Sunday, July 29, 2007


Apologies to my readers - all possibly as many as four of them - for the long silence. Between a new job that requires me to be up before the sun, and a visit from my family, which was tiring no matter how much I love them, I have been busy and wiped clean out.

I will return soon, with tales of, erm, introspection, and possibly filing. Because that is what I do.

I file.

Monday, July 23, 2007

That Wizard Book, Viruses, and Maybe Iraq

I wonder what it feels like to have your book burned?

Does J.K. Rowling feel offended or hurt? Liberated? Does she laugh all the way to the bank? I can't really imagine how I would feel about it, much less someone I've never met. I don't really know quite what to think about it.

The idea of burning books is just... repugnant. It's something you don't do in the modern world. The immediate mental associations with book burnings are witch burnings and Nazi cultural cleansing, neither of which are things that most people are eager to claim as their inspiration. The modern, enlightened individual just doesn't destroy information; it's why the fall of the Library of Alexandria is counted as one of the most devastating destructive acts in human history.

What drives these people? What could make a functional, thinking adult afraid of a collection of words on paper? Books don't possess any motive force. They can't do or harm anything. Platitudes to the contrary, words and information are neither powerful or dangerous; it is and always has been people who are dangerous, whether the tool they use is a rumor or a gun. It is when ideas reach people that there is danger. History has shown us that the struggle to prevent ideas from reaching people, to suppress information, is an ugly, destructive, and ultimately futile exercise generally undertaken only by dangerous people.

And it seems to me that the type of people who feel that certain thoughts - certain words that contain information that doesn't seem to accommodate their own favorite words - must be purged from the world by flame or by force are very, very dangerous people indeed.

WARNING: The following paragraphs will involve some speculation and possibly certain liberties with the hard and fast boundaries of current knowledge for the sake of ease of explanation. Nevertheless, I will represent everything as correctly as I can.

Ideas can, in some regards, take on a life of their own, and I don't speak metaphorically when I say that. Those who are familiar with meme theory may already have some inkling of what I mean, but for those who don't: a meme is a single piece of information or idea, of variable complexity but generally at least a complete thought, which acts in certain regards very much like the information encoded biologically in a gene. Like genes, memes influence the "host" organism that carries them in order to ensure their own replication; in the case of genes, this replication involves the reproduction of the host. In the case of memes, it simply involves communicating ideas. In a way, then, ideas can be viewed as a form of near-life on par with, and indeed virtually identical in principle to, viruses.

Unfortunately, unlike the body, the human mind does not seem to have been evolved with a robust immune system. Indeed, it seems as if humans will take in and support almost any idea, and it is only other, pre-existing ideas which prevent the uptake and acceptance of new ones. Since humans are almost never raised in a complete cultural vacuum, it is difficult to separate what is genetic instinct from what is learned unconsciously or at a very early age, but it does seem fairly certain that while some faculties, at least, are "hardwired" in, most behaviors that we undertake are learned either through experience or through communication with other individuals; and what we learn is definitely a mixed bag. Humans are very susceptible to infection by information.

There is genetic evidence, and a body of theory, which suggests that during human evolutionary history, certain viruses became virtually endemic to human populations, and were eventually, over the course of many generations and through a process of pathogenic attenuation, incorporated into human DNA as nonfunctional pseudogenes or other segments of DNA of varying levels of expression. I use "pathogenic attenuation" to refer to the process by which communicable diseases tend to become less deadly to their hosts over successive generations and during transmission to new hosts, since the organisms which kill their hosts less quickly generally have more chance to spread themselves.

In other words, the body of human information - the human genome - adapted to and overcame these viral threats not by the war undoubtedly waged on them by countless immune systems, but by assimilating them and rendering them harmless. A virus is nothing more than a length of genetic material with a delivery system - a biological data packet. Instead of continuing to wage an endless, impossible war against information, our ancestors eventually won by accepting it.

If this strategy was the ultimate answer for our bodies, which already possess a powerful, diverse immune system for the explicit purpose of fighting off or destroying invaders, how much more important must it be for our minds, relatively undefended as they are? Ideas are powerful influences on humans, and humans are powerful. As I mentioned earlier, attempting to stop the spread of ideas is a futile and destructive pursuit, as governments and churches throughout the ages have discovered; and that, ultimately, is what makes the assimilative strategy so very vital.

The fool who takes arms against an idea - be it Hogwarts Academy or the Heliocentric Model or Terror - inevitably misses his target. He damages his intended intangible not even a little, but seldom fails to do grievous harm to his fellow man. Concepts cannot be killed, but human beings certainly can.

Take information into yourselves. Use your faculties for critical thought to evaluate it, and place it in the hierarchy of information where it belongs. Let it strengthen you. Never fight and never flee from learning; only fools, frauds, and cowards try, and their efforts are ever wasted. There is never anything to fear from information. If something you learn conflicts with something you know, you can lash out and try to destroy the new data, or you can figure out the truth, act accordingly, and grow stronger for it. Information is what it is; you may like it or you may not, but you can't fight it and win.

And burning every book in the world won't change that.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Writing Bug

I need to adjust myself somehow so that when I get the urge to write, it's daytime and I'm awake. Instead, it always seems to come on me late at night, when I'm sitting up and spacing out, insomniac but hardly at my most mentally acute. The result is... voluminous, but unfocused. Rambling.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Last thought for tonight

I've got the writin' bug tonight, but I do need to close it down and hit the sack sometime soon. I'll have to make this a short one, or maybe just a teaser.

Tell you what: in lieu of a full entry, I'll leave you with the beginnings of my next one in the form of a thought exercise I'd like you to do with me. Here's how it goes:

I want you to think of something you feel like you understand. Be a little careful and don't choose something you're an expert on, because that will defeat the purpose. Choose something that's not related to your job or your daily life, maybe something you studied in school some time ago.

The one that gave me the idea, being the man I am, is the basic concept of evolution by natural selection. I feel very strongly that the major part of the reason America rejects basic biological science in so much greater a proportion than the rest of the world - at least the parts of the world that don't live in theocracies or grinding poverty, or otherwise have no access to education - is because so many people have a shallow, simplistic definition attached to the word and no idea what it really entails. If all you're told is that evolution is the idea that "people came from monkeys," of course you're going to be inclined to reject it. It sounds silly!

There's more to it than that, of course; kids who sit through an entire high school biology curriculum have quite a bit more information available to them, but they'll only take away from it what they want to. As for adults, no one is trying particularly hard to teach them anything, so it's even easier for them to hang on to biased, inconsistent notions about this or that by the simple expedient of not thinking about it.

There's a very simple, logical progression from basic mathematics to simple statistics to the
essentials of the theory of evolution by natural selection. It's not hard to explain, and it really takes no more than a primary school mathematical education to grasp. Once you know how it works, it's so incredibly intuitive that it no longer seems like a discrete theory; it's just the way things are. There is no separate force of evolution. It's just the inevitable, mathematical expression of the way things work.

And yet people don't get it. Ask an American what evolution is, and if you're lucky you'll hear something that's vaguely related, like "The strong survive and reproduce," or the oft-misquoted "Survival of the fittest." If you have the misfortune to ask one of our nation's many religious fundamentalists, you'll probably hear something more along the lines of, "It's the idea that we came from monkeys, and I'm no monkey" or "It's some kind of attempt to disprove God and it's a lie."

How can you in good conscience reject what you don't understand? I really, sincerely believe that if many of these people had been shown, step by step, what evolution is and how it works, they would have no trouble reconciling what goes on right before their eyes in the natural world with their faith like so many more reasonable religious folks do. Lacking that understanding, though, they turn to the only explanation they've ever actually had laid out for them: "God is great, and he made it this way."

No, I'm not saying, "Oh, those poor, benighted savages and their silly beliefs." I'm not saying that every single one of them, or even many of them, would reject their superstitious ways if only they could be taught. Evolution and religion aren't even the topic here.

I have digressed a bit, but now I'll return to the exercise: choose a topic. It doesn't have to be something you disagree with, just something you think you understand at least a little, but don't think about much. It can be something big or small. Doesn't matter. If you like evolution as a topic, you have my wholehearted approval, but go ahead and pick whatever you like.

Now: ask yourself what you really know. If your topic was, say, computers, do you know what the major components of a computer are? Do you know what their functions are? Do you know what they're made of? Do you have even the faintest idea what goes on inside a microprocessor? I think that I understand computers pretty well on a functional level, but I couldn't even begin to explain how a silicon chip works.

Once you have established, as you inevitably will, that you don't know much at all (If you can answer authoritatively and in detail every question you can ask yourself, you have probably picked a topic you're an expert on, and I told you not to do that. Shame on you!), start hypothesizing. Make some guesses. Build alternate explanations that fill in those gaps in as many ways as you can think of. Take what you know and use it as a framework to develop as complete a picture as you can. Deduce from what you know whatever you can about what must happen in the parts you don't know.

Now that you've done that, do a little homework. It doesn't have to be much; a quick Google search and a casual reading of the Wikipedia article for your topic would be a good start. See if your ideas are borne out. Chances are if you actually tried hard at the last phase of the exercise, you'll be surprised at how accurate parts of your guesswork are, and you'll see places where your guesses work out, but not in the way you expected.

If you found this to be a stimulating exercise, then my work here is done. You've just done some critical thinking. Try it again sometime! It's good for you.

If you didn't find it at all stimulating, then why did you pick a topic you weren't interested in, knucklehead? Try it again, with feeling this time.

Anyway, I'll be doing this, too. I'll get back to you with my findings.

Eh? What's my topic?

I don't know yet.


Saving the World

Where did I get this sense of... obligation?

I have a confession to make: I have a superhero complex. I have an overwhelming, burning need to Save The World. It's silly, self-important, and impossible, and I still have it. There are times when I cannot sleep at night because I simply can't see how I am going to achieve, in my limited lifetime, something that will truly Change The World For The Better.

As for the idea of simply relaxing and following my bliss, doing my own part by being happy and productive, well, that's a paradox, you see. There are times when I would like nothing better than to bail out on my faltering career track toward a mediocre future in the sciences. Sometimes I think that I could be very happy being a schlock sci-fi writer, or designing role-playing games, or running my own brewery, or spending my days in the mountains as a national park ranger. But those don't Make A Difference, you see? They're too small for that ridiculous Napoleonic part of me that wants to singlehandedly improve the human condition forevermore. And so I know that if I dropped it all now and went to a community college for a degree in Fermentation Science to spend my days making and bottling Huntington's, the finest goddamned craft ales on the West Coast, I'd be nagged all my days by a guilty voice inside that told me I was shirking. Beer? What kind of occupation is that for a Hero?

How dare I deprive the human race of my genius, my greatness?

And simultaneously I know that I'm just one man, and not, come to that, a Newton or a Franklin or a Darwin. I have the superego of a Great Man, and rather less ambition than Ben & Jerry, who, it is worth noting, originally intended to make bagels and only settled on ice cream because the initial outlay was cheaper and simpler. It seems rather conceited to determinedly martyr myself in a life path at which I stand every chance of failing utterly because I have to Save The World.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'd love to succeed in the sciences. I'd love to go back to school and, one day, discover something, some unexplored realm, that really sets me aflame with passionate interest. I'd love to be the guy who maps out the metabolic processes of the first extraterrestrial life we find, or the guy who writes the book or the script that finally makes evolution accessible to Americans, or the guy who unlocks a pattern in human DNA that allows us to double our effective lifespans or magnify our intellects with simple, safe modifications. The chances of that are... slim, it's true, but they're a lot worse than slim if I don't try.

We'd all love to be heroes, I know. I just wish I knew how to stop feeling like my only choices are "Champion Of Mankind" or "ignominious failure." I'd like to add "happy, successful ordinary guy" to the list.

I wonder if I'll be able to die contented once I get my Nobel Pri-- dammit!

A Note on Originality

It's a hard life being a writer, these days. Ditto for an actor, an instigator, or even a simple salesman. It's all been done, you see. It's hard to be innovative when even the quirkiest, most cockeyed inspiration was already patented by Thomas Engleberry of Bend, Oregon six years ago.

No, there is, to the best of my knowledge, no Thomas Engleberry in Bend, Oregon. If there is, I don't know him or know if he holds any patents, but I'm sure he's a very nice man.

You see? You probably gave a small, fleeting smile to that joke, passingly amused by it without conscious thought because it's a formula you've heard before. I can't name a particular instance of its use, and you probably can't either, but you have heard it, haven't you? Somewhere, you read something where someone made up a false name for a frivolous example, and then said that whatever real person bore that false name was certainly "very nice." It's been done. Many times.

It's not a rip-off, though. I'm not plagiarizing it. It came unbidden to me. I didn't write it thinking that, oh, hey, I read a good joke the other day! I think I'll put it in my blog! On the contrary, it just seemed like the most natural place to go for the next paragraph.

In the sciences, it's not really possible to just be a scholar or a researcher any more. You must be a specialist, and if you want to make a career of it, you have to be pretty damned good. The closest anyone can come to being an old-fashioned, well-rounded generalist in scientific fields in the modern world is to be a professor, to teach; and even then you'd better have either a prodigious output of publications or an ambitious and successful laboratory with your name on it, or you'll find yourself with no funding, out in the cold and obsolete even if you do have tenure. You can't simply be a biologist, or, god forbid, a naturalist any more; you have to be the foremost authority on something, perhaps the mating habits of African birds of prey, or the ecology of Florida mangroves and the impact of pollution on their growth.

For those of us with a scientific bent and broad interest, with an insatiable intellectual wanderlust as opposed to hawk-eyed, single-minded focus, this is a difficult situation. It's virtually impossible to make a career in the field we love in any way that's even remotely fulfilling to our desire to continue learning about more than the current micro-interest project that directly in front of us, and yet it's equally painful to sacrifice any sort of career in the sciences at all. For myself, my best hope is, I think, to become a science journalist or popular science writer; frankly, my writing and critical thinking have always been sharper than my ability to pay meticulous attention to detail and ferret out important data points. I'm a better inductive thinker than deductive, a better intuitor of patterns than aggregator of data, and there's no room left in the sciences for those who can't bear to focus down. The broad niches were filled by the scientific giants of yesteryear, the Newtons and Darwins, who had excellent attention to detail and the freedom to make broad, far-reaching new discoveries based on the simplest data that just hadn't been examined before.

The reason I've made this seemingly random digression into professional angst should be coming into focus now: it's hard to be original. It's not hard in the sense that it's a taxing effort to write without ripping someone off; rather, it's just a pretty fair chance that whatever you have to say will have been said before, and quite possibly said a lot better than you would say it.

There are two ways out of this, it seems to me.

The first, as in the sciences, is hyperspecialization. If you cater to such a narrow niche - temporally or numerically - that you're the only game in town, you stand a fair chance of being the first to say whatever it is you want to say. The downside, though, is the same as the upside: you're the only game in town because it's a very small town. Low general interest and a limited number of topics are sure to be problems.

The second is simply to offer yourself as the commodity, and this is what I've opted to do. The one thing any writer has that is unequivocally his own is his style. It may borrow parts of itself from any number of influences, but the final, synthetic result is, like a person's unique genetic code, simply the result of too many factors to be likely to be duplicated. Unlike in the sciences, there is an element of art to writing, and flexibility and unorthodoxy can get results because there's no objectively correct way to express something.

So this is my take on the issue of whether or not what I write has been said before: I know it has. If you're here, you're here to read me writing about it. I thank you for that, because I know that if you just wanted to read the facts about it - whatever "it" is - there are a thousand other places you could go. What I can offer is not something that's never been said before, but a new and, just maybe, better way of saying it.

In return for your loyal interest my hackneyed ramblings, I can hope that, one day, when I have a truly unique thought, you'll be the first to know.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Punk ain't dead

In spite of everything I said in our last installment, I left a few things out.

And, honestly, I've had my mind changed for me... just a bit.*

The most important thing I left out is the one thing that reconciles the fact that punk is about not fitting in with the requirement that punks have unity and purpose. That one thing is simple: humanity. Punk is about rage, rejection, and destruction, but not indiscriminately; it's about smashing everything that tries to make us other than human. It's about smashing everything that keeps some people down and artificially raises other up. It's about doing violence to any and every system, every status quo, that tries to deny that we are all human, by resorting to the one resource, the one means, that we all have. It's about not just removing, but throwing down and tearing apart artifice and dishonesty.

It's about reaching the greatest common denominator, whether society damn well likes it or not.

Good punk rock is like a drug -- not just a drug, but an amphetamine. It puts a hard, brilliant razor edge on one's world and perceptions. It fills you with pumping, angry energy, but also expands your perceptions, stretching them out so you can see patterns, structures within the world and the dynamics of humanity. It highlights in a cold blaze the faults and knots and dead-ends of what is, and makes you feel both overwhelmed and godlike at once, like you're dwarfed to insignificance by all the world -as you are - but, joined in incandescent fury with all your fellows, could topple empires with a mere touch in the right spot.

There is good punk rock out there. Submerged and subverted as it may be, punk isn't dead. Not dead; but smothering. Choked and weighted and clumsy under a heavy blanket of monoculture.

Don't just dress it, or listen to it, or wear it on your shirt. Think it. Feel it. Do it. Fight, before real punk goes under forever. Whether your taste is Anti-Flag or Bad Religion or NOFX or the Ramones, set aside tastes and styles and goddamn well smash some shit up.

And start the smashing with complacency.

* - Bad Religion's new album New Maps of Hell is nothing short of transcendent, no less than you'd expect from the champions of intellectual punk.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Punk is dead

I know it's been said before, but punk is dead.

Okay, not quite. It's still alive, but it's hobbled. Defeated. Its fangs have been pulled and its claws blunted. There are still real punks, and you can pick them out because they're the ones that don't have liberty spikes, shredded black leather jackets, and an entire catalog of obscure band patches and tattoos. They're the ones that dress comfortably, put on killer shows, and never, ever, ever quit. The rest? It's just fashion.

Punk, you see, is emphatically not a subculture; or, at least, the real spirit of punk isn't. Certainly there is a subculture - an entire fashion trend - that is called punk, but artfully torn clothing and dyed mohawks have as much to do with what punk is really about as Avril Lavigne does.

Punk is about one thing, and one thing only. It has a mission statement, and this is it:

"Things ain't right; they're unfair. We don't like it, and we're not going to fucking take it. We may not have power or influence, but we're going to smash shit up until you listen to us and starting making things right."

That's punk. It's about purpose, unity, and, yes, violence. Violence, though, doesn't just mean random physical destruction; indeed, many punks lose sight of the real meaning of violence when they become too engrossed in brawling and vandalism. Violence can be done with a fist or a brick or a spray can, but it can also be done with words, appearances, and decisions. Violence can be done to ideas. It can be done to social norms. The very idea of tattered leathers and mohawks was not, at first, to be identifiable as a punk, but to stand out and be identifiable not at all, to do violence to people's everyday routine by shocking their standards of dress and decency.

Punk music, too, is about violence. Some of it is obvious, direct. Some of it is nothing but calls for smashing the state, or simply vaguely-directed fury at a broken system. Some of it is not so obvious: songs about despair, or about strange, seemingly inconsequential topics that don't seem to jibe. The driving, double-time rock backbeat is energizing and angry, and the often distorted or discordant guitar is meant to jar the listener out of the comfortable fugue of music appreciation, especially the happy-go-lucky shallowness of most rock and roll.

There is real punk left; indeed, it's not even particularly uncommon, although it's in the minority. The problem is that real punk, sincere and powerful as it may be, is no longer a viable tool for social change, because it is inextricably stylistically bound with genre of music and visual style that's been re-branded as modern "punk."

There have always been what the epochal SLC Punk would term "posers," but the presence of young punklings who just don't get it is no longer the real issue. The system - and by that I mean society, supply and demand and not some paranoid complex - has taken punk style and sold it back to us. The drones who sport faux-spray-painted band t-shirts and green hair these days aren't even posers; they're just teenagers fitting in.

And there's the heart of the matter: today, punk is about fitting in to a subculture. When you do certain things, dress a certain way, listen to certain songs, you label yourself "punk." In so doing, rather than deliberately excluding yourself, rather than doing violence to a broken system, you join the system. The system has swallowed punk whole and digested it. And it's not easy to fix, either; you can't simply refuse to call yourself "punk," because the entire category of behaviors punks are supposed to perform are identified with what is now just another tame social clique, and if you don't call yourself punk, someone else will.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to pin the blame for this on Good Charlotte, or saying that this is a new thing. I know I'm not the first to discuss this issue. Punk has never been an effective tool for change in the US; it hasn't accomplished anything since its beginnings in the UK, and even then, on both sides of the Atlantic, it had its share of fakers; the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were in it for money and fame, right from the beginning, and they never denied it.

But there are still real punks out there. Serious ones. Angry. Young, old, educated, blue-collar, across all segments of the population, there are people who are filled with angry energy, and having no political voice, they're prepared to smash shit up until someone listens.

But no one's listening any more. Dressing ragged and smashing shit up has become as everyday American and as hollow as did long hair on men and short hair on women before it. Punk has become a fashion statement instead of just a statement.

Where do we go from here, then? We few, who have had even this final outlet plugged firmly by public indifference? Well, I can see only one way out: new ways of smashing.

How is up to you. Maybe it's time for nudist punks. Maybe it's time to take to the streets and do some real property damage. All I know is that is must be united, it must be purposeful, and it must be new violence. And in a world as fast-changing and blasé as today's, it must be smart.

Get to it, all ye punks. Put down the Elmer's glue and the Pabst, and get out there and smash some shit up. Use your fists or use your brains, but find something we haven't lost to normalcy yet, and use it for all it's worth.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Molecular civil war

There are three drives at war within modern man: the drive to reproduce, the need to hold adequate territory and resources, and the social instinct which leads us to abhor intraspecies violence.

Before you pooh-pooh me on the last one, consider that wars almost always happen when each side is convinced that the other is "the bad guys," and, though they'll rarely admit it, considers them less virtuous, even less than human. It's easy to doublethink your way into believing that no one who serves a bad cause - or what you consider a bad cause - could possibly be a good, competent, or even potentially valid person. Ask yourself what you'd think of a man who fought for Nazi Germany. Okay? Good. Now: did you even stop to consider whether it was possible he might not have known what he was fighting for? Or that he might have had little or no choice, and never seen any actual action, much less atrocity? Probably not. I'm not saying any of those things are likely, or making any kind of judgment; the point is whether or not you thought of those things before you judged. When someone is in an outgroup, they just don't bear consideration. It's instinct, so don't beat yourself up over it; just watch out for it.

Anyway: humans are creatures of instinct, just like any other animal. Don't believe me? Take a look at your nearest suburb or trailer park, at the family with eight kids and no reason other than "we always wanted lots of children." Children are a drain. They suck up resources and dominate the parents' lives. Why have them? Because we want to, obviously. Because we're built to want to. Take a look at third-world nations where couples who can't even feed themselves bear child after child. Why? They don't even think about it. There is no why. They just do. Why are snakes or spiders distasteful? Why does fast-moving water or heights give you the shivers? They simply do. Instinct. It's built into you at a preconscious level, written in your genes. It's left-over survival traits for early humans who were little more than eccentric apes.

Breed more, leave more offspring, pass on more copies of your genes. That's the currency of evolution. Genes good at getting their bearer to copy them are passed on more, and so cause more copies of themselves to be created. The most straightforward expression of this concept is the drive of every creature to mate at all costs. But parents and offspring alike must also live to reproduce, and so adequate territory and resources are also required. And, of course, there's no point to reproducing if your closest genetic relatives just kill one another off.

Breed, survive, and get along with your kin.

Each of the three warring traits exists for a good reason, a valid evolutionary purpose, but, for humans, the three are no longer entirely compatible. Humankind has changed the environment in which it lives so extensively - and by "environment" I mean not just the natural world in the sense that the American media usually uses the term, but the entirety of the conditions which surround us at all times, the milieu in which we live -that we are no longer perfectly biologically suited to it. Biologically speaking we are apes; instinctively we prefer tree-height. We prefer grasslands and expansive views. We're made for a diet rich in gathering and not so heavy on hunting. But how do we live? In closed in, ground-level caves, densely packed together, eating meat and junk and very little plant matter.

It's not a bad thing. I'm not pushing for a return to nature; it's far too late for that now, and no reasonable individual wants to give up all we've gained and accomplished. My point is that biologically we simply aren't written for the world we live in!

We have too many people for the resources and land available, and yet still we want to reproduce. We have enormous drive to acquire new resources, and yet the only want to do so is to wrest them from the hands of our fellow men. We'd like to get along with each other, but every day we bump elbows and clash personalities with far too many people in unnatural, stressful environments. These drives are all there, and no matter how consciously we recognize that, they don't go away. They can't. They're hardwired in, like a computer's BIOS; they're what initializes us when our conscious mind can't keep up; they're what tells us, at levels where our minds can't or won't go, what's good and what's not... for an ape.

But we do hold a trump card: we have, far and away, the most powerful adaptive tool any terrestrial species has ever developed, powerful enough to overcome any instinctive drive and any physical hardship if the need is great enough and the will is there. We have intelligence and we have communication, traits unique to us not in their inherent natures, but in the degree to which we possess them. Dogs are intelligent, and they communicate; the same can be said of dolphins, fish, birds, insects, worms, anything with a complex nervous system, but none to anywhere near the degree of which humans are capable. We can observe, analyze, and choose, and no other species has demonstrated that ability in a capacity even approaching our own.

It's not easy, though. Every time a man takes an action that doesn't directly promote his welfare or that of his kin, he has to fight instinct to some degree. We have developed powerful tools over the course of our history to aid us in this; we have memetic devices, from religious faiths to the cold, hard power of logic, which let us overcome instinctual reluctance to do whatever we think is good and right, and we've even figured out ways to, in some degree, program people to believe that certain things are good and right. We've set down moral precepts and laws, though often for reasons themselves largely instinctual.

At any rate, I think I'll continue this another time. It's getting rather late, and I've digressed from my original purpose somewhat. In fact, I've quite forgotten precisely what my original point was.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Size matters

You know, people who say "everything's bigger in Texas" have obviously never heard of Cope's Rule, or, more importantly, Bergmann's Rule.

Hey, folks back home: it's colder, North-er, and more pristine - meaning older genetic lineages - up here. All that equates to larger body mass.

When I first went walking on the Seattle piers and saw the beady eyes of the truly massive seagulls trained on me, full of fearless calculation, I thought I was hallucinating. I'm from Texas, and I've spent plenty of time on the Gulf Coast. Seagulls are smallish birds that run away from charging children and only take bread from you if you throw it in the air, right?

Not quite.

For scale purposes, that is the very Earth that the seagull is perched upon.
(Credit goes to Courtney for the excellent picture)

I am intrigued too

Quietly sitting

I've been having some trouble sleeping lately.

It's a difficult thing, insomnia. With many difficulties of a physiological nature, there's something you can do. Even if it's nothing more than kick back in bed and drink lots of fluids, there's some way you can feel like you're making progress against whatever's wrong. Not so with an inability to sleep. You can either stay up and spend the night in bleary-eyed boredom, or try to sleep and spend the night tossing and turning in a haze that's somewhere on the borderland between racing thought and bizarre dreams.

There's no such thing as trying hard to sleep. It's not like being unable to lift something; you can't simply grit your teeth, clench your diaphragm, and heave, hernia be damned. You can't try to sleep when sleep is elusive. You can only wait for it to come to you.

There is a trick to it, sure. Many people have picked it up: military men and sailors, actors, doctors, and all manner of folks who are on call or get little time for rest. It's something you learn through necessity; those people need to sleep whenever they can get it. When you get by day after day on too little sleep, on the other hand, you're still getting by. There's no incentive, no urgency. You never learn the trick.

At any rate, that's what I'm doing: sitting here, getting by. Until my current wretched run of luck is over and I land a job - any job - I don't need to be up too early, mornings, so it's not killing me. I sleep in a little, once I finally do nod off, and nap a little; for some reason sleep seems to come just fine when it's not really appropriate. It's like a cat, purring and rubbing at your legs all evening and then darting away and hiding beneath the couch when you reach down to pick it up, only to come out and pounce on you later when you're distracted and have other things to be attending to.

Hrmph. Cats. A proper pet comes when it's called, I tell you.

Monday, July 9, 2007

M-m-m-my aorta

A family crisis seems to have blown over and I heard nothing of it until after it was more or less all said and done. Comes with the territory of being difficult to reach, I suppose.

A few years ago, my mother, who had been seeing a cardiologist for some time about related problems, experienced a bit of a crisis that resulted in her requiring open-heart surgery. The short version is that she had a small, leaking tear in her aortal wall, a congenital defect which could have left her dead in moments had she, say, fallen and hit the ground wrong. It was a long, scary experience for all of us, but in the end she was tough and resilient and she came out of it just fine. She's always treated herself a little more delicately since then; perhaps it's unnecessary, but I think it gave her a bit of a sense of frailty that she's never had.

Well, a couple days back, my uncle, her brother, went to the hospital for nonspecific back pain, and, after a long series of examinations in which they weren't able to figure out what was going on, they finally traced the source of some unidentified bleeding to - you guessed it - a leaky, split aorta. They immediately prepped him for open-heart, and he came through it remarkably well. He's as on the mend as one can be only a day or two after being sedated to technical death and split wide open, and he's a fit, healthy guy, so they expect a full, quick recovery.

Scary, yes. Definitely. I'm almost glad I found out about it after the fact so I didn't have to worry; I wouldn't have been able to be there for my grandparents and my mother even if I had known, living far away as I do.


At any rate, the same condition striking both siblings - one of which is, if you will recall, my mother - at close to the same age seems to me a bad omen for my own aortal integrity. At the least, if I one day pitch over dead for no apparent reason you will probably be able to guess why. I suppose this means that chances are fair that I can look forward to my very own bitchin' six-inch scar down my sternum some twenty or thirty years in my future.


I've been enjoying quite a bit of military fiction lately. I couldn't say what exactly put me in the mood, but I've been avidly devouring everything from Orson Scott Card and David Weber - both authors of lengthy, moderately philosophical sci-fi novels with a distinctly military bent - to Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Kent's Richard Bolitho, both classic canvas-'n-cannon nautical fiction about tall ships and the Royal Navy's struggle against the dastardly Napoleon.

By and large, every book has been an excellent novel on its own merits. Card's Ender series is a widely-acclaimed classic of the science fiction genre, and Weber and John Ringo's collaborative Prince Roger series is a less famous but superb series about... well, about space marines and galactic empires, honestly, but it's not as schlocky as it sounds, and I particularly enjoy the fact that it's obviously strongly influenced by, if not adapted from, Henry IV and Henry V.

The theme I've noticed, though, as the title of this post suggests, is authoritarianism, and the inevitable - given that the authors are all 20th-century American or British citizens - accompanying conservative spin. Card is perhaps the most subtle about his bias (until, at least, his most recent book, Empire, which is a monument to American conservative doublethink), playing up the humanity of the major characters and the unfortunate necessity of using them, children all, to protect humanity from the consequences of a horrific misunderstanding and subsequent war with the hive-mind "Buggers." At no point does he directly equate the Buggers with any sort of reductio ad absurdum socialism, but in the end, it's the unpopular, ruthless, and disciplined military personnel who use the child genius Ender to save humanity.

Of course, to reduce the book to such a simple, bare-bones description is to miss the point entirely. Card's writing is - ingenuously, I think - focused far more on Ender's development and internal struggles and on people in general than on any sort of "HOO-RAH" heroism. It's only in the framework, in the essential premises of the books, that any sort of underlying assumptions are visible.

What does it mean? I don't really know. Card himself is fairly famously a devout Mormon and strong social conservative, but to simply write off his body of work on that ground would be a tragedy.

Weber and Ringo's Prince Roger books are a bit towards the other side of the military fiction spectrum, an obvious space opera; they very emphatically do feature that selfsame HOO-RAH heroism, as well as futuristic weapons, raging barbarians, impossible odds, and a galactic enemy empire that could not be much more stereotypically Leftist if its military wore Che Guevara t-shirts. The Saints - the enemy empire - are a satirical exaggeration of the worst parts of the USSR and extremist environmentalist organizations mashed together into a ridiculous strawman. It's very difficult to take the obvious military authoritarian bias seriously, in fact, because the enemy - that one particular enemy, anyway - is so outlandishly extreme.

The notion of taking the straightforward authoritarian anti-Left message is further undermined by the occasional philosophical interludes, in which the characters discuss the unfortunate necessity for the horrors of war and the suspension of liberty in the military in order to protect a liberal democratic society; and yet that moderate impression is itself tempered somewhat by an almost conspiratorial tone of contempt for the presumably pampered, ungrateful individuals living in that very society. It's complex, like, I suppose, life generally is.

Again, any short description of the four-book series would be unjust, and to depict only one element of an on the whole excellent set of books might leave the wrong impression.

Anyway, enough summary. I'll spare you descriptions of the nautical fiction, because I think books about the Royal Navy probably need no further description for their salient characteristics to be obvious. They're fine stories of dashing adventure, in the name of the King.

The thing is, I can't really explain the draw. I consider myself a classical liberal and an intellectual. I should, by all rights, abhor war and all the waste, suffering, and destruction it entails. I should revile the suspension of liberty. I should be disgusted at the obvious right-wing propaganda in these books.


Well, perhaps not. Life is complicated. American politics are so polarized and vitriolic that we tend to forget that the divide between right and left is an almost entirely arbitrary one, and that one side can't really exist without the other.

Even more, though, authoritarianism isn't really a right-wing concept at all; it's the notion of a meritocratic authoritarianism, in which capable individuals have authority, that's been associated with the Right. The Left simply seems to prefer to vest absolute authority in more nebulous bodies or bureaus up to and including the people in general, but in the end authority is authority, and it is something which must be carefully balanced against liberty to maintain a healthy society.

I saw a book review recently of Max Brooks' World War Z, a zombie novel, which rated it one star. Now, you must understand that I do not exaggerate when I say that in terms of writing and storytelling and pure originality, World War Z is one of the best books I've read in years. Set aside any notions you may have about the schlock value of zombies, and pick up this book. If you have any interest in history, politics, comedy, horror, or simply good writing, you won't regret it.

So, what was the reviewer's reasoning? Apparently she didn't like the fact that Max Brooks was a liberal shill who blamed George Bush for the zombie outbreak.

Let me reiterate that: a woman rated a fantastic work of literature one star because she thought that someone had tried to blame Bush for zombies. It is worth noting that, to the best of my memory, at no point in the book was Bush's named mentioned, nor, in purely factual terms, was the United States the source of or the cause of the outbreak. If she saw George Bush as responsible for zombies, it was because that was what she wanted to see there, and so she trashed the book.

She trashed one of the most enjoyable books in years because she imagined a political spin to it.

And there, I think, is, at long last, my point: people have different perspectives. When they communicate, they do it from their unique perspectives. We can act no other way, because we are human. Chances are that whatever worldview informs the framework of someone's words, it's a matter of assumptions, and not of some sinister plot to brainwash our children.

If you allow your preconceptions about other people's preconceptions to blind and deafen you to what they're actually saying, we might as well just stop communicating at all and have done with it. If you can't get over your issues with whatever disagreements you have with someone to hear the words they're actually saying, you're flouting the very essence of what it is to be human: to communicate. This is something every adult should understand, and fewer and fewer actually seem to.

If you dismiss Max Brooks because you've concluded that he's a left-wing shill and therefore has nothing of value to say, then maybe it's no less than you deserve to be eaten alive when the zombies come.

And if you dismiss Orson Scott Card and David Weber and John Ringo because they're "right-wing extremists," well, you'll be missing out on some damn good books.

I just had a chilling thought...

You know, there is a way that George W. Bush might escape being remembered by our descendants as one of the worst U.S. Presidents in the nation's history. If you keep up with the news, you know that he's already heading in that direction; his support is, at long last, crumbling, and people are starting to talk. But...

What if he's remembered instead as just one early, unremarkable example in a string of increasingly bad presidents? What if he is America's Tullus Hostilius, and our Tarquinius Superbus is yet to come?

I think I'm going to go look up Swiss immigration and naturalization requirements now.

Monday, July 2, 2007

This is a blog.

Welcome! Er, well, not really. See, I can't welcome you, because you aren't here. Eventually you might be here, and then that won't be true, but for now, you are... not? Maybe?


This is a blog. There. I said it. I detest that vile portmanteau, blog, but it's become indelibly engraved on the modern lexicon, and so I must adopt it over my own shudders of revulsion. Is that out of the way, now? Good.

I'm some guy from Texas, living in Seattle, looking for work. I have done too little and allowed myself to become indolent and complacent over the last few months. I cannot abide this situation. I must exercise my brain. I must think; and since I think best by writing, here I am. I will be honing my wits on you. You will probably hear most often about the following things:
  • Evolutionary biology. I am not a political partisan; I am a student of science. I am not interested in inane creation debates, so do not expect internet-typical anti-religion screeds. If I discuss science, it will be something interesting, fresh, thought-provoking. You will learn, peons!
  • Politics. I hate politics. They make me angry. There is nothing more aggravating than watching sniveling power-brokers take good ideas and good people and turn them into politics. When there is something I want you to do - and that will be more or less the only time I will write about politics - I will tell you why I think you should do it, and it will be a damn good reason.
  • My life. What? This is a blog. You think I'm some kind of robot? Of course I'm going to talk about myself now and then. I'll try to keep it short and sweet, but come on... you know you're curious. Who doesn't like a few juicy tidbits of somebody else's business?

I will be going by the pseudonym of John Marshall, which is not actually much of a pseudonym at all; for this reason I considered titling this blog something like "The Literalist Papers" or "The Evolutionist Papers" or something even more vile like "The Literal-est Papers," but I decided that you, my audience, almost Heisenbergian in your uncertain existence, deserve better.

Let's just make that a permanent deal right now, okay? I will strive to the utmost not to make old, busted jokes, and you will love me for it. Good? Good.

This "blog" (shudder) will have topics and entries. Often they will be important. Sometimes they will be interesting. Sometimes they will be the sort of things to which you devote no more time and attention than it takes to skim the title and first eight words, and that's okay. I will tag posts. A word of warning: you will probably rarely see the "politics" tag unaccompanied by the "rage" tag.

I'll bring this to a close now, because this introduction is terrifically inane. I'm sure you want to read something of substance as much as I want to write it, so rather than wasting any more time here breaking this thing in and leaving a trail of drivel, I'll get on that.