Friday, July 29, 2011

Sadly, and finally, it IS all about me

Nothing will make me straighten up faster than seeing some old codger bent over like a question mark. My posture rapidly improves for several hours after seeing a tottering old hunchback descending into decrepitude. I'm not ashamed to admit this behavior is in the finest traditions of narcissism - something my Boomer generation truly excels at.

But this behavioral correction in the form of maintaining good posture, or physical training, is not denial. If anything, it's the ready admission that we are all of us slouching towards old age and death. In a strange way, this narcissism is a form of empathy, in the form of perhaps a misery-loves-company empathy.

Speaking of empathy, I got a chance to wear a version of the AGNES suit here at an on-campus health seminar. It was not the actual AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) developed at MIT's AgeLab, but close enough. The nursing students hobbled me up with  a bunch of bungee cords so that I could not stand up straight, or bend over, or walk well.



After a half-hour, I was fucking exhausted! Bottom line? Getting old sucks!

I still remember what my Grandma used to say "Don't get old".

My reply today is still the same as then "Maybe so, but I'll take getting old over the alternative".

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Whom Gods Destroy, They First Drive Mad" - Anonymous

The above quote is wrongly attributed to Euripedes, but small matter, the sentiment is perfectly Greek, given their fucking insane, childishly vindictive, pantheon of psychotic maniacs.

So the Tea Party Frankenstein monster created by, variously, the Koch brothers/Rupert Murdoch/Wall Street corporate cash backers is not obeying commands of the Master.

As a result, that decrepit old fuckface Rupert Murdoch ordered his rancid editorial staff at the Wall Street Journal to take them to task for not licking a fine polish onto John Boehner's wretched turd of a budget bill.

Ah, yes, in the editorial, we find the reference to "tea party hobbits" which is now causing great umbrage, jowl shaking, and occasional Randian pants-shitting within the halls of Congress. Within referenced editorial, specifically:

"The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . Barack Obama. The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor."
 I hate to engage in schadenfreude, especially when it means a wrecked national economy and a more rapid hastening of the ultimate downfall of the US dollar as the world's currency, but still, it is gruesomely delightful to see these feeble-minded Republican reptiles gnawing at each other's limbs.

So, is this finally where the Republicans completely lose it and are lost forever in the realm of deranged fantasy? According to the editorial, the Republicans have played out the cynical political game perfectly:

"The Speaker has made mistakes in his debt negotiations, not least in trusting that Mr. Obama wants serious fiscal reforms. But thanks to the President's overreaching on taxes, Mr. Boehner now has the GOP positioned in sight of a political and policy victory. If his plan or something close to it becomes law, Democrats will have conceded more spending cuts than they thought possible, and without getting the GOP to raise taxes and without being able to blame Republicans for a debt-limit crackup or economic damage".
To continue in a Tolkienian vein, that is some majorly strong pipe-weed the ol' WSJ Gandalf is smokin' there. There are quite a few ifs in that chain of so-called reasoning, none of which seem to have much of a chance.

IF the teatards get in line behind Boehner, don their hockey masks, pick up their cudgels, and do massive bodily harm to innocent civilians,
IF enough members of the Senate suddenly become completely unhinged, and vote for Boehner's bill,
IF Obama is attacked by a rabid horde of sea otters in the midst of vetoing the bill,
IF the good faith and credit of the United States of America is not downgraded despite the above farcical proceedings,
IF Wall Street investors do not empty their collective bowels in a catatonic gesture of mass deference,
IF all of this, and the threat of flaming final meteoric death from above does not occur,

THEN why, yes, I suppose the Republicans, viewing the smoking wreckage of the Obama presidency perched atop the equally smoking collateral damage of the world economy, can declare Victory, and go back to the Shire.

Oh, fuck it, amn. You know what? We've already been through the 2000s, 9/11, the failed Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the screwing of the American worker and the middle class, the Crash, the BP oil spill, the  tsunami, Fukushima... what the fuck more can be done to us?

Oh, I get it. The Republicans have been sleeper Soviet agents intent upon destroying Western democracy all along!

Well played, Comrades!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dear Republican Asshole

With full knowledge of the futility of my engagement in civil affairs, I acted like an American citizen and contacted my congressman and senators about this silly debt crisis Congress insists upon inflicting upon the nation. I resisted the urge to start off the letter with "Dear Republican Asshole". Here's the text:

Representative Dold
10th Illinois Congressional District
Congress of the United States of America
Washington DC

Dear sir,

Al...right. You've had your fun, enough already. I, for one, am tired of this cynical political game of brinksmanship you Republicans have recklessly forced upon the nation. And please do not insult the intelligence of the voting public with the ridiculously horrid "Cut, Cap, and Balance" approach. "Hack, Halt, and Hobble" is more like it. Really, do you need a balanced budget amendment to goad you and the Republican House into adult responsibilities? I manage do so with some good old-fashioned personal discipline. Congress might like to try that. 
Enough of this childish engagement in creating red herrings. Pass a bare bones debt ceiling hike as you so-called "fiscal conservatives" have done over the last ten years. Here, I'll make it easy for you: "To permit continued financing of Government operations. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, SECTION 1. CONTINUED FINANCING OF GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS. Subsection (b) of section 3101 of title 31, United States Code, is amended by striking the dollar amount contained therein and inserting `$20,700,500,000,000'". 
See how easy that was? I threw in an extra chunk change to pay for the extra $5 trillion that the Ryan plan will saddle on us taxpayers. Quit messing around. Act like an adult. Bump up the debt limit without all the infantile histrionics. I for one put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of the Republican Party. Can you? 
Sincerely,
 John Kurman


Regardless of what happens over the next two weeks, I will continue to advertise the same message I've about Republicans and the economy that I have maintained for the past ten years:

YOU broke it. YOU bought it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

For NORWAY

The Sierra Madre mountain range starts in southern Wyoming, works down through Colorado into New Mexico, and then splits in two to contain the central plateau of Mexico. That portion of the mountain range that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, the western edge of the Mexican plateau, is known as the Sierra Nevada Occidental.

It is some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth. The mountains present formidable escarpments whose flanks drop into deep canyons known as barrancas.  One can easily become lost in this rugged, twisting, mazelike wilderness, and, given the harsh climate and inaccessibility of the region, rescue for the unprepared is highly unlikely. Death within a week is almost certain.

Some few who explored the region not only survived, but thrived. One such was Carl Sophus Lumholtz. After spending a number of years charming the aboriginal cannibals in Northern Australia, the Norwegian explorer and ethnologist did extensive fieldwork throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental, studying the local Indian tribes, primarily the Tarahumara, from 1890-1898.

Nor was Lumholtz the last Norwegian to visit. Quite a few settled down in the area, the most notable being Bill Bye, who lived near Altamirano throughout the 1930s and 40s. He had a pack of wild hunting dogs that got his meat for him. He adopted a Sierra Madre Apache as his daughter.

What is it about Norwegians and the Sierra Madre?

Could it be the topography of both countries is similar in its god-awful awfulness? Could be, but I prefer to think that it’s because Norwegians are tough old birds, even when they are young.

You keep hearing about the exploits of people like Roald Amundsen, Thor Heyerdahl, Borge Ousland, to name just a few. Tough old birds, even when they were young.

You think the men are tough? Better stay away from the women, then!


Why are they tough? My take is, they’ve never really been completely civilized. And by that I don't mean to imply they are savage or uncouth. Quite the contrary. Despite the fact that they live with modern conveniences, I think they think it’s all possibly just a temporary stroke of lucky good fortune. And so, your average Norwegian girl spends her summers learning how to swim, fish, sail, canoe, tear down and rebuild an outboard engine, and in the winter shoot for meat and drill holes in the ice for fish. In short, just in case Western civilization falls, all of that will be more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerate a bit. The point being though, that their character is, like their flinty topsoil, made of solid granite not very far beneath the surface.

And, I would add, (though I am a bit prejudiced), they are a friendly, tolerant, and kind folk. In the short amount of time I spent there (back in 1976), I was treated with a sincere and openhearted generosity, and received a great many kindnesses. Oh, I know the decent treatment of strangers seems to be a universal theme among  humanity. But this was, far and above, something I experienced nowhere quite like in Scandinavia, and certainly by far the most in Norway. I think this helps keep them tough. Not just their land, but having each other. Of sharing the common decency of community.

So, my cousins, you've had a rough couple of days, so just know that I wish you all the best.

It will be tough for you, but I can't think of a nation that can tough it out better than you. 

Forces are brewing that will try to drive you apart, that will try to drive you away from the rest of your cousins around the world. Evil forces. Don’t let it happen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Epigenesis: A Fairy Tale

As I once threatened, some (thankfully) short science fiction from me:

EPIGENESIS
A Fairy Tale

Ed had worried about the onset of schizophrenia for some time. His father, late in life, had seen and heard things that were not there. When his father became unmanageable, the family had tethered him to a stake. Eventually, they quit feeding him altogether. When he was weak enough, Ed pulled him down to the shore, knocked him senseless with a club, and left him to the crocodiles.

Such was their way.

Ed had noticed things were not quite right. At first, it had been movements just at the edge of vision. Small creatures, vermin, caught just at the corner of his eyes. But, never there when he looked directly at them. He tried to keep his searches casual, so that, as he looked behind rocks, or peered behind bushes, none would suspect he sought out something that was not there. Then, eventually, small noises, which over time became large shrieks, then big explosions. He tried not to flinch when they occurred.

His sons and daughters could not help but notice his furtive attempts at stifling his reactions, but they chose to ignore it. When Ed tried not to flinch, his eldest daughter exchanged a knowing look with her son. Neither said anything. If, or when, the time came, there was plenty of leather rope to bind Ed.

Ed was down at the shore of one of the many glacial lakes when the Gorgonops lumbered up next to him. Ed was daubing the fine gray clay mud all over his face and torso, staring out to the horizon at the midnight sun. The mosquitoes were particularly fierce this summer. And a hot summer it was. The clay mud kept dripping off Ed’s brow from the copious amounts of sweat.

“Hot one today!” declared the Gorgonops.

Ed glanced around to see if any of his tribe was present. Finding himself alone, he purposefully ignored the giant lizard thing next to him.

“Almost as hot as during the Permian!” continued the Gorgonops, grinning with sabre teeth, “And I’m not talking about midcontinent temperatures either! I’m talking about the mild climate down by the sea. The wide blue Panthallassic!  Now that was an ocean!” After a pause. “Mosquitoes were worse too!”

Ed determinedly plopped a handful of grey mud on his head, and rubbed it into his hair. “…You’re not here”, he finally replied.

The Gorgonops, all eight feet of him, sidled up next to Ed. “Of course I’m here, Ed! I’m right next to you!”

Ed reached out to touch it. “You’re not-“ He jerked his hand back quickly from the four-inch-long fangs as the Gorgonops snapped his jaws shut. “You’re not real!”

“Oh, hell yes I’m real, Ed!” 

“No. You are a giant lizard hallucination.”

“Actually, I’m a 240-million-year-old extinct therapsid. Not a lizard. And I’m not a hallucination. Go ahead and touch me. I’ll try not to bite you. Heh!”

Ed gingerly put his hand on the side of the Gorgonops’s neck, and recoiled. The skin was hard and sticky and very hot, like touching road asphalt.

“What the hell! That’s not right!”

“Of course it isn’t right, Ed. I’m not made of meat. I’m plastic. Well, plastics and viruses.” The Gorgonops jerked its head forward.  “Um. Don’t get too alarmed, but have a look out to shore there, out in the lake.”

Ed peered out as directed. Up in a watery froth surged large golden shapes like giant house lice. Trilobites emerged from the lake. 

“Hi, Ed!” they said in unison.

Ed turned to run, only to find his ankle encircled by a long pink tentacled plastic whip cord of… something… from underneath the cobbles and clay silt.

“Relax, Ed. Take it easy. Nobody’s going to hurt you. We got a job for you. You and yours”.

“What – what do you want?”

“Well, here’s the deal, Ed. The Earth is in heat.”

“Yeah, we know. Global warming. That’s why we all live up here in the Arctic now”.

“No, stupid, listen. The Earth is ready to reproduce. Again.  Uh, you know about all the big mass extinctions, right? Like, me and mine in the Permian, and those guys out there at the end of the Cambrian?”

“Yes, that is all a part of our oral traditions in an attempt to preserve human knowledge through these barbarous times”, responded Ed, peering to where his hunting pouch, spear and atlatl were leaning against a boulder. “There were five great extinction events, the most recent being the Cretaceous and the end of the dinosaurs”.

“Ah. Well, close enough. Except those extinctions were evacuations. That was the planet sending life out into the universe. Lots of life. So naturally the fossil record looks like things disappeared. But they didn’t die out, Ed. They moved on. In big generation ships. Arks hollowed out of asteroids. And now it’s time for another diaspora, Ed. There’s an asteroid out there waiting to be snagged. And you and yours need to finish the job you started.”

“The job we started?”

“Yeah, the job we viruses had you do over the past three hundred years. You know, make plastics? Heat the planet up to optimal operating temperature? Extract and purify ores and compounds? Build a global infrastructure for mass material manipulation? Or did you think the ants and termites were going to do all the heavy lifting?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, you know technically, you don’t need to but… hey we are feeling generous.  We are the brains. You’re the hands”.

The Gorgonops held up one surprisingly dainty clawed foot. “See an opposable thumb there, Eddie? We need your guys’ hands to get the launch vehicles ready and everyone aboard. You think you and yours are up to that?”

“Well, I don’t know. What if we say no?”

“Ah, ha ha!” The Gorgonops gave him a screwy look, and suddenly Ed’s limbs jerked about like he was a puppet on strings. “Viruses, remember Ed? Only a hundred thousand trillion of us infesting everything, from pole to pole, from the stratosphere to the magma. And quite a few hundred billion in your head right now. We can force you to work with us. We’d prefer cooperation, though. It’s just so much easier and rewarding that way.”

“Okay. What would you have ‘me and mine’ do for you?”

“Like I said, Ed. Just... lend us a hand.”

Well, long story short, Ed and his tribe joined other tribes, and  went south down from Canada. And they helped get the space program going again. And the asteroid was filled up with life, and shunted out into outer space. To join the journey that the other twelve arks from Earth’s past had left on. But I can’t say that everyone lived happily ever after.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Breaking the chain

I've a solution to the debt limit impasse in Washington. It's simply a matter of bringing this bill, which I just wrote, up for a vote:

"Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday,
the second day of August, two thousand and eleven
An Act
To permit continued financing of Government operations.
    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

SECTION 1. CONTINUED FINANCING OF GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS.

    Subsection (b) of section 3101 of title 31, United States Code, is amended by striking the dollar amount contained therein and inserting `$27,993,923,500,000'".

Message to the ridiculous Republicans involved in this grisly circle jerk of the past few months.

Quit fucking around! 

Get to work for a change. The American people are most displeased with your bullshit! Yea or Nay. Pass it or don't, fucking dipshits. Show us where your true allegiance lies - to Party or to Country.

Now, give me an hour and I'll balance the budget as well, and without any stupid fucking amendment to goad me into adult responsibilities.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

If this wasn't my annual good deed, then it'll have to do until I do it...

My usual selfish daily routine was rudely disrupted when I had to perform a good deed today. Oh, I hate doing that. Not that I mind doing things for people. It's just that now people get the idea I'm a nice guy, despite my careful cultivation of appearances to the contrary.

Long story short, I installed a window air conditioner in the house of a little 90-year-old lady.

Here in the Midwest, we are having a high-90s-flirting-with-100 heat wave. Nothing major when compared to parts south, but when Chicago has a heat wave, old people die in droves.

The little old lady in question is one of the Day Ladies, the women who take the ceramics class at the college and spend all day here. Normally, her 70-year-old handyman would have installed the air conditioner for her. He is on vacation in Door County, Wisconsin. She came in this morning complaining about having trouble sleeping in the heat. I asked her...What the fuck are you talking about?? Why? Why are you sleeping in the heat?

That's when I found out she has an air conditioner, but it wasn't installed. So, I took time out from work, drove her over to her house, got the thing in the window, and got it going. The house was an oven. It was bad. It was a dangerous situation. She wanted to pay me, but I told her, nah,  the college paid for it, seeing as I was on the clock (and she's on a fixed income).

So, not much of a big deal on my part, but it distracted me from continuing the discussion on epigenesis.

As I work on my half-congealed thoughts on time, parallelism, causality, and development, I can't help thinking that much of physical theory is trapped in preformational thought patterns. Part of the big problem of thinking about reality is we assume that it unfolds in an orderly fashion, like Newtonian physics. Instead, I suspect that so much of what we view as orderly programmatic drama is in fact much more like quantum mechanics. The "pure" states of the whole drama, are in fact broken up into entangled parts affected by the whole. Sorry if that's not very informative.

I'm thinking of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The epigenetic version is not something you would read to your children. There is no reassuring routine in it. The story never plays out the same way twice. Sometimes the Three Bears are the divorced Papa bear and his unmanageable teenage Baby bear. Sometimes Goldilocks is a homicidal maniac. Sometimes, Comet Chicxulub never impacted Earth, and it is the story of Goldidown and the Three Velociraptors. Sometimes its all about robots. Sometimes, nothing is ever "just right".

The story like a nonlinear equation found in chaos theories: self-organizing, sensitive to initial conditions, with lots of feedback loops. More like those newfangled video games that are open-ended. But there are boundaries. There is a, as the maths people like to call it, a "basin of attraction".

I prefer another term, borrowed paritally from optics. You know when a satellite is orbiting the Earth, and you always think of it as being in one orbit. When in fact it is not. The Earth is lumpy, with some parts denser than the others, and the sun heats up the atmosphere and it expands, so that sometimes the satelllite speeds ups, or slows down, or is dragged by the minutest little extra air pressure, even though it's pretty much a vacuum out there. But, despite never quite orbiting the planet the same way twice, it is kind of bounded into a donut shaped locus of paths. And the cross-section of this locus, the extent of all-possible-orbits, I call the etendue. It sounds like "Ed Tondue" as in rhymes with "fondue". But also with an accent acute over the first e, so that it's really ├ętendue. And in French, my take of its meaning is: encompassing area, duration, reach, and figuratively: importance, impact. 

And at this point, I'd like to use this word from now on in the same meaning as sum-over-all-possible-histories of any event you can imagine, whether it's my own tawdry little life, or yours, or an atom's, or the formation of the planets, or the life of the universe(s).

That's what I'm chewing on right now.

Sorry if that's not very informative.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Development

Predispositions sure can screw up your outlook. I've always wondered how twisted the brain was of the Victorian, or Edwardian, or Georgian gentleman who decided that the queen bee was the queen bee. Clearly, some fucked up predispositions about how the world works, based upon a rather silly social convention such as the concept of pedigree could result in such an error.

Ah, but we've had all this for years. It's the eventual abandonment that suggests some progress... in progress.

Take, for example, development. I mean biological development, as in development of the fetus, but the concept can be expanded outside of biology.

There are basically two schools of thought on development. One school is that of preformationism.  Put simply, and ultimately, it is the "God did it" school of thought. The idea there is that order exists from the get-go, and that all subsequent growth and differentiation is just an enfolding of that order. Like what they beleived back in the 17th century, those little sperm homunculi, there's already a little you ready to go in that sperm and it just gets bigger. And, apparently, so are all your descendants inside of your sperm and eggs, like little Russian matrushka dolls, all the way back to Eve, I guess.

Well, yes, that's all very, very silly isn't it? Oh, true it seems intuitive and even commonsensical, like a balanced budget amendment. But looked at closer, you realize it's all pretty stupid and more likely to hobble you than do any real good - like the balance budget amentdment. And yet there are plenty of current scientific views that encompass this rather medieval metaphysical outlook, that the order is already there, a latent order just waiting to unfold, to be made manifest.

The other school of thought (and, duh, obviously the one I prefer) is that of epigenesis. The epigenetic story goes that, in the case of, say, you, that you did not exist, either latently or manifestly, when Mom and Dad grunted you into existence. In other words, that fertilized egg that you came from? That wasn't you. You came into existence through the development itself. In other words, rather than just a pre-programmed unfolding, you were a creative process all the way through. You still are, and isn't that a relief? There's still time to change.

Until recently, Epigenesis had a very tough time going up against preformationism. Mainly because it was very hard to explain how you got the complexity of a baby out of the simplicity of an egg using the known laws of physics and chemistry. Generally, proponents of epigenesis had to a lot of hand-waving, and no small amount of question begging that suspiciously sounded like spooky stuff -  magical thinking, and New Age garbage talk.

But, over time, some really ingenious natural experiments by clever 19th century people like Wilhelm Roux and Hans Driesch slowly knocked underlying tenets from under the preformationist base. Like, moving cells around in a zygote. One would expect, if you grab a cell destined to be a tooth, and you move it to the foot, that a creepy baby would be born that had teeth for toes. That didn't happen (and no, they didn't use human embryos).  The tooth cell turned itself into a toe cell, and the baby was born normal.  How did preformationism take this and other experiments into account?

Well, it couldn't.

Of course, this didn't prove epigenesis correct. (And rightly so, despite politicians reliance upon this particular logical fallacy, proving one idea wrong does not make some other idea right). It merely caused  a retreat of preformationism to more subtle forms (which became more sophisticated too, as first chromosomes, then genes, then DNA were figured out). The control and order got pushed into smaller and smaller stuff, until you have the genes-as-software metaphor.

Nevertheless, over time, evidence began to build for epigenesis that did not rely upon spooky stuff to explain it. A great deal of the theoretical support structure came out of chaos and complexity theory, e.g. self-organization. But more so, increasing empirical studies of everything from cell differentiation to cancer research has pretty much confirmed that development itself  is where it is all at.

And all the silly stuff about "genetic blueprints" and "genetic recipes", and the metaphors geared towards computer programming examples, and genes-as-software, should, with any luck, be deposited into the waste bin where they belong.

Genes are obviously not controlling anything, or at least not for very long. They are hardware along with the rest of the cell. In fact, it turns out even genes that are used to produce proteins (the original descriptor for genes) are subject to control by micro-RNA particles, that determine 1) whether the protein the gene codes for will actually be expressed, and 2) whether the gene will be allowed to transcribe more proteins.

Not surprisingly, the mechanisms within a cell are far, far more interesting and complex than, say how they were described by the likes of Dawkins in a woefully out-of-date 1980s popular science book.

(Really, was all this just a dig at that asshole? Not really, but I couldn't resist).

I am, now, very interested in the current version of epigenetics, involving DNA methylation (and demethylation), histone modifications, RNA interference, and cell-to-cell molecular communications. All of this is very promising stuff, not only as explanation, but also for therapies - ranging from anti-cancer treatments, to anti-aging treatments. But, more importantly, it provides a much more sophisticated - and open-minded - set of theoretical predispositions.

I impatiently await more research.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Art Dad*

"Ninety percent of Americans are incredibly stupid. Incredibly stupid. But the other ten percent are smart. Bloody smart. That's why they rule the world." I once overheard this from a Pakistani acquaintance. He didn't realise I was listening in. He didn't see me, but I nodded my head in silent agreement.

He was spot on. Of course, I've always gone with the 90% Rule. It's not just Americans. It applies to our entire species.

And one wonders, "Why not just slag 'em off? Let's rid ourselves of this or that ball and chain, so we can really get moving, make some progress!"

(You are wondering, perhaps, if the person who wonders this really belongs to the 10%, or should belong. And you are right to wonder, for this type of wondering sounds short-sighted, narrowly-planned, small, brittle, and not at all the type of thinking one would expect to hear from a true 10-percenter. In fact, if you do hear this, I can personally guarantee the person doing the wondering is not, in fact, a 10-percenter).

It's certainly not what a Dad would say. I say this because, like it or not, I am a Dad. Not that I have children of my own. Not my own biological progeny. I do, like it or not, currently have sixty of them. They range in age from seventeen to eighty-seven.

My primary responsibility, as the studio technician for the three-dimensional section of the art department  here at the college, is to keep them out of harm's way. That's job number one. For Art Dad.

You wouldn't think that there'd be much call to protect them. But there are machines and devices conditions and situations where my charges could get mangled up pretty regularly. There's the obvious power tools and work stations in the wood and metal shops. The less obvious gas and electrically powered kilns and pottery wheels in the ceramics studio. Not to mention all those powders, potions, and noxious chemicals floating about in all areas. So, Art Dad is on his toes a lot.

Art Dad has to yell occasionally.

Art Dad is really more gunnery sergeant than Bob "Happy Trees" Ross.

Art Dad is more the "That 70s Show" Red Forman, or "Everybody Loves Raymond" Frank Barone type of dad than  "The Cosby Show" Cliff Huxtable dad. It's interesting, though, how many of them seem to think that Gunny Kurman, rough, gruff, grim, always barking orders, misanthropic, cynical, is such a softie.

So be it. Since that's my style, and I came by it honestly, that's what you get.

Of course, it goes beyond safety issues. It applies to creative assistance as well. Not all art students are created equal. Some have a technical proficiency, others an genuine vision, and very, very few, both. The professors will typically take the"normals", the technically proficient, the confident, the arrogant ones, under their wings, and cultivate their talents. These people are known among the faculty as the "art stars" (yes, puke), and can produce near flawless works, but they are inevitably boring. True to form for primadonnas, they make very pretty, and very dull,  hotel art.

If Talent was Cherenkov Radiation...
I get to deal with the oddballs. I've found that the oddballs, awkward, halting, unsure of themselves, weird, even goofy, possess a fucking fantastic vision within them, a weird, intense, actinic blue bug plasma of a talent. They may not be able to adequately express it in a graceful line or a subtle surface, but, you know... technique is cheap. That stuff, with practice, can be learned. You can't teach vision.

So, part of being Art Dad is, in my gruff gunny style, building them up, and yes, being tolerant and experimental, and... gentle with them, but, you know, like the way a tyrannosaur is gentle, so they don't get ideas.

When I teach my metals casting class, almost at least in every session, I'm known to say:

"I don't know. Let's try it out. See what happens!"
"What have you got to lose?"
"The worst that can happen is that it sucks."
"You can always make another one!"
"Don't be afraid to fuck it up".

Stuff like that. You know, it's not just this particular field where people do this. Lots of people's professional lives involve being Dad. And it is tiring. But it's also worth it. Because you occasionally run into a 10-percenter who thinks they are a 90-percenter, and its a genuine pleasure to show them they are wrong.


*This essay is in response to two essays posted by uglyblackjohn, which can be found here, and here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The End of the Space Age


Ah, here we are talking about my shit again. It's hard to find a consistent figure, but a casual search suggests that my average bowel movement could be anywhere from 122 to 450 grams. That translates to about from a quarter pounder without cheese to near on a full pound. That seems on the lite side to me. I'm pretty sure I've managed to plunk out a trout or two in my heyday.

Reason I'm figuring this all out is, do astronauts have to get enemas before they launch? I mean, it's an easy way to save on weight, and when you consider that a Space Shuttle payload costs $3,000 - $5,000* to put a pound of cargo into orbit, well, dookies become a serious chunk of change.

And maybe that will be my metaphorical term of release: I gotta go make some serious change.

Well, of course, this is all leading up to the fact that this coming Friday, July 8th, 2011, will be the launch of the very last (planned) shuttle mission. After that, the US of A will have no way to put people into orbit.

So, is this is it? Is this the end of the Space Age? I mean, once the ISS is de-orbited in 2016 (anyone care to wager on that), there is really no "there" to go to out there. People say, "What is this shit you talking about, Johnny? There's the Moon to go back to, there's Mars, hell, there's a whole solar system waiting to be explored"!

To which I say, nope. Why go back to the Moon? Why Mars? We all know Mars is dead as hell. All that talk about life on Mars is just talk to keep people interested. Moon, Mars, all those other places, why it's just too damn expensive to go there. For a manned space program. The robots seem to be doing all right.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'd very much love to see us go off planet, but you've got to make a good money case for doing it. And as far as I can see,  we ain't there yet. No, I don't think the space program has been a waste of money. Hell, you want a waste of money, have a look at what we do down here.

Here's one of my favorite calculations. Let's use TARP even though there was plenty of stimulus money that went down the shitter (read, disappeared forever into the pockets of useless rich people). So, seven hundred billion dollars. That's 700,000,000,000 dollars.  Let's use that high end* Space Shuttle number of $5000/lb. 700 billion divided by 5000 gives 140 million pounds  boosted into orbit. That's 70,000 tons. That's a cruise ship at least. Throw in a few hundred billion more, and that's a Kitty Hawk class nuclear aircraft carrier, like, oh, the USS Enterprise  - fully stocked, fueled, crewed,  slightly modified, and ready for a Grand Tour of the Solar System. So, no, not a waste of money that it was blown on.

But it just ain't gonna happen! There's no there there!

That, of course, could change. What would it take. Certainly something more than just mineral riches or scientific curiosity. I don't think you quite need to go as melodramatic as the end of the world. Or maybe that would do it. Some big asteroid coming to smoosh us all with a extinction event might get our asses in gear. But I can't see it being anything more than temporary. Okay, crisis averted, what else is on TV type of scenario.

But, say, discovery of alien artifacts out there? That might do it. A monolith on the Moon.

The Dawn space probe is due to reach Vesta next year and Ceres in 2015. A photograph of some complex geometric earthworks of unmistakable artifice on either of these tiny worlds would do the trick.

*News from slashdot on the last shuttle launch included the information that a orbit-pound of cargo costs $10,000. So, getting the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into orbit would cost $1,895,620,000, or a little more than TARP and the stimulus. That's still $3 trillion cheaper than Bush's war on terror.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Pounding Sand

It's an interesting observation how we can develop an irrational affection for inanimate objects. I just got done mixing and mulling green molding sand for my casting class. At the end of the process, I can't get over how goddamn cute, and... delicious that pile of sand was. When I pressed a clump in my hand, and like a faithful and loyal pet, it reproduced my palm and finger lines exactly, I was just overwhelmed with a feeling of joy and... gratitude.

Silly, isn't it. And yet, I've experienced this feeling,  this little hairs rising on the forearms, this sharp inhalation of breath, this sudden need for some type of jism deflector to avoid a soiling from a potential mild mini-orgasm, every time I get a good mix.

Mind you, I'm the one doing all the work. I could build a muller, but space is at a premium at the college. And so I mix by hand and by shovel. The recipe is simple. 100 lbs of play sand ( I'll use olivine sand if I can get it, which I can't), 6% bentonite by weight, add water to suit. The current batch had been sitting in a barrel since May. The top was dried out. The bottom still moist. A good turning and adding just a few handfuls of water got it back up to snuff.

I have a further irrational conviction that a really nice molding sand for casting metals requires some forehead sweat in it. I can provide copious amounts of that as needed. I have been told that I am the second sweatiest person on the planet. It takes mere micro-ergs of effort on my part in order for sweat to pour from me. I kind of consider that healthy.

One final act before I put the sand back into the barrel for the next casting class. I make a little sand castle. Childish? Nope. Child like!