Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wall St. Occupation: A Video Meditation

To steal from Jon Stewart, here it is, your moment of zen. (Well, 4 minutes of zen.)

From the good folks at Disinformation, probably via Luke Rudkowski/We Are Change?: a clip of the zeitgeist.

Make sure you stay long enough for the cops.

Here's the viddy:

Missing Public Discussions: Higher Education Seems Near-Broken in Unistat

Let me start with a story you guys and gals (and the always-welcome "Other,""Decline to State," and those transitioning between gender poles) may have heard about, the Berkeley Republican Diversity Bake Sale. Here's a story on it. From The Daily Mail here. And here...in case you missed it while you were out at the opera, or engaged in a marathon reading of Finnegans Wake, or bowling for dollars.

Okay, my politics are pretty far from these young College Republicans, but it's a perennial debate, always heated, I see merits for both sides of the argument, and these were some Republicans who were at least trying to use satire to get their point across. And most of the backlash seemed to me to feed into every negative stereotype about liberal PC histrionic humorlessness.

I noted one commenter on some blog saying what I had thought: I live in Berkeley. The Asian baked goods should've been the most expensive. The closer you get to the campus, the more you see beautiful bright young Asians walking around. Because their cultural inheritance is about kicking ass in homework, studying hard. Especially the Hard Stuff, like math. I know it's a classic stereotype: Asians are good at math. (Yea, but ask the working poor Laotians, Thai, Vietnamese. We're really talking Chinese here, folks. And some Japanese and Indian.)

I look at some kid walking down Durant towards Telegraph and think, "Whoa...I bet she aced Advanced Fluid Dynamics With Topological Applications when she was only 15, just for fun, and I don't even know what that means!" 

I know I'm generalizing wildly, but those kids got into UC Berkeley because their grades were over 4.0. A perfect score on the SATs is 1600, and that kid over there somehow managed to score a 1670; I don't know how, but let it rest with this: these kids are not only freaky good at math, they study - very many subjects other than math, too - like there's no tomorrow. (Or more accurately: like there IS a tomorrow.) I wonder what his Tiger Mom looks like, but I digress...

And I say: good luck to any kid who gets in, whether under some version of Affirmative Action or not. Study your ass off and try and enjoy it. And try and go the extra mile, do the really smart thing and be born into a well-off family. Which is where my point(s) come in...

Widely ranked as the best (or near it) public university in Unistat, in the 1960s you got into Berkeley if you were in the very top of your high school class in California. And believe it or not, tuition was free. Kids under that system started the Free Speech Movement. O! Our fallen world!

Skipping ahead...

By the late 1970s/early 1980s, universities started to run along something like the health care system in the US. You know, "managed care." And look where that's gotten Unistatians: depending on which data sets you look at but I'll even it out, Unistat is around 30th in the world in overall health care, factoring in quality, cost, life expectancy, and other items. It seems Costa Rica is always a country or three ahead of us. We pay more per capita than any other country in the world and we're around numero 30. (I could go on, but that's for some other rant.)

In November, 2010, there were protests at Berkeley because the Board of Regents approved an 8% fee hike to raise the annual tuition from $10,302 to $11,214. And earlier this month, the Regents pretty much said this hike would go on, year after year, until the fees are $22,068 by the school year 2015/16.

This doesn't cover all the other costs, like housing, books, beer, marijuana, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, and Opeth on iTunes, food, ecstasy, transportation, cell phone bills, etc.

(According to one source the average cost of a four year private school is nearly $37,000.)

I don't even want to know how much it costs to go to hoity and private Bennington for a year. It seems like only ten years ago I read that it was the most expensive in Unistat, at a then-stratospheric $23 grand a year...which is what public Berkeley will cost in a mere five years. Insanity! I tells ya!

Studying what you love is great. But unless you're in a totally killer computer science or biotech major, watch out when you graduate. Here's where it gets truly ugly and dire.

Student loan debt is approaching $1,000,000,000,000. Sorta feels Housing-Bubble-ish, doesn't it? And I don't know about you, fellow Unistatian, but lately, every time I'm forced to say the word "trillion" it's surrounded on all sides by Really Bad News. The student loan debt is more than national credit card debt. This has never happened. Better pay that down, twentysomethings!

But they can't. There aren't any jobs. (Wait a minute: did we all wake up one day in a Samuel Beckett play? Because that would explain a lot...)

"Only 56% of 2010 college graduates said they were able to find employment by spring. Even more disheartening, only half of these positions required a college degree." (Full article here.)

(Just try to not think of the other 44%. But I have tangentially discussed a possible some of them previously on the OG. See here. )

I'd say they might get a job driving a cab, but Google - of all people! - seems intent on phasing that delightful and time-honored job out. What? You haven't heard? Check this out.

Just one of very, very, very many jobs that are going away. For good. (I mentioned your computer science degree. You'd better be really good, because India, China, and South Korea have kids that score higher in math than Unistatians, and they'll innovate and program for cheaper. You've been warned.)

A recent study by the worldwide Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development says the US is losing ground in higher education. Most kids enter unprepared, they drop out ("attrition"), and besides, it's a rip-off:

The OECD factors this way: Unistat has the highest (by far) tuition rates in the world. They figure $70K for four years. But then they estimate the young person loses $39K while studying and not working, for a total of over $100K. The OECD average for other industrial countries: $50K. That's not good.

There's a welter of maddening books that show how "administrative bloat," university presidents who make $2 million a year - this is why I compared it to managed care - and moronic things like brand new football stadiums are splurged upon by the upper echelon, while you and your kid (who just moved back in with mum and dad a month after graduating) are saddled with a huge loan (a chance to lessen that burden was squashed by the Republicans in late 2010, while they fought to keep oil subsidies for an industry that saw record profits) and no jobs in sight.

Oh yes: it's become, since 1980 or so, ever-increasingly difficult to get tenure. The tenured professors? I suggest we lump them in with the administrative bloat. Because they - supposedly liberal and for equality and fraternity (in the French sense) - fight mercilessly for their privileges, which are extensive. (I think they are ones most happy this is one Public Discussion that stays Missing...I am being unfair: some tenured professors have spoken out against The System, but they are the brave few.)

The OECD report showed Unistat, among 34 countries studied:
-14th in reading
-17th in science
-25th in math

WOOHOO USA! USA! USA! WE KICK ASS! WE'RE NUMBER ONE! (in military expenditures)


Here's a final little tidbit before I shuffle off for beer:

"According to economist Andrew Sum, the number of college graduates under 25 who are 'underutilized' (e.g, working part-time, working at a job that requires no college degree, like bartending or waiting tables, or just plain unemployed), is over 3 million." (Get a load of the whole article here.)

The rot I barely touched on here is the iceberg-tip.  (Yes, it's a rotting iceberg. You too can mix metaphors grandly. Ask me how!) And I think it qualifies as a Missing Public Discussion. Don't you?

In closing, all my best to the Berkeley Young Republicans Club (or whatever they call themselves), and every kid that gets in to that Hallowed Institution, no matter what factored in. You're gonna need it. Hell, around 75% of the entire population is gonna need it. When a bright kid makes it into the best public school in the country, studies her ass off, gets good grades and graduates magna something or other...and then waits tables while living with mom? That's a telling symptom, folks. And I don't think we can just "walk it off."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Google Gives To Right Wing Groups Now Too

I just saw THIS at HuffPo, and while dismayed (what? I still had some idealism left?), it does figure. To non-Unistatians, check out one of the "think" (and I use that word VERY loosely) tanks, the Heritage Foundation and what they stand for. You'll be informed that Google now is playing all sides (like oil companies and other multinationals), that the Heritage Foundation stands for just about everything I think is wrong with Murrrkin politics, and...probably something else.

But this all points to something I've harped on ever since I moved to Berkeley six years ago, from Los Angeles: it's damned near impossible to steer clear of contributing to the politically odious.

I'm on Blogger. That's Google. Oh, well...If you drive a car that uses gas: oil companies. If you use the financial system in any way...jeez I could go on and on; this is too easy and most of you are probably way ahead of me.

A classic Berkeley story from a dinner party the other night:

Oh, but let me back up a little. First, a bit of background about Berkeley for any friends/readers in other parts of the world: Berkeley considers itself VERY progressive and leftish, a rare thing in Unistat. (And in very many admirable ways, it is. But that's not my point here, now.)

We were all sitting around talking about mutual friends and how some of them seem to reflexively want to tell you about their new diet. Not that they're trying to lose weight, no. In Berkeley, ideological/political "purity" seems to exist as a very difficult yet obtainable goal. I've looked into that; it's a chimera.

Nope: Some friends want to tell you they're a vegan now when they used to be a mere vegetarian. Or vice-versa. Some will suddenly change the subject from something interesting to the personal information that, as of last Tuesday night when they saw a documentary on Third World living conditions, now they only eat certified free-range poultry, blessed by a left-wing rabbi. Or a Tibetan monk. Oh, so-and-so is now a flexitarian, a real backslider. Gee, thanks for that. To me, there are few things more boring than talking about your new diet and what you refuse to eat, and why.

So here's the anecdote: a friend recalls a recent potluck in which quite a lot of food was brought and there were many leftovers, and after the party, the hostess was trying to package plates of food so people could take some home. My friend asked if the hostess wanted to just keep the vegetables my friend had brought.

Hostess: Are they certified organic?

My friend: Uhhh...no. I got 'em from Safeway.

Hostess: Forget it. Take it away.

                                        This dude seems to sum up most of what I'm groping for here.

The thing is, just as in the Bad Book, "There were giants in those days,"* today giants control almost everything - or far too much from my political stance - : the airways (have you seen how your cell phone provider has given to right wing/fascist politicians?), and just about anything you'd consume. And I personally see no reversal of this in sight. Au contraire: the right-wing move to "privatize" everything is going full guns. They call it privatization, because "government is evil, can't do anything right and private enterprise is much better; the American way." I call this bullshit on so many levels it will take a number of blog posts to enumerate how flawed this idea has already proven in practice. Also, instead of "privatization," I call it "privateering." Anyway...

What's so interesting to me is not that we vote with our pocketbook and we very often can't help but vote for people whose values we find putrid; it's the perennial quest for purity that so fascinates me. I find this admirable in some ways, and embarrassingly naive in others. It's a mixed bag. Choice - that aspect in the big bag of liberty and freedom - is quite often illusory. And, to me, this goes for the "choice" between Democrats and Republicans.

And purity? It would almost seem cruel to drop jokes on that, so I'll let it be. (Besides, Terry Southern did it far better than I ever could. Recall the "purity of essence"? The denial of "my precious bodily fluids"? See a 3 min clip at the end of this post from Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove if you don't know what I mean. Suffice and albeit: as much given an omnipresence of pollution and other corrupting elements, many of us seem to have a misplaced hierarchy of health concerns? Aye? Wot? Our big brains. Our big, hyperactive neocortices, abstracting about abstracting about abstracting. In a word: paranoia.)

Regarding this ideological purity, the Quest for a Chimera, I'm moved by the intent. I am not impressed by the hardcore ideological standards. It's naive and snooty, and epidemic in towns in which you find outstanding universities. Why?

Because educated young people sometimes "know" too much. (And I blame their professors for only 37.23% of that, btw. Ask me about math later.) That is, they "know" that which is dubious at best. Or they're partly or even mostly "right" but have lost too much perspective. (On some issues I think the kids in their twenties are in the vanguard, but that's for another blogpost.) And I think that's because it's the educated who feel very strongly about ideas that can become strong ideologies. Save the Whales didn't start with a bunch of 9-5 blue collar factory workers in the Rust Belt. These things start on campuses. Because that's where people are privileged enough to care about such things, and they will often give you staggering amounts of information and very persuasive rhetoric about why you ought to care, too.

Another way to put it: you can become well-off enough to worry yourself to death about things that most people in the world can't afford to even think about worrying about.

I've seen people camping out on Wall Street, and I'm with them in spirit; I admire the protesting gesture, and for their underlying ideas I have almost total sympathy. But I also saw THIS little item, and wondered which gesture was more powerful. I think the latter. But bravo to all. We need to pick our fights, enact our values with integrity...but fer crissakes! Let us keep our senses of humor! Without that, we have much, much, much less. Without our sense of humor, what do we have left?

Some of us can also afford to take ourselves a lot less seriously. Less seriousness is valuable and costs much less than a choi-soy free-range free-trade latte with mare's milk from the locavore down the street.
That which is not forbidden is compulsory. The forbidden comes to you via hardcore Moralists, who care about what you do with your body and mind, even in the "privacy" of your own home. The compulsory comes to you via those Delightful Persons called corporations. Try not to feel asphyxiation pending. Try.
This Post Brought To You By: The good folks at Google, Exxon, Goldman-Sachs, and the Heritage Foundation, all supporting the troops and families, goodness and the flag, since, like, forever, man! They bring Good Things to life!

* Genesis 6:1-4. Some translations use "Nephilim." I prefer "giants" because a football team called the New York Nephilim somehow just sounds wrong.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Short Spiel on Axiology

I have previously touched on axiology, or the study of values, HERE. I think I was trying to emphasize a version of the old saw "The personal is political." Among other things I was trying to say...

Jeez: it's difficult to communicate about Big Ideas. Haven't you found that to be true in your own life? We all have passions. I assume most of the people who read this blog know, in some deep way, that what's good for the well-being of their neighbor is often good for oneself. What's good for you can be good for strangers you'll never meet. And substitute "good" for "bad" in those sentences too. But what is "good" or "bad" here?

I think we all have values and strong, passionately held ethical ideas. And morality, which I will define here as careful thought and action about the idea that if we do A then Z might happen. I think thinking-on-your-feet morality is about thinking about what might happen if we do X. Are we ready to make that move, after having thought about it? Our actions will have consequences. And if we're over 18, often this just complicates matters.

And Shakespeare's "Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so," only gets us so far. Billy Shakes is right: we happen to be able to think about what's good or bad or in-between. I assume a cow or  Earth's six-legged majority do not think about good and bad, morality. We got saddled with that at some point in our evolution. (By the way, Montaigne said something along the same lines as The Bard, but earlier. And some scholars are sure Bard had a copy of Montaigne, but I digress...Anyway, I bet someone said something almost exactly the same before Montaigne. Like some Roman. Ovid or someone like that. It's the kinda thing that would get said, and repeated throughout history: can't you just feel it?)

And then there's the sociology of knowledge. Someone - like you or me - makes a strong statement in a group at a gathering. Let's say about some political matter. And someone else pipes up with a definite snarl, "Sez who?" Because they don't agree with something you think is a slam-dunk. Like raising taxes on the rich. Or banking reform. Or sending Cheney and Rumsfeld to The Hague. No. Somehow, your detractor thinks all those things are Bad Ideas. The poor are getting too much socialism, he says. And you nod, roll your eyes, and politely excuse yourself to go get another drink and mosey outside for air.

That's because, with the sociology of knowledge, ideas are shaped by many factors, possibly the largest one being the social and economic situation of the speaker. What's just plain no-brainer stuff to us is "nonsense" to others. And ain't that an existential bitch!

Which brings us back to a study of values, or what philosophers call "axiology." How did you get your values? Were they received from Daddy? From peers? Did you get 'em from reading a whole bunch of books? From a Man of God? Can we elucidate our values, if only to ourselves? Do we recall the personal evolution of some value or another? Do we remember what made us change our minds?

While we cannot alter, overnight, the operating values in our society, we can damned well do something about our own values. Thinking about them, for one. That seems like a biggie. Let us not underestimate the power of that.

I wrote in that earlier blog post about our own hierarchy of values. Because surely: when you think about what are the most valuable ways to "be" and treat other people, or your friends, your neighbors, the people in another area of your country, the people from some remote part of the world, your ideas about ownership, work, money, play, communication, humor, sex, how much is "enough," knowledge, rules, creativity, etc, etc, etc: you'll find you care about some things more than other things.

                          Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs. Elaborate your own eccentricities in there!

Which is not to slight the things toward the bottom of your hierarchy. They may prove much more important as time goes on. But there probably are a few values that really occupy your thoughts for a hefty portion of your waking day. (Who said "Sex!"?) They are at your top. And that was YOUR CHOICE, right?

And I bet, if you think about your top one or two or three, they have a lot to do with biology. Just a guess...

I said this was gonna be a "short spiel," but my Mr. Loudmouth prolixity and chronic verborrhea has once again gotten the better of me, and you were warned this guy is "overweening," so I end with Fred N:

"All sciences are now under the obligation to prepare the ground for the future task of the philosopher, which is to solve the problem of value, to determine the true hierarchy of values."
-Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche wrote that about 140 years ago. Have the "sciences" done their job? If not, why? Was Fred being too ironically Platonic in asking for "the true" hierarchy? Even if the "sciences" were supposed to underwrite that hierarchy? Has some conspiracy, Vast, Cool, and Unsympathetic, kept the hierarchy from being realized species-wide? If so, whodunnit? Is the hierarchy always and ineluctably a strictly personal thing? When is it not strictly personal? How the fuck do we get out of this mess?


Monday, September 19, 2011

Free Sex, Free Love, Sex-Politics, and Neat Stuff Like That

I have this uhh...friend, see? And we got to talking about subjects that people who read my blog might be interested in. I said, well, obviously, books and ideas. I then remarked that, for reasons I'm not clear about, a blogpost/quasi-book review I had done on the subject of epigenetics, for which I gave a slightly sensationalistic title, "Epigenetics: The Revenge of Lamarck," had blown away all of my other blog posts as far as page views, and that I probably ought to think about writing about topics in science more often. Because I love science! She said, yea, maybe. "But the smart money is on sex." Hmmm. Yea, sex is good...Is this the same "friend" who suggested I write about drugs a couple of weeks ago? Yes. So what the fuck: sex.

Robert Anton Wilson, Wilhelm Reich, Anarchism, and the History of Free Love (Brief)
My colleague Tom Jackson over at RAWillumination.net has tracked down yet another "lost" article by Robert Anton Wilson, and he got a librarian from some remote location to photocopy it, and paid handsomely with his own dough, then put it in a file and got it into Google Docs as a public service. What a guy!

RAW writes with his formidable logical chops, defending free love and free sexuality as the basic stance of the libertarian/anarchist thinker. See HERE, and go to p.25 for the article, "Free Love, Sexism, and All That," published in his best friend Robert Shea's anarchist journal, No Governor, in 1975.

Wilson, in his 35-odd books and around 1000 published articles, often wrote about the heretical Freudian and Marxist-anarchist Wilhelm Reich. (For a very direct and artistic take from Wilson on Reich, see Wilson's play, Wilhelm Reich In Hell, which has a Shavian preface the Reader might find illuminating.)

The New Yorker recently ran an article about Reich that shed light on the history of free love, and how we always think we're the ones who have pioneered really hot, abandoned monkey-sex, or at least it was done near "our" generation. And this relates to why a lot of us have a tough time imagining mom and dad fucking each other's brains out. Oh, I'm sorry. Maybe that was an indelicate choice of words. How about mom and pop enjoying a loving "genital embrace"?

College Kids and Their "Hook-Ups"
A recent study shows that around 54% of college kids reported that they actually had a "hook-up" in the past year, while they think that 90% of their peers had had two or more hook-ups during the school year. (It's always everyone else who's getting more than us, right?) Why? Because there's so much talk of "hooking up" (sex outside of a relationship, no commitments). And the quality of talk and the belief that it's rampant - though it looks like it's not rampant - might tend to lead to riskier sexual behavior.

Social networks seemed to have a large influence on defining, perceiving, and participating in "hook-ups," which sound to me like a very intense and brief "meet and greet" to me. But how different is the "hook-up" from what college kids were doing in the 1980s, 70s, 60s..? The digital social networks, I'd imagine. I often read about the frequency of kids sending photos of their "junk" (a too-deflationary term, in my eyes) to each other via their gizmos. That was something we did not have when I was in college. I could not have imagined, and would not have believed, that in only a decade (or two, or so) <ahem>, one college kid would meet another for sex...having already seen their partner's genitals on a magical gadget that would fit in one's hip pocket. This is a scenario that eluded even such uncanny science fiction forecasters as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. TV, nuclear-powered submarines, atomic weapons, yes. Wells and Verne saw those coming. Not the cell phone email photo of the genitals from that cutie in English 101.

Unless I missed it in Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. (Can I get a rimshot there?)

                  Brilliant, funny non-fiction writer Mary Roach, author of Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex                 
Getting Into the Mile High Club, and National Security
Slate recently ran an article on how two people who disappeared into an airline bathroom for what seemed like too long...caused fighter jets to scramble, it being near the date of 9/11 and all. What a world!

I wonder how often these acts are "hook-ups" with previously unknown people? For some reason I'd like to think most of the members of the Mile High Club (Of which I admit it: I'm not a member. Yet) just met the person they're exchanging fluids with. Yep, they met not 45 minutes ago, and already they've worked out a cozy agreement and they're altering all kinds of neurochemicals, un- or re-balancing their hormonal profile, blood-flow is being diverted to where the heavy action is, they're rearranging the mess of that lovely phonebooth-sized room. Maybe it was in the jet they met, maybe before boarding, in the bar in the airport. (Why do I even care? Maybe I need to go "break one off" or "be my own best friend," or "audition a hand puppet" before I sully this blog too much?)

...Continuing in my reverie, the notion that in the 1960s and 70s, stewardesses merely laughed at passenger-sex, and greeted the glowing couple once they emerged from the bathroom with a cigarette and a glass of champagne??? That's almost too good. But I'm going to go ahead and believe that story for awhile, 'cuz it's fun and I ain't a-hurtin' no one. How times have changed! One day you're getting your rocks off with a honey you just met in coach in that cramped, icky bathroom, and are celebrated for it; a few years pass and you're going at it with a gorgeous stranger in the lavatory and it's a national security incident.

Anyway, airplane sex sorta gives another meaning to the phrase, "Fly United," doesn't it?

"How Sex Built the Internet"
Here's a gentle reminder that sex drives new technology. The Disinformation guys got this from NPR (follow the link). I thought it interesting that private chat was the thing that really got AOL going.

But home video was driven by sex too. People bought VCRs so they could watch porn at home. Yes, there was a time when you had to drive to that wonderfully seedy part of town, and watch porn in the dark with a bunch of gnarly strangers! O! Those rugged days...And when you got home from the theatre you had your clothes cleaned with steam. Or maybe you just burned them. Our ancestors from the mid-1970s had it rough!

The first book sellers made a big part of their profit by selling "erotica." Much ink has been spilled over this topic. Other fluids have been spilled too, and isn't that to be expected?

Sex and new media technologies: they go together like hand and...(_____________<----you go ahead and fill in that hole there, no one's lookin'.)
To end this blogspew, I'm reminded of Woody Allen being asked:

Q: Do you think sex is dirty?
Woody: It is if you're doing it right.

Woody Allen, the object of far more female erotic daydreams than you'd guess. I remember reading something long ago (a likely story!) about women who thought Woody Allen was sexy. Which gave me hope. But I have personally found a sense of humor has, at times, somewhat offset my lack of good looks. And I've stolen liberally from Woody, too. Just wait, you'll see how good I am in bed because I spend so much time practicing alone. You know, heterosexuality is fine and all, but bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for getting a date for Saturday night. That sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it's way up there. When you mention "masturbation" in a negative sense just know you're knocking one of my hobbies, and besides, what's so negative about masturbation? It's sex with someone I love, etc.

Feel free to use these lines from me and Woody Allen if you're trying to hookup with someone at the airport. And thanks again for reading!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday: Music Appreciation With the Whacked-Out OG

SUMMARY OF PREVIOUS POSTS ON MUSIC: There are no previous posts.

Even though Arnold Schoenberg said that JS Bach was "paradoxically speaking, the first twelve-tone composer," Arnold was being a tad hyperbolic: Bach did not use a tone row. (Although see HERE for dissentual data.) Schoenberg seems to want to claim Bach for his side, for which I will quote William S. Burroughs completely out of context: "Wouldn't you?"

Here's a 2 minute video briefly explaining this 20th century theory in music, with a charming female British accent:
Okay. So, there's a bit of academic kerfuffle about who first "really" used the chromatic scale in such a way. Some say Bartok. A case has been made for Scriabin. In my view a stronger case has been made for Hauer, but I'll go with the conventional wisdom and pick Schoenberg.

Leonard Bernstein, influenced by Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories, said that humans hear serial music as noisy, because we have something like a "deep structure" to apprehend music, too. In this widely held view, the experiments with seriality by (mostly American) composers only appeal to highly-trained academic ears. You, Dear Reader, likely do not dig dodecaphonic music either, and it's not your fault, according to this theory, which in Chomskyan terms, is like throwing a bunch of phonemes together randomly and concocting a "language"...it doesn't work that way. But still...

[Side note: Bernstein himself used dodecaphony in his Third Symphony, Kaddish, in order to depict the "tremendous agony" in a dialogue with God. He reverted to tonality within that piece, because it symbolized for him "affirmation of faith."]

Here's one of my favorite guitarists in the world. He's a very cerebral heavy metal player, and I'm working on a longer piece about him for some other site. His name is Ron Jarzombek, and here he is, explaining the guitar parts in his band Blotted Science's piece "Oscillation Cycles." It's 8:15, if you can hang with it:

In my opinion, Schoenberg's system has finally found its most congenial atmosphere, here in math and musical theory geek Jarzombek's whacked metal mind. I think this guy's genius is firing on all cylinders, oscillating. Likely most of you will disagree. "What a bunch of NOISE! How can you listen to that crap?" If you think that, fine. You're with the majority. But my aim was to get you to see, in the wonderful oddity of things, how the delicate and tortured freak-genius Schoenberg has flowered in the most unlikely of places, roughly 80 years after he revealed a freshly delineated Whole New Ballgame for thinking about how to use the 12 notes in the Western system.

You're welcome. (ELL OH! ELL)

Now, for the .00003 of you who LIKE this stuff, here's the actual Oscillation Cycles, in all its 1:40 glory, the whole band, just killing (I don't think I need to caution viewers in a library that you might want to lower the volume):


IF I've jarred your nervous system into some tangle or jangle and you're feeling unpleasant now, I apologize and offer this to bring you back into harmony, both glandular and psychologic stasis regained, we hope:

I hope that helps. If it doesn't, and your Jarzombek-frazzledness persists for four hours, contact your doctor. Ta!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

There Is No "Scientific Method"

Or at least that's what the anarchist academic epistemologist/ontologist Paul Feyerabend argued, in his classic Against Method, which first arrived in 1975 and was amended significantly over the next two editions, the third coming out in 1993, a year before Feyerabend died of a brain tumor at age 68. There exists a 4th edition as of 2010, but I have not perused it yet and so will stifle the urge to comment on it.

                                  The pugnacious Feyerabend, ready to spar intellectually with all-comers.

He was officially a Professor at Berkeley from 1958 to 1989, when he left Unistat with a woman who'd seen him give a talk; both had been rattled by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and it was time to leave.

A brief bracketed tangent on sources and "facts":
[The seemingly requisite Wiki article (I include links to Wikipedia because, while hit and miss, the entries are sometimes detailed and quite fine, and, if not, they at least give a few stats and links.) is here.]

[The always top-notch Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, should you choose to accept reading it, is here. If you happen to read Wiki and/or Stanford or some other linked source and something is at odds with what I say in the blog, so much the better, as one of my aims is to impart some learned cognitive dissonance and spur you to your own exertions. That's what I want from my reading; I will assume my Ideal Reader as being somewhat akin to myself. - the OG]

Among a handful of books (less than 15 but more than 7) that I regularly delve into that are about the sociology of knowledge, Feyerabend's Against Method is one. What a bold and entertaining intellectual!

                            Imre Lakatos, Hungarian Popperian whose sense of humor Feyerabend greatly appreciated

It was supposed to be called For and Against Method, a collaborative work with his equally brilliant and dear friend Imre Lakatos (say "LAK-uh-tosh"), who was a disciple of Sir Karl Raimund Popper, and had developed Popper's ideas about rationality in science in novel ways. Feyerabend says that Lakatos told him, "You have such strange ideas. Why don't you write them down?," and Feyerabend suggested they pit each other's ideas about the scientific method (which Paul thought was a fiction) against one another in a book, possibly as an exchange of letters. But Imre died in 1974, shortly before the first edition of Paul's writings on the topic came out.

Basically: Feyerabend said that, contrary to secondary school stories, in fact scientists have tinkered and bumbled and stumbled and used innumerable quirky methods in order to make their breakthroughs. And after tinkering enough, happy accidents occur. The Francis Bacon story about empiricism just doesn't really fly. Science as an endeavor is far messier than the textbooks make it out. Are there many scientists who themselves buy into the mythos of "the scientific method" and try to work along those lines? Yes, there are: but the results seem pretty sketchy. At best the narrative of "the" method cashes out at a lot less than you'd think. And different sciences have different approaches. And it's far, far, far more of a social endeavor than ever. And the sophisticated gadgetry and measuring devices increasingly lead to computer modeling and statistical analysis. And...well, you get the picture.

For enthusiasts of the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of science, and maverick anarchistic ideas in philosophy, I consider Against Method a must-read, and I'll try to highlight a few reasons why...

Oh, but first: I wrote on David Kaiser's recent book How The Hippies Saved Physics here. And Kaiser's cogent ideas about the structural reasons for physicists' unemployment in the 1970s should hold sway, but I would like to point out that Feyerabend was one powerful thinker around Berkeley throughout this period, and he had some ideas that may have gotten into the air and then the minds of the Berkeley hippie physicists. In his 1987 preface to the 3rd edition of Against Method, he says:

"None of the ideas that underlie my argument is new. My interpretation of scientific knowledge, for example, was a triviality for physicists like Mach, Boltzmann, Einstein and Bohr. But the ideas of these great thinkers were distorted beyond recognition by the rodents of neopositivism and the competing rodents of the church of critical rationalism. Lakatos was, after Kuhn, one of the few thinkers who noticed the discrepancy and tried to eliminate it by means of a complex and very interesting theory of rationality. I don't think he has succeeded in this. But the attempt was worth the effort; it has led to interesting results in the history of science and to new insights into the limits of reason."

Feyerabend was always against the "shut up and do your math" mantra with which physicists were inculcated during and after WWII in Unistat. (He also became friends with David Bohm, who influenced his thinking on quantum mechanics. Bohm also influenced the Berkeley hippie physicists.)
Feyerabend noted that Thomas Kuhn had become duly famous and influential, but was preceded by John Stuart Mill and Niels Bohr in his line of thought. For Mill, see the passage on p.31 of the 3rd ed; Feyerabend quotes from Mill's Autobiography and it reads like proto-Kuhn...from a book published in 1873!
He does something I like a lot, a throwback: he includes an "Analytical Index" at he beginning of his book, which summarizes the basic argument in every chapter. I've seen this in many olde pre-20th century books and always found this rhetorical flourish charming. For Chapter 3, we read this statement, which is one the first hooks he got into me:

"There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo." And then he elaborates in the chapter. This seems like a world turned upside down to many of us in Unistat in 2011: we would rather political ideas stay out of science, as the State-Military-Industrial-Corporate-Entertainment Complex seems to be doing us in, slowly.

But Feyerabend has, ultimately, a longue duree in mind. He agrees in the separation of Church (in this he considers not only the Churches, but rationalists, secular humanists and Marxist ideologies as "religious" and interfering!) and State, but he also - and this blew me away when I first encountered it - thinks "democratic societies must be protected from science." Dig this epistemological wildness and weirdness:

"This does not mean scientists cannot profit from a philosophical education and that humanity has not and never will profit from the sciences. However, the profits should not be imposed; they should be examined and freely accepted by the parties of the exchange. In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subject to public control [NB: recent concerns over nanoparticles, not to mention animal testing and those little things called "nuclear weapons" - the OG], there must be a separation between state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not the one and only road to truth and reality. There is nothing in the nature of science that excludes such institutional arrangements or shows that they are liable to lead to disaster."

Oh wow! I've already gone on too long, but you must read him to understand where he's coming from here, especially with that bombshell of a statement of "one view among many." To quote Mr. X from the movie JFK, "You may think you know what's going on..." (Oh wait: wasn't that Noah Cross in Chinatown?)
Feyerabend, who grew up in Nazi-controlled Vienna and fought for the Germans in WWII, wrote a surpassingly readable autobiography just before he died. Even though it's written by a philosopher of science, it's the sort of under-300 page book that any intelligent person can read for fun, and contains frank passages on his very active sex life (even though he was shot during the war, the bullet lodging near his spine, leaving him impotent for the rest of his life...he married four times and had many affairs!) and lurid anecdotes about Popper, Lakatos, and even the eminent philosophy professor John Searle, a longtime colleague at Berkeley. It's title is Killing Time, and is a play on Feyerabend's name, which in German means "work-free time" or "after work."
Finally, Paul was much-misunderstood - after reading his autobiography I'm not sure if he understood himself, emotionally, all that well - and he fed into this by his frequent changes of mind (any intelligent being "flip-flops" when they encounter new knowledge; it's part of a survival mechanism, something the Republican Party in Unistat seems to know NOTHING about), and Paul liked to say provocative things. But some seem to deliberately misread him. Here's an article from the National Catholic Register that seeks to defend Pope "Rats" Ratzinger in his "science ain't everything" screed of not long ago. Yes, "Rats" and Paul were both concerned about science run amok, but Feyerabend would vehemently distance himself from such an Authoritarian schmuck as the mitered infallible Pope-man, He who wears a dress and speaks on behalf of Gee Oh Dee. Oh, well...
While I don't agree with Feyerabend on everything - far from it - he was, to me, an overwhelmingly interesting thinker and personality. Sombunall readers of Robert Anton Wilson's book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science might find they generate an abundance of dialectical sparks when they rub that book against Against Method. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Peter Dale Scott, a Colleague of Noam Chomsky

Emeritus Prof. of English at Berkeley, Scott seems like a good foil for Chomsky acolytes. Rather: in an effort to broaden the (political) Chomskyan's view, read Peter Dale Scott. Just a suggestion. Let me elaborate.

As I write, Scott is still writing poetry and (probably) fat non-fiction books on what he calls "deep politics," a term I unpack as something akin to the conspiriology of the academic. Scott appeared alongside Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky at very many anti-war rallies and talks and teach-ins against Unistat state power, sit-ins and consciousness raisers. And in Scott's poetry he doesn't hesitate to reveal his differences with his highbrow colleagues on the Left, whether neo-Marxist or non-Marxist Left, or anarchistic Left.

In Minding The Darkness: A Poem for the Year 2000, we read:

          In his important book

    A People's History
                  (for the 99 percent
        whose commonality

    the Founding Fathers 
                  tried their best to prevent
          sharers of leftovers

     in a battle for resources
                   made scarce by elite control)     Zinn '80 571
          Zinn writes of the Indian Removal

[Scott cites his sources in his poetry and always includes a bibliography at the end of his books. - O.G.]

Scott says that other prominent American historians skipped over the Indian Removal, and names names, but then, a few lines down:

   but by depicting Jackson
               as slaveholder speculator
        exterminator of Indians

   Zinn lost sight of the Bank War
                in much talk of tariffs
       banking political parties

   political rhetoric                                   Zinn '80 129
                 along with Jefferson's warnings
         about an aristocracy

   founded on banking institutions
                   and monied incorporations   Sellers 106
        and Adams' Every bank of discount

   is downright corruption
                  taxing the public
        for private individuals' gain               Adams '62 9.638

   (which Pound made his slogan            Cantos 71/416, 74/437, etc
                      as the problem of issue           Cantos 87/569
          drew him step by step

   into singing perpetual war)                   Cantos 86/568; cf. Williams 180

-pp. 167-169, and if anyone wants the titles cited, ask in the comments...

Here Scott reveals a sympathy with Ezra Pound over banking, where Zinn and Chomsky won't touch Mad Ez. This has always seemed to me an honorable mode of intellectual conservatism: if someone's political action or stance or even character was seen as mostly distasteful, we know that political and social reality  are far more complex than choosing who is One of Us or...not. So sure: Andrew Jackson is not exactly a hero of progressive 21st century leftish thought, but his stance on banks is noteworthy. Let us give Jackson his due for this. Similarly, as vile and abhorrent I found the George W. Bush administration, there seems something laudable in their effort to combat AIDS in Africa...

"It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." - Einstein

Scott's poetry is deeply cerebral but I think quite beautiful also. He's always grappling with his privilege as an academic/intellectual, his Buddhism, his personal flaws. But he writes evocatively of love and the deep riches of the natural world too.

For me, the most distinctive feature of his poetry is his Stephen Dedalus-like problem of how to escape the nightmare of history. Can we right our wrongs? Can we make amends for untold atrocities and assaults on the human spirit, conducted in our names? Once we are have knowledge of this darkness, what to do with it, morally? These nightmares! And Peter Dale Scott's reading of history is filled with nightmares. Garishly footnoted nightmares of imperial power's abuses of humans. I would think the bright Young Person deeply committed to Chomsky's readings would want to challenge themselves with the works of Peter Dale Scott. Here, check this out; Scott seems to echo Noam's criticisms of the social sciences:

   behind the Soviet philanthropy
                which sought to eradicate faith
         by use of an Inquisition

   and also that of the West
                and its priesthoods of social science
         who after decades of pressing

   unwanted dams and military
                torturers on the Third World
       have helped liberate the Soviet Union

   for a new world order
                of Schumpeterian destructiveness
         whose outcome is not yet

And then later in the long poem, Scott is having a bad day and recalls a cutting remark made by Chomsky that must have felt directed at himself, and Scott's willingness to delve extremely deep into CIA drug running, JFK's assassination, assassinations of Third World figures, mind control operations, etc:

   Once again! Insight
                beckons down the long corridors
        of my insomnia

   as to why I have been depressed
                since flying back from Europe
       the sense of impotence

   not just from losing my glasses
               or even a week ago
         tripping over a sprinkler head

   to fall flat on the pavement
                and fracture my zygomatic arch
        not even Noam's crack

   about those who do microanalysis
                about things that don't matter               Chomsky '94 163
        No! I have learned from my inability

   last night to explain to Fred                               Frederick Crews
                what the unstoppable flow of drugs
        across the Mexican border

   has to do with the Kennedy assassination
               a world where what matters
         are not just the structural patterns

   but the patterns in chaos
                such as the DFS lies                               Direcion Federal de Seguridad, Mexican Secret Police
       about Oswald and Silvia Duran                      P.D. Scott '95 118-27
[Note: Frederick Crews was a Berkeley professor and friend of Scott's. Crews is mostly known for his ongoing attempts to dismantle Sigmund Freud.]

Peter Dale Scott is one of my favorite living poets. His non-fiction books are harrowing, dossier-like researches into what almost all Unistatian citizens would rather not know, or because of existing neural circuitry, are probably incapable of knowing, much less understanding. And yet he's always somehow poetic; it's this odd courageousness that I find so compelling in his writings.

The book from which I've quoted in this blog entry was the third of his Seculum trilogy of poetry. The first two volumes were Coming To Jakarta: A Poem About Terror, followed by Listening To The Candle: A Poem on Impulse. I read the trilogy and a few other of his books within a two month period a couple of years ago, and it proved a major hack into the deeps of my consciousness.

Here's a less-than 3 minute talk by Scott about JFK, and he disagrees with Chomsky about the assassination:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chomsky Updates One of His Best Pieces

Noam Chomsky has written The Responsibility of Intellectuals, this time "Redux." And just in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11th incidents. Only one shopping day left. Do you have enough coals for the barbecue? Make sure the kids have sunscreen on. And just think: college football is starting too!

Oh but yes: Noam Chomsky. His updated essay.

You can read the whole thing here. 

I have blogged about my own "Chomsky Problem" here, here, here, here, here, here, and (sorta) here. But this recent piece by Chomsky seems only tangentially related to my attempts to provide a solution to my own version of Paul Robinson's "Chomsky Problem."

Rather, this represents the Chomsky I most admire. (Actually, I admire him, period. I find him a fascinating thinker and the "Chomsky Problem" is an attempt to get at what I think is his major flaw, and I'm afraid I never really resolved the "problem." Please! Someone else: do a better job than I did!)

In 1966 Chomsky published a now-famous essay titled "The Responsibility of Intellectuals." When I read it first, around 1985 or so, it made total sense to me. It still does. And Chomsky's recent 9-11 "anniversary" redux-update makes as much sense to me. Any given reader of this blog who also reads Chomsky on intellectuals will come to their own conclusions. I'm giving myself away here: in this area of thought, I am right there with Noam, although I am not a privileged academic.

And, all of this aside for a moment to add something that pretty much went unsaid in all that Chomsky Problem blather I posted: what I perhaps most appreciate about Chomsky's critiques of The State and its crimes is his unique and very basic form of immanent critique: not so much in this essay, but almost all of his political writings he cites a State Department official or some other highly placed person in the State apparatus, and juxtaposes what was said with what was actually done. And he cites copiously. His style is fairly stripped-down academic, no fancy rhetoric. A notable lack of jargon. An odd tone of cold street-fightin' level rationality. As I understand it, immanent critique in its most basic form is something like, "You said X. But you did not-X, but Y, Q, and Z. How do you account for this?"

His many detractors - when they aren't crudely making stuff up about Chomsky - attack him for cherry picking his facts. But I have read Chomsky very closely, and while all of us are biased according to the sociology of knowledge, I think his basic method and citation-work is very sound, and always adds up to a penetrating and persuasive critique of state power.

Regarding intellectuals, Chomsky's work seems to me invaluable because his stance is so robust that, even if you disagree with him, you may learn much about your own stance towards the roles of intellectuals, or even what or who constitute the Intellectuals.

Where the New and Improved "Redux" essay really gets interesting, for me, is after the picture of John Dewey, where Chomsky points out that bin Laden actually achieved quite a lot of what he set out to do, and the oh-so predictable knee-jerk dullards who attack Chomsky (see the comments) need to realize Chomsky is not the only one here: do you think Michael Scheuer is a traitor too? Probably. "Murrrka Number One! Love it er leave it!" <yawn>

So enjoy the bunting and your flag and the endless TV specials about how the greatest country God ever saw fit to create is still strong and just filled with resolve, how we're all one and blah blah blah-dee fucking blah.

And if you hate Chomsky for saying what he writes (Just who do I think I'm writing to here? Only intelligent people read this blog, so I guess I'm blowing off steam over what I see as - laffingly - political reality), why don't you read Dana Priest and William Arkin's latest book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State and tell us all how great the 9-11 response has been? There's $4,000,000,000,000 (that's TRILLION, friends and Fellow Murrrkins) we'll never see again. Funny how (really) no one in Congress has been harping on this, what with the Goddamned Deficit.

And Cheney, Bush, Rummy, Rice, Wolfowitz...are all running free.

Happy faux holiday. I'm sure the Patriot Act is keeping you all "safe."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Expertology: Further Delvings

There's a section of dialogue in Woody Allen's 1973 satire on science fiction, Sleeper, that always makes me laugh:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or...hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy...precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.

I'd previously blathered on about the cult of "experts" and Expertology here, and looking back at that piece...I sure was typing, eh? Yes, with rancor, certain acids, bile and possibly other gastric juices. I'm a fish out of water: a lifelong reader in very many different fields in a world that seemingly wants its specialists and "experts," which has worked out just great, hasn't it? Gawd, if it weren't for so much special learning and so many experts telling us how to live better lives and improve our world...I shudder to think. Why, without such Wise and Learned specialists in so many fields we might have found ourselves in a world that was on the brink of a worldwide depression. But good thing we learned from 1929! The experts led the way, yessiree!

Can you imagine a world without our beloved experts? I can see it now: 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants written annually in Unistat. Large chunks of our food supply tainted periodically. A 50 percent divorce rate. An epidemic...of obesity! Skyrocketing energy prices, plummeting test scores in schools, constant fear over terrorist attacks, spiraling costs of higher education with less "education" going on, and fewer jobs for college graduates...

I took some of these examples from David H. Freedman's marvelously provocative and well-written 2010 book Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us - And How to Know When Not to Trust Them The asterisk in the title is elaborated upon at the bottom of the front cover: "Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, high-powered consultants, health officials, and more."

A quarter of the way through this book, I thought of the quote from Sleeper; it's funny because it's almost true: how easy it is to find, if one goes far enough back, quotes from "experts" in any field that now appear to have proven almost 180 degrees wrong. So why do we listen to experts?

Because they're sometimes right, says Freedman. At least that's one reason. "Perhaps a reasonable model for expert advice," Freedman says,  "is one I might call 'punctuated wrongness' -- that is, experts usually mislead us, but every once in a while they come up with truly helpful advice."

Of particular fascination for me was Freedman's two chapters on wrongness among scientists and scientific "expertise." He also has chapters on "The Certainty Principle," "The Idiocy of Crowds," experts working within organizations, experts in the media, and a chapter on how Internet exacerbates wrongness.

His last major chapter must not be missed, and I don't want to give anything away, but it's called "Eleven Simple Never-Fail Rules for Not Being Misled By Experts."
This is a doozy for Expertologists, and anyone with an interest in the field will want to have it on their shelf, or, because experts crashed the economy and you don't have money for books, get it from your local library and bask in this, a brilliantly disguised book of social epistemology masking itself as a popular "caveat" book by an author who's a widely published journalist on business and science.

I can see I've gone on too long here for a mere blogspew, so maybe I'll write more on Expertology and Freedman in the near-future. But let it suffice for now that, if you're wondering about physics, government, diet, finance, sports, hurricane preparedness, child-rearing techniques, what recent entertainments are likely to stand the test of time, secrets of great management, tips on the stock market, cholesterol-lowering drugs, who will likely be the party's nominee for President, getting kids to sleep through the night, the benefits of vitamins and alcohol and aspirin and fish, the existence of WMDs, ethanol, how much sun exposure you can safely receive, the Mozart effect, multitasking, making the curricula less rigid and more test-centered, the effects of violent video games, getting into the "right" college, the importance of eight hour's sleep, whether women are attracted to "nice guys" or "bad boys," on and on...you will find the very best experts, specialists that you can trust, Learned Wise Folk with advanced degrees from our finest universities who will tell you...well, you can guess what they'll say.

"The fact is, expert wisdom usually turns out to be at best highly contested and ephemeral, and at worst flat-out wrong." - Freedman

And he shows in glaring detail why this is so. This book, as far as I can tell, received scant note by the popular media (Gee, I wonder why?), but surely deserved much more. What a little gem of a book. It's a...<ahem> sleeper?

[I live in California, and Amazon has no affiliate program, so I'm hawking this book merely as a public service. Scout's honor! - the OG]

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Divergence: Small Talk on Drugs

I told a friend I had a blog.

"Who doesn't?," she said.

Good point.

I said I'd only been doing it since the first week of May. And then I sorta lied about how many hits and followers I had, and how popular Overweening Generalist was. I assume I'm not the first to get creative about the truth regarding one's own blogging...or writing in general.

It was suggested that, if people liked my blather about books and ideas, injecting something about drugs or sex or <ahem> a few other "things" like that couldn't hurt. So what the hell: drugs.

Writers and Performance Enhancing Drugs
I've always thought it somewhat odd that heavy alcohol use is so closely associated with our great writers, which I talked about in the first section of a blogspew here. Because, though I enjoy very hoppy double IPA beer and strong zinfandel, ethyl alcohol is not exactly a smart drug. Let's face it. It's more of a stupid drug. A stupid drug I enjoy. I think its charm is its possibilities for conviviality.

[There's something here that fascinates me, endlessly: the idea that drugs are a part of all of our lives, and that social acceptability of alcohol led to the themes and style and overall mood of the alcoholic writer, and Unistatians and non-Unistatians who read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Chandler, on and on: there is a faint hovering whiff over these writers...of booze. And so: think marijuana and William Burroughs for Naked Lunch, heroin for...really, a whole bunch of writers and actually when I think about it writers are - almost all of the ones I'm interested in - drunk or stoned on something. And someone should say something about Irvine Welsh here.]

Robert Anton Wilson enjoyed Guinness and Irish whiskey, as an American writer of Irish heritage who identified with Ireland, and even left Unistat for Dublin and environs when Ronald Reagan was elected. But alcohol aside, Wilson's primary drug was cannabis, which he said he wrote with quite often. In an interview Paul Krassner did with Wilson (RAW to his fans, of which I am most definitely one) in High Times magazine, Wilson said he wrote stoned, then edited straight, then wrote stoned, then edited straight...a few iterations more or less. He said that this was in the tradition of the sufis...I must say: I get a "contact high" just reading Wilson, he's so magnificent, so take that with a pinch of salt, or a bong hit if you're so inclined.

Clearly, coffee and other caffeinated drinks tend to go hand in hand with this idea of "smart drugs" for writers: the evidence for coffee and writing is overwhelming. I often wonder if the Industrial Revolution in Europe would have ever even happened were it not for tea and coffee being imported from Magical Far Off Lands. For coffee helps get it done, aye!

Here's a story on writers "juicing."

Legalization of Cannabis in California: Is This Gonna Be "The One"?
Last election here on the West Coast of Unistat, in a state that some economists have measured as the world's fifth largest economy, Proposition 19 lost in November of 2010. It would have effectively legalized marijuana. I really thought it would pass, but I may have been seeing the world through green-colored glasses. It was a close vote. The entire economies of much of the northernmost part of the state might have taken a big hit if it passed, because this is where some of the most potent marijuana in the world is grown. If the state could grow it, sell it, tax it...what would happen to the Emerald Triangle?

Well, admittedly I voted Yes on 19, not so much because I like smoking dope - I do - but the very idea that we are still criminally prosecuting people for growing and selling it is abhorrent to me.

Now the groundswell for legalization may see a "perfect storm" brewing on the horizon: there are very good civil libertarian arguments for it and they're much more openly discussed. The state has been hit hard by the Great Recession, and the taxes brought in from pot sales could only help. Theoretically, the Tea Party would be for legalization, but I am not convinced they really are for civil liberties. (Sombunall?) Furthermore, older people who used to think of pot smoking as something only Young People and "hippies" did: they either are using it themselves to treat a host of ailments, or they know someone who has used it and hail it as a godsend. (Which it is.) So I hate to set myself up for another disappointment, but this next election cycle may see a dream come true for many of us in California.

Here's a recent story on this

LSD As A Military Weapon?
Yep. As our good friends over at Disinformation (follow the leads!) saw, the idea that American tanks could roll into hostile territory, shoot LSD "loony gas" into the environment, then wait until the combatants were tripping, and then taking prisoners would be easy as cake, and casualties would be at a minimum: what a great idea!

To those of us who read books like Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain's marvelous Acid Dreams or Jay Stevens's Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream - and read both like Hassidic scholars read the Talmud - we are not surprised at all by this story. But if you are surprised, and you'd like more surprises as crazy or crazier than this one, read the aforementioned books for starters. When/if you read about the CIA's forays into LSD for chemical warfare reasons, you'll get a good sense for why using "loony gas" was a really dumb idea...But probably not as stupid and evil as using Agent Orange.

Anyone For Some Modafinil?
Speaking of the military, they've been using Modafinil (AKA: Provigil) for a while now. It allows you to stay awake for much longer periods than you've ever experienced, without getting loopy-tired, or with all the problems of short-term memory deficits and mental and physical errors. And it's not addictive. Or so they say. What blows my mind is that it doesn't make you euphoric like speed or cocaine. You just get bored from staying up for so long.

And it shouldn't surprise any of us that Provigil has made its way into the hands of graduate students and lawyers, and all kinds of people in high-stakes intellectual fields. Write your papers over a three-day period with no sleep and no drowsiness? Think of the ramifications! The author of the article I linked to above under the lines on writers and performance enhancing drugs seems to have missed this one. It'll come around...

Besides soldiers, medical students are a natural for this drug. One of my areas of interest is books on the lives of medical students and the process of medical education, becoming a doctor. I'm always amazed at the long hours under high-stress that third-year med students are forced to undergo.

I have never tried Provigil, but I would if I had a source I could trust. The neurobiologists and pharmaceutical folks are learning more and more about the suprachiasmatic nucleus (see how smart I am?) and other areas linked to sleep-wake cycles. Other animals have demonstrated the ability to stay awake and alert for a week when the stakes are high. Why not us? But the really big money is in curing insomnia: if we understand enough about sleep-wake and the biologically internal "clock" we have, then a targeted drug or drugs that don't mess with your alertness or have big-time drawback side-effects such as memory problems, daytime drowsiness, seizures, addictions, etc: wouldn't this be a boon to humankind?

I think so, but my intuition is that sleep-wake is such a basic thing to us that this will be a much harder nut to crack than the researchers are saying. And I for one would want to wait at least five years after such a thing came on the market, just to see how my fellow sleep-deprived citizens fared, especially with regard to side-effects.

Here's a story from Wired's archives on the high hopes for Provigil and like drugs. It's a tad dated, but hey: you can Bing it, (Or is it "Bang it"?)

I hope this blogspew has not been a soporific for you, Dear Reader. Try some caffeine?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Subsidized Wages: An Idea That Competes With UBI

Edmund Phelps, an economist at Columbia and a Nobelist - for what it's worth - has challenged Philippe Van Parijs's idea of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) with a government-subsidy "to firms for each low-wage person they employ without regard to parental or marital status." Phelps calls the UBI a "demogrant" and has his reasons, which I find  quite compelling but not totally convincing, why a universal employment subsidy is a similar but better idea than a UBI.

As I see it, Phelps's main problem with the UBI is moral, and his subsidy encourages self-support (vs. dependency), integration (vs. marginalization), and personal growth (vs. disengagement).

From my personal stance, I think all of these reasons are quite weak. No one wants to be dependent. (Well, almost no one?) I am ALREADY "marginalized," simply because of my freaky bookish disposition; I follow Timothy Leary's admonition to "find the Others." They are not at the job site, I'll tell you that! And "personal growth"? That's laughable! Here I agree with Aristotle, Plato, and every great thinker who isn't tainted with Western Protestant work ethic ideas, or even christianity: we grow when we're NOT at work. That's what "leisure" was always FOR...until the Advertising Age came along.

Yea, verily, I disagree with Phelps because I think his stronger cases are elsewhere. He actually thinks that work - even crappy jobs, apparently, even if subsidized - are good for the soul. He thinks his self-support is based on people earning their own way (italics in his original), which sounds fine on the face of it, but it's still government subsidized work, isn't it? And any job we take - even if we barely make rent on it and need the help of a soup kitchen - is "earning our own way." It's just a horrible job, is all. Phelps seems far too Protestant Work Ethic here, for my temperament.

Worse: Phelps make his case by saying that people who take crappy jobs under the UBI would be rankled knowing there were Malibu surfers collecting the UBI and doing nothing. Which seems like a bad argument, because the workers at the crappy job are getting the UBI too: the surfers doing no morally uplifting work and not "earning their own way" will not be making as much as the workers.

Phelps also makes bold claims based on what seems like very vague data about how much tax, how much time, how many years, accumulated deficits, workers' desire to work, mobility, etc, in favor of his scheme over the UBI, but after reading people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I have learned to be extremely skeptical of economists when they make these sorts of claims.

[Hey economists: Many of us are "on" to you; when you say IF we made changes to B, C and D, then X, Q and Z would result: you guys have proven to be almost complete losers there. You are miserable at predicting! You were trained to bracket out all sorts of Real World data. I wanna say it's not your fault, but lately I'm quite ready to assign blame. Suffice: most of you have been trained into incapacity. There are very good reasons why you're specializing in "the dismal science," and this is a big reason: the world is not as neat as your equations. And when are you gonna "get real"?]

What interests me about Phelps's subsidized wage idea is something that bothers me to admit: He says that the UBI idea has much support in Western Europe because of quasi-religious ideas about community and the national sense. "Most of Western Europe, particularly the Continent, has already gone a long way toward providing universal - that is, unconditional - benefits to its citizens (and in most cases other residents): subsidized housing, free medical care and free education services, among other services."

(How horrific these things - housing, medical and educational - are to most Unistatians! Even though none of the Western European countries are purely socialist - they are mixed economies - to most [brainwashed] Unsitatians, to have these very things subsidized by the State - which we don't have, is Evil, and Communist. As I said in an earlier post, Unistatians are not born stupid, they must be made that way. And the Ruling Class has done a spectacular job in this regard.)

Digging deeper: the institution of a UBI to only Unistatians would seem vastly unfair to documented citizens, as there is an enormous number of undocumented workers in the US. Further, the US has all kinds of social and religious sects that want nothing to do with the government: should they get the UBI too? It is here that Phelps draws upon John Rawls to bolster his argument. Rawls aside, Phelps plays on a more-than-populist rhetoric here, and when I do a "reality check," as much as it pains me to admit, it makes sense to subsidize wages...if only to gradually ease in the UBI. (This last idea is more mine than Professor Phelps's.) Here's Phelps along these lines:

"The other sticking point is that the demogrant idea seems in an important respect to go against the grain of the traditional American conception of a liberal republic. This conception, I will argue, would cause many Americans to hesitate to embrace a universal basic income while being willing, at least in principle,  to contemplate low-wage employment subsidies."

                                          John Rawls, heavyweight American social philosopher,
                                        whose A Theory of Justice has been gigantically influential.

I wish this didn't describe the American mind, but I think it does. It seems in some way more "realistic" than the UBI, although Phelps's lines about how much work is good for people - especially sociability at work, with co-workers - is almost abhorrent to me. If you, dear reader, have a job and you look forward to seeing your colleagues at work, I consider you lucky. I know myself: I am very much better off choosing my friends outside of work. I have at times enjoyed some comradeship at work, but it's not my idea of how friends ought to meet. This attitude toward low-wage workers (especially women) in Phelps seems paternalistic and a touch Ivory Towerish. In all this I get a whiff of an offshoot of American exceptionalism, which seems to me a thought-pattern that has become quite toxic within the Unistatian body politic.

By far the most interesting point Phelps makes is the source of redistribution: it is the "social surplus," which he says Nobelist Paul Samuelson made much ado in his most-popular textbook of the last half of the 20th century. This idea came earlier, in L.T. Hobhouse's 1922 book The Elements of Social Justice.  (Phelps tries to link this Unistatianist idea to Thomas Jefferson, and even, embarrassingly, to Calvin Coolidge's "The business of America is business.") Phelps also links the "social surplus" idea to the very interesting (to me) minarchist intellectual Robert Nozick. Phelps writes, "It is implicit, I think, that the social surplus is a flow of income that can be legitimately redistributed, since the way a free market would distribute it is morally arbitrary and a free market is an impossibility in any case." Phelps footnotes this remark with this: "Some argue that this flow is the largest that can legitimately be redistributed. Aspects of the matter are taken up in Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, Utopia."

Because I am not an economist and am autodidactic in things economic, I intend to study this "social surplus" much more closely, as it seems isomorphic to some late 19th and early 20th century ideas about social wealth that have appealed to me...But if you have some clarifying remarks about social surplus or anything else here, feel free to buzz us all in the comment box below!

Phelps's piece was found on pp. 51-59 of What's Wrong With A Free Lunch?, but I found it's also online here.

Once again I feel compelled to apologize for going on too long. I'll try to make it more pithy next time, but thanks for reading anyway. You're real swell, ya know that?