Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Golden Age Draft: Evolution of a Vision

Since the Moon went out
dire wolves have been seen about the town.
Since the Moon went out
fiery pools are opening underground.
Since the Moon went out
the ocean lost its hold over the Deep.
Since the Moon went out
the Old Blood spell now fails to turn the feet.
Since the Moon went out
there's a God and a Hell that can't believe in themselves anymore.
Since the Moon went out
what had once seemed demons dream of all they once were before.
Since the Moon went out
the Lady of the Mountain has lost control of the Wild Hunt.
Since the Moon went out
pureblood Magdalenites can do almost anything they want.
Since the Moon went out
both the Djinn and the Fae have been poised to reconquer this world.
Since the Moon went out
the Lightbringer's banners are once again being unfurled.
Since the Moon went out
it seems fear itself
might just rip our small world apart,
for the Moon's gone out
and now none may doubt
what's been concealed inside each human heart.
-Simon Zealot

When I first started working on Golden Age a few years ago, I have to admit my ideas were a bit fanboyish and one-sided. The original concept for the game came out of my passions for mythology, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Islamic Spain (also called al-Andalus). I wanted to show a historical period in which the convivencia of Muslims, Christians and Jews created a society in which literature, art, and science flourished in a way rarely seen in European history (let alone the Middle Ages). Cordoba was the ornament of the world, featuring technologies and even tropical fruits that were unknown in the rest of Europe, and a cosmopolitan society unlike any the continent had seen since Rome. Al-Andalus was a veritable paradise of religious and cultural toleration, before such terms had even been invented. I was going to educate the world (or a few gamers at least) about interfaith dialogue and religious toleration, through the historical tale of the wonderful land in which rabbis and imams studied each other's scriptures, advancing kabbalah and Sufism rapidly in a comparatively short amount of time.

The truth, as is usually the case, turned out to be far more nuanced than the myth above. That interpretation is the one currently in vogue with most historians, but it also happens to be primarily the narrative of the minority Muslim and Jewish aristocrat and merchant classes. The Spanish Christian ("mozarab") majority's day-to-day life was far different. Much as I enjoy the poetic justice of Christian Europeans as conquered rather than conquerors, living in a society where Muslim and brown are privileged over Christian and white, the fact remains that colonialism is an ugly and destructive business, regardless of how supposedly enlightened the conquerors are. Thanks to my new coauthors, Simon Zealot and Sara Mastros, I've come to realize that this game does not have any one villain, least of all the forces of the Unformed, who are simply performing their function: un-creating things whenever they can. There is only a single villain if we define it nebulously as "the forces of patriarchy, colonization, and slavery". That definitely feels like a win for everyone.

Al-Andalus was a society constantly at war with both the Spanish expatriates to the north, and between various small kingdoms within its own borders. Certain non-Muslim groups - Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sabians - were allowed to live in their own communities, under their own sets of laws, so long as they paid a steep tax (Arabic: jizya) and did not blaspheme against Allah. Maliki legal sources are clear on the dual purpose of the jizya: to humiliate the conquered people, reminding them of their place, and to provide a means by which the Muslim elite would not need to work (or work much) to earn money. In practice, Spanish Jews had higher social standing than their Catholic neighbors, because many helped the invaders in the hope of receiving better treatment under Muslim rule.

So if Spanish Muslim society divided its citizens into faith communities and determined their rights and privileges that way, we've already covered everybody, right? Well, no. Especially in rural areas, several types of paganism still existed, primarily involving deities from the Roman, Lusitanian, and Basque pantheons. Over time, some concealed their practices within a Catholic or Sabian exterior, while others simply went deeper into hiding. Regardless of its long-standing Iberian roots, paganism was a weed to be destroyed at any cost. Muslims, Jews, and Catholics could all agree on that, so being openly pagan in medieval Spain was a death sentence. Likewise with being openly LGBT, but that hang-up is exclusive to humans; the non-physical races have little interest in legislating each other's gender or sexuality. Women did have more rights and autonomy under the Spanish Caliphate than they had under the previous regime, though still less than in pre-Roman matriarchal societies (of which only the Circle of Gibraltar survives, below).

Now we come to the supernatural elements of the game. It was always my plan to have the metaphysics and gameplay reflect Golden Age's commitment to presenting cultures in an accurate and balanced way, with a special emphasis on the need for cooperation and dialogue with those who differ from oneself, in order to survive a harsh and unforgiving universe. As one example, I decided that the water elementals of both Spain and the Middle East had long ago been transformed into blood elementals because of near-constant warfare between tribes with close blood ties. The resulting blood elementals are considered both Elementals and Undead from a mechanical perspective; when brother kills brother, even the lakes and rivers eventually begin to weep that blood. A bit heavy handed, perhaps, but my heart was in the right place.

But I had some pretty big blind spots.

While the game is highly focused on magic, I had only thought of one magical school, the Solomonic College. Intended as the precursor of 11th- and 12-century Solomonic grimoires, this school caters mainly to male Jews and Muslims, and is also willing to admit Catholic men. While women are able to join, climbing the ranks would be difficult if not impossible for them. The College's magic, on a good day, is about striking bargains with djinn, angels, and demons... but Solomonic magicians are not above binding or outright enslaving an uncooperative spirit. So despite my lofty goals, the only magical school in this game was an agent of the patriarchal, monotheistic belief that God authorized the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths to be spiritual bullies in the tradition of King Solomon / Suleiman. Need some magic? No problem - just go to the Solomonics and buy yourself a ring or a lamp with a djinn imprisoned inside. Thanks to my coauthors, we now have the older and more egalitarian (as well as historical!) Sabian Academy, practicing a syncretic form of hermeticism, as well as the Circle of Gibraltar, heirs to ancient feminine mysteries of Moon and Earth that predate language itself. Everyone knows the best midwives come from Gibraltar, but only a few still remember how far their abilities extend beyond the anatomical and the herbal.

Another blind spot: I had originally conceived this game as a high fantasy RPG mixed with a historical RPG. But at the same time, I was trying to include as much real-world magical theory as possible, for the benefit of those who might like to learn some Western occultism while they play. With the help of my new coauthors, it quickly became clear that the game couldn't be fictionalized high fantasy if I wanted it to be based on sound occult principles. At best, I'd end up with a sloppy hodgepodge of made-up silliness and historical magical systems. So we have re-conceived the game as historical magical realism: the magic is as real-world correct, in terms of historical magical practices and beliefs, as we can make it. That isn't to say the core book is primarily a book of spell recipes, but you can generally expect that the procedures and components of the included spells will have sound correspondences, research, and occult theory behind them. We have removed anachronistic elements such as the Lurianic Tree of Life and the tarot, in favor of systems that were actually used at that time, such as the seven planetary intelligences and geomancy. Instead of eight or more arbitrary types of magic, we have reduced them to four essences that echo the four classical elements: Soul (Water), Energy (Fire), Substance (Earth), and Thought (Air).

For the sake of verisimilitude, we've also removed some types of humanoids (such as fish people) and replace them with species that could have reasonably have evolved from currently-known hominid species. Hence, we now have the Okeanids, with one tribe a bit like otters and others more like walruses, whales or dolphins. They evolved this way after being driven from the land by early homo sapiens:

The legends tell that, before even the Old People came to Europe, there were people in Iberia.  As the Old Ones moved in, they pushed the First People out of their caves, to the coast.  The Old Ones were smart; their tools were sharp and strong, and they had no need to wait for fire from the sky, they could make it on their own!  Soon, the Old Ones, with their big heads and sharp knives, pushed the First People to the brink of extinction.  And so the First People entreated with the Sea, who was their Mother, to show them a new way.  And she did.  The First People retreated first to the swamps and the islands, and then into the Sea itself.  The Mother who bore us took us back into her womb, and there we thrived.  The Great Teachers, Whale, and Orca, Dolphin and Porpoise, Walrus and Seal, and Little Otter taught us the ways of the Sea.  We made pact with them, eating their flesh and communing with their spirits.  The ice retreated, and most of the Great Ones with it.  Many of our people went with them.  Here on the coasts of Spain, only Little Otter, the Mother Ocean’s beloved son, remained with us.

As written now, events only diverge from real-world history circa 950 CE, sometime after the Fateful Eclipse. This brief solar eclipse was immediately followed by a lunar eclipse that lasted three full days and nights... and the moon wasn't just in shadow, it was completely gone, inexplicably, with no individual or group claiming responsibility. This, in turn, caused problems with the tides, people's moods and sanity, and the failure of an ancient spell called the Turning of the Feet, which hid the nonhuman species from the eyes of most humans. For three days, everyone could see these "monsters" everywhere, and there was widespread panic. When the moon reappeared, most people lost this ability and returned to their normal lives, but enough found themselves unable to explain it away that interest in the various magical schools skyrocketed as everyone tried to figure out who stole the moon, and why this replacement moon didn't feel or act quite right. Each of the major species has its own story of the creation of the world, each of which hints at a different likely culprit for what happened to the moon, and different tribes or religions within those species also have their own takes on what happened, how, and why.

The Solomonic College, far from being ancient and tied to Solomon himself as I originally thought, formed in response to this crisis because "obviously" the djinn or the demons must be to blame. The Sabians and Circle of Gibraltar had their own ideas, as did the various djinn and fae tribes, and this is how things have always been. So while some djinn may have converted to Islam, as the Qu'ran and various hadith specifically address them and set forth Allah's laws as it applies to the djinn, this is far from universal. Many djinn consider Islam to be a joint plot between the humans (Mohammed) and the angels (Gabriel) to relegate the djinn to permanent second-class status. Humans are given preferential treatment over djinn in the Qu'ran, and many would be resentful or suspicious of that. Likewise, the feud between the loyalist and rebel angels has more facets than one might expect... but I don't want to give away too much right now. Certain secrets should be for your GM only, but suffice it to say this game can be solely about angelic politics if that's how your group wants to play it. And not everyone currently in heaven is a loyalist.

I have to be honest and admit that many of these changes felt threatening for me at first. This was my game, my vision, and I didn't like the idea of anyone (even close friends) coming in and totally revamping it. But what Simon and Sara saw, on joining the project, were the ways in which my first draft was in conflict with my goals. In order for the game to feel organically progressive instead of clumsily didactic, the issues that result from colonization need to play out on every level, whether we're focusing on about Arabs and Spaniards; haves and have-nots; Muslims and Christians; colonizers and natives; Abrahamics and pagans; angels, djinn, and demons; humans, spirits, and Okeanids; or Solomonics and djinn (just as a few examples). We aim to present a 360-degree view of both al-Andalus and the supernatural realms such as heaven or Jinnistan. Whatever levels of reality your game inhabits, whether you're playing a rich human city official or a great warrior of one of the faerie courts, the effects of war and conquest will be all around you, for you to engage with or ignore as you choose. The social justice elements, much like the magical theory, are now woven into the fabric of every aspect of the game, so that you can learn about them as a natural consequence of gameplay rather than having them shoved in your face. I want to thank my collaborators, Sara Mastros and Simon Zealot, for making this not just a possibility but an ongoing reality.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Wisdom From the Airwaves: Yom Kippur Edition

I've known for a few years now that while I have always loved books, I seem to absorb important moral and philosophical lessons better from media. This Yom Kippur, just as I have several times in the past, I watched the Coen Brothers' incomparable film A Serious Man. I plan to watch Atonement later, if only for the title, but A Serious Man is the only film I can really say feels like a Yom Kippur movie to me. Even though the holiday doesn't appear in the movie, I see new levels of its take on personal responsibility, sin, and repentance every time I watch it. As I was loading it up in Plex, I noticed it was billed as a black comedy, but I think of it as a morality play blending Job-like suffering with an understanding of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

To explain why, I'll also need to talk a little about two specific episodes of the show Six Feet Under. Perfect Circles and All Alone . Actually, I don't need to talk about them all that much. All I need to say is that when taken together, Nate from Six Feet Under is undergoing the same exact trial as Lawrence Gopnik does in A Serious Man. Both men fail and are punished. Nate's trial is about overcoming his pattern of betraying the women he loves and seeking greener pastures after a certain amount of time, while Lawrence's concerns the ethical dilemma of accepting a bribe from a failing student. And in both cases, he tells us about the Uncertainty Principle in his own words, so that when we find out he is going to die, we realize he was the cat in the box all along.

The terrifying part of this usage of the Uncertainty Principle is when one realizes that God is the thing with the power not just to give you cancer, but to decide immediately that the already-tested growth is going to be cancerous, at the exact moment when you decide to accept the bribe and change the student's grade. It is not a coincidence that the phone rings immediately after Larry erases the F and writes a C- in its place. Just as it is not a coincidence that after years of vacillating about his career and cheating on one wife, Nate Fisher dies right after he makes the choice to cheat on his pregnant new wife. Either we we repent, or we may not be sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. This is the narrative of both characters, with the added tension from the Uncertainty Principle being used to point out that we never know at what point God might judge us unworthy and yank our life away.

Much as I would like to launch into my usual rant about how God as a critical parent figure judging us from the sky infantilizes people and prevents them from truly taking responsibility for their lives, today I am religiously obligated to be more introspective than that, and I do consider this day potentially valuable. I can see how for a certain kind of mind, the idea of being accountable to a cosmic being feels more urgent than trying to become a better person just for oneself and one's friends or family. I understand it because I used to be that guy. But I also think the message of the holiday is encoded in the usually communal nature of our confession of sin: it is a time about reconnecting to your loved ones, making amends for whatever you've done that hurt them, and most importantly, for breaking destructive patterns that are harming yourself as well.

In that spirit, I wish everyone a helpful day of introspection about whatever it is you regret from the past, especially the past year. I know that I can be dismissive, pretentious, or honestly just mean at times. I take people for granted, and I'm awful at keeping in touch, even with the people I'd like to see more often. If I have done anything in the past year, deliberately or unintentionally, that caused you to feel hurt, unloved, unimportant, or like I wasn't really your friend, please accept my sincere apologies. Maybe I was preoccupied with something that seemed more important at the time, or maybe I was sincerely being an ass. Perhaps we could talk about it if you're so inclined.

A rabbi once compared today to a car wash: better to set aside some time for washing yourself off and cleaning up your messes, than to wait so long that the grime becomes caked on and it's nigh-impossible to make a dent in it. It's not even noon yet, and already I have a long list of issues and regrets to work on with my therapist. That is invaluable, and nontraditional as my observance of the holiday may be, it is still tradition that gave me access to the list. I have long struggled with the concept of "sin", as the older I got, the more I began to see it as beating oneself up with self-imposed guilt. Repentance is the important bit, and repentance is nothing more than the moment in which we decide whatever we did was a bad decision and we aren't going to do it again. That's all: just be more awesome this year than last year.

I wish you all an easy fast if you are fasting, a sweet New Year, and many useful insights on this Day of Introspection.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Coming Out of the Golden Apple Closet

It's time for me to come clean about something: I enjoy Judaism for its cultural heritage, including folklore, mythology, and of course magical technology, but I'm not particularly interested in being a good Jew anymore. All the rules are useful in certain ways, but ultimately I feel like rule-based thinking needs to give way to something more intuitive and organic. And if I'm completely honest with myself, Discordianism has always felt far more right for me. In this post, I'm going to try to explain why.

As far as I know, Discordianism is the original joke religion. But is it *really* a joke? Well... that depends on which Discordian you ask. Some people treat Eris like an older, spookier Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that's cool. Others of us realize that when we talk about constructive disorder or destructive order, or claim Eris lives in everyone's pineal gland, those are important teachings we're spreading because people need to hear them. My approach to Discordianism isn't better, only different, and truthfully I need to get better at talking about such ideas in a funny way. Recently I wrote a game to that end.

I talked here about how the Principia Discordia was integral to my realization, as a teenager, that being messy or otherwise chaotic was not necessarily a character flaw or a moral failing. It's simply the way I was, and largely still am. For me, it was truly a revelation when I learned that order can sometimes be destructive, and disorder sometimes creative. It touched a chord deep inside me, one that Judaism never has.

Discordianism appeals to me because I enjoy trickery, especially when it's aimed at helping someone to learn something they can't learn another way. "Paradoxical intervention" is the term. That's not to say I know what another person has to learn; usually, I totally don't. The idea is to thwack the person upside the head with enough absurdity that they might wonder, "What other assumptions have I been taking for granted in my life?".

On a larger scale, this practice is known as poetic terrorism or glamour bombing.

Also, it's fun to have a "holy book" that includes some of the funniest absurdist and surrealist humor I've ever read, paired with flashes of insightful philosophy. Or a goddess who's perfectly okay with my calling her a miserable bitch, and who doesn't mind in the slightest if I usually don't believe in her. I think it's fair to say the feeling goes both directions.

But the main appeal for me has always been the emphasis on keeping one's mind open, on paradigm-shifting, on how "reality" is relative to one's assumptions. Sure, there are things we can't change, but how will we ever figure them out if we assume we already know all the answers?

The Principia Discordia flat-out states that we'll never know all the answers. "Life is the original Rorschach," it says. We all view the world through filters or grids that are also called "beliefs". Don't allow others to choose your filters based on their priorities. Facts are one thing, but beliefs are tools that shape how your life will seem to you. From the Principia Discordia, I learned that it was okay to believe in things I had been told "aren't real" by people who had little imagination. I was already a weird kid, but it still felt freeing to be given permission to follow my own vision.

(In case you didn't know, the House of the Apostles of Eris has long since decreed every person on earth to be a genuine and authorized pope. Download your own pope card, and start making up your own metaphysical hogwash / poppycock today!)

It's funny to me how I started with the Principia because my inner chaos made me feel like a raging whirlwind, and these days I'm more like the eye of that storm most of the time. Back then, I had to get myself a chaos star ring just to focus my energy enough to stop disrupting all my electronic devices. That hasn't been a problem in years.

Perhaps Discordian / chaos-magical thought really is the contrapositive of Buddhist thought.("Discordianism is Buddhism upside-down and backwards," as I used to like to say.) The Buddhist says, "Believe nothing but the Buddha's teachings, for everything else is illusion." The Discordian says, "Believe whatever's convenient. It's all a bunch of man-made crap."

Or perhaps I should call the waiter and tell him there's some Buddha in my Discordia soup. I do have two very close relatives who are Buddhists, whom I've been known to discuss this stuff with.

I would declare myself an orthodox Discordian now with great pomp and circumstance, but orthodox Discordianism would be silly for its complete lack of silliness. Therefore I will partake of a hot dog this Friday and praise She Who is the Mother of All Confusion and Cacophony. And yes, that hot dog will be made with pork.

I spent years keeping YHVH's regulations, and while they helped me with developing willpower, many of them are useless for making me a better person. My tribal allegiance to that god will never change, but he knows my heart well enough to realize that I'm not actually his servant. Because I'm not anyone's servant, least of all Eris's. In the immortal words of Cartman, "Whatevah! I do what I want!"

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Psychiatry, Confirmation Bias, and the Scientific Method: A Case Study

Like most people who enjoy studying psychology, I used to have very strong faith in psychiatry. Then I experienced what psychiatric treatment for a serious mental illness can actually be like, and now I'm not nearly so sure it's even a science. Neurology is definitely a science, but psychiatry without neurology is more of a guessing game. My bipolar diagnosis came from a well-respected psychiatrist who literally refused to use the scientific method, which is why I doubted it from the very beginning. Turns out, it was bogus. I'm going to explain how I figured this out, in the hope this information will help others.

A little background about me: Besides studying psychology, I have long identified as a psychonaut. This is a term used mainly in psychedelic and chaos magical circles, to denote a person who enjoys tripping for personal growth, mysticism, or both. You might think of psychonautics as occupying a space midway between psychiatry and shamanism: the goals are pretty much the same, but the substances and methods are a bit different from either one.

All this is only relevant in two ways: I know more than the average layperson about brain chemistry, and when I trip, I write down insights and recollections for later analysis. I learned the latter practice from the writings of Aldous Huxley and John C. Lilly. So when I had manic episodes, I treated them as extended trips. Not only did I write down everything I remembered, but I was also able to get my psych papers from jail and the mental hospital. (The first manic episode included being arrested for disorderly conduct.) What I actually had were probably more like mystical experiences with psychotic features, but that's only vaguely relevant to this post.

This is where it gets more interesting. I discovered that the psychiatrist at the jail lied and said I smelled of alcohol when I arrived. I am not a drinker, and I have clear memories of what I did and didn't consume. But I was in rural Pennsylvania, where they likely had very little knowledge of what a tripping person looks like... so they lied and said I was a drunk. Not really a big deal, but weird and a little creepy.

I stuck with my current psychiatrist (we'll call him Dr. A) after that first episode, but we decided I should stop taking Strattera. I had once been manic on it before when I was taking way too high of a dose, and I had been taking it along with Wellbutrin (whose effects it magnifies). I switched to taking Wellbutrin by itself and things were good for a while. Then the second manic episode happened, and afterwards I decided to switch to a new psychiatrist ("Dr. B") who my therapist often works with. We agreed that I shouldn't take any of the things I was taking when the manic episodes happened, so there went the Wellbutrin. This left me taking the lithium and haldol the hospital had prescribed, which Dr. B felt were appropriate. I had terrible sleepiness and hand cramps from the haldol, though, so he switched me to risperdal. So far, so good.

But then came the confirmation bias and refusal to use the scientific method. I came in with a great deal of information, much of which he ignored, even though it was relevant:

1. I have only ever had manic episodes when I was either on Prozac, Effexor, Wellbutrin, or Strattera. These are all reuptake inhibitors for various neurotransmitters that affect mood and attention  (serotonin, dopamine, and/or norepinephrine).

2. I have only ever had exogenous depression, the kind caused by bad things that happened to me. While I was very depressed in high school, it was because I was unpopular, in the closet, and a moody teenager with a mother who pretty much refused to let me be an introvert. When I got out of the hospital, I was depressed because my life had pretty much imploded, and I had lost my full-time tech support business and had to get a day job. I do not enjoy being an employee.

3. I require AD/HD medication in order to be able to focus on work. That's what the Wellbutrin and Strattera were for. I don't like the way Ritalin and Adderall give me the jitters, make my heart race, and make me sleepy when they wear off. They are not a good idea for people with anxiety.

4. I smoke pot not just because it's fun, but because it helps with my anxiety also. Never been much of a drinker, like I said above, and honestly marijuana is less harmful than alcohol anyway.

The only pieces of information he was willing to act on were these:

1. I had two manic episodes in the same year.

2. He had never treated anyone with both bipolar disorder and AD/HD before.

3. He had only ever prescribed Ritalin or Adderall for AD/HD in the past.

4. Bipolar people often refuse to take their medication.

5. My uncle was bipolar and had recently committed suicide.

6. Bipolar  can sometimes remember things incorrectly, if the memories are from when they were manic or depressed.

Since I had had two manic episodes, and was refusing to take my medication, that meant I must be bipolar. He even uttered the words "if you respond to lithium, that means you have the disorder". Early on, we had a conversation about how I was not convinced bipolar was the right diagnosis, because all my manic episodes had had psych meds and/or psychedelics involved. He agreed with me that after perhaps a year, I could go off the lithium and risperdal to test (scientifically!) whether or not I could ever have a manic episode in a vacuum. Later he claimed this conversation had not occurred, and that either I was twisting his words or that I led him to say something he didn't mean. Also, I had to stop smoking pot because it would obviously unbalance me and cause mania. The study I found saying that bipolar people who take lithium and smoke pot have better scores on brain function tests than ones who take lithium by itself "doesn't count" because I found it on the internet. Nevermind that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal also. And my lack of desire to take a medication that could eventually put me into kidney failure was just another symptom of my bipolar disorder.

My logic teacher used to call this last bit a self-sealing argument. Any criticism of the argument is interpreted as proof the argument is true. It's maddening.

He also refused to prescribe me anything for my attention, despite the fact that I repeatedly told him I needed it for work. I don't think he actually believed in adult AD/HD at all. When he finally came around on this issue, he told me he was only willing to prescribe Ritalin or Adderall because he had prescribed them before. Even though they were much more likely to cause mania in a bipolar person, he would not give me the modafinil I asked for, preferring to have me come in WEEKLY to check for mania from the meds I specifically told him I did not want. And in order to get even those, I had to stop taking "the soup" (his words) of nootropics I was taking on my own to try to mitigate the AD/HD somewhat. This was the last straw that caused me to go back to Dr. A. He isn't perfect either, and probably a little too laissez-faire, but at least he listens to me and doesn't pull any of this authoritarian, manipulative gaslighting bullshit I had to deal with from Dr. B.

Fast-forward to now. I have been smoking pot regularly for two years, and not taking the lithium or the risperdal for over a year. Modafinil has been every bit as great as I hoped it would be. There has not been a single hiccup. Every time I check myself or ask someone to check my behavior for signs of mania, it turns out that I'm just happy or excited in a completely normal way. Smoke without fire, in other words. I don't have manic episode without the influence of SSRIs, SNRIs, and/or strong psychedelics, and I have always known this to be the case. But when you are a hammer, everyone else looks like a nail. And Dr. B has been a hammer for a long, long time.

Let me be clear: I am not a typical patient. I do lots of research and I am very assertive. I'm the son of a school counselor, and always have read psychological research on my own. I've explored altered states of consciousness enough to know how my own mind works. (I might have stayed manic for months, rather than a week and a half each time, if not for this. The doctors were surprised how quickly I came out of it.) And I tested most of the factors in my first manic episode individually (legal drugs, psychedelics, sleep deprivation, immersive live-action role-playing games,) to ensure they weren't dangerous by themselves. I left out only the ones (ayahuasca, underworld journeying) that I have no intention of trying again (or at least, not any time soon).

But I still feel that everyone should always remember the doctor-patient relationship is about trust and referred power. If you don't trust someone, then you shouldn't be willing to give them power over you. And if they don't listen to your input, there is no reason you should trust them. Doctors are fallible human beings just like everyone else. And there is never any shame in getting a second opinion. Don't let anyone tell you that you're "just shopping for a doctor who will give you a diagnosis you like better". (Unless it's true, of course. Don't do that.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lies the Spider Told Me, Part 2: An Easter Egg for Golden Age RPG

The Spider Charmer

Ask the Charmer a question, get a grin and a wink.
If he offers advice, ignore it at your peril.
Always invite him to your parties.
And if he stops smiling, run.
-Solomonic proverb

            The Spider Charmer, as he’s usually known, may be the weirdest and least predictable ally of the Solomonic College. His visits have no discernible pattern – he might wander the college for weeks and then disappear for a few decades ... or come by again next month. New students usually don’t learn about him for a while, because the administration prefers not to discuss him unless or until he has already made an appearance. It’s not that he’s malicious or dangerous – quite the opposite, in fact. But the upper echelons of the College have long known that speaking about him tends to make him appear within the next few days… and even though he’s benevolent, he is still a wild card. He’s also a strange foreigner that talks to spiders. Who really needs that kind of distraction while trying to study or make potions?
            He usually appears a man with dark brown skin and eight thick dreadlocks, sometimes dressed in traditional Nubian garb, and other times in common Arabian-style desert travel robes. But on occasion he shows up as a person of a different ethnic group, sex, or even species, generally without any explanation other than “because it’s who I needed to be right now” (or better yet, “because it’s who you needed me to be right now”). Normal magical methods have thus far been unable to identify whether this is an illusion, shapeshifting, or a combination of both. He has demonstrated great knowledge of magic and metaphysics, but seems not to cast spells as such, relying on his innate abilities instead. According to a previous Magister of the College, he is unable to be harmed or restrained while traveling, unless he wishes it.
When pressed for a name, he tells the person to call him “Oba-itan”, but also freely admits that he sometimes lies. Masters of Name magic have long known that this is not his true name, but Destiny magic has been unable to reveal what it actually is. Whether he is a human, a spirit, or something else entirely is likewise unknown. When asked directly, his standard response (with a characteristic grin) is, “I’m a traveling storyteller; everyone knows that.” Some of the tales about him suggest he has the ability to cure madness or even physical disease, simply by telling the proper story in the proper way.
At times, he speaks casually of his travels (sometimes to lands no one else has visited or even heard of) or about events that happened decades or even centuries ago… yet his skin is smooth, his back unbent, and the corners of his mouth eternally upturned, even if only slightly. His tales have the captivating air of someone who has seen a great deal, but lack the cynicism and world-weariness many explorers develop after seeing too much war, starvation, slavery, and the like. In short, either the Charmer does not age, or his identity has been passed from father to son for a very, very long time.
He seldom offers advice, but when he has in the past, it has sometimes proven to be a hint about future events. One student recounts the story of spending several months in a cell because his facial features looked like those of a missing murder suspect. After a few weeks imprisoned for a crime he hadn’t committed, he recalled the time the Spider Charmer happened by to watch his project in one of the College laboratories. The Charmer’s eyes darted from vial of acid in the student’s hand to his face, and then he opined, “Looks aren’t everything, young one.”
Most of the time, though, the Charmer prefers to ask questions, observe, or tell jokes or anecdotes. Many of his tales are about this or that elaborate and dangerous prank he once played on someone who angered him or harmed one of his friends. But if anyone currently living has ever seen him upset, they aren’t talking. He enjoys the full hospitality of the College whenever he is in the area, but usually prefers to sleep under the stars or in a hammock hanging from two trees.
According to Ali al-Katib, current presiding Magister of the Solomonic College of Cordoba, the Charmer volunteered the following assessment of the Unformed situation soon after the disappearance of the moon: “This isn’t really how the story should go, but I’m going to enjoy watching how you all handle it.” Of King Solomon himself, he has been known to claim, "We met once in Ethiopia. I'm not usually a wine drinker, but the taste of his still sticks in my memory. Lovely wives, too. For a man so serious, he certainly knew how to have a good time." 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Few Words on Lawful Privilege

I know, I know. Everyone is sick of hearing about new kinds of privilege these days. I'm asking that you hear me out here, because if you're a messy creative type like myself, some of these ideas may change your life like they did mine. I'm going to start by discussing lawful vs chaotic from a gaming point of view, but I'll be circling back to real life pretty quickly.

I'm concerned less with privilege than with discrimination (though, of course, these concepts are interrelated). I'm using the terms "lawful" and "chaotic" as shorthand here, in the sense in which they are used in Dungeons and Dragons. "Type A" vs "type B" personalities might work almost as well, but it's significant that in D&D, there is more than just that one axis for determining a person's personality. There are two: lawful vs chaotic, and good vs. evil. They are separate, but when combined, they form what's known as a person's alignment. On each axis, you can also be neutral; this means either that you don't particularly care, or that you try to preserve a balance between law/chaos or good/evil.

This leads to some interesting nuance when creating a character. For example, a person with a lawful neutral alignment is more interested in following (and enforcing) the letter of the law than in whether that law is just or fair. Likewise, a chaotic good alignment means you try to do the right thing, but will usually err on the side of fighting against authority or the establishment. The main point here is that there are many possibilities besides "lawful good" and "chaotic evil".

Why does this need to be said? Because western culture has always been pretty obsessed with dualism, and also tends to collapse "order" with things like "good" and "creative", while collapsing its opposite ("disorder" or "chaos", depending on who you talk to) with things like "bad", "destructive", or even "evil". I first became aware of this fact when reading these pages of the Principia Discordia as a teenager.

Suddenly, I no longer felt like there was something wrong with me simply because I was a naturally chaotic person. And I'd been receiving those messages about how "bad" being chaotic is for my entire life up till then. "Why should I clean my room, if entropy dictates it will inevitably get messy again?" I used to ask my dad, who is a great guy but a bit of a neat freak. Now I understand that this is more about personal preference, that excessive neatness or messiness is not some kind of moral failing.

Consider for a moment that in psychology, the word "disorder" is synonymous with "disease" and "sickness". Besides that, everyone knows what a type A personality or an anal retentive person is, but who has heard of a type B personality or an anal expulsive? In my experience, one of the hallmarks of a bad psychologist or counselor is that they focus too much on what's "normal" (in other words, "orderly") and too little on what works best for the individual patient.

Further consider that at least in the United States, it's possible (and not even that difficult if you try) to get arrested for "disorderly conduct", which amounts to "acting too weirdly in public". This is what I'm talking about when I use the term "lawful privilege": the fact that disorder / chaos frequently gets demonized / pathologized, and hardly anyone seems to notice because order is "right" and "proper" and "the mark of a sane mind". In my experience, chaotic types march to the beat of our own drummer and resent being told what to do; this, of course, is further evidence of how "unruly" and "disruptive" we are.

Let me be clear that I have no desire to malign psychology or law enforcement here. Both are useful and necessary parts of the culture that help a lot of people. If you're mentally ill, you need treatment, and if you're actively harming someone, you need to get arrested. But when psychology or law enforcement oversteps its bounds into policing harmless behaviors is when artists and free spirits get arrested or institutionalized for being too "oppositional" or "disorderly". And that is authoritarian BS that needs to end. Freedom of expression means the freedom to be as messy, unusual, or freaky as you like, so long as you aren't harming others or yourself. And there's an important axiom in psychology that many people don't seem to know about: if it isn't maladaptive, it isn't a disorder.

This means that if the voices in your head tell you to go out and feed the poor or cure cancer, there isn't actually anything wrong with you (or nothing that a therapist should be trying to fix, anyway). If your house is a huge mess, but you can still find your stuff when you need it, your mess isn't maladaptive. Indeed, research suggests that creative people tend to be messier than non-artist types. That's because creative disorder is a thing, just as destructive order also is. (Think about your last trip to the DMV, or the last time a customer service representative told you "I'm sorry, but that's just our policy.") Certain areas of life, such as money or scheduling, can get totally unmanageable if you don't have some kind of orderly way to manage them... but most only need as much order as you consciously choose.

This may all seem a bit nitpicky and academic, but ultimately it comes down to the same issue as every kind of discrimination: shaming people for being themselves is wrong. The types of insults that hardcore lawful types (sometimes called Greyfaces in Discordianism) sling at us can be insidious. "Freak". "Inconsistent". "Childish". "Oppositional". "Disorganized". "Slovenly". In some pagan circles, even "eclectic" is considered to be an insult. (See also the old staples, "You can't work with fictional entities!" and "Your magic is too haphazard / nontraditional / strange to work!".)

And then there's my absolute favorite: "special snowflake". If someone calls you this last one, they are begging for the Turkey Curse. Chances are, it will make them get flustered and leave you alone. Or if you're lucky, they might burst into unexpected laughter.

TL;DR: Never let someone else tell you who you should be. Fly that freak flag high, baby. George Bernard Shaw once said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." So you march to that syncopated, irregular drumbeat if that's what makes you happy. Be wild and free and haphazard and a force of nature. Don't let the Autumn People grind you down.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How to Clean Malware from Windows (Without Spending a Penny)

I've been using pretty much the same procedure to clean computers for years now, so I thought it might helpful to document it for other people to use. This process will likely take several hours, but it will clean all (or nearly all) of the spyware and malware from your computer if you have Windows. I'll also go over some other free software to prevent further infections once you have your computer clean.

In case you don't know me personally, I've been working in computer tech support for about 20 years. My professional website is The Computer Wizard. Cleaning and speeding up computers, including removing viruses and malware, have been specialties for me since the very beginning. I'm hoping others can benefit from that experience.

0. (Optional) Download and install CCleaner Free, then use it to remove temporary files. This will make all the scans below a lot faster, because they won't have to scan the (now-empty) temp folders where all those temp files used to be. Unless you really know what you're doing, don't use its registry cleaning feature.

1. Disable your current antivirus temporarily, or better yet, remove it. I especially suggest removing it if you have any version of Norton, Symantec, McAfee, Trend Micro, or Microsoft Security Essentials, as these antiviruses let far too many infections into most computers to be considered secure.

2. [ONLY IF YOU DON'T HAVE WINDOWS 8.1 OR WINDOWS 10] Download and run ComboFix . If you don't disable / remove your antivirus first, it will incorrectly detect ComboFix as a virus. And if you run ComboFix on a Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 computer, don't expect it to work afterwards. You've been warned.

4. Download and run HitManPro . It's normally safe to remove whatever it finds. You will only be able to use it for 30 days without buying it, so you can safely skip this step if you'd rather save it for a worse situation some other time. It will ask you for an email address, but it will work even if you give a fake one.

5. Download the Emsisoft Emergency Kit, install it, let it update, then run a full scan and remove whatever it finds. You can keep this software and use it for free indefinitely.

6. Download MalwareBytes Anti-Malware Free, install it, let it update, then run a full scan and remove whatever it finds (notice a pattern here?). Like the Emsisoft Emergency Kit, it is free to use as long as you like. However, you need to be careful to decline the free trial of the Pro version when you first open it, as that free trial will expire after 30 days.

7. If the Emergency Kit or MalwareBytes found anything, download and update SuperAntispyware Free Edition , then run a full scan and remove whatever it finds. You may want to set it not to run on Windows startup, because otherwise it can get a bit annoying. It's a great program, though, and a full scan with it will remove anything that's left over after all the other scans.

8. Use ADWCleaner to get rid of any junk software that technically isn't malware or spyware. You'll need to download a new version any time you use it, because it's usually updated several times a week.

9. Now that you've got all the malware off the computer, install Spybot and Spywareblaster , update them, and apply all their immunization. You'll need to close any web browser windows first or they'll complain at you.

10. Download and install HostsMan  and PeerBlock to prevent the computer from going to malicious websites in the future. In HostsMan, pick only the Malware Domain List. In PeerBlock, the built-in lists don't work anymore without a paid subscription to IBlockList, but you can still add the free lists manually. They won't block everything, but this is a step that most antiviruses leave out, and every little bit of protection helps with preventing new infections. The anti-spyware list ( is the one I recommend.

11. Install the best antivirus you can afford and do a full scan with it. In my experience, the only thing that really matters with antiviruses is their detection rate; if your antivirus doesn't detect at least 99 percent of viruses that pass through it, it's not worth much. At the time of this writing, my favorite free antivirus is BitDefender Free, which you'll have to set up a free account in order to use past 30 days (but I've never gotten a single email from them). If you want the absolute best virus detection rate and you're willing to pay yearly for it, go with either G-Data or Trustport. These two antiviruses consistently win the independent reviews of antiviruses conducted by the VB100 and AV Comparatives .

I've deliberately kept this guide as short and concise as possible as a safety measure. If you're able to follow it, more power to you. If not, you might want to have me (or someone a little more computer-savvy) do it for you.