Sunday, December 29, 2013

Travel is a. . .

There's an image circulating on the Facebook lately:

Why should this rub me the wrong way? Huh. Is it schmaltzy? Oh, yes, drippingly. But I would very much prefer that "TRAVEL" were scribbled out and replaced with "TOURISM," which is most likely what these palefaces in paradise are actually doing. Let's be honest with ourselves, hm?

Anyway, I've just synthesized an antidote by mixing Ralph Waldo Emerson with Petey from Cul de Sac.

(Says the American writing from Poland. Eeyup.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Wikia Fatigue, Tidal Forces, & The Process

The third or fourth greatest threat to my productivity.

Procrastination bedevils my life, and the Internet is ever the willing Mephistopheles. My absolute worst habit -- even less productive than compulsively checking Twitter, watching badly dubbed 1980s cartoons on YouTube, or slumming through reader comments sections -- is Wikia trawling. "Hey! What was the deal with Juri in Street Fighter IV?" I'll think (suddenly, and for some inscrutable reason), and so it's off to the Street Fighter Wiki to read about Juri, which means I'll be perusing Street Fighter trivia for ten to twenty minutes (if I'm lucky). Or maybe I'll find myself wondering if Blight's arc was ever properly resolved in Batman Beyond, so it's off to the DCAU Wiki. Am I momentarily (and morbidly) curious about what I'm missing in Final Fantasy XIII-2? To the Final Fantasy Wiki!

Et cetera, et cetera.

But as I'm browsing all these pop culture repositories -- all with nearly identical layouts, editorial styles, principles of organization, and World of Warcraft ads -- I can't help remembering a time when these fan-generated pop culture databases weren't so homogeneous in terms of design.

It was around 1996 that I started using the Internet. It was a much sparser place back then; the "frontier" metaphors you sometimes hear are very apropos. This was before Wikipedia, and certainly before the scattering of its wiki spores throughout cyberspace. If you ran a search for, say, The Mysterious Cities of Gold on Webcrawler or Altavista (this was before Google, remember) and didn't find any useful results, you could either wait for someone else to make a website or roll up your sleeves and make one yourself.

And from that impulse emerged the old fansites: hundreds of independent, noncommercial information sources and "shrines" to various TV series, films, video games, bands, and so on. A few of the ones I visited most back when I was a middle school student were Thomas Cardwell's Ranma 1/2 Universe (now defunct), Kurt Kalata's Castlevania Dungeon (operational, but under new management) and Kabir Akhtar's Tool Page (still up and running).

Hmm. Take a quick look at the Tool Page and then at Tool Wiki. At a glance, which looks more interesting? Which has more personality? Which design seems more apt to and informed by the site's subject?

(Side note: I wish I could find a screenshot of what the Tool Page used to look like back in 1997, 1998. The sad thing about the Internet Wayback Machine is that when you use it to view anything from the 1990s, it reproduces pages with archaic coding your browser can't read correctly.)

On the face of it, a wiki has almost every advantage over a fansite. A private website dedicated to a band, a video game series, a film director, etc. generally offers an overview of its subject, while a well-maintained wiki is, practically by definition, encyclopaediacally comprehensive. A fansite is curated by one person; a wiki is designed to be overseen and edited by pretty much anyone with an interest in its subject. This democratization means (in theory, and usually in practice) more updates, more information, and more self-corrective oversight. Back when the Internet was rife with GeoCities fan pages, the majority weren't terribly well designed, contained more or less the same information, and really could have used some proofreading. Today, in the age of Wikia, everyone with an interest in a particular area of pop culture can collaborate in maintaining and expanding the definitive "unofficial" website on that topic. (Fun fact: Wikia's original name was Wikicities, but was changed after five months -- perhaps changed because it sounded a bit too much like "GeoCities [, WE WILL BURY YOU].")

But wikis are boring. They have no fucking personality.

Nah. That's not fair. Certainly they have a personality -- but when something becomes standardized, you stop noticing it.

I hesitate to admit this, but I used to have a little Marilyn Manson fan page. (In my defense, I was in the eighth or ninth grade.) It was on a webring and everything! And it was fun to browse the ring and check out other fans' Manson pages. Even if they tended to repeat themselves, these fansites bore always bore the unique stamp of their curators' personalities and creativity. They contained personal stuff, too: art, concert journals, photographs, reviews, jokes, bootleg concert recordings in RealAudio, goofy fanfiction, and so on. In spite of their informational redundancy, they were charming. Fansites exude personality, and that's rather what I miss about them. They were distinct. They had idiosyncrasies and quirks. They were very clearly created by individual people rather than aggregated by the hive mind.

But in the epoch of the wiki, these kinds of efforts become rather superfluous. Why would anyone today sink their effort into, say, making their own Lord of the Rings fansite when not one person running a Google search on "Nazgul" or whatever won't immediately end up on the Lord of the Rings Wiki? Obviously their time would be much better spent contributing to the existing wiki, which is why the thing is approaching 5,000 pages.

Analogous lines might be drawn between the evolution of the Internet and the formation of the solar system. Come on, indulge me. It's been a while since we've said anything about astronomy.

Something like 4.6 billion years ago, all the stuff from which our fleck of the cosmos is formulated existed as a rotating cloud of gas and detritus held together by its own gravity. You probably already know how it goes. Contractive forces at the gravitational center (and rotational axis) of the nebula cause material to condense into a protosun. Clumps of gas and dust (thousands, millions of them) zip through space, tugging at, colliding with, and absorbing each other to form planetesimals and protoplanets in a commotion of n-body chaos.

After 100,000,000 years or so, the neighborhood has transformed from something that looks something like like this:


To something more like this:

Out of confusion and diffuse clutter formed a rather orderly system with a much clearer and more definite structure, in which a relatively small number of large bodies have dominated their orbital zones by either absorbing, flinging aside, or trapping any smaller objects in their vicinity.

Similarly, the Internet has come to be dominated by a relatively small number of massive websites (most of them commercial). And the reasons for this outcome should be fairly obvious. On that note: if you've noticed the irony in a person posting on Blogger to complain about standardization and accession in cyberspace, you get a gold star.

There has been no diminishment of activity on the the Internet -- obviously, there are much more people online than there were fifteen, years ago. But I'd guess that the proportions of traffic have changed dramatically; that a much larger percentage of traffic passes through a much smaller number of web spaces (or types of web spaces).

One might notice a parallel process in the globalization phenomenon.

While visiting Warsaw a few days ago, I emerged from the subway and the first building I saw on the plaza contained a row of three stores: Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks. My old man and I visited a shopping mall to get some last-minute Christmas gifts, and the place looked, sounded, and smelled like any mall I've ever been to on the North American continent. Half the stores were the same; all of the Christmas music was the same. The clustered mallrats smoking cigarettes outside the entrance were the same, right down to their black hoodies with the anarchy symbol printed on the back. Everyone carried iPhones, everyone smoked Marlboros, everyone sipped Coca-Cola from McDonald's cups. From the terrace on the thirtieth floor of the Palace of Culture and Science, you can look out across the city and see the new towers of glass and steel rising over the boxy old twentieth-century buildings, and guess how long it will be until Warsaw looks exactly like every other "global" city on the planet.

The peculiar physics of the market and of culture dictate the courses of these transformations as logically as the laws of motion and gravitation converted a massive cloud of gas and debris into a solar system dominated by eight planets.

Would one call this gravity of capital, I wonder?

Large bodies absorb the smaller, throw them aside, or draw them into their own orbits. When a massive edifice takes form in a cultural space, all the activity in that space occurs in the shadow of that edifice, if not inside the edifice. (Consider how Starbucks has changed the very institution of the coffee shop, for example. Or how Wikipedia, Facebook, Reddit, etc. have reterraformed the web around themselves.)

Thought: if cultural spaces become increasingly standardized under the tidal influence of such edifices, does the human activity fostered and permitted by these spaces become homogenized as well? Does the overall range and variety of cultural activity increase or decrease?

(But why worry about it? These patterns of transformation must be as old as culture itself. It's all another inexorable part of The Process.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Brussels Airport, 3:21 AM EST

Being in overseas airports always makes me uncomfortable. The only language I speak is English, and I feel like a presumptuous dolt whenever I attempt to communicate with anyone.

So I guess in that mode it feels exactly like home. And I am uncomfortable at home.

But I'm unaccustomed to not picking up any English in the ambient babble, and so in order to "normalize" the environment while I'm getting acclimated to it, I talk to myself. Unceasingly. Airport security staffers spot me zigzagging through the concourse and carrying on vehement arguments with my shoes about duty-free cigarettes, and then they come up and ask wo gehen sie and I'm like :D ..... and they're like hey guy where are you going and I'm like :D .....

No, I didn't sleep at all on the flight. Thanks for asking. The sun is coming up and my circadian rhythm has brought its ballgown to the squaredance.

What is it about airports that make you so HORNY, he muttered to himself. I just want to turn to the next French-speaking lady I see and ask her if she's interested in any of the virulent New World germs that have been incubating all night in my virile New World body.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Winter Ink

Early winter on the East Coast. Unless my memory is fraying, we're lucky to see much more than a dusting or two before January. Now we're getting two to four inches every two to four days. I am not complaining.

Forgive me for returning to previously trodden ground, but even when December seems to crawl on like a dysthymic slough, I always find myself with a renewed appreciation for the austerity of the season. There is an elemental honesty in the cold beyond the mere rawness of authenticity and impartiality. Cold is the natural state of things, inasmuch as time is an arrow toward thermal equilibrium, and the average temperature of the universe is -270.42º C. Cold is a taste of the future. It's a keyhole into the end of things.

These wintertime walks are brisk and sobering. It does require an effort of will not to immediately turn and scuttle back to an artificially heated enclosure. (These reminders that human activity is circumscribed by environmental contingencies can be nothing but helpful.) The four senses that aren't shot through with cold have little to titillate them; there is not much activity to apprehend the mid-Atlantic woods after the first December snow. Hardly anything moves. Nothing makes much noise except for the occasional chicakdee or passing airplane. The summer forest of four months before is a bouquet of viridescence, earth tones, and bright-hued flowers; the winter forest is just white and disconsolate shades of grayish brown.

At certain times, in certain attitudes, it seems positively achromatic. Black and white, unvarying in shade. And there are moments of visual fancy when it seems as though the protruding features of the landscape are superimposed over the snow, like inkstrokes on a white canvas.

If I were a better artist, there is a good chance my entire creative output between December and March would consist of minimalist ink renderings of winter landscapes. But since I'm not, I am resigned (not unhappily) to looking at other people's minimalist ink renderings of winter landscapes:

Sesshu Toyo, Winter Landscape

Utagawa Hiroshige, Snow Falling on a Town

Utagawa Hiroshige, Evening Snow on the Asuka Mountain

Carolyn A. Pappas, Deerfield Orchard in Winter

To this day, however, the art that best communicates winter as my heart recognizes it is found in Calvin and Hobbes:

I'm tempted to say I prefer the winter landscapes (or the parcels of them) from the weekday strips. The restrictions of the format impose a black/white binary which inspired some very stark, simple, and striking efforts from Mr. Watterson.

That last panel. Gorgeous. It's a safe bet that Watterson used a relatively dull two-panel joke as an excuse to give himself the space of a free panel to paint a parsimonious winter landscape in miniature.

Interestingly -- as far as I know -- all of the winter landscapes in the colored Sunday strips are rendered in grays and browns. All but one: the black ink/white canvas snowscape of the final strip:

Poland tomorrow. If I don't update between now and Saturday (which is possible), have a frostbitten but cautiously optimistic solstice, everyone!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Words found written on the back of a Barnes & Noble receipt for Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems

Stephen Anderson, Bird of Paradise

I've heard it said——it might be true——that the old poets and storytellers have reached their final generations. What they do today will be forgotten, if it is known. Most of it will not be known, and will shortly never have existed.

If it must be so, it will be so. We'll do what we do and then we will die. No one can hope to accomplish much else. Ask the millennia, the dead empires and dark ages. Nobody does anything more.

However temporary, however doomed, there is still a joy in doing what you do, in being what you are. And there is still something wonderful in the lives of the remaining birds-of-paradise dancing their absurd dances for their last loves in the vanishing nowhere.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Let's Read: Lalka (The Doll) by Bolesław Prus

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Warsaw from Praga

It's December already. Hrm.

I'd like to do another book club in the same artery as the Pierre experiment and the two-man assault on Romance of the Three Kingdoms that Jon B. and I mounted over the summer. I mentioned the idea months ago (in the Three Kingdoms post, in fact), but now we're finally getting around to it: Mr. B. and I will be tearing through The Doll by Bolesław Prus. It's called Lalka in the original Polish, which sounds much less dull than "The Doll" does in English. Because it's not a dull book! It's one of the best novels I've ever read! It blew my socks off when I read it three years ago! (Again, how time flies.) I even posted excerpts here and here.

Here's the thing about Lalka. If I want to talk to somebody about Moby Dick, there are people in my circles who have read Moby Dick. Ditto for War and Peace. I even have an acquaintance who has read History of the Peloponnesian Wars. But none of my friends have read Lalka, and this needs to change.

Since I'm writing this on the fly, here's a blurb from the Wikipedia entry:

The Doll (Polish title: Lalka) is the second of four major novels by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus (real name Aleksander Głowacki). It was composed for periodical serialization in 1887-89 and appeared in book form in 1890.

The Doll has been regarded by some, including Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, as the greatest Polish novel. According to Prus biographer Zygmunt Szweykowski, it may be unique in 19th-century world literature as a comprehensive, compelling picture of an entire society.

While The Doll takes its fortuitous title from a minor episode involving a stolen toy, readers commonly assume that it refers to the principal female character, the young aristocrat Izabela Łęcka. Prus had originally intended to name the book Three Generations.

The Doll has been translated into nineteen languages, and has been produced in several film versions and as a television miniseries.

The Doll, covering one and a half years of present time, comprises two parallel narratives. One opens with events of 1878 and recounts the career of the protagonist, Stanisław Wokulski, a man in early middle age. The other narrative, in the guise of a diary kept by Wokulski's older friend Ignacy Rzecki, takes the reader back to the 1848-49 "Spring of Nations."

Bolesław Prus wrote The Doll with such close attention to the physical detail of Warsaw that it was possible, in the Interbellum, to precisely locate the very buildings where, fictively, Wokulski had lived and his store had been located on Krakowskie Przedmieście. Prus thus did for Warsaw's sense of place in The Doll in 1889 what James Joyce was famously to do for his own capital city, Dublin, in the novel Ulysses a third of a century later, in 1922.

And here's what I apparently had to say about it on my (pretty much defunct) Goodreads page:

You've probably never heard of this book, but it comes damn close to meeting War and Peace on its own terms.

History rolls forward. The aristocratic scumbags are replaced by capitalist scumbags. The solutions to yesterday's problems become new problems and we don't get anywhere. A great man becomes a great man in pursuit of a vain and hopeless goal that eventually destroys him. A world of fops, fools, scoundrels, and nihilists loses something it desperately needs.

We can be 99% certain that society is irredeemably fucked. But unless we try to be better, we deprive ourselves of that last 1%.

When you hold out hope for human potential, you'll almost definitely be disappointed. But damn it, we've got to hope. And we've got to try.

Huh. I wonder where that came from.

Anyway: the plan right now is to begin reading on December 21 -- the winter solstice. There are some details that remain to be worked out; pages per week, for instance. (It will definitely not be 200 a week like we did with Three Kingdoms, however.) The sooner you email me if you're interested, the sooner these things can be determined!


Step two: Email me.
Step three: Read a classic world novel! Discuss it! Feel your horizons expanding!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Fuddy-Duddite: Batman and Bill Hicks

There's a Batman fancomic making the rounds lately. I'm sure you've seen it. But in case you haven't, take a look.

Why does it leave such a bad taste in my mouth, I wonder? I like Batman. I like Bill Hicks. I like dark "what-if" narratives and from time to time I still enjoy "meta" stuff. And the writing is good! And the art is great! So why wasn't I knocked out of my chair by this?

I just remembered something from Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. The subject of the section from which this is excerpted dealt mostly with music, but it does expand to other media as well:

Even the most seemingly radical online enthusiasts seem to always flock to retro references. The sort of "fresh, radical culture" you expect to see celebrated in the online world these days is a petty mashup of preweb culture.

Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.

So. You take one thing that people on the Internet already recognize and like (Batman). You mash it up with another thing that people on the Internet already recognize and like (Bill Hicks). And voilà! Batman + Bill Hicks = Internet sensation.

That's probably an oversimplification, and it discounts the power of the artwork and the drama of the story, surely. (It's much more than just a straightforward mashup on these accounts.) But I can't think of any other reason for why I'm not as impressed as I'd like to be. It's just two things I'm already familiar with and I already like, and they're put together--and to me it feels somehow calculated and unimaginative.

Preciado (the writer) comments that what he and Bayliss (the illustrator) have in the works now stuff involving original characters -- which I do plan on checking out. They clearly know what they're doing.

And that makes the Batman comic a brilliant move on their part. You bring everyone to the table with something a whole lot of people are guaranteed to be impressed by (Batman + Bill Hicks; people already like what they already know), and some of them are guaranteed to stick around afterwards when you ask them to swallow something unfamiliar.

They're good.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Sane Person Talks of Existence

Via Cassini.

After composing the list of books in the last post, I felt compelled to revisit Celia Green's The Human Evasion. Apropos nothing, a short excerpt:

It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call it the Outside.

The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if only because it exists) but not many people notice this.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

#book (Top Ten Most Books)

Not long ago an old friend asked me: "if you had to name the ten books that have had the most influence on you, what would they be?" (Really! He really did ask that.) Here's what I came up with after thinking about it for an evening. I find it interesting that so many of them (six!) were books I read after the end of my formal education.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Carl Sagan)

It is as valuable to understand the methods of science as the revelations of science, and to understand how and why they work.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (Hunter S. Thompson)

Showed me how prose could crack, pop, and whistle, and ensured I'd say yes to dropping acid the first chance I got.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

The first Great American Novel that I read in high school, and evidence that conservative accusations of socialist indoctrination in public education might have a kernel of truth to them. It's hard (even for a sluggish goth kid in a gamer haze) to read Grapes of Wrath without experiencing sudden and serious misgivings about American capitalism.
History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)

To quote a cartoon: "history is much like an endless waltz. The three beats of war, peace, and revolution continue on forever."  From the recording of this particular strain that played out in Greece in the fifth century BCE, one can gain a fairly comprehensive understanding of the whole dance.

The Human Evasion (Celia Green)

"Astonishment is the only realistic emotion." If that's the case, human beings appear to be rather unrealistic. Why?

A Long Way from Euclid (Constance Reid)

My senior year precalculus teacher only passed me because she felt sorry for me. Since then I've managed to teach myself the basics of single-variable calculus and am currently working through a trig textbook. A Long Way from Euclid is the book that impelled me to revisit and explore mathematics for pleasure.

Miscellaneous Writings (HP Lovecraft)

Lessons learned: it's good to have hobbies, it's good to dabble in numerous fields of study and interest, it's good to stay in touch with friends, it's good to cultivate a consistent (and evolving) worldview, and it's good to write and keep writing.

Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)

I've said it before: this is the Third Testament. Beyond the Tanakh and the Gospels, there is the Whale. 

The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry (Jay Parini, ed.)*

I used to dislike poetry. (I had a real grudge towards Ginsberg, apparently.) This collection helped me to understand why that just wouldn't do.

War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

People, history, the world, life, everything, etc.

There you have it. HEY! Why don't you tell me the books that have influenced you the most?

* Yes, yes -- choosing an anthology is a copout. But I'm looking at Howl and Other Poems, Leaves of Grass, and The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, and none of them are nearly as bent and wrinkled from repeated reads as my copy of the Wadsworth Anthology.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Meet "the Professor," the Unabomber's literary inspiration

On a lark I just began reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, which I acquired (free!) with a bundle of other used paperbacks. I hadn't heard much about the book until now, but as it turns out it's got quite a legacy. It ranks higher than Heart of Darkness on Modern Library's list of the best novels on the twentieth century, and it's also the favorite novel of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. In particular, there was one character who left an impression on him during his formative years: "the Professor."

I just finished the chapter in which the Professor is introduced, and I'd like to share it with y'all. It's some rattling stuff: "The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket."

The only context you need to know, really, is that it takes place in 1886 London. I copy/pasted the text from Eldritch Press, but only up until Comrade Ossipon and the Professor stop talking philosophy and move along to the business of advancing the plot. Enjoy!

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall. Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

"Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair," said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair. His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity. The din it raised was deafening. When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the bespectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

"In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can't be a matter for inquiry to the others."

"Certainly not," Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. "In principle."

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table. His flat, large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which looked frail enough for Ossipon to crush between thumb and forefinger; the dome of the forehead seemed to rest on the rim of the spectacles; the flat cheeks, of a greasy, unhealthy complexion, were merely smudged by the miserable poverty of a thin dark whisker. The lamentable inferiority of the whole physique was made ludicrous by the supremely self-confident bearing of the individual. His speech was curt, and he had a particularly impressive manner of keeping silent.

Ossipon spoke again from between his hands in a mutter. "Have you been out much today?"

"No. I stayed in bed all the morning," answered the other. "Why?"

"Oh! Nothing," said Ossipon, gazing earnestly and quivering inwardly with the desire to find out something, but obviously intimidated by the little man's overwhelming air of unconcern. When talking with this comrade
which happened but rarelythe big Ossipon suffered from a sense of moral and even physical insignificance. However, he ventured another question. "Did you walk down here?"

"No; omnibus," the little man answered, readily enough. He lived far away in Islington, in a small house down a shabby street, littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill, joyless, rowdy clamour. His single back room, remarkable for having an extremely large cupboard, he rented furnished from two elderly spinsters, dressmakers in a humble way with a clientele of servant girls mostly. He had a heavy padlock put on the cupboard, but otherwise he was a model lodger, giving no trouble, and requiring practically no attendance. His oddities were that he insisted on being present when his room was being swept, and that when he went out he locked his door, and took the key away with him.

Ossipon had a vision of these round black-rimmed spectacles progressing along the streets on the top of an omnibus, their self-confident glitter falling here and there on the walls of houses or lowered upon the heads of the unconscious stream of people on the pavements. The ghost of a sickly smile altered the set of Ossipon's thick lips at the thought of the walls nodding, of people running for life at the sight of those spectacles. If they had only known! What a panic! He murmured interrogatively: "Been sitting long here?"

"An hour or more," answered the other, negligently, and took a pull at the dark beer. All his movements
the way he grasped the mug, the act of drinking, the way he set the heavy glass down and folded his armshad a firmness, an assured precision which made the big and muscular Ossipon, leaning forward with staring eyes and protruding lips, look the picture of eager indecision.

"An hour," he said. "Then it may be you haven't heard yet the news I've heard just now
in the street. Have you?"

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sympathy for the postscript

"London," from William Blake's Songs of Experience (1794)
Might be topical.

Regarding the last post, my mad scientist cousin commented:

I take issue with only one thing you wrote, that "in any of these impassioned public debates ... what you ultimately want is for the other side to change their minds ... and join you." I think most of the people behaving badly in public debates on the internet are either so full of anger and indignation that they don't really know what they want to accomplish, or else they are more worried about enhancing or cementing their position within their own side than with anyone outside of it. (Or they're trolls, of course.) Seeking a sense of being secure in one's own tribe by villifying outsiders is as old as humanity; reasoned debates are not.

I wish I my blog entries could be peer edited before they're posted. (I also wish I proofread and tuned them more.) But he's absolutely right.

Maybe what I should have said would have a few qualifiers: "what you SHOULD want," for starters. "What you should most sensibly hope for." "What's probably in everyone's long-term interest."

One might more easily incline towards the sectarian logic of warring tribes, but that's counterproductive when what we really require is a unified front. A stable human supercolony.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sympathy for the

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy F, plate 21 (1794)

When I parse the latest output from the variegated noise channels of cyberspace, I'm often impressed at the intensity of passion shown by people for progressive causes (even if the expression of that passion is too usually limited to commenting, retweeting, and like-buttoning). But sometimes I worry that the zeal of vocal progressives, paired with their contempt toward the opposition, mightn't be unhelpful in the long term.

Let's take an issue like gay marriage (for instance). Say that somebody, maybe pastor, mayor, or congressman out in Wyoming writes an op-ed column for his local newspaper expressing his view that marriage in the United States should strictly be between a male and a female. A handful of outraged readers post a link to the article on Twitter and Facebook, and soon, through the abstruse physics by which a parcel of information is made to "go viral," the column's audience spreads far beyond its usual reader base in rural Nebraska. (Did I say Wyoming first? Shit. I meant Nebraska.)

The comments section of the Daily Tumbleweed becomes a battleground for partisans on both sides of the debate. The article is linked to by all kinds of people on all kinds of digital platforms in all kinds of places. Since most of my friends (and myself) are in the gay rights camp, my various social media feeds will pile up with that particular cut of partisan red meat.

Even though I agree with the general progressivist stance 90% of the time on 90% of the issues, I often hear these twanging notes of righteous smugness in my peers' comments, tweets, and status updates: I know what's right, my friends know what's right, and people who disagree with us are wrong, and they're wrong because they're stupid.

However fun it is to take shots at someone you disdain, and however much a group is energized and fastened together by a communal witch-stoning, the attitude is not productive.

We hold the convictions we do because of the social environments we live in. (In the Internet age, we must also consider the overlapping micro-environments of social correspondence, but the ones in which a person chooses to participate will depend on his offline experiences.) If gay rights (again, just our example) seems like a no-brainer to you, it might not necessarily be because you're a better-hearted or cleverer person than the people in the opposing camp, but because you were conditioned differently.

Suppose you lived exclusively in environment where (1.) there are no openly gay people with whom you ever personally interact (2.) the only openly gay people you observe are the distorted, noisy stereotypes gyrating across the mass media (3.) you, your family, and your peers are deeply involved in a religious community in which homosexuality is demonized (4.) you were inculcated with a value system that identifies the "man-woman-children" family as the very nucleus of a healthy society.

Supposing these things, do you think your worldview would be the same as it is now? Do you think you'd be unreservedly comfortable with the idea of gay marriage? If not, would it constitute some kind of personal failing on your part?

Ideas and beliefs don't spontaneously bloom in people's minds. They are cultivated by time and circumstances (or time within circumstances). We can't blame someone raised in a megachurch-attending family in Kansas (did I say Nebraska?) for not viewing the world through the same window as someone raised in a secular family from New York or Boston.

But if this hypothetical parallel-universe me had any of my brains, you might say, he would have surely have questioned the values of his community and come to the natural conclusion that they are indefensibly wrong.

Would he?

I'm not a psychologist, but I'll venture that the questioning of one's own values occurs as a matter of exigency. If you never had cause to question the beliefs of your parents, your church, your teachers, etc. -- if you never experienced any conflicts or tensions of a sufficient magnitude to trigger a transformative crisis -- would you ever end up questioning them?

(How often do you have cause to sit down and honestly reevaluate your own convictions? I don't have to reevaluate them, I know they're right. Is there any chance you thought that to yourself?)

Obviously I'll take a stance on one side of an issue out of an earnest belief that it's the most logical and just course, even if the basis of that belief might be more arbitrary than I'd like to admit. And I've absolutely said unflattering things about the other camp and felt sentiments towards its members that were much more acidic and gristly than respectful disagreement. But what can I say? I'm as opinionated as anyone.

But we're veering off course.

In any case, in any of these impassioned public debates between any pairs of ideological opposites, what you ultimately want is for those on the other side to change their minds, see the sense of your position, and join you. When you and your allies loudly and routinely pillory your opponents, are they more likely to respond by (1.) renouncing their old creeds through tears of contrition and joy, and thanking you for showing them the light (2.) digging in their heels and pushing back harder?

Since we can't shouldn't can't kill people whose beliefs we find harmful, and since they're not going to go away, what we want to do is change their minds. We're not going to do that by flinging ridicule and scorn at them.

If one were really serious, one might begin by befriending them.

More later.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Confessions and Speculations of an Addict

There's nothing more inspiring and simultaneously aggravating than a loved one who sets a good example.

My sister had problems for years. Bad problems. It's not my place to specify them, but they have been neutralized by her participation in a twelve-step program. It would be glib to say the meetings turned her life around; that would be oversimplifying the matter and making it sound far too easy.

I speculate that the reason it has worked so well is not the program itself, but the way in which it is practiced within a community: an association of addicts come together help one another from crossing back over onto the old rails. It's not the sort of thing one can easily do without encouragement.

"Patterns" is a recurring word throughout the literature of addiction study and treatment, inasmuch as addiction is a set of profoundly-ingrained habits centered around an extremely powerful reinforcing agent, and the reintroduction of that agent reactivates the litany of associated behaviors. Your opiates, alkaloids, and related chemicals are all tremendously potent reinforcers; that's why people's actions come to revolve around them. Reinforcement is the shaper of our lives; our behavioral repertoires accrue along the lines of exigency laid by our most powerful reinforcers the way interstellar gases and dust collect and condense within the gravitational fields of massive objects.

When my sister announced she had even quit smoking, I knew this was it: all of my own excuses for persisting in the habit were no longer convincing. There's a expansive psychic tract between denial and resolve where retreat is inexcusable and the prospect of moving forward and crossing over the borderline is frankly terrifying, and I'd been meandering through it for months. Years. It wasn't that I wanted to quit. I loved smoking. (Correction: I love smoking.) I knew it was blackening my lungs and poisoning my heart; I knew it was the reason my chest felts tight in the morning, but I had absolutely no desire to give it up. I knew it was costing me a small fortune; I knew it was making me lethargic. But if I heard somebody suggest that I should stop, no matter how gently they said it, there was a moment where I instantly hated their guts. Sometimes I noticed it wasn't as satisfying as it once was, and sometimes I had cause to wonder if it was ever really satisfying. (Oh, who was I kidding. of course it was.) Now and then I'd assure myself that it was temporary: I was going to quit because I had to quit. Just -- not that day. The day after was never looking good, either. But someday.

Around the middle of September I crossed over. I'm not smoking -- for now. If I see someone else walking down the street with a cigarette in his or her mouth, I find myself salivating and licking my lips. (My sister tells me that this doesn't stop.) But my chest doesn't hurt in the morning anymore and I don't get a sore throat every other week.

Sure, sure. Right. Congrats on quitting, some might want to say. I think it's too early for congratulations. And the process of dealing with this got me thinking again about what addiction is and what it means, and I don't feel very good about myself. There are so many things to which I'm still addicted.

Let's take our definition of addiction right from the first clause of the first sentence of its Wikipedia entry: addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences.

I'm addicted to driving, for one thing. I like to get in a car and go places I don't necessarily need to go,  or to which I could feasibly walk or bike. I know this habit pumps a few tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, and I know that its increasing concentration of greenhouse gases will wreak havoc on the biosphere during my lifetime, but...well, you know. It's whatever. It's fine. (Well, not really, but you know, it''s whatever.)

I'm hooked on meat. I usually have at least one serving a day, even though I'm fully aware that meat production is an egregiously inefficient use of energy and land, another heavy producer of carbon emissions, and an altogether filthy and cruel business. But I'll order that BLT anyway. I'm aware of what I'm willfully contributing to, and I'll feel like an asshole for it. But...well, yeah. You know. I can always say I'll go vegetarian next week. If I don't follow through, I can just say it again.

From UCA News
We're coming to the time of year when I take the space heater out of the closet. Yes, yes, it sucks up a lot of electricity and I know that power generation is the leading cause of global carbon dioxide emissions. But it's either that or putting on a sweater, and I hate sweaters. This is the behavior of an addict.

I distrust Google. I dislike Amazon. I use both on a fairly regular basis. What can I say? It's a habit. The alternatives are inconvenient. I think Monsanto and Exxon-Mobil are appalling, but I buy their products because I like inexpensive, easily-acquired food and I've already said that I like driving to the supermarket to get it. Do I have an alternative? Probably, but it would be difficult and require me to change most of my habits, and I'm obviously unwilling to stop doing what I've been doing.

How many billion of me are on this planet?

This is what scares me about our world. By the above definition of addiction, we are all of us addicts. We're addicted to our technology, our conveniences, our opiates. Even though we know they're socially and ecologically carcinogenic, we can't give them up.

Of course we're addicted. We're crackbabies. We've been inundated in this shit since birth -- and it's common knowledge that the longer one indulges in addictive behavior, the more difficult its reduction or elimination becomes.

From The Indypendent
A note: the most deleterious of the "adverse consequences" of these addictions lack the immediacy to serve as effective "punishment" feedback. Even though we can appreciate their implications on an intellectual level, operant conditioning occurs when the punishment or reinforcer is a constituent of the present occasion. (The smoker cannot observe his lungs blackening or feel the tumors growing as he inhales; we don't receive any perceptible negative feedback when we contribute to the intensifying greenhouse effect or abet society's trajectory toward an outright oligarchy. To the contrary, the immediate feedback must be positive, since these behaviors are so persistent.) In light of this, any but the most optimistic behaviorist will have to conjecture that civilization is probably fucked, unless. . . . . . .

Well. Anyway.

For all the lip service we give to the necessity of reining in carbon emissions, for all our bemoaning of the buy-and-toss consumer culture, the perniciousness of the multinationals, and the fact that capitalism is deforming humanity and the modern "Western" lifestyle is destroying the planet, we're like the smoker or skinpopper telling himself that yeah, this sucks, this can't last, I have to stop. I'm going to stop; just not now -- because the chemicals are leeching into my brain. The Walking Dead is on and there's video games on sale at Wal Mart and the new iPhone is out and the McRib is coming back. And the lip service remains lip service. The smoker frets about cancer and says he's going to quit. Later. Before the cancer, surely. And we say we (or somebody else) will definitely get this overpopulation/resource depletion/greenhouse effect stuff sorted out sometime, surely, before we render the earth uninhabitable to ourselves.

That brings me back to the twelve step program. I wonder if there's a support group for people who don't want to do this shit anymore?

"Hi, my name is Patrick, and I'm an addict. I find my lifestyle and the problems to which it contributes abhorrent; I want to quit, but I can't break the cycle. I want your help. I want to do things differently."

I wonder. I wish. I hope.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Freedom vs. Satisfaction

Walden 7; from Hi. This is Barcelona.

Not very long ago I noticed an old acquaintance commenting on the difference between life in the liberal nannystate Northeast and in states further south. One reason for the purportedly better quality of life further south, he claimed, is that people there "have more freedom." It got me thinking once again about the idea of "freedom" as a societal virtue per se, and I'm still not convinced that there even is such a thing as freedom. (Frankly, I'm still willing to argue that there is not.)

But as far as the the happiness and life quality of a people is concerned, I believe the extent of their "freedom" is rather beside the point.

First: putting aside arguments about free will, let's agree that our implicit contract as members of any sort of organized society necessarily demands we do certain things and restricts us from doing others. Even if the government isn't telling you where to work and where to live, the exigencies of life probably compel you to spend most of the day at a place you'd probably rather not be and doing work you'd probably rather not be doing to keep a roof over your head (in a neighborhood you'd probably rather not be living).

Just for the sake of argument, let's compare a society to an office building. Imagine you have two companies in two different buildings, both involved in the same kind of business. It doesn't matter what business it is; let's just say that most of their employees' workdays consist of sitting in front of desktop computers. Imagine that one of the offices conscientiously devises a workplace environment and corporate culture with the aim of making employees' work satisfying, and while other takes a more laissez-faire approach, telling employees they can do whatever they please, as long as they get their work done on time and don't distract their coworkers. Whose employees are happier?

In both cases, the workers at both offices have to put in their required hours and do the work they're being paid to do. This component of the situation is unalterable. (Again: no matter how a society is organized, its subjects still have obligations.) But a workplace environment that is effectively designed to maximize employee satisfaction will undoubtedly be a cheerier place to be than one where the corporate culture is either treated as an afterthought or intentionally left to figure itself out.

I'll grant the metaphor isn't airtight, but the concept is no less valid where a larger polity is concerned. What if a society -- a town, a city, a nation -- were to be designed with an aim toward equality, stability, and the maximizing of its people's quality of life? Currently, we're operating under the basic assumption that the public will automatically tend towards order, harmony, and happiness if left to its own devices. But let's imagine that a more proactive, regimented approach were to be taken in building a happier society.

Even if it were a relatively small community, it would require some degree of social engineering, which is anathema to the classical liberal/modern libertarian. It implies top-down control; it necessarily requires certain "freedoms" be limited. The kneejerk reaction is that this is a most undesirable prospect, but I think that needs reexamination.

Given the choice, would you choose a life in which you had more options (freedom), or more satisfaction? (How often does more options mean more happiness?) If you're in an environment in which you feel fulfilled by your work and participation in civic/community life, is "freedom" a concern?

This isn't the place for an outline or a manifesto; I'm certainly not saying I've got the blueprints to utopia. But I'm fairly certain it's possible to design a better society, and I'm absolutely convinced that the engine on which we're currently running -- "allow the people do what they want and let the market sort it out" -- is dangerously outmoded.

"Freedom" doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. A sense of meaning and satisfaction from one's work and relationships leads to happiness, and it's definitely possible to create social environments more conducive to it than the one we've got.

The fact that people associate "freedom" with happiness suggests, more than anything, piss-poor social design, as does the popularity of the belief that the inverse of "freedom" must necessarily be "oppression."

Friday, October 18, 2013

I might as well switch to Tumblr at this point.

Braindead. Going through the trying-to-get-novel-published process. Again. I'm reminded of the myth about the female body producing a postpartum hormone that pokes a strategically placed hole in the memory of the experience pertaining to the pain, howling sleeplessness, torn perineum, etc.

So yeah, I don't have much in the way of new content. But since anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, here are a few pictures from around my neighborhood.

I really do wish I could claim to have caught these two grasshoppers in the act of mating (which would finally allow me to begin rebuilding the Beyond Easy brand as your go-to source for the birds and the bees of the bugs), but if you look at them closely you'll notice that there's no thorax-thorax contact. It seems that they're just spooning. (My apologies for the poor resolution; I don't carry around a camera and the one in my phone was built as an afterthought.)

My first guess was that they were cuddling and savoring the afterglow together, but then I read that grasshoppers tend to die immediately after sex--and some light prodding revealed these two to be very much alive. Perhaps they had just been getting to know each other. If you were on a date and you knew that you could only have sex once, with one person, would you be in a such a hurry?


A friend of mine who shall remain anonymous (his epithet rhymes with "Rangerous Rave") courageously leaked images from a local gathering of North Jersey high school guidance counselors. He described the experience as being like that scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter Thompson/Raoul Duke sits undercover at the police convention.

But seriously. Kids getting wasted on sanitizer? Is this actually a thing?

(I was planning on posting a choice selection of Powerpoint slides from the meeting, but the idea seemed less funny the more I thought about it. The presentation is pretty much exactly what you'd expect: "It's 4:20. Do YOU know where your teen is?" "If a teen has the scent of liquor on his or her breath and is acting drunk, then maybe, just maybe, he or she has been consuming alcohol." "Marijuana, sometimes referred to as 'pot,' 'reefer,' 'blunts,' etc...")

On a somewhat related note: if, while going through an old drawer, you happen upon a beaded bracelet that says "TRANCE," it is a given that you have absolutely no recollection of where, when, or how you acquired it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More Buggy Blather

After that post about catching bumblebees in the act, I returned the field a few times, hoping to catch more insect couples in flagrante. Maybe I intended to do some kind of series?

But early fall isn't the best time to go out looking for bugs. The meadow is already much quieter than it was a month ago. I've been hearing katydids every now and then in the afternoons -- one of many small but unmistakable indicators that autumn is settling in.

Yes, yes. Katydids are summer insects, but during the summer they are nocturnal. AND THIS IS IMPORTANT ENOUGH FOR CAPS AND A TAGENT. Too many people, I find, mistake katydids for cicadas.

For the record: if you're in the eastern United States on a hot summer afternoon and a sound like this passes through you, what you're experiencing is a cicada. If you're out at night during the same months and these noises are bearing down on you from every direction, you're surrounded by katydids.

Katydids are elusive little buggers. You'll step outside and hear hundreds of them, night after night, but never see one. They're built and programmed for secrecy: they look like leaves, they hang out in trees, and they stop making noise and sit still when they notice you approaching.

This summer was my first time actually seeing a katydid up close when one chanced to wander out of the trees and get caught away from its camouflage. It was really quite adorable: since it didn't have the faculties to understand that the jig was already up, it just went on behaving like it would under its usual, more advantageous circumstances:

Click for full size! (Fixed!)

True story!

(And sorry. That was two tangents.)

Anyway: once autumn is underway, katydids become active during the daytime, but only in thickly wooded and shaded places. I don't know what causes this shift in behavior (light? temperature?), and I wasn't able to find much information about it. (Though I did find an article repeating a bit of folklore claiming that the first frost will occur six weeks after the first katydids are heard during the day.) At any rate, the autumn diurnal katydids are few and far between. They're the stragglers from the summer, still going at it after most of their peers have turned in, striculating with less and less vigor as the temperatures drop.

I used to hear the solitary October katydid and think of an old gentleman I used to work with at an office job: he was seventy-something years old and dying of lung cancer, but still coming into work six days a week because that's what he'd always done. I'm not sure he knew how to act otherwise. And when I heard the autumn katydids just puttering on, they seemed enervated and lonely to me, and somehow existentially tragic: they didn't know how to do anything but keep being katydids, calling out for more katydids, unaware that they were the only ones left.

My better-hearted and probably more optimistic friend Chris sees it differently: he recently compared them to those kids who are doing bumps at 4:45 AM and urging their fatigued buddies to rally, to head with them to the after-after party across town. The October katydids aren't lonesome old men: they're party people, raging and raving past the sunrise and into the morning and beyond, all the way up until the first fall frost turns the music off at last.

I think I prefer Chris's reading.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Another Crisis: Real-time Reporting, Retweets, and Restraint

Pheme, Greek Goddess of Twitter
I'm phasing social media and (non-BBC) Internet news back in after conscientiously abstaining from them (for the most part) for the last month. I can't say I missed them terribly, but this is the 21st century and I should be at least somewhat attentive to the culture of my age.

I came back just in time, too. Early this afternoon, the retweets and Facebook updates came rolling right in. Capitol shooting. Gunman at large. Actually, suspect is a woman. Actually, she doesn't have a gun. The only shots were fired by police. But she seems to have been up to something. Yes she was. No she wasn't. Anyway this is all the [conservatives/liberals]'s fault and would never happen if it weren't for [overzealous, trigger happy, possibly racist law enforcement/the general toxicity of American Culture/Obama]. Shut up, you're wrong.

Flashing forward: I was relieved to hear this evening's All Things Considered steering away from minute-by-minute crisis mode reporting and keeping its focus on the continuing circus shit show of American Democracy. I'll be happy to read or listen to a report on the shooting and its aftermath tomorrow, after the journalists have had more time to collect and collocate the facts.

Although the trickle of information and its magnification on Twitter wasn't as panicked, politicized, or irresponsible as the chatter following the Boston Marathon attack, I was still disheartened to see folks backsliding into the same sort of behavior we seemed to collectively agree not to repeat during the next sudden violent crisis. It's possible my recollection is skewed or screwy, but didn't we walk away with the lesson that that it's more sensible not to credulously accept, disseminate, and make conjecture on every particle of new information because a lot of it will be out of context, muddled, unsubstantiated, and very possibly inaccurate?

Right, right; it's the Internet and people will talk. And it's not the Internet's fault, either: Rumor was born at the same time as Communication. I know. But I can still disapprove of the web being used to undermine its essential purpose.

I once met a reference librarian/archivist whose sensibilities toward cataloging were led by the doctrine that no information is better than bad information, which I've since added to my own store of guiding aphorisms. And all I'm saying really is that early, fragmented, reactive, and emotionally-charged information might not be what I'd consider "good."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

We do the dance upon the plain...

Today we proudly (a little too proudly) present the sequel to last month's Sizzling Cicada Spectacle: THE BODACIOUS BUMBLEEBEE BONANZA.

So I was out in the meadow beneath the power lines today and caught a couple of bumblebees in the act. I'm no entomologist, but I know the bigger one is definitely a female (a future queen), while the smaller is definitely a male (who just buzzes off and dies now). And I'm learning that insects, despite their speedy busybody bustling around, seem to be really slow when it comes to mating (as it were). I had to wait a few minutes before the wind died down enough for a clear and unobstructed shot, and the bees hardly budged in the meantime.

But after the second or third snap (hey, when will I ever get a chance to take another picture like this?), the female exercised her queenly instinct and ducked away from the paparazzo's lens. When she took off, however, she carried the male with her, dangling from her thorax. They landed a few feet away and resumed their royal reproductive duties like nothing had happened. (Is resumed the right word? As far as I could tell, they were never interrupted.)

From a mammalian perspective, it seems peculiar and comical, but it makes perfect sense! When you're a small, squishable, easily-stirred creature who requires several minutes to give and receive gametes, you'll have a better chance of success if, when necessary, you're able to relocate to a safer position without putting the transaction on hold. Critters like us, enabled by our superior powers of perception and cognition to recognize a secure place and time from the onset, had less reason to develop coitus on the go capabilities over the course of our species' evolution. But can you imagine if we shared this ability with our fuzzy and buzzy brothers and sisters?!


No, I won't type what I'm thinking, but it might involve my lady friend and a game of miniature golf.

"Now take me to the next hole, my dear! Hahahaha!"


"Wait! Come back! You have my scorecard!"