Overweening Generalist


Friday, May 27, 2016

On Hillary Clinton's UFOlogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let this sink in.

Or not.

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

See you on the Other Side of the Looking Glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a fine day!

                                           אמנות על ידי בוב קמפבל

Friday, May 20, 2016

Synthetic Biology and Giambattista Vico

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

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

HERE is a nice write-up in Nature on this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                          Richard Feynman's blackboard at CalTech                           

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

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

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

Sounds a lot like Vico to me.

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

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

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

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


Saturday, May 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a few moments to ponder this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                           kunst: Mr. Bob Campbell

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Solo Flight: On Masturbation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                              Joycelyn Elders, heretic     

You Too Can Become a "Solosexual"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                    Prof. Ingvild Gilhus    


Amazon Is There For You

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

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

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


Fapping in the Great Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But things evolve.

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

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

Men? You Wanna Stay Healthy? Jerk It Every Day

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

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

Sir Francis Crick Anecdote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                   Kunst von Bob Campbell

Friday, April 29, 2016

World Book Day/Night 2016

[Apparently World Book Night came again this year, and I was busy doing other things, totally oblivious. Yesterday I logged on to "surf the Net" - which fogies like me still say, by the way - and kept noticing all these new articles about Shakespeare and wondered, "wha?" Then it hit me: World Book Day/Night was April 23rd, so here I am, a mere six days late. - OG]

Fore-Words: Set the Tone
Here's part of a dialogue between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

Moyers: Who interprets the divinity inherent in nature for us today? Who are our shamans? Who interprets unseen things for us?

Campbell: It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn't simply a sociologist with a program for you.

Moyers: What about those others who are ordinary, those who are not poets or artists, or who have not had a transcendent ecstasy? How do we know of these things?

Campbell: I'll tell you a way, a very nice way. Sit in a room and read - and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don't say, "Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did" - and don't bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. -  The Power of Myth, p.99

Short Note on Books and Revolutions
My writing on the visceral thrill I get from reading "forbidden" or "dangerous" books, books with some purported "demonic" power, books linked to infamous crimes, etcetera, has appeared at this blog and in other places. Currently I've been reading in books about other books on the topic of what books can/might/did "do" to certain readers, and, oh, all kinds of fallout in human history. For those who want to look at some choice academic research quite readable about books and revolutions, two that I've recently found of surpassing interest are Robert Darnton's The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, and John V. Fleming's The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War.

Darnton - one of the great scholars of books in our time - breaks down the forbidden best-sellers during the 20 year period before the ancien regime turned to guillotine-time (a much different time than the time Joseph Campbell warned us about; I tend to agree with Campbell about best-sellers under the current dispensation); Darnton's sleuthing is marvelous, teasing out the many "underground" forbidden books from roughly 1769 or so to 1789. These books get classified into three categories: 1.) "Philosophical Pornography"; 2.) Utopian Fantasy; and 3.) Political Slander. Darnton writes a chapter on each. Later, Section 3 of Darnton is titled, "Do Books Cause Revolutions?" and this section constitutes a marvelous contribution to the sociology of knowledge.

Fleming writes at length about four books that influenced the Cold War: Koestler's Darkness At Noon (1940), which was the only one of the four I'd been familiar with. The others are Out of the Night (1941, but really only a few weeks after Koestler's book came out), by "Jan Valtin" AKA Richard Krebs, a supposed autobiography and the best-seller in Unistat by the end of the year; I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko (1944). The last anti-commie book for Fleming was one I'd known of, but that was the extent: Whittaker Chambers's Witness (1952), which Fleming calls "perhaps the greatest American masterpiece of literary anti-Communism," and a book which greatly benefited by the Cold War being then in full swing, and even more so by Chambers's nailing of Alger Hiss. At the end of last year I read a cracking good just-off-the-presses book about the history of today's Unistat right wing, Right Out of California, by UC Davis History professor Kathryn Olmstead. That book - which argues persuasively that the origin of the Unistat Right began in Depression Era California, where the migrant farmworkers were not considered under The New Deal, because FDR needed the South - foreshadowed a lot of the information in Fleming's book, and extended the boundaries of my own historical imagination vis a vis the refinement of propaganda techniques by Unistat spy agencies and the military/industrial/entertainment complex. Juxtaposing Fleming's book on mid-20th century political books that the State "likes" vs. the underground sales of books forbidden by the State in Darnton made me feel like 1789 was more like 500 years ago.

Darnton and Fleming and Olmstead (oh my!) also reminded me of Frances Stonor Saunders's must-read, The Cultural Cold War. Get a load of this:

"'Books differ from all other propaganda media,' wrote a chief of the CIA's Covert Action Staff, 'primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader's attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium [such as to] make books the most important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.' The CIA's clandestine books programme was run, according to the same source, with the following aims in mind: 'Get books published or distributed abroad without revealing any US influence, by covertly subsidizing foreign publications or booksellers. Get books published which should not be 'contaminated' by any overt tie-in with the US government, especially if the position of the author is 'delicate.' Get books published for operational reasons, regardless of commercial viability. Initiate and subsidize indigenous national or international organizations for book publishing or distributing purposes. Stimulate the writing of politically significant books by unknown foreign authors - either by directly subsidizing the author, if covert contact is feasible, or indirectly, through literary agents or publishers." -p.245, Saunders, who is quoting from the Final Report of the Church Committee, 1976. Saunders quotes a NYT article published on Christmas Day, 1977, about the investigations into the CIA's history: "The New York Times alleged in 1977 that the CIA had been involved in the publication of at least a thousand books."

When I first read Saunders, I noted a CIA-backed book I had read that no one I personally knew had read. And I'd liked the book: The New Class, by Milovan Djilas. E. Howard Hunt, working for the CIA admitted he helped get that book published. Was I a dupe? I guess any one of us who reads books at this level will be reading "propaganda" at some point, unwittingly, or possibly quasi-wittingly. Chomsky has written many times that the intellectual class is most subject to this sort of thing, simply because they read so damned much...So there's another reason to embrace those rebel writers you love, the outre and declasse ones that never get reviewed by the New York intellectuals?

To return to our Big Q: do books cause revolutions? I'd like to think so. My oblivious reading of Djilas's CIA-backed book led me to read a wonderful book by the renegade "outlaw Marxist" Alvin Gouldner, and his The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Gouldner turned Socrates and interrogated Marxism from within, walking the perimeter of "the dark side of the Dialectic," which I still find thrilling. I find the intellectual stimulation so bracing I return to this slim volume every few years. In it, Gouldner says that Marxism is a product of bookstores and libraries.

Thirdly, and really a bald non-sequitur, I will state a personal strong esthetic preference for reading "dead tree" books over reading them on any digital gadget, and that replacing paper books with e-books is - and I'm not the first to float this analogy - like replacing real cut flowers with plastic ones.

Dead Tree Books, Despite the Peril of Paper
Oh, okay yes: the "real" cut flowers will wither in a week or so, while your plastic flowers look the same year after year, so there's gotta be something wrong with this analogy. But I will throw in a monkeywrench and say that with cannabis and hemp legalization more publishers will probably want to use hemp for paper because it last many, many, many times longer than pulped paper.

And our diminishing world forests get a break. Lousy quality paper: have you ever picked up an old paperback novel produced in the 1950s at a yard or library sale? I've bought ones where the paper is increasingly sort of brownish-rusty near the edges, the paper itself has a rough fuzzy feel to it, and the pages are likely to break if you bend them. Lamentable books like this - even if you read 'em and they're great - are not the ones you'd give to someone else, "You've got to read this! It's fantastic!" Then you hand them the book and a couple of pages fall out, having detached from the spine during the apparently rough drive over, when you hit that pothole. Sad. What an overall lugubrious-evoking state of affairs, indeed.

40 years after a book rolls off the presses ready for the bookstore, it's literally disintegrating in your hands! (I first noted these books in the 1990s.)

In the bargain basement pulp paper era (BBPPE), which lasted into the 1980s, according to one source I probably just made up, publishers of paperbacks sought to save money by buying the cheapest pulp paper they could find, then "extend" this pulp by throwing in some acid.

No, that's cutting corners. It's more like this: when you use wood to make paper there's this stuff called lignin, which went into making the cell walls of wood and bark and helped make up the vascular structures of a plant. This is odorless, mostly colorless, and I imagine fairly tasteless. (Ever get one of those old crappy paperbacks that actually have a big fleck of wood embedded in a page? This I count as one of those Things That Ought Not Be in my world.)

You get rid of the lignin when you're making the paper by adding acid, particularly something called peroxycetic acid. It's more complex than this (of course!), but adding the acid is part of the delignification process. We worry about old Ray Bradbury paperbacks - or at least I think we should -  but documents and artworks, if not delignified, will break down and deteriorate, and even faster if exposed to light and heat. And don't we do some of our best reading under light, with adequate heat? To get the pH level of your pulp back to something closer to the 7 of alkaline/acid balance, you need to go through another process or two, but that costs money. Just take the acid-riddled pulp and print that dimestore novel on that. Take the money and run...

To cut to a less technical aspect of this spiel, hemp has lower lignin content. If treated just right, it's fairly inexpensive to produce paper for books from hemp that will last 500 to 1000 years before it noticeably starts to deteriorate. Robert Anton Wilson cited an article in a February, 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics about a hemp harvesting machine that would make farmers rich and allow us all to have the most fantastic paper in our books, no cutting down forests either. The male (you don't get high off it) cannabis plant: hemp. Easy to grow. Here's RAW's bit:

"Well, kiddies, the wonderful invention was a device that made it possible to harvest hemp more cheaply than ever before. Hemp was the chief ingredient in paper throughout most of history (our Declaration of Independence was written on it, for instance) and paper made of hemp lasted a good long time compared to paper made of wood pulp. Ever notice how 19th or 18th century books, or even 17th century books like the original folio of Shakespeare's plays, printed on hemp, are still around, while modern books printed on wood pulp fall apart in only decades?"
-p.178, "Deforestation," Email To The Universe

Wilson then goes on to link this to the War on Drugs, including pot. The Unistat gummint found out people were getting high, so sorry: millions of lives must be ruined, forests chopped down, and books must fall apart. I wish I believed in "hell" so I could imagine someone like Harry Anslinger paying for his part in all this, but he's probably just food for worms.

The Good News: we have good reason to believe we'll get lots of hemp in our paper in our books, soon, the cultural winds finally having shifted. And I'm sorry, but we cannot extend the life of our cut flowers indefinitely, and I'm sure someone's working on it. (Then where will the florists be? Uber drivers? Oy!)

I love the story about Ts'ai Lun, who made paper out of hemp and mulberry bark and tried to convince the Chinese bureaucracy to adopt his invention, paper, in 105 CE. The stuffed shirts wouldn't give Ts'ai a decent hearing, so he pulled the old shamanic stunt of burying himself alive and then returning to the living. He used a hollow reed to breathe, and his friends burned a bunch of his hemp-paper over his grave, which caused Ts'ai Lun to miraculously come back to life. Quite a trick! The bureaucrats were impressed (jeez, the shit The Suits put you through before they'll listen to a new idea!), and his paper was adopted, and Ts'ai became a palace favorite. But political winds shifted after a spell, and Ts'ai faced a trial, which he wasn't up for. So, as Dale Pendell writes, Ts'ai Lun "dressed in his best robes and drank poison." - PharmakoPoeia, p.183

Coda: A Future?
So, we're all used to the print/dead tree/dead hemp plant "codex" book vs. the book read on some electronic gadget argument. Well, Google is working on a combination of the two, but as I read about it, I had mind's eye trouble: an "augmented reality" pop-up book that adds sound, lighting elements, and video projection? And it interacts with other personal information you had stored on your other e-gizmos? You can add content? I'm not sure if I understand what these visionaries want to do, but I guess there are some areas in all our lives and - I'll speak for myself here - I think I already add that stuff to my reading of the plain old paper-bound book. I do it in exercising my imagination. For what the wizards at Google and Apple want to do, I'll just watch a fucking movie, your mileage may vary. See the article I'm getting all reactionary over HERE. What am I missing?

On second thought: this could become the next great art medium, and you know what? I hope it does...

I wish you all a Joseph Campbell-ian "nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time" in your reading, chums.

                                          fantasztikus grafikus Bob Campbell

Friday, April 22, 2016

Critical Mass (2012 Mike Freedman): Interview with the Filmmaker

In mid-July 2012 I blogged on John B. Calhoun and his experiments with rats and overpopulation. A documentary filmmaker read the post and contacted me, because he liked that I was addressing Calhoun and he'd just made a film about him, but the main topic was world human population. He sent me a password so I could watch his as-yet unreleased film. And I was impressed.

This interview was conducted at the end of 2012; I was waiting for an alert from Freedman about the official release date, and I must have missed it. I've been meaning to get this out, and Earth Day seems like as good a day as any. The film has done very well so far. (HERE's the trailer.)


OG: Where were you born and raised, what are/were your parent's occupations, and were intellectual ideas discussed around the dinner table?

Mike Freedman: I was born in New York City and raised in London.  My father is a playwright and director of theatre and my mother was in banking.  Family dinners were a fixture, and ideas were very much discussed - questions were answered, words were defined and looked up in the dictionary.  More broadly, although my parents weren't lavish spenders on "things", they were always of the belief that money spent on books was never wasted, so visits to book stores always yielded prizes.  We were also a family that attended theatre, concerts and films and then discussed them afterwards, and as children we were allowed to have an opinion and encouraged to frame it and defend it intelligently.  Disagreement was not discouraged, so I grew up in quite an aggressive environment intellectually speaking - if you had an idea, you had to be prepared to defend it and clarify it, and taking offence at being called out on something was looked down upon.

OG: When did you first get interested in sustainability, and human survival on the planet? I saw EF Schumacher's name near the end credits of special thanks, which listed your family first, if I remember correctly. Schumacher's books on "buddhist economics" were a big deal for me along these lines, way back when I was 18 or so.

Freedman: In terms of how I viewed the genesis of environmental crises or human conflicts, I recall always seeing them as byproducts of humans competing with one another or being crowded together.  I never thought of myself as an activist, but I suppose my intellectual curiosity about the complexity of these issues simply led me to the rational view of our planet as a holistic system of which we are a part, albeit a part currently engaged in some rather systemically disruptive behaviour.  There were three books in particular that gave me the vocabulary and intellectual framework with which to navigate and share this view: The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris, The Soul of the Ape by Eugene Marais and Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher.  Honourable mention must also go to Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal, a fantastic book.  As an aside, I should say that my interest in human survival on this planet is the same as everyone else's really - I suppose I was just raised and educated in a way that helps me to filter out the cultural programming and status-seeking noise of our social and economic structures sufficiently that I can see where this road leads if we continue down it.

OG: The footage of Calhoun was mindblowing, and you and your editor inserted the clips in very effective points in the narrative. I was reminded of something William Gibson said about narrative, that it was about the "controlled release of information." Your film does this masterfully. Say a little something about how you found the Calhoun footage and the process in which you chose to use it: simple story-boarding? 

Freedman: Calhoun's work was done using public funding, and as such the law places the films of his experiments in the public domain.  This was a very big help for us.  John Rees, the head archivist at the National Library of Medicine, was an absolute angel in terms of tracking down his boxes and tapes, and then of course finding a way to get me copies of the footage.  Without that man's help, this film would still be in my head for sure.  In terms of how we use the footage, it was always intended that we tell Calhoun's story as the main arc of the film, but with almost 200 hours of interviews, cut-aways and archive I got bogged down pretty badly.  I ended up at one point with a pretty lumpen chapter structure which the editor discarded and then strung the information out along the length of the film in a much more dramatically effective manner.  No story-boarding - after I'd logged the footage and snipped out all the tidbits I knew I wanted (which resulted in a ridiculously self-indulgent 3 hour cut), the editor and I sat down and spent our first day together discussing the structure of the film. After that, we just worked to the plan and kept grinding it out until we had it done.  The key was to allow visual breaks that still delivered information even if the audience felt that they were getting a rest.

OG: The main reason I think you have a winner here - beside the fact it's so well-put-together - is that Al Gore's power point An Inconvenient Truth film was so well-received. Now, that may have something to do with the power of Al Gore, but your issues encompass his. We shouldn't denigrate global warming, obviously, but the issues your film discusses a much larger set of pressing concerns. Gore covered global warming, and it seems you've covered everything else! The problem with films like yours, for some viewers, may be that the information is so scary and overwhelming (and this issue is addressed in your film, I know), that viewers may react with a sort of paralyzed anxious passivity, which Calhoun himself foresaw. But the film isn't all doom and gloom. There are rays of hope, a way out. What are some of the things that you have done to personally now that you have such a high level of awareness? What do you think the viewers can start doing the moment they walk out of the theater? What are some of the best organizations they may want to pay attention to? I LOVED the link to the books on the website; I've read about 60% of those and want to read the rest now.

                                  documentarian Mike Freedman

Freedman: Well, when we were making the film we knew that there was a very fine line between scaring people enough that they feel they must do something and scaring them so much that they feel there's nothing they can do.  In terms of what can be done, I would suggest three main levels of action: the individual, the community and the political.  As an individual, you have a certain range of choices that you can make, and by making certain changes you not only show others by your actions what it is that you would like them also to be doing, you show yourself that you are capable of change and capable of exerting will over your own life and actions.  The latter cannot be overstated - so many of us feel either powerless, or entrenched, calcified, not only knowing what we can do but not even feeling that we can do it.  Doing something, no matter how minor, is a step, and as the saying goes, a single step is where the journey begins.  The more you work on yourself, the more you prove to yourself that you are capable of will, of change, the more will power you gain and the more changes you can make.  The individual level of action is not only the primary but ultimately, in this wild and mysterious world, the only level of true action.  At the community level, you can work to know your neighbours, to source your food and energy not only sustainably but locally, to build genuine resilience and democracy.  I'm fond of saying that democracy functions best at the local level, municipal and at most state.  Much further than state democracy and the people who are governed are too far removed from their leaders and vice versa.  How many people from Nebraska can or will go all the way to DC to protest or deliver a petition?  So how can a Nebraska representative at the federal level truly represent his people if he never sees the majority of them, or speaks with them or lives among them.  That's why federal officials serve the interests they serve - they work with the people who are there.  In a sense, everyone else simply isn't real to them in any meaningful way.  Which brings me to the political level - certain changes can only be made structurally to our system as a whole.  Personally, I believe that we have certain flaws in the system itself that absolutely must be addressed if we are going to collectively do anything about these issues.  The money creation mechanism, the economic imperative of growth because of the debt-based nature of our financial system, the gutting of education to extract creativity and critical thinking (and also to focus purely on the intellect at the expense of the emotions and intuition of the child), the crushing ubiquity of consumer marketing and PR pablum which makes genuine civic discourse nearly impossible, the corrosive effect of money on politics, the rise of multi-nationals operating beyond the realm of national law, the Bretton Woods institutions, the homogenisation and monopoly of media production through mergers and acquisitions...the list goes on and on.  Second verse, same as the first.  These issues can't be addressed only with community gardens and blue-sky thinking - it's wrong to suggest otherwise.  But it is also true that the political level is the furthest removed from the individual's sphere of influence, and yet exerts an undue impact on the range of decisions that individual is able to make.  So if I were to recommend organisations to your readers, I would suggest looking into Positive Money in the UK (www.positivemoney.org.uk) and the American Monetary Institute in the US (www.monetary.org). Ultimately, without a complete redesign of our monetary system and economic priorities, no other structural factors will really change.  So as I said earlier, the best and most immediate thing you can do is change yourself.

OG: One things that's very impressive is the sheer number of knowers you have in the film, and how articulate and animated, interesting and passionate they are. For some people - like Desmond Morris, Jon Adams, and John Michael Greer - I imagine they were ready to give you good stuff from the start, for their varying reasons. But is there anything you do to work up an interview subject so that they become as animated as they were? What I mean is: there are a lot of "talking heads" here, but they're never boring. 

Freedman: First of all, thank you.  That was always a concern and luckily, the passion and charisma of the people we interviewed shines through.  Those people are just like that - I can't take any credit for their engagement and their excitement about their subject matter.  If I did anything, it was only preparing for the interview by familiarising myself with their work so that they could speak freely without feeling that they were dealing with someone who didn't know who they were or what they really did.

OG: Tell us about your previous work, and how long it took from gestation to finish this film. Were there any particular films that influenced you to make Critical Mass?

Freedman: Critical Mass is my first feature documentary, and also my first feature-length project.  Previously, I'd made some short films, music videos, the usual.  Although I obviously was interested in the subject for a long time, we shot the first interviews for this film in June 2010, so it's been almost exactly two years in the making.  As far as influence goes...when I was about 13, we watched excerpts from Koyaanisqatsi in a poetry class and I later tracked the full film down and it is still one of my absolute favourites.  I watch it about once a year, and it's the gold standard of pure cinema - music, montage, technique, framing, social observation, political statement, environmentalism, poetry, history...like Network, it's even more powerful now than it was then because all of those things are still happening.  The Corporation is another documentary I have a lot of respect for, and the work of Adam Curtis at the BBC is also a pretty big deal for me.  And of course Peter Watkins - I actually tracked down the editor of The War Game, Michael Bradsell, and he came and sat with me a few times to discuss cutting and structure for the trailer and for the film.

OG: When I finished watching, I thought, "Finally! The Exponential Function has its film!" I just want to thank you for this. But why isn't this stuff better-known? Why can't we think from a systems view better than we do? How come my educated friends have never heard of John B. Calhoun? 

Freedman: Okay, so one question at a time.  First, the exponential function isn't better known because it's actually very difficult to internalise.  Even making an animation of it was nearly impossible, because the numbers of little people got so big so quickly that the animator was freaking out trying to make it look good instead of just confusing.  There's a theory about human evolution that because we developed in small hunter-gatherer bands with small family units, we actually can't really picture numbers much higher than three.  There's one - me, two - me and my mate, and three - me, my mate and our baby.  Much above that is just fog to the mind since there's no corollary to latch onto. So up front it's important to say that the exponential function is very hard to get your head around. 

As to our lack of a holistic system-view, I suppose there are many reasons for that. The impact of economists in lending academic legitimacy to the destructive growth narrative we are programmed to believe in cannot be overstated.  Counteracting a dominant establishment belief will always take a lot of time and effort, and come at a great cost - if you want to know how receptive the academic establishment can be to new information about the world, look up a man called Ignaz Semmelweiss. He tried to tell doctors that they should wash their hands before delivering babies in the late 19th century and their response was to tell him he was crazy. He died in an asylum and a few decades later, Pasteur and Lister proved him right. Nowadays I can't eat an apple without my wife yelling at me to wash it first. Economics is only really now, and barely at that, starting to acknowledge the existence of the natural world as an important limiting factor on growth.  Our planet doesn't come with a manual telling us what the thresholds and limits are, so as long as the prevailing mindset is one of 'progress', i.e. growth of human numbers and material throughput, the lack of a line in the sand allows for the excuse that since we don't know what the limits are we can get away without worrying about them. That argument obviously is as attractive to politicians as it is to economists, and that helps dictate the narrative structure of our society and therefore what we grow up knowing about the world around us and our role in it.  The overtly non-holistic nature of Western thinking also has a lot to do with it. Our educational and financial systems, our industrial capitalist ideology, our advertising and creative landscapes are worlds of components, of isolates. Factor in the denigration of emotion and instinct in favour of the intellect and you have a recipe for a society that does not see a world of intimately connected life-spirit-matter-energy engaged in a constant feedback from all parts to all parts.

Why haven't your friends heard of Calhoun? Calhoun retired from NIMH in the early 1980s; a new director was appointed who changed the focus of their work from understanding behaviour to medicating behaviour. Calhoun saw the writing on the wall - it was clear that NIMH was focused on targeting behaviour with drugs rather than understanding and working with behaviour in a more organic way. His work, which is all about complexity and nuance, didn't fit with the new idea that there should be a pill that solved the symptoms and therefore there would no longer be a problem. That might explain why his behavioural studies were de-emphasised in academia from that time on. There's also the over-simplified interpretation of his work, i.e. crowding causes violence, which when put in those bald terms is not a defensible assertion; that reduction of his work was used to 'debunk' him in the minds of some sociologists, such as Claude Strauss-Fischer, with whom I exchanged a spirited series of emails during my research on the film. His experiments and his broader viewpoint on where humanity might be headed and what we could do about it kind of fell in the memory hole. This was a man who predicted the internet as we know it today, including tablet and handheld devices (which he called 'new information prostheses'), in 1970. His ideas on evolution and the future of our species were and remain to this day not only remarkable but unique. I suppose it's inevitable that he's largely unknown. He didn't invent anything of immediate potential for commercial exploitation by the establishment and as such he remains less famous than the guy that came up with the Pet Rock. Go figure.

OG:  What do you anticipate will be the main lines of negative criticism from Big Biz reviewers who would feel threatened by the ideas in Critical Mass? I think you have massive Truth on your side, but I'm scared/disappointed by how Monsanto et.al. were able to sway Californians from saying yes to the labeling of modified foods...as merely a minor example.

Freedman: Criticisms:

1. Environmentalists in general and population concern in particular is really just misanthropy - they don't like people, they don't want them to have nice things and they're wrong.
2. Any talk about the subject of population is really just an undercover attempt to encourage eugenics, sterilisation, genocide and coercive population control.
3. People aren't just a mouth to feed, they have two hands to work, innovate and create, so net production is higher than consumption.
4. Everyone on the planet could fit into [insert name of small country] shoulder to shoulder, so there's plenty of space.
5. Tertullian thought the planet was overpopulated almost two thousand years ago and he was wrong, so any assumptions about carrying capacity are pointless.
6. Everything is fine now and therefore always will be, and Chicken Littles always make plenty of noise about whatever.
7. We've always managed to produce more food than we need.
8. I'm an agent of the Illuminati hellbent on the eradication of 80% of the world's population in line with the suggestions made on the Georgia Guidestones by our lizard overlords.


1. It isn't and we're not. I like people and I want them to have nice things like clean air, drinkable water, healthy food, personal space and mental/emotional wellbeing.
2. Population concern did originate in its modern form out of some rather unsavoury eugenics movements during the early 20th, and terrible things have been done in the name of eugenics and coercive population control. I am not in favour of coercive population control, I think that the manner in which current coercive policies are enforced is barbaric and as an asthmatic bespectacled Jew with allergies whose wife has scoliosis and had a full blood transfusion at birth, I can assure you that I am not remotely advancing a eugenic argument in any shape or form.
3. Physically true, arguably specious but largely irrelevant since the theme of the film is crowding and its impact on us in a qualitative sense.
4. I've heard this many times and all I can ask is: if we're standing shoulder to shoulder, what do we do if we want to sleep or poop? Another semantic point which ignores the truth of our situation.
5. Tertullian did think that, and for the record the empire he was living in collapsed, but let's leave that aside for now. I don't use the word "overpopulation" if I can help it, and I personally don't argue about 'too many people' - what matters to me is the quality of the individual human life experience and a kinship to other living things. We are not talking about carrying capacity per se, but what limits (crowding included) can or will do to us and our life on this planet. I don't think that's a pointless conversation.
6. Someone will always be convinced that the world is about to end. However, it's equally true that someone will always be convinced that it won't. Watch the sinking of Hy-Brazil from Erik the Viking and you'll see what I mean - http://youtu.be/d8IBnfkcrsM.
7. So far that's been true, and don't get me started on the inequity of food distribution in the world, which is a serious problem of economic and political power rather than genuine supply.  However, the uptick in food production in the 20th century was largely due to the work of Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work - he's credited with being instrumental in feeding over a billion people. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Borlaug said (and you can check Nobel's website if you want) that no advances in food production would make a difference in the long run if we didn't also look at population. In fact, if you took that excerpt from his speech and sent it to your average 'concern debunker', they'd probably write him off as a hardcore Malthusian rather than the guy that saved a billion people from starvation.
8. I'm nobody's agent and I'm not hellbent on anything, least of all eradication of anyone. I can't even stand up without grunting these days. Georgia is a lovely state (and also a very cool country), but I've never been to nor read firsthand the inscription on the Guidestones. I receive no endorsement, funding or creative input from reptilian extraterrestrial or extradimensional beings. Fact.

OG: When is the film due for release?

Freedman: Good question! I'm talking with distributors now, and our best case scenario is looking like six to nine months for securing broadcast/theatrical/DVD. No date fixed as yet.

OG: Are you showing it at any festivals or special showings in large cities?

Freedman: We've been invited to a festival in Canada in May which I can't disclose yet as we're still talking with them, and we've submitted to several festivals throughout the world that, if we were accepted, would be happening over the next four to six months.

OG: What's the distribution looking like right now?

Freedman: At the moment our strategy is looking like educational only for six months, then commercial release once we've placed it with a theatre chain or broadcaster, followed by DVD and online. Nothing fixed yet.

The earlier the better, or just before it comes out and generates a buzz? What are your ideas?

I think that at present, anything we put out there would be buried in the Yuletide snowdrift. Best to wait until there is some sort of event or announcement, either a distribution date or festival appearance. If that's alright with you.

OG: "New Documentary Film Critical Mass Will Do For Human Population What Al Gore Did For Global Warming"

Freedman: I like the ring of it and the sentiment, but two concerns occur to me, both of which might very well be me being over-cautious.

1. Al Gore is a dreadful hypocrite.
2. Al Gore showed that global warming was bad, so would that mean we're saying people are bad? Or can we be confident people will understand that you mean raising awareness?

OG: When you approach financial backers, what's the short explanation when they ask, "What's it about?"

Freedman: "Critical Mass is a feature documentary about the impact of human population growth and consumption on our planet and on our psychology." 

That's the elevator pitch. I've got it down to the point where I can reel it off in one breath.

OG: How do you feel about being compared to Al Gore?

Freedman: Well, on the one hand it's encouraging that people feel the film does for population what he did for climate change, but on the other, as I said above, he's a dreadful hypocrite, so hopefully they mean the comparison in relation to his film and not to his behaviour.

OG: I loved the stuff about the empowerment of women, near the end of the film; it reminded me of Bucky Fuller. 

Freedman: Thank you. Interestingly, when we showed the film in the US there were cheers at that part. In the UK and Europe, not so much. So perhaps Americans need to hear it said out loud, or perhaps Europeans are more numb. Who knows?

I'm a fan of Bucky Fuller - I actually was reading Critical Path in the run-up to making the film. And I tried to have a prototype of his fog gun shower built as part of the 'solutions' section at the end, but there weren't any available working blueprints for it.

OG: I saw that you interviewed Derrick Jensen and and Aubrey de Grey, but they apparently got cut. With Aubrey, I imagined it was because the problem of living to 200 and the environment was too much for a film already brimming with ideas and possible future scenarios? How was Jensen? What do you think of the life extension people like Aubrey?

Freedman: Derrick and Aubrey didn't make the film for two different reasons.  Derrick was actually interviewed over the phone for what was meant to be a podcast, but the line was bad and the sound was unusable. However, the conversation gave me so much food for thought that I felt he deserved a credit. Aubrey was interviewed on camera, but our conversation was much more future-oriented and the film deals mainly with how we got to this point and what the present situation is, meaning there wasn't room for adding in his particular brand of futurism. Both Aubrey's and Derrick's conversations with me are now chapters in a book that I'm putting together which (fingers crossed) may be available soon. I just need to transcribe two more conversations, write the conclusion and do the endnotes.

Derrick was inspirational to put it mildly. He's not a man everyone will agree with, but he speaks with straightforward honesty and passion (and compassion) and that is truly inspiring.

Aubrey would say that he's a rejuvenation biotechnologist, not a life extension guy. I'd say that consequence and mechanism are not that easily separable in his field. I think that if he (or one of the other labs working on it) is successful, the timeline of how things unfold will be much less egalitarian than the way he perceives it. 

OG: Do you have an opinion on Jared Diamond's book Collapse

Freedman: Jared Diamond is the only person I contacted who declined to be interviewed for the film. Two others, Mike Ruppert and Robin Dunbar, simply never got back to me, but Diamond said no all three times that I asked him. That moved his book off my immediate list of reading because I had to read the work of the people I was meeting, and because of that I haven't read it. What I do know is that I interviewed Joe Tainter who wrote The Collapse Of Complex Societies and he is quite unequivocal about the fact that he finds Diamond's scholarship in Collapse to be dubious. The way he put it is that Diamond's thesis is the basis of the book rather than the evidence of how collapses actually unfolded. I couldn't possibly comment as I haven't read it.

OG: Are there any others that have come along recently that you'd like to share with my readers?

Freedman: After a hardcore two years on a non-fiction diet, locking the picture on the film drove me to seek refuge in fiction, ironically dystopian sci-fi to be precise. In the past year I read (among others) The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth and The Death of Grass by John Christopher, a book that I now desperately want to make into a film (although it was adapted - in a typically 70s hack manner - by Cornel Wilde). I've also been reading material for research on two other docs I'm developing, as well as quite a bit of Ferlinghetti's poetry recently. I also read Black Elk Speaks (the annotated anniversary edition) last year - there's a passage in there where Black Elk describes his people as an ever-eroding island in a sea of white men which I found quite affecting. Next on my list of dystopian fiction is Paolo Bacigalupi - several of my friends have gotten religion about his work, so I'm going to check it out. 

As an aside, you reminded me that I only put non-fiction on the reading list on our website, and there are two fiction books (not admitted by the authors to have been influenced by Calhoun, but nonetheless thematically consistent and from the same time period) called Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison and Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner that I need to add. I got in touch with Harry (who lives here in the UK) about interviewing him for the film - he's still very much of an opinion on population, but we never found a place to put it in the structure so we never shot it.

Regarding The Great Bay, I'll look it up - it reminds me of the Bill Hicks routine about Arizona Bay, the coastline formed when California falls into the sea. If I'm not mistaken, that was also an Edgar Cayce prediction?

Again, thank you so much for your passion for the film. It's very encouraging and I'm proud to have you as an ally.