Everything Is

☣ The oozing-everywhere phase of this cold meshed in with the incessant coughing phase. I slept hard Wednesday and Thursday and now my symptoms are noticeably less (and fewer!). If I am truly on the mend (and not getting a reprieve while the virus is dormant and mustering or something) then this will have been a short, merciful cold. Wakier today, I’m still not yet straying far from the bed.

Stop Complaining So Much!

There’s an old fable I heard long ago. I heard it as a Buddhist story. Maybe it’s a Zen koan:

A miner is picking away at a mountain. It is hot and dusty, and he is thirsty and tired and his taskmaster is a total jerk.

Suddenly, by the grace of the heavens (id est, for no reason whatsoever), he is the taskmaster with a good fifteen miners under his watch. For a moment, he’s drunk with power, and enjoys ordering them around, but then in a flash of perspective he doubles water rations, and lets up on barking at the miners.

But then the water runs out early, and the team goes home with only a partial day’s work, and his foreman is livid for his team’s underperformance. Stupid foreman.

But then he becomes the foreman. As foreman he adds extra water to the daily ration for each team…but that requires more mules, and he’s already over budget and behind schedule. And the seneschal is telling him he’s the bottleneck.

And then he’s the seneschal …and then the duke …and then the trade secretary …and eventually the king. As king he’s beleaguered by blights in the farms and resource shortages by the masons and angry guildsmen who hate his set market prices and… well, no one likes paying their taxes. Ever.

But then he becomes the lowlands, underneath the city and all the farms. But then his well being depends on the weather. Too much snow, not enough rain, too much sun, no wonder he can’t grow anything! He becomes the winds and can run around everywhere! And has to run around every damn day gathering moisture enough to wet the lands, and then there’s that stupid mountain range that won’t let him go inland.

And he becomes the mountain and can feel those pesky miners picking away at him.

Make Me One With Everything!

Everything is a game about perspective, at looking at the world from any other position in the world. The controls allow me to swap from any one thing in the game to any other thing in the game. I can become sunflower pollen or a mountain lion or a mosquito or a biplane or a beluga whale or the Aura Borealis or an iceberg or a planet and so on. I have the power to descend (become something smaller) or ascend (become something bigger), and can keep doing so until I AM EVERYTHING!

Then again, once I’m what I want to be, there’s little to do, except become other things. An early effort to mass a legion of ants and assault a snail resulted only in the ants toodling around the snail acknowledging its existence just enough to not walk into or over it. All the things are, but none of them do anything except wander about. They don’t interact with each other at all.

Oddly, mammals roll end over end rather than walking. It’s clear that animations were intentionally kept simple, but as an elephant or a wolf or an aardvark, I found myself yearning for the wobble of insects and penguins. I’d even prefer a South Park bob. The rolling mammals never settled with me, and I avoiding becoming a rolling thing (or staying one for long) when I could choose to be something that didn’t roll.

I was also disappointed that leapers such as frogs and crickets didn’t possess the ability to leap.

To simplify matters of sorting, levels are separated by scale: At the cosmic scale I waft about with galaxies and nebulae and other space phenomenon too huge to comprehend. Stellar scale focuses on a star and its planets. Continental scale meddles with landmasses, air and sea phenomena (clouds, boats, aura borealis, whales), but doesn’t get into what happens on land. Land scale is where things with legs — animals and human civilizations — do their thing. (Conspicuously, humans, themselves are absent. Just their stuff.) Miniature scale is stuff smaller than a housecat, where bugs, mice and grass flourish. Also city trash. (cigarette butts and used chewing gum for days!) Particulate scale covers splinters and specks of dust (including mites, bacteria and pollen) all the way to puffs of elemental gas. Then there’s INNER SPACE! which is a strange amalgam of mathy objects (e.g. nested polytopes) and the occasional quantum particle. I’ve at least found a Higgs boson in there.

If I descend below INNER SPACE!, I end up at the Cosmic scale again, sorting out the galaxies.

The tutorial (pretty much a play-through with instructions) introduces the various controls. Early on, I can invite like objects to join me (hence the troop of ants, above), or dismiss them until I’m solitary again. (I often ended up a different specimen than the one I began as.) Things can sing to get the attention of other things, and dance to produce more of itself, in case I wanted my pair of bees to become a righteous swarm. In time, I got the ability to transform into whatever I wanted, and adjust my size and numbers readily, also to relax the constraints of what will join me including the Everything setting that will make all things eligible, so that I can keep grouping until I AM EVERYTHING!

Things have thoughts (indicated by a thought icon), and if you get close enough to them you can hear (read) those thoughts. Specially marked thoughts are instructional, and give additional controls, and others are audio clips from the philosophy lectures of Alan Watts. In these, Watts speaks to the one-is-all-is-one paradigm informed by (but not exclusive to) Buddhist philosophy. It gives the game a 70s-era everything is good and right and the way it’s supposed to be feel. My early impression was that this was Church of Starry Wisdom propaganda. This is to say, it gets esoteric and New-agey, not malevolent. (Then again, most of the scary cults of the 20th century were pretty benign after all. Most.)

My strategy varied depending on if I was trying to catch all the different specimen (things to be) or was chasing down thoughts. In the former case, my range of perception was governed by my own size, so I’d climb (ascend and repeat) my way to the biggest thing around and then look to descend into things I hadn’t yet been. Thought-hunting prefers swift flyers.

But I think the apotheosis of the Everything experience is sailing through the environment with your squadron of fellow things while listening to Watts wax philosophical set to the game’s Cosmosey score (Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano). This presents a formidable combination that sells well the feeling that I am right where I belong in the universe.

Cat: Zombie Days

☣ I caught a cold again, which might explain why I was too under the weather to post over the last few days. (I wrote quite a bit and also emailed my mom, but haven’t done much in the way of editing.) This one’s moving fast, where the incessant coughing phase of the cold has started before the post nasal drip phase stopped. Each virus moves at its own pace. Still, last night I was an ooze factory and I can still only shamble a few feet from my bed. I’m in a state of full zombie.

I suspect I caught the cold from the party, Saturday, possibly from someone who was also completely asymptomatic. There’s debate about the myth that exposure to cold weather causes colds, where the current pop-science is that cold weather drives people into small confinements where transmission circumstances are optimal. But cold weather and revelrous socializing and work stress also tax the immune system, and anyone not living as a hermit is being exposed continuously to various pathogens. I’m pretty sure a binge playing Everything until 3am on Monday night weakened my immune system enough to allow this bug to establish a beachhead.

💊 PS: My medical shipment came in Saturday afternoon, so my anti-crazy regimen was restored without any missed days. That so sounds like a good plot background: Crazy guy is fully functional on his meds, but a pharma mix-up (med mishandling / insurance entanglement / discontinuation of product) leaves him high and dry, and he goes on shennanigans rampage / slashes up his community / runs for president. Man, this stuff writes itself!

Cat: A Dinner and a Murder

Re-caffeinated (slightly prematurely so) I’m off to a murder party, circa 1920s. I’ve been catching up on my flapper lingo and the local attitudes and why everyone wears silly Panama hats in the summer. Mobsters, dolls and café society socialites everywhere.

And I’m sporting a meager, if honest, pencil moustache.

Having never been to a murder party before, I hope to report back.

Assuming I survive. Muhuhahahahahaha!

Cat: Medical Shipment Failure

Yep. I’m sleeping a lot.

I’m not only off caffeine (on a low, tapering daily intake), but a delay in my med deliveries mean that I’m off my anti-migraine pills. I’m one day sober, so any minute now that proverbial hammer will fall.

If fortune smiles upon me those meds may appear today. The pharmacy customer service insisted I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head regarding the failure of the USPS tracking system. (The parcel was last seen somewhere between the pharmacy and the post office.) Oh, and I should call my doctor and get an emergency prescription — and pay full pharmaceutical retail — to make sure I don’t miss any doses.

It’s a good thing that not having meds won’t kill me.

It’ll just make life unbearable.

Higher Purpose

Spoiler Warning: This post discusses plot details including early-story spoilers of Redshirts by John Scalzi.

One of the themes in John Scalzi’s Redshirts is the notion that we humans might serve a purpose higher than ourselves. This may be the case for the society we occupy, the world we explore and the universe around us we’ve observed. Yet, while we terrestrial hominids sometimes crave this higher calling, Scalzi observes some possibilities of what that function actually is may not necessarily be what is best for humanity, or for all that we wright.

And this may be the case, even if that purpose is a divine one, or comes from the likes of a god.

Life! The Universe! Everything!

So what is our purpose in life?

Naturalistic perspectives argue that our purpose is neither more nor less than to survive long enough to reproduce. Mammals have the added responsibility of caring for our young long enough that they can reach maturity.* Still, this notion that we’re glorified bacteria tends to feel cold and harsh, especially with the added caveat that so long as we live beyond our ability to serve these functions, we are needlessly consuming resources, and are overstaying our welcome.

So, really, no one wants to hear that crap.

And thus religious narratives like to suggest an alternative: there is a higher plan made by higher beings (higher than us mere mortals), and they have a very special, very important purpose for human beings. Often, they have a specific purpose for each of us, at least each member of that faith which believes in them.

We don’t know what the divine plan is, according to these narratives of faith. God is mysterious. We don’t get to know because it’s classified. And we probably couldn’t understand the plan if It was explained it to us. But we are to rest assured our universe is one giant processing plant. It’s doing something super important, whether producing holiness or refining perfection from chaos or computing wisdom. Whether or not we are too tiny, or short-lived to witness or even understand the end product of this device, we are, without question or doubt, a super-mega-important contributor to its functioning. I should also mention how important we are. Each of us. You too.

And to be fair to our theist philosophers, we humans certainly crave that significance. As I said above, the notion that we are merely intermediary-stage evolved microbes dancing our microbe dance feels callous and repugnant, especially now that our population of billions is starting to feel crowded and excessive. And redundant.

Better Than Life

There’s an old thought experiment, The Experience Machine which posits the ultimate PlayStation / X-Box / Gaming Supercomputer, what is no less than voluntary insertion into the Matrix.

Except it’s fun.

Sign on the dotted line and we’ll make your world better than reality: Better. Funner. Prettier. Bigger explosions. Tastier food. Hotter sex. Hotter partners. Nicer partners. Also you get to be a crack ninja. Who rides a shark. And fights dinosaur crime.

But none of it is real.

The Experience Machine offers the best, fullest life you can live, but it’s all a simulation, and when you die, you die. And nothing you did matters to anyone else ever.

Who’d want that?

The thought experiment of the Experience Machine observes that when confronted with the stark reality of it, we immediately prefer a miserable existence of real significance over an artificially-induced but pleasurable life of no significance. We want our life to mean something, and this is why the mere-microbes-suspended-in-film-on-a-speck notion feels abhorrent.

Of course, in real life, the promise of significance is waning fast. There’s billions of people and only a handful of them can be bridge builders and world conquerors and rockstars and movie directors. And then, even all our buildings and art and political intrigue and grand symphonies go entirely unnoticed by the rest of an incomprehensibly immense, unfathomably old uncaring universe. When all my work in Terraria has about the same significance as all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in real life then maybe the experience machine deal isn’t so bad after all.

Perhaps this is why we love fiction so much in all the ways it’s delivered to us, from radio to television to cinema to video games, each iteration a step closer to our experience machine. This pleasure device, this Holodeck, this shared dream. Still, those of us who’d hook ourselves up do so based on some perspective that big significance is hard to achieve in this overcrowded, overcompetitive world, and it’s more about luck than character. Still, given the opportunity to build real bridges, to fight real wars and to raise real dynasties, our simulated enemies and simulated constructions seem shallow and empty.

So, we want more than purpose, but significant purpose. We’d want to be a big fish in a small pond. No wonder a universe of inconceivable enormity is so demoralizing.

Anthropologists suggest that the higher purpose we seek is one of community. It’s not enough to our inner social beast to self sustain, rut, parent and die off. We observe others in need and want to help. We watch harm and suffering among our own and contemplate how to provide relief. We see our own hunting grounds running thin of quarry, yet across the ravine game flourishes, and we engineer a bridge across. We are driven to produce more than we need so we have some to share. From want, we strive to invent, to create technologies that allow us more comfort, so that we contend less with the cruel misery of nature.

It’s this drive that compels us to religious faith and fanaticism, thus, is really our drive to make things better for everyone. Jesus is not just our copilot, but our sense of society.

And really, it’s probably better this way, in contrast to the many functions we might serve for a higher landlord, bettering our civilization will actually pay back dividends (or at least pay them forward). Following the mission statement of a nonhuman authority — even one that willfully created us — can get us into a heap of trouble.

A Dream World Built To Keep Us Under Control In Order To Change a Human Being Into This

So, let’s say we do have a higher purpose than ourselves. It’s not enough to raise our progeny and better our community. We do these things anyway. We may even reach out into space. But, say that ultimately these are to build a large enough population threshold for a higher purpose. What is it?

Nothing bad, according to our churches and religious scholars. Beyond that insistent reassurance, their answers get a tad obtuse.

Middle ages monks imagined that we were God’s high-fidelity music system. Those human souls that prove worthy surround God, praise Him and sing Holy, Holy, Holy over and over (and over and over and…) again. (It’s His favorite song. Really.) When you’re a cloistered monk, singing time might be the highlight of your day.

Far more likely is the suggestion by H. P. Lovecraft that we’re livestock. Either we’re work animals or food animals or our bodies are to be milked of precious bodily fluids (e.g. milk, insulin, venom, etc.)

Starting At The Mountains of Madness explorers first encounter the Elder Things later regarded as the Elder Gods or Outer Gods. According to a narrative across several stories, humans were engineered as slave labor by these Elder Things to also serve as food as necessary, such as when certain figures rise from a near eternal slumber when the stars align perfectly. Cults and secret societies who worship these Elder Things believe the elites would live to be eaten on the apocalypse, before the Things scoured and remade the universe.

Usually, the notion that humans are delicious deity-chow is reserved for forays into existential horror, and we can take some assurance that we’re not a particularly nutrition-efficient livestock any more than we are efficient sources of bio-thermal energy. (To be fair, cows, sheep, pork and chicken are not particularly nutritious either. They’re just tasty.) Still, of all the possibilities regarding our higher purpose, humans as food and labor are the most consistent with our Be fruitful and multiply mandates.

Scalzi presents an interesting alternative in Redshirts, where the people of an advanced civilization are the actors or puppets for a dramatic performance for an audience in an entirely different civilization in an entirely different time and space. In his version, when the performers get caught up in the Narrative (in this case, an irresistible, driving force) they are compelled to say and do things according to the script even when it is contrary to their own character or prior knowledge. And commonly the narrative will run these individuals to their own dramatic demise.

A similar (though less-narrative-driven) variant is suggested in the Southpark episode Cancelled, where the Earth is a setting for an immense live reality-show for a non-terrestrial civilization. All of life on Earth play themselves while being secretly recorded. The producers of the show occasionally will provoke natural or political events in order to increase the level of drama.

Possibly the most benign suggestion of higher purpose comes from Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which the Earth is (spoiler: was) a giant super-computer tasked with determining the question of life, the universe and everything, to which the answer was previously determined to be forty-two. All life that inhabits the surface are part of the computation engine, though it’s not made clear if the answer is computed by instigating and observing our evolutionary and social development, or is a hidden subprocess to which each of us devotes part of our processing power, much like BOINC projects such as SETI@home.

Insects Called the Human Race / Lost In Time, Lost In Space

Whether we yoke livestock animals for labor, we enslave our fellow humans, or even employ our fellow neighbors with compensation, the trend in human endeavors has been to treat our subserviants poorly. It may simply be that we don’t regard the stir of revolt as much of a threat, or that it’s more pragmatic to quell unrest as it happens with violent response, rather than providing ongoing additional expense to keep our staff content in their lot. What we don’t do (with rare exceptions) is show empathy or sympathy. It is for this reason that we turn to organized states (and if they won’t cooperate, labor unions and mob syndicates) to mandate proper treatment of workers. (Sufficient pay, reasonable hours, safe working conditions, etc.) If our employers were angels to their employees, they would not need to be so governed.

Similarly, our evolutionary drive shows little interest in our comfort or enjoyment of life, only that we fulfill our objectives to survive long enough to reproduce and raise our kids.

That said, there really is no cause to imagine that our higher-order overlords, whether divine beings or intelligent aliens or Hollywood scriptwriters or supercomputer kernels are going to take interest in our well being or happiness.

This is not to say that non-malevolent superintendents don’t exist. Pet owners commonly treat their animals well, and are mindful of their wants and needs. Parents garner much joy from the happiness of their kids, and can (given the resources to do so) show a great amount of patience, compassion and generosity to their progeny. Likewise, kings and bosses have shown, from time to time, genuine interest in good governance and concern for the well-being of their people. History tells us, though, that these are exceptions to the rule, and the more that the people force accountability and transparency on their administrators the more likely they can anticipate governors that take actual interest in their needs.

But this is where our drive to better our society shines: There is no point to stirring our sense of tragedy and injustice except to drive us to action to address the cause. When the people dying are our people, when the children injured are our children, we are propelled to get preventative, to force our magistrates to sign charters of guaranteed rights, to build safer roads and cars, to instill responders for disaster preparedness, to find vaccines for polio and smallpox and HIV.

The comfort of higher purpose is the comfort of childhood, that there’s something more than what we’re doing right now, that there’s a place to advance to from here, that we mean something to someone outside of ourselves. But even if this is true now, ultimately it will cease to be. Ultimately, we’ll be at the top tier. Ultimately, we will get to where there’s no-one higher to ask, and there’s nowhere higher to go. And really, there’s little to suggest we aren’t there already right now.

And then there’s that pesky matter of living to be someone else’s steak dinner.

Really, we don’t need divine purpose, we have a lot of work to do right here.

* Humans are unique in that they hang around to help care for grandkids. Other animals, even hominids, don’t go through menopause (geriatric females still get fertile and can still breed) and they don’t yearn for grandkids to spoil, rather continue to favor their own immediate progeny over descendants of descendants. Human beings, in the meantime, not only see our own offspring to adulthood, but will help raise their kids. Some humans specifically plan for lateral growth of the family tree hence a common stereotypical family quarrel when adult children are not ready to — or not capable of — having kids of their own.

Cat: Tapering

I’ve only had an espresso this morning, and will have another during Ren’s afternoon walk.

Speaking of Ren, He’s graduated to an extendible leach leash…with an additional foot of coated steel cable since Ren likes to chew through rope leashes when I’m not looking. He likes the additional freedom, but seems to not remember the leash logic regarding poles.

Tapering off caffeine means I’ll probably have little motivation to do anything except sleep. A lot. I still hope to write, briefly, maybe, but still. We will see.