Monday, December 27, 2010

"Dangerous Creatures Booted From Hoosier Town"

Back home for the holidays. I think I've mentioned that I grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana. If I haven't, well, that 's where I'm from. Growing up there, it's a small town. Even now, I think there's only about 30,000 people here, which makes it a small town.

Growing up in Northwest Indiana is kind of a schizophrenic experience. You've got the heavy metal industries just a few miles west of us, residing in Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago. And just a few miles east of that is the lush bucolic countryside where I was raised. As a result, I'm probably in exceptionally better health, contaminant wise, than most US citizens. True, there was a witch's brew of volatiles and heavy minerals that we were occasionally dosed with on the westerly breezes, but nothing compared to most city dwellers.

And then, given the fact that I was raised on milk from dairy cows at a local farm, with local beef and produce, living in a (then small) suburban neighborhood surrounded by woods, swamp, lakes, family farms, drank incredibly clean fossil glacier water from Lake Michigan, lived in a dead center middle class lifestyle with a minimum stress level in small town America, with an idyllic Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn childhood, I'm probably one of the most pampered, privileged, sleek, soft, stupid, happy people you could ever hope to be.

I think it shows. I seem to be younger looking than most people my age, or at least younger acting, and I have to chalk that up to having a really soft life - but not too soft. I recognize my fortune, obviously take it way too much for granted, and am finally appreciative for just how fucking LUCKY I've been. It could have gone South in ten thousand hideous ways, or four billion hideous ways, if you look at life statistics for most of the world.

So, after dealing with small, stunted, bitterly sour, withered, ruinously toxified city folk, its nice to come back to TV Land. It really is TV Land here. No difficult choices. No major crimes. Looking through the local news, its all DUIs and possession of controlled substances. Occasionally, you will see a news item like "Home Invader Eats Food, Does Dishes. (That one actually happened).

So today I am greeted with the following news item in the local paper:
"Dangerous Animal Statute Approved
Laporte outlaws monkeys, baboons, poisonous snakes, piranha, and sharks"
I see you guys hangin' around town. You just - you just get the hell right on outta here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Salvia Divinorum

The Beginning of Louis Wain's Escape From Reality
The best toy any kid could want for Christmas is their brain. Remember kids, it's not the drug, it's what your brain does with the drug, because, when you get right down to it, it was all in your head to begin with. So... to get the experience, you don't really need the drug, right?

Okay, all preaching about "natural" highs aside, I found an interesting article on Salvia Divinorum

This particular phenomenon I have paid only passing interest to in the last few years. I've heard the art children at the college talk about it. Had one or two passing acquaintances mention it. But, seeing as my experimentation phase was some thirty years ago, I didn't pay too much attention to it. 

What? You are shocked that I did drugs? But I came of age in the 1970s. That's when all that shit went mainstream. At least in my uptight white neighborhood. One minute, I'm a jock, running track and field, swimming, playing sports, getting good grades. The next, I'm a doper, but, oh wait, I was still playing sports and getting good grades. (Sorry, no decent into madness melodrama for you). But suddenly practically everybody was trying out the drugs. Is that really such a shock?

Nevertheless,  don't count out coincidences. A few intrusions into your consciousness makes it just that. When the occurrences start to cue up is when the idea of synchronicity starts to kick in. Hmmmm......

So, a colleague gave me a description. Last summer he had a chance to smoke some salvia. He described it as the most intense hallucinatory experience ever. Of, soon after inhaling, his entire body turning into quicksilver, like the Silver Surfer, and becoming "the big magnet in the stereo speaker of the Universe - the woofer". And then just as suddenly, it was over - save for a "pleasant afterglow". Then another colleague mentions her experience, about how "it was like a million needles being pushed into my skin... but they were really good needles". Well, ah, ha ha, ooh-kay!

Like I said, I had my fair share of that, although never like that, never at all like that. But, you know, been there done that. But then there's that article. Here's a quote:
Johnson and his colleagues recruited four volunteers who had used hallucinogens such as LSD or psilocybin in the past. Over 20 sessions, the participants inhaled various doses of highly purified salvinorin A or a placebo while researchers monitored their vital signs and queried them about their experiences.
The effects of the salvinorin A were remarkably strong, consistent and fast-acting, peaking about two minutes after inhalation, and nearly disappearing by 20 minutes.
As doses increased across sessions, volunteers reported stronger and stronger hallucinations, which included cartoonlike images, revisiting childhood memories and contact with an entity. “With this drug, at its peak intensity, people describe popping out and visiting a completely different world. Some people say it seems like another dimension or maybe the spirit world,” Johnson says. “They report these very profound experiences in these highly altered states of consciousness.”

Cartoonlike images? Entering another dimension? Transports you to an alternate reality? I don't think I've EVER been to that intersection in my brain. Gotta admit, sounds intriguing. Actually, sounds pretty damn exciting. Another dimension? There's something about that phrase, that, well, I'll be honest, makes me want to smoke the stuff!

Plus, the study found that salvia is non-addictive, has no apparent health effects,  and, and, allows you to enter another dimension? My fears have been assuaged, and I'm ready!

Wow! Thanks, informative online science magazine article!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I'm sure I'll catch grief from chess mavens, but I think chess is a stupid game.

Oh, it's got clever moves, and strategic and tactical thinking, and planning, and all that good mental stuff that we are all supposed to value. However, it also consists, as I am taken to understand, in a lot of rote memorization of the "correct" moves, of trolling through a planning space of moves, of tedious deduction and trial and error, and not so much creative problem solving, not so much innovation or puzzle solving. Small wonder that computers can play chess so well. But that's not why it is stupid.

Unless the opponents are not horribly mismatched, the play almost always ends up with a lot of carnage, a brute force slugfest, a meat grinder of a game. A field of battle riddled with corpses. A war of attrition. Pyrrhic victories. In short, a stupid way to fight a war.

Granted, I may be biased as I've always sucked at chess. On the other hand, I've always been slightly above average when it came to the game of Go. Ah, now there's a game that requires some creative thinking. Not only forward planning kind of thinking, but a global scope, a big picture puzzle, a sideways associational type of thinking, with not so much a deductive search and elimination of less than optimal moves as opposed to lightning strike moments. Eureka moments. Or, as the Japanese say, when they are unfortunate to be on the loosing side of such an event "ear-reddening moments". I've experienced both sides of that. Even though I may have been on the losing side of that moment, the flash of insight that occurs when I recognize that the placement of a single stone has wrecked everything is still a rather exhilarating feeling.

In short, Go is a much more complex, much more interesting game than chess.

For most of my adult life, when I had a real job, my job title was that troubleshooter. Actually, more like glorified janitor, tending code that is now hysterically obsolete, on computers that are now anchor chains and bicycle parts in China. But that was basically what I did. Solve problems.

Actually, not so much trouble shooting, which usually has a more hardware than software connotation. And it also kind of implies a chesslike approach to problems - isolating a problem source by a tedious process of elimination.

Puzzle solving, debugging then, was more of what I did. The logical deduction technique was my backup plan, and I was not necessarily that good at it.

Good thing I was very good at intuitive solutions. It really was more about knowing who was the idiot that coded the program, or who was the last idiot who modified it. (Yes, dearies, you may think computer programmers are on the high side of the bell curve, but my experience was that they were, uh, not so smart. Or maybe it was me who was a little smarter, although, I can remember on one occasion rewriting a truly brilliant program authored by a very clever young man. I had to. It was too clever, and I knew, in the future, that it would be maintained by fucking idiots who would not have the first clue as to what the code did).

In fact, much of what I did required more like inference, imagination, associations, a little zenlike subconscious processing, a little backburner thinking, and then, lightning strike. Not only to find the problem, but to come up with a clever hack to fix the problem without creating new ones.

Thinking back, I think a lot of my success stemmed from the fact that I maintained a casual, even cavalier, attitude in the midst of a crisis. A sense of humor, more than anything, was probably the reason for my successes. My brain was relaxed in playful mood, and ready for that dopamine reward of the "Aha!" moment.

Now, there is some evidence that comedy and problem solving go hand in hand.

And let's face it, there's room for comedy in a game of Go, not so much in chess, I think.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crime Jazz

Film Noir
It is a limited genre of music, that's for sure. It's inextricably linked to film noir, but I think you have to credit Otto Preminger (trivia note: Mister Freeze on the Batman TV series) for its genesis. Granted, he didn't write the music, but his city dramas of the late 1950s certainly provided the vehicle for it. That's just for starters. The songs extend into the comic book TV era of the 1960s, with theme songs for shows like Mission Impossible, Man from U.N.C.L.E., the James Bond films.

You had composers like Count Basie,  Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, John Barry, Lalo, Schifrin, David Amram, Elmer Bernstein. Songs like Arabesque, Frankie Machine, Peter Gunn...

Who cannot listen to Peter Gunn as a personal soundtrack and not strut down the street shouldering aside grandmas and small children, feeling like a complete hardass?

Speaking of which, the reason I've been off the air lately is I've lost my home internet service provider. I've been piggybacking off an unsecured wireless router of one of my neighbors for the past three years. They finally secured their router, and wouldn't you know it, it's the Albanians.

Oh, fucking hell, the Albanians.

We've had a growing colony of them here in my shitbox apartment complex. At first it was one family whom I thought was French, don't ask me why. Maybe it was the two plump but incredibly sexy dark-eyed daughters that just seemed to have an aura of sexy Frenchiness about them. But soon enough, more families moved in, until there were a good two dozen of them. All lean, hard-looking, hungry, lupine men, and lovely women with raven black hair and alabaster skin. And all of them driving BMWs and Mercedes. How can they afford those kinds of vehicles, unless...

I'm thinking of the movie taken, when Liam Neeson is informed that his daughter is being held by the Albanians "not even the Russian mob will mess with them". And, given that the Albanian mob has a reputation for being especially violent and unpredictable, I'm hoping they don't find out I've been stealing internet access through them. Because if they did, I've a feeling I'd soon be typing out this electronic journal with prosthetic hooks.

But nah, they're just families. I see them out there, being gentle with their children, hugging and kissing each other on the cheeks when the clans get together. And they wave and say "Hi" to me, when I see them.

Nah, nothing to worry about.    

Friday, December 17, 2010

2011: The Year of The Incompetent Fuckup

Let it be known throughout the land that I hereby declare the year 2011 as The Year of The Incompetent Fuckup.

So let it be written. So let it be done.

My understanding is that - starting with December 20th, 2010, South Carolina's secession from the Union - that the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War is to be celebrated with varying degrees of asshabberdashery and dipshittery.

Dueling Banjos from "Deliverance"
South Carolina always struck me as the distilled and concentrated essence of the southern stereotype: the Deliverance Banjo Boy, the halfwit inbred cousin kept in the attic or the cellar, the bugfuck ignant, close-set-eyed, gappy-toothed, flatheaded, stoop-shouldered, undernourished, ill-clothed, pig-fucking, parasite-infested, subhuman, albino CHUD blinking stupidly in the light of day. And some would argue that's probably being generous.

Well... well, no. I'm sure they are very nice folk once you spend time with them. Once you get past the fact that they elect silly little cocksuckers like Jim DeMint to the Senate (ah, but Kentucky's got 'em beat!). Still and all, celebrating the advent of the Confederacy strikes me about the same as celebrating the time your Aunt Mable developed that strawberry growth on her face that sprouted ugly looking boar bristle hair and then metastasized into a disfiguring condition that eventually slowly and painfully killed her. In other words, it wasn't exactly a good occasion.

Don't get me wrong. This is part of our history as a nation. We cannot ignore it, nor can we afford to look at it with anything other than clear eyes and honest admissions. It's a Greek Tragedy in capital letters. And even though my families were still back in the Old Country having their faces shoved in shit-turned mud by local aristocrats, I, by mere presence as a contemporary citizen enjoying the fruits of liberty share no small responsibility in - well, I'm not entirely sure. National guilt? Shame? Something.

Well, let me get to the fucking point. What I DON'T want to see celebrated is some kind of horse-shit from the State's Rights crowd down South or elsewhere. The idea that the Civil War was all about state's rights is just such pure and unmitigated horse-shit that I am surprised anyone who holds this opinion is sane or smart enough to hold a steady job. Really, these cocksuckers should be shipped back to whatever shithole in Europe they sprouted from, and room made in the US for decent and more deserving citizens from India or Africa or some other less fortunate place. Many in the South would prefer that this not be about slavery, that the war was never about slavery. Ignore, please the fact that in the Confederate Constitution, the word "slave" is used TEN TIMES! (In the original, in the REAL Constitution, the one time the word "slave" comes close to being used: Article 1 Section 2, the 3/5ths compromise, the Founding Fathers are either too cowardly or considered it in bad taste to refer to slaves and so use the weasel phrase "other Persons"). It was never about States Rights. Anyone who tells you that is a fucking liar.

I just as soon these state's rights buffoons do us all a favor and find some embarrassingly public way to fuck off and die in a slow and painful manner, you know, visibly and audibly shit their pants, fall over, squeal like a pig, drop stone dead and become extinct like the reptiles they are.

(Was that..? Was that over the top? No matter).

But of course, they ARE going to celebrate. And therefore, I think other anniversaries of other incompetent fuckups should be pooled together for a celebration. And it just so happens, by coincidence, that 2011 provides that.

So, along with the rise of the Confederacy, I celebrate other great fuckheads: the military administration of the Empire of Japan (1941); L. Ron Hubbard (born 1911); Jim Jones, Jonestown (born 1931); the Deutsches Kaiserreich (1871); many, many, many others.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Curse of Paradise

Ezekiel's Vision by Raphael
People are interested in the Singularity.


Well, let's be clear. They really aren't interested in the Vingean Singularity. Vernor Vinge, who provided the  modern definition and popularization of the technological acceleration event that results in an inability to predict more than twenty minutes into the future, more than anything set this up as a literary gauntlet, flung down to writers as a challenge. "All bets are off", said Vinge, "so place your bets". Much as a challenge to himself more than anything. This Singularity is, I think, not the Singularity people are interested in. Vinge's Singularity is a little scary, not at all a sure thing, perhaps even an extinction event for humanity. A Strangelovian version of the happy ending.

They are more interested in the Kurzweilian Singularity. This is the version where Ray Kurzweil pins his hopes on a trickle down version of intelligence, where humanity's boat is floated with the rising tide, where people are transcended. This is Extropianism. Transhumanism. The wildly optimistic vision that we all, or at least some fortunate few, get to become angels and demons, gods, titans, mythical creatures, perhaps even the Godhead itself.

Another variant of this is hoping the aliens come visit. With a qualifier, of course, benevolent aliens. Ready to share their superior wisdom and technology. The ending of war, disease, poverty, hunger, want. The standard Star Trek Socialist Fantasy.

It is, in short, a diaper fetish.

Infantilism. Regression. Lolling about in the crib. Fed pap. Entertained with shiny things. Coddled. Swaddled. Bathed. Buttocks wiped. Perhaps even little bellies massaged so the very effort of pooping is made... effortless.

That is the reward of Paradise, is it not? The end of toil. The release of all care. Finally to rest. In sun dappled repose. With endless leisure. Supine grace. A return to the golden eternity of infancy.

Ah, but in real life, we know what happens when that happens. We fucking wither, weaken, and die.

True, stress and strife kill us off just as fast. But leisure and bed rest beget disgusting soft bodies and bedsores. Not good for us. Both as individuals and collectively.

A La-zee-boy future is sure to wipe us out as a species. We need challenges. We need problems.

If you really want a Singularity future, you better be ready for a Sisyphean one. To modify Camus' conclusion:

"One must imagine Frankenstein happy..."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer
I tried drawing using the computer once, but it was kind of like drawing with a pencil in your butt. Awkward. And after a while, your knees give out.

I'm pretty much a 3-D guy now. Any studies I do, I do in clay or wax. For figures,  I'll use sticks and hot glue for the armature. Most times I'll just go with what is in my head directly. Lately, though, I've been thinking of taking pencil to paper again. Oh, I'll never be a Dürer, or or a DaVinci, or a Rembrandt, and my rationalization to compensate for that is that I am willing to sacrifice anatomical fidelity in exchange for drama (even when the characters are stiff and wooden). Regardless, I am interested again, and it boils down to correcting a student's drawing. She had been given the assignment of drawing her neighboring student and produced a portrait that basically looked like her subject, if, you know, her subject had had a cerebrovascular accident.
So I fixed it for her. And that got me started. Now I want to draw things again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Failure of Fantasy

Castle Of Sin by Frank Frazetta
I've always been a science fiction fan, not so much a fantasy fan. Oh, there are books I've read.

Ursula K. Leguin's Earthsea series. Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series. (Of course, it was Frank Frazetta's book cover illustrations that ensorcelled me first and foremost).

L. Sprague De Camp. H.P. Lovecraft. Jack Vance. Roger Zelazny (never read the Amber series). Piers Anthony... Okay, so maybe I'm more of a fantasy fan than I realized.

I've not read the Harry Potter series, but I've seen the movies - and I'll get to this in a minute.

I feel that there is a distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Granted, a fantasy author can do pretty much as he or she pleases - so long as the story remains internally consistent. (Example: if the wizard hero cannot teleport across water to get off an island imprisonment in one part of the book, but then later pops across a raging river, I have to say, "Oh, come on!"). And, of course, there is Arthur C. Clarke's famous maxim that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Or my corollary, that a sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology).

I think the major distinction is that, although both can be shameless vehicles of escapism, SF at least tries to be socially relevant, in the sense of exploring social themes, either in terms of impact of technology, or alternate political systems, or interpersonal relations, or psychological impact/exploration of personality and identity.

Fantasy just seems to be, well, a jerk-off fantasy about medieval romanticism. I mean, take Harry Potter. Not a single gun to be found, as far as I know. No bombs. Oh, motorcycles. Motorcars. Knives. Swords, I think the occasional pole-ax. But not one gun. I mean. Voldemort? Take him out? Give me a sniper rifle and a well-hidden location. Bam! Problem solved. J.K. Rowling's first book, barely a paragraph in, and it's over. Rest of series, unnecessary.

Alright, I kind of shifted sideways on that, but really, what's the point of the story? The standard villain who upsets the status quo and the hero who defeats the villain and returns everything to normal. Your standard Republican/ Teabagger daisychain.  So, you want my distinction? SF is for liberals. Fantasy is for conservatives.

And in fact, what is the whole purpose of magic anyway? It certainly isn't there to improve conditions. No magic potions to cure smallpox, or AIDS. No spells to prevent a Darfur or a Bosnia. No anti-Katrina curses. Just stuff for personal enrichment and gain. And all set in a castles and dragons and horses atmosphere.

Here you have a literary device pretty much primed to explore some really far out human conditions, and instead it is wasted, again and again on a Middle Ages beatoff fest. Or rather, to keep us mired in what could be considered simpler and better times. Pre-long-19th-century times. Before the dreary ugliness of Modernism reared its head.

Is that what it's about? We (mistakenly) long for a better time? A time when it was hard not to keep keep from dying before the age of 30? A time when you could tell a person was a king because "he isn't covered in shit"? That's pretty sad for a genre.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Thirty-One Years On Game with Time. Time 1: Johnny 0

Me, then and now
My student aide, Vicki, informed me that I had to grow a beard this winter. I said... fine. I haven't grown a beard  for about ten years. For a different reference, the last time I grew one, it was blonde.

I informed Vicki of this, and she noted this datum with a certain skepticism.

So, I went home and rummaged through the pictures, and found one of me at the tender age of 22. Yeah, that's me in the top photo.  I showed this to the children at the college, and they all had a good laugh at the hippie. I had to remind them that hippies, real hippies, existed ten years before my own youthful indiscretions, and were, in fact, their fat old grammas and grandpas now.

I'm not fat.
My vanity feels it necessary to point out the older version of me is not fat.

That's all muscle and sinew. Okay, maybe some fat too. Alright, I'm fat - compared to that skinny little guy. But I could take him. Probably.


Almost ten years ago, my younger brother lost his job at Motorola. He was in quality control, as an electrical tester, or something. Motorola, like every other consortium or collective superorganism, does not particularly care about its component parts, so long as it does not impact its own objectives of growth, profitability and pain avoidance (lawsuits, bad press, drop in share price, etc).

(Indeed, my old joke about when corporations changed the name of the Personnel Department to Human Resources was: "Why did they change the name? Its easier to justify exploiting a Resource". Ha ha ha.)

So, Motorola, like so many other corporations, took it's jobs to China.

The economy sucking the way it did, thanks to St. Ronnie and the Neoliberal's efforts to make the World Safe For Business, most corporations had no choice. Maggie Thatcher once said "Socialism works until it runs out of money". Others counter that "Capitalism works until it runs out of cheap labor".

(And am I starting to sound like a Marxist? Not quite yet, but give me time. By the time I reach my dotage, I plan on becoming radically insufferable, and it will be "proletarian" this and "imperialist running dog" that).

At any rate, my brother and his family suffered through a long period of unemployment due partly to the fact that he was in severe denial. He was trying to get his job back - not at Motorola, but a similar job, with the same pay scale and benefits. I, on more than one occasion, tried to persuade him that, Dude, those jobs are gone. Gone for good. Fled overseas. Never to return.

Finally, finally, after a nightmarish time, he landed a job. Not nearly as well paying. Requiring a much lower skill set. But it was a job.

So it is, that, as a result of my brother's ordeal, I'm a bit gun-shy in reading his communications. Quite frankly, I always have a sense of dread before I open an email from him.

So, guess what? His company went under right before Thanksgiving. Happy Holidays!

(The bank which held the loan for the company, and was more than happy to take money from the government on the promise that they would make loans out to struggling businesses, promptly turned around and reneged on it. There's one superorganism I'd like to see violated up the backside, with some type of collective equivalent of a toxic anal probe).

Needless to say, I've had a small case of anxiety going on since the announcement. I was able to help them out financially the last go around, but this time I'm struggling as well (and yes, brilliant fucking career move, Johnny, going into the art world). It's like there is a lit doorway opening onto a small, cramped, uncomfortable and not particularly well kept room in my limbic system. Didn't really need the added worry of how my brother's family is going to weather the current economic storm.

Well, good news, and better than a lot of people. He got himself a new job. A job with a company that took over the distributorship from his old company. Got the job mainly on the praise from the contractor population that my brother shares this little industry he is in.

Typing this right now, I'm experiencing a strange a build up of moisture on the eyes.  I guess I didn't realize how much this affected me until just now. It is a weight I didn't know was upon me, until I received the good news about his hiring. I'm not ashamed to say I've a hard time keeping the sting of tears out of the corners of my eyes in relief.

So, here's wishing well to anyone out there that is going through tough times. I'm hoping my our good luck is contagious.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Kick their asses and report back to me"

Lewis Chess piece from the National Museums Scotland
That's, um, that's a phrase I've heard more than once in my life. Unfortunately, much to my dislike, and given our hierarchical collective command structure of a society, it has been rephrased to "Kiss their asses, and ...".

As I get older, as my prefrontal lobes stew and season in my own juices, I like to think that I'm developing a certain maturity that allows for just the right amount of introspection. And one of those moments of clarity is the realization that I am (or can be) remorselessly, psychotically, ruthlessly without conscience - under certain circumstances. And, if I am to be honest with myself, and no doubt a symptom of my own unique insanity, I'm a little proud of this.

(Now, some will say that questioning your sanity is a sure sign that you are sane. And to that I say, fucking bullshit).

I am, under the right conditions, a dangerously psychotic sociopath. I have, on more than one occasion, experienced a Berserker Moment. And I've got to tell you the memory of such unfettered rage, of quite literally Seeing Red, is one of pure and utter pleasure, perhaps something like what a cute little kitty cat or puppy dog feels when it takes down its prey.

Now, just the right amount of introspection, coupled with some interesting library tidbits about Northern European, or rather Northern Barbarian, history and folkways, makes me suspect that this is just a tad bit more genetic than cultural. And since this makes me uncomfortable, its a theme worth exploring, which I probably won't do.

I bring this all up because my attention was drawn to a rather alien and opposite piece of behavior, a compelling anecdote about our President to be found in Mr. Chauncey Devega's blog, We Are Respectable Negroes . Mister Devega's anecdote is as follows:

Several years ago a fellow traveler and colleague of mine studied under then Professor Obama. In the latter's constitutional law class there was a very outspoken, provocative, and often wrong student that was quite disruptive as he seemed to revel in contradicting a young professor, one who was coincidentally not White. Throughout the term, Professor Obama would handle him politely and delicately, in the best professorial sense finding merit in said student's comments and redirecting the course appropriately.

One day the seminar was discussing Reconstruction, the Emancipation of Black Americans, and the Equal Protection Clause. The arch-Conservative student in question suggested that African-Americans were not prepared for freedom, had not demonstrated a propensity for democracy, and would have been better off in a state of servitude until they could appreciate the fruits of liberty as taught by White people. Shocked, with students on the edge of their seats, Obama smiled, did not respond, and then once more salvaged this intentionally provocative, racially tinged, and disruptive set of assertions. Many students were stunned. The line of reasoning offered by our provocateur was both intellectually lazy and 
unfounded by the historical record. Obama could have destroyed this observation and the specious reasoning underlying it with little effort...what could and should have been a truly teachable moment. Instead, then Professor Obama chose to make lemonade by adding bar sugar to a noxious mix of rotten lemons.

In that moment President Obama signaled to a type of too good-natured naivete, and a belief in the generosity and reasonableness of people, that is to this day vexing his presidency.

 I am, quite frankly, continually blown away by this behavior. Not that this behavior is alien to me. Nor do I view it as a form of laziness or cowardice. Upon more than occasion, I've recognized that this type of particular battle is not worth the effort. That the asshole in question in the above anecdote (and yes, clearly, the student vexing Obama is an insufferable asshole, and, it should be noted, not likely to be President of the United States of America, proving, in some sense, that the best form of revenge is living well).

There have been more than a few moments, both on treading the debate boards of the interwebs, and in real life, when you realize that It Just Ain't Worth It. Nevertheless, there are other times when you just have to say, fuck it, savage the little weenie, destroy the chickenshit, and let him hate you for the rest of his hopefully short, squalid and miserable life. And then the inner Viking leaps with joy, and asks the flavor of the violence, short duration or long? Fast or slow? A quick rabbit punch to the pharynx? Or how about the Blood Eagle (a quaint Norwegian custom )? And if Obama had had a certain Rahm Emanuel as his teaching assistant, is there any doubt that the student would probably have suffered some type of deserved painful physical humiliation?

I do not view this reaction with pride. I only note it as instinctive to a degree. As a basic drive, a compelling animal magnetism which the Will has the only option of vetoing. It is no choice, any more than an act of heroism or altruism, as it has been noted by heroes in times of emergency, a choice. It's just the thing to do.

Showing restraint is a superior quality of a superior man. But, in this tawdry world, such men need men of baser metal to look after them. I, contrary to almost everyone, have more respect and admiration for Obama than before. And given the circumstances of the past two years, feel that he deserves more than a few chances. He really had no choice with the current tax deal, with the cowardly criminal hostage takers, Mitch the Bitch McConnell the Freak Half-Turtle Man, and John Boehner: Alien Escapee from the Carrot People Planet, but to put down his gun and talk to them, just like in the cop shows.

For the longest time, I viewed him with a slightly jaundiced eye. I certainly did not vote for him. Rather, I voted against McNasty and the Dingbat, who I viewed then (still do, even more now) as utterly and irrevocably disastrous for our nation.

I believe I will now be more charitable.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Chinese Eat Potatoes?

Chinese Potatoes!
I recently read that China is the number one top grower of potatoes.

Potatoes? What?

Yes. It is the number one spud producing nation. Number two is Russia. Then India. Then the US of A.

And... China is not the number on exporter of potatoes. It is not even in the top ten.... which means the Chinese are eating those spuds?

What? Chinese eat potatoes? I've never heard of such a thing. I've never seen a dish in a Chinese restaurant that contains potatoes. I've never even heard of a recipe. So, to the Internet!

Google lets me know that there is a book: "How the Chinese Eat Potatoes". Well, there you go.

Braised Potato with Goose. Ooh, that sounds really good.
Cooked Potato Chips. Well, okay.
Flavored Mashed Potatoes. With minced green onions. I'm there.
Fried Lichen and Potato Chips. See, finally something that sounds like a Chinese recipe.
Fried Potato with Jellyfish Now we are talkin'.

Honestly, I, I'd never have thought. And China is pinning its food security on the humble potato. Apparently it can handle drought better than rice. Go figure.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Question Number 5

Tsuneaki Asai's protoplasts
On the list of origin questions, this is perhaps not so puzzling compared to others.

Why are there animals?

Or rather, why are there multi-cellular creatures?

Life has been on Earth for three and a half thousand million years, give or take. For either two and a half, or three thousand million years, that life has been in the form of single celled creatures.

The standard answer is, well, there are advantages to being a multi-cellular creature. It means you are bigger than a single celled predator, which makes it harder for you to be eaten. It means that you can glom together, share resources, communicate about the environment. For the same reason that a cell has a cell wall, producing a contained environment that it can fashion into whatever suits its chemistry best, so a multicellular creature can do the same, only bigger, with more possibilities. It means you can form a gut, and take full advantage of the things you consume. It means you can specialize your cells, so they can perform different tasks better - better than a general purpose cell. So there are all sorts of advantages.

And then, it turns out, many single celled organisms tended to cooperate in communities long before multi-cellular creatures appeared. All the specialized adaptions in your cells are taken from pre-adaptive structures used by single cells. The little linkage proteins that your bones and muscles use, the molecular hooks that hold you together, the ion channels nerves use to communicate, the internal protein sequences ready to interpret self from non-self, all of these exist in single celled creatures. They are used for community relations, for cooperation, which, despite the adage about Nature being red in tooth and claw, is more often than not what life is about.

So why did it take so long? Well, we are told oxygen is the key. Collagen, a very important protein that holds us all together, requires large amounts of oxygen to be made. And oxygen has not been around in large quantities for very long. Only (only, ha!) the last billion years or so.

Okay, okay, so that's the standard explanation. Me? I've a different take. Have a look at this video:

Did you watch it? Now what do you think?

Well, look at the picture at the top. For all practical purposes, that picture might as well be a video. Not much happnin'. And then you got the video of the cats and crows. Some difference.

Here's my take. The reason animals (and plants) are around is because single celled life is BORING!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Singularity - Yet AGAIN!

Antoni Gaudi's Cactus Geometry

Today is like biting into a York Peppermint Patty.
AND, we've our first sprinklings of snow on the ground, so I expect no echoes of  rejoicing from those of you who are cold-challenged. I, on the other hand, could not be more pleased, Winter is on it's way.
Funny thing about the experience of a good wind chill - say, 20mph wind in an ambient temperature of 30 degrees F, thus putting it around zero - is that there is no one good word for the somatic experience of it. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find a worthwhile description for an intense cold. It's not exactly pain. Although there are moments when exposed parts experience a kind of pain, but they quickly get numbed, or are reinforced by blood pumped from the toasty core of my body. It's a discomfort, for sure, but rarely a suffering. And, at least for me, there's a certain kind of pleasure, or at least an exhilaration, that goes with exposure to intense cold. But no one succinct description for the experience.
I suspect, but cannot verify, that this feeling is not experienced in dreams. Or, at least, in dreams I remember about cold and snow and ice. What little memory I have of the somatic part of the dream seems to be one in a shirt-sleeve environment. I guess that my dreams are climate controlled.
Speaking of dreams, I notice that the strange future dream state known as the Singularity has popped into my attention again. This time around, it comes in the form of a short essay by Cosma Shalizi  (reprinted here in toto):
The Singularity has happened; we call it "the industrial revolution" or "the long nineteenth century". It was over by the close of 1918.

Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses)? Check.

Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check.

Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.

Embrace of the fusion of humanity and machines? Check.

Creation of vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, "the coldest of all cold monsters"? Check; we call them "the self-regulating market system" and "modern bureaucracies" (public or private), and they treat men and women, even those whose minds and bodies instantiate them, like straw dogs.

An implacable drive on the part of those networks to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their own sphere? Check. ("Drive" is the best I can do; words like "agenda" or "purpose" are too anthropomorphic, and fail to acknowledge the radical novely and strangeness of these assemblages, which are not even intelligent, as we experience intelligence, yet ceaselessly calculating.)

Why, then, since the Singularity is so plainly, even intrusively, visible in our past, does science fiction persist in placing a pale mirage of it in our future? Perhaps: the owl of Minerva flies at dusk; and we are in the late afternoon, fitfully dreaming of the half-glimpsed events of the day, waiting for the stars to come out.

I’ve thought along similar lines myself. I found apiece of scratch paper from around 2004 or so with notes on the Singularity - and not the Singularity as popularized by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, a one-fell-swoop life and world changing event of the future, but rather a series of steps that no one notices. Such that, in stages at least, we enter a world never before seen:
"Take 500BC, one brain could recreate all of civilization. Too small? Let’s say a hundred then. A tribe of brains can store enough of the raw tech “vital” information and act as a seed, a catalyst. The rest occurs through cleverness and trial and error. Let’s call this Singularity v1.0 (because Kurzweil don’t own it yet). And things stayed that way up to about, oh, say 1848.
Why 1848? I like that date. A lot of interesting things occured. Social movements in Europe. The US is really starting to get ornery. The first scientific teaching institutions are forming. And it is, in my opinion, the beginning of the Modern Age. With the tech toolkit in a thousand peoples brains, atom bombs are inevitable. Now it takes the stored knowledge in a thousand brains (a corporation? a consortia?) to get us back from the brink. Singularity v2.0
What next? Well, computers helped. Shall we say 1937, with a nod to Johnny von Neumann? Now, how many, a million? Ten million? That’s a nation of necessary brains. Singularity v3.0.
And version 4.0? It probably already happened, we've just been too busy trying to catch up to notice."
Great minds think alike? I'm no Shalizi, but I am rather pleased with myself.
That will change soon enough.