Overweening Generalist

Friday, May 27, 2016

On Hillary Clinton's UFOlogy

Since last December I've noted that Hillary Rodham Clinton (henceforth: HRC) has been openly talking about how she'd like to "get to the bottom" of what the Unistat gummint knows about UFOs/aliens.

Call me cynical (What? In this election cycle? Golly!), but I immediately thought of the neo-Machiavellian political theories of guys like Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and their Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics from 2012: even in a democracy you need enough coalitions of support from the "selectorate" in order to win; you may be yanking other coalition's chains, but you need as many voting blocs of special interests as possible. The ones with money who helped you get elected matter most to you, and if you yank their chains the wrong way, you're cooked.

I thought, "Well, she's going for the X-Files-obsessed vote here." Cynical! (Of me and/or HRC.)

Then I continued to follow HRC and her UFO talk, and I went back and researched a bit to see how phony HRC might be on this subject. It gets complicated. Which is how I like it.

While Donald Trump trots out around one conspiracy theory per day lately: Vincent Foster was killed by the Clintons; Obama may still be a secret Muslim; Scalia was murdered and it was covered up; vaccines cause autism; many thousands of muslims were seen celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11/01; Ted Cruz's father had a hand in the JFK hit; Bill Clinton has sexually "assaulted" several women, etc...he's clearly going for the Nutjob vote, which I think he already had sewn up a long time ago.

I'd say, "Maybe time to dial it back a bit, Donny," but he'd probably have his goons haul me out of the room, telling said goons to "Knock the crap out of him. I'll pay your legal fees." (Ladies and germs: the future President of Unistat!)

I figured HRC needed to tap into the quasi-religious and conspiracist idea that the Unistat gov still has classified files about aliens. That's probably a sizable voting bloc, eh? (The voters, not the aliens.)

It turns out she seems to have been genuinely interested in UFOs (she corrected Jimmy Kimmel on his show earlier this year: the scientific, evidence-based community prefer UAPs [Unidentified Aerial Phenomena]), which greatly - apparently? - impressed the ardent UFO-philes out there. HRC met with Laurence Rockefeller  in 1995, at his Wyoming ranch. She was photographed with serious physicist Paul Davies's book Are We Alone?

(Coincidentally, Davies very recently wrote an article for Scientific American that posits maybe life in the universe is exceedingly rare, afterall...assumptions that there must be life seeded all over this universe - the one you're probably in right now - seem unwarranted...is Davies trying to distance himself from HRC? Wheels within wheels...)

Longtime Clinton operative John Podesta is an X-Files aficionado and has talked about getting the files declassified, asserting recently that "There are still classified files that could be declassified." (Maybe it depends on what the term "are" means?)

Kimmel told HRC that he'd asked her husband and Obama about the UFOs and they didn't find anything. Hillary: "Well I'm going to do it again." Great, because it's not like the economy needs fixing or anything. Go for it, Hills-y baby! (Obama has treated questions about UFOs as a joke.)

So, while Bill was Prez 1993-2000, they weren't able to "get to the bottom of it"? Why? Maybe lots of stuff has happened since then? Who knows...Let's try to keep an open mind here. Let's keep digging...

I stumbled on to an article about former Prez Gerald Ford, who, as a Michigan Congressman in 1966, responded to UFO sightings over Michigan by calling for a Congressional Hearing. He didn't get the hearing, and seems to have taken his constituents' fears seriously (this was only five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War in full swing, UFOs not the humorous Thing they are now), but Ford did get a long report on UFO sightings from the U. of Colorado and Project Blue Book, which ran from 1947-1969. This report considered 12,618 UFO sightings, all explained as weather balloons, atmospheric phenomena, or classified test flights, and a few other things. 701 sightings were still inconclusive.

The conspiracy-minded will want me to mention that Ford was on the Warren Commission. Done. Anyway...

Oh yea: Project Blue Book? Recently, the CIA tweeted that all those UFO sightings in the 1950s and '60s? It was them! I mean...not THEM-them, but the CIA. Which is "them" enough for me. Yea, verily the CIA asserts they were covering up their very high-flying U-2 Program, 1954-74. So, a branch of the Unistat government withheld evidence from a future US President and anyone else who might be interested in what the hell was going on with odd things in the sky. The cads! Those...bounders have done it again!

'Cuz, "national security," of course. If you read the article, professional "skeptic" and debunker Robert Sheaffer is calling bullshit on the CIA here. O! sooo rich! So meaty! Sheaffer once accused Robert Anton Wilson of "malicious, misguided fanaticism." (Personally, I prefer the properly "guided" fanaticism, but that's just me.) Sheaffer is long-suffering. In 1990, he charged the novelist Wilson as one who "attacks language and thought" the way a "terrorist attacks"...and to add insult, Wilson seems to have enjoyed a hearty belly-laugh over what he did as a writer of satire. Horrible!

To be honest, why are you even reading what some dipshit blogger like the OG thinks about these ideas? Clearly: Robert Sheaffer is the go-to Grand Poo-Bah of all things honest and capital tee Truth. What does Sheaffer think of HRC wanting to get to the bottom of the UFO/aliens thing?

HRC and her UFOlogy Sancho Panza, Podesta, just want transparency, evidence-based science, and the destigmatization of those who are interested in whether or not We Are Not Alone. The UFO/alien cohort (Sorry! Very snarky of me: the UAP/alien cohort) is an estimable one too: Stephen Bassett, who spends his time lobbying Congress on extraterrestrial/UFO issues? His organization has 2.5 million Twitter followers. That could put you over the top. (In November.)

December, 2015: HRC tells a New Hampshire reporter, "We may have been visited already." (Yes, and you may have already won the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes of one million dollars cash!)

I like this line from HRC: "There's enough stories out there that I don't think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up." Point well taken. They could be in the bathroom, or out by the swing-set near the wading pool. The possibilities seem well-nigh endless.

In 1996, Bob Woodward's book The Choice made fun of HRC (what a meanie!), seeming to ridicule her for having conversations with dead heroes of hers, like Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In delving in some archives (Okay: I read about six short articles published in the last year) and re-visiting the Wm Jefferson Clinton years in Office, I was reminded that, indeed, the X-Files seemed to run alongside his term. And Independence Day did boffo box office. And HRC openly complained about a "vast right wing conspiracy" out to get her and Bill. (I think she had something tangible with that last bit of conspiracy thinking, but this was all pre 9/11/01; it was practically Leave It To Beaver time compared to what we're looking at now.)

And you know what? Even though I confess I'm not a HRC fan - not by a longshot - I do think she has some good points about her UFOlogizing. But it sounds better coming from the mouth of a higher-up who may as well be anonymous to me: a luminary named Christopher Mellon, a former Senate Intelligence Committee guy, former intel at the Dept of Defense: "It shouldn't be a source of embarrassment to discuss it. [UFOs/UAPs/aliens- OG] We should be humble in terms of recognizing the extreme limits of our own understanding of physics and the universe."

Amen to that, Mellon. (Can I borrow a $50-spot?)

So: I've rambled fairly incoherently through this blogspew, and I have no excuse save for I'm stoned on some uber-dank OG Fire and trying to laff my way into November. I've considered my alternatives, and laffing seems the best.

Two more tangential points to make, and then I promise I'll be more sober for the next installment of the OG:

1. Blogger Justin Raimondo thinks Trump is a "false flag" candidate. Or at least as of last July Raimondo thought this. He says that just before Trump got into the Republican race he was trying to help his friend, Hillary Rodham Clinton. How else do you describe the sheer INSANITY of Trump's gambits so far? (Note the date Raimondo wrote this. What does he think now? No seriously: what does he think? Anyone know? I'm too stoned to Bing it.) And what do YOU think of this idea? I mean: consider the implications. Have you read Baudrillard on the Simulacrum? Is it time to resume your studies of the deep structure in The Matrix films?

Which leads me to Noam Chomsky, who recently said a Trump Prez is basically a "death warrant" for humanity and the planet. Noam the Subtle. (I confess I'd rather he was wrong on this one, if for no other reason than my overweening bias towards humanity not dying on a burned-up, uninhabitable planet.) So yea...

2. In Chomsky's 2007 book, What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World: Interviews With David Barsamian, Noam says this:

A couple of years ago I came across a Pentagon document that was about declassification procedures. Among other things, it proposed that the government should periodically declassify information about the Kennedy assassination. Let people trace whether Kennedy was killed by the mafia, so activists will go off on a wild goose chase instead of pursuing real problems or getting organized. It wouldn't shock me if thirty years from now we discover in a declassified record that the 9/11 industry was also being fed by the administration. -pp.39-40

So, I end with epistemology down the rabbit hole: Chomsky bristles when you say he's a "conspiracy theorist." He does "institutional analysis." (He does it really well, methinks.) BUT: If the JFK hit is the great conspiracy - or at least in your Top Five - Chomsky seems to be saying here that the government has been engaged in a conspiracy to mislead people into thinking that the government conspires to mislead people.

Let this sink in.

Or not.

Does Chomsky make a valid point here? A sound one?

See you on the Other Side of the Looking Glass.

Some Other Reading I Did Before I Bloviated; Lots of the Quoted Material Is Found Here:
"Hillary Clinton Is Serious About UFOs," by AJ Vicens, Mother Jones, 25 March, 2016

"Hillary Clinton Gives UFO Buffs Hope She Will Open the X-Files," by Amy Chozick, New York Times, 10 May 2016

"What Hillary Clinton Says About Aliens Is Totally Misguided," by Natalie Drake, National Geographic, 11 May 2016

"A Guide to the Many Conspiracy Theories Donald Trump Has Embraced," by Brett Neely, NPR, 24 May 2016

"Welsh Government Uses Klingon to Respond to Serious UFO Questions," by Sebastian Anthony, Ars Technica, 12 July 2015

"The Government Tested a Flying Saucer in 1956. Here's the Full Report," by Rebecca Onion, Slate, 11 July 2013

June 1962 issue of Paul Krassner's The Realist: Krassner reported that UFOs were really diaphragms dropped by nuns on their ascent to heaven.

"NASA Preps Real Flying Saucer For Takeoff," by Amanda Kooser, CNET, 19 May 2014

"US Secretly Run by Nazi Space Aliens, Says Iranian News Agency"

"Alien Nation: Have Humans Been Abducted By Extraterrestials?," by Ralph Blumenthal, Vanity Fair, 10 May 2013 (Robert Redford planned a film about heretic Harvard psychologist John Mack)

OG here: Just a thought: why worry about possible Extraterrestrial Intelligence "visiting" us, when we already have yellow slime-mold intelligence, a jellyfish takeover in the making, and thousands of asteroids that can wipe us out?  And nota quite bene I'm not even mentioning the antibiotic apocalypse, runaway global warming, AI singularity Worst Case scenarios, or the Trump Presidency.

Have a fine day!

                                           אמנות על ידי בוב קמפבל

Friday, May 20, 2016

Synthetic Biology and Giambattista Vico

Less than two months ago as I write this, J. Craig Venter and his team published in Science the deets on how they built a synthetic organism, called "Syn3.0," and it's got only 473 genes. This is the lowest number of genes that we know of for a self-replicating living thing that doesn't require a host.

It's a sober-seeming Frankenstein scene, is it not?

HERE is a nice write-up in Nature on this

They did this via trial and error; they didn't build Syn3.0 from scratch. They took a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, which lives in cattle, and painstakingly and systematically knocked out genes to see if they were truly essential. If a gene seemed to be essential for life, or a gene played a critical role in the regulation of other genes, they left it in. They whittled away a lot.

A complex bacterium like E. coli has around 6000 genes; humans have around 19,500.

What appears most fascinating to Venter and his crew (and me too) is this: once they finished and confirmed they had synthesized/whittled away a new organism, they still couldn't figure out exactly what 149 of the 473 genes did that were so essential to life. So: we don't know 1/3 of what is essential to life. We have our work cut out for us...or these synthetic biologists/fancy bio-hackers do.

The rest of us, like the girl who just ate a slice of pizza with anchovies, wait with baited breath.

This highlights how much we don't know, and makes ever-clearer the reason why, after Venter and scientists working for the Unistat government "mapped" the human genome 13-16 years ago, miracle breakthroughs in health and medicine did not pour forth immediately after.

                                              a human-made bacterium, believe it or not
A Variation on a Theme
My favorite analogous explanation for this went something like: for hundreds of years we heard wonderful music but weren't sure where it was coming from. Through a Herculean effort by legions of biologists, eventually we learned that this music had the structure of something we discovered was a "piano." Tremendous efforts by public sector genius and private wizards finally produced a map of the music: a Steinway piano! What a fantastic discovery of human ingenuity!

But then: you need to learn how to play Beethoven. Just having the piano and knowing that you press certain keys little hammers inside struck strings and made "notes"? Not good enough. We had to actually understand the thing. We had to learn how to play something like the Appassionata

Tall order? Of course! Would we shrink from it and ditch our lessons and not practice our Hanon exercises? No. We're all in. Here's where Vico makes his entrance...

Expository Material
Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), an early admirer of Descartes, later did a 180 from "Renato" (as Vico refers to him in his Autobiography) and said no: it's not correct that we humans can only truly have knowledge of the physical world because we can apply our rationality and math to understand it; Renato said we can't know the human past, so forget about it. Vico said, anzi, we can only truly know what we have ourselves made: the social world. Law, politics, art, history, etc. Even mathematics is a human construction. We did not make Nature, so we can't truly know it. Scholars of Vico (who call themselves Vichians and not Viconians) refer to this idea as Vico's principle of verum factum

Because of verum factum, various scholars have called Vico the first Anthropologist, the inventor of the sociology of knowledge, the first great modern sociologist, etc. It's interesting. I don't know what to think, because Vico's writing - especially in his magnum opus The New Science - seems to alternate between staggeringly prescient ideas and really crazy and "wrong" ones. Here is one of his most famous passages, and the one cited most often with regard to verum factum:

Still, in the dense and dark night which envelopes remotest antiquity, there shines an eternal and inextinguishable light. It is a truth which cannot be doubted: The civil world is certainly the creation of humankind. And consequently, the principles of the civil world can and must be discovered within the modifications of the human mind. If we reflect on this, we can only wonder why all the philosophers have so earnestly pursued a knowledge of the world of nature, which only God can know as its creator, while they neglected to study the world of nations, or civil world, which people can in fact know because they created it. The cause of this paradox is that infirmity of the human mind noted in Axiom 63. Because it is buried deep within the body, the human mind naturally tends to notice what is corporeal, and must make a great and laborious effort to understand itself, just as the eye sees all external objects, but needs a mirror to see itself. - section 331, translation by Dave Marsh

A couple of notes:
- The Inquisition was very strong in Naples, when Vico was doing his thing. The reference to "God" in his text is problematic, to my eyes. Perhaps he truly believed all the things he says about "God," but I see plenty of room for doubt. In his Autobiography he certainly seems to have been heavily influenced by Lucretius, who popularized Epicurus. Vico also has plenty of oblique things to say about the deep and enduring history of class warfare and he doesn't seem all that admiring of history's aristocracy. Vico was one of those thinkers who seemed to have read everything available; he had personally known thinkers around Naples who had paid for speaking out for thought free of Church restrictions. He certainly had read about others who'd suffered at the hands of the Inquisition.

-Hobbes and many other thinkers of antiquity and the Renaissance had ideas like verum factum, but they only mentioned this notion in passing; with Vico this idea is central to his thought.

-Axiom 63 reads thus:
Because of the senses, the human mind naturally tends to view itself externally in the body, and it is only with great difficulty that it can understand itself by means of reflection. This axiom offers us this universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are transferred from physical objects and their properties to signify what is conceptual and spiritual. 

Finally: OG's Point, If Indeed He Has One?
When I first delved into Vico I thought verum factum was wrong: the revolution in modern science since the Renaissance was based on a special way of looking into nature: some phenomenon needed to be explained, hypotheses competed until a line of very fecund thought - a theory - led to a cascade of knowledge about the physical world. Ideas were freely exchanged and published and the idea that my experiment, while exciting, needed to be replicated by many others working independently for it to be considered "true"...this seemed to me like a vast leap in human knowledge. At the same time, the idea of "knowledge" in the Humanities (which to this day I love with a very deep passion) was not making gigantic strides. When scientific knowledge cashed out into Technology, which accelerated the human world, I just thought Vico, while exceedingly erudite and weird and entertaining, was a bit daft here.

Later, when reading people like Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Foucault and Latour, I realized the physical sciences didn't actually work as neatly as I'd been led to believe. Further, the most successful physical theory ever - the quantum theory - led to philosophical quagmires dizzying and surreal. Did we really understand the physical world, or did we pragmatically go with what worked, while retroactively explaining what was "really" going on?

                                          Richard Feynman's blackboard at CalTech                           

Apocalypse and/or Utopia
Now, we are making living things. I'm quite sure Syn3.0 is merely the first of thousands of human-made living things. And Venter and his colleagues are playing Creator in order to understand, at a fine-grain level, the physical, chemical and biological way something does its thing.

Is verum factum then a "dead" idea? I don't know, but when Venter and his guys came up with an artificial living thing a few years ago, it prompted Obama to issue a bioethics review and the Vatican challenged Venter on his claim of creating life. And so has it ever been...

Finally: if you read the link to the article in Nature, you may have noted that Venter and his crew inserted their own names - literally - into the deep structure of Syn3.0. Why? As watermarks, a way of marking this territory of Life as human-made. They also inserted some quotes and one was from Richard Feynman's blackboard, as seen in the photo above: "What I cannot create I do not understand."

Sounds a lot like Vico to me.

"In Newly-Created Life Form, a Major Mystery," by Emily Singer

"Scientists Synthesize the Shortest Known Genome Necessary For Life," by Amina Khan

"Why Would Scientists Want to Build a Human Genome From Scratch?", by Sally Adee

The New Science, by Giambattista Vico, translated by Dave Marsh


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Updates and Re-Takes On Some Old Posts: Toxo, Hot Peppers and Boredom

A. Toxoplasmosis 
I had written a bit on Toxoplasmosis gondii  HERE. This is a weird microbe that infects around 11% of Unistatians and other countries have a much higher infection rate. If infected by this parasite, most people's immune systems keep it in check; for others it appears to get into the brain, cause cysts there (Ew!), and very weird stuff: it makes women more aggressive; men become more impulsive and less fearful when they probably should be cautious. One way we get it is via contact with domesticated cat feces. It rarely kills anyone; it simply makes them act strangely.

Right after I wrote about it, another study came out. (Secondhand HERE.) Its lead author, E.Fuller Torrey, thinks cats should be seen as more dangerous than most of us think they are. Having a cat around in your childhood might lead to schizophrenia or other mental illness in adulthood, their study suggests.

Sidelight: Interestingly to sombunall readers of this blog, Dr. Torrey published a book on Ezra Pound in 1984; I've read it: Torrey thinks Pound and his pals in high places got away with pulling a fast one on the Unistat gummint: Pound was found, basically, insane for broadcasting his at-times vile antisemitic thoughts over the radio with Mussolini's imprimatur, and therefore Pound avoided a death sentence for treason.

Adding to this bizarre infection, a study in France sought to understand the possible evolutionary aspect of Toxo. Some chimps were infected with it, and urine from a leopard didn't scare them away like it should have. Today, mice and rats infected with Toxo aren't afraid of domesticated cats like they ought to be, for their own survival. I also learned that lions and tigers are not predators of chimps, but leopards are. I will never become a zoologist at this point...

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky is fascinated by the Toxo research, while his equally brilliant colleague at Stanford's rival, U. of California at Berkeley, Michael B. Eisen, said this study is interesting, but the chimps' sense of smell could be set off by factors other than their Toxo infection.

So: Toxo may have jumped from being incubated in the guts of a Big Cat, to domesticated cats circa 15,000 years ago. But I don't see the evolutionary Big Picture of Toxo, other than it's doing what it's got to do to keep going generation after generation, like viruses. It makes some of us act really weird, and humans in our pre-history who ended up being eaten by big cats? They're not any of our ancestors. I'd like to hear an Intelligent Design person explain this one.

B. On Hot Peppers
Three and a half years ago I blogged about, among other things, my love for very hot peppers, and how I might have hallucinated in a Thai restaurant near Berkeley due to an extreme hot pepper event. I still chase after the buzz, and the quest to develop the hottest peppers in the world continues unabated.

Recently I ran across a fascinating article by a Berkeley writer (who I only know by name), Andrew Leonard. "Why Revolutionaries Love Spicy Food: How the Chili Pepper Got To China."

Now, I consider Nautilus one of the best online magazines, but the comments for this article were, I thought, really horrid. So many fine points made by Leonard missed! (Also: Leonard invites semantic reaction by asserting that "revolutionaries" like really hot peppers, when he really only makes a strong case for those Chinese coming out of Sichuan Province.) Was George Washington a lover of hot peppers? Doing the research: no. Karl Marx? Probably not. Che? He appears to have liked spicy food, but he didn't make a huge deal out of it. One of the highlights of Leonard's piece is the story of how former German schoolteacher Otto Braun, turned Soviet counter-espionage agent, was sent to advise Mao, and couldn't get used to the very spicy food, and Mao is quoted, "The food of the true revolutionary is red pepper."

U. of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin had long been interested in why some people really love hot, spicy foods and peppers. Why do peppers seem "hot" when they aren't? Because capsaicin activates pain receptors (called TRPV1) for actual hot things. It's a delightful glitch, methinks. Rozin thought people attracted to hot peppers and who enjoy the taste and the pain must be the same sorts of people who are thrill-seekers, chance-takers...maybe even revolutionaries? Mao thought the pepper-lover is ready to fight and win; Rozin later coined the term "benign masochism" for pepper-lovers.

(So who are the malignant masochists? Poor Trump supporters?)

Decades after Rozin's guesses about hot pepper-lovers, research has validated his ideas. A Penn.State study showed a significant correlation between "sensation seeking" and love for hot peppers. (Italics mine to remind you it's tentative.)

Leonard goes into the history of Sichuan Province: where, about 250 years after Columbus, hot peppers made their way and grew easily and cheaply and preserved themselves for long periods and added flavor to dishes, vitamins B and C, and were antibacterial to boot.

The history of Sichuan and its de-population in the 16th century due to banditry, famine and rebellions, followed by an influx of 1.7 million the next century (fall of the Ming, rise of the Qing) is one Leonard tries to tie with the hot and humid province, the ying/yang medicinal philosophy, the cheapness of raising hot peppers there, and risk-taking personalities on the move due to internal strife. Because these hardy souls lived through tough times and migrated to Sichuan from other parts of China, the idea is that revolutionary personalities are prevalent there. And hey, I dig a spicy-food-loving lady too. But the neurobiological research so far shows that these pepper-lovers may just be more thrill-seeking; I think political revolutionary is a mere sub-type. Still, read the article, 'cuz it's pretty good if you're into that sorta thing.

It seems people are probably not born with a penchant for spicy hot peppers, and need to become habituated. I think I habituated myself, and it could be because I'm what Linda Bartoshuk calls a "nontaster": the number of fungiform papillae on my tongue make me like my coffee black and strong, my beer very hoppy and bitter, my peppers really hot, etc. However, I have never considered myself a thrill-seeker in the ordinary sense of the term. I do seek novelty...

C. On Boredom
I assayed some aspects - mostly my subjectivity - toward boredom HERE. With the availability heuristic - or is it more like "priming"? - once I've written on some topic, that topic suddenly appears everywhere.

A book called Unbored came to my attention. Although it's for younger people, I saw a lot of my own thinking on the topic reflected there. In delving into Robert Anton Wilson's Sex, Drugs and Magick, looking for a reference about something else, I happened to re-read a part of RAW's discussion of Aleister Crowley's book Diary of a Drug Fiend:

In the third, and most controversial part of the book, "Purgatorio", Peter and Lou attempt a cure under the auspices of a mysterious magician named King Lamus - a thinly disguised portrait of Crowley himself. At the Abbey of Thelema (based on an actual religious retreat once run by Crowley in Sicily), Peter and Lou are put in a situation where all the cocaine and heroin they could possibly want is immediately and easily available to them. King Lamus tells them, using Crowley's favorite slogan, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

There is a gimmick, of course. In fact, there are several gimmicks. The abbey, although hardly as austere as a Christian monastery, is quite isolated from civilization; Peter and Lou are soon confronted with the most underrated but powerful force in the world - boredom. There are no movies, nightclubs, or other distractions. When they complain, King Lamus tells them again, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." They soon discover that, in spite of their hedonistic existence, they have never actually done their "will" in a profound sense, but have only followed momentary whims. Isolated at the abbey, they are forced to ask themselves, again and again, what they truly do "will" for their subsequent lives.

Take a few moments to ponder this?

Boredom is being tackled by neuroscientists: if you've ever been tackled by a neuroscientist, you know what I mean. But I jest. Scientist Bill Greisar says of boredom that it's so pervasive it "suggests it serves some critical role in behavior." Which I think Crowley - a more interesting psychologist to my eyes - saw in the early part of the century. In one of many articles on boredom studies, Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage comes up, as does Dickens, and the idea of one thinker that boredom is a milder form of disgust, which took me some time to "see." (Right now, I've gone back to not "seeing" much of a relationship between Boredom and Disgust, and I'm afraid it simply was never meant to be. I'd like to fix up Boredom with Anger...)

Many studies have shown that boring activities lead to more creativity, even boring reading activities. ("In some circumstances" was the caveat from one researcher.)

In a creative activity bored subjects performed better than distressed, elated and relaxed subjects. (I wonder how they provoked elation?) The physiology of boredom is interesting: you're more stressed (cortisol in bloodstream), with an increased heart rate, unmotivated by your surroundings, and have a difficult time sustaining attention.

What could be the purpose of boredom? A Texas A&M study suggests boredom is something like hunger or thirst: it motivates you to change your immediate circumstances. You seek novelty, new goals and situations. "By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed." Anticipation of a change in mental state is associated with our old pal Dopamine.

Philosopher Andreas Elpidorou says boredom is essential for a decent life and life without it would be a nightmare.

Around the same time, I stumbled upon the idea that, how can we still be bored in the 21st century? The idea is that too much stimulation is boring.

Since my initial blog on boredom, I've become convinced that I do get bored. It's probably not true of my assertion that I'm never bored. It's a matter of degree, which reduces to the felt amount of time bored, which for me isn't much. Id est: my moments of boredom are so brief, I don't frame them as "me being bored." I simply move on to the next thing. And there are endlessly interesting things of easy avail to me. Perhaps I'm some sort of intelligent simpleton?

I consider my lifetime love of reading here paramount. How many departures from my paramount "reality" are available to me in books? It's endless. It's good for a reliable squirt of dopamine into my brain-pan.

Not long ago I read a wonderful novella by Anton Chekhov, The Story of a Nobody, from around 1893. The description of the main male antagonist's friend, a logical man named Pekarasky, who can multiply two three-digit numbers in his head immediately, has railway and finance tables memorized, can convert currencies mentally and accurately:

But for this extraordinary intelligence many things that even a stupid man knows were quite incomprehensible. Thus he could not understand at all why it is that people get bored, cry, shoot themselves and even kill others, why they worry about things and events that do not affect them personally, and why they laugh when they read Gogol or Saltykov-Schedrin. 

Is this not a creepy guy, this Pekarsky? Doesn't something about him seem vaguely monstrous to you?

Walker Pearcy's theory of hurricanes seems to fit in here nicely. Malaise and despair and world-weariness can be fixed by a you-must-act-now situation, which is the hurricane. My view is that we need to pay attention and develop a mental "patch" so that it doesn't require a hurricane or car accident in order to make our interiorities vital again.

                                           kunst: Mr. Bob Campbell

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Solo Flight: On Masturbation

May is International Masturbation Month, because hey, why not? You've probably already celebrated it without even knowing it. I say glibly "hey why not?," but its genesis had to do with Unistat Surgeon General under Bill Clinton, Joycelyn Elders, saying publicly that masturbation is a safe way to explore sexuality and (gasp!) maybe we should tell kids that in school. She also had enlightened ideas about drug use, so she had to go. Unistat was and still is chock-full of anti-sex hypocrites and sexual fascists and "morally correct" authoritarians with major sticks up their asses.

So, in comparatively enlightened San Francisco, the response by sex-positive activists was to make May the month to celebrate masturbation, about which James Joyce once praised its "wonderful availability," and try to turn the cultural tide against the hypocrisy and lies and fear-mongering of anti-masturbationists. It's been almost 22 years since the Erisian Ms. Elders was forced out, and it could be that she will be talked about as a cultural hero, a sexual freedom fighter, in a decade or so. It's in our hands, ladies and germs, so get to it!
Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews

Q: What is the question to which the answer is: 9 W?

A: Mr. Wagner, do you spell your name with a V?

I remember this from an interview with OULIPO member Harry Mathews (b.1930), often cited as the sole American member of that group. Mathews has talked about how Stravinsky and Bartok opened up his mind to breaking the rules in writing poetry, when he was 13. So far my favorite book by Mathews is his Singular Pleasures, which is nothing but 61 very short literary snapshots of people masturbating, all over the world. Compared to most of his work, it's extremely accessible, but I find it sweet and daring and frank and funny and therefore liberating.

A native woman has disappeared into the jungle upstream from Manaus. She is alone. She wants to do what she had so often done until the day of her fifteenth birthday, ten years before, when she became a woman: straddle once again the resilient trunk of a young rubber-band tree.

A man of sixty-three belonging to the Toronto chapter of MAID successfully masturbates in a slaughterhouse while steers are being killed and disembowelled. His achievement is not recognized after it is discovered that people of both sexes bribe their way into the slaughterhouse every day in order to perform this very act.

A twenty-four-year-old cellist is sitting naked on a stool in her bedroom in Manilla. Her legs are spread; her left hand pulls back the folds of her vulva; her right hand is drawing the tip of the 'cello bow over her clitoris in fluttering tremolo.

Somewhere north of the Bering Straits, sitting on the edge of an ice floe, his face impassive, all movement concealed beneath thicknesses of pelt and fur, an Eskimo male of thirty-one is bringing himself to an orgasm of devastating intensity in the slickness of dissolving blubber.

Mathews's OULIPO colleague Georges Perec - perhaps best known for A Void, a novel accomplished without use of the letter e, which he tied down in his typewriter - called Singular Pleasures "a great ecumenical work."

                                              Joycelyn Elders, heretic     

You Too Can Become a "Solosexual"

That's how a gay man with the pseudonym "Jason Armstrong" is describing himself. A "bate sesh" should take three hours, or why bother? He lights candles, looks at himself in a mirror, jerks off alone with other guys online (a very special way of being alone?), just really takes his solo pleasure seriously.

His spirit is with the sex-positive female activists who started Masturbation Month is the wake of the Elders travesty, saying he talks publicly about masturbation (asserting it was more difficult coming out gay than as a confirmed masturbator) because a "discourse about sexuality that affirms us" is like a utopia. I was moved by his drive to alter his consciousness via jerking off; getting into the "batehole," which is "That place where you completely lose yourself to the experience and broach another consciousness." In another place he says it's like "flying," which suggests I should take my own masturbations more seriously.

Some reading this may think about Armstrong and say, "Come off it," but I think he's describing an essential move away from ordinary reality. We all do this. The sociologist Peter Berger called these altered states "finite provinces of meaning.":

"Now, there is one reality that has a privileged character in consciousness, and it is precisely the reality of being wide awake in ordinary, everyday life. That is, this reality is experienced as being more real, and as more real most of the time, as compared with other experienced realities (such as those of dreams or of losing oneself in music)."

Berger says his mentor in phenomenological sociology, Alfred Schutz, called the primary reality the "paramount reality" and departures from the paramount reality were "enclaves," but Schutz also used William James's term "subuniverses."

I know for some readers this discussion has taken a rather odd turn, but it's my own weirdo turn of mind, so, here's more of Berger writing about subuniverses/finite provinces of meaning/enclaves, and Armstrong's "batehole":

"These are not abstruse theoretical considerations but rather are explications of very common experiences. Suppose one falls asleep - perhaps while working at one's desk - and has a vivid dream. The reality of the dream begins to pale as soon as one returns to a wakeful state, and one is then conscious of having temporarily left the mundane reality of everyday life. That mundane reality remains the point of departure and orientation, and when one comes back to it, this return is commonly described as 'coming back to reality' - that is, precisely, coming back to the paramount reality."
-all Berger quotes from The Heretical Imperative, p.35

To get into Armstrong's "batehole" is to depart from your paramount reality and enter a finite province of meaning, or subuniverse. And you thought you were merely "rubbing one out"!

                                                    Prof. Ingvild Gilhus    


Amazon Is There For You

There's a LOT of nasty things I could say about this company, but now is not the time. Rather I will link to two items and see what you make of them.

1. A 55-gallon drum of Passion Lubes, Natural Water-Based Lubricant. No comment, save for the wonder of who buys this and how it's used. And the possible scenarios, one of which I just noticed flitted through my mind: a scene that makes anything from Caligula look like a child's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

2.) Kleenex Everyday Facial Tissues, Pack of 36. Since 2013, consumer James O. Thach has received over 10,000 "review helpful" votes, and if you read his review you can see why. The warm reception for his review probably fits best into the third of Ingvild Gilhus's three theories of laughter: the "relief theory," which says we laugh and feel relief for being able to express something over that which is forbidden. Or: be an audience to someone who says forbidden things. Robert Anton Wilson told me he thought this was one of his favorite theories of laughter, and why humor must be used if you're going to discuss taboo issues. To me, George Carlin was the master of this stuff.


Fapping in the Great Books

Wikipedia does a good job on meat-beating, flogging the bishop, wanking, self-polluting, jerkin' the gherkin, beating around the bush, polishing the pearl, muffin buffin', roughing up the suspect, engaging in a menage a moi, and juicing. (These are just some of hundred-plus euphemisms I picked up from Spears's dictionary of Slang and Euphemism, and this Internet article. If you have a favorite that's not mentioned here, lay it on me in the comments.)

Kant and Voltaire seemed to buy Tissot's idiot ideas about self-pleasure. If you didn't read the Wiki (I don't blame ya), you're probably still not surprised that, soon after the Romans (who thought you ought to fap or schlick with your left hand, something sinister about that), masturbation suddenly caused idiocy, cancer, weakened spines, moral degeneracy, blindness...really: just about any disease you can think of. Mark Twain had a negative attitude, probably 'cuz he got more pussy than he knew what to do with. William James, it is theorized by scholars, may have associated it with epilepsy due to a haunting experience he had after visiting a sanitarium.

Freud thought masturbation was like addictive drugs, and represented an inability to face reality, according to his fantastically wrong and yet interesting and brilliant and influential Three Essays On The Theory of Sexuality. I bet he jerked it a hour before writing that, but who knows?

Not until around 1897 do we get Havelock Ellis, one of the great early sexologists, who called BS on all the fear and danger about masturbation. By the time of Kinsey in the 1940s? Everyone does it! By 1972 the AMA calls masturbation "normal." The great renegade psychiatrist Thomas Szasz said that masturbation was the "disease of the 19th century" and the "cure" of the 20th. But if it's 1994 and you've been appointed by the POTUS, you can't say what Ellis, Kinsey, the AMA, and Szasz say: you get canned. (Tonight, or this morning, or during lunch break, do it for Joycelyn!)

Sin, vice, self-pollution, etc: how in the hell did this idiocy stick with us for so long? How much suffering it caused! It's wonderful and normal and safe and free, and yet Authority had almost everyone believing it's HEINOUS! (This symptom of the emotional plague is still with us, but I do see an...<ahem> abatement.)

Friends, let's not let Joycelyn Elders's termination be in vain! To paraphrase Ben Franklin, "Fap proudly."

Interestingly, David Foster Wallace thought a lot like Freud. (In other places DFW called himself a "puritan.") In the book Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about writer David Lipsky's time with DFW just after Infinite Jest came out, Lipsky's book being made into the very moving little film The End of the Tour, DFW says masturbation is part of the addictive "pleasure continuum" along with drugs and TV. -pp.84-85 I read this and realized, "Oh my god I'm addicted!" On p.128 DFW tells Lipsky that people have wet dreams even if they've been masturbating, which I think may only apply to males, aged 14-19? I do not consider DFW a sexologist, but I do consider him part of the continuum of the Great Books.

Speaking of the canon, Rabelais joked about masturbation (which I will call right now, "Being one's own best friend"), and my friend Mark Williams, who, in writing a paper for his degree in English from UCLA, on Tristram Shandy, told me he had to jump through some hoops in order to get his hands on 1716's Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution And All Its Frightful Consequences In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice, by the - I'm not making any of this up - Dr. Balthazar Bekker.

'Cuz in Tristram Shandy there are jerk-off jokes galore.

And hey check out Gulliver's Travels. Swift gets into it on the first page, repeating Gulliver's benefactor's name "Master Bates," three times. Because it was hilarious back then.

But things evolve.

When in the late 1990s, after Madonna and Britney Spears tongue-kissed on the MTV Music Awards, conservatives got all lathered up in their moralic acid, and the comedian Jon Lovitz was on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, when Conan asked Lovitz what he thought about the kiss. Lovitz complained that the kiss wasn't long enough, because by the time he'd pulled his pants down to his ankles, it was over...And I (the OG) call this progress!

No, but seriously: I knew I was addicted around age 15, and I hope they never find a cure.

Men? You Wanna Stay Healthy? Jerk It Every Day

If you read about the Xtian Era of masturbation terrors, you'll see we've done a 180:
"Masturbation Actually Has Health Benefits"
"Is Masturbation Good For You?"
"Good News For High Frequency Masturbators"
"New Study Confirms Link of Frequent Orgasms To Lower Prostate Cancer Risk"

So, you may be a confirmed Ladie's Man, but on your off days, even though you may not approve of it "morally," just do it. (Progress!)

Sir Francis Crick Anecdote

"Finally, a decade ago, I was at the home of a friend when someone visited him in order to borrow some pornography - it was the late Francis Crick, who in 1962 won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his seminal (yes I said seminal) discovery with James Watson of the double-helix structure of DNA.  In a best-selling 1968 book, The Double Helix." - One Hand Jerking, Paul Krassner, p.95 Krassner thought it ironic that "DNA" is now so publicly equated with semen.

Other Sources I Dipped Into
"Welcome To The Masturbate-a-thon," by Paul Krassner

Interview with Prof. Thomas Laqueur of UC Berkeley, who wrote the end-all scholarly book on the history of masturbation.

3 min video with popular science writer Mary Roach, about female masturbation

"Is Female Masturbation Really The Last Sexual Taboo?": a review of a Taschen book titled La Petite Mort

Feminist writer Amanda Hess says women don't masturbate as often as men for logistical reasons

Whitey Bulger Gets Solitary For Masturbation (Sure, Bulger is a vicious murderer/gangster, but I thought this was monstrous; every prison official should have to do a week of solitary before they sentence someone else to solitary confinement. It's fucking medieval, and just plain evil: Let's stop it! - OG)

                                                   Kunst von Bob Campbell