Friday, March 26, 2010

Californification (sic)

I hate that term - Californication - I feel dirty just to type it, as if the only purpose of California were illicit pleasure. The first time I heard it was as used by the more authentic seeming (to themselves) folks up north on the West Coast; Oregon maybe, in the late '80s.

They used it to describe the process of invasion by the moneyed boorish interlopers from their south. Just now, I was continuing my read of Melville's The Confidence Man on the way down here from Seattle (here is SoCal), which ought to be required reading for every American of whatever state. It puts the lie to anyone's notion of authenticity.

Californians are often envisioned by others to have an absence where culture belongs  - whatever it is that has lead to the big box anti-culture of sprawl which has now gripped us all. They used to make their way up north to stay a step ahead of the California real-estate boom, surfing the economic boom which accompanied it. They brought with them a kind of culture deadening. Some extreme case of the "ugly American" which so embarrassed our brand in Europe. Wiping out any vestige of local roots.

Even though the boom is bust, and Californians can no longer find so many bargains up north of them, it may be that the momentum from those days has shifted our leading edge northward. I'm not in any position to tell, but so far Seattle still seems the cooler spot.

I remember back in about 1975 or so, when I was a bicycle mechanic in New Haven Connecticut during one of my periods AWOL from higher education. There were these Jamaican cyclists showing up around town. They rode track bikes just like they did at home in Jamaica. I get the sense that their motivation was mostly economic, although there might have been a cool factor associated with that economizing drive. You make do with what you have and then you take it to some sort of limit; in this case speed and weight and stark simplicity.

There is something close to joy in tweaking things to their limits, or making something appreciably cool from what might otherwise have been trash. I spent much of my time in Seattle recently struggling for the umpteenth time beyond the point of logical death with "Bob" the 1988 VW rustbucket which my duaghter deploys as "wheels" to get around Seattle. And in the spaces, I was helping her boyfriend with his 1979 Dasher, which, annoyingly for me, had almost no rust at all, although the paint was mostly weathered away.

With my brother-in-law one morning we remarked on the new phenomena of gearless and brakeless bicycles among the avant-garde hipsters of Seattle. Unlike their Jamaican forebears, these bikes have things like yellow tires and radial spokes and radical minimal handlebars. Or maybe that is the authentic style. I can't quite remember. Beyond the edge of too much gear, these bikes make a kind of fashion sense.

These bikes make a kind of common sense on an indoor wooden track, or among Jamaicans without the wherewithal for powered wheels. (The boss at the bike shop used to tell us to watch them closely in case they might sport off with a few stray parts, which I think they often did.)

In Seattle, with all its steep hills, to be without gears or brakes is rather more like spitting into the face of reality. This is the kind of Seattle cool - that striving for authenticity I always make fun of - which is hard not to feel contemptuous toward. Do these guys even have a clue about the Jamaican roots of their strivings? And what is it with Seattle anyhow? Is there no limit so extreme that beyond it you can't find a new one?

I speculated that Seattle is the new West Coast terminus - the jump off point - for the American Protestant work-ethic, where to buckle down to hard work and to deny pleasure was a way to earn God's grace, which would be displayed ostentatiously by your outward signs of demure style. This is the New England recititude displayed by striving after Talbots style, which is so utterly non-Seattle. It descends, at worst, into a kind of peri-dinner drunkenness, even while it might still appreciate the true decadence of its artists.

On the Left coast, up North, this America falls off the cliff. There's a kind of confusion of escape from Protestant rectitude and Catholic guilt both, to where there is pride in grunge and shame about all that money. This inverts the core American value structure, even while it has defined the new economy, You know, the one just now so recently past.

But Seattle feels familiar to a Buffalo boy. Most people there are escaping something like Buffalo, where lots of people, if they can survive economically at all, are carrying on the family business, or shepherding the family legacy, abstracted to whatever it is that wealth can still accomplish in a city like Buffalo; something which would require actual talent elsewhere in the country. (This is not meant to be a slam at the Buffalo successful, although the city is pretty well sewn up among the people already in power. Buffalonians blame the political class, but that, I believe, is merely a synechodocal error, if I can be allowed to coin a term. They mistake the part as separate and distinct from the whole.)

California, on the other hand, feels almost entirely alien. This is where, I think, all those disruptive powers against culture, civilization, classic syle, and certainly rectitude, found their origins. There is familiarity in that, but only of a negative sort. Folks here found their success and then turned it back on the country just a half-beat earlier than did Seattle. This was back when authenticity meant riding a wave, literally, and style was breakthrough, not break-away. Hollywood decadence has morphed into web grease monkeys.

So here I sit, in Claremont, smelling the orange and eucalyptus trees and other unknown spring blossoms, and hardly even bothered by ubiquitous automobiles. Having wandered these pristine streets as their only stroller, nodding to the Mexicans perfecting lawns and ornamental plantings, I'm fatigued now.

I write on a new and very little laptop. It cost a small enough fraction of my travel expenses, and the trash-picked one I normally use finally got too wonky with it's display. Plus it weighs enough to equal all the rest of my luggage. In my laziness, and to my surprise, I've left the Windows this new one came with entirely alone. Linux had become too intrusive to my life. Too many updates, too much research to accomplish simple tweaks.

This is not a betrayal of the Open Source ethos, just a recognition that the Operating System needs to recede farther into the background already. I don't care for it and I don't care about it. Fact is that Windows is what most of the stuff you can download runs best on, simply because that's what most people still run.

Google's ethos is all Open Source, but they must be pretty confident that the developers on their payroll will be the ones to carry the momentum forward. The difference between Open Source and proprietary is just a small matter of where the line gets drawn between the ones inside the tent and the ones on the outside.

What is it that allowed Windows to thrive when Apple languished in a ghetto of too-cool for business? There are lots of stories and theories out there, but the one which sticks with me is that windows drew the line at hardware. All sorts of garage artists could tweak their machines, and all sorts of tweaks got incorporated into the business products. There was no barrier at all to developing apps, the way that Apple still insists on.

The Linux guys are still too fascinated by the operating system and what it might facilitate. They've forgotten their own trivial core. Google gets this with their Chrome OS and its presumption that all the interesting apps will be developed for and delivered on the Internet. Things you do via computers will rely on a browser in almost precisely the same fashion that Windows apps once relied on an operating system.

Around here in Claremont where no-one walks, there are quite a few moving shrines to the automobile. How much easier must it be to preserve these cars in absence of road salt!! Just as the sidewalks are only heaved by tree roots and can look new forever. Just as the Mexicans feel privileged to be working on these lawns, small enough to hardly break a sweat. Just as the paint stays on forever.

Apple and Microsoft both must leave behind their fetishes just as these old cars are no longer any good for the newer sprawling lifestyles. The device will itself disappear, beneath an expectation that it will simply work, by touch and voice and intuitive feel, delivering whatever becomes available in ways to defy designer limitations.

But there is one prognostication I must differ with entirely. The word is that television is what will become ubiquitous. Projected images and perhaps voice, because we are too constrained by the lethargic written word. It's not fast enough, not rich enough, not somehow fully enough exploitative of the power of digital reality.

But images all require their contexts in order to remain meaningful. They are as fleeting as a friend's face to a stranger. While the written word is the permanent embodiment of that which makes us human. It informs. It translates over time.

So, I'm happy with my little laptop with full sized and responsive keyboard. Everything's moving in the right direction. Not there yet. But moving, surely, pleasantly, with aroma of spring blossoms mixed with car exhaust.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Will the Authentic Seattle Please Stand Up?

Puzzling authenticity is really fun and challenging in Seattle. Everything is all about authenticity here, and it can  be really really hard to tell the posers from the real. Having walked all over Buffalo recently, the city I grew up around, I understand that walking is the only way really to get to know a place. It also happens to be the only real side benefit to pulmonary emboli since it seems that one must do something to get ones breath back, and walking fits the bill.

So, if I can discover a new Buffalo just by walking through the city I know best, it would seem that I could also discover a new Seattle, a city I know reasonably well, but not so well as I do Buffalo. Still, who are the authentic ones? Is it the fine guitartist with a nice and mellow deep voice at the Public Market whose face and clothes and distended belly prove that he sleeps on the street although he has CDs of his music for sale? Is it the pair of Native Americans sitting on the dock down at water level, sharing a simple meal of bread and polished apples? Is it me gawking at the Tesla Roadster which runs faster on laptop batteries than a Ferrari can on elaborate fuel injection, welcomed warmly to a city where no-one can tell who's got the money?

It can seem as though everyone in Seattle is striving mightily to become that "it" self; the one you get by driving the vintage Mini Cooper instead of the new one everyone else drives. The one you get by unfurling the sails on your wooden boat just at the solstice while everyone else is strolling in the unaccustomed sunshine. The one perhaps who throws the fish instead of merely buying it or snapping its picture. The one who understands that the best fish cannot be had from that particular tourist market in the first place.

Yesterday happened to be the day when admissions letters would go out from the Northwest School, one of several to which anxious parents submit their child's application with far more raw desire invested than you or I might have for shiny new toys of either child or adult variety. I had discovered two things the evening before; that a former student of mine is the Upper School director there, and that my niece had applied. Or rather my sister had applied my niece.

I knew neither of these things ahead of time and so could invest no guilt to my dear sister's all-in-good-jest complaint about missed connections. But as my daughter's boyfriend would be subbing at the school that day, it seemed a reasonable thing to do to walk there just in case I might be able to scare up my former student who I'd last seen when he was well beneath adulthood.

As I arrived still near the beginning of my perhaps 10 mile cicumnavigation of the city, the students had all poured out into the streets for a fire drill, and there was Ben looking very much in charge. We eventually had lunch together and I got the very insiders look at the school, and a take on its history with which I was already acquainted, because we had, the school and I, shared some history about the wars of transition from founding to continuing energy way way back in the day. This can be a problem for schools, as for most anything about life.

Does this count to make me a kind of "it" Seattlelite?? I hardly think so. But it surely does count as authentically random, unpredictable and somehow raw. Maybe? I really don't know.

I do think that there is something important to be discovered by hanging back from too much control. By staying open to what might come along in the course of simply being alert. I think that there may even be something to be said for hanging back from too much investment in authenticity. My own daughter never had as a choice a school so fine as the Northwest School, and yet I can find nothing deficient in her, or even in the potential she still might realize to change the world for the better. Or was it always and only about what she might accomplish for herself?

Among other things, I have been puzzling what to do about a chopstick my daughter's boyfriend and I managed to drop down into the oil pan of an engine whose blown head gasket we have been working to replace. I'd thought that the chopstick might do as a guide to place the cylinder head, but somehow it went down the wrong and bottomless hole. In the act of retrieval, I got to watch it disappear very much like the way in which cinematic drama might capture the feeling of losing your friend to the abyss when your grip on his hand fails.

This particular car - a VW of course - requires some significant disassembly before its oil pan can be removed. There are time constraints. There are tool and equipment constraints. Of course there are massive money constraints. The full drama has yet to unfold. I wonder - I really do - how it will end. I wonder if the chopstick also will force the proper cleaning out of the oilpan, the accomplishment of which will add that much new life to this old car. I wonder, honestly, how I can accomplish the blood draw which my doctor requires of me in a medical and insurance nightmare whose plot can only be the most absurdist comedy I have ever even imagined.

Stay tuned.

* * * 

So, OK, as if I'd willed it, March madness produces health care reform. I am as obscenely gleeful about this as are those basketball fans waving towels and shouting to break their vocal apparatus. If it wouldn't be unseemly, I would paint my face Obama warpaint colors, as someone along my walk did his garage door. I would shout it out on streets as so many were doing along the way to pick up our pizza at Fat Mama's up on Capital Hill. This is not an insignificant accomplishment.

This morning, I removed Bob's wheel - that's the other VW which belongs in the junk yard - and found that indeed his brake pads were down to the metal core, and tossing shiny flakes all over get-out. But the cost to replace these is still below the cost to rent a car for a day. Chris is rounding up the tools and parts to put the other VW back together. The sun is coming out.

No matter how much I feel akin to the folks out here, who are multicolored among their friends and even among the hypertalented children they adopt, I still find myself offended by the hyperachieving. It still feels an indictment on everyone else who isn't quite so great either in reality or aspiration. It still feels like a species of racism, although clearly it's not racism. But it is exclusivity, and even though these kids will likely be the ones to "save the world" which they actually are already doing by break-dancing for Haiti (you have to pause to parse that statement, consider what break dancing is, and where it got its start, and the fact that there are expensive schools here to teach it).

I still want somehow to howl, and scream and exclaim that we can do better than this. That it really isn't necessary to be that elaborate in the preparation of your mind or body. That there is something to be said for normalcy, for spaces filled with nothing more than absurd laughter.

Well, I'll keep you posted as and if I figure any of this stuff out. I'm sure your breath is 'bated. My daughter took me on the underground Seattle tour on Sunday. Her boss had given her a couple of tickets as a Christmas present, although the major domo of the tour still required that we sign our names, and give him our phone numbers, and those of my daughter's boss. He wouldn't say these gift cards had been forged. Something about being given away too freely. But I don't think her boss is that cheap.

The tour was great, in a touristy kind of way. There wasn't much to see, well, except for the genetic uderpinnings of Seattle. The building too fast in a sandy bottom, where incoming tide would cause the newly invented flush crappers to spout their contents which had been meant to go out to sea. Where a fire required rebuilding in stone what had gone up in wood, and where the merchants were too impatient to await the city fathers' plan to fill in the low ground. Where the architecture sits half submerged, and you must enter the spots where the whores used to await you, before the stone, before the fire, through an upstairs window, now at street level, now overcrowded by tourists. The Elliot Bay bookstore, anchor to the Pioneer Square district, will be moving up to Capital Hill. Perhaps Buffalo's fortunes and those of Seattle are more closely aligned than these folks could ever guess. The trajectory is trending down, just like my clotting factors.

Fallen ladies all, with fine aspirations for their offspring. Good day!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Go West Old Man

You won't recognize me. For one thing, I'm on borrowed computer, which has one of those updated curvy keyboards, which techies like me hate simply becuase we are trained to move from keyboard to keyboard and therefore different slows us down. (which also means, if you are a careful reader, that I am really quite indifferent to and about styles of device. I raise the level of generality to "pointing device" and could almost care less about mouse or trackpad or touchpad or ball, although keyboard is a bit more personal).

For another, I'm in Seattle, which I really shouldn't say, since my identity is all over the Internet now, and therefore like someone at a family funeral, I might be preyed upon by watchers of the press, who know an absentee resident when they see one. You know, those predators who read the obits and schedule their burglary during the bereavement making a double whammy for the sufferers.

Speaking of which, I have to resurrect this ancient VW, "Bob", which my duaghter out here has been driving, and which is way beyond her (sorry) last legs, just so's I have some wheels. I was going to drive out, but even I'm not quite that crazy, especially what with excess clotting factors, although for the moment I remain artificially blue-blooded. Speaking of [last] legs.

I've been meaning for a while now to blog about this Chinese heartthrob adverted on the front page of the New York Times. A blogger and novelist and racecar driver, who is likely the most widely read author of all times, simply becuase he has three hundred million (!!!!) daily readers of his blog, nevermind his novels, which might get read for the same reason Angelina Jolie gets watched, regardless of her acting abilities, which, I am certain, are prodigious.

It seems this fellow has become a little cheeky with his commentary about the Chinese government, and he takes it in stride when they remove his more edgy blog postings without so much as a nevermind (we all know who "they" are). But there's a long tradition in China of writers outwitting censors, which, oddly, places this fellow right in the mainstream literary traditions of China and not quite off in some pulpy ghetto where you'd think he belonged (I'm actually enjoying enhanced speed now on this curvy keyboard, only ever having tried them while troubleshooting computers - which is only a pain - and never actually to write with).

Government censors, rather like IRS agents or the FBI agents who did Senator McCarthy's bidding back in the days of HUAC, are known to be rather humorless, which must mean literal, in the discharge of their duties. And so, there's an almost implied invitation to toy with their sensibilities.

Plus, the government now is between a rock star and a hard place, don't you think? As with Google's practice of alerting readers to the fact of redaction, folks - Chinese folks - are thereby alerted to what their government is doing on their behalf. For the moment they seem a little bit more peeved with Google for being American and un-Chinese, and are therefore offended in their patriotism, but be patient and they will come around.

Now this Chinese blogger probably has a habit, much as I do, of writing each and every day. So any lacunae (to make a veiled reference to this truly excellent novel I am now reading on my Kindle (tm)) would be obvious to his loyal readers, which just gives him that much more opportunity to toy in and with the stuff they won't delete because they will be witless to do so. Literalists are always looking to protect their own asses, which generally means to jump all over you when you deviate from the norm. Maybe you get the joke here?

I've already had a few check-up calls about my absense, so I know I'm cared for. We'll see what the burglar literalists think, although I can assure them that I own nothing of value, having given away all the good stuff (which I simply no longer fit into). My electronics are positvely primitive, so don't bother. (actually, I do intensely dislike this wireless mouse, because the pointer is simply too jumpy)

My doctor just called to tweak my rat poison dosage, feeling embarrassed that it was as early as it is here on the Left Coast, although I assured him I've already been up for hours, but see, I am actually well cared for, no matter what I say about the Military-industrial health care/insurance complex.

So, here are a couple of things about which I intensely disagree with our fearless leader. And, honest, I absolutely adore the guy, especially because he has a tendancy not to use fear as a tool for manipulation of the public. But sometimes he skates close, as in the case of healthcare and education.

He is dead wrong about education, but as of today, it does seem as though he might actually have a plan to co-opt Republicans at their own game. He's taking some of the negative momentum among educators toward No Child Left Behind, and using it to gain Republican support for real and meaningful reform. The guy just mgiht be a jiu-jitsu master.

On the healthcare front, I tend to be a bit more dubious. I just don't buy the idea that the insurance companies are precisely evil. After all, if life is "priceless" and you deserve the same extraordinary measures toward the end of your life that you do at its early stages, even someone as clueless as me about economics can see that there is a genuinely insoluble problem. Lots of people will be worth more to the medical complex near death, just in terms of transfers of wealth out of the insurance industry coffers and into the healtcare industry coffers, than they were ever worth over the course of their entire working lives. The math for this simply can't work.

We can throw up examples of dishonest doctors and profiteering insurers, but really they're just the same as the rest of us, afraid to lose their jobs. Doing the bidding therefore of The Man (whoever the hell the man is, although I think he might be anybody really really high up and therefore, by definition, detached from the reality of the rest of us). Doesn't anybody else see that these two forces are aligned against not only each other, but against the masses of us, harnessing as they can and must, our fear of death and dying?

That very same thing used against us so effectively by true believers in some Allah or other. Since they have none - no fear of dying.

I, for my part, intend to take reasonable precautions, so long as they don't feed The Beast (whoever the hell the Beast is, although I think he might have something to do with literalist thinking which is therefore detached from reality, by definition). I'm a little bit sketchy when it comes to the conflict between drugs which insult the liver, and alcohol, which does so also. Take Lipitor, for instance. No, you take Lipitor.

But I might be an actual and genuine case for it. Or I might not be. It's really hard to know. OK, gotta go back to reading that other great novel. This one, Melville's The Confidence Man I've managed to "download" onto my phone for free. I'm so freaking ethereal it's not even funny. Not to mention all the lacunae in my understandings . . .

Thursday, March 11, 2010


That's the thing I'm very not. Or very un. Settled. Nor do I settle. Which makes me a problem, to myself mostly. I'm one of those prosecute to the finish kind of guys. Which is an odd thing for a mild mannered person to be. Although I do laugh in the face of adversity, not to mention wild storms on Lake Erie, which are reputedly that much worse than on the seas. How would I know?

Meanwhile, back on the homefront, there is medication to turn me from a thick blooded survivor of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune [really really sic] to a blue blooded bleeder. I shall remain on it for a sentence nearly as long as the ones I write. At least life is terminable, and that's a blessing.

I remain amazed, as the crocuses rear their blooms, and as I am reminded that love stirs even among those looking back on themselves rather than forward, at how few people do seem amazed at the conspiracy screens large and small, to put us all in the same mind at the same time, and who still believe that nothing but harm will come of this. Nothing but the Glenn Beck show of impotence and hurt and rage against the machine.

I am amazed that people still do seem to fear Sarah Palin as Adolf Hitler redux, as though nothing else has changed in this so recently passed meantime. That so few of us realize our potency as one. Among a million talking heads. Blogging fools.

This was always to be the end of the long Greek tragedy, where the audience is the mind of the playwright, and the stage is its enactment. The audience now as large and as unified as ever could be, possibly, imagined. Metaphor also must end someday, although more's the pity in the mind. That was and has been the Christian promise.

Saint Patrick's Day, then Easter, if I have my calendar straight. Too bad I won't be drinking. Sing God Damn! I'll be out of town for the good parts, and that's the better part of valor right there. Following a nice send-off party just ahead of the Big Day (St. Patty's silly! It's not for me, I'm just taking advantage, as always, of the bachelor excuse against pot luck) having a cast of hundreds, none aware of my presence. Not the me with name who has plenty of good and close friends, the me up here, talking with you, the non-existent one.

Send in the clowns, the replacement figure, for comic relief, borrowed this time from Chinese, where the stage never did stand in as focal point for mind's attention. Where the meaning never was displaced, metaphorically, outside its embodiment. Where poetry remained imminent, at the heart of the matter, with surface writings all that ever could be noticed or remarked. This kind allows for perpetual something; life lived beyond the local settlements.

Such a busy day ahead of me today. I'm off!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Yes Massa!

I drove some distance to watch one of those "town hall" health care meetings which were going on all across the country this past summer into fall. I'm pretty sure I blogged about it. I wasn't in Eric Massa's district, but I was just across the line, and this was my nearest opportunity.

I remember being really really impressed by his skill at oration, to a crowd spilled out of doors and without a microphone. I was especially impressed with his patience, and with his ability actually to listen, even to those people - and there were plenty - who were planted there to provoke a fight; to heckle and to present absurdist distorted positions. I credit Massa himself with keeping the temperature cool. But maybe it was just the blue-blood of this particular ex-urban and very very Republican venue.

I've just learned that I have the opposite of blue blood (that hemophiliac disease remarked in the British royal lineage, which provoked some insights into genetic inheritance, and still gets used in high school to teach them), which is so often synecdoche for wealth and privilege. At least poetically, my blood's hyper-clotting factor is descended from the Mayflower, which sailed from that town in Holland - Leiden - where a clustering of this factor was found. For sure, these genes are now implicated in a surprising number of Americans' lives. If you do the math.

I never watch Glenn Beck - I only have rabbit ears for one thing, and for another, I find him incredibly distasteful. But when I've seen him, there's always something almost endearing. He speaks for that part in each of us which just basically knows the differences between right and wrong, and is tired of all the bullshit in the way of its clear presentation. He knows in his guts that the way "the system" works is corrupted to its core.

Which makes it at least a little bit ironic that here's this guy, willing to go on Beck's show, who is saying out loud and publicly that it's not exactly the corruption that made him crack. It's the incredible frustration of being locked into a system bent on deadlocking by invocation of party discipline. And Glenn Beck calls this a waste of time??!!!

That's really really confusing to me. It's as if Beck not only doesn't want to, but quite literally can't let go of his name calling. He must get precisely the same heroin rush to his ego by using the term "Progressive" as an epithet, that Bible readers get when they rote-recite without reading those passages which make them feel "saved."

This right there represents the depths of immorality. I don't give a fig what Massa's sexual proclivities might be, and it doesn't sound like he's ever coerced anyone into anything. If he made someone uncomfortable, then he should pay the price, which shouldn't be all that steep. But Beck's hanging on that tightly to his right to push buttons and make gobs of money off it - that should be punished handsomely. That's the core of sin.

Beck says he's sticking in the fight, knowing full well that he'll be taken down by the "establishment," mocking Massa for waving his white flag. While Massa confesses openly that he's "whipped." He can't do it any more.

If you'd watched the man in front of this manipulated and largely hostile crowd, you'd realize that he's not lying. He had truly taken on the hardest job on the planet only to discover that all the hard work is rendered as if for naught by a system bent on gridlock. Why would anyone want to do it unless they were making the millions Glenn Beck makes?

I celebrate the man for refusing to be our slave anymore. For placing himself in the jaws of Glenn Beck, where only a fool would think he might actually come through alive. This man's my hero for a day, perhaps for longer. Fuck you Beck, and the horse you rode in on. This is my country too, and I've got the bloodline to prove it. I'm an immigrant like nearly every single soul among this nation of interlopers. Not a single one of us has any right to judge another. Certainly not you with your lily-white tongue flapping.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

De-contextualizing on Oscar Sunday

I know Oscar about as well as I know Superbowl. But I was alerted by the popcorn man when, the night before, I watched A Single Man, film version, with some friends at a miraculously preserved massive old cinema here in Buffalo. It's the same theater where my father remembers going for the double feature for ten cents on a Saturday or Sunday matinee.

Those who work at this place are true film lovers, and so the Oscars are significant to them. Enter the ancient doors and there is a genuine old-fashioned ticket booth (you might want to picture something descended from a London phone booth, and only slightly larger - perhaps like those booths from which they sell tickets at carnivals, but more ornate). Inside is a fairly old man - well, older than me - who I believe has been taking tickets for as long as I've been buying them. He smiles and seems genuinely glad to see you, inviting you to go ahead in and look around for your friends if you want. I said, no I'd just go ahead and buy my ticket.

This is one of those times when I might wish I could deploy a movie camera instead of just words. Picture me now before the movie - if each of us can pull it off - driving out of Buffalo to our spiritually grounded exurb to the south, East Aurora. East Aurora is the onetime home of Elbert Hubbard, the Roycrofter, and is and has been a significant one among a local spread of spiritual hubs. Around here the Mormons got their start, as did the patron saints of spiritualism more generally. The Fox sisters (yeah, I never heard of them either) grew up here. This is Iroquois land, long since desecrated by the white man.

I am an interloper also to this spiritualist gathering, organized (well, sprung like an impromptu party, in fact) in honor of a man - a true adept - who would later let our host know that he'd turned back home when he learned that there would be a party in his honor. He is that shy. My own entrance was announced in such a way that I was afraid I might be called on to make some sort of speech: "Chinese scholar, former headmaster, brilliant man" if I'm not mistaken. I didn't even blush, so absurd was it.

This was as nice a party as I've ever attended, populated by the likes of those on the inside of that Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in case you have that cinematic image ready to hand. I learned about Tarot, astrology, alchemy, qi-gong (with which I am acquainted in rather academic fashion - that far from practice), Native American spirituality, and a whole lot more. I wished I had a chance to learn about dousing, although now that I'm back in the city I don't think I'll need it.

I am very much an outsider to this sort of understanding, and therefore was by far the most ignorant of the bunch. To a person, these people are almost incredibly diligent in their studies. I can't imagine a single one of them fitting any billing as "charlatan" (just in case you're in the market for a reading).

There was one moment when the party was paused by our host, who'd been drinking - to be highly politically incorrect about it - like an Indian (which I could only be jealous about, having recently been ordered away from the sauce), announced that his recently proposed book about Native American spirituality had won a contract. Two, in fact, which must be the dream of any author - to have two houses competing for one's work. Applause and congratulations!

Then he told a funny story about how white people like to act as gatekeepers to the arcana of those whose tribes they bond with. Which must be about as funny from the inside as it is from the outside. I don't think Mason was intending to speak for the tradition. He would write, rather, about the tradition. Which, as a bona fide teacher of and about Chinese, I do actually know can sometimes be accomplished better as a non-native; a member of the target audience with whom the bond is more important at the outset. Sometimes those foreign to English have been its most accomplished stylists.

The pause in the party to make space for that announcement extended to that singular moment when the party is all one. The little clusters of animated conversation had stopped, and the topic turned to Buffalo. As in "what is it about the pall which hangs over our city?" The grey which almost always greets you driving or flying in. The certainty among our citizens that things will always be as they have been and that change is impossible. That we deserve our fate and can only learn to like it (which we typically succeed in doing).

Now here's the part where I would love it if you could be watching on film. Spontaneously around the circle there were offerings of astrological reads of the city ('very Taurian, and therefore stubborn and caught up in itself'), remembrances of some sort of grudge about a running race between the Iroquois and the white man, where the white man cheated. Desecration more generally of this sacred ground.

I felt my mouth opening to offer up my own prognostications of hope.  But of course I realized discretion as the better part of valor. I was out-gunned here in all ways of knowing; the literary, the local and cultural history, the current politics. I'm only recently back in town and so what do I know? Plus, I've never been diligent in anything. I was certainly out-gunned in the occult ways of knowing.

As you know, faithful reader (I guess I'm speaking to myself again now, although even I don't have a good read on what I've written. Maybe especially I), I've had trouble lately with pulmonary embolisms, whose symptoms seem to keep me on my toes by coming back. As I often say, just like "I'm driving a Toyota" now in relation to my own body.

Well, even I know that just as Adam and Eve are a convenient fiction about what must be intertwined in each of us, and just as Jesus was distorted if not destroyed by a patriarchal power-elite which still owns His Church, there is no sense to believing or acting as though your body can be distinguished from your mind. Well, except for this Native American medicine man who recommends treating your body as your pet if you want to get healthy. Which seemed to make a lot of sense to me at the time.

Mostly, though, these folks stay clear of terms like soul and divinity. And for my part, I'm not exactly despairing that the enshrined and fully institutionalized and almost ungodly expensive Western medical establishment has no certain answers for me. After all, that would mean that something about me was definitively broken, even if they were able to offer some sort of fix for it. Some extravagantly expensive fix, just as the rule-out testing has been - extravagantly expensive.

The nice thing about no certain diagnosis is that perhaps there really is something you can and might and even should do about it yourself. I might just follow up on some leads for Shiatsu massage, or qi-gong internal alchemical exercises. Although they have yet to be theoretically validated by Western science, there is a growing body of evidence that these things "work" even in the absence of theory. Even government institutions now sanction their practice.

And for sure, within the theoretical frames as were presented or represented to me that night, my symtoms find a fit and therefore a reason for hope. Neither the diagnosis nor the treatment require much reaching in any of these "alternative" traditions, where in my "native" tradition, they are at an almost complete loss without a slot to put me in.

Which pretty much just begs the question about Buffalo, don't you almost have to say? As in why are these folks sitting around and grousing about what's wrong with Buffalo the same as everyone else does, no matter what their frame of reference. Shouldn't they be doing something about it? Or would Buffalo as a whole need to be willing to sit for its reading???

We do that already in the "what if a whole community were to read the same book" department. Like everything else about this town, we probably have much higher rates of participation than is the norm. But I guess we're hardly all together about what we want. I guess Buffalo would have to change its mind as a whole, and what are the chances for that?

So, I retreated from the party to the more conventional fare of dinner and a movie. I'd missed the dinner part, but the movie is where I started in this post. I did need to stay clear of the attraction of drink at each of the three dinners I avoided that night - so popcorn was my fare. Mmmmmm. Real butter!!

And then there were the inevitable Oscars. I have rabbit ears (no, silly, my TV does), being still not ready to sign any contracts or leases but the ones for mobility. The one channel I can never pull in is the one showing the Oscars. Now I never watch the Oscars, but somehow not being able to made me feel terribly alone. I tried every conceivable antenna position, scanned on-line to confirm that in fact there was no feed, gave up for about the third time, and then finally, as if by some miracle, I hit upon the one magic Kundalini position in which I could sync with the ethereal feed.

Now I was chained to the show. I felt less alone, but so very distant from the accomplishment of this apparent horde of winners. I was glad for their work. Who doesn't love the movies? The humility sounded almost genuine to me, moved just a bit beyond the acting. Mostly, I was bored. I guess that was true of a lot of people.

The stars almost did look and act like normal people though. That has to be some kind of progress, right? Now here's the kicker: (I've been at this now for a length of time unusual for me, who bangs out a thought a day, just about) Yesterday, which is now Monday, I fulfilled my appointment with my Native-to-me Doc. I have a diagnosis! I have a fairly rare mutation among my genes which causes a drastically increased propensity for clotting.

Of course, that hardly "explains" why me, why here, why now; all of which questions have the one important answer that if not me and here and now I would most likely not be alive. Lucky, in other words, that I had family around and was near a hospital. The propensity simply explains the why me part as a chain of unlucky inheritance.

The funny thing is that the mutation, called the "Factor V (Leiden) mutation" descends from that city in Holland from where the Mayflower set sail, where there was a cluster of such clotters. I guess that proves my ancestry, in a way that's hardly comforting. It means more tests now, and a lifelong blood-thinning regimen which, while handling one set of risk factors, hands me another.

So, I guess I won't be letting go of the Western medicine trapeze just yet. They've found me a place and made me an adherent. Not that it might not also be useful to go for the Eastern frame at the same time, which might help to address the why here, why now part of the equation, which in the West is always left to random chance.

It doesn't feel like random chance to me. There have been too many recent changes in my life. I still hold out hope that I can go back to un-medicated and happy without having my life changed by the contaminating knowledge that asteroids may hit, earthquakes may let loose, clots may form, the accelerator may stick, and even the key is no longer a mechanical object. It is a code and impossible to enter while driving.

Many of you may think that we are in the midst of some kind of information explosion. That there is so much *more* we know now than we ever did before. It doesn't take too much thinking to realize the absurdity of that notion. Our brains have not changed one iota since we were formed as a species. To use that hackneyed and tired brain-as-computer metaphor, believing in some kind of explosion of information would be to believe that our brains have been consistently upgraded, according to some kind of biological Moore's law of geometric expansion, which they clearly haven't been.

But no, you will say, the "information," so-called, is what's "out there" all around us, cataloged in libraries and on the internet now, in papers and in teaching traditions, and simply not possible of containment within a single mind. What has changed has been our relationship to the information that's always been there. Our frames have been filled out, almost to the point of being "fleshed." We now know that we can, in principle, guide ourselves to some solid sense of reality, and that we will not be disappointed *except* by random incursions from what must remain, in principle, like a roll of dice, beyond our ability to know, to control, to predict.

A single mind is no more elaborate than it ever was, it is simply better aligned than it could have been with all other non-disformed minds. This is the magic of trans-cultural scientific understanding, grounded in the universal "language" of mathematics. It's what you *must* agree with, unless you're nuts, perverse, true religious or some other patently dysfunctional aberration from survivability.

This then, is that precisely wonderful moment in history, where you can only imagine what God has written for us, for he hasn't said a thing (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde). It must be wonderful, right? Just as quickly as Toyota can transform from being the trusted creator of trusty automobiles into the panderer of more complexity than even they can be on top of (give me back my mechanical linkage, gas pedal to carburetor; key to ignition; brake pedal to pads); so quickly does a person leave his body.

Not some "soul" which is the silliest idea since ideas were thought of (the silliest word since "information"), rather some utter absence of the ability, or the need, to look forward. The plots - largely fictional - that we must hatch for ourselves to bridge each moment to the next must surely end somewhere. After a certain age, you simply are no longer your best and brightest self. There is more looking back than forward, and then it stops. The interval grows infinite, in mirror-image mockery of what Newton's Calculus once resolved.

This fact is hardly cause for terror. There never was a "you" in the first place. We're all gerunds - activities - spanning the intervals between one instance and the next. It is only the forward and the backing; there is no *being*. That would be absurd.

And therefore there is no end to being. There was never any beginning. As it now and ever shall be, Amen.

The hope I hold out, for Buffalo, and for the world, is trivially simple to apprehend. It is that there will be some rather massive conspiracy. Some breathing together of words which simply and perhaps suddenly make sense to all and each of us. This is the catalyzing of the language which is now upon us. Not more information, not more truth exactly, unless by that you mean truing, one against the other. We all suddenly agree on the basics. The frames unite, and we become all one. As it was in the beginning (which never was).

OK, bye bye for now. This is getting a bit overheated. My little brain needs a break before it turns to crystal and shatters into a million shards.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Quick and Mild-Mannered Review of Harvest at Subversive Theatre

For me, attending plays at Subversive Theatre feels as comfortable as going home, somehow. There's no sense of  "going out;" no ritual of being seen (although I always see people I know). The productions are always expertly produced and cast, even if or when there may be things to criticize as somehow beneath the production values of better-funded more fully "professional" theater.

There is such an abundance of talented people, certainly in Buffalo, who would do almost anything for the chance to act on stage. You can apparently recruit them even for blatantly subversive productions. These are productions which are not only subversive of the oppressive norms of capitalist so-called democracy. But they are subversive of the norms of professional theater as well.

Although it's moving smartly in the direction of feeling almost like a conventional theater, the space has few of the creature comforts of homecoming. It remains plainly housed in a typical workshop warren as can be had cheaply among the surplus industrial factory space so abundant in Buffalo.

So, why do I feel like I'm coming home?

At its opening over a year ago, the space was almost impossibly uncomfortable. Noisy, echoing, and either far too cold or far too hot. Now, it actually begins to feel cozy. But they have started charging for tickets for shows which used to be stridently "free" (donations gratefully accepted). I guess I should be worried?

The production I saw last night of Langston Hughes' Harvest was, I felt, fully professionally produced, presented and acted. I missed Kurt's customary and fairly polished appeal to the audience for donations. I missed his explanation of the mission of this theatrical company. But then I feel like an indulgent parent, maybe, blind to what everyone else is wanting. I think they are smart in their new ways to grow an audience.

The play itself was plenty straight-up in its presentation of the capitalist dilemma from the point of view of those at the bottom of the supposedly naturalistic pyramid of suffering. The secret exposed: everyone at every level feels as though they suffer oppression coming down from above them. The farmers who oppress their pickers are themselves oppressed by the bankers and the taxman, and the sheriff who serves the farmers feels oppressed by the farmers themselves who finally, out of desperation to get their crops in or lose their shirts, take matters into their own hands with guns, and inevitably bloody results.

In nature, it is supposed, all creatures exist in a perpetual state of cringing fear, food insecurity, a pyramid of predatory eat and be eaten. The workers here must live out in the open under tents at best, subject not only to the serial and concurrent tyrannies of weather, disease,  children to care for; but even romantic love and its inevitable outcome. If that weren't enough, these cotton pickers had to endure the predations of their betters. Betrayals from within.

Sad, but inevitably true, I guess. Cotton pickers are no different from the unfortunate frog getting eaten by the stately heron. Well, except that the players on this stage are all members of the same species. The divisions among them are presented as purely artificial and absurd. At the very top is a remote and absent FDR; earnest, but feckless at ground level. A professor stops by and in the end says something like "Oh, I see what you mean. I'll tell my students." He'd thought there must be some way for folks to meet at the middle and split the differences among their grievances, for surely the farmers had some too.

Although the play was presented authentically, from the period of its writing, there is no mismatch with today's lived reality. Sure, it feels primitive and almost simplistic in its staging, which is the way it was written. Stark. Plotting the lines of division, and then measuring the tensions across them.

One still wonders if the explosion is necessary. As of tectonic plates these days, whose power just builds and builds until the very earth shakes, each release triggering the likelihood of more. Might there be a different model?

Getting eaten in the state of nature is also the role of the outcast, the weak, the genetically deficient. In the family of man, as in more local families, these roles are reserved and limited, supposedly. Our fear of one another enacts only the act of flight and fright in the face of voracious and unthinking predators who are themselves driven by unanswerable hunger in nature.

Subversive Theater is a refuge from all of that. Not much money lifted from my pocket. Free refreshments. Easy conversation between the acts. And even the reduction to almost nil of the distance between the performance and its audience. I guess that's why it feels like coming home.

Relentlessly, this company asks us just what is and what can be art. Must it only exalt the already exalted, who will inevitably be the absent playwright? The absent God. The good and refined taste of the privileged audience. Or can it invite the audience in to the struggle for understanding which is still common at the root of all artistic production?

In the end, it is the state of nature which is artifice, generated in our mind in reminiscence of a time too recent in our own past. When Natives, who were only imitating us, would scalp and pillage. When bears would attack from the woods. That state has been so fully tamed now that to invoke it is to invoke a fiction whose only purpose is to let us feel more fully manly. Very much like blue jeans do, or SUVs or athletic contests or libertarian posturing as if it were the clear-eyed truth. Women dressed for nakedness as prey.

The stage on which we play out our very public fantasies has grown old. No wonder I feel at home in this superannuated warehouse space, built as if to withstand a bomb blast. Any size shaking of the earth. Although that too is an illusion. The only real safety is on the streets.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Starting Up in Buffalo

There's this nutso notion out there that you can still make a killing with what is commonly called a "startup" on the Internet. The number of outfits attempting this on a daily basis now is rather astounding. There are even startups which serve other startups. In general it's a game of who has the most viewers/readers and then that person gets to be the market maker, in a food chain from top to bottom. They choose which startups to highlight and which to ignore. And seemingly everyone wants to "go viral."

I work here in Buffalo for a little non-startup called Hoover Blanket, Inc. It's a non-startup because, first of all, we've been at this for quite a long time. And second of all, we don't really believe in making a killing on or off or from the Internet. We actually believe in changing the world, pretty much in the way that people working on the so-called "smart grid" believe in changing the world.

We're like the people working on renewable energy sources. We know where the future has to be, and we know it's only a matter of time before we get there. Investments in oil are only sensible if you desperately want to get yours now, and could give a damn for what's coming down the pike. We think that's pretty sort sighted.

The name, Hoover Blanket, descends from the general derision Americans once felt toward our leader Herbert Hoover. During the great depression, President Hoover would habitually announce how well off we really were, and even make proclamations, all at such odds with reality that people started calling the hobo camps "Hoovervilles." A Hoover Blanket was how you kept warm in those Hoovervilles; you wrapped yourself in discarded newsprint! You go Herbie, rah rah us, and pass the revolution.

These days, lots of people fret the disappearance of bona-fide newspapers; the so-called "fourth estate" of our civilization, without which government might oppress and overwhelm us. So cognizant of this danger were our founding fathers that they enshrined the freedom of the press in our Constitution. No one is certain whether the more recent forms taken by the new "fifth estate" - which must include the blogosphere - are up to the task of replacing what gets lost as newspapers increasingly get shuttered.

The hand wringers do tend to forget how often the professional press has served as a shill to government power and preference. The press has as often endorsed such insanity as the Japanese American Internment, the War in Iraq, the Red Scare and on and on, as they have exposed the lies of government. Newspapers have arguably had too much wealth and power, but there doesn't seem to be anything in line to replace them.

As with the culture of startups, the supposition that the blogosphere can provide a check to power also needs to be examined.

Hoover Blanket, Inc., your local hometown hero, was almost selected as a finalist for the great big Tech Crunch 50 back in September. Tech Crunch is one of the gatekeeper websites. One of the market makers. Getting covered by Tech Crunch pretty much guarantees viewership to your site. You get attention. You get the critical-mass seeding needed to go viral.

We can easily guess the many reasons Hoover Blanket just missed the cut (we know we weren't higher than number 60 out of thousands). We didn't have millions in backing for one. Plus, we are working out of Buffalo, which pretty much guarantees a derisive guffaw from the startup community.  We were invited to travel to San Francisco to join the competition in "the pit;" a consolation prize for the second 50.  We somehow thought that would be beneath our dignity. Imagine that! Dignity in Buffalo. What a concept!

We chose our corporate name pretty deliberately, if you can consider flashes in the middle of the night deliberate. But if fits these times. Lots of people are out of work again, and even though our government this time has taken steps to prevent calamity, it doesn't really feel like we're quite out of the woods. And then there's that pesky worry about the disappearing newspapers. How will we keep warm?

Later on, still trying to get noticed by Tech Crunch, we made the mistake of going by way of a young blogger on their site who had a track record of being sympathetic to new businesses like ours. Just our luck, he was later let go when it was discovered that he had been taking quiet bribes from folks like us. The temptation must be very difficult to resist when you have the power of make or break over so many hopeful entrepreneurs. Our gullibility still stings.

It really isn't clear that what goes viral is really the best of the information or the resources that are out there. Often it's the trainwreck stuff, or the stuff with clandestine funding, just like Lonely Girl who made such a splash in the early days of blogging. And then there are the elephants in the room, like Google, which seems able to print money now with their (proprietary and private) control of keyterm auctions. When the whole world is searching on Google, they pretty much own the territory of how much you won't be able to make without them.

So, what does Hoover Blanket, Inc. set out to do? And why are we in Buffalo? The second part is simple; it's where we live. But it also doesn't and shouldn't matter, unless you really want and need to do your networking face-to-face in the coffee shops of Silicon Valley or, marginally, Seattle. (I'm shortly off to Seattle, and San Francisco for both personal and business reasons, if you really want to know). The first part is a little bit trickier to explain.

Let's start with Google's business model. As you might know, they now spend far more for electrical power than they do for the equipment it powers. They index and cache the entire "content" of the live Internet quite a few times over, far more quickly than any other company could possibly afford to do. And this includes some really really big ones like Microsoft and Yahoo! just to name a couple. Google even caches the content of the Internet as it changes, so you just go ahead and try to expunge that blog post you later wish you hadn't made!

In addition, without your necessarily really knowing that you could have "opted out," they are probably storing lots of things about what you search for, each time you use their services. Those of us who use their "free" email know how spooky it can be when they target ads depending on what we're writing about, and it seems like they might be reading our minds, or our secret love notes. Especially when those ads actually alert us to something we're really interested in but didn't know about beforehand.

Now, we trust Google not to expose this information, even to themselves. They seem nice enough, and their corporate motto - a side-wise jab in a grudge match against arch-rival Microsoft - is "don't be evil." Which pretty much begs the question, but still, they seem nice enough. Until you do something wrong, at which point they've cheerfully announced that they will turn you over immediately upon presentation of official bona-fides, to whatever authority might be asking.

Which pretty much comes right back to that free speech freedom-of-the-press thing about our Constitution. Just in case what you're searching on has something to do with what the government might be doing wrong. Folks in South America or in China aren't always that happy to have their searches stored and cataloged. And at this particular moment, it's not at all clear where Google stands. The Chinese government is blaming over-eager students for the targeted hacking of Google's sites. And Google is claiming a foothold in China in the name of the forces of freedom of information.

Do you really think information is free? If it were, then where is Google getting all its income? Just an innocent question.

Google might have located their data center right around here, just because of the Falls. Maybe all that cheap electrical power's already spoken for? Well, never mind, because we have seen the future and it's not about caching all your search behaviors, nor about storing all the "content" from the entire World Wide Web. It's not about reading your mind either.

Credit scoring companies and market research companies already know more about you than you might know about yourself. Buy a house and you can get that spooky feeling that they even knew about that place where you were hiding your mail from you wife before you divorced. They make mistakes, like sending me a solicitation from the NRA, but not often enough to have an impact on their bottom line. Of course, their mistakes can have a huge impact on your bottom line, but that's another story.

In general, what Google - and this is true for most Internet startups - what Google is all about falls into the overall category of artificial intelligence. In general, the economics of the Internet work by targeting information as accurately as possible, and then somehow getting your attention. The very best way to do this is by harnessing your friends and family, via something like Facebook, now one of the largest membership communities on the planet. Ever.

Somehow, it's become too expensive to do this sort of thing in person, so the holy grail is to get the machines to do it faster, more accurately and more efficiently than people ever could. Which might make you wonder why they all want in to Facebook, where there intrusion would clearly collapse that community in an instant. Well, except for the games. And those little annoying dating ads as if every old guy wanted someone looking younger targeted at the "mature set."

Sometimes we're willing and happy participants in these charades, and sometimes we get the sense that they're pretty skeezy. There are a few laws about it all, but in general Internet business makers move a lot more quickly than our government does. And, unless they're selling porn, Internet geeks just don't tend to look and feel all that scary.

Sometimes, like navigating the auto-attendants now de-rigeur for all the big companies, these automated processes do seem to beg some question themselves. Like maybe they really don't want you to be able to get through, while thinking that there's something wrong with the way you're paying attention.

At Hoover Blanket, Inc., pretty much as in the black community, pretty much as in the GLBT community, pretty much as in any community on the fringes of "mainstream," which is pretty much a definition of what it means to live in Buffalo compared to almost anywhere else in the nation, we think people should be able to be whatever they want to be, even if they're faking it, without worry that whatever they once were might become some kind of indelible stigma for all time. We don't think your searches, your deletions, or anything else for that matter, should be stored for examination either on your behalf or against you.

You might think that we are really "not evil," and we'd love for you to think that because we're not. But that's not even close to why we believe what we believe. We actually have enough sense to understand that "artificial intelligence" cannot, by definition (I love to say that - I'll try to explain in a minute) ever even come close to "real" intelligence. That's because intelligence is a human quality, and therefore includes the whole battery of emotive responses.

OK, so now in addition to thinking we'd like to be considered "not evil" you think we want to be loved too, right? Well, sure, but no, the point here is that while a sophisticated robot might be more "hot" than your wife, you're not about to make an emotional commitment to a robot, right? (I know you love your '65 mustang convertible, but let's not get distracted here) But even more than feelings, the point is that actual humans can distinguish what they want and what they don't far more trivially, quickly, accurately, and - most important - satisfactorily than any machine will ever duplicate. Try getting a machine to identify a friend at a hundred paces from the behind in Beijing, just for a quick example.

Half your searches on Google are really frustrating right now because you really don't want what everyone else is looking for by that name. You know what I'm talking about if you simply try to search on "avatar" say, or "beck" or "bolt" just after the Olympics, or "cronic" when they think you misspelled "chronic." Humans are metaphorical and subtle. Machines just aren't.

The reason that we know this stuff is that my business partner, Kevin Chugh, Ph.D. (yeah, I give him the business for that set of letters too) is pretty advanced in his understanding of these matters. Kevin has a bit of local fame for his invention of the V-Frog, which is a computer-based virtual dissection lab. Behind that is his Ph.D. research into ways for modelling complex structures like living tissues, so that a machine can return a tactile response just like the "real thing." It's pretty exciting stuff. I'm sure the pornographers are all over it!

In order to model structures more complex than a bridge or a skyscraper, engineers have to give up deterministic modelling in favor of something which works more at the level of cellular automata. That's the way, not incidentally, that the terrorists can provide actual real-life challenges to all of our military's technical sophistication. But it's also the way that complex structures can be accurately modeled by machines. You program the interactions among the pieces, depending on their relative properties, and you program their location. You can get something pretty lifelike.

Now you don't have to be too clever to notice that this same technique can be used to power Internet searching. It's actually analogous to the technique by which the micro packets which compose all the information on the internet get routed to their destination. Each host along the way only needs to know the next closer-to-the-destination host to send each packet on its way. It doesn't need the entire route. Designed for the military, it doesn't even want to know the whole route; in case a part of that pathway gets blown up, there will be a virtually infinite number of alternate routes.

A doctor palpating a virtual body can sense an occult tumor. A searcher can sense the right direction for what she's looking for in the same sense, if only we can get the machines out of our way and be presented with some human discernible clues. You get the idea.

So at Hoover Blanket, Inc., we not only don't want to store any of the content of the Internet, we don't need to. Hell, we're from Buffalo, we could never afford it even if we did want to. We certainly have no interest in storing anything about your behavior. It would only get in the way of what you're trying to find today, which might have very little to do with what you were looking for yesterday, when your wife was watching, say.

Our catalog of the Internet looks more like a multidimensional map. We don't care what you call it or what you want to do with it. We just show you where to find it, based on the discoveries of others looking for the same thing. Works every time. Of course we have to believe that most people are genuinely looking and that what they find is genuinely meant to be found.

Right now the Internet works pretty much as if most of us were skeezy sociopaths trying to get you to believe something you never would believe if you knew the truth about what they were really trying to do, or to get you to do. And that's because, right now, the Internet actually favors the gamers of your enthusiasms. Sometimes these same folks even make it into highest office, but that would be another story too, you know the old one about George and the Constitution.

Anyhow, we don't care who you are or what your motives are. We only care that you are human and not a machine, and so, naturally, among our products are sophisticated means to tell the difference. Like CAPTCHAS if you've seen those hard-to-read squiggled-up text boxes that you have to get past. Ours are way more fun, and trivially easy for humans to get past. Impossible for machines. That's because, unlike CAPTCHAS, ours are human-generated. We call them Bafflebots, and if anybody else tries for that name we will sue them with all the firepower of Buffalo's underpaid attorney class (well, not the ones on billboards, the ones used by the stars, you know who I'm talking about).

Where does free speech and the fourth estate - the newspapers - come back in? Simple. By its location in our multidimensional geography of Internet "location" you can see immediately the context for anything and everything. So, if some teapartier, angry at the government because there's no one else ready to hand to be angry at, makes some outrageous claim about, say, black welfare moms, you can see right where they're coming from based on where people go to find such things. Local news can be re-localized, even when it's coming from the New York Times, and speakers out against authority can establish their credentials on the spot, so to speak.

OK, that's enough about our company. Obviously the underpinnings are a little more complicated than what I'm letting on. Just as obviously, Google  knows all this stuff too. They have whole armies of engineers working on these problems. But, as you might be able to see, they would have an awful lot to lose if the obvious got out. Pretty much the way that lots of people don't want you to know where they're really coming from (hint: money is a pretty good way to get a clue).

What about Buffalo? At the SuperBowl, the Stanley Cup, even the Olympics now, we're always almost there. Just missed. Wide right. No Goal! Heck, I've always been almost there myself. I was in a bar near the stadium when the audience started filing out from the game that made the history books; Frank Reich's record-breaking comeback. I wasn't nearly so disappointed as they all were - heck the game was going exactly the way I continued to hope it would.

I very nearly scored prime seats for the Ryan Miller homecoming the other day. I was down at Niagara Square for the Scotty Norwood homecoming, even though I didn't see the game. Well, those tickets were already getting beyond the reach of the normal folks from Buffalo anyhow. But how many times are we doomed to almost, but not quite, win the championship? Hoover Blanket's right there with you.

When New Orleans won this season's SuperBowl, how many in Buffalo wondered if catastrophes have to be considered acts of God before the country will pay attention and root for you? Our states of emergency are the cause for late-night jokes by those stellar wife-cheating hot-car driving multimillionaire hosts (At least we don't get the "act of God" exclusion from our insurance coverages).

Everyone knows the story of the frog who passes the point of no return as he basks in the kettle while it's heating. New Orleans got hit hard and fast, which upped the probability for outpourings of sympathy. They hopped right out of their kettle (there might have been gatekeepers for the way back in). In Buffalo, we're like the v-frog (tm) in the kettle, who stayed just a bit beyond the point where we should have thought about doing something different. Our catastrophes are slow and deliberate, and seem very much as though they're our own darned fault.

And we regret all those things we could have done differently, like where we built our University, where the highways went, where the subway doesn't go to or come from, leaving us a ghost town where there used to be a downtown.

I remember getting a new red winter cap with ear-flaps back when I was a little kid, back when
Naugahyde was cool. We used to stick our heads out the car windows in those days, riding over the
Skyway. I looked like a dork with the earflaps turned down.

Regret for me is watching my new red hat float down and away from the skyway bridge; my caught
heart plummeting with it. It didn't soar like a red balloon let go.

But hey, maybe it's really not our fault. Maybe we're not the dorks they all think we are.

I wonder where our hearts are tending, here at home in Buffalo. We have had some superstars around here lately, and they seem to like us well enough. The famous home makeover folks were impressed enough by our stone soup magic that they've changed the way they do business all over the country. They seem interested in manufacturing hope to almost the same extent as other more powerful forces seem interested in manufacturing fear.

Who knows? Maybe we have the real thing here, in our city of no illusions. Reality City. We ain't got no artificial nothing. No artificial hope. No artificial fear.  And certainly no artificial intelligence, as I learned the other other night listening to our Canadian false friend Margaret Atwood. I call her a false friend because, while she made a point to let us know that there is a real Buffalo in her past, passing through from Toronto, she also spent most of her "talk" giving us examples of questions she gets a bit exasperated with from admirers.

So, naturally, we provided a few more reasons for her to roll her eyeballs. It's what we do, well, especially when the talk we paid for turns out to be more of a definition of the distance between us and her exalted heights. It came off like an attempt to get us on her side; to commiserate with her about silly folks who couldn't, could they?, be anything like this audience.

Atwood makes her living extrapolating the thinking and behaviors of those who are like our American teapartiers. You can just imagine what those Bully Canadian Hockey Moms think of those folks. Oh, I think I'm getting mixed up again.  As if there's not a thinking soul in Buffalo who would accept her challenges if offered them dead on. As if we're not all wishing we were Canadian right about now.

Atwood remembered Buffalo from back when we were "sin city." When the drinking age was lower here, when the bars were open later and the girlie joints were more explicit than the ones now over there. I know, it's hard to imagine now, but we had our glory days.

How about let's overlook the Buffalo that everyone else thinks of. How about we look either farther back or farther forward, skipping over the embarrassing stuff.

I have no illusions. Starting up in Buffalo is really really hard compared to starting up almost anywhere else. But we do have plenty of real people here. We have real intelligence. We have products which are not premised only on being cool. And that's not even to mention the art, the music, the theater, the dance, the ethnic identities, and the food, the glorious food. Even the New York Times gives us credit now for that!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spiritualist Commentary

I once visited Lily Dale,View Link in New Window a spiritualist enclave nearby Buffalo, where I now live for the moment (I absolutely adore the English ambiguation machine; do I "live for the moment?" Am I in Buffalo temporarily? Or do I live at Lily Dale?). I had high hopes that something might be triggered there. I was looking for some even slightest sense that there were insights beyond the ones I find through reading and a bit of academic study. I even got myself a "reading."

In the event, it was clearly something to be gotten over with for each of us. The "reader" must have seen that I am opaque and impenetrable. I knew that he wasn't seeing anything. It would be pretty much like some poor doctor trying to diagnose a hypochondriac. Better to go through the motions and get him out of there as quickly as possible.

I was disappointed. Or more likely I mean "I wasn't disappointed." The experience was and remains hardly surprising; pretty much what I'd expected. I'm as proof as they come against spiritualist anything. Like I wear condoms on my gullibility.

Maybe I'd wanted to see if someone would see something in me; something to pull me away from my prideful deficiencies. Or maybe there's just not that much which would surprise me about me; there's not that much that I would be looking for them to tell me, and so it all felt like being a tourist in one's home town. I think I was actually open minded, though. I wasn't looking for negative affirmation.

Around here, in Buffalo where I live again now, temporarily, we often get the chance to take visitors to Niagara Falls, and each time, we also get to see the falls anew. Lately, trying to steer my body in a new direction, I take long walks and see the city in a way which I never could while driving a car. In general, I am the only walker.

Sometimes one is most blinded to the familiar.

I've lately started participating in a local spiritualist writersView Link in New Window group, a bunch of people who sense that there are realities which have not been let in to our common discourse; for whom the evidence is too strong that there is more to reality than can be told. But who try to tell it nonetheless.

I have met a Native American medicine man there; I re-met an astrologer I already knew; there are poets, and ordinary folk for whom things have happened which don't fit in to the ordinary narratives of life. Hell, my whole life looks like a bizarre improbability to me, so - apart from the never seeing ghosts part - I should fit right in.

The narratives of these writers would all be extraordinary - hard to believe - except that lots and lots of people follow astrology, even in the highest places. Lots of people believe in and see ghosts. But not everyone wants to tame what they know with words. Almost everyone is secretly skeptical, unless they've seen something themselves. Which I haven't. But I'm not really skeptical, except in ways that I'm perfectly open about. Like, I'm skeptical about the skepticism which powers scientific inquiry, for example.

I never will either see ghosts nor guide my life by the stars, but lots and lots of people will. Still, I am a writer, if I am a writer at all, who writes at that very same edge of sense. Words from others have driven away the mysteries for me. Ghosts have been rationalized to my satisfaction as the reification of what's only "in the mind." But words also take me over the edge, to where only metaphorical is real. Except, well, metaphor is far too limiting a figure.

For me, what's "out there" (fun ambiguating machine again) really is starting to look more and more as though it came from inside my mind. Hard reality is collapsing beneath something else that much more powerful. And reality is pretty darned powerful if you ask me. How strange would it be if the stars did not have any influence on our lives. It only depends how large your frame is allowed to become.

I resist any and all certainties. I therefore risk insanity of the most basic sort, of course. My personal and written narrative often goes off the rails. But, in precisely the manner of this authorView Link in New Window I recently heard on NPRView Link in New Window, the frame within which the various authorities would box me not only doesn't seem to fit, but would seem positively to keep me from myself, as if there could be a me divided from myself by prison bars.

I land in the hospital, but no cause can be found. Or rather, no cause for the cause. (Do accidents always require causes? Or is that just an escape clause the insurance policy writers use) The most important connections in my life are the ones which have been made far beyond my control. Random. Easy to miss.

I'm almost certain the same is true of you, unless you're filthy rich, in which case you're likely to credit your own intelligence and cleverness. It's only human. As if these also weren't matters of good fortune. So, you'll credit yourself with intelligent and clever deployment of your intelligence and cleverness. You see where this is going.

Among the authorities I simply must resist, I would have to include the astrologers, the ones who already know all about ghosts, as well as the usual suspects; the scientists, the doctors, the academics - all the ones who have worked so much harder than I ever will for answers.

These conventional frames are all fully fleshed out now, and so there's nothing left there for me. Which doesn't mean, in any of those and many other cases, that I'm feeling superior to the sense that folks inside them can make. I'm not. There's just no sense there for me. My body's healthy, my mind is strong, the only thing I have to fear is fear, and I'm working on that one too.

* * *

I have a headache today well beyond the power of doctors to diagnose. But it's origin is trivial. Nothing to be alarmed about. I had to get a new "smartphone" because the old one would no longer connect to the Internet. Verizon had sent me five, count 'em, five new ones in fulfillment of the warranty I pay for. I asked them, please, to look a little more deeply into the issue before sending me another one. Each time I set a new one up, costing my precious time and attention, I am a little less confident that my work will last. I told the guy I didn't want to feel like I was driving a Toyota. I think he took my point.
They obliged me, they brought in their big guns, but in the end offered no other resolution than to send me yet another refurbished identical phone. It seems merest coincidence that the timing of this series of escalating failure rates coincides with the termination of my contract, and the ability, therefore for me to claim a new phone free. Honest - I think it's random. Well, OK, as much as anything is random.

Naturally, I had wanted to hold out until the newer cooler ones come out. The Verizon folks helpfully advised me that there's never a good time to commit with these things. There's always a newer cooler one just around the corner. And it's no real surprise that among the diminishing number of people who ever bought this particular defunct phone in the first place, there should be some kind of crescendo of trouble. Verizon's cost in PR and technical expenditures for a remedy would be impossible to justify.

I caved. They offered me an extra fifty bucks off. (Just now I got a coupon in the mail for a hundred bucks off - I guess the guy was really stretching himself out for me!!) I miss my old phone, though. It was a kludge, a terrible compromise between touch and buttons and Windows' seemingly pathological design-by-massive-terrified-of-the-boss-committee-consensus approach about including the kitchen sink. The very antithesis of the iPhone. But I'd learned to make it work, and especially liked its slide-out keyboard.

Now, I'm sure you're wondering how and why I can afford an Internet-connected smartphone, being out of work, and dissing technology the way I do. Well, I pretend to.

But as you can see, I practically live up here in the ether. It's how I present myself. I have no fixed geographic address, and so I require cellular technology just in order to be findable by friends and family. I swear I don't really want to be reachable at any moment. I extol the virtues of staying put, even of going back to the old ways. But just like Al Gore, I make some kind of exception of myself. I guess.

Well, not just like him. He's rich and growing and I'm poor and shrinking. Divesting myself of fat and other accumulated stuff. But I do find extravagant hope in certain of the new technologies. I watched that Afghani reporter embedded with the Taliban,View Link in New Window and like lots of others, I awoke to the evident truth that they could not coordinate their activities, plant their bombs, nor even detonate them were it not for the cellular network. One wonders why "they" don't just turn it off. You know, the other "they."

Clearly, as with credit card companies who would rather we not know precisely how much money they lose to fraud and identity theft, there is far more to lose by shutting down the cellular networks, than there would be for "them" to gain. A few hundred or a few thousand soldiers a year is a perfectly acceptable price. It's commensurate with lots of other costs, like the cost of mayhem on our highways, for instance, or in our hospitals where "preventable" is the single biggest cause of death (OK, I think it's third, but I know it's up there).

The true cost for public admissions about what's really going on would be our lost confidence in the structures which sustain us.

I don't like these Taliban any better than you do. I might like them a lot less, since I also see them as very similar to our own teapartiers. Angry at everything and nothing in particular, so target the biggest thing around. The American government. The US government is acting very big so far.

But I find lots of hope in the terrorist cells' ability to use the technology of wealth to frustrate its power. Poverty stricken people around the globe can now have phones where once the cost to get on the grid was prohibitive for all but the privileged classes.

There is very nearly no limit to what a company as large as Citibank, say, will do to protect your confidence in them. How much of your fees pay for the invisibility of rampant fraud? Do you ever wonder? And still they want to put a tax on top of what they aren't telling you, against your fear, by selling you identity theft insurance. Fear and greed make a charming couple, don't you think?

"Mission Accomplished" was precisely what got done by the shock and awe campaign against Saddam Hussein. We shouldn't have made so much fun of Georgie Porgie in his jump suit. The whole point of our going in there was to cement the fear we all must have of ignorant people willing to fly planes into buildings. No cost is too high to validate the fear in a kind of super high stakes triumphalism. A massive cheer for the winners. It's like a heroin hit to the collective psyche.

There was and remains quite literally no limit to what must be spent to own and to control our enthusiasms. (And you thought the "war on drugs" was about your kids??? Well, in a way, of course, it is. They must be kept in training!) Even though the cost to the lives of "our own" (not "us" but, you know, the ones too poor or ignorant to understand how their enthusiasms are gamed) now far exceeds the harm "they" ever did or could do to us.

Never mind the collateral damage, or the meltdown to our economy, which was the only thing which could, even conceivably, trump the cost of war. The War. The perpetual war of one name or another.

Oh, but what might have could have probably would have - depending on who you listen to - happened had we done nothing? I guess about the same things that happen every day over in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those parts of town where your family would never let you live, but people still live there nonetheless. They do. Are they not afraid? Is terror only reserved for those whose daily life contrasts enough?

I caved against Verizon, and my new phone - which I chose because it had the largest brightest most apparently durable and readable screen, plus the promise of a better way to input text - is an even bigger kludge than the last one. I miss the buttons; no keyboard anymore, it's all swipe and gesture, in the direction of, and with a silent bow toward, Apple.

But Apple, I learn today, is suing Google nowView Link in New Window for ripping off certain of Apple's patented intellectual property. These people have got to be kidding! They're protecting their right to profit from ideas which quickly become something anybody could do a hundred different ways. Should something like a wheel really be patentable? Is there no commons leftView Link in New Window??!!!

I have, apparently, purchased the least popular of the smartphones; certainly the least cool. It's running Microsoft's latest Mobile OS, which not a single tech guru praises. And to top it off, the manufacturer, Samsung, has hobbled plenty of the design aspects built-in by Microsoft, all in the direction of a better "consumer experience" I'm sure.

And on top of that Verizon has famously pushed the whole thing way over into the direction of an entertainment device, all for a fee, and all also in the direction of keeping you from putting your own hands on the device's locked away "features."

In the end, I'm happy enough. The browser beats Apple's in most ways. Text can actually be entered more rapidly than by either Apple's or anyone else's methods, or especially by a tiny keyboard with my thumbs. After a headache-inducing learning curve, in the end I think I got what I wanted. I won't be able to type so fast as I'm doing now with keyboard, but that might not be such a bad thing. Hell, I could give a damn for cool, and even hobbled, this beats the alternatives for me. Bizarre how Microsoft now is in the middle, stodgy, between the battling titans of cool.

So, I will deploy my technology precisely as does the Taliban. But I hope I'm a bit more enlightened than they are. I don't feel any anger toward those who screw me in the name of my own good. I'm sure not about to blow up myself or anybody else. I feel no need to be trimmed for Allah. But I do think that there's important work to do.

I sure can see how we have earned the Taliban's anger against us. As certain as I can be of anything, I'm certain that the way to win has nothing to do with guns or money (when the money's not in the form of relief aid). Just as the way to good health has little to do with the powers of medical technology, except when one is truly ill. The technology we need for good health is good information, good sanitation, public safety and housing, and an absence of fear and food insecurity and guilt; as though we cause all of our problems ourselves.

The large corporations now are all doomed to go the way of Toyota. There's not a single one of them which doesn't have the same sort of secret they'll spend any amount to keep from transforming into a generalized loss of faith.

The healthcare industry, collectively, is terrified that we won't be terrified anymore of dying. They act as though they too find the escalating costs out of touch with reality. This is a ploy folks. The more money goes through their hands, the more profit they can make. (Along with my Verizon coupon, I just got another denial of coverage for a blood test. You'd almost think they are trying to alienate me)

And if we stop being terrified, the evident magic will be that, collectively, we'll be that much healthier and better off than we ever could be on their drugs and surgical and genetic interventions when these get deployed as if every deviation from some norm were a cause for emergency response.

There is no massive turning which is necessary. There is no massive evil being perpetrated in our  name. There's just a lot of fear, being rendered up into a fairly insane collective behavior pattern.

* * * 

Last night, because my life is just that bizarre, I had a chance to attend the hockey event of the century. I nearly witnessed the Buffalo Sabres' own top goalie at his homecoming from center stage in the final event of the Winter Olympics. Canada won, but Buffalo would welcome home the next in a long line of superstar just-misses. We let him know how much we love and value him.

In the event, the son of the friend who'd offered me the last minute seat which he'd gotten last minute - absolute primo seats - the son invited a friend and so I got bumped.

Now, I'm sure you understand completely that this was no tragedy for me. I'm not the world's biggest sports fan, although I do seem magically to be in attendance at some great Buffalo sports happenings. Or just miss them. But the consolation prize was pretty good - I got to use their pre-empted tickets to hear Margaret AtwoodView Link in New Window in person.

Last minute, I couldn't get anyone to accompany me, so I dropped off two free tickets at the box office, which were then snapped up by some grateful students. So, in addition to feeling lucky, I got to feel generous. Which is a better thing to do than to feel pre-empted.

Atwood, poor woman, devoted her "talk" to answering publicly some frequently asked questions that she, as prominent author, often gets. It was pretty transparent to me that she was warning off those questions in the Q&A session which the format of this "distinguished speaker series" has established for itself.

Despite her sharing some intimate history of Buffalo from a Torontonian's point of view, you could sense this bit of tension between her and this crowd. She's most recently written one in a literary barrage of end-of-the world novelsView Link in New Window.

The crowd wants to know if she's optimistic, what we should do to prevent a catastrophic future. The questions veer just a bit in the direction of questions she's tired of asking. Questions she rolls her eyeballs at. She kept her poise, but the gulf between herself and this audience had grown immense. We felt mildly cheated by her impromptu carelessly prepared and brief remarks. She felt at odds with ill informed and familiar questions.

As a writer, she said, she is and must be an optimist: That she will finish the book, find a publisher, find an audience. As an accomplished author, she has about as much in common with her audience as the health insurance industry does with the ill. Why would she want anything changed? It's working for her. Being darkly pessimistic makes her life perfectly sunny.

I know that sounds like sour grapes, but honestly, it's not. In a way, it was generous of Atwood to give us her time in person. In a way, with the now inevitable mega-sized image of her talking head right over her actual - but too far away to be distinct -  head, it was hard to get the sense of what "being there" really means anymore. A television would be a far more intimate way to hear her speak.

* * *

So anyhow, as you can see I have nothing at all spiritual to offer. Well, except that I have a really hard time finding almost anything at all which is not meaningful. The most random things just fit right in to what I'm thinking about. And I'd say that's just about as powerful as seeing ghosts. Just about as jarring. Not exactly terrifying, unless you lose your mind about it. I wouldn't want to go saying these things out loud, because everyone would just think I'm crazy.

But, in some new-agey spiritualist sense, all that needs to happen to change the world is for lots and lots of people to stop being so afraid. So terrorized. So subject to the narratives pandered by those already rich and famous and powerful. No, no, no, I'm not talking about Margaret Atwood (by strange co-incidence I found out where my long lost copy of The Handmaid's Tale went, but she couldn't use the tickets either). Atwood come to Buffalo, risking her reputation at the same time that our fair city was honoring a hockey player from somewhere else. Oh Canada!

She writes beautiful books full of implied cautionary tales. Stories and poetry which can reveal things about ourselves that we'd never know without the mirror of literature. But she too is asking us to be afraid. I'd say that's at odds with her audience in Buffalo. We have seen the future and it is us. We're only terrorized by what the better off might do. In Buffalo, silly sin-city of Atwood's past, we still sense a chance to turn it around. And if we can turn our city around, anything's possible, right?

Sorry. Way too long. I'm still working on the condensed version. That's a lot harder.