Tag Archives: LJ

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.

New Years Resolutions

I love New Years resolutions. A ritual opportunity to adjust the choices that make up life. Like everyone, I struggle (read: give up frequently) on them, but part of the joy is to understand that process and resolve better.

I’m expecting a big semester, starting soon: my Complexity Science course, bigger and better; finishing my thesis; being substantively involved in three large projects and several small ones; and getting a job. My theory of organization this time is to schedule– my work days are specified to the hour on the projects I hope to finish by the end of the semester:

My resolutions are mostly following the same idea, recognizing time less as a limiting factor than as an organizing principle:

  • Additional morning exercise (15 min. / week)
  • Personal or professional blogging (30 min. / week)
  • Review my colleagues interests and activities (30 min. / week) [next year follow-up: usefully encode my network]
  • Write to distant friends (30 min. / week)
  • Deep reflection on goals and activities (1 hr. / week)
  • Go for a hike outside the city in every month [next year follow-up: hike the same trail every month of the year]
  • Read a journal cover-to-cover every week [next year follow-up: become a regular reader of one journal]