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Privileging the Normal October 27, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy.
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The thing I hear people complain about the most when it comes to fan conventions is the smell. I will never, ever understand this. It’s a stereotype, an ugly one, and I don’t think it’s at all true. I have never noticed any untoward smell, and I have a rather sensitive nose (such that a friend of mine once remarked that my ability to find food carts on city streets seemed like some kind of superpower). A fan convention is no more malodorous than rush hour on your average public transit, or indeed any other large and crowded gathering of humans. I think the stereotype comes in because people assume that nerds have terrible hygiene. On average, I think nerd hygiene is no worse or better than the hygiene of any population of humans – some of them will smell funny, most won’t, and that’s that. Conventions, perhaps, get that reputation because the vast majority of the attendees are staying for three days in a hotel room and not sleeping, but again, I’ve never noticed a convention as being any worse than any other large gathering. Indeed, most concerts and dance parties I’ve been to have been far worse.

Perhaps it’s because society privileges the ‘normal’. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is ‘normal’, so no one is going to complain about the dust or the sweat of a few thousand tourists in the Washington DC summer sun. A Boyscout Jamboree is ‘normal’, so no one is going to complain about the smell of unwashed adolescent boys wearing peculiar uniforms. But a fan convention is outside the norm, so when you have to stand in line behind a girl with huge plastic wings, a kid in an orange jumpsuit with little whiskers drawn on his face, and a guy with a gigantic plastic sword, you are going to complain about these damn nerds getting up in your life and disrupting your every day routine. Again, to use the Folklife example, or DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival – you probably have more people around during those events, and they are probably going to cause more problems with lines, empty ATMs, and traffic, but you can see the geeks. Or in regards to the smell – if you’ve traveled a few thousand miles to get to your favorite convention and you have to deal with a guy in line with you who smells like seven day old socks, you are going to notice him more. You will blame it on him being a nerd. Yet you probably have a co-worker you have to deal with every day at your boring nine-to-five job who smells as bad if not worse, who never showers, and who is for the most part a normal guy whose idea of ‘fandom’ is to go to a Sox game. It’s all a matter of perspective.

So why do we privilege the normal? Why is it that traveling thousands of miles to see a favorite baseball team or spending thousands of dollars on a ticket to a concert perfectly fine behavior, but spending forty dollars to go hang out with friends for a weekend and catch up on the latest Marvel releases is ‘weird’? Why is the stinky co-worker at work well… it’s not okay, but why is that reek associated with fans when it’s clearly a larger problem? I meet more fetid normal people than I do geeks. So why the stereotype?

It’s a pervasive attitude among nerds too. Nerds are shy about their nerdiness. The other day I had a conversation with a girl I know who I think of as a non-nerd, as an ‘outsider’, but it turns out she plays World of Warcraft and used to play Ragnarok Online; she hung out on Gaia and had a few hundred dollars worth of rare items before her account got hacked into and then banned. We talked about online gaming and trolling, about our latest Tumblr finds and wallpaper, but the second other people walked in the conversation stopped, and she started talking about boys and booze again, and I just retreated into my normal shell (I have little to say outside fandom, most of the time). There’s a kind of embarrassment, which I’m guilty of myself. I don’t like to admit that I have a huge Transformers collection; I don’t like to admit that I waste most of my free time pretending to be fictional characters on the internet. Even in my writing I try to avoid the subject, to pretend that my obsessions aren’t as deep as they are. It’s embarrassing. It makes me feel somehow less of a person.

I know why I do this, at least in part – as a child I, like every other nerd on the planet, got bullied for my geeky interests. But the reason I got bullied for my geeky interests stems from that very problem – we privilege the ‘normal’.

I think I’m talking about a problem that hundreds of others have spoken of before, and in a far more eloquent manner. Doubtless some well-meaning person will link me to a dozen essays and websites and books on the subject.

For now I’m going to end this little ramble.

Note: the first person who ‘corrects’ my uses of the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ in here gets punched and/or banned I swear. Take your grammar nazi attitude and go back to the MLA.

I’d like to write by thinking; or, getting good ideas in the shower sucks. July 23, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, FOR SCIENCE.
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I’m only mostly dead.

And there’s quite a lot of difference between ‘mostly dead’ and ‘all dead’.

I won’t be posting as much as I did in June, but I’m going to do my best to update more than once in a blue moon. Maybe. We’ll see.

ANYWAY. Today’s thoughts!

I read an article today that someone actually tweeted by thinking. This was accomplished by using an EEG machine that the guy programmed by looking at letters and telling the machine to recognize when he was thinking of individual letters, or some such madness. In the same article was information about another EEG device that you could program to recognize when you think about typing characters and it would thus type for you. Basically, instead of sitting here typing, I could think about the movement I use to type the letter ‘a’ and the machine would do it for me.

Immediately, I can hear the outcry. “My god!” everyone says. “It’s bad enough that we have cell phones that let us tweet our every passing thought! How much worse will it be when that becomes literal! WHAT IF THE GOVERNMENT CAN USE THIS TO READ OUR THOUGHTS!”

First of all, the impression I get is that you have to concentrate to type, and second, this is hardly mind-reading. Well… I suppose it is mind-reading of a sort, but this would be more the cloudy surface thoughts. There’s no probing of our darkest secrets and desires going on here, unless you happen to be thinking of them at the time. Yet everyone has some self control, and unless in the future there’s a way to set your brain-to-text program to livestream your thoughts you’re probably safe. And even when you are, I’d hope you’d have the prescience to not think about your deep lust for purple haired catboys*, or whatever the popular kink of The Future is.

Personally, I’m kind of excited about this technology. I’m not much of a doomsayer, and even during humanity’s most facepalm inducing moments I try to keep an optimistic attitude. See, in my case, I have a bit of a problem – I get my very best ideas in awkward situations that are not conducive to writing stuff down, particularly since I can’t read my own handwriting. They come to me while I’m on my bicycle, while I’m washing dishes, on the train, at work, or, worst of all, when I’m about to fall asleep. The moment I manage to get home, finish my work, or wake up to grab a notebook, the ideas have vanished, sundered by my sudden distraction.

But if I had a device where I could simply concentrate to write, I could easily write while on a nice bicycle ride. Or, if that requires too much concentration, it would make my daily sessions of writing on the train quite a bit easier. I wouldn’t have to have my laptop balanced precariously on my knee while I try to take Metrorail’s advice and watch out for electronics-snatchers, and I wouldn’t have to awkwardly shuffle around to let someone out. I could simply look out the window, think a bit, and have everything written down for me.

And it’d certainly save my wrists some strain.

*Disclaimer: I am not into purple catboys. Actually, I only date planes.

Edit before posting: Sadly, when I returned home, I was unable to find the actual tweet I found the article in! Tweeting by thinking actually happened, at least, and I am fairly sure about the rest, but I suppose this is what I get for writing on the train.

Write every day no exceptions – Dreams June 16, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, write every day no exceptions.
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I’m running out of steam and topic ideas, as evidenced by yesterday’s failure. Someone, anyone, please, give me prompts.

And now, today’s essay.

I have recurring dreams a lot. Recurring places, recurring themes, recurring images. My dreams are often sunlight soaked and verdant, involving glorious green cities with winding back alleys, vast canyons and ancient ruins, wide rivers and humid air.

Recently, I’ve been dreaming that I’m a Professor of English at the Potomac University in some alternate dream version of Washington DC. For some reason, in this version the Potomac flows alongside a huge cliff, and the city itself is… it’s different. Hard to describe how. The University is where Roosevelt Island should be and they have a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution where the students can use all their resources.

I live in an apartment on campus, as all young graduate student professors do. My room is spare and small, but it’s painted pleasantly green and I have nice curtains and a great view of the river. It is always sunny. It never rains, and it is never cold. The air seems full of liquid sunlight every morning when I wake up in comfortable pajamas. I eat breakfast alone in a dining hall where all my meals are provided because I get up before the other professors and students. My students are all eager to learn and we spend the afternoons outside on lush lawns talking about Shakespeare, often with guest speakers from the Folger Library, and at night there are fireflies that dance along the banks of the river.

When I go to sleep, it’s morning at the Potomac University. I start my routine.

I’m always loathe to wake up. It’s such a beautiful, pleasant, perfect dream, a calm and peaceful life where I’m secure and taken care of and perfectly happy. I only wish my friends sometimes appeared in those dreams.

Write every day no exceptions – Beauty in the helix June 13, 2010

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A long time ago, I was sitting on the internet (as I have since I was about what, twelve?) and I discovered a post on a messageboard I enjoyed frequenting. The post went something like this, only with far worse grammar:

“So I have a horrible problem. I look out of my window every day and I see the green grass and blue sky and the sun, and all I can think about is how the only reason the grass is green because of the chloryphyll in it. The only reason the sky is blue is because of the way air refracts light, and the only reason the sun buns at all is because of hydrogen molecules smashing together. I can’t see any beauty in the world anymore. This is why science classes and education are wrong – they destroy all the beauty in the world by explaining it!”

I remember becoming irrationally angry at this guy. As pretentious, self-righeous high school students who hang out on the internet are wont to do, I typed out an angry, incoherent response as to why he was wrong and started a massive flame war with the vast majority of people at this board vehemently disagreeing with me and insisting that Science Is Bad, just like Holywood has taught them. Isn’t the only thing science ever does is clone vicious dinosaurs that eat tourists or build supercomputers that throw us out of airlocks and into really weird surrealist montages or enslave us into the most inefficient power source ever (they should have stuck with the parallel processing idea).

I’m going to try to respond a bit more coherently here. Or, rather, I’ll try, but honestly, Richard Feynman said it better than I did, even if he had a bad habit of belitteling artists.

See, what got me onto this little rant is that I’ve been reading Feynman lately, specifically the book Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character. It’s a collection of anecdotes and memoirs by the man, who I hadn’t even known about until recently (I know that this is a terrible thing, but forgive me, I’m still learning). Feynman muses about science and art a few times, and he has a specific essay where he writes ‘I have a friend who’s an artist…’ where his artist friend says basically the same thing that Disgruntled Internet Guy says above. If I recall (I don’t have internet access or the book in question with me at the moment of writing), it’s something like “I’m an artist. I can see the beauty in this flower. But you’re a scientist, so all you can see are a bunch of molecules. You don’t see the beauty.”

There’s a few things that make me angrier than statements like that, but it’s still something that makes me pretty damn angry! How can you say that knowing what a flower is made of somehow makes it less beautiful?

To give an example, is Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ a less spectacular picture for knowing how he made it by intricately cutting dozens of blocks of wood, covering them with ink, aligning them carefully and then pressing them to paper, making certain that each block was justified perfectly to layer up the image of a great tsunami and a few beleaguered fisherman near Mount Fujii? Is it less beautiful for knowing that he made several copies, and that he often worked for the money like many Ukio-e artists did? Is it less beautiful for knowing that it’s actually one of thirty-six images in a series about Mount Fujii?

No, of course not! In fact, I’d argue that you can appreciate that iconic image more once you know the story behind it. You can appreciate the hours and hours of hard work that Hokusai must have put into making that image, the difficulty of carving out the wood blocks. This wasn’t photoshopped, gentlemen. You can look beyond the dozens of pop culture reproductions and homage images and see the truth behind the image. And, if you know about the other Thirty-Six views, maybe your world will be expanded and filled with more beauty as you go and look for these other less well-known but equally fine prints of Japan’s most famous mountain.

In the same way, it’s completely idiotic to assume that because you know how a flower functions that it’s somehow less beautiful. It’s a flower no matter what you know about it (as the Bard said, ‘a rose by any other name…”). Once you know how it functions though, a whole world of other beauties appears to you. Think about how that flower evolved – billions of years ago a soup of carbon chains got complex enough to make other carbon chains, and those carbon chains did weird things like get cell walls and DNA and make more of them until you got more and more complex things, until some of them by chance started using this funky molecule that let them use sunlight as a power source, and those guys had a better chance of surviving than some of the other ones that were relying on other sources of energy, and then they kept getting more complex until they moved onto land and one of them by chance started doing this funny thing with DNA combining and releasing the results in tiny packets and then another one somehow evolved so that bugs would do the DNA combining for it and the ones that were better at getting bugs made more copies of themselves and it just so happened that when a bunch of monkeys saw the results of this they went “Wow! That’s really cool looking!”

What the hell are the odds of that? Think about it! Millions of years of evolution had to happen for grass to be green, for flowers to be pretty. And that’s not even getting into the complex and intricate beauty of the cells that make them up, the molecules that compose those cells. There is an intrinsic beauty to what we can discover through science – look at any photograph taken by the Hubble or by our robot probes. If you aren’t moved by the sight of the Pillars of Creation you just aren’t human.

… man, I had somewhere I was going, but it’s now much too late, and I must sleep. More on other topics tomorrow.

Write every day no exceptions – A House of many rooms June 10, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, write every day no exceptions.
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Those of you who have known me for a while have often heard me talk about the idea of the House. Not a house, though lord knows I talk about that enough too, but a House.

The House is an idea that was originally introduced to me by my friend Jon. I think he may have had a different idea of what the House was than I eventually did, but in any case I have to give credit (blame?) to him for introducing the idea. It was something we used to talk about at CTY all the time, laying back in green grass and watching the clouds pass us by.

To me, the central idea of the House is a place where the family you choose lives. Not your husband or wife or your children, though I suppose they’d be welcome, but your friends. Those people with whom you share a close, deep, and true bond, those same people often ripped from us by time, distance, and other obligations. Not the friends you go out clubbing with, but the ones who are part of your nakama.

For much of my life, my friends haven’t been close by. In middle school and late elementary school, I didn’t have any friends; in high school they all went to other schools and lived in other states, and I only saw them a few times a year at reunions. In college, I had a close collection of friends on campus, but even then I also had a very large collection of friends on the other side of a glowing screen – people who I’d met in person only a few times in my life, or not at all, but to whom I nonetheless felt an incredibly close bond. Now that I’ve graduated, those close friends from college have all moved on, across the country and to strange and distant places. I’ve totally lost track of some of them, save for fleeting glimpses through Facebook. The same’s true of many of my friends from the internet: some have moved on to other venues, others have drifted away, and with still others I’ve had extremely violent falling-outs (many of which are at least partially if not entirely my own idiot fault).

I think it’s because of this continual loss that I feel like I have this need to gather them all together, to place the people precious to me somewhere that I won’t lose them, where I can be around them. Despite the name, the House doesn’t have to be a House – it can be a small community, a section of a city, a neighborhood where people live together. Where the front doors are always open, where people sit out on their doorsteps and wave to each other.

For these reasons, among others, I’ve been told that my vision of a House, of a community of friends all living together, is foolish. Some kind of sixties pipe dream of communal living, an impossible idea. In this day and age, you’re supposed to strike out on your own, eventually marry someone and settle down.

And yet the people who tell me this are the same people who keep lamenting that the digital age is making us more isolated, that we’re losing that community-based touch, that because kids don’t go outside anymore nobody knows each other. I don’t understand. How can you lament the loss of community and then turn around and tell me that my idea of a community of friends is a pipe dream?

Maybe it is, I don’t know. But I can still dream.

Write essays every day no exceptions – Archaeology of the self June 9, 2010

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I cleaned my room today, or, to put it more accurately, I made a dent in the giant pile of junk that I call a room. I’ve been doing this for a while now, but I’m pretty bad at it, because of an utter inability to focus.

Cleaning upsets me, and not for the reasons you might think. It’s not because of the chore itself – that I don’t particularly mind. It’s throwing things out. Everything is a memory, and getting rid of items is cutting out bits of the self. There’s only so much I can hold in my head. My memories are notoriously unreliable, fading into a swirling fog where dreams are often more vivid than reality.

And not just that. A thousand ghosts sit in those old memories. Here’s a letter from a friend whose name I’d forgotten. Here’s a gift I never sent. Once, I even found a letter from myself, saying that when I read this, the old me would be dead, and giving a list of things that old me hoped I’d accomplished.

I’d managed none of them.

Cleaning is more like the archeology of my life. A thousand dead ghosts of might have beens.

Write every day no exceptions – Not the fucking techno-rapture June 8, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, write every day no exceptions.
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I asked on my Facebook page for my friends to give me suggestions for essay topics. Most of them, while amusing, aren’t really things I feel comfortable writing about. My friend Patrick, however, suggested this (his words, not mine):

“Explain posthumanism to a skeptic who is not in a technical field. (Or, Patrick just wants to hear about posthumanism from somebody doesn’t make it sound like the fucking TechnoRapture, ref: various Internet geeks.)”

First, let me say that I’m not an expert on this subject. I do consider myself a transhumanist, but the movement hardly occupies my every breathing moment. I’m a transhumanist in the same way that a lot of people are democrats – I subscribe to their newsletter and I believe in their general philosophy, but I am not a big player by any means whatsoever. As such, this essay is 90% uninformed babbling, but so is most of the internet. I realize that if any other transhumanists actually read this, I am likely to get flamed and told that I’m Doing It Wrong.

Posthumanism, also known as Transhumanism, is this crazy movement that’s been going on since about the 50s (you can argue that the ideas behind it are as old as human civilization, but the 50s). For the purposes of this explanation, I’m going to be using the term “transhumanism”, as that’s the more common term since ‘posthuman’ is used to describe something else entirely (usually various types of AI, or beings so advanced that despite being derived from human stock they’re no longer recognizably human)

The best explanation that I’ve personally seen for the movement is from H+’s FAQ and also from Wikipedia. H+’s FAQ says:

“1. The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
2. The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies. “

Wikipedia shortens this still further, to:

“Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities”

In plain English? “People who think we should use technology to make life better.”

Wow, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Granted, this catch-all umbrella covers a huge variety of different outlooks, philosophies, and movements, similar to how you can say “Christianity” but this covers Catholics Baptists Anglicans Seventh Day Adventists and even Mormons, as well as thousands of other variations (Aside: I hate comparing transhumanism to religion, because even if at some point overzealous teenage internet addict converts make it seem that way, it’s not, for the very simple reason that most transhumanists require empirical evidence and proof of concept before we go putting our faith in anything). There’s some transhumanists who believe we should become superhuman, overcome death, and reach to the stars. There’s some who think we should forget humans and make AI to act as our successors. And there’s some who think this is all way too extreme and that we should just make life a little better and a little cleaner but largely the same still.

Also, all these people will verbally spar with each other over whose way is ‘best’, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in… well, not so good ways.

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding the question: maybe Patrick was asking about Posthumans themselves, not the transhumanist movement, which would mean that he’s actually asking about the Singularity. That is a good sight harder to explain in non techno-rapture terms. I again turn to Wikipedia for a simple defintion:

“Technological singularity refers to a prediction in Futurology that technological progress will become extremely fast, and consequently will make the future (after the technological singularity) unpredictable and qualitatively different from today.”

Yeah, but how different? What can we expect out of this? Are we going to be some kind of godlike hivemind or immortal bored people or what?

The truth is? We can’t really predict. We can speculate, sure, which is the purvey of science fiction, but I can’t tell you where we’re going to be in fifty years any more than people in the sixties could have predicted where we’d be now. Just watch sixties science fiction if you want an idea of how good we are at predicting the progress of technology.

To put it in perspective though, the Singularity won’t necessarily be awesome, and it won’t be the rapture. It’ll just be different. It’ll be different like having an iPhone is different from having to send letters by Pony Express. Different like going to the Moon is from setting a canoe out along a river. Only maybe just a bit more, and in ways we can’t predict or expect right now. I’ll leave that bit to the science fiction writers.