made the majority of its members something less. Purposes, appearances, activities, perspectives are all less than animal (they go into, they compose what is animal), but human beings are reduced to being, in a vital sense -- that is, reduced to embodying or living -- such things as purposes, appearances, activities, perspectives...

At present humanity is something less than animal. Once I can figure out, to my satisfaction (or rather completion) how I am an animal, maybe then I can try to envision humanity as a higher form of life.

But to get back to the previous point, my understanding of what is fox-like or fisher-like will be human understandings thereof, my capacity for understanding them being a human one. Even if, as I argue (and once argued for draconity), what is fox-like and what is fisher-like cannot be reduced to a subset of what is human.

...Disconnected from a purposeful life by the structures humankind has built for itself. Tricky to undo...

A later part of the conversation.

...I think that more insight in this problem [of boundless greed] can be found in the idea of the fox. There's the insight that hit me with so much force when I first read the Ysengrimus. Reynard isn't any less greedy than Ysengrimus, but his is, in short, a different (and better) form that greed can take. He makes use of cleverness rather than strength, and his ability is what can redirect the raw drive of an Ysengrimus. Power, or the need for power, can't be repressed (that only replaces power with power), nor can it be reasoned with, but it can be outwitted.

All of these magical or divine creatures humanity has described provide ways of coming to terms with what is limitless in a person, whether it be power, suffering, love, patience, or any of the other things that have been expressed at various points in history... any one of which has the capacity to completely reshape human society. The vulpine answer is, in short, that divinity is cleverness. The application of this idea, in my case, is that whatever anger, pettiness, insecurity, delusion, vanity, hopelessness, and resignation might exist in me (and there's much at times), they can all be outwitted. (Again, for emphasis... not controlled, and not reasoned with, but outwitted.)

The downside to this approach is that, like Reynard, I have no final victories over my failings... hunger will never be more than a day away, and Ysengrimus or his kin (that is, what they represent) will always reappear to test my cleverness again. The fox is not the form of one who most values rest, comfort, or endings. But it works.

I hope there's something in there you can use.

Today I stayed an hour after class, stretching myself. On emerging into the day I found myself inside a mass migration of small, brown butterflies. I was surrounded by dozens of them, all impelled north by some instinct. I avoided the highway on my way home, and instead accompanied the butterflies up a side road. I briefly considered following them further north, to find where they congregated or dispersed, but they have their destination, and I have mine. And, in the end, won't I be able to claim that my destination was determined by something better than instinct?

Part of a paragraph from an email conversation with Dev.

...My specific emotional talents are not ones likely to help you. There are several modes or methods with which a person can initiate a powerful emotional interaction, which is to say an interaction that is the opposite of superficial. Counseling is one such mode; relaxation and the affectionate melting away of anxiety is another; the mutual exploration of inner worlds is a third. However, confrontation is also such a mode, and it's the only one I'm any good at. Whether or not it is good for the situation at hand, I return habitually to the method which I am best at...

I despair in silence. I am not alone in this, but three weeks ago I managed to find words for my despair for perhaps the second time in my life, and discovered for myself the calming effect of voicing it. This calm brought me the strength to give my physics presentation, but it worried me as well, because it brought an unfamiliar mood, lacking a familiar tension. I wondered whether I needed that tension to drive myself as I am accustomed, as though my emotions were a rope I used to pull myself up, and that rope needed its knots. But today brought back a better-known mood, one which assures me that the progression of emotions on which I rely has not been broken. It assures me that I felt the calm of sleep, nothing more. Here is what I learned these past three weeks.

A person alone cannot voice his own despair, and needs trusted friends, lovers, family or peers for the task. Call that the nature of despair. A person who tries, on his own, to give his despair words will fail, and produce something plaintively incomplete. (As much as I admire Cube for his efforts to voice his worst emotions, those efforts often have such a quality. Sett, too, but to a lesser extent, because anguish differs from despair.) I've come to marvel at how easily this incompleteness can be recognized, and how often it will be met with revulsion -- though it is often a justified revulsion, caused by a need that the reader or listener knows cannot presently be met. The revulsion, in turn, encourages silence on the part of whoever despairs. The silent despair (the quiet desperation) may as well be a conspiracy, for the effect it has in promoting secretiveness and shame.

Despair, as most of you already know, is unreasonable. It does not have the irrationality of an argument with invalid logic or unsound premises, but rather the unreasonableness of an argument that goes unspoken. In despair, the breaking of silence, in the rare circumstances in which it can be accomplished, amounts to the finding or dawning of reason, and so can have just as profound an effect, and just as cathartic a one. My moment of catharsis three weeks ago came when Spotty, catalyzed by Whines, told me, "You can't live in Emerson's backyard." The statement had me crying all over again, because those are the words of my despair. I want to be Thoreau, but I can't. There is no Emerson for me. I can't find wisdom in solitude: because I have no wise company to punctuate that solitude, I end up living alone with both my cleverness and my foolishness. I have no one with whom I can discuss philosophy as an equal, and my attempts to esteem others as such equals have only brought fierce disappointment. And even when I find a place I can consider sacred, something so trivial as a police officer can drive me away. I am not wise. Worse, I do not know how to become wise.

There is a sense in which a person, alone, can nonetheless come to voice his despair, by creating another person (a character) to voice it. I managed to do so late in my second year as a philosophy major, in a period of near-total isolation. In the entry that follows you can find the characters who voiced my despair in philosophy, and the words they gave me.

So, after a weekend where I felt ready to quit graduate school (thanks Spotty and Whines for being there for me during an emotional collapse), I ended up giving my first ever real presentation Wednesday morning, about the Hamiltonian formalism for photons. The presentation is a weekly one in which members of the group fill the rest in on their research, and I volunteered for it two weeks ago -- whether an ordeal or not, it's a good idea not to be forced into such things. The presentation went fairly well, and hopefully all future ones will be easier on me emotionally. Thankfully, I took the opportunity to practice it the night before, which helped me considerably when it came to facing down postdocs ready to question the entire validity of my approach.

What I considered the centerpiece of the presentation, a derivation of the photon Hamilton equations from the assumption of stationary phase using a variational method, was stopped two-thirds of the way through by my professor, who said everyone there (a dozen-and-a-half graduate students and postdocs) should know how to do it already. (As it happens, later on one of the graduate students asked me how I got the equations of motion anyway.) Lots of good questions were asked, though for some of these questions I only thought of answers after the presentation. Clearly I need to work more on giving an overview of my work, and connecting it to current research. But, once again, hooray for milestones, and now it's relatively easy going until qualifiers.

Milestones

Jun. 26th, 2009 12:09 am
Until a short time ago I was staring happily at a graph of a cute little photon wriggling around inside a plasma bubble. It was the output of my first successful simulation: one that concurs with the experiments downstairs, while at the same time providing corroborating evidence for an interpretation of their results. My program has a long way to go, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless. *grins* Hooray for milestones!
Portions of two comments from a discussion about terminology on Rax's journal.

For anything except humanity, I love to learn new categories and distinctions, no matter how technical, specialized or academic. When it comes to humanity, though, I much prefer the chaos of natural language.

But shorthand descriptions to express ideas within an in-group aren't necessarily harmful... Many of these things are terms used by actual people trying to describe their lived experience simultaneously with being categories and distinctions.

Well, the distinction I'm using here is not between categorizing and non-categorizing language, but between technical language and (what I might as well call) natural language. All the usual caveats about dualism apply, but when speaking to you I hopefully don't need to recite them.

Keeping in mind the distinction between meaning and sense (sense is what a person means by a word, meaning is what it means independently of any one person -- a word can have multiple meanings, and each meaning can have multiple senses), I think the distinguishing aspect of technical language is that its terms each have only one sense. Plenty of technical words eventually become natural (and here you see one problem with the adjective "natural"), by acquiring further senses: this is part of Putnam's "semantic division of labor". Once they do so, assuming I notice they do so, I'll use them without qualms. But in human activity and identity, even when a person unquestionably fits in some category, that person will fit into the category in a distinct, individual manner. The multiple senses of natural language allow one to acknowledge and often describe this individuality (in what sense is this person charitable, or cynical, or difficult? In what sense is he a Christian, or a dragon, or a philosopher?); technical language, however, does not allow this. I value that individuality, and the acknowledgment thereof, very highly (perhaps too highly), so that's why I avoid technical language in describing humanity and human beings.

I have a pet theory that all new words (and all new meanings of words) come into common (natural) use from either technical language or metaphor. (Slang, by my definition, is a form of technical language. Which isn't even all that questionable a statement according to the more common sense of "technical", that is, specialized language prevalent only within a certain community.) My preference falls heavily on the metaphor side, which partly accounts for the fact that I scorn any community's specialized language when it comes to describing myself: I already have a world's worth of things to use as metaphors of myself.
A small observation from a meeting of two groups: the theoreticians called the laser probe pulse "it", while the experimentalists used the pronoun "he".

Another reposted comment, this time a response to this entry by Krinn.

I don't think I can offer anything better than my own experiences, but hopefully you will find some use in them. Please pardon me if I presume more background information than you actually have.

If [some people are] nice as long as things are going well, but under even the slightest stress they turn into hideous people, well, they're not nice.

This matter has actually caused me some worry in the past, because in some ways (particularly financially) I simply have not faced hardship, and in some situations (bouts of insanity) I know that I am a worse person. However, those periods of insanity may be useful in that they show that I do have an ethical center that remains unchanged during extreme emotions or uncontrolled delusions -- put briefly, when insane I am neither dangerous nor mean, even if my ability to interact with others in a reasonable fashion disappears. My hope is that dealing with such states is the same as dealing with all other moods (learning to accommodate, counterbalance and use them), and the difference lies in how very far removed the moods are from my normal set.

I've also been through long enough and severe enough periods of depression to know that my standards of reacting to others survive those periods, but also that my ability to go out of my way to help others disappears. So if I want to have a positive impact on the world around me, rather than simply dealing with the moral quandaries that happen to fall into my lap, I have an obligation to maintain myself emotionally.

Unluckily, I have never experienced severe financial hardship, and may never know whether I would be able to withstand that. The closest I can come is to keep in mind Thoreau's exhortation, "Cultivate poverty like a delicate herb." But doing so proves nothing.

I know what the right thing to do is, and I consistently fail to do it.

That's a fairly big problem for me, as well, but one where I have made steady (if slow) progress since realizing it some six years ago. That struggle is far from over, naturally. As far as I can tell from working on myself, methods for dealing with apathy can all be described as methods of self-control and self-knowledge, and there are benefits and disadvantages to each.

In a method of self-control, one doesn't worry about what causes the internal resistance to action; instead, one layers other tendencies atop it, which counteract that resistance. One example: establishing new habits for oneself. Another: structuring one's life, say by organizing it around a schedule or by organizing it around other people. The advantages of these methods are that they are relatively fast (you could establish a new habit in a few months), and that they can be very effective. The downside is that each method of self-control comes at some fixed, recurring cost -- the block of time lost each day to a habit, the effort in maintaining a schedule, or the inability to act without the company of friends, say.

In a matter of self-knowledge, counteracting apathy takes second place to understanding it, with the expectation that said understanding will someday allow you to overcome it. Here you can't name discrete methods as easily as in self-control, but some examples are questioning oneself regularly, being open to unusual experiences and thoughts, and being engaged critically by others. The advantage: a gain made through knowledge does not require a recurrent cost. The disadvantage: self-knowledge takes a very long time. I'd roughly say that what can be accomplished by self-knowledge in a decade can be accomplished by self-control in half a year.

It may be obvious that I heavily prefer the latter, though I hope I have not put too much bias into my words. Most of my attempts to instate new, better habits fall apart quickly, and I find the idea of structuring my time to be repellent. On the other hand, nowadays whenever I am doing something mindlessly I instinctively ask myself, "What am I doing?", which often allows me to break the habit and do something better. I've learned how to focus on long-term goals and meet them well, but I still don't know how to effectively react to short-term needs that arise and can be resolved quickly. While very much committed to my path, I can't recommend it without qualifications.

I think most people can mix methods of those two types, but devoting oneself fully to one or the other would probably preclude its counterpart. In knowing yourself you question yourself and undermine your motives in controlling yourself, and in controlling yourself you complicate yourself.

"My first Eastercon was Seacon in Brighton in 1984 -- a huge and wonderful affair. I was 23, wide-eyed and delighted by the convention. Bumptious, gawky, ransacking the dealer's room for Lionel Fanthorpe books for Ghastly Beyond Belief, occasionally mistaken for Clive Barker (why?) and starting to suspect that I might have found my tribe. And now, 24 years later, I'm some strange old-timery creature, at an Eastercon of 1300 people that's the biggest since, er, Seacon in 1984, and, despite the worries that friends have expressed to me about the greying of fandom, there seem to be an awful lot of people here the age I was at my first Eastercon or younger, an amazing amount of enthusiasm, and a lot of people who are having their first convention, and who may even now be suspecting that they might have found their tribe." -- Neil Gaiman

That is a worthy story, but it is not my story. My story is below.

The people present in this story will recognize themselves in it, though I apologize to the two friends whom I have momentarily made into archetypes, and thereby only described insofar as they relate to my experiences during the convention. It's only for the story's duration, really. *grins* For those who can't stand reading it, pardon my style. Also, thank you, Orin, for inspiring me to write the report of my first convention, even though it is a bit late and I no longer remember the exact order of events.

***


Ah, this beautiful liquid of gestures, costumes and talk! I am enamored of you, furry fandom, and I will know you. I attended this convention because I had been promised the presence of both a guide and a sage. The sage was here with many of his students, who all wanted to learn the ways of empathy. The guide, who was to arrive on the second day, knew how to lead me to the sage, and also to other worthy people. But on the first day I was left to search these many camps for the face of a newly nomadic friend, from whom I begged and was granted a place to sleep.

Awaking within this strange mass that fluidly changed friends to merchants and performers, I had no reason to linger in the company of my benefactors, for after leaving the convention I would soon return to interacting with them normally. I wandered, and discovered the halls and the river, with everything flowing to and from them. The guide arrived and met me, then allowed me to follow as he tracked down the sage and introduced me to him. But the time of a sage is precious, and I could not yet demand any of it, so I joined all the others who were swept along in this group. I thought: Yes, I sense the patterns which surround me. In time, I can learn them. I am immersed in the element, but I am not yet of the element. Am I approaching that mythic emotion which all my friends name with awe? This individual stream of people at last flowed to a still pond, but my guide was turned away with the harshest of words at the door to the place where the sage rested. As I later realized, a student of the sage of empathy is still capable of cruelty.

The guide, though he had not achieved his central task, still had much to show me. Together, we wandered and eventually met an interesting person who, despite the rush of events, still retained time; leaving her, we dined together at a place far from the convention; and we wandered the nighttime streets of Pittsburgh in pursuit of further sustenance. Eventually I left the guide behind: to my shame, I abandoned him, though I could not do otherwise. The sage and I have never since met, nor have I or the guide since been able to lead one another. I returned on my own to the beautiful liquid, to be in the element, but not of the element. I happily observed everything occurring before me, and when my eyes were full I turned to the literal river and was alone; more, I repeated this pattern many times. I returned to the familiar discipline of alternation which defines the role of the outsider. I learned.

How gladly I thrive on the feeling of not belonging!
Here's a reposted list of responses and impressions from the superb novel "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf", by Victor Pelevin. (The book is mainly about foxes, by the way.)

  • Seducing someone via a theological argument seems like the hottest thing ever.

  • Pelevin has a good excuse for creating a character that us humans can actually relate with, in the explanation of the foxes' memory. I'm glad he thought of that, since excessively human non-humans are a pet peeve of mine.

  • Not once did A ever express a desire to become human. Finally. I get really sick of all the quisling foxes in literature and film.

  • I'm adopting "heads and tails" as an affectation.

  • The best comparison I can think of for A's attitude toward classic literature is with Nietzsche's attitude, which is intensely personal, making all the great insights in those works seem like gestures of friendship toward the reader, and making all the great errors seem like outright betrayals. Of course, A has a better reason than Nietzsche to think that way. :>

  • The characters' conversations about great (and not-so-great) authors were not abstract discussions thereof but ones that related them intimately to the characters' lives, which I take to be a sign of an author who has himself been deeply shaped by such predecessors.

  • Pelevin's (via A's) approach to Buddhism is markedly an outsider's. The satori-like (and somewhat Socratic) exercises seem composed by rote, and at times almost a recitation of dogma. Since these appear more toward the end, it was a bit of a disappointment, but not much of one.

  • I like that foxes receive plenty of explanation, and werewolves almost none.

  • Pelevin managed, in a tiny passage, to exactly encapsulate the arrogance, boyishness, confidence, and enthusiasm that I associate with wolves, namely in the letter to Alexander from his mentor ("Transform! WOLF-FLOW!"). I burst out laughing when I read that, and at several other moments too.

  • The sense of humor is one that I find myself starved of in American entertainment, and one that I'd like my own to approach: critical and perceptive without being cynical, spiteful or malicious. In particular, A's attitude of simultaneous fondness for and weariness with Russia was expressed in some great ways, and I also dug the way every fox spoke disparagingly of her own native country.

  • I felt I learned a few subtle things about Russia, though one can get the same from any good book set in a foreign country and written by a native thereof.

  • The book kept me from completing my grading when I should have. :P

  • The story uses a displaced structure that was once brought heavily to my attention by an amazing professor, with the story being told by a character in the story. You can see the same thing in Heart of Darkness, Steppenwolf, and scads of Poe stories. I've come to associate the technique with highly personal writing, as though it adds a barrier or layer of protection to the actual author.

  • It seems to be unfortunate that I haven't read Lolita yet, because there was a heavy subtext (sometimes not-so-sub text) about A's appearance that I could sense but not follow.

  • Those damn Taoist exorcists! Okay, so there was a cultural touching point there that I simply don't know, as I also noticed that a Korean anime about a fox (Yobi, I think it's called) there was a Taoist exorcist. I would like to know the common lore, but things like that aren't well-suited to internet searches.

  • It's a shame noone can hold his own against A in an intellectual debate, since when she does let loose the effect is dazzling.

  • Damn good book. I've already passed it on to some local friends. I will bite whomever calls it pretentious.

Oh, and some favorite quotes that I bookmarked while reading:

"I always avoid arguing with people, but this time I just exploded and started talking seriously, as if I was with another fox."

"'And what do I smell of?'
"'I can't really say... Mountains, moonlight. Spring. Flowers. Deception. But not a wily kind of deception, more as if you're having a joke.'"

"In the north of England there are several privately owned castles where aristocrats are bred from the finest stock and raised specially for hunting by foxes -- the output isn't all that large, but the quality is excellent."

"Foxes have a fundamental answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, which is to forget this fundamental question."
So, in an unusual moment of clarity this evening I realized that an excessive fear that had lingered for more than two years had now become surmountable. I nervously checked a final, unread email from an old friend, and found it astonishingly toothless, astonishing because I had long ago become accustomed to her emails leaving me feeling lacerated. In retrospect, it seems that the messages were only painful when she was making a concerted effort to communicate with me.
So, in an unusual moment of clarity this evening I realized that an excessive fear that had lingered for more than two years had now become surmountable. I nervously checked a final, unread email from an old friend, and found it astonishingly toothless, astonishing because I had long ago become accustomed to her emails leaving me feeling lacerated. In retrospect, it seems that the messages were only painful when she was making a concerted effort to communicate with me.
From a discussion elsewhere:

"As much as I would like to believe that the people who dislike me do so because they are idiots, chances are that's not the case. There are social influences that will cause any person to behave or speak less intelligently than she is capable of; given that, idiocy is no explanation if you do not explain what engenders idiocy and makes it momentarily acceptable. There's a saying that goes, 'Do not attribute to malice what you can attribute to stupidity.' But from my life, I've learned that the better maxim is, 'Attribute nothing to malice or stupidity.'"
Good riddance, you failure.

Strangely, said failure will soon live in a mansion about half a mile from my childhood home. Said childhood home was once in the area of the worst crime in Dallas, and the neighborhood is still lower-class, but the demographics change quickly as you go east.

I think I will take some friends within throwing distance of that mansion carrying a few old pairs of shoes, for cathartic reasons.
Here's a rather neat problem from my calculus textbook:

"An especially prolific breed of rabbits has the growth term ky1.01. If 2 such rabbits breed initially and the warren has 16 rabbits after three months, then when is doomsday?"
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