Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is It Art? Guest Editorial

Nude Descending A Staircase
There is an apocryphal story (apocryphal in the sense that I just made this shit up right now), that the day after the close of the Armory Show, March 16, 1913, former President Theodore Roosevelt was granted a private tour.

TR did not shoot well, but he did shoot often, and so, armed with his trusty F-Grade A.H. Fox 12-gauge shotgun, TR eventually scored a number of hits on quite a few pieces, all the while roaring his battle cry "THAT'S NOT ART!" The final tally by the curatorial staff was TR: 14, ART: 0. The surviving objects were sent on to show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then on to the Copley Society of Art in Boston. By then, many other big game hunters had attritted all the works of American artists. Huzzah!

Alright, so maybe it didn't quite play out like that, but the important point was TR's role as, not just a viewer, but an indispensable participant in an informational exchange. With that in mind, Eldest Bro sent me an email, which I now present with commentary (interspersed in emboldened italics).

"Too big to fit in the comments section of your blog, but this is something that has occupied my mind for a long. OK, you have Spoken, so now I will take my turn in the Bitch Box."

As the late, great FZ once said, "Alright, whip it out".

"Many years ago I had an artist as a house mate. He was a cowboy artist, by which I mean that he was an actual cowboy, from Okanagan, Washington, wore a hat, drove a pickup, the whole schmear. And he was in the graduate Art school program -."
I remember that guy! Dana something. He was a potter, or a ceramicist. I liked his work. I remember the piece with the psychoanalyst's couch, with the cowboy boots at the foot, and I think a lasso, draped over one corner.

"-Our schedules did not intersect much, so most of the time we spent together was watching big-time wrestling on Saturday mornings. One day, motivated by a big pot of coffee and an especially stimulating match between Mad Dog Vachon and Ivan Kohloff, we had a cerebral discussion about the nature of Art."

Well see, right there, you guys had just watched Art on the TV, in case you are wondering what Art is...
"Dana's point of view (and I say this because his name was Dana), was that an object of Art had some ineffable Quality, shall we call it Beauty, that conferred upon it the status of Art. My perspective was much more pragmatic, namely that Art was defined by the presence of a Frame or "boundary", indicating where the Art picked up and the Rest Of The World left off. I am sure this is derivative of a deep philosophical thinker somewhere but, nevertheless, I came up with it all on my own."
Brain Map of the World

I would suggest that Dana was wrong but for the wrong reasons. I think it obvious that there are certain innate gravitation that we, as animals living in this universe, are quite naturally subject to. But a curious consequence of this philosophical stance is that there should exist objects that possess no ineffable qualities, and are therefore completely invisible. (See graph at right).

"My definition was motivated by a few observations:
   1) For just a picture or such, there is definitely a frame or at least the edge of a canvas.
   2) On the occasions I had ventured into his studio, which was shared with several other students, it   appeared to me that the mix on display was about 90% Crap and 10% Art. This was suspiciously similar to the makeup in my own field of practice, engineering.
   3) If there is not a frame, there is definitely a boundary of some kind. In a museum this might be a velvet rope or a guard; in a studio it is an artist shouting "Hey! Don't touch that!". (Me: "I thought it was just a sawhorse.")

Sturgeon's Law: "90% is all crap" originally attributed by him to only his own prose work, has now been shown to apply to every form of human endeavor. I would now categorize it as a Universal Principle, up there with Murphy's. As to context, see the last essay. 

"Another interpretation is that Art consists of a communication between Artist and Appreciator of Art, and that this can take place across centuries or millennia, and across cultures. The Venus of Willendorf springs to mind here. But yet this brings up more questions. Once, on a camping trip, my wife picked up an interesting stone (she has a talent for this sort of thing) which upon further inspection bore a native American petroglyph. Was this art? Or was it just someone relieving the tedium of a long day long ago? (Much as modern teenagers will draw a cock and balls on anything that stands still long enough.)

Well, that would be the Communication Theory of Art, or the Semiotics. Thus:
Emitter ==> Objule (Object/Module) ==> Noise ==> Observer
and the problem with this particular model, at least from an empirical or behaviorist standpoint, is that neither the intent of the artist (emitter) nor the attributes of the objule (the emitted object/module, which I done just made up) have the slightest bearing upon how the observer observes it.  All that matters is the observer (using his associational engine) and the universe in which the objule is embedded contextually. But of course not quite. More kind of like a strange combination of evolution (selection of a species does not occur in a vacuum, but is a global heuristic), and entanglement (granting, if you will, some small universal interactions). Or if you wish, He who Detected It, Ejected It

"For me, some of what I and other engineers do qualifies as Art. By this I mean a nifty trick, or a sweet hack that makes things work in a beautiful way. So, engineering can be Art. We exploit physical principles, same as any other artist, one requires a mastery of the medium. Just open up an i-Whatever or a laptop and think about the cleverness involved in putting all that stuff together and making it hum. Again, 90% Crap (Thigh-Master, Chrysler Cordoba) and 10% Art (DEC VAX, Ferrari Testarossa). I am not sure where the Popeil Pocket Fisherman fits into this scheme."

Absolutely. Or professional wrestling. Or ditch digging. Or nest building. Or dolphin bubbles. Or corvid aerial acrobatics. Or canine frisbee catching. I now feel that it is All Art. 

"The "designation" theory brings up some problems of its own. Who knows what M. Duchamp had in mind with his urinal?"

On more than one occasion Duchamp said that the piece was meant as a joke. But once the audience accepted it as an art object, the genie was let out of the bottle. Duchamp's intent was no longer relevant.

"As it happens I have visited an immense collection of Duchamp artifacts at the Staatliches Museum Schwerin-Kunstsammlungen (pretty obscure I know, but I just stumbled across it on a trip) in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and again, the 90% rule was in effect. (Please note, this is Sturgeon's Law, I deserve no credit.) Was the urinal just a big middle finger to the "Art" establishment?"


"Or maybe it just made M. Duchamp feel kinda funny and he wanted to share that with the rest of us? 


"(Note that both of those fall into the "communication" theory.) So, by the "designation" or "objet trouve" rationale, could I go into a restroom at SFO, sign and date a urinal, and charge admission to "my work of Art"? Or demand that it be removed and placed in its rightful location at SF-MOMA? 
What about a fully functional urinal connected to plumbing? Can that be Art? What about a guy taking a whiz into "my" urinal? Is that Performance Art? Can I demand that he show up at 11:00 every day and urinate to preserve the Integrity of the Work? 

According to modern art theoretics, if you can find a willing and accepting audience, yes. If you get them to accept it as a performance piece, you can piss in it too.

"So many questions. These are right up there with other imponderables. Why did Walter Payton never score a rushing touchdown in Super Bowl XX? Why doesn't Rex Ryan keep his yap shut and just coach his team like Bill Belichick? Why does Michelob make you fart so much? Why? Why? Why?

A guy could go crazy thinking up the answers to all these questions. Worse yet, a guy could lose his marbles thinking that there are even answers to be had."


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Yes, But Is It Art?

Yesterday, one of the art faculty assistant professors, named Charlie if that makes any difference, happened to see the book "Survival of the Beautiful" on my desk. An Art Conversation followed.

I really fucking dread those conversations. At least, the part where I don't talk.

Charlie, after asking for a synopsis of the book, proceeded to opine about all things Art. You have to understand, the reason I pretty much dread these conversations is, even though these professor types have a solid university grounding in art-making and art theory, they invariably will pull references from a more general ground of human behaviors to justify their opinions. Since I'm, in 99% of the cases, much more familiar with their references to (take your pick) evolution, natural selection, quantum physics, technological progress, the useless and superstitious topic of memes, group theory, graph theory, psychology, neurology, brain structures, holism, science, culture, the Internet, etc. etc., it gets to be a pretty fucking tedious conversation pretty fucking quickly. Sometimes it sucks to be a smart-ass.

And usually, they've got it all incomplete and ass-backwards. Artists, like all experts, are not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer - outside of their field.

And I learned a long time ago that conversations with professors require strategic corrections and a great deal of tongue-biting, and internalizing of cringes and winces as they fold, bend, spindle and mutilate 10,000 years of hard-earned human knowledge - just so that you can keep the conversation moving forwards.

The other cringe-worthy portion of these conversations is that these professors do not realize they are indoctrinated religionists, that their opinions are faith-based. That they, like anyone who spends time specializing in a limited field of knowledge, are brain-washed into certain beliefs. In my case, studying mathematics, we are constantly pounded with the unfounded idea that number is real, that these systems have some existence independent of reality. As a mathematical apostate, a self-defrocked priest, I call this delusion Platonic Derangement Syndrome. It exists outside of the field of mathematics, of course.  It exists in the art world in the following modern tenet: "Anything can be Art".

Of course, the demon of the perverse requires that at some point I take the wheels off of these conservation by offering up an opinion they cannot agree with. I have to commit a heresy. It's my nature, I think. Part pure cussedness. Part drama queen.

Oh, man, lack of consensus, putting up an obstacle, is not something they handle well. It is generally physically displayed by the complete shutdown of facial and gestural animation. The eyes dull. The pupils contract. The frown muscles go rigid. The shoulders slump. The chest caves. It's actually kind of funny to watch.

So, this time out, there came a point where I offered that something like Damien Hirst's pickled shark wasn't really Art anymore. It was a business commodity. A totem. A currency fetish. This was, of course, a blasphemy. The usual response is generally what is considered a mild ad hominem, that I am either a bit anti-intellectual, or ignorant, as in not trained in the field, or a philistine, or even smug, or even reflective of a sad decline in our society that I can't see that this is clearly a great work of art with a capital A.

And the, wow, the response from Charlie was pretty sad. "Um. No. Yeah, it is. It's Art". But there is always that quaver of uncertainty in that assertion.

Now, I have a variety of ways to go here, but this is the response I chose, based on what Charlie had said earlier:

"You claim, because of what Marcel Duchamp did in the 1917 Armory Show, display a urinal as an art object, that now anything can be Art."


"You back up this claim with the use of context. That it is all about context".


"The nature of the work itself is irrelevant -" (and before he can object) "- the intent of the artist and the intrinsic qualities of the work are not what matter, but rather how it is situated, and valued by the audience, by the appreciators of the art work".

"...yes". (Charlie says this only because he himself has at some prior point said this in his lecture to me).

"So - " and here I grab and read from "Survival of the Beautiful" "-the nature of the work itself matters little. It really can be anything, as long as a coherent story has arisen about why the work should be appreciated, and a community of tastemakers and art lovers evolves to celebrate the work (or style) and promotes it strongly enough so that it will endure in society long enough to make a difference".


"And so, this category you, we, have created is changeable, in flux, not tied down to the standard Boolean binary logic of categories. Like a Venn diagram, it can occupy more than one set. Like an electron, it can be in two places at once?"

"(sigh) yes". (Because he has said this as well).

"So now, you have the general populace, which looks at the pickled shark, and says, 'That's retarded', and rejects it as art, then the audience of the hedge fund manager, who bought it clearly for sake of status, and his social circle, who call it art, but not really. And then that circle of art critics, gallery owners, collectors, who call it art. So, what is it? Whose perception wins out?"

"I... look it's Art. OK?"

"...well done, Charlie."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Survival of the Beautiful": A Review

I miscalculated and checked out one too many books from the library this past month. As a result, "Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution" by David Rothenburg ended up being the bathroom book, which I only skimmed. I think to need to check this book out again at some future time for a more thorough read.

There is a scene in the movie "Apollo 13" where, because the astronauts needed to power down the command module (CM) to conserve battery power, Astronaut Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise), and Controller (EECOM Arthur) John Aaron (played by Lorne Dean) must come up with a way to power up the CM. They have a limited amount of battery power. With Mattingly seated in the capsule simulator back on Earth, taking no breaks, and after several failed attempts at powering up, they finally come up with a procedure they can use to restart the CM.

I would submit to you, based upon the high selection pressures (life or death) involved, that the final powering up procedure was a beautiful thing - a work of art.  

On the other hand, country western music, hip hop, rap, or opera, with generally very low selection pressures involved, is not so beautiful, but still a work of art.

That's one of the things I take from this book. Not so much a question of whether of not something is Art (a stupid question BTW, like asking if something is Elephant), but whether it is high or low. Great or shitty. Especially now, in the 21st century, some one hundred years after Marcel du Champ let the genie out of the bottle and set it up so that anything, and I mean anything, could be Art.

Since I had only a chance to skim, here's a random quote from the book:
"The beautiful things we make aspire to be necessary as the rules of nature and forms of life that time has massaged into being through the evolution of beauty, which is such an important part of the complete development of life. We will never be sure of ourselves as the aesthetic of an single species is. Without thinking or wondering, the peacock knows he is nothing without his tail. Life is beautiful as it lives and endures, not needing to question whether it could have taken another path. Only humanity is plunged into such doubt, and only we have the choice to take the beautiful seriously, or not".
If Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes are Art, then a bowerbird's bower is Art.  That is part of my take from this book. The rest? Well, some things I had already concluded before reading. Like, animals do appreciate beauty. Animals do experience joy and delight. I know this because I am an animal sharing this planet with other animals. Other animals that share the exact same internal brain structures as I do, with a connectome that more or less gets activated by the same stimuli.

Natural selection, it seems to me, favors animals that enjoy living, that avoid the painful and the terrible, as opposed to animals that merely experience and record living. And our forms have been selected on that basis.

Rothenburg explores the idea that forms found in Nature are inherently beautiful. That they are converge on the beautiful, based upon limiting aspects of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. That animals (including us apes) do indeed appreciate this beauty, take pleasure from it, delight in it, and therefore select for it. That beauty is chosen through the process of sexual selection, in the ongoing Darwinian arms race between male characteristics and female delight. As such, biologists, and more directly evolutionary psychologists, seem to explain why animals desire, but not what animals desire.

To some degree, this theme has been explored in the late Denis Dutton's book "The Art Instinct". However, Rothenberg partially rejects the evolutionary psychologists' approach of explaining away all forms in terms of fitness and function. I tend to agree with this, mainly because their Kipling-esque "just-so" theorizing rarely is based upon empirical observation.

Rothenberg repeats is the whole arbitrariness of form. Again, biologists would prefer that the form have some function, some reason to explain fitness, either as a feature, or a handicap. But there are many cases (think the Darwin's frustrations with the peacock's tail) in which the best explanation for the origin of a selected form is that it is, or was, utterly arbitrary - in keeping with the whole idea of random mutation, or random selection. Though not entirely. There is a ratchet of progress, a conservation of innovation, that occurs in the evolutionary record. And a convergence of functionality as well. When you consider that things like camera-style eye has independently developed six times throughout the history of life on Earth, you start to think about convergence - similar solutions to similar challenges.

How this relates to human art making, I never got to that point. But I just may have to re-read the book "Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind" by Gary Marcus.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The GOP Deserves to Lose!

Once again, I ask the question: "Is Bret Stephens stupid?" And, as always, he answers "Yes".

Not that Bret Stephens is ignorant or undereducated or unable to process a thought, but he is stupid. Dangerously stupid. Take for example, his latest editorial in the Wall Street Journal: "Republicans Deserve to Lose".

Yes, they do. Stephens has at least that right. What he fails to do, consistently, is to connect the dots completely to see the whole picture, which is that the Republican Party is a failed institution.

Ideologically bankrupt. Obsolete. Decrepit. Backwards. The Whig Party of the 21st Century.

After realizing that the Republican clown car currently running the circuit for presidential candidate, and finding all occupants wanting, Stephens offers up this pathetically clueless complaint:
"Finally, there are the men not in the field: Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour. This was the GOP A-Team, the guys who should have showed up to the first debate but didn't because running for president is hard and the spouses were reluctant."
Seriously? That's the GOP A-Team? How tragically, myopically, profoundly addled is Stephens. Stumbling perplexedly through the conservative wasteland, he does not realized that, aside from the GOP possessing the same lack of integrity as the Democrats, and vastly surpassing them in hypocrisy, they also possess no vision, no clarity of thought, no substantial intellectual metabolism, but instead display only a machine-like propensity to offer up a calcified, fossilized, plodding stale old program of more of the same. Same old failed programs. Time to scrap that rickety old computer.

Stephens mistakes the symptoms for the rot. If the likes of Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Haley Barbour represent the intellectual elite of the GOP, then I'm surprised the rest of the party doesn't wear bearskins and use stone tools. Quite simply, there's no there there anymore. There was never any there there.

And it's hard to move forward when all you can do is look backwards.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Duct Tape Lesson

Back in the late 70s, my younger brother was driving a car that was composed of around 70% duct tape.  I don't know what kind of car it was. I called it the "Death Car".

I made fun of his car a lot. But you know, he was always prepared. The car was such a piece of shit, that he kept spare parts in the trunk (hinged, by the way, with duct tape). But it was a perverse form of preparation, as it turned out that the one part he always needed in a break down was not in the trunk.

Still, the lesson is, be prepared. This past Friday, I was not.

You may or may not have heard about it on the news, as it was pretty much a local weather phenomenon, but we got a big snow in Chicago Friday afternoon. Seven inches in as many hours. Naturally, traffic sucked. Naturally, I had to go down to NW Indiana to help my niece move. What was normally a one and a half hour trip took me about five hours.

Now, that's not that big of a deal. I managed to creep through Chicago before the heart of storm turned the everything into a parking lot. And, being from NW Indiana, which is the western edge of the Lake Michigan snowbelt, this was nothing new or unusual. Take your time. Max speed 35 mph on unplowed roads. The only casualties in ditches in the meridians are the giant SUV assholes who think they are indestructible.

To borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre, "Hell is other drivers".
Chicago Skyway Bridge

So, no big deal. After getting tired of listening to the radio, I sang Beatles songs in a cat voice.

"Meow, meow, meow". I've never had a problem entertaining myself.

The only fly in the ointment was that the driver's side windshield wiper decided to become unhinged, right when I was on the Skyway Bridge (which, by the way, is next to one of my favorite bridges, the Norfolk Southern vertical lift railroad bridge spanning the Calumet River).

I am proud that I had the presence of mind to turn off the wipers before the blade disappeared into Hammond someplace. So, I cranked the defrost heater and blower to maximum, and tried to think what I had in the car I could use to secure the blade.

I like the houses
And the answer was duct tape! Too bad I didn't have any.

So, that stretch of the Indiana East-West tollroad has got nothing on it. I mean nothing. Most exits are tortuously circuitous switchbacks to the entrances, and what with six to seven inches of snow on the roads, I ain't getting off. I drove about fifteen miles without wipers in blizzard.

Really it wasn't all that bad. I've been through much, much worse.

Duct Tape to the rescue!
Finally, though, I made it to a gas stop, and I asked the guy if he had any duct tape. He jerked his thumb at the notions display, and they had some weird imitation duct tape. Which I bought. And wrapped it on the blade, and off I went.

It's still on there. The way I am, it will be on there until it falls off, sometime in June.

But I did go out and buy some proper duct tape, which is now in my car.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Keystone XL

Senate Republicans "held a gun" to President Obama's head, and he rightly decided not to succumb to the threat. I mean, children and guns, they usually don't go well together. Playing cowboy, I just can't see Mitch McConnell doing that well, unless it's the "Brokeback Mountain" kind of cowboy.
Pipeline map courtesy www. theodora.com

In any case, the Republican Superpac commercials are getting one thing right - not building the Keystone XL pipeline will not produce jobs (and it won't produce as many jobs as advertised). They probably could have (uncharacteristically) erred on the side of virtue and left it at that, but no, they have to go and fucking lie about how it threatens America's energy independence.

So, yeah, Transcanada is temporarily foiled, and does not get to ship the tar sand oil down to Houston for refining into diesel, loading into supertankers for export, and shipping to Europe and Latin America. Because that was the plan. No oil for US. Period. So all that bullshit about US energy independence is a fucking lie. It's all about the money. Big surprise.

You know, in my neck of the woods, the BP oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana just spent a shitload of dollars (~$3.8 billion) updating the works to handle bitumen - the Canadian extra heavy tar sand oil.

It's thick, heavy, caustic, nasty shit. It requires a lot of energy to extract it and refine it.

You know, uh, the refineries in Whiting and East Chicago aren't as bad as they used to be. I remember having to let lose with some major farts to sweeten the air inside the car when I'd drive by them.

Now it's all invisible, odorless carcinogens being pumped into the community - much, much better.

You would think the Republicans would be calling for expansion of the existing Keystone pipeline, since that actually does end (sometimes) in American gas tanks.

Or better still, build a pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf coast. This would help alleviate a persistent price differential between Brent crude, the global benchmark oil, and West Texas Intermediate. Cushing, where most American oil is delivered, is landlocked. There is not nearly enough pipeline capacity to the Gulf where global markets set prices. So, local Texas refiners are probably real happy to buy just cheap Cushing crude and then sell their refined at the much dearer global prices. Nice tidy profit there, like they don't profit enough, right?

But Whiting and East Chicago? It don't make money the way the foreign markets do, and you can't ship the refined stuff on supertankers through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, so... America needs that Keystone XL Pipeline! Well, certain Americans do! People like Thurston Howell the III, I mean, uh, Mitt Romney, and the Party of Fuck You, We Got Yours!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Low-Hanging Fruit

I want to apologize to myself and my readers for this essay, "State of the World: 2032". I originally figured it would be a great deal of fun, just wild-ass speculation with no holds barred. Somewhere along the line it got all conservative and boring. Why, I even promised three game-changing predictions and carried through with nary a one.

I don't know, are we going to count room temperature superconductors as one of them?

Oh sure, but let's develop it some. So, let's start with superconductors. This property was discovered by accident one hundred years ago, in 1911, when Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes cooled a bit of mercury to the temperature of liquid helium, 4 degrees Kelvin (-452F, -269C). All electrical resistance in the mercury droplet disappeared, and it became a perfect conductor of electricity.

Fast forward some seventy years, ignore a lot of incremental advances, and witness something of a breakthrough in the mid 1980s, when, of all things, ceramic insulators where found to lose all electrical resistance at around the balmy temperature of liquid nitrogen, some 77K (-321F, -196C). Well, specially formulated ceramic insulators, doped with cuprates (chemicals involving oxides of copper), but the idea of higher temperature superconductors has gripped researchers and triggered a quest in the physics community ever since. Problem is, they still don't know why it does what it does. Such is the way of technology. Theory, for the most part, almost always lags behind effects.

So, let's say the doped rare earth/cuprate ceramic idea pans out, but it ends up being a ferrate ceramic jelly - a cheap, easy to make and bake, flexible, sturdy material that loses all electrical resistance below, say, 97F. The important idea here being that its cheap.

What happens? Well, superconductors can be used for magnetic levitation for trains, very efficient magnetic resonance imaging, lossless power generation, transformers, power transmission, supercomputers, particle accelerators, 

The obvious consequences are all power lines are stripped out. Well, maybe not right away, but ongoing. Oh, hell, more than that, the whole electrical grid gets updated and metering of electricity for the consumer should drop to the absurd. Literally absurd, as in tenths of pennies per kilowatt (really think the savings will be passed on to you?).

The jump in efficiencies is mind-boggling, but that's the obvious stuff. Particle accelerators go from CERN or Fermilab to much smaller than tabletop stuff  - gigawatt emitters that fit in the palm of your hand. Not phasers exactly, or blasters, more like lightning guns. (But, uh, wear protective gear to avoid french-frying yourself). Oh great, practical ray guns for dipshits.

With extremely efficient magnetic discriminators, combined with tiny petaflop computers, something like a hairnet can be worn on your head that takes the place of those giant donut MRI machines. Aside from the obvious medical imaging uses, it also means telepathic beanies, or teeper skull caps. These ultra-tiny, ultra-sensitive, super-powerful magnetic sensors can read your brain. Or write to it, if that's your clever hack.

I predict some one will be mind controlled with one things, maybe a robot zombie act, like a robot drone, or better still, if the resolution and bandwidth is sufficient, someone can use a suitably skullcapped porn star to enjoy a vicarious sexual experience, - telefucking.

Okay, there's a lot more there, bit I promised three game changers.

I should note, as an aside, that I have a feeling that the Singularity predicted Ray Kurzweil and all of the extropian hopefuls, the whole Rapture of the Nerds, just ain't gonna happen. I have a feeling that we've gone through all the easy stuff, and now we have entered the realm of diminishing returns. Here's a graph to summarize my thoughts, where 1.0 is the the maximum material instrumentality allowed by the laws of physics. I could be wrong. After all, a hundred years ago, physicists figured all the hard stuff was figured out, and that all future work would just be adding decimal places to precision. So, the next prediction is strictly way out there.

Before 2032, a whole new branch of materials science will open up called "Transmaterials". Unfortunately for me, the term "transmaterial" has already been coined and defined. Too fucking bad. "Creepsicle" was also already taken, and that didn't stop me from using it.

You've heard of metamaterials? Regular materials behave based on the atoms that make them, like, wood, stone, metals, glass. Metamaterials behave based upon the sum of their parts, like a emergent behavrio not predictable from mere atoms alone. Metamaterials are just getting started, but so far they have been used to make invisibility cloaks, superlenses, optical computers, stuff like that. For my prediction, a transmaterial is a material that alters physical reality, that changes both itself and its environment. It may be that a transmaterial can only make a change within a closed environment, something that will not affect the larger universe (at least, I should hope so), but can still produce amazing effects. In short, a transmaterial can't alter the laws of physics, but it can bend them.

My chosen transmaterial is based upon a really cool experiment done last year which may or may not be a landmark experiment. In 2011, scientists coaxed light out of a vacuum. This is a result of one of the predictions that come out of quantum mechanics, which says that the vacuum is empty. It is filled with evanescent virtual particles that are constantly popping in and out of existence over extremely short time periods. (The Casimir effect is another result). 

The Chalmers experiment, done by Christopher Wilson and his co-workers, succeeded in getting photons to leave their virtual state and become real photons, i.e. measurable light. The cool thing is, well, here, let me quote the article:
"predicted way back in 1970 that this should happen if the virtual photons are allowed to bounce off a mirror that is moving at a speed that is almost as high as the speed of light. The phenomenon, known as the dynamical Casimir effect, has now been observed for the first time in a brilliant experiment conducted by the Chalmers scientists.
“Since it’s not possible to get a mirror to move fast enough, we’ve developed another method for achieving the same effect,” explains Per Delsing, Professor of Experimental Physics at Chalmers. “Instead of varying the physical distance to a mirror, we've varied the electrical distance to an electrical short circuit that acts as a mirror for microwaves.
The “mirror” consists of a quantum electronic component referred to as a SQUID (Superconducting quantum interference device), which is extremely sensitive to magnetic fields. By changing the direction of the magnetic field several billions of times a second the scientists were able to make the “mirror” vibrate at a speed of up to 25 percent of the speed of light.
“The result was that photons appeared in pairs from the vacuum, which we were able to measure in the form of microwave radiation,” says Per Delsing. “We were also able to establish that the radiation had precisely the same properties that quantum theory says it should have when photons appear in pairs in this way.”
What happens during the experiment is that the "mirror" transfers some of its kinetic energy to virtual photons, which helps them to materialise. According to quantum mechanics, there are many different types of virtual particles in vacuum, as mentioned earlier. Göran Johansson, Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics, explains that the reason why photons appear in the experiment is that they lack mass.
“Relatively little energy is therefore required in order to excite them out of their virtual state. In principle, one could also create other particles from vacuum, such as electrons or protons, but that would require a lot more energy.”"
 The point being that (and hopefully you got the jist of the dynamical Casimir effect) is that when you pump more energy into these vibrating "mirror"s, the vacuum fluctuations will produce particles. Now, a synchronized bank of these mirrors should produce coherent vacuum fluctuations, basically lasing spacetime. No, this isn't some type of Zero Point Energy bullshit scam that hucksters want to sell you.

The device I predict, a spacetime laser, will produce mini-Einstein-Rosen bridges, little teeny tiny wormholes. (And actually, it's probably a lot easier to make wormholes than we imagine - the same way its easy to create nuclear fusion, it's just that you always get less energy out of it than you put in. It's keeping those wormholes stable is where the problem is).

Adult Swim's "Squidbillies"
So, in the scenario I envision, and let's let Doctor Wilson and his colleagues at Chalmers have the honor, is that they set up my predicted apparatus (which must be done in a vacuum chamber), notice that the dial of the vacuum pressure is way, way past what the pumps are capable of, like intergalactic space kind of vacuum. They freak out big time, since they think have created a black hole. Some are afraid to turn the machine off for fear the black hole will sink to the center of the Earth and devour the planet. Others want to shut it off for fear that the black hole is growing. But then they all realize that such a black hole that could create such a vacuum would also create a gravity gradient that would have spaghettified them all to their doom, so Phew! And what the fuck is going on? Eventually, they figure it out. They've created a stable wormhole. They can grow it. Make it big enough for people to go through, and foof! the Universe is ours. Okay, maybe not all ours. I predict the first alien race we run into looks a lot like the Squidbillies from the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Do I really need to map out those consequences?

Okay, last game changer. Wow, after giving you all the larger Universe to play in, this one is kind of a let down. But here goes. Robot swarms. But not killer robot swarms. I know, the killer robot swarms are really easy to make, less than a hundred bucks to make a killer robot swarm that can swoop down and dismantle that neighbor's dog that has been keeping you up at night, but I'm not that kind of person. No really, I try not to do evil things like, or encourage them.

I predict friendly helper robot swarms, that can keep track of people, maybe the high risk behavior types, the accident prone, and the just plain unlucky. And since robot swarms use distributed intelligence, the way bees do, which is kind of alien to the way we think, these robot swarms may develop the ability to detect the accident prone behaviors in a predictive way. Maybe some people will just always have a cloud around them. Or maybe, out of the blue, kind of like guardian angels, they just happen to appear in the nick of time. You know, catching rock climbers. Holding opens the jaws of great white sharks to keep surfers from getting chompled. Stuff like that.

No, on second thought. No. That's just fucking stupid. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Spencer Tracy Kicks Ass With One Hand!

We had our first real snow here in Chicago. I like it when it snows. It allows for the possibility of a penis joke.

"We got four to eight inches last night."

"That's what she said."

"Four to Eight? That's pretty confused. Hard to do with that range."

"Ardor often accounts for imprecision."

So, anyway, I want to apologize for the last online entry. It really was just a shameless display of public masturbation, and, upon re-reading, actually not particularly interesting in terms of speculative fiction.

So, today I was going to write about how much Ron Paul sucks, but, you know, plenty of time and material for that. No, really, Fuck Ron Paul. Why any progressive would back him is a complete mystery. I thought progressives wanted to move forward, and it is a certainty that Paul would have us all move back to the 1890s at the latest.

And I also want to discuss whether or not Mitt Romney is a psychopath. he sure looks like it, and he enjoys all the delusions. But, again plenty of time for that later.

Instead, since we had a good snow last night, I decided it was a movie night with cold beer and frozen vodka. Oh, yeah. So, I went to the library and came back with the movie "Bad Day at Black Rock".

Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, and both Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. If you want to play Kevin Bacon, this movie is right next door to "The Dirty Dozen".

Directed by John Sturges, who also did "Gunfight at the OK Corral, "The Magnificent Seven", "The Great Escape", so, a guy who knows how to direct action movies.

At the very least, watch Spencer kick Ernie's ass with one hand:


"Bad Day at Black Rock" poses as post-WWII film noir, but it's really a Western. Not seen the movie? Fine, I'll spoil it for you, and do it by giving you the behind the scenes narrative without all the suspense and mystery.

Spencer Tracy plays a ex-lieutenant who has lost an arm in Italy. A young Japanese-American soldier serving under him died saving Spencer's life. He has traveled to Black Rock, a shitty little Western town, to meet the boy's father, a Mr. Komako, to deliver the medal posthumously awarded to his son.

(Presumably, his son was part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, perhaps even in the legendary 100th Battalion, which had fought in Italy.  So, though the medal is never shown, there is a good chance that it is a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor).

Unfortunately for Spencer, Robert Ryan has killed Mr. Komako in a drunken fit of post-Pearl-Harbor bigotry and rage. Other townspeople participated in the lynching (actually, Mr. Komako's house was set afire, and then he was shot trying to escape the flames) and so they are locked in a mutual stranglehold of blackmail and suspicion. The rest of the movie is an unravelling of the coverup, with the townsfolk's intimidation and suspicion of Spencer fueling his own suspicion's of foul play.

Now, Spencer receives a lot of intimidation and bullying, but no overt actual violence for much of the movie.  I would argue, under various forms (no force or fraud/no initiation force or fraud) of Libertarian political philosophy, that the townspeople were perfectly justified and ethical in their actions. True, a murder was committed, but the coverup was completely sanctioned under Libertarian tenets.

Intimidation, bullying, and threats are neither force or fraud, as they do not engage in any morally questionable overt acts. The threat of violence is not in itself violence. One can argue that a threat is a form of violence, but it can also be viewed as an exchange of information - especially when individual rights to privacy and property are employed - which in the movie, they are.

In fact, the townspeople were completely within their rights to treat Spencer the way they do. If anything, it's Spencer who is apply initial coercion by his very presence, since in more than one occasion he attempts a non-consensual use of others' property. And the fact that he initally fails to divulge his purpose for being in town can be viewed as a form of fraud. His reticence is nothing other than a morally questionable ways to get people to do things.

In short, this is, yes, a nice little piece of sophistry, and yet, it is exactly the type crap that your average Internet libertard goof engages in.

Sophistry, it's what's for dinner!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

State of the World: 2032

Charlie Stross is making predictions. He's considering the years 2032, and 2092.

I, like him, have a personal interest in 2032. I'll be 75 that year. If, and there are a large but finite number of ifs involved, I make it to 75, then I'm interested in what people think it will be like. But forget 2092. Unless there are some major flukes coming out of left field, I won't see that time.

Reading through his projections, I have to say they are logical, common sense linear projections of a lot of the trends we currently see. In typical Strossian fashion, well-presented, well-thought-out, concise, cogent, and reasonable. They are therefore elegantly, wonderfully wrong.

The one thing I would note is there are no disruptive events listed, no game changers, no weird shit out of left field. Because you can trend all you want and be off the mark. Because guessing the weird shit out of left field is what is really going to come close to the mark. In a minute, I'll give you my three game changers for 2032. But before I do that, I'd like to mull over statements from Bruce Sterling.

Charlie cites Sterling's and Jon Lebkowsky's comments at the Well  regarding the coming year of 2012 in his entry.

I have an ongoing amnesia with the Well. I'll stumble across it, read up a bit, nod my head, make affirmative grunting noises, and then promptly forget about the site until the next time I trip over it. I'd probably read it more often if were a member. But I'm not big on joining things, so, maybe that's why I keep forgetting about the site.

Charlie notes that Mr. Sterling is pretty damn good at prognostication. I don't where he stands batting average wise with respect to predictions, but Sterling does seem to notice the interesting future tidbits long before anyone else does. Perhaps the reason for this is Sterling seems adept at getting into other people's heads, and voicing their concerns.  Sterling makes a rather interesting prediction about the near future which is this:
"So I often tell people that the mid-century will be about "old people
in big cities who are afraid of the sky."  I think that's a pretty
useful, common-sense, plausible assessment.   You may not hear it said
much, but it's how things are  turning out.

Futurity means metropolitan people with small families in a weather
That's, um, that's pretty much my assessment as well. We'd all like to think things will work out, but the funny is reality is the shit that you least expect. So Bruce may be right and wrong here.

Speaking of getting into heads, I'd also like to draw particular attention to another portion he wrote:


It's surprising how little vitality these have nowadays.  Instead of
fanaticallly dedicating themselves to narrow, all-explanatory cults,
people just sort of eyeblink at 'em and move on to the next similiar
topic.  In a true Network Society, all fringe beliefs about the future
seem to be more or less equivalent, like Visa, American Express and
Mastercard.  "Conservatism" conserves nothing; there is no
"progression" in which to progress.

Peak Oil.  Oil probably "peaked" quite some time ago, but the "peak"
itself doesn't seem to bother markets much. The imaginary Armageddon
got old-fashioned fast. Peak Oil has peaked.

Islamic Caliphate...  With the collapse of so many Arab regimes, these
guys are in the condition of dogs that caught a taxi.  "Sharia Law" is
practically useless for any contemporary purpose, and Arabs never
agree about anything except forcing non-Arabs to believe.  

Chemtrails.  These guys are pitiable loons, but they're interesting
harbingers of a future when even scientific illiterates are deathly
afraid of the sky.  It's interesting that we have cults of people who
walk outside and read the sky like a teacup.   I've got a soft spot for
chemtrail people, they're really just sort of cool, and much more
interesting than UFO cultists, who are all basically Christians.  Jesus
is always the number one Saucer Brother in UFO contactee cults.  It's
incredible how little imagination the saucer people have.

BitCoin.  An ultimate Internet hacker fad.  You'd think they were
encrypting food and shelter, what with the awesome enthusiasm they had
for this abstract scheme.

Space Travel people.  Visible mostly by their absence nowadays.  About
the only ones left are nutcase one-percenters of a certain generation,
with money to burn on their private space yachts.  This was such a
huge narrative of the consensus future, for such a long time, that it's
really interesting to see it die in public.   There's no popular
understanding of why space cities don't work, though if you told them
they'd have to spend the rest of their lives in the fuselage of a 747
at 30,000 feet, they'd be like "Gosh that's terrible."

Transcendant spiritual drug enthusiasts.  People consume unbelievable
amounts of narcotics nowadays, but there used to be gentle, unworldly
characters who genuinely thought this practice was good for you, and
would give you marijuana and psychedelics because they were convinced
they were doing you a big, life-changing favor.   

You go into one of those medical marijuana dispensaries nowadays,
they're like huckster chiropractors, basically.  The whole
ethical-free-spirit surround of the psychedelic dreamtime is gone. 
It's like the tie-dyed guys toking up in the ashram have been replaced
by the carcasses of 12,000 slaughtered Mexicans.

Nuclear Armageddon enthusiasts.  Kind of a flicker-of-interest for
this around Iran right now.  Nothing compared to the colossal cultural
influence that this paradigm once commanded.  The WMD invasion of Iraq,
kind of the last hurrah for this, it's tragedy redone as farce.  

You show somebody a Dr Strangelove mushroom cloud these days, they're
like, "What is that, Fukushima?  I don't get it."

I could go on about other people's futurisms.  Doing Italy and Serbia
is tempting. But despite the variegated change-drivers that these
interest-groups imagine, I remain pretty sure that all these groups are
heading for a future world where they're elderly, urbanized and afraid
of the sky.   

Even if you believe in reptiloids, you're gonna be a
reptiloid-believing guy in a pretty big town with a lot of your
neighbors pushing walkers in a heat wave."
 Hilarious, and also spot-on in almost every category, says I.

So, my predictions for 2032, using the same categories Charlie does:

Climate: Global warming denialism will have gone the way of all delusions, joining the Flat Earthers, Young Earth Creationists, Mormons, Scientologists, Objectivists, etc (see above). Mainly not because things got hot - though they will - but because things got so hot and so extreme and so weird so damned fast. Many now wish they had coined the term "global weirding" instead of "global warming". Doesn't matter. My game changer is the climate trends accelerate, and what world conditions were predicted for around 2100 will have gone through a transition by perhaps as early as 2014, and no later than 2022. That means an ice free Arctic Ocean, super hurricanes, unprecedented tornado events like Mississippi and Alabama last year. I actually don't think the tropical climes heat up all that much. That's concentrated at the higher latitudes. Torrential rains (dozens of inches in a day), decade long droughts, and sea level rise of, oh what the hell, 15 meters over the next decade. Bye bye Florida and most cities.

Energy: Same as before. Fossil fuels are out there, they will be used, and they will be extracted. Oh, sure, the current downward trend in solar PV will accelerate, lots of people will switch over. My bet is that natural gas will be the way to go, only because we can get the oil companies to cooperate on that front (meaning they got the tech, infrastructure and assured continued obscene profits). Peak oil did peak already, but all that does is make the difficult extractive processes affordable. Which means your best bet is to leave that oil in the ground until cheaper and more efficient methods of extraction come online. In other words, its rather stupid to use proven reserves. The alternative? My game changer: room temperature superconductors are developed. That means a revolution in power transmission, and a revolution in energy storage, and all electric vehicles with incredibly dangerous batteries in them. Solar farms will spout up all over the place, and extreme weather will mean there will be a big, big maintenance budget for them. Wind power, hydro, nukes, yeah, yeah they'll be there. Fusion, as usual, will be thirty years in the future.

Transport: Fossil fuel vehicles will still be around, certainly in the developing world, and for hobbyists, forever. Oh sure, lots of cute little electric cars, and trucks, and trains. Jets? Ships? Hmmm. Old skool fuel, and maybe carbon neutral synthetic fossil fuels, with hydrogen made via sunshine, and CO2 extracted from the atmosphere.

Population: Peak at nine billion, then a crash. Not necessarily where or when you think. China, Japan, Russia, Europe get old and shrink. India, Africa, South America, vibrantly young and growing. The US, surprisingly, through immigration and good old-fashioned humping, maintains a relatively young population. I predict no game changers. Any game changer translates as a massive die-off. If such happens, then been there done that. Boring. Moving on.

Politics: Oh, that's all too depressing. Next category.

Space: Not much. Lots of robot probes. China goes to the Moon and never goes back. Maybe some commercial launches, but, as usual, without some reason to go out there, nobody goes out there. I do predict eventual nuclear rockets, but not for a long, long time.

Food: Soylent Green. Now with more people!

Electronics: Maybe graphene. Maybe spintronics. Maybe optical computers. But I agree with Charlie, there's not much play left in Moore's Law. Doesn't mean we won't have even cooler gadgets, but we hit a wall at something, but something that would still make your average plugged-in geek of today shit their pants.

The internet: Aside from a few late-adopting hermits like me, absolutely everyone knows absolutely everything about absolutely everything and everyone on the planet, and we still don't know how to behave.

Medicine: In the US, healthcare will be out of reach for the average citizen. I think most everything will be curable, but unaffordable. You will start to see average life expectancy decline - unless you are rich.  You will see diseases return that have not been prevalent since the early part of 20th century. This isn't a glum dystopian vision, this is an extrapolation of current trends in healthcare. What's to be done in the US? Hm. Socialized medicine, maybe? The current system is destined to fail. Worldwide? Oh, bad. But better than the US - even in Africa.

That's about it. Were I betting man, I would say every single prediction is wrong. Except the room temperature superconducting materials. And if that happens, well literally, all bets are off.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Licorice Flavored Bacteria Pops
Ingredients: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Bacteria, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Confectioner's Glaze, Carnauba Wax

Dimensions 10" x 6" x 10"
Urethane Plastic, Wood, Cardboard

So, the deal was I had a dream before the holidays, looking at the original waxes of the bacteria forms. In the dream, a woman came up to my side and said "That's the way they should be presented". I woke up from the dream and said "Yup". So, I made silicone molds of the bacteria forms. Bought some two-part thermosetting urethane plastic to cast them, and started cranking out the plastic forms.
Eat them before they eat you!

Then I built a cardboard box and glued it up with a hot glue gun. I printed off labels on a laser jet printer. I transferred the labels to the cardboard box with acetone and by rubbing with a spoon. I sprayed a fixative over the cardboard to make the labels permanent. I wanted the packaging and labels to look like cheaply made shit - the really shoddy product that people buy in the big box stores and feed to their kids and don't even think twice about it.

And there you go, my solution to this particular presentation problem.

I'll be entering the piece into several juried shows coming up. Hopefully someone will accept them.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"The End of Loser Liberalism": A Review

(For those of you who would prefer a less-meandering and better-crafted review of Dean Baker's e-book (available as a free PDF here), read Jared Bernstein's much more concise and spot on essay, Loser Liberalism is a Winner).

Like it or not, politics is the prime mover of human affairs. It is the water in which we swim. We make war, wage peace, trade goods, starve babies, live in filth, wallow in unparalleled splendor, visit other worlds, all within the frame of reference of politics. It is a withering observation, an unsettling judgement as to the fundamental insanity of our species that this should be so.

The one thing we do not recognize, or should recognize more often, is that this frame of reference is not fixed or constant, that the Natural Order of the political landscape is wholly manufactured and artificial, and can be change. And by this I mean, most fundamentally our way of looking at things, what is called the "framing of the political debate" is based upon something as cobbled together as public relations.

In America, currently, we will see one of a myriad of scenarios playing between two extremes over the next year.

On the one extreme, Obama is re-elected as President, inertia from the campaign keeps Republican gains in the Senate to a minimum, and sees losses in the House due to public disaffection with the Tea Party faction of the Republican party. The Republicans recognize the slim but real chance of this occurring, which is why they are holding meetings in Texas to prevent a balkanization of the party, and a convergence around someone who is palatable to all. The fortunate consequence of this extreme scenario would be the end of gridlock, and some forward momentum in getting things done. The unfortunate consequence would be the resurgence of party agenda, as happened in 2008, and 2010, when, in both cases public opinion was tragically misinterpreted.

The other extreme unfolds with Romney being elected as Commander-in-Chief, the Republicans achieving a Senate majority, and losses in the House due to public disaffection with the Tea Party faction of the Republican party kept to a minimum. The fortunate consequence of this scenario is... wow, I can't think of one. But it involves one big Do-Over. Given the Republican's tendency to favor the status quo, and do nothing at all, or as little as possible, the best case scenario is that the nation gets a Reset to 2009, and then continues to bump along the ground until the next economic bubble appears. Then we go through another period of false prosperity, followed by a crisis and crash, as we have been doing for some thirty years now. The good news is we should all be used to it. The bad news is, well, the rich get richer, and the middle class, working class, and the poor continue to get fucked. Or at least until 2016 or so, when China overtakes us as the number one economy (some predict sooner). After that, all bets are off.

The unfortunate consequence of the scenario is something along the lines of a continuation of the 2010 Republican agenda - austerity, privitization of public institutions, and a scaling back of all restraints on the private sector, which pretty much guarantees a contraction of the economy, and most likely a Depression until 2020, or when China overtakes us, when all bets are off. Or when Mitt Romneys' People (read: the people that matter, large multi-national corporations), finally subsume us all into a vast autocratic propertarian utopia, with electronic devices in all our heads.

Of course, all of this is public relations to hide the actual conservation agenda, which is to benefit the rich by stacking the economic deck to promote massive upward redistribution of resources.  You have to admit, in this public relations game, conservatives have been remarkably successful. Which is what Dean Baker's book, and I promise I will eventually get to that.

In looking at the above two extremes, my suspicion is that something in between will happen, unless, of course, public attitudes change. We have seen public attention directed towards this upward distribution of wealth thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Paul Krugman, John Quiggin, and Jared Bernstein have also extensively commented upon this, but much more should be done. Even ordinary citizens are now expressing concerns about the ongoing "trickle-down" economics of the right, and the building evidence that income inequality stifles equality of opportunity and social mobility.

So, finally to Mr. Baker's book. Well, actually, not quite. For a slim 155 pages, Mr. Baker covers a lot of ground. One important piece of information I should mention is his covering of the manufactured recessions and bubble driven economy which we've had over the past thirty years. I've always had a suspicion that, after the real growth of the Long Boom (ca 1945 - 1976), we have been living in a period of false prosperity. Everything has been done to keep growth going, but the inherent flaws of capitalism, with its requirement of a compounded 3% growth per annum, virtually guarantee that this is not only unsustainable but unrealistic. Therefore, artificial booms have been required, similar to sugar highs that inevitably result in a blood sugar crash. With this in mind...

The book. Rather than me tell you, here's from the jacket blurb:
"Most people define the central point of dispute between liberals and conservatives as being that liberals want the government to intervene to bring about outcomes that they consider fair, while conservatives want to leave things to the market. This is not true. Conservatives actually rely on the government all the time, most importantly in structuring the market in ways that ensure that income will flow upwards. The framing that "conservatives like the market while liberals like government" puts liberals in the position of seeming to want to tax the winners to help the losers. This "loser liberalism" is bad policy and horrible politics. The efforts of liberals would be better spent on battles over the structure of markets so that they don't redistribute income upward. This book describes some key areas in which progressives can focus their efforts to restructure markets so that income flows to the bulk of the working population rather than just a small elite".
So, what are the two main governmental mechanisms the rich use to game the market? The Fed, and the Treasury department.

After Panic of 1907, when JP Morgan bailed out the federal government, Congress in 1913 created the Federal Reserve system. Conservatives will claim that the Fed was pure progressive evil by allowing private banks to control the currency. But the purpose of the Fed, in "immediate" response to the Panic, was to set up a central banking system to control and stabilize federal currency through a system of interbank lending and the setting of interest rates. It was set up to be purposely undemocratic by removing all processes from congressional and executive oversight (thus avoiding, among other things, graft, corruption, conflict of interest and the whims and fancies of populace). The purpose of Fed is twofold, two , as it turns out, conflicting functions: stabilize prices, and achieve maximum employment. The Fed is primarily a service to the banking industry, and as such, price stability is always, or almost always, it's primary concern. The Fed can actually do little to influence a stimulation of the economy, but its main trick is to lower interest rates, which is great for banks, making lending easier, and rent-seeking (e.g. banks charge much much higher rates to lend money than what they borrow from the government) more profitable. On the other hand, the Fed is much, much better at putting on the brakes by raising interest rates. And when you raise interest rates, you slow down the economy, put people out of work, reduce wages, keep prices low, and asset values high. Not surprisingly, rich people love the Fed. Can the Fed be used to help the employment picture? Well, ever since Volker, the stated goal of the Fed is to keep inflation at no more than 2%. But as Baker points out, there is little evidence that even modest inflation of 3-4% causes any serious harm to the economy. The right-wing flying monkeys descended upon Chairman Bernanke in the initial stages of the financial crisis when the monetary supply was expanded. They predicted runaway inflation, and successfully shut down any further stimulus. Prices in fact did not skyrocket:
"With massive amounts of idle capacity in almost every sector of the economy and an extraordinarily high unemployment rate, the conditions did not exist for inflation to take off. Furthermore, there had been prior instances in which central banks had vastly expanded a country's core money supply during severe slumps, most obviously the Fed during the Great Depression and Japan's central bank in the 1990s. In both cases the money went to excess reserves, since banks faced no demand for loans in a depressed economy. Inflation did result. However unrealistic they may have been, the complaint by the right had their intended result. They bolstered inflation hawks on the Fed and almost certainly made Chairman Bernanke and other relative doves more cautious about pushing expansionary monetary policy".

In short, thank you asshole Republicans, for unnecessarily prolonging the recession. And thank you, spineless Democrats, for not aggressively complaining that the Fed was taking inadequate steps to fulfill that portion  of the congressional mandate encouraging full employment.

Baker recommends a bit more accountability and transparency regarding the Fed's favoring the nation's banks and bankers. Surprisingly, legislation was passed, sponsored by Congressmen Ron Paul, Alan Grayson, and Bernie Sanders, to make details of loan information public. True, the monies handed out were a conscious effort on the part of the Fed to dilute the amount of toxic assets the bank's creditors held, in order to make them profitable again, but at what cost?

Baker also covers the US Treasury and its long-standing attempts to keep the dollar strong. The Treasury can intervene directly in currency markets by buying or selling dollars, though it uses this power infrequently. But the strength of the dollar has a major impact on not only the unemployment rate, but also on which workers become unemployed and how much employed workers earn. Starting with Robert  Rubin under Clinton, using the Asian banking crisis as the opportunity, Rubin has built up the dollar against other foreign currencies. Who benefits from this?

A strong dollar increases the size of out nations trade imbalance, as foreign goods are cheaper to import, and our own manufactured goods are more expensive to export. So consumers - those who have jobs - benefit with cheaper shoddy goods from, say, China (at the expense of domestic manufacturing jobs). The financial industry benefits in two ways:
"First, by making imports cheaper, a high dollar helps to keep inflation low, and stable prices are a financial industry obsession. Second, when the financial industry looks to move abroad, its dollar assets go much further when the dollar is overvalued."
You would think manufacturers would be opposed to a strong dollar, but then:
"Domestic manufacturers should oppose a high dollar since it places them at a disadvantage relative to foreign competitors. However, insofar as manufacturers are able to establish operations overseas, they are likely to be content with a high-dollar policy that disadvantages only some of their operations. Because they can shield themselves with foreign operations, they can gain advantage over purely domestic competitors".
So apparently a weaker dollar would benefit that segment of the US work force that relies on wages alone for income, not so much for the professional and ruling classes.

So-called free trade agreements further erode the working and middle classes, by encouraging manufacturers to relocate outside of the US. One wonders how the upper income brackets would feel if similar foreign competition occurred for their professions. Baker explores the idea of foreign competition for doctors, lawyers, business administrators, trust-fund managers, engineers, computer programmers, etc., but this suggestion seems unrealistic and untenable. One can hope, should one wish wages and benefits for the higher income brackets to be lowered to less obscene levels, that sophisticated automation will give them a run for their monies. This type of healthy free market competition would surely lower wages and benefits, freeing up monies to go back into general circulation, probably in an impact several tens of times the expiration of the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy, as it is well known that salaries, no matter who gets them, are a cost to everyone else. I doubt this will happen. Opening up the job market at the upper echelons sounds like something that would be strictly opposed, so, moving on...

The rich have really pulled a number on us. There's a lot more stuff, but, read the book. I ti s ironic that so many of Baker's progressive solutions involve, what do you know, leveling the playing field to allow for real competition.
In summary, just so you get the idea, I'll end with a quote Baker's from final chapter:
 "The enormous growth of inequality over the last three decades did not come about as a result of the natural workings of the market; it came through conscious design. The job of progressives is to point this out in every venue and in every way we can. It is not by luck, talent, and hard work that the rich are getting so much richer. It is by rigging the rules of the game."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Indiana and the "Right to Work"

"A lot of smart, young men have come out of Indiana - and the smarter they were, the faster they left" - attributed to Mark Twain

I really shouldn't, but I've a nostalgia for Indiana. It is, without a doubt, a primitive, benighted realm, populated with proudly ignorant troglodytes, and yet, it was once my home, and I would go back.

No small part of the nostalgia is a love of the land. I was fortunate to be raised up in Northwest Indiana. The middle third of the state is flat as a griddle, an unremitting and wearisome monotony, with only the sky for respite. In cloudless summers, or overcast winters, one feels like a bacterium wedged between glass layers on a microscope slide. There is just an overwhelming and paradoxical sense of agoraphobic claustrophobia. Wrist-slitting country.

Little wonder then, before the age of mass communications, the inhabitants resorted to sexual escape - rural perversions and incestuous burrowing on a pandemic scale. And out there alone on the prairie, if you want to bugger your kin, who is going to know? Who is there to tell? Ick. Ugh.

Things were better where I grew up. To the immediate north was Lake Michigan, and the Indiana Dunes. Great for summers, when the refreshing relief of those waters to the positively Amazonian conditions of the Midwest cannot adequately be described or imagined, but only experienced. Running down the vast sand dunes in thousand league boots - again, an experience that a paltry imagining cannot compare to.

Nice, huh?
The glaciers of the last Ice Age had dumped a great deal of Ontario in a region of hills and valleys known as the Valparaiso morraine. There are all sorts of dark gullies, deep sandy kettle lakes, mossy streams, and tree covered knolls to explore - secret hidden places that were, yes, even to a godless heathen such as yours truly, magical, mystical, and sacred. Real magic. Nature's magic. And I didn't even need to be stoned to recognize it.

Ah, but the people? You know, if Ohio still wears a bowler hat and chews on dime cigars, then Indiana wears a straw boater and spats. It's completely fucked, and living there, unfortunately, means receiving a mandatory lethal injection of conservative political RNA into your system. I've managed to avoid most of the consequences of that. Which is why I find the current Indiana Assembly's attempts to pass so-called "Right to Work" laws so repugnant.

There is, of course, nothing about any employee rights in the "right to work" law. The purpose is to reduce union funding, and also to encourage lower wages for employees. And, given the current economic straits Indiana workers find themselves in, they would be in a difficult position to complain.

Federal laws stipulate unions must represent anyone with a grievance that happens to be employed in the same company. Under Indiana's proposed legislation, companies and unions would be banned from negotiating a contract that requires non-members to pay fees for the representation the union must provide to all employees of a bargaining unit. In other words, the union must represent an aggrieved employee, but receive no compensation. This is basically a version of "taxation without representation".

Republicans cite high unemployment in Indiana and an incentive for businesses to locate here, much the same way as Southern states have encouraged employment with less-than-quality jobs in a "race to the bottom" wage fuck.

Problem is, its the Republican administration's fault that the employment picture is so shitty. Mitch Daniels, the so-called "cerebral" governor of Indiana (and the choice of many right-wing politicians and pundits for Presidential candidate) was, just a short year ago, being praised for the state's budget surplus. As it turns out, those budget numbers were not completely kosher.

Early in Daniels' first term, made improving jobs and income one of his most important goals. So, how is Indiana doing? Income growth has been negative. Indiana lags the nation. In 2002, Indiana ranked 33rd in the nation. Under Daniels, in 2010, Indiana ranked 41st. How about jobs? Well, while the rest of country saw unemployment rates reduced or at least hold steady, Indiana lost jobs. In fact, it's been only in the past six months that Indiana unemployment rates have held steady.

I think we have to rate Governor Daniels with a massive FAIL.

(And keep in in mind, Daniels is the guy that Romney is ready a job to, "any job". Pity Daniels doesn't feel the same way about his constituents).

Okay, was that parenthesized statement fair? Yeah, I think so. Daniels had it within his power to do a number to not only "create" jobs, but quality jobs. That "balanced" budget of his could have been used for Keynesian stimuli (and please, don't give that crap that it doesn't work. It works.) He could have offered skills programs, shared work hours, educational grants, infrastrucutre projects, all kinds of things that would have put his precious state budget in the red.

So, ultimately, I can't take Daniels seriously. Neither does Krugman. 'Nuff said.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Space is the Place (continued)

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