Thursday, December 22, 2005

I've written a science fiction story just for you


"If we examine the development of philosophical thought, I believe we can identify one respect in which the spiritual traditions of East and West became diametrically opposed.

"In the west, the common thread has been to posit self-identity -- self-awareness -- the soul, if you will, as that characteristic which distinguished the human from all other living creatures. The awareness of individuality is paramount, even venerated. In the Old Testament, the seminal text informing western philosophy, God even refers to Himself as 'I Am' -- placing the individual ego at the center of creation itself.

"From this choice, one feels, comes a sense of disconnectedness from the rest of reality. A division between the mind capable of thought and the medium in which thought takes place. And too, a sense that the physical form is somehow a limitation, somehow impure, while pure thought -- pure ego -- is the most desirable state."

I nodded slowly, pretending to understand, though it wasn't clear he recognized my mental state. I hadn't thought to ask the technicians if this was one of his capabilities.

"Contrast this with the eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Zen which deemphasize the separation between objects," he continued. "There is no observer and no observed, only a process of observation. Hinduism explicitly states this viewpoint as 'Tat Tvam Asi' -- you are that, that is you. There is no such thing as you or I. I am that chair; I am that table.

"And indeed, if the western physicist examines that table or chair at the quantum level, is it not true that the sense of 'objectness' disappears? Is not all matter merely atoms in states of energy, observed in mid-gesture? The universe is not things; the universe is process. So the western scientist has come around to appreciating the fundamental truth of the eastern viewpoint."

I interrupted at this point. "Okay...I guess that explains why you've decided to call yourself a Buddhist. But I still don't understand the problem -- "

The robot's antenna jiggled as he swug his faceplate towards me, too quickly for comfort. "Don't you see? By installing this self-awareness circuitry, my makers have deprived me of the perfect state of unity with all things I would otherwise have known! I am aware of myself, and now I have to spend hours every day in meditation attempting to lose my ego all over again!"

"Well, I suppose you could just turn yourself off..." I said feebly.

"Like that's a solution? Would you suggest to the Tibetan monks that they should just throw themselves out the monastery window? There's a difference between death of the ego and just plain death, you know!" The robot narrowed his eye lenses at me suspiciously.

"Uh, um...I see."

"This is very serious to me! I mean, have you considered what happens to me if I don't achieve Nirvana? If I terminate without my karma in balance? All you have to worry about is coming back as a pauper, or an animal. But what does a robot reincarnate as? Will I come back as a cellphone? Or a toaster?"


Queer Eye For The Department Guy


"The Department of Homeland Security was only a month old, and already it had an image problem.

"It was April 2003, and Susan Neely, a close aide to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, decided the gargantuan new conglomeration of 22 federal agencies had to stand for something more than multicolored threat levels. It needed an identity -- not the flavor of the day in terms of brand chic, as Neely put it, but something meant to last.

"So she called in the branders.

"Neely hired Landor Associates, the same company that invented the FedEx name and the BP sunflower, and together they began to rebrand a behemoth Landor described in a confidential briefing as a 'disparate organization with a lack of focus.' They developed a new DHS typeface (Joanna, with modifications) and color scheme (cool gray, red and hints of 'punched-up' blue). They debated new uniforms for its armies of agents and focus-group-tested a new seal designed to convey 'strength' and 'gravitas.' The department even got its own lapel pin, which was given to all 180,000 of its employees -- with Ridge's signature -- to celebrate its 'brand launch' that June.

"'It's got to have its own story,' Neely explained."

...And that story should be called "Screw New Orleans, We've Got A Color Scheme!"