Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gone Fishing...

Most of what we caught on our fishing trip were Vermilion Snapper - legal this time of year in the Gulf.  We caught a lot of Red Snapper and Trigger Fish too but had to throw our catches back in the water.  Not a bad haul for late in the season.  You see our feet above with the tails of the larger fish we caught displayed proudly in the "official" trip shot.  My feet are on the extreme left.
On Friday I went on an all-day fishing expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. This was supposed to be R&R for the six-man management team of the company I work for after a long day strategic planning session at a conference room in a large hotel on the gulf coast. We arrived last Wednesday evening and ate an enormous and tasty seafood dinner. Thursday we plowed through a long meeting on how we might be able to double the sales of the company in the next 3 years. After that brain-numbing exercise, we were treated by our president to a mindless, beer drinking day out on the beautiful waters of the Gulf.

It was a perfect day for fishing. There was a threat of rain in the morning and it remained overcast almost all day. So, we didn't have to worry about sunscreen and burning from the the warm Florida sun. This was a late season trip, which meant many of the fish that the group caught would have to be to tossed back in the ocean. But we had plenty of beer and sandwiches and snacks. Just getting off the shore and spending several hours at sea would be refreshing.

Or, so went the pitch from my boss, the president. He is a big time fisherman and had been out this past summer with this same captain and his boat. We had the 40-foot boat to ourselves, with the captain and his first mate to assist us. I am not a fisherman at all. You can search this blog and you won't find any reference to me hunting or fishing in the past five years. But, I do love the outdoors and can appreciate that frame of mind. Still, the last time I went "deep sea fishing" was in my youth, before Jennifer and I married.

So, this was different. Of the six members of our management team, two had been sea fishing this past summer, one had been five years ago, one had fished at sea decades ago but had developed an acute sensitivity to seasickness due to a busted ear drum in his twenties. The other two of us had little or no experience at all. The seasick guy had used a patch prescribed by his physician. It worked like a charm and, as the day went on and he continued to feel great, he was joyful and said he felt like he had his youth back, since he loved to hunt and fish and lived near the coast in North Carolina. The patch opened up the possibility for him to get back on the ocean again. This excited him. He was thinking about surprising his wife with a cruise for Christmas to celebrate his re-found freedom.

We had only been out about 30-minutes, still not at our initial fishing destination, when a rod hanging on the stern of the boat hooked what turned out to be the biggest catch of the day - a 25-pound wahoo. Our accounting manager, a novice like myself, was the lucky guy that hot to battle it and slowly reel it into the boat, which took about 15-minutes and exhausted the strength in his arm. It was a beautiful streamlined fish, made for speed. We all cheered with encouragement. When he finally got it to the boat, the first mate hooked it in the water and tossed it expertly into the large cooler toward the rear of the fishing deck. He slammed the lip shut and told us not to open it.

The wahoo was flapping fiercely inside and his length was about equal to the long cooler. The lid flapped up and down angrily for a few minutes. Only after a long pause did we open it up and admire the animal closely. A marvelous catch that sent high hopes through everyone that this might be an extraordinary day, despite the fact it was so late in the season, which shuts down at the end of October.

But, we didn't hook anything so large the rest of the day. Fishing is a gamble. You are never guaranteed to catch anything. Even though my boss and our sales manager each managed to hook nice sized king mackerel later on, they were only about half to two-thirds the size of the wahoo. Our captain took care to attempt to get us bigger fish and for the first four hours out we visited various barrages, concrete reinforced chicken coops, old buses, and various other debris that is sunk about 14 miles off the coast in about 80-90 feet of water, trying to land more big ones. These artificial reefs are great draws for all kinds of marine life. There were probably a half-dozen other private fishing vessels out there with us over the span of maybe a mile or two.

Most of what I caught at this location had to be tossed back into the water. I probably reeled up a half dozen red snapper, for example, but they are out of season now so the first mate flipped them back into the water and I had to bait my hooks again. Our reels all has three hooks on them and we were using chucks of squid for bait. Great for your hands and fingers. I smelt like a fisherman whether I actually was one or not.

I soon tired of the fact that you had to work harder to reel in fish that you couldn't keep than you did to reel in smaller fish that could be sent to the cooler. The captain moved to a few other places , watching his various sonar devices to detect where the higher concentrations might be. I sat back and drank beer mostly at our second and third destinations. I watched the other guys and enjoyed the overcast day. By this time we were beyond the horizon of the coastline and in open waters. I could tell by how much the reels bent whether or not someone was going to be able to keep their fish. The more it bent the less likely it was they would get to put it in the cooler. It seemed counter-intuitive to me. The harder you worked the less likely you were to keep whatever was on your hook.

The captain tried of find another spot to catch big fish that we could keep. He found a spot where our two mackerels were hooked. But there were dolphins nearby and that was bad news for fishing. The dolphins eat most of what we were catching that was in season. So, they scared everything off after a few minutes of fishing. One dolphin was brave and came within a couple of feet of the stern. We got a nice view of it looking down into the clear blue water. The gulf is beautiful 18-20 miles out.

We ended up about 26 miles out in about 130 feet of water. The gulf is not as deep as the Atlantic out this far. At one point our support manager and I were drinking beers and looking all around. You could not see another ship of any kind all the way to the horizon in every direction. We were all alone out there. The support manager and I agreed that it was a wonderful experience being so isolated out there. But we didn't get to enjoy our beers for long as the captain found a large group of snapper that were in season near the bottom. Our president, the biggest fisherman of the group, was reeling them in rapidly and started calling "Come on boys, I got mouths to feed. Get your asses out here and fish."

And so we did. It was amazing. Although these were not large fish they were plentiful and hungry and there were no predictors nearby so they stayed under the boat. I would bait up and drop. Like everyone else, within a few seconds you'd hook something and reel it in. The first mate was running around the deck unhooking fish into the cooler.

The first mate also fished himself. When he caught something of size he would usually give his reel to someone else. At one point, the two guys next to me got their lines tangled just as the mate had hooked a larger fish. He was extremely hard working and a good coach but a rather aggressive one. He handed me his bent reel with the command of "Here, catch this fish!" I reeled in my largest fish of the day while he untangled lines.

The sun started breaking through the overcast. The rays of sunshine shone down into the beautiful blue depths of the gulf waters. I was told visibility was a couple of dozen feet. I could tell as I saw my fish on my line at this spot long before I ever finished getting them to the surface. Meanwhile, large jellyfish swam maybe 6-8 feet under the surface. You could see them clearly with their gorgeous pink and sliver and blue colorations in the sparkling sun. Sucker fish too swam all around, seeking to latch on to anything of size. Although the fish were not the large ones the captain had been trying to find for us, they were bountiful. We caught probably 100 pounds of seafood in that last hour of fishing.

It was two and half hours back to the dock. We were all fairly beat from the long day at sea. The captain microwaved some of our catch with some seasoning he had on board. It was delicious. We were literally eating fish that was flapping around ten minutes before. You can't get it much refresher than that. Just delicious. We toasted the captain and the first mate. As it turned out, it was the mate's last trip out after 14 years of working with the captain. He was getting married the next day and his wife didn't want him out at sea so much. The captain piped in that he hated to lose his first mate, but he was in no place to offer advice to women since he had never been married and couldn't even keep a girlfriend. Ah, the life of a small time seaman. Long hours away from everything but the open sea.

It was all my boss's idea. Strategic planning coupled with a bonding experience in the form of a fishing trip. He was charged up by the day. For me it was fun but not the type of thing that really means anything to me. After the long haul back to the dock we took pictures. Naturally, the three guys with the large catches wanted their photos taken while holding their fish. Then we waited around while everything was cleaned and cut up for packing in our cooler. It all barely fit, about 60 pounds of meat all said and done. It wasn't the largest total haul my boss had seen but not bad for being so late in the season either, especially considering how many larger fish we had to toss back after reeling it in.

So, if the boss is happy everybody is happy. We went to a "hook and cook" restaurant that night and sampled a small portion of our haul fried, grilled, and blackened. It was more than we could eat but at least we could now shut the lid on our crammed-full cooler. It was tasty and the day was memorable, even though I'm not a fisherman. I don't think I have ever been out so far at sea. I have never been on a cruise and as a kid we used to fish the Atlantic, where the water is much deeper so you don't have to venture so far off shore. I think of being out there some 26 miles in 130 feet of pristine blue water in the sudden sun and realize I was blessed and in a foreign place for just a moment.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

October 1813: Gaming the Battle of Nations

The setup for the main battle scenario in the VASSAL module for Leipzig 20.  Notice how the French (blue) are almost completely surrounded by the Coalition (green, white, black) on the map.  This is historically accurate.  More Coalition forces will enter the top of the map as the game continues placing heavy pressure on the French to try to hold the city of Leipzig while clearing a path of retreat off the bottom of the map.  The river system around the city abets the French defense but also restricts the ability of Napoleon's forces to maneuver.
Napoleon Bonaparte is, of course, one of the great genius' of history. Not only was he a great military commander winning memorable battles such as Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram, but he also possessed an expansive mind in government and in economics. 200 years ago today Napoleon commanded his army in the largest battle in western history up until World War One.  Some 124,000 casualties were inflicted over four days of battle amongst two massive armies totally about 600,000 troops.

In 1812, like many other great military leaders, he overstepped his bounds with his invasion of Russia. Even though he won the Battle of Borodino and captured Moscow it was all for naught. He was forced to retreat that winter and by the end of the year his original massive invasion force (one of the largest in history) of over 450,000 troops had dwindled to a few thousand stragglers. Never had anyone suffered such a catastrophic strategic defeat and risen again to be a significant military threat.

Yet, that is precisely what happened just a few months later in the spring of 1813. That campaign took place in Germany, initially with the Russians and Prussians allied against the French forces. By summer the ever-cautious Austrians joined the allied cause against Napoleon. Though the French won the Battle of Dresden in August, they lost almost everywhere else. This is because Napoleon could not be everywhere at once and his Marshalls were not as competent without his presence. So the Coalition forces learned to press vigorously if Napoleon was not present on the field.

This strategy worked. The French, outgunned and outnumbered, were eventually hemmed in at Leipzig. Napoleon was present and in command but he was almost completely surrounded. In four days in October, 1813 Napoleon managed to work interior lines of communication and gave the Coalition forces all they could handle. For their part, the Coalition was a bumbling mass of about 300,000 men. At the time, without large staffs to plan and communication technology to assist with the execution of orders (common today and in 20th century warfare) it was noticeably impractical to handle an army that size. The Coalition force was literally too large for the military art of that time to effectively command.

The cumbersome weight of managing that many troops, combined with Napoleon's daring and ability to control his portion of the battlefield at any moment made the battle at Leipzig technically a draw. But strategically, the French we incapable of driving their united adversaries away from the battlefield. In the end, Napoleon was forced to withdraw, literally fight his way out and back to the west of Leipzig. It is a fascinating military situation and piece of history.

As with many military matters that interest me, I have several games that reflect the Battle of Nations. Nothing compares with a well-designed wargame to afford additional insight into the situation at hand as covered by various books. In my wargame collection, I own the classic Avalon Hill game, Struggle of Nations, which features much of the action of 1813 from operational perspective. It gives you a great overview of the broader situation that led to Napoleon being bottled up at Leipzig.

Napoleon (near center) prepares to command his forces against a Coalition attack near Leipzig.  This is a screen shot from the ADC version of the wargame classic, Napoleon at Leipzig.  Unlike most wargames, this second edition of the game featured diverse unit coloration.  The counter colors have a historic basis, taken from the actual color and pageantry of the various uniforms of the units depicted.  This is just a very small section of the total game map and counters.
As far as the battle itself I own another wargame classic, Napoleon at Leipzig. This game has recently been published in its fifth edition, affording some measure of its lasting interest and commercial success within the wargame marketplace. My own copy is the second edition from long ago. I saw no reason to upgrade as I have really moved on to other interests. But, my copy of NaL gets played periodically and I find both the game system and the situation depicted fascinating and fun.

There are two other games in my collection depicting this military situation. Leipzig 20 is part of the Napoleonic 20 Series which I have blogged about in the past. While more game than simulation, the system does a good job of giving the player as feel for the nature of Napoleonic warfare without a great deal of complexity. The advantage of Leipzig 20 is that the entire battle can be played in 2-3 hours. So, you can try different tactics and variations in chance several times over the course of a weekend whereas most of the other games mentioned in this post take many more hours to play through to completion. These days I rarely complete any of them at all but I might play a Napoleonic 20 series game to conclusion repeatedly over the course of a few days.

Meanwhile, I also own the computer game from John Tiller, a long-time favorite gaming developer for the digital format. As is often the case, the Tiller design is generous, featuring many of the battles of the 1813 Campaign in addition to the massive four-day battle. The battles for Dresden, Kulm, Grossbeeren, Katzbach, and several others are depicted and show the range of French mastery on the battlefield from the first-rate Old Guard to the mediocrity of the newly formed French infantry, many of which were unreliable French allied troops.

I play all these games in their various digital forms. This allows me to save by gaming table for other wargames while also affording me the opportunity to keep several games going, sometimes going months in between playing sessions. I try to keep general written notes on my thinking regarding the situation in, say, Napoleon at Leipzig, so that when I finish a playing session in the winter or spring I can pick it back up in the fall and play through a few more turns without being completely disoriented as to where my mind was when I last left off the situation.

In this way, once again, I gain a new and deeper appreciation of the situation in that October 200 years ago. The Leipzig Campaign and the Battle of Nations mark the last possibility for Napoleon to take the initiative and dictate the overall situation as he had in almost every campaign since his first great victory at the Battle of Marengo. But, despite the unruly nature of managing the number of troops aligned against him, the Coalition forces managed to retain the strategic initiative in spite of Napoleon's limited local successes.

The world had never seen a battle as grand as Leipzig and it tested the limits of the military art at that time. It took an enormous encounter of this kind to send Napoleon's far-flung plans of conquest into oblivion. The Campaign of 1814, considered by many to be Napoleon's finest, was nevertheless another strategic defeat for him. The French forces were of ever-dwindling size and quality while the Coalition forces learned from their mistakes and slowly gained ever-more strength. By 1814, the weight of numbers made Napoleon's brilliance inconsequential. Despite a display of high operational competence, Napoleon could not prevent the capture of Paris.

Unlike the fall of Moscow, which did not lead to the dissolution of the Russian threat, when the French capitol fell it was curtains for Napoleon. He abdicated shortly thereafter. French society and politics was not comparable to the Russians and, indeed, was more fragile than the greatness of Napoleon might suggest. It is fun to spend a few hours each year reviewing the situation that placed Napoleon in that difficulty. There is no better battle to observe and explore the limits of the art of war in the early 19th century than the Battle of Nations where hundreds of thousands of troops stumbled around fighting a series of battles that almost captured Napoleon's entire army and nevertheless took the strategic initiative away from the French leading ultimately to the fall of Napoleon's empire.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Watching Gravity

Sandra Bullock holds on for dear life in a spectacular visual experience of watching the International Space Station be decimated by flying debris in space.  One of Gravity's "wow" moments.
Note: Some minor spoiler's below but, believe me, knowing a little bit about what happens in this film does not diminish from its powerful visual experience.

"Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s Gravity is incontestable evidence for the worth if not outright necessity of the theatrical experience. It is a breathtaking visual spectacle, yet deeply rooted in viewer empathy and character, offering not just incredible sights and sounds but a story worth telling. It is stirring, terrifying, jaw-dropping, and finally genuinely moving. It offers the kind of theoretically game-changing theatrical experience that absolutely demands theatrical viewing on the biggest 3D IMAX screen you can find. It’s slightly too early to say whether or not Gravity is the best film of 2013. But I cannot imagine a more fantastic and thrilling movie going experience." - Forbes Magazine, September 23

I planned to see Gravity anyway, but numerous positive reviews such as the one in Forbes only solidified my decision to see the full effect of the film in IMAX 3D. Yesterday I treated my daughter and her boyfriend to the film. Last weekend the film broke all records for a movie premiere in October. We met our 'Dillo friend Mark near Atlanta for an early lunch and a matinee. We saw the film in the same theater where I watched Avatar, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. Gravity compares with Avatar in that it is primarily in a visual experience. The narrative is there but it is secondary to effect of the CGI on the mind's eye. Gravity sucks your eye in and your mind follows. The image itself is as much a character in the film as those portrayed by Sandra Bullock or George Clooney.

Gravity is a 91-minute film that takes place is semi-real time. That is, the film covers around 3-4 hours of "real" time, so it skips forward in time in places but it feels continuous. Long stretches of the film are in real time, which is part of what makes the film feel so realistic. There are a number of extended takes with no cutaways, no edits, where the camera merely watches the action, sometimes combining long dolly and pan shots with impressive digitized precision. In these moments Gravity draws you in and often wows you with shots like looking down upon the aurora borealis as seen 370 miles above the curvature of the Earth or by witnessing space debris rip apart the International Space Station.

Gravity begins peacefully enough, in the wonder of space, with a routine mission servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.  The hyper-real Earth serves as a splendid backdrop for many extended shots throughout the film.
The film begins with a Space Shuttle maintenance mission on the Hubble Space Telescope. So the viewer gets two iconic spacecraft images from the beginning. The mission progresses for 10-15 minutes into the film with mission control in Houston talking back and forth with the astronauts as they work on an electronic board that is not functioning properly. The first thing to be lost is communications with the Mission Control. From this point on, Clooney and Bullock refer to the ground as "Houston in the Blind" instead of just "Houston". Soon, for reasons explained in the movie, satellite space debris tears through the mission before it can be aborted, killing the entire crew except for Bullock and Clooney.

The two survivors then manage to propel themselves to the (luckily) nearby International Space Station, where apparently the crew has already left in one of the two Soyuz return capsules docked at the station. The station received some damage from the initial passage of debris but is mostly operational. The other Soyuz craft is functional but its landing shoot has been accidentally deployed and entangled in the station infrastructure, probably as collateral damage from passage of the debris field. This is an example of how the realistic nature of the narrative progresses.

The velocity and altitude of the debris field allows the astronauts to calculate that the field orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. So, about an hour into it, the film experiences the second passage of the field, this is why I call it semi-real time. This time it smashes the International Space Station. The explosive debris created by dozens of impacts in the weightlessness and directionlessness of space is a spectacle that rivals Avatar in wow factor. But, whereas Avatar created this fantastic reality that wowed you, Gravity's appeal is that attempts to replicate concrete reality in minute detail.  Same CGI mastery and complexity, different objectives, same eye-popping affect.  Every single piece is seen in pristine definition against the beautifully detailed Earth whose features you can make out (if you know geography) several hundred miles below.

Gravity in IMAX 3D is truly a theatrical experience; it is what going to the movies (as opposed to watching on your home theater) is all about. First of all, I always appreciate the sound quality of an IMAX theater. You feel the bass deep in your chest and yet you can make out every whisper. A marvelous audio system. Seeing the various spacecraft/orbiters set against the Earth for extended shots grips the eye with reality. The sun and stars set against the infinite darkness of space feels vast. But, at the other extreme, sometimes the film goes inside the spacecraft and inside the astronaut's helmet, literally placing the viewer into the heads-up display on the helmet.

In this way, the image becomes intimate. There is a strong human element to the film in the form Bullock's rich depth of character brought out both alone and in conversation with Clooney. I think Bullock's performance is a superb one and she has a lot of material to work with. But even so, I'm not sure the film succeeds in making the viewer feel human intimacy to the level of intensity of the image itself. It might take another viewing (at a regular theater this time) to fully consider whether the narrative material matches the visuals.

There is a metaphorical aspect to the film that, while not as profound as 2001, is perhaps more human than Kubrick's brilliant film. Gravity is no 2001 in terms of being mind-blowing but it does speak to the human condition. Bullock floats in a fetal position inside the space station (in a very hot tight pair of sports shorts on her amazing 40-something physique) with a tether floating behind her like an umbilical cord. Later, she crawls out of water onto a shoreline, staggers to her feet and walks, a nod to the evolution of biped mammals.

Here is a woman who is scarred by life, who has everything going against her, who is facing a seemingly impossible survival situation, who is terrified but courageous, intelligent yet emotional. Bullock becomes Everyman in this film, her situation is a metaphor for the difficulties all of us face living on planet Earth. Our safety and security and peace of mind has been ruptured by debris (political, economic, environmental, physical) beyond our control. Here is where Bullock's portrayal possibly connects with us most intimately.

Fundamentally, this metaphorical aspect to Gravity, along with our empathy for Bullock's character, makes it an inspiring film. Gravity's message is "OK, you're in this shit. What are you going to do about it?" I can not think of anything more relevant to our times. Whereas in 2001 the inspired message is that it is time to move to the next stage in human evolution, in Gravity the message is much more practical - how can you make it through all these challenges with your flawed and damaged life?

Gravity is easily an 8, not quite a 9, but it is tough to be definitive after only one viewing. It is a ground-breaking visual experience with solid performances and an inspirational undertone but really, with the exception of the incredible images which I extravagantly enjoyed in IMAX, the narrative element and inspirational side have been done before. And, try as they might, these elements don't live up to the power of the image itself, which is overwhelming, but that is a good thing nonetheless.

Sandra Bullock in weightlessness.  She slowly wraps herself into a fetal position as the tether behind her floats like an umbilical cord in a womb.  Part of the film's metaphorical aspect.
Late note: Gravity maintained momentum in its second weekend by grossing an additional $44.3 million.  It remained the number one movie at the box office.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Stumbling Into October: The All-too-likely Story of the 2013 Atlanta Braves

At the time of my most recent post on the Atlanta Braves, they were at the top of baseball. Best record. Chris Johnson was the leading NL batter. Best pitching. Solid defense. But only mediocre hitting. Well, in September their hitting went from bad to worse. Their pitching, including their great bullpen, became more inconsistent. All-in-all they were less than a .500 ball club, going 13-14 in the season’s final month; hardly the epitome of momentum.

For that reason, they ended up losing the home field advantage in the play-offs by one game. So, instead of playing the wild-card Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLDS, the Braves took on the Los Angeles Dodgers, probably baseball’s best team in the second half of 2013. Which meant the Braves mediocre offense had to face probably the best pitcher in baseball right now, Clayton Kershaw.  Twice in four games, as it turned out.

When you are down to one game being the difference between playing the wild-card team and the best team in the second half you can pick any game at all as the culprit. But, I can’t look past the final week of the season at home and the Braves losing 2 out of 3 against the lowly Milwaukee Brewers. The two losses, 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, were not close enough to consider the possibility of winning either of them. Yet the postseason schedule would have been completely different had the Braves been able to turn one of those into a win. Instead, by getting shut out those two games, the Braves controlled their own destiny right into the worst possible postseason schedule in 2013’s National League.

The shut outs were fitting in a way. They reflect the inconsistent offense that has sent me raving around the house cursing their bats all season long. No two players better represent the extremes of the Braves offense than Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. Freeman was awesome, a true MVP candidate with a .319 batting average, 23 home runs and 109 RBIs in addition to playing outstanding first base defensively. He turned all kinds of wild throws by the Braves infield into outs with his fancy footwork on the bag and his excellent glove. Uggla had a decent year defensively at second base. But, we saw him make history in 2013. He became one of the few players in the entire history of major league baseball stretching back to 1901 to bat at least 500 times in a season and hit under .190.  Uggla batted .179.  It is the lowest major league batting average in over 20 years. That’s an ugly Uggla…and we have to pay him two more years on his multi-million dollar contract. Ugh.

This was the debate all season long about the 2013 Atlanta Braves. Where they an overrated team tenuously hanging on to the lead? Or were they an underachieving team that had yet to reach their full potential? I could not tell. Following them was a frustrating experience, despite their relative success. If you take away the historic double winning streaks of 10-in-a-row in April and 14-in-a-row in August they were only 6 games above .500 for the year. But why should we cheat them of the great accomplishment of being red hot twice in a season? They ended up 96-66, tied for the third best record in baseball.

So, the Braves battled the Dodgers.  They had not met in the postseason since 1996 when (in happier times) the Braves swept the Dodgers. I had no such high hopes for this series. I knew we would have to beat Kershaw twice and the Dodgers had gone an astonishing 42-8 over a 50-game stretch in the second half. That is wicked winning baseball. At the beginning of the series I felt that Mike Minor was the key to the Braves success. I figured our bullpen would do its job and that Kris Medlin would do his job (voted NL pitcher of the month in September). Well, it turns out Minor pitched decently (not great but good enough) in game two for a Braves 4-3 win. Craig Kimbrel made his only impact of the series by recording a four-out save. But that was our only victory. The Dodgers took game one with a crushing 6-1 score, game three with an even more crushing 13-6 score, and then the finale last night in a close 4-3 game. Hats off to late-season acquisition Freddy Garcia for pitching a decent 6 innings and giving us a chance to win.

But we didn’t win. This is what baseball teaches. Every season ends with only one winner. Everybody else is left to either lick their wounds or to take consolation in lesser achievements. Baseball is a lesson in humility. So, I’m not all that down today as I sort through the memories of 2013 and of previous Braves seasons. I take solace in the fact that we are a young team, my post in September reflected on all our youth. And with youth, hope springs eternal. We’ll be back, at some point. Hopefully I won’t have to wait another 8 seasons for our next division championship (our last one was in 2005). But, even if I have to wait another decade or two one thing remains certain. I am a Braves fan.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reading The Transhumanist Wager

Last month I finished reading The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan. This is his first novel. Istvan attempts a great deal with his piece of fiction. He tries to capture the essential philosophic and cultural implications of the various aspects of the transhumanist movement, projecting slightly forward in time. He attempts to do so with dramatic flair. The novel contains a passionate love affair, a world war, and lots of heavy pontifications by the primary characters.

In this regard it is not unlike what Fyodor Dostoyevsky does in The Brothers Karamazov and what Ayn Rand does in Atlas Shrugged. Both of these novels are great literature in their distinctive ways and I recommend them to any who might be looking for a long read that requires a bit of mental chewing to fully appreciate. Alas, The Transhumanist Wager fails to accomplish these heights.

Though an intriguing read in portions and in underlying narrative, the novel is rather poorly written overall. It reads too much like a textbook. I don't find myself particularly sympathizing with any of the characters. I enjoy the ideas Istvan is wrestling with but his telling and resolution of them in the novel feels rather shallow to me. So, while I enjoyed the novel as a fascinating mental exercise in fiction, it comes off even more preachy and predictable than either Rand or Dostoyevsky. And that turns me off.

Jethro Knights is the novel's primary character. He is a brilliant young futurist with leanings toward radical human life extension. There comes a time when transhumanists worldwide are under attack by religious groups and, ultimately, certain governments for their attempts at human life extension and the emergence of genuine virtual consciousness. During this time Knights is a mover and shaker in the transhumanist sphere.

He meets and falls in love with an equally brilliant half-British, half-Chinese physician named Zoe Bach. They have a complete and erotic affair, though the writing itself is technical and devoid of any true eroticism. (At least Ayn Rand managed to be slightly more erotic in her work.) The couple are totally into one another physically and intellectually though there is a lot of friction as they don't philosophically agree about the nature of death and of transhumanism itself. That is some great material to work with. Unfortunately, the relationship's passion is more reported than described and possesses little power in the actual prose of the novel.

In the end, idealistically and somewhat naively on Istvan's part, all the transhumanists of the world retreat to their own artificial island and live there (again, this has echoes of John Galt). There transhumanism receives its full and unadulterated freedom. Within less than a decade they are on the verge of transforming what being human is all about. The world reacts and a world war results. Transhumanism is triumphant and the religions and former institutions of government in the world are transformed. Kind of an unbelievable overkill for my tastes but, as I said, it isn't a really good novel even though I find its various narrative elements fascinating.

My interest in transhumanism dates back to the 1990's. I became interested in life extension, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. During this time I worked out my present regimen of exercise, supplementation, nutrition, sex, yoga, artistic and intellectual stimulation. My intent was very specific. I did not seek the truth. I sought to live as healthily as I could for as long as I could. Maybe later in life I could upload my brain into an artificial reality. Maybe I could be preserved until such a possibility or its equivalent is routine reality. Or something to that effect. That was my motivation at the time.

Over the past couple of decades I have pondered how traditional human culture might react to the radicalization of the Now posed by transhumanism, by being able to extend my experience and awareness for centuries if not indefinitely. That seems absurd. And the more fundamentally religious you are the more it seems down-right evil, to be denied and persecuted in this sinful world. So, the possible negative reactions to transhumanism depicted in Istvan's novel are certainly plausible in my opinion.

Istvan does a pretty good job of summarizing the underlying polarity.  "The conflict over transhumanism was straightforward. Futurists, technologists, and scientists touted transhuman fields like cryonics, cloning, artificial intelligence, bionics, stem cell therapy, robotics, and genetic engineering as their moral and evolutionary right - and as crucial future drivers of the new economy and an advancing cultural mindset in America. Opponents said transhumanism and its immortality mantra were anti-theistic, immoral, not humanitarian, and steeped in blasphemous egoism. They insisted that significantly altering the human condition and people's bodies via science and technology was the devil's work, regardless of how lucrative it might be for the economy. Many opponents said transhumanism was proof the end times was coming. Others labeled it 'the world's most dangerous idea.'" (pp. 7-8)

Toward the end of his novel, Istvan gets rather preachy, as I mentioned, through Jethro Knights. But, to honest, I find myself agreeing with him more often than not. "From the day you were born until this moment, two things have been hounding you, blinding you, and holding you back. The first is the human race's defunct culture. The second in our species' handicapping mammalian biological instincts. Human culture is the most debilitating of the two. For many thousands of years now, the human race has been indoctrinated to submit to orthodoxy and to cower before authority, and to swallow endless nonsense of both. You have been brainwashed to sacrifice your innermost desires, your most obvious needs, your most natural outlook on reality, just to live as a hostage in a cage of carefully regulated and fabricated cognitive existence." (page 273)

I have written in several previous posts how our culture is a outworn pathetic mess, particularly where the association of guilt is concerned, the most worthless human experience in the world. "To transhumanists, the most grotesque of all the methods of control was the perpetuation of fear in your lives; not by threat of violence, but by implicit guilt. This powerful addiction of worrying about what others think of you, and about what is socially acceptable to others, has been systematically instilled in humans for thousands of years, perpetuated by world religion, ethnicity, and government. It's aim is to weaken people's wills and to silence their most precious independent tool: the ability to freely, guiltlessly, and publicly judge and criticize the world around them." (page 275)

Then he sounds a bit like Morpheus from The Matrix. "The truth is so simple to see once you understand it: Religion, ethnic heritage, state power, material addiction, and media entrapment are nothing more than pieces of an intangible psychological construct designed to keep you thinking and living a certain way. It's designed to keep you in fear of becoming as powerful as you can be; to keep you producing for others and contributing to their overall gain, and not your own." (page 276)

Next he seems to espouse the grandeur of Nietzsche's greater insights. "We live according to what we believe we are becoming; we call it the futurization of values. We do it because we know the universe is not finished. The universe is changing, evolving. And with it, each of us is evolving. And in this evolution, a modification of values is not only immediately necessary, but also constantly necessary. This evolution and its futurization of values is the examination and comprehension of everything we consider important, and it is the best foothold we have in facilitating our climb to the highest powers we can achieve. By living that way, we will inevitably become that way - the way we desire." (page 280)

But, ultimately, the Transhumanist movement, by definition, is about leaving much of our humanity aside. And here we enter the realm of science fiction or at least lofty speculation of the possible in the vane of Ray Kurzweil and Eric Drexler. "The coming androids, cyborgs, thinking robots, artificial intelligence system, and other transhuman entities in our civilization will operate off different ethics than do purely biological beings. Their value system will be sounder, less emotionally fragmented, more purely related to computational logic, and free of baggage culture and archaic instincts. They may not need food; they might not need sunlight; they may not need air. They may not even need the Earth at all anymore. They will be stronger and more resilient than we are. Those are all the reason Transhumanians will promote them - and why we will transform ourselves into them. We transhumanists are on an ascent from being frail, disease-prone savages to being conscious, self-designed entities that may never need health maintenance again. And after that, who knows what will become and how far we will evolve." (page 284)

I would summarize the narrative tension of this novel from my own purely philosophical perspective. Transhumanism represents a distinctive form of human wonder. It challenges traditional human wonder and is, therefore, acutely dangerous to it. A basic quality for all of joyful humanity is a sense of wonder connecting through bountiful pathways in our intimate lives. It is a component vastly under-studied and under-rated, though certainly Joseph Campbell did his part to correct this error. Possessing a sense of wonder is the cornerstone for our intimate human Being and you simply cannot experience happiness or even contentment without wonder. It is impossible.

Historically, wonder has come from mystery, from not knowing, from appeasement to higher forces or through paths toward understanding of the human self as it is now. The mystery of our nature is our joy. This is so fundamental across the spectrum of human Lifeworlds that it is transparent, you can not see it, it is not even discussed. Yet, its importance and volatility is readily apparent once the Tranhumanist paradigm is injected into the orthodoxy of mystery. Instead, transhumanists are motivated by and, indeed, can be said to worship, the wonder of possibility. Possibility and mystery do not mix. The former is a proactive invention, the latter is a quest for what already is. They form a potent dialectic, which is why I believe The Transhumanist Wager is right-on in predicting a nasty global cultural backlash against what it attempts to do. It threatens to change the sense of wonder in humanity in addition to attain radical life extension, even immortality, and the possibility of non-biological life and meaning.

No religion or self-awareness technique or psychological practice on the planet is prepared to accept this. It threatens all of them because it renders them meaningless. Nothing devalues mystery like longevity of experience. And the longer the experience, the less appealing mystery becomes through the passage of time and the more possibility is elevated. Who needs the mystery of humanity when you possess the possibility of living many centuries, experiencing entirely different versions of yourself, at your own choosing, within your own power and complete freedom? Mystery is then pointless.

That, to me, is what The Transhumanist Wager is all about. A fascinating topic, unfortunately the novel comes off as more of a geeky high school level read than a fine-tuned work of fiction worthy of serious consideration as literature. It is cult-fiction masquerading as profundity. There is a lot of potential punch here that instead comes off like a lame and sterile textbook. But if you can handle rather predictable, one-dimensional characters who never question themselves and are filled with self-righteous certainty, then give it a try. Interesting ideas unfortunately don't make for great prose anywhere in this case.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Salonen: Out of Nowhere

I owned and enjoyed Esa-Pekka Salonen's brilliant Violin Concerto (2009) before I purchased the app containing an exciting portion of it, The Orchestra. It was about my third listening to the piece after I acquired it earlier this year on a 2012 premiere CD that I decided it ranks with most other great compositions in this form throughout classical music history. It is an outstanding piece of music that is sophisticated and moving, vigorous and contemplative. This music validates contemporary classical music in a flagship manner. You have to go back decades to find anything of equal comparison. Such a rare greatness.

The greatest concerto for violin ever composed was by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1806. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed several great ones with the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1775) being my favorite. Other brilliant concertos for violin include those by Felix Mendelssohn (1844), Johannes Brahms (1884), Jean Sebelius (1903), Alban Berg (1936), Bela Bartok's No. 2 (1938), and John Adams (1993). I would place the Salonen effort in this company, like all of them, below Beethoven. How exciting it is for such great music to be freshly composed!

The concerto (see it on youtube in two parts here and here) begins with Mirage an 8 and half minute movement. The solo violin is stated organically with xylophone and similar percussion instruments until the full orchestra is summoned in a wealth of sound featuring high pitched flutes triumphant. The second and third movements, known as Pulse 1 and Pulse 2, are comparatively brief but full of lightning. They are featured in the app The Orchestra. The first time I heard Pulse 2 I was astonished. It still grips me with its powerful rock and roll style of composition. The finale is aptly designated as Adieu and lasts 12 minutes. Nothing spectacular here but nevertheless a strong, interesting orchestration winding through occasional jazzy realms by various horns before the whole orchestra just finally fades away.

Salonen has been a talent I have appreciated for many years. After a long period where his conducting duties, predominantly with the LA Philharmonic, demanded most of his time, he has now reversed the priorities of his career. He composes much more these days and now only occasionally conducts. As I have mentioned before, he is the most direct heir of Witold Lutoslawski, a composer I admire above all others in more recent classical composition.

Given this relatively late transition into "full time" composition, Salonen has a comparatively small body of work. In my collection I have him conducting Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and, of course, Lutoslawski. I own all of his currently available compositions on CD. They were all released in this century. LA Variations was released in 2001 and features five compositions. Wing On Wing followed in 2005 with three orchestral pieces. In 2008 he released the CD featuring Helix for Orchestra which I previously blogged about. Then there is the 2012 release, Out Of Nowhere, I mentioned above. Four CD's of mostly strong classical compositions overall. In addition I have another CD which features some piano compositions by Salonen, Lutoslawski, and Steven Stucky.

LA Variations (1997) is an interesting 20-minute modern full orchestral form. It is a solid composition as are several others on the CD, most notably an early Salonen composition, Giro for Orchestra (1981, a 10-minute movement) and Gambit for Orchestra (1998, 9-minutes). Wing on Wing (2004) is the title composition on Salonen's second CD. It surpasses LA Variations as an excellent 26-minute movement for orchestra. It features ethereal double-saprono vocals. It pushes boundaries with an interesting spoken word section as the orchestra creates a sphere for the words. The movement is a complete concept, a really impressive work. Foreign Bodies (2001) is another strong orchestral effort; three uneven movements over about 20-minutes displaying compositional competence in all areas of orchestration. Insomnia (2002, 21-minutes) is another sophisticated, melodic, often bombastic movement for orchestra. A memorable composition.

Salonen's third CD began with the wonderful Helix for Orchestra (2005) which I enthusiastically reviewed when I first heard it. His Piano Concerto (2007) is one of his weaker efforts, in my opinion. It rumbles around in the lower register all the time, brooding, and is a muddling experience. Dichotomie (2000) is an interesting solo piano piece, but again we have more of a muddled mess than anything. Out of Nowhere contains the brilliant Violin Concerto which is accompanied on the CD by Nyx (2010), another extended orchestral movement by Salonen. Nyx is a highly accessible, at times sensual, at times anxious. It isn't better than, say, Wing On Wing, but it is more classic and textured and competent enough to stand alongside the Violin Concerto. For that reason, I cannot recommend Out of Nowhere enough to anyone interested in introducing themselves to contemporary classical music. It is one of the must-own CDs of this century to date.