Schrödinger’s Head

Schrödinger’s Head”

To be performed by: What’s in the Box?

Lyrics by Robert Elessar

Music to be written by Robert Elessar

Is the cat alive or dead?
Is the stop light green or red?
Is he awake or still in bed?
Is he hungry or well-fed?

I don’t know
What’s going on
In Schrödinger's head.

Is he in charge or is he led?
Is he below or overhead?
Did you take in a word he said?
You can go from A to Zed

And you won’t know
What’s going on
In Schrödinger's head.

Everything’s divided,
And everything in one.
Your view is so one-sided
But well-done is half begun.

Did he charge or has he fled?
Excited now or filled with dread?
Is he behind or far ahead?
We want to know, and yet, instead

We don’t know
You don’t know
I don’t know
What’s going on
In Schrödinger's head.

My response to a pseudo-patriotic Facebook post. Oh, and Happy New Year, by the way

[The following is a response to a meme shared by a friend. I’m posting it here because he’s a nice guy, and he means well, and I don’t see the need to get in a dust-up with him.]


Is it really more heroic to risk one’s future and expose oneself to possible crippling physical and mental injuries (not to mention death) by going overseas and killing strangers (apparently endangering innocent and trusting dogs – who clearly have no idea what they’re doing or why, but just do what you tell them to do because dogs will do that – in the process), at the behest of corrupt politicians who won’t even take care of you after you’ve done what they brainwashed you to do…

…or over many years of dedication and hard work to hone your skills and ability in a sport that pits you against other highly skilled and disciplined people, all of whom have joined the contest voluntarily, bringing joy and excitement to millions of people on a regular basis, and occasionally to use the public recognition you freely receive to call attention to areas in which our own country is committing injustice and sometimes murder against its own citizens, in hypocritical violation of the principles for which it claims to stand, even though your protest earns the vilification of millions of people who don’t want to admit to and deal with the failures of their government (for which they are ultimately responsible), and may end your career, a career for which you’ve killed NO ONE?*

I’m asking for a friend.

War – and soldiers – are a necessary evil. They are necessary,** and we can admire and be thankful for those soldiers who do fight against legitimately evil forces (this does happen from time to time, though not as often as we’d like to imagine). We should CERTAINLY demand that our elected employees make provisions to take care of those soldiers afterwards. But we can, I think, all imagine and hope for a world in which war and soldiers are no longer necessary, and even become unthinkable.

We already live in a world in which sports are “unnecessary.” We play and watch football, basketball, soccer, baseball, the Olympics, all entirely because they bring us joy.

This, to me, demonstrates that they are a greater good. We do them for their own sake. After all, which would you prefer: a world in which your children play games and sports, and learn about subjects that interest them, and grow strong in ways that don’t require harming anyone else…or a world in which they spend their time fighting to survive, evading and/or being tormented by bullies (or being bullies themselves), scavenging for food, running from predators?

This is the juxtaposition of imagery you should keep in mind when you denigrate athletes, particularly ones who take a knee in protest against injustice committed by those who are supposed to defend justice, while you praise soldiers who, when they do good in the world (and they DO, not infrequently, do good), it’s because they’re “lucky” enough to have been ordered to do so, and it’s usually at the cost of death and destruction, including collateral damage (i.e. innocent people being maimed and killed).

I don’t mean to put down soldiers. I admire and respect their willingness to put their lives in danger to try to do good in the world, and I strongly suspect that almost all of them really, honestly, intend to do good. But their good intentions, and their courage, do not guarantee that they will, in fact, do good. Good intentions are not enough. They are just barely even the starting point. And it is only through the actions of people such as those who stand – or kneel – to bring attention to injustice, that we can hope to do more than merely intend good and actually, in the long run, achieve it.

*and that, by the way, is a compound, complex sentence

**but they are an evil

I’ll try not to feed my trolls

I’m going to try to keep it short, today, because I want to get back to writing and editing my fiction, especially Solitaire.  Apologies if this disappoints anyone.

It’s frustrating how little time I can find in any given day to get done what I want to get done.  I doubt that I’m the only one with this lament.  And yet, when the weekend comes, I find it hard to force myself to get up and write—or even to get up and edit—first thing in the morning, as is my goal.  This was why I decided to write my Iterations of Zero posts on Tuesdays:  I found that my intention to write them on Sundays rarely panned out, even when I had something important in mind that I wanted to get out there.

Instead of lancing those intellectual boils I often ended up just letting them fester, and sometimes I lost the urge to address them at all.  What happened to the underlying infection in such cases?  Perhaps it went the way of all overextended metaphors and faded appropriately into nothingness.  Or perhaps it will recrudesce in other places and other times.  Maybe that’s a good test of how important such subjects really are to me.

When I used to go out shopping with my kids, and they saw some random item they wanted, I told them say that we would wait a week.  If they still wanted the thing—without having to be reminded of it by going past it again—then I would get it for them.  If not, then we would consider their desire a momentary impulse, and not worth the money.

This worked out pretty well.  They didn’t feel absolutely stonewalled; I wasn’t saying that they couldn’t have this thing that they thought they wanted.  There was no angst such as might be present if I’d just said, “You aren’t getting that.  Full stop.”  But, as will surely come as no surprise, most of the time they forgot about their impulse completely.  On those rare occasions when they didn’t forget, I was true to my word (if memory serves).

Maybe that’s a good rule to follow with respect to writing.  If I feel a burning urge to comment on some issue—some momentary, outrageous flash in the social media pan, for instance—I should step back and consider well, for a while, what I might want to say.  If the topic fades out of my mind after a relatively short time, then it’s probably not that important.

It might even be nice if everyone on social media—and perhaps in all other media—followed this precept.

It boils down to the principle of not feeding the trolls.  If some meme or statement on social media arouses your ire and makes you want to comment—especially if your comment doesn’t really add anything new to the conversation—maybe you should count to ten…ten hours, if possible, but at least make it ten minutes.  If what you want to say is really important, then you’ll surely still feel the impulse to say it after a mere ten minutes has passed.

This is not to say that, if someone asks some factual question, like “what the heck is a black hole, anyway?” and you think you know the answer well enough to satisfy them, that you should wait to reply.  But if you see some post riddled with emotionally provocative imagery and/or information (especially without any references to confirm the truthfulness of statements made), it might be wise to hold off responding, especially if your response would be something like, “This is why I hate those kind of people,” or “This is why our society is doomed to destruction,” or similar ventings that add nothing to the discourse, but which do encourage people to post more such memes, and make your life a little angrier.

Trolls only have power over you if you give it to them.  Real issues, real concerns, real dangers, will not go away if you briefly ignore them.  This is one of the great tests of whether something is “real” of not.  If you can kick a rock even when you aren’t looking at it, then that rock is really there.

For the time being at least, I’m going to try to follow my own advice.  I’ve got three memo sections in my cell phone full of potential topics for discussion, and I’ve already written about some of them.  Many are real, legitimate concerns to which I will almost certainly return.  But I don’t need to go read through those notes periodically to try to inflame myself anew on their subject matter.  As the Tao te Ching says of the Master, “Things arise, and she lets them come; things disappear, and she lets them go.”  I’m a long way from being a Master, and I doubt that I have world and time enough to achieve that state, but it’s a target worth keeping in sight.

In the meantime, I’ll try not to feed my internal trolls, and I’ll try not to buy too many impulse items, literally or metaphorically (this is hard for me with books, but I’m getting a little better).  I’ll trust that those matters that are truly important will stick with me and will inevitably come out either in my nonfiction or someplace hidden in my fiction.

A subject doesn’t have to be steeped in outrage to be interesting, after all.  I’ll try to save my own outrage for situations in which I can’t seem to escape it.  Maybe that’ll make me a happier, more light-hearted person.  At least it will make me less subject to the whims of trolls, both external and internal.  And that has to be a good thing.

Screams and disconnections

I started reading the two bestsellers by Johann Hari (Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections, about the war on drugs and about the modern epidemic of depression, respectively) after hearing him on Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast.  They’re powerful and well-written books, though reading them can be quite upsetting, as they both deal with issues that have profoundly affected my life.

As may be obvious to anyone who’s read this blog much, I’ve had a lifelong struggle with depression, which is often quite severe.  I say lifelong; it really began in my early teens, and I think in my case it may be more endogenous than reactive.  Thus, I might be a slight outlier in Hari’s thesis on the illness (but I haven’t finished the books yet, so I may be wrong in this).  Nevertheless, Hari’s point about missing connections and support is one that resonates with me. Continue reading “Screams and disconnections”

I don’t like the prodigal son

I’ve always had a problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a father with two sons, one of whom is well-behaved and does what he ought to do, whatever that might be.  The other is a wild child.  He goes out into the world, doing the local equivalent is of drinking, abusing drugs, partying, having lots of unprotected sex with people he barely knows, gambling, spending too much time playing computer games…that sort of stuff.  Eventually, so the story goes, the second son hits rock bottom, as one might expect, and loses everything.  Then he comes crawling back to his father, contrite, supposedly having learned the error of his ways.  The father, in response, throws a gigantic party, and everyone celebrates the return of the prodigal son.

The other son, understandably enough, is miffed by this.  He thinks it’s unfair that the return of the ne’er-do-well is greeted with a celebration, while he’s been there all along, doing sensible things, behaving good, being loyal, and there’s no party to celebrate him.  The father explains that basically he’s always happy about the good son’s presence, and that everything he has is his, but that the other son, who was as good as dead, is now back and it’s worth celebrating.

I’m really on the side of the good son here, precisely because the parable of the prodigal son is a good description of how we often behave toward our families, friends, and others. Continue reading “I don’t like the prodigal son”

NOT voting is voting for the opposition

For those of you who will vote today, or have already voted—no matter for whom or what you’re voting—I want to thank you, as someone whose right to vote has been stripped from him.

For those who don’t, I want to make a few points.

First and foremost, something you might not have considered:  If you can vote, but choose to abstain, you are effectively casting a vote for every candidate with whose platform you would be least likely to agree.  How does this work?  It’s very simple:  If you informed yourself and voted—even if you cast your vote along straight party lines, without any deeper thought involved—your vote would be counted and would balance some alternative vote for the candidates or issues you wouldn’t have chosen.  By not voting, you unmask a vote that would have been opposed the one you would have cast.  By not being present, by not voting, you are allowing those who disagree with you to put forward their side unopposed.

Perhaps this is as it should be.  Perhaps those who refuse to vote should have their least-favorite candidates elected.  Perhaps this is a form of justice.  But if so, it’s a justice that doesn’t merely affect you, but harms all those with whom you might agree about any issue.

People give many reasons for not voting, and some of them are understandable.  In many places, specific laws and policies have been enacted that preferentially discourage people of particular political dispositions from voting.  That this happens is reprehensible, and it is to counter just such violations of the spirit of America that it is urgent that all people who can vote take the trouble to do so.

But many people who choose not to vote simply make excuses for what is ultimately just laziness.  It’s too difficult, the polling places are too far away, the needs of everyday life get in the way, all the candidates on all sides are corrupt, my vote doesn’t make any difference anyway.  These arguments seem to carry weight—for those who make them—partly because there is at least a grain of truth in each of them.

It can be difficult to vote.  Depending on one’s circumstances, getting to a polling place can be a chore, especially if one doesn’t have a car.  Sometimes this circumstance has been deliberately engineered, and sometimes it’s just one of those random imperfections of reality.

Voting can also require taking time off work.  For those paid by the hour, this can entail loss of income which they are ill-equipped to bear.  Some will even face threats to their continued employment if they insist upon taking time off to vote, and that such threats happen is a travesty and an insult to the spirit of this country.

To change such things, however, the people interested in changing them must run for and be elected to office, and this will only happen if those who face difficulties find ways around them to the best of their ability.  This may require absentee voting, this may require advance time-off planning, including setting extra money aside to make up for the hours of lost wages entailed in exercising this crucial right.*

As for the point that both sides are corrupt:  even if true, it’s vanishingly unlikely that both sides are equally corrupt or equally reprehensible.  If you don’t vote for the candidate who comes closest to your ideal, then you’re voting for the one who is farthest away.  (See my post, “The good/evil number line.”)

The feeling that one’s vote is unimportant can be powerful; each citizen is just one of hundreds of millions in America.  The sense that by voting one is just spitting in the ocean can be oppressive, especially where Gerrymandering has ensured that in certain districts, votes for particular political candidates do have less influence on outcomes than they should.  But even Gerrymandering can be overcome by a strong enough voter turnout, and only by making that happen can it and other such injustices be overturned.

Looked at honestly, though, the character of many people’s reasons for not voting seems like a child saying that his dog ate his homework, when really, the homework was just difficult, and he had other things on his mind so he didn’t do it.

The homework may be difficult.  There may be many, seemingly more urgent, matters at hand.  But if you don’t vote, you’ve given a free vote to those who disagree with you politically.  They will get out and vote.  And their vote will count…all the more so because of the absence of your vote.

*We treat this right rather poorly here in the US, which is something of a puzzle when you think about it.  There are nations on this planet where voting is not merely a right but a legal obligation.  This may be carrying things a bit too far, but there are also countries where election days are national holidays, where workers cannot be forced to work on polling days unless they provide essential services, as with those who work in hospitals, fire departments, police departments, and the like.  It seems like an idea worth trying.

A Bare Bodkin

When exploring certain website discussions relating to depression and suicidal ideation (let’s say I did this for academic reasons), I came across a statement—not isolated in its character—that basically told readers that their life was a gift, and they shouldn’t throw it away.  The stupidity and arrogance of such nonsensical points is typical of such sites, such discussions, such forums and quorums, and it’s so terribly irritating because it makes me think that the people out there who are nominally trying to help people with depression—a worthy enough cause, and a positive enough intention—know next to nothing, perhaps worse than nothing, about the subject and at least about some of the people they’re presumably trying to help.

A depressed person who is seriously thinking about suicide doesn’t experience life as a gift, and it’s terribly pointless to assert to them that it is.  Even from an objective point of view, it’s ridiculous to say that life is a gift, just as it’s nonsense to say that life is a curse (though the arguments for the latter often seem more convincing).  Life just is; it’s something that happens, and the quality of each individual life varies, even from moment to moment within a given life.  The overall measure of a life—the integral of its happiness, the area under the well-being curve—also must vary across some Gaussian distribution, which means that there will be people who fall both well above and well below the mean, through no fault or credit of their own.  To tell a person two standard deviations or more below the happiness mean—perhaps just through an accident of neurology—that his or her life is a gift is frankly insulting.  It seems calculated to make such a person feel even more guilty than they often do already; it points to the objective facts of their subjective experience and tells them they’re not correct to feel the way they do.  Such a  person must either believe the statement and hate themselves more for being unable to appreciate a “gift” they have been given, or to spurn the point of view of the one making the statement as at best ignorant, at worst frankly malicious.

A similar problem occurs when help websites and crisis sources say things like, “Talk to your friends and families.”  If a person felt able to talk to friends or families about the problems they are having, they probably wouldn’t have quite the problems they have.  A person who has such resources—and, crucially, who feels justified in using them, in subjecting those who potentially love them to the burden of their irrational, depressed, depressing, event horizon thoughts, which may lead to further, perhaps complete, alienation—seems less than likely to reach a crisis where they’re looking for information or thoughts about suicide prevention…or about suicide methods.  Bringing up such things often serves simply to highlight to the seeker that they’re in an abysmal situation, one they probably feel that they deserve.  The message seems to be that most people who come to this resource—whatever it might be—have friends and family they can readily seek out for help, who know what to do, who don’t have problems of their own to deal with, and have the time, expertise, and patience to help a person who is already the scum of the earth.  Someone in crisis is going to feel that they must really be much worse (as a value judgment) than most of the others who seek this source of help, and that he or she is probably is not the target audience for this—or possibly for any—help source.

Of course there are crisis hotlines and related centers available, where one can talk to well-meaning strangers.  These tend to be volunteer-staffed, and those volunteers should be cheered and thanked far more than they surely ever are, but unfortunately, one can have bad experiences with such resources (quite apart from the fact that many depressed people find it difficult to open up to anyone, let alone to strangers).  Such a bad experience happened to a  person I know who called such a center during a terrible personal crisis.  Precisely because that person was in such a severe crisis, the Palm Beach Country Sheriff’s Department was summoned by the help line, and that person in crisis was handcuffed and taken away to a shit-hole mental health facility, the handcuffs doing nerve damage to that person’s hand and wrist that lasted for over a year.  Someone who’s been through something like that is far less likely to try to use crisis lines again, even when in extremis, especially since nowadays it’s so easy to track a caller’s location.  How sure can a caller be that they are anonymous and “a-situ-ous” and won’t suddenly look up to see green-clad thugs from the barrel-bottom-scraping local constabulary come to take them away to a place that makes jail seem (reputedly) preferable by comparison.*

Of course, there are mental health resources available in the form of psychotherapy.  These are of varying quality, but most of them can at times be useful, and the practitioners tend to be well-meaning, sincere, and professional.  However, if one doesn’t have very good insurance—and I mean truly exceptional—let alone if one doesn’t have insurance at all, one tends to have to pay for such things out of pocket.  It’s not cheap.  It can also feel rather demeaning, in a subtle, strange way.  After all, if paying for sex would be potentially embarrassing, then how much more humiliating is it to need to pay to have someone just listen to one’s troubled thoughts…especially when one finds one’s own thoughts hard enough to bear when they’re not even spoken aloud?

This post is obviously more of a rant than it is a call to action or a suggestion of answers.  I don’t know that there are any good answers, and the people I’m criticizing probably deserve better.  But that’s kind of the point.  The world is neither just nor fair nor kind, and we are given no guarantees that there will be solutions—not just ideal solutions, but any solutions at all—to given problems.  Some functions are just non-computable.  Reality, via the unassailable mathematics of the second law of thermodynamics, makes only one promise in this life, and that is that it will come to an end.  There are times when this promise doesn’t have the character of a threat, but is actually the most reassuring, soothing offer of relief.

Is that thought a symptom of illness?  Is it a mark of enlightenment?  Or is it just another highly stochastic, directionless outcome of natural forces acting on very large, very diverse populations of nervous systems which exist in environments quite different from those in which their ancestors survived and evolved?

What is one to do when one is more well-aware of the processes that lead to depression than many of those one could seek for help?  What is one to do when one has heard and considered the arguments and points of, for instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and is well aware of all the mental pitfalls it is designed to circumvent, and finds it less than useful against the nihilism and pro-mortalism of one’s (provisional) philosophical conclusions?  What is one to do when one understands—as well as it can be understood so far, anyway—the function of SSRI’s and related substances, and has experienced their effects, and finds that the detriments outweigh the expected benefits, at least in one’s own case?  What is one to do when one understands, at an intellectual level, that one’s thought processes are maladaptive, but one still cannot thereby correct them, and one knows—at a professional, expert level—that we simply do not have adequate resources to correct them in any reliable, durable way (other than that final “correction” that is the bare bodkin)?  And what if these problems are further complicated by chronic, daily pain, and the parallel loss of essentially everything one had held dear?

I don’t expect to receive any useful, surprising, answers to such questions.  One tends to encounter trite nonsense such as the “life is a gift,” and “there are people who care about you,” tropes when one puts such inquiries out into the world.  The latter point might even be true, but it’s beside the point.  Is an individual ethically obliged to endure long-term and short-term net suffering because a modest group of people, with whom one has occasional, superficial contact on social media, will be transiently saddened if something happens to that individual, before the others all just get on with their lives as before (which is what they should do)?

I’m obviously not the first person to ask such questions.  I’m quite certain that I won’t be the last.  I expect no benefit to come from having asked them.  To be honest, I expect no net benefits from the world at all.  This is Iterations of Zero, after all…and the net outcome of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time…which is to know nothing.

*I’ve been in both, and to be honest, jail is worse, if only because, when they think you’re a danger to yourself in jail, they lock you in a very cold, small room by yourself, with only a flimsy paper gown to wear, no mattress, no pillow, and a hard metal bunk frame (with sharp corners, weirdly enough).