Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Infinite Jest I (Romeo)

One of the many story lines in David Foster Wallace's epic novel Infinite Jest involves a videotape so compellingly fascinating that once someone starts watching it, they literally cannot look away. They'll just stay wherever they were when their eyes first met the screen and endlessly stare at the video, unable to do anything else but gaze non-stop at the screen.  Soon or later, they'll lose bladder and bowel control, choosing to remain in front of the screen rather than leave for the bathroom, and after enough time they'll eventually starve to death while watching the tape for days on end unless someone intercedes.  But if the rescuer's eyes meet the screen, then they're trapped there, too, and you can probably guess some of the problems that eventually ensue.  

Much of the novel involves various nefarious agents trying to get their hands on the tape and weaponize it for evil purposes, but the novel never says what's actually on the video.  Wallace leaves that to your imagination. He tells you that it was created by avant-garde filmmaker James O. Incandenza and describes several of Incandenza's other films, which sound so experimental and academic as to be unwatchable.  But somehow, he must have gotten the elements on one tape just right and managed to create the endlessly fascinating Infinite Jest, and the rest, so to speak, is history.

Of course, if you know me, you know I've spent a lot of time wondering just what such a video would actually look like and that eventually I'd give creating such a Frankenstein film a try.  Taking random video clips off the internet and spending hours and hours splicing them together this way and that, and wondering if the Infinite Jest effect was taking hold on the filmmaker but not the audience.  But I managed to produce several candidates for Infinite Jest, some of which were unwatchable, many of which were annoying, and a few even managed to turn pornographic on me and were deleted before I'd be tempted to ever post them (you have to be careful what you grab off the net). But one or two, I think, are sort of clever and hypnotic and might make good candidates for Infinite Jest.

Here's the first one I'm ready to release, Infinite Jest I, which I've subtitled Romeo.  You'll understand why when you watch it.

I don't own or represent that I own copyrights to any of the materials in this film.  I think of the video as a sort of post-modern, free-use pastiche, creating a new and original work of art from the flotsam and jetsam floating out there on the World Wide Web, sort of like collage or plunderphonics. Others might see it as nothing but one big fat copyright infringement and demand I take it down off the internet, so I don't know how long this will last.  Enjoy it while you can, but make sure you have someone around to turn it off in case the effect works and you can't stop watching.       

Sunday, July 29, 2018

My mood is better today than last night (what a difference a good night's sleep can make) even though that document is still missing, there's no resolution with PayPal in sight, and broken things are still broken.  But it's our own choice how we react to things, how we cope with adversity and how we deal with success, and today I'm apparently choosing to take it all more in stride.

Part of yesterday's frustration was yet another malfunction and this time with my beloved video RPGs, my escape and solace from this mortal world. After completing the less-than-satisfying BioShock Infinite in a mere 15 hours (pretty far from "infinite"), I decided to tackle the other game I purchased along with BioShock, the relatively new (about one year old) game NieR: Automata.

I knew next to nothing about the game, which is kind of how I like it - a total mystery, so everything's a surprise and a revelation.  I didn't know why the letter R at the end of the titular NieR was capitalized, I didn't know how the protagonist could see with the black blindfold covering her eyes, or why she even had a black blindfold in the first place.  I vaguely knew that the game involved some sort of post-apocalyptic humans-vs-robots plot, but that was about it.  I booted up the game with absolutely no expectations on what I would see.

The first thing I saw were words informing the player that the game does not auto-save, and you had to play the game to learn how to save.  Okay, thanks for tip, I thought, I'll be sure to watch for that. 

What I experienced next was more similar to a classic arcade game like Space Invaders or even Pong than a 21st Century RPG. Five spaceships were lined up at the bottom of the screen, and you commanded one, the center one.  You could make it toward the top or the bottom of the screen, or left to right, and shoot ray beams at enemy spaceships scrolling across the top of the screen.  Pa-choo! Pa-choo!  Pa-choo!  Whee!  This is fun! (that's sarcasm, if you can't tell). I'll admit, the graphics were better than a 70s arcade game and the soundtrack was excellent, but other than that, pretty disappointing stuff.  

After a few minutes, the other spaceships were all blown away and you were all alone, and now get this - big change (more sarcasm) - instead of looking down at your spaceship, the "camera" was facing sideways, and you could go up and down to avoid enemy ships and enemy fire.  

I couldn't believe this was actually the game - there would be riots in the streets if the developers were trying to pawn this off as a modern game and had put a blindfolded blonde on the cover just to fool customers into buying it.  But the arcade-style action continued for five or more minutes, and after I had destroyed a sufficient number of enemy ships, the game indicated I had "Leveled Up" and was now at Level 2. Apparently, that was really the game.  

Really?  That was all there was to it?  I wasn't in a good mood to start with, and at that point I realized that my big purchase of a new game was nothing but a rip off.

But wait!  It changed!  After nearly 10 minutes, my little spaceship icon unavoidably crashed into a wall that appeared out of nowhere and the blindfolded blonde, rendered in full, state-of-the-art, 3-D video-game animation, falls from the wreckage.  An off-screen radio operator warns her that a large enemy group has been detected and she goes at them, attacking with a sword larger than she is tall.

It was pure poetry in motion.  There was a gracefulness to the curve of her swings and when you backed her up, instead of merely stepping backwards she'd execute a balletic back-flip, still swinging her sword and taking enemies out in mid-air.  This was more like what I was looking for.  This was the state of the art of the video RPG. I was finally in a real game, and based on what I was now finally seeing, probably in the hands of true masters. 

I guess the opening was some sort of homage to the arcade games of the past and a gentle immersion into the more sophisticated world of modern gaming.  Okay, cute, I get in now, but honestly, I felt like it went on a little too long.

After dispatching the swarm of attacking androids, a huge crane with a rotating cutting wheel at its end breaks through a wall and attacks our heroine, and she then has to take on that boss opponent.  It looked impossible at first, but after a few strikes it was apparent that she had done some damage (good sword!) so, emboldened, I moved her character forward in for the kill.

But I had gotten too bold and instead of the girl killing the crane, the crane killed the girl.  That's okay, you die dozens of times, scores of times, in most games, but I hadn't learned how to game save yet, and with no autosaves, words scrolled across the screen saying something like "And that was the end of the war and the robots lived happily after after.  The End," the final credits scrolled by motion-picture style, and the game's start screen appeared as if you had just finished the full game and were now ready to start over if you so chose.

Sheesh!  I was a full 15 minutes in, but now I had to start all over again and play that 10-minute arcade game over again just to get back to where I had left off.  That was frustrating but it got even worse. When I was finally facing the boss crane again, the screen froze on me and I couldn't do anything at all - couldn't move the character, couldn't pull up a menu, couldn't do anything other than finally open Windows Task Manager, end the game, re-boot, and start all over again with that infernal arcade introduction. 

But every time I got past the intro, the game would freeze up on me again, sometimes while fighting the androids, sometimes while fighting the crane, and one glorious time I even managed to defeat the crane without freezing (or getting killed) and played for another 10 minutes or so before the game finally froze on me again.  With no autosaves and still no clue yet on how to perform my own save, each time the game froze I'd have to start all over at the very beginning again and play that little Asteroids game over and over again (Pa-choo! Pa-choo! Pa-choo!  Whee!).   

This was beyond frustrating, so I went online and saw that many, many people had the exact same problem with the game. There are whole Reddit and Steam forums dedicated to theories on how to fix the game, but most people reported back that despite the advise, the game was still basically unplayable on PC because of all the freezes.

I tried to follow as much of the advice as I could.  I checked the game's minimum requirements against my computer's specs to make sure we were compatible (we were).  I updated the drivers on my video card.  I minimized all the graphics properties on the game to their lowest possible setting, and then lowered the same properties on my graphics card as well.  I downloaded and applied a user-produced mod that was specifically designed to supposedly fix the problem.  I turned off the Steam overlay.  But still, the game kept freezing and by now I was absolutely detesting that arcade-style introduction.

There was some advise I refused to follow, like download an executable file that supposedly removes all drivers from your computer and then manually replace the graphics driver with an older version.  Any advice that included first backing up my entire hard drive before tinkering around with the BIOS settings or whatever was off the table - I wasn't going to bungle my way into destroying my computer in an  attempt to fix a game.

One thing I noticed was that most, if not all, of the forums and posts about fixing the freezes were from the first half of 2017, and the topic seemed to drop off the internet by last summer.  That either means that people, collectively or individually, figured out a way to fix the problem, or that they had just given up and nobody else ever bought the game for PC since then, at least until I came along.

I finally gave up after wasting six to eight hours trying to fix it and playing though that infernal arcade-style intro at least 20 times.  Worse, I bought the game from Steam, who allows you to refund a purchase if you're not happy and have played less than two hours, but with all my tinkering and attempts to fix the problem, I had managed to log four hours of playtime and was now ineligible for a refund.

My advice for PC gamers out there is what I wish someone had told me before my purchase, and don't buy NieR: Automata unless you're running an absolute state-of-the-art gaming computer AND you've given the game a test run.   It really does look like a great game, based on those few minutes of play I got in after the intro and before the inevitable freezes, and it apparently runs fine on Play Station, but until the developers fix their product, the game simply doesn't work on PC.

At least my PC.

Which is why I was in such a bad mood last night. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

First off, I'll say right at the top, I'm in a bad mood tonight.  That might affect the quality of this post, so I figure I'll just let you know that much right off.  You've been warned.

There's a lot of reasons for my foul mood.  Did you ever notice that when one thing goes wrong, everything else seems to follow suit as well?  I've lost an important document (more on that in a later post).  My printer stopped working and I don't know why (or how to fix it).  Ditto the master toilet. PayPal is being a jerk, and won't release my own money to me. More on that in a future post, too (see how much fun you have to look forward too with all these planned grudge posts of mine?).  

As I've posted here in the past, my little escape from all the cares and worries of the world has lately been video role playing games (RPGs).  Everything else in my life may be going to hell in a handbasket, but at least I freed the townspeople last night from the evil plans of a diabolical villain.  Or slayed a dragon.  Or got the attention of a game's femme fatale.  Or killed a water buffalo with nothing but a blow dart because why not?

I just completed the critically acclaimed BioShock Infinite.  Frankly, I was disappointed (fully recognizing that my disappointment may be due as much to my foul mood as to the actual game itself).  I started the game late last Sunday afternoon and finished before 8:00 p.m. Friday evening - 15 hours total play time according to Steam.  A good RPG game could last for over 100 hours - according to the Steam stats, I've played 119 hours of Assassin's Creed Origins, 159 hours of Borderlands 2, and a mind-boggling 637 hours of Fallout 4 (maybe that's why everything else in my life is going all haywire on me). 

Okay, shooter games like BioShock are notorious for being faster than open-world RPGs like Fallout and Skyrim, but those mere 15 hours of BioShock weren't even all that interesting.  Half the time, I didn't even know exactly what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, other than shooting back at the bad guys (I guess) shooting at me.  The storyline was ambitious, I'll give it that, involving quantum theory and such, but the ending scene was ambiguous as hell.  I found a long-ass web page trying to describe what actually happened in that last scene, but if it takes 10,000 words and the equivalent of a Doctoral dissertation to tell you what you just did and saw, then maybe it wasn't all that coherent in the first place.

No spoilers, but I'll tell you this much - one of the devices the game uses is to have the heroine, Elizabeth, become increasingly omniscient as the game progresses.  Something about a tear in the space-time continuum and the existence of multiple parallel universes, and somehow she can start seeing other futures.  This works to keep the action going - she only has to say, "I can't explain why, but we need to go to the armory right now" to move the action along to that location, but even after battling all the bad guys between your location and the armory, and all the enemies in the armory itself, it still wasn't clear why you needed to be there in the first place, because by then Elizabeth is saying you need to confront the prophet now about some such thing or another.  Or climb into a bathysphere (I'm not kidding). Or get baptised in some rural stream (ditto).

I'll be specific - in one scene, you're trying to get past security and break into enemy HQ.  Based on appearance, the bioscanner thinks Elizabeth is actually her late mother and thus eligible to enter (she's the villain's daughter), but she can't pass the fingerprint scan.  So she decides to lead you to the crypt and cut the hand off her mother's corpse to fake the prints, but once there, the mother's ghost predictably arises and understandably doesn't want her hand cut off.  Much fighting and much chasing ensues - exciting stuff - but when you finally defeat the spectral mother, rather than finally getting the fingerprints, the plot has moved on to other things and the attempt to break into enemy HQ is abandoned or forgotten or whatever,  and now you're fighting some rebels who were on your side earlier because why not?

So, incomprehensible plot, use of quantum mumbo-jumbo to gloss over plot deficiencies, an ending so ambiguous it makes the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey seem hyper-literal by comparison, and after a mere 15 hours, the game's over and you're done (I know, that last criticism sounds like the line from Annie Hall that goes "The food at that restaurant is awful, and such small servings" or something like that).

But the game got rave reviews.  Others thought it was innovative and thought-provoking and like, deep, man.  So, are they all wrong, or am I just in a cranky mood because of lost documents, PayPal, and broken household appurtenances?      

Friday, July 27, 2018

Dreaming of the Masters

Archie takes us on a trip through space and time.  From There's A Trumpet In My Soul, 1975, an underappreciated masterpiece.  As always, Shepp was playing with fire.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

It was over a week ago that I finished the story line to Assassin's Creed Origins, but I liked the game so much that I spent a whole week still wandering around ancient Egypt looking for any remaining quests, temples to loot, crocodiles to conquer, really anything just to keep playing.  It was literally difficult to let go of that virtual world, and I recommend the game to any RPG fans out there.

So what to play next? I shopped around a little on line, considered this, rejected that, and wound up downloading two new (at least new to me) games - NieR Automata (top picture) and BioShock Infinite (lower picture).

I've started first with BioShock.  It's my first BioShock game, but since it's published by 2K Games, the gameplay and controls immediately felt very familiar (2K also publishes Borderlands, which I completed just before Assassin's Creed).  It's a steampunk game!  Cool, I didn't know that going in.  It's still too early to file a review or to even say if I like it or not, but it's not an open world game and it's more of a shooter than a role playing game, but if I can get over those two hurdles I think I may enjoy it.  

I have absolutely no idea what to expect of NieR Automata.  How does she see with those blinders over her eyes?  The game got good reviews, and I'm told it's an open-world RPG, so I should like it.  Don't send me any spoilers - I like my little mysteries.

So, it's the evening of my birthday tonight and I get to do whatever I want (or so I'm told), so I'm going to slip into the BioShock world for a while and see what trouble Elizabeth's got herself into now.       

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

I'm Sixty-Four Dammit!

It was inevitable.  Despite my best efforts to the contrary, somehow I managed to survive and still get old. 

Which is to say I turn 64 tomorrow, and like anyone else who was 13 years old in 1967, that particular age will forever be linked in my mind to a particular Beatles song.

I can't stand Paul McCartney any more (tastes change), but I still find the above version of that particular Beatles above pretty enjoyable.  Of course, the definitive Beatles birthday song will always be the Beatles song Birthday.  Here's the best version of that I could find:

Or as a friend once put it, "Youth is a fleeting thing, but immaturity can last a lifetime."

Monday, July 23, 2018

Big Ears 2019

We spent the better part of two weeks unpacking the performances from 2018's Big Ears Festival.  Now the festival organizers have announced that they will slowly reveal performers for next year's festival (Big Ears 2019) as they're booked, rather than the traditional grand announcement of the full lineup after everyone's been all lined up.  This gives us time to get familiar with some of the artists before the event.  This gives us the chance to prepack for next year's festival.

The biggest name that stands out in the announcement above, of course, is Nils Frahm, who performed at Big Ears back in 2014, and whom we touched upon back on June 15 (June 17, too).  And, oh look, it's the artist Lonnie Holley!  We just saw him open for Animal Collective last week.  And Mary Halverson, who covered Carla Bley's Ida Lupino!  And there's other bands we've posted here before, like The Messthetics and Irreversible Entanglements.

This is truly our festival, a festival for us.  See you in Tennessee!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Artist, Lonnie Holley

I apologize in advance for a very specific "f-word" used in this song, but I think that the importance of the political message and the sheer artistry of the performance more than makes up for the title of Lonnie Holley's I Woke Up In a Fucked Up America.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

All-Purpose Post

We here at WDW would be quite satisfied if any one of our posts accomplished even half as much as this post. (Is this even a "telephone pole" anymore?)

When we have no idea what to post, the utility post comes to our rescue!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Dreaming of the Masters

If you don't think Sly Stone is among the masters of whom you should be dreaming, you might want to reconsider.  After all, in numerous interviews, acknowledged master Miles Davis said Sly is what he was dreaming of and trying to sound like circa 1972.  Except, of course, when Miles and his band played, it came out sounding like this:

All this because driving home on this late July afternoon in Georgia, I couldn't get Hot Fun In the Summertime out of my head.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Three Glimpses of the Natural World Trying to Reclaim a Former Lead Smelting Plant in West Atlanta, Georgia

Good work, Mother Nature.  While you were busy pollinating and germinating and blossoming, mankind has been constructing all of this:

But I'll bet in a couple hundred years, certainly in a thousand years, the world will look much more like the first three pictures than the last.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Sung Tongs: Animal Collective and Lonnie Holley at Symphony Hall, Atlanta, July 17, 2018

Last night, Panda Bear and Avey Tare of the Baltimore band Animal Collective performed their 2004 album Sung Tongs in its entirety at Atlanta's Symphony Hall. Georgia's own Lonnie Holley opened.  

The whole show was sublime and exquisite beyond words, so instead of talking about it, here are some pictures and videos that might better express the peculiar joys of the evening. 

By the way, I think the title Sung Tongs is a spoonerism on the words Tongue Songs.

With each LP, Animal Collective generally also release an EP of similar songs, and Sung Tongs was accompanied by Prospect Hummer, a collaboration with folk singer Vashti Bunyan.  After playing Sung Tongs all the way through, Panda and Avey played several more songs, including the title track Prospect Hummer and I Remember Learning How To Dive from the Prospect Hummer EP.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Call it what you will: incompetence, dereliction of duty, or outright treason, but the short-fingered vulgarian of a president has chosen to believe the words of a murderous, treacherous thug of a dictator over the unanimous opinion of the U.S. intelligence community, who have definitively concluded that Russia interfered with the 2016 election.  

It has been suggested that the orange one is a stooge for the Russians, while others suspect that former KGB Chief Putin may have been cultivating him for years now. “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career and I never would have thought that the US President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas).

It's time that we as a country decide where and what are core values are, and then vote this November accordingly.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The people who were most American by birth, and who had the most to do with managing America, gave themselves a literature which had the least to say about the real phenomena of American life, most particularly the accelerated rate, the awful rate, of growth and anomaly through all of society. That sort of literature and that sort of attempt to explain America was left to the sons of immigrants who, if they were vigorous enough, and fortunate enough to be educated, now had the opportunity to see that America was a phenomenon never before described, indeed, never before visible in the record of history. There was something going on in American life which was either grand or horrible or both, but it was going on—at a dizzy rate—and the future glory or doom of the world was not necessarily divorced from it… 
- Norman Mailer, from Cannibals and Christians (1965)
Miloš Forman, the Czech film director, lived and worked in the former Czechoslovakia until 1968, but once in America, made some of the most quintessential of American films, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hair, Ragtime, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and the Andy Kaufman bio-pic, Man in the Moon.  The point being we need immigrants to explain our country to ourselves.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

So sometime around midnight last evening, after some 102 hours of gameplay, I completed the main storyline of Assassin's Creed: Origins.

It was a very good game and I'd rank it right up there with the best of the role-playing games (RPGs).  It didn't have the outstanding story-telling of Witcher 3, but then again it doesn't have Andrzej Sapkowski novels to support it, but it was much more involved than a straight-up action game or shooter.  The graphics were outstanding and even breathtaking at times, the quests varied enough to not seem repetitive, the characters were interesting, and it even had educational value (I now know much more about Ptolemaic-Dynasty Egypt than I did before).  The game was produced by Ubisoft, the creators of Far Cry 4, and while the mechanics of the game were very similar to Far Cry, Ubisoft managed to smooth out the bugs and idiosyncrasies that made game-playing in Far Cry so unnecessarily frustrating.

It was my first Assassin's Creed game, so I was genuinely surprised by the whole Animus device (no spoilers - about the Animus I will say no more).  I'm told Origins is the best A.C. game, at least in a while, so I won't go back and play earlier versions, but I am intrigued about the upcoming Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, which reportedly will continue the story from where Origins left off.

There's still plenty of gameplay available for me in the game - there are still a lot of side quests yet to be completed and the game allows you to switch and play as different characters to keep things interesting.  But I know from past experience with other games that playing the side quests without the main storyline to give things structure and flow will seem pointless after a few days and that soon I'll be searching for a new game to play.

Video games, with their complex, non-linear storylines, their action and excitement, first-person point-of-view, and compelling fantasy content, have taken over the role that cable t.v. used to have for me and that Netflix now has for many people, namely the predominant time-waster in life.  The 102 hours I played is roughly equivalent to two-and-a-half weeks of a full-time job, but I did this all in my spare time between last night and Memorial Day weekend. 

Final thought: I can't rank all the games that I've played the past couple years or so linearly, such as  No. 1 on down to No. x, but I can group them into the following categories:

God Tier:   The Witcher 3, Assassin's Creed: Origins
Patrician Tier:  Fallout 4, Skyrim
Okay Tier:  Fallout: New Vegas, Borderlands 2 
Pleb Tier: Far Cry 4, Minecraft 
Meh Tier:  Wolfenstein II, Everyone's Gone To The Rapture 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dreaming of the Masters

As we recall, Don Cherry, if not the very first, at least made his first appearance near the beginning of this DOTM series.  He's back now because we were scrolling through YouTube looking for something else, and we came across this incredible performance from 1971 and just had to re-post it here immediately (literally, we just heard this for the first time mere minutes ago).  In this set, he channels everything from Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibraham to his own Mu series of LPs, and even foreshadows the direction his music went during his mid-70s Brown Rice phase.

Great stuff, and to think this is what was being broadcast on French t.v. in the early 1970s! 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Dozen Reasons To Be Cheerful

  1. Donald Trump is still out of the country.

  2. Scott Pruitt is out at EPA.

  3. That racist Papa John's guy had to resign. 

  4. They got all those kids out of the cave.

  5. World Cup, because why not?

  6. The Red Sox' 3 1/2-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East.

  7. Better Call Saul Season 4 starts next month.

  8. Parquet Courts' Wide Awake - best LP of 2018 (so far).

  9. Anna von Hauswolff's Dead Magic - also the best LP of 2018 (so far).

  10. Jonathan Richman to play a four-night stand at The Middle East in Cambridge, Mass.

  11. Girl Scouts' Thin Mint cookies with ice cream.

  12. It's warm enough to be naked outdoors.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


If Larks Tongues In Aspic were reimagined as a Slavic folk opera and performed by Dirty Projectors, it might sound like DakhaBrakha, The Ukraine's finest band. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Charlotte Fever

I just spent the last 24 hours or so on business in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I'm back home now, but here are some random snapshots of the day.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Irreversible Entanglements

The spirit of Gil Scott-Heron, from his spoken-word recitations to his emphasis on black struggle and liberation, is tangible in the music of the modern band Irreversible Entanglements.  Irreversible Entanglements are a liberation-oriented free jazz collective formed in early 2015 by saxophonist Keir Neuringer, poet Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) and bassist Luke Stewart, who came together to perform at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event organized after the slaying of Akai Gurley by the NYPD. Months later the group added trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes (a duo who also performed at the MAPB event). 

The tone of their compositions is decisively driven by Ayewa’s searing poetic narrations of black trauma, survival and power. The message is the undeniable essence of the music. Though free jazz with voice is an uncommon approach today, it harkens back to The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Sunday, July 08, 2018

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a student of the philosopher Epictetus and a noted stoic himself.  In Book 6 of his Meditations, Aurelius writes (Chapter 21), "If anyone can refute me - show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective - I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance."

This is a noble thought, and reminiscent of the Dalai Lama's "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change" (The New York Times, November 12, 2005).  "By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced," he continued, "I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."

I have been reading Epictetus' Discourses, and have been dismayed at his naivety and primitivism as much as I've been inspired by the strength of his message.  My challenge is in continuing to accept Epictetus' teachings in spite of the obsolete models of his world view.  

Epictetus' thinking was confined by First Century views on psychology, science, and religion.  For example, his contemporary Claudius Ptolemy looked at the sun, the moon, and the stars and logically concluded that they must be circling the Earth in a geocentric universe - I mean, just look for yourself.  It wasn't until centuries later that Galileo if not invented, at least perfected, the telescope, and with the improved observations available to him, was able to observe flaws in the Ptolemaic model and was able to develop the heliocentric model (with help, of course, from Copernicus).

Epictetus appears to accept the Platonic model of reason driving the motions.  Just look for yourself - we observe some phenomenon, we make a decision and a judgement, and choose to either be angry, be happy, or to just ignore it.  It's just logical - that is how it seems and how it appears to us.  However, later psychologists and philosophers had the benefit of a new invention, psychoanalysis, as revolutionary a tool as the telescope was to astronomers.  Hume, Freud and others were able to discern that the subconscious mind makes many decisions for us before we're even aware of it, and that it might be more accurate to say that we observe some phenomenon, subconsciously become angry, happy, or indifferent about it, and only then make a conscious decision or judgement.

I can go on and on about Epictetus' views on science and about religion.  In one chapter of The Discourses, Epictetus basically arrives at the equivalent of the modern, pseudo-scientific "intelligent design" theory.  Since there is color in the world, he argued, as well as both an eye that can discern color and a mind that can appreciate it, there must be a divine creator behind it all.  All those things are unlikely to have occured in the same universe by mere chance and happenstance, amirite?  

I can overlook much of the First Century thinking while reading Epictetus, but it seems like in every other chapter, the man paints himself into another anachronous corner as he builds his logical house of cards (too many metaphors?).  For example, he goes on to argue that the Divine Creator, that Intelligent Designer of color and eyes, gave man the ability to reason and reach decisions without relying on instinct and intuition (which is exactly what we do).  This faculty of reason is the spark of divinity in all of us, he argues, our god-like nature that no one can take away from us.  Take away my wealth, my family, my reputation in the world, he argues, beat me, torture me, humiliate me if you must, but I will always have that divine spark of Zeus which no one can take from me.

I like the sentiment, and it explains much about the bravery and stamina of the stoics, but when I can't accept the basis for the argument, should I accept the argument just because it appeals to me?

I starting reading the stoics because I was attracted to that argument and saw many parallels between stoic philosophy and Buddhism, and started out considering myself a "Contemplative Stoic."  But now that I've made the mistake of actually reading the source texts and examining the teachings for myself, I'm starting to reconsider.  Is it possible to accept the conclusion when one doubts the premise?  Or do we need to update the conclusions based on science and a better understanding, as Marcus Aurelius and the Dalai Lama suggest?  

Should I now consider myself a "Sceptic Stoic" (or a "Stoic Sceptic")?

Saturday, July 07, 2018

According to the Roman stoic philosopher Epictetus, "Some things are up to us and others are not.  Up to us are opinion, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is in our action.  Not up to are body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own action."

Epictetus' advise was to care for those things that are up to us, and to not worry about those that are not.  We can, according to Epictetus, manage our own opinions, but not those of others.  While we cannot avoid old age, sickness, and death, those inevitable conditions of the body, we can control our minds, and choose what we can accept and what we can't.

This teaching, in my opinion, accepts the duality of mind and body - the body is a physical thing, outside our control and subject to the forces of nature, while the mind, although dependent on the body for sustenance, is non-physical, within our control, and subject only to the forces of our own reasoning.

I've been a student of Zen long enough to instantly become suspicious the instant I sense a dualistic concept.  The brain is an organ of the body, and functioning as designed by nature it squirts out thoughts in the same way that the stomach, say, squirts out digestive juices. According to the Buddha, our thoughts, our reasoning, our very minds, are nothing more than these secretions of the brain, and are not separate from the body.  The Buddha, then, would have questioned Epictetus about how if our bodies were outside of our own control, how our opinions, impulse, desire, and aversions could be considered within our control, as they are merely products of our out-of-control bodies.

Epictetus seems to rely on the Platonic model of reason, that uniquely human ability to judge and discern our thoughts, as the driver of our emotions, desires, and aversions.  Plato used the metaphor of emotion as a chariot and reason as the horse driving the chariot.  We look at the data, make a rational decision on the best course of action, and then act accordingly.

Later philosophers (e.g., David Hume) and psychologists (notably Freud) challenged this model.  Our subconscious minds have their own desires and aversions, and our faculty of reason merely looks for excuses and rationales to support and defend the a priori decisions our subconscious had already made before we were even aware of it.

In this model, the subconscious mind is like an elephant, going wherever it wants based on its own desires and attractions, and the rational mind is like a monkey on top, pretending to steer but really just finding reasons and arguments to defend what the elephant is going to do anyway.  Reason does not drive our decisions - reason is used to justify our subconscious choices.  The intuitive, emotional elephant drives the thinking of the rational monkey, not the other way around.  In other words, we make an intuitive decision and then look for data and logic to support it.

Epictetus maintained that we can use logic and reason to determine what is within our control and what isn't and then act accordingly, and that our lives would be better if we didn't try to influence what we can't control and instead tended to only those things that we can, but later philosophy and science showed that  Epictetus' teachings are just another tool that the rational monkey can use to justify the actions of the intuitive elephant. 

This, however, is not a refutation or a dismissal of Epictetus - all ethics, philosophy and morality are just tools in the monkey's toolkit, and Epictetus helpfully shows us how to accept things with which it may be difficult to live.  It is not a shortcoming of the wrench that driving a car cross-country won't allow us to escape the limitations of our own life, but if you want to maintain and repair your automobile, Epictetus provides us some handy tools for the job.  

Friday, July 06, 2018

Dreaming of the Masters

Let the words speak for themselves.  If I have to explain any of this to you, you probably wouldn't understand anyway.  

The late Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011), from 1970.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Josiah Johnson & Planes on Paper at Grocery on Home, Atlanta, June 30, 2018

It's been five days since this show, but somehow it feels even longer, and I honestly don't know why it took us so long to post this.  Anyway, last Saturday night, we went out to a new venue (new for us) set in a former grocery store on Home Street in the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta.  The headliner was Josiah Johnson of the folk-rock band The Head and the Heart with support from Planes on Paper.  However, Josiah called the two members of Planes on Paper onto the stage with him during his set (the first, unusual for the headliner), and Planes on Paper later had Josiah on stage with them for virtually their entire set.  Josiah also had a cellist support him while he was on stage, and it got a little confusing (in a good way) whose set was whose as the evening progressed.  To be honest, it felt a little like the birth of a new band, and if it was we wouldn't mind one bit.  

Grocery on Home puts on invitation-only BYOB shows announced on a first-come basis on Facebook. The former grocery store is a part of someone's house and the venue couldn't have more of a home-grown, DIY vibe to it.  The proprietor/homeowner manages to use his personal connections to attract musicians passing through town between gigs, and pays them by passing a box around (no bouncer at the door taking your money) for a suggested $30 donation, with all of the proceedings going to the musicians.

Josiah, for his part, has a better and stronger voice than we realized, even after hearing him several times before with The Head and the Heart, where his singing can get muddled by the full band's instrumentation.  Solo, in a folk setting, his voice fills the room with a warm and sincere tone.  The cello rounded out the sound nicely, and with Planes on Paper on stage with him, the voices harmonized much more intimately than THATH.     

All in all, it was a great night.  Singer-songwriter folk music isn't our favorite genre, but this was all done so beautifully and artistically that it totally entranced us, as well as the rest of the tiny audience (50 people, maybe).  

Tuesday, July 03, 2018


Just in time for the big, five-day, July 4th weekend . . . .

I let my membership to the Geological Society of America lapse and didn't get around to renewing it until last last month. Today, all the back issues of the Society's journals arrived in one big, fat package, and I get to catch up on all my back reading over the next several days.

While you're out washing down hot dogs with PBR or blowing your fingers off with fireworks or whatever it is you do July 4th, I'll be catching up on glacial adjustments to the course of the ancestral Hudson River, pondering the effects of Miocene-Pliocene climate change on continental sedimentation and the the effects of Late Ordovician climate change on the First Extinction (we're in the Sixth now), learning about the paleoclimate of Death Valley, and even reading about substrate controls on valley formation by groundwater on Mars.  

Jealous?  You should be!  It's Nerdfest in Atlanta, y'all!

Monday, July 02, 2018

"And This We Cannot Do"

Damn, I miss Jon Stewart. . . .

There's nothing that's within my power to do about the dishonest politics, the detainees at the border, or the garish vulgarity and lack of respect for the law of the land that characterizes the current Administration other than vote in November, which I fully intend to do and encourage everybody else to as well.

In the meantime, though, between today and the Election, another thing that I can do, that is within my power, is to, as Mr. Stewart suggests, refuse to accept Trump's cruelty and fear and divisiveness as "right" and instead to call it "wrong." The one thing that we truly own, that no one can take away from us, is our opinion and no one can nor will take mine away from me. 

Sunday, July 01, 2018

The Hand Can't Grasp The Fist

"The mind must be more complicated than any theory proposed to explain it: the more complicated the theory, the still more complex the mind that thought of it in the first place." - Philip  N. Johnson-Laird, Mental Models (1983), page 1