Friday, July 19, 2019

Chocolate Truffles for the Human Spirit #2

This short story was published as part of Tellables' June 2019 Box of Chocolates stories centered on summer romance inspired tales. Box of Chocolates is an Alexa skill you can install to sample monthly short stories narrated by digital, story-telling chocolatiers . If you have an Alexa device, I recommend you give the Box of Chocolates skill a try.

And if you like the idea of writing delicious, super-short stories (100-400 words) by all means check out the Tellables website for story submission guidelines. 



Window Shopping

I was arranging chocolate animal minis when I noticed her window shopping. Her graying, curly hair peaked out from beneath a knitted cap. The curiosity of her demeanor bubbled with youth as she inspected my June display of chocolates. When the half moons of her eyes hove into view with a sweet pinch of a smile, I did a double take.

The year was 1990 and I was in London. Jenevieve was her name, though she went by Vivvy. We were friends in the sixth form a year apart and we had one lukewarm date. By total coincidence, we met again at a King's College cricket match just before my graduation. The summer that followed was all that a young romance could be. We hiked in parks, cooked meals together, read poems to each other, and embraced the sexuality of youth with simmering fervor. I for one had fallen in love.

One conversation on the blower in particular returned to me. It concerned cats. Long before Facebook took feline photos viral we discussed in delicious detail their loving and mysterious, yet scheming natures. I think we talked about nothing else for hours.

Sure enough, though, summer’s end came all too soon and Vivvy returned to university to complete her final year. I heard she moved stateside and never heard from her again.

Until now.

Waking from my reverie I saw the display window was now empty. I went to the door and looked around for the woman I was certain was Vivvy. Alas, no one lingered outside the shop anywhere. Then on the window I saw inscribed in violet lipstick the word “Meow” followed by what I assumed was her number.

With an exhale somewhere between a sigh and a chuckle, I wiped the window clean. Memories of youth held little temptation for a happily married man.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Chocolate Truffles for the Human Spirit #1

This short story was published as part of Tellables' May 2019 Box of Chocolates stories centered on Mother's Day recogniton. Box of Chocolates is an Alexa skill you can install to sample monthly short stories narrated by digital, story-telling chocolatiers . If you have an Alexa device, I recommend you give the Box of Chocolates skill a try.

And if you like the idea of writing delicious, super-short stories (100-400 words) by all means check out the Tellables website for story submission guidelines.





The Orange Praline Surprise


The day I remember most fondly about my mom was back in the seventies, long before I pursued a career in chocolates. At the time I must have been ten years old and mom was organizing breakfast for me and my younger brother and sister. I was a devoted student who became anxious anytime I received a B, still I always seemed to be running behind in getting myself out the door to school. The bus stop was only five hundred feet away from the house, but I always seemed to be running to catch it.

Weekday mornings were cereal breakfasts. This morning was typical and raisin bran, cheerios and cocoa pebbles were on the menu. I preferred a mix of all three. Mom was in charge of pouring the milk to ensure we weren’t dawdling. I had my face buried in a puzzle on the back of the cocoa pebbles, so it was quite the surprise when orange juice plunged into my bowl disrupting the perfect mix of sugar-infused, processed grain.

I protested quite animatedly that my mom had visited injustice on my cereal bowl. My brother and sister laughed hysterically. Mom only smirked. In all honesty I don’t recall if I ate the bowl as is or created a new one from scratch. What I do know is for years I poked fun at my mom for making the mix-up, and she consistently groans sarcastically about how ill treated we kids were. It only occurred to me today that maybe the mix-up was intentional, a morning message to her eldest, most serious son to lighten up.

Here’s to hoping I did!

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Emergence of Story



The evidence is overwhelming that complex systems have arisen through natural means from simpler material states over the past 14 billion years. The self-sorting processes that drove this over-arching evolution required only inherent properties of matter and energy and sufficient time to mix and emerge. 

As such, sub-atomic particles formed atoms formed simple molecules formed complex molecules formed star systems within galactic systems with intergalactic webs. At least once the complex molecules formed organic coding chemistry formed biological life formed animal sentience formed human sapiency formed planetary civilization. 

The proliferation of ordered phenomenon gave us the universe as we now know it. To be sure mysteries abound for scientists and philosophers to puzzle over, but the necssary framework of our world is explainable without need of anything supernatural. And yet stories of overlord deities, black and white magic, and ancient a priori ethical principles abound. Why have these irrational ideas flourished in an era of scientific understanding? Perhaps because stories are the ultimate controlled substance, a quintessential opiate of the mind. 

One might say the true indicator of sapiency is our ability to imagine, create and share stories. Whether of memetic through epic levels, by wielding the abstract idea we are able to pass facts, fiction, and concoctions of both out to others and into the future. These stories intrigue, entertain and influence individuals, groups and entire societies with subtle and direct motifs. 

Story exposition is indeed a kind of magic, a magic that encodes truth and lies to imagine improbable and impossible solutions and scenarios that might just shed a glimmer of insight onto reality.  Sometimes, fictional stories can actually motivate better than their factual counterparts: fairy tales that encourage child safety; dreamy afterlives that give promise of reuniting with loved ones; exciting science-fantasy that inspires us to dream of consistent justice, clean energy and a stable global environment.

One might go so far as to say every thought we possess has its own underlying story or a connection to the wider fabric of stories that humans have woven since campfire tales immemorial.

Still, we must strive to separate fiction from fact in the stories we share, if only to keep ourselves sane. For the unchecked tale can lead people astray, putting true believers themselves and the larger population and ecosystem at risk as well. 

Nevertheless, the emergence of story in the human consciousness has surely accelerated if not permitted outright the rise of humanity on Earth. If our species uses the power of story wisely it can help us harness the best possibilities of reality so that we may coexist and thrive alongside nature. If we wield story with hapless abandon, we risk not only downfall of humanity but also of the living ecosystems we inhabit.

Then again, artificial intelligence may be waiting in the wings, ready to emerge and thrive as the next iteration of complexity.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Third Eye Open


Meditation. It is often associated with eastern religions like Buddhism, but in recent years mindfulness meditation has gone mainstream. The basic idea is to set aside a relaxing period of time to turn your attention inward and observe the very essence of being. At the simplest level of mindfulness practice you need only close your eyes and focus on your natural breathing rhythm, usually in the form of the tickle of airflow coming in and out your nostrils. Meditation is not a time for contemplation, in fact, you'll want to allow any palpable thoughts that do arise to pass in and out of focus. In this way your meditation can achieve a kind of mindful steady state of near nothingness. 

Apps and podcasts abound which can provide guided meditations if you're interested in pursuing this further. Such meditation may very well provide benefits (as with other forms of relaxation) from alleviating stress and refreshing your mind so that you can pursue life outside of meditation with greater verve.

You might also find meditative exercise a unique exploration, and adventure within your personal mindscape where you can brush up against the core insubstantiality of existence. In a sense, meditative practice can also be turned toward joyful entertainment.

Separate from my standard meditations, I occasionally enjoy pursuing a internal visual experience using a similar technique. I still find a quiet place and close my eyes, but instead of focusing on breath, I focus on visual sensation. That is to say I pay special attention to whatever my visual cortex generates while eyes are closed to visual stimuli. In practice, this experience usually starts with a grayish black backdrop mottled with slightly brighter swirls, streaks and spots. I then give all my attention to that array as it morphs in real time. I find if I give greatest attention to a bright area it can amplify and move substantially. The resulting visuals can be quite amazing.

In some of my sessions the backdrop has taken on an analog pixelated nature akin to a star cluster. The faux stars might slowly shift then rapidly swarm in ever more complex patterns, like an abstract cloud of locust. Sometimes I attempt to guide the experience toward a particular color that I note and that artifact might swell into a supernova of brightness. Other times, quite randomly, a high definition image will appear for an instant and then disappear into an impressionist's gray-scale rendition of white noise. Rarely, an image can even self-animate, and I watch with as much detachment as possible so as not to end the experience prematurely.

These experiences are accomplished without any drugs or alcohol. Personally, I find these internal visual meditations quite interesting, as they are very different from recalling a picture or event from memory. In those everyday recollections, the visual is generally quite washed out and abstract in nature; at best a translucent visual overlay.  When I recall a friend's face, an exotic location, or an experience, the mental imagery is adequate to discuss it in detail, but still lacks the vividness of present moment observations this meditative technique creates.

In the end, should you find yourself with some downtime, consider trying out this visual exercise or full blown mindfulness meditation for yourself. For me it has provided an intriguing, calming way to shut out the external, and often chaotic world, for a short while. It isn't necessarily easy to push away the rapid fire of thoughts our modern brains are trained for; still, meditation can provide a unique path to start the day fresh or to end the day with a fun exercise.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Mitigating Deep Impacts



As I prepare to head off traveling for pleasure, research has been at the forefront of my effort to ensure timely flights, lodging and activities. Focused on upcoming adventures its rather easy for me to ignore the implicit impact of my trip on the environment. Sadly, the foundational credo of contemporary consumerism is to consume without considering these factors.

Importantly, we live in an age where climate change is in the process of steamrolling our planet. The global effort underway to counteract that planet changing force is minimal at best, and every creature and ecosystem (and future generations thereof) on the planet will suffer the consequences. But what can I do?

The most effective thing one can do is reduce ones environmental footprint where possible, both in everyday life and in on adventures beyond! Minimizing fossil fuel use, biking and walking when possible, eating more sustainably, choosing solar and wind power, and in general consuming less of the industrial world's output is a good place to start. In aggregate, the human population putting this reductions in effect can make a major difference.

Still, we all want to pursue rewarding activities to have a fulfilling life, which at times requires using imperfect resources. Still, we can optimize the ethicality of our choices with a little additional effort and a charitable mindset. To start with one can plan low impact eco-travel like backpacking, or taking trips close to home which require low resource use. Getting away from the ones daily routine need not be a jet-setting itinerary.

If we do choose to fly to exotic places, we can consider financially offsetting the additional impact. To that ends there are many carbon footprint calculators out there. Here is one by Conservation International I found straightforward which I used to estimate my annual impact at about 18 tons of CO2. Surprisingly, my annual flight impact is a significant percentage of that total.

One would hope responsible airlines would be required to include carbon offsets in their ticket price; alas, in the current free market it is voluntary and thus rare. Perhaps, that will change, at least one can take responsibility into ones own hands buy purchasing an offset from a certified program such as these. These programs support projects (with verification) that counter climate changing behavior by preserving oxygen producing forests, reducing developing world fossil fuel use, and the like.

For me, my annual impact can be offset for a couple hundred dollars, about twenty dollars for my flight itineraries. Indeed, this is not a painless action for me or anyone who maintains a lean budget. It can feel like you're burning money when this is entirely voluntary. On the other hand, if you consider your offsets as part of your annual charitable donation toward an under-served cause, these contributions become part of anticipated and responsible travel expenses.

In a better regulated marketplace the cost of maintaining a sustainable global environment would be included in the costs of products and activities in which we participate. Perhaps one day national and international leadership will incorporate those policy changes; in the meantime, making carbon offset purchases on our own in our travel as we are able is one step down the honorable path in environmental conservation.


Monday, March 25, 2019

States of Change: Chapter 21 Prairie


States of Change is an ongoing work of serial fiction.
The speculative story-line seeks to inspire thought on ethics, culture and our planet's future.

The year is 2076, decades after Oosa's defederalization. 
Fifty independent States have forged their societies from revolutionary technology and ideology.
Prominently, The Augment, a real-time, virtual overlay of sensory data 
has become widely available for personal use throughout many of the post-fed nation-states.






Against a windswept cumulus-filled sky the kilometer high anthromorph defies gravity and all the cube square law physics taught in Sci 101. The rippling, naked muscle of the Representative construct steams with infrared sizzle. Obsidian black tattoos of barbed wire spiral around the bipedal beast highlighting all cap razor-wire font spelling INDUSTRY across its bare chest. With quaking footsteps, the Representative lumbers forward through the desiccated, brown fields of hybrid-wheat and soy looking warily about for opposition party Representatives.

"Ok, Helia, tell us what we're looking at as we kick off the Illinois' thirtieth Prairie Open." 

"Well, Raj,  Ever since the Great Divide the people of Illinois have prided themselves in being part of the virtual political process. Today, we here at Digital Freedom are eager to report, retweet and react as the party constructs battle it out for the livelihood of the people. The agricultural backdrop chosen by the populace for this year's Prairie Open is quite unexpected. Yes the landscape is symbolic of the state-wide economic downturn, but a wide open battlefield provides little opportunity for smaller, independent forces to mount effective guerrilla tactics in the political sand-box environment."

"Pixel sharp summary, Helia. Can you detail what measures are in place to quell the insidious rumors that the Prairie Open  simulation engine is rigged?"

"Solid Q, Raj. The current version of Prairie Open simulation engine is orders of magnitude more complex than the Twitter and Fortnite platforms it was evolved from. In the past, PoliGames Limited has cited proprietary security protocols as uncrackable, even though internal and public access validation have been criticized by several third-party security firms.  This year all results will be verified in real-time by the latest block-chain accountability routines. In short, all that happens here today will reflect the real choices of Illinois voters acting through their in-game Representatives."

"Impressive, Helia. Well let's turn back to the simulation to see if any other Reps have shown up to challenge the Industry status quo."

Lens flares dance beneath racing clouds as the in-environment camera POV slides skyward profiling the powerful construct of the Industry Rep. The anthropic behemoth flexes it skyscraper limbs broadcasting confidence it has from years of policy conquest. Suddenly, a circular shock pulse rushes from the horizon through the expanse of vegetation at the Industry  As the wave of force hits, the giant construct stumbles as in-rushing wind pummels it to the point where it is forced to its knees to steady its monstrous mass. In less than a minute, the wind dies down to silence and the Industry Rep roars a great mocking laugh at its invisible attacker. Then, in a flash a rune of fractal patterns thousands of hectares wide appears around the Industry Rep, intensifying from subdued orange to molten silver. The fields as one leap aflame immolating the construct with a fire cyclone three kilometers high. 

"Sweet Mohammed, what in Chicago just happened, Helia?"

"Breathtaking politics, Raj. Simply wow! The block-chain feed confirms the flame sorcery was fueled by several secular labor political action committees. Real-time influence of the working citizenry is also in play. Still, in all  the decades I've been reporting Illinois politainment I've never seen the will of the people surge with such commitment and unity so early on, let alone with such tantalizing eye-crack. In previous political seasons the people have typically divided their real-time attacks across the twenty-four hour engagement period."

"Quite the opening attack, indeed, Helia. Any thoughts on what impact this could have on policy?

"Let's see Raj. Working citizens across the Augment are celebrating cautiously. A contract revolution reducing labor hours is perhaps the most optimistic projection at this point."

"One zero, Helia. After that fiery onslaught, I'm sure everyone plugged in is waiting with bated breath to see if the Industry Rep can emerge to maintain economic policy favoring its supporters. Let's check back in on the sim to find out."

Streaming clouds part around the towering helix of flame. The Industry Rep within the charcoal trimmed blaze extends both massive arms out at right angles to its torso and roars from within the pyre. The thunderous howl shifts up an octave into an eerie latinesque chant. Like streaming video in high-speed reverse the flame and smoke retract into the construct's scarred surface. The Industry Rep, still bent at the knee, and pulls its scorched, waxen arms inward to form the universal gesture for "go fuck yourself."  From a glitter of pixels, a golden halo appears above Industry's head and then glides around it to form a translucent hemispherical defense barrier. A smirk slithers onto Industry's face as its extended arm erupts in metal and flesh transforming into an immense chainsaw. The undulating weapon reverberates across the sim-space daring any remaining party construct to challenge its supremacy further. 

"A jaw dropping response by Industry, don't you agree Helia?"

"Absolutely, Raj. The secular labor junta has obviously failed to fully subdue the Industry Rep. The feeds indicate the spiritual extremist block has allied with Industry to solidify Contract Omega by invoking existing theologic sleeper clauses. If I had to guess, I'd say secular labor has spent its mojo too early on and will now be lucky if it can leverage any concessions with Industry this cycle.  The Industry cabal forums in the Augment are raging with much delight at how the Prairie Open is unfolding."

"Well programmed analysis, Helia. What happens next is anyone's guess!"

The Industry behemoth arches its head high from its kneeling position amidst the incinerated remains of the virtual landscape. Industry's defiant posture invites any additional attack other party's might throw at it. Suddenly the Industry Rep's sneer turns to a grimace as its stance turns unbalanced. Three kelp-like tentacles erupt from the ground, two wrapping and pulling Industry's legs deep below the surface while one entangles itself in the chainsaw arm. With hardened flesh and metal grinding the tentacle pulls the mechanized arm downward with enough force to swing it decisively into Industry's naked, sexless crotch.  An explosion of carnage splatters against Industry's force field coating the inside surface making it opaque. 

"Oh! My! Manhood!"

"That's surely what Industry is thinking at the moment, Raj. By all appearances, the Nature Representative has taken on a subterranean form powered up from Labor's first-strike ashes. My intel from the feeds is preliminary, but it also appears the Justice Representative may have merged with the Nature construct to form a construct of Cthululian proportions. The move has certainly put the Industry Rep position in great jeopardy. If Nature and Justice can maintain their dominance over Industry we may see some major advance in state-wide environmental restoration policy. How this might benefit Secular Labor, given their early sacrifice, has yet to be known."

"Indeed Helia, clearly, this year's Prairie Open has many surprises in store, and we are barely one hour in. Well, stay tuned Illinois as we continue to stream all the action your way."

Friday, March 8, 2019

Inherit the Wind - a film review

Inherit the Wind (1960) Spencer Tracy and Fredric March


As a belated Darwin Day treat to myself I finally got around to watching the lionized film Inherit the Wind, the theatrical adaptation of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. As I watched, it seemed incredible the movie was ever made, let alone in the heart of a conservative era 60 years ago. The atheist versus theist overtones create quite the backdrop for a court case that would argue if evolution should be taught in the public classroom.

And that's where my primary surprise kicked in. The film has very little to do with evolution, instead it accurately represents the basis of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, in that it represents a state's lawful ability to prevent a teacher's right to teach science. Further, I was expecting significantly more discussion of the merits of evolution by natural selection as opposed to creation stories. Alas, the primary thrust of the film was to make a stand for human agency, and how a state can legislate against a man's right to think for himself and to teach ideas to his students. The subtle implication is a teacher should be able to teach what they wish in their classroom, either science or pseudoscience.

Side note, I researched the actual trial and ironically it turns out the high school teacher probably didn't even teach evolution is his class, as he was primarily a math teacher. So much for representing the true story. I'll concede, the acting in the film is steadfast, even if the courtroom arguments become quite jumbled. The courtroom drama of To Kill a Mockingbird, in comparison, I found to be more compelling overall. 

As an non-theist, you might think I'd celebrate the breakdown of the blowhard evangelist prosecutor in the film, alas it was more of a sad representation of how indoctrination can overwhelm our senses, rather than find a position of integrity that integrates compassion and reason.

In the end, this film is worth watching as it does offer several thoughtful nuggets to contemplate along the way. Sadly, the verdict of the trial results in a victory for the state and a fine of Scopes, who is portrayed as a modest religious believer simply trying to teach his kids the latest science. For me, this verdict serves as vindication for religious overreach and celebration of cognitive dissonance; specifically, that one can heartily believe in a creationist origin of man simultaneous with the evidence-based origin of man. In 60's parlance, that's a bunch of poppycock in my book, to encourage students to dismiss consistency and reason in favor of feel-good mythical indoctrination.

The story ending presents perhaps the most harrowing of the film's symbolism. First of all, the journalist who had championed the court case is shamed in the final scene by the defense lawyer for having stirred up the fervor of religion versus science. To be sure, he had profit and showmanship in mind, but underlying those motives lies the journalistic virtue of seeking out the truth with integrity. To suggest that the reporter would die alone indicated to me that mindful discussion of important topics is anathema if it contradicts tradition.

The second act of symbolism dramatizes the defense lawyer contemplating the bible and Darwin's evolutionary treatise before thoughtfully walking out with both in hand. One could stretch the meaning of the gesture to represent that compassion and reason can make for good partners in the pursuit of truth. Alas, the less subtle point being sold is the idea that religion and science need not conflict, and in fact, might be stronger together. And that is how Hollywood sells tickets by creating a fantastical moment that moves the phantom spirit, more than mind and heart.