Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Drug Report: December 2013: Inhalants, From the Mundane to Outre

Today's Keith Richards's birthday: he's 70, and if Robert Johnson had to sell his soul at the crossroads, what sort of blockbuster deal with El Diablo did Keith have to make, circa...1964? Robert Johnson had to struggle to make it to 37, hellhounds on his trail. Robert Johnson got ripped off! (And not just by Led Zeppelin.)

Anyway: I've been thinking about the ingestion of drugs via inhalation. I recently re-read an insane novel called The Gas, by Charles Platt. Subtitled "A Novel of Sex and Violence" it was published by the great outlaw Maurice Girodias of  Olympia Press fame and went through several printings. When an edition appeared in 1980 in England The Gas helped put the publisher behind bars for three months. Later, the iconoclastic publishing house of Loompanics (now out of business) of Port Townsend, WA, brought it back into print. The premise: a cloud of toxic gas is accidentally released from a biological warfare lab and spreads across southern England. The effects of the gas? It accelerates hormone production in men and women, so they become insanely horny and violent. Another effect is that it relaxes inhibitions. So you can see why I made it my bedstand reading once again. I first read it 15 years ago or so. It was worth it. And yes, this is the same Charles Platt who interviewed Robert Anton Wilson and wrote for Wired and covered the early hacker scenes. A taste from the book:

"Not yet! Not yet!" The priest was still fucking her, turning over and over in the blast of air. Suddenly he stiffened and vented a triumphant scream. Jism started rushing up past his face in long, sticky streamers that were dragged out of Cathy's cunt by the roaring wind.

Admittedly, it's not exactly Flaubert.

This was probably the first time I encountered, in fiction, a priest and a girl having sex while skydiving. The whole book is like this: a phantasmagoria that reads as if the writer was deeply in thrall to both Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. Wonderfully profane surreal anarchistic fiction, this one. See if you can get a copy with the xmas money grandma sent ya.

William James and the First Modern Psychedelic Revolution
Some writers (the OG) claim 1874. That's when William James received in the mail a copy of Benjamin Paul Blood's 37-page privately-printed pamphlet, The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy. James reviewed it for The Atlantic Monthly to boot! Blood - a prolific letter-writer and odd intellectual tinkerer (others called him brilliant but "unfocused") - had experimented with nitrous oxide (AKA "laughing gas") and other anesthetics for 14 years and proclaimed the experience as superior to any known philosophy, the "genius of being is revealed," and even more grandiose claims for the power of the gas. 

A year before this James had begun his long career at Harvard. (Deja vu, anyone?)

James of course experimented with nitrous many times. After more experience, he published a short essay, "Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide." He thought the gas shed much light on Hegel's philosophy, both Hegel's strengths and weaknesses, particularly the notion of a self-developing dialectic of contradictories. James sees the opposite at work in the signals from nitrous oxide: Rather contradictories resulted in a self-consuming process, moving "from the less to the more abstract, and terminating in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity."

Nota bene: James's notes on the sort of wordplay that came to mind under the drug. The line he thought most meaningful was this one: "There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference." (I seem to remember writing stuff like this, age 22 and very stoned on weed, after hours of trying to navigate Wittgenstein, then attempting to chill out with Pink Floyd and headphones...but maybe I just dreamed I did that.)

[To Robert Anton Wilson fans: I do not know the source that RAW imputes was James under nitrous, in which he saw what he wrote when he came-to as "Overall there is a smell of fried onions." I may have missed it in another paper by James. It doesn't seem to be in James's monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), but I may have missed it. Of course, RAW wasn't immune to mixing up his sources, and the fried onion hallucination may have been by some other eminent psychonaut. RAW was one of the great self-experimenters and once wrote - actually, his stenographer was his wife - on a horrific trip under belladonna in 1962, "The literary critics will all have to be shot because of the Kennedy administration in outer space of the Nuremburg pickle that exploded." (Gimme the gas over any of the Solanacea drugs, any day!) One passage in Wilson's Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, from the omnibus edition - The Homing Pigeons - has Markoff Chaney recalling his nitrous trip at a dentist's in which he received the message, "Flossing is the answer - Ezra Pound." Then, on p.534, Chaney, "remembered that the great psychologist William James had once thought he had the whole secret of the Universe on a nitrous oxide trip. What James had written down, in trying to verbalize his insight, was OVERALL THERE IS A SMELL OF FRIED ONIONS. Chaney wanted to know what is was like to be in the state where fried onions would explain everything. He sniffed deeply and expectantly as the mask was placed over his nose, and waited." But the message he received from nitrous was about flossing, courtesy of a phantasm Pound. Chaney took the message seriously.]

But back to William James. He wrote about an experience on chloroform - another anesthetic - for his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). First: know that James was a lifelong melancholic who wanted to be able to believe in God, but couldn't find it within himself, as he later wrote in his books on pragmatism. Here's James, reflecting on an anesthetic/gas high:

I thought that I was near death, when, suddenly, my soul became aware of God, who was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so to speak, in an intense personal present reality. I felt him streaming in like light upon me...I cannot describe the ecstasy I felt. Nitrous oxide and ether, especially nitrous oxide, when sufficiently diluted with air, stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree. Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler.

Dale Pendell adds: "Ether became popular as a party drug in the late nineteenth century. Many used it as a substitute for alcohol. Oliver Wendell Holmes experimented with it at Harvard, where there was much talk about ether's power to produce mystical and mind-expanding experiences. [emphasis OG: what is it with Harvard?] - Pendell, Pharmako-Poeia, p.86

May 27-28, 1960, Hotel Comercio, Lima, Peru: Allen Ginsberg stays up all night with a quart of ether writing a long poem, "Aether: 4 Sniffs & I'm High"

4 sniffs and I'm High,
Underwear in bed,
               white cotton in left hand,
       archetype degenerate...[this poem goes on for pages and pages, and is totally crazy! - OG]
[skipping down]
Sooner or later all Consciousness will 
              be eliminated
                             because Consciousness is
      a by-product of ---
                                      (Cotton & N2O)
see much, much more: Collected Poems 1947-1980, pp.242-254, "Aether"
NB: Ginsberg went to Columbia.

Homeless Kids, No Supervision: Industrial Inhalants
If you have money and you're inhaling to get high: cannabis, hash, powder cocaine, amyl nitrate (AKA "poppers"), nitrous oxide. If you're on the street, no parents around, times very rough: you escape via industrial solvents, too numerous to name. Glue, spot remover, spray paint, Hexane, Freon, nail polish remover, hairspray, PC cleaner, lighter fluid...whatever you find around. Whatever you can steal. Temporary escape, and a good chance for further brain damage.

Inhalation of Stem Cells to Fix Your Brain
Some hotshots down on Biotech Beach in La Jolla, CA (who use the term "insufflation" instead of "snorting" of course!), say they have in the pipe several treatments for various diseases, in which stem cells can be insufflated. They'd noted that tumors of the pituitary gland had been successfully removed through the nose without causing undue tissue damage. They are saying that proteins, gene vectors and stem cells can all be inhaled and are getting ready to try to treat multiple sclerosis. The folks at StemGenex say of course it sounds crazy at first, until you realize that swallowing a pill subjects it to the treacherous terrains of the gut, which quite often makes mincemeat of novel drugs. Lots of acids and phages in there. Even if the drug runs that gauntlet successfully it's subject to an Access Denied trip at the crucial blood-brain barrier. They say their stem cells can slip around the perineural sheath cells or become endocytosed and "retrogradely transported along either the olfactory nerves or the trigeminal nerves." Furthermore, embryonic stem cells readily fuse with microglia, which then make it clear sailing to the mature neurons. (Got that? Want me to draw a picture fer yas?) ["Can Inhaled Stem Cells Fix Your Brain?"]

                                           trigeminal nerve pathways, basic 

Dr. David Edwards of Harvard
Where else? This modern alchemist has developed AeroShot, for a company called - I kid you not - Breathable Foods. What does AeroShot do? It's sort of like an asthma inhaler, but it delivers Niacin and 100 mg of caffeine to the back of your tongue, and it's like you've instantly had a shot of espresso. A $3 cartridge gives you six to eight hits. I take it it's for grad students and lawyers and those in the hurry-up-we-need-everything-done-now rackets. If they can't score Adderal or Provigil. It's considered a supplement, so the FDA can only put out warnings and scare notes. AeroShot says don't take their product if you're under 12; FDA thinks 18 would be more sane. Etc. Released in January, 2012, the FDA got all worried by March. They're afraid it will be used as a party drug, and mixed with alcohol, you won't know how drunk you are...because you're so revved up on AeroShots. If the FDA is so worked up over this, they should look at the hospital records for young people wheeled in on a gurney after doing JagerBombs. I've sat at bars when packs of young men and women in their early 20s did JagerBombs ritualistically. The worst I can tell: they're freakin' obnoxious! 

Dr. Edwards also came up with LeWhaf, which is food that has been ultrasonically vaporized into its active aromas and flavor chemicals. Yes, it's a food cloud, which can be inhaled. I know you're asking, "Why?" Well, apparently you get the "taste sensation" of the food without the calories. In the wildest dreams of Paracelsus...

Alcohol of course is being reduced to an inhaled form too. You can smoke alcohol, even though most alcohol was already "smoked" at the distillery. You can pour alcohol over dry ice and inhale the vapors: you get tweaked VERY quickly. Interestingly, my research tells me you can still inhale the calories of the alcohol. Not all of them, but some. It seems like a bad idea: there's good reason to worry you're torching cells in your lungs that you probably need for more mundane things, like breathing. The upside: your liver is bypassed entirely. But then, your liver helps to break down the poisonous grain, so...I'd say the best thing about inhaling alcohol is the titration problem: because you can take a little sniff at first and then sit back and see immediately how buzzed you are, you can then decide how much to take, without the time lapse that tends to screw with drinkers' abilities to tell when they've had enough. Maybe. 

In the end, it seems like a Bad Idea. But still: how 'bout Harvard's Edwards and his AeroShot and LeWhaf? Go Harvard! Drugs! Drugs! Drugs! [smoking alcohol and LeWhaf]

Anesthesia and Consciousness: Full Circle
I have a dear friend who will have a hip replacement tomorrow, as I write this. She's really scared. I tried to reassure her. I didn't mention that 0.13% of surgical patients who were assumed by the anesthesiologist to be "unconscious" were later found to be immobile but aware of what the surgeon and nurses were saying, aware of the knife. Why? We don't know. Anesthesia is one of the great boons to Humanity, but there's a problem: we don't know, in a deep neurobiological way, why it works. And furthermore, we don't know what consciousness "is." But we're gaining ground.

In the 1990s there were studies on people who were:
1. awake
2. asleep
3. under anesthesia
4. in a coma
5. believed to be in the "locked-in sydrome," where you appear to be in a coma, but you're not: you have awareness.

All the subjects had their brains stimulated by a magnetic field, and EEGs traced where those signals went. If you were awake the "ping" pinballed throughout the brain. The more "unconscious" you were the more the signal showed up "ping"ing (like in those sonar wave things you see in movies where guys are in submarines) in a specific part of the brain, but didn't spread to other areas. Finally! A sort-of scientific way to describe consciousness! 

It may be that "consciousness" is the feedback loops of sensory cortex areas (like the occipital/visual lobe at the back of the brain), and processing areas, like the temporal lobe, which feeds back to the sensory lobe, etc: unconsciousness is like the neighborhood telephone lines cut in one area of the brain: isolated but not "dead." Consciousness may be merely the higher level of inter-activity between different areas of the brain: the local telephone lines are all hooked up and all the calls are getting through. (A dated metaphor, admittedly, but hell: I'm dated.)

This blog post has been a trial for you to read, and I thank you for muddling through it. But I have something for you, as a reward. Here, just place this mask over your mouth and nose and take a deep breath and count backward from 100...

Some Other Sources
Writing On Drugs, Sadie Plant
Artificial Paradises, ed. Mike Jay
"Into the Mystic: Anesthesia and the Search For Mystical Experience," by A.J. Wright, July 2013, Anesthesiology News (you must register, but it's free)
"What Anesthesia Can Teach Us About Consciousness," by Maggie Koerth-Baker, NYT, Dec 10, 2013 (highly recommended!)

                                 Dennis Hopper as "Frank Booth" in David Lynch's
                                           film Blue Velvet: one interview I read with 
                                   Lynch said the stuff Booth was inhaling was
                                       "whatever you want it to be."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Robert Anton Wilson's Tale of the Tribe: Scrying For Shards

Prof. Eric Wagner has recently made a proposal to one of his circles of Weird Pals (Full Disclosure: the OG is one of 'em) to experiment with astral travel to see what might be learned by looking around Dealey Plaza on 22 Nov, 1963...and then on "back" to the Library of Alexandria. I say "back" in quotes because, presumably, when going discarnate and traveling in one's astral body, time makes even less sense than it does to those of us reading the latest from certain neuroscientists and physicists.

I don't know how serious Wagner is, but I have a strong hunch he's at minimum jocoserious, a Joyce portmanteau meaning, roughly "joking-serious."

Hey, if I'm scryin' I'm dyin'. And I've spent a few hours surfing the Net and whatever books are in the house on the subject of traveling trans-ordinary-space-time. It's amazing how many books are in the local libraries on this. And I stumbled onto hierogamy, DMT, and Stanislav Grof's holotropic breathwork techniques...which leads me further afield. Which was what I wanted, turns out.

(Wow: you Terence McKenna fans: have you read David Luke's paper "Psychoactive Substances and Paranormal Phenomena: A Comprehensive Review"? I thought Terence's cosmic "machine elves from hyperspace" was just his experience, but it turns out to be quite common...and preceded Terence's first experiments. When I say my foray-researches into astral travels took me far afield, Luke's paper really sent me, ye gawds!)

One very good thing about astral travel I've found so far: no TSA. And as far as I can tell, I can keep my seatback and tray table up for as long as I want and indeed: may not even be aware they're there.

                             I love this collage, assembled by RAWphiles: artists? 

Tale of the Tribe
As most of you Wilsoniacs know, RAW left us tantalized with a book unfinished. At the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, he gave us a preview of his upcoming book, a bit of a precis. See pp.203-213 of TSOG. The preliminary subtitle seemed to be "Alphabet/Ideogram/Joyce/Pound/Shannon/McLuhan/TV/Internet." It was claimed by someone that RAW's actual final book, Email To The Universe, fulfilled that contractual obligation, and it may have in some sense, but the Wilsoniacs know there wasn't nearly enough about alphabet/ideogram, etc in his final book (largely - roughly half - cobbled from old "lost" RAW pieces - really good ones, too - that Mike Gathers and a few others had sleuthed and put up on the Net for other Wilsoniacs. RAW's publisher asked Gathers kindly to take a few down and Gathers inferred those articles were going into the new RAW book; Gathers said okay, Email came out, Gathers received a free copy and he was right: there they were...).

But we really wonder what RAW had to say about The Tale of the Tribe. Lofty sounding, innit? If he hadn't been so dogged by post-polio sequelae I feel oddly certain the book would've been yet another masterpiece, maybe his best of all his non-fictions. But we're left to guess. RAW had taught a course on "The Tale of the Tribe" in an online Maybe Logic Academy (officially: a course taking off from Ezra Pound's "ideogrammic method"), and angels forwarded me the notes. Very rich stuff, but paradoxically, when I study the notes - including RAW's voluminous commentaries - the absence of the book seems all that much more tantalizing.

We are left to make educated surmises, it seems. It's been suggested by more than one of us that it's up to each of us to write our own version of The Tale, based on our own studies of RAW, Marshall McLuhan, James Joyce, Claude Shannon, Ezra Pound...and the others he names in that precis, that maddening and unmaterialized Coming Attraction: Timothy Leary, Ernest Fenollosa, Alfred Korzybski, Buckminster Fuller, Nietzsche, Vico...and the first named chronologically: Giordano Bruno. For RAW: they all influenced his work, but more intriguingly, they "all have something in common."

McLuhan scholar Paul Levinson said Bruno's model of a de-centered universe was a model of cyberspace. And the Church burned Bruno on February 17, 1600.

A taste? RAW, in discussing Bruno, puts in bold print:

Bruno's universe, infinite in both space and time, has no "real" or absolute center, since wherever you cut a slice out of infinity, infinity remains. Thus every place an observer stands becomes a relative center for that observer. -p.205, TSOG

You're at the center, right where you are sitting now.

I've spent many hours meditating on this idea, in sympathetic or empathetic harmony with what I perceive to be RAW's personal philosophies. Then I extend this to my own views, heavily influenced by Wilson. I wonder how this decentered realization related to embodiment - his own body, one that aggrieved him perhaps much more than the present Reader's body has them, and certainly more than my own body has aggrieved me. I do think this was part of it, but only a small part, as RAW knew how to get out of his own body. I think he was an Adept.

I've also spent very many hours "traveling" and trying to meld Bruno's and RAW's decentered "reality" with Joyce's "nightmare of history," the bloodbath of the 20th century, the immemorial injustices brought by Kings and Popes and landlords and bankers and other robotic hive mentality alpha apes...and our own egos and the whips and scorns of time.

O! To get...out of Time! (gnostic? aye!) And Einstein showed Time and Space were two sides of a coin. A decentered universe implies a liberty and personalized sense of Time. Freedom from death of some sort? Freedom from a ravenous State? We all know RAW wanted to live on and on and on, despite the failing muscles and meanness of politics and money-worries.

Was The Tale to be RAW's own TOE (Theory Of Everything)? Somehow I doubt it; he, like Blake and Joyce, seemed to think the poetic faculty a saving feature of our nervous systems. Science - and RAW loved science - would bolster sounder visions. In this he was - as I read him - much like Kenneth Burke, who RAW admired, but who seems curiously missing from RAW's books. Burke thought that science was the dominant mode of metaphorical understanding in the world in his own lifetime, but that it would be succeeded by "secular piety," a sort of "poetic humanism" more nuanced than the old Humanism: pluralistic, subjective, and spiritual. I think RAW was with Burke there, but also, for RAW: the end of money capital as it now works; RAW, from his teenaged years saw all that as a disaster. And he was right.

As a 21 year old, James Joyce reviewed a new book on Giordano Bruno by J. Lewis McIntyre, saying at the outset it's about time! - a book on Bruno. And we need more in English. Joyce points out - as does RAW in the tantalizer - that Bruno foresees Spinoza, but the young Joyce writes of Bruno's variety of philosophical mysticism that "It is not Spinoza, it is Bruno, that is the god-intoxicated man." Joyce was not all that interested, at 21, in Bruno's memory-system, his elaborations on Raymond Llull, or "excursions into that treacherous region" of morality. Joyce is interested in Bruno as an independent thinker, and places him above Bacon and Descartes in "modern philosophy" because of his theism coupled with pantheism, his rationalism coupled with his mysticism.

Here we see what may seem at first glance an eccentric caste of mind: putting (the still relatively unsung) Bruno above Bacon and Descartes. But RAW was very much with Joyce here: the insistence on personal negotiations between the poetic faculties (pantheism and mysticism) with what is usually taken as the "real" modern faculties: rationalism and theology. For Giordano Bruno, James Joyce, and Robert Anton Wilson: all of them. They like them all. They are all good. Especially when you have combined them all, negotiated them all, in your own unique nervous system...which can transpersonally tap into the Infinite.

In a lecture titled Knowledge and Understanding Aldous Huxley writes, "The Muses, in Greek mythology, were the daughters of Memory, and every writer is embarked, like Marcel Proust, on a hopeless search for time lost. But a good writer is one who knows how 'to give the purer meaning to the words of the tribe'...Time lost can never be regained; but in his search for it he may reveal to his readers glimpses of time-less reality."

Other Sources
"The Bruno Philosophy," in Occasional, Critical, and Political Writings by James Joyce
A wonderful site by RAW students about his "Tale of the Tribe" ideas

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Food/Sex/Death: Edition Aleph

"Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other." - either Mama Cass or the Marquis de Sade, I forget which, but as a semi-enlightened hedonist, I heartily concur.

Around Berkeley, Journalism Prof. Michael Pollan has become almost as much of an institution as Alice Waters. And Pollan has emerged as a major public intellectual over the past ten years, with such books as The Botany of Desire (my favorite), The Omnivore's Dilemma, and now Cooked. I enjoyed his pre-celebrity books on gardening too.

(There are rumors around Berkeley that someone's friend of a friend once turned down the cereal aisle at Safeway very late one night and saw Pollan fondling a box of Count Chocula, but let's remain agnostic about this.)

I have yet to read Cooked, which came out earlier in 2013, cover-to-cover. Maybe because I feel guilty I don't cook? I don't cook well. Not yet anyway. I still note daily episodes of daydreams of me cooking a Lucullan whizbang-repast of Mediterranean delicacies for friends, maybe something that looks like this. Maybe in 2014. (Riiiiight...)

Medium published an excerpt from Cooked this past April. In this snippet, Pollan delivers strong rhetoric for the Generalist (if not an overweening one), and against Specialization. His prose shimmers and I come down with a touch of rhetoric envy. While acknowledging the Adam Smithian transformative power of the division of labor in our culture, Pollan is singing my song when he writes, "Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility."

I catch myself yea-saying, alone in the room, but then remember the last time I cooked was when I added filtered water to a bowl of Quaker Oats and microwaved it for 110 seconds, then poured some honey on top and sliced a banana. Somehow I sense this wouldn't cut Pollan's mustard. Or his mustard roots he grew in his own organic garden while chatting with Alice Waters about their high-paying speaking engagements upcoming. (Is mustard a root? I know there are seeds...)

Practicing biblio-osmosis (where you try to let the knowledge contained in a book sink into your nervous system simply be being near a book) with a tome on Mediterranean cooking somehow fell short, details of which are unnecessary to relate at this moment. Let this suffice: it seems I need to exert myself more.

Check out Pollan's paragraph that starts off with "Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles..." and ends with "corporations eager to step forward and do all the work for us." - Okay, I find it compelling stuff, and...shaming. We ought to take a stand against specialization by gardening, he's always argued, but now: learning to cook, which is a radical political act! To choose cooking "will constitute a kind of vote" and to "lodge a protest against specialization - against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives." Pollan somehow stops short of urging us to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but I think I'm wise to his game. It's heady stuff. Aye: get commercial interests out of my cranny!

All in all, I'm swooning over the elegant ad for generalism, and all whipped up over learning how to souffle. Maybe even before the New Year. Pollan carries on a variant of the Emersonian tradition of self-reliance in Unistatian life, and I just find it appealing as all get-out. We ought to alter the ratio in our lives that has to do with  production <---------> consumption. To the barricades!

Not long after I read that excerpt, I ran across one of my favorite science writers, Maggie Koerth-Baker of boing boing. She's grown weary of Pollan's pronouncements, and offered as rebuttal one of her favorite cooks, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, and like Maggie, I recommend clicking the link for Kasper's short audio interview on Minnesota Public Radio. The gist: rather than feeling like you're letting the Earth, your own sense of coolness and the entire progressive political movement down by not learning to cook, do what you love to do instead, 'cuz that's what you'll be good at. And remember: when you're an eater, you're supporting all of those who love to cook, whether they're in your home or a kitchen in a restaurant, waiters, food delivery people, etc. Being a thankful, joyous eater has value, so stop with the guilt if you don't want to learn to cook. 

I think Kasper has let me off the hook. But I still want to try - at some point - to learn how to cook something like this:

                                                      da-rool, da-rool!

Any future situation that finds me mucking up perfectly good ingredients in the kitchen cannot possibly be as bad as this situation, described by the master storyteller and beloved Unistat anarchist Utah Phillips:

I'm going to touch on what I consider "prowess." 

First off: There's a retroviral-like myth that sex is really good exercise. Don't believe it. The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the average six minutes of fucking burns about 21 calories, which is about the equivalent of two segments of a navel orange. Some exercise. Even if you go at it for 30 minutes you're only burning 88-100 calories. A question: can't we just enjoy our "normal" fucking without having to multi-task? Can we leave the "getting in shape" bit for some other time? Why the fascistic insistence on having "better abs" while you're "making love"? How about tapping into some zen and just...Oh I don't know...paying attention while you're actually getting to do the one thing you're daydreaming about the most? Why undermine yourself? Or your partner. If either you or your partner are saying to themselves (or even out loud), "Oh yea! That feels soooo good! If only my abs were tighter, or you had more of a six-pack rather than a keg, this would be even better!," I'm sorry: you need to re-think your priorities. 

Oh, but there's the new "Coregasm," as explained by Callie Beusman, quite hilariously. Make sure you check out her other tips for staying in Navy-Seal-like shape while fucking. Callie and I are here to help any time you feel...empty and can't quite have enough of life.

Lots of us think that when it comes to sex, we're pretty good. Or maybe not-so. We have some sense of our prowess. Maybe we are on our game at times - when we've had lots of recent practice? - and then there are those not-all-that-great moments. (Hey guys! Here's a book...)

Back to prowess. It's difficult to assess prowess. There's boasting. There's he said/she said/they said. There's certainly quality, which is what most of us want, but how do you measure such an intangible? There's quantity, which seems more subject to measurement by definition.

There's USC bachelor's degree/feminist Annabel Chong (nee Grace Quek). She had sex with 251 dudes over 10 hours. I have not seen this documentary, but I've read a few articles about Annabel. She's a nice gal. Very giving. Some of her feminist colleagues seem to have balked at her stunt, but she seems like Doris Day compared to Lisa Sparks of Bowling Green, KY. (I refuse to ease into a "KY" joke here. You're welcome.) Lisa had 919 dudes in 12 hours in 2004, at the World Gangbang Festival in Poland. Just think, men: some guy's going around in bars telling an amusing anecdote that he once had "sloppy 919ths." Last I read, Lisa Sparks was happily married. She decided to settle down. We all slow down a little, I guess.

A few more miscellaneous items that might fit under this rubric of "prowess":

-Leigh Cowart's profile of porn star Marcus London, who says he can teach any man how to make a woman "squirt." London is quoted, "I put my hand inside a woman and I can tell. I can feel things. Like car mechanics looking under the hood of a car, I know what does what." Jeez Marcus, I put my hand in there too; I thought I knew what was what, but what are you, some sorta Houdini? I thought it was more up to the gal's psychosomatic synergistic physiological receptivity, and not her V-8. And oh yea: I saw what you did there with "hood." Good one.

-In my opinion, Marcus London, however good he is, is an amateur compared to Rafe Biggs, a psychologist who suffered a tragic accident and became a quadriplegic. Biggs has, like some tantric yogi Adept, rewired his brain in a remarkable case of neuroplasticity, and just...something we should all marvel at: he has orgasms through his thumbs! Yep: they're called "transfer orgasms" in the trade, and Biggs says his right thumb is the Giver of pleasure (not technically "fingering" his girlfriend, but possibly "thumbing her a ride"?), while the left is the Receiver of sex energy. I wonder if his thumb ever gets tired and he just fakes an orgasm? And what about non-orgasmic females who read this story? This could be a real blow: the guy learns how to get off through his thumbs, and they can't...I hate the word "achieve" in this sense, but let's let it stand. I say: if Biggs can do it, there's still hope for all of us. Maybe I'll work on rewiring my own brain to achieve the ability to cook? Anyway: Rafe Biggs: we salute you. Errr..."thumbs up"?

-Mary Roach's book Bonk taught me many things. One was that Masters and Johnson (Give 'em a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine! I dare ya!) coined the term "spectatoring." They said that many women didn't have orgasms because they were too self-critical and seemed to be imagining what they look like while they were fucking. The definition given was "viewing oneself judgmentally and critically during sex." (p.251) My guess is that our screwed-up sexist culture does this to women, and this is one of the few times I wish they could be more like men, as most of us apparently think we're Casanovas, temporarily in the running for People mag's "Sexiest Man Alive," while we're getting at it. Believe me, women who spectator-ate: the guy is into you; you're great and you look just grand. Seriously.

Enough with sexual matters for now. On to death.

                                          Prof Shelly Kagan of Yale

There are so many ways to go with this.

Okay, I've taken up too much of your precious time here with all these trifles about food and sex, so enjoy this philosophical essay adapted from Yale Philosophy prof. Shelly Kagan's book Death. I love the title; it sucked me right in: "Is Death Bad For You?"

This seems a wonderful way to demonstrate how philosophers are taught to think these days. You posit an idea and play with it, toss it around, look at it from a few angles, this brings us to a related idea, which you then fiddle with in your trained-philosophy brain, and so on. Suddenly, that which was familiar seems to have become unfamiliar. Is Death Bad For You? Yes, most people would reply. It's way up there on the ultimate list of Bad Things...what're ya stupid er somethin'? Then they'd hurl a couple of epithets at you (me), and suggest therapy, medication, or maybe "You need to get laid, dude!" (I would then be tempted to tell them about Marcus London and Rafe Biggs and Annabel Chong and Lisa Sparks, if only experience hadn't taught me this would likely get my ass kicked.)

Ah yes: nonexistence can be bad for us due to what economists call opportunity costs: you're deprived of the possible good things life could bring because you are no more. Bad! And: if "death is bad for you" is a true statement, there must be a time in which it is true. It certainly isn't now, because I'm alive. Check...and mate? Nope, there's way more to this: existence requirements, possible persons, death not being bad for someone who never existed, etc.

A current philosopher (at least I think so, I don't have his number and cannot verify) named Fred Feldman notes we'd like to live to be older. But to what age? If you said "Eighty five?," well then why not 87? How does 92 strike you? Ray Kurzweil apparently wants to/thinks he will live to be 973, and outdo Methuselah. Hey Ray: howzabout hangin' to 975? Dream large, man!

It all seems so...arbitrary. And here's a wrinkle: what if you're 40 now, but rather than thinking you'd like to make it to 50 (you have literally taken Van Halen out of context when they said, "I live my life like there's/no tomorrow..."), you wish you'd been born ten years earlier, so now you're 50? You would have achieved your goal already! If that seems weird and/or stupid, Shelly Kagan reminds us of Lucretius, who wondered why people worry about death and their non-existence when they seem to overlook their non-existence before they were born!

I wish I could be more like Epicurus and Lucretius on the subject of my own death, but I seem more like Woody Allen, who observed that many people would like to achieve immortality through some heroic actions or brilliant works left behind at death. Woody said he'd like to achieve it another way: "Not dying."

One last idea - but you really ought to read Kagan yourself - is the posited day all human and mammalian life on Earth gets wiped out by an asteroid. As Kagan writes, "Someone 30 years old might reasonably think to herself that if she'd only been born ten years earlier, she would have lived longer." (Touche?) That makes me think of someone living in Europe in 1348, at the height of the Black Death. Loved ones and neighbors all rotting in death all around you. And just in the past hour you note you've got a touch of the sniffles. When will the guys with the wagon come and take care of this stench?

And then you catch yourself in a wistful mood, thinking, "Man! If only I'd been born in the 1240s, 'cuz then 20 years later it would've been the Sixties. The Sixties were happenin' man! Whatever happened to the revolution? The Church does nothing but hassle us, feudalism can bite me, and now this Black Death bummer? The 1260s were da bomb. These modern days aren't all they were cracked up to be. O! To have been alive in the Sixties!"

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Big Data and Two Proposals For How We Should Be Compensated For It

Both Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov have looked at the asymmetries in Big Data, saw how We have given our data away for free to gazoollionaires, and Lanier and Morozov have done gedankenexperiments to see how the playing field may become slightly more leveled, regarding the case of The People v. Google, WalMart, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, health insurance companies...the NSA.

I'll try to give a thumbnail, but some of you are ahead of me on this stuff, so feel free to chime in and correct my various egregious erroneous apprehensions. Even though you may be ahead of us here, can we agree this Big Data asymmetry qualifies as a Missing Public Discussion? On with it...

Morozov notes the winner-take-all aspects in Facebook and Google, et.al, having the biggest computers to harvest the most data about us. They've got megapetaflops of data stored on us. And they need more. We thought we were just having fun and playing and they were "giving" us search or social connectivity. We volunteered our user data, belatedly realized there were such things as "data trails" and gigantic computers somewhere with fancy algorithms attached to our name/number and what we do, what we like, who we know, where we live, how much money we have...and of course the NSA has the goods on the sort of porn-loving perverts we are. We only devoutly wished they wouldn't "go there," assuming like three year olds that if we wished they'd be decent they would be. Back to Bad Boy Evgeny.

The problem of Big Data asymmetry is a democracy problem, and passing privacy laws would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Lusitania. We need a civic solution.

He says the metadata should be thought of as the "social graph" and it's ours. Mostly. Anyway: it's time someone "pay" for it; we should be getting something back for...ourselves. For Morozov, this isn't money for us. The social graph should be given free to any startup. Google and Facebook: how are you going to compete with them? Level the data playing field! As it is, the situation is not good for "free market" competition. To say the least. If there was more competition for Google and Facebook (et.al) it could lead to possibly a reacquisition of some privacy...and innovation among the data-gatherers.

How about government getting in on it? Nope: public money can't compete here; the behemoths are way ahead of all that. They're that Big. However, our personal information and our social connections (which we gave them, remember) are not only the public...mind? and much of the personal aspects of our selves, but we and our connections may outlast Facebook and Google and the other tentacles of the Behemoth. Historically, very very few corporations have lasted 100 years. (I smell that last part as a component of a Bad Argument, but let me sally forth anyway...)

Morozov proposes the social graph as a public institution, to be regulated, maybe by a civil agency or even the UN. This would open up competition: say you wanted to start something to compete with a Behemoth: the social graph is there, and you access it. Morozov seems correct: if we went back in time before these Behemoths got started, we'd look at the hardware and algorithms and not be all that impressed. They only got there earlier and nabbed our data quicker than everyone else, and "won."

As a new competitor, maybe you'd guarantee anonymity, so you would opt in. Or you could opt out. The regulatory body would control how social graph data was collected and accessed.

The NSA is mired in secrecy, with no congressional oversight, which seems like a clear violation of the 4th Amendment to many of us. And that's not to mention what they've been doing. Of course, NSA used Google's and Facebook's data on us. And Verizon's and AT&T's and holy muthafreakinshit what a mess this is for any semblance of privacy, Constitutional rights and protections, decency, democracy. You know: The little things.

NSA ain't goin' away, so let's take the NSA's data (they're being paid by us, our taxes!) and make some or a lot of it available for a more robust competition for social networking and search engines.

This is a basic sketch of Morozov's way of dealing with our current Worldwide Theatre of the Absurd and Big Data collection asymmetry. Personally, I think it's nuts. (He does call it a "modest proposal.") But, if implemented, can it make things worse? Or would it be more likely to make things better in some way? What am I missing here? One thing I like about his ideas here: he wants to fiercely politicize the public dialogue about privacy and data and democracy.

Lanier basically sees the mess we're in as a "collective action" problem: it can't be solved by individuals in a free market but only by a sort of paradigm-shift in the way We perceive the problem, and by an adjusted normative response.

Facebook employs less than 5000 people, but it's worth over $65 billion. The heirs of the WalMart fortune are worth, according to one data point I saw recently, $147 billion...and they're just Sam Walton's offspring.  How can a scenario like this be sustainable? It can't. (Lanier in his book Who Owns The Future? fascinated me in many ways, but one of them was his explanation of how WalMart "won": they basically did what Facebook and Google did, but earlier than them: massive data banks [what Lanier calls "Siren Servers" and they're the new "factories" for the Robber Barons of 2013] on consumers, buyers, distributors, every sort of technological minutiae imaginable, all to get a leg up on their competitors.)

The bigger the computer, the more likely you're gonna be the winner in a game that's basically winner-take-all. And what really makes you a winner? Data. Big Data. Gather the data, enter it. Pay hotshot computer people to write the algorithms. Pay others to keep the lights on and the data servers from overheating.

The Facebook game of "giving" consumers something they want then harvesting data about them? This will continue to spread throughout banking, health care, retailing: they'll give us good service at good prices...but soon most of us will be unemployed and at their mercy because The Behemoth is too good at doing what it does. Marc Andreeson wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal in 2011: "Why Software Is Eating The World." With the acceleration of computing power entire industries are replacing workers and distribution with a few dozen of the most talented programmers and a few dozen data servers.

Look at how Amazon ate up its competition. Look at how many people Kodak employed, with decent, middle-class-bolstering jobs. Then look at how many people work at Instagram (hint: the number is 13), which bought Kodak. How can anything like that be sustainable without some sort of "collective action" solution, as Jaron Lanier puts it?

Note: there are scads of smart free-market thinkers who think all of this is good. No collective action required. Andreeson is one of those guys. You probably know one yourself. Jaron Lanier is not one of them. He sees this as a disaster: you think the inequality between the 1% and the rest of us is bad now? He sees all this as making it much worse, and it's happening so fast we're stunned. I agree.

So what does Lanier propose? He's somewhat similar to Morozov in that he agrees the Behemoths have mostly gotten that way by collecting data about us. But his solution - and he's proposed variations on this scenario - is that we should be paid for our data, via micropayments. NSA and other governmental surveillance is out of control because there's no limit on the cost to them. If they had to pay you a tiny bit of something when they took a picture of you on some camera on some street corner and used facial recognition and stored that data...you should get some little bit back for that. It's your data. Whoever agreed to allow the government to be so intrusive in our lives? If they're going to do this sort of shit, they're going to have to pay. After all, We are the government, in a democracy....errr...right? In increasingly starry-eyed theory we're the government. We pay them out of our taxes to work for us. Imagine that.

And not only that: all the data about us that's being shuffled around and sold to other Behemoths and vendors: that represents us. If they're going to do business with our data, they're just gonna hafta pay. Literally. With "micropayments." Every bit of data about us can be tagged when it's used and we get a little bit back. If you write some article and all kinds of people link to it, tweet it, use it in some way (still not sure about the limits of this), you get something back. One of the godfathers of the Net, a fascinating genius named Ted Nelson, wanted HTML to always link back to the origins of some idea. It didn't go Ted's way, but Lanier - who knows and loves Nelson - says there might be a way to tag our data to ourselves so that if our face ends up in an ad on Facebook, we get paid. This would seem to entail a reworking of the architecture of the Net, so I don't know how workable the idea is. In theory I like it more than Morozov's idea...which is, I know, anathema to the Everything FREE! vision we all love(d) so much.

Some Sources Used
"Let's Make the NSA's Data Available For Public Use" by Evgeny Morozov
"The Real Privacy Problem" by Morozov
"Who Owns the Future?": Morozov reviews Lanier and thinks Lanier's ideas are lame. (Of course!)
"U MAD???: Evgeny Morozov, the Internet, and the Failure of Invective" by Maria Bustillos: a sort of smack upside the head for Evgeny; Bustillos rather likes Lanier. And Bustillos is one of our best interpreters of this whole scene, in my view; I love her.
video: "Jaron Lanier On Connected Media Universal Micropayments and Attribution": 2 minutes. I think Lanier had a dental problem here, which accounts for the lisp?
"In Venting, A Computer Visionary Educates," an article by John Markoff about Ted Nelson
- A bunch of other sources; presumably I'd have had to pay a little bit under the micropayment scheme, but then presumably I'd get something back from people reading this? However, when we look at it from Jaron Lanier's perspective, the Behemoths are gonna have be paying us far more than we're paying them?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

JFK, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Six Degrees of Separation and other High Weirdness

Nota bene: The OG doesn't "believe" any of the following, but thinks some of it is plausible, and swears he's not making any of it up...

1. Most of the readers of OG know about Kerry Thornley's tragic-baroque-Erisian life. He knew Oswald and was the only person to write a book that had Oswald in it before Oswald shot JFK - if he did shoot him, and I think he most probably did shoot at him - and then later, after much brain-change, Thornley became convinced he was unknowingly set-up as a Second Oswald. Two JFK assassination researchers had gotten the idea there were "two Oswalds" (see Prof. Popkin's The Second Oswald and Prof. Thompson's Six Seconds In Dallas.) And things just got weirder from there. (See Adam Gorightly's The Prankster and the Conspiracy)

                                           Kerry Wendell Thornley

2. Before Robert Anton Wilson met Kerry Thornley and helped flesh out the new religion of Discordianism, RAW had moved his family from New York to Yellow Springs, Ohio, which had a long tradition of anarchism and free-thought.

3. Arthur Young was a polymath and mystic who reminds me a bit as having a similar caste of mind as Buckminster Fuller. Young designed the Bell Helicopter. He was heavily influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, and was interested from a very early age in a Theory of Everything. "Process" reality and consciousness must be the best way of thinking about the the Big Q. Here's a snippet of his writing:

My first ambition was to have a philosophy of the universe. But once I recognized it should incorporate process and not merely structure, I had no place to go. I didn't have any idea what process should consist of. In fact, I felt sort of out-of-breath, as though I'd climbed up a high mountain and didn't have any of the things that nourish the body. So I decided to take up the problem of designing a workable helicopter, more or less as an exercise in getting practical answers. I allowed myself fifteen years, but it actually took eighteen before I had the thing in production. - p.263, The Roots of Consciousness Jeffrey Mishlove, 1975 edition.

He moved to Berkeley and started the Institute for the Study of Consciousness.

                                                Arthur Young

4. William Avery Hyde was an insurance expert who'd written a book on the subject. He raised three children in Columbus, Ohio, then sent them to Antioch College in Yellow Springs. His youngest child was named Ruth, and she converted to Quakerism there. She said that the mystical aspect of Quakerism, which believed in the possibility of a direct communication between humans the heavens, was very important to her. She was also a free-thinker. Ruth later married Michael Paine, part of the very rich Boston Forbes family, which includes Unistat's current Secretary of State, John Kerry. Michael and Ruth Paine settled in Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.

5. Ruth's brother went on to become a doctor and was the family physician of Robert Anton Wilson and his wife and children. (p.31 Cosmic Trigger vol 1) This gives the novelist Wilson two odd connections to the JFK assassination. Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Dallas, Ruth, the peacenik, had been interested in the Russian language since 1957. She went to the home of a friend's and met a man named Lee Harvey Oswald, 23 years old, who had been to Russia and was enjoying being the center of attention in the kitchen as he told stories of Russia. He'd met his wife, Marina, in Russia too. On the day JFK was killed, Ruth Paine gave this sworn affidavit:

I have lived at the above address for about 4 years. My husband, Michael and I had been separated for about a year. In the early winter of 1963, I went to a party in Dallas because I heard that some people would be there who spoke Russian. I was interested in the language. At that party I met Lee Oswald and his Russian wife Marina. About a month later I went to visit them on Neely Street. In May I asked her [Marina] to stay with me because Lee went to New Orleans to look for work. About two weeks later I took Marina to New Orleans to join her husband. Around the end of September I stopped by to see them while I was on vacation. I brought Marina back with me to Irving. He came in 2 weeks, later, but did not stay with his wife and me. Marina's husband would come and spend most of the weekends with his wife. Through my neighbor, we heard there was an opening at the Texas School Book Depository. Lee applied and was accepted. Lee did not spend last weekend there. He came in about 5pm yesterday and spent the night, I was asleep this morning when he left for work. (found on unpaged vii of Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, by Thomas Mallon) Oswald stored his rifle in Ruth Paine's garage.

6. Ruth Paine's husband Michael's mother was Ruth Forbes Paine, the great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ruth Forbes Paine married the brilliant intellectual/mystic/helicopter designer Arthur Young.

                                                 Ron Rosenbaum

7. In a document declassified in 1977, there was a memo regarding a New Orleans assistant DA named Edward Gillin. On the very day Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby on national TV (November 24th, 1963), Gillin called the FBI and reported a strange encounter he'd had in the summer of 1963 with a man who called himself "Lee Harvey Oswald." Gillin said this skinny dude had come into his office asking about mind-expanding drugs. He'd read a book by Aldous Huxley. "He was looking for a drug that would open his vision, you know, mind expansion," Gillin recalled as per the declassified memo. It seems a mere coincidence that Aldous Huxley died, in Los Angeles, on the same day JFK did. Robert Ranftel, Martin Lee, and Jeff Cohen put forth the idea that Oswald may have done LSD while still in the Marines, before he defected to the Soviet Union, at the U-2 base in Atsugi, Japan, which was a known storage and testing facility for the CIA's Operation Artichoke, which later morphed into MK-ULTRA, the CIA's search for a foolproof truth serum that would make captured spies spill their secrets.  At the time it was common to dose unsuspecting personnel to see who could handle it. Apparently, while at Atsugi, Oswald had had a bummer of a trip on acid. Here's Ranftel, Cohen and Lee: "While Oswald was on guard duty, gunfire was heard. He was found sitting on the ground, more than a little dazed, babbling about seeing things in the bushes..."

But then why would Oswald be walking into the assistant DA's office in 1963 asking about mind-expanding drugs? Did he not know what had happened to him at Atsugi? Could it be that the assistant DA was actually talking to Kerry Thornley, who was using his old Marine pal Oswald's name as a goof? Thornley was known to have inhabited New Orleans around this same time.

Anyway, think of the psychedelic Oswald every time you see a picture of him and his odd smile. (See "Oswald's Ghost," pp.346-347, The Secret Parts of Fortune, by Ron Rosenbaum.)

8. Speaking of Ron Rosenbaum: he filed an article at 11:48PM EST on Nov 21, 49 years, 364 days and a few hours after the assassination, at Slate. He claims another researcher has come up with vital info on Oswald's curious "missing time" in Mexico City just before the assassination. And it involves info withheld from the Warren Commission, poet Octavio Paz's poet-wife, a triple-agent, and, quite possibly, Oswald's motive for shooting at (and maybe hitting) JFK. See HERE.

                                                       Mary Pinchot Meyer

9. Who was Mary Pinchot Meyer? Well...she was a beautiful, well-educated Washington DC socialite and painter who had been married to Cord Meyer. She was found murdered on a walking path in Georgetown, 11 months after JFK was killed. She had been turned on to LSD by the renegade Harvard professor Dr. Timothy Leary, and Mary (divorced from Cord) had had at least 30 trysts with JFK, and she turned on JFK to acid. They smoked pot, did acid, and screwed. Her ex-husband had worked for a one-world government after WWII, where he'd been injured as a Marine on Guam. After it looked like the World Federalist League had been infiltrated by communists, he quit. Then the ex-Yale man was asked by Allen Dulles (a major force on the Warren Commission) to join the C.I.A, and Cord did, working as a covert operator under Operation Mockingbird, which was about infiltrating foreign and domestic media with anti-Communist propaganda.

Mary's sister Tony married Ben Bradlee, who would later head up the Washington Post. In their circle of friends was James Jesus Angleton, in hindsight one of the most interestingly paranoid of all C.I.A men, ever. Mary had told her good friend Ann Truitt that, if anything ever happened to her (Mary), Ann should go into her painting studio and grab her diary. When Ann found out Mary had been murdered, Ann was living in Japan, so she phoned both Bradlee and Angleton, urging them to obtain the diary for her. Bradlee and Mary's sister Tony showed up the next day at Mary's locked house...but Angleton was already in, rummaging for Mary's diary. He tried to pick the lock on her studio. When Tony and Ben found her diary, they gave it to Angleton. Angleton said he'd burned the diary. In another version he said he gave the diary back to Tony, who burned it in front of Ann Truitt.

Leary says in his book Flashbacks that Mary told him in 1962 that the C.I.A wanted all non-C.I.A experimenters to cease publishing results of their experiments because they wanted LSD knowledge for themselves. Thereafter Leary was harassed and arrested many times, and eventually given 37 years for possession of half a joint. At the height of the Vietnam War, President Nixon called Leary "the most dangerous man in America." At the time the usual sentence was six months.

What was so important about Mary Pinchot Meyer's diary?

10. Angleton was paranoid, and an admirer and friend of Ezra Pound, who thought certain industrialists and bankers made money by starting wars. The act of deep reading of Pound seems isomorphic to me to the quality of mentation, the sort of floridly imaginative style one must bring to the paranoid world Angleton was in. They aren't the same: the deeply disturbing and damaging paranoia of Angleton is hardly of a piece with reading anyone's poetry, no matter how wild and intense. What I'd like to emphasize is the quality of mentation. They seem similar to me in that way.

By the way, D. David Heymann wrote a book on Ezra Pound, one on Jackie Kennedy, and a book called The Georgetown Ladies' Social Club. In this last he quotes Cord Meyer, six weeks from death in 2001, when asked, who do you think killed your ex-wife Mary?

"The same sons of bitches that killed John F. Kennedy."

11. Ever heard of Frigyes Karinthy? He was a Hungarian Jew who died in 1938 and probably invented the idea of Six Degrees of Separation...around 1929? (He may have been influenced by radio man Marconi.) In 1936 he had an operation for a brain tumor, and then wrote an autobiographical book Voyage Around My Skull, which came out a year after he died and was re-released in English in 2008 with an introduction by Oliver Sacks. Karinthy's still popular in Hungary, and his books are marked by science fiction ideas, comedy, play with Jonathan Swift's characters, pacifism, the themes of adolescence and the battle of the sexes. His humor is black and ironic. He espoused Esperanto. He also speculated about Artificial Intelligence long before it was invented.

12. Karinthy's 1929 essay deserves more notice but then again, so does Irish aeronautical engineer J.W. Dunne's An Experiment With Time, from two years earlier, 1927. In addition to the luminaries named HERE, Einstein thought Dunne's ideas were interesting, too. So have many physicists working after John S. Bell's 1964 experiments that suggest non-locality on the quantum level. Bell's experiments suggested that once particles had been involved with each other, they were inseparable, no matter how far the distance...which seemed to violate Einstein's bedrock physical idea that the speed of light was the speed limit in physics and the universe. Arthur Young was interested in Dunne, too:

What really got me involved was Dunne's book An Experiment With Time. Dunne found that sometimes he had dreams that would predict the future. He was an Oxford don; so he devised an experiment to prove this kind of thing. He took his class off into the country for three or four days into an environment that was unfamiliar to them. Then he had them keep a record, both of the incidents that occurred and of the dreams that they had. Finally he took the dreams and incidents and mixed them all up in a box and had someone match the resemblances, to see which dreams resembled which incident. They found that half of the dream resemblances were to future events! (Mishlove, op.cit, p.264)

13. I can understand Nelle Doyle's (prophetic?) concern over JFK's trip to Dallas. But I sometimes wonder about stuff like this: Gore Vidal had for a time lived in a mansion with Jacqueline Bouvier; they shared a step-father, Hugh D. Auchincloss. Jackie later married JFK, and Gore Vidal became friends with JFK. And dig this from a Playboy interview:

Playboy: In this kind of society - with that many guns - do you think that public men can be effectively protected from assassination?

Vidal: No. Anybody can murder a President. Once, sitting next to Jack Kennedy at a horse show, I remarked how easy it would be for someone to shoot him. "Only," I said, "they'd probably miss and hit me." "No great loss," he observed cheerfully and then, beaming at the crowd and trying to appear interested in the horses for Jackie's sake, he told me the plot of an Edgar Wallace thriller called Twenty-Four Hours, in which a British Prime Minister is informed that at midnight he will be assassinated. Scotland Yard takes every precaution: 10 Downing Street is ringed with guards; midnight comes and goes. Then, the telephone rings. Relieved, the Prime Minister picks up the receiver - and is electrocuted. The President chuckled. He often spoke of the risk of assassination, but I doubt if he thought it would ever happen to him. His virtue - and weakness - was his rationality. He had no sense of the irrational in human affairs.

Playboy: Do you?

Vidal: I think so. But then, the artist is always more concerned with the moon's dark side than the man of action is. However, I am not prone to mysticism or Yeatsian magic. Only once have I ever had a - what's the word for it? - presentiment. In 1961 I dreamed, in full color, that I was in the White House with Jackie. Dress soaked with blood, she was sobbing. "What will become of me now?" Yet I don't "believe in" dreams, and I certainly would not believe this dream if someone else told it to me.
-p.273, Views From A Window: Conversations With Gore Vidal


In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning.Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

Monday, November 18, 2013

Assault on Poverty: Universal Basic Income

Sometime in the next few months, the Swiss will vote on whether to give every citizen around $2800 a month, with no conditions attached. They have an initiative system where if you get 100,000 people to sign a petition, it must come up for a vote. The Swiss government is pissed because they have to deal with this; they think their welfare state is good enough. But enough Swiss citizens are alarmed at growing income inequality, an outdated welfare system and unemployment and underemployment and the specter of accelerating technological unemployment. As one of the main shakers behind this movement, Daniel Straub, said, "It is time to partly disconnect human labor and income.  We are living in a time where machines do a lot of the manual labor - that is great - we should be celebrating." And who was another one of the prime movers behind this in Switzerland? An artist named Enno Schmidt. Of all the artists I've known in Unistat - quite a lot - this seems like something so bountifully good they might start sorta thinking about believing in god maybe. (<-----That last sentence is as I have deliberated over; let's let it stand, if only for its ornate badness, hmmmkay?) I hope they get it done in Switzerland, and I hope we get something like it in Unistat. (If it passes, in heaven - or wherever he is - Orson Welles might add the UBI to the five hundred years of brotherly love and the cuckoo-clock, for there are already good reasons to suspect the UBI will add to artistic and inventive derring-do.)

Here's an interesting interview about UBI and Switzerland with John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The neoliberal austerity idea was and is a smashing failure in Europe, and that's a big reason why many groups are becoming interested in the UBI. Do we want Greece in our streets? I don't think so. As for Unistat, Schmitt points out that fascists (my word, not his) shut down the government because we were going to make sure every citizen had health coverage, while in Europe, far-right groups are extremely angry because austerity economics has cut into their health services, and so there's an immigrant backlash. I guess I'd trade Europe's fascists over ours, but now I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren't I? Indeed, Schmitt talks about the history of "welfare" in Unistat and how much of it is coded racism, which I think is true, and I think this pending debate will be won or lost on the fields of metaphors...

                       If we got UBI in Unistat I'd spend a lot of time learning how to write!

Speaking of which: George Lakoff has long said that capturing the "freedom" metaphor is one of the major games in Unistat politics. And perhaps the major thinker in the world on UBI is Philippe Van Parijs, who started thinking about the idea in the 1980s in Belgium, when he witnessed high unemployment accompanied by fast productive growth in the economy. As a Green he began playing with the idea among other sociological colleagues, and after awhile they began to realize it wasn't such a crazy idea after all, and began systematic work on it. He's often asked in interviews about the reception of the idea: technical aspects, administrative topics, and how to fund the idea. But he answers that the main objection people have when they first hear about it are moral ones, and demand a good answer. And I find him seductive when he talks about the idea of freedom and the UBI, which is, for him, the main reason why it should be done.

Van Parijs says that "the main moral objection was that basic income would be giving people something for nothing, and that it amounted to systematic legitimation of free riding on the part of the idlers at the expense of the hard workers. And so that forced me to spell out why, fundamentally, I thought this was such a good and fair idea." He calls on the concepts of "formal freedom" and "real freedom." Formal freedom, basically, says you have the right to do as you might wish. Real freedom includes formal freedom as a subset, but addresses the means that are required for you to do what you wish to do. If you find yourself daydreaming often that you'd really like to do this rather than that, but you can't afford to...you're probably a wage slave. You have much more formal freedom than real freedom. Obviously, other life conditions mitigate the argument that, say, even though you were an orphan till age 14 then ran away to the circus and never learned to read, that you want to own your own casino in Las Vegas and so you should be given enough guaranteed to do that. We need to stay in "reality" here, folks. Think of some real freedom ideas that seem within the realm of possibility for you; this is what Philippe Van Parijs wants. And so do you.

But right now you might be mired in formal freedom and not real freedom.

And doesn't that sorta just piss you off, especially when you look at the careers of people like these CEOs?

If you'd like to be able to quit your job and take care of a sick relative but can't afford it because you'd fall into poverty...you'd be able to if there was a UBI. And not only caring for others (which is real work, if unpaid), but you could afford to gain better training or retraining for your job with a UBI (if your current bosses don't fund your education, which in Unistat they are less and less likely to do). You can become more socially and politically active with a UBI. Young people will be less likely to leave their families for a job elsewhere if they had UBI. It's a boon to artists, would-be entrepreneurs, and other creative types. It's a massive boon to the ever-increasing precariate class.

In Van Parijs's and most of the pro-UBI thinkers I've studied, the income is unconditional. Bill Gates would get a check every month. So would that guy sleeping behind a dumpster at the liquor store. The libertarian Unistatian thinker Charles Murray - who hates welfare - is for it. He's thought about it and wants to end poverty for Unistatians by giving $10,000 to every fellow Unistatian over 21 who is a citizen and not in prison.

Back to Philippe Van Parijs: besides real freedom he was moved to pursue his UBI lines of thought by "A grand reflection about the fate of mankind and the way mankind should be heading." He also saw it in the spirit of socialism, but not by doing that whole takeover of the means of production stuff. In this, he saw UBI as an "attractive alternative to socialism."

Here are two videos by major world thinkers in UBI, the first an interview with Guy Standing. It's about 8 minutes long. He mentions the term "social dividend" which reminded me of some thinkers that influenced Ezra Pound and Robert Anton Wilson, particularly the engineer and economic thinker C.H. Douglas. We should receive a UBI, says Standing, due to the "social dividend from all the investments that previous generations have made." Standing also mentions Thomas Paine, who had this idea in the 18th century. Standing also talks about experiments and successes with UBI in selected areas of India, Africa, and Latin America, and mentions Lula's Brazil and the Bolsa Familia: 60 million on a version of UBI and a smashing success: increased work and productivity!:

And here's Philippe Van Parijs from what looks like earlier this year. It's 6 and a half minutes, and my favorite part takes off at 4:00, when he gets the question about "parasites" that would sit around and live off other people's work. Basically, 1.) you might not have a job but be doing useful work, like housekeeping or taking care of children, etc; 2.) some paid work is not useful, as for example making weapons; 3.) many highly paid jobs are being done by "free riders"! Wha? Yep: it's incorporated in their jobs: they've received massive gifts "from nature," they benefit from rapid technological advances that they themselves are not responsible for achieving, and they benefit from a highly organized society. This last reason reminds me of the spirit of the "social dividend." Van Parijs has spoken at length about this in other interviews.

We create reality by talking about it.

March 1997 interview with Philippe Van Parijs

July 2002 interview with Philippe Van Parijs

I'd previously spewed blog on the Universal Basic Income HERE and HERE.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Robots and Technological Unemployment: Further Considerations

In my last blogspew I wrote a bit about all the ideas and rhetoric I encountered as a kid in the 1970s, reading books and magazines from earlier in the century, when said rhetoric was about the End of Toil. And this seems possible, but we are stuck in a dumb-game about being unfathomably rich, or living in a constant state of biosurvival anxiety due to lack of money and the fear of poverty, homelessness, hunger, penury.

Maybe the ballsiest rhetoric about "all that" came out in 1930 - just as the Great Depression was setting in - by Lord John Maynard Keynes. In a short yet profound essay, "The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren," Keynes - a polymath - wrote that the end of the economic game was in sight, and that many wouldn't know what to do with themselves, that working three hours a day is quite enough for most people, and that a few will know how to live a life of leisure - the goal of a true liberal arts education - while others will have a rough go of it.

"I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs." - Keynes

Read this essay if you haven't before. (If it seems "tl/dr" skip to the II section.) He says that within 100 years this end of toil would be possible. As we write: 16 years and change from now. Which reminds me of a couple of studies that came out in the last 18 months.

We must know something about where we've been in order to understand where we are, and where we might be going. 

Profs. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
A 98 page book appeared around January 23rd of 2012 titled Race Against The Machine. In a stunning move by an increasingly lame TV institution, 60 Minutes actually did a segment about technological unemployment that Brynjolfsson and McAfee had warned about, and allowed them on as talking heads. The segment featured much footage of robots in factories doing the work that humans previously did. Famous AI/roboticist Rodney Brooks is shown with one of his robots that can learn, pick up an object from the floor, works cheaper than a Chinese factory worker, can be programmed to do a new task by a human in a matter of minutes, etc. 

Everyone should have been talking and writing about Tech Unemployment after this, but few did. I think most of the population is clueless and in reactionary mode, while the Owner Class would rather the population not know what's going to happen to them. It was right there on your beloved teevee, people!

Here's the 14 minute segment, in case you missed it. That's Brynjolfsson in the pic.

In a blog post after the 60 Minutes piece ran, McAfee complained that other experts had misunderstood what they were saying. Near the end of the post he writes:

Previous waves of automation, like the mechanization of agriculture and the advent of electric power to factories, have not resulted in large-scale unemployment or impoverishment of the average worker. But the historical pattern isn’t giving me a lot of comfort these days, simply because we’ve never before seen automation encroach so broadly and deeply, while also improving so quickly at the same time.

Now: These guys are not my heroes. I've read their stuff. I object to their avoidance of talking about the human questions of suffering under continuing austerity and the defunct neoliberal economic model. In the 60 Minutes piece McAfee is asked about the human fallout, and he acts befuddled, saying only that "science fiction" is his best guide. Maybe he'd get too much crap from colleagues if he brought up Universal Basic Income? If you look at McAfee's blog there's nothing there about what to do about human suffering (that I could see), and in his book with Bryndolfsson they stress more "education" and "entrepreneurship," which I find tin-eared, or just plain stupid. Look at the education system NOW, look at the debt...and where are these new jobs that people would be "educated" to do going to come from? Servicing robots? What a joke. You just spent a dense 90 pages writing about the inexorableness of machines in the workforce. Fer crissakes! Read the Keynes essay from 1930! (Maybe if you rise so far in academia that you teach at M.I.T. [Bryndolfsson], or Harvard Business [McAfee] you aren't required to address ideas of human suffering?)

Interestingly, if you read the comments to McAfee's blog post I linked to above, the UBI is mentioned. 

Matthew Yglesias of Slate is pro-UBI, but thinks the idea of permanent technological unemployment is a myth...because in the past when new tech revolutionized production, it created new jobs. Here's McAfee's rebuttal. I find McAfee persuasive here. Do you?

Worse than McAfee, to my eyes, is Bryndolfsson's TED talk . How wonderful! The solution to technological unemployment? Work alongside a robot with advanced Watson-ability solutions! Because...it worked in chess. 

This is just pathetic. I applaud these two geeks for pointing out the obvious rapid influx of technological unemployment. They are just silly asses when it comes to what to do about the human fallout, in my opinion.

                                    a still from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis

Profs Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne
Both of Oxford. On 17 September, 2013 they produced a paper, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?" They were motivated by a 1933 paper by Keynes, about the possibility that machines will put most people out of work. They also cite Bryndolfsson and McAfee. They say 47% of all jobs in Unistat are at high risk of evaporating under computers/automation/robots/better AI systems...within the next 20 years. Round it out to 16 years and change, just to make it interesting?

Which jobs are susceptible to loss?
-data crunchers
-production labor
-office support/administrative support
-machine operators

Let's not even talk about booksellers, journalists, musicians, travel agents and a bunch more - who still exist! - but...you know what I mean?

Some things that could slow or speed up the loss of these jobs: regulation of technologies as they come online, and access to cheaper labor. In a paper by Frank Levy of M.I.T. and Richard Murnane of Harvard they address the types of jobs that will be lost to robots: "Each of these occupations contained significant amounts of routine work that could be expressed in deductive or inductive rules and so were candidates for computer substitution and/or offshoring." 

A.I. has gotten better and better at pattern recognition/machine learning and crunching Big Data, so a lot of clerical and administrative jobs are on the way out. 

Computerization will hit a bottleneck or technological plateau, then A.I. will be so good that it will replace most of the jobs in management, science, engineering, and even (this one really gets me) the arts. 

Look at the jobs not susceptible to automation. They mostly suck; the post-war boom and middle class labor movement seem a thousand years ago. The jobs that are hard to replace with a robot are low-wage: buildings and grounds maintenance, housecleaning, food preparation (although I've seen robots on video...nevermind), personal services like doing manicures and haircuts, personal care of the elderly (although I've seen videos of robots doing this work...nevermind), or any job involving abstract, unstructured cognitive work that's hard to write code for. And even with these jobs, software like Network Manager is often used.

Frey and Osborne advise more education to do the sorts of jobs robots can't do: "Acquire creative and social skills," they say. Is it me or is this just fucking ridiculous? It's almost worse than Brynjolfsson's "work side by side with the robots!" Just acquire social skills! Just learn to be more creative! 

Do these academics ever leave the Ivory Tower and talk to strangers in the streets? Message to Frey and Osborne: you were spurred to write your paper by a 1933 paper by Keynes. Please re-read his 1930 essay on "The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren," and get real: work was, for the most part, something we as a species should try to cure. It's a malady. We have in our sights the cure. It's all about sharing the wealth enough so we can not be burdened with biosurvival anxiety and drudgery. And you'd be surprised how many of us know how to handle leisure. We will still "work" although we may not consider it that. Work may "be" play, but it will be productive. And how many boons have come to humanity when people saw some little problem that needed to be overcome, had the time to tinker, to "screw around" and made a contribution to humankind? Answer: almost all boons...

According to Frey and Osborne, only those occupations that require a high degree of creativity or "social intelligence" or other advanced skills can resist the rise of AI. I saw one paper - my notes are scattered so I can't say where - but two jobs that will last for awhile were (I'm not kidding and if any of you challenge me on this I will find the source to prove it): CEO and poet. 

This is where we're headed. And sooner rather than later, friends. It's time to think about what Life is for. Is it to compete in the rat race so you don't have to live under a freeway overpass? Or is money different than wealth?

(this is more than 14 months old, so it's "worse" [or better?] than this):