Overweening Generalist

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Drug Report: December 2011

O! The drugs! The scads of pills and their legalities and usage and subjective effects! Their uses as muses, their predictable abuses! Billowing smoke rings of pungent funky dream-matter. That swallowed product of High Technology that will be sure to relieve you of your general feeling-badness and return you to some semblance of mommy's amniotic warm din. Or just get you through. The smokey haze of powders and deranged senses and intoxicating scents! The madnesses and sadnesses and euphoria-bliss-gladnesses! Let us discuss a few.

Recent Dumb Clamor Over New and Improved Vicodin
You may have heard that more than one Big Pharma Co has come up with a 2.0 version of the painkiller Vicodin - the most prescribed drug in the world - that is safer, and yet, according to one article, ten times stronger than Vicodin. The version I've heard most about is called Zohydro. (Vicodin, or "vikes" to the street pillheads who love 'em for recreational purposes, is hydrocodone.) So why do I assert the dumb clamor? Because this new version has - finally! - done away with acetaminophen.

Acetaminophen - Tylenol - which is also thrown into hundreds of other OTC preparations, does too much liver damage. Early in 2011 the FDA moved to lower the amount of acetaminophen in a "dose" to 325mg. The ceiling for a day is supposedly 4grams, or 4000mg. Many doctors have seen liver failure at 2.5grams in a day. That's a lot of acetaminophen in a day. But think of it: at one 325mg dose, if you're in a lot of pain and take 8 pills in a 24 hour period, you're over the 2.5 that doctors have seen cause liver failure. Liver failure is something to be avoided, kiddies. It's not a pretty sight. (Acute liver failure)

A hidden problem with acetaminophen is that sometimes people are taking it in other medications, but don't know it. That's adding to the day's toll on the liver. The FDA advised the lower dose at 325 only for prescription meds, not stuff you can just waltz into the drug emporium and buy on a lark. Why is acetaminophen so prevalent if it's risky, even "relatively dangerous"? Because it's easy to make; it's really cheap. And in low doses, it works pretty well. There are people making pretty decent coin as "Tylenol Lawyers" though, so that ought to give you pause.

Why not grab the alternatives ibuprofen or naproxen? They're linked to intestinal bleeding, but probably, on the whole, a lot safer than acetaminophen.

If you see "APAP" or "ACET" on your medications, you're getting some acetaminophen thrown it. Beware...

If you want to take acetaminophen, know the state of your liver. (Few of us do, right? Unless we recently had a blood panel done, we are saddled with some missing information here. Liver failure is quite often Game Over; this is serious stuff to mess with.) Also: the drug companies don't make a big to-do about it, but you really ought to have some food in your stomach for that acetaminophen to fall into. They don't want you to sweat worrying about eating, your liver be damned. And finally: NEVER drink alcohol with acetaminophen! It's not smart. (Please read the previous sentence, the one starting with "NEVER," again.)

More Deaths From Pharmaceutical Drugs Than Auto Accidents Now
In 2009 Unistat, the last year we have the data to yell and scream about, 37,485 people died from ODs of pharmaceutical drugs. That's doubled since 1999. In 2009, 36,284 people died in auto wrecks. It was close, but in 2009 someone's Rx beat out the highway fatalities. And then coming in a close third, 31,228 died of firearms in Unistat. Think about it: someone's doctor okayed the drugs that contributed to those deaths. (Patients are complicit, of course: STOP mixing strong drugs! STOP drinking with tranquilizers! Why do we have to say this? Because we inherently believe that the doctor, the community, the good people at OmniCorp...wouldn't steer you wrong? That they'd say they "really mean it" that you ought not, say drink a six-pack, then swallow three Tylenol, a Vicodin, a Soma, two Xanax, and then apply a Fentanyl patch and drive out to the desert? Did you know - of course you didn't - that when you take Soma it breaks down in your liver into Meprobramate, which potentiates the other drugs in your system? Oh? You DID know? You sicko!)

I couldn't find any data on people who were zonked out on painkillers or tranks while driving, and a loaded gun was found in the wreckage. But it would be interesting to know.

The people all up-in-arms about the non-acetaminophen Vicodin about to hit the streets (Zohydro), are worried about the potential for addiction. And they have a point. People will LOVE this stuff and get addicted. But at least it's doing its painkilling with good old fashioned opiates. What the stories you'll read and hear regarding Zohydro won't mention is how bad acetaminophen was, and even Big Pharma had to take notice! And they couldn't care less about the pharmaceutical addiction and accidental death epidemic in Unistat. They're in the overwhelmingly lucrative biz of selling pills.

It's difficult to find out just how bad the Problem is, and why. Psychiatrist Ronald Ricker says the drug war didn't work, then a few lines earlier you see he says the DEA needs to get tougher on these drugs: tranks, painkillers, amphetamines, and antidepressants. I'd be embarrassed to tell you all how long I've been paying very close attention to this larger story, of drug use in Unistat. But I will say that I think Dr. Thomas Szasz (say "Zaz") has the sanest approach to this problem. I do not think we will see a Szaszian approach to drugs in Unistat any time soon, though, for structural reasons: drugs are a fantastic guise for the Ruling Class to whittle away at civil rights, and keep the poor brown people in line. The cops/DEA/district attorney/lawyer/prison/"rehabilitation" complex is too lucrative. And let's not mention asset forfeiture!

(Why do Unistatians gobble 86% of the Adderal and Ritalin in the world? Consider this your zen-ish koan of the day.)

Those are structural reasons. To me, the deeper level is the authoritarian character structure in most Americans. It's built into their muscular rigidity. It's about fear and stupidity and just saying, "Not only do I NOT want to know about how drugs really work, about my own and others' human nervous systems, the biophysical basis for drug craving and addiction, the history of drug use, etc, I'd rather watch another morality play about drugs put on by the cops."

I will now climb down off my soapbox.

Oxytocin Dreams
Not OxyContin, which is hovering in the background of the two sections above, oxytocin is a hormone we humans make endogenously, and it's secreted into the bloodstream when nipples are stimulated. It's also linked to cuddling, mothering, empathy, social recognition, reduced fear, reduced anxiety and reduced racism, and many a polypeptide-savvy female has dreamed or spoken or written openly about curing social ills by making it a nasal spray and giving it to men. And frankly, I see where they're coming from.

If it sounds like MDMA/Ecstasy, it's likely that both activate the same serotonin receptors.

I think the Wiki (at present) on oxytocin has some good info and links, so I'll give it, here.

You'll see a few products for sale on the Net, like this nasal mist. Or this, which is not a product but "sells" the idea of it to females. But if you read the Wiki that linked to this study, you saw that oxytocin is destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract. So a pill is out. By injection, it doesn't get through the crucial blood-brain barrier. Strike two. And then this: "[...] no evidence for significant central nervous system entry of oxytocin by nasal spray. Oxytocin nasal sprays have been used to stimulate breastfeeding, but the efficacy of the approach is doubtful."

Still: neuropharmacologists are working on it.

                                Young girl hugging a kangaroo: oxytocin probably involved

In a study published in Psychopharmacology and reported in Science Daily earlier this month, a study at Concordia University - a hotbed of oxytocin studies - gave 100 males and females intranasal oxytocin, and they waited 90 minutes and then filled out a questionnaire which showed they beat the placebo and in general that their self-perception was more extroverted, social, open to new ideas and trusting.

But I must say, it sounds like a weak study. Let's see some ingenious relativized double-blind placebo-controlled studies. I suspect just being in a study like the one at Concordia will tend to make you feel more..."open." I'm not calling for a fog machine of thick vaporized oxytocin be blown in the face of passengers getting off trains in Grand Central Station, only to see them all stop, take off their clothes and "hug," I'm just sayin'...(What am I sayin'?) Another way of saying it: I suspect the mysterious placebo failed on this one...

A recent and fascinating wrinkle in the oxytocin literature was published around August of this year, in Current Directions in Psychological Science. In study subjects given oxytocin and who then played a game of chance with a fake opponent, feelings of anger, gloating, and envy occurred. Why? The researchers at first thought oxytocin had something to do with supporting social emotions, but later thought it was more specific: it deals with "approach-related emotions." These have to do with wanting something, not with shrinking away! Read the abstract from Science Daily here.

After reading a few more studies, I wonder how much higher the quality or dosage level the researchers get to deal with, rather than that stuff you buy from someone on the Net.

A TED talk from neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who calls oxytocin the "moral molecule." (16 1/2 minutes)

A Drug to Combat Kleptomania?
Quick now: what do nymphos, pyros, shopaholics, gamblers, kleptos, alkies and junkies have in common? If you said, "They're my friends," then you're right, but that's not what I was looking for. (Hey, I tend to gravitate to some of these people too, but I'm working on it...my own male nympho alcoholic klepto pyromania, that is. Yes, when I sober up and put my pants on, I make a bonfire of every dippy thing I stole. Ahem.)

No, what we're looking for here is: a problem with impulse control. Some alcoholics and heroin addicts have been treated with naltrexone, which binds to opiod receptors. Psychiatrist Jon Grant has some research that suggests the same drug could help that delightful crowd I named above too, because they all do what they do and feel bad about it; they can't help it. In the moment, it's really exciting. As Grant says, they know morally it's the wrong thing to do, and they really ought not, "yet they get a rush from it, and it's very enticing."

The story about Grant and his study is here. (This one is a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study.)

I'm interested in the disjuncture between the justice system and the medical profession. Readers of people like M. Foucault would cite the ever-increasing "medicalization" of our world, and they have strong points. Very strong points that should be heeded. But as Grant says, he doesn't think law people are ready to think of kleptomaniacs as having a psychiatric condition. They're "criminals."

This tells us soooo much about our society, doesn't it?

We have built very deeply into our social systems the idea that you have one unitary identity. It's capable of reason, has a name, numbers and by the age of 18 is responsible for what it does.

I'll elaborate much more in some future post, but I think this is probably wrong, and there are a lot of reasons to believe it's wrong. Our justice system requires this Old Enlightenment idea of the Self, so it can prosecute. But we know billions of facts about human neurobiology that they didn't in the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment. As my favorite neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, often says, it gets to the point where we understand the neurological underpinnings of what's going on with a person, what makes them "sick," and we really need to say that it's not the person. It's the person AND their disease.

Regarding kleptomania, the study I linked to says 11% of us shoplift at some point in our lives. I did between ages 14 and 15. I stole paperback books of collected Mad magazine bits, sports heroes (I recall things like Basketball Stars of 1975), and biographies of what seemed then like interesting people. I didn't get all that much joy from the books. (I got some. I mean, they were books, and I later morphed into an overweening generalist...)

It was thrilling to steal though. I remember a friend teaching me how. Then, about the 20th time or so, I got caught. I was underage, so the store detective scared the wits out of me and eventually let me go, telling me to never enter their store again. I haven't stolen a thing since. I've thought of it, but the idea of getting caught is so abhorrent I quickly forget it. Besides, I've been conditioning my brain to want less and less things. As a Unistatian, I'm a very poor consumer - and that's what Unistatians REALLY believe in. Not fairness, decency, peace, universal brotherhood or any of that stuff: gadgets. Trinkets. The latest electronic gadget. Commodity fetishism. Labels. Louis Vuitton bags. Salad shooters. And Prof. George Carlin liked to sneer in contempt with this example: sneakers with lights on them. As far as the act of just sheer buying worthless crap? I don't do it. I'm a Bad American.

                                         Noted actress and onetime klepto, Winona Ryder,
                                                    god-daughter of Timothy Leary

Anyway, I forget what Jean Genet story (was it Querelle?) it was where he tells us he used to enjoy breaking and entering into people's homes, not because he wanted to steal anything as much as the visceral thrill of being in someone else's house! Absolutely illegally and possibly dangerous. Some stranger's place! What a thrill! And when Winona Ryder got caught, I understood. I was with Winona then, in spirit. I still am. Jeez, just look at her!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Giambattista Vico, the Copenhagen Interpretation, and H.P. Lovecraft

From Ulysses (1922)
It's a little after 10PM on June 16, 1904, and Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom are in a maternity hospital, and James Joyce, writing in the style of T.H. Huxley, says this:

It had better be stated here and now at the outset that the perverted transcendentalism to which Mr S. Dedalus' (Div.Scep.) contentions would appear to prove him pretty badly addicted runs counter to accepted scientific methods. Science, it cannot be too often repeated, deals with tangible phenomena. The man of science like the man in the street has to face hardheaded facts that cannot be blinked and explain them as best he can. There may be, it is true, some questions which science cannot answer - at present - such as the first problem submitted by Mr. L. Bloom (Pubb. Canv.) regarding the future determination of sex. - p.411, 1946 Modern Library ed, episode "Oxen of the Sun")

We can determine the sex of the baby before birth now, in 2011, but not in 1904. Joyce, writing temporarily as Huxley (Aldous's grandfather), was right. But Joyce is influenced by Vico, and in Vico's magnum opus, The New Science (1740), none of the big questions concerning humankind can be answered as "hardheaded facts;" Vico had invented a new view of history, and many credit him as pioneering cultural anthropology, sociology, and the sociology of knowledge. Robert Anton Wilson credited Vico with creating "transpersonal linguistics," but I'll have to cover that in 2012. For now I want to discuss, as briefly and as painlessly as possible, Vico's idea of verum factum.

Verum Factum
Basically - 'cuz this stuff can get abstruse and plain wacky quickly - Vico thought we humans can only really "know" what we have ourselves - as humans - made. This precludes a truly profound and deep understanding of the natural sciences. When I first started studying Vico I thought he had it backward, that it was yet another brilliant yet sorta nutty idea of his. Lately, I've wondered.

The contemporary philosopher-historian Hilary Putnam has written, in a discussion of constructivism, "It is impossible to find a philosopher before Kant (and after the pre-Socratics) who was not a metaphysical realist, at least about what he took to be basic and unreducible assertions." (Reason, Truth and History, p.40) Putnam says they all believed in objective truths that had perfect, permanent and superhuman validity. They may have disagreed about what those truths were...

But Putnam hadn't read Vico, apparently. In a direct attack on the prevailing Cartesianism of his time, Vico takes a strong anti-rationalistic stance about what is knowable. In some sense, God created nature; we humans made the social world. We cannot know nature because we did not make it. But we can know history, because we made it. The social sciences are knowable; the physical sciences we can have some knowledge about, but it will be based in mathematics, ultimately. And we made math! We still make it. When we find truths in the physical sciences, we are finding truths about our own minds and how they describe workings. Or: our minds make detailed maps of maps, but the maps are not the territories they describe. They are maps. We seem to desperately need to believe we have made contact with the one true deep "reality." But we have not.

2011 cutting-edge cognitive science would say we have knowledge of ourselves and the external world because we have embodied minds, ensconced in human nervous systems. It's gonna have to do for now!

An astute reader of Vico, Isaiah Berlin, says, regarding Vico's verum factum, "I don't know what it is to be a table. I don't know what it is be electric energy. But I do know what it is to feel, think, hope, fear, question, be puzzled, be ashamed." (Conversations With Isaiah Berlin, p.79)

So for Vico, understanding seems to be different than knowledge. Science is knowledge about the behavior of bodies in space. We cannot know such things from within; we can only describe them...seemingly one-removed.

A Stab at Copenhagenism
Supposedly still the most common philosophical interpretation of the quantum theory - the most successful scientific theory ever - is the Copenhagen interpretation, commonly aligned with Niels Bohr, although Heisenberg, Oppenheimer and a few other giants contributed. Einstein famously hated the Copenhagen interpretation, and spent the last 30 years of his life trying to find something wrong with it, with limited success (I would cite the EPR paradox as an ultimately fecund thought experiment.)

I previously stabbed at Bohr and Copenhagenism HERE.

In Nick Herbert's underrated little masterpiece of a book, Quantum Reality, he succinctly points out that we can think about the Copenhagen in two versions, and maybe both together. Version one Herbert labels as "There is no deep reality." "Everyday phenomena are built on a different kind of being,"as Herbert interprets Bohr. Bohr urged a skepticism towards hidden, deeper realities.

"In words that must chill every realist's heart, Bohr insisted: 'There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description." (p.17)

                            The "hippie" who perhaps did more to save physics than any of the others, Nick Herbert

Einstein thought quantum mechanics, with its statistical probabilities built into the equations, HAD to be wrong. It wasn't...elegant. God doesn't play dice with the universe, etc. Therefore, there had to be something wrong with quantum mechanics, or there were hidden variables, a deeper reality. Einstein was one of the giants that helped carve out the theory in the first place!

Now here's Herbert's second version of Copenhagenism. He calls it "Reality is created by observation."

"Although the numerous physicists of the Copenhagen school do not believe in deep reality, they do assert the existence of phenomenal reality. What we see is undoubtedly real, they say, but these phenomena are not really there in the absence of observation." (p.17)

I've been studying what physicists have been saying about the quantum world for at least 20 years now, and this is still really weird stuff to me. I don't blame the Reader for thinking it's bunk. All I'll say is that the Copenhagen interpretation is still very common among physicists with the PhD, and that, when one considers the alternative interpretations, the Copenhagen seems the most conservative. (As noted in David Kaiser's How The Hippies Saved Physics, which I discussed HERE, a great many physicists in the second half of the 20th century, especially in Unistat, were trained to not interpret what their equations seemed to be saying about nature, but were instead trained to "shut up and calculate.")

Admittedly a generalist who gladly gives his mind over joyfully to the speculative, I have tried to suggest that Vico's view of science was at least proto-Copenhagenist, by about 220 years. I'm sure someone else has made the connection, but I have not seen it. (Please feel free to cite someone else's linkage of Vico to Bohr in the comments section!)

"God" and Vico-Bohr and...H.P. Lovecraft?
Don't even say it. I know what you're thinking. And yes, the crop of cannabis is really good this winter. That said, what are we to make of capital enn Nature after thinking about Vico and quantum mechanics here for a spell? What if we can't know the deep reality of...anything?

(Note I've tacitly assumed Vico may be right about the physical sciences but wrong about the Humanities: we seem to have wonderful descriptions of who we are as humans, but in action on the world historical stage, we seem as a species to not "know" or "understand" ourselves very well. I think we're wonderful at making and using tools, but not very good at universal brotherhood, peace, empathy, extended altruism, equality, etc.)

Well, we can say a big Yes, as James Joyce does in Ulysses, which is filled with yeses in the face of so much frank suffering and sadness in life. For there is humor in it all, too, eh? Even in our Dark Days, things can make us laff, if only because of their metaphysical incorrigibility. An influence on both Joyce and Vico, Giordano Bruno, talked of hilaritas, which means there is a humor and optimism in every pessimism and sadness. The coincidence of opposites, built into the fabric of..."reality." Renaissance magick. Joyce's young intellectual Stephen Dedalus, one of the three heroes of the book, near the end accepts that everything is "ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void." Which sounds to me isomorphic (a math term meaning "having a similarity of structure") to the Copenhagen interpretation.

But there's at least one other path to trod down with regard to all this stuff...

Okay, H.P. Lovecraft, the greatest writer of pulp horror fiction ever, and just now being recognized as a "classic" writer by academics. Dying of cancer at age 46 in 1937, he once wrote in a letter, "The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, and matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality - when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible and measurable universe."

Lovecraft had dropped the religious underpinnings of the horror story in favor of science, non-Euclidean mathematics and possible liminal dimensions, abstract knowledge, quantum physics, and dreams. He combined all this material with archaic knowledge, mutations of Egyptology, the occult tradition, odd anthropology, and other sources. He had the uncanny ability to mix "real" knowledge with fantasy, so the reader felt destabilized and not sure what was "real" or not. All of this combined with a peculiarly florid prose style, and the yield was High Weirdness en extremis. And a general spookiness that has freaked out and delighted many an intelligent youth and young-at-heart.

Yes, but what does this have to do with Vico and Bohr? I'm getting to it. It has to do with "God," and the ineffability of such a concept. In Lovecraft, there are "unspeakable" horrors from the abyss of...the 4th dimension or some other dimension inherent or immanent in the mood of the land or space his characters fall prey to. And the dread lies so heavily in the atmosphere of his stories, it seems to me, precisely because his monsters are so "unutterable." In this world, we cannot speak of "God" in any normal sense. The...Thing that haunts his narratives is beyond language (as Negative Theologians say about God), and utterly outside, of any human concept. This seems to go beyond Vico and Bohr, or complements them. And Lovecraft is still thought by many as a "mere" horror writer, or some sort of proto-science fiction pulp writer.

Are there entities from other realms, other dimensions, who we - you and me - could possibly make contact? I will leave it to the Reader to decide. But I will suggest that the Reader would not be drilling in a dry hole were (s)he to look into the reports of people who have experimented with tryptamine hallucinogens such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT), or even psilocybin mushrooms.

What's weird is that...the DMT reports are so utterly Other, if you haven't done DMT you think you're being put-on. But we all make DMT in our own bodies. It's secreted by the pineal gland, and it's in every Reader's cererbrospinal fluid. You have enough in you right now to get arrested, according to the law. And the active trip-out chemical in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, is so close in structure to serotonin you have to look at the diagrams twice to make sure they're not the same molecule.

This seems as good a place as any to abandon yet another verborrheaic blogspew.

[A 6 min take on Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos]:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dawkins's "Meme" Meme: A Wonderfully Creepy and Haunting Idea

Not long ago I dropped the word meme into one of my spoken sentences and a bright young person stopped me and said, "Huh?" I had to explain that it was an idea about...ideas. And that the brilliant biologist and public intellectual Richard Dawkins had coined it in the early 1970s. It rhymes with "cream" and is the unit of replication outside the body, as genes can be thought of as the unit of replication inside the body.

"Oh! Cool!" Yep.

Going on, I did what I always try to do and make a new idea seem as wonderfully dramatic as possible. The meme is an easy one.

"Do you know the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers?," I asked.

She nodded yes.

I then explained that memes are ideas that parasitize our brains. And Dawkins thought memes might have their own purposes in "mind," just as he'd convinced himself and (most?) of his readers that genes want to make more of themselves, so they...sorta control your thinking. Catch my drift?

She shifted uneasily. I knew what she meant.
I was recently reading a wonderful book called On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail. Lately I've been reading scads of stuff on "deep history," so it was quite a find. In one very short section Smail discusses Dawkins's meme idea, and at one point writes this:

"Ideas 'possess' people's brains in a way that wheels do not and therefore, apparently, are more appealing: you can speak of a meme as a body-snatcher, replicating itself with little regard for the adaptive fitness of the brain it is currently operating." (pp.95-96)

This I found pleasing because I had used the "body-snatcher" analogy the day before I read this. Smail and I like horror films, apparently. Or: the ideas about disease, metaphors of loss of agency and colonization from without and then within...are these "memes" that go way back? Perhaps to the Silk Road? And now they are common currency in our daily discourse? To try to remain on the level here: I'm talking about body snatching, bacteria and viruses, memes, and body snatching and diseases as memes.


That's one of the weirdities about memes: when you talk about them, you soon find you're using metaphors that...are...or seem to be...memes themselves!

Lest the Reader think Smail or I were being overly eldritch about Dawkins's idea, here's what Dawkins says about them in his The Selfish Gene, first published in 1976:

"When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell." (p.192 of the 1989 edition, in paperback on Oxford Press.)
None of this is new to those of you who have immersed yourselves in memes, but one paradox - or it still seems like one to me - is that memes are not necessarily adaptive to the host organism. The idea of suicide, for example. Or of a vengeful, jealous "god." Then...if human minds picked up on these ideas and they hopped from mind to mind, colonizing untold millions...why do they survive?

I can surmise that there are competing biochemicals that have to do with depression and hopelessness, and the ideas that are concomitant with them, and look at suicide from another level. "Hey! Things are so bleak and without hope and I'm no good and will never live up to my loved ones or my own expectations...suicide is an idea that's always been there for me. Everyone's heard of it. I think I'll do it!"

This just seems bizarre when I think of it: suicide as a meme. But I don't reject it out of hand.

If Edward O. Wilson and his "consilience" idea, and the whole sociobiology and evolutionary psychology crowd want Darwinian ideas to be at the center of history and the social sciences, doesn't the idea of the meme-as-parasite sort of take the edge off their own designs on the sociology of knowledge? I think of suicide from a biosocial perspective as my main view, but I emphasize biochemicals and thoughts and ideation, that, once established, encourage a circular, causal-feedback-loop that feeds upon itself. (This is one reason I find it maddening that, say, Catholics are so down on people who commit suicide.) But from a Darwinian point of view, what was the advantage of suicide as a "meme"? How many brilliant artists and thinkers have been manic-depressive!

Or as a Darwinist, do you say, "Well, we don't fully know what junk DNA does yet either. We're not sure why it exists, but it does."? Then if it exists, somehow it was adaptive? I can see this point if I squint, but it sure starts to look like playing tennis with the net down.

On the other hand, OF COURSE memes arise from our own biological processes. Where else would they come from? The Platonic Realm of Pure Ideas? Straight from the quantum foam? (This seems basically the gist of what Dawkins considers his best contribution to Darwinian thought: the "extended phenotype," or how genes extend themselves via bodies and minds into the wider environment.)

Still, the idea seems wonderfully creepy to me.
Notice also that memes can exist without really taking hold of you. You can know all about suicide, but you love life, even though times are hard right now. You may have never even spent a serious moment thinking of offing yourself. Celibacy is another one here. I know a lot about God, theology, the gods, etc, but I'm not a conventionally religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly this meme has parasitized the brains of countless others.

About celibacy as a meme, Daniel Dennett has challenged Dawkins by wondering that, if, say, "celibacy" is a meme that only becomes active when "expressed," then anything thought of is a meme, then the meme idea seems to retreat to some sort of ontological status that's negligible. If I take the hard drive out of my computer and drop it into a volcano, in 100 years do my various noodlings once "there" have much to say about me or anything?
Where Smail and others before him have rescued Dawkins's idea has to do with this: even though you know about suicide, celibacy and God but do not "express" these memes, they do condition your neural pathways. You think about the ideas with regards your fellow humans. These ideas do alter moods. When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, I was quite sad - even to the point of tears - for at least a week. The suicide meme meant a lot to me, in a manner of speaking, in that week.
So: does the idea of will  or human agency qualify as a meme too? As of today I think it doesn't matter much, because so many of us find it good to believe (most of the time) in these ideas. And besides, as Smail points out, in medieval Europe, military aristocrats with too many sons and daughters and not enough estates and dowries found "celibacy"a good idea to propagate. That seems Darwinian enough for me. Similarly, the Catholic Church's holdings of land had grown so extensively that making priests and other churchmen take a vow of celibacy was a good way of keeping control of their land and away from the previously "legitimate" claims of the sons of churchmen.

I hope whatever colonization of your mind I have made here will be found as more felicitous than depredating.

Here's a 53 second clip of Dawkins talking about memetics:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Updates on a Few Old Posts

Rachel Maddow's Herman Cain Thesis
Regarding Rachel Maddow's framing of Herman Cain's run amongst the Republicans as "performance art," I posted THIS back "then" but soon after, sexual harassment charges and then (what's worse among Republicans, apparently) strong allegations that Cain had an extramarital affair brought him down.

Now, I watch Maddow's show about once every two/three weeks. I like her a lot, but would rather do other things with my time. I wasn't able to find anything about how Maddow responded to Cain's dropping out of the race, or if she changed her thesis in any way. My take on it is that, if it was a big piece of performance art, then Cain wasn't in on it. I'm not sure what it was, but I think the guy was just a colossal d-bag, an evermore typical sociopathic personality who will do literally ANYTHING for money. The Theater of the Absurd which is national Unistatian politics has no end of varieties of this type of stock character strutting upon the stage for awhile, a large enough segment of the populace apparently stoned enough on the dazzling little pills that makes you think that, if it's on the teevee then it's to be taken seriously.

In this case, he appeared to be running for the Republican nomination only to sell more books as a "motivational speaker." (Or, in maybe a first for me, I'm basically with George Will in calling Cain an "entrepreneurial charlatan.") Hey Rachel: there's a section of Huckleberry Finn that concerns a "duke" and a "dauphin." Re-read that.

I didn't see any wit, anything all that creative or "artsy" in his act. What was the imaginative intent if this was indeed an artwork? I think his handlers were as cynical as he was, and plied him with lines from Pokemon and other pop kulch sources. The fact that the Koch Brothers funded this ass should tell us more about them and what they think of us than perhaps we'd wanted to know.

Maddow is very smart, and very smart people sometimes can't fathom someone as hellaciously bad a person as Cain and his motivations. Which were/are - I assert - crass and solely for individual gain, not to make any sort of "point" via performance art. Or perhaps the lovely Ms. Maddow isn't as well-read about the raisons de etre for performance art in the first place? That would be surprising; she seems to be well-read concerning just about everything. But no, Rachel, it wasn't performance art. The guy was just another sociopathic jackass. And because Mencken wasn't being perhaps as hyperbolic as he thought when he wrote that no one every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, we shall see many more variations of this horrid type. Sarah Palin precedes him.

                                                           An artist's rendering of the Duke and the Dauphin, 
                                                           with Huck and Jim looking on

The Pepper Spray Incident at UC Davis
My little blogspew on this was HERE. Around the same time, UC Berkeley students were violently clubbed by campus police, and later the faculty voted No Confidence in the chancellor, Robert Birgenau. The UC Davis chancellor, Linda Katehi, publicly apologized. Both chancellors have been walking on eggshells ever since, but we shall see how long this lasts. It's clear that campus police don't act as free agents; these sorts of egregious actions towards nonviolent protesters were part of official higher-up "policy." I wrote both chancellors, telling them they need to do the right thing and resign, but surprisingly, neither wrote me back.

The enigmatic, eerie and dispersed presence of the hacktivist collective Anonymous came down on the cop who pepper-sprayed the protesters at Davis, a human named John Pike. They published on *the Internet his home address, his email address, his cell phone number, his home phone number, and other personal information. It's since been found that Pike is an ex-Marine and has a problem with homophobia. (*= why do we say "the Internet"? There's only one...or is there?)

In what seems to me as the most troubling aspect post-Pike, I find that his pay as a campus goon...errr...policeman was $110,000 a year. That's twice what a newly minted Humanities professor gets, and three times what a non-tenured adjunct professor gets. See Mark Bousquet's jaw-dropping article.

Finally, a shout-out to the mordant wits who started Ask Lt. John Pike, An Advice Column, for adding some much-needed satire to this story. (My personal fave of the letters is the Q to Pike from a parent about whether to tell their kids about Santa Claus.)

Regarding Your Own "Weaponized" Drone
In what I take was a lame stab at satire, I posted THIS article six days ago. I kept digging on this story and found that, for example, the Europeans think armed police drones for domestic purposes seems, uhhh...questionable. See, for example, HERE. And further, what is one to think about THIS?

"Clinical distress" is hampering a lot of the "pilots" in these high-stakes all-too-real video killing games. In reading this article, get a load of the quotes from Kent McDonald, about how they try to select only guys of "high moral" quality. Is it me, or is that just creepy-sick-o stuff?

By the way, one of the OG's favorite public intellectuals and Third Culturalists, Prof. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford - one of the world's most knowledgeable people about how stress manifests in humans and our primate cousins - has been talking about the video-game killers of other humans on the other side of the world aspect of stress for at least eight years. Note how the military in this article tries to downplay the causes of "clinical distress." Sorry. I know you love your toys that allow you to kill from an absurdly safe vantage point, but this was KNOWN to cause stress in anyone even close to mentally "sound." If you want less health problems in your remote drone-killers, hire the mentally deranged. I'm sure there are plenty of them in the military. It should be easy! But noooo...you want only the good family men. "It does cause them to re-think aspects of their life and it can be bothersome." Sez Lt. Col. Kent McDonald.

Good gawd! You can't make up more clueless, bloodless, and zombified quotes!

Now I'm going to link two stories to my idea - originally typed in as a lark, myself in a sour mood - about "weaponizing" your personal drone. These two stories are about how security officials seem sorta panicky about how much cheaper and easier it has become to play with viruses. The squeamish may want to stop reading here and go on to the next blog.

Let us contemplate some rogue element - or just some crapped-upon nerds with a grudge - who stumble upon a particularly virulent, aerosolize-able form of the H1N1 or "bird flu." And then think of their own personal drones. Sorry, but I feel it's a public service:



Happy Holidays!

And now, because the wise AdSense people took all my ads (and revenue) away, for a reason not entirely clear to me, I turn to another sponsor, the good people at Grady's Oats. We'll be right back after this important message:

Ezra Pound and Conspiracy Theory
Last July I wrote a short piece on Pound and conspiracies. It recently occurred to me that what many writers have labeled Pound's "conspiracy theory of history" has at its roots something quite similar to Noam Chomsky's term "marginalization." This theory's engine is malign neglect, silence and indifference, mostly on the part of academics. In Donald Davie's book Ezra Pound, subtitled, "a major new study of the life and work of the great American poet," Davie writes about Pound's involvement with the esthetic movement of Vorticism, and how the ideas there were strongly influenced by Allen Upward, who had been influenced by Confucius and Mencius. Pound found that critics didn't understand Vorticism, and the more he tried to explain it, the more indifferent critics seemed. If Upward's work were disseminated and written and talked about, Pound thought, more people would understand this dynamic esthetic movement. Pound, since around age 15, had wanted to make a revolution in poetry, and thereby revolutionize civilization. Pound was in a hurry. Davie writes that Upward's 1908 book The New Word, chapters 13 and 14, give a pretty good explanation of what Pound meant by the "vortex." But the book didn't find large favor among the academic and publishing class, and for Pound this was a scandal.

Anyone who reads and studies Pound will find at minimum 25 more cases similar to this: great thinkers, thinkers who could shed light on the underlying problems of Western civilization, but have been shamefully neglected, and there must be...some reason!

Well, we know where Mad Ol' Ez ended up vis a vis monetary ideas, banking, usury, credit, etc.

However utterly noxious the antisemitism (and flat-out wrong ideas about jews running the banks, period), I assert that, with the 2008 crash, most of Pound's ideas about economics deserve another look.

I won't hold my breath.

A final word on Pound and conspiracy from Davie's book. After discussing critical neglect of Upward and Pound's anger about it, Davie writes, "It was a case like this, of the unconventional thinker effectively gagged by simple or deliberate neglect and indifference, which in later years converted Pound to a conspiracy theory of history, in which the worst, most murderous conspiracies were conspiracies of silence. Wyndham Lewis, though in one sense the whole vorticist program had been devised for his benefit, declared that he didn't understand what 'vorticism' meant. Pound understood; and if we don't, it is because we haven't looked where he told us to." - page 42, Ezra Pound, Davie

As with most conspiracy theories, I take an agnostic stand.

(There are some CTs I consider about 99.9998% likely to be wrong, such as the "Holocaust Revisionist" idea that the Holocaust never happened; the footage you've seen is faked; maybe a few hundred Jews actually died under Hitler. The Jews are trying to make us feel sorry for them, etc. What a denial of one's own humanity to agree to this idea! Robert Anton Wilson responded to these conspiracy theorists by asserting that there never was a World War II, or that Holocaust Deniers don't exist; the ones that think they do are only imagining their existence. If anyone ever wants to see virtuoso usage for satirical and rhetorical purposes of the reductio ad absurdum, read anything by Robert Anton Wilson.)

Pound's vexatious ideas, their emotional and intellectual tones, are almost always compelling to me, despite his "craziness," and I do think the academic class of intellectuals do have cliques and do often marginalize people and ideas, for not-very-intellectually-honest "reasons." They're only human, after all...The "neglect" and "indifference" Donald Davie mentions might be an unconscious response due to general trends in thinking among the relatively powerful literati and academia, but may also evince a demonstrable collective lack of imagination among a large percentage of comfortably-ensconced and attached-to-university-protocol thinkers and knowledge workers.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 6

Islamic Terrorists (and Others with a Gripe)
My never-quenched thirst for reading the weird, grotesque and esoteric led me recently to an increasingly morbid and fascinating perusal of Extreme Islam: Anti-American Propaganda of Muslim Fundamentalism, edited by Adam Parfrey, copyright 2001. In his Introduction, Parfrey writes:

I must confess that I love Islamic propaganda. After putting my hands on a bound volume of Iran's English-language Echo of Islam magazines, so full of remarkable posters, including those making Jimmy Carter look like the veritable Antichrist, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to locate similar material. It's damned hard to find. Hardly anyone I knew possesses it. Americans would do well to study the arguments of those who despise us rather than parading around in a patriotic haze. Fearing that opposition propaganda is riddled with secret code unnecessarily gives it a lot more power. - p.viii

One: I'm like Parfrey in that I get a thrill (mine seems sort of related to Walter Mitty) in reading ghastly stuff like the Echo of Islam he describes...and the material he uses for Extreme Islam. Two: I heartily agree with him that Americans really ought to find out for themselves "why they hate us." Allowing the corporate media to do your work for you just will not do in this case. Sorry. Get thee to a public library. Maybe read about the history of the CIA for starters. Three: I both agree and disagree with the fear of codes in propaganda, and here's why: unless you're a hotshot and well-paid student of steganography (which I'll cover in some future blogspewage on "codes"), all you can do is worry, knowing how easy it is to hide messages in "plain sight." But really: your library studies (ever checked out any books by ex-State Dept guy William Blum?) should be quite enough info for you vis a vis why "they" hate us, and for your amphetamine-like desire for a paranoia when there's a good one to be had...

Brief Note on Writing Under Italian Fascism
In Umberto Eco's wonderfully provocative and informative essay "Ur-Fascism," originally published in English in the New York Review of Books in 1995 (with the Oklahoma City bombing fresh in mind), then later collected in Five Moral Pieces, he recalls his boyhood in Italy:

In 1942, when I was ten, I won the first prize at the Ludi Juveniles, a compulsory open competition for all young Italian fascists -- that is to say, for all young Italians. I had written a virtuoso piece of rhetoric in response to the essay title "Should We Die for the Glory of Mussolini and the Immortal Destiny of Italy?" My answer was in the affirmative. I was a smart kid. - p.65, Five Moral Pieces

                                                     Umberto Eco (b.1932) Novelist, semiotician, always in Top 10 lists
                                                     for greatest public intellectual in the West

(A brief digression and explication on fascism now, as the OG has dared to say that Unistat "is fascist" in polite conversation, always having to explain himself. I usually make the point that Mussolini defined his fascism as the "corporate state," that he thought corporations and the rich ought to be able to do anything they want while not paying taxes, that labor unions should be demonized and smashed, and the proles should be entertained by parades, games, spectacles and nationalistic extravaganzas. In this sense, both Unistatian parties engage in a lot of fascistic behavior, but I consider the Republican Party in 2011 as pretty thoroughly fascist. At any rate, does any of the Italian stuff sound familiar, Unistatians? -the OG)

Eco takes us on a tour of the varieties of fascist experience in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. He makes an interesting point about the word "fascism," relating it Wittgenstein's brilliant riffs on "games." In Eco's adumbrations of the different fascisms in England, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Norway, Spain, Portugal, South American, Germany, Italy, etc: let's assume fascist country 1 is characterized by {a,b,c}, while fascist country 2 is characterized as {b,c,d}. 3 is {c,d,e}, 4 is {d,e,f}, and so on. Countries 1 and 2 share {b,c}, while countries 1 and 3 are still linked with the same characteristic of {c}. 2 and 4 are similar to 3 for the same reason. 4 would seem to be something different from 1, but "because of the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between 1 and 4, there remains, by virtue of a sort of illusory transitiveness, a sense of kinship between 4 and 1." p.77, ibid

Back to our theme: Eco notes that university students were encouraged to join intellectual clubs, as the cradle of fascistic futurism in Italy. New ideas circulated promiscuously, and if they weren't fascistic ideas, party officials lacked the hardened facility of the young intellectuals, and couldn't tell what was going on. The terms were opaque. Eco writes about the two decades of Italian fascism: "The poetry of the so-called hermetic school represented a reaction to the pompous style of the regime. These poets were allowed to elaborate their literary protest from inside the ivory tower. The sentiments of the hermetic poets were exactly the opposite of the Fascist cult of optimism and heroism. The regime tolerated this overt, albeit socially imperceptible dissent, because it did not pay sufficient attention to such obscure jargon." - p. 75, ibid.

Jeez. Can we find any similar instances (I am not saying Unsitat is exactly like any previous fascism!) in our recent history? I'm looking at YOU, you thousands of impenetrable post-structuralists and Derrida knock-offs with PhDs! There are many more examples, but let us move on...

John Milton
Not only Milton, but scads of writers of a fairly hard-edged puritannical Protestant worldview, and here we're talking about sexuality. From Paradise Lost:

Hail wedded love, mysterious Law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propertie,
In Paradise of all things common else.
By thee adulterous lust was driv'n from men
Among the bestial herds to range...

Yea John. You keep telling yourself that.

Here's perhaps the most glaring "secret" in social networks today: increasingly, study after study after research after study strongly suggests humans are not fit for monogamy. Some people can get married and stay that way for 50 years, neither one "cheating," or as biologists who study mating behavior among mammals call it, EPCs, or extra-pair copulations. But it's pretty darned rare. We stray, statistically...and sexually.

There is no end in citing texts (like Milton here) or of texts that lay out the strong argument that humans are not all that good at monogamy, because we're probably not wired very tightly for it. We're not as promiscuous as our cousins the bonobos, but some of us sure seem like we're trying.

And the most fascinating text I've seen on this subject is The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton. Barash has a PhDin Zoology and teaches Psychology at the University of Washington, and he's one of the best public intellectuals in Unistat, in my opinion. Look him up. Lipton has an MD and practices psychiatry. Barash and Lipton are married! What a wonderful book...extremely provocative, and one that can get you in a lot of hot water if you talk about it with the "wrong" friends at the wrong time.

I will end by simply suggesting that anyone who makes a big show about how great marriage is 'cuz it keeps ya "moral" or "on the straight-and-narrow," and that "adulterers" ought to be shamed deserves to be looked at suspiciously, for very solid scientific reasons.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Historical Consciousness and Deep Time: A Ramble

In my towers and stalagmite-like piles of books - I have over 30 out from the library as I write, as if I hadn't already had owned too many unread books! - and my horribly promiscuous reading in them, I recently realized how utterly different our perception of history and time has changed over the last mere 150 years.

In Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, he says the slowly-growing acceptance of "deep time" since 1860 (in the West, the Chinese and Hindus had much deeper conceptions than the world being around 6000 years old!) was of Galilean significance. I can "see" that now, but for most of my life I knew that historians and other intellectuals in the West had held to a very (relatively) recent timescale for history...even when fish fossils had been found at the top of mountains. The Flood, the Deluge had done it. It's all in the Bible.

I wasn't brought up on the Bible. That never made sense to me. I had to try to make sense of it by studying Western Civ textbooks, which I now realized just put the Garden of Eden in present-day Iraq, or Mesopotamia. And then I read many books like "C.W. Ceram"'s Gods, Graves and Scholars.

But what about all those Leaky findings...and "Lucy"? How to close the millions-year gap in my personal consciousness about the First Humans and...Barack Obama?

So I studied paleoanthropology, sociobiology, archaeology. What a difference between "history" and these disciplines!

A still-common notion, one I find personally hard to shake, is that "real" history only begins with writing. That just made so much stark sense to me for so long...and it made it easier to compartmentalize, say 3500BCE to now as One Thing, pre-writing humankind Another Thing.

Lately, coming back around to Gould's assertion about our consciousness of "deep time" since Lyell and Darwin, et.al, circa 1860: it still took a long time for college textbooks to incorporate anything about the Paleolithic humans. Even into the first decade of the 20th century, often a mere footnote in a 700 page book mentioned geological time and Paleolithic humans. Then, weirdly, history started with the Germanic hordes running roughshod over Europe!

I remember vividly going to a small bookshop in a smoggy little corner of the San Gabriel Valley, and the owner, knowing I thirsted for knowledge of such things, sold me a used two-volume copy of H.G. Wells's Outline of History. Now here was a history book that made sense to me. Finally! What a tremendous relief! Wells - one of the great Generalists of all time - takes up the first 50 pages with "The World Before Man." How long has Earth been around? (The book first arrived in 1919.) What about fossils and rocks? Climate, the Age of the Reptiles, the rise of mammals...he doesn't get to Neolithic Man until page 82! I still read these two volumes every five years or so. Now I have updated versions, like Jared Diamond.

                                    H.G. Wells, autodidact extraordinaire, seer, generalist, wrote for non-academics,
                                               which pissed the professors off, because he de-emphasized the 
                                               Great Man theory of history. We are here because of biology!

H.G. Wells. This was my first taste of deep time. Like an addictive drug, ever since my "first taste," all I want is more. To get a relatively short narrative about the time of humans before writing was fine, even thrilling at first, but after awhile, I realized there were huge expanses of time in which my imagination was urgently needed to fill in the gaps. And what gaps!

Still: like the Necker Cube, when I looked at it all in a different way, I was in awe of what we don't know, how long our great, great, great, great, great, great, great...grandfathers had been around, dealing with the elements, walking through unfathomably vast expanses of forest and savannah, using fire, communicating with each other in some way. I loved the psychological space! The great expanse of what we have only an inkling of, this feeling of immensity, of the abyss, or the sheer Long Shadow of time, even on the human scale, was vertiginous and thrilling. (I think the idea that others don't like that sort of "buzz" - not at all! - explains a lot about predispositions against a certain number of these types of ideas...)

Vico deals with this by telling his history based on the then-suddenly fashionable catastrophism of the Deluge. It's a clean break with ALL that went before; now: let us deal with history in that truncated period.

Or it was truncated to me. There seem some occult reasons why Vico would want to do this: first: as he lived and studied the reports of the New World were still exciting and it was pretty "wild" stuff. And the earliest writing that was available to him was paltry compared to what anyone can access in a well-stocked public library today. At least Vico tried to explain how language arose. And it's thrilling, but both Vico and I digress, literally.

But quite a lot of knowledge has accreted about our Paleolithic forebears over the last 150 years. Not writing, but, since around 1925, the idea that for all that Paleolithic time there was no absolute stasis, as was supposed by those who wished to hold to the metaphor of paying for being Fallen. No: the idea that self-consciousness arose then! A true, human theory of mind! ("I know that you know that I think that she's desirable, and I wonder what you are going to think if I do or say X?") But how? Some sort of catalyzing event, or series of events that happened over some period of time...made us...different.

A mutation? Accident of birth? A dietary change? Mating with exotic peoples from far over those hills? A relatively quick climate change? Obviously writing changed us: culture became Lamarckian. But before writing? What?

I like Terence McKenna's idea that we stumbled upon psilocybin mushrooms and it catalyzed human consciousness. Academic experts don't lend the idea much credence. But it's an interesting idea, and plausible, and some day I'll blogspew on it in more detail.

In only 500 years we've gone from the Earth being the center of the universe to the idea that we are in a universe that is not 6000 years old but about 13.7 billion years old, it had a beginning, it's expanding, presumably our local universe will undergo heat death when the energy is spread out enough, and there may be billions of other universes, branes, Dark Matter, strings...I think it says something basic about a person when I find out 1.) If they are conversant with these ideas, and 2.) If they tend to embrace them. 3.) If they don't embrace them, why not?

And I like to ask, when the time is right, "What do you think happened to give us a true human theory of mind?"

Here's 6 minutes of the spellbinding Terence McKenna on how we might have obtained a second-order theory of mind. I wish the sound was a little better:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Weaponize Your Personal Drone For Christmas!

Hey there, personal drone aficionados. As I'm sure you're aware, the drone world (both military and personal) is moving fast, and I'm here to help ya keep up on the latest. For this blogspew at least, it's Drone Central here at the OG. So, let's get to it, shall we?

DIY, Amazon: We've Come A Long Way, Baby!
Check out this ancient article from 2008 in UK's The Engineer. If only they could see us now, eh? The author is trying to educate us about the good times ahead in personal drone tech, by teaching us to say "UAV" (or if you're a totally clueless noob, Unmanned Air Vehicle, and "MAV," or micro air vehicle). As if we weren't saying these things thirty, fifty times a day by now!

Sure, the Big Guys in the military have the ins with the Pentagon and their contractors, but no need to suffer size envy when thinking of your Predator, your Reaper, your Global Hawk: let's let the entire world know we have websites for DIY drones, like THIS ONE. And bear with me while I get the laggards up to snuff: you can buy a middlin' size one to be proud of at Amazon for about 300 bucks. Hell yes! All you need is an Android, iPod Touch, iPhone, and a few other little gizmos to control 'em..."i" shit you not!

As of today, we have to iron out a few problems that exist: "high wastage," hard landings, accidents. But let's not drop our joysticks over a few little problems!

So what if some people seem to get all jelly-legged and lilly-livered when they find out what we got! These are the same Worrisome Willies that are all worked-up 'cuz I can buy, say, an Uzi at a gun show. I ain't a-never opened up at a mall yet, have I? Well alright then. If you haven't heard of these Nervous Nellies, they're all over the place. Like HERE's a guy who doesn't seem pleased. I can't quite tell what this guy's problem is; you tell me! Anyway, don't I have a right to make sure my neighbors ain't a-plottin' nothin' against me and my family? They're all weird and everything. Like I ain't never seen them fly the colors from their porch...even on Veterans Day! The video on that one's pretty cool though, huh?

Don't let these wussies get you down. Here's some good news up ahead yonder.

Local Police Forces Get Weaponized Drones
Yes! Yeee-haw! Check this story out, ladies and germs! Now, of course there's a liberal slant to that article, but what do you expect? The good news is that, if we look at history, the money we pay into the military budget? Now, I admit it's a lot. But here's the good news: some - well, a whole heckuva lot, really - of that money goes for R&D (research and development), which means a bunch of scientists get to figure out how to make really cool stuff, like bunker busters, mustard gas, and what-not. Cruise missiles. And yes, drones!

So, our fightin' men use it to find their dead fellow soldiers, like in that ancient article I linked to above. But now we got guys living outside Vegas who get up with their kids at 6:30AM, talk about Barney videos and eat cereal and talk about how to be moral and good, then the kids go off to school, dad goes to work finding targets (humans) his superiors say are enemy combatants. Then he kills 'em from half-way around the world, using drone technology! Then he gets off at five, just in time to see his kid play third base in the Junior League playoffs! Recently an American citizen who turned into a Bad Guy got killed this way! (By being a Muslim terrorist, not a third baseman.) Cool, ain't it?

So yea: historically, these sorts of technologies filter back into domestic society. HERE's an article from the LA Times from about five weeks ago, that says it's "inevitable" that we civilians will have our own drone-forces, but not before the police do. (Okay, I may be readin' between the lines, but we all know this stuff is coming to a backyard near us soon, right?) The FAA is all in on it and stuff, too. It says "drones for profit." I don't get it: that's what America's all about isn't it? HERE is an article from just this week. Check out the pic of that sweet hummingbird drone! Now there's something I don't get: all these people cryin' about "privacy." To me, it's simple: if ya got nothin' to hide, you got nothin' to worry about, right? Am I right or am I right? Yep. Thought so...

But lemme get back to my main points.

Here's where it gets good: the sequence, domestic militarization of badass stuff, weaponry-wise, historically, goes a little like this:
DARPA (or similar)---->: military use overseas---->domestic police/DEA/FBI/the rest of the alphabet soup of police organizations---->criminal gangs (like the Mafia, and drug gangs), domestic militias and other patriots---->ordinary NRA citizens and other Good Americans like you 'n me! 

Is that cool er what?

Biology/Biotech and You!
As you saw in the picture from that article I linked to above, the wizards have combined biology with drone technology and came up with a great little spy hummingbird drone. Read about it HERE. Note: this was in the Business section of the paper; you investors might wanna think about it. Remember me when ya get rich! 

What's really cool is all the surveillance that can be done with increasingly better, faster, more accurate, smaller, quieter drones! Bad Guys - people without jobs and dope smokers - you know, immoral people? They can be more easily rounded up this way. Hey, who doesn't want safer streets? I care about my children, and I know you do too. I can't wait to see retinal ID systems or iris recognition  or even nose recognition systems implanted in my little drone-of-the-future. You don't want to kill the wrong guy! 

But I'm sure mistakes will be made at first, before they perfect all this.

Some Problems With the Civil Liberties Crowd
Card-carryin' pussies! They're all worried about coddling criminals and limousine liberal celebrities. Get THIS and THIS. Sheesh! "Stalker Drones"! The shit these latte-drinkin', Volvo-driving pussies won't make up to try and make us good Americans look bad!

Besides, if they have so much money, let 'em spend it on protecting themselves against 'em. They can afford it! 

Iran Trying To Kill Our Buzz
I'm sure you've all heard that somehow one of our drones got off course and was downed inside Iran. Obama asked for it back! He's got some sack, I'll give him that! But Iran says no way, man. What would you  expect from Abdul? Anyway, this story has, I'm afraid to admit it, friends, cast too big a light on the potential "bad" things about drones. We don't need to be in the spotlight; we're only hobbyists! The cool thing is that good ol' DARPA, which has known our military's killer drones have been subject to viruses, cybercounterterrorist security problems and other hackers for a long time, are on it. I'm sure they'll fix it. The problem though - and I don't want to sound like one of those liberal wussie alarmists - is that all other countries, including Pakistan, Iran, North Korea..hell, even Syria...will get their own predator-drones to fly over our houses soon.

I'm sure it'll be taken care of by someone.

Now I realize you may feel punked by me 'cuz I say pretty much outright in the title that you can "weaponize" your personal drone in time for Santa 'n Jesus 'n all, but I didn't give any particulars. I was using what my junior high English teacher called "poetic license"! By that, I mean I was tellin' a bit of a stretcher but it was for a good effect, see? And besides, we all know how this stuff goes. By next mistletoe season it'll probably be true! Sorry if anyone feels misled...Well, that's about all I have for my fellow hobbyists today.

Until then: I'll see you at the NRA-protected gun shows, at the "new ideas" table for Personal Drones! And yes: I'll see YOU in the skies!

(The NANO Hummingbird Drone! Isn't this just the greatest thing?):

Monday, December 12, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 5

When rifling through certain histories, it appeared a stark glum fact that I could blog every day for five years just on the Russians and this topic. I'll confine my remarks to just this one "Part 5."

The Romanovs
ruled Russia
from 1613 to 1917 --
Some were sane &
some were bonkers

Alexander I, the tsar from '01-'25
was the son of Mad Tsar Paul I
who was murdered
with Alexander's "connivance"
according to the
              Penguin Dictionary of Modern History
-Chekhov, by Ed Sanders, p.26

There's a 1976 essay by George Steiner, "Text and Context," in which he attempts to describe what texts "mean" in culture. He has some fascinating ideas about readers and writers, and as a slight digression I'll quote this sentence, "To read essentially is to entertain with the writer's text a relationship at once recreative and rival. It is a supremely active, collaborative yet also agonistic affinity whose logical, if not actual, fulfillment is an 'answering text.'"

I personally knew a few of you, and I feel this sort of relationship with you, not all of the time I'm writing, but a lot of it. And I find this really exciting and mysterious and just a total intellectual-semi-enlightened hedonistic blast. So: thanks. Some of you I've never met but who I feel this same way nonetheless: how odd this seems. My nervous system, writing. You: decoding, being with me and yet "recreative and rival." Now I will try to link this emotional involvement with some writers and readers to history, simply via juxtaposition: 

Steiner points out how deep the textuality of Russian culture has been, due to political repression by Tsars, the Orthodox church, the Bolsheviks and Stalin. With Marxism/Leninism the "bookishness" of the culture was something we in Unistat have never seen. With hard-core intellectual ideology as a (supposed, at least) function of the State, we get a populace of readers intensely bookish, concerned with canonicity and exclusion or validation, origins, authority..."It is the tradition of reading these texts --exegetic, Talmudic, disputative to an almost pathological degree of semantic scruple and interpretive nicety -- which constitutes the presiding dynamic in Marxist education and in the attempts, inherently ambiguous as are all attempts to 'move forward' from sacred texts, to make of Marxism an unfolding, predictive reality-principle." (see "Texts and Contexts" in Steiner's On Difficulty and Other Essays, p. 5)

[NB: "Talmudic, disputative to an almost pathological degree" plus coded texts and information-dense texts seems to equal a level of High Weirdness our species can't seem to do without.]

What concerns me here, for our purposes, was that there was such a long history of fascination with deep reading in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution. And under the mystical tsars, much radical, oppositional writing had to be done embedded in thick dense works, encoded, or simply as samizdat. Indeed, when Steiner discusses Loren R. Graham's "seminal" (I have not read it - OG) Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union, Steiner writes that this bookishness is the medium of power and and official discourse and this attitude towards texts lies "in the very fabric of suppression which defines Russian history as a whole [...] But whatever the source, the effect is clear: the subversive poem, novel, satirical comedy, underground ballad has always been, is, will always be, the primary act of insurgence. Even when it has reached the public surface, through the censor's oversight, from abroad, or in brief spells of bureaucratic condescension, Russian literature, from Pushkin and Turgenev to Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, has always been samizdat." (p.6)

O! That books and reading could mean that much!

I just now recalled a trip my wife and I took to Prague, around 2002. As always, I crashed beforehand on Czech history, memorized about fifty common phrases from an idiot's phrase-book, and read something on the history of Czech literature. (I remember the first night we got to our hotel-room, and we quickly walked back out to go find a place to dine: we had to cut through an old churchyard, and there was a statue of Karel Capek, the early science fiction author and anti-fascist, on the church grounds.) And I was reading on the Czechs under Soviet rule, 1960s-70s (their Velvet Revolution happened in late 1989), and was taken aback by, if I recall correctly, Josef Skvorecky, one of the great Czech writers of the second half of the 20th century, when he said he sorta missed the samizdat years, when everyone was fearful their revolutionary writings would be found out, and they'd be captured, and imprisoned. Why? Because he thought the secrecy lent an intense gravity to the writing! 

I can see this, I can imagine living in that system, but give me an open society without all the drama, please! But it is an interesting idea: that repression fuels intense reading and writing. Back to the Russians, or rather, a Russian.

Thought by many lit critics as at least as important to the Russians as Twain is to Unistatians or Goethe to the Germans, Pushkin was steeped in Romantic revolutionary fervor, heavily influenced by Byron, living in the mood of the French Revolution's Liberty/Equality/Fraternity. Born in 1799, he took advantage of a brief opening after Waterloo, as Sanders writes, to "seize freedoms underused." He wrote on subjects that would be unthinkable later in the 19th century: a poem called "Epistle to the Censor." Pushkin attacked the system of serfdom. He ridiculed the Tsar in an 1818 poem, "Noel." He ridiculed the Minister of War! Pushkin wrote an "Ode to Liberty" in 1817 as samizdat, and many soldiers memorized it by heart. ("Tremble, O tyrants of the world/And you, o fallen slaves, arise!") He was named as the author and fled for a few years to self-imposed exile. But secret police followed him and kept him under surveillance. His writing began to soften under the pressure, it became "more objective" and his revolutionary writings became more coded in his narratives. As possibly the Main Guy for nine out of ten potential revolutionaries in Russia, Pushkin was being deflated. No more openness for Pushkin. 
                                                          Pushkin: proto-Decembrist

 Let me back up a bit on early 19th century Russia, and I hope I'm not boring those who've studied this period.

Pushkin was involved with some offshoots of Freemasonic secret societies in Russia. When Russian troops marched, in 1814, into Paris during what is commonly called in Unistat the Napoleonic Wars they had had their minds blown: look at what a relatively open society brings!  A similar thing happened to Unistat troops who grew up on little farms and then went into what is commonly referred to as World War I: they saw Paris, Berlin, Florence: they could never be the same when they came home, if they were lucky enough to come home alive and intact. Some of the Russian soldiers, exposed to France and revolutionary ideas of the West, young and relatively educated, formed secret societies called the Green Lamp, a sort of free-love and freethinking group - always conducive to wild partying - which may have been a branch of another secret society, the Union of Welfare. Pushkin has friends in the secret Union of Salvation. All of these groups seem to be precursors to the Decembrists. 

Think about it: these Russian troops, having defeated Napoleon, go back to such a repressive environment that the only way they thought they could enact change towards more openness and constitutionality was via underground secret societies. Most of the sources I've seen think Pushkin was seen as a too-mad "poet," and while he was welcomed in the secret societies, the brain-trust military revolutionaries didn't want to risk letting a "poet" in on the secrets of possible insurrection. 

[On second thought about secret societies: maybe this is some sort of default mode in history, at least since the rise of Rome? Why are secret societies mostly asterisked and seemingly snorted and laffed at in college textbooks on history? I ask this rhetorically.]

Anyway, here's what happened to the Decembrists: on December 1st, 1825, Tsar Alexander I either died or disappeared in order to become a religious hermit. Tsar Nicholas I took over. The Decembrists - roughly thirty military officers, almost all fairly well-educated from the upper crust and led by Paul Pestel, backed by 3000 soldiers - mostly illiterate - tried to prevent the senate from taking an oath to the new Tsar. A true do-or-die moment, an attempt at radical freedom and a break with entrenched repression. They hoped more of the garrison would rush to their side, but they didn't. Many turned and fired at the Decembrists and their backers. A dozen were killed and Pestel and all others rounded up and hanged. (December 14th is coming up as I write this. Think of them?)

With the calamitous collapse of the Decembrists, Pushkin rushed to burn his incriminating papers.

Nicholas was one of the worst tyrants in history. He summoned Pushkin to Moscow and told him he would personally be Pushkin's censor, and that Pushkin was to be under constant surveillance by the chief of secret police Benckendorff, and also that Pushkin would be forced to wear the uniform of "Gentlemen of the Chamber." Pushkin died in 1837 at 37, "shot in the stomach."

If you didn't know this story, you know it now. And you must never forget it.

A Too-Long Addenda: Bakhtin, Shostakovich and Stalin
I had no idea, but when reading David Foster Wallace's essay on Joseph Frank's writings on Dostoevsky from Consider the Lobster, it seems that Mikhail Bakhtin was forced to write about Feodor in a coded, tricky way, due to official Soviet ideology about Dostoevsky. If you've read Bakhtin on semiotics and you've read Dostoevsky's history as a radical almost shot, then as a intensely religious freak whose moods are so dark in his novels I find certain young people I know and think, "Jeez, I hope (s)he never gets around to Dostoevsky...it could send 'em over..." and then consider that Bakhtin had to code his writing about FD...my mind reels. It just seems another dire symptom of humanity when you take it all in...and of course the stunningly brilliant mind of David Foster Wallace couldn't hack "all this" anymore and he hanged himself in his garage in Claremont, California...Whew! I need to start meditating more, or score some Xanax. 

This all seems to relate to what Steiner was saying about Russian culture, since, I guess, at least 1613.

March 25th, 1949, the Waldorf Astoria in New York: a huge gathering of Soviet intellectuals and artists met with a CIA-backed consortium of non-communist artists and intellectuals. Hard to believe, but read Frances Stonor Saunders's The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. What an amazing book! Anway: Nicolas Nabokov - first cousin to the author of Lolita and a good pal of Isaiah Berlin's - made his way into a panel where Dmitri Shoskakovich was expected to speak. Nabokov's aristocratic family had fled Russia soon after the 1917 rev and he became a composer, taught in Unistat universities, etc. 

Apparently the panel discussion was dull until Nabokov took the floor. I'll quote from Saunders's book:

Nabokov said, "On such-and-such a date in No. X of Pravda appeared an unsigned article that had all the looks of an editorial. It concerned three western composers: Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. In this article, they were branded, all three of them, as 'obscurantists', 'decadent bourgeois formalists' and 'lackeys of imperial capitalism.' The performance of their music should 'therefore be prohibited in the U.S.S.R.' Does Mr. Shostakovich personally agree with this official view as printed in Pravda?" 

Immediately, the Soviet contingent cried "Provocation!" A KGB "nurse" whispered instructions in Shostakovich's ear, and then Shostakovich, rose, his face ashen and hung low, looking at the floorboards, he quasi-mumbled, "I fully agree with the statements made in Pravda." (p.50, Saunders)

Shostakovich had been made to attend this meeting in NY by Stalin himself. (This was around the time, in the USSR, that sculptors were told to enter a competition to honor Pushkin, and the winner produced a sculpture showing Stalin reading Pushkin.)

In 1979 a book titled Testimony, by a Russian musicologist named Solomon Volkov, appeared. It immediately became controversial because it purported to be the memoirs of Shoskakovich, who had a lot of nasty things to say about life under Stalin. Furthermore, Shostakovich says he embedded his views on the totalitarian regime in his music! Many accused Volkov of embroidery, even outright forgery.

There is plenty of evidence that official censors in the 19th century went over composer's music to see if they could catch hidden codes that could be considered subversive. How this was done specifically is another story...

Flash forward to a few years ago and an interesting book, Music For Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, by Wendy Lesser. HERE is a review by Ed Rothstein of the NYT. (If it's not there when you read it, please tell me in the comments; the NYT withdraws links every now and then, for their own reasons. Thanks. - the Mgt)

I leave it to the Reader/Listener to decide for herself.