Friday, April 30, 2010

Melted Metal!

This past Saturday, my Bronze Casting class had their pour. It's a once a semester thing. I'd prefer to do it more often, but my students don't produce enough stuff. Enough talk, more pictures!

Here is a picture of me and my foundry assistant of the day, Adam Bacon, pouring molten bronze into a mold. The mold is ceramic shell, which is a very thin tough ceramic material that you form around a wax model, and then melt the wax out. The bronze is around 2000F, which is why we wear the Spaceman Spiff suits. You notice how Adam is crouching? That's because...

Adam is 6 feet 8 inches tall. Yes, he's a big boy.

More than half of my class are retired. That's not unusual. Of those, at least half again are little old ladies. They are in the thick of things like nobody's business. We also get little young ladies...

Some so tiny they can barely get the crucible out of the furnace. That doesn't slow 'em down, though. Heres' a shot I'm including only because I looked at it and thought "Oh, my god. It's my dad!"

I'm shouting at them to pour faster. But, you know, in a nice way!

Lastly, here's an interesting shot from last spring. I quit smoking back in September. The reason the following is an interesting shot now is, back then you couldn't find a picture of me where I didn't have a cigarette to hand:

Hopefully, those days are behind me.

Anyway, we had fun, and nobody got hurt.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Continuing with the Aliens theme...

I find it kind of frightening just how easy it is to channel my inner redneck. 

I can almost feel the physical transformation, a Jekyll and Hyde experience, as I come very close to losing opposable thumb status in acting this out. I can feel my brow get broader, my eyes get set closer together, my teeth get all snaggly and lose, and my head feels lighter as my brain sheds two-thirds of its mass. The outward appearance, the pigshit under my fingernails, the grease-encrusted coveralls, the John Deere cap, are completely superfluous to the experience.

It is kind of a weird out-of-body experience, when I, with an intellect comparatively vast and cool and unsympathetic, can look down at the bumptious buffoon, and watch its slow, glacial thoughts as it tries to work through national politics, like a chimp trying to do high-energy physics.

Invariably, this creature would seems to be a creature of the south, and more specifically, the southwest, and even more specifically, given the topical nature of this essay, a denizen of that benighted land known as Arizona.

It's always been amusing to hear about states that wish to secede from the Union. I've often wished that perhaps it should occur, at least for the entertainment value. Watching, say, youtube videos of the Texas Navy trying to defend its oil tankers in the Persian Gulf has got to be worth all the trouble that would ensue from secession. And, like in some TV sitcom, Texas would see the error of its ways, and like some hapless teenage runaway, a little scuffed up but none too worse for wear, would eventually come back home to a nice cool glass of milk and a comfy PB&J sammich. Oh, you scamp! Lesson learned, eh sport?

On the other hand, no state has ever been asked to leave the Union, but maybe its about time. And let my inner redneck explain...


He's right, and though I'm not sure why he talks in all capital letters, sad to say, but its true. Arizona has reached a crisis state. It's been taken over by little brown people. Even the Slightly Larger White People there don't speak proper English anymore. To prevent the apocalyptic tide of aliens from entering our country, building a wall at the border is no longer an option.

It's like when you get a pesky spot of gangrene, you don't want it to spread throughout your body? You do what's right and remove the limb. And that's what we gotta do. Oh, we could try a series of holding actions, we could try implement half-measures, like the current illegal immigration law. But ultimately, it won't wash.

We've got to build a wall around Arizona.  And cut off the water supply (because that's, you know, our Federally subsidized water those illegals are drinking). And shoot at anything that moves. With lasers. Gamma ray lasers.

As far as legitimate citizens of the United States living in Arizona are concerned... well, fellow Patriots, your sacrifice will not go unheralded. Perhaps your chief employers, the State of Arizona, and Walmart, can lend you a helping hand, but hard choices must be made. We salute you. Please stay clear of the new border.  Or else.


Your former countryfolk

The Aliens is coming!

Stephen Hawking recently made the news cautioning humanity that it is probably not wise to contact aliens. 

Like we can do anything about it. 

Let's face it, we ain't gonna contact them. They will be in touch with us. In which case, what do you suggest we do? Shun them? Pretend we didn't hear?

You know, I'm not sure when the media crowned Hawking as the Pope of Science, but as long as they've given him the job, I think he should be forced to wear the funny hat. I'm not sure what you call that hat, a mitre? 

And anyway, is  Hawking the Pope of Science because he's crippled and therefore must automatically be a nice guy? The same way Einstein (the last Pope) had funny hair and therefore must have been a dork and therefore was a nice guy as well? And because of that, any silly thing that pops out of their mouths should be taken as, in capital letters, something we Need To Pay Attention  To?

You know what? In capital letters, Fuck That. 

Once an expert starts talking outside of their field of expertise, their opinion is likely no better informed than mine. So, Steve, that's nice about the aliens and all, but, uh, don't you have more important things to do?

And besides, I'm actually quite disappointed with Hawking's lack of vision. Granted, this is all PR for a show produced for the Discovery Channel, so I'm not expecting anything profound or insightful, but still... Come on, Steve.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Subconjunctival Hemorrhage

I got a red eye. I woke up with it Friday morning. I was grinding metal Thursday night. I thought that might be it. Even though I was wearing a face shield, sometimes those little metal particles can perform an uncanny ricochet and get in my eye. I went to the off-hour clinic, and they couldn't find any foreign objects. So, I just got a burst capillary. It happens. Checked my blood pressure, and they said I was normal, so that's that. I'm to return if things change, but there is no pain, and it seems to be receding. So no biggie. I forgot to take a picture of it when it first occurred. It was pretty dramatic. Half my eye was blood red. Now, there's just a dot.

It would be nice to be able to make my sclera go blood red on demand. 

"What did I ask you to do?" (Eyes turning red)."DO IT NOW!" 
("Whoa! Okay! Okay!")

I'm sure I'd get obeyed a lot more often. At least until the novelty wore off. 

Friday, April 23, 2010


The strange thing about my family is that we like maps. It doesn't really matter what type of map it is - political, geophysical, population, ethnic, raw materials, you name it.

The stranger thing is that all of my brothers, including me, will take atlases into the bathroom for a sit down. 

All of us have our preferences. I like to look at (in no particular order):
I am drawn to the Kerguelen Island archipelago. It's down near Antarctica, is not particularly clement, has some active volcanoes, and I've no idea why I'm fascinated with it, or the Indian Ocean.

I also like:

I like to pretend I can go down there, to the bottom of the ocean, and walk about without protection, with millions of pounds of water on top of me. In reality, it's silly. I'd be crushed like a bug, and couldn't see anything anyway. But I like the idea of tramping about on the ocean floor.

Here's one I'm completely mystified about as to why I like it, or why I would like to go there:

Honestly, why the hell would I want to go there? It's a freaking war zone, or should be. I might as well go to the Balkans while I'm at it. I think maybe I'm fascinated because it the Caucasus region consists of mountains and valleys, and every valley contains a whole different ethnicity. Kind of like New Guinea. I know we think they are all swarthy unwashed mustachioed characters with stinky yogurt breath, but I still think it would be interesting.

Second to last of the list:

I know Spain is the #1 tourist attraction in the world. I don't know how popular Galicia, the northwest corner, is, and the funny thing is, I don't even want to go there. I just like looking at the map.

And lastly (though the list is nowhere near complete):

This is a place I'd like to go to I think. The Baltic Sea Basin, and pretty much most of the countries that border it. I been to some places there and don't really need to go back. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany. There are places I don't want to visit anyway. Poland, Russia, Estonia. That leaves Lithuania, Finland, Latvia. I'd kind of like to go there. But I won't be heartbroken if I don't. 

I got maps to take me there.   

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Death By Plastic

Two summers ago, or was it three?, I happened to read a book called "World Without Us" by Alan Weisman. It chronicled what would happen to all our stuff if we suddenly disappeared. Never mind how we went, the point was what would happen to our civilization, our buildings, artifacts, etc. It wouldn't take long for most of it to disappear soon after us. Broken down and absorbed by the planetary forces both organic and not.

Except plastics.

Apparently, plastics are indestructible.

I've always been somewhat conscientious when it comes to picking up trash. If I see some crap laying around, I'll pick it up. But I became doubly conscious of plastic trash after reading this book. I go out of my way to pick it up now. Much to my alarm, the reading of this book was the first time I'd ever heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch - that Texas-sized-and-growing gyre of floating plastic crap. Since then six more (to my knowledge) have been discovered, including a North Atlantic version.

The problem is, since there are currently no microbes that do a good job of breaking down the tough polymer bonds of plastics, they stick around forever. Oh, that's not entirely true. Plastic pieces do break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Possibly to the point where they become indestructible little microscopic pieces - small enough to clog up filter feeders like baleen whales, and  sponges, and clams and mussels. Possibly small enough to clog up plankton.

That would be a hell of a thing. Plankton die offs, the bottom of the food chain, choked to death on plastics? And then the famine slowly makes its way up the food chain until it gets to us.

Likely? I really don't want to find out any more than I want to know what drowning in my own puke is like.

Death by plastic. 

For an intelligent species, it's an embarrassing way to go extinct.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Blue Collar Protective Coloration"

That was the phrase my brother used to describe me. That's what I wore, so that people would not realize I was quite as white collar and educated as I might actually be. Because we in America are much more accepting of the stupid. We are, and always have been, anti-intellectual. We appreciate clever, but not smart. 

Well, I can pull stupid off pretty effectively. It helps that I have interesting looking scars on my hands, can slip into a Hoosier twang as needed, and drop a lot of F-bombs... probably a lot more than the situation requires.

My hands. They really are working-class messed up. The funny thing is, I'm one of those fortunate few whose skin heals rapidly and completely. I used to have a really nasty four-inch-long 3rd degree burn scar on my forearm about ten years ago. (I got it when red hot metal rod fell on me and I warded it off with my upraised arm. Middling long story). Anyway, there's just a pencil-eraser-sized pink patch now. Looks like I got burned with a punk.

Once, about ten years ago, I was down for the count with a double hernia operation for about three weeks. And then again, around 2004 or so, I contracted - and killed off - the West Nile virus. That put me in bed for about two weeks.

On both occasions, after weeks of  inactivity, I noticed that my hands looked... weird. Not quite right. Unusual. Abnormal.

I finally figured it out. They had no bruises, cuts, gashes, contusions, burns, scrapes,  scratches, scuff marks, lacerations, or nicks on them. 

To my horror, I was even losing calluses. (Although actually, my hands are quite smooth and genteel compared to some farmers I know). 

I never realized how proud I was of having such grisly looking hands. But Nature, the perverse old bitch, insists upon healing them so I don't look like such a tough guy.

Jeez, what's a guy got to do? Intentionally mutilate myself? Pass. I'll just have to accept the fact that Nature wants me to be a beautiful creature.

Okay, you can stop laughing now.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Secret to Life is...

...not to get too upset about stuff. The minute something is resolved, the next thing comes along, and then where are you? In a permanent state of pant shitting, that's where.

And speaking of pant shitting, the professionals are having a bunch of little celebrations. I'm talking about the Patriot's Day (April 19th) gun rights rallies being staged   at various points of the compass throughout our nation. 

Poor old April 19th. It's really suffered what with the recent Waco-Oklahoma City connection.  It used to be all about the Revolutionary War. You know, Shot heard Round the World and all that. Not anymore. And that poor old word "patriot" has suffered equally, what with the fishbelly-white, pampered, privileged, slovenly-fat, doughy-assed disgusting soft-bodies over at the Tea Party trying to confiscate it.

But the 2nd Amendment? In need of protection? Can you think of a more artificially manufactured non-issue? I mean, is there any problem at all, EVER, in obtaining or using a gun in this country? No. I don't think so. 

Now, let's be clear about this. I think there is a gun problem, but I am not anti-gun. I've shot pretty near everything from little pea-shooter John Hinckley .22 pistols up to AK-47s. A gun is like any other object, dangerous only in the hands of the dangerously stupid. I myself keep and bear arms. I'm a gun owner from way back.  Here's a fun little story to illustrate it.

A few years ago, I attended a party of a friend who's father-in-law was a homicide detective for the city of Chicago. I'm drinking beers, bullshitting with the guy in the kitchen, and I finally notice his holstered gun at his side.

"Is that a Beretta 9mm?", I asked him.

"Sure is", he replied, pulling the gun out. He paused a second. "Uh, you know how to use this?"

"Dude! I'm from Indiana!"

He handed it right over.

I can't say I was practically weaned on a firearm. That would be an exaggeration. But I was thoroughly and constantly trained in safe use. And that is my mightiest concern about guns. Especially hand guns.

Those in the know, know that you can maintain your marksmanship with rifles at an acceptable level with, shit, once-a-year sessions. But it takes constant practice to keep in shape with a handgun. Ask any cop or vet. 

And if people, especially that segment of the American populace (90% general populace, and 99.95% Tea Party "patriot"s) that I would not trust to wipe their own ass with two outspread hands, let alone a firearm, wish to own them, then they damn sure better know how to use them.

So, I really see no commonsense reason why firearms should not only be licensed, but the individuals who own them should be licensed as well.

I mean, crap, you prove you can operate a motor vehicle. Why not a gun? 

Friday, April 16, 2010

712 East Hunter St.

This will be a short entry, as I'm busy burning out shells today.


I'm burning out shells for my students. Ceramic shells. You know, investment shells?

Okay, I'll explain. In teaching bronze casting, we use a technique called lost wax ceramic shell investment. The current technique was developed for casting complex metal shapes in the aerospace and automotive industry, like turbine blades. The method itself is quite ancient, so maybe using that motif as an explanation may help.

So, let's say you make a little guy, like say a voodoo doll, out of wax. And then you fashion a little wax funnel to stick on his head. Next you mix up a batch of slurry - muddy clay and horse dung with water added until it is about the consistency of pancake batter. Dip the little wax man in the slurry. Sprinkle with sand to make a a stucco. Let dry. Dip again. Repeat until a fairly thick layer, perhaps a 1/4 inch thick layer has built up. This clay layer is called an investment.

Build a fire. Place the clay and sand encased wax figure in the fire, upside down so the wax melts out. Fire until the clay is hard, until it becomes a ceramic. The ceramic is now hollow, it is like a shell. Turn it right side up, and pour molten metal through the funnel into the hollow shell. Allow to cool. Bust ceramic off. You have a little metal voodoo doll, which is kind of useless now as you cannot stick pins into him.

So, that is what we do in my class, but the materials are more space age. We used colloidal silica liquid and silica flour for the slurry. And fused silica for the sand for the stucco. I will put the student wax pieces, covered in ceramic, into our big gas kiln, and melt the wax out, then continue the firing to burn up the carbon residue. Thus, wax burnout.

So, while I am doing this, my thoughts drifted back to college. To the most idyllic time in college, when my older brother and I rented out a house at 712 E Hunter St. in Bloomington, Indiana. The house is still around. I google street viewed it.

The last time I talked to my brother, I asked, how long were we in that house?

"Seventeen... eighteen... years?"

"I know! It felt like that, didn't it? Two years."



The reason it seemed like such a long time, I think, is because we almost immediately regressed to the level of three-year-olds once we moved into the house. Every aspect of the house invited us to. It was a giant playland. The neighborhood was all college rentals, and so it was like small party village. The house itself had a large backyard, hidden from view by bushes and trees. It had a giant front porch, with two overstuffed couches on it. One was the regular couch, and the other was the bee couch. The bee couch used to be a regular couch, but then a bunch of bumble bees built a nest in one of the arms. We sat in it anyway and just left them alone - until one day a guest got stung, and then we got a new couch. The bee couch went into the alley and disappeared in about a half hour. The house had a spacious dining room and kitchen, perfect for entertaining. Somehow, I ended up as house chef, and made, you know, bachelor chow: beef stew, chili, spaghetti and meatballs, tuna casserole, stuff like that. I never had any complaints.

Most importantly though, the house had a Batcave.

No, really. The house had a basement extending throughout the entire foundation. The garage was in the basement, as was, obviously, the garage entrance. The backyard was elevated with respect to the garage entrance, and there was a limestone retaining wall which hid the garage entrance from the alley. Thus, an underground Batcave, which was how we thought of it.

The Batcave served a number of purposes. Obviously it was a garage, where we kept Elvis, our Ford F150 P.O.S. pickup truck, which resided there until it died of senile dementia. First it rusted out, and we replaced a lot of the skin with riveted sheet metal. By the end, Elvis kind of looked like a B-47 bomber. After Elvis left the building, my brother moved his VW station wagon in. The Batcave was still large enough for "hobbyist" activities, such as a, ahem, "greenhouse", a shooting gallery, a "chemistry set", a ping pong table, and still roomy enough to host the occasional "Viking Night".

("Viking Nights" occurred when a rare item was found abandoned somewhere around the city which was deemed interesting enough to destroy, like a TV, or a car. We would have various demolition tools available, and after preliminary festivities, my brother or I made more-or-less symbolic swipes at the the object, and then turned it over to the mob. Usually, at least one person was injured - collateral damage from overenthusiastic creative destruction, which is why we also had a first-aid kit on hand).

What else? Oh crap! We built a giant bubble machine one summer. We had stumbled upon a book at the library which contained a recipe for long-lasting soap bubbles (secret ingredient: glycerine). Not happy with making regular bubbles, we constructed a motorized swing arm witha rope at the end that dipped into a pan of soap solution, and then swung the rope in a big arc like a skip rope. We could produce bubbles that were three to four feet in diameter. We set a record on one calm and humid Southern Indiana night of about three blocks worth of giant bubbles cruising down the street - shimmering and wobbling down the street at about head level and moving at a stately walking pace. I think that caused an accident.

And I can't remember ever studying there. Honestly its a wonder I graduated with a halfway decent grade-point average.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tea Party Poll

CBS/NYTimes did a poll this week identifying Tea Party supporters and activists. The numbers are enlightening.

  • 59% are male, pale, and stale
  • 29% are welfare geezers
  • 58% own firearms
  • 53% describe themselves as "angry", so it's a good thing they own guns
  • 24% say violence against the government is justified, so watch it
  • 58% believe America's best years are behind it, so maybe they should move someplace nicer
  • 78% are hypocritical dumbasses, but don't know it

Those are some interesting numbers. Where to start? How about that just last metric, as most would object to it and it demands the biggest explanation.

Why are they dumbasses? Well, according to the poll, 37% of the Tea Partiers are college educated (versus 25% of the normal population) and yet, they possess a rather horrifying lack of knowledge and curiosity about politics, business, their government, and their history.

They all want limited, small, unintrusive government. Well, we tried that once, under the Articles of Confederation at the end of the 18th century. Remember that? The conditions were so chaotic that it resulted in a Consitutional Crisis in 1787. I guess they want to go back to a period when businesses could not thrive, when the court system was so weak that trade and property rights could not be enforced, when state currencies were worth less than the paper they were printed on, when trade and transportation tariffs brought interstate commerce to a standstill. Yeah, that period of limited government was great for business and the citizenry!

How about our disastrous flirtation with lassez-faire capitalism throughout the 19th century?Want me to sum up that period? Big guys cornholing the little guys. That is the closest we ever came to a truly free free-market economy, with little or no government intervention. Fraud, theft, and graft were rampant. Intellectual and physical property rights were a bad joke. Patents were stolen more often than roylaties paid out for them. The courts were clogged with lawsuits. Businesses colluded with each other to keep prices high and products shitty. Labor was exploited to keep costs low. Child labor. Slave labor. Product quality was shoddy at best, lethal at worst. I suppose the Tea Partiers would prefer to return to the Golden Age when filth was in our food, poisons in our medicines, con men in our businesses, and politicians were firmly in the pockets of rich criminals. Those were good times!

Tea Partiers bemoan how the current state of affairs goes against the intention of the Founding Fathers, and yet they really have no clue as to what those intentions actually were. Few have ever read the Constitution. Fewer still have read, but will cite, the Federalist Papers. Hey, here's clue #1, dumbasses. You won't find the Federalist Papers in the Constitution, so stop referring to them as if they were part of the National Canon. They are the rationalization behind the Constitution, and all disputes aside, the Founding Fathers came down squarely on teh side of a strong central government. Why? Oh, something about a stable currency.

And besides, if you idiots (TP'ers) did read any of our nation's history - not just what Glenn Beck tells you how it was - you'd know that there was constant revisions to the way things were done in between, say, 1787, and 1815. they had these things called amendments, dumbasses. You might want to read the Constitution sometime.

Of course, the other part, the hypocrisy stems from the fact that these Tea Partiers want their government services, but don't want to pay for them. How so? Well, the majority are currently either on Social Security and Medicare, or soon will be. And yet, somehow, they think they are deserving of these services. That somehow, they paid up already.

Bullshit. This has never been the arrangment. The current workforce pays for the current crop of retirees. The Tea Partiers paid for the last generation's retirement, and there's no reason for we workers to pay for their retirement. Why should today's workers shell out their hard earned cash for these socialist parasites? It is not like they are ENTITLED to it.

Especially when they should have been showing a little capitalist initiative and foresight, and saved their own goddamn money for their retirement like responsible people do. And since the intent of Social Security was to prevent a complete slide into poverty of the elderly poor, the poorest of the poor, why are those able to fend for themselves feeding at the public trough? Selfish, greedy, entitled, hypocritical, communist piggies - the worst kind of Commie: Republican Commies.

Come to think of it, the government has been raiding Medicare and Social Security for decades now in order to pay for other government services. Raiding these funds because it lacks proper revenue. Revenue that should have been received in the form of taxes, but did not. So, today's crop of retirees, having made full use of these government services, such as public defense, infrastructure, social services, shcools, parks, police, fire, libraries, etc., why, these fuckers have been double dipping.

I think its time their taxes were raised to pay for all the free shit these assholes have gotten and whine about having.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Welcome to the Future.

This will be a short essay.

Happy New Year!

Yes, yes, I know New Years' was four months ago. But everyone was writing about it then. No one writes about it now, which makes it the perfect time to stand out.

Happy New Year!

It's the year 2010, and for some reason, it feels like I'm in the future. That number, I suppose, does it. 

When I was younger, say, back in the 1960s, the year 2000 or 2001 was going to be the future. Walter Cronkite had a briefly running science show called "The 21st Century". It was about the future stuff that was going to happen in the future, and it even had a weird machine music at the beginning of the show to let you know it was about the future. There were magazine articles and books about the future, and most of them used 2000 as a benchmark, as a watershed date. There was even a movie called "2001", which I'm pretty sure was about the future because most of it took place in outer space - except for the beginning of the movie which had a lot of monkeys hitting each other with bones.

I think there are watershed dates, at least in the USA. At least for me. For example, to me, 1848 is the beginning of the Modern Age. You'd think it would be the year 1900, but I say it was the year 1848, because of all sorts of things that got started - like the first university scientific institutions, the first glimmerings of socialism, civic sanitation, underground public transportation, and stuff like that. For some, 1973 is a watershed year. They say it was the beginning of the decline of the middle class, wage stagnation, the end of cheap fossil fuels, the end of the postwar boom in America. I don't know if that's true. I was pretty stoned then.

I'd also throw in 1995, the beginning of the information age, when the Internet really took off, the end of the welfare state (and the reversal in the decline of the poverty rate), the year the Republicans made it official that they preferred partisan interests over the interests of  the nation. And, of course, the year 2000, which was when the Future was going to begin.

But, you  know, 2000 came and went for me, and then 2001, and I didn't feel any different. Same old stuff, really. Not much change. Oh sure, changes, but so gradual that you don't really notice it.

But for some reason, that number 2010, I got the feeling I was entering alien terrain. New territory was opening up. Everything looked the same, but there was a different feel about the place. Hard to explain.

Anyway, I think I'm finally in the future with a capital F.

You know, yesterday, I went to the future.

And here I am!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Do (other) Animals Commit Murder?

My friend Ellen Abbott published a dismayed journal entry about humanity's penchant for violence. I offered a few comments to her essay, which she responded to. Rather than continue the dialogue (as such) with the commentary, I felt it worth an essay. Let's recap from her comments:

Ellen: "I wonder though if this is something that is peculiar to humans only or if other creatures, given our level of intelligence, would exhibit the same behavior. Perhaps it's the price of higher brain function. Being at the top of the food chain, we must function as our own predator".

This is a worthwhile question, but let's preface it with her previous observation so that it is within context.

Ellen (responding to my point 2): "And although animals in nature kill, they kill for food. They kill to protect their young and to protect their territory (an exception, wolves and chimpanzees do engage in territorial skirmishes in packs) but they do not devise instruments of torture, they do not burn their own kind at the stake, they do not hang/draw and quarter/post the body parts on stakes, they don't turn their intelligence to weapons of mass destruction, they don't drag a man behind their truck for sport til he is barely recognizable as a man. (And according to certain scholars the commandant was not 'thou shall not kill' but rather 'thou shall not murder')."

In other words, to summarize (and I'm pretty sure I've got the point): "Do other animals kill for pleasure? Do they torture?"

To this I would say, "Yes" and "yes". 

Any observant pet owner can guess that cats and dogs clearly enjoy killing things. I would hazard a guess that any predator of sufficiently complex brain organization also enjoys killing things. Is this murder? Well, if we go with my definition, killing purely for the joy of it, then yes.

It has been documented, for example, that many dolphins kill, rape, bully, and harass not only members of their own species, but other cetaceans and aquatic mammals. Killer whales (not really whales, but the biggest  members of the dolphin clan), will "play with their food" - often tormenting, savaging, and  tossing seals and other prey between themselves in games of catch. 

Cetaceans experts, when asked about these behaviors, will rather hesitantly surmise that "they could be doing it for fun". 

Now, there  is good reason for them to be hesitant. The obvious caution is what is called anthropocentrism: ascribing human attitudes and attributes to non-human animals. Ethologists, scientists who study animals, often try to derive what animal minds are doing from overt behavior, and try to avoid assigning intentions to them. Attitudes are changing, however. As we learn more and more about brain structures, the commonality of brain function and behavior, it is slowly becoming popular to think that animals do indeed experience the same emotions we do. They feel joy, pain, pleasure, fear, suffering.

But, reverse that to the true notion, we have inherited all of our brain structures from life that came before us. We experience the same things animals do. We do so because we are animals. 

Now, whether animals experience the joy of the kill as we do, may still be speculation, but I consider it a safe bet. From there, I would suggest that the observed overt behavior of joy of the kill is in fact a real internal mental state in animals. 

However, I suspect there are two necessary conditions. The first is that of sufficient brain complexity. The animal must be sufficiently smart to be able to cogitate that the act plus the feeling equals the experience that can be repeated. In other words, it has to be smart enough to realize it can reward itself (in this admittedly gruesome way).

And the second condition ( and I think the more important) is that the animal must be social enough. Social animals while not strictly speaking in possession of a culture, nevertheless can pick up behaviors from each other. 

Violence, at least for creatures on Earth, is an escalating hierarchy. Display threats come first, then the application of pain with minimal injury, then actually injury, then mutilation and maiming, then death. If a confrontation can be resolved at a lower level, it rarely ever moves to the next. Some biologists explain this as the result of microbes - the increased risk of infection and death has resulted in this hierarchy. I don't know if this is true, but the levels of confrontation in Nature certainly exist.   

(This hierarchy of violence also seems to work not just at the individual level, but at the group level as well. Case in point. When the Roman Empire split in two back during Constantine's reign, you saw two fundamentally distinct strategies evolve. The western half (what we think of as the Roman half) continued its policy of war by attrition. The Eastern half (called the Byzantine Empire, but really the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages) followed a more flexible policy of appeasement/alliances/containment/conquest. The western half, pursuing the extreme, soon ran out of resources, and fell to barbarians. The eastern half, whose fortunes waxed and waned, lasted well into the 13th century. You tell me which strategy is better).

These are my, admittedly completely speculative and wholly undocumented, thoughts on the matter. I leave you with this, though. We must ask the question of when the quality of mercy enter into behavior? A certain empathy exists in most creatures. The question is, is this another form of the confrontation hierarchy, or is a certain complexity of behavior and socialization required? 

Friday, April 9, 2010

"Hello, Old Friend"

Normally, by my self-imposed, wholly artificial and arbitrary rules, I write only about shallow, selfish, self-centered superficial fun stuff on Fridays.

Well, this time out I'm going to write about something important, and throw in a plug while I'm at it.

One of things I like to do is check out the followers of other online journals that I follow. I will, on occasion, stumble upon something interesting that way. That's how I found out about Velvet Over Steel.  No, it's not some kind of kinky S&M journal, but rather something that is part of my life that maybe you don't know about.

I have a nephew, Zach, who is an Aspie, which is to say he displays those aneurotypcial symptoms that are categorized as Asperger's syndrome, and in turn falls within that spectrum of disorders known as autism. And since he is a very, very, very bright kid, he is what they call "high-functioning". And seeing that April is Autism Awareness Month, this entry is my plug for it all. 

Admittedly, not much of an effort on my part, but hey, better than nothing. There's a lot of information out there about this topic, but I think the best information of all is that, in some cases, and over time, the condition can improve.

Funny thing is, I suspect that myself and my brothers are all mildly within the spectrum. The baby brother, for example, has that unusual savant skill of being able to tell you which day of the week a date is on. We'd tease him about it. He'd say something like, "Yeah, that happened April 5th, 1971". And we'd respond "A Tuesday". And he rejoin "No, Wednesday-" and then he'd notice we are all grinning and that we are teasing him.

Myself, I used to wonder why others had such a hard time remembering everything they'd ever seen or heard or read. My memory is not phenomenal, hardly comprehensive or photographic, but I suspect it is way above average. (Although I've noticed with alarm that it is rapidly deteriorating with age).

So, it is entirely possible the family is in the spectrum.  Zach certainly is. I've had less contact with him that I would have like over the years - seeing as his parents live on the West Coast. But I've had enough contact to know that he is just a really great kid. Very smart, very quick and bright, and sometimes kind of skittish like a colt. He likes the computer games, and rock music, and girls, and honestly, to me, he's really just another teenager, but not quite as obnoxious. Here's a picture of me and him, taken last fall. 

A very good-looking kid, don't you think? He favors his mother, fortunately. I just hope he got that side of the family's hair as well.  And he's going to be tall, although I'm not sure how that is possible, given that he lives on scrambled eggs, PB&J sandwiches, and pizza.

The title of this essay is my greeting to him from almost the day of his birth. "Hello, old friend". I want him to know that I'm more than just his father's brother, but an old and dear and steadfast friend. Someone he can always count on.

I'd be willing to bet that someone you  love, or someone you know who loves someone, has autism.

Well, this is the someone I love.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Quickly now, what's the world's population?

About six billion, right?

Right now, as I type, it is estimated to be six billion, eight hundred and twelve million, one hundred fifty-five thousand, nine hundred twenty-five.

Officially, according to the World Bank, the world's population in 2008 was (oh, I'm not gonna type it all out) 6,692,030,277.

Whoa! Where did that .6 to .8 billion people come from? I mean, seems to me just a few short years ago it was six billion. (Well, it turns out that milestone happened on Oct. 12, 1999. Time flies when you are having fun).

Okay, so no, this isn't one of those oh-dearie-dear-overpopulation-we're-doomed essays. Let me continue.

What's the US population? Well, we got a census brewing, so the numbers will change, but currently the number is around 309,016,000 or so. We won't quibble, since the numbers will change soon anyway.

Ah, but what a change. Seems to me, our population is growing pretty rapidly. The Gen-X and Yer's seem to be much more family oriented than the Boomers. They're popping out babies for a whole new Boom. Baby Boom II. And without a major war needed to, what, fuck themselves out of the bad times? Or celebrate the good times? At any rate, we're chugging along at about an 8% growth rate.

Which actually is making me feel optimistic about things.

A few essays back, I lamented about how we are losing all our innovation to China, on account of one of our companies is building a massive R&D lab over there. And I suppose I started to feel the old American defeatism.

You know how it goes. First, it was Russia that was going to kick our ass. Then Japan. Then China. Thing is, it never really happens. I wonder if we do this to ourselves so that we can feel like the underdog and play "that most American of games: Catch-up".

Well, I've found an essay that changes my mind.
You can read it here, or you can keep reading what I have to say, since I'll kind of summarize and plagiarize it.

I think we as a nation still have a few miles left in us.

Some facts help, so let's whip out the facts. And you know, I always did like geography in grade school. I like looking at maps. I like looking at charts and graphs. For some reason, I've always liked bar graphs. And I like looking at the pictures in geography books, with all those quaint little people dressed up in their colorful ethnic costumes. But I digress...

Fact: The fertility rate in America is 50% again what it is in Russia, Germany, or Japan. And much higher than China. We will more than likely hit the half a billion strong mark around 2050 or so. And we will be a nation of youngsters, perhaps as little as a quarter of our population will be over 60. In comparison, China, Europe, Russia, Japan, will be hobbled with old fuckers all over the place. Take from this the following: America will continue to be a young, vibrant, vigorous nation.

Fact: Aside from our native born, we continue to attract lots of immigrants, and thank goodness for that. Yes, despite the short-sighted fat, white, lazy Republican butthead view that illegal immigrants are bad for the country, the opposite holds. Half the world's skilled immigrants come to the US. Increasingly, they are well-off immigrants that bring they're monies along with them, and set up business here. Between 1990 and 2005, immigrants started nearly a quarter  of the new public-backed venture companies here. Take from this the following: Yes, we do have some enterprising go-getters that are native-born, but it is our immigrants that are hungry enough to drive things forward. Bully on them!

Fact: Well, this one I'll just quote directly: "The United States already measures at the top or close to the top of nearly every global measure of economic competitiveness. A comprehensive 2008 Rand Corporation study found that the U.S. leads the world in scientific and technological development. The U.S. now accounts for a third of the world’s research-and-development spending. Partly as a result, the average American worker is nearly 10 times more productive than the average Chinese worker, a gap that will close but not go away in our lifetimes." Take from this the following: Since science and technology account for more than half the drive of our economic engine, I suspect we are in for some really great boom times ahead. 

Fact: America has been ruled by some of the worst leaders that civilized man can possibly produce. Not just the executive office, Congress included, not to mention, state, county, and local authorities. Why, you could set up a lottery of random choices for any office in the land, and you certainly could not do worse. Take from this the following: We Americans have iron in every generation. And we can carry, have carried, this nation through the rapids on our great broad backs on more than one occasion.

Now, you would think, after all my bad news (and I haven't actually told you ALL my bad bews) of the past few days, that I should not be so cheerful and chipper.

Well, I don't know. I'm easily distracted?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Finally, something to write about

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Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Egg Hunt

As a youngster, I never cared much for ham with pineapples, or any sweet fruit. Oh, I like it well enough now. That tolerance is more likely because as an (presumed) adult, I'm more... tolerant... of exotic foods now. But there will always be a Young Republican ensconced in the back of my brain who insists that Meat Should Be Salty, Not Sweet.

I do, however, really dig au gratin potatoes. And potato pancakes? Oh my! Get out the jism deflector.

Why this food rap? I'm thinking of long ago at Grandma's house. Easter time. She would always cook a ham. And we would have potatoes with it.

Oh, we also had to go to church. And I had to wear a suit, with a starched shirt that made my neck itch, and wearing one of those dorky little red bowties. I probably looked like a Hitler youth. And that time of year down in Indianapolis, it was just starting to get warm. And this was before even the conceptualization of air conditioning (something people in the far future, like in the year 2000, would enjoy). So it was hot and stuffy and stale and smelled of perfumed old lady stink and sticky bibles.

But then we'd get to go back to Grandma and Grandpa's house, and we'd have to stay indoors while the Old Man hid the Easter eggs. Which was fine by Mom because we then avoided getting grass stains on the knees of our little dress pants. And to occupy the time, we'd be assigned chores like setting the table, until the eggs had been safely secured.

Now, one thing you have to know about the Old Man is, he didn't get to have a childhood, or not much of one. And so, fortunately for us, he lived his childhood out vicariously through his children. Which, in retrospect, even though we didn't have much money, meant that we were spoiled as hell. Big bucks were spent upon a shitload of candy in those color plastic eggs, and then of course the huge Easter baskets with the green plastic grass and jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and so on.

The other thing you need to know about the Old Man is, since he was a Kraut, uh, I mean an American of German extraction, the hiding of the Easter eggs was a very serious thing. Like War with a capital W. Like the history of Prussian logistics. Like a well planned Spring offensive.

And so the hiding of the eggs was a devious, convoluted, time consuming, and actually quite sadistically evil affair. And we children were not permitted to quit the fight and leave the field until every, I mean every, single egg had been found. Even the ones hidden beyond the reach of a twelve year old deep within culvert under the driveway. Even the one nestled twelve feet in the air in the crook of a thorn tree with jackdaws defending the nest.

But, eventually the hunt would be over, and we children would munch on our candy: bruised, dirty, bleeding, crying perhaps a little bit.

But really the crying was muted, only a few sobs worked out around a mouthful of sugar.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Working Out

According to the National Institutes for Health, a standard BMI for someone like me (I'm 5' 10" and 195 pounds), should be 18.5 - 24.9. For the longest time, I was at 28.5, which is considered overweight.

Yeah, overweight if I was from Bangladesh perhaps. But in America, that's skinny. Actually, its fit, considering I've got an athletic build. It is obviously not taking into account muscle mass. I'm assuming that they are calculating this metric based upon the fact that I am composed of approximately 40% beef lard, and 15% bone meal, and perhaps 5% kibbles & bits. Then it would be realistic to say I'm overweight.

But you know, ever since I've quit smoking, I've experienced a really alarming gain in my Body Mass Index. Well, again I have been working out pretty heavily. I realized I'd be gaining 10 extra pounds once I quit smoking, and so I anticipated this by hitting the gym.

Lots of cardio, which has helped with the spare tire (not that I had one to begin with). And of course, lots of weight lifting. Actually a ton of weight lifting, and perhaps I've gone a bit overboard. I've turned myself into a monster. Huge.

I recalculated my BMI today, and it is 102.5!

Which means I weigh 715 pounds. Which is not right. I weigh no more than 500. I've also gained a foot in height, so it has evened out. But only when I get angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Nah. Lame joke. April Fools.