Monday, October 31, 2011
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Thursday, October 13, 2011
In each State of the Nexus post, I'll be addressing (on a monthly to bi-weekly basis) the goings on in the Nexus Blog Collective and other Natty Words ventures.
This month, work has continued apace to get the core three blogs on a regular post schedule. I'd decided on a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday update schedule, but may look into a Wednesday-Saturday twice-a week approach until I get the pacing right withour neglecting other projects.
The primary project this month is getting the doujinshi I began in September finished and on the market. What originally had been conceived of as a 16-18 pager became 30 in my initial storyboarding, and is likely to make that mark, as I've just finished the rough sketch for page 26. I'm not sure there'll be a market for it, but it's something that I've been meaning to do for a while now, and a great way to force myself to get more familiar with my digital drawing tools and drawing more frequently in general. I have a couple of sequels loosely in mind if this one manages to attract enough custom, and ultimately the skills I hone in working on these doujin will eventually be put to use in penning a longer, more serious work.
Also on the agenda for October is laying the necessary groundwork for this year's NaNoWriMo project, codenamed "Wander." It's actually a story idea I've had for more than ten years now. But I'd tabled it because I felt I needed more experience before tackling something so ambitious and different from the sf/f fare I usually work with. With several NaNoWriMos under my belt, though, now may be the time. I need to line up the story arcs with historical dates and events, and flesh out the plot details, but I'm optimistic about my chances of NaNoWriMoing a successful rough draft.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
My perspectives on these subjects have been hard-won. They are the products of years of uncertainty, introspection, and a deep and abiding fear of nonexistence that honestly kept me up at night. While it will inevitably result in a very lengthy post, I thought I'd take the opportunity presented in this week's Nexus of Misc update to share my viewpoint in the hope that its presence on the internet might prove helpful.
For life to have any meaning, free will is a necessary predicate.
This tenet reflects the notion that all things derive their meaning from the actions that can be performed on or through them. Those actions, in turn, acquire meaning only if they are undertaken from the context of a choice. And a choice can only be a choice if the individual making it is actually able to select between two or more actions - that is, if that individual possesses the faculty of free will. If we concede that there is no free will - that the "choice" of actions is illusory and any given person "chooses" to undertake an action because he or she is, in truth, only capable of perform that particular action in the given context - then we can derive no meaning from that action . . . or the individuals or objects that it may involve.
Take, for example, our notions of criminal responsibility. Implicit within our justice system is the notion that individuals can - and should - be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. A convicted murder is punishable for taking another person's life because he or she intended to do so, and accordingly structured his or her actions with the purpose of killing of another human being. While it is the act of murder that society finds abhorrent and which brings about the deplorable consequence of a dead individual, the law traces causality - and responsibility - for that death back to the murderer's choice to undertake the murder.
If the act of murder occurred because the murderer considered at least two options - to kill, or not to kill - and choose the former, then it was the murderer's decision that brought about the murder, and it is that decision for which the murderer can be held accountable. If, on the other hand, the choice was illusory and the murderer could not "choose" to do anything but kill, then culpability for the death falls to factors beyond the murderer's control. If there is no free will, the murderer is reduced to a mere object: just as the gun is not morally culpable for firing the deadly bullet because the murderer pulled its trigger, the murderer him or herself is not culpable for pulling the trigger because that action was determined by outside factors; in effect, his or her own "trigger" was pulled, and he or she, like the gun, could not help but perform the action he or she was designed to do.
Simply put, without free will, an action cannot be assigned a value like "bad" or "good," because no choice could ever be made, and therefore no other action could have been taken in its place. The badness or goodness of any given action is determined by its relationship with alternative actions; if there are no alternatives, and the action is the only thing that could possibly happen, then there is no frame of reference by which it could be described as "bad" - or more precisely, "worse than" - or "good" - or "better than."
This tenet does not prove that we actually possess free will - arguably, like God Himself, free will is an abstraction that defies quantifiable proof - but it paints a very bleak picture of what reality is like if free will does not, in truth, exist. This makes the notion of free will extremely attractive, a notion that we may assume to be true simply because we're better off if we do. Ultimately, we are in no worse position to assume free will exists and be proven wrong than to assume that there is no free will, and be proven right. As a result, there is no risk in accepting the notion of free will as an article of faith.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
I lost roughly 60 lbs between November 2009 and May 2011.
I've been on the heavy side of things for most of my life, but I reached maximum mass around the first half of 2009, where a combination of bar exam stress and cortisone side effects had me at a weight of 180+ lbs. (I can only estimate, because at the peak of things I didn't have the heart to weigh myself.) For someone who's 5'4", that's on - if not beyond - the borderline of obesity. In the timeframe described above, I lowered that weight down to the low 120s, and have maintained my weight in the mid 120s since then.
A number of people have commented on it, and a few asked me what I'd done to bring about the change. I did my best to explain on the fly, but the complete answer is complicated, and doesn't lend itself to pithy explanation. Like a long, relaxing stroll, it involves a winding and languorous path. One that, like most worthwhile journeys, begins in an unexpected (and, on reflection, somewhat unbelievable) place.
My journey began when I read Naoki Urasawa's eight-volume series Pluto in one night.
A Break in the Rhythm of Things
Some history is in order to put it all in context. Naoki Urasawa is the talented mangaka behind the critically acclaimed (and much longer) manga series Monster. Monster tells a sweeping tale of mystery, suspense, horror, and loss, in a world populated by a profoundly human cast of characters. It is the cathartic equivalent of a gut punch to the solar plexus, and it is one of those stories that resonates within you long after you've finished reading it. It is a quintessential story that matters (and will be memorialized as such in an upcoming Stories That Matter post on Fictional Matters).
I've encountered novels so compelling that I was unable to put them down until I'd read them through completely; Monster was the first manga to do the same to me, and its story spans (I believe) eighteen 150+ page volumes. As a result, I read it all, from volume one to volume eighteen, in a single 12-hour span.
Pluto is equally captivating as a story, but it contains an added draw for an otaku like me: it is a reinterpretation of one of the seminal story arcs of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy series. Astro Boy will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first anime series (and, in most respects, the first full-length anime series produced in Japan), but it also overlaps with one of my foremost science fiction obsessions: human-like robots and the philosophical exploration of artificial intelligence. This grand triumvirate of elements - a compelling plot, a connection to a childhood mythos, and an exploration of issues very near and dear to me - made Pluto one of the most poignant stories of my adult life. When I'd finished reading it, I was compelled to simply sit alone and reflect on what I'd experienced, to process it all on both a conscious and subconscious level. So consumed was I in processing it all that I ended up skipping meals for that day, which broke up my usual food routine.
Strangely, despite not eating, I wasn't hungry. I suppose I was too caught up to notice any hunger pangs. Eventually I needed an outlet for all the things I'd thought about, and ended up writing my first short story in several years over the course of the next couple of days.
The break in my usual meal cycle made me realize that the cravings that usually accompanied my eating habits could come second to more urgent needs. It just so happened that the month of November was not only NaNoWriMo, but a month in which a last-minute book project at work consumed a great portion of my time and attention. Between the two, I was kept busy enough that I could eat less, and be too preoccupied with work to attend to lingering feelings of hunger or cravings. In time, I found that the cravings disappeared, and my appetite at mealtimes seemed to have grown smaller as well.
Life Imitating Art: Painting My Avatar
The results of my changing habits became apparent to me, as I ended up losing around 10-15 lbs by December 2009. It was enough to motivate me to take active steps toward continuing the weight loss. I purposefully cut out snacking, and kept my portions at meals sensible. My entry into Facebook around this time mean that I needed to draw myself a new avatar, and that need coupled with my weight loss efforts gave me the opportunity to literally draw a picture of the me I wanted to become. Though drawn in an anime style, I daresay it still resembles me, albeit an idealized version that is far thinner than I was at the time I drew it. In that way, the picture became a kind of target for my weight loss progress, a visual representation of my end goal. It was an avatar I forced myself to grow into; instead of modifying the image to match what I looked like, I would modify what I looked like to more close resemble that image.
That same avatar is the one I currently use throughout the Nexus of Misc Blog Collective, and I'm happy to say that its resemblance to me (or is it my resemblance to it?) grows more striking with each passing day.
The Final 20 Lbs: Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Body
By the end of 2010, I had shaved off around 40 lbs but began to plateau as far as my own makeshift weight loss efforts went. A sample post on Gizmodo lead me to read Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Body, in which he introduces the tenets of what he called the "Slow-Carb" diet. The introductory chapter to the diet can be found on Gizmodo. Essentially, it advises the dieter to avoid eating "fast-carbs": heavily processed foods, or anything that can be white in color (with a few exceptions, eggs, cottage cheese, and cauliflower among them). Ferriss's subsequent chapters explain how to take the diet to more extreme levels, but I only applied the basic tenets to my eating habits. In a matter of months, I'd succeeded in dropping another 20 lbs, and ended up right about where my avatar image had placed me over a year earlier.
Since then I've relaxed my eating habits to include the occasional off-limits item, but I still maintain the 7th-day binge meal cycle espoused in The Four-Hour Body to keep my metabolism from downshifting. I've also taken a few pages from his exercise chapters and now include some swinging repetitions with a 40-lb kettlebell along with an ever-increasing set of push ups (I'm at 45 reps now, an absolutely unheard of number when I was heavier. As a high schooler, my max was around 10.) The interesting thing is that even though I've relaxed my eating habits and my weight (and waist/hip size) appears to have stabilized, I've noticed that the vestiges of my abdomen's paunch (the last element of my appearance I'm hoping to winnow away) is slowly disappearing. Once it's gone, it'll be a matter of homeostasis as opposed to an active change, which, with my revised eating tendencies, should be less of a challenge.
So now that I've told the full story of my shedding 60 lbs in a year and a half, what can we learn from it? I'm no doctor or health professional, and things will inevitably vary from person to person, but these are the personal lessons that I've taken from my experience:
The first thing I discovered is that the hunger and cravings can be overridden by more pressing matters. If you're too busy to eat odds are you'll be too busy to feel hungry, too. You can use that to help you surmount the initial - and in my mind, most monumental - obstacle of weight loss: changing your ingrained eating habits. Once those ingrained tendencies have been loosened up a bit, things flow much more easily.
Another lesson is that setting a tangible goal - whether its a particular weight or waist size, or a image that you work toward, as in the case of my avatar - can give you both direction and motivation to see your efforts through. It's also extremely rewarding and self-affirming to set a goal and then achieve it through discipline and force of will. Through this experience, I'm convinced that willpower - and, underlying it, the fundamental choice to make a change in one's life - is the essential element in undergoing any lifestyle change. I suspect many of those who "try" and "fail" in making those changes actually do neither: they don't fail at weight loss because a part of them never really committed to trying to make the change, the part that is too ingrained in the status quo or averse to the uncomfortable aspects of the change to want to see it through. True commitment, in the form of a complete conscious decision to effect a change, is the essential cornerstone of any lifestyle improvement.
Finally, the last lesson is to not be afraid to look for help when you need it. When I'd reached the 140s and found myself plateauing with my own methods, I knew that I still wanted to lose another 10-20 lbs and that I would need to find some other methods to effect that change. The Four-Hour Body's publication was most timely in that regard, and if it hadn't been available I'm not sure I would have been able to attain my goal. Whether help comes in the form of a guidebook or the advice of a friend, acquaintance, or health professional, it's important to acknowledge when its available, and when accepting it may be a necessary step in achieving your personal goals.