Category Archives: Social

Axial Age: Sessions 0.5 – 1.5

Session 0.5:

Zaidu (Paul), a Mesopotamian army cleric, recently arrived in town looking for an escape from army life.
Vishnaya (Cat), a wandering Persian bard, was doing some entertainment by the new Zoroaster temple.

They both got knocked out and captured near a bottle merchant, accused of abducting a local prince (and generally making trouble in many places), and eventually released to be accompanied by a thug named Zoloft.

After getting plastered at a Haoma bar, they’re on their way to a job interview with the Babylonian deputy secretary for finance.

Session 1.5:

The session started with Vishnaya and Zaidu visiting the Minister of Coffer’s Deputy for Security (Parusiyati) at the palace. He asked them to travel to Cunaxa to figure out why tax requests had gone unanswered, and to take with them an overly curious traveler named Wu Tian. They were told they must leave the city now, and report to the guard when they return. They got a tablet to identify themselves in Cunaxa and another for the guard upon return.

On the way out of the palace, they were accosted by an certain Contrax, offering help and asking them to take a tablet to a noble in Cunaxa.

The group decided to take the overland route to Cunaxa, camping near a forest edge. During first watch, wolves attacked and began running off with bags. The group pursued until a rag-covered man arrived to help the wolves, leaving his last target, a trade wagon. The trade wagon had two passengers, one nearly dead and one injured and hiding. The injured one heard the commotion and went to help, promptly getting killed by the wolf-man. The group killed the rest of the wolves, but did not pursue the wolf-man.

After the battle, they found Karam, an African woman, covered in blood, completely looted, but conscious by the wagon.

Milan Expo 2015

I am now back in Berkeley, enjoying the sun as New York State slowly covers in snow. So to remember my brief time in Italy, I give you some photos.

Coffee Forum finale Milan Expo 2015
Coffee Forum finale Milan Expo 2015

Above is the last event of the World Coffee Forum, with a ceremony of countries around the world symbolically pouring coffee beans into a mixed bag (which we all got a small sachet of). After the event, we were left free to wander the Milan Expo, 12 million square feet of exhibits designed to make a person hungry.

Malaysian Expo site Another Expo pavilion
Malaysian Expo site Another Expo pavilion

Every country had a “pavilion”– or part of one, or multiple ones– consisting of a building constructed solely for the Expo. The pavilions seemed to reflect the aspirations of each country, whether mosque-like Qatar, souring Russia, Poland-the-hashtag, or Korea’s building of robots.

Train in the Milan Science and Tech museum Park Sempione
Milan Science museum Park Sempione

Having seen the Expo on the last day of the Forum, I wandered the city before heading to Nice, visiting the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci”, with its building of trains, and Park Sempione near the Castello Sforzesco (deserted, because of a little drizzle).

I went to Nice, France, before coming back, but I have no pictures of it because the rain followed me and drenched my phone. It took the phone a week to recover, but it did.

World Future Day in Milan

Every trip is about something different. And no matter what you want it to be about, life seems to impose its own meaning and expose just what you need.

My trip to Italy has something to do with the future– or maybe past visions of the future and their impossibility. Here are the pieces I’m trying to puzzle together.

For my recent birthday, my mom created a self-declared “box of old books of the month club”, to give me some of my dad’s old sci-fi paperbacks as she prepares to move. I brought with me “World’s Best Science Fiction: 1965”, which the introduction informs me is the first of its kind. The longest story, which I read on the plane, is called “Four Brands of Impossible.”

Also on the plane, after a round of edits on my report, I watched Disney’s Tomorrowland. The movie is meant to be an inspiring reinvigorating of our hope in the future in the face of global problems, but ends up making that vision seem even more ridiculous and inapplicable.

My reason for visiting Italy was to present a year’s work on the future of coffee at the Global Coffee Forum. For many of my results, I had targeted the year 2050. Jeff Sachs, who did the actual talking, just came from securing global agreement on the “Sustainable Development Goals” as the successors to the MDGs until 2030– an incredible achievement– and used his allotted time mostly to discuss these. The Forum was set for the first World Coffee Day, ironically to discuss the eve of the industry’s lean-times consolidation.

At the same time, Milan is hosting the EXPO 2015, a kind of World Fair. Like a 100x scaled-up Epcot Center, every country had its own pavilion, but the exhibits showed a bizarre juxtaposition of the desire to present their modernity of industry next to idealized representation of traditional agriculture. I went into a score or more buildings, but the most popular were clogged with wrapping waiting lines.

For my free day in Milan, yesterday, my top tourist visit was the Museo Nazionale Scienze e Tecnologia. When I couldn’t find an obvious entrance, I went into the building with a 20-foot billboard announcing their temporary exhibit on Space. It turned out to only be the exit, and I would need to enter through their exhibit on the history of clocks (a clear allegory for time itself).

It’s easy enough to distinguish objective reality from meaning, but impossible to distinguish the meaning I experience from my mood. Nonetheless, there is something ironic in this trip. Repeatedly, I see a connection between the future and our only approach to it through the past. The near future is in the process of being made, and it is hopeful: the SDGs, the likelihood of an agreement in Paris, the recognition that better knowledge can produce better action. The point is not that this isn’t the future we envisioned; it was never going to be. The point, perhaps, is that the path to the future is more shoots than ladders.

Gnostic Doubts

A while back, I got very excited about Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi Library. I’m stumbling upon more of that world, with a weird coincidence. The roleplaying game I’m making is set in the time of the rising of Zoroastrianism, and its crusade against untruth and error. Then, this morning, I attended my first (and last?) service of the local Christian Science branch, in a beautiful wooden cathedral on my corn. The rhetoric was strikingly similar: Truth is the only reality, and it is unchanging and godly. Matter and the world as we perceive it is unreal and can neither think nor feel.

With the huge caveat that I know very little of Christian Science or the other two, part of me loves this rationalist vision. It quickly leads to a new conception of the soul and God Itself. If the world does not exist as such, then neither do we as such; whatever it is that is not-matter in us is very close to God, and it is exactly that entity that finds Itself in (or at least surrounded by) error. But therein lies Gnosticism’s central problem.

1. Why would God cause there to be error? The Gnostics blame the demiurge and Zoroaster blamed Angra Mainyu, setting a figurehead on the two sides of their dualistic universe. Christian Scientists have no such choice, so the blame falls to mere mortals. Even for the earlier Gnostics, God seems to have basically given Itself a split-personality disorder. Why would It do that, except that It liked it better that way?

2. It seems dreadful to treat all of nature like an abomination. In his writings, John Muir speaks endlessly of the divinity of nature, the wondrousness of its infinite complexity and the vibrance of its multitudinal spirits. To him, the trees are cathedrals, the clouds are cities; he writes that “many other beautiful winged people, numbered and known and loved only by the Lord, are waltzing together high over head, seemingly in pure play and hilarious enjoyment of their little sparks of life.”

And while I’m sure that many kinds of disease are horrible and without mitigating benefits, those are not the one’s I have been lucky enough to encounter. The diseases I know are wise and deep. As Ginsberg says, “Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the abyss!”

Perhaps there is only one reality, and error is all around us. But if so, it seems prudent to look for that reality in the infinite beauty that surrounds us.

A Day for Labor

The meaning of Labor Day seems lost on much of my generation. Many take it to be intrinsically ironic: what a funny thing that we don’t work on Labor Day. But of course it is not ironic at all.

The 1% and the 99% are new names for a newly harsh distinction between Capital and Labor. Even my knowledge-worker class is trapped in a cycle of laboring, with 60 hour weeks just to keep our jobs and housing prices chasing away the gains. We are, all of us, Labor.

99% of our days are spent serving capital, and yet we feel lost on the 1% reserved for ourselves.

So I want to live this day outside the cycle. To contemplate and read. To cook eggs and vegan sausage. To enjoy the sun out of doors. To clean a little, but not for maintenance sake. And yes, to work, but not ironically: I will do a little work for Labor that our day of liberty can come sooner.

Public personas in the crossfire

I’ve spoken elsewhere of the way that grad-student life can crowd out real human connections, interests, and awareness. While life as a postdoc seems better, I’ve discovered a new, longer-term struggle around human connections and academics. This post is to apologize for the cross-chatter of research that you’ll see if you follow me in mixed-company social networks (presently, Twitter).

The academic is a sole entrepreneur, treading water in the sea until you catch enough driftwood to build your own boat. Well, it doesn’t need to be that isolating, but the stakes are as high and the self-reliance as complete. Communicating one’s work is a part of the job that has no clean boundaries.

When I post about research, it isn’t meant for most of my friends, and it isn’t a reflection of my passions outside of work. I do it as a signal to the academic world, and my public persona gets caught in the crossfire.

I will keep posting my non-work (read: non-academia) life here, at least at the trickle I have been. If you do want both, or to do your own filtering, feel free to follow my Food for Thought blog, which automatically draws from both the social and research streams.

Living in Berkeley

I’m now settled into a studio just south of the UC Berkeley campus. With a built-in secretary, a lock on just the bedroom side of the door to the kitchen, and a tight service stairway out of the kitchen, the apartment feels bizarrely colonial.

I’m only sometimes here though. I was just in NYC for a week, and I fly back for another week on Monday. After some prodding at my going-away party, I’m going to take these trips as an opportunity to get back into a little D&D. Here’s the idea for my nascent campaign:

The year is 500 BCE, and the Persian Empire is the crossroads of the world. This is not quite the ancient Persia of history books: it is a place of wonders and legend and secret crafts. But times are changing, whispered by sages and hinted in strange news from distant lands. They say that new gods are coming, old gods will fall, and it is time for everyone to collect their allies close for the coming chaos.

I’ve also been having some fun with GIS, to combine fantasy and history:

A month of nominal changes

I’ve been busy! In the last month, I have collected an appalling list of achievements which mean much to the world and very little to life as I live it.

First, I am a doctor, as of May 20. Not a real doctor, and Flame won’t let me wear a stethoscope anyway. But my program in sustainable development is officially over. Interestingly, this is nothing like job changes I have had before: I still work on the same projects and attend the same meetings with the same people. But in theory, I am now unemployed, and I will soon be a UC Berkeley employee with similarly slight impacts.

Second, I can now drive a car. Of course, I could before, and have been acceptably competent at it for the past six months. But the winter is a horrible time to take a road test, and New York City is a horrible place for one. My license was finally approved on Monday. I have yet to experience the joys or sorrows of driving alone, but I hear California is great for that.

I have also finished my Hepatitis A and B shot series and gotten a new Yellow Fever vaccination. I think I was already immune with the first shots, and only people who lose their international immunization card need a second Yellow Fever vaccine, but now I have paperwork for all three. And, twelve years out, I am not quite done with my student loans, but with $101.58 left, I might as well be.

Flame and I are now ensconced in a tiny apartment on the corner of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Officially we have had the apartment for over a month, but we just changed residences last week. So, I suppose with all of the nominal changes, there are a few real ones too. It has been an exciting journey! But some time I will need at least a nominal vacation.

Games from Mac Plus

About a decade ago, I got a 3.5″ floppy reader for my laptop, and every so often I’ve gone through a pile of disks seeing if anything is still readable and worth saving. I think those days are over– a metal disk protector is now stuck in the reader, and all the software available for Windows to read mac disks appears to be broken or commercial.

But my most recent pile brought back memories of many happy hours of simple and elegant games. Some day I’ll write about my latterday favorites (Armor Alley, Dark Castle, Prince of Persia) or the less-actiony BBS and World Builder games I also loved, but right now I’m remembering some space games that brought a particular joy.

Crystal Quest

Probably a precursor to Asteroids, a game made progressively more difficult by space creatures that appear first as curiosity, and eventually with furosity.


A space game of puzzles, with a big library of widgets, and a builder of new levels.

Sitting on geodes

Sometimes I think that research is more like mining than maze-solving. Like art (I imagine), the gems that we are able to bring forth are buried inside of us. Each of us stands on a vast mineral deposit, the accumlated layers of our experiences and our unconscious foundation. By our 30’s, we’ve learned to grow a harvest in our top-soil, but we’ve also had a chance to dig deeper and get a sense of that wealth. One of the challenges of life is to ensure that we get to keep digging under our own feet.

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Some people pan for precious metals; others plan out whole quarries of ore. Research techniques (and philosophical modes, literary critique, drawing technique, etc.) allow us to mine at will, but each works best on certain kinds of stone. You can dig shallow, and strike oil or gas able to propell you through the economic world. You can dig deep, and get unique and precious gems, metamorphized by the heat and pressure of the unconscious mind. If you dig too deep, you hit an inpenetrable bedrock.

Me, I look for geodes. Each of these rough stones contains a cavity filled with crystals. You can tell a geode by its face, but you never know what’s inside until you break it open. I don’t like throwing away research projects, even if I don’t have time for them, because I still want to break them open. On the other hand, I know that the more I dig, the more geodes I can find. And so, I can choose to leave gems in the ground, waiting at unforetold depths.