You ain’t heavy; you’re my comrades

scales

 

I’ve been trying to decide what to write about this week for this blog post.  Numerous ideas bounce around in my head every day, and I have at least three “quick memo” files on my smartphone full of blog post topics, some of which I’ve already written, but most of which I haven’t.

I read a lot—I always have—and I listen to podcasts and to audio books during my commute, at least when I’m not listening to music or just letting my thoughts meander like that restless wind inside a letterbox, as John Lennon so beautifully put it.  I even keep vaguely abreast of current events.  Because of all this, and because of the excitable nature of my mind, a great many ideas keep popping up, of varying quality and interest.

Unfortunately, as my life currently stands, I have very few—zero counts as few, right?—people with whom to have deep intellectual discussions…or even shallow intellectual discussions.  This is part of what drives me to want to make Iterations of Zero more active, so that at least I can feel that my thoughts are getting out there and bouncing around the world rather than just around my head.

I greatly admire the speaking, and especially the writing, of the late, great Christopher Hitchens; his rhetoric was certainly of the highest order.  When considering my own non-fiction writing, I’ve occasionally felt envious of and even aspired toward, that harsh, biting style of commentary that he and those like him often used, and my ambitions sometimes drive me to seek that manner of presentation.

In my more serene and sedate moments, though, I realize that such a style is probably not merely “not my cup of tea” but is possibly counterproductive.  There’s enough hostile, accusatory, derisive and derogatory interaction in the world.  There’s too much, in fact.  When explorations of ideas are approached as contests, with the implicit goal of scoring points—or worse, as wars—then the only likely place to expect intellectual growth is among disinterested spectators, and even they are apt to be persuaded more by cleverness of style, by skill with a cunning insult, than by depth of argument, quality of ideas, and consistency of logic.

I can’t endorse this as a way to explore truth.  I don’t have much interest in “debate” as a competition.  I’m much more interested in discussion, in conversation, where there is no shame in being persuaded by the legitimate arguments of one’s interlocutor.

This notion was brought home to me strongly by a recent conversation I had with my brother.  He and I have some minor political disagreements, but neither of us is fanatically committed to them.  We were complaining to each other about how frustrating Facebook in particular is, precisely because people there seem to have so much trouble being civil, if they even try.  With that preface, when our conversation came to areas on which we had some disagreement, I felt the knee-jerk urge to be biting, but it was easily curtailed.  This was my brother, after all.  We shared a room for the first decade and a half of my life, and we are trained, practiced, and naturally disposed to get along with each other.

My brother is not as “formally” educated as I am, but I also know that he is a much more positive person.  I, on the other hand, possess a vastly greater store of inherent malice—which, because of my awareness of it, I’ve trained myself to resist—so it’s easy for me to see, to know, that my brother is as far from being my enemy as it’s possible for someone to be.  I know from literal lifelong experience that his intentions are positive.  Good intentions may not be enough to ensure good outcomes, as the old cliché reminds us, but they do matter, and they certainly say important things about a person.

Because of that conversation, I reminded myself to fear the trap of thinking that those who disagree with me are my enemies.  They are not.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  The very fact that they care about the state of the world and about what’s true means that, at some deep level, they are my allies.

Now, of course, if someone refuses to listen to those who disagree with him, but instead merely insults and even assaults them, that person is not an ally of truth.  But to the degree that people are, at least in principle, open to argument and evidence, they are my brothers, my sisters, my comrades, in the quest better to understand the nature of reality.

Of course, I need to practice what I preach.  I’m a strong advocate of striving to be more reasonable than others, if you want to promote reason and to seek truth.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean conceding what you think is an important point about which you’re convinced you’re correct.  But it does mean recognizing that your opponents are not demons but are people , trying to make their way in the world, trying to figure out what they ought to do, and trying to find the will to do what they ought to do.

It’s a big old universe, and we haven’t been given an instruction manual to it.  No one understands it in its entirety.  And, contrary to the general tone of much of Facebook and Twitter, we can be pretty sure that only a small number of people are willfully—or even willingly—evil.

So, I’m going to try not to take a biting or combative or snarky tone in my writing here; I’m going to try to avoid being derogatory to anyone but myself (I’m the easiest target, anyway).  I’m going to pursue conversation as I would with a brother, a sister, a comrade…which includes accounting for the fact that an interlocutor might not see themselves as such, and so might feel defensive and threatened and even frightened by those with whom he or she disagrees.

We’ve all been taught at various times that to be shown to be wrong, or to admit to being wrong is to fail.  We should really be taught that to be wrong is how we fail…but that the remedy for that is to expose our understanding, such as it is, to well-meaning (and sometimes even not so well-meaning) exploration and criticism.  This is one of the most crucial arguments for freedom of speech, even speech that we find reprehensible.

If I fall short of the above ideals in the future, I beseech you, my readers, to take me to task.

But do try to be polite.

If you want to play the game well, you need to learn the rules

the gambler

Today I’m going to deal with something that’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, albeit one that may seem nebulous at first.  The thing to which I refer is the common attitude that math and science, such as is taught in primary and secondary school, are not relevant to most people’s daily lives.

I don’t mean by this that most people don’t recognize how important math and science are to technology and to civilization.  I doubt there are many people with such a limited worldview.  I’m thinking of the people who may recognize how powerful and useful mathematics and science are, and who see all things they’ve done for humanity, but who think that their own time learning anything beyond the basics of arithmetic was a waste of time, and that they’ve never used any of it since they learned it in school.

This is silly.  This is foolish.  I have a few rejoinders to such claims.

First, I want to point out that people who exercise—by running, biking, lifting weights, doing push-up, whatever—don’t complain that they’ve never had to do push-ups in their day-to-day life or as part of their jobs.  They don’t whine that they never need to flee predators or chase down prey to survive.  The reason you don’t hear such nonsense is that most people know that the purpose of most exercise isn’t to perfect one’s ability to, say, lift weights beautifully, but to be healthier, stronger, and more physically able.  This attitude can be applied at least as well to mental exercise, whether or not you use the specific tasks with which you exercise your mind anywhere else.  Indeed, mental exercise is probably even more useful and beneficial than bodily workouts are, for a few reasons.  First, the brain has greater and more enduring plasticity and freedom to improve than the body does, and that ability of your brain to grow “stronger” can continue throughout your life, barring neurological illness.

Let’s be honest:  humans don’t rule the world because of our physical acumen.  Numerous animals are stronger, faster, and more fearsome physically than humans (though our endurance is world class).  The reason we are so powerful is because of our outrageously overgrown brains, with which we’ve created external memories and communications that allow us to be social in ways that make honeybees and termites look like hikikomori.  So, if you want to maximize and optimize what makes humans strong, you need to maximize and optimize your mind.  Math and science are among the most rigorous and effective ways to do that.

At a deeper level, though, math and science are fundamental to reality itself in ways that all other endeavors are not.  Galileo famously said that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, and he was not the first or the last great mind to proclaim such Pythagorean sentiments, because it is a very deep and true statement about the universe.  I like to think of it as follows:  mathematics is the programming language of reality.  Everything that happens obeys it, and it cannot be contradicted, because such contradictions—in reality—simply cannot exist.  And science is our best attempt to learn the specifics of the program is in which we live.

Any good gamer will tell you, if you want to win a game—or thrive, or get as high a score as you’re able, or last as long as you can, whatever your goal might be when playing any given game—you need to know the rules.  Math and science are the rules, ultimately, that our game follows.  Human laws and customs are parochial and provincial; laws of nature are absolute.  If you try to go against them, you’ll eventually collide with them, and when you collide with the laws of nature, it’s always you that breaks.

Also, mathematics and science are a lot of fun if you give them a chance.  Contrary to popular belief, to understand and enjoy math and science can be tremendously captivating and inspiring, and they require and stimulate the imagination in ways that mere human stories and cultural creations never could.  As J. B. S. Haldane said, nature is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.  The only thing big enough really to simulate the universe is the universe itself, so we can never completely predict all of what we’re going to find before we find it, but math and science allow us to understand as much of it as possible.

That’s pretty exciting.  And it’s deeper and more real than anything else you’ll ever encounter.  Empires rise and fall; fashion is a form of ugliness so severe that we have to change it every few months; religions come and go; politics is notoriously ephemeral.  But physics is here for good, and as the saying goes, physicists defer only to mathematicians.

And mathematicians defer only to God…if ever.

Introducing a new (planned) regimen

IOZ

Okay, I want to start doing more writing here on IoZ on a regular basis—to discuss stream-of-consciousness matters, to explore personal philosophy, to share my reactions to current events, my thoughts about science and math, and so on.  I do not, however, want this project to interfere with my daily writing and/or editing schedule, since that is the fundamental purpose and meaning for my life.

Given all that, I’m going to try just to fit this writing into the moments of down-time during my working day—during lunch, for instance—so that I can get it done without interfering with more essential matters.  Hopefully that won’t have a detrimental effect on the quality of the writing; I hope for feedback from you, my most beloved and loyal readers, if such becomes the case.  Still, since Iterations of Zero can, officially, be about anything, and in any format (unlike my “main” blog, which focuses mainly on fiction writing and related matters), I don’t have to feel too constrained.  For instance, I started this current entry without any topic in mind other than to introduce the notion that I mean to write a bit more regularly, hopefully putting at least one entry out a week.

I’m not sure whether I’m going to post pictures with each entry or not.  I suppose you’ll know the answer to that for this entry at least before you even get the chance to read it…though you may not realize that there was a question until you reach this point of the post.

Again, today I plan on just making this more or less stream of consciousness, and for the entries in general more or less to be according to whatever whims drive me on any given day or week.  I’ll try not to let the entries be too dominated by my dysthymia, but I can make no promises.  If I were able to have that degree of control, I would exert it on my own behalf before applying it merely to the blog posts.

That being said, writing new fiction at least tends to do good things for my mood, so hopefully writing a decent amount of non-fiction—which technically is what these blog posts will be, though there may be matters included which are apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate—will have a similar beneficial effects.  It’s at least unlikely to be detrimental…to me, anyway.

I make no promises to my readers.  Caveat lector.

I’ll try to keep the posts from getting too long, and I plan to keep the final length on the order of about a thousand words, perhaps a bit less.  I figure that’s a pretty good amount of reading to digest in a quick sitting.  There may be occasions on which I need to put more than a thousand word’s worth of writing down on a subject, but if it’s very much more, I can always split an entry into more than one part and publish them as a micro-series.  That could be exciting, right?  It might introduce a bit of suspense to the process.

Probably not.

And with that, though it’s slightly shorter than a typical post will probably be, I think we’ve said enough for now.  It is, after all, just an introduction to the new regimen.  I hope you will enjoy my forthcoming posts and my planned increased output volume.

Come Back Again (a song)

Words and Music by Robert Elessar

(c) copyright 2019.  All rights reserved.

Performed by Robert Elessar

Produced by Robert Elessar


Sky blue
Sky gray
Dark and stormy night
Sunny day
Only meeting strangers
Always losing friends
Every new beginning
Always ends.
And if your travels bring you to a place
Where you’re afraid to show your face
remember
All you’ll be is all you’ve been,
So turn around, come back again.

Walking down the street
I saw a car go by with no one driving
I watched it pass and wondered what the hell was going on.
There’s something not quite right, I thought
and hopped a bus that was just arriving
I got it and I sat down fine, but suddenly

I was gone.

Sky blue
Sky black
Creeping slowly forward
Falling back
Nothing ever stops
But nothing really goes
Is there any reason?
No one knows.

But I’d stay by you until the end
In times of darkness I’m your friend
So maybe
If you need
A helping hand
Just turn around
Come back again.

Come back again.

Come back again.

Come back again.

Breaking Me Down (rebuilt)

(c) 2019

Words and Music by Robert Elessar

Produced and performed by Robert Elessar

I sit alone at home sometimes and want to go berserk
But doing that just never seems to work
The shelves are stacked with books but I don’t feel that I could read
While all around a thousand phantoms lurk

I drink a little wine; I eat a little meat
I wonder why I’m shivering in such infernal heat
I feel a little tired; my head’s a little light
I wish that I could close my eyes and block my inner sight.

If you could see me now, you’d probably wonder where I’ve been
But I stand and I fall
And I listen for your call
While hiding out inside the dragon’s den.

I wander ‘round through my internal night
I travel back and forth throughout the town
But if you ask, I’ll tell you I’m all right
My nervousness is just breaking me down.

I listen to the sounds of everybody having fun
I can’t join in ‘cause I don’t have a gun,
They’re scattering their ashes all along the motorway
Then scampering like rabbits on the run

I bounce off all the walls; I turn out all the lights
I always want to hit someone, but I never get in fights
I feel a bit confused; my thoughts are incomplete
There’s tingling in my fingers and there’s swelling in my feet

If you could hear what I hear you would deafen both your ears
But I can’t, and I know
That no matter where I go
I’m followed by the grinding of my gears.

I stare around in paranoiac fright
While grinning at my heartbreak like a clown
So don’t come in, and don’t turn on the light
It’s just my past mistakes breaking me down

I look at all the colors of the pictures in my mind
They’re all so dark, I might as well be blind
The path laid out ahead of me is so filled up with smoke
I think that I’d prefer to just rewind

I roam around the house; I drive around the town
I don’t know if I’m back and forth or if I’m up and down
I dive into the sea; I look into the sky
I try to understand them, but we can’t see eye to eye

If you could see inside my head, your own head would explode
But I nod, and I grin
At the end where I begin
And I smile, and I wave
When I pass an open grave
And I slump, and I sigh
When we have to say goodbye
I’ll see you at the ending of the road

I wander through the wasteland struck with blight
I make my Hell to wear an earthly crown
I smash all mirrors, I can’t stand the sight
Of everything that is breaking me down.

Catechism

Catechism

(c) 2019

Words and Music by Robert Elessar

Performed by Robert Elessar

Produced by Robert Elessar

 

The day is coming, can you hear it?
Night is falling, do you fear it?
The ship has sailed, now can you steer it?
Do you know what’s going on?
The moment’s passing, do you know it?
What’s your secret, will you show it?
When your chance comes, will you blow it?
Can you be relied upon?
I you can answer all these questions right,
You just might make it through that falling night.
But if these words just serve to turn your head,
The coming dark will bury you with dread.
The world is turning, can you feel it?
The wound is bleeding, can you heal it?
The truth is cloaked, can you reveal it?
I might come along with you.
The picture’s hidden, can you find it?
The tape is jammed, will you rewind it?
I must intrude now, do you mind it?
It’s just that I belong with you.
The world is not so hopeless, is it now?
Is that a statement that you might allow?
Just wipe the tears out of your eyes, won’t you?
To fight the truth, there’s nothing you can do.
The game is set, now can you play it?
The beast is charging, can you slay it?
If all your strength cannot delay it,
Then run away, just run and hide!
The path is clear, but will you hike it?
The cheek is turned, now will you strike it?
The song is over, did you like it?
Forget you heard it, it’s only lied.

FedEx Screwed Over My Disabled Housemate

My housemate is a disabled American who, among other things, has a prosthetic leg and multiple neck and other spinal injuries from a past motor vehicle accident.  He is also a highly skilled guitarist and a craftsman of the instrument, assembling top quality replicas of classic electric guitars that match the performance of the best examples of the original products.  I’ve purchased one of these guitars from him, and it’s as good, and as beautiful, as any I’ve ever played.

My housemate sells the guitars he makes, often through E-bay, for the cost of materials plus a very modest markup for his time and effort, which are not insignificant matters for him given his physical difficulties.  For quite some time now, he has used FedEx to ship these guitars to their purchasers, and in the past, he has apparently had few complaints.  However, the quality of FedEx’s shipping and service is, apparently, not what it used to be.

My housemate recently sold a replica Les Paul model electric guitar.  He took the guitar, in a case, to the local FedEx office to have it shipped.  There he paid for insurance for the full price of the guitar, and he also paid extra to have FedEx pack the item themselves, so there could be no question about the responsibility for any inadequate packing of this expensive and fragile item.  Speaking of fragility, he also specifically requested that the item be marked “Fragile,” “Handle with Care,” and so on.  This latter request was not fulfilled, as is demonstrated by photos taken by the purchaser of the guitar when it arrived.  These photos also showed creases and indentations in the packing materials of the shipping container, including a long crease along the mid-section of the box.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, given what I’ve just stated and the title of this post, that the guitar arrived damaged, with a crack/break at the base of the neck.  As someone who was partial witness to the assembly of the instrument, to the work it entailed, and to the wonderful sound of the finished product, I find this damage heartbreaking.  The guitar had obviously been subject to incautious packing and shipping that allowed leverage to be applied across the middle of the box.  That leverage was not enough to break the case—which is somewhat flexible, and was not designed to protect from such external torques but from minor bumps and bangs while being hand-carried—but enough to strain the weakest point in a long, wooden structure such that it cracked.

The guitar purchaser was quite polite about all this, and my housemate is going to replace the guitar with another one that he has made—and into which he has put his time and his very limited money—but he obviously asked and expected FedEx to live up to their agreement and reimburse him for the price of the guitar.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that my housemate paid for insurance and also paid to have FedEx pack the guitar and to mark it as fragile, and despite having seen photos of the damage to the instrument and the surface of the box (I’ve seen these photos, as well), FedEx claims that their investigation finds that they were not responsible for the damage and they are not going to pay.

Let’s think about that.  My housemate paid for insurance and for FedEx to pack the item, and it arrived with damage.  It was not damaged when it was sent, I’m personally able to attest to that, since I was there when my housemate took it to FedEx, and I saw (and heard) the finished product, which was exceptional.  To have FedEx say that their investigation has cleared them of wrongdoing is rather like having Vladimir Putin say that his investigation has revealed that his government has never carried out any operations to influence the elections of any other countries, or to have Bernie Madoff say that he’s looked into things and found no evidence that he’s ever been involved in any kind of “pyramid scheme”.

Why would FedEx ever want to find themselves responsible for such damage?  Only because not to do so would hurt their reputation, which has—in the past—been important to them as leading figures in the world of high-quality, fast shipping.

Now, though, it seems that the formerly mighty have fallen very far indeed.  FedEx is perfectly willing to charge a disabled person extra money to pack the instrument he is—as a loyal, long-time customer—shipping with them, and they are also willing to charge him for “insurance” against damage accrued during shipping.  But it seems that, when such damage really occurs during shipping, to a fragile, expensive, fine quality musical instrument, which FedEx was paid extra to pack, the company does not live up to their end of the bargain, but instead forces a disabled craftsman and musician to try to satisfy his buyer out of his own, very shallow, pocket.

My housemate is not a man of words, and he is not especially internet/social media savvy, but words are my life blood.  In addition, as a musician myself (of sorts), and as a friend, I cannot bear to have the Philistines at FedEx carry out this double-cross cheat of my housemate without at least making public—as loudly as I’m able—the fact that they have done so.

I encourage all of you who might consider using FedEx’s shipping services to engage other providers, such as UPS, or the United States Postal Service, or G.O.D., or some similar organization.  There may have been a time when FedEx was the best at what they do, and when they stood by their services, but it seems that time has passed if they willingly cheat a disabled craftsman out of insurance coverage for which he paid to compensate for damage for which FedEx is responsible.

I’m sure that FedEx puts a great deal of money into marketing their services, including their shipping insurance.  Apparently, their budget—both financial and ethical—for actually fulfilling the promises they make is simply too small.  If that’s the case, maybe it’s time they got out of the shipping business entirely.


ADDENDUM:  Here are a few pictures of the damage to the box and the instrument as they were when they arrived.  It may not look like much, but musicians will know that it ruins the sound of the instrument, and it certainly is NOT the way it was when shipped.