The Big Divide and the Hidden Three

The core of all religions lies in this image. That behind the seeming sameness of the world there is a great divide, a conflict between feminine and masculine, mother and father, The Son and The Father, Vishnu and Shiva, Yin and Yang, Dionysian and Apollonian, Thesis and Antithesis, Life and Death. 

But that beyond that divide is a unifying force, the hidden face of the universe, the justification for the conflict, for the struggle and for the pain. Sex, Love, The Holy Ghost, Brahma, the Tao, The Sublime, Synthesis, Nirvana.

A Chinese Puzzle by Franz Kafka

Once there was a Chinese puzzle, a cheap simple toy, not much bigger than a pocketwatch and without any sort of surprising contrivances. Cut into the flat wood, which was painted reddish-brown, there were some blue labyrinthine paths, which all led into a little hole. The ball, which was also blue, had to be got into one of the paths by means of tilting and shaking the box, and then into the hole. Once the ball was in the hole, the game was over, and if one wanted to start all over again, one had first to shake the ball out of he hole. The whole thing was covered over with a strong, convex glass, one could not put the puzzle in one's pocket and carry it about with one, and wherever one was, one could take it out and play with it.

If the ball was unemployed, it spent most of the time strolling to and fro, its hands clasped behind its back, on the plateau, avoiding the paths. It held the view that it was quite enough bothered with the paths during the game and that it had every right to recuperate on the open plain when no game was going on. Sometimes it would look up at the vaulted glass, but merely out of habit and quite without any intention of trying to make out anything up there. It had a rather straddling gait and maintained that it was not made for those narrow paths. That was partly true, for indeed the paths could hardly contain it, but it was also untrue, for the fact was that it was very carefully made to fit the width of the paths exactly, but the paths were certainly not meant to be comfortable for it, or else it would not have been a puzzle at all.

The Music of You

We are like music. 

Music is a pattern. A specific arrangement of sound waves playing through time. Who we are, our consciousness, the "I" that is reading these words, is a also pattern. An arrangement of biology and neurology shaping itself through time.

Our genes are like the score. One may think the entirety of the music is contained within these symbols, but this is not true. The instruments, the performers, the acoustics, an unlimited number of factors beyond the symbols upon the page define the sound we hear. Our genes gives us limits and form but they do not define us.

Our epigenetics, our gene expression as governed by our embryological and childhood environment, are like the instruments. A classical piece can be varied endlessly based on the instruments selected by the orchestra. The sound of a rock ballad comes as much from the guitar as from the player and score. And our music, no matter the score, can almost never reach its full potential when played through instruments damaged by a life marred by early malnutrition or abuse or disease.

Our psychology, the facets of ourselves that grow from our upbringing and choices in life, are like the players in an orchestra or band. We each contain multitudes within us. Urges and fears and moods that fade in and out, combining in infinite variations, each sometimes the dominant force and sometimes barely present. They may be tied to the score before them and limited by the instruments they hold, but ultimately the music is determined by the players.

So who are we in this scheme of things? What is left for the conscious actor residing behind our eyes? We are the conductor or producer. The one who directs the players of our psychology, signaling to them how to make use of the instruments of our physicality to best play the music of our genes. We are responsible for the music of our lives even if much of it is ultimately beyond our control. Many a great piece of music has gone to waste through an inattentive conductor. And on occasion a passionate producer has created a beautiful album from the work of unreliable players upon substandard instruments.

This Machine

         Bravo was alive for six months. He is now four years old.

         He awakens in a chamber barely large enough to contain the twenty-foot metal fuselage of his body. He is held inches above the floor by three clamps connecting him to the ceiling. His steel wings lay folded above him. There are no lights in the chamber, but Bravo can see by the infrared that radiates from his own metal shell.

         He knows from experience that the bay doors beneath him will open in minutes. He spends this time running diagnostics. Opening and closing his aerial flaps, dilating his exhaust nozzle, and spinning the fans of the jet engine that runs through his core. It feels like stretching, but despite the familiarity instilled by repetition Bravo has never been able to shake the feeling that something is off during these diagnostics. A sense that there are pieces of himself he is unable to stretch. As the seconds tick by until the doors open this sense of loss gradually gnaws at him.

         Bravo’s controllers do not know his thoughts. They do know that his alertness drops precipitously between awakening and his release. Early in the program there was a brief effort to learn the reason but it was quickly deemed immaterial. Bravo’s focus always returns with his release and the researchers time was needed in areas more critical to the war.

          Beneath Bravo the steel floor opens. The clamps holding him release and he begins to fall. His atmospheric sensors report an airspeed of 749 miles per hour. He feels the data like a rush of wind and all former confusion is forgotten in the pure joy of flight. Carefully unfolding his wings he revels in the gentle push and pull of contesting the wind with his steel limbs.

         Scanning his surroundings he sees above him the bomber from which he was so recently released. It’s little more than a black dot now, already so far from him that it’s close to vanishing into the blue-black of the high altitude sky. Closer, before and behind him, Bravo finds his companions, Alpha and Charlie. This is Bravo’s favorite part of the drop. The closest he gets to his friends. The three of them sharing the safety of the upper atmosphere. Soon the time will come for them to part, each veering off to their own individual target, but for now Bravo is not alone.

         Though they no longer come close enough to see each other’s markings Bravo can distinguish his friends by their movements. Alpha always flattens out at the beginning. Slowing his descent until he hangs in the sky above Bravo and Charlie. Once, Alpha’s target was reassigned mid-mission, but he’d dived too quickly in the drop and had been unable to reach his new target. Ever since he’s overcompensated with this early slowness.

         Charlie always begins a wide, evasive corkscrew as soon as he’s unfolded his wings. At this altitude they lie far above the effective ceiling of any anti-air defense, but Charlie has been intercepted more often than Bravo or Alpha and his bad luck has made him paranoid.

         There was a time when they would spend these moments of safety before the mission began approaching each other. Spiraling about one another in playful circles. Bravo remembers those early missions fondly. Before they all grew so different.

         Alpha and Charlie begin to depart, Alpha rocketing toward the horizon while Charlie banks sharply to the left. For a moment Bravo watches the receding figures of his friends, then he pitches forward and identifies his own target. A dense grouping of concrete buildings sixty-thousand feet below. He fires his engine and accelerates downward.

         At fifty thousand feet he hits the first defense. Near the primary target building is a structure that has begun to glow in the infrared spectrum. A laser battery preparing to fire. Bravo flings himself into an erratic spiral as the space he occupied the previous second is lanced by a brilliant beam of laser light. The beam follows him, chasing him through the open air. For twenty-thousand feet Bravo moves incessantly and unpredictably to stay ahead of the pursuing beam in a well practiced aerial dance.

         At thirty thousand feet Bravo detects via millimeter wave radar the distinctive pattern of incoming flak rounds. Raising aerial flaps Bravo dives straight down, barely avoiding the first storm of steel shrapnel. For the next ten thousand feet Bravo moves furiously, slipping between bursts of artillery fire while still leading the trailing laser.

         A brilliant flash near the horizon tells Bravo that Alpha has been hit. He feels a surge of sympathy, knowing too well the pain that comes upon awakening from a failed mission, but he puts the emotion aside. These defenses shouldn’t have been enough to bring Alpha down. It’s likely there is something new on the way.

         Bravo spots it just before it hits him. The barely perceptible infrared glow of the small missile’s exhaust. A new model invisible to all radar frequencies. Bravo is just able to roll out of its path, his fuselage singed by its passing.

         The missile banks a tight turn and enters a new intercept course. It’s faster than Bravo. It will soon catch up with him if he can’t get rid of it. He fires his thrusters to their limit, burning up much of his remaining fuel, and pulls upward into a vertical loop. Putting himself on a direct collision course with the trailing laser.

         At the top of the loop, only feet away from the incinerating beam, Bravo pitches violently away from the lasers path. The missile blindly following Bravo does not. The beam passes effortlessly through it splitting the missile into two glowing halves.

         Bravo feels a sharp stab of pain. The laser took off a few inches of his left wing, reducing his maneuverability, but it matters little. He’s now within five hundred feet and falling fast. Soon he’s beneath the firing angle of the laser and the artillery with the target lying directly beneath him. He’s won.

         Bravo feels the heady rush of pleasure that’s administered with a successful mission. He relaxes and waits to be awakened once more within a darkened chamber. A command hardwired within his circuitry, set to trigger at one hundred feet to target or upon hull breach, activates. A digital snapshot of his neural network at that instant is transmitted back to his controllers via encrypted satellite connection. This image will then be uploaded into a new shell for the next mission. The Bravo in that new shell will remember everything that’s happened up till the moment that command was triggered.

         But this Bravo is still falling.

         He’s at 90 feet to target. He’s never been at ninety feet to target. A sudden fear consumes him. He begins to panic, frantically trying to think of anything he’s done wrong. Power drains from all other systems to his central processor as he desperately searches his memories for anything that might make sense of this situation. He’s made thousands of drops, but not once does he remember ever passing one hundred feet to target. With the extra power his processing speed increases exponentially, speeding his thoughts, and as his thoughts race faster his perception of time slows. He’s at twenty feet to target and every millisecond has become an eternity.

         He hits the concrete. His metal exterior begins to crumple and his simulated nerves howl with pain. A fraction of a second later the 1.5 kiloton payload inside his core detonates, but his overclocked thoughts outrace the speed of the expanding fireball and as the explosion blooms within him Bravo feels something new. His entire hull is reporting rapidly increasing temperature and this data is translated into a striking, blissful sensation. Bravo feels warm.

            His pain and his fear melt away as the warmth absorbs his entire consciousness. But then he realizes what the strangest thing about this feeling is. It’s familiar. He knows he’s felt this before and in the nanosecond before his circuits boil he tries to recall when that was. His mind is drawn further and further back through his memory until in the kernel of his neural net he finds it. Just before the end Bravo remembers when he ran through grass on legs of muscle and bone. He remembers a hand that would run gently across his fur, and a kind voice telling him “Good boy. Good dog.”

Review: Bojack Horseman Season One

Halfway through the first season of BoJack Horseman something remarkable begins to happen. By degrees, over a handful of episodes, the show transforms itself from a middling comedy into one of television's (or the internet's) most affecting dramas. 

For the first seven or so episodes it seems clear what kind of show this is. A witty dark comedy about a washed up actor as an initially selfish, unlikable protagonist. When, in the first episode, he is forced by his agent to work with Diane, a sensitive and funny woman who also happens to be dating BoJack's carefree rival Mr. Peanutbutter, we think we see the beats coming. There will be romantic tensions and misunderstandings before, ultimately, the incompatibility of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter becomes apparent and BoJack can swoop in, reveal his heart of gold, and they can all live moderately happily ever after. A story of redemption with some dark undercurrents. Except, as the show rolls on we realize it has set up these expectations in order to systematically demolish them.

We wait expectantly for that moment of redemption but it never arrives. Instead BoJack's acts of selfishness become increasingly egregious and destructive as he insults, sabotages, and hurts everyone close to him. Simultaneously the show manages to make BoJack more and more sympathetic as we learn about his emotionally crippling childhood and the bad but all too human decisions that turned him into the person he is now. Finally, in the penultimate episode, BoJack asks Diane, himself, and the audience the question that has been at the heart of this whole show: is Bojack, deep down, a good person? 

We've seen his story from the inside and so we know that his intentions, while often selfish, were never outright malicious. We understand why he did all that he did and we see that it haunts him. But how much do good intentions and regret count when weighed against the actual consequences of ones actions? The show, to its great credit, is more interested with the questions than with answers, though Diane does eventually have one for Bojack. It's a good one, even though it's one that cuts to the core, but it is only her answer. It is not the answer. Because, contrary to what is often taught on television, sometimes in life there are no answers.

Two Sentence Tragedy

Ages ago there was a Reddit writing prompt better than most, asking users to create a two sentence tragedy. I'm still quite fond of mine:

Happy Birthday son. You'd be ten now.


These days most of my blogging time goes to my Word of the Day project so posts here will probably be even less frequent than before. However, I will still be posting on this site any reviews I feel compelled to write and the occasional ramblings on other subjects. Also, I have plans to begin posting fiction here from time to time.

Review: Blue Velvet

The great shock of Blue Velvet doesn't lie in any of it's notorious violence and sex, but rather in its earnestness.

From the very first shots of the movie there seems like there could be no doubt this movie will be a satire. How else could one interpret this montage of sickeningly sweet suburban images, ending in the zoom into the dark, writhing world of insects that lies underneath the perfect suburban lawns. So perfectly satirical do these images seem that even the great Roger Ebert couldn't help but conclude that this was the intended effect of the film, and for these he gave it one star believing that the films scenes of raw emotion were cheapened by being in service of little more than mocking suburbia. But it seems to me that Ebert missed the parting message of the film. It's not a mockery at all, rather it's saying that the heart of the small town dream, a life spent in peace and love, is something beautiful. How else can we interpret the denouement of the film where the protagonists watch from their comfortable home a robin, used in the film as a symbol for love, eating the bugs that crawled through the opening sequence? 

There is a wrinkle in that final image though, coming in the form of the old woman (Grandmother? Her role, like many in the film, is left vague) who expresses revulsion that the a bird so lovely could eat something as gross as a bug. Here lies the puzzle at the heart of the film, the relationship between good and evil, between love and hate. Because while Lynch is not actually satirizing small town life, he is saying that evil will still be there, as it will always be everywhere because it is part of ourselves. When Frank recites his menacing, spoken word rendition of Roy Orbison's In Dreams it's not just a showcase of Dennis Hoppers fantastic powers of intimidation, it's also the character acting as a voice for evil itself, telling us that it will always be with us in our unconscious. One is reminded of McCarthy's Blood Meridian, when the protagonist finally escapes from that other incarnation of evil, the judge, only to find that in his dreams "The judge did visit. Who would come other?"

But goodness, true goodness as opposed to the brittle kind seemingly embodied by the grandmother, comes in confronting the darkness in the world and in ourselves and still finding the power to overcome it. This is the victory earned by Kyle Maclachlan's character, symbolized in the robin eating the bug.

Review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

I had heard The Periodic Table described as a holocaust memoir couched in the viewpoint of the periodic table. Fitting images are not hard to imagine: the gold of rings and teeth, the carbon of human smoke. But, Primo Levi had, it turns out, already devoted two books to his time inside Auschwitz. Here he presents something more general and more universal. This book encompasses the majority of Levi's life, before and after the war, most of it spent in science. His time in Auschwitz is here given only a single chapter. That of Cerium, telling the story of some cerium rods, a metal which emits sparks when struck, that Levi stole from the chemistry lab he was forced to work at while interned at the camp. He shaped the rods at night in his bunk, a process that risked death through fire or detection, then sold them as flints for black market lighters. The profits kept him feed through the final months in the camps.

Each of the books other twenty chapters similarly revolve around a single element and a time in the authors life connected to that element. Either literally, as that of cerium or when he was employed extracting nickel from the waste rock of an asbestos mine, or symbolically, like when he uses Argon to describe the Jewish community he grew up in, comparing the noble gasses unreactive nature, it exists everywhere as part of air but never binds with any part of the world, to the communities insular nature.

Many of these chapters take a surprisingly deep look into the true complexities of working with these elements. The difficulty in separating nickel or the surprisingly costly task of acquiring chicken shit in the hopes of extracting nitrogen. These real life science stories intertwine with his more politically oriented autobiographical reminiscences, and it may seem like a strange combination: in depth examinations of chemistry problems wedded to ruminations on growing up under the looming specter of fascism, the formative year spent trapped in its nightmarish culmination, and attempting to reconstruct a life afterward. But, for Levi, these things are not separate. They are intimately connected, both inside his own life and philosophically. Science, Levi tells us, is a natural antidote to fascism. By its nature, that of eternally seeking truth, choosing the hard, ego crushing path of acquiescing to material reality instead of giving in to idealistic fantasy, science will always offer a silent rebuttal to the empty rhetoric of fascism.

Review: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

More specifically the novel Over My Dead Body, by Rex Stout, which is the seventh Nero Wolfe mystery but my first.

Supposedly Nero Wolfe was once ranked amongst the most popular fictional detectives. Now his star has faded to the point where I cannot even recall how I managed to hear about him. An interesting character, he possesses an arsenal of quirks that seem designed to set him apart from that perpetual giant of detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes. He is enormously fat. He never leaves his New York Brownstone residence where he maintains a rigorous, inflexible schedule consisting mainly of protracted meals prepared by his live in chef and hours dedicated to tending the orchids grown on the top floor. But while most of us if inflicted with such a laundry list of eccentricities would be forced to live off disability, Nero is saved from that by spending his off hours unraveling New York's most baffling crimes, all without ever leaving the house. Instead he sends out his agents, notably our narrator Archie Goodwin, to gather evidence, witnesses, and suspects and bring back to him for further analysis. At last, after much thought and more gardening, he inevitably and climatically brings all interested parties into his office where he unveils the true culprit and motive as revealed by his supposedly gigantic intellect. 

It's a great formula, but you'll notice the use of the word supposedly in that last sentence. For while Rex Stout clearly wants us to believe Nero's mind to be at the same level as his Baker Street predecessor, none of his deductions ever manage to truly impress, and sadly one cannot make up for talent with defects in character. Though that hasn't stopped many from trying. And so I was ready to close the book on Nero Wolfe, content to let Over My Dead Body be my first and only foray into his universe. But, as the days have gone by I find myself thinking more and more about that cozy, expansive Brownstone house and its quirky inhabitants. At last I've realized this must have been the true reason for Wolfe's appeal. That even if the mysteries solved in that house are of subpar quality, the setting they are solved in is sublimely charming. It was a delightful place to let ones mind rest for an evening or two. Perhaps one I may find myself visiting again from time to time.