Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Drug Report: July, 2012: Coffee and Velocity

"Betty: Dear father, don't be so strict! If I can't have my little demitasse of coffee three times a day, I'm just like a dried-up piece of roast goat!" - from J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata


Of surpassing fascination to me is the overwhelming ubiquity of drugs in our culture - both legal and illegal - and (here's where my wonderment comes in) how relatively ignorant we make ourselves about these drugs. Name the drug, and you will have zero problems finding a widespread un-knowing about some aspects of the drug, even though the information is easy to find. Is knowing the truth about psychoactive drugs culturally taboo?

Now, now, coffee lovers (Pssst: I'm one too), don't fear: we have our ignorances about our drug, but they seem less serious than that for other drugs. I've tried to find some good studies that show how coffee is dangerous, but there doesn't seem to be much there. Au contraire, as a matter of fact. More below. 

But first, another drug as a diversion:
"Imagine if the Japanese had won World War II and had introduced into American life a drug so insidious that thirty years later the average American would spend five hours a day 'loaded' on this drug. People would just view it as an outrageous atrocity. And yet, we in America do this to ourselves. And the horrifying thing that the 'trip' that television gives you is that it's not your trip. It is a trip that comes down through the values systems of a society whose greatest god is the almighty dollar. So television is the opiate of the people. I think that the tremendous governmental resistance to the psychedelic issue is not because psychedelics are multi-million dollar criminal enterprises - they are trivial on that level. However, they inspire examination of values, and that is the most corrosive thing that can happen." - Terence McKenna, in an interview with Neville Drury from 1990, found pp.245-246, The Archaic Revival.

I like the TV as quasi-psychedelic opiate trip drug that's very addictive line here. I like the questioning of "whose trip do you want to be in: theirs or yours?" line from Terence here. I'm afraid not much thinking about TV has taken place. I've seen a few studies that show that university kids don't understand how those commercials got there. They don't know that the TV people tell the beer or toilet paper people, "We have a show that will deliver your desired demographic to you, and all it'll cost you is X." I also like the implication that, though it's almost totally not spoken about, drugs are programming devices that are seen as very powerful by different factions of powerful people. Terence thought the real reason psychedelics were illegal was that they threatened the paideuma.

[Sorry but I need to make a further foray away from our topic of the day, coffee. I'll get back in a moment.]

I wonder if this is the main reason Obama went back on his word and began harassing the medical pot places in a way that would have Bush43 proud? HERE is an article that posits the other main reasons why did this. The irony of paideuma! According to this article, it's either 1.)He didn't want to appear soft on crime; 2.) He thinks stoners don't vote; or 3.) The states appeared to be going too far, allowing things to become too lax. I think all of these could be "true" in some sense, but we ought to consider the unspoken "corrosive" "examination of values" that McKenna talked about.

Sooo: coffee.
                    I had no idea that coffee art was a...thingy. Check out
                     THIS blog for more coffee-art

"Coffee falls into the stomach and there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the Republic on the battlefield...The light cavalry of comparisons delivers charges, the artillery of logic hurries up with trains and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle begins and is concluded with torrents of black water, just like a battle with powder." - Honore de Balzac, who supposedly drank 80-100 cups of coffee a day, and wrote over 100 novels. He'd get paid for a novel and go out and spend it on whores and other interesting people in all-night carousing with alcohol and who knows what else. When his money was gone, he'd get back in his room with coffee and crank out another novel. Balzac was what we once called a "Romantic."

Speaking of similes, I was reading a cracking good book by a journalist very much interested in the botany of great cannabis. The book's called The Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race For the Cannabis Cup, by Mark Haskell Smith. Maybe I'll review it here when I'm done reading it, but anyway, similes:

Smith is wearing out shoe leather in LA, trying to understand the medical pot and politics current, and finds himself in a...consortium where there's some really good strains of cannabis being sampled, and a large-screen HD TV on, showing the Oscars. He's asking questions, getting stoned, writing notes, every now and then diverted by the TV:

"Demi Moore strutted her cougar stroll on the red carpet dressed in ruffled salmon-colored freak-out. The dress looked like a cake you'd order from an insane asylum." (p.22)

Oh yea: I was supposed to be writing something about coffee. Sorry!

Get a load of this, a coffee ad from the 1650s.

If you had been worrying about adverse health effects from drinking coffee, a recent article from The Atlantic attempts to put us at ease. Leg muscles and the diaphragm were strengthened in older mice! A decreased risk of basal cell carcinoma in humans! A decreased risk of death, especially if you quit smoking while you drink coffee! Coffee seems to have heart-protecting aspects. It reduces the risk of breast and prostate cancer and curbs risk of fibrosis among those with fatty liver disease. Even the moderate noise of a coffee shop was shown to enhance creativity!

Jeez, speaking of creativity, did you see where one of my favorite young hotshot science writers, Jonah Lehrer, was forced to quit The New Yorker when another magazine caught him making up fake Bob Dylan quotes for Lehrer's book, Imagine? HERE's a story on the temporarily-fallen Lehrer, a brilliant young guy, who, I "imagine" (HA!), got caught up in the dog-eat-dog welt of competitive "smart guy" writing in New York. I also imagine he was drinking too much coffee and maybe not thinking straight when he started piling up the prevarications to the writer from Tablet. Hey, wait: isn't Tablet a pro-Israel magazine? Has Jonah not been sufficiently supportive of Israel? Were they out to "get" Jonah? Naw, probably not. That's just my over-caffeinated mind making too many connections, and now I've noticed I've once again crazily strayed from the topic at hand.

But the infamous Jayson Blair has stepped into the Jonah Lehrer story and has hitched his junk-bond status as writer to former Golden Boy Jonah's...I'm guessing as a way to alleviate his own rep?

                               Right about now I know exactly what this guy means

"The perfect drug for capitalism. Is there an office anywhere that does not have its shrine to the coffee gods?" 

"On the other hand, it's not a bad beverage for anarchists. Or for town meetings."
-both above quotes from Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft, by Dale Pendell, to my mind the greatest writer in the world on drugs. If you're interested in any drugs of any kind, and you haven't settled down to dwell within one or more of Pendell's Pharmako trilogy, you're committing some sort of sloth, or violating the Drug Scholar's Code. Something like that...

Pendell taxonomically calls coffee part of the poison-world of excitantia. He gives very good reasons why.

Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson considered coffee a 3rd circuit drug. What that means is that, in the evolution of humans, we inherited a newborn's approach/avoidance circuit that relates to the amniotic world of mom, and its analog drug is opiates. As we become toddlers and start to command space in the local household, becoming political as Terrible Two-sters, making demands, attempting to manipulate others via emotional games, we imprinted a 2nd circuit, and its analog drug is alcohol. (Look at adults shit-faced drunk for the utmost clarity here.) Our species began to manipulate tools and language a long time ago, and this laid down the DNA-culture template for taking on a circuit about manipulating tools and symbols. Both Leary and Wilson saw coffee as the ultimate symbol of this symbol-manipulating drug. 

There are five more circuits, but I will exercise some control over my symbol-manipulating impulses, wildly charged on too much coffee for this blog post (as if you couldn't already tell!), and say that if you want to know more about the Leary/Wilson very elaborate hyper-multidisciplinary, generalist model of human consciousness, you'll have to read their books...

Olfactory Hallucinations
Weird coffee/caffeine item: some psychologists were wondering if, when people have panic attacks, how much of it is the brain doing something subconscious and how much has to do with thinking about - anxiety-provoking things? They injected sleeping subjects with fairly high doses of caffeine. A 38 year old man with no previous history of psychiatric problems awoke 14 minutes after the injection, reporting an odd taste, but more like an odor. A 34 year old woman with generalized anxiety disorder awoke after her injection and said she smelled plastic or "burnt coffee." These are called "olfactory hallucinations." The caffeine injected had no known odor. Olfactory hallucinations are related to seizures, but neither subject was having a seizure when they woke and reported the odors. 

Two hypotheses here:
1.) Caffeine is widely known as a taste enhancer, so maybe the injections of caffeine caused the subjects to pick up smells and tastes that are normally undetectable?
2.) The caffeine prompted sensory systems to "trick" themselves?
Who knows? Anyway, hat-tip to the wonderful Maggie Koeth-Baker of Boing Boing for this odd item.

The Turks: Two Items
Much has been written about the coffee houses of London and the flowering of (3rd-circuit) print culture, explosion of writing and printing. But HERE's an article from Science Daily about coffee and its environment and its stimulus to the socially-aggregated 3rd circuit, in the Turkish 1550s!

Sorry, but back to Obama and his war on pot: check out the Young Turks and their analysis. I currently (get it? they're on the Current network? <cough>) think they're more accurate than anyone else in the TV-world in their analysis of the Barackstar and his quasi-fascistic, retrograde actions against the dispensaries. Note that here is a fifth reason: Big Pharma's non-conspiracy (?):

Note to OG readers: sorry I hardly wrote anything of interest about coffee, but my excuse is: I was WASTED on too much coffee. Maybe I'll try again in August? Mea culpa!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Cosmic Schmuck Principle and Some of Its Family Resemblances

The Cosmic Schmuck Principle
Robert Anton Wilson minted the term "Cosmic Schmuck" in a similar spirit to Murphy's Law. The Cosmic Schmuck Principle seemed aimed at greater ethical behavior among the educated classes; I see this impetus in RAW as an influence from Ezra Pound and Confucius, and also Alfred Korzybski. Also: RAW wrote a lot about hearing and reading formulations like this while growing up:

An X (person or group) appears to have done something lousy.
Therefore all people who seem like Xes are suspect or bad or dangerous, or might do something lousy.

This formulation leads to incivility, bad ethics, injustices, violence, and even genocide. (Think of Hitler making the above statement, and replace X with Jews.)

Yes, but what is this thing called The Cosmic Schmuck Principle? It has to do with pretending to a level of certainty or knowledge that you are unlikely to have, and so you're acting like a schmuck. Oh, but let's have a concise statement from RAW:

The Cosmic Schmuck Principle holds that if you don't wake up, once a month at least, and realize you have recently been acting like a Cosmic Schmuck again, then you will probably go on acting like a Cosmic Schmuck forever; but if you do, occasionally, recognize your Cosmic Schmuckiness, you might begin to become a little less Schmucky than the general human average at this primitive stage of terrestrial evolution. - p. 21, Natural Law: Or Don't Put A Rubber On Your Willy
HERE is the text of this incredible little anarcho-libertarian pamphlet on epistemology at Scribd.

Another website excerpts more from the page(s) with the quote I used above; I link to it in the interests of context. I don't know who the man is in the photo. It is not RAW.

Nota bene and what I find very lovable in the Cosmic Schmuck Principle is that it's heavily implied that we are all schmucks, to some degree. And RAW would've acknowledged his own schmuckiness at times. This dovetails really well with the ideas about Wrongology from Kathryn Schulz, who I write about near the end of this piece...

One of the main tropes that runs through Wilson's entire oeuvre is the embracing of uncertainty; one reason being that, in his epistemology, given our nervous systems and how we're wired, coupled with what we've found in quantum mechanics, cultural anthropology, genetics, perception psychology and neuroscience, linguistics, and a whole host of other disciplines, we cannot know anything but the most trivial things for certain, and maybe not even these trivial things. And secondly, this is something to be embraced, not because it is inevitable and seems to have been built into the fabric of the weirdness of "reality," but because it enables us to live with a sense of deep wonder, which he once said was "all the religion we need."

It could be that Pyrrho the Skeptic was the first to advocate for something along these lines (after encountering some "naked wise men" in India?); there seems much to dispute here.

Other ideas that seem to bear a family resemblance in the Wittgensteinian sense: fallibalism, aspects of the sociology of knowledge, Eric Hoffer's "True Believer," and many other forms of social epistemology. I want to discuss - and maybe even elucidate - a few others here.

Richard Rorty and "Knowingness"
One of my favorite academic philosophers of the late 20th century (Rorty died in 2007 at the age of 75), Rorty thought the educated classes, especially via too much theory, had fallen into a trap he called "knowingness," which he may have gotten from someone else, possibly the literary critic Harold Bloom? Anyway, when I first read about knowingness in Rorty's sense it knocked me on my ass, and a definition has stuck in my neural circuits:

"Knowingness is a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe."

Think of the 23 year old grad student who thinks he's "seen it all." He hasn't. Not even close. He "knows" too much. A 23 year old grad student has hardly seen anything, but he is under the illusion he's seen it all. He has been trained to think analytically, and possibly over-analyzes everything, so that nothing is wonderful anymore. This seems born of a deep-seated fear, because another part of himself knows he hasn't experienced much of the world yet. Academics up to the age of 80 have been known to have fallen deeply into the slough of knowingness. It's pretentious to us, but for them, they have defended their knowledge in learned paper after learned paper. Who reads these papers? His colleagues and hardly anyone else. He lives in an academic bubble of knowingness, and many of his fellow academics are hyper-theoretizing and caught in the mire of knowingness also. Females are just as liable to this trap, this "state of soul," as men. It seems a lot like the Cosmic Schmuck Principle, but I seriously doubt Rorty ever read Wilson. They ran in different intellectual strata. But I think it would be a safe guess, were someone to have asked Wilson (who also died in 2007) if Cosmic Schmuckiness prevented  a shudder of awe, he'd say yes.

Likewise, I easily imagine Rorty, after reading his books and seeing interviews with him, that he'd embrace the idea of recognizing when you were pretending to know when you really didn't. His theory of truth - which was not a theory - was that truth was something that happened to an idea. And it happened because it was found to be good, pleasurable, helpful. When you're on that track - what helps you get through your days and nights with more humanity - I hazard that you're bending towards less schmuckiness, less knowingness already...

Rorty was often labeled a "neo-pragmatist." I think the Cosmic Schmuck Principle fits into the pragmatist (accused as "anti-philosophy" by some) project snugly.

When I read online about criticism of people between 18-30 who are thought of as "Hipsters," I get a vague whiff that their critics think the Hipsters have too much knowingness, or are Cosmic Schmucks. But because I'm still not sure what truly constitutes Hipster-hood, I will neither defend Hipsters nor join in the scorn. But above all, I don't want to play in the formulation near the top of this article ("An X appears to have done something lousy..."), as it's NEVER fair or just to do so. Moving on...

                        A hedgehog. This one is probably smarter than Thomas Friedman?

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1953 a famous essay on types of intellectuals, "The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History," and he drew upon the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In Daniel Kahneman's recent - astonishingly erudite, endlessly worthsomewhiles - book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he expounds on the Hedgehogs in our midst, the "experts" and (worse, to my eyes) the "pundits."

Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics (a fascinating story in itself), is the go-to guy for insight into our own biases, and how to stop acting like a sucker or Schmuck...even though it appears we're wired to fall into schmuckiness (not the word Kahneman uses!) by evolution.

"As Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability. Everything makes sense in hindsight, a fact that financial pundits exploit every evening, as they offer convincing accounts of the day's events. And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future." - p.218

Kahneman illustrates the role of chance in 20th century history: in very minute sections of time, the fertilized eggs that went on to become Mao, Hitler and Stalin had around a 50/50 chance of becoming females. And around 47 million people were murdered because of this chance. (My estimates, based on a few moments rustling around in some history books; Kahneman does not come up with a number in the text.)

[I may have taken tremendous liberty with this past example; I may have made something along the lines of an egregious error. If anyone would like to point it out, I would be happy to hear what that error might consist of. In other words: was I being a Cosmic Schmuck there? Or not? Or does my writing this bracketed paragraph somehow exonerate me from any Cosmic Schmuckery I may have been guilty of in the above paragraph? Are we in a Strange Loop right now?]

Daniel Kahneman then discusses Philip Tetlock's 20 year project of doing massive interviews and questionnaires with "experts" - pundits who forecasted about political and economic trends - and how these experts panned out, with hindsight. The results, which should be far better known than they are, show that these pundits performed, as Kahneman writes, "worse than they would have if they had assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes." (Tetlock got 80,000 predictions for very many questions that had respondents pick whether they think the status quo would remain, there would be more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of those things. Tetlock's book is Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about this very thing, quite amusingly, in The Black Swan: quite often, instead of asking your stockbroker for tips on how to invest in the market, you can ask a taxi cab driver and you'll end up with the same amount of money. Similarly, Tetlock is quoted: "In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals - distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on - are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in 'reading' emergent situations."

Tetlock falls back on Berlin's "Hedgehogs" when talking about "experts" and why we listen to them. Most of the pundits we see are not foxes - who know a lot of things - but "experts" who are loathe to admit when they were wrong, but when forced to admit their wrongness always have many ready-made excuses. They are dazzled by their own brilliance (to my mind the worst of the worst in Unistatian electronic corporate media are Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, not that you'd asked), and they're led astray not by what they believe but how they think. They have a coherent model of the world, and they worship that model. Robert Anton Wilson called this "modeltheism." If you show them they have been wrong in their predictions, they get angry and say they were off by a little bit, or the timing was a tad askew. As Kahneman writes, "They are opinionated and clear, which is exactly what television producers love to see on programs. Two hedgehogs on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary, makes for a good show." (p.220)

These Hedgehogs seem like cousins to the Cosmic Schmucks (look at the astounding level of schmuckiness attained by a guy like Rush Limbaugh!), and they seem far too knowing also, eh?

The take-away message? Take the punditocracy with a massive salt-lick, and be a Fox. (Or a non-overweening generalist?)

                                 Kathryn Schulz, who has a lot to say about being wrong

The Pessimistic Meta-Induction From The History Of Science
The wha? Get it straight, kids, from the sexy intellectual Kathryn Schulz. This same article is collected in the recent book This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts To Improve Your Thinking, pp.30-31. Most of the theories of the past have fallen by the wayside, so why do we, as Schulz says, grant ourselves "chronological exceptionalism"? When I ran across this bit in the book, I was reminded of John Horgan's book The End of Science, in which he asks very many of the biggest names in science whether we know about 99% of what there is to know, or maybe it's closer to 1%? Fascinating book, wonderful on the sociology of scientific intellectuals and the hard-to-pin-down field Horgan calls "limitology," and it's quite readable, with an ending that, for me, had a twist and was surprising. (Horgan's attitude toward his own question.)

I liked what blogger Roger E. Breisch had to say about the Pessimistic Meta-Induction From The History Of Science, and other of Schulz's ideas from her own book, Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margins of Error.

In my own reading of classics, I think I've seen variations of all of the above family members in the writings of Montaigne, and earlier, Lucretius. And still earlier, Epicurus. But I refuse to dogmatize about any of this and would rather declare that I think I've detected more than enough Cosmic Schmuckery in my own thinking and utterances lately...

Here's Kathryn Schulz, Wrongologist, talking about many of the ideas above. It's 4 mins and 19 seconds.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Aurora, Colorado: Personal Reflections and the Radical Subjectivity of Memories

[This blog post, while prompted by the Aurora/Batman massacre, is more about the author's memory and imagination. It's autobiographical and reflects only superficially on the heinous crime of a few days ago. - the OG]

Yet Another All-American Crazed Shooting Prompts the OG's Memory
I recently read that Al Franken's childhood partner in comedy writing/performing, Tom Davis, died at age 59. They later went on to concoct some surrealistic-goofy-psychedelic-inspired bits for the early version of Saturday Night Live. I'd read Davis's memoir, Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss. Davis said that, even before he'd begun his career as a heavy user of drugs, he'd had trouble remembering, and when he'd finished the first draft of the book (which came out in 2009), it was a total mess. Memory problems caused the jumble, or so I recall I inferred. So he and editors decided to order the book another way. I found a deep subtext in the book very sad, though it was written by a fairly cerebral comedian who mostly related anecdotes about people like Dan Ackroyd and Timothy Leary. I did learn that at least one of our 100 U.S. senators had done acid and liked it.

Tom Davis's many-year short-term memory problems: I'm a lot like that. I had a friend I've since lost contact with. He could recall where he was in just about any month and year. I'd say, "April of 1979?" and his eyes would slowly roll toward the ceiling, look off to the right a bit and he'd be silent for a few moments, then begin with where he lived, what he was doing (he was more than ten years older than me, but was a Fulbright Scholar), what events were happening around that time in his social world and then, world events.

My memory of childhood up to the time I began writing every day in a journal (September 1989), is totally unlike my friend's memory. My memory is dreamy, and I sometimes find myself encountering my brain throwing out odd snippets of memory from my childhood and I think, "Was that really me? Or am I imagining this happened?" "I think this happened before that happened, because of...wait...when did that happen? Or am I mixing up two different events?" This is one of the reasons I habitually chronicle my days now. But even logging the day's events and a few reflections in a journal - unless one writes a true diary, like Samuel Pepys or Anais Nin or other famous writers who wrote readable diaries - seems to miss the subjective chains of analog-feelings of that day. The gist, the poetic pith of experienced life at that time, is what I'm tryna say...As the years wag on, those earlier days seem so much more...fictional to me. But they weren't!

When my parents separated, my brothers and I were given the choice of staying with mom, in suburban Los Angeles, where we'd grown up, or relocating to Aurora, Colorado, where my dad had moved. I spent my 16th and 17th years in Aurora.

Reading About the Aurora Massacre and Trying To "Place" It All, Given My Fallible Memory
I'm an extreme owl, so I was wide awake when the news that the midnight showing of the new Batman flick in Aurora had witnessed an unspeakably horrific bloodbath, for "reasons" we're still trying to figure out.

I was working on a few other projects, but the idea of Aurora kept haunting me. Those years when I was 16 and 17, utterly lost, infused my consciousness. Disparate snippets of memory flitted through my mind, and those prompted others. One tries to make things cohere, without invention. I had not thought much about my time there. Why? I don't know. It seems like that kid was someone else. Yes, I admit some sort of quasi-depersonalization here. I guess I needed my dad at 16. I'd come from sunny smoggy temperate LA 'burbs to some section of the country I had no idea about, except Denver was a Big City, and it was a mile high, literally. And that it would snow, and I'd never lived anywhere it snowed.

I had very long hair and was, at 16, about 120 pounds and maybe 5 foot 9. (I was a very late bloomer who didn't max out at his present height of six feet until age 20.) All of my friends in California had long hair. All of them. Look at a picture of the guys in Aerosmith from around 1977: we all wanted to look that cool. We were desperate, delusional, suburban. In Aurora, I quickly found that you're either a Freak or a Jock. My hair meant immediately I was a Freak. It's not that the Jocks beat the shit out of us (although I'm sure that happened); it was more like they didn't even acknowledge our existence. A Jock doesn't want to be seen by other Jocks talking to a Freak. I remember them not making eye contact with me. (Although...<ahem> funny story: I was once arrested with a well-known Jock, but now is not the time to go into it.)

I remember the Jocks well. Sports is almost a religious pursuit in Aurora, and the Jocks all had buzz cuts or very short hair, and lifted weights, played on the teams. The girls could be cheerleaders, flag carriers, pom-pom girls, and members of about two or three other Jock-like groups. It was important for a kid to feel they belonged to the right group. The Jocks owned the school. I was not in their world, and Freaks and Jocks occupied entirely separate worlds. All in all I think, in my dim emotional memory of Aurora, that it was basically dominated by WASP-y rednecks. (I think the demographic has gotten much more African-American since I left.)

I had a best friend and few others. But then I'd always been the kind of kid who had one really close friend, and we spent almost all our time together. I remember we took a badminton class together at Aurora's Gateway High. When you go to high school in Aurora - or at least when I went there - the day's almost entirely indoors. I'd grown up spending a good part of all my school days outdoors, when it was sunny and warm year-round. How odd to go to a high school so overwhelmingly carpeted.

In this badminton class, one fine - probably snowy - day, my best friend and another Freak decided to slip away into the area of the gym between the outside and the inside: you leave the gym via heavy doors and enter a small, dark cramped space filled with chairs piled up, and gym equipment, folding tables, etc. Possibly a locked door leading to a box office. Another set of heavy doors lead to the outdoors. We thought this was a safe place to smoke some pot before we returned to hit the birdie with the Jocks and some pretty girls who'd have nothing to do with us because we were Freaks. A gym teacher - a former Mr. Canada winner in bodybuilding, a Mr Demski with a 50-inch chest - caught us and we were suspended for a week. Which was a relief. My dad knew it, too. And when it came down to it, I acquiesced to the vice-principle at Gateway High School, who thought I'd be better off in the "continuation" school across town. With all the other Freaks. So I did that.

Dream-like Memory and Psychogeography of Aurora
Often we'd skip school and play pinball all day at one of the two vast indoor shopping malls. The police would often kill an hour of their day by stopping us, asking what we were doing, why we weren't in school, where did we live, where are our parents, why do we look so strange, etc. They'd act like they were going to arrest us. On what charges? Minors, loitering, truancy, acting suspiciously and there had been some crime in the area we had nothing to do with. Now I realize we were a good way for them to kill some time. We didn't have cars and hitch-hiked almost anywhere. Often some adult that picked us up had pot to smoke, or wanted some of ours. We'd "thumb it" to Del Mar Park, and sit around on a picnic bench and smoke dope and listen to older hippies with names like "Pinky" (who was a legend, I can't remember why) regale us with tales and knowledge, things we couldn't possibly learn in school. I remember a lot of learned arguments about who were the better rock guitarists: David Gilmour, Ted Nugent, Frank Marino, Robin Trower, or Hendrix. I brought up Jimmy Page and got shot down as a novice, not a valid connoisseur of lead breaks. Van Halen would explode in a year or so; Pinky and his friends had never heard him at this point. Anyway...

The first day I had to go to the new giant high school (where you must be either a Freak or a Jock), I didn't know anyone. It was terrifying. A bus picked up the kids in the neighborhood and drove them the three or four miles to the school. But because the weather was fine and I didn't know anyone on the bus, I chose to walk. I even chose to walk home, though I'd gotten to know some kids in my neighborhood and they strongly urged me to take the bus with them. Walking was a way to be with my interiority. Then, a blizzard hit one day during school hours. I had on long underwear, jeans, two pairs of socks, and heavy boots, like all the kids. And a big down jacket and woolen hat. I thought I could make it home, no problem. I had never lived where it snowed.

Walking home, alone, in a blizzard? I got lost. I couldn't see the horizon. At the time, Aurora was filled with neighborhoods west of I-225, but east of it: vast stretches of flat fields, covered in what looked to me like wheat, but wasn't. I knew if I followed a main drag, Mississippi, I'd hit the big new middle school and its very large flat open fields of grass that surrounded it. I usually cut through the fields to get to my neighborhood. I was disoriented; in the white-out and blowing snow-cold I couldn't tell how far I'd been walking, and I couldn't see anything on the horizon. Few cars were on the road, and the road was covered in snow, so I at times wasn't sure I was even headed in the right direction. I began to panic. Oh, why didn't I get on the bus? I'd be home by now, in our brick house, warming up by the heat-vent, watching old re-runs of the 1950s Superman show with George Reeves, who died by gunshot at 45, officially a suicide, although some suspect murder or an accident. That show had the worst actors I'd ever seen on TV, so I was naturally fascinated.

I remember hearing the traffic for I-225, which was below a bridge that I walked over. Then, I happened onto the middle school. If I could just navigate through the blowing snow and wind across the field, I'd make it.

But the snow picked up. I was freezing, the snow was high and my walking very slow. You sink with every step in the piles of new snow. Every step is a minor digging out of the previous one before you take another step. I was starting to think I wouldn't make it. My face felt frozen, the wind was loud and swirling (as I remember it). In the field, I lost my way. I couldn't orient by sight. But I knew I had to keep walking or probably die. They say people fall asleep in the snow and cold and die peacefully, but I think my dad would be really upset if he had to tell my mom I'd died walking home from school in a blizzard. I was both scared and embarrassed at my naivete. All the other kids were wise to blizzards, having grown up with them. I had never thought a three or four mile walk could be so treacherous. Especially a flat walk.

There are very few hills in Aurora. The flatness was somehow menacing. In the many years since then, when I've thought of my years in Aurora, the flatness of it now seems like a distinctive feature that somehow relates to the meanness I encountered there, and the hardened sex-role stereotypes that the kids all adhered to. But I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just my nervous systems's groping to storify, to make sense of my past. But maybe flatness and vast tracts of open fields, as far as the eye can see, do effect the "character structure" or "local consciousness" of the populace and maybe the flatness and the six months or so of intermittent freeze-your-ass-off have something to do with the psychogeography I experienced. Or maybe it's certain gene pools that ended up there. Or all of the above and seventeen - thousand other things? (Then again, there were some awfully nice people. People who were nice even to a stick-figured and mentally ethereal 16 year old kid with a massive mop of hair. I do not wish to make things more simple than they need be.)

I remember seeing the houses lining Troy Street and knowing I was going to make it. When I got home, I felt euphoric. I remember taking my pants off and they were near-frozen; they began to stand up against the wall near the heater, then crumpled, as if exhausted.

Revisiting the Old Neighborhood(s) Using Google Street Scene Maps
Oh, my. I remember moving back to my hometown for my senior year in high school. My friends wanted to know what "Colorado" was like. They laughed when I told them that most kids there, when they found out I was from "California" immediately assumed all we did was surf all day.

I'm sure most of you have done something similar: after the Aurora shooting, with the concomitant cascade of memory shards flowing through my nervous system, I decided to look up my old address and "see" it via Google's street map thing, which, I can't get over it: is really trippy to me. I looked at my old house. I haven't been back there in nearly 30 years. It looked different, but pretty much how I remembered it. There were those gutters, so unlike the ones I grew up with in LA. I remember stepping into the gutters in the morning after a snow, and the ice would crack and you'd hear it continue to crack all the way down the street, punctuated with a few periods of silence. I "traveled" down the street via Google and took the route I would have if I walked to that high school (Gateway) that carried so many unpleasant memories for me. It's not far from where the shooting took place. What was staggering to me: all of those vast open wheat-like fields were now tract houses, Best Buy, Chuck-E-Cheese: the franchises that grow in suburban Unistat like bacteria in optimal, petri-dish conditions. No open space was left. It had been almost all open space, or as the capitalist mind says: "undeveloped." ("Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey, if I remember correctly.) I tried to imagine how different my blizzard-walk-home would have been now. I found it hard to reconcile my longtime psychogeographic memories of the space between home and school, and what it looked like now. As I write this, I remember the feelings I had, using Google's amazing mapping technology in the hours after the shooting, and what a bygone era for Aurora I have, carrying around in circuits of neural pathways in my brain.

I can't say I was surprised about the development, intellectually. We all know this is What Happens. When I left Aurora for good, never to return, I recalled reading that it was the fastest-growing city in Unistat at the time. Indeed, it has doubled in population size since I lived there. There are now 325,000 or so. When I lived there, there were two high schools, but they were planning to build three more very quickly. And they have. They did. It's to be expected. And yet my perceptions were jarred. I had had "my" Aurora, one which I thought about fleetingly over the years, as if it were a dream. And in some sense, it may as well be a dream...

Late July and August in Aurora - this time of year - the weather is so beautiful! It'll be 74 degrees and dry and sunny and the Rockies are in 3-D, framing the western horizon, and you want to throw a frisbee in the park all day long and look at girls. And then an odd thing often happens: suddenly a carpet of high dark clouds appears off towards the Rockies. These clouds roll in, darken the sky, and it stays pleasantly warm at 4 in the afternoon, but it hails for 15 minutes, then almost as suddenly, the clouds have moved on, and the sun begins to set, and it's beautiful...the small hailstones now melted into the ground. I don't know if it only did this, sorta freakishly, when I lived there, but I do remember this as magical.

                     Here's a shot of the interior of Cinderella City, Englewood, Colorado.
                     It's near Littleton, and when I lived in Aurora, it was the largest 
                     indoor mall in the US. I ate some tainted cheese at their Taco Bueno
                     and got Salmonella Heidelberg, was in the hospital for nine days, 
                     and was discharged at 79 pounds, after nearly dying. Not that you'd

Littleton and Aurora and Colorado Springs: I Have No Analysis
A few blogs back, I wrote about the poet Noel Black. He'd gone to school and tried to "make it" in San Francisco and Brooklyn, but eventually made his way back to hometown Colorado Springs, where, poet-maverick that he is, is not only where he grew up, but where he'd still like to be, despite it being one of the most right-wing places in Unistat. He thinks the city needs people like him, and I think he's probably right. He faces animosity there, but he's a psychologically tough guy, having been raised by a lesbian mother and a father who died of AIDS. Black is made of sterner stuff than I; I grew up in a very conservative town in the sprawling 'burbs of Los Angeles and, though my father has since relocated back and lives there, I find it creepy to visit. They probably need people like me, but I am too cowardly to volunteer...What am I? Some sorta martyr? Not that I'm calling Noel Black a martyr...

Back to my memories of Aurora and Colorado.

My father was an outside salesman, which meant he drove a lot and took clients out to lunch, made deals. Once every couple of weeks - as I remember it - he had to drive to Colorado Springs. It was a long drive from Aurora. I remember him telling me I might have a rough time if I lived in Colorado Springs. This was around 30 years ago. I didn't understand immediately what he meant, but he implied they don't like skinny young guys with hair down past the middle of their back there. Now when I think of it, I find it hard to believe I was once so sheltered and naive. Apparently, Aurora was a nice place to weirdos like myself, compared to Colorado Springs.

When my parents were still together, in the suburbs near Pasadena, my brother and I knew two other boys that were our age. We shared baseball card collecting as a boyhood fascination. I remember their dad was a long-distance trucker who was gone for long periods. Eventually, they moved to Colorado, a year or two before my dad moved there. Five or so years later, when my brother and I moved to Aurora, my dad said he'd found where my childhood friends lived, in Littleton. He looked them up in the book, called their mom, and asked if it was okay if he brought us down to see her kids. A sort of reunion. My dad drove us to Littleton - not that far from Aurora - and dropped us off, saying he'd pick us up in a few hours. My memory of that day is hazy, but I do remember that the brothers seemed to be forcing it in embracing us and the memory of their old lives in California. They asked my brother and I if we wanted to go cruising. We said sure. They weren't old enough to drive, but they had a car, and somehow, they were driving.

We ended up sitting in the back seat while the two brothers of our childhood, and a friend of theirs, sat in front. They all scared me. Somehow these sweet brothers had, in five years, turned into some sort of white trash gangsters. I remember seeing a gun. I remember something about lots of undying animosity to the blacks in town. Our sweet boyhood friends had morphed into something I'd never encountered: juvenile delinquents with the potential for violence. We drove around the lower-middle class suburbs of Littleton, aimlessly, stopping every now and then so my old friends could talk to someone, without getting out of the car. I don't know if they were dealing. Maybe. I was too naive to understand what was going on. I remember wishing my dad had not contacted them. I was out of my element. I didn't even know how to fake being "cool" around these guys, who I can't believe I had known as such innocent, sweet, goofy, fun-loving kids only five years ago.

My dad, on the drive back, asked us if it was good to see our old friends, and I think I said yea, it was great. The way I remember this episode: I didn't have the language to tell my dad what I was feeling, so I let him know he'd been a good dad for reuniting us.

When Columbine happened, I was forced to think of that day again.

I have no decent analysis about my psychogeographic memories of Aurora and Littleton and their now-infamous massacres. All I can say is I don't understand why a citizen should be able to own an assault rifle. (And that, unfortunately, the NRA has far too much lobbying power in Unistat, a trivial observation at best.) All I feel I can predict with near-certainty is that We will finally have a serious national dialogue on guns and violence, until we forget about it in about six weeks, and then the next crazed shooter goes off, probably around Thanksgiving.

This is just one way some of my memory seems to work. Errr...how 'bout yours?

Here's Nobelist Daniel Kahneman, ostensibly talking about the cognitive "problem" of happiness, something we all want. I think he has some absolutely fascinating things to say about our experienced selves versus our remembered selves. It's 21 minutes, but, I think, "worth it" (<------that "time as money"metaphor yet again!), if you have the time:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Spitballin' Over A New (To Me) Public Health Scare

What's that old saying that (maybe?) was concocted during the rise of totalitarian states? "That which is not forbidden is compulsory."? Or is it "If it's not compulsory, it's forbidden."? Kafka seems to have taken this notion a smidgen further in some of his immortal werks, giving us the impression that you can't even know what's forbidden or compulsory: you wait for the State to knock on your door and they tell you. That Kafka! Such an imagination!

For hypochondriacs like myself, reading about health issues - even and especially health issues of more urgent concern for others - over an extended time can lead me down a similar one-way, no-exit blind alley, and recently I ran up against a doozy.

Sitting Can Kill: It's Like Smoking
Yep. Plug in "sitting down and smoking health risk" into your favorite search engine and sit back...I mean stand up...and drink it all in. Sitting is a hot topic among some researchers, and sometimes I suspect they're having us on. Get this: according to one study, and another one, sitting for more than six hours a day - in any form (at work, watching TV, in a car, etc) - is linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity (surprise!), chronic back pain, muscle weakness, posture problems, and early death.

                         Who knew this poor dear pretty thing is slowly inching toward death,
                         AKA, The Big Dirt Nap? It's tough to look at. Avert your eyes! It's 
                         just so...sad!

Now, there are a lot of studies on sitting, and as I read them - all in the midst of a good, long day of sitting on my ass reading books and some articles on my MacBook - I tended to lose track of who did which study; the anxiety and absurdity of it all - that I have spent most of my life, slowly committing suicide all the while thinking I was enjoying a languid life of modernity...it was too much.

All those hours I've sat! I think it was the Institute for Medicine and Public Health, but the anxiety had built so much by then, my ears were ringing, I think I was having palpitations - and I was sitting while reading this schtuff! - The Institute said that, of 6300 people polled, most people spent around 56 hours a week sitting. Lemme see. There's seven days in a week. Seven goes into 56...carry the nine...damn I wish I was better at math...do you need to divide by pi? I forget...Let's just say we spend around eight (8) hours a day sitting, in one way or another. Let's face it: that's a lot of ass-time, folks.

Some of my favorite times of my life were spent sitting. I remember when I first saw Citizen Kane. I sat through it all, oblivious that I was killing myself. There was a time I attended a semi-formal sit-down dinner with many sexy, witty people. We were such fools! We were so totally unsuspecting!

American College of Cardiology: more bringers of bad news for those of us who sit. 54% of people who sit more than six hours a day are likely to die of a heart attack...within 15 years of the moment you read this, or something like that. If I seem something less than the Ideal Reporter here, it's 'cuz this whole sitting story has me dizzy, and I should go lie down, if only because it's better than sitting. I already spend 1/3 of my life there anyway (lying down).

Prof. Marc Hamilton, a physiologist at a biomedical research lab in Louisiana, wrote in the journal Diabetes in November, 2007, "The dire concern for the future may rest with growing numbers unaware of the potential insidious dangers of sitting too much." It's been almost five years since Prof. Hamilton wrote that, and even though I think of myself as someone who "reads everything," I'm only now becoming aware of the insidious dangers. How many more of us are sitting...as you read this!!!

                            Not a pic of me, but a graphic representation of the inner turmoil
                            I feel upon learning of the dangers of sitting, and I'm sitting now!

Another quote from Prof. Hamilton, gleaned from this ABC News article (with video) that shows a bunch of office worker-saps at their nadir - trying to get the corporate work done for Massa by standing at something called a "standing desk" and walking on treadmills - the Hamilton quote: "Smoking and sitting too much have some striking parallels. Decades ago smoking was so common that everyone perceived that...not only was it acceptable behavior, but that there was safety in numbers."

Not much more one can add to that!

What Happens When We Just Sit There
Well, we know that breathing - respiration - causes oxidation. We "rust" inside. No amount of antioxidants is gonna win that battle. Breathing is simply insidious, I tells ya. May as well be sitting while enjoying a few tall, cool, breaths. No one - except Ray Kurzweil - lives forever. I figure, what the hell? Enjoy ourselves while we're here. Have a smoke, maybe? A drink? What's your poison? Have a seat!

So the Dangers of Sitting: as soon as you sit your body goes into "storage mode." We inherited this from our ancestors, who had a tough time remembering when you asked them, "When was the last time you sat?" These ancestors - chances are very good you're related to 'em - were always out working all day, hunting game for the tribe, or farming. They had bodies like gods, or they were starving to death. Sometimes both within a period of 18 months. When they relaxed and pulled up a chair, their bodies really needed to go into storage mode. Ours? Not so much. Immediately, the leg muscles get their electrical current shut off. We go into hibernation mode, and, sitting, burn a whopping one (1) calorie per minute. I assume two or three per minute if you're sitting and fidgeting unnerved with worry because you just found out that sitting kills.

An enzyme that burns fat - lipase - drops in effectiveness by 90%. Pretty much as soon as you plop down and "take a load off." And we are a load, lemme tell you...But I'd rather not. Okay: One in three Unistatians is overweight, many of those ones obese, morbidly obese, and even Reality TV Show Obese.

What To Do?
It came quick. We never saw it coming, in a way. So maybe we're relatively blameless. For 99.99% of our time as hominids, Life Was Hard. Not much to sit for. Then, just a few seconds ago in the longue duree of Epochs, we got TV, La-Z-Boys, beanbag chairs, stereophonic sound, Internet, and scads of other things of comfort to muscles. Absence of toil. A surrealistically easy access to fat and sugar. And BLAMMO: we're a buncha lardasses, sitting and smoking, eating french fries while enjoying a marathon of Mad Men. I say we're blameless. Our paleolithic forebears would've done the same!

We just got capital ell Lucky in the History Sweepstakes.

Allow your imagination, distributed throughout your nervous system, based in your brain, housed in your cranium, bathed in warm, nutrient-rich cerebrospinal fluids and oxygenated blood...allow that imagination to relax unencumbered by basic biological needs. It's all there, on the tray in front of you. Just sit and read, or watch amazing shows. Enjoy the dip. Do you like cookies? Have one! Entertainment! Even our early paleo ancestors sought to modulate their inner states. Hence that Olde Time Religion: sex and drugs, drinking and dancing, drumming. Then, later: Gee Oh Dee...but we still had fun in our off-hours nonetheless.

                   This poor sap will never see it comin.' Will you tell him he's killing himself?
                   I sure won't. He'll find out soon enough. I wonder if he has Sitter's Insurance?

So, what are we to make of this new health scare? I feel we're doomed. Oh, sure, one study shows that people who sit for three hours or less per day lived an average of two years longer, but fer crissakes: how could all that gawdawful standing and pacing and running-around be worth the extra two years when there's such a kaleidoscope of joys to be had, sitting and eating and watching shows. And reading and talking and daydreaming, all while sitting. Do you daydream while lying down? I don't. If you do, fine. When I lie down, I tend to sleep, or doze, or do other things delightfully primal. But no daydreaming.

Hey, I love to walk and ride my bike. I do yoga and it's greatly rewarding. It feels good. But I also sit for at least six hours a day (not that I've begun counting), so I'm doomed. But I'll be going out in style. A heart-attack or cancer? Probably. But am I going to give up Turner Classic Movies? Sitting and reading James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Anton Wilson, science fiction, and phenomenological sociology? Sitting for hours engaged herbivorously with friends, quaffing ales and laffing? Nooo way! I'd rather be dead than give any of that up! Sitting is my birth-right! I'll sit until they carry me out - reclining - in a pine box. (Am I over-reacting?)

Ladies and germs, we start 'em off young, in high-chairs. They think it's "normal" by age seven! I guess what all this has been leading up to is: Good lawd! Who will tell the children?

We're all hopelessly addicted. These news stories about the dangers of sitting are too much, and I won't take them lying down. I'll take them square on the chin, as I sit here, grinning in the face of death, a bit of chocolate syrup having escaped the corner of my mouth, dribbling down into my beanbag. Take THAT!..."reality"?

As one who laffs in the face of Death, I humbly submit to my Dear Readers that I wrote this entire spew while SITTING! My extremities barely moved for about 75 minutes, the blood pooling up ominously near my mid-thorax, no electrical current flowing through any of the networks of nerves forming the off-ramps of my tibia. And you know what? I couldn't care less! (If you don't see another OG post for seven days or more, I've probably died of a heart attack worrying about sitting too much.) If I were not to be cremated (my wish), I would have these words put on my headstone, and the OG readers would know its deeper meaning:

                                    He Could Stand No More

Some Sources:
Is Sitting A Lethal Activity?
Sitting May Lower Life Expectancy, But It's So Comfortable
Is Sitting As Dangerous As Smoking?
The Dangers of Sitting At Work - And Standing

Thursday, July 12, 2012

John B. Calhoun, Digital Media and Relative Sanity: Media Hygiene

Ironist-Ethologist John B. Calhoun: Some Background
Have you ever read science fiction writer John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar? What about Tom Wolfe's non-fiction "New Journalism" book, The Pump House Gang? Ever seen a film called Soylent Green? (Of course you have! Enjoy your next meal...) Did you ever read (or read about) Dr. Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb? He appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in the 1960s, with his grim neo-Malthusian message about how overpopulation will cause famine, deplete our water resources, and we'd all die, doomed and sick, panicky and screamy and just tremendously bothered, sorta like a horror film. Sorta like Soylent Green. Ehrlich's appearance on the TV, with dire fnord messages made his book an instant best-seller.

(Hint to writers prospecting for writing gold: write a book on how we're all gonna die monstrously horrible deaths because we're not paying attention to something. Use a modicum of statistics, but use imagery like a novelist. You may be livin' on Easy Street before you know it! Then you and I and everyone we love will die in some catastrophe that had nothing to do with the one you warned about in your book. Your Thing was Bird Flu; what really wiped the humans out was an errant asteroid. It's a Win-Win for you [selling a lot of books] and the asteroid [gets to annihilate an advanced civilization, or pull off a "Milky Way Hit Job," as they say at Galactic Central]. You heard it here first!)

So yea: there was this ethologist named John B. Calhoun. Some of you Unistatian history buffs will know about John C. Calhoun. This middle initial B dude was quite different. He built what he called "utopias" for rodent populations, then sat back and watched them reproduce, interact, raise their young, etc, took feverish notes, tabulated his data, did it again and again. His work influenced all the books and the film (and many others, no doubt) I mentioned above. Some sources say Calhoun's term "behavioral sink" - which I think qualifies for what literary critic Harold Bloom called "strong poetry" - has become widely known, although in my experience with highly educated people, 2011-2012, few have heard the term. So I'll put some flesh on it for you, if you don't mind.

                       habit-trail for rodents: sorta between our City and a rabbit's warren?

The people most likely to know "behavioral sink" would be urban sociologists. What Calhoun found was that, when a utopian spatial set-up for rodents - everything they need to be "happy" and which he actually, with a wry smile, labeled as "heaven" - reaches a population density of X, things start to go rapidly downhill toward dystopia. Social norms break down, rodents get aggressive, narcissistic, they die earlier, they fail to pass their genes on, and when they do pass their genes on, they're bad parents. They also have weird sex and abuse drugs and eat too much. Some theorists have said that it's not so much the geometrical space - now cramped to the Xth point - which is bringing on this behavior, but it's the overabundance of social interactions that drives them nuts.

(Remember: we ARE talking about rodents, as studied in a non-Skinnerian way: a set-up that initially, rodents would prefer, in an environment as close to what they'd make themselves, in as natural a setting as possible. And FULL DISCLOSURE: I happen to enjoy some drugs and alcohol and weird sex, and again, I'm not even on Facebook or Twitter and I'm not a rodent to boot. I DO see short attention spans and very deep shallows in more places now, tons of stupidity among people with historically unparalleled access to Information, and lots of indifference to suffering, but am still not totally sold on Calhoun's rodents-to-humans idea. However, he did think that too many/a high frequency of bad social interactions drive things down the Sink, whereas his more famous followers - like Ehrlich - thought population density depleted water and food, and that will do us in. Calhoun thought the social stuff was enough to send us over. I worry that he's more accurate than I'd thought. Moreover, subsequent urban theorists have had some problems with Calhoun's findings, while still thinking he was on to something. Let this all-too-typical parenthetical by the OG constitute an "interlude"? Very well then. Let's move on.) 

Try and tell me you weren't thinking of humans there. No big deal: that's what we do. We try to relate almost everything to how it might bear on our lives. Any questions so far?

Yea, the list of items Calhoun saw among rodents when "utopia" devolved into a "behavioral sink" seems a might close to home, eh? I forgot to mention the rodents, when socially crowded beyond equilibrium, got stressed-out physical illnesses, developed psychosomatic symptoms, and mental illness.

John B. Calhoun was once a big deal, but the vagaries of time and the hyper-mega-turbulent acceleration of ideas, knowledge, and media noise seems to have crowded him out since his heyday: circa 1948-72. Those dystopian books and movies neglected to emphasize an aspect of Calhoun's thought: he was an Ironist among social scientists. He was dismayed that those who were influenced by him were so starkly pessimistic. Because Calhoun wasn't. He believed in the creative ability of humans (let's face it: you study rodents like crazy to learn about humans) to solve their Big Problems. And he thought we needed to seek out what he called "creative deviants" in order to, among other solution-oriented ideas, COLONIZE SPACE!

Gadget Addiction and Social Interaction Quality
We live in a world in which some people have the job description of "Information Management Expert." Increasingly, in meeting harried and frazzled clients, they caution that drinking digital information from a fire hydrant is bound to cause the sanest, best-grounded of us to make our brains feel like expired tapioca, our bodies like losing fighters in a Bruce Lee flick, our affects and outlooks on the world like someone being told their dog just died. Must it be like this? Apparently, yes.

Now: I know YOU have kept things in balance. You are "on the ball," but you know others who fit the description. And most importantly: you care. That's why you're here, reading this. It's just the Big-Hearted Person you are. You can't help it. Born that way. It's simply the way you roll. Ya gotsa do what ya gotsa do. Hey, I hear ya. How does anyone ever get by without Us around? Am I right? <cough>

In earlier blogspewage I'd written about the obesity epidemic. Part of the deeply structured reason we have the Problem is because, historically, sugar and fat are cheap and bountiful, whereas for 99% of our time as hominids, that stuff - which we need to stay sharp - was a total SCORE, and everyone in the wandering extended-family band society rejoiced: a bit of honey! Some meat from a large mammal! Now you drive thru Burger King. Same with information. Access to social Others is a bit complex.

In this article about whether Internet Compulsion Disorder should be included in the upcoming DSM-V, we see the classic instant gratification via dopamine-circuit-buzz dealio described. 

Here's an article that compares the Roman writer Petronius (he of the incredible "Dinner With Trimalchio") and surfeit of food, to our surfeit of information. Note the grad student who talks about life online as feeling less like a thinking, feeling human and more like a rat who must press the button for another pellet, forgetting why...Gluttony Going Viral indeed.

Oh, my. It would be easy to link another 400 articles here, related to digital media and addiction. Hey, I'm not immune. Maybe it's the deeper reason why - other than the surface reasons I tell myself - that I'm not on Facebook or Twitter? A social connection, however mediated, and depending on the individual's eccentric nervous system and his/her - to borrow from William S. Burroughs - algebra of need - gives a dopamine reward nod. And for very many of us, this is enough. But then look at how Calhoun's rodents reacted when their social space was crowded. This brings me to a related idea, Neophilia and Neophobia.

                                    Winifred Gallagher, behavioral science writer

Leary and Calhoun
Before personal computers and cell phones - much less Facebook, Twitter, iPads, Siri, X-Box, et.al - Timothy Leary was a technophilic neophile, who saw the pending Internet as a boon (and...it has been, right?) and would be the new LSD. I think he turned out to be basically right. We would live in a "virtual reality" and it would be so interesting that we wouldn't need psychedelic drugs: the new media would be psychedelic itself. And Jaron Lanier - for my money, one of the most interesting geniuses on the planet - pioneered virtual reality. And a young person very much influenced by Leary, Douglas Rushkoff, declared that the counterculture had "won;" the ideas ushered in by Baby Boomers had become mainstream.

And yet, in Winifred Gallagher's terrific 2011 book on neophilia and its discontents, New: Understanding Our Need For Novelty and Change, she cites the other side of Leary's neophilic enthusiasm by invoking...John B. Calhoun, citing his idea of the "behavioral sink" and that, yes, we have increased creativity, communication, ideas and access to information, but what has/will also accelerate is the number of social roles we'll be forced to play, and that things are moving too fast for us to learn how to get a handle. We'll have more competition, negative encounters, and a general dissatisfaction with daily life. Gallagher quotes Calhoun, "Everything is coming at us fast and faster, yet we can't even learn from our experiences unless we have refractory periods to digest them in." (p.169)

This "refractory period" is part of the OG's raison d'etre. I baldly state: we need more quiet, non-electronically-mediated face-to-face communication/interaction with others and we need more time alone in our interiorities, reading stimulating and challenging books. So by my own logic, stop reading my blog! (Waitaminnit: that can't be right...) All the gadgets are fine, but many of us are getting carried away. (Hey you! Are you reading this on a tablet computer while texting someone on the subway? Pay attention! You don't want to miss your stop like you did that one time.) I also think Douglas Rushkoff is right: just as in the Axial Age the very few rabbis or monks read the books to the rest of us, and a very few wrote the books while the rest of us read them post-Gutenberg, we need to learn to program like the programmers and not just consume their programmed gadgets, which have inherent biases in them. I have not taken up programming. The weak version of Rushkoff's advocation of being a "programmer" is to actively seek out and expose the biases of our gadgets. This I enjoy doing.

I am NOT against all our wonderful gadgets. I am for much more thinking about what makes us happy, though. I despise the Bewildered Herd. Making the decision to question how we're being programmed may be a crucial one. Things seem to be accelerating logarithmically, and no one is in control; it cannot be stopped. But we can modify our choices. Am I preaching to the choir here? I suspect so...

M.I.T. scholar of social media and technology in general and internet in particular and how it affects us, Sherry Turkle, wrote books on the exciting possibilities for individuality and the play with identity. That was ten years ago. Now, her latest book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. The title gives the gist.

Jaron Lanier's 2009 book You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, is cited as "essential reading" in Douglas Rushkoff's 2010 book Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commands For A Digital Age. I consider Rushkoff's to be THE manifesto for those of you worried about our digital algorithms increasingly programming us, and how to wrest something human back for ourselves, for our sanity. Then read Lanier. Then read their influences and the books in their bibliographies. 

I wonder where Uncle Tim would be on this issue if he were here today?

Or: just say fuck it, and go write on your Facebook wall about LAME blogging jeremiahs and how BORING they are.

My adrenal glands are faxing to my liver and heart, my hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis has gone into fight/flight/feed/fuck mode, so I will bid my Dear Readers adieu for today.

Here's Sherry Turkle for 6 minutes and 17 seconds (not that you "have" that much time!), on Facebook and privacy and cell phones at the dinner table and other things:

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Trust Me On This: Deception, Biology, Politics

"Reality is the temporary resultant of the struggle between rival gangs of programmers." - Robert Anton Wilson

When I was 16 I lived with my father just outside of Denver, and he and his childhood friend and drinking buddy got into watching pro-wrestling on TV. The absurdity and theatricality of it all made them howl with laughter. Later I attended a few live shows in downtown Denver, and was struck by the idea that a few people sitting near us seemed to believe the "matches" were on the up-and-up.

Later I read then-structuralist Roland Barthes's Mythologies (I should say I tried to read Barthes, but the  epistemological [semiotic] assumptions - derived from Ferdinand de Saussure, who I had not read at the time - rendered much of Barthes's work opaque to me) and this 1957 book had an essay on pro wrestling, which I'll link to here, if anyone is interested. Barthes contrasted boxing - in which the thrust is to see who wins, with wrestling, which was a sum of episodes, the point not being about winning, but the sheer spectacle of the thing, which with its pantomimes of characters Good and Evil, had an underlying message of playing on the ideas in mass culture about Justice.

Later I read much of Murray Edelman's work in sociology. He had a lot to say about politics as a spectacle. (Here's the NYT obit for Edelman, which gives a thumbnail of his concerns.) Edelman seems a quite underrated figure; he was writing about things that Jean Baudrillard took up much later, and, while in academic language, Edelman was still quite readable. Some have called him the first postmodern political scientist. Politics? It's a show, sorta like wrestling. Edelman says that people fall into the drama, play parts, internalize the totality of the show, and increasingly take it seriously. What? I'll try to elaborate.

Look at the foggy, mystifying language surrounding politics and its main delivery system, the mass media. Look at how many people seem to not question the semantic content of the jargon and glossary in political-speak. (Because they don't know how? Or they'd rather stick with the "fun" of playing inside the melodrama of politics? I don't know. Edelman seemed to wonder too.) Political institutions are symbolic acts that must be interpreted within some schema or another. But the institutions and acts tend to serve to more or less keep things the same rather than change things. Oh, changes do occur. If they didn't, the Show would get stale, and the players wouldn't be able to take it seriously anymore. It must perpetually seem vital to the players within. Voters who don't show up or who don't follow politics? They're onto the game and don't want to play. They see the game as bullshit. I think Edelman is right here to an extent, but I also think there are people who would rather not know anything; they don't see into/through Edelman's elaborate socio-political spectacle because they never had a serious look in the first place.

Rituals in politics are elaborate. The quantity of them is large and they are repeated so often that people cannot "see" the rituals as rituals. Rather, something solemn about Justice and Freedom and Democracy and The Good and Fairness and Meritocracy is being upheld. (Sorta like...wrestling?) The rituals of politics invest in the authority of the main players on the stage, and we are meant to hold the whole show in awe.

Now, irony and provocation being two of my favorite tropes from intellectuals, I appreciate Edelman's ouvre and I think quite a lot of it is accurate and generally edifying discourse, but, like most of those thinkers we call postmodern, there tends to be an inexorable taking of the thesis to extremes, so that something begins to waft up...what's that? Do you smell it? You do? Then it's not just me, thankgod. Yea, but what is it? Does it smell like burning garbage to you? No? Like unpleasant incense? Really? Oh! Now I know what it is! We've been reading postmodernists, and we smell a reductio ad absurdum. Whew! I was about to get the fire extinguisher.

What I like about Edelman's work is the Things Are Not As They Seem-ishness of it all; I also like that he concentrated on language and semiotic/symbolic analysis, which fits into my main model and along with valued thinkers like Robert Anton Wilson, Alfred Korzybski, Marshall McLuhan, George Lakoff, and even, in a way, Noam Chomsky. Also, there's a thread running from Giambattista Vico's 2000+ years of class warfare of the Rich vs. Everyone Else that Edelman can fit with.

What I don't like about the over-baked aspect of Edelman is the lingering hopelessness, and there's quite a clash between an idea that I think holds much sway - that if you don't "do" politics it'll be done to you - and the sort of paralysis via analysis I get from Edelman, which leads to passivity. He has made me question my role in the political Show, and now I'm far more ironic about it all, but I'm verging away. Back to deception.

In the blogpost from four days ago, I briefly discussed Edward O. Wilson. Another giant in Sociobiology, who was there at creation, was Robert Trivers. In the bibliography for Wilson's revolutionary 1975 work, Sociobiology: A New Synthesis a handful of Trivers's papers are listed. Trivers has been perhaps most noted for being a sort of hardcore exponent of Dawkins's kin selection idea, but with particular emphasis on reciprocal altruism (shorthand: "you scratch my back and then I'll scratch yours" in Biology). When you get into reciprocal altruism, you also allow for "deals" between non-kin. It gets very abstruse when you start to run with it, especially when you're trying to keep in mind what Hamilton wrote, how EOW took it compared to Dawkins, how they sought to create new ideas to separate themselves as the first-line sociobiologists/evolutionary psychologists, etc.

As Trivers elaborated on reciprocal altruism, he began to concentrate on something that seemed to spin out of it: deception. And now, after a few decades of writing and thinking about it, he's maybe the foremost thinker on deception from biology on up to humans.

Trivers, a manic-depressive genius since childhood, a longtime pot smoker, classic anti-authoritarian, who, in May of 1979 joined the Black Panthers and, according to David Jay Brown, Trivers's colleague Burney Le Boeuf, called Trivers "the blackest white man I know." (Mavericks of the Mind, p.54)

In John Horgan's review of Trivers's book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, we see this passage:

Trivers calls deceit a “deep feature” of life, even a necessity, given genes’ brutal struggle to prevail. Anglerfish lure prey by dangling “bait” in front of their jaws, edible butterflies deter predators by adopting the coloring of poisonous species. Possums play possum, cowbirds and cuckoos avoid the hassle of raising offspring by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Even viruses and bacteria employ subterfuge to sneak past a host’s immune system. The complexity of organisms, Trivers suggests, stems at least in part from a primordial arms race between deceit and deceit-detection.
So how much of this stuff goes on, in all the domains of our lives? It seems easy to fall into paranoia when contemplating The Spectacle, language as virus, conspiracy, double and triple crosses and agents, counterfeiting, prevarication (the very word seems to be hiding something, no?), "spin," fakes, secrecy, claims of "transparency," the information deformations that occur within status hierarchies, advertising and PR and hypnotic techniques, etc. Let us consider this list as The Shadow of ourselves, vis a vis what we'd prefer to think about "reality": that most of us care about the Truth and act trustworthy, because we want others to act honestly with us. The Shadow would be all that which is...less than trustworthy? 

The vast data from the animal kingdom shows how common camouflage is, how many animals have developed a way to APPEAR far more menacing than they are, on and on. Is deceit built into the fabric of all biology? It appears so. But then so is the attempt to detect...

It's common to read about deceit and lying and note the linkage between our very complex intra-species signaling system (i.e, human language) and how it's exquisitely available for the purposes of deceit. When ants communicate via very elaborate pheromones, the lying has its limits, it seems, at least compared to our signaling systems.

What I also note is the biological metaphor often used in writings on deceit: that lying is "parasitic" upon the truth, and that too many people engaged in deceit tend to ruin a system. From The Oxford Companion To The Mind:

Conveying useful information from one person to another about 'facts' is the essence of this extraordinary human invention. Lying is therefore parasitic upon general truthfulness, and if its incidence becomes too high the system becomes useless.

So here we have a reason for truthfulness that's not lame-brained ("The Bible sez..." or "good people tell the truth!", etc): the system is preserved. But then we must ask, "Is the system worth preserving?" Since Ronald Reagan, people running for office as Republicans have made it part of their platform that government doesn't work and should get out of the way of "people's lives," by which they mean corporations should be able to do whatever they want. Convince people you want a job that you don't think should even exist? What "system" do they favor? And do they really believe what they say or are they being deceptive? Hoo-boy...

The "parasite" metaphor brings us back to biology, but other writers have borrowed a metaphor from physics: that deception is like entropy. But I'd rather return to wrestling.

                                 Eric Weinstein, popularizer of the kayfabe idea
                                                  for thinkers caught in "ordinary" economic reality

Eric Weinstein, relating his ideas about information and deceit in economic systems, has drawn on the obscure wrestling term kayfabe. In an article in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (edited by John Brockman), Weinstein cites recent work in evolutionary biology by the aforementioned Trivers and Richard Alexander that says deceit plays a bigger role than accurate information transfer in systems with selective pressures. "Yet most of our thinking treats deception as a perturbation in the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity's future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory that uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information." (p.321) 

Weinstein says that in the early years of wrestling, matches went on for too long, guys got hurt, the matches became boring, and eventually the "sport" became a ritualized thing, "negotiated, choreographed and rehearsed," its complex dramaturgical "rules" closed to outsiders. This seems something like our financial system now, "an altered reality of layered falsehoods, in which nothing can be assumed to be as it appears." Wait, there's more.

Why didn't the "freshwater" Chicago school of economists foresee the 2008 economic meltdown? Why didn't the "saltwater" Ivy Leaguers catch it? Probably because they're caught in the kayfabe: there is a quiet agreement to not let the outsiders know the game is fixed. Note: neither group suffered for not knowing. And still they are "experts." 

Weinstein says that, if you're wondering why there are no investigative journalists doing the real work they used to do and seemingly "bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts," we'd understand this better if we knew what a kayfabe is. And it comes out of the traveling-carnival of hokum that is professional wrestling. 

"What makes kayfabe remarkable is that it provides the most complete example of the process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery." (p.322) Weinstein sees kaybrification as an important feature of love, science, war, finance and politics. And we would all be better served to know this term and its mechanisms. The truly horrifying thing about kayfabe, as I read Weinstein about it, is that it shows the 1%/Ruling Class and its managers how many layers of disbelief the human mind is capable of suspending before fantasy melds seamlessly with reality.

Add to that: wrestling eventually became so over the top that it had to admit it was fake...but the public loved it anyway, or as Weinstein puts it, "Professional wrestling had come full circle to its honest origins by at last moving the responsibility for deception off the shoulders of the performers and into the willing minds of the audience." (p.323) (an online link to the Weinstein article I'm drawing from is HERE.)

Going back to my idea about secrecy and spin and deceit and advertising and other such terms as part of the Shadow of truth, and given the kayfabe and Trivers's arguments (even bacteria and viruses employ subterfuge to sneak past your immune system)...to quote a famous painter: Who are we? Where are we going?

My favorite philosopher, Robert Anton Wilson, was not an academic and more like a great generalist-thinker. He gave an interview 36 years ago and here's one Q and his A that, I think, pertains to these topics, and provides a slight slant that allows us more perspective:

Science Fiction Review: How serious are you about the Illuminati and conspiracies in general?

Robert Anton Wilson: Being serious is not one of my vices. I will venture, however, that the idea that there are no conspiracies has been popularized by historians working for universities and institutes funded by the principle conspirators of our time: the Rockefeller-Morgan banking interests, the Council on Foreign Relations crowd, the Trilateral Commission. This is not astonishing or depressing. Conspiracy is standard mammalian politics for reasons to be found in ethology and Von Neumann's and Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Vertebrate competition depends on knowing more than the opposition, monopolizing information along with territory, hoarding signals. Entropy, in a word. Science is based on transmitting the signal accurately, accelerating the process of information transfer. Negentropy. The final war may be between Pavlov's Dog and Schrodinger's Cat.

However, I am profoundly suspicious about all conspiracy theories, including my own, because conspiracy buffs tend to forget the difference between a plausible argument and a real proof. Or between a legal proof, a proof in the behavioral sciences, a proof in physics, a mathematical or logical proof, or a parody of any of the above. My advice to all is Buddha's last words, "Doubt, and find your own light." Or, as Crowley wrote, "I slept with Faith and found her a corpse in the morning. I drank and danced all night with Doubt, and found her a virgin in the morning." Doubt suffereth long, but is kind; doubt covereth a multitude of sins; doubt puffeth not itself up into dogma. For now abideth doubt, hope, and charity, these three: and the greatest of these is doubt. With doubt all things are possible. Every other entity in the universe, including Goddess Herself, may be trying to con you. It's all Show Biz. Did you know that Billy Graham is a Bull Dyke in drag?
-The Illuminati Papers, p.47

Question from the OG: Where is The Shadow? 

Here's 7 minutes of Chomsky and Trivers, riffing on the topic of deception: