Monday, October 27, 2008

Bad Ideas: #16,478

So it appears that one Selmer Bringsjord, a researcher at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has created "E," an electronic personality construct - sort of the primitive ancestor of an artificially intelligent entity - designed to represent the embodiment of evil. The idea, supposedly, is to study E in order to learn more about human evil.

There is no way this could possibly go wrong. Nope, no sir, no way at all.

Bonus: Bringsjord is using Asimov's Laws of Robotics to keep E on a tight leash. "'Because I have a lot of faith in this approach,' he says, 'E will be controlled.'"

Editor's Note: I am deeply enamored of the idea of artificial intelligence and it is only by a supreme effort of rational will that I keep myself from becoming a transhumanist and singularitarian (both of which positions are, given the current state of technology, narcotically appealing to those of a nerdy bent but logically indefensible); I simply think that perhaps it's not a good idea to let an electronic personality designed to be pure evil loose on the world.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Preliminary review: D&D4

I'll keep this short, in order to prevent it becoming a rant.

First, the pros: what I like about the new edition.
  • I like the separation of spells into quick-casting combat stuff and longer, component-using rituals. I think the idea of rituals is great, and I completely approve of the concept.
  • In-play complexity has genuinely been reduced. What WotC began in 3E, they have culminated here in reducing virtually everything to a single mechanic. If that's your thing, this should be pretty good for it.
  • There are no bards.
Now, in as short a space as possible, the cons:
  • The whole damned thing is focused on, catering to, and obsessed with combat, and especially combat "balance." One of the ways complexity has been reduced is by removing essentially every single rule or mechanic for non-combat... anything. The skill set has been drastically curtailed, the skill rules have been neutered to refer only to "Trained: yes or no," virtually all genuine utility or out-of-combat spells have been removed or recast in combat roles.
    Look, WotC, let me say this once, and say it clearly: you are NOT going to displace WoW or steal any of its success by trying to turn D&D into a succession of exclamation-point-bearing questgivers and dungeon crawls. It won't work. WoW does and always will do it better. Don't try to be WoW, because you aren't.
    Each class has been stripped of its interesting and unique features, progressions, and abilities, and has instead been turned into just one more cosmetic applique on top of a bunch of damage-dealing. There is now no substantive difference whatsoever between a fighter and a wizard except in what the DM is supposed to describe when they kill a monster, and perhaps in the specific minutiae of how their damage is distributed.
  • In furtherance of the previous point, they've gone so far as to explicitly say that I am correct in my impressions of the feel, by stating outright that no experience is gained for anything except 1) killing, and 2) completing fetch-and-carry quests. This makes me very, very angry.
  • Also in furtherance, they've... oh, fuck it.
  • The new "healing surges" essentially kill any remaining verisimilitude (not realism, mind you; it's a fantasy game, so realism isn't the point) by allowing characters to almost constantly renew themselves to full health, and by allowing the healing of any and all wounds with a single good night's sleep. In fact, this is yet another example of... well, you know.
I guess the short version is this: Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition is Wizards of the Coast attempting to steal market share from Blizzard by shamelessly ripping off the feel and mechanics of World of Warcraft. It is a highly polished, highly balanced, and fairly streamlined product, so it's good in that regard; if what you really, really want is to get together with your friends and play WoW without computers, then I guess this is the game for you. Otherwise, steer clear. Way clear.

In a completely unrelated subject, anybody want to buy the 4E core rulebooks? I, uh, happen to have an extra set. They're in perfect shape. Never really been used.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I Am The Game

I am considering creating a Game Blog.

It has been quite a long time since I ran or played in a tabletop RPG - that's those things like Dungeons and Dragons with funny dice to the layperson - and I'm getting the hankering. Sometime over the last year, I read Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East, and I really enjoyed a lot of the thematic elements and the setting. It's a mix of fantasy and sci-fi in a way that is completely unlike the one mix that most people have experienced of those two things - Star Wars. I am going to borrow some of his ideas.

I'll say right now: if you're thinking you might like to play in my game, think before you read the book. I won't be running a game that takes place anywhere near the events of the story, but it will spoil some of the mystery of the greater world for you.

The best description I can come up with for the setting is "post-post- apocalyptic fantasy western." I'm sure I'll draw inspiration from, and be criticized for allegedly plagiarizing, such diverse sources as Deadlands, Stephen King's Dark Tower books (his Midworld is a rich source of inspiration), Empire of the East obviously, and TSR's old Dark Sun world (indirectly... it's a bit of a jump from a harsh desert wasteland to a typical Spaghetti Western, but I'm such a big fan of Dark Sun it's hard not to let its influence creep in). I hope to create a setting that's all my own, however.

I've been hearing a lot of good things about the Savage Worlds rule system, and I might look into that. I have always harbored an ambition to repair Dungeons and Dragons, however, and with the recent release of D&D Fourth Edition, I think I'll probably run that way. I've been looking over the 4E core books, and I have to say that while I think they've lost something in verisimilitude and gained what I can only describe as WoWiness (a certain unreal, repetitive quality reminiscent of typical video game play), they have, in large part, smoothed out a whole lot of what used to make D&D suck: the unplayable frailty of new characters, the mismatched hodgepodge of different rules adjudications, and, most of all, the interminably long, boring combats that consume four-fifths of any play session. That's not to say that combats can't be interminable in the new rules - they can, as the playtests of the introductory adventure Keep on the Shadowfell painfully illustrate - but rather that I think the new rules provide DMs with tools for maintaining a good flow and possibly even making combat stay within it's appropriate sideline role in a role-playing game.

It will, of course, require some house rule "patches" to keep up a good flow and restore the verisimilitude. That's expected among experienced players. Restricting the new "healing surges"; stopping interplayer table talk during fights; and doing away with WotC's absurd (and cringingly WoWy) idea that you can only earn experience from 1) killing and 2) completing simple, generally "kill x and retrieve y" formulaic quests will make for a good start.

Oh, right. Where I was going with all this: I am considering starting up a new game blog on which I will chronicle the plot arc in an episodic story form (and perhaps occasionally gaming happenings as brief interludes). I think that this would be beneficial both to me and to the players. It will be something of an exercise in discretion to keep from including spoilers but still make a good story out of it. I will keep you posted.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Another bad man dies, and again those in power crassly heap posthumous praise on one of their own in order to make themselves look better by association.

This is why we need something akin to Orson Scott Card's Speakers for the Dead. The only real memorial of an individual's life is the truth about that life. A full, unbiased, human portrait of Tony Snow might have earned him some understanding and dignity; as it is, he'll now go down in history as just one more Bush White House lie. No one deserves that.

Edit: Half of what I ask for is out there: personal accounts of the man. This is the good, but without the bad; if only she had elaborated on the phrase "Politics mattered to the professional Tony," maybe we could have seen the very human duality of a man who kindly helped friends in need even as he lied to the entire nation for the benefit of a few power-hungry crooks.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Why do we pity the dead?

I'd like to challenge the notion that it's wrong to speak ill of the dead.

Jesse Helms died today, and, frankly, good riddance. I'm not one to celebrate the death or suffering of any man, but I am profoundly grateful that Helms' influence is no longer a direct part of the world. Personally, I did not know him. Politically, it's good to see him permanently out of the picture.

Helms is being lionized today by the modern conservative movement. President Bush has called him "a kind, decent, and humble man," and Pat Buchanan said he was second only to Ronald Reagan in his importance to the bastardization of the Republican party -- admittedly not in so many words.

The media seem to be striving for impartiality in presentations of the late Senator Helms. I am forced to question the acceptability of this seemingly proper act. To say that Helms was a divisive figure would be grotesquely to understate the case; he made a career of pitting racial factions in his state against one another. Helms was the last, longest-standing opponent of equal civil rights for all Americans. He endorsed discrimination against victims of HIV. He relentlessly assailed the separation of church and state. Helms proudly stood firm to his last day in office as a racist, a bigot, a reactionary anti-intellectual, and an elitist in the true negative sense of the word -- not one who endorses the commensurate rewarding of merit, but one who looks down contemptuously on the poor and unfortunate.

Asserting that "the negro" is inherently unstable and violent is not the act of a "kind" man. Attempting to bar HIV patients from employment in a wide variety of careers is not the act of a "decent" man. Advocating the imprisonment of the faculty and students of a major university to prevent the blight of their educated ideas from spreading, however facetiously, is not the act of a "humble" man. Jesse Helms was many things, but President Bush failed to accurately name any of them.

I never hated Jesse Helms the man. In his personal life, he seems to have tried to be a genuinely good person, adopting a disabled boy for no apparent reason other than simple altruism. Nevertheless, neither good intentions nor a long-awaited death change the ugly facts of a long life of evil. Jesse Helms the politician was a powerful and visible symbol of many of the worst facets of American society. I will not pretend to mourn the passing of villainy from the earth, and I do not believe that dying, something which anyone can accomplish with comparative ease, earns a man immunity from criticism.

Jesse Helms has been a blight on America for some sixty years. The fact that he is now no longer among the living does not remove the shame of our failure to rid our government of his taint during that unforgivably long career. Look with fairness on all he did in his life, yes, and praise the good - but do not fail also to condemn the evil.

To put a more positive spin on this, Helms is a useful example of how much positive change we've really made in the last several decades. Things may look pretty bleak to Americans of intellect and good conscience some days, but you just have to look around you to realize that we no longer have segregated schools, active laws about what sexual activities can go on between consenting adults in their own homes, or a government that looks the other way at everything from discriminatory hiring practices to lynchings. Helms was a relic of an era that is passing away, and as much as we may seem to be backsliding some days, his passing is a reminder that things do, in the long run, get better.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I have nothing to hide... mind your own goddamn business.

As an advocate of an open society, I feel strongly that anyone should be able to essentially come out of the closet about anything they care to make public, without fear of judgment or repercussion. This should, in fact, apply even to admissions of criminal behavior in a context which does not constitute a legal confession, unless there is a clear and imminent threat of harm to another in the admission. No one should have anything to hide.

However, I feel that it is critical to distinguish this position from the entirely spurious anti-privacy assertion that "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide." For an astute and detailed refutation of this idea, see this paper; I particularly identify, however, with this excerpt: "[D]ata mining aims to be predictive of behavior, striving to prognosticate about our future actions. People who match certain profiles are deemed likely to engage in a similar pattern of behavior. It is quite difficult to refute actions that one has not yet done. Having nothing to hide will not always dispel predictions of future activity." Nothing grates against the sense of justice and the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" quite like the notion of future guilt. "[T]he problem with the 'nothing to hide' argument is that it focuses on just one or two particular kinds of privacy problems—the disclosure of personal information or surveillance—and not others."

For other readers, a different analogy might strike home: "In many instances, privacy is threatened not by singular egregious acts, but by a slow series of relatively minor acts which gradually begin to add up. In this way, privacy problems resemble certain environmental harms which occur over time through a series of small acts by different actors. [...] The law frequently struggles with recognizing harms that do not result in embarrassment, humiliation, or physical or psychological injury. [...] The problems caused by breaches of confidentiality do not merely consist of individual emotional distress; they involve a violation of trust within a relationship. There is a strong social value in ensuring that promises are kept and that trust is maintained in relationships between businesses and their customers."

Privacy is about the right to control how much or how little information about yourself becomes public. Too much privacy becomes de facto censorship; too little creates a paranoid police state. When I reveal personal information about myself, I am attempting to help create an environment in which anyone can be true to who they are in public without fear of censure, not to imply that we should have no secrets.

"[W]hen confronted with the plurality of privacy problems implicated by government data collection and use beyond surveillance and disclosure, the nothing to hide argument, in the end, has nothing to say."

Seriously, I recommend this essay.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Living in bubbles

I was listening on Thursday to a call-in show on our local NPR station, KUOW, called The Conversation. On this particular occasion, the show was not, in fact, call-in; instead, it featured an on-air debate between progressive and environmental activist David Sirota and well-known conservative mover and shaker Grover Norquist. It was an interesting listen, but ultimately I thought that neither of them presented himself or his "team" very well. Sirota was rather hand-waving and outraged, like a Socialist protester at a state university, and Norquist came off as greasily slick, smug, and lawlerly.

I didn't choose the comparison for Sirota arbitrarily. As the argument progressed over the economy, the elections, and oil prices, his rhetoric became more and more scornful and, frankly, Marxist, resorting to assertions of class war and responding to some of Norquist's dodgy statements by saying they were "a joke... what a joke." I found this somewhat dismaying on multiple levels, since not only am I no Marxist personally (I find Marxist ideology to be insultingly simplistic and naïve, rather like Randian Objectivism or Libertarianism), but indeed Marx's arguments about class as a driving force of social upheaval and revolution have been refuted to a substantial degree by historical analysis. It was also, I might add, just bad form.

The more I listened, however, the more I came to realize that what I was hearing wasn't just a naïve ideologue attacking a smug social Darwinist; it was, in fact, two naïve ideologues, whose ideologies, while theoretically opposite, were not in point of fact all that different. The sole distinguishing point was that one vested complete faith in fairness through social oversight, while the other worshiped at the altar of the infallible and beneficent Market. Indeed, come to that, Norquist was the greater cultist, since he admitted to no compromise whatsoever with Sirota's moderate - if still unrealistic - statist socialism, while Sirota at least did not attempt to entirely demolish the very idea of a capitalist market.

What I saw was that Norquist, emblematic of the deep conservative tradition that Reagan and his ilk brought to the fore in this country, was, in fact, a sort of anarcho-Communist himself. He and his movement endorse complete deregulation of all industries and services and essentially the elimination of taxation; they prefer to believe that private enterprise will naturally assume all the roles that the government now fills. They go so far as to say that oversight is completely unnecessary, since corporations will avoid harming or exploiting consumers so as to avoid losing business. This is so patently contrafactual that it is difficult to believe anyone could make the statement with a straight face, but there you have it.

Ultimately, Norquist's laissez-faire capitalism relies completely on exactly the same flawed axioms as Marxism: that humans are rational, enlightened, and in their self-interest, and that they are fundamentally and reliable moral. Indeed, the central theoretical works of Keynesian economics state openly and apparently without self-consciousness that individuals are "rational actors" who will take the best possible actions to advance their needs and desires. If there is only one insight that modern social science and psychology have granted us, it is that humans are not rational actors in any but the simplest and most unrealistically isolated and abstract circumstances. To claim that a theory based on the rational action of individuals is sound or useful in a reality where obesity and smoking-related deaths are commonplace and people prefer the incredibly dangerous transportation option of individual passenger automobiles to safe, cheap, and responsible mass transit is so absurd as to be insulting; and that doesn't even take into account individual contributions to global problems as in the case of climate change.

Communism, schmommunism. When you get right down to it, laissez-faire capitalism "works in theory" too. Just like Communism, it also results in social stagnation, environmental degradation, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites self-selected for amorality. Both systems suffer from the same failing of a fundamental lack of accountability of those at the top to the people who make up the system; and before you raise a fuss about the power of consumers to direct a capitalist society through purchasing choices, consider marketing. Marketing is the ability of those who control information networks - which have, not coincidentally, been privatized and deregulated - to manufacture both product and service demand, and public opinion, and the fact is that it works. Yes, even on you. You may consider yourself unusually immune to advertising, like many of us do; perhaps you only respond to one in a thousand ads, or you only buy something you saw advertised when it was something you wanted anyway? Well, one in a thousand seems insignificant... until you consider it on the scale of three hundred million Americans. And until you take into account studies that demonstrate that people are just as likely to be swayed by one opinion heard over and over again as they are by a very popular opinion. If you hear an ad for a product two or three times a day for months, chances are you'll start to think that everyone has one, and you need one too, and you won't even realize your mind has been changed.

There is a reason American citizens are always referred to by those in government and industry as "consumers" rather than "Americans" or "citizens" or "people."

In short, I suppose, the take-home message here is that the next time you say something derogatory about China or the Soviets, take a good, long look close to home, too. We had our own Cultural Revolution, and it's a damned wonder we don't all have little red books by Ronald Reagan. When you're going to vote or bitching about a tax hike, just remember that democracy and the free market, in spite of everything you've been told since 1980, are emphatically not the same thing. The American dream of self-improvement and a good life through fulfillment of all our needs has been stuck in a closet and buried under multiple strata of lava lamps, Walkmans, Betamax players, Power Rangers action figures, and more defunct automobiles than it's possible for the human brain to visualize: cheap consumer crap we didn't need that's now fallen out of fashion. That closet is getting full, and the first step we're going to have to take in the long-overdue spring cleaning is to stop piling more and more new junk on top of the mess we've already made. That, in turn, is going to require some reevaluation of a whole lot of people's assumptions about what it means to live in a free democracy. We deserve more than just the freedom to have our strings pulled by private interests who control our basic material needs and the flow of information to the public. We deserve, frankly, a new American dream.

Edit: I have changed the link to the voluntary simplicity page to a more general informational page on the concept, since it came to my attention that the site I originally linked to is, well, crap.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Clone wars

You can have your Jurassic Park, sir, and may you take much joy from it.

I am going to fill my island with cloned Vikings.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Do you see this?

Do you want to know where absolutism leads? Do you want to know what it looks like to have the mindset that anything is permissible so long as you believe your cause is just? Take a look. Look and see how we arrived at the current state of affairs, Abu Ghraib and waterboarding and the looming specter of war with Iran and all of the damned mess.

The only thing worse than the hopelessly naive "My country, right or wrong," is the blind and vicious "My country is always right."

Where's William H. Taft when you need him?

It appears that the Communications Trust is preparing to strike again with another plan to screw consumers who simply don't have any other realistic options.

Time Warner has plans to being testing a new metered bandwidth plan in Texas. I can tell you firsthand that there really aren't any other good options for broadband connection in Texas, so it's not surprising they'd choose that location to roll out this latest outrage.

Initially, the plan might not seem like a bad idea on its face. Other utilities are metered, right? So why not bandwidth? Well, the weaker but still relevant objection is the philosophical: it's wrong force people to pay for information. There are a hundred ways around this objection, most of which involve charging for the medium on which the information is distributed or for the effort of the distribution. This is just the latest bite taken out of Net Neutrality and the egalitarianism of the internet.

But like I said, that's the weaker objection. The stronger is this: Time Warner (and Comcast, which is guilty of its own anti-consumer sins) constitutes a strong regional monopoly, and when they suddenly change not only their own service offerings in this way, but the entire paradigm of the service offered, they essentially blackmail customers into accepting it - customers who did not seek out or sign up for this type of limited service. In most parts of the nation, you will find one cable broadband provider - almost always Time Warner or Comcast - and, if you're lucky, one DSL provider, and that's it if you want more than dial-up. Since these communications giants, along with the few other holders of major network brands, effectively run the FCC with careful lobbying and lots of lawyers, no one can be bothered to rein them in.

I really don't know what to tell you to do about it, I'm afraid. Support the EFF, maybe, or write your legislators. It's hard to oppose these kinds of forces, but give it a try any way you can.

Update: Apparently, Comcast is getting in on the game as well, not by charging more for bandwidth, but by deliberately slowing connections. Comcast's fight with P2P networks is old news, but it's new to me that they're instituting such a general crackdown on bandwidth use. It seems to me to be even more egregious to deliberately deny your customers what they're paying for than to ask more for your service. Both of them taking these actions recently and fairly suddenly, however, cannot help but reinforce the impression of collusion and price-fixing. It is to be hoped that the next U.S. administration lives up to its promise to be the polar opposite of both W. Bush and John McCain, and thus approves of and engages in vigorous trust-busting. I see little hope otherwise given the general apathy of the American public (whom I adamantly refuse to refer to in the general as "consumers," as there is much, much more to life than consumption).

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thoughts on brewcraft

I'm sitting here at my "desk" - the end of the living room table, in point of fact, since we're having trouble procuring furniture that meets our standards of both green and responsible, and not an aesthetic disaster - sipping one of the last half-dozen bottles of an ale I brewed a couple months ago. It wasn't a successful batch, in some ways; for one thing, it's a dark brown, but I don't think I'd really call it a stout or a porter since it's not very dry or toasty, so it's a bit of a bastard beer when it comes to style. For another, I really underhopped it, since I was improvising on the recipe and I didn't have a good feel for the hops I used. To top it all off, I also used the irish moss - a flocculant - and priming sugar wrong, so it's cloudy and supercarbonated. When I opened the first bottle and tried it, it reminded me strongly of really crappy albeit unsweetened root beer: brown, explosively bubbly, and, well, crappy.

It's matured for a couple of months now, however, and I have to say that at this point in time, it's really... not bad. I don't know if I would buy more of it from the store, but I'm happy to drink what I have left. It developed real character, and as the maltiness came out, the insufficient hops really seemed to matter less. The excess carbonation also seemed to bleed off a bit over time, perhaps owing to the flip-top bottles I used, so right now it's a nice, balanced, malty brew, and I don't even think I can really call it a failure in any fairness.

So what's the moral of this story? Well, first off, it's that beer is pretty good, even when it's bad.

More importantly, though, the moral is this: if you use decent ingredients, it's hard to make bad beer, even if you don't really know what you're doing. Really hard. You practically have to try to fail, since yeast is a prolific little organism that really likes sugar, and it doesn't like to allow any other organisms to share, so bacterial infections in the wort rarely prosper. Understand, then, that when you experience bad beer, you are being subjected to direct malfeasance. Good beer is pretty easy, so you'd better believe that when a major brewery releases a bad beer, they know what they're doing. They are insulting your taste and judgment as a consumer in order to make more money by using inferior ingredients.

Are you just going to take that? Thank goodness for the microbrew revolution.

For additional relevance, the megabreweries also promote deeply unsound industrial practices. You'd better believe they don't care where their grain comes from so long as it's homogeneous, which feeds a lot of money into irresponsible, fertilizer-heavy agriculture. They also, as anyone who is over the age of three and not blind and deaf must be acutely aware, voraciously exploit the American schizophrenic relationship with sex for their own profit in their marketing. In addition to simply being a bad cultural influence, there is no way that this practice could fail to increase the incidence of poor judgment in relation to consumption of alcohol and sexual behavior.

Drink good beer.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thumbing a ride

Excuse me, but I'd like to get back on the writing wagon. Which way are you headed, driver? If you're not going all the way to Self-Realization City, that's okay; you can let me off at Maturityville or even Enjoyment Cove and I can find the rest of the way myself. Mind if I hop on?

I imagine it would be strange for him to hear it - in fact, having met him briefly and established that he's a nice, down-to-earth guy with a history of underestimating himself, I'm sure it would be - but I feel like I owe a lot to Wil Wheaton. I've been reading Just a Geek, and I don't think I've ever encountered a more excruciatingly sympathetic account of an internal struggle between real identity and expectation. Like Wil, I'm a writer by nature, and like Wil, I have spent years fruitlessly telling myself that I'm something else. In my case, the "something else" is a scientist, not an actor; all the same, I find the internal struggle deeply resonant. In the bargain, I've neglected my writing to the point where I've lost my edge, and I've spent many semesters kicking myself for fitting inadequately into a role I'm just not made to fill. There are differences, sure; I can probably continue to work in science since it's not as cutthroat as Hollywood, and I do love it. I'm a passionate generalist.

Those of you who only know Wil as Wesley Crusher need to give him another look. You might be surprised to know just how much you have in common - just like every other insecure teenage boy, Wil hated Wesley too. The grown man Wil tells a heck of a story, and the story he tells is personal, familiar, and pretty damn funny.

Anyway, thanks, Wil.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Finding a place

I can't think of a way to say this that won't be at least a little trite, but I need to say it, so I'll just get it out of the way: I haven't been blogging because I haven't liked who I am and I haven't been able to figure out where I belong or where I'm going, so I've been trying to find myself.

Should I have put quotation marks around "find myself"? Would that have been suitably ironic? Does it count that I just did, albeit a sentence too late?

Anyway, yes. I found myself, not long ago, subject to more and more violent mood swings - admittedly most of them from "normal" into "crushing depression" - and I realized I had to, essentially, change or die. Reducing the amount of time each day I spent listening to the news helped immensely; I already know how the Presidential election is going to turn out, for example, so stressing out constantly about the petty details and Hillary's latest offense against basic integrity and decency was just causing my blood pressure to spike with unhealthy frequency. One news program per day is quite sufficient. I still enjoy the local features of our NPR station and the in-depth programs, but I had to relax and let the world take its course.

Once I stopped raging, though, I started to realize that a large part of the reason I was getting so pissed off about the ways the world needs to change is because I'm quite unhappy with my place in it. I don't really know who I am. Rather than ranting about this as I ordinarily would, however, I'll just say that I've been avoiding updating here because I just haven't known what to say. I don't know what direction I want to take. This is true both in life and in this blogspace.

Diverting all my energy away from pointless rage has allowed me to channel it into introspection and creativity, and I have realized that in the last six or eight years I really haven't made much progress on the "What do I want to do?" question. I'm currently working a more or less dead-end job, which I took only in order to lead to more jobs that actually involve bench science and might help me get into grad school. Unfortunately, I don't really know what grad school program I want to go into, or how to best go about it. I do, at least, know that I want to get into grad school in some sort of PhD program, because even if I don't stay in professional science, I want to experience it. I want that background, because a couple of the things I know I might do are science education and science journalism.

I can't help, sometimes, but to picture myself as a high school teacher. We'll see if that's how it ends up. I know that would be a good place to make a real difference, but it does have its obvious drawbacks as well.

Anyway, that's the story. Once I've got things figured out a little better, have no doubt I'll talk about it to no end; meantime, I'll try to find interesting things to talk about that are compelling in their own right and don't focus on me.

I want to know if people know who George is in "A Talk with George." (Yes, you can listen to it for free.) No fair just Wikiing the song.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The perilous path 'twixt Paris and Rome

It seems like every day there's a new degree of shrillness in the global concern over the growing food crisis; and it's no wonder, when tens or hundreds of thousands simply can't afford to eat. Here in the states I don't think it's inhumane cruelty or bovine apathy that leaves the average American griping about a few extra dollars at the checkout instead of dropping everything to ease the suffering of the poorer rest of the world; rather, I think it's just that the majority of Americans simply have no concept of the idea of being unable to eat. Even if it's just Top Ramen or McDonalds or similar nutrient-void trash, very few of us entitled first-worlders have ever been unable to meet our caloric needs. Hunger is part of history class, not our conscious worldview.

That said, it's not as if today's "hunger crisis" is anything new. If I've heard correctly, the UN estimates that around 24,000 people have been starving to death every day for years. I suppose that many of the distracted modern populace have been pestered by the likes of Sally Struthers for so long now that they've essentially come to regard starvation as part of the background noise of the world at large rather than a sickening and entirely needless horror.

I don't mean to sound jaded or cynical. Until recently I've been one of the many who regarded world hunger as "a problem" but never really gave it a second thought. Now that I've given it a second thought, I'm horrified but entirely at a loss as to how to change it with the means available to myself and others who would address the problem. I've known for years - and I'm not that old - that when we eat the products of the modern food industry, we're essentially eating oil. From petrochemical fertilizers to machine labor to transport by truck, without the Carboniferous deposits there's no way we could be supporting so many with such a small agricultural workforce. It's no surprise, then, that a dramatic increase in oil prices should result in a dramatic decrease in the availability of food worldwide. For the life of me, though, I can't see a solution that doesn't involve shaking up some of the fundamental assumptions of the outgoing but depressingly tenacious latter-20th-Century world, and people seem quite reluctant to accept that shaking. It's really disheartening to me to know that with no more than a program of energy infrastructure renewal, we could easily provide affordable food in perpetuity to everyone in the world, and yet that fundamental change is held off indefinitely by the greed of a few powerful men and the childish fear of change of the automobile-infatuated American people.

The reason I mention the coverage in the news, however, is because I don't think it will be an option for the sated to ignore the hungry for much longer. Food riots can only go on for so long before they become something more; hungry men do desperate things. There were no shortage of people in the world who hated the United States for our foreign policy before now; imagine their bitterness, whether you think it's justified or not, as they watch their countrymen starve under corrupt governments we do nothing to rein in and in some instances even set up, while we hand out what's essentially a free television to every household in our nation and don't miss a single hypercaloric meal.

American civilians braved Redcoat bayonets and the wrath of a global empire for far less grievous wrongs. Today we are the empire, but without the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, it's not going to be another American republic that emerges from our shadow. What would we have been if Washington and Jefferson and Franklin had been jihadis, I wonder?

No, this time it won't be the oppressed who show the world a better way. There will no doubt be a bitter struggle, but any change for the better in the world is going to have to come from within the empire. It's going to be a narrow, dangerous line we must walk, between the Roman Republic and the French, but there are tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to eat, and we're the ones with the bread. I only hope it doesn't take us too long to see that you can't bomb away hunger, whether it's the primal, nutritional kind, or the deeper hunger for freedom that we seem to have forgotten.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Interesting things I have learned lately:

- There are more than one thousand species of bananas. Of all these, you have only ever seen one in your whole life, or maybe two or three if you shop upscale markets. This is because this is the only strain of banana that growers deem both amenable to shipping and resistant to Panama disease, a fungus which wiped out the strain of banana that our grandparents used to eat. Apparently bananas really were better back in the old days.

- Also in banana-related news, researchers claim that a genetically-modified banana is the ideal delivery system for a Hepatitis B vaccine. Seriously.

- A meta-analysis of studies of multivitamin use has shown that not only do vitamins generally have no health benefits, they actually correlate with a small but significant increase in mortality. They also, as media outlets across the country have been happy to share, give us the most expensive urine in the world; given the known effects of prescription drugs on environments into which human wastewater flows, I think it's logical to say that it's also likely that all these vitamins could be having significant effects on ecosystems. This is actually not really new news, but I read it again lately and I thought I'd share.

- Recent discoveries about regolith composition on Mars were the result of a broken wheel on the Spirit rover, which dragged behind - actually in front of, since because of the wheel they had to drive it in reverse - and gouged a shallow trench in the Martian surface, revealing bright white and yellow layers under the red surface which contain, respectively, lots of silicon, and lots of sulfur compounds.

- Hillary Clinton has no integrity or respect whatsoever.

That's all for today.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The world IS just awesome

I tend to be pretty current on most of the crud that floats around in the interwebs, but YouTube is my big, glaring blind spot - I hate the inevitably mind-bogglingly stupid comments there so much that I have an aversion to the whole site. The result is that I am usually days or weeks behind when it comes to popular videos. All that was a lead up to the fact that you may have seen the following already or you may not. Frankly, though, I don't care, because it needs to be seen again. And again, and again, and again.

Edit: I have now watched this no less than six times tonight, and each time it makes me happy, and I am not anywhere near tired of it. Thank you, Discovery. Thank you so much. I want to find whoever was responsible for that commercial and give them a great big hug.
I am sorry, in a general sense, to have been so absent lately. I doubt many folks on the nets will have known the difference, since I don't think many of my local friends and acquaintances read this, but the fact is that both Courtney and myself have been depressed, enervated, and completely withdrawn for a couple weeks now. Apart from a brief excursion to the Green Festival, neither one of us has done much of anything outside home and work this month.

I know that's not good for anyone; all introspection and no life makes John a pain in the ass. I can't speak for Courtney, but for me, well, I don't really know the name of this new breed of noonday demon.

Anyway, that's it. I wanted to let anyone who had wondered know that, yes, I do still like you, and no, I'm not upset or just being a dick. Well, not intentionally, anyway. See you soon, hopefully?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On work and satisfaction

Today on our local NPR station's afternoon call-in show The Conversation, there was a featured discussion on some new sociological results which indicate that money does, in fact, make people happier - not just relative wealth, i.e. being the richest guy in town, but absolute wealth, your overall buying power. I had my own comments, though as always, being at work, I was unable to call in; I think that anyone who is really made happy by money is probably not all the way up Maslow's hierarchy, for one, and I also think that, humans being social creatures, people are likely to be made happy by money when they are told, point-blank, that money is a measure of success, as most people in our modern consumerist world are. That, however interesting it may be, is not what I'm writing about today.

No, what I'm writing about is a thought which came tangentially off of that topic: the intersection of work and satisfaction. What constitutes satisfying work? Sure, for some people, it might just be decent coworkers and the thought that the job is raking in the bucks... but not everyone feels the same. For some of us, I don't think money can buy happiness, or at least not in the kind of quantity that most people can realistically expect to see. With Bill Gates' money, I could probably effect some significant positive changes on the world - not that Bill isn't (I really like that man, believe it or not) - and I expect that would make me happy. Failing that, however, I just don't really see an ordinary occupation ever leaving me satisfied. I am both too radical and too cerebral. I feel quite strongly about certain ethical considerations, and I think about these feelings too much, to live day-to-day without these sorts of concerns affecting my mentality.

The conclusion that I have arrived at is that I will never be able to live as one of the many who work so that they can do something else. I don't think I can be content doing a job that I don't love or at least think is useful and productive. I suppose this may come off as elitist, and if it does, well, so what? "Elitist" has become a fashionable slur lately, but I don't necessarily think that meritocracy is a bad thing. I think that anyone who attained any real consciousness of the world and their role in it would be hard pressed to live their life day in and day out unconcerned about what they were doing.

Now, I do suffer from the infamous - or at least infamous in some circles - "upper-middle class white kid messiah complex." The name of this issue is a mouthful, but it's also fairly self-explanatory: upper-middle class white kids raised by fairly successful parents are taught that they have essentially infinite potential and are going to change the world, and as a result spend their young adulthood neurotic and depressed about how they are failing utterly to either be superheroes or win a Nobel Prize. Essentially, the syndrome is a failure of statistical understanding - not everyone can win a Nobel. Knowing that, however, doesn't make the damaging effects of normality on the sufferer's self-esteem any easier to bear, nor does it cure us of the drive to "make a real change" or - modestly enough - save mankind. It's a sort of involuntary hubris, and it's hard to know if it's even a bad thing, since it gives its albeit unhappy victims all the reason in the world to be good people.

In short, I think that there is a substantial segment of the population in the more recent generations - what is it that they're calling us now, the "millennials"? - who will never be content working ordinary jobs, and I think that I am among them. We few, we unhappy few, we band of saviors... we will always be seeking that research grant, or that term with Greenpeace, or that place in the State Legislature, because we can never be content with just being someone. We may never have any more positive effect on the world than your typical janitor, car salesman, or teacher (indeed, we're unlikely to have anywhere near the positive effect of a good teacher), but it won't be for lack of drive.

I encourage more people to take on at least part of this condition for themselves, however. I admonish you all to reevaluate the work you're doing. Are you just working for the money? Is that really worth it? Isn't there a cause you could be working for? Some part of society that you feel really needs your help? It may be something mundane or something minor - all it needs to be is something that you think is important, something that you think is more important than whatever comforts and widgets your current paycheck will buy. I'm sure you can think of something. If you're like me, there are altogether too many things you can think of.

So why not consider a career change? Why not put the skills you have to good use? Lawyers, look into EarthJustice. Code monkeys, look into having some of your time go to the Gates Foundation, or into getting into the Google Future project, wherein the world's most ambitious tech company will work to ensure the coming of the technological singularity under the benevolent eye of a loving strong AI. People like me, who have intellect but no drive or direction, well... hell, does anyone have any suggestions?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stealing peace of mind

Courtney has just written about people's tendency to do nothing and feel okay about it by "borrowing" or just plain tearing down others' efforts, and I wanted to expand on that a little. Firstly, I wanted to voice my agreement: anyone who thinks that it's a good thing that I live responsibly because it helps to make up for your shortcomings, well... don't you ever fucking dare to tell me so to my face or I will wipe the floor with your smug, condescending little smirk. I live my own life, and I take responsibility for my own actions, and if you try to lay the burden of your sins and your dirty conscience on me, well, whatever god you believe in help you. You are, and always will be, responsible for every single repercussion of every action you ever take. You, and you alone.

Let me explain something to you: the history you learned in high school gave you a very misleading impression of how the world works. When you think about history, you probably think about Big Names, leaders, heroes and anti-heroes like Napoleon, Gandhi, Churchill, and Stalin. You probably think of World War II in terms of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia and Roosevelt's America and Truman's atomic bombs. You probably think about Caesar crossing the Rubicon, not about Caesar's legions, and you probably think about Genghis Khan laying waste to Asia, not about the Mongol nation.

This approach is wrong. The way you think is wrong.

Do you think these "great men" would have accomplished one damn thing by themselves? Do you think that Caesar could have forged the Roman Empire without generals and lieutenants and adjutants and cronies and friends and, most of all, lots of soldiers? Do you think that all these people were slaves or automatons? That they had no wills of their own? Do you think Hitler that killed six million Jews, or that, perhaps, "his" ruthless and highly organized forces played a role? The history you know paints pictures of eras filled with kings and generals and "their" armies, of presidents and "their" nations. It gives the impression that the great bulk of humanity are faceless, nameless, and empty of thought or will, slavishly devoted only to the trends of the time and the plans of their leaders.

This is a fact, but it is not truth.

As a human being, you always have a choice. I am not here to make an argument about the nature of what we call "free will," but I will assert that whatever free will is, we have it, or at least something like it. We do make choices, and at the most basic, physical level, the universe is far too complex for anyone to realistically claim that those choices are deterministic. We have no usefully complete grasp of either the basic nature of the universe - of why quantum phenomena happen the way they do, and of what and why subatomic particles are - or of the function of our own brains and minds - emergent phenomena of breathtaking complexity. Suffice, for now, to say that we all have some sort of will. People behave in statistically predictable ways, but the derivation of those statistics is purely observational. We know what people are likely to do, but not why. Sociologists may argue with that statement, but not with any real conviction.

Anyway, we've arrived, via that somewhat grandiose and circuitous digression, back at the point I was trying to make: you have a choice in everything you do, and your choices do matter. Great men are only great because you allow them to influence the choices you make, and they do not allow you to influence theirs.

Putting it that way takes some of the magic out of it, doesn't it?

So here's what I'm getting at: you, and only you, are responsible for the effect you have on the world. If you think there are things wrong with the world - and if you don't you must be either comatose or evil - then you have an obligation to do what you can to mitigate those wrongs. You do yourself a disservice, and you morally betray yourself and everyone around you, when you shirk that responsibility, or, worse yet, when you attempt to assuage your own guilt by dismissing or denigrating the efforts of others.

The bottom line is this: "great" men - in the sense of "great" that simply means large or powerful - are just men (yes, yes, or women, it's a linguistic issue, not sexism, so get over it). You, the individual, are there the power lies, albeit only en masse. You make things happen. Your actions are part of the trends and movements that shape the world. When you act, every time you act, you are changing the world for everyone; and when you fail to act, or act in ways other than those you know you ought to, you change the world in ways that you do not want.

There are "great" men in the world today who spend their lives starting wars, stealing from the poor, and encouraging those from whom their derive their authority never to think about what's happening. You know the ones I'm talking about, and you also know that you, and everyone around you, have the power to make things right. I'm not just talking about voting, either; I'm talking about the things you don't say to your friends and neighbors, and the calls you don't make to your representatives, and the political rallies you don't attend, and the causes you don't donate to, and the volunteering you don't do. I'm talking about the ugly truths you choose not to think about because it doesn't feel as nice as thinking about the luxurious dinner you're going to have, or the new car you want to buy, or the trivial problems you're facing at work.

And I know what you're thinking now, too: you're thinking that you just have to live your life, not worry about everyone else's. Well, guess what? Foul. I cry foul. I call shenanigans. I call bullshit. I call you out.

Creating a false dichotomy - "either I live my own life and don't worry about the big things I can't change alone, or I sacrifice my own life to try to change things I can't change alone" - traps you in a presumption of defeat. These are things you can change. You need to be part of the larger movement to create the changes you know need to be made; you cannot accept defeat when defeat is not inevitable, nor can you shirk your responsibility by lying to yourself and thinking that someone else will do it. Someone else will not, cannot, do your share. They can only do their own.

Do your share. No one else can, not your leaders and not your neighbors. You know what do to; you don't need me to tell you. Do all the things you've lazily assumed don't make a difference, because they do. Being a part of mass action doesn't feel like an adventure; you won't feel like Caesar. You will make change.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I have written an important post. I have written it at my alternate, personal blog, thejohnallele at LiveJournal, because it allowed me to make use of a feature which can hide part of the entry until folks click on it.

This post concerns many issues which are generally considered private and personal, and there is a reason for that: I am attempting to dispel the notion of "too much information." I believe that information cannot hurt you, and in an effort to back that idea up, I am placing at least some of the information that people might consider "too much information" about me online. I want people to know these things, for the purpose of making it easier on others about whom these things may become known. I would, eventually, like to see a world in which information about your personal life, so long as it's not criminal, cannot hurt you. I would like for anyone to be able to know anything about anyone else without anyone being harmed. I would like for hangups to disappear.

I will warn you that if you don't want to know personal stuff about me - including sex, religion, and other miscellany - you can opt out.

If you're curious, you can read it here.

Friday, April 4, 2008

I'm back, y'all

I am here again, and I greet you loyal few who will read these words. My life has been a bit of a melee of late, but I'm resolved to carry on with my writing again after too long a hiatus.

Sad news and glad news - we've lost some good friends to California, which is good for them (family and a better job) and we are happy for them, but it leaves us substantially more alone up here. At the same time, we might be gaining the company of an old and wonderful friend from Austin who's considering graduate school at the UW.

I also injured myself, resulting in chest pain, shooting pains down my left arm, and stabbing abdominal pain. More on that later.

To come in this space: a review of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, one of the most poetic, complex, and fearsomely violent volumes I've ever perused. And peruse it I did - while I took it in on audiobook, working as I do on my feet with my ears free to absorb, there were a number of segments I was obliged to play two, three, sometimes even four times just to be certain I had extracted the full meaning. Even after such a thorough read, I'm sure I'll try it again soon. Blood Meridian has been passingly praised as one of the greatest works of 20th-century American literature - to say nothing of its being hailed as the paramount masterpiece of enigmatic and brilliant McCarthy - and I'm struggling to feel up to the task of analyzing it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Electability Independence

It's good to know that I'm not the only one listening to what isn't being said in the Presidential campaign... but it's damned depressing to be reminded of exactly what it is that's being avoided. The one single most important issue not only of the election, but of the modern world, and nobody's saying word one of any real substance.

Fuel economy standards? Really? Offering a few more models of slightly less awful internal combustion automobiles is going to tip the balance in our favor? How about we talk about turning the American economy on its head by removing the automakers and oil producers from the throne, hmm?

Oh? What's that?

You don't want to talk about that right now? You'd rather discuss health care?

You're afraid that important "constituencies" might think that discussing such things could have negative effects on the economy? Well, that's interesting. What if we added something about public works programs and energy research funding incentives that would drive the development of a new, stable, responsible economy? That sounds pretty good, right? Well, here's the catch: people are actually going to have to want to make some change, not just have you fix it for them. Yeah, you're looking a little green in the face there, Candidate. Oh, did I forget to mention that you'd probably really piss off a lot of very powerful, deeply entrenched industrial-complex interest groups who have large financial stakes in the old, consumption-driven, unsustainable economy?

Oh, you don't want to talk about this any more? You'd like to talk about Hope and Change and Security and what George W. Bush has done wrong instead?

Yeah, I thought so.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

1 part announcement, 1 part rant, shake well, serve over ice

First, the announcement: last night, on the seventh anniversary of our first date (I know, saccharine indeed), I proposed marriage to Courtney, and, perhaps not unexpectedly after seven years together, she accepted. I am, in spite of my typical phlegmatic and sardonic manner, quite pleased about this. To say the least.

She, on the other hand, is positively giddy. I am glad that such a small gesture (which will, I am fully aware, blossom into a monstrosity of spectacle and lack of privacy for me given what large and loving families we both have) could make her so happy! I will not say that it has been a long time coming, because that would be frankly untrue; there have been a great deal of times in our relationship, times of all sorts. Many of them were bad, or at least not very good. It has taken me this long to figure myself out, and similarly, she is just getting around to figuring herself out as well. We began dating when we were only nineteen, so this slow and measured approach has been invaluable in letting us get to know ourselves even more than each other. Waiting until now has allowed us to grow up and then take this step, rather than utilizing this step as a surrogate for actually maturing. I regret some elements, but not the greater picture.

All relationships have cycles. Sometimes they run hot, and sometimes cold; sometimes they are good, and sometimes very bad. I was not able to feel secure about making a relationship permanent until I had fully internalized this seemingly rather simple truth. Moreover, after some of the things we've gone through together, I was definitely not able to feel secure about a decision like this until I felt secure in myself, and in my convictions, hard-won indeed after being raised by parents who loved me but had very real relationship issues of their own, that it is possible and virtuous to make things work, that good relationships are a matter of putting forth the effort, not just of dumping one person after another until you stumble into perfection. This is an ethic that my grandparents had, but many in my parents' generation did not, and while I knew it at some level all along, it took a lot of effort to really feel okay about it - to feel that it was neither silly juvenile justification, nor drawn-out teenage rebellion.

Anyway, enough with the philosophizing: Courtney and I have always had a simple, happy compatibility that extended far beyond whatever temporal events were affecting us. We, as one friend noted way back when we had only been dating a short time, work. After seven years, that working is no longer a simple, natural near-fit, but a polished and lovingly crafted artifact, and one that I'm proud and happy to be making official.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Science Debate 2008

I think I mentioned SD08 once before here. If not, you should check it out here! It's a pretty exciting idea with a large and increasing proportion of the entire scientific community behind it, including the AAAS and the NAS. The "debate" in question is a Presidential one, in which the candidates will, if all goes well, expose before the whole world their sad ignorance of scientific and technological issues or possibly vindicate themselves if they are not, in fact, sadly ignorant. I'm looking at YOU when I say "sadly ignorant," Mr. Huckabee.

Anyway! There was a debate between members of the campaign staffs at this year's AAAS meeting in Boston on Saturday, which in itself is unremarkable; it's not like the candidates themselves attended. It is certainly a step in the right direction, no doubt, but what got me excited was the response from the staffers when they were asked during the debate if the candidates would be attending the real deal SciDeb2008. Clinton's guy was quite noncommittal and you could tell he was trying to find a way to say "In your dreams, nerds" without losing any votes; I am unsurprised. Obama's rep, however, was quite stoked about the prospect and said that they were seriously considering it. I mean, that's hardly a pledge, but surely it's a good sign.

I guess the Clinton camp's response shouldn't really come as a surprise. Highly educated people - and scientists by definition fall under that descriptor - have never really been one of her strong demographics during this campaign, so there's no reason to think that she'd waste effort trying to please them this late in the game. I suppose the fact that educated folks don't like her much says something in itself, though, doesn't it?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Discussion: Darwin Day

I had an interesting if unintended conversation night before last with two gentlemen from the Discovery Institute.

For those who aren't aware, the DI is a Seattle-based conservative "think tank" (I really hate that term) primarily dedicated to sponsoring "research" by "scientists" which they think might be friendly to creationism. (I won't call it "intelligent design" until they start saying "evolutionary biology" or "the modern synthesis" instead of "Darwinism." Call me petty, but I think it's only fair.) They tend to utilize more or less the same arguments every other creationist group in history has used, namely: 1) Some aspects of life are too complicated to have evolved, so they must have been created by some intelligence which may or may not be God but which is, purely coincidentally, almost certainly quite God-shaped; 2) "Macroevolution," an essentially arbitrary distinction from "microevolution" based on the amount of change, hasn't been directly observed - which they're quite sure has nothing to do with the millions-of-years time frame involved; 3) Darwin was a bad, bad man.

I showed up at the Blue Star Pub on Tuesday night - Darwin Day, as it happened - for my first Seattle Skeptics Meetup, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Blue Star was a pretty decent little place that had given us a back room, and that there were a fair number of people there - and some of them were even in my age range! I arrived before Courtney, so I had the opportunity to meet a few folks before she did.

I was surprised to learn about the guests from the DI, however. I was expecting a fairly quiet, fun night of getting to know some Seattle skeptics, not a vigorous argument; I'm not at my arguing peak at the moment. As it wound up working out, I was, out of perhaps 25 or 30 people, seated directly across from the creationists. When I learned this, I immediately ordered an imperial pint of Arrogant Bastard Ale; it seemed both fitting and necessary. When the waitress returned with my beer, she remarked, "You had the Arrogant Bastard, right? Yeah, I thought so. You kinda seemed like one." I considered this a good omen.

I won't waste your time, readers, with details of the ensuing debate; it was exactly what you would expect. I am an evolutionary biologist; they are... well, they are people who abuse science and promote bad scientists for a living. It wasn't pretty, although it was, to everyone's credit, always polite and in good humor. I feel like I carried at least a third of the non-creationist side of the argument, no small feat given that there were at least twenty people participating and only two of them were DIers; Courtney, for her part, jumped in now and then with biting remarks from the perspective of a religious studies major, and spent the rest of the time biting back less polite remarks.

For the most part, we talked in circles; I asked what mechanism they proposed this hypothetical intelligence used to create life, and Casey, the talkative one, replied, "Intelligence." I looked at him like he was an idiot, and attempted to explain what exactly a mechanism is, and he avoided the question entirely. I asked why the fact that intelligences create information today implied for any reason that all information was created by intelligence, and he replied, "Because today we see intelligence creating information." When I attempted to point out that this was roughly analogous to saying that since some round stones were smoothed in the gizzards of dinosaurs, there must be dinosaurs around to account for all round stones - though not, I regret, with that elegant analogy, which I hadn't thought of yet - he... well, he dodged the question entirely. Repeat ad nauseam.

All in all, though, it wasn't a bad night at all. We met some cool folks, and while I don't like to enjoy beating up on the deluded in debate, I did, in spite of myself, enjoy it. I had some good beer and a very tasty buffalo burger (which I regrettably really didn't really notice myself eating, since I was quite busy arguing). For anyone of an even slightly skeptical bent, I would recommend these meetups. There's a wide range of ages and professions, pretty cool people, and a good venue.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Residing now for the first time in my life in a state where my vote might actually count for something, I caucused with the Democrats this Saturday, throwing in my lot with Barack Obama. As chance would have it - and not unpredictably since I live in perhaps the most educated and second-most liberal neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest - I chose the winning side by a wide margin, sparing me the chagrin of defeat or the necessity of standing up to a large opposition to speak my mind. I wouldn't have minded the latter, really, because although like many folks I'd have been scared witless at the prospect of public speaking, I think that if and when I can compose myself I can be a damn fine speaker.

Our precinct ended up falling about 4:1 for Obama; we could probably have claimed all five delegates if we'd had a bit more time for debate and horse-trading, but I'm satisfied with 70 out of 82 voters. I was a bit worried at first; we showed up to find a house so packed there was hardly room to get in the door, and a lot of them were middle-aged women, whom it's easy to consider the natural constituency of Hillary. As often happens, however, the stereotype didn't really hold up. One older fellow - yes, a man, but still a Boomer - even stood up and spoke for the Obama side, mentioning in his speech that it was, in fact, time for his generation to cede some of their unprecedented stranglehold on political will to the younger generations. The whole of his address really wasn't spectacular, but I really appreciated hearing him make that point. I can honestly say I was not expecting to hear anyone in his generation say anything like that in the foreseeable future.

Anyway, it feels really good to be making a difference for once. I've been politically active since the age of 17, and this is the first time I've ever cast a vote that wasn't overwhelmed by an avalanche of apathy and conservatism. Pitfalls of being a liberal Texan, I know; but was defeating Kay Bailey Hutchison really that much to ask? I've never hated any public figure like I hate that smug vipress, not even George Dubya.

In another first, I also donated to the Obama campaign today. A month ago I still supported Hillary as the more effective politician with the better advisors, but at some point - I'm not sure exactly when - I came around and began to see that we really needed not just a new and different (and post-boomer) candidate, but the symbolism of what electing such a person would mean. I couldn't tell you what won me over; perhaps it was just the ever-growing weariness of Hillary's back-room dealings, power brokering, and negative campaign, or perhaps I was genuinely inspired, not only by Mr. Obama himself, but by the giddy passion he inspired in many of my friends, acquaintances, and peers.

I'm worn out on politics; I really am. I wish I could quit, but I can't. This is simply too important. All in all, though, that being the case, things really could be going much worse!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Generation Depression

I'm beginning to wonder if my entire generation might not be fundamentally, existentially depressed.

It expresses itself quite often as anger and detachment. I know I myself experience those feelings far too much of the time. From behavioral problems in school to employment issues to a now nose-diving economy - the result of materialistic young professionals living beyond their means, not improbably in a futile search for fulfillment through property - it seems like the entire post-Boomer population of the United States is lost and disgruntled. For myself, I see it not only in me but in more and more of my friends and acquaintances; they'll overreact to slights and mistakes, real or imagined, or they'll simply lose interest in living their lives. It's becoming such a common experience that I'm starting to wonder if perhaps it's not just a growing frequency of depression and dissatisfaction among the introverts with whom I tend to associate, but a genuine societal psychiatric disorder.

As a hypothesis, it's not unreasonable. Much of my generation certainly suffers from a strong sense of sociopolitical impotence and a not entirely unjustified feeling that the government and the majority of business and community leaders don't give a single goddamn about us. Many of us cast our first vote in an election in which misinformation and media irresponsibility made it impossible to tell exactly what we were voting for, and then watched on live TV as our sincere efforts to carry out our "civic duty" were annulled completely by dirty tricks and Floridian incompetence. For many of us, it was just the latest and greatest indignity in a lifetime of being overshadowed, ignored, and dominated by the incredibly egocentric Baby Boomers and their smugly self-(en)titled "Greatest Generation" parents. For a great many of my generation, the encouragement of genuinely loving and well-meaning but piteously self-absorbed parents took the form of pressure to perform and ridiculously inflated expectations designed to "boost self-esteem." This created, in many cases, young men and women who felt like pathetic failures because they were ordinary people instead of the Presidents, astronauts, battlefield doctors, theoretical physicists, and millionaire investment bankers they'd been led to believe they would naturally become.

I don't mean to press for censure of our predecessor generations. They were who they were. I don't say all of this to blame them for my own dissatisfaction or suggest that my peers and I are not responsible for sorting out our own lives. What I am attempting to do is to paint a picture of the unintentionally repressive climate in which we were raised in order to make a case for the recognition and ideally amelioration of a very widespread and pernicious syndrome.

The National Institute of Mental Health, a branch of the NIH, shows depression rates at almost 10% in the United States. A more striking but perhaps misleadingly vague figure is the rate of increase in depression in young people - a remarkable 23%. Most tellingly, I think, well over half of those surveyed believe that depression is a personal weakness.

That's most telling because that attitude is both symptomatic of and causative of deep depression. Dissatisfied and mildly depressed individuals who believe that their unhappiness is their own fault are far more likely to sink into a deeper funk and potentially into major depression. It would be far too simplistic to blame the "Greatest" generation's bluff, insensitive insistence on self-reliance for this pernicious attitude, since the American propensity for self-reliance goes much further back; nevertheless, my generation's parents in particular were told altogether too frequently what was wrong with them and how they ought to fix it their damn selves, and it seems that some of it was passed right on down to us.

Depression is a very complicated issue. There's a lot more to it than being ignored parentally or politically, of course. For some sufferers, it really is a neurochemical disorder, although trying to figure out whether a mood disorder is caused by external events which create self-sustaining chemical changes or whether the chemical changes dictate destructive and self-sustaining behaviors in response to external stimuli is rather like arguing about a proverbial avian and ovum. For many, medications can help to shake them out of a bad episode, although these medications are certainly not without their side-effects, some of which will almost certainly become known only in the long term.

I am coming to believe, however, that a societal remedy is needed, not just quick fixes for broken individuals. It's not unreasonable to look back into recent history and see major events that gave previous generations their places in the world: the Depression, the World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the Cold War - positive and negative events, some of which happened to the generations shaped by them and some of which were done by them. One does not have to dig deep, however, to see that in each of these cases the really formative events were the ones, whether by initiative or in response, which were actively performed in a constructive manner by young people - the works initiatives of the New Deal or the Eisenhower era; the American war effort; the protests and massive societal shifts of the 1960s. These things united each generation, if not in purpose or opinion, then at least temporally. They gained focus, even if they focused from entirely different directions at times.

It may seem a bit ghoulish to say that it's unfortunate that the generations of the 20th century are living much longer than their predecessors, but for me and my peers, it is unfortunate. It's unfortunate because those older generations are staying active longer and growing ever more self-righteous, refusing to move over enough to share fair and equal space in society with a younger generation that's feeling ever more cramped, oppressed, and dissatisfied. We are, frankly, voiceless and bored. We don't have the will or strength to forcibly supplant our elders because we're still young, still figuring out exactly how the world is run, still far too fractious in our views, still idealistic enough to back any of a hundred thousand causes instead of just one out of two.

Our time may be coming. The crisis of climate change and the necessity of converting to a world that's not only climatologically sustainable but economically sustainable in a post-fossil-fuel world may galvanize us and become our generation's New Deal or Civil Rights. It's hard to say. I think an awful lot hangs in the balance right now, in the current election cycle; there are forces - primarily Hillary Clinton and, well, everyone among the Republicans - who want to drag us, consequences be damned, back into what they perceive as the better world of the 1990s - back into the century in which they were born and raised and out of this brave new world that they simply don't quite fit into. I don't want to turn this into a smarmy endorsement of Barack Obama, but he is the only post-Boomer on the field, and he is the only one that I see as capable of taking us forward instead of back, more because of how his campaign is structured and what he represents than because of anything actually intrinsic in him.

Obama's election, if we're lucky enough to see it happen, may well shake us up enough to cure the social depression that's afflicting us. I don't know. Personally, I think it's a good first step, but certainly not an adequate cure. There are elements missing, primarily those which would allow large numbers of people to actually get hands-on with elements of the new society we could create. My suggestion, then? Off the cuff, I'd say we're damned well overdue for a vast program of infrastructure renewal and New Economy (e.g. Green) retrofitting of existing infrastructure and industry. Not only would it potentially cure this social malaise, its other benefits would be legion; by repairing our infrastructure, we'd improve efficiency and safety greatly; by such a large expenditure of labor and capital, we'd give an enormous boost to our economy; by taking real, meaningful steps toward a Green economy, we'd restore our standing in the world community substantially; by giving people meaningful, productive work, we'd provide purpose and fulfillment to a lot of Americans, and maybe give a lot of them a hand up out of poverty as well.

Of course, political action alone won't change culture, at least not overnight. It may be a bit too late to alter some of the fundamental aspects of personality that have been ingrained into the newest generation of engaged adults, or it may not. Time will tell. For now, there remain the traditional remedies of medication, escapism, and denial; or, just perhaps, if we seek hard enough, maybe we'll find fulfillment and meaning even in a world where those commodities simply aren't for sale.
Tradition: the cultural application of the clear and universal historical principle that older ways are always better, as demonstrated by the superior alchemical databases and widespread horse-related education of the middle ages versus today's sadly alchemy-ignorant and widely unhorsed society.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

One more step down the road to vegetarianism

If you haven't already stopped eating slaughterhouse meat, well, there's no better time. For a full-scale primer, I recommend picking up Eric Schlosser's eponymous Fast Food Nation, which, working backward from an in-depth, scathing, and deeply poetic investigation of the fast food industry, spends multiple chapters detailing the ills of our modern meat industry. Suffice to say for now that he chronicles - and amply documents - horrifying failings in sanitation, safety, oversight, and, of course, animal welfare. The meat our nation's industry produces is not biologically or ethically safe to eat, and while you don't just have to take Eric Schlosser's word for that, he's a good place to start. The book, a few years old now but hardly out of date, is a modern homage to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and should be every bit as much a call to action.

For now, though, what got me thinking about this stuff was one more nail in the coffin of my tolerance for this appalling industry: this fascinating piece on an autoimmune disorder developed by slaughterhouse workers exposed to aerosolized pig brains.

That's right: they accidentally snorted pig brains. And it's eating their brains.

If you're like me, your first thought upon seeing the headline was probably of vCJD - variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, the human version of BSE ("Mad Cow") - and how vCJD prions must have been transmitted through the airborne brain tissue. It's a good guess, but in this case the answer is both simpler and more insidious.

You see, in many ways, pigs are very similar to humans. This is why diabetics for many, many years have used pig insulin in their treatment, and why pigs were chosen to be the transgenic hosts for human insulin genes later on down the line. It's also why pig organs are occasionally considered when a human needs a transplant. (It is also, I feel obligated to note, why human flesh is reputably said to taste like pork.) Relevant to this case, many of the proteins in pig neural tissue are very closely related to proteins in human neural tissue.

When foreign biological matter is introduced into our bodies, our immune systems mobilize a response against it intended to neutralize any threat and then coat and destroy the antigen. This is the basis for all immune response, be it to viral or bacterial invaders, a splinter, or as the case may be, inhaled pig brains. Antibodies, the primary component of the secondary (big) immune response, are specifically created and targeted by a really incredibly cool but complicated process (that I won't get into here) to bind to and thus mark for deletion very specific pieces of macromolecules in biological tissue that the body recognizes as "other." These specific pieces are usually oligopeptides, small pieces of foreign protein that have been broken down by one of a few types of big mean phagocytic white blood cell.

There's a whole lot more to the immune response than that - even the basics. Indeed, I took more than a year of advanced coursework on the subject and I'm still a relative novice. The important point here, though, is that the body produces massive numbers of specifically targeted antibodies in response to foreign biomatter.

The hitch comes when parts of that biomatter are marked as foreign but closely resemble the body's own tissue. In this case, apparently pig brain tissue had certain protein sequences that were close enough to sequences in the human brain tissue of the victims that the antibodies and other immune response molecules which were supposed to be targeted at the pig brains began binding to and attacking the victims' own brains instead. This generated a chronic inflammatory neural disorder. What that means in layman's terms is that these slaughterhouse workers, many of whom were immigrants who didn't speak much English and didn't know their rights, were struck with long-term, debilitating pain, weakness, burning sensations, and even paralysis.

From snorting pig brains.

I rate this particular horror as follows (out of a possible 10 on each count):

Ick factor: 8.8 (they fucking inhaled aerosolized pig brains)
Awfulness: 7.1 (most of the victims are making partial recoveries, but inflammatory brain diseases are ugly)
Prevalence: 1.8 (it affected only a dozen people, though the possibility that something like this might be happening elsewhere in other slaughterhouses is not low)
Inexorability: 3.0 (it's unlikely to be an unstoppable problem)
Piteousness: 7.8 (it was totally avoidable by very simple measures, and happened to people who almost certainly had no better prospects and no way to know what was happening to them)

On the whole, I suggest that U.S. pork producers adopt the following as an internal safety-focused counterpoint to their venerable marketing slogan:



I've always talked big about being a dynamic individual in a dynamic generation, but I have a terrible secret: I'm afraid of new technology. Well, specifically, I'm afraid of prosaic new technology. I'm as excited as any futurist about AI and nanotech and bioinformatics, but social networking sites and the iPhone make me very uncomfortable.

Here's the reason: I don't find them appealing. I find them frivolous, full of obnoxious kids and nattering technophiles, and of dubious utility. In short, I am old and stodgy with regard to the current tech level of communication. I am conservative.


It's not a decision, mind you. Indeed, I'm glad that all those blabbering teens and constantly-connected tech professionals are around with their text messaging and Blackberries to make sure that technology gets used, because use drives the market to improve it, and that creates more innovation. I just don't like what it says about me that, because I was born a few years too early, I look at MySpace and Facebook and shudder with distaste.

Some futurist I am.

I suppose the "moral" here is that remaining open-minded and flexible is hard work. People tend to stultify and petrify if they don't actively exercise dynamism. That sounds so dry and smugly didactic, though...

Hell, I don't know. Just go buy yourself a new tech toy that you're totally uncomfortable with, or set up a website in a format you don't know. I don't know. Learn to use something, and see what happens. That's what I'm going to try, anyhow.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

On vitriol

I am in a peculiar dilemma: I have, upon reflection, become an angry, bitter, hateful man... and that really pisses me off.

The blame - or the cause, I suppose, to look at it in a more analytic and less resentful manner - lies in at least two places: depression and politics. The former is more or less self-explanatory, I think, and I've discussed it before, but I'll give it a sentence or two here. The gist of it is that, whether the ultimate causes are inherently biological or environmental, I suffer from what's known as dysthymic depression or simply dysthymia. It's a form of depression that's classified technically as minor, but has, in the long run, some of the most destructive effects of any form, because it's low-grade but very pervasive and long-term. Just like a chronic inflammatory infection can be minor in the immediate term but far more destructive than serious trauma in the long run (it's true), dysthymia often goes untreated (treatment is controversial and not always effective) and, frequently not even knowing why, sufferers may wind up alcoholics, career or academic failures, or even suicides (often subsequent to alcoholism and failure). It's a devastating condition, because what it does, in my case at least, is to eat away at motivation. At the most basic level, this is probably just an expression of the fact that it causes dysphoria - dissatisfaction and the inability to be content; this leads to a reduced reward mechanism for success in any arena. Personally, I find that it leaves me a terrible procrastinator and socially a deeply avoidant pushover. I know that these are problems, but, since I'm so incredibly demotivated, I feel like there's nothing I can do about them. I am now, of course, with the support of a number of people, fighting this, and I think in the long term I may succeed, but it's hard.

Anyway, enough about that for now; that's not really what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to discuss was investment, outrage, and just plain rage. Primarily, I want to know if the three can really be separated without sacrificing commitment and integrity.

There are several designs of bumper stickers that read one variation or another of the phrase, "If you aren't outraged, you haven't been paying attention." I am sure you have seen them. While "bumper sticker wisdom" is generally a shallow, lukewarm sea of useless platitude, there is almost always a kernel of some deeper sentiment, and this one speaks to something to which I feel very deeply connected. I think that people are simply not adequately invested in the human enterprise. I am very deeply invested in it; maybe that comes from too much exposure to the grand dreams of future societies in science fiction, maybe it's the result of upper-middle-class-white-kid syndrome (in which the well-meaning parents of an average but well-off child fill that child's head with assurances that he has so much potential and innate brilliance that one day he will grow up to be a great man who will change the world) or maybe it's just youthful liberal idealism, but whatever the origin, I care with an almost megalomaniacal fervor about the improvement of society and the human condition and my role in that improvement. I care deeply about the flaws in our collective endeavor that allow discoveries from the curiosity-satiating to the fundament-shaking to go unmade and hundreds of millions to go unfed.

It is for this reason that I get really fired up about politics. When things go as deeply wrong as they have in the twenty-six years of my life, and especially in the last eight years, in the governance and leadership of the nation that is supposed to set a shining example of innovation, brotherhood, and liberty for the world, I feel it in the pit of my stomach. It's a gnawing, sick feeling, like a cancer that's growing, not inside myself, but in the greater extension of myself in the world as a whole. That's why I feel such ecstatic highs when it seems like something might go right for a change, when Barack Obama gives a speech, and why I crash to such tooth-grinding, sickening, wrathful lows when I think about what Dick Cheney has gotten away with or the absurdity of the idea of a goddamned young earth creationist being President of the United States.

In short, I am paying attention, and "outraged" doesn't really begin to cover it. "Enraged" is closer, and that's a problem - rage is not healthy. It makes blood pressure spike; stress hormones are dumped in the system; in general it cuts years off your life expectancy. And yet what else am I supposed to feel? I've been completely disenfranchised my entire life, not just by Bush and Co., but by a pervasive culture of shallow and dishonest politics. There has not, for example, been a single non-Christian candidate that I have ever had the opportunity to cast a vote for, because Christianity has become an important selling point to the disinterested, attention-deprived people of this nation. Christianity is used as a simple, easy-to-grasp package of perceived values and qualities that obviates the necessity to actually look at a candidate. So that disenfranchises the supposedly Constitutionally protected religious (and nonreligious) minorities in the US? So what? It's easy.

It goes on. Science is, by its very nature, complex and uncertain, and both of those words are almost literally poison in popular media today - the popular media through which the vast, vast majority of Americans and global citizens get their information. Attempting to introduce ideas which are too complex or too uncertain in Hollywood, the major TV networks, or any other mass media outlet will get you not just fired, but blacklisted, because that stuff is harder to sell to people who don't want to put in the effort to think about it. Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that the popular understanding and treatment of science in this nation whose prosperity has always rested on innovation is appallingly bad. This condition cannot persist, and already, in the current recession, we're feeling the first shocks of the coming bad times as our own sad, stubborn ignorance erodes away the underpinnings of our way of life, ironically enough in a way that is far too complex for most people to bother to understand.

I don't really know if there's a way to face these issues without being negative, angry, and very bitter. I try. I am not, deep down, a pessimist; I'm an idealist and a shining, hopeful optimist, who believes in the world promised by generations of practical philosophers and sagacious futurists. I believe we can realize human potential. I just don't know if we will, and most frustratingly, I don't know how I can help make it happen. All the tools are already here for us; I feel like I have a part to play, but no greater whole in which to play it. I want to make things better. I want the best world we can have for everyone, not just because I want my own jetpack and implanted wetware computer.

It's damnably frustrating to want to make the world a better place, only to be rebuffed by reality and told that your type ain't wanted around here. I struggle every day to find a way to stay involved and invested without succumbing to numbing, bittering anger. I know that for some people it seems to be possible, but I always have to question whether those people are really fully aware or whether they're accepting a certain amount of ignorance or denial in order to remain optimistic and functional. Take, if you will, Barack Obama; I have a great deal of hope for the man, but I know, I know that as a politician he is and must be a consummate liar, not only to others, but to himself. He is a contradiction, to me: a man who strives to be an agent of positive change and integrity who must submerge himself deeply in a politics of regressiveness and dishonesty in order to get where he needs to be. Can he make it through intact? I wish I knew the answer.

For myself, I must keep listening to the news and maintain my emotional investment. It's just a part of who I am. I hope that I can find a way to come out of it intact; more importantly, I hope that when the end of my life is near I can look back and actually see a positive, forward trend in human society over the span I lived. I'm no great leader, no Augustus, no Bismarck, no Franklin Roosevelt, so I can't singlehandedly make that happen; and it's hard to rely on a world that seems so stubbornly resistant to becoming better with any sort of efficiency. It's hard to want to do a good job in your role as a tiny cog in a great machine when you care deeply about what that machine does but aren't anywhere in its control apparatus.

But we'll see, I guess. Maybe if I tackle that depression things will look brighter. Maybe if Barack Obama comes through this election in good shape I can start thinking about the next century without going apoplectic. Maybe if I stick with it and do damned good science I really will be able to make a difference of some significant sort. I really don't know. But that's life, right? You don't know.

Boy, for someone who touts the virtue of uncertainty, it certainly took me a long time to arrive at that.