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?