Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pixel, Texel, Voxel, Doxel

Some time ago, I was engaged in a discussion over at the Backyard Metal Casting Forums. I very much doubt that anyone would be very interested in the discussion per se, but it had very little to do with Santa Claus Machines. Otherwise known as A Machine To Grant Your Every Wish, or Universal Constructors, Star Trek's Replicators, Fabricators, or just "fabbers". Basically, a machine that makes what you want. 

Crude versions exist today. They cost several dozen arms and legs. Eventually the crudity and cost will come down, but for now, use of the machines is constrained to rapid prototyping for new product designs, experimental models, and components.  They usually consist of a PC with design software, a 3D printer, and possibly a 3D scanner. 
Artists, and more specifically sculptors, are interested in this stuff... and people who do not have design skills, artistic talent, or patience are also interested in it. 

The short version of the BYMC discussion went something like this: 

"I have a backyard furnace and lots of scrap metal with which to cast things. I have many, many ideas of things I wish to cast. However, I lack the skills/talent/interest to make the models of the things I wish to mold for casting. As a geek, I can instead create digital objects in CAD or Google Sketchup and I want to head down this route, instead of learning how to make things with my hands".

"Go for it, dude.  Here is a list of manufacturers that make 3D printers. Hope you have enough dough".

Now, I thought about this, and of course, got all philosophical about the subject. And I could have written a very long essay, but eventually I summarized my position to this:

"I don't ever plan on using any of this technology. At least for now. Reason being, it would take all the fun out of the tedium".

What do I mean by that? Well, aside from creating a Lowest Common Denominator social phenomenon of cheapening the creative process, where now just any dumbass can make stuff. (And I really don't have a problem with that, for the same reason I do not worry about plagiarism, because the Gap will always exist between those that got it, and those that don't). 

I won't use the technology, because the tedious part of making things, which is the majority of it, gives one time for reflection and introspection. 

Reflection because, as you make something, you make errors. As you make errors, avenues open up to take the thing you are making in a new or different direction. This is one of the reasons to make not just one art object, but a series of them. You usually find that the last, or second to last, in the series is the best. Or you find that the series mutates into something you would never, ever have thought of.  Had the design been executed in a robotic, or programmatic manner, reflection is lost.

Introspection because, as you make something, a feedback process occurs in the creative process. One that would not exist without the necessary paradox of wasted effort. It's hard to put into words. Its not giving up. Its moving on. Its questioning, not so much the worth, or meaning, or attractiveness, or utility of the object, but more like the value of it. Is this something that deserves to exist in the world? Do I really want to put in the time and effort to make this thing? Without experiencing the whole tedious material manipulation process, the feedback loop cannot exist.

So there you go. I'm not a Luddite or anything. If I can make use of the technology, I'll use it.  I also recognize my own limitations, and just as if I need something done which I have neither the time nor talent, I'll farm it out. And when the day comes that the technology is cheap, I'll definitely use it. Oops. Did I just use the C-word? Well, there's that as well.

Anyway for now, I'm fine, thanks.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Posthumanism: "Avatar" and Cyborg Multitasking

This journal entry may get a little weird, even for me. Fair warning.

I've not seen the movie "Avatar". I'm sure I will, and since it is in 3-D, I suspect I must see it at an IMAX theater. I've read the reviews, plot summaries, and spoilers, so I know what it is about. I also know that this is not a new concept. In fact, word has it that James Cameron ripped off the plot from a Poul Anderson 1957 novella entitled "Call Me Joe". This would not surprise me, as a writer named Harlan Ellison had a similar issue with Cameron over the movie "Terminator".

Hey, that's Hollywood for you.

Anderson wrote a story about a paraplegic who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore the harsh terrain of the planet Jupiter. So, a little on the clunky and out-of-date, but you get the picture. The theme to be briefly explored in this entry is all the different man-machine interfaces and combinations that we can expect.

Today, we already have cyborgs among us. If you consider anyone with a mechanical part implanted in, or supplementing, a human body as part of the category of "cyborg", then there are literally billions of cyborgs on the planet. Not just the ones with the cool computerized limbs, but the ones with hip replacements, peg legs, dentures, or bridgework would be considered as such. I wouldn't stretch the fuzzy boundaries of the category to include them.

My definition of "cyborg" would be that there must be some type of direct brain/machine connection. The connection itself really doesn't matter much. It could be direct nerve ending connection as are used in today's computerized limbs. It could be a bioelectrical interface within the brain itself, such as an implanted chip. Or it could be through the EEG brain scanning helmets or beanies currently being developed to "read your thoughts".

The point is, cyborgs walk among us. Today. Courtesy, primarily, of the Department of Mad Scientists, or DARPA. (As described in Michael Belfiore's book in the preceding link). Many veterans, particularly from the current wars, who have had limbs blown off, are outfitted with computerized robotic limbs. There is every indication that these limbs will become better, faster, stronger than the ones evolution has graced us with. In many cases, the body is being modified to accommodate the robot parts. Amputees are getting surgeries so that their motor signals are more readily understood by their myoelectric arms and legs.

It won't stop there. As Belfiore recounts in an interview with an Iraq war vet, whether his new hand could manipulate a computer mouse. The vet responded "Why do I need a mouse? Why can't I just plug my arm into a USB port?" Indeed. And why stop there? Why not go wireless?

Which is where we are going. Once you can control things wirelessly, there's no reason for it to be attached to your body. Remotely piloted vehicles are the logical next step, with the ultimate version (at least in Cameron's very expensive but quite limited vision) being the movie "Avatar", in which you operate a remote body. You shouldn't have to pilot your remote. You shouldn't even wear it. You should be it. This much is obvious, even back in 1957.

If you are going to be a cyborg, you should not have to multitask. (Besides, studies have shown that we humans are absolutely terrible at multitasking. Better to leave multitasking to computers that are much better at it). So, your limbs, or your body, or your remote, should be sophisticated enough to handle not only the minute-to-minute status and maintenance of the robotic parts, but the uplink/download interfaces with the biological portion. This will happen.

Technology advances, robotic limbs and remotes will get "smarter" and more sophisticated. Or at least, like chess games, they will have increasingly clever algorithms and sufficient processing power and memory to brute force their way through most intractable problems. Certainly not the way we (non-cyborgs) think, but it works, as a chess player will attest to in a contest with a computer. In fact, there is no reason not to supplement our brains as well. We end up with a biological part of a cyborg that is not so much controlling its mechanical parts, as having a conversation with them.

In fact, it makes sense to keep these doofus human brains of ours as much out of the loop as possible. Use the brains for what they are good for, which seems to be informed decision based upon experience. Much the same as our own brains have two decision paths: one through the old reptilian brain that is instinctive and lightning fast, and the other through the neocortex which is a bit more thoughtful and considered.

One wonders then where does the person end and the machine begin? Or is that a dumb question? And the answer is, dumb question.

Because here is a weird thing about our funny big brains. We are quite adaptable at reconfiguring our identities. When we drive a car, we don't so much drive the car, as become the car.

The question is how far can the adaptation go? Its easy enough to operate a humanoid body with four limbs and a head. One equipped with a standard sensorium similar to our own. But what about operating a body more suited to the environment to be explored or lived in, such as the bottom of the ocean, or deep space?

How well would we handle "being", say, an octopus underwater? Or a shark? Or a swarm of bees? Or an alien? Could we handle it? Or would it drive us crazy? Embodied minds is what we are. We are informed and limited by our forms. It makes sense our minds are shaped by our bodies.

How far can we go? How long can we remain this way? There is a story of a magician who could transform himself into any animal. He especially enjoyed becoming a bear and, over time, as he spent more and more time as a bear, he lost himself, and became less and less a man. This is obviously a cautionary tale, but honestly, if you've become a cyborg, is there any reason to go back to being a human? Or if you've "become" a cyborg (by operating a remote for a sufficient time), would you want to go back?

Could this one way that humans end? This is often referred to as the complacent posthuman apocalypse (well... it is what I often refer to). We, for one reason or another, are all changed so gradually we don't notice it. Before you know it, you can't find anyone who isn't changed. Could be. It might end up being a generational thing. We already seem to be distressed by this, as the younger ones become more accustomed to, and intuitive of, advanced technologies.

Well, here's my prediction. I've no doubt that the brain scan technology will continue to improve. Within, say, seven to ten years, "telepathy beanies" will be available on the market. Not only will the kids be "talking behind your back", they'll be running things with their brains. Creepy, huh? And I have no idea what the step after that will be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It's the Oceans, Stupid

I don't get cable. Since I'm back in Indiana, I'm able to watch cable. And here's my question.

What the hell is wrong with the Discovery Channel?

Industrial fishing shows. Clear cut logging shows. What's next? Strip mining shows? African bush meat shows? A Christmas special on baby seal bashing?

I guess their revenue is way down. And, so, they need to show everything that is wrong with the commercial fishing industry and then glorify it.

Hey, here's some questions. Can you see the Great Wall of China from space? The Pyramids? The U.S.'s Interstate highway system? Answers: Nope. Sometimes. Nope.

What manmade thing can you see from space? Net fishing. Bottom dredging drag nets scraping the ocean floor clean.

Picture a Force Ten tornado with a kill path miles across, and when it sweeps over your house, it drags everything with it, scrapes right down to the top soil and nothing, and I mean nothing, will grow back for decades to come. Meanwhile, hapless you and your scrawny, underaged loved ones become "bycatch", because there's no money in you, so back you go, falling to earth with a sickening thud.


What a weasel word. It's, oh dear, collateral damage, can't be helped, dumped back into the sea obviously dead as hell despite the narrator's assurances to the contrary.

Hey, I got your Deadliest Catch. I got your long-line fishing. Let's kill everything we can dredge up or hook, including juvenile endangered fish species. Meanwhile, Discovery puts on a show called Whale Wars, which bemoans the fate of un-endangered species of whales.

Whales that, under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whales, established on Dec. 2, 1946, are perfectly legal to be slaughtered by signatory nations. Committees decide how many whales of what species may be hunted, in what numbers, and real numbers are tracked as to how many have actually been hunted. Data on their decisions (whale kill quotas, and whale kill numbers) is public information. I mean, since the establishment of the Convention, not a single species of whale has become extinct. In fact, their populations have increased. It may not sound particularly Green, but the thing is, it WORKS. As a matter of fact, every international agreement, from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973, in the works since before Earth Day), to other environmental solutions such as the 1987 banning of ozone-depleting substances has worked. And for two reasons:

1) Rather than shaking a finger and saying "Bad Power Mad Greedy Corporate Destructors!" it recognizes that activities we don't like are not going to disappear because we don't like them. And the process of demonizing doesn't stop the Bad Guys. But, ah, amazing, these activities can be regulated, and willing partners on the exploitation side can be found to cooperate, and
2) If these activities - and the people behind them - are made public, scrutinized, verified (so that they CAN be regulated), they can be controlled. And the good thing, the whole environmentalist/conservationist goal can be achieved.

Sorry, Greenpeace. Sorry, Whale Wars. You aren't saving whales. In fact, you aren't really doing much of anything except getting in the way of - and giving a bad name to - serious, thoughtful, REAL environmentalists.

And who are these real environmentalists? Typically, marine biologists, that's who. Understaffed, underpaid, underresourced, dull, boring, dorky scientists.

Not sexy, rugged fishermen, or activist buffoons in Zodiac boats, but scientists. Scientists like people from the University of Halifax, that predicted the collapse of the Atlantic cod fisheries. Scientists that are constantly ignored by the faceless directors - unknown and unaccountable to the public - of Fishing , Inc.

Ignored because the data biologists present does not match the Fish Catch Model. And what is the Model? Know one knows. It's a black box. It's known only to the faceless bureaucrats of, you guessed it, Fishing, Inc.

And so the biologists collect their data, and publish their findings, write "crazy papers". Crazy papers that now predict the collapse of the entire world's fisheries by perhaps as early as 2048.

But you know, that's just bummer news. No TV revenue in stuff like that. And the viewing public is tired of all the sky is falling stuff anyway. Let 'em watch commie pinko public TV for that. They've got that demographic sewed up.

Friday, December 18, 2009

John Makes A #2, Hilarity Ensues

I had intended to give you all some idea of where I stand metaphysically, to talk of deep philosophical matters and big issues. And I had entered about a paragraph's worth of, well, in retrospect, bullshit rationalizations about my belief system (or lack of), when I suddenly had a desperate urge to take a shit.

Hey, it happens.

So, just so you are aware, the college is closed down for Winter Break. This is absolute bliss for me, as I have the studio all to myself. I'll be able to cast metal, or cut wood, or weld, or whatever, without the distraction and interruption of the faculty and students. I mean, it really is great, being alone for a change.

So, in I head to the bathroom, get business taken care of, and fortunately it is a healthy bowel movement and none too messy. (And I know you all wanted to know about all that). So I reach for some toilet paper... and there is none there. 

Okay, fine. 

No reason to panic. So I frog-walk myself to the next stall, pants and undies around my ankles. No paper there either. Duck waddle on to the next stall... and the next stall. Last stall. Nothing. What the fuck?

Sigh. Alright, fine. I saw paper towels in the dispenser. I take a leisurely short-strided stroll over to the sinks, crank out two heaping fistfuls of paper towels, and return like a hermit crab to my fortress of solitude.

Now, I'm not sure which paper company the college is buying their stuff from, but I'd wager it is a factory formerly behind the Iron Curtain. I say this, because the whole heinie-cleanup endeavor is a tad on the scratchy side.

Well, guess what? I didn't grab enough towels. So, I venture out once again, and there is the janitor standing there. I look up at him, pants around the ankles, bare butt sticking out.

"Hey, how ya doin?"

He nods. I grab more paper towels. Head back to base. Get myself all taken care of. Walk out standing tall. What else you gonna do?

So, just as well, I didn't write about original subject since this whole adventure is a real life metaphor for all things spiritual in my life.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Communist as Hell!

First off, at the risk of a little wrath from the girlfriend, I'm sending out a electronic bear hug to Magaly Guerrero for promoting me. If it is one of my usual bear hugs, you all should probably hear this hot little chili pepper's spine cracking, as the 4th and 5th thoracic vertebrae separate and pop - but in a good way.

That very pleasant chore accomplished, on with the griping!

One of the inside jokes of my family is the expression "Communist as Hell!", which my nephew has shortened to "Communist!", and summed up, or distilled down, parsing down the whole variety of levels of meanings, it basically means "Bullshit!", as in dishonest bullshit. 

And more specifically dishonest bullshit that looks good on paper, looks good theoretically (thus the Commie reference), but in a dialectically opposite Capitalist way, on the way to reifying it, corners are cut, quality is abandoned, and you end up with some cobbled together Soviet abortion that (again, weird) only unsupervised private enterprise could create. (Because as ugly and cobbled together as the Soviet thing is, it's still pretty damn sturdy and reliable, like an AK-47, and not like the usual shoddy piece of shit that only a cost-cutting bloated plutocratic capitalist running-dog would sell in a place like Walmart). So, it's a paradoxical phrase, which is why its an inside joke.

In my family, given that we are all, in one form or another, scientists, engineers, hard-nose materialist types who would rather be confronted with the unvarnished truth, warts and all, instead of convenient fictions, we like to cut through the bullshit.  As such, we, all of us, have, among other things, an immense distaste for lawyers on TV. 

They ain't honest.

To quote Joe Pesci's character in "My Cousin Vinnie", when speaking of the D.A. building his case, like building a house from bricks, the bricks... "When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they're as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick".

Legal arguments, generally, ain't honest. They ain't honest because you don't get all the facts. Just the facts they want you to know about. That's called cherry-picking. I see it every damn day, and it is, yes indeed, Communist As Hell!

This whole thing started up with my morning coffee, flipping through the channels, and I happen to catch John Stossel on Fox News*. Actually, it's not even about him. It's really any entertainer out there (and every political commentator of every stripe, my dears, is an entertainer, from people with giant quivering manboobs, like Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh, to slightly more fit physical types with mustaches, like John Stossel or Janeane Garofolo, or whomever) that is Communist as Hell, because they are trying to get their point across in the shortest - and therefore most dishonest - sound bite that they can.

So Stossel is yapping away about how the government can't do shit right. Let's ignore the fact that I would not even be hearing his broadcast if it were not for the liberal largesse of the US government. He uses the example of how the East German government couldn't build a car, and as a result, we can't trust our government to do anything.

What the fuck? Stossel, do you really think I'm that fucking stupid without my coffee in the morning?

Stossel, would you trust private enterprise to successfully complete the Manhattan Project? To put a man on the moon? To build a national interstate system? To build an Internet? Aside from the fact that your average business hack lacks the vision to see any money coming out of these projects, and don't have nearly enough funds to do it, he's just far too wimpy to accept the risk!

I mean, the US government is Communist as Hell - but, for the most part, in a good way. And in a very selective way. 

The telegraph (and by extension our entire communication infrastructure)? Funded by Congress. (Look it up!) 

The research and development monies that went into the invention of the transistor? Computer chips? The personal computer? No, they weren't cobbled together in someone garage. The components were. But the components would not exist unless they had been funded by Congress. 

The Internet? Ever hear of DARPA? You wouldn't be reading me without their (your) monies.

Lasers? Radio? TV? Flat screen TV? Want to guess? 

In fact, one of the most spectacularly successful programs for technological innovation has been provided to you, with your taxpayer dollars, by the US government. 

We The People (through the instrument of the federal government) have given (free) most of the land west of the Mississippi to corporations. (Look up the Railroad Acts, starting with Comrade Commissar Lincoln). We killed off or corralled all the Indians, to make it safe to settle. We build dams to water the wasteland, and then let farmers take it Free of Charge. We electrified the countryside (for Free, Fucking FREE!). And (okay this is gruesome weird) We built a Bomb that kept probably 2 million men from dying on the beaches of Japan. We embarked on a period of exploration that turned blurry spots of light into vast new worlds (NASA). And when you consider that, since 2004, Hollywood's annual budget for making movies surpassed that of NASA's, should you be just a little pissed off? I mean, sure, NASA crashes a 200 million dollar satellite into Mars, but no one pitches a bitch about Waterworld?

We the People have done a lot of Commie shit, and a lot of it has not been Communist as Hell!

Hey Stossel? Shut the fuck up you Commie bastard!

* To be fair, Stossel was complaining about the current Senate version of the healthcare reform bill. I agree with him that it is just a wet, slimy turd slick of a bill. But we disagree as to why it sucks, and I still was not happy that he still had to make a dishonest argument about why he thought it sucked!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Going Postal? Not..quite..yet...

I figured I'd do a quick followup to the last journal entry. For some reason, my girlfriend reads my musings, and on occasion, she has commented that, considering how nice of guy I am, where does all the venom come from? 

Venom? I'm trying to be smart and funny here you bitch! 

And sometimes smart and funny crosses over into dangerous territory (oops, like probably in that last sentence). But you know, I've always tried to maintain a No Sacred Cows rule in my attempts at humor, and so there you go.

But now let's say there is someone out there that read the prior entry, and they say, "Geez, John. I'm a climate skeptic. Way to go with the diplomatic approach by calling me a dangerously stupid asshole! Way to provide a reasoned rebuttal that will convince me otherwise". 

To which I reply, "Oh, shut the fuck up, you whiner". 

But hey, some of my best friends are climate skeptics, and I regularly call them dangerously stupid assholes. Actually, far worse stuff than that depending upon how much we've had to drink. If they are not offended, and I do not worry about it, why should I care if you, a perfect stranger, are offended?

And besides, I've found, philosophically at least, that one cannot reason a person out of a belief.

I've given up on that. I learned my Internet debate lesson a long time ago. And so now, for the most part, I instead poke fun at you and your rhetoric. 

(It is also why I have kind of given up on watching presidential debates, as there is no attempt at reasoned discourse or critical evaluation, but mere parroting of party ideological positions and well-marketed sound bites. Like Frank Zappa once said "Politics is the entertainment branch of industry").

So then, the second thing a climate skeptic might say (if they had a very, very brief moment of clarity), would be "Okay. Suppose you are right. What then?" 

Whoa! Hit me with a stun-hammer! You really want to discuss this? Okay. Well, then I suppose we need to ask the question "Why am I not an equally dangerously stupid asshole?"

It's question worth asking. The question, more properly phrased, is What Am I Doing About It? And the answer, honestly, is Not Much Dude. 

I, like pretty much all my fellow Americans, am busy making the problem even worse. I'm not changing my behavior. In fact, in my case, my carbon footprint - since I burn LOTS of natural gas to melt metal for casting sculptures - is more like a carbon buttprint.

So, I suppose I'm an asshole as well. Just not nearly as dangerously stupid as you.

But I'm trying in my own way. I'm encouraging my farming friends back in Indiana to cultivate terra preta which not only conserves soil, but sequesters carbon. I'm glad to see China is kicking our ass in green technologies, and shame anyone that can make a difference into noticing. I write emails to my butthead congress and hope that my president will grow a sack and take some action. And when I do write, I stress, more than anything, that Its The Oceans, Stupid. 

And fundamentally, I'm an optimist, but a practical one.  I'm not expecting human ingenuity to make things right. I'm not expecting some hi-tech miracle to be pulled out of our collective ass. I'm not expecting Everybody to start making Nice-Nice. I'm no goo-goo-eyed wobblehead.

And I don't buy into the whole Save the Planet bullshit. The planet, quite obviously, can take care of itself. She's a tough old 4 billion year old monster bitch, with guts of molten iron, and a rock hard hide. Life has made it through plenty bad time, ranging from the Snowball Earth world glaciation events of two billion years ago, to the Great Dying of the Permian Extinction (nightmare global warming) of 250 million years ago, to the cometary greeting card the dinosaurs got 65 million years ago. And this is only the nasty shit we know about. The Old Bitch may have gone through far, far worse. But one thing is for sure - and you really, really need to get this through your head -  We Need Her, but She Don't Need Us. 

So I have to be resolutely hopeful that we can change our ways. This hope of mine, it's a belief, true. But it is a belief I have to keep at the core of my life. We do have the capacity to learn from the past, to recognize when we are fucking things up for ourselves, to realize when we are taking a shit in our own kitchen. 

Negative Connotations

There is a "sculpture wall" installed in an out-of-the-way section of the wood shop, here at the college where I work. The wall is set up to look like your standard gallery white wall, and students will document (photograph) their finished projects with this as a professional backdrop.

When I opened the studio this morning, someone had left up a wall-mounted ceramics piece from the previous night's "documentation session". In the dim light, it looked like a giant buttocks, a big 'ol butt on the wall. And when I turned on lights, it was definitely a big fat pair of butt cheeks, but with  these little hemorrhoidal Leggo connector pegs interspersed within the butt crack. (Yeah, ick). This just made it all the more repulsive, and knowing that it was a fat-assed, unpleasant, illogically egotistical cow of a woman who had made the piece did improve the association.

This often happens with abstracted objects. There is an unfortunate lack of thought as to what the object may resemble. And more often than not, a negative connotation is formed.

I remember one time, a kid was making an abstracted object out of stone, and while he was contemplating it, I mentioned "Hey, wow. That looks like a big old dick".

"No, it doesn't!"

"Yeah. Oh, yeah. It's a dick. Come here. Look at it from here".

"No! It.. it's suppos-, I-... aww sheeit!"

Ah, well, So it goes. Some things start out as one thing and end up another. Some things have one meaning, and, confused or conflated with something else, end up with a completely different take, in  a process called pejoration (taking on negative connotations).

Examples. Cock. Pussy. Uranus. Penal colony. Ejaculate.  
(A rooster. A cat. A planet. A prison. An excited verbal exclamation.)

How about the word "skeptic". It's been on a long, slow pejorative slide for some time. Originally imbued with the positive meaning of "investigator", towards the less positive connotation of "doubter" (but still, concerned with evidence rather than belief), then finally "nonbeliever", or, as in the phrase "climate skeptic" dangerously stupid asshole. 

You know, I have four categories of stupid. 
No 1) is developmentally challenged, as in not enough processing power, and those in this category get a break. 
No 2) is ignorant, as in hasn't been provided or has been denied the facts, and those in this category get a break as well. 
No 3) is just plain stupid, as in, they got the brains, they got the information, but they just can't seem to make connections, and usually I will cut them some slack, until I realize there is no way they are going to get it, and then I just have to say "Out of the way so I can get the job done, stupid". 
And No 4)... No 4) is dangerously stupid. They got the information, they can process the information, they can put 2 + 2 together, but they willfully ignore the conclusions or consequences because it does not fit into their worldview, or will seriously inconvenience their lifestyle, or will compromise the lofty view of themselves that they so illogically possess. These people, if I had my way, would be landfill. There is really nothing else to be done with them.

And I am of the opinion that climate skeptics are dangerously stupid. They may think they are in the right, but if so, why the need to cherry-pick data, by presenting, for example, long discredited scientific papers as current science? Why the need to twist numbers to match their conclusions? Why the need to lie

Which is, of course, what I've seen on every single climate skeptic site, provided they actually have anything like charts or data. Most of the time, it's simply a generalized dismissal, such as "All that global warming stuff is a bunch of hooey, so there!" 

The current silliness about Climategate (hah!) certainly does nothing to discredit the nearly century of work on the subject, any more than finding someone was wrong about today's weather means you can't trust their opinion on anything! What an absurd form of reasoning.

Fact of the matter is this. We, as a species, move more earth and stone than the largest rivers. We farm a land area equal to the entire South American continent. (Look it up!) We've increased the acidity of the entire global ocean by creating carbonic acid from carbon emissions (from a global average of pH of 8 to a pH of 7.7 - and pH scale is logarithmic). (Look it up!) We haven't quite turned the world's oceans into vinegar yet, but give us time. Glaciers, and the arctic ice cap are shrinking and melting (and someone tell me how they can melt if the earth is getting cooler as the skeptics would have us believe?) Even the Antarctic continent, for all practical purposes cut off from the rest of the world's weather systems, is being effected by the heat. That's a big thing, when a continent cut off from global winds and current by an insulation of miles of ice is still perturbed. (Oh, sure, the skeptics will tell you that the eastern Antarctic ice cap is increasing, and it is. This is because there is more precipitation in the form of snow, and it only snows down there when water gets a chance to evaporate, which requires heat). I could go on and on, but there are better websites that document all of this, and I'm close to frothing at the mouth on this.

Skeptics? Skeptics? Come one, you fucking stupids.  We are a Force of Nature now. Time to grow up and act like one.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What If Hitler Knocked?

There's a literary movement, or genre, or fad,  that has picked up steam in recent decades called Alternative Fiction. Actually the genre has been around for quite some time in the form of What If stories. 

The first time I came across the current version of AF was a book by the Reigning King of AF (in that he just keeps churning out AF novels like a sausage factory), Harry Turtledove, called the Guns of the South. 

It was a What If the South Won the Civil War story, or more technically, What Would It Take For the South to Win The Civil War story? And the answer to that is: It would have taken a Fucking Miracle, (when you think how the North did practically everything it could to lose the war, and still managed to Fuck Things Up and win it).

And so Turtledove had to resort to Time Travel to make it all happen. Intervention From The Future. (Kind of like how Governor Schwarzenegger, so I'm told,  is currently building a killer robot to send back in time to kill the mother of his campaign manager so that he is not elected Governor).

Now, Time Travel is guaranteed to mess with you head. There is just no way to resolve the paradoxes involved - unless you invoke bizarre topics like multiple universes, or self-similar causality. Even guys like Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne, or Kurt Godel, or Albert Einstein, would tell you that the subject will just plain gizoogle your shiznit. Better to stick to a safe wank of a subject like AF.

And of course, AF is basically a public wank. There is really no useful purpose for it, not even from a counterfactual analysis of history standpoint. Because, quite simply, the whole saying of how "Hindsight is 20-20" is just pure horsehsit. Nothing is EVER clear. Nothing is EVER, EVER certain, regardless of past-ness, or present-ness, or future-ness. So, really, just shut the fuck up about all that.

Anyway, here's my AF contribution, which I never wrote out until now, called What If Hitler Knocked.

Hitler wanted to be an artist. He was rejected twice from entering the Vienna Art Academy, due to a "lack of talent". His drawings and paintings were considered stiff and lifeless. However, a friend suggested he apply for a job doing set design at the Vienna Opera House. Hitler showed up for the job appointment, but at the last instant, in a nervous moment of low self-esteem, just at the doors of the theater, turned and left without being interviewed.

Had he knocked, had he taken the interview, he would have gotten the job. Not only would he have gotten the job, he would have been quite successful at it. Because it would turn out that he had quite the talent for pageantry and spectacle. Over time, throughout the 30s, he worked his way up the ladder, with no end of glowing reviews of his shows. He caught the eye of Hollywood producers, and was enticed join Warner Brothers studios in 1934. In California, he directed and eventually produced movies that rivaled anything by Busby Berkeley (a "close personal friend"). He became a citizen of the United States at the outbreak of the War, and directed many patriotic tributes throughout the hostilities. He even directed a hilarious sendup of the Third Reich starring the Three Stooges, with Moe as Der Fuhrer Heinrich Giesel. He continued to produce movies up until his death from a stroke, at his Beverly Hills mansion in 1956. The End.

The point? Not so much about destiny, or inevitability. Possibly a thought along the lines that evil is situational, and that perhaps freedom of choice is limited by information, and that someone who is all-knowing may have no free will at all?

Nah. Nothing so heavy. Its just my little public wank.

Here's a hankie!      

Monday, December 14, 2009

La Muerte Roja

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Do No Harm?

The worst place to be this time of year is the doctor's office or the hospital. It is pretty much a certainty that a visit to either place will result in picking up some kind of bug.

And so it is with me.

I'm pretty sure I've got a cold. I don't think it is the flu. Although it may be. I don't get sick that often. (Last time I got sick was 2003. I remember this well, because I was really sick and that was the last time I was really sick). And when I do get sick, and I don't get nearly as sick as everyone else does. I pretty much concur with George Carlin, that an immune system needs practice, and it only gets it when you expose yourself to germs.

But there was one woman in the doctor's waiting room that was a complete fucking mess. Even I avoided getting near her. But obviously, she had a lethal cloud of germs and miasmic crap surrounding her like some toxic shroud, and I'm blaming that bitch for my current predicament.

Now, being a gentle barbarian sort, I rarely wish ill on anyone or anything. At least, not too seriously. Not so you could notice. But this shit that is colonizing me? I want it to die.

I want it to fuck off and die. 

I want it to fuck off and die in as slow, painful, and publicly embarrassing manner as possible, while concurrently (somehow) being for me a swift, pleasurable, and ego-massaging experience. I want all my little white blood cells and antibodies to just pummel the living shit out this crud. I want to go Neolithic on this shit. I want to wipe it out, and not just it, but its relatives, friends, pets, possessions, farm animals, acquaintances, hapless strangers it met, cities, towns, and countrysides it inhabits. I short, I want to wipe out everything it loves.

At least, do no harm? Heh. Fuck that.

I wish to do a great fucking deal of harm.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whole Leg Orgasms

If you've taken a psychology or biology course, you may have seen the accompanying diagram. 

It is the mapping of your body onto your brain, or, in more technical terms, it is the cortical homunculus - the somatosensory representation of the body upon the surface of your cortex.

The picture shows a front-on view of your brain, and how your body is mapped upon it - at least according to the first mapping published in 1950 by Wilder Penfield, and Theodore Rasmussen.

Penfield produced this image by electrically stimulating the naked cortex of patient's brains. Not for kicks, mind you, but to identify what-was-connected-to-what prior to surgery. So that he knew what parts of the brain he could and could not muck about with.

You may have noticed, for the sake of modesty, that the genitals are not displayed. And, according to Penfield and Rasmussen, the genitals are not located where you would think they would be (at the pelvis) but just below the toes!

Foot fetish anyone?

Even more interesting, subsequent research by Vilanyur Ramachandran, in his book "Phantoms of the Brain", has described peculiar cases of amputees who have lost legs. The cortical area which formerly processed input from the feet and toes were taken over by the genitalia. In other words, all the little neurons that used to process sensations from the feet were co-opted to process sensations from the genitalia. Even more interesting, such amputees would often experience the pleasure of an orgasm not just in their naughty bits, but in their toes, feet and sometimes the whole leg! 

Subsequent investigations, in such papers with such erotic titles as "Sensory Cortical Representation of the Human Penis: Revisiting Somatotopy in the Male Homunculus", indicates that the sensory areas are actually spread out over different areas of the brain, and that the main sensory location for the penis actually lies laterally next to the big toe (not below it).

Something to explore in your off-hours, I suppose.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Plan A"

Spent the weekend Back Home in Indiana, introducing the girlfriend to friends and family. Everyone liked her, and on at least three occasions I was advised: "Don't Fuck It Up" Wha?

I always get melancholy after these visits, as it makes me realize how much I miss my tribe. And, of course, the old family stories come out, which are invariably funny and sweet, but leave a bittersweet aftertaste. Take the stories we told about my father, for example. My dad, Bill Kurman, was just one hell of a bull of a guy.

Bill... Dad was of the WWII generation. Born in the 20s. Orphaned young and raised by an aunt during the Depression, he had a hard scrabble life. Served aboard an LST as a signalman in the South Pacific during the War. (LST stands for Landing Ship Tank, one of those ships that sails up to the beach and drops off trucks and tanks and such. In Navy parlance, LST stands for Large Slow Target). Afterwards, he went to college, met and married Mom, had four boys, worked as a salesman, and died of a heart attack way, way too early at the age of 57, in 1983. As a joke, he liked to pose wearing this really bad toupee, or his cheesy plastic Colonel Klink helmet, you know, the one with the spike on top the Krauts wore back in WWI.

I could, like most people, probably generate a novella out of all the Dad stories. So here's a couple samples:

I remember talking to my brother Chris about Dad's habit of starting off a planning session with the phrase "Plan A". I mentioned to him, "Ever notice there was never a Plan B?"

"...yeah! What was that about?"

"Well, I figure the Old Kraut was displaying his cultural roots. Either Plan A succeeded gloriously, or, or... it if did not, then... Vee Vill Neffer Shpeek Huf Zis Agane!"

Here's another. He made a habit of not swearing. He considered the practice uncouth and ungentlemanly, and I suppose my form of rebellion is to cuss like a longshoreman, both in speech and in print. His most common emphatic expression was "Dog it!" And on only three occasions did I hear him use curse words.

Given the recent date of Dec. 7th, I relate this. I can recall one time when we were watching Victory at Sea on public TV, which was a documentary on the War in the Pacific. My father never once mentioned that he saw any action. He did once say that the entire experience aboard ship was pretty much constant boredom. We were watching footage of Japanese kamikaze planes, and the Old man muttered, just barely heard by me, "Fucking kamikazes".

Much later, after he had died, and we were going through his things, we found three Battle Star ribbons. A little research turned up that his ship had engaged in the Battle of Okinawa Gunto, which was the heaviest, or second heaviest, kamikaze raid of the war. Well, the Old Man's combat station was anti-aircraft gunner. It was pretty much guaranteed he had fired shots in anger, and experienced those briefs moments of "horror interspersed with boredom" that veterans will speak of. But, like most vets who had actually seen action, saw no point in relating the experience. Really nothing much of a surprise.

I remember - long before hippies had been invented - he and friends of his generation, would say goodbye with the word "Peace". Unlike the hippies, I think they understood what that word actually meant.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Life On Man

Well, day two of applying ear drops for a dewaxing, and I am officially Stone Deaf. 

I kind of wanted to write about Wilder Penfield, the cortical homunculus, and whole leg orgasms today, but my mind is still stuck on ear wax. Why do we even have the stuff? 

Well, the answer is obvious. Same reason we have dandruff, and grease, and snot, and other gross exudations. Our external integument (skin, hair, tongue, cheeks, guts, etc.) oozes stuff, and also slags off to keep creepy little parasites from establishing a beachhead. Finding an anchorage from which to push into our lush bodily continents, like little Conquistadors intent on finding gold and slaves.

If you view the human body as a planet, then it has all sorts of biomes upon and within it, small ecological zones populated by microbes both good and bad. The gut, obviously, is the rich and opulent rain forest zone, teeming with life. The ear canal, on the other hand, is a veritable Sahara, devoid of life. And rightly so, for such an inviting place, dark and moist, a seeming fertile ground for molds and mildews, really needs some type of protective film. 

And so, to the surprise and occasional disgust of some, we are indeed vast worlds filled with creatures. For every one human cell, there are perhaps ten or more microbial inhabitants. The majority are, if not beneficial, at least neutral, and generally keep more nasty germs at bay by merely being on and upon us. In fact, were we completely sterilized,  we would probably perish, or at least, not thrive.

Soon after the Human Genome Project was complete, the Human Microbiome Project cranked into high gear. Results are pouring in as we speak, and it is worth doing a cursory google search, just to see what's going in - considering how intimate the whole relationship is.

Human cells outnumbered ten to one? Oh dear! But don't worry. I once read that the average bacterial cell is about fifteen times smaller by volume than a human cell. I once figured out that, if a human cell were the size of a trailer park trailer, then the average bacterium would be the size of a person.

Perhaps that explains why, once, during a fever dream, I was heard to exclaim: "Get out of my trailer!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Unintelligent Design

Had my annual physical at the doctor's yesterday. Passed, of course, with flying colors, seeing as I am a Viking type bull-of-a-man and all the weaklings in our line bred out - left to die exposed on the ice floes and along the glacier line quite some time ago I suspect. (Ah, yes, we of the Kurman Nation are well known for our humility).

Nevertheless, a superior physical specimen such as myself does still have complaints. Specifically, I had trouble hearing out of my right ear, and would occasionally get trapped water in there. My curmudgeon of a doctor stuck his lighted ear inspection tool in there and exclaimed: 

"Jeez, I can't even see your ear drum"!

Chockfull of ear wax I am, and the left ear not much better. So, he gets out the giant metal syringe to flush the wax out - and succeeds in completely plugging up my ear canal. Nothing for it but to take ear drops the next few days to soften the wax, then go back for a proper flushing. In the meantime, I am, like, "What? What?" to everyone around me, dude.

But it got me thinking about design flaws, and how we poor shambling humans seem to have quite a few flaws in our design. Consider: 

The prostate. Not the best positioning, don't you think? Guys get older, prostate swells up, gets hard to pee, not good. Couldn't there have been a better place to put the thing?

Knees, hips, backs. Not quite the optimal design for bipedal locomotion.

The blind spot in the eye. Not to mention the flimsy connection of the retina makes you think it was manufactured in Bangladesh. A good slap on the back, and the retina detaches. And not covered by warranty.

Ectopic pregnancy. The egg becomes attached to cervix, fallopian tube, or even the ovary, rather than the uterus. Really nothing humorous at all about this as it usually results in death to both the mother and child. Good thing abortion is an available procedure.

While we are on it, something should be done about the size of the birth canal. Breech births are not an optimal method.

Hernias. Men's testicles descend from the abdomen, leaving a weak spot in the muscles. Prior to current surgical methods, hernias could result in gangrene, followed by death.

Congenital Diseases. Scoliosis. Sciatica. Wisdom teeth. Scurvy, due to our unique inability to manufacture Vitamin C. The descent of the pharynx within the throat, making Man the only animal that can choke. Most embarrassingly, sometimes on his own vomit.  

Well, the  list goes on, and on, and on. 

I'm not trying to shake anyone's personal belief structure - not too much anyway. But I am suggesting that maybe those who buy into Intelligent Design should occasionally allow themselves to be confused with the facts? 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reason Iz Stoopid

"Our logic is to be illogical. 
That is our advantage"

Oh yeah. I'm a geek. Although I'm a little embarrassed about it, I'm told by, uh, this Really Hot Mom* that I'm going out with, that there is something very sexy about geeking out. It's decidedly childish, but also childlike. I figure women find it a cute thing about men: that we don't ever actually completely grow up. I think this is one reason why women keep us around - at least until A Real Mandroid(TM),  the mind-reading love robot, with the kung-fu grip, is perfected and put on the market. Anyways...

The entitled quote is from Star Trek. Specifically, an episode entitled "I, Mudd" wherein Captain Kirk is speaking to an android named Norman, in still another demonstration of how us illogical humans can outwit logical computers. (And just so know, I had to google this. I'm not nearly as much as a geek as I let on).  

Well, the point of all this is the following statement: "Logic ain't all it's cracked up to be". 

Case in point. There was a science news article back in July of aught-nine entitled "Ants Are More Rational Than Humans".

As the article states, it is not that ants are smarter than humans, but that humans simply make more irrational decisions when faced with complex challenges. This has also been investigated by economists Kahneman and Tversky (look 'em up). And I would argue that ants are dumb, which is why they are more rational.

Another case in point. For the longest time, computer scientists thought that building intelligent computers would be a piece of cake. All they had to do was apply the Brute Force approach of supplying enough memory banks and processing chips, and Logic would do the rest. As it turned out, it was all a big disappointment, and Artificial Intelligence was a lot harder problem than they realized.

Worse still, back in 1997, IBM build a computer called Deep Blue. Deep Blue beat the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and it really messed with his head. At one point in the game, Deep Blue passed up a logical move of capturing Garry's piece for immediate advantage, in order to press a more risky strategy to win the game. Kasparov got paranoid, convinced that he was playing a human opponent disguised as a computer. As I said, it messed with his head. 

Now, I personally don't think much of chess. It isn't that I suck at the game, which I do. It's because it really is just a stupid wasteful medieval battle of attrition. One in which any modern general would probably be court-martialed for slaughtering so many of his own men. And playing the game is more a matter of having a good memory than using logical skills. But nevertheless, there is a step-by-step linear method of logic involved. And look how easy it was for a dumb (yes, dumb as a turd, by animal standards) computer to kick human ass.

Ah, but put Deep Blue in the awkward social position of going to a barbeque in your backyard, and you quickly realize how much of a dumbshit it is. We, without consciously thinking about it, recognize everything in the backyard. We recognize bushes, and grass, and patios, and pets, and charcoal grills without a second thought. And really, it takes quite a bit of computer processing time (not that that's what we do) to do all of this in our little pumpkin heads. And no matter how much logical processing time it devotes to it, poor old Deep Blue just ain't gonna cut it as life of the party at your Bar-B-Q.

In other words, it takes more raw intelligence to visually recognize a chess board than it does to play the game. It takes more raw intelligence to inhabit and navigate a body, than it does to do calculus, or compute orbital trajectories, or model climate change, or win at a mathematical game like the Prisoner's Dilemma.

So, let's talk about that so we can get to the friggin' point. You got two crooks that get caught by the cops. Detectives interrogate them in separate cells. The cops need a confession  or they have to let the crooks go. They tell 'em "Rat on your buddy, and it will go easy on you". Each crook has a choice. Turn rat fink, or clam up. Mathematically, there are four outcomes with expected payoffs: Both crooks rat, one rats on the other, or the other rats, or both clam up. Mathematically, logically, it can be proven that the logical choice is to rat. But the irrational choice, which also has the highest payoff since the crooks go free, is to clam up. In other words, they can logically compete, or they can illogically cooperate.

Guess what humans usually do, not just in this game, but in other games, including economic games? They choose to behave irrationally. 

And it is not just humans. There is increasing evidence from ethologists - biologists who study animal behavior - that animals are more likely to cooperate than compete. It would seem that "Nature Red in Tooth and Claw" is not entirely the whole picture. That altruism (seen by some as irrational) has a certain logic - if you view "survival of the fittest" to be a group selection thingie. An individual that cooperates in the group, makes for a fitter group. And the group, in turn, provides social advantage and protection to the individual, and enhances fitness to the individual.

Perhaps someone should tell the Vulcans about all this... or at least the Libertarians.

UPDATE: Throw this into the category: Funny how it never rains, but it pours. The New York Times has an article out today on the evolutionary roots of altruism, titled "We May Be Born With An Urge To Help". Enjoy.

*In my categorization of things, there is a hierarchical classification of attractive women. It goes from merely hot single young sweet things up to Hot Moms at or near my age. I suppose others would call them Cougars, but I prefer my term. I wonder if this is biological. I also wonder if, when I am an old wrinkled potato, I will find women my age that are in similar shape more  attractive, or will it not matter by then? Probably not.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cunning Linguists

Oh, I know what you are thinking. You think this is going to be a cleverly disguised double entendre filled screed about a certain subject (which, if you were Irish, and practiced at home alone, might be called "aer lingus"). Well, you are wrong! Although, the fact that you are wrong does not preclude discussion of this really fun little topic at some later date...

You know, as a science fiction, and science, and techno (non practicing) geek, I like to talk about certain things. And I've finally noticed that a common of interest of mine is origins. Why are things the way they are? We are told the activity of Science with a capital S does not cover Why questions, only How questions. But the answers to How questions usually rule out a lot of truly stupid Why questions. 

So, why do we speak the language we speak? Why English? Why English as it is spoken?

Well, there are any number of great books on linguistics out there, and I could just parrot them. But, best if you read them yourself, if interested. John McWhorter comes to mind immediately. His book "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English" is a worthy read, and actually contains a number of informed historical suppositions that I happen to agree with (and I leave it to you, gentle reader, to read the book to find out what they are).

Anthony Burgess, most famous as author of "A Clockwork Orange", provides informed entertainment in the books "Language Made Plain", and "A Mouthful of Air". One of those books, I can't remember which, includes a fucking wonderful treatment on the entomology and use of the word "fuck".

Then, of course, there is the legendary Joseph Greenberg, who through typology and genetic classification, almost single-handedly traces all of our language back to that most ancient Mother Tongue spoken, perhaps, some 9,000 - 10,000 years ago, but probably much, much more ancient. His is a truly heroic performance of drudgery and tedium, in tracing common word roots. Reading Greenberg is also an excellent cure for insomnia.

Genetic classification, did I say? Well, not classification, as in human genes, but as in common languages, and sometimes, by implication, common cultures. The interesting thing, though, and this may end up going on a tangent, is that there is practically no connection between language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and your actual genetic origins. Short example? A lot of people in America speak English and are called Americans. Some of them, around 15% of the population, are African-Americans. I doubt that many of them have much in the way of English ancestry. True, you would be hard-pressed to find individuals of purely African descent. But on the whole, it is safe to say that Americans descended from individuals of the Involuntary African Diaspora could in any way say "Oh, we're English", the same way some people of Pilgrim stock are wont to do.  

Anyway... Years ago, I participated in the National Geographic Genographic Project. I swabbed some tissue from my cheek, paid a hundred bucks, and had my DNA analyzed by them. They sent back a neat little info pack on my genetic history, and it also had a little map tracing the peregrinations of  my ancestors all the way back to our common origin in northeast Africa some 60,000-70,000 years ago. (Which makes me, technically, an African-American). 

The most recent branch of the human family that I belong to (going by genetic mutations) could be termed "Northern Barbarian" . Which is to say, that group of people who eventually settled in the Baltic area, including Northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. You know, Viking types.

Well, some of my distant cousins, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, eventually moved from the southern part of Denmark over to England, and took their language and culture with them.  The original paleolithic inhabitants of the British Isles, which is to say, Irish, Welsh, Scots, and, yup, the majority of English, did not speak English. They spoke something else (possibly Celtic, although the term did not exist prior to the late 1800s, and that's another story). And then, a bit later, some of my closer cousins from Scandinavia, stopped by England for an extended stay, and changed English a bit more - simplifying the grammar, and adding some new vocabulary (like the big C-bomb word is from us Norwegians, and you are welcome). So, you Pilgrims don't even speak your own language!

Of course, English is not my own either. Because we Viking types, in turn, are descendants of  the original paleolithic inhabitants who occupied Northern Europe once the glaciers departed a mere (mere!) 5,000 years ago. But English, being part of the Germanic and proto-Germanic language family, was brought into Europe along with the whole Neolithic cultural package of farming, domesticated animals, and rectangular-framed houses, by migrants from the Balkans, the Hungarian plain, and ultimately Anatolia (modern Turkey).  

In fact, none of "my" myths and legends (Norse mythology) is my own, or at least not most of it. The olde triumvirate of Odin, Loki, Thor, are fairly recent gods of an iron-working pastoral culture. (Thor, the blacksmith with his blackened face and red, fiery eyes, Odin, the crazy wind of the bellows god, and Loki, the mischievous fire god of the forge, in case you are wondering). 

Well, I've lost the thread now. What was I talking about? Origins. 

I guess all of us, in one form or another, have lost track of our origins. But, you have to admit, it's rather amazing that linguists and folklorists have, through patience and plodding, recreated as much as we have.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Electronic Remediation

I'm pretty sure, back in 1978 or so, that I almost became the first "death by cellphone" victim. A perfectly innocent pedestrian, minding my own business, not to mention the law, crossing an intersection with the light. Suddenly, an asshole appears, intent upon inattentive driving due to talking on the cellphone. The asshole had turned right on a red light, was holding one of those "bricks" in one hand, was losing control of the wheel with the other, and was, all the while, I swear, narrating to the other person on the line "Hang on a minute, I think I'm gonna hit this guy!"

"DRIVE YOUR CAR!" "DROP THE FUCKING PHONE!" "ASSHOLE!" I screamed at him, and stepped back out of harm's way. But he was soon gone. On his way to menace countless others. I can only hope he hit a fucking tree at some point. And also that he left no progeny.

Of course, that's all pointless now, isn't it? It's a well-trodden and deeply rutted path of behavior now. Driving while electronically distracted. In fact, there are all sorts of devices that allow us to electronically mediate our way through reality now. (I once saw a woman who, along with the Ipod earphones, was also wearing silly heads-up-display virtual sunglasses and was wearing a surgical mask to avoid, what? imaginary germs I guess, since the mask clearly would not stop viruses like swine flue). "Pretty much close to having all her holes plugged up soon", I commented to myself. And why not? Judging by her pissy demeanor, she no doubt needed 'em all well plugged up.

And now, we can avoid all of the distastefully laborious chores in our lives that make reality so wearily real, and fob those duties off onto other electronic devices. What with the merger of the PC and the cellphone, those little plastic cases with speakers and LCD windows in 'em are becoming practically indispensable.

GPS? SPS! (Social Positioning System) ala Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, what have you.

I had a dream. In the not so distant future, very good looking people walk around carrying their brains in little plastic cases. 

These beautiful people all seem to be quite bright, and maybe just a little daft, as they spend a lot of time talking to themselves, and pointing at and manipulating things that are not there. And they all seem to possess somewhat smallish heads and jaws, at least to a beetle-browed, lantern-jawed, trog holdout like me, who can remember names and dates and do arithmetic in my head. But at least they still have opposable thumbs.

Ah, but snatch those little plastic cases away from them, and watch the air go out of their tires. Why, they do only incrementally better navigating through the world than chimpanzees.

This is not to say chimpanzees are dumb. They are not. But my evolutionary hypothesis is, in this case, "Use it or lose it".

I guess we shall see. Maybe HG Wells had it right about human evolution. Maybe in the future, there will be the toy makers and the toy users. The producers and the consumers. The Morlocks and the Eloi.

Anyone got a good recipe for Eloi?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Singularity Will Not Be Televised

I googled "Singularity", and received 1,180,000 results in .11 seconds. 

The first result entry was from wikipedia. The second result was from Ray Kurzweil's site. Actually, I should google "technological singularity" to weed out the off-topic subjects, which I do now...

Ah, that's better. I received 106,000 results in .34 seconds. Again, wikipedia is number one. The second site is a philosophical treatment on how to survive a Vingean singularity... by Vernor Vinge. The third result is a google books sample of Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near". 

Actually, there is something futuristically ironic about what I just done did, as more than likely, Google will be the superhuman intelligence that ushers in the Singularity. (I very much doubt that wikipedia will be the instrument of change - not with the near reactionary fervor of its editors). 

Okay, just what the heck is the Singularity? Well, science fiction authors have given it treatment in one form or another long before it was ever called the Singularity. Usually, the narrative goes something like: 
  1. group of scientists cobble together very large computer brain, and turn it on
  2. said computer brain becomes self-aware, or behaves as if it is (see Turing test)
  3. a) computer brain is many times smarter than the smartest human alive, or b) figures out a physical architecture and software package that is many times smarter than the smartest human alive, and implements it
  4. through the magic of storytelling, the computer brain can make changes to the world through a material instrumentality, because a) by just being so goddamn smart, it attains godlike, or Godlike powers, or b) the group of scientists was dumb enough to connect it to nuclear arsenals or automated facilities, or just does its bidding, or c) the brain figures out how to secretly mail order all the parts it needs to make a giant robot, or some type of gadget that allows it to attain godlike, or Godlike powers, or some such plot driver, and then
  5. the computer brain determines that: a) humanity is a threat to it, or a threat to the planet, or b) humanity is just too damn stupid to be in charge of things, or c) humanity is just too damn stupid, period and therefore:
  6. moving from worst- to best-case scenario... a) humanity is wiped out, or b) computer brain heads out for Parts Unknown, humanity gets left behind literally and figuratively, or c) big brain alters humanity to be less stupid, or at least, much, much nicer.
In short, it is almost a theological scenario where, positing that a superintelligence (God) exists, then It is either malevolent, or indifferent, or beneficent.   

"Yeah, okay. Well, so what?" you say "Isn't this all just some geek adolescent fantasy?"Well, Ray  Kurzweill doesn't think so. People called transhumanists don't. Many philosophers like Nick Bostrom don't. You repeat "Like I said, isn't this all just some geek adolescent fantasy?" Well,... yeah, probably.

But if it isn't, then all bets are off. At least that is what Vernor Vinge says. Vinge is a science fiction author who coined the term "Singularity", or at least made it popular among geeks. Vinge's conundrum is a story-telling one. How can you write about an era of super technology and super intelligence, when things have advanced so far and fast that many things will be beyond human imagination? Isn't that like expecting gerbils to write about nuclear fission? Well, yes, but then it becomes a challenge to writers, and many have accepted it.

Me? I think you can write about the Singularity, simply because we've seen it all before in the history of life on earth. It's all Biology. Want to write about nanotech? Nanotech's been done to death, baby. It is a four billion year old (at least) technology, which occurs every damn day using cellular machinery. Want to know post-Singularity strategies of life and living? Look at all the creepy things bacteria and viruses do. Look at the consortia and cooperatives that unicellular life engages in - not to mention multicellular life.

Is there a place for humans in a post-Singularity world? Is there room for story-telling? I think so. Again look to a history of Life on Earth. There are plenty of creatures that manage to get along without wiping each other out. This particular malevolent fantasy we engage may make for good drama, but it is not very realistic. 

I don't think the future is going to be the immortal heaven that Kurzweil hopes for. In fact, I think that fantasy rather infantile. But I do think there is room for us in it. Certainly room enough for lots of good storytelling.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Artist Statement

I've been in a weird mood for most the day - a little cantankerous, edgy, irritated, and a little anxious. Reason being I've procrastinated on writing a new, shortened artist statement for the RAM (Rockford Art Museum) Midwestern Biennial, and now its due. So, finally, after putzing around all day and avoiding this task, and getting more and more irritable, I finally hunkered down in my office and wrote it. After about four drafts, I'm in a much better mood. A lot calmer, and the blood pressure is down. Here goes, for whomever it is besides Ellen that reads my shit:

"If I wrote a manifesto, it would be one sentence. The sentence would be “CONCEPT IS NOT ENOUGH”.

My primary intent, my ambition, is for you to feel something when you look at my work. I don’t consider myself an orthodox surrealist, but I do use the tools of the trade - incongruent combinations, unexpected associations, and the suggestion of symbols or scenes – in an attempt to convey an emotion, to evoke a mood or an atmosphere.

Any ideas conveyed along with that emotional experience are fine. Ideas alone, without a shared connection, are barren and empty things, a mere transfer of information. I feel emotion is underrated in our society, and in contemporary art. When someone asks me what a work of mine means, my response is what does a melody mean?

I primarily make figurative work, because this is an obvious and effective means of conveying emotions – through gesture, posture, body language. I work in bronze, wood, cast glass, welded and fabricated iron."

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's got a beat, and you can dance to it.

I was originally going to write about one hypothesis of mine, but, as usual, I got sidetracked in my research and will now write two thoughts, and plug a few books.

First, (but actually last), I just sent an email off to Professor Bernd Heinrich. (Professor Heinrich is at the University of Vermont, and wrote a book called "Mind of the Raven", which I enjoyed very much). Here's the text:

"Dear Professor Heinrich,

I read your fascinating book "Mind of the Raven", and noted that you expressed puzzlement as to how ravens identified each other as individuals when you could discern no visual, auditory, or olfactory clues through human senses. I read that birds have four and sometimes five types of cone cells and can see in the ultraviolet as well. I'm wondering if anyone has developed a camera that can see as birds do, and if so, have they looked at ravens to see if their feathers have a unique or distinctive plumage in these wavelengths (or combination of wavelengths) we cannot see?

Just a thought.

Take care,

John Kurman"

Well, that is the second hypothesis I had which I had no intention of writing about today: that birds, or corvids at least, can distinguish each other as individuals by distinctive colorations of their feathers in wavelengths that humans cannot see. This hypothesis is easily disproved by looking at birds in those wavelengths. So, I figured I'd write to Professor Hienrich in case no one had thought of this (though it seems simpleminded enough that someone should have). 

My original intention was to plug a book called "Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" by Christopher McDougall. I read this book as soon as my local library purchased it, towards the middle of summer. Not being one to follow popular culture, I only recently became aware that it was a bestseller. I'm plugging the book anyway. 

So imagine my delight, when, in checking the spelling for McDougall's name on Amazon, I find that Amazon's search results included a book by Hienrich called "Why We Run: A Natural History". I haven't read this book. According to the reviews, this is his book "Racing the Antelope" retitled and repackaged. I haven't read this book either, but I think I will. I'm assuming Heinrich explores a theme which was examined in McDougall's book - that we as a species evolved to run long distances, perhaps for the purpose of endurance hunting. I, for one, think the evidence is good for this, therefore I'll buy into this hypothesis for now.

But that's not what my hypothesis is about. Given (assume as true) that we are long-distance running apes, then I think I have a good explanation for our musical gifts and facility at rhythm. It involves the idea that our musical and rhythmic talents are a pre-adaptation. 

What's a pre-adaptation? It is when an animal possesses a structure or behavior that becomes exploited or useful in an entirely different manner at some later stage in evolutionary time. The classic example is feathers. We all know (or should) that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. And we all know (or should) that some dinosaurs, perhaps more than most, had feathers. (There are many fossil discoveries which show dinosaurs had  feathers. Don't take my word for it).  Feathers are very useful for flight in birds. But birds did not evolve feathers to fly. Feathers were there before birds, and the inherited property of having feathers from their dino-ancestors came in handy for flight. That's pre-adaptation.

I think we got music from running. I think the ability to efficiently run in time, in step, as an individual or in a group, was a pre-adaptation for rhythm. From rhythm, you get a beat, and once you got a beat, you are more than halfway there to jammin'. That's my idea.  

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Am I Doing This?

Aren't there enough people expressing their opinions on the Internet? Do we really need another voice added to this raucous chorus? Well, I guess so, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this. Admittedly, there is a conceit that people would like to read this shit.

But one thing I've noticed, ever since this blogging stuff started, was that pretty much every blog I read was boring. I mean really bland and boring. And it wasn't just the blogs. It seems that on almost every bulletin board and message board site I've visited and contributed to, I noticed I was more entertained by reading my own contributions than those of most others. This is not to say I'm particularly entertaining or amusing. It's just that you, you boring motherfucker, are not.

So there you go. And since I'm already offending, I might as well get my politics out of the way. I would like to avoid discussion of politics. When it comes to politics, there are tons of bloggers who are much more informed, involved, and amusing than I am. Here's a site I found that pretty much reflects my views and is much, much funnier shit to read than what I can crank out:

But if you really must know, according to the magazine poll tests, I am in the company with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, which makes me, in the eyes of many, a Socialist bastard and completely-fucked-in-the-brain goo-goo-eyed sappy wobblehead. I, in turn, consider politically (read socially) conservative types as obstructionist assholes who would rather we all go back to the "good old days" of living in caves and wallowing in our own waste products, rather than move forward into a potentially more promising - and scarier - future.

So, I'm a progressive. I'd rather look to the future with clear eyes, than be blindsided by a dishonest and demented vision of the past, which I consider the socially restricted types to have a major problem with. I mean, if you are going to be a traditionalist, at least be honest about your own history, warts and all! And how completely fucked up are you conservative types, if you can't retain power in a country like the US of A that is, with a history of relatively stable and limited government, traditionally conservative? What a crop of fuckups!


I would rather talk about science, since, category-wise, politics and economics are a subset of biology, which in turn is a subset of chemistry, and thus physics, and so on. I would very much like to blame everything fucked up politically on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and perhaps one day shall do so.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thinkism and Doism

I can't take credit for the terms - but I like them. I came across the terms on a website devoted to the Singularity (which I suppose I'll have to talk about sometime). A more common and possibly better phrase of the two methods would be Theory and Practice.  

Now, the reason I bring this up is my last post kind of covered this. Imagining how something would be as opposed to actually doing it. And it is interesting how theoretical speculation - no matter how well informed - seems to fall far short of the mark as opposed to practice. Experience really does make all the difference. The unknown becomes known.

Take glassblowing in space. It presupposes that people already actually know how to live in space. The experience of actually living in space turned out to be completely the opposite of what people expected. Take, for example, human health. It was assumed by doctors and biologists that life in orbit would be quite beneficial. Without the stresses and strains afflicted by living in gravity, they supposed that the human body would have an easy time of it. That life out there might actually be life prolonging. Well, it turned out not to be the case. Without gravity, bones and muscles deteriorated at an alarming rate. So much so that even just a few days in orbit turned people into old men and women. Weakened hearts, arteries, bones, were what occurred, contrary to theory.

Or take another example. Futurism. As in the study and projection of conjectures into the future. Generally, futurists will use current situations, technology, knowledge and push those into the future, commonly called trendism. It is almost invariably wrong. No one expects the unexpected. Or as my brother put it once, "Not a single Futurist ever predicted a blue pill that would give you a stiffy".

The way I look at it, philosophy is Thinkism. Science is Doism. Or, within the realm of physics, theoreticians are Thinkists, experimentalists are Doists. I suppose Thinkists have their place in the world, limited though it may be. But I guess I am firmly in the camp of the Doists.

Although it is fun to speculate. And informed speculation even funner. 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Glassbowing.. IN SPACE!

Years ago, I posted on a bulletin board system hosted by Intelligent Child. It was, for a brief while, a wonderful place. A sun-dappled green glen on the www. And there, among other things, we had a few discussions about blowing glass in space. And the idea, of course, is that every glassblower thinks he can do really amazing things in zero gravity. Like making impossible shapes that defy gravity. Well, they seem to do that here on Earth.

The problem, as we all agreed - there in that cool, clear gathering - was that gravity was a glassblower's bestest buddy. So we would have to reinvent gravity for some parts of what a glassblower does.

But what does he or she do? Well, on Earth, they take a hollow pipe, stick it in a mass of molten glass in the furnace, twirl it like a pool cue, and gather up a gob on the end of their pipe, which is called a gather. Then they can trap air in the pipe and make a bubble. (They hardly ever actually blow). Then they sit at a bench, and manipulate the glass with tools of metal and wood, or roll it on a thick sheet of stainless, called a marver. And when the glass gob gets cold, they stick it in the gloryhole for a reheat.

I can't let that term go by. Gloryhole. Not a good term, especially for something - to a metals  guy like me - that is so cool. A gloryhole, in this context, is a horizontal furnace, open at one end, with a gas jet heating the interior from a burner cut in the side. Usually found as 55 gallon drum with ceramic fiber lined interior.

And then, if they let the bubble cool, they can get another gather out of the furnace. Or a third, fourth, etc. They can spin the pipe, like a flag girl, and lengthen the soft bubble out. They do all sorts of kooky things, but then finally, they have to crack it off. Or jack it off, since they use a tool called a jack.

So just now, I've told you there are two parts that make zero gravity advantageous. The first is the gather. On Earth, if you want to make something big, you have to gather more and more glass. And, if you are a glassblower, and like your back, you hire a Mongo to gather for you. I'm guessing the world record is ten or twelve gathers. The second part is the crack off. If you have a Humunguloidal Awkward on your hands, it's easier to manhandle that beast into an annealing kiln in zero-g.

There is a third part not mentioned. A duty attached to sitting at the bench, with the soft molten bubble on the pipe, is that you have to constantly rotate it, or it will droop and go out of kilter. Some would think this a superb advantage in space. But actually, I suspect it would take far more effort to keep a soft bubble in kilter, in zero-g, as opposed to what our human reactions to falling things can do in our one-g world.

The next subject was what would it take to put a fully stocked and equipped studio up in orbit? What was needed? A furnace, obviously. Gloryholes. Two of them. All electric of course. You'd have a devil of a time with the studio air enough, without gas. You have to have air flow, to keep from killing everyone in suffocating heat - because, in space, heat does not rise, it moves outward. So, basically, you need this billion dollar satellite to make thousand dollar items. Okay, assume that's okay.

Fine. It's an HVAC nightmare. "How about we suit the glassblowers and assistants up, and let them work in raw vacuum?" "What about the blowing part of blowing glass?" "Duh! There's this thing called pressurized air?" "So, how about the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle? Perfect! That's a lot cheaper!"

Actually, no. You need a contained room. You need an atmosphere. You need these things, because the vacuum of space will chill the glass too quickly. You need air, because colors in the glass will dull, due to being in a reducing atmosphere (without oxygen). You need an HVAC nightmare.

Oh, there were more technical details to figure out, which were, but you get the point. Imagination can only take you so far. The point is freedom. And degrees of freedom. People have a funny way of adapting to new environments. They never adapt the way you expect them to. And that, of course, is because you cant' really imagine what the new situation is like. It's the difference between Thinkism and Doism. If you haven't experienced it, you don't really know it, can't imagine it. But I could see some real beauties would have come out of Vetreria Orbita.


I'm thinking about Neanderthals. Those big guys that lived on the ice. Frost Giants. Titans. All those old Norse myths may be about our (Homo Sapiens) dealings with Neanderthals. What's the deal? From what the evidence tells us, they were bigger, stronger...smarter. They had bigger brains than we do. And aren't we, in comparson, the Little People to them? So did we use magical deliciousness against them? Why are they gone if they so smart?

Was it because they were slow? And we were quick? Or did we just eat the ground out from under them, once all the big game was gone? Did we have arrows? I don't think so. So we were evenly matched tool-wise, from what I recall. But the Neanderthals are gone. Or are they? Do we carry Neanderthal genes? Some say yes, then others say maybe, and now I don't know. Third Base!

I think Neaderthal genes are with us. I see a lot of people that look like them. But then, I'm mean. But I do. I think we owe some of our big brains to them. Now all we have to do is use them on a regular basis.