Overweening Generalist

Friday, September 27, 2013

Evgeny Morozov, Thomas Pynchon, and the dot.com Bubble

I had been reading tons of stuff over the past few days on three fascinating cybermedia critics: Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, and Douglas Rushkoff. In, say, 1996, all three were fairly gung-ho about the vast liberating potentialities of the digital era; now all three have quite grave doubts about how things have turned, by 2013. All three are stellar thinkers (I think one of them is just a staggering genius who should be far better known). They all came at cyberculture from different directions. But I got sidetracked, so maybe next month.

The Internet as "we" know it is only about 22 years old. By 1995, only 15 million people were on the Net. I find it jaw-dropping how It has changed everything in such a short span of time. In studying Turkle, Rushkoff and Lanier and how their views have changed, I spun off serendipitously into all sorts of other areas. Among other things, I found I didn't understand the "dot-com" bubble bursting all that well, so I started poking around  for assumptions about commerce and the Net, 1995-99.

                                          Kevin Kelly, one of the uber-cyberutopians

Concomitantly, I've been reading Pynchon's new novel Bleeding Edge - 'cuz it's freakin' Pynchon! - and it turns out to have a lot to say about the bubble. I'm calling it a coincidance, Robert Anton Wilson's word for something between "coincidence" and "synchronicity," that was actuated by his reading of James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. One of RAW's books is titled Coincidance, and reading it will elucidate what he meant by "coincidance" far better than I did here...

Anyway, I found over the past six-seven years that I'd developed an immunity to the approximately 3700 books (and counting) that hype how great this new digital age will be. I've seen plenty of upside; most of us will by now acknowledge there's quite a downside to it, too. The stakes seem not inconsiderable, to put it mildly and doubly negative.

I think I saw downsides before most of my friends and colleagues, but that may be due to the sociology of knowledge: many of them had jobs that were "wired" to the gills; meanwhile, I've struggled. My position as a reader-writer-thinker type has been on the edge of poverty; you simply get different perspectives from that vantage point. And yet, in keeping with the sociology of knowledge as I understand it (largely through Berger, Luckmann, Mannheim, Vico, Werner Stark, early Marx and McLuhan), my perspective is but one, yet possibly incorporates a wider view of the scene: I have no ideological commitments in the sense that I have not had to answer to authorities or bosses or peers in business, academia, or a funded private sector. If I had had a job in any of those places I believe I'd be like anyone else: being in those situations necessarily influences (an unkind word would be "warps") one's perspective on things. A steady, livable income is obviously desirable, but I have not had that. Mutatis mutandis: those in steady, honorable positions know things that I don't. (Obviously!)

So I found myself gravitating toward critics of cyber-utopianism (I miscounted: there are 3956 books that do nothing but encourage us to think It's All Gonna Be Just Great), and found a hero in a young Belarus-born academic named Evgeny Morozov. Perhaps you've read him: he's published two books, and had articles in Foreign Policy, NYT, WSJ, TLS, Economist, Slate, New Scientist, New Prospect, Boston Review, SF Chronicle...and many more. If the info on his Wiki page is right he's not yet 30. He was educated in Bulgaria, moved to Berlin, been at Stanford and Georgetown, and now he's working on a PhD in the History of Science at Harvard.


What an odd egg Morozov is. He already seems to have an encyclopedic grasp of technology and media and how they affect the social sphere. He's perhaps the foremost critic of cyberutopian rhetoric, and for an Eastern European not yet 30, his rapier wit in English at times shines with a Gore Vidal-like gleam. At other times he reveals his age, but I must caution those conditioned to the rosy future of all things digital: Morozov as prolific gadfly may ridicule once too much, albeit, but his voice seems a necessary corrective as we move further into the Snowden Era. Color Morozov non-sanguine. His position as a species of Nay-Sayer seems absolutely legitimate, and his knowledge and rhetoric strikes me as stellar.

Okay, I'm not the biggest fan of hatchet jobs in book-criticism, and have long thought the only people who deserve to be savaged are the powerful, the wealthy, the pompous. If you're paying I'd be happy to savagely review Dick Cheney's latest book about how right he's been his whole life, or anything Donald Trump writes. But Evgeny reminded me that some of the cyberutopians in the second decade of the 21st century are ripe for the hatchet, and just check out this job Evgeny pulled off in The New Republic. He's bilious, abrasive, sarcastic, very smart, and funny. An enfant terrible. 
(I've looked at Khanna's stuff and think he deserves everything that Evgeny dishes.)

His two books are The Net Delusion  and To Save Everything, Click Here. But the subtitles are the calling cards for Morozov, he who is fed up with the rhetoric of cyberutopianism: "The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," and "The Folly of Technological Solutionism."

Morozov's history of the Net is one of the better ones I've seen (see The Net Delusion), and he goes way back to Pentagon-funded engineers like Vint Cerf, Norbert Weiner, Vannevar Bush, and David D. Clark. Where he gets really interesting is when he begins to discuss Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow, Howard Rheingold (and yes, Jaron Lanier) and their crowd. There are at least 93 books that go over their story and I'm betting you know these guys well. Morozov seems to admire them, and I definitely do, too.

The problem is: these guys were anarchist-libertarian former hippies with deep roots in the hedonistic 1960s, and they developed a revolutionary rhetoric about how the Internet could change the world and make it a far, far, far better place. With the Net, we could be rid of the Intermediary: free exchange of ideas, different ways of trading, and politics would all transform our social reality. They were preaching a "flat" world at least 10 years before that colossal fraud Thomas Friedman was. But these guys were the real deal, and they seemed to believe their own rhetoric. But all that's not the problem. The problem was: the believed they could deal with The Suits/Wall St/Control, and we now see how that turned out. (I'm consumed by the "Information wants to be free" ideology they came up with. I believed it 98% in 1999. Now? Uhhh...maybe a forthcoming blogspew?)

But back to 1995-99. Who was it that once said that history was the temporary resultant of rival gangs of programmers?

Morozov thinks the lasting achievement of the the early cyberutopians was that they wrested the Net from the Cold War-mentality short-haired engineers. The cyberutopians in turn believed they were smarter and could handle the Big Biz people who would want to use the Net to make money. At some point, the cyberutopians realized they'd need some cash to make their ideas go over big, so they found themselves having dinner with Suits, and seemed to genuinely believe they could do their thing by using private capital without getting, to borrow a term from the guy who invented html, Ted Nelson: "intertwingled."

Here's what I'm still trying to puzzle out: why did Venture Capitalists invest at all in these start-ups that seemed like really neat-o ideas but couldn't seem to deliver real services? This is fascinating to me. I can't help but think the cyberutopians' rhetoric hypnotized them into abandoning all traditional methods of assessing risk and likelihoods of true financial performance. It seems that Bill Gates (who was once "hippie" enough to have possibly joined Stewart Brand, but didn't) and other believers in NeoLiberal economics being done with the Net PLUS the cyberutopians' dazzling pitches clouded the Venture Capitalists' minds. And: at Pets dot.com, probably the most-cited example of the ensuing insanity: at one point - around late 1999 - they were spending $12million on advertising, with only $620,000 in revenue. The bubble exploded soon after. O! The humanity!

I thought of writing about Rushkoff/Turkle/Lanier but ended up typing far too much around Evgeny Morozov. I barely touched on the Bubble stuff, probably because I'm still trying to understand it, with 13 year's hindsight. But I'd like to end with Pynchon talking about this stuff in Bleeding Edge:

It's Spring of 2001 and the heroine of the book, Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator in Manhattan, is doing some detective work:

Silicon Alley  in the nineties provided more than enough work for fraud investigators. The money in play, especially after about 1995, was staggering, and you couldn't expect elements of the fraudster community to not to go after some of it, especially  HR executives, for whom the invention of the computerized payroll was often confused with a license to steal. If this generation of con artists came up short now and then in IT skills, they made up for it in the area of engineering, and many entreprenerds, being trusting souls, got taken. But sometimes distinctions between hustling and being hustled broke down. It didn't escape Maxine's notice that, given stock valuations on some start-ups of interest chiefly to the insane, there might not much difference. How is a business plan that depends on faith in 'network effects' kicking in someday different from the celestial pastry exercise known as a Ponzi scheme? Venture capitalists feared industrywide for their rapacity were observed to surface from pitch sessions with open wallets and leaking eyeballs, having been subjected to nerd-produced videos with subliminal messages and sound tracks featuring oldie mixes that pushed more buttons than a speed freak with a Nintendo 64. Who was less innocent here?

If The Reader has a recommendation for a particularly great book on the Bubble, or books or articles of dissentual data around Morozov, feel free to drop the title or link in the comments. Aun aprendo. Danke!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

FLOTUS Flouts Humility Yet Again; Practically Waterboards Entire Nation!

First, fellow Americans, choke this 54-second clip from the Liberal Media down, if you can take it:

Michelle Obama must be stopped, ladies and germs. She's out of control and obviously in the pocket of Big Water. Her latest extremist liberal agenda? To force more water down our throats! Where is the outrage?

Oh, here's some:

I knew Rush Limbaugh would be there for me, and he is. And thanks for digging deeper, Rush: she's not only in the pocket of Big Water, but Big Soda too. And liberal (which means socialist which means communist which means Nazi-Stalinist-Bin Laden Lovers which means Traitors) bloggers think they're funny with lines like, "If Mrs. Obama asked the nation to smoke more cigars and go for nightly Oxycontin and mayonnaise smoothies, Rush would suddenly be against that." Yea, real funny: Har...Har...Hardy-Har-Har! (golf-clap).

                                Meet the new Public Enemy!

Alyson Goodman of the CDC thinks her study of the supposed hydration deficit among the citizenry indicates we are probably choosing less healthy "beverages" than water. Oh? So water is now a beverage is it? How Orwellian! I don't know about you, friend, but when I'm settling in with something called a "beverage" I better be gettin' good and hammered. I'm sorry, Michelle, but I'll quote another First Lady and Just Say No to you and your Big Government water-pushers.

Why do they hate America? Why do they want to control what we drink? Why do they hate freedom so much? Isn't it enough that the thing they are now telling us can improve our health (water) is the very same thing that has MURDERED so many people in Boulder, Colorado recently? Does the First Lady have no sense of decency?

I'm afraid, fellow Americans, that Rush has only hit the tip of the ocean-liner-killing iceberg: water is far more dangerous than my fellow Americans know. I used italics in that last sentence to highlight how grave I see the situation. What I aim to do is provide a little relief with some FACTS.

Friends: you start off small. Maybe on a hot day you have nothing better to do but grab a bottle of water at the Try 'N Save and the next thing you know you're hooked: soon your body will eerily seem like it's made of water. And you can't get enough. It's insidious! The next thing you know you're living on a shack in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is largely made of...used plastic water bottles! The kind Michelle Obama got you started on! You're condemned to live in a desolate, floating, watery grave. Is this what you want, Mrs. Obama? Dear Reader: THINK!

Oh, it gets worse, yes in-deedy.

You say, "But Overweening Generalist-dude, you're overreacting..."

Oh, I'm "OVERREACTING," am I???

"Yes: I'll just drink a little bit more water from my tap," you say.

I thought you'd say that. Tsk tsk tsk! You poor, unwitting sap. Lemme pour you a tall cool glass of FACTS, straight-up: your tap water is laced with Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil...all those "antidepressants." Stuff like Dammitol and Repressitol. It's...depressing, frankly. Hell, maybe you should drink the water. But you need to take the bull by the tail and look the facts in the face: SSRIs are in your tap water, friends

Maybe it's a set-up. I wouldn't put it past her. Get the public so loopy on funny-pills that don't even notice their water lacks a certain...taste. Then they take your farm because now you're living on/in the Pacific Garbage Patch, wandering around like a zombie, all wasted on Dammitols. (Good luck with the farm in the American Southwest, suckers!: No water!)

Call me Mr. Fancy Pants, but I don't care: water tastes boring to me. If you wanna indulge a little, hey, it's a free country (for how long under the Obamas I don't know). If you wanna live all sedated on a patch of floating garbage the size of Texas, it's your funeral. Water for me lacks...I dunno...bourbon? Anyway...

But wait: it gets even worse. (Worser? Worsier? Worsy? Worsiestlier?) It's bad.

                       This image seems to say, "I'm Michelle Obama
                      and my husband and I are bent on world 
                      domination, please vote for us!" What do you
                      make of it? Or are you too AFRAID to say?

If you live in some parts of our great-great Nation, you can turn on the tap and drink a brain-eating amoeba! Yep: some All-American boy in Louisiana was playing with the Slip 'N Slide and one drop of water from the hose went up his nose, which was all the amoebas needed and now the child's brain is colonized by a microbe that literally eats away the precious grey goo and kills. That's the bad news. I call that a Slip 'N Slide of Death, friends. Let's not sugarcoat it.

The good news is this: they blame the rise of brain eating amoebas in US waterways on global warming, which we know is a Liberal Plot, so therefore nothing to fear. They can't scare us. Also: did you read that article? The sources are NBC, the CDC, NPR, National Geographic and "scientists." All of them I'm Smarter Than You and I Drive a Volvo and Eat Brie Liberals. Therefore the news is false. And Katrina was just a fluke anyway. (By the way, watch where you step in Louisiana, as you can pick up a nasty fluke...)

You ain't heard the end of the implications of Mrs. Obama's attempt to get more water into us. Did you know you can drink too much water and DIE? It's true. You can call me a "cup half-empty" kinda guy, but friends: I say we take no chances here. Call me rather a Cup Bone Dry guy. 

The evidence against the seemingly harmless chemical compound of two hydrogens atoms bonded to one oxygen seems like a little thing. And indeed it is. Until you add it up. Pretty soon: you're staring at a big glass of water. Murderous, Obama-endorsed water. And just look: that sweaty glass of water seems to be staring right back at you, just laughing. (Sure, that's probably only my reflection, but I think my point holds.) And you say you're gonna drink that? What have you been smoking?

Now I lay the hammer down and cinch my case against Mrs. Obama and her attempt to water-log the citizens of the United States of America: Not long ago a man who studies such things - and yes, he's a scientist, but sometimes they actually know something worth knowing - Stanley Falkow of Stanford, who studies bacteria, said that the "world is covered in a fine patina of feces." Talk about the Straight Poop!

And why is the world covered in micropoo? Because people don't wash their hands! They think they do, but they don't. And it stands to reason that the closer you get to the bathroom, the more concentrated the patina. And where are you going to be spending more time if you listen to the FLOTUS? Think about it: you drink all those cups of water They want you to drink and suddenly, you're getting far more shit - literally- on you than ever before. Because you're gonna hafta pee, let's face it.

You can call me alarmist, but I think I know a thing or two when it comes to poo, and you followers of Mrs. Obama don't know shit: patinas of feces carry patinas of microbes, brain-eating types and every damned thing else you can think of. 

Sadly, fine citizens, I'm forced to believe that this latest plot by the Obamas is all about making us sick, infecting our very bodily essences with feces and microbes - call it a Bataan Death March Into Obamacare - while causing some of us to literally drink ourselves to death, all while Nature has seen fit to hit us with a drought. If we live, we're destined to wander like zombies, zonked out on Zoloft from the tap water, along the rim of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And the Cubs will still have never won the Series.

My recommendation: strong beer or red wine or bourbon, straight. Wear gloves. Everywhere. Even to bed. Don't shower anymore than is necessary. Less, even. Sure, you'll smell like...a patina of feces. But the Good News is: only the Good Americans will smell too. Ye shall know them by their smell, which be like unto feces. Get used to adult diapers, even if you're a teenager. It's a small price to pay to maintain our freedom.

Anything else and the Liberal Agenda wins again. You can thank me in your prayers. Not this time, Mrs. Obama! Sorry!

I remind us that there were some who knew this all along! Clemenceau! Communist subversion!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On Vision and Judgement

Just let me discuss three recent analyses of the topic before I get out of your hair?

"Experts" and Winners of Classical Music Competitions
So, among the more than 1000 people in the study on musical excellence that you agreed to take part in are ordinary people, musicians, and "experts," the last being the sort of people who judge the winner of the Tchaikovsky or Paganini International Competitions. There are many of these competitions, worldwide, and winning one may get you a tour or a deal to record a few CDs. You signed up for this study, and randomly any one of you are assigned to either 1.) only listen to the top three finalists and then try to guess who won; 2.) view and listen to the top three and guess who won; or 3.) only view the top three but not listen to them play.
Of course, this is a major competition, so all three are shredding, hot-assed players. They all kick ass and play gorgeously. Give it your best shot anyway.

You can probably "see" where this went: the third group - who only watched and never heard a note - guessed correctly at far above chance the actual winners of BigTime International classical music competitions. The group (made up randomly of musicians, ordinary people, and "experts") that only listened to the top three did the worst at guessing, but the group that both watched with the sound did only slightly better.

This suggests a few things. One: we have an unconscious bias towards visual data even when dealing with the judgement of audio data. Visual data even seems to interfere with audio data. Two: "experts" once again tend to be full of crap. Three: As a longtime rock guitarist, this makes me laugh because it has always been quite an "open secret" that the coolest-looking guitarist will always be more impressive to the fans than the guy who is not all that attractive but plays circles around the cool looking dude. 

But classical music was supposed to be different. And I wondered  why so many of the female violinists on the covers of my classical CDs were so pulchritudinous. (Aye, but they play marvelously too! I don't hold their looks against them.) 

Funny: Here's how the study got going: Dr. Chia-Jung Tsay has PhDs in Organizational Behavior and Psychology, and a PhD in Music from Harvard. She studied piano at Julliard. As a kid, she entered piano competitions and noticed that the reception of her auditions seemed slightly different depending on when she only sent in an audio recording of her playing versus when she sent in a video tape. Tsay played at Carnegie Hall at age 16. Ah...and here is a classical music glamor shot of Dr.Tsay:

After doing her study, Dr. Tsay says she thinks the experts aren't judging solely on "superficial" (by which I think she means: hotness?) criteria, but that there's something about visual information that is very compelling to our brains. We have always been told we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but publishers and marketers know that we do anyway. When instrumentalists seem to be "hamming it up" they may be merely acting because they think it's what the audience wants, or their playing may be so embodied that they emote in a strikingly visual way, all while being far more "aware" of what they're doing musically rather than what they're doing with their body or face, or both. I have known both types of players. I have been both types. 

In the end, I think we might need to reconsider the idea of "purity" usually assumed by performance: if you're moved by a performance...you're moved by the performance. Just be aware that the visual aspect  (if there is one) probably shaped your experience. I think we can't get away from this; it's how we're wired. Maybe we should be a little easier on ourselves. It's biology! 

Link to a brief discussion of Tsay's study HERE. NPR and Tsay discussing her study, with a photo of famously emotive virtuoso pianist Lang-Lang.

Long ago I saw the piano virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli play on the old Arts and Entertainment channel back when cable TV was "new" in the US, and they'd show an entire concert without commercials. He was near the end of his career (he died in 1995), and had let his hair grow long. He was a really hot player, firing off Liszt, but exuded a bitchiness come la prima donna, and he reminded me of when I'd recently seen Ritchie Blackmore play live: sneering, swaggering, total command over technique, dressed in flamboyant black, with a hint of lasciviousness. I found both Blackmore and Michelangeli captivating, even thrilling. 

Nicolo Paganini the Genoese came on the 19th century violin scene at a time when the "free agent" musician could make a lot of money and not have to answer to royalty, beg the aristocracy for money or rely on patronage. The new, more powerful "middle class" (AKA bourgeoisie) of Europe loved him. Paganini's technique was otherworldly, and he greatly inspired Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann. But Paganini also cultivated a "demonic" image, which also put asses in the seats. He was the first Jimi Hendrix or Ozzy Osbourne, in a way. But he also pioneered dazzling violin techniques. Paganini may have been the first to exploit his visual, emotive self in a "flamboyant" way in an effort to accentuate his musical self.

HERE is Blackmore acolyte Yngwie Malmsteen's showmanship: the entire rock vocabulary, mixed with Bach, Paganini, and Hendrix.

HERE is Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg playing the finale of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, on American TV, accompanied by a pianist. She flubs a bit, but she's fiery and kinetic as all hell, an Italian-American "tomboy" who loved to play baseball in the street as a kid. I always found her incredibly emotive visually, in addition to her "pure" playing.

Experiment: click on the next link and LISTEN without seeing anything. Then watch the guy play. Do you recognize the name? Is he any good? He's a white guy wearing a t-shirt, apparently at an audition. 

The McGurk Effect
This one's really weird: it turns out that what we "see" people say influences what we think we heard, and we can be fooled. And it seems we can't do much to make amends for it. Vision influences hearing here, too. "Reality" seems to be warped in a surprising way. Watch the video!

The Demeanor Assumption
This is a term from lawyer and fraud specialist Robert Hunter. Emily Pronin of Princeton, who studies our ability to detect lies, calls it "the illusion of asymmetric insight." What is it?

I'm drawing on Ian Leslie's piece from New Statesman.

This month a court in England ruled that a muslim woman must remove her hijab/veil when giving evidence. Some experts applauded this, but thought this didn't go far enough: no one should be allowed to veil their faces in court, ever, reasoning that the more body language and facial expressions we see, the better for juries, lawyers and judges to ascertain who's telling the truth. Or who's lying. (I loved the CSICOP-sounding group the "National Secular Society.")

But it turns out we humans are under the illusion that we can determine who's lying. Studies show we're not very good at all. Frankly, we kinda suck at it. Liars can look you straight in the face and get away with it. The innocent can appear twitchy and nervous and suspicious. When I read about this, I thought of Kafka, and especially Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles's The Trial. Also, growing up a snotty thin long-hair "hippie" kid in a town that was not accepting, I was used to telling the truth and not being believed by adults. 

Ian Leslie's article made me want to read his book, Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit, about research into how lousy we are at detecting lies. He argues that, contrary to the court's opinion, we might "hear" the testimony and evidence better if everyone were veiled! 

When you meet me, most prominent in your mind are two things: 1.) my face; and 2.) your own thoughts. You probably think you can read my thoughts while your own are private. But...I'm meeting you, too. Why wouldn't things be the same for me? Leslie sums up this cognitive bias thus: "I am never quite what I seem; you are an open book."

How does this data about how bad we are at detecting lies reflect on the stuff about judging musical performances? Does the Demeanor Assumption throw off classical music "experts"?

I previously wrote on the topic of deception HERE.

Trailer for Welles's interpretation of Kafka's The Trial:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pynchon's Bleeding Edge: Antici...pation

Being of perennial impecunious means, I managed to land myself way up on the library lotto: I'm number 10 in line when Bleeding Edge comes in, and they're ordering a mess of copies. It won't be renewable, so I'll have to hunker down and read the entire thing in three weeks. I think I'm up for it, tanned, rested and ready...

Another of my dispersed Tribe alerted me to the Gothamist printing the first page. Because of the inherent mindfuckery surrounding Pynchon (he was once rumored to be The Unabomber, if he wasn't really J.D. Salinger or "Wanda Tinasky"), I suspected a possible hoax, but when the sentence "At the corner by long-implanted reflex she drifts into a pick..." I knew this was legit. "Drifts into a pick" matched my impression of Pynch's uncanny style/mind. Gawd, I can't wait.

In Conversations With Tom Robbins Robbins says that the FBI interviewed him after his book Still Life With Woodpecker came out, 'cuz the main character seemed like The Unabomber to them. (If you've read the book: Bernard Mickey Wrangle, AKA The Woodpecker, man!, see p.103) Robbins, on Pynchon's Mason and Dixon: "[It] knocked my socks off and I was barefoot at the time. Basically, it's an account of the professional problems of a couple of eighteenth-century surveyors. Yet Pynchon turns it into something thrilling and glorious by dint of his language and countless acts of his dare-deviltry. Mark Twain said the difference between a perfect word and a word that's merely adequate is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Pynchon generates one lightning flash after another." (see p.112)

Hey: now we find out another American genius novelist who has also written info-dense, 800-plus-paged works was under suspicion by the FBI as The Unabomber: William T. Vollmann, who I have yet to read. See his "Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering My FBI File." Sorry about the steenking paywall, but maybe that's enough. HERE's the LA Times on Vollmann's story. The FBI harassment of Vollmann is something I find extremely disturbing and deserves to be more widely reported. I also suspect Vollmann readers (one of the books at that Amazon link is over 1000 pages long, others 800, 600...) are a rarified class, and Vollmann's story in this, The Snowden Era, is yet another hint that we are approaching something between "Disneyland With The Death Penalty" Singapore (<---that line from William Gibson), and the old East Germany under the Stasi. Do structures such as we've found ever reverse towards something...saner? Give me one historical example.

Now I'll get darkly glib: I really don't think Vollmann is the sort of writer who'd go for this idea, but maybe the edgy, talented and still under-reviewed author should try falsifying some FBI documents that show that (s) he too was under suspicion by the FBI for some sort of Interesting Crime. Write a press release, call for a conference, announce your next book is about the deep structure of authors/publishers and publicity in the Information Age, and make sure you have all kinds of things to say about J.T. LeRoy and James Frey, Lee Israel, Mike Daisey, and AD Harvey and his series of fake academic identities and how he got many "experts" to believe his bogus claim that Dickens had met Dostoevsky. Talk about how, rather than being "outraged" we ought to consider The Trickster, human longing for public notice, and our accelerating susceptibility and vulnerability to the Hoax. There are relatively benign hoaxes, and there should be a reconsideration of their epistemic role in an age of not only information, but of rapid, no-end-in-sight income inequality, and furthermore there are plenty of very smart people who could not or would not make it in the Corporate State, and...well, you can see where I was going with this.

In The Essays of Leonard Michaels he writes of Spinoza, Shakespeare, Montaigne and Miles Davis as examples of artists-writers who want to "absent" themselves from their work, but their name is blaring due to this very fact. The totality of style and presentation, even without their signatures, seems like their face or fingerprints. How and why Michaels includes Montaigne there is beyond the scope of this blog, so you may have to check for yourself. (Sorry!) Thumbnail: these few artists seem to want to let the work speak for itself, without the built-up detritus of trivia and the gossipy-soul of People magazine. Or fer crissakes: TMZ. How disembodied Spinoza's mind seems when you read him. How radically multi-vocal Shakespeare appears. Miles famously played with his back to the audience. Etc. See Michaels, pp.176-178

A Salinger biopic is upon us; a few months ago Salon listed a Pynchon biopic as highly desirable, and I agree...but who - among those who really read Pynchon - would believe any of it? Do you mine his old friend Jules Siegel and flesh out the thesis that Pynch, like Kaczynski, was a product of an out-of-control CIA LSD experiment to sideline the counterculture in yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye, while incense and peppermints scream across the sky? And then: the guilt over working side-by-side with Project Paperclip Nazi scientists at Boeing on ICBMs? The idealism he shared with Richard Farina thoroughly squashed, Pynchon retires to a shed deep in the redwoods overlooking the Pacific, smoking high-powered weed for two solid years, making notes, singing folk songs at small gatherings, having books sent in by odd couriers like something out of Tristero, flashbacks to his time in Manhattan Beach and Mexico. I see a Unabomber-like cabin deep amidst the ancient coastal redwoods in Humboldt County, with a table, a poster of Porky Pig, makeshift shelves with a few hundred books on them, including Helen Waddell's The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages and Kirkpatrick Sale's books and William Gaddis's The Recognitions identifiable for the freaks like us. Lots of notebook paper taped up on the walls with illegible notes, a page torn from the too-popular A Beautiful Mind. Another wall is covered with a gigantic map of the Louisiana Purchase, and the known routes of Lewis and Clark. An Olivetti on a table with a big bag of weed and a coffee maker. A voice-over of a phone call from a truck stop with Pynchon's voice as we heard it on The Simpsons "Yea the FBI was out here asking me some questions about my feelings about technology. The what? Did you say 'you're the bomber?' We have noise in the system here, they're probably tapping this. What unabomber? Who? Jeez, I need to read a newspaper I guess...(laffs) You mean you think they think maybe I'm blowing up park rangers? Doesn't anyone in the Bureau know how to read?(click)"

Get Oliver Stone to direct, what the fuck. I'm not saying a fascinating movie could not be made of such things, I'm just saying no one would believe it.

If Pynchon's Dys came out I'd probably even read that. Also see Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, in which a Pynchon novel titled Blitz Nurse is cited.

And I'm still on the fence about the Candida Donadio story, because the name seems too Pynchonesque. Yea, yea, I know: how could "she" put one over on NYT, plus Heller, Roth, Gaddis, Stone and Puzo and all those other writers had to have been in on it. Yea, yea: I've heard it all. I'm still not buying 100%.

Books and Articles Consulted:
On fugitive writings by Pynchon
William Pynchon
Angela Bishop Asks Paul Thomas Anderson A Really Stupid Question
Rodney Gibbs's essay on Pynchon's and Sale's musical Luddite satire Minstral Island
Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, pp.364-365; 427
Pynchon likes The Daily Show
Pinch Thomas, major league baseball player from the Deadball Era
Chaos and Cyberculture, pp. 172-176
1996 TV interview: Kirkpatrick Sale on the Luddites
Proverbs for Paranoids:
1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.
-- Collected from Gravity's Rainbow, V237, 241, 251, 262, & 292

O! The Things I Don't Know! (Thomas Paine and Spinoza)

[A report on watching my memory systems work within the context of books/reading and all that reading we've done and have seemingly forgotten. What remains? All of this within the further context of historical ideas about economic redistribution and welfare, of mounting concern for me, in Unistat 2013. - OG]

I'd just finished a re-reading of Thomas Paine's pamphlet Agrarian Justice (c.1797), when a few lines jumped out at me: didn't someone else say almost the exact same thing at an earlier date? If so, who? One of the unconscious subroutines in my brain spat out an answer 20 minutes later, after I'd forgotten I'd asked the question: it wasn't another of the American fore-fathers. It wasn't Jefferson. (But what does my brain know? Maybe it was Jefferson. Parts of my brain have been known to delude and mislead me in the past. Hell: every day. But let me go find the passage from Paine...)

Ahh...Here 'tis:

When, therefore, a country becomes populous by the additional aids of cultivation, art, and science, there is a necessity of preserving things in that state; because, without it there cannot be sustenance for more, perhaps, than a tenth part of its inhabitants. The thing, therefore, now to be done is to remedy the evils and preserve the benefits that have arisen to society by passing from the natural to that which is called the civilized state. 

Agrarian Justice is Paine writing a proto-Henry George geolibertarianism argument after reading a sermon by one of God's men that He was Infinitely Wise in creating Rich and Poor. This pissed off Paine, who thought humans created advanced societies starting with agriculture, and this in turn created incredible wealth, but also: a squalor unseen in "native" populations, such as the North American native  peoples. "God" has nothing to do with the few rich and the many poor. Paine was outraged by this income inequality and proposed that everyone has an equal inheritance of land as a birthright, but only some have had the fortune to inherit (or sometimes, buy) enough land in which to make a decent living. And so: everyone - even the richest - should receive an annual payment, because we're all in this together. Most of us have been divested of our rightful inheritance of land. Paine says he's got nothing against the landed wealthy, but he is "shocked by extremes of wretchedness," and that "The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized." (Recall that Paine wrote this seven or eight years into the French Rev.)

I linked to the actual (very short) text in my first line. See what you make of it.

So, the lines quoted above seem like they could've been written by anyone. They seem like they were in the air among many of the Enlightenment revolutionaries and intellectuals. Was it Voltaire? I went looking through my Voltaire and nothing jumped out at me. He seems to agree, but whatever neurons fired in excitement when I read the Paine passage didn't evince a shock of recognition in Voltaire. I tried Rousseau and found a few pages that read as very proto-Marx, with a tinge of what Paine was getting at, but a bevy of neurological subsystems checked in: "That ain't it, chief." Having nothing better to do, I whiled away more of the better part of an early evening pulling books off shelves, collapsing on the couch, searching, getting diverted, going back on the trail, feeling foolish, cheering myself with Ezra Pound's line, something about true education having taken place "when one has forgotten which book..." But still: I mean, what's really the use of this search?

                                                     Thomas Paine

I guess I wanted to know if Paine had discernibly cribbed those lines from an earlier genius. At times I may be overly obsessed with the idea of origins. I happen to love Paine, seeing him as working class intellectual before the historical notion was formed. And he seized the time and rose to heroic levels.

I also get this similar feeling - "who did he steal this from? - when reading other authors, but rarely has it sent me on this Fool's Errand. Gawd, there was so much You Tube to watch. Films noir DVRed off of Turner Classic Movies. Internet porn. Bills to pay. Calls to return. Articles to write. "Real" reading to be done.

Some serious daydreaming was called for. I've been in similar spots before: have a vague feeling that there was some sort of connection to be documented, but the endeavor was like looking for a black cat in a coal cellar. But those subroutines had come through for me, countless times. And it always felt uncanny. What one must do - it seemed - was to "forget it" and go do something else. I took a long break and listened to Mussorgsky. Nothing.

Okay, okay, not a problem. There have been times when this took two weeks. Or so another set of subroutines seemed to say.

Then, just before I hit the hay, very late, after spending an evening reading unrelated books and topics (Born Losers by Sandage; Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented The Supernatural by Steinmeyer;  and Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons, which is so funny I need only pull it off the shelf before I start laffing, if you must know)...a steering committee drawn up from more modest subroutines suddenly said, "Yo! About that Paine-similar passage problem? We're thinking Spinoza." This was probably 4AM.

Bleary-eyed and slightly buzzed from a monstrously "big" double IPA, I meandered with building excitement back to my shelves. When had I last read Spinoza? I had a copy of his Ethics in my Great Books collection I'd bought from a guy I was renting a room from when I was in my early 20s. I'd grappled and floundered in Spinoza off and on, but mostly I'd read articles on his necessary subterfuges in publishing and eluding authorities in Amsterdam, the "freest" part of Europe, where the local Jews turned on him...jeez I was tired. Some nutjob in the local Dutch jewish community tried to stab Spinoza for being a heretic, or something. Spinoza died from inhaling industrial waste...something like that. OSHA was way in the offing. He'd been up to Huge doings in 'Dam, but had to stay on the QT for persecution's purposes. His family had been chased out of...was it Portugal? by antisemites. They'd been hounded everywhere by goddamned Jew-haters, and the Dutch were the most tolerant around and still Spinoza got shit there. Why couldn't I just scribble "check Spinoza" in my notebook and go to sleep?

I'm embarrassed to answer that question. Let me elude it now, by lamely employing the mountain-climber's gambit: 'Cuz it's there! It's in my personal library. Maybe.

So I start paging through the volume Descartes/Spinoza, vol 31. I feel like an idiot. Did I really ever understand any of this? And what time is it? 4:15 AM? Jeez look: here's a Euclidean diagram and he's trying to prove God's existence or something. Spinoza probably actually "believed" all this, but with hindsight may have been compartmentalizing his ideas in an effort at self-preservation.

Einstein said at one time (to the public) that he believed in Spinoza's God, who revealed Himself in the "harmony of all Being" or some stuff like that. Pantheism. A way to be a mystical Atheist-radical at that time and not be killed by The State. Or to dodge very-real fellow Jews who feel the need to overcompensate to the Dutch, by showing they can take care of their own...

Then other subroutines kicked in, chiming, "Spinoza summarized his entire book at the end for the idiots like you." Oh...right! I quickly flipped to Appendix, which visually reminded me of some of Nietzsche's books. I started skimming like mad. And there, at number XVII, I got the much-sought recognition shock:

Men also are conquered by liberality, especially those who have not the means wherewith to procure what is necessary for the support of life. But to assist every one who is needy far surpasses the strength or profit of a private person, for the wealth of a private person is altogether insufficient to supply such wants. Besides, the power of any one man is too limited for him to be able to unite every one with himself in friendship. The care, therefore, of the poor is incumbent on the whole of society and concerns only the general profit.

That's it! But how could it be? Was Spinoza even read by the Anglo or American Enlightenment thinkers? Was he translated into English then? It turns out he was, and if you Google "Thomas Paine and Spinoza" you see some interesting stuff. Interesting to me, anyway. 'Cuz damn if I don't feel ignorant sometimes. Most of the time.

                                                  Baruch Spinoza

Now here's what's most interesting to me, and you may have noted it yourself: the two passages, when read back-to-back, may seem dissimilar enough that I may seem to be making connections when they're really quite loose, even superficial. Paine addresses cultivation, art, science. Spinoza talks about how a private person who has the dough can't be expected to bring up the poor. But both Paine and Spinoza thought the poor should be cared for by some power of "wholeness" which I think stuck in my brain. Or at least that's my best interpretation, as of today, of the Situation in my nervous system and my ideas about economic justice.

What I think happened was what I'll call my emotional brain had filed the two passages together, somewhere "deep" in there, in my grey-goo. Neural clusters that "knew" about ideas of economic justice as encountered in Paine and Spinoza were close enough that, when my reading of Paine fired one circuit, a message was sent: you have another circuit that is quite related but you consider the two authors as being separate (I think I see Spinoza as a Continental rationalist Jew-genius, much persecuted, but far removed from the American and French Revs. Which I find out, was erroneous), so...you might want to obtain some of that intellectual "integrity" you say you value so much, dude.

Well, I was satisfied. If you've read this far, thanks for the indulgence.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cosmic Indifference and High Weirdness In The Natural World: Have A Swell Day!

High weirdness, and unforeseen existential threats. Threats to humans, that is. It's as if some Malign Creator was operating. Or worse: Something That Is Completely Indifferent. A poet once wrote "Vast, cool and unsympathetic." (CUE: demonic laughter.)

I will defer discussion on the Robot Apocalypse until it's too late...err...I mean...some other day. [But for a possible thrill, or interesting homework, read HERE, HERE and maybe HERE for a jumpstart, or just a jump-jolt. Hey, I'm as "American" as any of you when it comes to being fascinated by the End Times. My versions don't involve Jesus or Four Horsemen, though. I'm strictly a secular apocalyptic, when I'm in those morbid moods.]

                                        intelligent yellow slime-mold

Eerily Intelligent Beings Are Here and They Don't Have Nervous Systems
When I first started reading about the yellow slime molds I couldn't stop thinking about H.P. Lovecraft and his prescience. Or the Steve McQueen 1958 B-film blast The Blob. These slime molds, which are shape-shifters, depending on whether they find themselves in the forest (like a spatter of mustard on the side of a tree), or in a petri dish in a lab (like a piece of coral). They have no nervous system or brain, and yet they have been rigorously studied and have been shown to make decisions, anticipate change, and choose from a large selection of foods the very thing they need most. They seem to have memory, too. How so?

Well, when presented with a maze with food at the end, these "protists" (which are really a taxonomic category for something only dimly understood by us), send out long feelers along every route. They extend themselves...and they're only really single-celled amoebae! It's just that they're weird little unicellular buggers, with millions of nuclei, small sacs of DNA, proteins and enzymes. And they are constantly pulsating, gelatinous things, sorta like human muscle tissue. The cytoplasm is always pulsating rhythmically. But back to how they have memories.

As they extend themselves through a maze, one tendril of itself finds the food. The others retract, leaving a thin layer of translucent goo along the paths that were no good. Then, the Thing remembers the "right" path, almost 100% of the time. It's as if it leaves its memories in the environment.

O! The Other Ways of Being!

How do they eat? They engulf and ingest bacteria, spores from fungi, and other wee beasties. Very much like The Blob. A Physarum polycephalum has not yet eaten a human. Or rather: it has not been recorded.

These Things were originally studied because of the fascination with how, when you cut one in half, they'd reattach themselves. Scientists wanted to know how they did this; they had zero inklings that the Things were intelligent...Aye: intelligent: if an organism demonstrates memory, appropriate choice, anticipation of change, and an over-the-top ability to concoct a network of best ways to get around (their behavior has stunned scientists by mimicking the schema of the Tokyo railway system, something that took hundreds of Engineers to plan), then it seems we may need to redefine what intelligence "is." These slime molds have been around for at least 600 million years, possibly a billion years. And they have no brain. They have no nervous system. And they're scary-smart. It's reminiscent of something out of Lovecraft. They have been Around for far, far, far longer than Homo sapiens, who are only about 160,000 years old. The hominids are only about 15-20 million years old.

Physarum polycephalum: They're here, they smear, let's get used to it.

                                          ultra-deadly Box Jellyfish

Our Conquering Jelly Overlords Are Here
Like the yellow slime, these creatures have inhabited Earth since before the Pre-Cambrian Era.  The Cambrian Era was from around 540 million to 485 million years ago. [If you want to see what animal life would look like if Salvador Dali were The Creator and not blind evolution, see HERE, where I simply Googled "Cambrian Explosion Images." Hey, you're welcome.]

Jellyfish were around by about 550 million years ago, and they may have had the world's oceans all to themselves at first. They seem well on their way to having It All again, which would mean that aforementioned species, Homo sapiens, is doomed.

These Things are evolutionarily winners, no question. Bigtime. What are their strategies? How did they do so well? How do they reproduce? Well, imagine if you easily cloned yourself. Jellyfish do that. Some of 'em, anyway. Imagine you had a friend that was a hermaphrodite. You have a spat one day and yell out, "Go fuck yourself!" Your friend laffs and says, "What do you think I do?" And you laff too, knowing the irony. Some jellyfish have both male and female parts and can reproduce that way.

You have a male co-worker, imagine, that jerks off onto some place in the work-environment, and another female co-worker comes along and works the sperm into herself, later. Jellies do that, too. Some can fertilize themselves, aye, and some do courtship and copulation, like us. Other jellies simply break in two and now you've got twice the jellyfish, suddenly. Some jellyfish fuse together. Some are cannibals. It's worked well for them, all of those strategies. Who thinks we'll be here for another 500 million years? I don't see it. I'm optimistic, but that's insane.

What's so scary about them?, you're asking. Lemme tell ya.

They've devastated the fishing industries of Bulgaria, Georgia, and Romania. Because they eat the things that the anchovies eat. In the Gulf of Mexico, 15-pounders eat everything in sight: eggs, plankton: they shoot out a foam that captures plankton to make it easier for them to eat a huge meal. They eat and eat. And when Katrina hit and then the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf? All sea creatures suffered. Except the jellyfish. They seemed to like it. How?

Well, they have very low metabolisms, which allow them to survive in oxygen-free waters, for a period that other species can't. All over the world, too: in warm tropical waters, and near the polar ice caps. They're eating the plankton so whales are going to suffer, maybe go extinct. In just one cooling system in one Japanese nuclear reactor, they gum up the works with their own bodies to the tune of 150 tons per day. That's just one cooling system. They're really hard to get rid of too: one scientist said their bodies cling to man-made meshes like "thin plastic wrappers." They've caused havoc in India, they've capsized ships. They clogged up the US aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan until it had to be moved. 50 truckloads of jellyfish clogged a coal-fueled power plant in the Philippines, causing a total blackout on the islands.

What helps to curtail their works-gumming of human industrial structures? Sound, chemical repellants, electrical shocks and curtains of bubbles have all been tried. They all failed.

There's Chironex fleckeri, or the Box Jellyfish, which is a gelatinous bag of digestive tissues and gonads. It has 550 feet of tentacles, a head 12 inches across that has "bells" dangling from it. It drifts in the current, and if you get stung by it while swimming you're fucked. You have two minutes to live, four tops. This Lovecrafty Thing has eyes with a a retina, cornea and lenses, when most jellies lack those things. It has a brain and can learn and remember. It's huge and deadly and it's spreading throughout the globe.

There's a peanut-sized jelly: "Irukandji." The Australian Aborigines knew about this one long ago. This tiny thing stings you, barely needs to brush against your skin, and you hardly feel it. 30 minutes later a pain in your lower back sets in, like gangsters are taking a baseball bat to your kidneys. This is only the beginning of the fun. Nausea and vomiting set in, every minute for hours on end. You get spasms of pain shooting down your arms and legs, your blood pressure raises to a dangerous, killing level, and you find it very difficult to breath. Then you get something like what meth or coke addicts get: the feeling that bugs are crawling around under your skin, or worms. Many people beg the doctor to please let them die, quickly.

The Irukandji were thought to only inhabit the waters off of Australia, but now they're off the cape of Africa, and near Florida.

They come in very many shapes and sizes. They've formed a "stingy-slimy killing field" 30,000 square miles wide off the coast of Africa, eating everything in sight.

When you quarter a jellyfish the pieces regenerate and resume normal life as adults within three days. There are species of which, when one dies...they really don't die. In zombie-ish fashion, cells from the rotting body escape, float away, find each other and form a new jellyfish polyp, which is the junior stage of jellyfish-hood. Polyps need to attach to smooth, hard surfaces, and the competing species named Homo sapiens makes structures tailor-made for jellyfish polyps.

Also, the H. sapiens have done far more than any other species to pave the way for the Re-Emergence of the Jellies as Pre-eminent Beings of the Earth-Ocean: Homo sapiens has overfished its world oceans. Jellies can make food by sunlight, or just eat all the plankton. Drift nets and plastic bags have killed off the Jelly's main predators, like the Sea Turtle. From agricultural run-off into the oceans, the new species of H. sap has created hypoxia zones in the waters: vast regions of very little to zero oxygen, killing off all living things...except the Jellies. They can handle it. Their metabolism allows them to deal with it.

The H. sap has created, over 30 years, a 30% increase in acidification of the ocean. Higher levels of acids are eating through the hard calcium shells of many sea creatures. The Jellies just laff and whistle along, eating and gumming up the works. Also, the warmer oceans have only been more of a boon to the Jellies. Plankton slows climate change, but the Jellies are eating the plankton, so the warming on land for the H. sap may increase faster as time goes by.

"Even sober scientists are now talking of the jellification of the oceans," says a recent, wonderfully terrifying book. This book says the Day of No Return has long passed; we didn't even know it when it happened, and possibly the only thing we can do to combat this global takeover by these Terrible Beings is to adopt ancient (1700 years?) cuisine-behavior of the Chinese and Japanese, who eat jellyfish. Are you ready for just one more bite?

40,000 Bullies In The Neighborhood
Here's another thing almost no one in the world knew about until about 3 minutes ago, historically: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? One of those will hit Earth every 1-100 million years. That was a very big asteroid, and if one hit tomorrow, it would very likely end the time of H. sapiens. Through a dirt-cheap program ($200-$400 million; the cost of one fancy military helicopter) seeking to track all of the 40,000 asteroids a football field or larger that are roaming in our solar system (backyard, really), 90% of them have been pinpointed, and none look like they're heading our way.

But even some of the smaller ones that haven't been identified could do incredible damage. "Small" collisions happen every few centuries, like the 1908 Siberian-Tunguska one, that packed the destructive power of 300 Hiroshima bombs. That's small. And it didn't hit near a densely-populated area. The odds are that, when a Tunguska-sized one hits next, it will hit the ocean, 'cuz our planet is about 66% covered by water. This will cause a major tsunami, but hey: it could be worse. Am I right?

There are already some ingenious plans to "nudge" the Nemesis asteroid that we do discover has us in its gunsights. My favorite is the Gravitational Tractor, but first things first: let's get a very accurate census of all the Bullies who could wipe us out in an instant, even the "small" ones that could take out Paris, New York, Sydney...any one of the metropolises.

There's no cause for existential dread over the 40,000 Bullies, but they all represent an Existential Threat. But probably not as much as Global Warming, Overpopulation, Nuclear Weapons, Jellyfish, or Robots.

Although: Things could change with new info, eh?

Jeez, it's as if Nobody, No One, or No Thing cared about us, and we're maybe helpless to stop the pending destruction. Maybe Lovecraft was a major prophet?

The good news? Peanut butter tastes really good. So does beer. And sex is fun!

Some Articles That Were Consulted
"How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence"
Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-Ann Gershwin
Gershwin TV interview
"They're Taking Over"
"Target: Earth"
"Per Square Mile: What Are The Odds A Meteor Will Destroy A City?"

Thursday, September 5, 2013

On Bombing Syria: Obama, Red Lines, and Chemical Weapons

I remember one of the many reasons the Dadaists gave to their anti-art movement: it was a reaction to finding out that people were being bombed from airplanes. This was around 1915.

In that same War that so revolted the Dadaists, both sides used chemical weapons on each other. That was almost 100 years ago now. It seems like 1000 to me, but if you're dead you're dead, I guess. War being politics by other means, you can get shot through the throat and experience that sort of short death; you can explode in a bombing (I wonder what those experiences have been like? Virtually the same question as asking what's death like? A zen master was asked by a zen student, "What happens after death?" The zen master answers, "I don't know." The student replies, "But...you're a zen master." And the zen master says, "Yes, but I'm not a dead zen master.").

Before we resume, read (again) Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

                                          Well, at least it wasn't a chemical weapon

It seems to me what Obama and the international community of global elites who agreed on this shit are  saying, if we look at what actually has happened: We believe in killing and war in our own interests. We'll kill you from the sky with drones, drop bombs on you, we've used Agent Orange and the atomic bomb. We've napalmed kids and civilians. And yes <cough> we...mistakes may have been made when we armed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran and he used chemical weapons on the Kurds. It's just...this use of chemical weapons against civilians, by a little guy on the world stage like you, Assad? No! We will not stand for it! 
                                        Let us pray it wasn't chemical weapons here

Yes friends: death by chemical and biological weapons is pretty hideous. But that's life. And death. That's war! This invention of a "red line" that Assad wasn't to step over or the world-straddling Cop On The Beat Unistat will retaliate? It's fucking phony and misses the whole point. Once dropping bombs on civilians from planes was crossing a red line. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki the atom and hydrogen bombs were supposed to be red lines, but look at the tonnage of bombs dropped on little Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. More than seven million tons of bombs: more than twice that dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II. (And Unistat lost in Vietnam anyway.) Look at Iraq, fer crissakes. Hey my fellow Americans; who is this "we" we're talking about?

                                        Not sure how I feel about this...did they die by
                                        chemical weapons, or by the "normal" ways?

And: we torture. And no one who did the torturing or wrote laws justifying it were brought to justice. The tortures the United States is responsible for are, according to old fashioned Nuremburg Laws, crimes against humanity. But it's okay! Because we  are doing it. And we love freedom.

I suspect, but do not know, that Pentagon types think chemical weapons will become easier to obtain and use, and that they'll be used on "American soil," on civilians. And the panic and fallout will be too much. Worse: they fear this stuff will be used on themselves, the Actual Americans, the ones with Ivy League degrees and who sit on the Board of Directors of Fortune 500 companies. Because in Unistat in the 21st century, let's face it: if you don't have power and money, you are expendable, or at least a nuisance. 

This just in...I'm being handed a bulletin from the radical left-wing rag Foreign Policy. Sez here that C.I.A. files prove America helped Saddam as he gassed Iran. And I say: It's a new day! That's all water under the bridge, sometimes a freedom-loving society such as ours does, in its zeal to help the downtrodden of the Earth, makes mistakes, our hearts always in the right place, high atop the City on a Hill and and and....pffffffft!


A while back I blogged a bit on The Dictator's Handbook. Recently one of the co-authors, Alastair Smith, said Assad's chemical weapons attack was a shrewd move, and he explains why in this short article from Slate.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I have zero illusions about geopolitics, empires, wars, patriotism, bunting, the flag, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Chuck Norris or any of that bullshit. (Paradoxically to me: those I've met who seem to love all that are the same ones who tell me I need to "grow up.")

                                   Chemical weapons? Until we know, we won't
                                    know if her (his? their?) leader crossed a red line or 


Gawd, if we only had women running the planet! Eh? Huh? Who's with me on this? They know what it's like to bring life into the world; men kill because they blah blah can't give birth blah bleh...right?
I exchanged a few emails not long ago with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Smith's co-author of The Dictator's Handbook. One of the questions I asked him was if he thought more women being elected to office would make politics saner, more peaceful. Here's his reply:

The evidence at least for women in national leadership positions is that they generally act no differently than men, at least on the foreign policy front. (I don't follow the research in this area so don't know what it looks like on the domestic policy side of things). The argument that women will be more "humane" seems more like wishful thinking than logically-driven or empirically-supported fact. We might, however, expect some selection effect. Probably on balance women politicians are more likely to get elected in liberal constituencies rather than conservative ones (this is rank speculation on my part) and so the sample of elected women is likely to reflect their constituencies and therefore be somewhat more liberal than the average politician who is drawn from a broader, more representative sample of political views.
I hope this is helpful.


According to standard realpolitick  Neo-Machiavellian politics, Obama will look "soft" now if "he" doesn't do anything to retaliate. "He" actually shakes out to something like "our armies of well-trained killers." I mean, Obama said if you cross my red line I'll kick your ass, Bashir. Because, apparently, despite all the Yale and Harvard degrees involved here, we're perpetually in 6th grade. 

And now I shift to old movie lines:

"Victims? Don't be melodramatic. [Orson Welles as Harry Lime opens the door and the camera looks down from the Ferris Wheel high above] Look down there. Would you feel any pity if  one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep the money? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays."

[Harry Lime, again, to his old friend Holly Martin]: "Don't look so gloomy...Afterall, it's not that awful...In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed...they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

[Charlie Chaplin as Monsier Verdoux is on trial because he got caught doing something illegal that he was very good at and highly paid: he lured rich women into marriage, then killed them for their fortunes. With this money he kept his real wife and child well-fed during wartime.] 

"Wars, conflict - it's all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!" 

And again, M. Verdoux on trial:

"As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison."

Shortly after the 1939-45 war, Chaplin and Welles were seen by the Unistat authorities as dangerous un-American types and they were virtually forced to live in Europe. Because, remember Dear Readers: the Americans know and love "freedom."

                                      Tell the truth: how much does it matter to you
                                       HOW they died?