Permission to be Unproductive

A thing a sack of problems like me is supposed to do to mitigate crippling anxiety and PTSD is to allow oneself to escape, to decompress. I am notoriously terrible at this. And it’s not just because of the overt crazy from which I suffer, but all manner of tangential hangups.
Let me begin with an experience from earlier this afternoon. I was having my twice-yearly dentist appointment, which is really just a chunk of time during which a very nice hygienist scrapes, polishes, and flosses my teeth, wonders aloud at my bizarre lower teeth (long story), and warns me again to floss more.

But because I don’t floss much, portions of this otherwise banal process are rather uncomfortable. I was already coming into the appointment is a kind of emotionally exhausted daze, so this seemed like a good time to practice separating myself from any stressful stimuli, to rehearse something less uncomfortable.

So as that little sharp thingy scraped away at my teeth, and occasionally jabbed my tender gums, I made a point of gazing deeply out the window, trying not to think too hard or intentionally process what I was seeing, but just allow myself to take in the clouds, the colors, and the very slow movement. If I couldn’t see the window, I’d watch whatever tool was being used on me, as its handle went back and forth. I didn’t consider in detail what it was doing, just kind of stayed with it visually.

I had some success with this, and found it somewhat helpful. But the larger point is that I need to make myself escape in this way, become a little “mindless” more often, and at targeted times when I really need it.

I was unable to do it last night. I simply couldn’t allow myself to escape, to divert my attention from my issue-of-the-moment, but I so wish I could have.

My five or six regular readers will know that I have a lot of hangups around how I spend my time. I loathe going to bed, and I resist sleep, seeing it as a kind of “little death.”

I read books slowly, and often nod off, and worry about what other books I’m missing out on, what other things are happening while I’m reading, and what more productive things I should be doing. This is probably why I have tended to favor nonfiction over fiction, because at least with nonfiction I’m “learning” something in a way that is more concrete than I might with fiction.

I have made an attempt to calm myself and escape through music, and that turned into a nutty and obsessive hunt for The Perfect Headphones, documented here. But there again, I feel that allowing myself to sink into a reverie of musical consumption is somehow wasteful, that better uses of my time are beckoning. What they are, I don’t know.

And more of the same with TV and movies. I resist them both because I know that they take up chunks of wakeful time that I could spend on something that matters.

What are these things that matter that I ought to be doing? I guess writing, more creative pursuits, and whatnot. But do I engage in them when I’m not “escaping”? Not usually! Obviously, I do write, I do at rare times make music, but I’m certainly not filling every moment in which I could be watching a two-hour movie with artistic fulfillment. I’m probably just dicking around on the Internet and thinking about phones I don’t have.

But I’m coming around a little. A few weeks ago, because I knew we’d be seeing Age of Ultron soon, I leaned back in bed, plopped my MacBook on my lap, plugged in my headphones (I have stuck with the same ones so far!), and watched the first Avengers movie.

It was about the most therapeutic thing I’d done for myself in years.

What a release! What an escape! For the length of the film I was gone. I was just in this fantasy world, absorbed in something utterly removed from my own life, and when it was over, I felt, well, almost rested, even though it was probably two in the morning.

Most movies aren’t going to be that effective in this way, I know that. But there are plenty that are. I still have hangups about getting stuck in a movie that just isn’t all that good, and wasting those hours. But hell, being a parent, I can really only make time for the best of the best anyway. Experimentation with something stupid or ponderous is a luxury I don’t even have.

I am also being swept away by Seveneves, Neil Stephenson’s newest novel. Fiction! Long, long, epic fiction! Taking me away from me. I still nod off too easily, and I still take way too long to read, but I am trying to let that go.

Because at issue here is not achieving some sort of cultural or content-consuming quota, but to escape. To give my self a chance to get some distance, some room to breathe. So if it takes me all year to read Seveneves, whatever. So be it. (Or so I am telling myself.)

What really needs to happen is for me to be okay with being utterly unproductive, to allow hours to go by without anything to show for it. Not in total idleness, but in active removal. Not “boredom” per se, but engagement in activities or experiences with no industry attached. There can be some productivity as a byproduct, like when I zone out while mowing the lawn or assembling some new shelving piece or something for the house. But that’s incidental. Even in those “productive” times, I’m still not “here.” I’m still getting out of my own head.

This should not be hard for me, but it is. I know I wasted years of my youth on cable and late night TV, that I threw away precious time – after school, on summer vacations – time I could have used to better myself in some way. I just let my brain rot on pop culture, which was itself an escape from other things. But it was a poor avenue of escape, a kind of trap in itself.

But I’ve since overcompensated. It’s time to find the balance. The nice thing is that the only one who gets to decide what that balance is, is me.

That’s also the bad thing.


Adapting to Reading on Screens (or, Nostalgic for the Smell of AMOLED)

Turns out that the young folks these days prefer to read longform material in print, not, as one might expect, on the screens of their devices. In fact, they seem to be the demographic that most prefers print to digital reading. I find it a tad baffling, but as one of the subjects of Michael S. Rosenwald’s piece in the Washington Post notes, unlike a smartphone or a tablet, a print book asks nothing more of you than to be read. No Twitter streams or YouTube distractions to be found there. I do get that.
I’m sympathetic to a lot of the warm feelings people have about print books. I share many of the attachments to dead-tree books, probably none more so than the smell of old mass market paperbacks. I also completely understand that there is (apparently) greater comprehension and engagement to be had from reading on print versus screens, but it seems that much of that comes from raw physical and visual associations that are more or less incidental artifacts of the form. (E-ink devices like Kindles fall somewhere in between these paradigms, not being as built for distraction as phones, but lacking the individual physical quirks of books.)

So what I’m wondering is whether we’ll just adjust. We’ll find other associations and hangups about our digital reading, maybe even nostalgia! Instead of the feel or smell of paper books, we’ll miss the eye-scratching low-res displays of our first devices, or the feedback (or lack thereof) of a physical button a previous device had that the new one lacks. (Maybe there’s a smell to AMOLED versus LCD?) I don’t think that kind of thing will improve comprehension, but I do wonder if our brains, individually and societally, will just adapt to the pixels.

Because it’s not as though we are evolutionarily optimized for ink-on-codex. There’s nothing about humans biologically that would favor reading in print versus reading electronically. We’re not “designed” to read it all! (Reading is kind of the ur-lifehack.) So as one form of reading becomes less ubiquitous, I don’t see why we won’t simply glom on to the newer way. It may take a couple of generations to shake off all the old baggage, but reading off a screen is no more “unnatural” than reading off a page, a scroll, or a (stone) tablet.

The Martians’ Singularity: Thoughts on “The War of the Worlds”

I’ve just read H.G. Wells’ original The War of the Worlds, and it was nothing like I expected. I have a completely unfounded prejudice about some of this classic sci-fi literature, wherein I presume it to be either vapid pulp or unnecessarily stuffy. (Frankenstein suffered a bit from the latter, I thought. Come on, Victor, get yourself together.) But just as I was delighted by my first reading of Jekyll and Hyde, I found War of the Worlds to be incredibly rich, suspenseful, and insightful.

Prophetic, even, as I suppose the best speculative fiction must often be. This blog’s fascination is with the intersection of technology and human life as it is lived, and in this book Wells gives us a glimpse of the future, where the Martians stand in for the marriage of human beings and machinery. Indeed, in a strange way Wells seems to be foreshadowing the Singularity, the moment that some believe is inevitable, when computing power becomes so great we fully merge with our machines, uploading our consciousness to the cloud for a kind of immortality.

Wells’ Martians were just about there. Of course, Wells had no concept of computers as we know them, but his Martians have an utter reliance on mechanization. It may be that they were physically adept on Mars itself, but on Earth the Martians, left to their own physical devices, were stultified by terrestrial gravity, and were almost totally dependent on their machines. But even if their bodies were better suited to Mars, Wells makes clear that their bodies had developed (“evolved” may not be quite correct since we don’t know whether natural selection was involved) to be physically limited to bare essentials: a powerful brain and nervous system along with grasping appendages, and almost nothing else. The machines handled the rest.

Wells’ narrator explains it this way:

[H]ere in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of … a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

So before we ever hear tales of heartless machines like HAL or emotion-starved androids like Data, here we have Wells giving us a near-perfect biological analogue: Intelligent creatures whose reliance on technology has allowed them, perhaps encouraged them, to jettison inefficient emotion. So really, the Martians are as close to the Singularity as anyone in the 19th century could have possibly invented.

What may be even more remarkable is how Wells refuses to cast the Martians as total villains. Yes, their aim is clearly to unfeelingly harvest Earth and humanity for their own consumption, but Wells ascribes no malice. The narrator, remember, has witnessed more of the horror of what the Martians are capable of than almost anyone alive, and yet he warns against judging them “too harshly,” because “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought” upon indigenous human cultures and animal species. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

What will the singularitarians and transhumanists think if our machines outpace us and, rather than bonding with us, decide to erradicate and harvest us just like Wells’ Martians? Will we be capable of making that kind of leap of perspective to understand our enemies?

There is a lesson, of course. The superior Martians, as ruthlessly efficient as they were, could not imagine that their undoing might come from beings too small to be seen by the naked eye, trusting in their superior firepower, and failing to fully grasp Earth’s biological nuance. What might we be neglecting as we bound toward the future during our own present technological revolution? What metaphorical (or literal) microbes are we overlooking?

But The War of the Worlds is not technophobic, for though it does present a powerful case for humility in the use of technology, it also admires it. The narrator makes several references to how humanity adopted much of the Martian technology all to its benefit after the invasion had failed. He speaks with esteem and awe of what the Martians had accomplished, and how they had developed genuinely meaningul efficiencies, not just in machinery, but in their own biology. For all the horror they brought, there is so much the Martians got right.

H.G. Wells may not have been a Ray Kurzweil of yesteryear, but I think he did at least intuit that humanity and technology were converging, even as far back as the 1800s. We may find that we achieve as a species much of what Wells’ invaders had, and may also be wise enough to avoid their fatal level of hubris. If Wells’ story proves prophetic, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, those Martians were us.

Jekyll and Hyde: Forefathers of Internet Trolls

There is a degree of serendipity to my first reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I downloaded it to my iPad mostly on a whim, thinking it might be a good idea to dip into some of the 19th-century science fiction to which I am almost entirely unread, save for Frankenstein. (Next up, War of the Worlds!) I expected, similarly to Frankenstein, a book-length recounting of Dr. Jekyll’s agony as he is compelled to rent himself in two. I presumed it’d be chapter after chapter of his turning into Hyde, doing bad things, turning back to himself, and feeling shitty about it, and the moral would be something to do with how dangerous it is to mess with the science of life.

Not at all! You know this, of course, if you’ve read it yourself. (And if you haven’t, spoilers ahoy.) But what a refreshing surprise it was that the very premise of the crisis, a man who has learned to transform into a kind of bizarro version of himself, isn’t even revealed until quite near the end, when Jekyll himself is already dead. It was quite a wonderful book. (And it helped that it was short, as I’m a painfully slow reader, and even I finished it in a single sitting.)

To the serendipitous part. There was something about the specificity of what Jekyll identifies about his Hyde side that screamed contemporary relevance to me. In his closing letter, Jekyll reveals how he was surprised to find that his division of personalities was asymmetrical; there was no even split between Good Jekyll and Bad Jekyll. Rather, changing into Hyde was a way to release all the nascent ugliness within him, and changing back, he found he remained his whole self. Hyde was the monster within Jekyll, but there was no pure angel to balance. Hyde is always part of Jekyll, even when contained.

Here’s how he puts it. When he turned into Hyde…

…my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde. Hence, although I had now two characters as well as two appearances, one was wholly evil, and the other was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had already learned to despair. The movement was thus wholly toward the worse.

Reading this, it immediately occurred to me that Edward Hyde is a 19th-century version of the Internet troll. Ostensibly normal people, whose moral compasses seem more or less calibrated, when introduced to the power and anonymity of the Internet often unleash the absolute worst sides of themselves.

In the most egregious cases, we have trolls who threaten and harass and cause real-world damage. What are these people like in their day-to-day lives, in person? I doubt that most of them would be immediately identifiable as the monsters they become online.

But even for the most well-meaning among us, including myself, the immediacy of the social web can make it too easy for us to slip into hostility, arrogance, and hubris, at degrees we’d blush at if given a moment to pause and consider.

There is a little troll in all of us. There is a little Hyde in all of us.

Henry Jekyll was an entirely upstanding and moral man in his daily life, but he found a way to create a Victorian-era avatar, and project his inner troll into physical world to satisfy his darkest impulses, and add kindling to his baseless rage. In his confession, he notes how Hyde began his independent existence as small and emaciated, having been largely denied sustenance within the whole of Jekyll. But now free, he could nourish himself and grow stronger by acting on his aggression and hate.

That’s right, Jekyll fed the troll. And look what happened: Confusion, fear, chaos, and death.

And what might the future hold? Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson saw it, and we’re already living it. Jekyll also writes in his confession:

With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.

We are not bound by the limits of Jekyll’s story, where a chemical concoction manifests only one additional “self.” On the Internet, it is trivially simple for one person to contain – and project – multitudes.

We have always had Hydes among us, I think, but the Internet has made them more visible, and better able to organize and combine their loathsome efforts, under cloaks of obscurity. In the midst of things like “Gamergate” and the non-stop torrent of rage and abuse to which the social media landscape plays host, it seems to me that there might never have been a time when this book was more relevant. The case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. Indeed, it feels very familiar.

Image by Shutterstock.

Spark! A Telekinetic Girl Superhero is Pitched for a Brilliant New Comic


A few weeks ago I came upon perhaps my favorite website ever, Little Girls Are Better At Designing Superheroes Than You, where Alex Law and others are sent photos of real little girls in their own, self-designed superhero costumes, and illustrate them in full comic book glory. It’s one of those “I’m glad to be alive to see this” kind of websites, delightful for a number of wonderful reasons, like its rejection of girls’ stereotypes, its celebration of creativity and imaginativeness, and the pure joy that permeates each entry.

Now Law is taking another step in a similar direction, pitching a new superhero comic book whose central hero is just such a young girl, outfitted with a persona of her own design, but with actual super powers: Spark– who can assemble and control machines with her mind.


Law and her collaborator Ted Anderson (who’s done some of the latter-day My Little Pony comics) have posted a 15-page “preview” of the com
on the Little Girls Tumblr, and it just looks great. The cast of heroes is colorful and original, the art is gorgeous, and the character’s relationships are already dynamic and full of dramatic potential. And Spark’s parents are pretty great, too.

I don’t know what the status of the pitch is, whether it’s definitely destined for publication in some form, but I hope so. If it is, I’ll be buying it, and reading it to my little boy and little girl.

Stuck Outside of the Comic Books Multiverse

As a nerd, it really does seem that I ought to be into comic books, but it just never happened. As a pre-teen, eventually I became devoted to The Transformers comics, but that had more to do with my love of the bots than any inclination toward comic books. I also dabbled around that age with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (pre-Archie) and Usagi Yojimbo, because they seemed safe, graspable, and I think also not overtly hyper-masculine. I briefly had a subscription to Web of Spider-Man, but even then I felt alienated by the idea that this was one version of a franchise that had multiple incarnations, with no sense of where I was in the story’s arc, or whether this arc even “counted.”

Now, all grown up and no longer in need of a ride from my parents to a store that actually sold comic books, and with the vast trove of comic knowledge now available on the Internet, it seems a ripe time for me to try again. And yet I pause.

(Let’s presume for the sake of this post that we’re just talking about big, established franchises, your Batmans, your Supermans, your Avengers, etc. I know it’d be easy for me to pick a more recent and independent universe, but goddamn it I want Batman.)

First, there’s the whole fact that money doesn’t grow in my carpet, and these things ain’t free. But mainly, I know that I’d have to choose a franchise and then pick a spot, more or less arbitrarily, to start from. What will I be expected to know in advance? What will it be assumed I have read already? If I haven’t been sufficiently saturated in the mythos of the given superhero, will I reap the full experience?

It’s all too much stress for what’s supposed to be fun.

Andy Ihnatko just wrote about this very thing, and it carries weight for me because a) Andy is awesome and b) he’s a comics-nerd’s comics-nerd, a true blue fan of the art form, and even he is now ready to throw up his hands:

My obstacle with Marvel is that I have no idea how to get a single unit of story from them. Stories start in the middle and they’re resolved later (sometimes after months) in another book entirely. Marvel’s “Avengers” books are such a mess that they often include a little chart of what books you need to buy and what order you need to read them in. Good lord! [ … ]

I rarely get to the end of a Marvel comic and feel like the curtain has closed and the lights in the theater have come up. It’s frustrating and unsatisfying. And Marvel isn’t entirely immune to DC’s troubles, either. Marvel’s story continuity is deeply contaminated with characters who are someone’s son in an alternate-reality, but a future alternate reality, from an Earth that’s a parallel-Earth to the Earth of that alternate reality, who traveled back in time to reach this character who turns out to be a clone of a robot of…


I know, right?!? It’s my understanding that what Andy is describing here is a somewhat recent phenomenon, such that the situation’s complexity dwarfs the one I faced in the late 80s and early 90s. So if it’s crazier now than it was then, I really have no hope, and should settle for enjoying the movies (when possible – Transformers is even now split into a thousand sub-incarnations, and the movies are terrible).

Maybe there’s some self-contained storyline I can get into and be content with. But even then, you know, them comics get expensive. So I dunno.


Stretching Awake on the Rooftops of Tarbean

If you have ever slept the whole night without moving, then awoke in the morning, your body stiff with inaction. If you can remember how that first terrific stretch feels, pleasant and painful, then you may understand how my mind felt after all these years, stretching awake on the rooftops of Tarbean.

I spent the rest of that night opening the doors of my mind. Inside I found things long forgotten: my mother fitting words together for a song, diction for the stage, three recipes for tea to calm nerves and promote sleep, finger scales for the lute.

My music. Had it really been years since I held a lute?

Words by Patrick Rothfuss, art by Matt Rhodes