Friday, April 30, 2010

Stupid Economic Theories

Yesterday, watching the evening news on PBS, I heard this really dim-witted fellow from some misleadingly named organization called something like "numbers-usa" debating the "immigration issue." He made the seemingly obvious claim that since we are short maybe 20 million jobs and that "illegals" now hold 7 million of the jobs that exist, we need to kick them out so that we citizens can reclaim those 7 million jobs. This guy clearly knows numbers only in the way that a flimflam artists does. It's a talent, but one we should watch out for.

Then my otherwise intelligent friend was marveling at the very evident fact that dual income families are now struggling to maintain the standard of living which used to be common when only the men were working. It feels as though there were some kind of conspiracy to dilute the wages of working people. Some kind of OK women, if you want to work, go for it. We'll adjust. Um, yeah, I thought this much was obvious. These two matters are not disconnected. Hello!

The idiocy of the anti-immigrant comment is that this economy is "designed" such that some percentage of the workforce is out of work. That doesn't mean that there is some designer, any more than do the results of natural evolution, no matter what the crazies say. It just means that there is no set number of jobs, such that kicking someone out of his might free it up for you. The issue is systemic. As with food and water and energy, it's usually not the quantity which causes shortages, it's the distribution. The appearance or especially the fear of shortage allows prices to spike. That serves somebody or some class of people that ain't you or me.

A pretty good clue for what's up with immigration is that when you dig, you are as likely to find that it was the right wing which wanted the cheap immigrant labor as it was the liberals who wanted to afford every soul a human chance. Pitting workers against desperate "illegals" does a pretty good job to push the price for labor down. Ditto women.

But these arguments play because we're angry and we seem to need some target for that anger. Someone who doesn't look too familiar in the mirror.

And so some grand artificial debate gets played out over our heads, without our ever having a chance to find where the game is fixed.

Like the healthcare debates; it helps the criminally kleptocratic insurance industry (executives, owners, not workers) when the left side calls for government to just take it over. That energizes the teapartiers, who - probably sensibly- recoil in horror at the notion of civil-service healthcare. So no one imagines what could be accomplished if we were to have some sensible regulation of insurance as we already know it.

Like what if there were severe penalties for not paying legitimate claims? What if there were a time limit to pay, and what if the price for uninsured were required to be identical to that charged the insurance companies? What if the providers were required to get pre-authorization for payment, the client were completely off that hook, and the subsequent negotiations and arguments were required to take place between and among the experts?  I think that's been tried around the world, and it works pretty well.

What if, furthermore, the patients weren't somehow taught that it is their right to feel entitled for treatment for whatever sort of "off" they feel. What if drugs were not deployed as a cure for the stresses of poverty or of warfare? What if we didn't all crave endless medical testing against terror at various what-ifs as encouraged by advertisements from the drug companies? What if those ads were made illegal again?

Well, apart form the absurdity of attempting to put the genie of information back into its bottle, there is reason to think that all the decisions shouldn't really be in the hands of the doctors. Sometimes they might be motivated to call for more tests than you yourself would if fully informed. They're fighting the insurance companies right now, and have to make up for their losses somehow. The system seems stacked against us even as the sides seem to be warring against each other. Coke and Pepsi. Microsoft and Google. Democrats and Republicans. They need each other. But even more, they need us to think they are opposed and in competition.

Drug companies seem to spend, naturally enough, the most money on issues which might require constant medical intervention. Viagra and Lipitor and things like Prozac are the perfect drugs, compared to useful things like antibiotics which might be used once in a while and that's it. Where overuse creates more problems than the drug can solve, but also where the excuse is somehow "out there" that it's we who use them too much. Forgetting that it might be our feedlot meat production system which creates many of the problems. That with bacteria, it should never be about eradication, but more about a kind of ecological balance among the organisms always present in our bodies and environments. By and large, "we" do what we're told within the limits of our education, intelligence and information. I know I'm not one to second guess my doctor, unless there's a really good reason to do so.

The distortions get created from and by the very same sort of motivated misinformation that the racist fellow used to cover his actual fear of difference. I'm sure he's even convinced himself that all he really wants are jobs for his fellow Americans. Drug companies don't want us to know everything about what they're selling - they speed up the voices magically when forced to fill us in. They refine and expand the unreadable print.

Government doesn't have to be populated by geniuses to provide the same sort of intervention to the public discourse - the balance to the body politic - that antibiotics might provide to the individual human body gone out of whack.

It serves someone's purpose to suppose that the problem is that the regulators now are not so clever as those they regulate. That the germs are smart; the terrorists are smart, that the bombs we need are smart bombs, that each of us only wants to get for ourselves what the least of us, the Bernie Madoffs, want to get for themselves. And morally, he is the least among us. Not a one of us would do what he did against his fellow Americans even if we had the chance.

I for one don't really imagine that the folks who work for the NSA are at the cutting edge of cybercriminal investigation (I have inside information). I doubt the government actually has the most computing power, and if it does, I doubt it's as cleverly deployed as the stuff arrayed in the private economy to measure my desire. I worry that dullards in government service will become overeager in their enforcement, just like the FBI did under J. Edgar, knowing which direction their promotion would come from.

So, too much power is no good answer. But there ought to be a way to release the creative energies of the private marketplace without allowing the predators, always, the upper hand. There ought to be a way to allow the financial markets to do their thing with the efficiency of money flows without always presenting those geniuses with that much temptation to dip into the flow for themselves. You don't have to be a genius yourself, you just have to get the sense that your work is valued, secure, amply rewarded against its difficulty and risks. Something we no longer really provide to our civil servants.

And another thing! Wouldn't you think the capitalist system would prefer a mobile work force? How about a nice regulation limiting the drag on mobility now guaranteed by regionally limited and company-connected health insurance. It's almost as though "they" want you to remain enchained. Or pitted against the great unwashed masses of "illegals." Vagrants. Homeless. Border crossers.

Come on, let's get a clue. This isn't as difficult as we're making it out to be.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oil Blowout!

This will not come across right. You will think I'm some sort of Pollyanna, and who knows, maybe I am. But I hear of the oil slick down toward New Orleans, and I think something along the lines of OK, cool, Mama is finally getting up to dance. She's reminding us who's in charge here. Of course, that's after I run through my feelings of dread at what it is that we've unleashed. What were Oppenheimer's words? "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

I have the feeling in the face of this oil blow that I do while sailing and the weather clearly asserts how puny I am. This oil blow terrifies me, even while it thrills me that humans are being shown how small we are. How incapable to contain all contingencies.

I don't really give a whole lot of credibility to the Gaia hypothesis on most levels; that the earth can be considered a unitary living organism. Or in particular, that it/she might be conscious. But then again, the notion of a conscious God is poppycock to me too. Since, for me, what can consciousness mean if not a kind of dialogic awakening, resulting, through language, from multiple minds conspiring. (I won't bore you just now with more Julian Jaynes.)

Sure, I've wondered about a kind of dialog between heaven and earth, but the trouble is that while consciousness is dialogic, language, the substrate for consciousness, requires a lot more than two for the dance to get started. There has to be a whole community.

And if there are other planets alive, well then they are communicating in language which won't be picked up by puny man's technologically based receivers. But surely the Earth is alive It is more than a single organism. It has co-evolved with life, and just as my mind is neither fully responsive nor responsible for everything that befalls it, the Earth reflects us back. It makes no more sense to wonder whether the Earth is dead or alive than it does to wonder whether the me I was a second ago is dead. The earth also, is still becoming, and we shouldn't be so sloppy with our categories.

Which brings me around again to the weather; manifestations of what often gets called fate. The toss of dice beyond anyone's control, except for God's if you want to raise things to that level of abstraction. We can regard this oil blow as a regrettable accident, with no meaning other than what we make of it. But if you follow that chain far enough, there is almost nothing about our existence which can't be traced to accident. At some point its "meaning" comes from outside your puny self.

And so it has suited me to wonder if oil cannot and should not be regarded as a gift from earth to man. Ecologically minded people like me tend to be horrified when we learn  the extent to which our current capitalistic and poisonous diet is actually oil based. From the fertilizer to the pumping of water from the ground, to the plowing and transport and refrigerating and drying, there is as much oil as input to our food chain as there is to our transportation industry. And at least as many outflow points, therefore, for greenhouse gaseous emissions.

We're horrified by the warfare, by the money power, by the straight up raping of the earth accomplished for what There Will be Blood demonstrated so clearly must be a game of greed and self-aggrandizement, inevitably to the point of utter desertification of the earth, the self, the soul. Rosebud.

We're horrified by the poisoning of our bodies by the corn sweeteners, the soybean economy, the concentration of energy production into the hooved animals we consume with such lusty gusto. And most of all we're horrified by the immiseration of so many otherwise intact and self-sufficient cultures and peoples beneath the unleashed Halliburton empires of rapacious global capitalism.

But, you know, just as I was taken aback the other day to hear someone voicing a cogent caution about the impact of all this new (only about 100 years) radioactive energy we swim through: The power grid, the radio, the television, the cellphone, the WiFi, WiMax interconnected super-saturated world of communications and power distribution technology for which, as anyone who's grabbed rabbit ears knows, our bodies make really good antennae: just as I was taken aback by that seeming paranoia, I'm sometimes taken aback by the presumption that we must engineer our way out of the predicament we're in.

My thought was simple; do you really think this occult effect which might be doing something at our cellular level, and who knows, might even be tweaking our propensity for cancer, and might have some subtle effect on our moods; do you really think that impact can hold a candle to the solar power of the actual human communication which rides on all these waves?

Hasn't the impact of that drowned out the other stuff in some kind of inverse of the proverbial drop in the ocean? Hello people, we're globally interconnected now by all this electromagnetic radiation which powers our communications technology.

Or like when people study paranormal interactions between mind and matter, isn't it enough of a miracle that I can apparently will my hand to pick up tools and impact literal mountains of matter, even before I deploy the petroleum-powered engines at my disposal. Have we really become so numb to the miracles right before us?

All of these wonders descend from Earth's gift of oil to man. We have squandered it, surely, and there are some among us who are as bereft of soul as Bernie Madoff. Who would make of it a magnificent tomb. But the majority of us by far do not mean harm by our actions. Harm is caused by their collection and concentration - these petty actions - and by proxy when we allow those who speak for us to aggrandize themselves upon our meager wants.

Anyhow, I'd say Earth has had about enough of our uppity oil-sucking ways. I'd say we put a drill right into her heart and she's bleeding and we'd better start paying attention. But that doesn't mean we have to disavow all that we've done as though it were the result of evil, devil guided mankind.

There is a lot of expanded consciousness riding on the gift of oil. Most of it engendered by the likes of mass mediated communication, leading right up to and including Facebook, which I hate to say, has given me quite a few new and important connections. Ones I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Let's put a diaphragm over top that gusher just as quickly as we can. If oil is still lighter than water, then we should be able to suck the oil out the top. It's a kind of opposite to putting a band-aid on the wound, but the concept's identical.

Then let's let the Earth heal a bit. Let's dial back our proxy aggrandizement, individually and one by one. I know I am not even  remotely interested in some fanciful mansion on a hill. I'd rather live in civilization, and leave the hilltops for picnics. I enjoy walking to the extent that the city affords that luxury. And I do enjoy how much I can get accomplished, even socially, from right inside my home. No time wasted commuting. No life threatening challenges against fate on the highway. And hopefully some smallish fraction of oil use compared to turning the key of my car.

Springtime in Buffalo

It's been beautifully sunny and chilly for a few days. Just in time for warmer days now, I've finally figured out how to purge the air out and get heat back into my old VW. My timing isn't always perfect. But I'm getting ready to leave town, and with 300,000 miles on her, I want to be sure that air in the cooling system isn't a sign of something worse.

The dealer thought the heater core must be clogged, but I found out that the dealers all think that. All on my own - with help from Samaritans on the Internet - I discovered that if I purged the air I would get heat. I struggled for just a minute with mistrust for the VW shop. You know, where you nurse the assumption that they were just trying to sell me the expensive procedure to put in a new heater core.

In the end, I opted for open questions. After all, they're the ones who helped me get the car this far. And "advisors" on the Internet are as often people taking advantage (although I couldn't tell how in this case). Anyhow, I did find out that this is one among several notorious weak points in the VW design when I chatted with the guy who runs the shop today. They're going to do the power purge for me tomorrow morning, no charge! I'm happy.

All the other manufacturers are benefiting from Toyota's woes now. They built their cars to perfect Consumer Reports specs, but it turns out that there are other things which can go wrong when you over-engineer. Do we just enjoy the fall of the too big? Not too long ago, I ran into a friend who owns my identical VW, and he considers his a lemon. He would never get another one!

I guess I overlook the weak points and find myself pleased with the overall package. I like VW's emphasis on sound basic materials engineering. Lots of little stuff might go wrong, and even cause a catastrophe with the big stuff, but if you keep it from going that far, the car is built to last forever. That just wasn't true of a Toyota I once owned.

But, to each her own. I know my car has a Nazi pedigree, but I don't root for anyone's downfall, no matter what their difference from me.

Everyone seems to know who they hate these days. I was lucky enough to watch the Sabres beat the Bruins at the Arena in their second-to-last game of the season. It was a thrill which spilled out onto the street beyond the last-minute rule-challenging glove-flying exclamation point fight on the ice. The thrill was marred only slightly by "let's go Buffalo" horn tooting drivers who yelled "where's a Bruins fan to run over?" out their windows. Hey, it's all in sport.

Before that, I'd tried to make a clever point when New Orleans won the Super Bowl, about how only sudden disasters get sympathy from the crowd. Although New Orleans, and the nation, had prepared for Katrina by neglect over many many years, the actual event defined our generosity as a nation. Just as it contributed to bringing down a presidency. Just as Haiti's earthquake brought out the best in us, even though we couldn't be bothered for so many years while the ramshackle disaster waiting to happen got put together.

I used the analogy of the frog in the slowly heating kettle. He likes the hot-tub, and by the time he realizes it's getting way too hot, his energy is sapped and he's cooked. Despite the wooden carvings I walk by each day on Elmwood, left over from our great October tree-smashing snow storm, Buffalo's emergencies are all slow motion. Nothing to bring out the best in the crowd of people making fun of us.

But still, the other day, riding my bicycle back from watching the big orange ball drop off the Peace Bridge (along with maybe half a dozen others) at the start of Boom Day festivities, I rode past that home-makeover house on Massachusetts Ave. There's a sign out front which looks like a for sale sign. I was slightly outraged until I realized it was just the builder exercising bragging rights. There was something to cheer for, wasn't it, even from the rest of the country. Extreme home makeover, Buffalo edition.

Boom Day, chicken wings, wide right, we make lemonade from the lemons handed us. But we have water and power and infrastructure and beautiful surroundings and are the very setting for the whole "if you build it they will come" idea. Nice thoughts while leaving town in search of a job.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Trouble with Computers

Against my better judgment, I recently agreed to "help out" at a local non-profit which was having trouble with computers. It was pretty clear that there was some sort of infestation. I explained that I wasn't really looking to do this sort of work anymore, but agreed to help, setting a price that we could both feel good about - something like a quarter of the going rate - about what a gardener might charge.

The recommendations were easy enough, and the emergency patch up was smooth except for that one computer. There's always one, maybe the Executive Director's, maybe the volunteer workstation (in this case), but the general rule is that 90% of the issues/machines/whatever take 10% of the time, and then there is that 10%.  This isn't a precise rule, but you get the idea. It gets called the Pareto Principle generally, and I find that I'm no longer the only person who seems to have heard of this rule.

The temptation is always to just get rid of the 10%, but the way it works is that it's the rule, not the machine, and so you pretty much have no choice about this. There will always be the 10%, just like work will always expand to fill the time available for it. It's why computer techs after the briefest trial by fire become really arbitrary and dictatorial about standards. Without them you spend 90% of your time getting nothing productive done. And when you're "helping out" with an unmanaged network for a not-for-profit, you know that going in, which is why I agreed to such a low rate.

Well, then the Executive Director, without so much as a nevermind, went ahead and ordered a Mac into the mix. Now if I had the dough, I'd definitely have a Mac for home use, but you can see what happens to the whole idea of standards. It just doesn't make sense in a network which needs to be managed.

Which got me thinking about how the trouble with computers is that they are both tools and desirable objects in and of themselves. That is to say that people want these things still, if you can imagine that, pretty much the way they want all libidinously invested objects, which is what capitalism is all about after all. If there weren't any of that sort of desire, we'd all drive Ladas or identical Beetles, and our computers would still be black and white and look like little file cabinets the way my first one did. Way back when the excitement was in the magic that this new tool could do, and not how it looked or felt.

Steve Jobs, of course, understands this about machines. You'd be nuts not to want a Mac more than a PC. It's just cooler, which is pretty much what cool means. Libidinous investment.

And even in the work place, people can't avoid playing with these attractive machines. Hell, a Windows machine is pretty libidinously invested these days too, especially after Windows 7. It's fluid, slick and cool, but still manages to do that within the "confines" of being more straightforward to deploy as a tool. But in an unmanaged state, it really still is an attractive nuisance for workers' free time, or for volunteers to play with, especially before broadband was ubiquitous in the home. This is why techs are so arbitrary and dictatorial about management and locking things down against being toyed with.

This volunteer computer today just plain defeated me. The more infestation I ripped out by the roots, the more that was revealed, lurking, being contained by the thing I'd ripped out. The thing is that many of the bits of what we in the business call "spyware" are themselves pandered as configuration assistants, spyware destroyers, and system tweakers. Everyone with a home computer has a favorite that they swear by. And sometimes the more the merrier.

I pretty much decided that this particular computer had a "root kit" by which is meant something so intertwined, as it were, "beneath" the actual OS that you can't even tell in principle that it's there and the only real remedy is a system rebuild. Which, in the absence of standardized setups and cataloged software licenses and media becomes a necessarily destructive process. You can see why I consider this gig to be against my better judgement.

But here's the thing. I can't go so far as to bemoan the capitalist system and what it does to trick us into relationships with our tools instead of what those tools can do for our actual work. I'm not a big fan of Amish furniture, for instance. I think it's ugly and represents the work of people who are doing it for God, or something extrinsic to the beauty of what they produce.

I think you can convince yourself that it's somehow beautiful, and perhaps sometimes it is, in the manner of naive untutored "vernacular"  art. But frankly, I prefer the self-consciously beautiful stuff, even when it will obviously go out of style shortly. Anyhow, the Amish stuff confuses something about either the tool or the one who's meant to be pleased or both. You use basic tools to create objects which are themselves only meant to be purposeful. Yuch.

But there is no craftsperson on the planet, or artist I imagine, who doesn't form a kind of relationship with his particular tools. Tools are, not incidentally, those things which according to Marx, the capitalist system expropriates from the worker. Not only can't you form a relationship with your tools in the manner of a journeyman craftsperson once you work for the system, you can't select them or care for them, or become attached to them in any way.

I hope you see where I'm going with this.

Hell, maybe someday real soon, when all the work is in "the cloud" it really won't matter what tool you bring to bear on your work. Maybe you'll bring your own, the way I once did when I worked as a bicycle mechanic. The young turks I worked alongside made fun of me because my tools were all Craftsman/Sears which is all I could afford. But I have them still, and they served me well enough.

Anyhow the "knowledge workers" who use computers to get their work done are generally of the managerial class. They directly serve the capitalists, maybe like chambermaids or something. The "administrative assistants" who serve the managers have a much greater tendency to form something approaching an emotional relationship with their machines, calling them things like "'puters" or maybe even naming them. It must be part of what they look forward to each day.

And, of course, at the very top you get to use whatever tool you feel like using and the techs had better make it OK.

I have no real point here, except that it should be obvious to anyone that the PC (here I use the term to encompass Macs, probably smartphones, and certainly the iPad) exists at an interesting intersection in our history of labor. It is, in fact now, the universal tool and as such crosses boundaries between work and play, home and office, right along with its making those boundaries more porous and much less meaningful.

Anyhow, it's why I can't do tech work anymore; at least not on the level of PC support. I could easily enjoy guiding the work of others. I'd be arbitrary and dictatorial and insist that if workers were to use company machines, then they will have little to no choice about their configuration. At the same time, I'd be working to move all the applications into the cloud, for access from strictly sandboxed (insulated from whatever workers do with these things in their play-time) secure and company deployed browsers.

Then the workers could take their own machines home, like a company car say. Or maybe they'd just be responsible to bring their own tools to work. Well, it's a thought.

Meanwhile, I think we should disinvest the objectified female form a bit. Now that should be an interesting project. But seriously, this is where capitalism really does go too far. Because human value should not be determined by relative anything; wealth, beauty, intelligence. These things can be allowed to spread as much as is comfortable, but wouldn't it be cool if we could disentangle actual love from economic relations?? I mean, good luck with that and everything, but stranger things have happened.

Monday, April 26, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different!

As a sometime worshiper of Random, the God of Reality (a real tosser!) I have no particular reading program. But I landed on this page this morning, reading the New York Times as I sometimes do. It's an editorial about the Boy Scouts, by Paul Theroux, an author I enjoy even though he sometimes comes off as a bit perverted.

I guess he was responding to some recent massive settlement against the Boy Scouts, U.S.A for some pedophilia among its masters. Some vague echo of the Catholic Church, with maybe a little bit of Nazi Youth thrown in. You know how those vectors go, right? German, Catholic, conclusion!

Well, tending a bit in the direction of  'Boy Scouts are Nazi youth' myself, I was happy to be reminded by Theroux of my own actual experience in the Boy Scouts, which was virtually identical to his. It was indeed a kind of revenge of the nerds, and we learned stuff which remains important to us still. I also did my share of lifesaving, as the result of Boy Scout training.

The thing he left out though, is that, in my case, we all knew, if we were alert, that the scoutmaster (R.I.P.) truly did want to molest us, each and every one. That didn't make us nervous, scared, afraid, nor our parents either, and I don't think they were all that clueless. And let me tell you, we did some things in our tents which would have tweaked the interest of any pervert I can imagine. I'm pretty sure all boys do.

No code of honor was ever broken to my knowledge. I later learned that plenty of codes of unspoken honor did get broken among the jocks who weren't boy scouts, by a swim coach who likely admired my young body too. I'm glad I was clueless as to those goings on. Really really glad.

I was never tempted to drugs by some Pied Piper adult with charisma. I was never introduced to wine nor naked pictures in a magazine nor the mysteries of naked touch by any adults of my acquaintance. We skinny dipped, just like my Dad did right in high school which is the way gym was run in the good old days. (He was an Eagle Scout, something which never did interest me). But I came by my knowledge the old fashioned way, from my peers.

It was as much up to us kids to enforce the adult/child boundary as it was up to the adults. These days, with adults injecting themselves into nearly every moment of  a child's life, how are the kids to learn a thing about "good boundaries?" Kids don't even ride bicycles alone anymore, and I think that's a fact worth mourning.

So, dear reader, the guilty party is probably the super parent who looks at you from your mirror. Thank God I'm a slacker. The Nazi youth is what's being created now by too many new rules about who can't and shouldn't and won't be allowed to do whatever.

That's the straight and narrow which provokes the deviant. Along with Paul Theroux, I guess I'm lucky to have been a member of a troop of slackers. But we sure did learn to canoe to hike to cook over fires, to swim to run rapids, to stay calm in emergencies, to make decisions according to a chain of responsibility. Our uniforms were slovenly. Maybe that's what protected us.

Happy Birthday Dad!! Thanks for leaving me alone so much of the time. Honest! I've found my own way out of the woods. Nearly.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Drama King

King for a day!

So, I have this ghost story on my mind (I'm supposed to read it publicly tomorrow evening), boxed like a rose between these two thorny films, each of which proposes somehow to mark the beginnings of our modern history. The tales are each subject to endless interpretation and re-interpretation, foregrounding love or duty or what you will.

One is the story of China's unification under the first emperor of the Qin dynasty; China's first proper dynasty. I loved the movie Hero, testing out various narrative possibilities about what really happened to stay the assassin's sword. In that film, the Emperor is hero more than tyrant, having to shoulder the burden and deny himself for the sake of history.

More recently, I saw The Emperor and the Assassin, which focuses just a little bit more on the love story. The Emperor and his lover both might have longed for the days of their youth, when, without means for clothing or food, they at least shared honest love. Now the Emperor was in charge of killing hoards of people who had offended his office if not himself. All sorts of effrontery against the noble and historically necessary cause to unify "all under heaven."

The other story is of Tristan and Isolde, recently (well, by my timeline) made into a movie itself. It's almost spooky how similar these plot lines are; Tristan and Isolde are actually presented with the possibility for escape and must relinquish it, against the thrall of history. It's the same story in its way, but this time instead of 'all under heaven,' it's the warring tribes of England which must learn to work together under a single King.

(I'm still in the middle of V. for Vendetta, a kind of re-enlivening of the Guy Fawkes day tale, a hoiliday the students used to celebrate at that private school I nearly didn't endure for the year I worked there - the kids being that much more clever than the teachers to understand the symbolism of "tear down these walls.")

Then there is the ghost story, a tale I once translated from the Chinese of a time to parallel the so-called dark ages brought to life in that film version of Tristan and Isolde. The ghost story rehearses the power of love to bring back the ghost of a former lover from beyond the pale of death. This theme also saturates East and West.

It is my burden, right, to disentangle these traditions, hopefully in time to avert the seeming inevitable contest between, say, China and the U.S. as we butt heads over important things like freedom of speech and intellectual property law. But sometimes I wonder where's the difference among all this apparent similarity?

Well, for starters, the Chinese story depicted in the films I watched is purported to be actual history. It was written down as such, even though all scholars recognize the tension between narrative requirements and historical facticity. I guess academic historians these days discount quite out of hand even the radical possibility of truing to fact as regards our narratives of history. I think that's part of what post-modern means.

The story of Tristan and Isolde is regarded as outright legend, although you'd think, being that much more recent, that something about its "truth" might be discoverable. Have there never been any Kings in love? Henry?

One question which might get begged is what is the relative valence, East to West, of what it is we wish to regard as fiction, and what fact. It has long since become cliché that the West is obsessed with romance, while the East is, by comparison, practical. Here in the West, we need our beginnings and endings, and remedy eternity with the pleasant fiction of  "ever after" in story and in religulous belief.

Where China cycles, and the East more generally accepts the idea that personalities and types and narratives just keep coming back around; the reuniting of ghost with lover neither more of tragedy or comedy, but a kind of exquisite blending of both.

How many movies lately play with these themes; moving time backwards, letting go from beyond the grave, truest love existing beyond the bonds of marriage, duty, honor, whatever it is, right on up to Jesus himself, which must keep a person from his personal right, in the face of duty to all humanity. This tension seems universal.

No wonder we are so scandalized when our leaders betray true love. We are the ones who must turn it into lust, the way of all flesh, corrupted, scandalized, for the worms. They are allowed only our idealized version, and should know that true love is allowed only to Hollywood stars. Over and over and over again, until they get it right and then we'll elect them back into office, whee!!!

(Hmmmm, I wonder why Spitzer hasn't been talking to Hollywood. I think Palin may be onto something here)

So, I write, trying to evacuate each little blog snippet from any particular narrative trajectory, so that I can look back someday and find the one for my real life. Where will I end up? On the road? In Seattle? Duty bound to my own future? To that of all mankind? Although it seems clear now that I won't live to see the difference unless we really get a move on. I think I won't shut up yet. Well, I've made those kinds of lies before, in all sorts of different directions, so don't hold your breath. Damn, I think I got it backwards again, now who's Puck and who's Bottom?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New Digs

Well, I haven't moved yet, but since I was making a little bit of fun of the idea that peoples' ashes need to be respected, it seems appropriate that my bike ride today landed me in the cemetery. New digs indeed!

I wasn't sure that bikes were allowed, but that worry evaporated the first time someone whizzed by. Lots of folks were moving in today, and there were a lot of fresh openings. Some really beautiful mausoleums, lots with recognizable local names; a few like advertisements for the prominent businesses named after them. The coolest sculpture I saw was of leather-looking couches made of granite. They looked really comfortable, but I'll bet they give new meaning to the notion of chillin'.

I knew I would and eventually did find my grandparents' grave, and that of my uncle nearby. It had to be within sight of Red Jacket, where Granddaddy wanted to be buried. (I imagine he mentioned it once, and it somehow became his most ardent wish for death). All in all a nice wind-y ride.

Along the way, I toured the living mausoleums to days gone by. We have some really really fine mansions in this town, most still available for less than a small house elsewhere. One of the finest is occupied now by this alleged coke dealer and pimp who came here from Las Vegas. I used to have the blueprints for that one in my office, since it was supposed to house the school I once headed, but I think the founder pissed off the family and so it went to the preppy Proddy school, which sold it to, you know, the pornographer dude. There goes the neighborhood.

Of course, I couldn't resist going by the old school; gazing into what had been my office reverted back to a mansion now. Overall, the most powerful feeling I had was to hope that there wouldn't be some former students driving by to make me look as though I were part of the past too, patrolling the place like some kind of ghost. These students are remarkably attached to the place.

I guess I'm ready to check out, though. You know, I was really really angered by the governor of Arizona, giving her self-righteous spiel about how the Federal government hasn't done anything about the "illegals" living among them. As though this is the fault of the new administration she wants to tweak. As though there would be any way to establish "suspicion" of being illegal other than by profiling. Um, hello, that's what suspicion means. What the hell could seeming alien mean other from acting "different???"

But she gets up a head of righteous indignation and lots of folks will follow her, feeling invaded somehow, as if these border crossers weren't also leaving something behind. As if they really want to leave strong and deep connections with people, traditions, land, the burial grounds.

But when there's no economy, what are you going to do? I know Buffalo is holding out better than lots of places, but I'm not sure there's a whole lot of what gets called innovation here. We talk a good game, but mostly things are run by the folks who've always run them, and they're holding on tighter and tighter the less there is to go around. And, um, I would never want to be a member of a club that would have me anyhow. There's always some hidden codicil to the arrangement. A spot in some mausoleum. Spooky.

Hey, I went to the Sabres game last night. It was a pretty big deal, although I feel toward all the hype the way lots of people must feel about ghosts. I mean, I'm into it and everything, and I did the screaming jumping out of my seat high five thing. But I felt askance, as though way too much was being made of what is really just a game. I especially felt this when the crowd roared for the shaking booty up on the big screen when the booty was right down in front of me and wouldn't have been shaking but for the screen.

Here, check it out:

Can't you just see where the megatron in the middle will someday soon become a hologram, with 3-D seeming figures. Maybe you'll be able to watch from inside the action, with all the music and cheering seeming just for you. Don't get me wrong, it was fun. Just not all that fun compared to other possibilities I can imagine. Especially considering the cost these days. And they screen you on the way in as though it could be as dangerous inside as, say, riding a bike on the streets is. Just a little creepy for the scale of the simulated mayhem.

Then there was this big glove throwing fight at the very end, tweaking the rules requiring that its instigator be suspended when the fight is in the last seconds. But it gave the crowd it's punctuation thrill. We went screaming into the streets, "Let's go Buffalo!!!" against a rhythm played on hundreds of car horns.

I'm not saying all these hyper-innovations are bad. I try to implicate myself with everything I say. I do have elaborate ways to say goodbye though, and that's for sure.

Well, moving on then. The car heat's back, the boat is gone, the belongings winnowed way down. Spring has sprung. You know the drill. Don't cry for me, I'm still on this side of all those ashes.

The thought I had was that the arena where the hockey playoff game was played was itself in fact a hologram, or microcosm if you will. The feedback loops for hormonal interactions were compressed, pretty much in the way that the radioactive materials are brought into proximity so that they can "go critical" and create heat or a bomb in a nuclear reaction.

I think that's what the marvels of information technologies is doing for the planet, really. It would be nice if we could cheer together without having to mark someone as the enemy. It would be nice if there didn't seem always to be the requirement for someone to hate, someone to be angry with, someone to act as scapegoat for what frustrates us.

It would be nice if we weren't holding on quite so tightly so something which indeed was once really really nice, but now it's time to move on. Move on in the direction of humanity, decency, bigger hearts and minds. Move beyond endless graveyards and meaningless ritual toward something more alive. Where people who once were loved live on in fact, through words or even pictures or videos that they participated in. These are the only meanings which really cross the boundaries of space and time. Eternity is meaning meant not symbols preserved. Well, if you were to ask me, which I know you're not, but that's what I'd say if you were to.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Morning has Broken

No frost! Those stupid weather men. Can't trust anybody these days. Er, well, I know the weather now all comes from the same place, like a machine so there's no-one to blame. It's all random.

Is Cat Stevens a terrorist because he trusts a different God? How can people talk about "my God?" Oh! I look out now that the sun is up and there are sparkles on my car's roof. Even though the Internet temperometer told me it had never frosted, my car now tells me differently. Are the flowers lost? Must I apologize to the weatherman? Does any of this make me happy?

I walk a lot because I hardly need my car in the city, and I like to make eye contact and smile, but the pretty girls are always looking away. Is every man a predator now? I guess you'd have to think so, but then why are they so easy about their sex these days? Do all the frat boys just apply this "trust in a bottle" stuff, which is spinning off that NPR story, and lots like it. I wish I were making this stuff up, but I'm not.

It seems that we need trust to run our economy, but with people rushing out to capitalize on the latest bit of science news almost before it's out of the lab, how are we to trust anybody at all, ever? Or, on the other hand, most of our doctors still hold on to whatever the frames were when they graduated from school, and some hold onto them with a death grip, so how are we to trust that?

Maybe it's like my Dad, whose body still remembers how to drive, and whose narrative still insists that to drive is to be free, but who can't, cognitively, take any direction and so he must be gotten off the road. Which isn't as easy as you might think.

You know, hormones do travel across the Internet, which is easy enough to prove if you've ever been misinterpreted in an email. Whatever hormonal reaction the person on the other end felt, you feel it too as soon as you find out that you've been taken the "wrong" way. It's very much like the bottom dropping out or the earth moving. Trust is a tricky business.

Skepticism is a posture of perpetual mistrust toward the cosmos. Goddism purports to be its opposite. But it seems all mixed up anymore. Sometimes the people that betray you have their own good reasons that you know nothing about. Sometimes if they were to tell you the actual truth, that's when you'd start to mistrust them. What if I were to tell all those pretty girls how hot they look? It wouldn't mean I wanted to have sex with them, but isn't that what they want me to think?

Lots of people seem to think that exchanging Bible texts is a way to establish trust. But there's plenty of evidence that that is a really really bad idea. Right on up to the priests. The whole Catholic church now is having a really hard time with trust, and even the Pope seems pretty clueless about what to do.

I do think that the match between context and text, figure and ground, environment and consciousness, is where trust, ultimately, is at. You can trade your Bible quotes, and ascertain that you both follow the same belief system, but that doesn't mean the person is trustworthy. He might still be interested only to get into your pants.

Or maybe he has some addiction, or was twisted at birth, or maybe you can blame it on the devil? All of this is some pretty weird stuff, but in the end (!!!) it's clear enough that if we don't solve this trust stuff, the world is toast. Well, not the earth, which will do alright, but humanity living on it is toast. Toasted.

Under pressure of a "bad economy," people gotta do what they gotta do, which sometimes just undermines trust. Stress undermines trust, apparently also hormonally, dys-regulating oxytosin levels. Mothers' milk contains this stuff, right? And just like the Chinese did this massive social experiment with their one child per family little emperor policy, we did one with the bottle feeding.

And what about the corn sweeteners now? Are they really worse than sugar? What about Toyota, even though their overall safety record is better than the rest? What about flying on small commuter airlines, even though it's still that much safer than to drive? What about interring the ashes of lost soldiers, with honor, even though their family never cared all that much for the meaningless remains? Who's playing on your emotions now? What about volcanic ash in jet engines? Is that just Earth's revenge for all the air transit spewings? Is everything some scam of get mine now, even up to the level of the Earth? Is God angry and jealous or is God Love?

At night, when my brain is too tired to do much more, I watch a lot of rented movies. I could save lots of money to sign up for Internet delivery, but I don't exactly have a fixed address, nor do I want to sign up for anything, contractually, so I let them rip me off for that much more than I should be paying. Hell, someone's gotta power this failing economy.

But they tell me I can cancel anytime!! What am I, nuts? I wanted a little bluetooth dongle for my new spiffy mini laptop which I almost didn't buy because it didn't have "built-in" bluetooth. But I find that I can get it for only $17 bucks at Target. But then I buy one for $3 bucks, shipping included, from Amazon! How can anyone trust anything under these conditions???

I claim that driving my car longer beats the low emissions of a Prius every time, given the cost to manufacture a new one, but I'm only protecting my personal economic integrity in the same way that I mock food purists about worshipping themselves when they should care about their environment. The really pure reason not to eat red meat is that it's better for the environment not to. So, I shouldn't want the stuff, right? Does it matter why it is that I don't; indulging some fantasy of longer life without it.

Remember when the billboards told us to spend a buck, stimulate the economy, render war redundant? Was that the same time that they were urging us to stock up on plastic and duct tape against possible anthrax? Was it? Yesteday all the "we are the world" voices were urging clean energy in honor of Earth Day, but isn't wanting energy the real problem? What if I just love my old car more than I want a new one? Am I thereby dropping out of normal commerce and strangling our auto industry? Does it really matter to buy local? What's local mean? Brands are all national now, and we're supposed to believe that the origin of the idea is what counts, and that's what we want to keep at home. The innovation.

So here's a trio of films: "Whatever Works," Woody Allen's swan song to justify sleeping with your stepdaughter maybe.
It's a good film, and Larry David channels Allen well. The girl, I suddenly now realize, is a depiction of that overtrusting disease from too much oxytosin (or too little?), the Williams syndrome. She just loves everyone, which makes her a grand cheater in the end. Untrustworthy herself, since she can't seem to stay out of bed with handsome guys.

Then there's "the Emperor and the Assassin," yet another Chinese rehearsal of is their original unifying Emperor a tyrant or a hero? Did he even know himself? Does it matter? The film rehearses lots of tribal/national loyalties and how these lead to massive genocide, but all in the interest of making just one nation, under heaven (under God?) where there can be peace eternally. Wasn't that Hitler's idea?

And now I'm in the middle of Tristan and Isolde, where post-Roman dark-ages England is trying to unite the tribes against the Irish who were spared the Roman unifying forces. I guess this one is just pure fiction. I'll have to see if I can get the original text free on my kindle. No, there would have to be some copyright for the translation, right? Since, unlike Chinese, the phonetically written languages are not isomorphic over time.

Well, neither is your wife, but you can fantasize about strange pussy if you like, right? Or is that sinning in your mind, which gets me back to why won't everyone smile at me?? I'm not a sinner, honest, although I sure could feel my hormones raging when that nice blond cop followed me when I pulled over to let the siren by like a good and proper driver. She told me I sure did go through the red light. I was sure I hadn't and might have wished for a stoplight camera of the sort that people get all paranoid about these days.

But, you know, they're only going to round up the ragheads, and if you haven't done anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about. Like with the health insurance, the trouble is you don't get to know ahead of time what "something wrong" might mean. And the light changes too fast for me, even when I'm going well within the speed limit. No, I didn't think she was hitting on me. I didn't even know she was pretty until after I'd gone through the outrage anger cycle. I told her I was sure that she was right, since I've learned that one should say that to people in authority. She let me off, and thank God for that, since I swore to myself that if I got a ticket, that would be the end of me driving. Yeah, like I could trust myself on that one!

Anyhow, it's interesting, at least to me, how the old English tales and the old Chinese tales both rehearse the same thing. Uniting tribally divided mankind until there's no-one on the outside. Well, except now China and the West are gearing up to misunderstand each other big time. And we're about to deploy really smart really fast really accurate pinpoint bombs, which are that much better than nuclear devices. Like a Goggle search that actually works instead of handing you back a haystack with what they think is your needle on a cushion right on top. When what you wanted was the pea down under that pile of stuffing. Yeah, let's trust those smart bombs, and the video game jockeys they ride in on.

Or how about let's try trusting no-one and nothing and see where that gets us?

Remember when bicycles were fun and kids rode them all over the city? Now, I ride my bike and it scares me to death amongst the people in cars in a hurry. Imagine thinking about your kid doing that? And you can't exactly go shopping with one since none of the stores welcome them inside, and they'll just get ripped off outside. And the only other people riding bikes are these really bizarrely clothed aficionados who've figured out how to turn a really really pleasant and fun and relaxing (and inexpensive!) invention into some kind of torture device, judging from their labors and grimaces. Or are they just pumping different drugs into their veins, and are they smiling beneath their dark wraparounds and Buck Rogers helmets which look like some kind of raygun on their heads? And they pay real money for these torture devices?

You can buy a really spiffy electric tricycle if you want to pay more than a car for your virtue. What's wrong with this picture? Sorry, I can't find the company today, even though it popped up first thing the other day during my Internet searching out of curiosity to see what regenerative braking electric power conversion for my bike would cost (either more or less than you think, depending on what you think!). And then I came across this very convincing post about why regenerative braking is stupid for a bike in the first place, since there's so little weight and most of the friction is aerodynamic, and the ratio of time to charge over time to discharge is so high that you're better off just going wheeeeee down the hills and coast back up, which conforms with my own experience riding around this pretty flat city.

Sheesh, how is one to know anything for certain? Well, who said you were supposed to in the first place, huh? I mean, I think I know more than enough about heating and cooling systems to know what's up with mine, but apparently the dealer can't figure it out, and I sure can't, although I know it's not fundamentally some big mystery. Although it might be like some computer network issues, just simply enough complexity to mimic mystery.

Man, I am just Heisenberg uncertain about everything today. I might as well become a Jehovah's Witness, because ain't it aweful? There's nothing to be done about any of it, so, hey, I've got a tract for you. Of course it has that necessary clause of all magical tracts that if you doubt it you ruin its spell. Something to tweak your superstition hormone. Ain't change aweful now? If only we could keep things the way they were when we were feeling really good. Suckling.

Well, one thing of which I'm certain. Morning ain't broken. It's a beautiful day, and I'm going to check it out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Frost Alert!

I don't remember one the other night when there was frost on the cars in the morning. But this is a beautiful clear evening, no hint of volcanic ash, and so the cold is predictable. Of course, I might not have been paying attention last time.

This will be a kind of preliminary inventory for the morning's writing (tomorrow!) since my mind doesn't work as well evenings. But I am a bit afraid I'll lose it all before morning without the inventory.

I spent part of the morning taking apart my car's heating system (again!) because the heat isn't quite reliable. The dealer had told me that the heater core was clogged, and I'd found, remember, some Internet good Samaritan who threw hogwash over that notion. I was triumphant, but then the heat would go in and out. It was a bit baffling.

So, I rounded up the pieces of this and that which would be required to really see if the thing is clogged. I figured I was dealing with my own wishful thinking, avoiding the obvious, that the dealer was right and I need a new heater core. It was actually fun trying to imagine what I needed from among the stuff in my much attenuated apartment scale collection, after having tossed so much in the dumpster upon my recent  move.

Just about at the time I was set to go, I dropped a part irretrievably into the engine compartment and ran out of time before I was scheduled to show up at a friends' church where I was helping to regularize their computer network.

I'll defer that story for a bit, because it gets a bit messy, but the overall burden of this inventory is that, after picking up the few odds and ends from a nearby auto parts store for just a few bucks on the way home, I was ready to go. Hose connected, water on, no clog. None. Clear as the day she was born, and no evidence of debris (I was collecting the wash in a bucket so that I could inspect it).

OK, so now I have this sinking feeling that my trusty dealer is telling me stories, either to drum up some business, although they say the repair shop is doing just great because if people aren't buying cars, then they are fixing the ones they have; or because they really didn't know what was wrong either, but figured that within the labor to replace the core, they'd find out.

Baffling, in any case. So, I purged the air, put it back together, and now I've got even more heat than I did the other, triumphant, day. But I've got to drive around a bit to dry out the spillage, and figure I'd better go back to the parts store to get some antifreeze to replace the ullage.

Well, this becomes a goose chase of sorts, because there's still something against "foreign" in car parts stores, and my handy belt attached smartphone tells me don't be fooled that the stuff they sell is equivalent, but just for fun I tried quite a number of different stores, all with the same scant results. I ended up decided I'd just go to the dealer. Not my trusty dealer, but the more nearby one whoi I've never trusted.

Meanwhile, I'm adding up all the retrospective clues, adding up to doubts, while getting lost and listening to this fascinating show on NPR about some syndrome which can make people trust everyone even when they shouldn't, and how this hormone, cytosin, also relates to stress and that's why people mistrust even the government at record levels, and I'm thinking, yeah, also there's no God anymore to trust, and no wonder oxytocin levels are down.

But you know, there are two kinds of trust. It's possible, though that the one kind, where the ground falls out from under you, and the other, when you get betrayed, both have the same hormonal impact. I know they do for me. Like when someone sent me this bogus Glenn Beck video doctored with information from my Facebook profile (which I'd allowed in) and then like a magic trick or like when you realize you've been had by someone you trusted, I could feel all these hormonal things happening to my body. Like what would it really feel like if I were Glenn Beck's target.

What would it feel like if I were guilty of being black. But you know the untrusted dealer, instead of selling me a $30 jug of antifreeze, which they could easily have done, gave me the one from the shop and let me top it off myself, and so now what do I do. Who do I trust?

And I'm driving home and there's full on heat, and I'm pretty happy, but I keep testing it to be sure, and it stays on unlike the other day . . .

. . . until I get off the highway and there must be a new airlock because the heat disappears again. And now I have no certainty about who or what to trust, and no good theory in my brain. At least my hormones aren't raging.

OK, I'm going to have to pick this up in the morning, since I'm not as clear at night. But I do know for certain that there is a gem of something or other in here somewhere.

Coda: I'm a Lot Stupider Than I Look!

Now, there's a statement to elicit broad general agreement!

In the correlation isn't causation department, I just discovered that the basement sink drain isn't even connected to the sanitary drain. Honest it wasn't me, but somebody must have removed the trap to clean it out and put it back, quite literally, backwards. I think that was from way back when the standpipe hat rotted out, which I discovered once when my daughter was taking a shower and the water was draining into the basement.

But, in my defense here, I've only been doing laundry in this apartment since I moved out of my house in December, and a lot of that time I've been away dealing with various pneumatic issues. I'd thought that all that water was because the basement leaked, since it was correlated with wet weather. Of course, looking back I realize that I was generally doing laundry when the weather wasn't nice enough to go outside (today is an exception, simply because I ran out of socks and underwear, which I'll just bet is too much information).

Then the other day I thought my coffee ginder switch was going bad. My testing pretty much proved that since when I knocked the grinder it would go back on. Well, I discovered that the shock waves were travelling up the power cord to the outlet where the plug was loose. Glad I didn't move to take that thing apart, which would be typical of me.

This stuff happens all the time, and not just to me, I'll bet. The only thing which correlates the non-causally related stuff going on around me is my mind, which is implicated. It's tricky to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em and when to interfere and when to leave well enough alone and when to call in the experts. A lot of the time, I am the expert, like with computer networks, and then it's especially hard to convince people that I'm stupider than I look, because it seems that everyone wants to be the stupidest when it comes to computer networks, unless they make their living that way, in which case they just want a perpetual emergency.

But I knew you'd want to know about each and every plumbing victory. Now I have to go roto-root my car's core, just to give the old girl a few more miles of life. In this case, the experts simply cost more than the car is worth, and so the math is simple.

But I didn't want anyone thinking that I was mistaking correlation, which is only in my head, with causation, which is real. Well, except for the part where I act on what's in my head. And if I start laughing when I'm the only one who thinks any of this is remotely funny.

Qi Whiz - an Earth Day Cerebration

So, here are the ingredients, in no particular order. Qi. Fluid dynamics. Blood. Salt. Obesity. Viagra (and analogs). Emboli (embolisms?). Gas transfer. Heat transfer. Pressure. Pumping. Repression. Expression. Balance. Flow. I could probably go on.

If you've followed the news, you know that there are lots of items about obesity and salt in the diet and about the general meltdown of health among those privileged enough to live inside the American triumphalist economy. The sky is surely falling, and we are our own worst enemies, and if only I could want what I need!!!

This is not to mention global warming, melting of the icecaps, spending more on bombs and viagra than schools and antiobiotics, or smart bacteria or pandemic flu or conspiracies to profit off your fears. If you watch advertisements, you know that Viagra and the like are making lots of money. If you've been reading me, you know that I have had issues with pulmonary emboli as well as air emboli in the heating system of my car.

Now I make no claims for superior intelligence or access, other than whatever I come by as a matter of luck. I guess I was born with good genes for intelligence of the sort what we mean by the word in schools (which has demonstrably little to do with intelligence in the "real world" outside of school). I haven't done a whole lot to cultivate that, so I'm not claiming any particular accomplishment here. I figure the congruence between my particular life matters and those in the news is also a matter of something like luck (good or bad). But on the other hand, judging from the voice message on my doctor's phone, lots of people take blood thinners.

Lots of VW owners have clogged heater cores, although apparently not a lot of them quite understand the involvement of air embolism in the loss of flow. I learned about that from SCUBA diving. Lots of people apparently take Viagra, which increases blood flow as I understand it. Lots of people have high blood pressure, or high cholesterol or both. Not to mention diabetes, and other circulatory and cross-membrane osmotic pressure issues.

Everyone I know seems to focus on which inputs corrupt their personal self. Red meat? Sugar? Corn syrup? Fat? Chemicals? MSG? People worry about the impingement of electromagnetic radiation on their physical selves which had been pure a mere century ago, its somehow having been rendered moot that these impingements also involve the impressive macro-effect of television, radio, cell phones, internet over the air, not to mention powering the lighting in our houses. You don't even need a conspiracy theory to sort out some of those effects. Well, unless you really think these are all just ways to dupe you away from Godliness, which they might be for all I know.

The earth seems to be undergoing various kinds of pressure release, as it always has, from earthquakes (tectonic pressures built up and released?) volcanoes (are these related to tectonic shifts?), melting of clotted water. Is the earth alive? Are we? What shall we do, oh worra worra worra . . .

I am a part of all this fluid dynamics, as are you. I "believe" that the world operates a lot more on the model of microcosm, macrocosm than it does cause and effect, so no congruence is surprising or upsetting to me. I would be rather more surprised if that were not the case. I shall worry more about the cost to my environment of eating meat since my body will definitely go the way of all flesh no matter how much I pay for a personal trainer, or organic inputs, or artificial silicone inputs, or what-you-will. I'd love to hear a truly convincing argument that I am not my environment. Neither is very pure, but I'd rather not worship me.

Some examples of microcosm/macrocosm which might be familiar within the commonly accepted scientific paradigms would be holograms (where a chip off the block contains a complete, though attenuated, set of whatever was contained in the whole (rather than an analytic component of that whole); chaos, which is a provable mathematical construct whereby the micro view of chaotic structures can be shown to match the macro view; the narrative structures of popular entertainment up against the supposed course of history, just as a few quick ferinstances.

I know - believe me I know - how crashingly boring it can become to watch someone rehearse the happenstance of his own paltry life and try to make some meaning from it.  It should be far more interesting to watch someone more purposeful construct real meaning in the manner of a talented artist. But artists all lie if they lead you to believe that they are the creators of something which existed prior in the space of their head.

What else do I have but the material of my accidental existence? The heater core turns out actually to be clogged, and the purging of gas only changes the pressure differential slightly so that some heat can make it through the uptight core. The experts were more right than wrong, although I have other tricks up my sleeve to keep the car in heat.

My heart enlarged, but not to the point of bursting when my lungs got clogged. I guess plenty of hearts shut down long before the ridge I topped. What a lucky dog am I! I never even knew I was climbing.

The earth is macro for our micro. All we must do is to change our minds and the earth will be saved. The trouble is that changing our minds is not trivial. It can't be accomplished in a prayer circle, no matter how much straining the prayer involves. It can't be accomplished by some sort of willful belief. The analytic understanding we now do have about how the climate "works" only leaves us feeling helpless with dreams of technological overcomings of the way of all flesh toward corruption and death.

The only way to change our minds is via science. The method to accomplish agreement. Of course, we'll have to leave behind all true believers, but they form a minuscule minority among a vast majority of sensible people willing to drive cars and fly planes and take medicines because they trust, according to a much more fundamental paradigm of faith than the one the religionists pander. Protest as you will, these things work and you know it, and you can't just throw out that baby with the bathwater of your protested-too-much faith in some "higher power." Yeah, there's a higher power. The sun gives off a lot of wattage.

At its limits, the world out there is what we make it. No matter how many new particles we can describe or discover or bring into being by our deployments of artificial containments of that awesome power of nature, there is no getting around the most basic artifact of scientific progress: that at the very limits of objective knowledge, the mind is implicated.

So, choose your narrative. Does it require conclusion for sense? Must there be some imposed shape drawn from the abstract; which means abstracted from the real in the first place? Or can we yet internalize some of that Eastern wisdom, where the seed contains the whole, and the end of the individual is as beautiful as the setting sun, and no more final? (Final enough for the hapless individual though, but who would want to go on for ever and ever, amen? You'd have to be nuts! Or a real gasbag like me!)

With regret, I look back on a life lived less well than it might have been. On days when I was sprung and didn't have a clue what to do about it. I wonder at the accidents which might have killed me so many different times. I wonder at the accident of survival. But I don't really wonder that my life, in microcosm, should reflect the life of the entire earth. I see nothing lost in coming down from the pinnacle of my own would-be successes. There is no loss in relinquishing property and wealth, if love can be gained. Why look back in regret? Might I?

Here I sit, lonely hearted, I have  no art, but I only started. What pneumatic tale of woe does that remind me of? What impolitic release of what gas? Is it really the same one which overwarms our planet (A: Yes!)? Is expression nothing more than the release of what got corrupted inside in the first place? Fermented! Is nonsense really nonsense, or is it the stuff taken seriously that becomes nonsense? What is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of life? Is God red? Is God a red? Sentences don't make sense, people do. Sometimes. Though surely not always.

How dee!! It's a GOOD DAY I declare.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Chill this Morning - Dreams of Endings

This is  Buffalo, after all. I only hope that all those recent gardiners don't have their labors wrecked. Mom tells me that it really isn't safe to plant before Memorial Day. But the trouble is that once everyone starts, the good stuff sells out and so you have no choice but to go with the crowd, no matter how idiotic it is.

Well, she may be basing her certainties on the mini-ice age that I grew up under. During. Back when the frost penetrated to some canonical sixteen inches under the surface. We're lucky even to get any penetration these days, and I'll bet you can dig a grave now year 'round. (Sorry, it's just this Icelandic movie I happened to see the other day)

Still somehow this frost makes me happy, you know, because I just fixed the heater in my car and now I can feel justified. Hey, it's not as though I caused the frost! And I'm not one of those people who blow on dice, or otherwise mistake correlation with causality. I leave that stuff to the conspiracy theorists, the Goddists, the congratulators of themselves for the accomplishment of good luck. You know, the Republicans!

I take my good fortune as a gift, the way it was meant. Sharing is easier that way.

I promised some discussion of the differences between narrative frames, East and West, which is a pretty tall order. So tall, in fact, that I must demur a tad. I must retreat to the particular, and leave the grandiose schemes to more accomplished scholars who have earned that right.

Think of me as a kind of Grasshopper, in contact with the meridians of qi by virtue, simply, of my very basic neural structure which contains a kind of winding up of energy for sudden release now and then, triggered by God knows what random pressures from my momentary context. A touch, a bit of heat, a change in the shadows. My mind is not large enough to exercise control; I can only respond.

Without a good read on your audience, I think all such stories must be told as children's tales. Disney learned long ago that if you're going to capture the kids' attention, you have to be interesting to their parents as well. Put another way, good children's stories always exercise fully adult themes, albeit on a junior level.

I used to attempt this sort of thing with IT; where your audience all claims to know less than the next person, except that there's always at least one person who thinks that they know more than you do. Plus the bulk of them actually do know way more than you do about how people actually use this stuff in their daily lives. I mean, what real techie knows about multi-user massively networked gaming?

So you shoot for the universals, which can't be naysaid. You shoot for the overall context, which, by virtue of being that interested in the stuff you probably do get better than your audience or you wouldn't be up there doing the talking. You never claim superior knowledge, always taking challenges back down (or up?) to the level of the overall trends and directions for the stuff, assuming that someone in the audience will actually have tried something you've never even imagined.

So, I left off with the notion that narrative frames must, first and foremost, contain and direct desire. At the most basic level, this means the desire to turn the page. More generally, it means the desire of framer and "reader" for the story of their lives.

Right now, for instance, we in the West are almost entirely in the thrall of the root metaphor of our grand narrative going, generally, by the name of the Big Bang. Goddists take offense, in the same way that environmentalists take offense at the predations of capitalists upon the "environment." (Please do note the congruence of the term "environment" with "context", and hence the quotes)

From some other perspective - the Chinese one, say - the environmentalists and the capitalists are both inside the same frame. This one has to do with the genius of untouched nature, wildness; and the creativity of natural forces when released from human interference. No wonder that Chinese Taoism looks so attractive from that perspective.Well, except for the seemingly minor technical difficulty that Taoism, grounded as it is in a different grand narrative, has no notion about the directionality of things left to themselves.

No mistake that in the West, we presume a hubristic end to all human interference. This is the one where nature's genius is destroyed by human meddling. The fantastic art/nature divide. Whereas, from a different perspective, nature left to itself has no place for humanity, which is a regularizing, patterrn imposing, civilizing influence. Man eat man is just simply not acceptable in the realm of humanity.

So, that Big Bang thing again is only seeming in opposition to the glory of God's promise to us. That promise, remember, is outside of history, outside of physical reality, outside of all narrative framing, in the realm of the purely and utterly and perpetually abstract (paradoxically, without ever having been abstracted from anything, which is clearly nonsense by any other name). The Big Bang is just that portal at the end of what can be known, beyond which is the realm of, well, um, God.

The trouble with the Big Bang as the Big Frame is that it tends to have the effect of negating all desire. I mean who other than a grown up grasshopper wants sex if that's the end of it all? Where's the happily ever after in that? It's just supposed to feel like the massive climax, and then you get a chance to look forward all over again, until you grow old and eventually, well, die. Books, books and more books.

It's no wonder that among the great and divisive intellectual issues of our time are ones involving whether evolution leads to anything (whether consciousness is any kind of culmination), whether amelioration is best accomplished by interference or by leaving alone, whether natural disasters are even natural anymore (it's almost fun to watch the gymnastics of the talking heads now dancing around the Icelandic volcano. Trying to put it in some perspective for viewers who demonstrably know nearly nothing at all about scale. I mean it sure looks like a really massive tailpipe, no?)

It's no wonder that the issue of intellectual property law now looms as the basis for a new economic cold shoulder if not war. Any China hand could have told you this was coming, descended from our cult of authenticity, or was the cult of authenticity descended from intellectual property law, or were they all descended from God. Actually, I do think that's the One.

Anyhow, it's very hard to dislodge the narrative frame of the Big Bang, especially since and as its most ardent proponents really are know-it-alls who believe themselves at odds with the Goddists who, rhetorically, oppose them. Not only are all the established facts in their favor, but some pretty awesome instruments have been deployed to bolster the case. These cost almost, but not quite, as much as the instruments of mass destruction (of humanity, not incidentally) now in massive production and deployment across the globe. Most by the ones rhetorically disposed against both their deployment and their use. Us. U.S.

This, in brief, exposes the awesome power of rhetorical framing. I mean, it's almost as though having said it makes it so, which those evil Republicans figured out a long long time ago. Well, according to Lakoff, who is almost as alarmed as I am, though he can't seem to get it together with Chomsky. Boy, talk about digression!

As is the case of all massive arrays of awesome power, I think the best thing to do about them is a spirited endrun. And while running - over the shoulder and out the door, so to speak - yell out that by the very terms of relativity, the reality inside the "first few micronanomoments" of the Big Bang do indeed and in fact expand to fill all of eternity also. By any other Name.

Clearly, this project of mine is so far beyond me that I should just give it up already, The trouble is that every single job I apply for is gotten by some guy a full head and shoulders more qualified, dedicated, good looking and convincing than I am. What's a fellow to do when he can't compete? Shoot for the stars, I guess. Or lay low. But I don't have enough time left anymore to go and work for the Man again. Life's way way too short for that. Especially when the Man is so often the corporate mindless beast, ridden rather than guided by the very nice people supposedly in charge. You know, the ones so much better than me in all dimensions.

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work I go. Oh, wait, I'm already there. Sorry. I'll do better next time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Li Chang-wu (a Chinese ghost story)

Li Chang-wu

By Li Ching-liang  (ca. 790 C.E.), translation by Rick Harrington
(for an introduction to this story, see the previous post)

Li Chang-wu , known as  Li Fei, came from Chang-shan [in modern Ting County, Hopeh]. He was very quick and clever at learning everything from the time of his birth. He was also well read, and very accomplished in letters. Although he heId a good opinion of himself because of his moral standards, he never put on airs. But, having a nice face, he had a pleasant effect on all who met him.

He was best of friends with Ts'ui Hsin from Ch'ing-ho [in modern Hopeh]. Hsin was also a refined gentleman, who notably owned a large collection of antique objects. Because of Chang-wu's quickness and intelligence, Hsin often called on him for discussion and debate. On those occasions, Chang-wu was always able to penetrate beneath the surface meanings and search out the hidden origins of things. His contemporaries compared him to Chang Hua of the Chin.

In the third year of the Chen-yuan reign period (785-804], Ts'ui Hsin was transferred to Hua-chou  [in modern Honan at the city of Cheng-chou] as assistant magistrate, where Chang-wu paid him a visit from Ch'ang-an. After a few days, while he was out strolling along a street in the northern part of the city he saw an extremely beautiful woman. To make an excuse he said to Hsin, "I must visit with some relatives outside of the county." He then went on to take apartments in the home of this fair woman. The master of the house was named Wang, and this was his son's wife. Chang-wu was delighted with her and they engaged in a secret affair.  He stayed there for over a month, spending upwards of thirty thousand, the girl's contribution doubling that amount. Their two hearts became coupled in harmony; their happiness was complete.

Not long after, some business came up and Chang-wu was called back to Ch'ang-an.  Tenderly, they took leave of one another.  Chang-wu gave her a bolt of silk depicting "mandarin ducks with necks entwined" in its weave, and presented a poem which went:

The duck and drake silk,
Who knows from how many threads it’s woven?
After parting, when we see to be re-entwined in love,
We will long for the time before we parted.

The girl gave him in return one white jade finger-ring and also presented him with a poem which went:

Twisting the finger-ring, thinking of the other;
Seeing the ring will strengthen your thoughts of me.
I wish you forever to fondle it,
Following the ring around without end.

Chang-wu had a servant named Yang Kuo. The son's wife gave him a thousand in cash as a reward for his diligence in serving his master.

They parted and eight or nine years went by. Chang-wu's home was in Ch'ang-an, so he had no means to communicate with her.  In the eleventh year of the Chen-yuan reign period, since his friend Chang Yuan-tsung lived in Hsia-kuei County [neighboring Hua-chou], Chang-wu again went from the capital to visit Yuan. Struck with thoughts of former joys, he turned his carriage across the Wei River to ask after the girl. It was dark when he got to Hua-chou. He planned to stay at the Wang family’s rooming house, but when he got to the gate it was desolate. There were only benches outside for guests. Chang-wu could only imagine that they had passed away, or had given up their trade for farming and moved to the country. Or perhaps they had simply been invited to some relatives' for a gathering from which they had yet to return. So he rested for a moment at their gate, thinking of looking for other lodgings. Then he saw a woman, their neighbor to the east, and went over to speak to her.

"The elders of the Wang family have gathered up all their affairs and set out traveling. The son's wife has been dead for two whole years," she said.

After going into more detail, she said, “My surname is Yang, the sixth born. I am the wife of their eastern neighbor. . . .  what is the gentleman’s surname?”

Chang-wu informed her.

“Did you have a servant by the name of Yang? Yang Kuo, wasn’t it?” she inquired again.

He said he did. This caused her to burst into tears, saying, "Since my marriage, I have been in this neighborhood for five years. I was close to Madame Wang. She would often say, 'My husband's residence is really like an official post station. I've seen a lot of men pass through. Many have tried to flirt with me, always throwing their money around - giving me sweet talk and vows. But I would never be moved. Then some years ago there was a refined Mr. Li who stayed for a while in our house. When I first saw him, I lost myself to him unwittingly. Afterwards I secretly served by his pillow and mat, and truly experienced blissful love. Now I have been parted with him for several years. With my heart longing I have been able neither to eat all day nor sleep all night. I have been led all over by my husband, so I would not be able to see him even if he were to return. Since I cannot trust the others in my family, I ask you to seek his identity by appearance and name if he should come. If he comes close to the description, I bid you serve him respectfully and reveal to him my feelings. If there is a servant by the name of Yang Kuo, then it surely is he.'”

"Before two or three years had passed, as the girl lay ill on her death bed, she reiterated her commission, saying, 'I am of a humble position, but I was fortunate enough to receive the gentleman's affection. I have long yearned for him, and now I have become ill. It is doubtful that I will be cured. About my former request: if by chance he should come here I wish you to convey my grief held even in death, and the remorse of this eternal parting.  Beg him to stop here so that our spirits may meet in the world of shadows. '"

Chang-wu then entreated the woman to open the gate. He ordered his servants to buy fodder and foodstuffs. Just as he was about to lay out his bedroll, a woman carrying a broom came out of the house to sweep the ground. She was unknown even to the neighbor's wife. The report from one of Chang-wu's servants was that she said she was someone from the house. He then pressed her with questions himself.

“The dead woman of the Wang family feels the depth of your love,” she said slowly in reply. She would like to meet with you, but she was afraid that the living would be frightened, so she has sent me ahed to let you know.”

"This is exactly the reason I have come here,” replied Chang-wu. "Even though the light and the dark are two different roads and men are properly afraid, feelings of longing get through. Of this I really have no doubt." His statement finished, the woman carrying the broom departed joyfully. Presently, she opened the door, not to be seen again.

Food and drink were prepared and the sacrifices brought out. After taking the meal by himself, Chang-wu went to bed. The light which was to the southeast of the bed suddenly flickered at about the second watch [9-11 p.m.]. This occurred two or three times. Chang-wu knew something strange was taking place. He ordered the candle moved to the further end of the wall, the southeast corner of the room, whereupon he heard a stirring in the northern corner. What seemed like a human form gradually appeared. As the form advanced five or six paces, one could make out its face and see its clothes. It was the wife of the proprietor's son. There was nothing different from her previous appearance; only her movements seemed lighter and quicker and her voice softer and more clear.

Chang-wu got down from the bed and took her in his arms. It was truly the joy of a lifetime.

"Ever since I have been on the register of the dead I have forgotten all of my relations," she said. “But my heart is tied to you as it was before."

Chang-wu made love to her with extra tenderness, and nothing seemed different; only she would constantly ask someone to look for the Morning Star. When it appeared, she would be able to linger no longer, but would have to leave. Between their moments of love, she commended the neighbor woman, Yang-shih, saying with gratitude, "Without this person, who would have conveyed my deep grief?"

When it came to the fifth watch [3-5 a.m.] someone said it was time for her to return. The girl tearfully got down from the bed and went out the gate arm in arm with Chang-wu. They gazed up at the Milky Way and she began to sob in her grief. She went back into the house where she unfastened an embroidered purse which was on the sash of her skirt. From the bag she took an object and presented it to Chang-wu.  It had the blue-green color of the heavens; it was hard and fine. It was cold like jade and shaped like a small leaf.

Chang-wu didn’t recognize it. The girl said, “This is called the Mo-ho jewel. It comes from the Mystery Garden of the K’un-lun Mountains and is not come by easily even there. I was recently lolling on the Western Summit with the Lady Goddess of Jade City when I saw this thing on top of a mound of jewels. I was enchanted and aked her about it. The Lady Goddess then took it and gave it to me, saying, ‘Whenever  the immortals of the Celestial Caves find this gem, they all consider it glorious.’ Since you are acquainted with esoteric ways and have a knowledge of fine things, I present it to you. You must cherish it forever. There is nothing like it in the human world.”

Then she presented him with a poem which went:

The Milky Way is already sloping down;
The spirits have to make their crossing.
I wish you to return and embrace me once more.
Till the end of heaven we will hereafter be parted.

Chang-wu took a white jade jeweled hairpin to requite her and matched her poem with a reply which went:

It is destiny that the obscure and the clear be separate;
Who can say if there will ever be a fair reunion?
I bid you farewell, for parted we must be.
Yet I lament: for what place are you bound?

They clung to each other and wept for a while. Then the girl presented another poem:

Before when we parted, we longed for another meeting;
Now when we part it will be until the end of heaven.
The new sorrow together with the old grieving,
Are forever bound in the reaches of the deep underworld.

Chang-wu answered her:

Another meeting cannot be expected, forever and ever;
By our former grief we have already sought each other out.
Along the road of our parting there will be no travel or news.
By what means shall I convey my heart’s love?

Their hearts spoken and their parting complete, she crossed over to the northwest corner. She took a few steps and turned around again to look at him.

“Master Li, don’t suppress your thoughts of this person from the underworld,” she said, wiping away her tears. Then she stood transfixed in her sobs again.

But seeing that the sky was about tot lighten, she hastened to the corner, and that was the last she was seen. The empty room was left with a vacant feeling; only the cold lamp flickered, nearly burning out.

Chang-wu hurriedly packed and left Hsia-kuei Prefecture to return to Wu-ting village in Ch’ang-an. The prefect of Hisa-kuei and a certain Chang Yüan-tsung drank wine and feasted with him. After they had all had a fair amount of drink, Chang-wu, caught up in his own thoughts, composed a poem to commemorate the events. The poem went:

As the rivers do not flow back west, nor does the moon remain full,
They cause a man to lament upon the ancient city wall;
In the desolate morning light we shall part at the forked road,
Not knowing how many years will pass before we meet again.

Having chanted the poem, he parted with the prefect and other officials. He traveled for a few miles alone and along the way started to compose and chant poems again to vent his feelings. He suddenly heard a sigh of appreciation in the air. It was a tone strained with melancholy. He listened more carefully. It was none other than the wife of Mr. Wang's son.

"In the world of darkness we have our alotted area of movement," she was heard saying. "After we part from this time, there will never be a day when there can be intercourse. I knew of your caring thoughts, and so I braved the guards of the underworld to come from afar and bid you farewell. Take care of yourself always.” Chang-wu felt for her even more than before.

When he got back to Ch’ang-an he spoke of all this with his comrade in the study of the Tao, Li Tsu of Lung-hsi  [in modern Kansu]. Li was movd by the sincerity of his feelings nad composed a poem:

The pebbles have sunk into the vastness of the ocean,
The man with the sword is parted by the breadth of the heavens.
You know there will be no day of reunion;
The sorrow of a torn heart; the sadness of the setting sun.

Chang-wu by now was working for the provincial governor at Tung-p’ing [modern Yün-cheng in Shantung]. Making use of his leisure, he asked a jeweler to look at the Mo-ho gem he had received. The jeweler knew nothing about it and dared not cut it. Later he was sent to Ta-liang [i.e., K’ai-feng, in modern Honan] on a mission, where he again called upon a jeweler, who this time was able to make something of it. Following its natural shape, he cut it into the likeness of a dentate oak leaf. Whenever he was sent to the capital, he kept this jewel close to his breast.

Once he was on a street in the eastern part of the city when he chanced to see a Buddhist monk of foreign origin who suddenly approached his horse and bowed.

“The gentleman has a precious gem upon his breast,” he said. “Might I beg to see it?”

He led Li to a quiet spot where it was brought out for inspection. The monk turned it over for a bit and said, “This is a most precious thing which comes from Heaven. It is not to be found in the world of men.”

Whenever Chang-wu passed through Hua-chou, he called on Yang-shih. He does so to this day.