Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Was he, like, a sea captain or something?"

Or something. Close enough.

That line was my laugh for the day. I have a new student aide whom I am breaking in. Showing him how to mix and pug reclaim clay, mix up glazes, pick up and clean up around the studio, etc.

My older, broke-in student aide, Vicki, worked with him for the latter part of the day. At lunch, she said to me, "Jakob asked me if you were ever, like, a Navy captain, or, one of those other guys."

"Other guys?"

"Yeah, I asked him that. He said, 'Oh you, know, the, um... Marines".

"A gunnery sergeant?"

"Yeah".

I laughed. "Why?"

"He said you looked like one, and you used nautical terms a lot."

(laughing even harder) "Like what?"

"I don't know".

"Wow. Funny".

Interesting thing about these kids that gravitate towards me here. They are the geek kids. The ones that play chess and role playing games. They are all soft, and a little pale, and soft-spoken, and shy, and funny, and for some reason, a lot are Pagans, or pretend to be, and all of them weird and quirky and interesting. And I encourage them in their weirdness and quirkiness and dorkiness.

I think I used to be one of them. Minus the soft part. Don't ask me how I ended up being GySgt Kurman (I don't know, can I call myself that? Well, two former student aides, both Marines who served in Iraq, called me that, so, yeah, I guess it's OK).

I guess it was when I realized no one was going to take care of me anymore, adn I had to do shit for myself. And also, I realized I liked working, and collecting skills. It's the only collection I've ever had or done. Skills.

They tell me they are scared of me at first, then realize the volume, tone, cadence, and inflections of my manner of speaking isn't shouting, or barking, and I won't cut their head off with a chainsaw if they ask something stupid. And that I have a very, very deadpan sense of humor.

They realize I'm there to dispense knowledge, for, oh, I don't know, so that they can carry on just in case I get shot in the head, or something.

Are Volvo Drivers Assholes?

A guest editorial today from Eldest Brother. He has a complaint about Volvo drivers. I thought they were all hippie moms listening to NPR and such. But then, ah, true, there's the old saying about utopian social engineers:
"Scratch a hippie, find a Nazi"
A quick check of the global pulse suggests he may be on to something. Many hold the opinion that the biggest asshole drivers out there own BMWs, Mercedes Benzs, etc. with Volvos and Saabs up there in the ranks. Could it have something to with Volvos have a very high survival and safety rating? Could it be that shitty drivers are suggested towards these vehicles? Wow, that seems to be the idea when you look at the Urban Dictionary's take on Volvos. "Hey, look at that guy driving a Volvo. What an asshole!"

My understanding is that Volvo Station Wagons are now discontinued.

Hmm. It may have something to do with the fact that Volvo sold only 480 V50 Station Wagons in the US last year. That, and the fact that Volvo was sold by Ford to China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group in 2010. At any rate, here's Eldest Bro's take:
"Perhaps things are different for you in Northern Illinois, but here in Granola County of Northern California, it seems we are infested with self-righteous slow-pokes driving the ubiquitous Volvo wagon. Not the new sleek Ford-inspired ones either, but the traditional old boxy tanks. More often than not, you will find yourself trapped in the left lane behind one of these individuals whose speed is randomly varying between 56 and 62 mph and who is giving you disapproving looks in the rear view. It seems sometimes these people are "regulators" whose attitude is, I'm going fast enough, I'm going to keep the rest of you from speeding, so you should either back off or fuck off. My view: Hey, if you 're going to make yourself responsible for my behavior, maybe you'd like to pay my god damn cable bill, or figure out how to deal with my teenager, or actually make yourself useful in some fashion. OK, now I'm done".
Okay, speed vigilantes? And willing to inconvenience others in order to impose their version of reality. Yeah, I'd say that's an asshole. Kind of like Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers.

Fuck those sanctimonious busybodies.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"1493" by Charles C. Mann: A Half-Ass Review

By happy circumstance, I happened to concurrently read "Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer" by Duncan J Watt along with "1493" by Charles C. Mann. Since I have on my own (honest!) formulated a lot of the same thoughts that Watt presents, I will shamelessly paraphrase him:

The difference between prediction and prophecy is the ability to foresee not only what will happen, but also what its meaning will be.

"They" say that hindsight is 20/20. "They", as is usual with the purveyors of conventional wisdom, are full of shit.

Not only is the future shrouded in fog, but so is the present and especially the past.

In order to understand what is going on, in order to piece together the narrative of history, one has to not only apprehend every single event and circumstance, but also place these in context within future events. Thus, history is like prophecy - if prophecy is, like Aesop's Fables, providing a moral to the story.

But the moral can change, not only over time, but by whom is the teller of tale. So, with this in mind...

Mann pushes two themes throughout the book, or rather, two flavors of the same theme.

The theme is globalization - the flavors the origins and ramifications thereof.

Once the Basque ship's captain Legazpi meets up with Chinese junks in the Philippines, to trade Chinese silk and porcelain for Bolivian silver, we are on our way to global trade. Or rather, once Friar de Urdaneta figures out the return trip to Mexico via the Northern Pacific, it's more or less a complete circuit. "Pangaea stitched together again", the idea of the one-world supercontinent split asunder and then made whole, perhaps not quite the accurate metaphor geologically or biologically, but prodigious enough.

More importantly, the Columbian exchange of every variety of life, changes everything. It causes massive deaths and dieoffs which occur to this very day. It causes (beginning through the export of Old and New World crops and animals, an exponential increase in the numbers of humanity which is only now (perhaps) reaching a plateau.

I've often written of the Singularity. This is not a form thereof, more a Black Swan event, but the impact of the Columbian exchange certainly has the biggest characteristic of a Singularity - All Bets Are Off. No one could have any idea, none whatsoever, what the emergent consequences would be. Certainly nothing like it has been seen since the beginnings of Neolithic culture, and the Agricultural Revolution.

Mann does a wonderful job in summarizing the impacts, or rather, updating the narrative first put forward by Alfred Crosby in his books "The Columbian Exchange", and "Ecological Imperialism", to name just two of many, many others Mann uses. (In the acknowledgement at the end of the book, Mann states "If 1493 brings new readers to these books, I will be more than satisfied". I, for one, will provide him this satisfaction. He would be hard press to write a more engaging collection of historical goodies to set off the seeking instinct within me.

...I'm sorry, but I have to throw my dog-eared segments in here.

The Difference Between Fantasy and Magical Realism
Portugal transplanted an entire colony from North Africa to northeastern Brazil:
 "The transition was eased by grants of cash, livestock, and several hundred slaves... within a decade of arrival the colonists - malarial, famished, living in wretched huts they were too poor to repair - were begging the crown to relocate them. Ultimately, almost all of the surviving Europeans slipped away. The remainder soon died. Through no act of their own, the slaves found themselves at liberty... They were free as long as they pretended they weren't. The Portuguese administration wanted to be able to report to the king that his subjects were guarding Brazil's northern flank. The slaves were willing to say they were doing it, if that meant they were left alone. Everyone was happy: the maroons (mixed descendents slaves, Indians, and the few seasoned Europeans) pretended they were Portuguese subjects in a Portuguese colony and the Portuguese pretended the maroons were guarding the border".

A Hollywood Treatment for the Conquistador/Samurai Buddy Movie
The "hidden" history of Asians in the New World is worthy of a few good yarns. Somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, this information was once planted from a book I once read. Nevertheless, once it was made known again, I am fascinated with the idea the Hollywood treatment for the following:
"Known collectively as chinos, Asian migrants spread slowly along the silver highway from Acapulco to Mexico City, Puebla, and Veracruz. Indeed, the road was patrolled by them - Japanese samurai perhaps in particular. Katana-swinging Japanese had helped suppress Chinese rebellion in Manila in 1603 and 1609. When Japan closed its borders to foreigners in the 1630s, Japanese expatriates were stranded wherever they were. Scores, perhaps, hundreds, migrated to Mexico. Initially the viceroy had forbidden mestizos, mullatos, negroes, zambaigos, and chinos to carry weapons. The Spaniards amde an exception for the samurai, allowing them to wield their katanas and tantos to protect the silver shipments against the escaped-slaves-turned-highwaymen in the hills."
The Other Black Gold
Mann spends a lot of time in the Amazon with UCLA geographer Susanna Hecht. Hecht contends that "three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution. Steel, fossil fuels, and rubber". While I'd disagree that these are needed to get it all going, I'd certainly agree that they are needed for its fruition into the electrification phase. Without vulcanized rubber, all sorts of items become extremely difficult to build. Insulation for wiring for one. Belts to transmit motion from engines to appliances for another. Tires. Inflatable tires.
"Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil, gasoline, and exhaust vapor. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids and gases to vent dangerously from joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust - a potential death trap".
Even today, synthetic rubbers made from petroleum feedstocks do not even closely approximate the performance of natural rubbers. And rubber, latex, comes from only one tree - Hevea brasiliensis. More about this in a moment.


The Other Other Black Gold
Much has been made by various doofuses about the European expansion during (from a European standpoint) the Age of Exploration (say, 1000-1500CE) being the resuklt of European exceptionalism. There is far too much evidence in this book to suggest the huge amount of pure dumb luck that kept Europe - again and again - out of the Malthusian Trap. Without the potato, and guano, European soils would have been depleted - especially in Northern Europe where the soils and climate are not conducive for large populations. In fact, it is doubtful that (Northern) Europe could ever have escaped the cycle of famine that kept it such a primitive backwater for so long to stride upon the world stage as it did. More importantly, with the introduction of the Old World diseases of malaria and yellow fever, Europeans could never have developed the extractive systems with their own populations as the work force. For this, they needed Africans. There can be no doubt.
"...between 1500 and 1840, the heyday of the slave trade, 11.7 million captive Africans left for the Americas...in that (same) period, perhaps 3.4 million Europeans emigrated. Roughly speaking, for every European who came to the Americas, three Africans made the trip... demographically speaking...American was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century."
Now, the interesting thing is, for the same reason that Europeans do not colonize tropical Africa, for the longest time, they do not colonize tropical America. Tropical diseases, don't you see. And the only reason Europeans dominate to any degree between the Tropic latitudes, given their small numbers, is because they were tolerated due to favorable trade. Globalization, to a great degree, facilitated both the slave trade, and European conquest.
"One of the most persistent myths aboout the slave trade is also one of the most pernicious: that African's role was wholly that of hapless pawns. Except for the trade's last few decades - and arguably not even then - Africans themselves controlled the supply of slaves"
(The reason expounded in the book is that within African systems, land, property was held solely by the state. The only form of private, revenue-generating property recognized by African law were slaves. Although, the form of slavery in Africa is more akin to indentured servitude, or monetary rather than labor extraction, somewhat similar to serfs in Russia. For example:)
"Napoleon sent his army to seize Egypt. An African Napoleon would have sent his army to seize Egyptians". 
That being said, those who ended up enslaved, from an African standpoint, were criminals and prisoners of war - scofflaws, tax cheats, political exiles, unwanted immigrants, and the like. It is a wonder, in fact, given the number of ex-military POWs sent over, that more white plantation owners weren't slaughtered. In any event, the point is not to rationalize the practice, but to recognize that, quite simply the events in the New World - at least the tropical New World - could never have occurred  without Africans. There's a reason I brought this up. Like the rubber thing, I'll get to it.
 
I have many other dog-eared passages. I wish I had time to relate them all. But, back to the idea of historical narrative. I'm going to suggest that, as in the definition of prophecy given above, perhaps not enough time ('only' 500 years) has passed to truly understand the ramifications of the Columbian Exchange. I personally think the full ramifications will not be known for another thousand, or perhaps ten thousand, years. The meaning of events then we do not know, but I have my suspicions.

Since it seems apparent that the Industrial Revolution would have been prolonged, avoided, detained, or even nonexistent without the Columbian Exchange, it follows that Global Warming is also a consequence. And since many of the various tropical diseases to which Africans are (relatively) immune and Europeans are not (unless they "seasoned" - got sick and did not die) are still very much extant within the Western Hemisphere, one wonders who will be living where once things start to heat up.

I noted, in a previous essay, the not altogether ambivalent drawing of the Mason-Dixon line with respect to the survival and incubation of the malarial parasite. If we assume the worst climate change, say, something akin to the late Miocene, when even the poles were semi-tropical, how will these Europeans fare?

It could be that the 22nd century, and maybe beyond, is an African one.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Travelling Through Spaces From Planet to Planet


Sun-Ra and his Arkestra "We Travel The Spaceways"

Funny thing about memory is how recreational it all is. Things are never as you remember them because you don't store shit like a computer does. (Still another reason why Dickie Dawkin's "meme" concept is complete and utter bullshit). As I recall, I made a $1 wager with an acquaintance as to whether antimatter will fall up or down, and this would be determined by results from the Aegis Experiment at CERN. Seems to me I made the bet about six months ago, when in fact, it was only August 11th.

I had hoped issues would be decided by now, or by the end of the month of September. It doesn't look like it will happen. Meantime, CERN has found evidence that neutrinos may travel faster than light. Didn't see that one coming.

In any case, I started thinking about what if I win that $1 bet? What if antimatter falls up? In other words, what if we discover antigravity? Well, anyone remember the brief cold fusion mania from the early '90s? Fleischman and Pons' experimental setup used a little known metal called palladium (a precious metal similar to platinum) for the electrode. At the time, the price of palladium jumped sharply.

So, all the stuff used for antimatter? Multiply the palladium mania by a factor of a trillion.

Cyrano is off to the Moon!
Well, first of all, how you gonna do it? Space travel with antimatter as your antigravity dealie. Well, something quite similar to what Cyrano de Bergerac did to get to the Moon.  Cyrano collected flasks of dew. When the morning sun's heat evaporated it, he would naturally float up with it straight to the Moon.

Alright, maybe a little more scientific-like, but still, flasks filled with antimatter, or better still magnetic vacuum bottles of it, would repel you from the Earth's mass, and up and away you would go!

What kind of antimatter? I'd prefer something that could be contained magnetically, so that means it's charged. Also, I would prefer it be dense enough, like a solid, or a supercooled liquid, so that I can have a small enough magnetic bottle or bucket, or can to store it. (Because I've got to assume you need a little bit more mass of antimatter than the stuff you want to lift, so if Cyrano weighs 72 kg, I need at least, say 80 kg to lift him up).

What kind of magnetic bottle? Well, one that won't fail would be good. Using Einstein's mass/energy equivalency principle, I figure 1kg of antimatter, combined with 1 kg of matter, produces an an explosion of around 43 megatons. So, a failed bottle containing 80kg of antimatter is, well, oh my!

What is this crazy scheme of mine gonna cost? Well, currently various estimates of anitmatter put it at about $64 trillion for one gram of antihydrogen. Which means getting Cyrano to the moon costs $512 quadrillion dollars. I admit, that's a little steep, but then we aren't producing it in the most efficient way.

Big Ass Van de Graaff Generator
See, what you do, at least the way Fermilab does it is you slam a proton beam into a metal target, or any block of stuff that has a high atomic number (is therefore more dense and has more particles for the protons to slam into. I'm getting ahead of myself. Firwt, make some protons. This is usually done with a Big Ass Van de Graaff generator. The protons produced here are shepherded into a proton synchrotron ring, which accelerates them up to near the speed of light, and then slams them into a metal target.

Baby Synchrotron
Typically, you will get one antiproton for around 200,000 protons slammed into the target. I bet there's room for improvement. Then gather the antiprotons into another magnetic ring until you get a whole bunch of them. Then, you would typically want to cool them down (since they are "hot" as in billions of electron volts hot) into a magnetic bottle called a Penning trap. (You cool them using magnetic fields and lasers and shit. This is way past what Fermilab does or needs to do).

So, then, you just collect them in your magnetic bottle until you have enough, and then, off you go to the Moon.

(I also forgot the part about landing on the Moon. The antimatter is going to repel itself against the mass of the Moon, so I guess, it just collects in the Lagrange points of the solar system, unless we use it up as a propellent).

Hm. Maybe, uh, maybe I need to think this through some more. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stupid Republican Tricks

Google autocomplete produces the following with the prompt "Republicans are-" evil, idiots, stupid, racist, crazy.

Google autocomplete produces the following with the prompt "Why are Republicans - ": so stupid, so hateful, against net neutrality(?), elephants, so evil.

In fairness the autocomplete for Democrats is (in succession): evil, idiots, stupid, liberal or conservative, racist
(and)
so stupid, donkeys, against a balanced budget amendment, against voter id, better than republicans

On the whole, it looks like the curious are asking equal questions of both parties, but the thing is, why are Republicans acting so dumb? I mean Democrats seem to be having fun when they are stupid, like posting pictures of their weiners, or dressing in tiger pajamas. Republicans, on the other hand, I guess, just insist on being pricks and assholes.

Look at the Honor Roll so far:

Joe "you lie!" Wilson of South Carolina. Rude asshole. Heckles the President during the State of the Union:

Randy "Babykiller" Neugebauer of Texas: Rude asshole, hypocrite. Calls REp. Bart Stupak a babykiller during passage of the healthcare reform bill. Decries government subsidies and wasteful spending, his district takes huge amount of agriculture subsidies and stimulus monies.

Joe "I'm sorry BP" Barton of Texas: Fucking stupid. Apologizes to the chairman of British Petroleum because they leaked 4.9 million barrels of toxic shit into Gulf of Mexico.

Joe "Deadbeat Dad" Walsh Of Illinios: Blowhard, prick. Just a stupid little one-term cocksucker.

Rand "Old Woodenhead" Paul: Watch the youtube videos of him. Especially his complaints about toilets, and not letting old people starve to death. Rand Paul, who claims that the market has "no confidence in President Obama or Secretary Geithner". Rand Paul, who says ""I really think we're living in a failed presidency at this point, because everyone who can vote by investing is not investing".
Apparently Paul hasn't noticed that the DOW closed at 6443.27 on 3/6/2009, and as of 11/20/2011 closed at 11,401.01. Yup. No investment has taken place. The Dow is now in negative numbers.

Here's my embedded take on him. I believe my little paper puppet is smarter than he is:



Whiny Little Asshole
And now, the latest stupid asshole to join the list: Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. Summary for Fleming: Stupid Pampered Whiner.

Fleming complains that his businesses only provide him with $400,000 to feed his family. The reporter notes that families earning $40,000-50,000 a year may not be sympathetic towards his plight.

Here's his stupidity. His rebuttal is:
"Class warfare's never created a job"

What the fuck you talking about dipshit? What the fuck does that have to do with the observation that most people are not going to be sympathetic towards your pissy little moan that your take home pay is only $400,000 a year. (Which is a fucking lie, by the way, he earns more than that). And then to top this all off by simply parroting the current conservative party line is, quite simply, not the best display of intelligence I've seen.

This is what a so-called "job creator" looks like. Actually, take a picture of his butthole, because working in a Subway, or UPS store, is a shit job.

No actually, this may be a learning experience for Dr. Fleming (ah, a doctor, must have flunked biochem and punted) in that people can boycott his stores. Geez. No customers. No business activity. No business. No job creation. Can he figure out the syllogism?

Betty Don't.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

I was going to write about a peculiar parameter in the whole male/female behavioral landscape. I don't really have a term for it. I'm aware of the difference between sex and gender - in other words, what you have down there and what you think you should have down there.

This is different. I've noticed, for example, that I am your standard man's man in the sense that I am orthodox hetero, have the equipment of a man, and feel like I should have the equipment of a man, and more importantly, don't really care for shopping.

My idea of shopping for a hat is to find a hat on the side of road, notice it fits, that it is in a good state of repair, and can be cleaned up if necessary. I am done shopping for a hat.

I know other guys who satisfying the above conditions for being a man's man, will easily go out shopping for two hours for a hat. A fucking baseball cap.

This is not the same as being clothes' horse. I like to look sharp. I like to dress up when the occasion calls for it. But I will not engage in this rather feminine gathering behavior of shopping the way I have seen some men do it.

This... Male Barbie Syndrome (for lack of a better term, and I am open to suggestions) is a parameter of the human psyche which I think, but am not certain, is a recent and modern phenomenon. I suspect it has a name. I just don't know it.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I recently remembered a study done during WWII called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. A doctor named Ancel Keys brought together a number of conscientious objectors to study starvation in order to determine what it would take to rehabilitate the victims of privation in Europe. The one thing I recall was that the supposedly unique American worldview, the"can-do" spirit, the unbridled optimism, the generosity and positive outlook, pretty much disappeared when starvation is imposed.

In other words, the whole American can-do spirit is simply a by-product of being well fed.

I suspect that, there are in fact, certain nutritional requirements that, if not fulfilled, result in a radical change in behavior.

It is my hypothesis that conservatives, and in particular Republicans, and more specifically the Tea Party faction of Republicans act the way they do due to dietary deficiencies.

They are lacking in Vitamin N.

Which is why they are not Nice.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"Rick Perry believes being a Texan means being a right-wing blowhard"

I'm actually kind of indifferent to Texas, although, based upon my movie choices, I always figured Texas was extensively populated with Satanists (Race with the Devil), vampires (Near Dark), and cannibals (Texas Chain Saw Massacre). I also always figured Texans as a people whose tongues was deathly afraid of their teeth, based upon the way they talk.

That quote in the essay title? So says the Houston Chronicle. They're from Texas, so I suppose they'd know. My personal opinion is, despite being so successful in politics, Perry just comes across to me as an ignorant jackass. Haven't we had more than our fair share of presidents like that? Do we really need another one?

Funny thing about Texas, love it or hate it, it is definitely an integral part of American culture.

Some positive attributes about Texans: generous, polite, courteous, hospitable, friendly.

Some negative attributes about Texans: lazy, violent, uneducated, bigoted,... too numerous to mention, but basically a distillation of all white-trash behaviors, and "blowhard" seems to sum it all quite well.

So anyway, governors of Texas can name worthy outsiders 'honorary Texans'. If you follow this linked article to Mother Jones, you can see, at the end of article, a lot of people who have been named 'honorary Texans'. The currency of the tradition is that Rick Perry has honored people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin. Well, blowhards all, so yeah, I guess the Houston Chronicle is on to something.

What I don't understand at all is why Pee Wee Herman isn't an honorary Texan.

I mean, the guy really did some heavy lifting in promoting Texas in his movie "Pee Wee's Big Adventure". I've got to wonder how much the tourism industry bounced for San Antonio after that movie? How many people went looking for the Alamo's basement after that?

Pee Wee Herman has been hosted by the Dallas Cowboys. He was treated better than Bush! Pee Wee Herman has been an honorary Muppet. Pee Wee Herman has been an honorary Marine. (Well, I guess that counts for more than an honorary Texan).


I think... I think I want a cowboy hat.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bleeding Determinism

I've known, probably since I was around 12, that the experts are full of shit. They count on the few times when they are lucky enough to get a hit to move them forwards, and the rest of the time? They rely on the regular guy's really shitty memory. Stockpickers, political pundits, you name it. They set the conventional wisdom for the rest of us, and they are completely full of shit.

Take this guy here. Seems a nice enough young lad. He's an "author, entrepreneur, and former USAF pilot in special operations". He wrote a book about "irregular warfare", and people like G. Gordon Liddy want you to buy it. Wow. So it must be something.

In the piece I referenced, he goes on and on about how central planning is bad. According to him, it's what brought down the Soviet Union. Actually, he says the Soviet Union collapsed because of "misallocation of resources due to a reliance on central planning. More specifically, he states that: 
"The reason for this failure was that the Soviets relied on central planning.  A system of economic governance where small group of people -- in the Soviet Unions case bureaucrats -- had all the decision making power.  They decided what was spent and where.  Even with copious amount of information, they decided badly".
Well, this reads like something I would have written in the sixth grade, in that he pretty much ignores what actually happened over in the Soviet Union over the full eighty years of its existence, the several and varied phases it went through, and the last deadly decade of its life.

But he is pretty much parroting conventional wisdom, isn't he?  I mean, the Soviet Union collapsed didn't it? It was centrally planned wasn't it? QED. And that is your standard last superpower standing triumphalist message, ain't it? Doesn't matter that Reagan fucked our economy over to topple theirs does it?

But is that all there is to this? I mean is the dreaded "central planning" a necessary and sufficient condition? Or is it a necessary condition? Corporations, after all, are little teeny tiny centrally planned economies. Does this mean they will inevitably collapse?

What about the opposite? Lenin and Stalin managed to turn a backward agrarian nation into a world-dominating superpower? Does "central planning" get credit for that? 

I wonder about a different scenario. Let's try it out. We'll call it "wife-swap", and it goes like this. Leave the political and socio-economic systems the same, but we'll imagine a swap of circumstances for the US and the CCCP. Let's imagine a US after World War II, where everything east of the Appalachians has been bombed into rubble. Let's imagine a US population that comes out of the conflict with 27 million dead. Let's imagine the US facing an aggressive, determined, well-fed, prosperous, hostile, nuclear armed enemy. An enemy whose industrial infrastructure is completely intact, and whose scientific and technological facilities are operating on all cylinders.

Now, let's imagine the US gearing up to match this enemy militarily, technologically.

Think we could do it? Think we could, for a few brief months in 1972, achieve nuclear parity, in fact, achieve a brief superiority? Think we could maintain a standing army of two million? Have nuclear subs prowling the oceans, satellites orbiting the earth, scientific probes landing on other planets? Think we could do it all without devoting a full 50% of GDP to the military? Think you could do that in a free market atmosphere, with the goal of all those CEOs out there to keep pace with an implacable enemy, and at the same time preventing an erosion of our freedom and liberty.

I don't think so.

Which tells me, it was really more about an American triumphalist narrative, than it was about what happened behind the Iron Curtain.

Experts really should do more research, and spew bullshit a lot less.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Racism and Counterfactuals

You know, I was going to write about the hangover I had Sunday morning. I was going to write about it because it is - at this point in my life - a rare and unusual thing and therefore noteworthy and fodder for humorous depiction.

But lately, I've hit upon a funny little piece of synchronicity in the form of two books that are completely unrelated. And yet, I can tell that things are cooking on the back burners of my brain at the moment, which means... these two books, "1493", and "It's Obvious Once You Know The Answer" have a common thread in the form of counterfactuals. Or at least in my head they do.

How so? Well, it's all rather indistinct and half-formed at the moment, but basically, the material in both books constantly make me ask "what if" questions about things. What's so special about this person, this event, at this particular time? And, of course, the answers I keep getting from reading is, there's nothing special. There is no pivotal person or event or circumstance. There is instead, always, a peculiar convergence of linkages and attributes within the network of stuff. And to find out anything more would require a many-worlds test to determine the actual reasons for why, say, Chris Rock made it, or why Facebook is popular, or why Spain chose to fund Columbus despite his hare-brained schemes.

I could go on and on about my favorite themes of counterfactuals and the epigenetic processes with regards to human society and history, but, I'd like to keep this one short and on target.

The successes and failures have less to do with any inherent advantage or attribute that a person or thing has, and more to do with pure dumb luck for the lack of a more scientific term. As my Norse ancestors once said "'It's better to be lucky than smart". I'd rather like being lucky and smart, but you can't have everything.

Or can you?

In any event, this whole idea of counterfactuals, successes, failures, advantages managed to hit me upon reading this Atlantic Monthly article entitled "The Most Racist Thing that Ever Happened to Me" by a gentleman named TourĂ©. I'm not familiar with him. I don't think I have an anecdote to contribute either.   What exactly it was that hit me was a quote early on:
"I asked my 105 interviewees, What is the most racist thing that has ever happened to you? The response I received most often was indicative of modern racism: The answer is unknowable. "I imagine it'd be a thing I don't even know ever happened," Aaron McGruder said. "It would be that opportunity that never manifested and I'll never know that it was even possible." A decision is made in a back room or a high-level office, perhaps by someone you'll never see, about whether or not you get a job or a home loan or admission to a school. Or perhaps you'll never be allowed to know that a home in a certain area or a job is available".
The emboldened and italicized text was done by me, and if that sentence is not a candidate for a very special counterfactual, a particularly twisted and malformed orbit in a nonlinear amusement park ride, I'd be hard-pressed to find a better one.

Here's the thing (getting back to me, of course), is that, despite me bitching about things, I've got it really fucking good, have fallen ass-backwards into good shit more times than I care to think about, and quite frankly, and pretty damn self-aware as to how much I owe to good people around me.

But if anything is crystal clear in the article (my take at any rate), what's made clear (to me) is that in some way those who are making their testimony, those who, having been selected by Touré as noteworthy, have been lucky and smart.

Oh, not the kind of luck I'd want to have, that's for fucking sure.

I think it is a form of luck, like an antimatter version kind of luck. It's transformational - if you can handle the gamma radiation.

The people interviewed have managed to perform a particularly tricky little bit of ju-jitsu on what life handed to them. And I've really to wonder, had things happened that didn't, that they didn't know happened, as happens to us all, just how things might have turned out.

And perhaps that's the modern day horror story for us all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"1493" by Charles C. Mann

Sorry, there are no dancing skeletons in the book, I just liked the picture
Short essay version: Buy this book. 

Longer version: I read Mann's "1491" some years ago, and found it entertaining, informative, engaging. Alright, so the middle part was a bit dry, but I managed to make it through without slogging. The gist of the book was that, as a result of recent archaeological discoveries and research, the Western Hemisphere was far more populous, and advanced, than depicted.

As a result, the Columbian Holocaust - the die-off of the original population due to disease and maltreatment - was far larger than anyone imagined, with perhaps as high as 30 million people.

"1493" takes the next logical step as to the ramifications of all this. The emphasis being upon the ecological and biological effects of the Columbian Exchange. Far more than just the movements of people, the more important movements of animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses. The author tries, and often succeeds in looking at the big picture ramifications of clashing ecologies, and also understanding historic and modern events through the prism of biology.

(Indeed, I've started to look at the expansion of English culture, first through the British Empire, then the American, as nothing more than the efflorescence of a non-native introduced species, like zebra mussels, or Asian carp).

I remember reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" when it first came out in 1997. It took a somewhat similar bent towards viewing events and circumstances from a geographic standpoint. I remember first agreeing with the general points of the book, and certainly the idea that the European expansion had a great deal more to do with luck and circumstance than innate superiority of the whites. But over time, and after recognizing the lackluster scholarship of the book, I realized that the actual title of the book should have been "Germs, Germs, and Germs". That was the real advantage of the European, or more precisely, the Eastern Hemispherean of just being plain filthy and disgusting and having built up immunites to some of the more virulent infestations the human animal is heir to.

As such, "1493" does a much better explanatory job than "GGS". (And, really, if you want better reads - and all of these texts cited in "1493" by Mann - try "The Columbian Exchange" and "Ecological Imperialism" by Alfred Crosby, or "Plagues and People" by William Mcneill).

At any rate, I'm only about a third of the way through the book, and though a lot of the material should be viewed as conjecture, I still agree with it. I really should do a proper book report on this, but anyway, some highlights that I've dog-eared:
  • The Little Ice Age of 1560-1850 may have been the result of the reforestation of North America. With the end of so many slash-and-burn agricultural societies, from the massive die off of American Indians, a huge amount of carbon dioxide was drawn from the air.
  • Malaria and yellow fever, brought over to the New World by Europeans, may have resulted in the Involuntary African Diaspora. In the author's own words: "malaria did not cause slavery. Rather it strengthened the economic case for it". Further "Biology enters history when one realizes that almost all the slaves ferried to the Americas came from West and Central Africa...(with an inherited immunity to malaria - me)...biologically speaking, they were fitter, which is another way of saying that in these places they were - loaded words! - genetically superior". 
  • More malaria popcorn: The general cold temperature demarcation line for the survival of the malaria parasite happens to be the Mason-Dixon line. Northern Union forces lost more men to sickness than battle, and the Civil War was drastically prolonged as a result. Given the overwhelming superiority of the Union forces over the wretched, weak, puny Confederacy, the war should have last no longer than a few months. There thus is the possibility that malaria is partly responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation. Likewise, during the Revolution, British forces in the south suffered a similar defeat by the mosquito.
  • The success of English colonization (a pretty fucking horrid story of corporate indifference, where 9 colonists died for every 1 successful settler), aside from the Chinese Wave method of colonizing (ship more people over until living outnumber the dead) was due to the drug trade. One of the most addictive and brain-bendingly powerful drugs ever cultivated: tobacco. (Aside form me, kind of gives you a clue into space colonies, huh? Here was a biologically compatible environment, with suitable food supply, ready resources to hand, and the colonists still died like flies. Wonder how a Mars colony would fare? Well, I mean, even not under the British.)
That's enough for now. I'll write more as I read through.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gumshan!

The malicious little monster spoilsport in me would very much like to see a major gold strike occur just so I can watch the faces of all the idiots hoarding what is pretty much the most useless commodity on the planet.

Come to think of it, it does look like drought-stricken Texas
This comes at a time, after watching a mere ten minutes of the Republican debates last night, when I decided that there just aren't enough purple-assed baboons representing us in Washington DC. The entire field of candidates looked a lot like the monolith scene early in the movie 2001. In fact, someone ought to just hand Rick Perry the thighbone of a tapir right now and solidify his 2012 Presidential Image.  

It was hard to top any or all of those capering simian antics, but I think special mention has to go out to Crazy Grandpa Ron Paul. (Actually, special mention should also go out to the recent Kentucky appearances of his son, Rand Paul, for Best Imitation of an Egg-Eating Snake due to the amazing unlatching of his jawbone in order to suck on the giant cocks of the coal industry. Well done, Rand, and there are plenty of polluters tired of federal regulations that will line up for your special talents as Senatorial Fellator Extraordinaire far, far into the future. You are a credit to cocksuckers everywhere).

Anyway back to Crazy Grandpa. At one point, he mentioned how he can buy a gallon of gasoline with one thin dime! He sounds crazy doesn't he, especially when he gets that wanna-fuck-me-a-goat glint in his eye, or maybe its wanna-sacrifice-me-a-goat-and-then-maybe-do-a-rain-dance glint, but in any case, the fact is, he's right! Of course, it has to be a very special dime, a dime made mostly of silver, such as a pre-1965 silver Roosevelt dime, back when it was 90% silver. More accurately the period 1946-1964, which is where Ron Paul spends some of his time. (The rest of his time is spent sometime back in the mid or late 19th century when the biggest economic debate in Congress was whether to use gold or silver).

A quick spot-check suggests the melt-value of one of those shiny  shiny thin dimes is around $3.06. Okay, so not buying a full gallon what with taxes. And then, if we are to believe the Milken Institute via John Huntsman - and why not? - what with military deployments, keeping the sea lanes open, refining, storage, distribution, etc., the price is close to $13 a gallon. So, maybe five dimes to buy a gallon of gas. (I'm excluding the environmental costs, as those are, in a kind-of-socialist-but-we-ain't-gonna-call-it-that way, spread out amongst all of us in a share-the-wealth communal toxic poop disposal system).

(And one should also point out to the Northern Wendigo Lady, Michelle Bachmann, that the US of A is currently experiencing an OIL GLUT due to the flood of oil out of the Canadian tar sands and the fields up in North Dakota, but there aren't enough refineries to handle it and create gasoline, which would thus lower the price, and which NO AMOUNT of extra offshore drilling or any of that other ignorant stupid shit she's been spouting we'll make a half a mouse turd's worth of difference in the price. God DAMN it.)

Anyway, let's get back to that undiscovered mountain of gold I'd like to see appear. Old crazy grandpa, in all of his talk of going back to the gold standard, fails to realize the whole fucking point of getting off the gold standard to begin with.

Fiat currency, aka, paper money. It's greatest strength, and greatest weakness is that determining how much to print determines it's worth. True, you can overprint. Best example? Paper money first started to be used in Song Dynasty China. Then the Mongols invaded, and set up the Yuan Dynasty. Not exactly the most sophisticated thinkers, the Mongols noticed that, hey, people will trade us shit for these little pieces of printed paper... let's print a whole shitload of them and buy stuff! Result? The first recorded instance of hyperinflation.  

Cowry shells. Commodity currency. Way back when, lots of nations from the Red Sea to the China used them as an item of exchange, as money. It's not as dumb as it sounds. Sea shells, unlike metal coins, are hard to counterfeit. Then, all of a sudden, the Europeans appeared, and shipped in vast amounts of cowry shells they discovered in the Maldives. A financial system that had been around for centuries suddenly and permanently collapsed.

Gold. The problem with money based on gold, or silver, is that the price fluctuates. As a result, unlike fiat currency, you have no control over the external pressures. Go on the gold standard, that golden thaler you carry about is worth a dollar this hour, 85 cents in the afternoon, 1.75 next morning. As long as there is not enough of it, price goes up. Find too much...

Other big problems: counterfeiting, dilution (by adding base metals to your coin), hoarding, dumping, all sorts of problems that fiat currency - despite having its own problems - did away with forever.

Unless you are the current crop of conservatives, who not only want to stop time, but get in the time machine and go back to a simpler time, when things were good and pure and clean and... people were four feet tall and lived to the ripe old age of 28. The Golden Age!

What? What!?

(Gumshan is the English mispronounciation of the Cantonese "Gan Saam", which means "Gold Mountain").  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sick and tired of 9/11

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much done with 9/11. I'm ready for September 11, 2001 to take its place alongside December 7, 1941 or February 15, 1898 (yeah, remember the Maine?). Tragedies all. But life moves on. Ten years after Pearl Harbor, I don't think they continued the carnival atmosphere you are going to see in NYC this week.

Did I say carnival atmosphere? Shit, it's turned into a gruesome festival, a morbid corpse-licking death celebration. I mean, when people are paying homage to twisted rusty girders from the Twin Towers like they were fucking pieces of the True Cross, something is very, very wrong here.

Look, I fully understand the import of what happened. I understand the loss of life, the suffering and grief of the families, the recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of the public servants and citizen heroes, but life moves on, know what I mean. If this were a family tragedy, and it is, a lot people would say this has moved into the realm of unhealthy obsession.

And what of the victims? Don't you think they've been brutalized enough? Maybe we should leave them alone to reflect in their own way, rather than be inflicted every fucking year with this grisly fixation.

Should we have some closure this year? I mean, we got the motherfuckers, right? We've devastated their countries, killed and maimed anyone even marginally connected to all of it. I'd say we got our revenge, and it's time to get back to normal.

Or at least get back to what passes for normal.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"It's just commmon sense"

I avoid using the word "blog" simply because I detest it. Just this one time, I'll note that I have a rather important new follower of my blog who just happens to be Eldest Brother.

I've three brothers (no sisters), with me being the Second Born, or, if you will, with no wise-cracks please, #2 Son. The order is as follows: Eldest Brother is the Smart One. Youngest Brother is the Funny One. Third Born Brother is the Loving One. And I? Obviously, I'm the Beautiful One! 

Welcome "Bro"! I guess I'll really have to bump up the fucking quality of my entries now!

(The scare-quotes around Bro, I'll explain that in a sec'. Oh hell, I'll do it now. I had a rather greasy and scabrous wannabe-hippie roommate in college who called everyone "bro". This term currently being the edge of urban hepness amongst the local tribe of little white boys he was from, and reflecting the continual adoption of the ways of the black urban youth... This suddenly reminds of a time when, with the idiot at some party event, we struck up a conversation with some black kids our age. My fool of a roommate attempted to find common ground with them by speaking in an affected cadence and enunciation which might be termed ghetto-speak. I was soundly and deeply embarrassed both for him and myself, as it came out of him sounding rather more like Stepin Fetchit than hepcat. And the black fellers we was talking to exhibited a defensive posture until they realized he was just, you know, a jackass. It was a learning moment for me in just being yourself).

Anyway, back to quality essay writing, right now, there is a little fucking fly bugging the shit out of me and you will excuse me while I shoo it out of my office.

Today I go to the library today to pick up the reserved book 1493. I'll set aside all the other books I'm reading for this one. I read 1491 some three(?) years ago, and found it sufficiently engaging. My guess is 1493, on the Columbian exchange of all things biological will not disappoint.

I also checked out the library for a copy "Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer" by the sociologist Duncan J Watts. I would note that the current sound bite coming out of the Republican camp involves some variation of invoking "common sense" They do so knowing full well that such a simplistic phrase is easily digestible to the squid-headed and flipper-limbed out there. That any intelligent take on this dangerously stupid rationalization would require more than just a sentence to inform people that "common sense" "is in reality a series of complex social rules, a priori assumptions, and inaccurate instinctive responses" . It is also almost always wrong.

But that won't stop people aiming for the lowest common denominator of voters: those ignorami known as "independents". One wonders, in fact, how any common or recent ancestor of this stripe of conservative has managed to avoid extinction, given that their "common sense" ways should have resulted in them choking on their own (or perhaps other's) feces through the simple act of wiping their own ass.

In any case, I was thinking about the sequel (if any) to Blade Runner, and through association Ridley Scott's Prometheus a prequel to the Alien series. (I am ignoring the wretched Alien vs. Predator divergences). Now, Ridley is an first-rate entertainer, and so his mission is to do what he needs to do to entertain. In the case of Alien, and presumably Prometheus, to scare the pants off you.

His mission in Blade Runner? To overwhelm with awesomeness, I think. But, given that he fleshed out the world created by the screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, and only extremely loosely based upon DADOES, I've got to wonder what kind of world they plan on building for the future? 

One possible movie clue involves the professions of the replicants in Blade Runner. Roy Batty, combat model for off-world military service. Clearly, command and control. Leon Kowlaski, not quite as bright as Roy, a 180kg/400lb nuclear head loader. Again, military. Pris. Basic pleasure model, but, in the film, not without deadly assassin skills. Zhora. Kick murder squad.  "Talk about Beauty and the Beast. She's both."

Question: Who are they fighting?

Who are they fighting that requires Leon to load nuclear warheads the way old sail and steam crowd loaded powder and shot? What kind of conflict involves such a... surfeit of nuclear destruction? It sounds like they are glassing a lot of planetary surfaces.

It's all off-world, so... Aliens? No, I don't think so.

Rebellious colonies? No. Why advertise attractive off-world living then?

My bet is corporations are fighting each out there for real estate. Which kind of takes us into the realm of the old British and Dutch East India Companies. Trade wars, but in outer space.

That scenario has possibilities. I think that's my extrapolation exercise for the day.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Elementarium Mytabeenium

It turns out it is fairly easy to discover an element that already exists, and give it a name that will never be used. Given the number of brief, freakish observations and dodgy or slipshod chemical (or alchymical) procedures, its a wonder that some alternate or parallel periodic table of elements does not contain hundreds or even thousands of could-be or might-have-been element names - the mytabeeniums.

Take coronium. First sighted in the sun's magnificent coronal prominence during a solar eclipse in 1869, it later turned out to be the element of iron heated to a million degrees. Nebulium, also sighted during an eclipse, was a super-energized form of oxygen.

There is even the psychic element occultum, discovered through clairvoyant means by the theosophist Charles Leadbetter. It is documented in the book Occult Chemistry, where it exists in literary form only to this day.
 
Columbium later turned out to be either tantalum or niobium. One can forgive the error, as the isolation of either element is a matter of great frustration. This probably accounts for their very names. Tantalus was condemned by Zeus to stand under a tree whose fruits were always just out of reach. His daughter, Niobe, is the goddess of tears.

The rare earths - not particularly rare - are particularly hard to separate from each other. Not surprising then that they've been confused one with the other, or their compounds confused as elements, or the element confused as a compound. The element of vanadium has been, by the mineralogist Andres Manuel del Rio, named panchromium, and then later, from the heated red salts, erythronium

Tungsten flirted with being called wolfram, after the ore it is extracted from: wolframite.

A whole host of mytabeeniums come from the Swedish village of Ytterby: Lutecia, Neoytterbia, Cassiopium.

And then there is the element helium, which, for the longest time was considered just a fantasy. The spectral lines of helium were observed in the sun's light (Greek helios: the sun) in 1868 by the French astronomer Pierre Janssen, and a few months later by the British astronomer Norman Lockyear. With no hard evidence to justify their claims, scientists mocked them for years, poking fun at any fantastic notion with the exclamation "That's helium!"

The Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay vindicated them in 1895, producing a sample of helum gas from the radioactive decay of a uranium mineral. (Alpha particles, one product of radioactive decay, are helium nuclei).

One wonders what strange alternate worlds would exist where such elements are present. Perhaps some Victorian delusion of a world, some parts still trapped in the long 19th century, with others flung into the 31st. Best not to think of it, the mytabeeniums, let loose, would foment nothing less than a far too radical refashioning of reality.

The egg of Chaos cracked open.
Space and time a roiling mass of undifferentiated tissue.
Entropy reset to zero.
I've been through one birth of a universe.
Once was quite sufficient.