Sunday, August 28, 2016

Mind War: Part Seven -- Beware the Narrative

Narratology was birthed in the mid-60s as a spinoff of linguistics. The field started with a structuralist or definitional approach (universal elements or themes of narrative, definitions of narrative elements, etc.). In the past couple of decades however, the field has become more pragmatic with an applied and culture-specific approach (stories in difficult cultures, storytelling as an activity, modern storytelling in media).

I'm not a narratologist (nor do I play one on TV), but I have a long-standing interest in the power of story to shape thought and belief and even reality. I use narrative in my professional life, for job hunting and career advancement, for inter-personal communication (like parenting skills), and -- naturally -- for magic. I think the concept of narrativizing your own story arc is an extremely powerful way of interacting with the universe and integrating a sense of the liminal and numinous into your daily life.

So, recently I was at a conference (for career development) where storytelling was one of the topics. And I had an interesting realization. The knowledge and skills around communication are tools that can be used for either good or evil. Your goal can be greater understanding, or raw manipulation of other people to your own ends. And storytelling is not exempt from this fact.

You can use the tools of storytelling to communicate histories and morals and symbols... to create a social reality based on shared perspectives. Or you can use narrative to twist the truth, manipulate morals and ethics, propagandize harmful ideology, and strip away the symbols that you don't approve of to replace them with the ones that make you money or bring you power. Storytelling can be just another form of propaganda, but one that often gets a pass or flies under the radar.

Here's the theory:

The traditional paradigm of the rational world is a scientific or philosophical approach to knowledge that assumes people are logical and make decisions on the basis of evidence and lines of argument.   


Fisher reacts against this model as too limited and suggests a new paradigm of narrative rationality, which views narrative as the basis of all human communication. The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument. According to Fisher, the narrative paradigm is all-encompassing. Therefore, all communication can be looked at through a narrative lens, even though it may not meet the traditional literary requirements of a narrative. He begins with the proposition that:

  • People are essentially storytellers.
  • The world is a set of stories from among which we must choose in order to live in a process of continual re-creation.[1] Each individual chooses the ones that match his or her values and beliefs.
  • Making decisions depends on judgments about these good reasons. Although people claim reasons for their decisions,[1] such as history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved, all of these may be subjective and incompletely understood.

The test of narrative rationality is based on the probability, coherence, and fidelity of the stories that underpin the immediate decisions to be made.
-- Wikipedia

So basically, we believe things based on confirmation bias and whether it makes for a good story.

Of course I think I already knew this in an intuitive sense, but hadn't been as conscious of it until recently.  I only thought about it consciously because I've been increasingly suspicious of the heavy-handed use of narrative I see in our society. I can only assume that I'm noticing the most egregious examples and that there are many more subtle manipulations that I'm not aware of. Here are a few examples:
  • Political campaign narrative. The conventions were a great example of complex and expensive storytelling used to shape mass opinion. From Trump as the outsider in a world that's rapidly crumbling to Hillary as the progressive choice in world moving forward. It's pretty obvious that both stories are laden with huge amounts of bullshit. It's easier to smell coming from the party you don't agree with, but it's honestly neck deep on both sides.
  • Generational narrative. This one is my pet peeves and drives me to distraction. Any story that talks about generation this or that or tells you that certain cohorts believe or act in a certain way are simply crap. They're divisive nonsense that serves to strip away our sense of continuity and make us suspicious of one another. When I was in my early 20s the narrative was that Boomers were great but Gen X sucked. Naturally the older generation was the source of this story. Now that Gen X is in their 40s the new narrative is that Gen X is great and the Millennials suck. Or even that Boomers and Gen X suck and we're stuck in the middle. We need to be smarter than to fall for this. Yes, they shit on us when we were young, but that doesn't mean we should shit on them now or, even more importantly, that we should shit on those who are younger.
  • Sports narrative. This one is more annoying, but the recent Olympics means it's at the forefront of our current discourse. Athletic performance is almost less important than having a good backstory (that you overcame adversity or have a win-fail-win arc -- Phelps, or a fall from a height story -- Armstrong, or are a protege). And the Olympics is at least a meritocracy. Reality TV that involves athletic ability or talent seem to select specifically for having a good story.
  • Racial narrative. This is an entire dissertation in and of itself, but the disparity in news coverage and the way that stories are handled depending on the race of those involved is a good starting example. For example, the Bundy Malheur Occupation was covered extensively in national media. The North Dakota Native American Oil Pipeline Protest has almost no mainstream coverage -- despite being much larger and more effective.
  • Success narrative and hatred of the poor. This one is particularly insidious and nasty. It's like we never got past the Puritan Doctrine of Predestination and the idea that material success is a sign of God's favor (right on down to The Secret) . From welfare queens to crack babies to generational unemployment. Non-poor people tell stories about poor people that are more about assuaging guilt than accuracy or honesty. 
When you tell yourself bullshit stories in order to feel better, that's bad. When we tell each other bullshit stories to create a reality that doesn't reflect the experiences of people living in it, that's worse. And when top-down mechanisms (governments, media, religious) tell bullshit stories to manipulate us, that's criminal.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sustain-ability: Redundancy Case Study

By the way, this is officially my 100th post!

Our house came with a new, but very cheap, electric coil stove. After six year of heavy use (including a great deal of canning, which involves large heavy pots full of water and glass jars filled with stuff) it began to fail. We'd replace electronics and burners and put up with increasingly erratic oven behavior. After my last batch of fruit preserves, the large front burner didn't just die again, but actually cracked into the stove top. It was time for a new stove.

A glass top stove isn't recommended for canning (and so was a non-starter) and another coil stove just seemed depressing. So after some debate we decided to take the leap and have natural gas piped to the house so we could get a "real stove" in my husband the chef's words.

This is quite a production. The gas company has to run the line and install the meter, another company has to install the internal piping (with the attendant permitting and inspections) and install the stove. The hood (we had a lame stove top microwave recirculating thing -- not to code for gas) needed to be installed and piped out of the house. The original plan was to tap into the existing line to my neighbor's house reducing costs, but this plan fell apart. Everything was delayed. The hood installation was so terrible that my husband had to redo most of the work himself. We had to reschedule the internal installers because of the logistics delay with the gas line. The stove was sitting forlorn in our garage for weeks. Finally the installers came and the old stove went out to the curb... just about a minute before the gas company called to reschedule our install to September 2nd. Ooops.

This means that we are in the midst of a 2-week gap with no working stove.

This is annoying. It's doubly annoying because the new stove is right there in the kitchen, all shiny and beautiful -- and it doesn't work! And my stockpile of preserves will no doubt suffer.

But it's actually not that big of a deal. Why? Redundancy.

We currently have a crockpot, an electric pressure cooker, a backyard propane grill with a side burner, a bread machine, and a countertop top induction burner (as seen on TV). I know it sounds nutty, but all of these appliances were in regular use already. Now they are just getting more attention. I can't bake (except bread). I can't can ("can't can" lol). But we can cook and feed ourselves easily enough. There are a lot of one pot meals and grilling, but it's just fine.

And ironically, the installation of the gas stove just increases our redundancy. Previously, if we had a power outage, we'd be grilling. But now we'll be able to proceed as usual. Of course when the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake hits, we'll be completely screwed in any case. I guess we'd need a redundant house in another part of the country to deal with that.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

PMPM -- Case Study: Project Ivy (and Important Announcement)

TL;DR? Skip to the end for an important announcement regarding the price of my Tarot readings.

In my very productive session with Magus, I expressed that this natal year was feeling really important and meaningful. However, my initial thinking was that this meant major changes or huge elaborate workings. The feedback I got though was slightly different. Magus indicated that my chart and the cards were pointing to a much more internally focused effort this year. Not working on big external changes, but on myself. And doing so in a very regular, persistent way. The image that came to mind is water wearing the stone.

Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi, sed saepe cadendo -- Ovid

Sigh. Of course he's right and what he said resonated deeply. He also gave me some very good pointers on where to focus, on the vision and goal, and on some weaknesses that I needed to overcome. But fortunately or unfortunately, this isn't the right time to kick that off. No, right now I need to focus on some external clean up and the kind of detail-oriented mundane life management that can take a lot of energy.

See, this is why I love astrology. The "weather" isn't quite optimum to start. Knowing that, I can focus on dealing with those mundane details (which include house stuff, travel planning, a huge amount of day-job work, and getting the kid started as freshman in high school). In addition, I can start the planning process in a low pressure way. And you know I love me some planning.

So I have my vision and goal (and awesomely enough, tarot signifiers for them, which I can use for visualization and symbol creation). I have high level areas that I'm working on (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual -- logical enough for a self focused project). I'm starting by identifying some high level focus areas (so for physical, I include outdoor exercise and for mental a program of study that I've been considering for some time). These aren't goals yet, but they do imply goals.

This is important because while forward progress will be important, I risk over-goaling myself into procrastination and stasis. See, the way I'm approaching this is a project to overhaul operations in my life. What does that mean?

Well, many of the things I'm considering have more to do with ongoing effort and habit change than a specific end result. For example, I don't want to lose x pounds by Christmas, I want to make outdoor exercise a regular part of my life. I don't want to overhaul my entire ancestor practice, I just want to strengthen my current work and be more regular about it. There are a few things that are more specifically goal oriented, but most of the goals are "change habit for x" or "develop habit for y." And that means a much more iterative approach to project Ivy. It also means some prioritization has to happen so that as my time frees up and the space weather becomes favorable, I need to make sure that I give myself the time I need.

One result is that starting this Friday, all my tarot reading prices are going to increase significantly. Despite every effort to streamline the process, I find that performing and documenting these readings is taking a significant amount of my time -- the Life Crafting Divination can take upward of four hours of focused work. These are not simple readings and the reports that accompany them are thorough (the one I'm currently finishing is 10 pages of just analysis -- not including the photos). However, I'm going to be offering an alternative to have the results delivered through an hour-long skype call where you can ask questions and we can discuss the results live. Any already purchased readings are obviously going to be completed at the current rates.

This isn't a "buy now" sale. This is an honest effort to align my priorities with my goals for the coming year. But if I was about to purchase something and then the price jumped up with no notice, I'd be pretty pissed off. And I don't want anyone being pissed off.

I may create some less comprehensive readings at a lower price point in the future, but for now my focus is on launching a new service, which takes time to do.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Stars in the Desert

I've just returned from another week in the desert. It seems like longer than 13 months since I was there last.

There were all the same problems as last time (bad food and water, too much corporate chaos to truly take a full vacation, reminders of childhood that are sometimes challenging). But there were also some really powerful things that struck me this visit: the silence of the desert, the number of stars, the sheer space and emptiness.

We drove over to Roswell for a day trip. It's a beautiful drive and, at the kid's request, we stopped at every mission, chapel, and graveyard we passed.  Nothing like a NM RC graveyard. Those people know their ancestor worship.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bent NM

And here's a great photo before they added the ramp and railing

If you have the chance, visit the International UFO Museum... especially if you like to read old news clippings (lots of old news clippings). Of course, I have it on good authority that it was not a weather balloon and "those bodies I saw weren't manikins." So for me there isn't a lot of mystery. This is what comes from having a family history in the area.

We also went out at night to view the Perseid meteors, which... well you couldn't pick a better place.

Sure, it was still hot and dry and my parents house feels like a nice hotel in a 3rd world country, but it was also a very different experience. Funny how two visits to the same place can be so different. The only thing that's changed is myself.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Deep Occulted Secret about Planning (That I'm Totally Just Going to Explain for Free Right Now)

The only constant in this world is change. Best laid plans o' mice and men and all that. It's a near certainty that whatever plans you make are going to get shaken all to pieces by the forces of chaos and that your road is going to be a crooked one.
Yeah, this is pretty much right...
It's an open secret among project managers that plans are nearly 100% likely to go awry at some point. In the field, plan is always a verb. It's a thing you do -- an ongoing action you take -- and not a thing that you ever really finish. Many a PM has found themselves updating the final plan after the project is complete -- a record of what, in the end, finally happened.

You'd think this might drive people from the profession, the way that tech writers are discouraged by the fact that people don't actually read manuals. But in fact, it's kind of the key to project management as a career. After all, if all you needed was a single starting plan to make things come right, you wouldn't need a PM past the few couple of weeks of the project.

So why should you bother planning at all (and why do companies keep PMs on staff permanently)?

Flowcharts are impressive. And it's the boxes that matter,
you don't really need to have any actual content.
Because the act of planning help the project be successful even if the plan is, inevitably, wrong. Even when it changes. Even if you end up, as every PM has at one point or another, throwing out the plan entirely and starting again. But forget professional project management for a minute. What about your personal projects? Why does planning make a difference when the plan is inevitably going to be wrong?

Here's why planning matters (from the personal and magical perspective that we're interested in here at CircleThrice):

  • Skin in the game. Taleb knows it. When people have something on the line, they are more focused and more likely to do the right thing. Planning forces you to put something on the line -- at minimum, your time and energy. It's also a statement that you will have skin in the game. It's your statement of the sacrifice you will make to get to your goal. 
  • Intent. Making a plan is stating your will to the universe. You have a goal and it's not just a daydream. It's real. You can tell because you have a plan. Goals without plans are often just fantasies. Magically, this intent is critical. It's the starting point for action. 
  • Visibility. If you know you need to do something, then why don't you always do it? Sometimes it's simply a matter of visibility. If your ancestors are tucked away in a back bedroom or closet, they can be easily forgotten. If they are looking down at you from the dining room wall, you are a lot more likely to acknowledge them. A plan that you review acts the same way.
  • Accountability. When you share your goals with others, you are more likely to follow through. That's because the fear of public embarrassment and failure can be motivating. A plan works similarly. You are saying, "I want to do this thing and I'm hereby stating HOW I will do it." Even if you don't share the plan, the spirits hear it. 
  • Continued effort. Needing to change your plan isn't a failure, it's part of the process. You may need to adjust to meet your goal and you may even need to adjust your goal based on additional information or changing circumstances. A meticulous plan that you put in a drawer isn't done. A plan isn't ever done. Having and revisiting a plan forces you to revisit your thinking, which keeps the pressure on.
  • Manifestation. In my original PMPM planning posts, I mentioned that in magical projects, the act of planning can actually start manifesting results. This is because you apply the powers of the mage (knowledge, daring, and will) as part of the planning process. So you see things happen just from planning to make them happen. 
I think that people give up on planning because, well, things change and why bother to plan? But planning still has value when things change... it has value because things change. 

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Planning Time / Timing Plan

As someone with a probably dysfunctional love of planning, I'll look for any excuse to plan. I'll plan for the new year, I'll plan out the summer (though I didn't this year, it was seat of the pants all the way). And I'll particularly plan at the start of autumn.

Behold, the analog timekeeping device!
(misusing clipart since 2006)
Growing up in New Mexico, I always felt like autumn was really the start of the year. In part it's because it was the start of each new school year, in part because the summer months are kind of dead months there (everything dies, the weather is miserable). But it was also because I happened to be born near the start of August. This year, as I approach that benchmark, I happened across several valuable resources -- or they happened across me -- that are proving prescient in giving me the information I need to make my next year's plan happen. Things like books (Pieces of Eight among others), references online, answers to key questions.

I also had the opportunity to experience a conjure coaching session with Magus Boswell. This one really came out of the blue at exactly the right time for me. I was seeking around for some kind of annual forecast from a third party to help me sort out the coming year (which has been feeling very weighty in some indefinable way).

It's important for me to acknowledge that I can be prone to blind spots, wishful thinking, and self-deception about my own stuff and that I need external, objective input. It's always easier to see other people's stuff than your own and I was in particular need of a outside perspective.

I have to just say that Magus is very good. Blunt and honest but without a lot of ego, he was very clear about my strengths and weaknesses and honed in rapidly on the work I need to do. He approaches the process in a very freeform and intuitive way, which I respect. He switches between modalities (astrology, tarot, geomancy) seamlessly and logically and provided very pointed feedback. I got a ton out of it and highly recommend it. I fully expect to have at least annual followups.

All of the data I'm collating are going to be informing my plan for the coming year. First I'll be dealing with some loose ends, unpleasant chores, and mundane details. But then I hope to kick off a new personal project, internally focused and not very flashy, probably around the autumn equinox. The next phase of my life will go through the spring of 2020 and this coming 12 months is going to be the preliminary work for that longer effort. That means that I get to do some juicy planning, which I love to do. So while the project is probably too personal and specific to be helpful to others, I may share some of my planning ideas and tools over the next six months.

If you never thought about where you want to be in five years or three (or ten) you might want to give it a try. It's both interesting and motivating. Plus it gives you an excuse to do some awesome fun planning... not that you need one, right?

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review: Pieces of Eight and the Unwriteable Fourth Book

The other night my husband made an amazing pasta sauce for dinner. It was very richly flavored, starting with a mirepoix and including roast chicken meat, pancetta cubes, green olives, artichoke hearts, and tomato sauce and paste. It was superb and very flavorful, but when I tasted it there was a hole in the middle of the flavor.

"Ah," he said, "needs salt." I wouldn't have thought that, as it wasn't at all bland, but he was right. A pinch of salt and the flavor was whole again. Of course he is the chef in our family. This got me to thinking about the flavor profiles of mixed dishes like these (soups, stews, casseroles). Herbs and spices and acid flavors, like lemon, are the top notes. Umami like mushrooms, tomatoes, and the delicious results of the Maillard reaction are the deep base flavors. Vegetables -- with their sweet and bitter flavors -- come in from the sides to round out the dish. In the middle is the pinch of salt that brings things together.

Gordon White's oeuvre is similar. Star.Ships is the rich resonate base, Chaos Protocols include both the bitter and sweet notes that support the dish, and Pieces of Eight -- his third and newest book -- finishes the dish. The base tells you that the dish comes from rich stock. The middle that it's healthy and nourishing. But finishing is the local flavor that turns it from a general dish into a localized one (pinch of London chaos, squirt of grimoire).

The books form a coherent explanation of Gordon's worldview and approach to magic -- from the most theoretical and abstract to the most practical and concrete. It's all good stuff and you will no doubt learn a lot.

But in the middle is a hole. You can taste it.

Gordon has been blunt that there's a unwritable fourth book contained within the other three. For me, it's less a book than that book-shaped hole. You can judge its parameters by what's missing and estimate its scope by the questions you ask. That book is about applicability and flexibility. It's about taking what's there and turning it into your own coherent worldview and approach. The trick is that Gordon can't write it, because the reader needs to write it for themselves.

Many of the criticisms of Gordon's books I've read seem to boil down to "needs salt." If Gordon were trying to sell you on his "tradition" (come to the Chaos side, we have cookies) you'd either find the book wholly helpful or not to your taste. But he's not doing that. He's specific, yes (and Pieces of Eight is more specific than Chaos Protocols which is more specific than Star.Ships) but fundamentally what's he's proposing are examples rather than recipes. He expects you to cook up your own.