Thursday, July 31, 2014

I Heart Texas

What's with the Vaseline, you might ask? Coincident.
Haven't written about things happening to me in a while, so here goes... been kinda busy, what with summer session, trying to work through the conveyor belt of my to-do list, going on vacation, and negotiating the terms of my surrender with a rare and lovely bird named Maia from Amarillo, TX.

The vacation part involved going with her down to a wedding in Marfa, TX, which is in the Big Bend portion down by Chihuahua. The drive involved a first leg haul from Amarillo to Ft. Davis, where we camped under the stars. And what stars! I haven't seen the Milky Way since Idaho 1975, and it never fails to impress. We were scheduled to attend a viewing party at the Ft. McDonald observatory Friday night, but we got off to late start, arriving around midnight, and so missed it. Maia and I went up to the observatory the next day. Hiking up to the domes, I mentioned I was strangely short of breath, and Maia pointed out we were a mile above sea level, which mitigated my alarm some...

Here is my obligatory geek shot of the trip and a more normal shot below with the 107 inch telescope dome in the background...
Not my cowboy hat....

"I am here!"
Aferwards, we stopped in Ft. Davis for lunch, where I had one of the better chocolate malts with extra malt I've ever had. Our server was having trouble with our order, and consulted with one of the regular waitresses. I asked what his deal was, was informed he was a foreign exchange student from Poland. He actually turned out to be from Ukraine. I mentioned I spoke Russian once upon a time, and he insisted I try. Surprisingly, I remembered conservational phrases and we actually had a back and forth. I could tell he was tickled with the exchange and left him a big tip. Maia observed our conservation, and said "Oh honey, you absolutely made his day!", but, you know, with that charming twang that I could get so used to.

I'm glad I could make his day!  One of the great things about being human is how so little effort can bring such great joy.

I've always liked the desert, and the high desert of the Trans-Pecos could not have been a better place to be. It's positively springlike with all the flowering plants and tan landscape and purple mountains in every direction. I want to go back and see all the things I didn't see there. Fortunately, rain came through, at one point pounding down like horses' hooves. Fortunately the luxury tent we stayed in at El Cosmico was waterproof.
Rain on tent canvas creaking like a sailing ship, but we were fine.
Then up to the Carlsbad Caverns, an experience which I would suggest was slightly hallucinatory. Those rock formations deep under the surface look nothing like the dry and simple stalagmites and stalactites we learned about in school. They were - to me - monstrous, fleshy, glistening with fat, scaly, gill covered and warty, living things. They were something out of Lovecraft. But the absolutely most bizarre part of the underground adventure was the snack bar. Here is the modern, fluorescent-lit cafeteria in a pitch black chamber, the cave walls barely lit. The bathrooms were equally weird, stainless steel, tile and porcelain surfaces in a cave tunnel. I couldn't help but think about the storied underground cities built for the nation's elite in preparation of the Apocalypse.

All in all, a truly, fantastic magical wonderful time!

Back to reality on this past Wednesday in time to close out the summer session. I was informed I should go visit Glen as his condition was worsening. (I've mentioned Glen in prior essay from a year ago. He had been diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer and several tumors in his brain last May. He underwent chemo and radiation, which bought more than a year, but a month ago he told me he had had enough, and was going into hospice at home. I've tried to make it to the bar with him and the group  from the college when we go out Thursday nights. Normally, this tradition takes a hiatus over the summer, but, considering...

So I was informed his condition was worsening, the brain tumors taking their toll, and should visit him while he was still lucid. My former student aide, soon to be graduate student at Wichita State University in Kansas, Scotty, and I headed over last evening.

We found Glen on a good day, and he, his wife, and his sister had a very fun time. He was active, alert and engaged, and I can only hope this lasts for awhile.

At one point, we were talking about smart phones, and the topic switched to Scotty's thesis. He specualted he might continue the work of his undergrad advisor in sustainable and waste fuels for wood kiln firings. I said "I know what you need to work on, developing tumbleweeds for fuel. They are a nuisance that should be used for something like that".

Glen Reeser and I
Scotty came back with "Other people have smart phones. I have John". Which got a laugh considering how often people use their plastic pocket brains for memory, or use agents like Siri.

Glen quipped "John, call Katie!" (Scotty's girlfriend).

"KATIE!" I mock shouted.

It really was wonderful to see Glen sharp and in the groove for a change.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Maw and the Spew of the Sneetch Machine

I'm guessing that, maybe twenty to fifty years from now, people will look at the current crop of 3D printers as rather quaint old macguffins that, oh, had their uses I suppose, but were superfluous to the greater vision of Processing. Let me get back to you on that.

3D printers, as they now are, can extrude more than one type of material, and thus already represent a level of sophistication way beyond the cute little x/y plotter with the extruded thermoplastic pooter. Were I to speculate, I would suggest that the end result will be some type of plasmonic surface or plenum that utilizes quantum teleportation to provide material information, building molecule by molecule, or atom by atom.  No doubt it will be hooked up to, not only the internet of things, but a disintegrator that will supply a matter bank that supplies the printer with pure elemental materials. As such it really will grow what it is that you want. And it will range from laptop size to industrial strength, and in a utopian world, possibly be on street corners, and like a version of Mr. Fusion, will be fed garbage and squirt out consumer items.

In any event, I propose that the two ends of the thing be called "the maw" and "the spew". And that the whole be called a Sneetch Machine (after the Star-On and Star-Off machines that Sylvester McMonkey McBean made available to the Sneetches in Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches and Other Stories).

Processing, capitalized, will be what we humans, or post-humans, will be all about.

Remember the old canard about political affiliation, where if you go far enough right you go full circle and end up on the left? Well, that's not true, but I suspect it happens when it comes to increasing biological and civilizational complexity.  Given the quasi-fractal aspects of nature, it seems there is a self-similarity of scale.

And so, when you move up the technological ladder, with increasing leverage and sophistication of control over the surrounding environs, it gets to a point where an advanced civilization looks a lot like a slime-mold, or a multi-cellular organism, and all it is doing is converting available matter and energy into more suitable habitat and more life. Where all you are doing is taking one order of matter, and Processing it into something more to your liking. The original matrix of organization is destroyed in favor of its new matrix.

Of course, with creative destruction, that Maw beckons to the Spew. Just hook up the two ends of the Sneetch Machine, and let her rip!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It's Going To Be Africa For Quite A While, Stupid

Adam on the right.
I went to dinner with a friend of mine last night. My treat. I ate breakfast for dinner, with two dark beers. He ate meatloaf. His name is Adam Bacon, he is thirty-two years old, an Xray technician, six foot eight inches tall, and scheduled for back surgery today. It was an on-the-job accident moving a morbidly obese old decrepit off the gurney what did his back in. He has had difficulty with the healthcare company fulfilling their promises of adequate care. On the other hand, he has been under a number of strictures involving correct behaviors re: maintaining his injuries, and under surveillance to make sure he is not committing fraud.

Meanwhile, the parasitic scumbags who destroyed 40% of the world's economy got bonuses and wrist slaps again this year.

Go figure.

After dinner, with both of us bloated with potatoes and cheese and meat, it was decided we should walk. Since my car was parked back at the college, near the stadium track, we walked on the track. And in walking and conversing, and this mainly to help Adam dispel anxieties about the back surgery, I just kind of ranted and rambled about any and everything to get his mind off things.

We discussed a TV adaptation of Apocalypse Now, set in American suburbia, with the Kurtz family. After a bit, the well-manicured front lawn is littered with body parts and pieces of local pets. It's a comedy, a horror-filled comedy. And in the end, Jack, the neighborhood wants Kurtz dead, but that's who he took his orders from anyway.

I also mentioned how Rob Zombie really screwed the pooch. When he made House of 1,000 Corpses, he really fucked up.  What he should have done was by up the Beverly Hillbillies property, and adapted his Corpses screenplay to a murderous backwoods cannibal family that strikes it rich and moves to Beverly Hills. Sheri Moon Zombie would have made a fantastic psychotic Ellie Mae Clampett. Again, it's a comedy. A blood-soaked, gore-filled, all-American red white 'n blue cement pond comedy.


I talked of another movie I had seen, A Touch of Sin, based upon four real-life events "based upon random acts of violence". Of course, that's the description, but the context behind the movie explains there is nothing random at all. If there is one regime that shits it's bed in fear every night, it's the Central Committee of the Communist party of China. Here they are, trying to deal with the scourge of S. Invictus Anglo-American collapse capitalism they have unleashed upon themselves. True, they've got the police suppression machinery in place, but they are desperate, desperate I tell you, to get the consumerist pacification program thoroughly in place before the lid blows. Even if they have to wreck the countryside to do it.

I talked of a book I read about conditions in India, called Capitalism: A Ghost Story. If you thought income inequality was bad in America, look to India. In fact, if the trend continues, India is probably America's future.

I talked of why Revolution will never come to America.

We are all now just too dumb, fat, slow, sloppy and lazy. People are hobbled by debt. People are threatened with it. Police are slowly becoming better at suppressing the locals, with the equipment and tactics in place. People are sated and hypnotized and coddled with consumerist items, and shinies dangled of either gangsta or hipster cool lifestyles. Not just America. It's the Anglo-America Empire that is like that. (Or Orwell's Oceania, if prefer, and I do).

Ever wondered why the English never had their revolution, in a time when the rest of Europe was in turmoil? Ever wonder why Great Britain managed that? Look to the last paragraph. Carrots and sticks, but mostly sticks. The means of production (though ever so briefly disrupted) always were under the firm of control of capital. And when the unions threatened to take over? They got bought, suborned, bribed, and rewarded.

And if things got a little tense? Just ease up on the reigns a bit, Hoss. If you notice, more than half the energy production and products of Oceania is flushed down the sewer, wasted on nothing. How can we really be in an era of scarcity when we are throwing away more than half of everything, food, product, people, you name it.

In S. Invictus capitalism, Scarcity is an invention, to be bogeyman and coins in the seat cushions.

So, Americans are very, very unlikely, despite the teatard and Occupy tensions, to ever get all Mad Max, because that would mean no more Cheetos and soft drinks, and Hulu, and smart phones, and actually experiencing bodily discomfort and physical exertion, and people shooting back at you.

So, where to look? Because Revolution has left the station, and America is not on that train. Russia? China? India? Brazil? Phhfft!

Once again, friends, It's AFRICA stupid. That's where it is all going to go down. In retrospect, Black Empire was almost prophetic, but the problem was Schuyler relied on a ju-jitsu move using the Anglo-American version of capitalism, and that, we now know, that ain't gonna cut it. Not without the resources of the Solar System to subsidize it all.

Perhaps more like The Girl in The Road, but not. One thing I think Schuyler got right, it will involve religion, either an existing one, or a syncretic new one.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Normal Accidents : A Book Report

J.R. "Bob" Dobbs
Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies by Charles Perrow. Yale sociologist Charles Perrow prefered the term normal accident, in the sense that for complex systems with tightly coupled components, accidents are normal events. Indeed, he has suggested that some areas of technology and human enterprise are error inducing environments. This is rather similar to Edward Tenner's idea of Why Things Bite Back, the unintended consequences of human technology.

Perrow first coined the term "system accident" when this book was released in 1984. Since then, much of the examples and analysis in this book has been turned into a field of study known as Normal Accident Theory.

I'm going to suggest that, though even the public has come to realize that there is rarely a single cause to a catastrophe, the tendency is still there for the blame to descend to the operator's level, while the architects and designers get off scot free. Witness the financial collapse of 2008, as a prime example, and if that isn't a good argument for mandatory capital punishment for white collar crime, I don't what is.

As such, I realize that there are multiple sources for disasters, but still, when it comes down to it, I can't help but shake the feeling that most of them boil down to incompetent management. Incompetent fuckups who think they know what they are doing. When it comes to maritime accidents, one could blame the captains managers, but the error-inducing environment is created and maintained by the owners. These are the people who invariably cut corners to save a buck. And it is not just maritime accidents, it is every single area of human endeavor that involves technology only slightly more advanced than the five simple machines of the ancients.

Couple this incompetence with a willful ignorance to evidentiary facts, and you get a modeling system inside that bony carapace of a skull that almost invariably ignores dangers for a more rosy rainbow unicorn assessment of the situation (and who does a better job of that than clueless executives?):
"Why would a ship in a safe passing situation suddenly turn and be impaled by a cargo ship four times its length? For the same reasons the operators of the TMI plant cut back on high pressure injection and uncovered the core. Confronted with ambiguous signals, the safest reality was constructed".
So, this has been addressed in one form or another in the form of increasingly sophisticated risk assessment methods, but Perrow has suggested that some areas (especially, I would note, those that can be automated), might best be abandoned as human pursuits. Nuclear power and weapons being one of them.

I disagree, one thing I note is that if any area has had more incompetent monkey clusterfuck accidents with more devastating results, it is the area of nuclear weapons. And yet, if the systems for deploying and maintaining nuclear weapons are highly complex and tightly coupled are accidents waiting to happen, then wouldn't the past 70 years suggest the are not a Great Filter?

So, I would quintuple the quality control on bonehead executives, or at least, given their pay has increased some 350% over the past 30 years, subject them to 350 % more scrutiny than they suffered some 30 years ago. Public executives, not so much the problem, as they are already under public scrutiny. It's those private bastards that are going to wreck things for everyone. And so long as they insist on socializing the losses and privatizing the gains, they need to be kept ground under thumb, just to keep the hanky-panky to a minimum.

The other obvious choice is to loosen the coupling on the internal components so many of these systems. Tight coupling makes them more efficient, but it also makes them more brittle. Having a little inefficiency is not necessarily a bad thing. As such, the term "slack" comes to mind. Though this is considered an ineffable term within the Church of the SubGenius, I now suggest it be incorporated into every single human design element to the end of time.

Oh, right, and the accidents detailed in the book are highly amusing, and worth the read.