Time, in war and in peace

A convergence is lurking on the horizon. For example:

– I’m immersed in Brexit, so I’ve done some digging around Dominic Cummings. This led me to a text on accelerationism and connected concepts.
– I’m following Venkatesh’s Rao expansion on the theme of “multitemporality” via Twitter and Ribbonfarm.
– I’ve been coming back to mindfulness and the idea(s) I elaborated on in Lord of the gap.
– I’ve been reading Smart Spacetime and Fighting by Minutes.
– I recently lost my childhood canine friend and during the event I noticed lived experience twisting and morphing in ways I hadn’t yet experienced.

The convergence concerns time. And while I was at BJJ this morning–itself one of the purest renditions of 1-to-1 adversarial temporal conflict–I had another thought…

In my Twitter bio I have the words, “Timelord-in-training”. Originally, the concept of a “timelord” was personal, confined to mindfulness and the quest to become Lord of the gap. But while my instructor was explaining a concept-drill pair I drifted off: I realised that the concept of a “timelord” had expanded. A moment later I wondered, “In what direction?” Answer in this 2×2:

time in war and peace

“War” and “peace” are self-evident. “Inner game” refers to the ability to interface with oneself. “Outer game” refers to one’s ability to interface with the world. The quadrants are bare because I’m not really sure what goes into them.

In Fighting by Minutes Leonhard talks of how time should be managed at four levels: strategic, operational, tactical and technical. Think, General Staff > Theatre of War > Battles / Local Conflict > Combatant Gear / Tech. Does time translate into all of those levels, or only one? Can a specific tool change one’s experience of time during war and peace? Is what is referred to as a post-truth world just a multi-temporal one? How can one utilise time to navigate success and to deal with failure? How does speeding it up, slowing it down or escaping it entirely serve an individual? What about a collective? Can it even be escaped: are we shackled to time as a consequence of existence and can we liberate ourselves? Should we even try?

These are all questions I don’t really have an answer to. Do you?

Cleaning up the dirtiest game

One of the fundamental assumptions of modern culture is that politics is dirty. All forms of contemporary media contain tropes that allocate a negative valence to the game of politics, and to those who choose to play it. It is no longer a radical worldview, nor a core tenet of a subculture; the dirtiness of politics is THE dominant mainstream conception. It didn’t used to be this way.

I’m not well-versed in ancient history, but I understand that in the Greece of antiquity participation in politics was seen as noble. I seem to remember the same being true of ancient Rome. I’m not sure about other ancient cultures, or societies during the Medieval era, but wayback when wasn’t it considered an individual’s duty to engage in the political arena? Wasn’t it a keystone of one’s everyday life? Not something to be sneered at. Not something to be avoided. Not something elder-figures were prepared to give their young ones a pass on.

Nowadays? The concept of “duty” is–understandably, in some cases–seen as a cheap tool of oppression and manipulation. For example: enlisting in the armed forces was never considered an option for me. I was a teenager when the Iraq war kicked off and even then, naive as I was, I could sense the wholesale erosion of trust in authority concerning “official” motives. Did I imagine myself able to pick up a gun, to give my own life, to take someone else’s life, all because of belief in the narrative the powers-at-be were peddling? No fucking way. (Also, I have terrible eyesight–the powers-at-be aren’t stupid enough to give me a firearm.)

As well the mass culture-swerve way from the concept of duty, there is the fact that most normal people are too busy surviving to attempt to disperse the immense FUD-cloud surrounding politics. Local, regional, national or international: understanding what the fuck has happened, is happening and can happen is something that can quickly become a full-time job. And those amateurs that, regardless, still try are fighting a losing battle because they have less resources than the pros. These politically engaged amateurs also risk alienating those around them. Their relentless politicking is treated like the worst of social faux pas.

At this point, I haven’t even mentioned the asymmetry around political engagement. For a “normal” person to attend a protest, for example, they have to interrupt their daily life, which potentially means less food on the table for them and their family. Maternity leave is an established right. Paternity leave now is in many places. But political leave? Days off to protest and vote and just be present at important political moments in space and time? Nope. Pros don’t face the same obstacle: they are being paid to come up with ways to subvert the will of the polis they claim to serve (chief of which seems to be releasing so much noise into our info-environment that we have no fucking clue where the signal is…).

Not all politicians are evil, however (though many are incompetent). Note the #RebelAlliance tag. Some are fighting from within for what’s best. But even that tag tars politics, by default, as a dirty game. Rebels have to hide. Rebels have to maintain a base level of situational awareness at all times. Rebels have to wage war innovatively, but out of necessity rather than choice. Rebels have to sleep rough, starve, and generally exist without comfort. Rebels cannot rest because for one in their position “stillness is death”, as Ed Calderon puts it.

Politics is a dirty game and its players are meme magnets, torn apart by a body-politic who are, either by chance or by design, both ill-informed and impotent. So is it a surprise that most people don’t want to play? Instead of engaging in politics people choose to continue their efforts to survive, or choose to go about their life as if all is normal, as if their little bubble cannot be popped by anything so mundane and/or confusing as what lies outside. I understand this, but I also think it’s time for a change.

Politics’ field of play is a vast pig sty, which means that only those who, for whatever reason, don’t mind being covered in shit have the upper hand. And usually, the most undemocratic people are also those who are able to stand the stink. Their deformed ideologies and malevolent ambitions act as plugs up their nose, warding off the stench on and around them. So while the rest of us stand back, not wanting to be contaminated with the same excrement, they roll and rollick in filthy ecstasy at the inhibitions our sensibilities raise up. They laugh because they have their hands on the levers and we’re outside, grieving our inability to move the world.

No more. The current situation may or may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility. We can’t keep shying away from the dirty reality of politics. I understand the inhibitions. For years I’ve actively avoided knowing about politics and acting on that knowledge. But as my country (the UK) approaches a critical juncture I find myself scrambling to catch up. I find myself haplessly disorientated because I swallowed the lie that politics didn’t matter, that somehow it was okay to let others take care of it whilst I fucked around chasing happiness and other BS. It wasn’t and it isn’t and I want my future to be different.

The question, as ever, is “How?” The answer, as ever, isn’t simple but it does have a clear outline:

1) Remain informed whilst 2) engaging with others.

That means reading the news. That means familiarising yourself with local, national and global mechanisms of governance. That means opening yourself up to trolls who will fight with you because of what you say or think. That means learning to live with a little ball of anxiety and unease in your stomach. That means that, contrary to popular sentiment, it’s okay to have an opinion and share it, with strangers and intimates alike. That’s what politics is, after all: people talking, deciding and acting.

Doing all this is the only hope we have of cleaning up the dirtiest game there is.

Going gonzo

The notion of “information diets” and corresponding metaphors, like fasting, dieting, binging, etc., have been around for a while. And for a while I subscribed to them. I took steps to monitor and control my information consumption. I resisted the pull of social media until after I’d done some actual reading and writing. All in all, I allocated a pair of devil’s horns to anything that threatened to upset my precisely optimised info-diet.

No more. Just this morning, I woke up, dossed around, scrolled through my feeds, did some reading, did some writing, and then began typing this. My information diet has gone utterly awry and an encounter on Twitter a few days ago (re-)revealed to me exactly why.

First: someone posted about the supposed profoundity of the term “information obesity”. My response was to think (and then reply) that it is our filtering mechanisms, not information itself, that are the problem. A quick query reveals that while we can’t pinpoint the precise rate of human sensory information throughput, it’s undoubtedly what one would call a “fuck-ton”. Yet we manage to handle it without keeling over and/or going insane. I get that social media is engineered to be addictive to the human mind, but do you really think that our brain can’t handle social media and is so easily hijacked? No way. It doesn’t matter whether the environment is made of bits or atoms: we adapt and move on.

(Aside: the “information diet” metaphor is even more fallacious when you consider that the mind has a vastly greater capacity than the body to adapt to chronic stresses. The body degrades in the short-term and the long-term if chronically overfed. The mind, in contrast, suffers in the short-term while it evolves sustainable fixes to the new state of affairs.)

Second (and more importantly): whether or not our new informational environment is toxic is a moot point because it is not going away. Barring episodes of local and global civilisational collapse, the amount of information we are exposed to and the rate at which it reaches us is only going to increase.

Recognising this and taking the stance of technological-pastoralists (attempting to rewind the clock) is a laughable response that is doomed to fail. Digital waldenponding in an attempt to deny the new situation won’t work either. Not only does it reduce exposure, and thus inhibit the rate of adaptation, to the new info environment, extended periods of waldenponding multiply dissonance because the world waldenponders return to is more complex and overwhelming than the one they ran from in the first place. This itself can create a feedback loop in which one becomes increasingly more estranged from their evolving environment.

So if we can’t rewind the clock, nor deny and/or slow the changes taking place, what can we do? What options are there? There are two: detached engagement or immersive engagement. Detached engagment is akin to Tiago Forte’s second-braining. It’s the deliberate creation of interfaces that act as mediators between the information and you. It’s a mimicking of natural evolutionary mechanisms. Immersive engagement, on the other hand, is akin to gonzo journalism. Think Hunter S. Thompson having sex, doing drugs and rock-n-rolling in order to report on sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, or modern counterparts like Ioan Grillo and Roberto Saviano sharing stories of drug cartels and the Mafia which they got from the killers and traffickers themselves.

Personally, I’ve written off detached engagement. I don’t have the patience to undertake the necessary infrastructure building or the will to battle instincts that directly conflict with second-brain practices. Which leaves me with immersive engagement. In other words, I’m going gonzo. More information, more online, more interaction, and accompanying it, more disorientation. That’s okay, though. Being perpetually off-balance is the new normal.

If time isn’t a resource, then what is it?

A friend recently told me a story. It isn’t an Homeric epic but it has had some surprising consequences, nonetheless. The story, as it was related to me:

My friend had a problem with an electrical appliance. Because I’m a trained electrician I offered to help. My friend took me up on the offer, stating that he’ll pay me for the trouble. I said not to worry. He’s a friend and it would only take a few hours. Besides, it’s my day off so I’ve got nothing else on.

My immediate response to the anecdote was to think of all the things I’ve heard about the importance of time and the necessity of fiercely protecting it. There’s no need to name names or cite all the books and blogs and podcasts that tell us that time is our most valuable asset and thus we should spend it wisely. Second, I thought how I, personally, would be disinclined to give up a chunk of one of my days-off so easily. Psychoanalyse that all you like; it’s what I thought. Third, I thought of a book: Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson.

Initially, they describe how our mind functions according to a selection of basic metaphors. These basic metaphors can be viewed:

…as foundations upon which we build larger structures, like houses or pyramids.
…as seeds from which trees grow and, eventually, fruit sprouts.
…as particularly potent and connected nodes in a vast and dynamic network.

(Note: which visualisation you plump for also points to potential strategies for the disruption of your thought. Foundations can be demolished, new seeds can be planted, certain nodes can be connected, disconnected, or excised altogether, and so on.)

With that out of the way, they go on to discuss the idea of “Time as a Resource and as Money”. First, they say that “One of the most striking characteristics of Western culture is that time is conceptualised in general as a resource and in particular as money.” They go on to give some idiomatic phrases as evidence for the previous statement, cite other cultures and societies which do not have this metaphor at that their centre, explore time’s human-aspected nature, and try to position it in relation to other supposedly more basic metaphors like events and motion. I won’t elaborate further: read the book if any of the above has lit up your pleasure neurons. What I will do, however, is share both a realisation and a question.

The realisation is not particularly profound: I just began to think that the over-valuation of time is at odds with the nature of community. Sure, in the story above, one friend is giving up their time for another either because of the status of a current relationship or in a bid to strengthen it for the future. But imagine, if you will, a scenario in which the relinquishing of your time is of massive personal cost but only marginal overall benefit to a greater collective. Would you do it? I don’t know whether I would, which means that I don’t know whether I value my time or my belonging to a community more.

The question is also not particularly profound, but it is one I am still attempting to answer. Maybe you have a clue and can help? Here’s the question:

If time isn’t a resource, then what is it?

The Rosetta Grid

I’ll begin this post Matthew Mercer style:

Last we left off I had decided that it was time to ask Hard Questions of my manuscript, and to answer them. It has been going, uhh, along. Quickly, I’ve realised that the improvised approach I’ve employed so far won’t take me much further. I need something more explicit. Something with a touch more rigour. Enter the Rosetta Grid.

rosetta grid 0
A blank Rosetta Grid, with story elements buttressed by whole, acts, chapters, and beats.

There’s three things that underpin it: story elements, bottom-up structuring, and the notion of “keys”.

The primary elements of all stories, in order of descending importance, are: authorial intent, characters, world, events and narration. Separating out and tracking these elements is, in theory, doable. But when contrasted with an actual manuscript, any attempts to track the elements of a story soon become slum-like: wild, messy, unruly, unpredicatable, illegible.

Bottom-up structuring is the opposite of what I employed with the story’s original outline. Instead of starting with (what I hope is) a potent premise and unpacking it via ever-finer strokes (whole story to acts to chapters to beats), I do the reverse. Beat by beat, I will work my way through the manuscript, stating my intent, noting characters in order of appearance, jotting down the worldbuilding necessary, and summarising the events. Once I’ve completed the four beats of the prologue, for example, I transfer the elements up. An example:

rosetta grid 1
Here, I’ve begun to fill it out. I went from P1 to P4, taking notes on each element, then collated and compressed the info for the Prologue section as a whole.

Once I reach the top, I should have a complete list of characters, worldbuilding elements and summaries of events at different grains of abstraction.

Finally, the notion of “keys” is why this grid is called what it is. From the Wikipedia page for the Rosetta Stone:

“The term Rosetta stone has been used idiomatically to represent a crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information, especially when a small but representative sample is recognised as the clue to understanding a larger whole. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first figurative use of the term appeared in the 1902 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica relating to an entry on the chemical analysis of glucose. Another use of the phrase is found in H. G. Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, where the protagonist finds a manuscript written in shorthand that provides a key to understanding additional scattered material that is sketched out in both longhand and on typewriter.

Since then, the term has been widely used in other contexts. For example, Nobel laureate Theodor W. Hänsch in a 1979 Scientific American article on spectroscopy wrote that “the spectrum of the hydrogen atoms has proved to be the Rosetta Stone of modern physics: once this pattern of lines had been deciphered much else could also be understood”. Fully understanding the key set of genes to the human leucocyte antigen has been described as “the Rosetta Stone of immunology”. The flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana has been called the “Rosetta Stone of flowering time”. A Gamma ray burst (GRB) found in conjunction with a supernova has been called a Rosetta Stone for understanding the origin of GRBs. The technique of Doppler echocardiography has been called a Rosetta Stone for clinicians trying to understand the complex process by which the left ventricle of the human heart can be filled during various forms of diastolic dysfunction.”

A completed grid is a Rosetta stone, a master key for my project.

You’ve probably also noticed the duplication of the grids. The left is labelled “Included”. This is the one which will be filled out in the manner described above. It is also, probably, the least significant of the two. The one on the right, “Troubleshoot”, is where I reconvene with the notion of answering “hard questions”.

Once a full pass of the manuscript is complete, not only will I have a clue what’s going on, I will be able to begin picking apart what’s going wrong. Another combing of the manuscript will begin and during it I will be able to note flaws and failures and correlate them with the appropriate element.

As will others. See, once I’ve made a troubleshooting pass, my intention is to get a draft to a select few people, collate their feedback into the Rosetta Grid, and solve more problems, iterating until release.

There’s one other tweak I’ve made to my writing process, in addition to the creation and use of the Rosetta Grid. I’ve stuck a hand-wrtten version of this 2×2 on the bottom of my monitor.

imagination and nerves

The content of the grid comes from a Breaking Smart post: Good Forecasting Takes Strong Nerves. When I read it initially I thought its concepts particularly applicable to fiction writing, and as I embark into a more advanced stage I thought it would be helpful to keep a reminder of them in front of my face.

Finally: in other news, I went for a dip in a river (second time so far this year) and met some sheep.

Photo 03-06-2019, 06 25 46

Hard questions

The last count was 35,062. Sixty-six days later, the count was 75,512. That means I added roughly 622 words per day to my novel-in-progress. Of course, progress wasn’t as linear as that. Due to the nature of my boring day job–day shifts, night shifts, transitions into and out of the latter–my actual writing days have probably numbered half of the above. Has the inability to write day-in, day-out helped me? I don’t know. But the fact is that I’ve reached a new stage in the project.

Kind of.

See, as I was finishing up, I realised that I didn’t like the ending. Actually, I liked it. But it didn’t make sense. It didn’t feel appropriate. Spoiler alert: the original ending was, shall we say, violent. There’s nothing wrong with violence, but the violence included in my intended ending felt non-sensical, forced, incomprehensible. Part of me thought, “Fuck it. Isn’t all violence incomprehensible to the victim, on some level?” Another part of me answered: “Sure. But not to that degree.”

Result: I have a drafted novel with a necrotised ending, a chicken minus the head, a broom without the bristles. At this point, you may be wondering, “Now what?” Well, here’s what.

My first task is to “Recreate the Compression”. This is a text doc that breaks down the story. In it I summarise the story as a whole, each act as a whole, each chapter as a whole, and each beat as a whole. (Note, “whole” is a loaded term here.) Such a document helps me understand the substance of the story from multiple different levels, but more importantly, it helps me stave off the chief demon of fiction: BOREDOM. If I can make each compression of each of the different parts sound interesting and engaging in isolation, then I’ve set myself up well for a something-other-than-mediocre debut.

Recreating the Compression doc will also mean that I have to “Solve the Ending”. But like before, having a beat-by-beat outline for the ending won’t be enough. I’ll have to take it and expand it into an actual draft. (FYI, I already have some speculations for what the ending will be. All I need to do is play around with multiple permutations of it.)

With that done, I’ll be onto my third task, which is to “Ask Hard Questions.” Hard questions are questions that contain the threat of worldview collapse. Hard questions are questions asked by the people who love you and hate you the most. They’re not “gotchas”; they are more profound than that. Their purpose is to disrupt, reveal, confront, challenge, and off-balance.

Finally, after asking them, my fourth task will be to “Answer Hard Questions”. That could mean formulating responses in private that have no demonstratable effect on the text–clarification of intent concerning a particular detail, for example–or, more likely, it could mean carving open, rearranging and sealing the body of my text like a surgeon on LSD.

“Recreate the Compression”; “Solve the Ending”; “Ask Hard Questions”; “Answer Hard Questions”; those are my four tasks for the next month or so. One last thing, though. I’d like to share one particularly surprising thing that I (re)learnt during this period of swelling. It is, simply, this:

Each moment is a portal to any moment.

The context behind this is fairly mundane: whilst drafting, my energy repeatedly flagged at what I thought was the limit of expansion for a specific beat. It took me a few run-throughs to realise that all I had to do was pick a moment in the scene, any moment, and go deeper into it, find the infinite detail within. Examples: a frown could be a portal to a childhood memory; the play of light on a sea’s surface could be represent an important fragment of worldbuilding; a detail in the background could be an author’s easter egg or a foreshadowing central to a B-plot.

Each moment is a portal to any moment. With that realisation, all concerns of writer’s block vanished, and in it’s place arose something else. Call it writer’s responsibility: the consideration not of the ability to travel, but the deciding upon of the best route to take.

Of course, it’s presumptous to claim that this experience, this choice, is unique to writers and writing. It isn’t. None of us have to choose where we’re going, but we all, whoever we are, have to decide how we’ll get there.

The amber beats

They say that first drafts are shitty, and boy are they right. I’ve just completed mine. It’s 35,062 words long. That’s well short of my target length. But that’s okay because 15% of my beat-by-beat outline has been skipped during drafting because I don’t have the research I need to hand. Those beats have been coloured amber and they are spread throughout the story. This less-than-expected word count is also okay because it turns out that this draft is less a draft than a more thorough expansion of my beat-by-beat outline—there’s so much more detail to add about concerning the characters involved, the world they romp around in, and the events that take place.

Nevertheless, I have a draft. Which begs the question, WTF now? Well. The purpose of the next stage is obvious: address the amber beats and put some meat on the bones of the story. But that can wait until tomorrow. Right now, it is 1224. I’ve been at it since around 0800. It’s about time that I have some food and go outside.