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.