The Dust of Greece on My Shoes

Posted October 25, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Culture, Photography, Politics, Travel, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Embedded in the seams of my black oxford walking shoes there can still be seen the light-coloured dust of Greece from a recent trip there.

I was almost going to write “the ancient dust,” since we traversed the Acropolis in Athens, prehistoric Corinth, Olympia and the original Olympic games site, Delphi, the monasteries of the high Meteora outcrops, and Thermopylae before we headed off to the tourist islands of Mykonos and Santorini.

But the dust in Vancouver, of course, is just as ancient, although it lacks the molecules, and the echoes, of far-distant human history and prehistory if not the gods themselves, that must float around in Greece still.

I swear that you could march off a couple of hundred yards or metres in any direction there, start excavating and before too long discover some sign of ancient civilization — that was how dense the presence of Greece’s history felt.

Up to the Acropolis

Up to the Acropolis

Our tour guide for the mainland part of the tour, which was really an archaeological one, was a young archaeologist between digging gigs who made ends meet by taking around, in this case, a bunch of Americans, Australians, and two Canadians — my wife and me.  Our guide was very serious about her job — so proud of her country and its heritage and eager to impart a detailed knowledge of the sites we visited.

Greece’s universities produce many archaeologists, given its many ruins and artifacts and the interest of many parts of the world in its rich history.  But probably too many, especially given its current economic troubles, of which we observed some signs.

That evidence included expensive half-built homes left undone in the dust and heat, and the shells of uncompleted businesses abandoned until times get better.  In the larger cities could be seen much graffiti on building walls which our guide said had cropped up most extensively in the last couple of years with all the troubles.  Mainly they were messages about politics and sports teams, she said.

But there were no riots in the streets, no bonfire-fueled protests or chanting demonstrations.  Both our guides during the trip expressed frustration with the way the media gets stuck on the most dramatic snapshot of events and then repeats that image well past where the reality has changed and moved on.  There is no question that there is hardship in the country: high unemployment, reduction in wages and access to money, political corruption, but most people cope as they struggle and make do amidst the uncertainty of their lives.

Meteora Monastery

Meteora Monastery

Tourism is a huge economic engine for the country, and although there had been some cancellations due to the economic unrest and the migrant crisis in other parts of the country, there were still many coming to the ancient land.  Tourism and olive trees — everywhere.

Highlights of the trip:

♦ The hilltop plateau in Athens with the Acropolis and the hordes who accompanied us to the top. Making our way through the sweating crowds up the steep pathways to the top seemed like a secular pilgrimage of sorts.  The old temples and reminders of the old gods – Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus – although now just backdrops for thousands of digital snapshots and selfies, still have an essential dignity and grandeur.  This feeling of pilgrimage was strong in me and perhaps also, if unconscious, in many of the multitudes standing on the doorstep of the beginnings of Western Civilization.  These gods and the Athenians who worshipped them somehow engendered the idea of democracy.

Oh, Athenian democracy was limited.  You had to be a citizen of the city-state, to have completed your military training and to be male to qualify.  Athens became an imperial power, often cruel in the way of empires.  And as somebody once said, like Christianity, democracy has yet to be thoroughly practiced — even or especially by the Athenians.  Yet, in that era of authoritarian and tyrannical gods and rulers, somehow the Athenians were the very first to find their way for a time to the idea that direct participation in politics, in their own governing, was both possible and necessary.  Theirs was not a “representative” democracy, where one periodically is allowed to vote for those made available by the elites, but direct, where one had to be in attendance, both figuratively and literally.

♦ Seeing the Antikythera Mechanism in the flesh, so to speak (or in the metal) at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  In my enthusiasm I’ve written about that unique and mysterious machine or computer in a couple of posts here over the years (The Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Computer and The Antikythera Mechanism Revisited).  I’m still amazed at its existence: it gives you new respect for the minds at the dim edges of the history we are able to know.

♦ The Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church monasteries perched atop the rocky crags of Meteora.  In a landscape of surreal rocky crags, the six perched monasteries look over the valley below.  Two of them are for nuns. One we were told was inhabited by only three monks, two in their nineties.  The Eastern Church, as its brother Catholic Church, is not the attractive vocation of young people as it was once.  But we did find there tourists and buses from all over Europe, especially places such as Romania and Serbia.  Many who came were of the faith, there to pay their respects.  After climbing up the steep stone stairs, one can only marvel at the efforts it took to build these places, mostly in the 1500s.

♦ Once we left the mainland, it was on to the more leisurely islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  The Aegean is as blue as the tourist brochures show, and the white and pastel buildings glow in the sun.

Santorini Church Bell

Santorini Church Bell

There were many other places of course: the sonically impressive theatre at Epidaurus, the ruins at Delphi, and the original Olympic grounds near Olympia.  I even ran back and forth over the race track in what remains of the stadium.  I hope that allows me to say I’m an Olympic athlete….

I came away from Greece with a new appreciation for the Greek people, subjugated and over-run by various empires for centuries, now going through the current crises — they are enormously resilient to have kept their culture and sense of identity.  They have a justifiable pride in their country and their history.  In the wet fall of the Pacific Northwest, I like to look at the faint line of white dust in the seams of my shoes.


Note:  More photos from Greece in addition to the above will eventually be on my photo website, The Suspended Moment….

The Migrant Crisis and An Old Apocalyptic Novel

Posted September 19, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“Raspail may have written the most politically incorrect book in France in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, The Atlantic, Dec. 1994 in a review of The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, 1973.

My wife and I recently visited Greece on vacation for a couple of weeks, part archaeological tour and part chasing photographs on a couple of the tourist islands.

At night, with BBC World Service usually about the only English channel available on TV, we heard and saw all the drama and tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, which continues to deepen.  Although we didn’t come into contact with it, Greece on top of its economic troubles is also dealing with an influx of the refugees piling into Europe and headed north.

Camp of the SaintsIt reminded me a lot of an old science-fiction novel, I guess you could call it, I read back in the 1970s.  Returning from our trip, I tried to track down the name and more details of the book.  It turns out to have been the 1973 apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints by Frenchman Jean Raspail, which was translated into English in 1975 and I must have read shortly thereafter.

It’s about the starving, the wretched and the disenfranchised pouring out of India in a flotilla a million strong and arriving on the beaches of France.  Although France is the focus, the rest of Europe and the Western world in the novel eventually suffer the same fate as hordes of migrants continue to come ashore.  As Raspail himself put it:

“I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”

On their way to France, the enormous flotilla wants to approach Egypt (to gain access to the Suez Canal) and South Africa, but the military of both countries threaten to sink the boats and drown the occupants if they should approach.  So, in Raspail’s world, the horde of migrants make their way to France.  Raspail is more interested really in the reaction of the French establishment and the rest of Europe in the face of such an onslaught, and depicts it as decadent and weak in the face of this threat to the Western way of life.  He casts the coming migrants in a poor light as mangy and prone to violence and sexual assaults in their long journey to anywhere that will be better than what they left.

A review of the book by T. Williamson describes it in a way that is thought-provoking about current events:

“The actions of the main characters in the book mirror what we see every day in the media and especially on the Internet: There are the government spokesmen telling us not to panic, the media talking heads telling us what our duty is or should be, the leaders of church and society instructing us in what is the “proper” way to feel about everything that’s happening to us. And front and center is the ordinary citizen, caught like a child under a steamroller as events roll over them at their terrible slow speed.”

The Fate of Western Civilization

The point of Raspail’s book seems to be that Western civilization is psychologically incapable of defending itself.  The French in the end order their miltary to shoot or sink the approaching menacing armada, but the soldiers and navy refuse and flee.  Eventually, at the end of the novel, as examples of the overrunning by the third world, the mayor of New York is made to share Gracie Mansion with three families from Harlem, the Queen of England must marry her son to a Pakistani and other huge armadas are ready to head for Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Raspail has been accused of writing a racist tract, but that is too simple.  As an example, one main spokesman for European civilization in the novel is non-white but has embraced what he sees as the best of Western civilization.

As another reviewer, Dominique M. Sanchez, puts it:

“I did not see it as a racist book but as a book written by an elitist who is strongly attached to his way of life and fearful of seeing it vanish. All cultures are protective and proud of their own ways and that includes Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin populations. The issue here is poverty and exploitation, not necessarily race.”

Over the years, as migrant and refugee crises have cropped up here and there, those from both sides of the political spectrum have referred to this book from the mid-1970s.

The National Review, a prestigious conservative publication, in 2014 had a short essay by Mackubin Thomas Owens about The Camp of the Saints after the sudden influx of migrant children into the United States.  He asserted the deficiencies of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of Western liberal society:

“Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.”

The Atlantic, a literary and cultural magazine that would likely be considered too liberal by the National Review, examined The Camp of the Saints 20 years prior to that, trying to place the fictional events of Raspail’s novel in the context of exploitation of the third world.

The authors, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, wrote in 1994 that:

“Perhaps the global problem of the early twenty-first century is basically this: that across our planet a number of what might be termed demographic-technological fault lines are emerging, between fast-growing, adolescent, resource-poor, undercapitalized, and undereducated populations on one side and technologically inventive, demographically moribund, and increasingly nervous rich societies on the other.”

The Fault Line of War

It seems to me that the main fault line is simpler than that, and it’s called war.  The current migrant and refugee numbers are a direct result of civil, guerilla and national wars.  Right now, on the continent of Africa alone, there are something like 20 nations with major conflicts with a half-million or more of their citizens on the move, struggling to survive.  That’s not even on the horizon of most Western minds.  Never mind all the displacement from the Middle East conflicts that is front and centre in the media now.

My modest proposal is that those nations who profit most from the billions of dollars they are making in the arms trade, who export the weapons of war, should import the most refugees.

By that measure, the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France should be taking in the most.  Great Britain (no. 6) and Canada (no. 15) should also be stepping up.  (And remember the hypocrisy when representatives of those nations prattle about the evils of war.)

Connelly and Kennedy put it well at the end of their Atlantic article:

“However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. It will take more than talk to prove the prophet wrong.”


On the Right to Not Be Accosted

Posted August 15, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Culture, Internet, Politics

Tags: , , , , , ,

“The real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality.”
— John Kendall Hawkins, in a review of the book Technocreep, by Tom Keenan

There may well come a time not long from now when the Internet has outlived its usefulness, when the attractiveness of its original free and open spirit, of the amazing possibilities of interconnectedness that galvanized its beginnings has rigidified into an environment overwhelmed by corporate and governmental interests.

The relentless pursuit of monetization and surveillance even now threaten to make the Internet a platform which legitimizes all forms of corporate and governmental spying on its users.  (For just one example, see this article on potential upcoming collusion between large tech companies such as Google and the NSA becoming enshrined in legislation.)

One aspect of this is the conflict between the increasingly intrusive nature of advertising on the web, and the measures taken to avoid it, as should be anybody’s right.  Those measures themselves are increasingly coming under fire.

Many of us have become so annoyed by web page advertising that we’ve resorted to ad blockers of one kind or another to escape incessant pop-up ads, flashing banners, voice-overs and the rest.  Beyond the more petty annoyances, the ads are avenues for potential malware delivery (including by surveillance agencies) and incessant corporate tracking which nullifies any pretensions to privacy we might once have had.

The Pursuit of Ad Blocking

So those of us who surf the net and object to the annoyance and worse of the ads, there are browser add-ons like, for example, Ad-Block Plus.  This has become a very popular content filter to block ads, which is obtainable as an extension for most web browsers.

Unfortunately, this add-on is exhibiting similar symptoms for which it proclaims itself the cure — the makers of the add-on accept money from advertisers to be ‘white-listed’ (some advertisers say they’ve been extorted) and thus allow those ads to circumvent the block.

Many dedicated surfers of the web have now moved on to uBlock, which is free and open-source, as well as doing its job more efficiently.

These ad blockers and others are working well enough to be proclaimed a clear and present danger to the business models of many commercial sites.  A recent ad-blocking report says that ad blocking grew by 41% in the last year, and supposedly cost web publishers $22 billion.

A group of publishers in Germany was so upset this year that they took Ad-Block to court and lost. Twice. There are other business groups also working towards making ad-blocking illegal.  Although that doesn’t really seem technically feasible.

There are another group of extensions available that now are able to block most of the tracking that makes it possible, for instance, for Google to cater ads to you on the basis of your searches.  All of the major, and not so major, commercial and governmental entities are busy building profiles on who surfs the web for what by the use of tracking cookies and similar means.

Getting Tracked

So now, on my Firefox browser, I now have the following extensions to thwart this activity: Ghostery, Blur (formerly Do Not Track Me – Abine), and Privacy Badger (which is intended to detect patterns of tracking).  Of course I also rely on the extensions NoScript and KeyScrambler to block unwanted Java script and to encrypt keystrokes respectively.  In addition, I have another add-on that deletes cookies when I leave a site.  You may think me excessive, but I have a right not to be accosted.

As an experiment about tracking, let’s go to a genuinely informative website and see what one would imagine should be relatively innocuous — the Smithsonian.  This is the site of the venerable, educational and scientific Smithsonian Institute and the publisher of what amounts to an online magazine.

There’s some good information here.  But first I’ve got to temporarily allow many of about 50 scripts on the page with my handy NoScript options button.  But there are so many ad-related scripts on this page that they come in waves.  I allow one batch of scripts so I can click on various content, and then there appears another bunch I also temporarily allow.  And then I have to do it again.  (Although I am temporarily allowing scripts, my other blockers are taking care of the tracking cookies. I hope.)

Courtesy of Ghostery, let’s take a look at the trackers that I am blocking, which want to collect information about my presence and what I look at and sell it to whomever will buy as I browse the Smithsonian website.

  1. Rocket Fuel (or x+1):”Rocket Fuel delivers a leading programmatic media-buying platform at big data scale that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to improve marketing ROI. Rocket Fuel’s Advertising That LearnsTM technology empowers media teams to focus on strategy, not spreadsheets. Rocket Fuel was founded by online-advertising veterans and rocket scientists from NASA, Yahoo!,, and DoubleClick.”  Yikes.  Rocket scientists are involved.
  2. ChartBeat: “Chartbeat provides real-time data analytics and performance alerts for your website.”
  3. Crazy Egg: “Crazy Egg shows you where people clicked on your site. Our servers will create a report that shows you the clicks on the pages you are tracking.”
  4. DataPoint Media: “DataPoint Media specializes in audience data management and exchange-traded media. Our solutions help publishers and media companies take control of their audience data, increase targeting capabilities and extend their reach across the ad exchanges.”
  5. Google Adwords: “No matter what your budget, you can display your ads on Google and our advertising network. Pay only if people click your ads.”  Can’t see ’em; won’t click ’em.
  6. Google Tag Manager: “Google Tag Manager is free and easy, leaving more time and money to spend on your marketing campaigns.”
  7. Quantcast: “Quantcast measures and organizes the world’s audiences in real-time so advertisers can buy, sell and connect with the people who matter most to them.”  Advertisers are busy buying and selling us.
  8. Scorecard Research Beacon: “… a leader in the Internet market research industry.”
  9. Sharethrough: “Sharethrough is the only video distribution technology company built from the ground-up to maximize sharing of brand video content.”
  10. Taboola: “Taboola’s service is used by publishers to recirculate their own traffic by generating personalized on-site video recommendations.”  It’s all about the personalization.

Becoming a Commodity

Now it could be argued, and often is, that all this intrusiveness is the price of having content to look at on the internet.  This is the argument of people with very short memories who don’t remember, or never knew, the web before the onslaught of commercialization.  I have no sympathy for the idea that I am obligated to look at ads and be subjected to profiling and metadata marketing for the benefit of somebody’s business model.  I resent being anybody’s commodity.

I take the same view as Marco Arment does in a blog post called “The Ethics of Modern Web Ad-Blocking.”

He writes, “People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads. And that’s a nice, simple theory, but it’s a blurry line in reality.

“By that implied-contract theory, readers should not only permit their browsers to load the ads, but they should actually read each one, giving themselves a chance to develop an interest for the advertised product or service and maybe even click on it and make a purchase.”

This is the ethics of ridiculousness, as Arment points out.  Web ads are something different than say a newspaper ad (which certainly has no ethical obligation on my part either).  They are software, and designed without your consent to “run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.”

The book referred to at the beginning of this post, Technocreep, by Tom Keenan, has the subtitle: “The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.”

Thou Shalt Not Accost

One day not long ago in the car I overheard a portion of a radio interview with Keenan on his book.  He commented that, increasingly, commercial and other interests feel entitled to use every empty vista, whether on the web, or in a stadium, or along the road to invade our mental, emotional and spiritual space.  The web advertising practices take this tendency to new degrees of invasiveness.

But we have a right to not be accosted.


The Perennial Music of the Grateful Dead

Posted June 21, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Culture, Guitar, Heroes, Music, Remembering

Tags: , , , , , , ,

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

— “Box of Rain”

The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.

The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.

Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record.  It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.

I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits.  But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.

grateful dead aoxomoxoaBut now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed.  I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions.  Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere.  Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.

I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.  I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.

I’m coming to revise that opinion now.  Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.

But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium.  There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped

You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.

But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel.  The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.

Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new.  Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered.  Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.

Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s.  He sees this as “creatively formative.”

Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it.  Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox.  “Sugar Magnolia….”

The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me.  The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.”  I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.

But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now.  Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.

I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.

Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.



World Building and the Brink of Novel Writing

Posted May 16, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Culture, Internet, Writing

Tags: , , , ,

After a false start or two (or was it three?), I’m poised to take the plunge into the first draft of a science fiction novel.

I’ve been trying to sort out how much world building is really necessary before I start.  I’ve got an entire personal wiki and a moleskin notebook or two filled with info about this world of mine.  But it’s not well-organized, or even well thought out, and it’s daunting to burst out onto an unknown plain, bare sun bright overhead, and populate it with every geological feature, weather system, religious artefact, industrial process, scientific advance and weirdly consistent culture it should have.

I keep telling myself, this is the first draft.  It’s supposed to be exploratory and not fully formed in some ways.  I will be discovering much in the process of writing it.  I don’t have to know everything about the novel world before I start. In the immortal words of terriblemind’s Chuck Wendig, “you’re not writing a fucking encyclopedia.”

(He also goes on to say in a post on “25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding”: “If you’re lazy (like me!) and don’t feel like you can commit to writing a glacier-sized world bible, hey, you know what? Build it as you go. As you write, introduce details relevant to the story, the plot, the characters, the theme, and to the chapter at hand. This’ll probably require work on the back-end….”)

worldbuildingI’ve even made notes of counsel to myself in the same vein:

“Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.”

“Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.”

How Much World Building is Enough?

But I am yet filled with trepidation about how much world building preparation is enough.  It is another way I use to procrastinate, I’m sure, these fears about starting the writing.  (There’s an interesting aspect of these fears that I will touch on at the end of this.)

But as a way to calm and reassure myself, or alternatively, cause myself much anxiety at how much I haven’t done in preparation, I thought I would look at some of the more useful links on world building that I’ve found.

Some of them are of the school that you need to have every detail of your world thought-out before you start, but there are some thoughtful recommendations never the less.  I think to myself, I have to find a way to make the world-building fun and creative, or I’m really barking up the wrong tree with this science fiction ambition.

And also I realize that I’m unbelievably fortunate to live in the time of the Internet, where I can research almost anything with the touch of a few keys.  The possibilities for creative combination and variation of what’s out there are many.

Some World Building Links

World-Building_concept1. Writer Ava Jae in a blog post on Writability lists 15 details to remember.  She lists climate, social structure, measurements (I hadn’t thought of that one but of course), food, and ethnicities among them.  For instance, on ethnicities, she asks:

Is your world monoethnic? Are there several ethnicities, and if so, where did they come from? Is it location-based? Are certain ethnicities considered more desirable than others? Are any ethnicities persecuted or worshipped?”

2. Prolific author S. Andrew Swann provides a post/essay on “Worldbuilding: Constructing a SF Universe.” He counsels us to understand how the fictional world is different from our own.  Your world must have its own rules.

“… A reader will allow a writer to alter anything about the universe, as long as the writer explains why what we thought we knew is wrong. You’re job is to convince the reader that you know what you’re doing, and to never allow the reader to believe you wrote something out of ignorance or carelessness.”

I liked these thoughts on the necessary historicity to imply the complexity of your invented world:

“Every fictional universe has a past, if only an implied one. You, as the universe’s creator, need to know enough of this past to give the reader a sense that this world existed before the story began, and will continue to exist (barring catastrophe) long afterwards. Also, remember that the past is different things to different people. You’re in a position to know the “real” historical events of your world, but your characters are at the whim of memory, historians, propaganda, and official records. When someone in a story has a different view of history than the reader does, the reader will gain some insight into that character’s personality and culture.”

3. Young Adult sci-fi author Shallee McArthur provides a framework to think about the culture of your made-up world in a post “Worldbuilding — How to Develop the Culture of Your Novel.”

She offers a diagram to think about what makes up a culture — values, rituals, heroes, symbols, and the practices that bind together the latter three.  Practices could include gender roles and politics for instance.

Of rituals, for example, she writes:

“Maybe your high school crowd has a hazing ceremony for kids coming into a certain club. Maybe there’s a certain greeting people exchange, like the hand-shake-while-snapping-fingers-together that I learned in Ghana.”

4. Author Berley Kerr gives guidance on science fiction and fantasy in the post “Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy.”

He writes about factors such as Dominant Technology, Transportation, and Currency.  About currency he writes:

“Money tells the reader what kind of world it is. If they’re bartering, chances are the place your character lives in is poor or the population is scattered with no centralized government.”

Of course, if we could make a bartering society high-tech somehow, that could be an interesting take….

5. In quite a thoughtful post, sci-fi author Malinda Lo writes about “Five Foundations of World-building.”

She says things I like about how much world building to do:

“But I don’t think you need to get bogged down in answering 100 questions about the economics and politics and plant life of your world. I suggest you focus on five main issues that will serve as the foundation for your world. All those other details — even the shape of eating tables — can emerge after you’ve established this foundation. Often those details emerge right out of the writing itself.”

WbMLThe five main issues she lists are: 1) Rules, 2) Rituals, 3) Power, 4) Place and 5) Food.

About food:

“This is one of my very favorite elements of world building because I love to eat! But food does more than just taste good. In fiction, it can tell a complicated story involving ritual, power, and place, which makes food an excellent short-hand for world building.”

6. Charlie Jane Anders posted on io9 an essay on “The Difference Between Good Worldbuilding and Great Worldbuilding.”
After obsessing, she says, about world building for quite a while, she concludes that:

Good world building shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great world building shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on:

“Because when it comes to a rich, complicated world, a lot of the most important or telling details are going to be the things that people overlook.”

She mentions George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame as a master of allowing the reader to see what the character fails to notice.

7. And finally for the world building links there is this advice from author CJ Lyons, “World Building: Don’t Do It.”

It starts from the understanding that every novel, of whatever genre, is an exercise in world building.  She advises to create the world through the point of view of our characters:

worldbuilding-2“Talk their talk, walk their walk. Live their world through their eyes and your reader will feel transported. Every choice your characters make, from what clothes they wear to the car they drive, helps to create this alternative universe for your readers.”

Since I’m on the starting-to-write-the-novel topic, here’s one more link, to the effectively crude Chuck Wendig: “How to Push Past the Bullshit and Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan to Get Shit Done.”

Use Fear to Connect

And finally, I’d like to mention a great way to creatively use all one’s fears about writing which I found in the book The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt.

He calls it The Fear Exercise.  You must write as quickly as possible for five or so minutes completing the sentence “I’m afraid to write this story because….”  Make a list of every fear from the trivial to the forbidden.  Then use all these fears to connect to your main character.  He or she has many of the same fears, of failure, of ridiculousness.

Watt writes: “I encourage you to get excited by your fears.  Make friends with them.  They offer clues, and direct access to your story.”



Notes on image sources, from top down.

1) From yet another page on world building by Veronica Sicoe.
2) From a post by author J.S. Morin also on worldbuilding.
3) From a University of Southern California site on interactive media.
4) From a column by Rajan Khanna on Lit Reactor, which is interesting on the styles of worldbuilding.

Can Modern Human Beings Inhabit A Sustainable Environment?

Posted April 4, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Culture, Environment, Internet, Politics, Science

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem
by Jack Harich, System Dynamics Review, 2010, 37 pages

Is it our nature as human beings that we must be so intractable and incapable of change, even against our best interest?

Must the culture to which we belong remain so bent on turning everything into commodities and markets that it becomes less and less possible to live in a decent, dignified way in a healthy world?

Is nature itself doomed by humans unable to get a grip on themselves, like addicts who repeat the same destructive patterns over and over again while constantly talking ineffectually about their plans to get better?

I’ve often wondered about these things, but rather pointlessly without any particular insight, as the world’s stresses mount. But I came across Jack Harich’s paper a while ago, and the analysis he makes of the situation from a systems perspective seemed to actually get at the real difficulties.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about the systems approach, but it does seem to be about the interdependence of things and events.  You can’t look at completely independent elements this way — but what do you know, the world does seem to be wholly interdependent, if not interpenetrating!

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking comes out of General Systems Theory as formulated by the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and 40s with application to everything from biology to cybernetics to the social sciences.

“Cybernetics” is almost a quaint term to me, probably undeservedly so.  But it seems to go along with images from the last century of revolving magnetic tapes on massive IBM computers, and 1970s talk about feedback loops.

But it is actually about information, in all its aspects, and how it changes and makes a difference in the world about us.  Witness all the gadgets and the distracted people.

And of course it can’t help but bring to my mind the book Psycho-Cybernetics, that wildly popular self-help book from the 1960s by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  (I can still see that cover.)

Actually Maltz’s field, although one might be snide about it, was instrumental in developing what the book tried to say: that only with a positive self-image can one strive towards goals worth having, and be able to correct one’s path along the way. In his experience, many of his patients still felt ugly after his surgical attempts to beautify them.  Although perhaps others benefited enough to pursue goals in life with a renewed self-confidence. He saw human behaviour as a negative feedback, cybernetic system.  (It seems to me, though, that self-clarity is just as important as self-image in any such system.)

This can only be peripheral to Jack Harich’s more academic considerations in his article on change resistance and environmental sustainability, although his approach is all about correcting a path that leads nowhere.  And maybe humanity is coming to have a self-image problem….

The situation is that after at least 30 or 40 years of well-intentioned effort, humans have failed to move towards living sustainably on this planet.  The science of environmental sustainability is unable to solve its central problems. Harich proposes a new paradigm, a new way to think about the problems.  But first we need to understand the “old” way.

The Old Paradigm

He identifies the old paradigm as focusing on “proper coupling” as the central problem to solve. Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. For example, if you never got hungry you would starve to death…. ”

“In the environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.”

He notes that in 1972 the publication of The Limits to Growth brought the problem of environment sustainability to the world’s attention and defined the problem as how to devise economic and ecological sustainability that could last far into the future.  How can the ecological and economic systems be properly coupled? More elaborations of coupling mechanisms were proposed such as “a broad natural capital depletion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of ecological tariffs.”

In 2007, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encouraged governments to create incentives to mitigate environmental problems.  Another way to promote proper coupling.

The New Paradigm of Change Resistance

Harich recounts a discussion years ago over a difficult problem with a young engineer from the U.K., who suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from every angle and still are stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction.  Find it, and the problem becomes more solvable, he says.

So to Harich, change resistance is that missing abstraction.  The term describes the tendency of a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of forceful measures to change that behavior. The main feature of this is that the status quo represents an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change.  And the status quo today, as Harich points out, is an unsustainable world.

When anyone attempts to solve sustainability problems, the system maintains its balance by automatically increasing the barriers to change.

He proposes decomposing difficult social problems into two more workable sub-problems: 1) overcoming change resistance, and 2) achieving proper coupling — that is linking proper consequences to actions, as in universal suffrage or the dangers of smoking tobacco. (His analysis depends on having a relatively democratic society.  Unfortunately, the democratic features of the developed world are also increasingly in question.)

For sustainability, there is obviously massive change resistance.  This indicates, Harich says, an implicit goal of the system in which we find ourselves. He identifies a process of “Classic Activism” which has been long used by citizen groups to solve problems of the common good that governments are not addressing.

Most environmental literature, including The Limits to Growth and the IPCC assessment reports can be seen as part of the Classic Activism of finding the proper practices; telling people the truth about the problem and proper practices; and exhorting, inspiring and bargaining with people and groups to get them to support the proper practices.

The Process of Classic Activism Fails

Harich describes how while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has failed to adequately address the global environmental sustainability problem.  His diagrams of the feedback loops at play are fascinating.  (Check out Figure 3 on page 45 in pages 35-72 of his article.)

He says classic activists don’t see the feedback mechanism of systemic change resistance or assume it is only a minor issue, easily solved by overcoming individual change resistance.

He cites an interesting table from Donella Meadows on places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness.  At the low end are playing around with subsidies, taxes and standards, moving to the higher leverage items of addressing the goal of the system, and even transcending paradigms.

In his model of the process of Classic Activism and its failures, there is no discussion of why social agents are motivated to solve problems and also to resist solving problems.  It’s just how the loops function.

Basic to his discussion is the “common good” as the mixture of “industrial production, social factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all living people and their descendents.” Hirach writes, “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot.”  [ His emphasis.] He goes on: “Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it and all sorts of twaddle.”  (Twaddle, I’m sure, is a technical cybernetic-type word….)

But “deception” is a defined term, meaning the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true, not out of malice necessarily but as a way to achieve the goal of resisting change.  Thus deception is an objective term which describes a certain kind of observed behaviour in Hirach’s model, and which serves to play the largest role in political decision making.

Wakeup Call Catastrophes

He observes that most environmental progress is made piecemeal as a result of some “wakeup call catastrophe” such as the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole or acid rain or the Love Canal. “…Reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late.”

As Harich sees it, the main problem for Classic Activism is that change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located within individual agents.

Getting at the Root Cause

The root causes usually identified as important in hampering environmental sustainability such as population growth, economic inequality, lack of cooperation and maladapted values are not the deepest root causes of inability to change.  They are only intermediate and pseudo root causes to Harich.

Harich warns that what he will present as possible solutions “may appear impossible.”  Such impossibilities as universal suffrage and the end of slavery as an institution could be considered similar.

The modern corporation can be viewed as a kind of life form, following the same principles of behaviour that genetic life forms do.  He cites an abundance of literature showing that large for-profit corporations are “now the dominant life form in the biosphere.”

The Goal of the Dominant Life Form on the Planet


The corporations’ goal of maximizing profits is mutually exclusive with the goal of Homo sapiens to “optimize quality of life for those living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we depend for life.”

This is identified as the root cause of “improper coupling.”

Harich asks us to conceive of the modern corporation being re-engineered to be a trusted servant of Homo sapiens, which historically was the original idea.

The new re-engineered goal would be serving our species as its highest priority, “by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter,” both in general and for specific outputs of the corporation.  Goal achievement would be measured by contribution to a sustainable quality of life index.  Others have already done much work on such an index, Harich says.

“Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved.  A negative amount means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized.  Over 100 percent indicates expectations were exceeded.  The index would be calculated by each company as part of normal accounting.”

This is one suggested approach and will require further experimentation and refinement.  Harich says, for example, instead of an index something called the Triple Bottom Line could be used.

“The new goal must be as simple, unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profit maximization.”

Corporation 2.0

He calls this Corporation 2.0 and says it could be introduced on a gradual basis over a couple of decades.  Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens, would now benefit the new corporations.

“Imagine what it would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem as they have worked in the past to not solve it.”

So all seems to depend on redesigning the modern corporation — and Harich expects “strenuous resistance from the corporate life form to loss of dominance.”

So then he goes on to ask what is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign?

“The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken, or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form.”

The corporations’ have promulgated two high-impact beliefs to further their goal: 1) corporations are good and essential to society’s wellbeing, and 2) growth is good because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock market are the best indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.

Harich says both points are only half-true.  It is only the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently defined.  And GDP doesn’t measure quality of life.  Serious disasters automatically raise the GDP as more is spent to reconstruct, for instance.  And the stock market is a kind of con game.

High Deception Effectiveness

But how to overcome the high “deception effectiveness” behind systemic change resistance?

Harich suggest pushing “on the related high leverage point of general ability to detect manipulative deception.”  This might be done by more and better education on how to detect common fallacies (see end of this post for an example); independent political truth rating organizations such as; corporate environmental responsibility ratings; and the use of quality of life and sustainability indexes.

Unfortunately, the current ability to detect manipulative deception is very low.  But if it should ever start to rise, “deception effectiveness” will then start to fall, and the corporations’ two high-impact beliefs will begin to lose credibility.

Hirach points out that worst historic excesses of dictators, kings, warlords and other tyrants were eventually, in a way now intuitively obvious, reduced by the addition of the voter feedback loop.

“This could also be called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.  Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?”

*       *      *

In some ways, Harich’s analysis in systems-speak is stating the obvious.  But his approach does have the advantage of providing of a more-or-less objective means of detailed analysis in terms of all the feedback loops that govern our way of life.

In his model, you can add or modify a feedback loop, and observe in a verifiable, repeatable way what kind of impact it might make on the whole system.  It is a quite detailed, technical representation that one should read his paper to appreciate.

You can read more on Jack Harich’s site about the sustainability problem at

And finally, here is a summation of the Truth Test as presented by Robert Gowans and included in Harich’s article as a table:

“Table 3. The truth test

1. What is the argument?
2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on: Is this truth or deception?

By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time it takes to hear or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.”


Note on cartoon source:

From Marc Roberts Cartoons

The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On

Posted February 11, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Art, Culture, Guitar, Internet, Music

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
— Steve Miller, Jet Airliner

At this point on my guitar learning adventure (as previously chronicled in such posts as The Impatience of Learning Guitar and Manchild with Guitar), I’m trying to challenge myself to play in more difficult territory and perhaps be able to claim to have some intermediate skills eventually, rather than to be just a beginner.

I’m still taking lessons from the same rock guitarist and music producer I’ve gone to for several years.  They are funny kind of lessons, but they have evolved over time and suit me.  I bring in a piece I want to learn how to play.  One time it was a simplified, if still complicated, Bach tune, another time a very fast (for me) blues-rock number.

I’m not quite sure what Eddy thinks when I bring along something like these to learn, at the edge of what I’m able to do.  He very patiently goes through each piece with me as we work on phrasing and technique.  As a working musician and quite a good teacher for a young guy, he’s a master at simplifying, if only temporarily, until I get up to speed on difficult passages.   I tend to throw my hands up in dismay at my effrontery in even thinking I can play them.  But we work through that, and with more practice than I like to say, I make progress.

Because Eddy loves to work with music, even my efforts, he’s taken to recording them in his home studio.  I think he likes to record me because I’m not going anywhere in particular with what I’m doing, and there are no expectations or demands or requirements on him for the finished results.  We just get to play around.

I now have a half-dozen or more recordings of my renditions.  They sound pretty good after he’s done splicing and editing them meticulously together.  They’re fun to have and to show off to any friends or family whom I can impose upon….  And I get to learn a little about music production, although half the time I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.

All Along the Watchtower

My latest project is to learn to play All Along the Watchtower, that wonderful version of a Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.  I think that’s my favorite Hendrix tune.  So I gathered together a bunch of instructional videos off of YouTube, got some sheet music together and backing tracks, and presented it to Eddy as what I wanted to do next.  I have to hand it to him, he didn’t blink, and started putting the backing tracks and the original song into ProTools to work on.

I want to do it like a Ventures tune, an instrumental version including the voice parts, which you don’t find done so much.  Although I had started trying to learn the opening rhythm section and the first intro solo, it was a bit of a shambles.  It’s another example of me ruing my ambitiousness.  So we’re going through the song step-by-step.  We’re up to the second solo and it’s starting to sound not too bad.

Hendrix was a monster player, as every guitarist realizes.  He played like there was absolutely no barrier between his musical will and his hands and fingers expressing that will on the guitar. And he must have had incredibly strong hands to bend the strings like crazy as he does.  Eddy has got me cheating on some of the more extreme bending, but it still sounds good.  And there’s one very fast passage so far — I’m working hard to get it into my fingers so I don’t have to think about it, and just do it.

There are many great solos in this song, and even if I’m not able in the end to play any of it very well (although I hope for better than that!), I’m still learning a lot by pushing at the boundaries of my ability in this way.  Even if I feel like a schmuck when I flounder, as I often do….

Useful Guitar Learning Resources on the Web

In my guitar journey, in addition to the useful sites mentioned in previous posts such as the great Robert Renman’s two — Dolphin Street and Master Guitar Academy — I have found some very good additional sites.  Almost all of these sites have a free lesson component and then offer lessons or material to buy.  The proportion of free on the ones I’ll note here is quite high.

The kind of free instructive material is also important — some of the most commercial sites just offer fragments to entice you rather than anything useful.  I think the better sites like Renman’s are actually very smart marketing — I’ve learned a lot from his free stuff and I’ve gone on to buy several lessons I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in.  I know the detail and care he puts into them.

1) Fundamental Changes — Lots of lessons “In the Style of ….” (Dave Gilmour, B.B. King, Keith Richards, etc.) which are good for picking up new licks, and also many videos on theory and technique (Harmonics on Guitar, Chromatic Notes in Solos, etc.).

2) Fret Jam — Very clear and well taught videos (and written material) on many aspects of guitar musical theory, in particular.  For instance, one recent free lesson is on “Suspended Guitar Chords — How and When to Play Them.”  Another recent article is “The Best Guitar Chord Software & Chord Tools On the Web” which will lead you to a number of other good and informative sites.

3) Fachords — Although it also has free video lessons, the most interesting part of this site I find are the free online Guitar Apps .  These include a scales finder, a chord finder, fretboard trainer, speed trainer, interactive scales harmonization, and more.

There is just so much good guitar instructional material on the web.  I am guilty of buying more books, having more links and downloading more videos than I will probably ever go through in the detail they deserve.  I just wish it was all available when I was a kid, when I made my first unsuccessful stabs at learning the instrument.




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