Sunday, October 01, 2006

Bioterror: Joe's Toilet Seat!

We are all just prisoners here, Of our own device.

From a 2006 column published in the Wash. Post and syndicated by Amy Dickinson:

Dear Amy:

In a recent letter, a husband and wife were arguing over the proper position of the toilet seat (when not in use). Please tell them that the issue is not one of inconvenience but one of health.
Tests have shown that a toilet flush atomizes parts of the toilet bowl's content and spreads the tiny particles into the air, which end up on any object in the room. So unless they want to brush their hair or teeth with an extra ingredient, close not only the seat but also the lid BEFORE each flush.

Member of the Closed Lid Society

Amy's reply:
Gross thought.
Great solution.

Great Caesar's atomized, aerosolized, dirty-biological-bomb corpse! How in the world did I live this long after brushing my teeth with human ordure all these years?! But no: down that way lies the special madness of Howard Hughes, and other unfortunates terrified of the invisible death that lies in wait all around us. The fear is far worse than the death, for the most part. The illustrious members of the Closed Lid Society live inside their special Closed Lid Houses, with sealed airlock entrances and constant climate control, down to one-micron filtration of all air and water. When they venture outside they wear full-coverage micropore protective garments, 100% UVA/UVB Ray-Bans and a coating of discouraging chemicals to keep off the swarming, West-Nile and Lyme infected ticks, mosquitoes and centipedes. They raise their children in this bubble, who then miss out on the critical development of a normal immune system, and are then condemned to life inside the bubble, nursing their asthmas and allergies.

Unfortunately for the Closed Lidders, the world is and will remain a vast soup of organisms big and small, all competing for their respective genes to be reproduced, and no organism, however wondrously intelligent and made-in-God's-image, can stand aloof from this soup and hope to thrive. Every so often we are reminded that human skin is infested with a seething scum of tiny parasites and symbiotes that look not unlike the plankton of the Sargasso Sea in a microscope, and that the human digestive tract as well as the rest of the body contains more benign bacteria than the actual number of human cells in the body. Each of us is a massive high-rise development housing whole cities of amusing little critters. The complex is maintained by a really nasty, efficient security system that makes Orwell's totalitarian government of 1984 look like something run by FEMA. If you don't have your ID card right there on your chest, the T-cells eat you without benefit of counsel. Only a few very clever counterfeiters and con-proteins, like HIV, can game the system from the inside; all other invaders depend on blitzkrieg tactics to take advantage of some temporary weakness in the great Maginot line of the immune system, and usually their incursions only get as far as the Marne, where the tide turns and they get rolled up by a billion tiny Pattons.

The attempt to physically shield one's self from all biological harm, while reasonable in moderation, becomes a nice metaphor, when taken too far, for the alienation from nature that seems to wax every day, proportionately to the constant increase in technical ability in all our lives. If we could live without any of the 'drawbacks' of the physical world, why wouldn't we? There are deep and cogent philosophical answers to this question, expounded by eloquent philosophers, but here is my own simplistic answer: this alienation is killing us. We no longer understand how to operate the world on a stable basis. Poor and ignorant people do the best they can without knowledge or resources; rich and ignorant people pick and choose their beliefs and complacently imagine that they can control their personal worlds to any degree they choose.

Did we ever understand how the world should be operated? Yes, we did, for a while; on an intuitive rather than a scientific basis, we understood that existence is arranged in a great cycle, that we are all an equal part of it and that all the parts and members are important to the balance of the cycle. We made myths and handed them down, to transmit the knowledge of the Great Balance onward indefinitely. Gradually the myths became co-opted to serve special interests, so to speak; the interest of each tribe against all others, following the primal necessity of increasing one's progeny.

You can check out any time you want, But you can never leave.

Copyright 2006 byDavid Warren Rockwell

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Andy Rooney, Astrophysicist and Breakfast Theoretician

Some knotty problems in Astrophysics solved.

Notes on the Inflationary Universe: Djever notice how bagels keep getting bigger, until they’re too fat to fit in your toaster, and then you have to buy a larger and fancier toaster? This detail from the Breakfast Arms Race (which spawns such abominations as the White Chocolate-chip Raisin Bagel) is an illustration of the universal Law of Ongoing Bloat, which states that, a) greed must be served, but b) will never be satisfied. Only a bigger and more hideously adulterated bagel is acceptable to the greedy mind, and this bagel then drives all other aspects of civilization until that sad final day when the Ultimate Plutonium Bagel is accidentally dropped on the President’s toe at breakfast and we all disappear, screaming, into a discontinuum, some weird little crack in reality’s sidewalk.

Perhaps, however - just perhaps - we can avoid this sad fate if only more influential people like the President, the Reverend S. Y. Moon and Dennis Rodman learn more about the basic structure of the universe, by reading the following simplified primer.

1. The Origin of the Universe.

I like to think I'm one intellectual cut above the average cave dweller, and so it's not too unusual to find me curled up in an armchair, reading some exciting mathematical/philosophical/ astronomical tome whose author has nobly flung himself once more against the very gates of Heaven, seeking to explain the instant of creation itself, or at least say something about it that will make a guy like me buy his book. I'm too smart for that; I wait until I see it at a yard sale, or remaindered for two bucks. But alas - these geniuses inevitably come to a point where they can't explain themselves except by using a lot of brand-new symbols they just thought up for the occasion, and torturing the logical faculties of ordinary mortals with statements like: if a is not equal to a', and b is not equal to b', and “not equal” is defined as equal to all subsets of c less or more than d or, during lunar eclipses, d', THEN... And they triumphantly gallop off into a weird ever-receding landscape that Mandelbrot saw once in a mushroom nightmare, riding a cubist pony and holding high a banner with the strange device, QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRATUM; but I'm snoozing in the comfy chair, falling ever deeper into a delightful five-dimensional rabbit hole full of dancing pentangles, and everything seems so very clear, yes, even the long-lost key to that endless moment of fire that hung in the dark, when everything began to unfold; temperature meant nothing, yet they tell us anyway that it was 500 million degrees (Kelvin) or whatever. I love doing that, although I'd be just as enriched and enlightened if I drank beer and watched the football game.

Thusly I establish my intellectual credentials, even if Godel’s Eternal Golden Braid, or whatever he called it, is as far beyond me as trigonometry is beyond an ant. I can appreciate Leonardo’s Codex just as much as Bill Gates, though he may have the original sitting on his solid gold coffee table, stained with cappucino latte for all I know. And who among us, the miserable PC users of this world, has not said to himself, “I could have written a Disc Operating System one hell of a lot better than this garbage.”? Now, it’s a little-known fact that in science, Attitude is often just as potent as The Scientific Method when it comes to finally establishing the truth of something. So, vigorously employing the general attitude displayed above, I state the following:

a) The universe either “began” or it did not, and has never not existed.

b) The universe will either “end” or it will not, and will always exist.

c) We will almost certainly never “see” either event, no matter what telescopes we build.

d) To propose a definite “mechanism” for the origin of the universe is plain silly.

Notice, if you will, how quickly ordinary concepts decay in their meanings when asked to bear the burden of an infinite context.

2. Entropy

It was Yeats who famously tossed off the line, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” and he struck a fatalistic chord on the world’s psyche - good old Captain Bringdown. Later he was vindicated by the codification of the various laws of thermodynamics, and everyone relaxed and had a beer or three. But why is this true? And if we just build a new centre, say, a few miles away in the new megamall, what difference does it make? Sure, I admit we will all end up as lonely atoms wandering untethered in space, like so many tetherballs whose tethers finally frayed and broke, and sent us rolling into a dark corner of the infinite playground, but, by my calculations we still have plenty of time to go get some pizza and red wine, and catch a movie.

I believe good ol’ Lao Tzu said it best more than two millennia ago: “Small country, few people.” I paid a real California channeler to get him on the astral horn and explain that annoyingly cryptic remark, and he was kind enough to translate it for me into modern buzzspeak idiotica: “Basically, Dave, there's a limit to the effectiveness of any system, however skillfully managed. Systems tend to bloat and complicate, and at a certain mysterious point the anti-synergism of excessive numbers of variables destroys their ability to produce their product, whatever it might be; and then the momentum of organization pushes the system over the line into decline and total failure, unless, of course, the controlling entity is able to downsize and simplify in a real snappy manner. It would be nice if things could be kept small, cozy and stable. And if pigs could fly you could send packages, a big improvement over pigeons - call it Pig-Ex/” I eventually had to hang up, he just wouldn't stop jabbering. Apparently there isn’t much to do on the astral plane once you’ve read all the books in the library a hundred times and sampled every dish in the cafeteria.

3. The Arrow of Time - careful! It’s sharp!

Another thing I’d like to clear up is this pesky cosmological constant thing, i.e. the arrow of time problem: why it always goes this-a-way but never back that-a-way, or any other weird direction. Well, it's simple, and you can pass this along to Mr. S. Hawking, free of charge: the reason time is a one-way street is because cause A always causes effect A', and the reason for that, smart guy, is because we say so. Our very thoughts about it instantly create the fourth dimension of perceived-cause-and-effect (time) and also the fifth dimension of intelligence/
stupidity/free will/love. Conduct, if you will, the following ‘thought experiment’. Imagine that consciousness never arose anywhere in the universe; all that exists is insensate matter moving about here and there in accordance with the dictates of the forces inherent to matter, such as interstate speed limits, postal regulations, and the like. Now: where is time? What possible meaning can the concept have without an observer to mark it? Of course, the experiment is bogus; we cannot imagine, with any cogency, our own non-existence, and the fifth dimension is beyond the reach of numerical description, being the very medium of our existence; the fish cannot analyze water, etc. Well I hope that reduces the constant stream of plaintive questions people direct to me here on Mount Olympus. (What is life, really? Why are the stars spread out in such a messy way like marbles dumped on the floor? Who's going to go get the beer?)

Copyright 2006 by David Warren Rockwell

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Unknown Knowns: Quagmire of Lies

"Drive all the way to Reno, on the wrong side of the road."

-Tom Waits

In the beginning there was the Word, but it was sluggish and lacked Context. When you’ve only got one Word it’s difficult to build meaning. Sometimes if I type too fast the clogged and muddy processor has to think a bit before it shows me what I have written. My thoughts are languishing momentarily in a limbo, their faults as yet unknown to the visible world. (This mechanical limbo resembles a tiny mud puddle, while the limbo of unrevealed and unrealized thought behind my forehead is more like the Pacific Ocean.) As for the invisible world, once called the id by Mr. S. Freud, more and more we seem to know that it resides not only in the tumbledown shacks and dirty cellars on the outskirts of consciousness, but in our machines themselves. Such essential mechanical elements of our world system such as software, the street layout of D.C. and the tax code, to name only a few, have outgrown our ability to entirely control or understand them, and they display a witty and willful wickedness in their mad proliferation.

Donald Rumsfeld has begun to elucidate a basic taxonomy or ontology of knowledge. There are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. Presumably this is a tool of military analysis: we know the enemy has weapons; we know that we don’t know precisely what they are or how they are deployed, but we want to know those things and are actively seeking them out; and we also presume that there are things we don’t know that we should know, but we have no idea of where to start looking for them because we know nothing about them at all. This leaves out the fourth possibility, and the most difficult: the unknown knowns. These are things that we should know, and in fact do know, except that we have deliberately or accidentally hid or mislaid or denied or forgotten or disguised them, so that we are now in the territory of the false knowns, and every step takes us farther from actual knowledge. Some say the human species has been lost in this territory ever since the first Word was spoken, but I say, with others: no matter how far down the wrong road you have gone, turn back! Perhaps fatalism is the only true faith, but I reject it now and forever just on principle; I stand up and testify for the free mind and the unknown future, for these make me glad. No idea or image of Heaven has ever been able to make me want to trade away my front yard. The idea of a final and settled universe, the Eternal Reward, seems to me lifeless, an oil painting and nothing more. Even though the Tree of Knowledge has a huge dying limb with an infinite involution of complexity, full of rotting self-deceit, I am still willing to use my reason. I just wish everyone sitting on that limb would go straight to Heironymus Boschland when the limb falls off, and leave the rest of us in peace.

Ha! You reply heatedly: an oil painting can have a lot more life in it than most people. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good luck falling in love with that marble bust of Helen. True, she don’t talk back and she stays faithfully on the pedestal. But the killing boredom! You’d be a lot happier with the widow next door, Edith, who like to polka and has that big old wart. So what if she’s been married seven times before?

But I digress. (And why the hell not?) There is no magic Word, Rummy. You’re an unusually straightforward guy, or so you seem. Think about the unknown knowns, and try to admit that mistakes, as they say, were made, and lies told. Otherwise we’ll be stuck in this mud until Kingdom Come or the next election, whichever comes first.

Copyright 2006 by David Warren Rockwell

Monday, April 03, 2006

Chomolungma Reveals All!

10/21/05 "Little darlin', I feel that ice is slowly melting..."

George Harrison, "Here Comes the Sun"

All over the world, that ice is melting. Satellite photography over the decades show polar ice shrinkage over the decades, clearly visible to the naked eye - and the naked eye is all we really trust. However incontrovertible this may be, it is nevertheless a bone of political contention, now that we no longer put our childlike trust in Science. Is global warming really the fault of our smelly, burgeoning species, or just a coincidental blip in the random wanderings of the goddess Gaia, or if you prefer, the magnificent planetary machine, that has maintained a nearly constant atmosphere for our pleasure for the past couple of billion years? We can't be completely certain, but we know for sure that those idiots on the other side of the aisle are dead wrong.

Be that as it may, the shrinking ice returns to us things that were lost, that we thought were lost forever, and we examine them with intense interest. Just the other day an airman returned from his crash site in the California mountains, where he had disappeared into thin air, as we like to say, in 1942. Not long ago the legendary disappeared mountaineer George Mallory reappeared on his home ground, the slopes of Everest, a.k.a. Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Snows, with gear and all, but without a clue as to whether he and Irving had reached the summit they so devoutly wish'd. And not long before that, of course, there was found the man in the Alps who had been there, encased in ice, with a spearpoint in his back for the last seven thousand years, waiting with infinite patience to tell us of his murder all those centuries ago. The ice gives us these objects, these mute clues, and we have to somehow decipher them; it is salubrious to our being to realize that the past is real, that we are standing on it, that we are built from the stuff, and therefore there is a thread of causation, if not of ultimate meaning, running though the whole monster maze, and we can follow it, at least for a short way.

Melting glaciers can be found metaphorically thoughout the world. For example, there is the crumbling of the longtime omertá of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the peccadillos of some percentage of priests who cannot be celibate and yet still wish to remain priests. This frees up thousands of victims to literally get hopping, screaming, suing mad. Along with the breaching of various rusting moral fortresses there are falling statues with feet of clay - the political theories that enabled and rationalized on a monstrous scale some of the worst tendencies of the human animal, viz. Lenin, Saddam Hussein, etc. Although Vladimir Putin pays lips service to democracy, he keeps his hidden hand on the machinery of absolute control, even as the basis of that control, which is the peoples' ignorance, fear and acquiescence, melts away faster every day. The Chinese Communist Party tries desperately to have its cake and eat it too, and have capitalism without democracy, but it is now too late to stuff the yowling Cat of Western Decadence back into the Blackout Bag of Repression - the people know that there is another kind of existence outside the Middle Kingdom, and they're intensely interested in what they see sticking out of the ice.

Will this gradual melting of ignorance and silence result in global peace, prosperity and a general Golden Age? Alas - we have some major problems that do not hinge on our politics, philosophy or morals; we must go back and trust pure science to find and tell us the truth, and then we must find the will to act on it. If we fail, at least we knew, for a while, what was actually emerging from the ice, before it started to close back in.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006



"Do you like boobs a lot? Yes I like boobs a lot! Boobsalot, boobsalot."
- The Holy Modal Rounders, Boobsalot, 1971

We processed some film the other day documenting an antiwar protest, and it looks like the late '60s are returning. The theme of the event was BREASTS NOT BOMBS (rather than my more alliterative and symmetrical extrapolation) and a goodly number of ladies of various ages and sizes (though mostly young, pierced and tattooed) exuberantly bared their breasts and waved their signs. It made for, among other things, an interesting random sampling of breast variety, and confirmed my own unscientific opinion that nine out of ten pairs of breasts do not conform to arbitrary standards of geometrical beauty, and that they vary just as widely as do the faces of individuals. The advent of breast implants and pervasively relaxed media has taught the nation exactly what the perfect breast should and must look like; however, there is a primitive biological core to people, and many men (such as myself) stubbornly and inexplicably continue to enjoy the appearance of all sorts of breasts, whether large, small, firm or sagging, with an amazing variety of nipples, and regardless of whether the breasts are exhibited in a deliberately sexual manner or simply as a political statement in favor of general liberty and nonviolence. The obvious exception, of course, is when the breasts are attached to a fat guy. We don't want to see that. I'm sorry, but it just puts me off. Sue me, gentlemen brassiere wearers.

This earth-shaking transformation in accepted norms of mammalian beauty has occurred during my own lifetime, and is well-documented in the pages of Playboy. In my youth the Playmates of the month, though carefully chosen for beauty and a certain vivacity, exhibited a wide range of breast sizes and types, and some of these women did not work out at all! (They liked skiing, backgammon and cute guys who don't lie too much.) Now, of course, one can count on the girl to be taut, toned, perfectly proportioned, and endowed by the surgeon if not by nature with twin bazookas which, if removed and placed back-to-back, would form a perfectly spherical critical mass of artificial pulchritude - a megaton synthetic sex-bomb. Oddly, though, I get no lift, no zing, no propulsive force, from these machine-made hemispheres, the best that a great civilization can produce. Could it be that sexual beauty is more than a set of curves drawn by a computer and stuffed down our held-open eyeballs every day, like poor Alex in Clockwork Orange being forcibly deprogrammed of his natural impulse to bash old ladies? The technique eventually failed on him, and it has failed on me. But if it were to succeed with the younger generations, whose whole world is virtual, what will become of our species? I heap ashes on my head and bewail this mechanical degeneration of humanity. But no one is listening - they're all watching Survivor: Beverly Hills, in which the contestants vie to secure the services of the best plastic surgeons. Oh dear. Woe, etc.

I take heart, though, in seeing the spirit and attitude shown by these women; they are gleefully whipping off their shirts, ostensibly in emulation of the famous image of Liberty carrying the tricolor banner, but also, of course, as a gesture of defiance directed against the stuffy, repressed, secretly decadent ruling class, knowing that their targets will see these bare breasts, cluck in simulated dismay and yet be secretly aroused, more by the chaotic sense of freedom that pervades such an event than the sexuality that is implied. This is a another primitive impulse, to stick old Dad in the eye and go your own way, and I really don't think it can be bred and bleached and scrubbed out of us.

Energy Crisis and Obesity Epidemic Solved!

Modest Proposal # 23.

"There's a fat man, in the bathtub, with the blues.
I hear him moan, I hear him moan..." - Lloyd George

Those who know me well sometimes weary of my pet peeves, and the stock of rants that accompany them. Out of consideration for their angst I will now expound at length, for the very last time, on a topic that no one has ever asked me to illuminate, and there will be one less boring arrow in my quiver of expostulation. Unless and until I whittle another.

I intend by my radical proposal (is there any other kind?) simultaneously to ameliorate two major problems that at first glance would seem utterly unrelated, to wit, the so-called OBESITY EPIDEMIC and the so-called ENERGY CRISIS. Now, these two topics have been staples of the news media pretty much ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press. In fact, he had finished a Bible one day and had some leftover paper and ink, and he saw a lot of fat burghers waddling off to church, and he got to thinking how people weren't nearly so fat when he was a kid, and so forth and so on. And now, centuries later, when Peter Dan Brokaw opens his nationwide broadcast with the well-worn formula, "There is an epidemic of obesity in this country," my family braces themselves as I leap off the couch, shouting, "Epidemic of Obesity! Hooray!"

Aside from the fact that this, like most of the material on the news, is not news, I object to the use of the word 'epidemic', which carries the negative connotation of disease and death. Yes, obesity shortens the average life span, and yes, the condition is increasing in this country. However, obesity represents, to the human animal, a consummation devoutly to be wished: to eat as much and as pleasurably as one wants, to avoid toil and struggle and pain and any kind of tedious self-control - this is all of Heaven that we can know. The cause of this 'epidemic' is simply the juxtaposition of our natural tendencies and an unlimited supply of food. And as for the shortening of lifespan, it is self-evident that time is a highly malleable and subjective experience: one man (thin, fit, ambitious) reflects on his busy, ant-like existence for a few minutes at the end of a maniacally active year, and suddenly notices that it passed in a flash, really not much longer than a week, and he feels momentarily the fear of being sucked over the falls at the end of the river, and looking back on a life not much longer than that one repetitive week; another man (fat, flabby, unreflective) lies in the sun on a beach, at one with the earth and the ocean, drifting in unmarked and endless Time, completely unconcerned that someday soon his time will come to an end, for he has achieved contentment right here and now. Whose life is really longer? From this point of view we should encourage obesity as a path to Nirvana, and strive to become a nation of smiling rotund Buddhas. Never mind that a couple of billion underfed people already call us a nation of pigs. And every few weeks they see us whining on TV about our poor health and our bloated bodies and our rotten medical system that keeps on extending our lifespan, and we call it news.

Ok, that's a standard rant with a nasty moralistic undertone, that really contributes nothing to a solution. We need some semi-rational thought here (about the best we can do) without condemning ourselves for doing what any other group would do if they could. I wish to consider the human race as a component in a complex energy cycle. When we were no more than animals we participated in the natural energy transformation like any other animal: we converted the energy from our food into human flesh, and all of our waste products including the discarded flesh after death was consumed as food by other organisms. We developed fat storage abilities to tide us over periods of famine, and there is no built-in limitation to this mechanism other than environmental factors, as when survival demanded great physical efforts by most of the members of a tribe.

Now we are much more than animals (yet still less than gods, unfortunately) and we are able to manipulate the energy cycle to suit our appetites. We work no harder than we must, we eat all we can hold, and we store the excess energy of the food as blubber, even though we don't need it for insulation, like the walrus, nor do we anticipate famine, like the Inuit. When we die, we either cremate the body or seal it in a hermetic coffin, and the energy stored in the body is simply wasted. So - let's do the math: let us assume that 50 million adults in the U.S.A. have 50 pounds each of excess blubber, or 2.5 billion pounds total. Or, roughly, around 5 million barrels worth. If this blubber were collected via liposuction and refined into gasoline and other useful hydrocarbons, it would yield enough energy to keep Air Force One airborne indefinitely. I am quite sure that patriotic Americans would be willing and able to gain five pounds per year to donate or even sell to the national energy supply. I know I would. This then would be an ongoing supply of a million barrels of high-grade blubber every year, after the initial bonanza was harvested. Of course, a million barrels is a mere drop in the national energy bucket, but there are many positive synergistic side effects. First, the national health will be measurably improved, if not the fitness. We will no longer feel the need to diet or the guilt of skipping our exercise regimen. We will no longer waste many billions on diets, Thighmasters and the like, bogus fat-burning-while-u-sleep pills, cellulite creams, orthopedic surgery on ankles, knees, hips, etc. (Fear not, ortho docs; plenty of work in the lipo field!) Adult-onset diabetes will quickly decline. When we drive through Burgher Burger we'll feel a swell of patriotism as we order the Gigantoburger with triple cheese and a gallon-size soda. Heart surgeons and morticians will benefit, but old-folks' 'homes' will not, as people will be much more likely to stay fairly healthy until they suddenly drop dead of a stroke or heart attack. This will remove from us the fear of lingering through a horrible decade or so at the end of our lives, rotting on a plastic chair in the 'home', staring at a clock that ticks ever more slowly, and getting our fillings stolen from our teeth. Most of us would rather just skip that stage of life anyway, but suicide is a bit of a bother, now that Dr. Kevorkian is in the slammer. So sum it up, we would, on the average, live somewhat shorter, but much happier and more fulfilling lives, knowing that although we are still the planet's Pig Nation, at least we are giving something back. And, best of all from my personal point of view, there would no longer be regular items on the news about how unbelievably, ridiculously, nauseatingly fat we all are.

Objections to my plan are obvious and plentiful. Many of them are rooted in old- fashioned squeamishness of the kind that makes us reluctant to process our sewage and fertilize our crops with it. We prefer to just dump it into the nearest body of water and forget about it, if we can get away with it. But as the world is converted into one monstrous condominium development, whose only purpose is to convert natural resources into more human bodies, we can no longer afford this kind of fastidiousness; the machine must continue to improve its efficiency to postpone the inevitable collapse. We have seen in our own lifetimes how quickly people can come to accept practices and changes that would have been regarded as abhorrent and barbaric just a few decades ago. As the rate of change accelerates, culture evolves right before our eyes into something so different as to be unrecognizable, and seemingly monstrous. Young Beethoven was initially regarded as a barbarian; but how much greater is the jump in devolution from the barbarian Elvis to the barbarian Eminem.

But enough of this doom, and this gloom! So, what do you say, America? Call your congressman today and incessantly demand that the government outfit a great fleet of Lipo-Tanker trucks which will fan out across this great nation of ours and efficiently harvest all that wonderful surplus lard! To get the ball rolling, and put a glamorous veneer over the whole enterprise, we'll raffle off tickets for ultra-luxurious Lipo Cruises, the ocean liners equipped with special lard holds, and capable of refining and burning their own fuel from the happy passengers who waddle up the gangplank, and later ecstatically skip down it!
The next non-news faux-crisis I shall demolish will be the ever-popular Why Johnny Can't Read, Add, or do anything more complex than program his cell phone to speed-dial Pizza Palooza.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Oh No! Not Cognitive Rigidity Syndrome!

Cognitive Rigidity Got You Plugged Up? Take two BLASTO! pills and stop worrying.

from a Washington Post article, March or February 2004:

"Nor do those two positions represent the whole spectrum of opinion. There are also those who view any rational suicide as a failure of a medical system that should have identified a patient calling for help. "Most suicidal persons desperately want to live," states the Web site of the American Association of Suicidology, a group devoted to the understanding and prevention of suicide.

This concern is what makes Heilbrun's decision such a disturbing one, says suicide expert John L. McIntosh, chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University South Bend. Even someone making what appears to be a thoroughly rational case for suicide, McIntosh says, can be suffering from depression or cognitive rigidity, an unwillingness to consider other options. Health professionals, he stresses, should be diagnosing and then treating such individuals.

And always lurking in the shadows of the debate is one other concern: the so-called slippery slope. That is, once a society condones suicide, for whatever reason, what's to stop it from one day promoting the act? An individual's right to die, then, might become his duty to do so."

This sentence jumped out at me, and not like a jolly clown; it was an evil, twisted clown:

"Even someone making what appears to be a thoroughly rational case for suicide, McIntosh says, can be suffering from depression or cognitive rigidity, an unwillingness to consider other options."

Let us stipulate that our subject is making a thoroughly rational case for something - suicide, or a change in government policy of some kind, or a change in the common morality, or a new point of view regarding humanity and its place in the cosmos, or its relationship to the biosphere. Such advocacy could be dangerous to the status quo, and that is no small thing; and the more rationally the case is stated, the more dangerous it is. It is also quite rational, although in a restricted or provincial way, for the threatened entity to respond to the challenge in whatever manner that will neutralize the threat; and to do this we use the tools, not of actual rationality, but of a virtual or symbolic rationality. We first assert our authority and prior claim to reason: we are Experts and represent the People in some way. Then we create a label that fits into a pseudo-rational world view or schema covering the threatened topic, and we paste the label over the rational case that the dissenter had advanced, and we neatly tie it up with a few technical references and footnotes, and the challenging argument is discredited; it disappears as if it had never existed. This method is only a temporary fix, really, as it does not erase the dangerous ideas as they persist and spread among the people (small p this time).

This particular example is classic: as suicide is a very negative value, and psychiatry exists in part to prevent it altogether, just as medicine exists to prevent death altogether, the intellectual disciplines staking claim to 'expert', 'professional' knowledge of the psyche cannot admit that any truly rational person could be justified in committing suicide. Therefore that "thoroughly rational case" that Mr. McIntosh stipulated must be invalid, not because of flaws in reasoning, but rather because the individual suffers from a damaged and malfunctioning psyche: perhaps clinical depression, a useful and commonly accepted label, or, if that is insufficiently specific to satisfy the more skeptical, perhaps... cognitive rigidity. A syndrome or condition in which the subject is simply unwilling to consider other options. The subject is not just hard-headed, or stubborn, or foolishly convinced of a wrong idea, or plain cantankerous; the fact that the subject persistently disagrees with the opinions of experts proves that he or she is sick and out of touch with reality to some degree, and nothing the person may say, however reasonable, is untainted with this defect.

Hey - psychologists! Psychiatrists! Yoo-hoo! Over Here! I'm suffering from so much cognitive rigidity on this issue that you'll need a psychic A-bomb to unblock me! And my opinion is that you have completely lost touch with the reality of individual human experience; you have subverted your own intelligence into an infinitely reflecting maze of mirrors; you call it Science, and you bow down to it, and you build a wonderfully clean mental temple with a shiny 1000-watt rationalism glaring from every window. But, to extend the metaphor, a few floors down the horses have filled all the stables with your fragrant fertilizer. I think you're full of cognitive rigidity yourself, and you need some kind of supreme, industrial-strength cognitive emetic; if I were a little too rational I'd kill myself rather than put up with your analysis any longer. Luckily, for me personally, life is sweet, and stuff like this is just fuel for a good rant.

What is individuality, anyway? We rank it very high in our official value system; yet circumstances and the cancerous growth of group entities and mass media are currently eroding it. Taking a longer historical view, the phenomenon of individuality has continued to gain strength over the millennia; and some think it benefits from unrest, war and catastrophe, which destroys and prunes back the growth of agglomerations and ideologies, letting the quirky, the obstinate, the foolish and the creative individuals emerge and flourish in messy, unplanned cross-fertilization, like the chaotic carpet that grows from the floor of a burned forest. Suicide is by definition the ultimate act of individuality, no matter how misguided; it is unique to the self-conscious animals on this earth. If we excise, through medicine, therapy or physical force, the ability to kill one's self, the sacred sphere of individuality itself will be significantly damaged, and further power will accrue to the collective. Is that so bad, you ask? Consider: without individual, self-aware consciousness, human society is no different than ant society, or any other such complex system. Each of us, alone, is the world. The rest is just blind, dead matter and energy.

Here is the truly slippery slope: if we condone the invalidation of an argument that appears thoroughly rational, because we dislike the argument's conclusions, then we've rejected reason itself, our most powerful tool, and we're all right down the crapper of history. Mark my words with a yellow highlighter, and then burn them in a sacred and mystical circle, or whatever you please. Just don't call me late for my hemlock nightcap.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Jesus Unclear on 1st Amendment Concept

My son Eamonn had a letter to the editor printed in the local paper, in which he supported the decision, much vilified by our courageous lawmakers, of a federal judge that questioned the constitutionality of the phrase, 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. I was a bit surprised but very proud, as much of the high technical quality of his writing (he was 14) as of the passion that drove him to write. The paper edited out very little; his tone is emphatic, even a bit combative, but he takes an arguable stance on a real issue.

It was not a week before we received an anonymous letter in the mail, computer-printed, and clearly a form letter that the timid soul sends out to everyone he disagrees with. The gist of it, repeated ad nauseum in a blustering, hectoring tone and style, was that since Christians founded this country, it is a 'Christian country', and any and all who cannot accept this dominance by Christian culture (as defined by the writer) should get out while the gettin's good. The writer is careful to make no actual threats, and does not reply to any of Eamonn's specific points, but his point is quite clear: those who do not agree with him cannot be tolerated in 'his' country.

Needless to belabor the point: the opinions of individuals without the courage to sign their names, have no force in the marketplace of ideas, even if they are argued with the logic of Socrates and the eloquence of Daniel Webster. But in this sort of letter one feels the touch, light but dreadful, of our collective subconscious: our underground rivers of fear and anger, boiling like black lava, suppressed, but still threatening us, the conscious, thinking individuals, with the deadly eruption of corrupted thought, twisted logic, the demagoguery that, as we know from history both ancient and recent, can quickly strip from human beings all that makes them better than animals, and leave them worse: animals with tools and weapons, and no desire to think beyond the rude wooden palisade of crude ideas that they raise against the outer darkness, the unknown.

Here is a quote from the letter, neatly, and laughably, illustrating the stupidity of the writer: he affirms the First Amendment and then invites all dissenters from his point of view to leave the country:

"Our First Amendment gives every citizen the right the express his opinion about our government, culture or society, and we will allow you every opportunity to do so. But once you are done complaining, whining and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other great American freedom: THE RIGHT TO LEAVE!"

Notice the clear division between 'we' and 'you'.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Apex Predator Impostor Syndrome

The human species is the de facto apex predator in the world today. We did not evolve our way into this position, like every other apex predator; we were just a mid-level, non-specialist, omnivorous scavenger and small-game hunter species for perhaps a million years until we were handed this mysterious Gift, a few short millennia ago, and suddenly we were driving mammoths over cliffs with fire and spear, and we realized that the world was our oyster. We settled down to eat everything we could kill, which was everything, and increase our numbers; and because we had not evolved naturally into this position, we had no instincts in place to enable us to remain in balance with the world. At heart we are still prey as well as predator; we never adjust our fertility in response to changes in the availability of food; we do not effectively portion out territory and resources according to population density. We do not have the sublime confidence of the apex predator. Instead, we fearfully store up fat, have as many children as we can stand, and work the land for all it's worth. We never sit back and lie in the sun like a well-fed lion; we feel like impostors in our exalted rank, and that it could all be taken away as suddenly as it came.

It is an interesting, but irrelevant, question whether another species, that had evolved as an apex predator, and been given the Gift (of tools and brains and consciousness), would have acted as we did. Endless crap is fed us every day about the nobility of animals, and their innate harmony with the world. I have a feeling that if lions had attained intelligence first, they would have arranged the entire world to their liking as a gigantic game preserve, carefully staked out in tribal and clan territories, and whenever they suspected that intelligence was arising in any other species they would savagely suppress it, to the point of true genocide if necessary, to protect their monopoly. They would have no need or desire for new knowledge and technical ability; they would simply run the ecosystem to an optimum for lions, and they would occasionally war on each other on a local level if they felt crowded. Of course, it is improbable that consciousness would ever arise in such a species, as there is no evolutionary pressure for it when a species is perfectly fitted to its niche. Great advances are not made in tranquil, balanced periods; they are forged in slow, terrible battles unfolding over the millennia. Human consciousness is thought to have arisen in response to gradual climate change in Africa. One wonders what the next thousand years will bring, if major and much faster climate change is now upon us. We might hope for some sort of quantum leap in consciousness, if only we can survive the vicissitudes to come. Occam and his famous razor say that that is highly unlikely; yet after all, we can't access or predict in any way a higher consciousness, using the relatively primitive consciousness we presently enjoy. But we do know that consciousness evolves much more quickly than species do, being that the basic unit for change is the meme rather than the gene. The meme of science, which is the single strongest mental tool we have, and almost infinitely adaptable, may have the potential for stabilizing our future as a species; but it is forced to compete with a horde of pernicious memes based on our emotions and primal animal natures, and those are so much more seductive.

Admit it: which would you really rather read in the newspaper:

a) "Today in the United Nations building, the President of the United States, the world's last holdout, signed the Comprehensive World Governmental Accord, which has been widely credited with staving off and perhaps preventing the collapse of civilization. Signatory nations retain a great deal of autonomy within their borders, but must, in their international dealings..." and blah blah blah.

or b) "Today Israel and Palestine each sent forth into the Dead Zone between their territories a single champion, mechanically armed and caparisoned to a fare-thee-well to settle their age-old dispute forever by proxy combat. The champions were immediately dubbed David and Goliath by the media. Large throngs from each nation sat in bleachers overlooking the acres of barbed wire and cheered for their respective champions. Hopes briefly ran high for a simple and definitive peace settlement. However, before the battle was properly joined, both nations cheated, lobbing missiles and strafing the crowds. Thousands were killed and the status quo was resumed with great acrimony all round. The event scored very high ratings in networks around the world, and a great deal of expensive advertising was sold for next month's rematch."

Friday, March 24, 2006

Artificial Intelligence / Natural Stupidity

"Artificial Intelligence." Sept. 2002

This amusing term is rife with sardonic possibilities, of course, as it presupposes that intelligence, as we humans pretend to possess it, is a 'natural' quality, akin to the thumb or color vision, rather than the truly new and different thing that is now transforming the world. It is also a tacit admission of the flawed and incomplete nature of our intelligence. We have used our intelligence to leverage our abilities by an enormous factor; over and over we have taken a simple, 'natural' ability, for example, the ability to throw a stone and knock out an enemy's eye, and enhanced it, first by putting the stone in a sling, then in a catapult, and finally into an ICBM that delivers the very fires of hell itself. We have also used our intelligence to leverage intelligence itself; first we invented language, then writing, and finally the Web, and a rudimentary Hive Brain slowly begins to assemble itself out of a myriad of morons. And yet it is obvious to individuals of average intelligence that the aggregate intelligence level is abysmally low, and is inadequate to foresee and prevent general disasters identical to those so richly studding our history, not to mention the regular collapse of whole civilizations. This could be called a 'natural' cycle for our species, like forest fires and lemming migrations, but currently the stakes are higher than ever before, with world civilization becoming ever more unified, but no better planned or regulated. We're gambling with the whole damned ball of wax, boys and girls. And, frankly, the odds are heavily stacked against us.

Hence the attraction of the concept of artificial intelligence: computers, at least in principle, never 'forget', never miscalculate, never lose their bills somewhere on their desk, and deal with information a great deal faster than we do. Our brain, already our strongest feature, becomes greatly enhanced in its cruder abilities; this enables us to solve immediate, relatively simple problems at the expense of more subtle, long-term problems. We're riding this gigantic new digital horse and getting to that opaque and deadly future far faster and more efficiently than before, but we still don't know where the hell we're going; we suspect that a fatal cliff is just ahead in the mist. If only Mr. Ed could really think, and tell us which way to go! Grandma's house is somewhere through these woods, we fondly imagine: a world of natural beauty, plentiful food, clean water, digital televisions crammed with topnotch quality entertainment, and grandmotherly comfort for everybody. Help us find the way, Micro-Ed - bring us safely home...

I'm sorry, kids. No matter how sophisticated computer calculation becomes, it will never possess courage, common sense, and a global perspective, and thus help us find the will to make all those fundamental changes that we just really, really don't want to make. All it can give us is information. We are still free to ignore, corrupt, twist and misuse the information. The next logical step would be to create an A.I. Executive, or, really, an E-Dictator, and obey its every command. Oops - then we would fight endlessly over the manipulation of the input so as to tweak the output. We're following a faint trail of breadcrumb ideas through the black and dismal forest of human ignorance, and the crumbs are being stolen by ants before we can find the way.

And so on and so forth. But imagine the scheme somehow succeeding, and the world becoming One Machine, and we all happy and stable cogs in it. Even Armageddon might be better than that, I feel.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Great Conundrum

3/11/2006 - 2 a.m.

Sleep won't come. Why not work on the Conundrum?

That old Master-Knot of Human Fate. Why is human life so unsatisfactory on the large scale? Civilizations rise and fall, and they fall hard, in proportion to their wretched excess/success. They often begin, nowadays, with a wonderful ideal, that the unencumbered individual finds both beautiful and rational, a promise of a better world in the future. The decay of the ideal, like a blue whale being torn apart by sharks, is agonizing to watch. Reason seems to us to be the one great power in the conscious universe; how could it be corrupted and enslaved?

The unencumbered individual: of course no such thing exists, but some distinction must be made between the slaves of the memes at one end of the scale, and Euclid at the other end, who allegedly said (contemptuously, to his slave, regarding one who had questioned the usefulness of a theorem): "He wishes to profit from knowledge. Give him a penny." The 'free' individual recognizes memes and attempts to root them out of his brain; he has at least some ability to use a relative objectivity in looking at life from a point of view outside of the subconscious demands of his genes and the ubiquitous moral coloration that his nurture has immersed him in. The slaves of the memes have heeded the closed-loop command found at the end of the Bible, at the end of Revelations: that no changes of any kind may be made to this word from God. Though it is sometimes less explicit, or disguised, every strong meme contains this enforcement loop: here are the thoughts of absolute truth, and you are forbidden to think except within this compound. This is not to say that such slaves never escape, for they sometimes do.

Memes: a useful term for mental instruction-sets analogous to genes, in that they survive by benefiting their hosts (individuals and groups). The memes compete and evolve through normal evolutionary pathways; if they help their hosts to multiply faster and outcompete other entities, they are passed on. Like genes, they have no actual consciousness; they are as purely mechanical as prions or bacteria. They have no particular connection to objective reality, for they are the mechanism of pure subjectivity. For my own argumentative purpose I am using the term to indicate major idea systems that have sufficient complexity and benefit to their hosts that the hosts subordinate their reason to them. Is the scientific method a meme? Certainly, and among the most influential in existence; however, in my estimation a person cannot be a meme-slave to Science unless the meme is corrupted, so to speak, so that the individual begins to worship it, or use it for his subjective aims. I use the term meme-slaves for those persons and groups whose primary energy is devoted unswervingly to the stated goals of their meme; they possess reason, of course, but only are able to use it in service of the meme, and not for themselves. Don't touch that apple!

When I say "benefiting their hosts" I do not refer to the human race, although quite often the meme specifies that it should apply to all humans; this is in service of the universal imperative to expand. What drives this imperative, since it is not a rational impulse? There's no mystery there: the genes drive it, in humans just as in viruses and everything in between. Without this quality of blind competition and expansion life would not have changed since the blue-green algae phase. So here is the tragedy, the huge annoyance for those of us I have called 'unencumbered': conscious existence is subordinate to, and far less sophisticated than, the immense intricacy of the mechanical substructure of life, both genetic and memetic.

Objective Reality: a very funny term, the longer I think about it. Of course it does not exist as such, which leads many to premature despair and to surrender to their subjective natures. It is only an abstract hypothesis alleging that existence is not an illusion and can be accessed and manipulated using the tools of reason. Its existence can neither be proven nor disproven; nevertheless, the use of reason quite often produces changes that we can observe and replicate in that weird, unprovable experiential zone outside our brains that we call the 'real world'. So, although we may never be able to apply objectivity to any ultimate proof, such as the origin of the universe or even its existence, we can, apparently, apply it as an immensely strong tool to manipulate our limited lives and environments to our benefit. So - returning to my first question - why (fer the love of St. Pete) don't we?

Civilizations rise slowly and painfully, and often fall very hard and fast. Their wreckage fertilizes the civilization to follow, to be sure, but the cycle remains. Currently we in our Western Civ. seem to be at a perilous height, from which we can only fall; but perhaps we could go a little higher first. I can't help thinking, every day, about when we shall fall, like a mountaineer who has gone too high and can only go upward, hoping all the time for some magic dragon to rescue him from the final summit. However, the complexity of the many elements in this system make it impossible to pinpoint the exact or even the approximate time when we exceed the angle of repose and it all comes tumbling down - the tipping point, etc. Jay Hanson feels that collapse comes only a few years after the peak of oil production; but he may be over-weighting economics and over-estimating the fragility of other systems; and perhaps the world is not as tightly interdependent as it seems, and collapse will be localized and spread out in time. This might teach those in their national lifeboats something about how and why civilizations collapse; or it might not. I just don't know. I am grateful, however, for having been born into such interesting times! I am torn between wanting to live long enough to see the collapse, just because it is so interesting, and wanting to avoid all that terrible ugliness.

I am interested in how and why civilizations collapse.