Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Lost Classic - Aeschylus' Proteus - Reimagined From Homer

I spent the night reading Aeschylus' Eumenides, Oresteia part 3. What a letdown. I guess the lost 4th play Proteus was the thing to catch the king.

I googled "Aeschylus Proteus" yesterday afternoon, but for once Homer's Odyssey is a better bet than the world wide web. Menelaus tells Telemachus the story directly, and I can easily imagine how Aeschylus would change it.

Homer brings Menelaus home for a tragic grief scene. In the satire play, Aeschyus would make Menelaus visit Athens. Menelaus, deluded by Proteus to imagine Athens to be his native Argos, shows how absurdly pompous Athenian leaders are in comparison with the returning hero. Then he meets Orestes his nephew, still living in Athens, now a sophist and teacher of youth, who tells him the tragic tale, and ends the four plays on a bizarre note of Menelaus realizing that he has got everything wrong. The home coming hero returns to the wrong home.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Greek Yes, Jewish No

The Greeks say Yes. The Jews say No.

From these great Yeas and Nays the singularity of the West emerges.

Historical singularity begins with Herodotus, who sets the tone. For Herodotus many small singular facts lead up to a wonder. Many wonders combine in the imagination to create the modern world, the cosmopolitan millieu of the sixth century before the common era, which is a singularity.

The pattern goes like this: facts -> wonders -> millieux -> singularity.

For example, the wealth of Croesus of Lydia, a wonder supported by many facts, gives rise to his astonishing attempt to attack the Persian empire, then ruled by Cyrus. This in turn leads to the behemoth of Persia turning attention towards the Greek peoples who lived beside the Lydians, and the singularity of the Persian wars.

In Thomas Mann's Joseph novels, by contrast, the language is delightfully marked with missing ideas, concepts which the writer has negated from the text as a way of highlighting them: the past for Mann is a well which no-one can guess the depth of, and the figures of the early Jewish nomads are the combined myths of many men of the same name. Multiple Jacobs, manifold Abrahams - the entire Jewish tradition negates image and passively accepts textual interpretation. The effect is of sophisticating out of existence clear assertions one way or another. We are negated towards truth.

Greek and Jewish patience underlines the difference. The Greeks struggle against the circumstances, creating tragedy and comedy thereby. The Jews accept and move with their sufferings, crafting from the living stuff of everyday and historical pain something indestructibly true and actual.

The Cure For Stupidity: A Reading of Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard'

Last night I read Anton Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard'. Today I read the first two plays of the Oresteia of Aeschelus, 'Agammemnon' and 'The Libation Bearers' and the book length essay on the trilogy by Robert Fagles, and would've finished the third play 'Eumenides' were the first two of the trilogy not so depressing. But I want to share my impressions of the Chekhov here, not the Greek.

'Cherry Orchard' was frustrating. Having a fair idea of what Doctor Chekhov's on about now, I found many of the ideas in the stories tucked away out of sight in the play.

But what am I to make of it, after all?

I feel that I watch Dr Chekhov dissecting something which gives every indication of being a cherished and valuable living family system. If I were to discover this is an illusion I would be mollified, but I do not: the family and the world the Doctor dissects for our delectation is revealed for nothing more than entertainment and a night at the theatre. Human fables and follies are clinically exposed. It is perfectly barbaric.

I kept saying aloud to myself as I read "Oh my God these people are so STUPID!" Their stupidity, which Chekhov courteously justified by grief, madness, alienation, loose morals, and a variety of other straw men, is the salient feature of the play. Everybody is irredeemably stupid.

Robert Anton Wilson once asked if there is a cure for stupidity. Anton Chekhov presents, no not a cure for stupidity, but a purgative. Here is Doctor Chekhov's presciption:

An ordinary middle class life, free from slavery, lived for the sake of some basic common ideas - say, dignity, cheerfulness, liberty and productive work - this life, this life alone, in itself without any dogma, afterlife, metaphysics or creeds, this life is enough.

It may be that the cure for stupidity is found in the audience of a Chekhov play, if they only remember, and laugh - and then remember to laugh when they themselves commit the same follies, believing in the same ridiculous fables, as Chekhov's characters do.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Essay On Responsibility, Complete!

Here are all the links of the Essay on Responsibility. They have proved popular and useful to readers.

Part One - Positive and Negative Responsibility.
Part Two - Responsibly Paying Attention (by Vagueing Out).
Part Three - Response Rituals and the Power of Confusion.
Part Four - Responsibility Rituals Applied.
Part Five - Responsibility and Sponsorship.
Part Six - Responsibility and Emotional Freedom.
Part Seven - Three Response Skills: Administration, Mindfulness, Surrender.

More advanced levels of skill are in the notion of overresponding. But that is another blog entry, for another time.


How to Squeeze the Slave Out of The System: Anton Chekhov on Anton Chekhov

Write a story about a young man, the son of a former serf, and a small shopkeeper by profession, who sang in the church choir; who, as a schoolboy, was brought up to show reverence for the officials, to kiss the hands of priests, to bow before the opinions of others, to be thankful for every slice of bread he ate.

Write a story about this youth, who has been flogged many a time, who had no overshoes to put on in winter as he trudged through the snow to give his coaching lessons; who fought other boys; who tortured animals; who liked having meals at his wealthy relatives’ house; who played a part before God and men for no reason at all, perhaps for no other reason but the awareness of his personal insignificance.

Describe how this young man gradually, bit by bit, squeezed the slavish self out of his system, and how he awoke one fine morning feeling that real human blood was flowing through his veins, instead of the blood of slaves.

The young man is Anton Chekhov - first of the freed Russian generations.

Chekhov better than anyone described how the human problem is not in the times or rulers but in ourselves, that we accept enslavement. Every middle class person has risen from peasants and slaves.

Only Chekhov expresses the hidden moral dimension of the middle class - the reality that each person must make something decent of themselves through their own efforts, no matter what their origins. Middle class decency is not protestant or orthodox or hindu, but simply the recognition that all free souls must earn their freedom.

"I gradually squeezed the slavish self out of my system, and woke one fine morning feeling that real human blood flowed through my veins instead of the blood of slaves"

What a magnificent sentence!

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Design Playtime - How to Design a Bank that Actually Works Quite Wonderfully

I do not like banks. Banking constantly frustrates me. I decided to overrespond by play-designing a bank which I would find cool.

First up, I have a problem with the word bank. It projects an old-time trustworthiness I deeply distrust. And with good reason. Banks try to bank on the illusion they are disinterested servants of your money. The fact that they are money merchants out to grab what they can should be put up front if they wish to be trusted. My first design move then:

- Quit calling it a "bank". Be honest. Call it a "money shop".

This gets rid of the most blatant dishonesty, but some subtle forms of sleaze remain. Top of the list is suits, ties and other formal business drag: suits convey an authority a money merchants simply does not have, and a seriousness they don't need. So:

- Drop the suits and ties. Wear real people clothes.

Wearing casual clothes can mean the silicon valley uniform of jeans and casual shirt and loafers. This is an excellent start towards making the environment a little less anally retentive.

The next thing to address in my money shop is the structure. Doesn't it bug anyone else that banks, like evil modern day Robin Hoods, steal from account holders to give to shareholders? The solution is simple: make anyone who opens an account automatically a shareholder:

- Quit robbing customers. Profit share with partners.

Bankers, you want passionately loyal customers? Put your money where your mouth is and institute a cooperative corporate structure rather than a competitive shareholder based one. That'll also win you enough press to make other banks consider casual dress for their employees too.

- Institute a cooperative corporate structure, such as a union, rather than a competitve corporate structure.

The dishonesty of the banking experience cuts both ways, however. Banks sleazily allow anyone, no matter who untrustworthy or unpleasant, to bank with them. By allowing anyone to open an account, they devalue the experience for everyone and render it common. My money shop must only be for partners and merchants who are willing to play well with others.

The answer, then, is to have the basic responsibilities of money merchant and partners (that was to say, customers), clearly displayed and agreed to up front. Transparency, goodwill and responsibility are sufficiently universal values that both merchant and partner can agree on, and by holding to principles both parties are allowed to dispense with the tiresome and vulgar dishonesty of pretending to be professional.

- Partners and money merchants both agree to be transparent, benevolent and responsible.

- Actual principles that partner and merchant agree to behave by displayed on the wall.

I reckon banks are naive in how they treat conflict. By letting the front of house staff deal with conflicts, they let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. Instead, they should cherish their negative feedback.

- Have a agreed-upon conflict resolution process.

I have a few more ideas here which may take some working out, they are so forward thinking, and none more radical than putting a human being at the end of the phone line:

- Actually answer the phone. With a real life person. Immediately.

The benefits in loyalty far outweigh the costs of hiring a money merchant.

- Refuse to merchandise. Design financial products on the fly.

This notion, so unradical to me, would be a major way to expose the ripoff merchant tactics of banks. Imagine going to your money shop and actually working on a loan which seems good for both you, the account partner, and the money merchant? Astonishing. Designing a financial product on the fly also means that the account partner is forced to understand the actual terms of the deal, creating a more responsible consumer.

- Refuse to educate or promote. Instead, partner with businesses that give financial educations, and rely on word of mouth to attract customers.

This idea is just to focus on core business, instead of pretending to be our friends by offering dubious information in tacky pamphlets while smiling and ripping us off.

Banks are a leftover from the industrial age. Most of their business is out-dated. I am surprised banks still exist in their present condition of subtle sleaze and lack of taste. I hope these ideas can help them on their inevitable demise. I would be interested to see if a reader could design a better bank. Good luck!

Want summary? Here you go:

How to Design a Bank that Actually Works Quite Wonderfully:
- Quit calling it a "bank". Be honest. Call it a "money shop".
- Drop the suits and ties. Wear real people clothes.
- Quit robbing customers. Profit share with partners.
- Institute a cooperative corporate structure, such as a union, rather than a competitve corporate structure.
- Partners and money merchants both agree to be transparent, benevolent and responsible.
- Actual principles that partner and merchant agree to behave by displayed on the wall.
- Have a agreed-upon conflict resolution process.
- Actually answer the phone. With a real life person. Immediately.
- Refuse to merchandise. Design financial products on the fly.
- Refuse to educate or promote. Instead, partner with businesses that give financial educations, and rely on word of mouth to attract customers.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Robot Cats, Business with Lobsters and Brains in Bottles: the Structural Elements of Charles Strosses' Accelerando

Accelerando is a family epic novel in the form of nine stories. The family, the Mancx family, are all major players in the technological singularity. The technological singularity is a hard science fictional proposition involving runaway increases in computing power, sentient artificial intelligence, and various social propositions located somewhere between magic and madness.

Much of the fuss about Accelerando is because it is the first novel to treat very precisely the social, legal and economic consquences of the technological singularity. The underlying ideology and philosophy of the novel is dense, providing both the structural elements of the nine stories and the intellectual and emotional meat of the stories beyond their superficial dramatic value as science fiction.

The simplest way to view the stories is as a battle between an idea and a reality. On one side, the antagonists, are the technological singularity itself and good old Mother Nature (the realities). On the other side, the protagonists, are the three grand philosophies of the West - conservatism, socialism - and liberalism, (the ideas) represented by characters and plotlines. Pamela, Sirhan, Sadeq and the United States are conservative; Manfred, Amber, Europe and their friends are mostly liberal; and Annette, Gianni, Pierre and the lobsters themselves are socialist. (And yes, traces of Scottish legalism can be discovered in the text and the author, despite avowals to the contrary.)

Here's a breakdown of what I consider, perhaps mistakenly, to be the key questions encompassed in the plot. If there are spoilers here then I must say you are easily spoilt - these stories are far greater than their themes - so please read on.

1. Lobsters. What rights, responsibilities, duties and privileges should uploaded minds have?

2. Troubador. What rights, responsibilities, duties and privileges should artificial intelligences have?

3. Tourist. How do you define humanity when much of the sense of self is located in hardware and software?

4. Halo. What is the ethical way to proceed when the rule of law violates individual sovereignity?

5. Router. How do uploaded human minds retain an intact sense of civil society and the social contract in the absence of biological constraints?

6. Nightfall. How do transhuman uploads fare within a mature technological singularity?

7. Curator. How do you retain a single sense of self when you have a multiplicity of identities?

8. Elector. What survives of liberal democrat political processes in the wake of a technological singularity?

9. Survivor. What survives of human nature in the wake of technological singularity?

The answers to these questions are fascinating, but for now I just want to pose the questions themselves. They are the backbone of what makes Charles Strosses' Accelerando a great book. Many of these questions we already deal with in everyday life, on and off line, so the answers have both a predictive and a practical value.

PS - the text of the book can be found here.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Barbarians in the Cathedral

I read a summary of the critical reception of Anna Karenina today.

What these critics miss, except for D.H. Lawrence who overstates the case from pagan zeal (and he has Raskolnikov's axe to grind), is that Anna Karenina sets the consciousness of the reader ringing like a bell! Anna Karenina resonates in precisely the same way a grand cathedral filled with constant plainsong might. I mean this very literally. It is sacred.

Who cares what the book means? What does 'means' mean?! In the face of the cathedral purity and aesthetic primacy of the book, intellectual criticism is flat out inadequate.

Yes, the words might be critiqued, but only by aesthetic illiterates; Anna Karenina exists as a transcendent and Platonic solid, a symbolic and timeless space of play, a temenos, an ideal realm - the reader who knows this must revere, then, and keep his head's mouth fast shut.

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Laughter of the Devil: Re-reading Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov

I've had an eventful month. I haven't posted here for a while: having a broken computer really lends itself to getting quality reading done.

Last night I finished The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It's a remarkable book. I love it; I really do. Maxime Gorky said Fyodor proves in it that he is a sadist. Karamazov is not a cruel book - it is a funny book. Gorky missed the joke
A hard joke, a difficult and passionate joke, but still - Dostoyevsky is bullet-to-the-head humor. If it doesn't knock you down like it did Gorky, do you think you even have a soul in you?

Penguin translator David McDuff pinpoints the main characteristic of Brothers Karamazov: it is the work of the devil. He falls short: the real devil in Karamazov is Dostoyevsky. The outrageous humour of the Evil One himself dressed as the teacher and sage of Tzarist Russian peity and patriotism is not to be missed.

Brothers Karamazov also reads forward in time to Kafka, Nietzsche, Gide, Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, providing a context and critique to the future. It is prophetic if you suppose the horrors of the future can only be endured by horrible mockery. Dostoyevsky is a nasty insect, and to read him is to shed a carapace made from the purest hysterics and mocking laughter. What remains is the Devil himself.

McDuff translates as 'crack-ups' the chapter where all the main characters go mad. It's as good a word choice as any. For Dostoyevsky, then, we all crack up when shame and guilt makes us act in a hateful way - and for him this crack up is the only thing that has the power to bring you to accept God's Will. That's how I read it: Dostoyevsky's Devil is the guide to God, and his frightening laughter lights the way.

Practically speaking, for those considering reading Karamazov, I recommend skipping these chapters as tedious:

- Book One, part three - 'Voluptuaries' tediously demonstrates the Karamazov vileness which part one describes in fewer words.
- The entire Public Procurator's speech is just a wasteland.
- The Chapters on the life of the Elder Zosima; they are merely background color to render the monks more ridiculous. Since they already are silly, it can be omitted.

For a first time reader I suggest you start at the moment the family visits the monastry, and then return to the long introductory chapters on Fyodor Pavlovich's life, which are less interesting material. I am re-reading these chapters now, for the fourth time, just for the pleasure of Alyosha's childhood and Fyodor Pavlovich's amusing life.

The most remarkable chapters in the piece, for which the greatest attention should be preserved, are the Onion, the Wedding at Cana, the Grand Inquisitor, the entire hilarious Crackups Section, "It's always interesting to speak with an intelligent man" (this requires the most precise attention, and the outrageously black and funny three talks between Ivan Fyodorovich and Schmerdyakov, and "For a moment the lie becomes truth", which is the only sublime chapter untainted by satanic hilarity.

I read Karamazov as a teen and in my mid-twenties. Reading it now at 34 years of age, I finally get the joke. It's a comedy of the sweetest and most sacred kind, and to be approached in a reverent way. I had little realized how profoundly it had influenced my own book, Savage Things. Now had I realized the effort it must have taken Dostoyevsky to utter his book - enmeshed in the absurdly uptight society of the time, he managed to utter a few free words. Compared to his, my own Savage Things exists in an existential void where the upmost freedom of choice is available to all characters, but like Gide's Michel, no guide or signpost as to what actions are right or proper to a free man.

As it happens, I am reading Chekhov's stories and plays pretty constantly this last month and the next, so many of these questions find original answers in the generation after Dostoyevsky. I cannot wait to read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Even now, reading Chekhov has cast an incredible light onto Isaac Babel in explanation. I love and take a lot of joy in Russian literature at the moment; they seem to me the natural inheritors of the Greek Enlightenment (6 century BCE) and French Enlightenment of the 17th century.

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