The Examined Life: Pandora’s Box

On an ordinary day, I get done all my daily chores and make a reasonable amount of progress on the current task (or tasks) I have in front of me. On an exceptional day, however, brimming with gumption, I tear through all my pressing work and have some extra time and energy to apply to the backlog. This can be a problem.

I have an ongoing issue with accumulating unfinished projects. Some people have a surfeit of good ideas. I have a surfeit of good ideas with accompanying 1-to-3-page treatments. I also have a little problem with scale; I tend to inflate a clever idea into a clever idea for a grand project. I’m trying to work on actualizing ideas at a scale where they might be doable; it still leaves me with the problem of generating ideas, working on them until I’ve written out the initial impulse, and then setting them aside to get back to more pressing tasks.

Most days, these projects in cold storage don’t bother me, as I don’t have to think about them. I note a piece of paper, or an object attached to a project, and maybe think in passing, “I should get back to that; that was cool.” But I have other fish to fry, and so the epic backlog just sits like a vague malaise over me.

When I actually have the time to pay attention, however, it starts to unpack, and I begin to understand the implications of seeing a project through to completion, with all the subordinate tasks (some extremely trying), all the unknowns, all the iterations. And usually, several unpack at once in my head. (Prioritization is also a problem.)

This is intimidating. Often, I wind up cutting the workday short with psychic anaesthetic in an attempt to avoid the reality of all the crap I told myself I’d do.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Alternate Alchemies

I’ve just been reading an article on alchemy which suggests that the Arab alchemists’ development of mineral acids — that is, acids stronger than the vinegar derivatives which were their predecessors — was far more valuable to civilization than if they had succeeded in transmuting base metals to gold.

It made me imagine an alternate world where alchemists did indeed learn the secret of transmutation, and metals are thus completely fungible, but where the strongest acids possible are highly concentrated solutions of acetic acid.

On the one hand, many technological applications would be eased — there would never be shortages of metals — and if transmutation could be applied to finished objects one could fabricate in a soft metal and then transmute to a hard one. On the other, chemical fertilizers and explosives would be impossible. No batteries, and some plastic would be impossible. Come to think of it, certain metals — aluminum, for example — might be unavailable; sure, they could be achieved through transmutation, but if the alchemists don’t know that a metal exists, they may never figure out how to make it.

It seems like an interesting way to kick alternate-historical industry in the rear right up to the beginning of the industrial age, at which point you’re screwed.

The Examined Life: Psychic Anaesthetic

There is a particular pernicious form of procrastination to which I am occasionally vulnerable, especially when I’m feeling anxious; I call it psychic anaesthetic. I channel surf. I play video games I’ve already mastered. I reread books. I read blogs.

These activities all have in common that they occupy my brain without stimulating it, which distinguishes them from regular procrastination, or constructive procrastination. Playing a new game would be too mentally taxing for this application; so would taking a book off the to-read stack. I learn nothing by playing Civilization II through 1000 BC for the umpteenth time, but it keeps me too busy to obsess about whatever may be troubling me (usually, these days, a task on my list that I don’t feel up to tackling).

This can create a vicious circle for me; psychic anaesthetic is toxic to gumption, and I often use psychic anaesthetic to escape the anxiety of not having the gumption to do something. I’ve lost entire days that way, doing something useful for a little while until I hit a bump, then falling into some anaesthetic activity for a bit until the fretting subsides.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Aesthetics of Play: Masquerade

The masquerade aesthetic is an aesthetic of character design, like the cathartic aesthetic. The masquerade playstyle approaches roleplaying as an opportunity for the player to try on new personalities, to be someone that they aren’t. Masquerade play draws its fun from novelty.

Masquerade characters are therefore little like their players, except sometimes in superficial ways. The core of the character — the element around which the character forms — is selected for its very alienness. I, for example, often design impulsive masquerade characters; they make an interesting contrast to the reflective types that are closer to my everyday self.

There can be an escapist dimension to masquerade play; sometimes people design characters as a refuge from parts of themselves of which they’re not so fond.

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

Many players bring an aesthetic that I think of as cathartic play to their relationships with their characters . The cathartic playstyle approaches roleplaying as a venue for players to take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unpleasant consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the chance to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often similar to their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetic, these characters may be wholly designed around the traits to be amplified. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through their anger issues; I like to play impulsive people from time to time as a break from my usual overthinkery.

More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”

The Examined Life: Gumption

I’m taking a moment to mull over some of the concepts I use to think about life and the universe. And because I’m the kind of guy I am, I figure I might as well do it in public, though I realize this is the intellectual equivalent of showing off a half-chewed mouthful of food.

Gumption is a term I picked up from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though I don’t use it exactly the way Pirsig does.

Gumption is a mysterious psychoemotional quantity which is the prerequisite to accomplishment. It’s the fuel of facing challenges. Doing anything difficult demands gumption; succeeding at something difficult restores it. (I find that this is one reason that projects in limbo drive me up the wall; the gumption spent to do the work is gone, but the payoff of completion is not forthcoming.)

It regenerates over time. A good night’s sleep helps; getting away from the daily grind is better. Pirsig suggests that gumption returns “when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s stale opinions about it”, which sounds about right to me.

Conversely, there are many ways for gumption to bleed away; Pirsig calls them “gumption traps”. Setbacks and frustration are gumption killers. Unexamined assumptions and value rigidity can also be stealthy gumption sinks, making you feel mired without knowing why.

In everyday life, the feeling of being unable to face the task at hand is a symptom of inadequate gumption. Tedium and boredom are warning signs of low gumption. Depression (at least the cognitive variety) is a collapse of the mechanisms by which gumption regenerates.

Gumption is, I think, the conviction that good things can, should, and will happen. Discouragement, disillusionment, and disenchantment are its enemies.

Originally published on LiveJournal