Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ice or Steam ?

The other day I was working on virtual Neo-Pagan ritual altars in Second Life. I was scripting some call-and-responses and the next thing I knew, I had created a recursive "Blessed Be!" (the Neo-Pagan equivalent of "Amen!") One virtual altar would say "Blessed Be!" and another would hear it and repeat it. Since there were four altars at the time, my workspace was suddenly filled with an echoing chat-chorus of "Blessed Be!"

The situation reminded me of what I used to think the Christian Heaven was like: filled with all the angels singing "Hallelujah" all the time. Except this was Second Life. With chatting Neo-Pagan altars. I went into the scripting area and halted the scripts one by one, silencing the echoing blessing. Sometimes I wonder how angels might be God's programs. Sometimes I wonder what William Blake would think of the process of silencing virtual altars.
There's something about the months of January and February that makes me think about religion. I'm blaming the lack of sunlight messing with my brain chemistry. Or possibly it takes me longer to recover from December distractions than it does ones in June. In any case, this time around, religion and Second Life have been cutting into my writing.

Okay, true confession time -- It seemed like the last few stories, I'd been writing and re-writing the beginning in a futile attempt to drive to the plot, and I'd gotten kind of tired of the morass. I was thinking, "It's a possibility I'm not selling much because I shouldn't be writing speculative fiction," and once again I'd gotten worked up about Production Production Production and not about writing. In some ways doing something else for a while is not a bad thing. But I'm feeling like getting back to the word count. To get myself back into the swing of writing, I've been thinking about the cosmology of one of my settings, what I call the Quartet World.

Part of the cosmology for this fictional world is that the universe is currently in the third of three stages: steam, water, and ice. Humankind (and the other beings on this world) will return to a union with The Four aspects of Divinity during the second age of steam. Notice that I didn't say this was a Fall from Grace. And of course, having read too much Dion Fortune, my world has a magical system based upon the Tree of Ice, with a Fruit of Steam at the top. I'll have to figure out which culture has the saying, "We are all snowmen in a world of ice."

Probably not the Merfolk, who have a completely different, watery, world view.
My latest creation in Second Life is a candle. When you drop a NoteCard (a plain text file) on the candle, the candle reads its text, sends the text as a chat message, and a flame comes on. You can chat commands to the candle and it will change to one of twelve pre-defined colors; a thirteenth chatted command will extinguish the candle and it will go out with a rising trail of smoke.

I made the candle because I seem to be needing to light candles for people lately. And when I finished, I figured that my virtual candles would make nice gifts for people (especially my gracious hostess who lets me build on her virtual plot of land). Okay, and it's difficult keep real candles lit in our house. And I'm secretly pleased that turning forty-five has not dulled my autodidactism.

Which leads back to the question: what's the difference of lighting a beeswax candle for someone at a physical altar and using a graphical user interface to append a text file of prayers and wishes onto an executable program so that the program echos the text back with an accompanying light show? (Is a flame the tongue of Entropy singing Deity's song?)

The intent for the two candles is the same, (i.e. "I light this flame for X") and I suppose one could argue that the electricity used to run the server where the virtual candle resides counts as the energy of a real flame. And short of raising bees, collecting the wax, and casting the candle, in some ways I have a deeper relationship with my virtual candle -- defining its virtual dimensions and creating the programming to make it function -- than I would with a candle bought at a craft fair. And I could argue that typing out an intention as a way to initiate the virtual flames brings an amount of mindfulness, or at least lexical focus, that is similar to a prayer whispered over a new flame.

So for me, the physical convenience and safety of virtual candles in an electronic world are the biggest difference. After all, a spell or a prayer is a symbolic action taking in a ritual frame of mind. And I'm the sort of person who burns candles for people either because the person has asked for "good thoughts" or else there's nothing else I can do but light a candle.

Yesterday morning, I composed a Haiku in the bathtub. I think that gets me some kind of writer points.

Candle without heat / my virtual beacon shines / Is this steam or ice ?

I go back and forth on re-programming the candle so it will regularly repeat the intention it has been given. I imagine a virtual shrine filled with candles of all colors. Every so often, one of them chats, "For X, who has cancer; and for Y, who is helping them on their journey." Or "For the victims of the Haiti earthquake." Or "For Z, who plays with matches." But then I think, if the candle remembers its intent and I forget, what kind of virtual Demiurge might I be creating?

I think I'll stick with remembering intentions, prayers and wishes on my own.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Quck News

Shoulder Update: Today the PT had me on a bicycle for arms for a short period before manipulating my shoulder. It seemed to loosen things up quite a bit.

Writing Update: I guess I'm in a marketing mode. I've managed to keep stories in the mail. And I need to work on creating new stuff.

Second Life Update: I've created a build for Neo-Pagan ritual with call-and-responses. I suppose that I should offer some of them for sale, which seems a little weird because A) I would be essentially selling religious items and B) they're virtual religious items -- so I guess that counts as being payed for computer programming. Or, I could just give them away... and build other things for sale.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bad signs from Second Life

General Notes:
  • When I photograph things, I'm now thinking, "that would make an interesting texture to apply to the outside of a virtual cube."

  • When I look at an object -- say, a building -- I start to break it down into its simple geometric forms.

  • Thoughts like, "I'll bet if I made a hollow cylinder and then cut it so that only twenty-five percent of the curve showed, it would look like the top of that building's façade."

  • I dreamed the other day that when I touched things, XYZ arrows popped out of them to indicate how far I'd moved them.

Good for writing:
If I ever actually hook up with one, I can attend a poetry reading without having to leave my house.

Bad for writing:
Second Life sucks more time than housecleaning.

Good for writing: Just like building a story, building a virtual object is a lot easier with a little bit of forethought. So building is an alternate practice for planning things.

Bad for writing: Second Life's creation process is a heck of a lot faster (and more instantly gratifying) than getting published.

Good for writing: It's Research! (Yeah, that's the ticket.) I can probably write about addiction, good and bad on-line social interaction, and I have a better idea of the size of some of the NASA hardware after visiting the NASA SL site. (And I got a free virtual space suit!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Schrödinger's God Box

In the mid-90's, I used to bring a latex velociraptor puppet named Vaal to meetings, concerts and (to the dismay of my family) gatherings of relatives. I'd even have Vaal read tarot cards for people at parties. I was good enough at it that people would respond to Vaal as if he were the one giving the reading (and most people seemed satisfied with the fortunes they got).

Vaal certainly wasn't a "real" tarot reader in the sense that he wasn't a living being. So does that make him a virtual avatar? To get really existential, who was the author of the fortunes: the cards, me, or Vaal?

Which leads me to Second Life, the on-line game where people create virtual versions of themselves, or avatars, and explore an on-line world filled with virtual objects created by other players.

The latest conundrum is, of course, what are the spiritual and religious ramifications of building a virtual ritual space? If one of the strengths and virtues of Neo-Paganism is the use of imagination, does visiting someone else's virtually constructed ritual space take away from the visitor's imagination? I'd argue it doesn't erode religious imagination any more than visiting a real world church with a fairly set worship order of service.

The problems with a nature-based pantheistic religious event on Second Life are
  1. the software that creates the world simplifies everything (so it can run on my computer) and being in second life is like being in a flat cartoon with no shadows, and, um;
  2. it's a virtual world with virtual avatars doing virtual things and the "participants" are really in front of keyboards typing commands.
I took my questions of virtual grace to David Raines, who, among other things, is a real live minister. Apparently I contributed to David's insomnia when he read my e-mail at 4 AM asking, "If a priest's avatar gave a parishioner's avatar a virtual host..." Unfortunately, I forgot about Transubstantiation Issues, and the conversation took an unexpected turn.

But David pointed out that "virtual religion" is as old as Christian mass on radio shows. He has issues with the Sacrament of Communion being virtual -- in his view God can use the virtual realm to spread His message, but at this point in time virtual worlds cannot provide all the necessary ingredients -- the sound of bread ripping, the community of parishioners, the smell of the wine, a physical vehicle for the Holy Spirit -- for an efficacious Communion. Yet.

I can see David's point. But at the same time, I wonder -- his comments on radio masses got me thinking. We're used to listening to recordings and broadcasts of orchestral music. Hearing a concert changes my emotional and mental state; if the effects of hearing a piece of music live or recorded are similar enough, at what point does grace require physical reality, especially if outer physical symbols are merely pointers to an inward spiritual state?

For example, in Second Life, I created a magic circle -- a boundary of floating lights enclosing the sacred space of the ritual area. The magic circle in real life is an imaginary boundary, and visualizing it is a signal to Neo-Pagan participants that they are entering a ritual state of mind. A non-Neo-Pagan saw my avatar working on the space, and navigated her avatar closer -- but she stopped her avatar at the edge of the circle. So, an imaginary circle in a virtual world communicated its symbolic meaning to her and had an effect in the real world: she navigated her avatar to the circle's edge but no farther. In her mind, she was on the edge of something, something that looked like a sanctuary.

Which brings us to the locus of the self. Am I or Am I Not my avatar? Does my "self" stop at my skin? I'm legally responsible for my words, and my words can bring me legal tender -- which means in one sense my words are as real as my hands. So is an avatar me, a puppet, or simply "intellectual property"? Remember, puppets can give pretty good tarot readings. I conclude that the question is a bad one: I am my mind and my spirit and my body and my words and my avatar.

At this point, I think navigating an avatar through a set of virtual ceremonies qualifies as a prayer or meditation. What Diety or spirit does from that point on I'm unsure, and the whole thing feels like Schrödinger's Cat meets Deus Ex Machina -- if you don't look, nobody's dead. But of course I must look.

Ultimately, what would matter most is the feeback loop between one and one's religion. In my case, Neo-Paganism instructs me to participate and commune with the divine systems of choice, consequences and randomness entwined in the cosmos -- and as soon as soon as I'm done with this essay I should go for a walk in the woods, because Deity is the wind and virtual logos and flame and tree and leaves and ocean and flicking fishes and....

Monday, January 18, 2010

Graveyard Photos

We visited two graveyards yesterday.

The contrast between living and stone flowers struck me.

The second graveyard had a lot of fallen stones.

The first one is local, and has more grounds keeping.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

TMI and Shoulders

Shoulder Update: My physical therapist decided that he wanted an orthopedic specialist to take a look at my shoulder... so...

I visited the specialist. This required filling out various forms that made me wonder how much information the two offices really share (they're on the same computer system...).

I met the doctor, who seemed nice and not like he graduated from high school last June. He seemed amused when I answered "how's your health?" with "Well, I'm 45, I probably don't exercise enough and I could eat better."

After feeling my shoulder it was Off For X-rays! The X-ray machine uses a rotating anode source that is excited by lots of electricity so that its electrons emit gamma rays when the fall back into a more stable electron shell. Got the X-ray tech -- who doesn't read much science fiction -- to admit that the machine read-outs on CSI are from machines that the actors aren't using. Three shoulder X-rays confirm no bone spurs or arthritis. Real-live, honest-to-God, ithiopathic Adhesive Encapsulitis diagnosis confirmed. R-L H-T-G IAE is "rare." The doctor has only seen R-L H-T-G IAE three times in ten years (the others have been fake, I suppose).

This leads to the following Treatment Decision Tree:

  • Do nothing -- L-R H-T-G IAE will probably cure itself in a year (or two). Probably there will always be some stiffness. Nobody knows what causes it.

  • Cortisone injection -- Cortisone might loosen up the shoulder for PT to be more effective. It's a local injection, so it won't go all over your body like it was an oral application and suppress your immune system. It can't hurt, and it may help.

  • "Manipulation" -- The doctor knocks me out and makes my shoulder move. Massive PT to follow to keep things limber (and there will probably be some stiffness). Possibility that I'll go to sleep and wake up with a broken arm.

  • "Capsule Release" -- The doctor goes in with an orthoscope and snips away the shoulder capsule to release its death-grip on my humorous. He doesn't think much of the procedure, and prefers to rip (his word) the arm loose.

After a discussion of the side-effects of cortisone, I accepted a shot. This required lying on my side on a foam wedge, a nurse, and Really Big Needles. The numbing spray was cool, but the shot hurt (I had no idea they had spray-on numb spray). Judging by the bandages afterward, I imagine there was blood everywhere (my eyes were closed and I was concentrating on breathing at the time). Driving home felt nice, but I think the spray is wearing off as I type this.


There's some calcium loss from the humorous bone because I haven't been stressing it -- so eat plenty of calcium pills and vitamin D pills (everyone in Oregon is vitamin D deficient). (I did actually mention broccoli, but I don't think the doctor heard me...)

Don't play baseball or do anything that might hurt because the cortisone kind of makes it hard to feel things. And don't overstretch (but keep doing your PT stretches).

Oh. Right. And check for diabetes, because there's a slight correspondence between R-L H-T-G IAE and diabetes. Sigh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday Update.

Second Life continues to intrigue me. Lately, I've been working on creating ritual items for a Wiccan Ritual. I have altars to the East, South and West. I discovered the built-in particle system and accordingly, I've created a "circle of blue flame." Pentagrams are the next step.

Still, as fun as it is, I do fret a little. Ultimately, a Wiccan ritual in Second Life is a bunch of people scattered over the globe typing on their computers while their avatars meet in a virtual space, and seems a little divorced from a spirituality that's supposed to be celebrating in a pantheistic mode. And when I'm feeling pessimistic, I can hear a voice in my head saying, "He couldn't find anyone to do ritual with in one of Oregon's larger cities; so he had to do virtual ritual in cyber-space."

I suppose if religion is all in our heads, the the physical locus of worship has little impact on the validity of its practice.

On other Second Life fronts, I'm trying to think of practical applications. Like, maybe a globe with earthquakes or weather patterns (is NOAA in Second Life?) I've always said that it would be wonderful to have a "holodeck" where I could have the text of various books floating in space. I'd arrange the books chronologically, and then make visible hyperlinks from book to book. I think this is called, "Google Books," or something. So using a game client to hypertext seems like overkill. (And then there's the prim count question: does a book get its own primitive, or each page, or each word? And how do you attach a link to a passage from a book?)

Perhaps somehow painting text onto the inside of a spiral; but again, this has been done by someone else to examine the structure of Frankenstein and Alice in Wonderland. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there, somewhere....

On the writing front. It's been a little slow. [Insert writer's diatribe here -- a partial mix of, "If I worked harder," "If I wrote things editors would buy," and "Isn't this supposed to be fun?"]

On the shoulder front: I did the math and I should basically be doing stretches every two hours. Sigh. So time to stop and stretch

Monday, January 11, 2010

Words in Print

Since my New Year's Resolution has generated more commentary than other posts, I'm curious... what is your favorite minced Science Fiction or Fantasy oath?

Examples include:

"Frak!" (from the 1980's Battlestar Galactica)
"Great Moons of Jupiter!" (Spaceman Spiff and possibly some Asimov stories)
"Cernos' Codpiece!" (Mercedes Lackey)
and the one that I think Naomi Kritzer pokes fun at... "Lady's Tits!"

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Year's Resolution

My New Year Resolution: Rather than saying "damn you," I'm going to try saying "bless you." I'm allowed to say "bless you" with irony at drivers who turn without signaling or exhibit automotive behavior indicating they have never actually sat down and examined the rules of the road. There's one other blasphemy that I'm working on erasing, too.

There are several contributing factors. I think the biggest was hearing some evangelical preacher-type on the radio thundering "God damn America!" over something or other. And I thought, "Wow; that is just so ugly -- ordering Deity around as if Deity didn't have enough to do anyway, and asking for more damnation on top of it?"

A few weeks later, I heard someone muttering my personal blasphemy as he crossed the street and my reaction was, "How excessively unattractive." I think he was having a bad hair day or something.

I guess my resolution comes down to: "Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your character." I don't know who first said it, but it sounds good to me.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


I was going to write something long and detailed about how the stretches make my shoulder hurt. But I'll just say that I have to do stretches much more than I'd like to and my arm hurts a whole lot less when I don't do the stretches.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Epiphany Stretches

Happy Epiphany! On this day in 1996, I came out to my parents. I was driving them to the airport. It was kind of like one of those family comedy movies: "So. Um. I'm gay. No joke. Oh, here's your plane; I'll get your bags. Have fun in Mexico. See you next week!"

Probably not the best way to come out... and I'm thankful that my family is loving and supportive.

In other news... my shoulder is "stiffer than it should be." Sigh. I must do my stretches six times a day. I must do my stretches six times a day. I must do my stretches...

Monday, January 04, 2010

Heaven, Nature, & Hollywood's Religion

Recently, when I got to the end of an op-ed piece in the New York Times, a sense of "there's something missing from this argument" filled me.

The author had been talking about Hollywood's religious preference as expressed in the movie, Avatar, which he argued was pantheism. Pantheism was contrasted unfavorably to Christianity and monotheism. Humanity's participation in the biosphere's life-and-death-cycles was painted as a midway-point between Nature and God, requiring the transcendence of God to be borne. Pantheism -- "atheism sexed up" -- was portrayed as a way to drop out, a regression from the human state to a animalistic pre-consciousness.

After some reflection, I concluded what was missing from the piece were the flip-sides of the author's arguments. The first assumes that there is a Great Chain of Being stretching from Earth (Nature) to the Deity. In mediaeval and renaissance times this great chain was sometimes depicted as a ladder with -- in ascending order -- an ape, a man, the Perfect Man, and Angel, maybe an arch-angel, and Deity at the top. The other flip-side of the argument is the assumption that because we are self-conscious we are somehow apart from Nature and Deity.

It seems as if the author is stuck on the mid-point of his monotheistic ladder. He neglected to speak about an important aspect of pantheism: Deity is immanent in the material world, not transcendent to it. The entire Great Chain of Being is flattened -- God is the ape, God is the ladder, God is humankind, God is....

Yes, certainly every living thing needs to metabolize, and everything dies. Welcome to the second law of thermodynamics; there's no such thing as a free lunch. But our self-awareness demands a transcendent God to help us deal with it in order to be fully actualized as spiritual beings? I guess I prefer pantheism because using my conscious awareness to commune with universal processes reminds me that I am here, now, in body, mind and spirit.

And, hey -- it's only a movie.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Now We Are Forty-five...

Ah, January. That time of year to ponder things like one's age and what one wants to have on one's tombstone when another half-a-lifetime is over. I try to imagine that I'm five on days like this, with everything spread out before me in an exciting panoply of possibility. Now, if only I felt as energetic as most five-year-olds I know.