Thursday, February 25, 2010

David Bohm asks the Question Behind the Question

David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order:
In scientific inquiries a crucial step is to ask the right question. Indeed, each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit. If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, then the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning. One has thus to inquire into the appropriateness of the question. In fact, truly original discoveries in science and in other fields have generally involved such inquiry into old questions, leading to a perception of their inappropriateness, and in this way allowing for the putting forth of new questions. To do this is often very difficult, as these presuppositions tend to be hidden deep in the structure of our thought.
Where Bohm and Miller part ways, of course, is that Bohm is investigating the appropriateness of the questions we ask as a means to expanding our world view and our options, in the effort to lead us to a better understanding of the world and our place in it, and to figure out how to use this better understanding to increase harmony and happiness. Whereas Miller conducts his investigations in an effort to constrict our options to the point of vanishing, in order to increase the amount of wealth we generate for our overlords. Bohm wants us to be intellectually and spiritually curious. Miller wants us to be slaves.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No ideas

I don't know anything about French anti-smoking campaigns. I can't watch the video in question here at work. And I don't know anything about La Meute des Chiennes de Garde, except that their name, which means "The Pack of (female) Watch Dogs," is awesome. I also don't know anything about Florence Montreynaud except that she's the president of La Meute.
But via my favorite blog, I see this quote from Montreynaud that I love independent of all that contextual stuff I don't know anything about:
"When people have no ideas, they use female bodies."
More substantial posting hopefully to come soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I don't know why it surprises me...

...that there actually is a "Small Wars Journal." But it does.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My morning

Today I finally closed my bank account at a huge multinational bank and deposited what was left in it into my recently-opened account at a local community bank. The two banks are in different parts of the city, so a lot of walking and bus riding was involved. The Saturday buses in Rhode Island, unlike the weekday ones, are notoriously (to me, anyway) unreliable and infrequent, so I was astonished to be able to get it all done in under two hours. Especially exciting was when I walked back to Kennedy Plaza, RIPTA's central hub, after finishing all of my high finance. As I approached the plaza, I saw that I was arriving in the middle of one of the dead times in the schedule, when the place can be a barren, bus-free wasteland for as long as a half an hour, people standing clustered around the various berths in despair, waiting. I prepared myself to join them, but then I rounded a building and discovered that my bus was the only bus in the whole damn place! Just waiting for me! So that was a nice surprise.

A lot of people who don't take the bus regularly, and even some people who do, complain a lot about the "crazies" you run into. It's true that you encounter a fair number of mentally ill people riding the bus, of course (our society is so great, even the insane can get from one place to another!), but in my experience they are by and large content to stick to themselves and not bother anyone else, which is more than you can say for, oh, I don't know, drivers. And in general your average bus rider is courteous and helpful; I always see people pointing out when someone has dropped something, or giving people a hand up if they're having trouble on the steps, and so on. I'm not trying to write some bullshit about the nobility and decency of the lower classes, but still: there are some real decent people riding the bus every day. In my three or four years of riding the bus almost every day, I've seen I think two incident of anger, both of which ended quickly and non-violently.

I brought along Galileo's Dream to read (I'm a slow reader, but I'm almost done), but I ended up putting Mos Def's album from last year, The Ecstatic, on my headphones, which pretty much ruled out reading, as I was much more interested in listening to him. I've been listening to the album a lot recently. The beats are some of the best I've ever heard (I love how the timbre of the melodic elements changes constantly). A line that stuck out to me today that I had never really noticed before was in "Pretty Dancer" when he says "Too busy survivin to argue about Darwin," which, you know, yeah. I don't really have anything else to say about it, really; just a recommendation if you're looking for something to listen to. Other things I listened to today that I recommend if you're interested, are The Supremes' High Energy, from 1976, which is the first of their two real disco albums (the title track is astonishing), and Four Tet's new album, There Is Love in You, which is ludicrously pleasant while still bearing the obvious marks of the artist's recent collaboration with Burial.

OK, that's it. I don't have a point or anything.

Friday, February 19, 2010


jr over at ladypoverty has written two excellent pieces on the Spectacle. in response, i just wanted to post this (rather lengthy) quote from Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life:
The repressive unity of power is threefold: coercion, seduction and mediation. This is no more than the inversion and perversion of an equally threefold unitary project. The new society, as it develops underground, chaotically, is moving towards a total honesty - a transparency - between individuals: an honesty promoting the participation of each individual in the self-realisation of everyone else. Creativity, love and play stand in the same relation to true life as the need to eat and the need to find shelter stand in relation to survival. Attempts to realise oneself can only be based on creativity. Attempts to communicate can only be based on love. Attempts to participate can only be based on play. Separated from one another these three projects merely strengthen the repressive unity of power. Radical subjectivity is the presence - which can be seen in almost everyone - of the same desire to create a truly passionate life. The erotic is the spontaneous coherence fusing attempts to enrich lived experience.
if i have some time later on this month, i'll try and write more about this.

Attention assholes of the world

If you're going to put your car somewhere, first make sure that there's nothing there already. And if you fail to do so, don't get mad at the obstacle. You have failed in your duty. If you closed your eyes and fired off a gun, whose fault would it be if you hit someone?

Such as?

"There's a lot of ways to put food on your table without signing up to be part of an exploitative system." --Boing Boing commenter Day Vexx

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Exclusionary exploitation

Those who have been reading this blog regularly might have noticed that the liberal bloggers I pick on most frequently, aside from the obligatory digby, are PZ Myers and Melissa McEwan. I do it partly because their particular brand of liberalism happens to be the kind that irritates me in a way that amuses me, but it's also because they each post genuinely interesting things often enough to make them worth reading. With Myers it's the occasional fascinating science post in amongst all the smug atheist time-wasting and liberal vapidity, and with McEwan it's the occasional genuinely worthwhile feminist post in amongst all the crap.
The communication habits of white men, treated by corporate America as the natural and best and only way to communicate, leaves people from backgrounds who didn't grow up speaking that language (literally and/or figuratively) feeling frustrated and excluded. White male colleagues who aren't aware that "the rules" of corporate America have been designed to suit them regard their not-whitemale colleagues as unqualified, as not understanding "how to play the game." Not-whitemales have a more difficult time getting their ideas heard, their concerns addressed. Not-whitemales who figure out how to speak the right language are promoted, thus reinforcing the cycle of non-diversity, even as diversity is hailed a hero.

These are the problems of half-assed diversity programs. And the result is that, 10 years after everyone was kissing Silicon Valley's ass for its embrace of diversity, the companies' inclusion is sliding backwards, especially at the top.

Diversity without multiculturalism is just hiring people who look different and expecting them to act the same. If these companies want to get serious about diversity, then they need to reflect that in their culture, not just their hiring records.
I have some serious objections to this, obviously, but the general outlines are very familiar to me--and as a white non-stereotypically gay male (I want to write more about that detail soon) I don't fall far outside of the whitestraightmale realm. Hell, even white straight males who fall outside of mainstream consumer culture can feel this exclusion, as JR from ladypoverty discusses towards the end of one of the most astonishingly brilliant blog posts I've ever read. (And JR, if you're not a white straight male and this reads as implying that you are, I apologize; I mean to say only that the interaction between coworkers you describe there could apply equally to a white straight male as to anyone else.)

What McEwan doesn't mention, and may not be conscious of, is that "hiring people...and expecting them to act the same" is exactly what the companies do, deliberately. They expect everyone to sacrifice themselves to the company's profits. Currently white straight male culture is the best suited to this; if that changes, companies will embrace whatever culture rises to replace it.

UPDATE: Rachel points out in comments that what I said was actually pretty severely untrue (though she's kinder than that in her phrasing). And this is because I said it all wrong. What I meant to say is that enforcing white straight male culture is a good bludgeon for company purposes, which I think makes more sense than what I said originally.

let's just get this over with

two of our world's most accepted conceptions of time are deadlines and entropy. it's no wonder that we feel like we have to dismantle everything as fast as we can.


The bad thing about piloting your plane into an IRS building is that all you're doing is targeting a bunch of people who are just trying to make a living. It's like a more dramatic version of yelling at the bank teller about your overdraft fees; it might feel good in the moment but ultimately all you're doing is participating in your own class's victimization.

Actual sentence from the training material at my new job

"The employee is always subject to the control of the employer."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

John G. Miller has a cute dog

So that's something at least. I seem to have fallen into something of a blog-writer's block (bliter's block, or block). There should be a new QBQ up in the next few days, and hopefully I'll come up with something else to say before too long. Quick, someone send me a link to something outrageous so I can write about it. That Hilary Clinton sure is something, am I right?

I just finished watching The Prisoner, which I want to write about but have so much to say that it's overwhelming; I'd always heard that the last episode was a rushed disappointment but I was blown away by it. I'm also reading Galileo's Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, which, silly-sounding title and concept notwithstanding, is also wonderful and highly recommended. It was a nice coincidence that I picked it up just after having read Gunn Allen's Pocahontas and being steeped in that mode of thought, along with having been introduced to Bohm's implicate order (I haven't read the book yet but will soon), because while Robinson doesn't explicitly address any of that, it forms a very powerful background to the events of the novel. I may write more about both of these works soon. Who knows.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Report from a week's immersion in corporate America

Thoughts on watching Nancy Grace
Our society's pervasive dissociation leads inevitably to a sociopathic sadism, which in turn results in an urge to punish the individual-other. We naturally do not want to punish ourselves, and so we perform conscience, we perform indignant outrage, these ritual performances focused by mass-cultural touchstones like Nancy Grace or crime procedurals like the Law and Order franchise or other similar resources. In this way we justify the brutally harsh punitive measures we delight in imposing, despite the fact that what we are punishing--that is, what we perform these horrified reactions about, what we act shocked by--is nothing we would not do ourselves, given a likelihood of getting away with it.

Does anyone fall for this shit?
Poland Spring has a bottle design called an "eco-shape" that they claim is good for the environment. I wish I had saved a label from one of the bottles I was forced to drink out of this week, because the phrasing on it is hilarious. Here's their corporate propaganda about it. Bottled water is perhaps the most purely evil thing on this earth.

Words have no meaning if the corporate world finds out about them
I was sent away for a week to train on a new computer system my employer is implementing. The extremely clear purpose of this system is to allow the company to do less for its clients with smaller staff. Every time the trainer introduced a feature of this system that was different from the way the company had done things in the past, he said it was "counter-cultural to the way we're used to doing things." I had come across the bizarre use of the word "culture" in a corporate context ("Hiring temps at this time of year is part of our culture here at [company]"), but "counter-culture" was new, and supremely bizarre, to me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Hiya, I'm back from my thrilling week of corporate indoctrination. I'll respond to comments soon, but first I just want to let you know that the Situationists were even more right than we knew when they said the guarantee of not dying of hunger would be paid for by the certainty of dying of boredom.

Friday, February 12, 2010

QBQ! Chapter Eight: "Why Don't They Communicate Better?"

This is the shortest chapter thus far. I'm going to play chicken with fair use and quote it in its entirety so we can all behold the wonder:
In the many workshops I've facilitated over the years, this scene has played out over and over again. I'll ask, "What's the critical issue facing your organization today?" Generally, the answer is not change or competition, but communication. Then it's framed like this: "Why don't they communicate better?"

Actually, communication means not only being understood but also understanding the other person. The QBQ is "How can I better understand you?"

Ha ha, whee!

There's not really much to say about this, unless I'm mistaken. Miller seems to have been a bit cranky when he wrote it, but the central point is fine, I guess; if you're trying to work with someone, you have to make yourself understood to them and you have to make sure you're understanding them also. Fine, whatever. I hate to think of human communication, expression, and life reduced to this kind of utilitarianism, especially in the interest of wage slavery, and I'm tempted to bring up Hugo Ball for the second time in two days, but again: whatever.

One thing I would like to mention, though, is that it's occurring to me how ironic it is for Miller to have named his book and concept "The Question Behind the Question," because he himself seems to be completely unable to peel back even the most superficial of layers to look underneath. I gather that the workshops he mentions having facilitated are sometimes made up of managers, sometimes of low-level employees, and sometimes a mix. In each of these groups, there are very good reasons why no one will mention the real "critical issue" facing them, and will instead go for things like "communication" or "competition" or "change."

This critical issue, of course, is the system of top-down exploitation in which everyone finds themselves, at one point in the heirarchy or another. In a group of managers, no one will mention this because their continued ability to function (under the demands of both their jobs and their consciences) depends on not acknowledging this system. In a group of workers or a mixed group, of course no one will mention this because if they do they put their jobs in jeopardy (and, more immediately, they're probably thinking that the less waves they make, the faster the damn workshop will be over with). Now, not every worker will think to put it in these terms, but all of their genuine concerns, what they will really be thinking when they say communication or competition or change is the big problem--insufficient pay, shitty or no benefits, meager or no vacation and sick time, unequal pay for equal work, what have you--will always be an aspect of this larger problem.

Miller, of course, does not realize that this is what is going on--that people are lying to him--because his job depends on not realizing it.

QBQ! Table of contents

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On white people stealing Black music

As the Giant said to Agent Cooper, "It is happening again."

I often wonder how long it'll be before hip hop becomes a genre listened to only by bookish white people, as has been the case with jazz and blues for some time now. It's certainly starting already. Fifteen years? Ten? And what will young Black people come up with next to be raided by the white people of the future?

A warning before I continue: this whole essay is a huge oversimplification, and probably dead wrong in many ways. I'm thinking this through as I write and am probably way off base, but it's an interesting enough topic that I'm just gonna plunge in. So:

The narrative of white people stealing Black music is well-established, and the fact that it's a bit more complicated than that (for example, "Hound Dog," famously stolen from Big Mama Thornton by Elvis Presley, was written by the white Jews Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) makes it no less reprehensible, no less of a stain. And of course it isn't just limited to the theft of rock and roll rhythm and blues. Like how it happened again with disco, with everyone on a scale of quality from the genius Giorgio Moroder (who at least collaborated with not-just-fronts-but-actually-brilliant-themselves Black people, particularly Donna Summer) to the atrocious KC and the Sunshine Band snatching a piece. To name a specially egregious case, there is the act of musical colonialism that is Paul Simon's Graceland, so recently, and popularly, taken even further into the realm of the blandly unrighteous by Vampire Weekend. In their defense, they do it themselves, rather than having uncompensated Africans do it for them. Progress, perhaps (though not musical).

It happens in less well-recognized ways, as well. Minimalism, for example, owes as much to the blues as does rock and roll, a fact which I tend to think is only as overlooked as it is because La Monte Young (composer of such works as B♭ Dorian Blues) is as overlooked as he is.

And of course I don't exactly have a problem with white musicians being inspired by Black music they love and respect, as most white musicians working in Black idioms tend to. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, say, certainly worshiped Black American rock and rollers. Indeed, white musicians have a history of adding new vitality and creativity to the Black genres they take up. Note that I'm not saying they revitalize the musics, or that they are more creative. But white musicians, from The Beatles to Giorgio Moroder to La Monte Young and beyond, have a history of being in dialogue with Black music in a mutually beneficial way. Just as it's hard to imagine what hip hop would have been like without James Brown coming first, it's equally hard to imagine its evolution without the influence of German electronic music, say.

After all, "stealing" forms of musical expression is not like stealing, say, food from a hungry person. When you steal music from someone, they still have it. The problem comes in when certain powerful white people--record station owners, say, or promoters, or whoever--decide to steal the legitimacy. Going back to the example of The Beatles, the instant they hit, through no (conscious) fault of their own, "rock and roll" became something white people do. Black people might make soul music or funk music or whatever (all perfectly legitimate labels, created by the Black musicians themselves, describing what they were doing very well indeed), but it was no longer considered "rock and roll" for no good reason other than the race of the artist. "Coincidentally," right around this time a pop music auteur cult grew up around the white bands and singers, shepherded by white corporate executives and magazine writers, all focused on establishing the legitimacy of rock and roll as art at the expense of things deemed not rock and roll--that is, white music at the expense of Black music.

Sometimes the legitimacy didn't stick. Even The Rolling Stones couldn't make disco respectable to people, even though the form itself was a logical extension of the rock and roll Black musicians had been making (and The Rolling Stones had been imitating) all along. If anyone can point to a specific dividing line between soul, funk, and disco, I'd be interested to know; I tend to think it can't be done. I'm not sure why disco has the stigma it does, since so much of the music is so utterly fantastic (and is also in many ways a return to the beautiful minimalism that Young saw in the blues, a link made most explicit by the astonishing, white, Arthur Russell, but present in all disco). Certainly today what most people remember is the tacky KC and the Sunshine band stuff, the kind of music that the Bee Gees started making at the same time they stopped being a great band and started being a terrible one. Perhaps it's because it doesn't lend itself to the kind of Romantic grandstanding that rock and roll does, or perhaps it's because the only decent music in the genre was made by Black americans and weird white Europeans. Perhaps it was because it was so unapologetically visceral. All I know is that anyone who can hear "I Feel Love" and then shout "Disco sucks!" is no one I want to associate with.

The partitioning of genre by skin color seemed like it was going to happen again in the late nineties, when Eminem's first album was otherwise inexplicably considered "modern rock." True, this was the heyday of "rap rock," but Eminem's Dre-produced (but oddly unlistenable, if you ask me) music bore no resemblance to the sludgy cock-rock nonsense of Limp Bizkit and all of them, aside from the similar skin tone. But then this brief flirtation ceased, and since then the races have mixed only on top 40 radio, as God (apparently) intended.

What's interesting with the current bleaching of hip hop is that both of the major trends I identified from previous events seem not to be happening this time. First, far from stealing the genre and not giving it back, white people are just kind of silently slipping into the genre, largely unremarked on by white and Black alike. So it is that Dre produces Eminem, Timbaland produces Justin Timberlake, Fergie joins the Black Eyed Peas, and not even Lil Wayne--let alone the listening public--seems to notice that Jay Sean is a skinny white British dweeb and that Fall Out Boy couldn't be whiter if they were on the board of the National Cotton Council of America (and yes, I realize I'm playing fast and loose with the genres now, but honestly it can't be avoided, and probably shouldn't). Second, white people don't seem to be contributing much of value to the genre anymore. Sure, there are exceptions (though honestly right now El-P is the only one I can think of who's worth mentioning), but where white superstars of the past played with an expanded Black genres just as much as did Black people, in segregated dialogue, the integrated dialogue of contemporary hip hop still seems to be creatively driven almost entirely by Black people. I have no idea what to make of this. All I know is, the audience for hip hop is getting whiter and whiter with every passing day.

I have a lot more to say on this topic (I had a whole paragraph on the unusual standing of Jimi Hendrix, allowed to be rock and roll even in the late sixties, but I realized that I was qualifying my statements and contradicting myself so much that I was essentially writing like Hugo Ball). But this is already such a lumbering behemoth of a post, and such a mess of assertions and nonsense, that I'm just going to leave it here. If anyone feels the desire to respond, I'll be back tomorrow to get into a dialogue.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What science is for, part two

The January 30 issue of Science News features a quote from the dependably awesome V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist extraordinaire:
All that's separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person's touch in your mind. You've dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this of course is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, and that is, there's no real independent self aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world and inspecting other people. You're in fact connected. Not just via Facebook and the Internet. You're actually quite literally connected by your neurons.... There's no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else's consciousness. And this is not mumbo jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience.
It's from this TED talk (which I haven't had a chance to watch yet but very much want to) that he gave about mirror neurons.

Ramachandran's far more confident and excited about mirror neurons than I think a lot of neuroscientists are, but considering his remarkable record of making big intuitive leaps that end up being correct (many of which are detailed in his Phantoms in the Brain, which I really cannot recommend highly enough), it seems to me that his ideas on the subject are at least worth pondering.

And it's things like this that make me sad when I see thinkers I respect talking about scientific progress as a negative in itself. To be sure, a great deal, a large majority even, of scientific efforts as they manifest themselves now are indeed negative. But this is because the large majority of science is done, as I discussed in the previous post, at the behest of corporations and the military. When it is done for other reasons--out of a desire to better humanity and the world, out of the pure love of it (art for art's sake, in other words)--you get people like Ramachandran, and findings like what he's discussing in this quote.

The more we know about science, the more we know that the boundaries between ourselves, our minds, and the rest of the world are fictional. Everything is a result of atoms interacting with one another the way atoms have to interact with one another. Some of these molecules give rise to a system that thinks it's me, some make rocks, some make neutron stars, some don't make anything in particular other than molecules, but they all behave the same way. And, even more fascinatingly, underneath that deterministic level is one where all behavior is random, unpredictable, not even bound by causality. Somehow this random behavior gives rise to the predictable molecular behavior I was talking about, and then from there is everything we can see and, so far as we know, everything we can't.

Knowing this, how can we continue killing and exploiting and hating one another? How can we continue killing and exploiting and hating our environment? How can we feel anything but a sense of awe towards, respect for, and connection with the universe? This is no pseudo-scientific What the Bleep?!? new-age bullshit. I'm not going to ask the universe for a million dollars. This is real, it means something.

It helps that in the space of one month I was introduced to this Ramachandran quote, David Bohm's concepts of the implicate and explicate, and Paula Gunn Allen's book on Pocahontas (incidentally, check out what comes up before the results when you search Amazon for that book), all of which cover much of the same ground, from different perspectives.

The Baronette is taking an introductory-level science class right now, and her textbook includes this bewildering quote, on Copernicus's shifting the center of the universe from the Earth to the Sun: "We do not know how Copernicus, a busy man of affairs in medieval Poland, conceived this question, nor do we know why he devoted his spare time for most of his life to answering it." The authorial "we" clearly has the same limited perspective as Eric D. Isaacs, as discussed in my previous post. Both display a complete lack of understanding of class issues (do the authors of the textbook think that medieval Polish peasants were more likely to spend their time in abstract scientific speculation?), and both seem to discount curiosity and the envisionment of a better world--indeed, anything other than a desire for profit--as a motivating force.

Of course these two failings go hand in hand. And from the perspective of Power, they aren't failings at all, but rather completely desirable attitudes for the masses to have. If we don't understand class structure, if we are incurious, if we cannot imagine anything better, then we are all that much more controllable. And if all scientists want is money, then they are all the more willing to direct their research in directions that harm the majority of humanity, for the benefit of Power.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What science is for, part one

The January 16 issue of Science News features an opinion column by Eric D. Isaacs, whose author bio describes him thusly:
In May 2009, University of Chicago physicist Eric D. Isaacs took the helm of the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Earlier in his career, Isaacs spent 13 years at Bell Laboratories, where he directed semiconductor and materials physics research.
In it he outlines his take on "corporate research centers" (such as, completely coincidentally, Bell Laboratories) as "engines of discovery." And he wants the government labs to fill this same role.

Of course in theory I'd be more behind government science labs than corporate ones, but that theory is unfortunately the liberal myth of a government that truly represents The People, one that is not a ruthless murderous imperial juggernaut. So in reality I'm pretty damned opposed to that. But what I want to discuss now is this statement of Isaacs's's's's'ses: "If science isn't looking like a good career, young people won't sign on."

Now, it's entirely possible that this is in large part true. I'm not interested in discussing the quantitative accuracy of the statement. What bugs me is the just-so tone of the guy, the sense that "science has to be profitable or no one will want to do it" is a natural law rather than a lamentable state of affairs that should be changed. It reminds me of the justification for copyright on intellectual property, that the possibility of lingering profits is an "incentive" for people to create art. Go ahead, call me a hippie, but I think human expression should be the inspiration for creating art. If we could only change the structure of our society to remove the horrendous restraints on the human mind and the human body that the profit motive forces upon us, we would see a flowering of art such as the world has never seen, copyright be damned.

The same goes for science. While it is true that most scientific advancement in our society comes from corporate and military needs, this is not a good thing. It is not the scientific progress in itself that is bad (more on this in part two), but rather the reasons for it and the applications of it. If more people were going into science out of the love of discovery, and, more importantly, able to stay in it just for the love of discovery, rather than compromising themselves and their work in search of money, it's a good bet that our scientific advancement would be more focused on expanding our knowledge and our quality of life, both intellectual and physical* (and I mean genuinely improving, not just making more comfortable), rather than on destroying the lives of the many for the profits of the few.

Interestingly, a wonderful quote from the issue of Science News immediately following is what I will discuss in the part two.

*Incidentally I suspect we might also come back to understanding that these are not opposing aspects of life but rather one inseparable thing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

QBQ! Chapter Seven: "Why Do We Have to Go Through All This Change?"

Miller, usually known for his brevity--it's hard to be long-winded when you have absolutely nothing to say--takes up three pages here with a ludicrous story about a twelve-year-old girl named Stacey (no indication of who she is or why Miller would be telling, or even would know, her story) whose father is a pilot. They're flying one day, the engine goes out, the father calmly saves the day.

Along the way we get little jewels strewn about (all of them faceted like the QBQ):
Her father understood that new challenges and changing conditions often require different strategies. Conditions change, markets change, people change. What works one day in a given situation does not necessarily work the next. We need to develop a repertoire of responses so we're prepared when our engine unexpectedly quits.
So poetic. Or check out this one:
Stacey...quickly nodded her approval of Dad's plan. (This did not go off to the headquarters for a committee decision--a term that always strikes me as an oxymoron.)
Miller hates discussion and participation, and longs for the rule of an Emperor-God-King. But then we knew that.

So anyway, eventually Miller delivers the moral of the story, and of course now that he's actually attempting to make a point his brevity returns:
When faced with a new situation, Stacey's dad took action and solved the problem. But if he had resisted the change and instead spent his time whining and complaining, having thoughts like "Well, I've never done it that way before!" or asking IQs such as "Why do we have to go through all this change?" things might have turned out much differently.

Are you facing change? Any engines quit in your life lately? If so, ask a better question. Here's one that really works: "How can I adapt to the changing world?
When I first saw that one of his primary "IQs" was "Why do we have to go through all this change?" I thought it was referring to, I don't know, updating computer systems or something. But from the anecdote, and what he says about it, it's clear that what he's actually talking about when he talks about lovechange is layoffs. His story is about going from having what you need to do what you're doing to not having it. Going from having enough people working with you to get your work done to having to do the work of several people for no more pay. Going from having a stable work environment to living in constant fear of losing your job--or actually losing it. Adapt, John G. Miller tells us from the comfort of his luxurious living room, but what he really means is fucking deal with it and settle, you low-class piece of garbage.

Incidental holy shit: I was just scanning the acknowledgments page, where I had noticed earlier there was a list of his seven children (three adopted!) and their names, to make sure that I wasn't missing some kind of weird joke where the father in the story was John G. Miller, and I just noticed that one of them is named "Jazzy." I kid you not. I pray this is a nickname, fear it isn't, and wonder if that would even make it any better anyway. For comparison, the rest of the kids have real names.

QBQ! Table of contents

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ground Control to Major John


Going away, but don't panic: posting will continue!

I'm gonna be going away (nowhere exciting, for no exciting reason) this week. I'll be back late late late on Friday. My computer access is going to be extremely limited, so this is going to be a kind of semi-hiatus. The Baronette's gonna be around, but I don't know if she's gonna feel inclined to post anything (you never can tell with her).

I have a post written and scheduled for every day I'm gonna be gone, because I'm extraordinarily poised and prepared like that, but if you want to get into a discussion on any of them I won't be around until Saturday to take part in it. I promise I will when I get back, though, so definitely go ahead and leave comments should you feel the desire.

Also, I know you've all come to expect piercing commentary from me into current events in real time as they happen, but you'll just have to go without for a week.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Who Made the West

i just started reading Stolen Legacy by George GM James this week. while i find its re-evaluation to be admirable - and sometimes pretty persuasive - i can't stop thinking about one particular issue. but before i get to my thoughts, i should provide a little background.

with this book, James aims to prove that the Greeks pillaged and bastardized the teachings of the Egyptian Mysteries. in doing so, he hopes that the philosophical and scientific contributions of Africa will be illuminated and that the perception of the continent as "backwards" will dissipate. on top of this, he writes it in a manner that attempts to break from traditional European academia. clearly, pretty great aspirations.

now, the school of the Egyptian Mysteries ran off of a hierarchical model and had very strict tenets - particularly those dealing with secrecy. (all knowledge was to be passed down to Initiates through tradition, never written down. societal structures determined eligibility.) tenets like this obviously fostered exclusivity within ancient Egyptian society - a trait that defined academia in ancient times and to this day.

what is vexing me is that in establishing Africa's contributions and simultaneously attempting to escape traditional academia, James suggests drawing pride from a philosophical tradition that was just as rooted in exclusivity - and therefore, oppression - as any other.

i just wonder if it is something he considered while writing this book.

Kim Stanley Robinson beats me to the punch

I have a couple of posts in the works on how I feel about science, but I can tell they're going to be kind of big messes, so it's convenient that Kim Stanley Robinson just said everything I was going to say, elegantly. If you want to read this instead of what I'm going to be posting fairly soon on the topic, feel free; you'll probably be better served. The source, if you want to see more, is here.
[S]cience is a Utopian project; it began as a Utopian project and it has remained so ever since, an attempt to make a better world. And this is not always the view taken of science because its origins and its life have been so completely wrapped up with capitalism itself. They began together. You could consider them to be some kind of conjoined twins, Siamese twins that hate each other, Hindu gods that are permanently at odds, or even just a DNA strand wrapped around each other forever: some kind of completely imbricated and implicated co-leadership of the world, cultural dominance--so that science is not capitalism's research and development division, or enabler, but a counterforce within it. And so despite the fact that as Galileo says that science was born with a gun to its head, and has always been under orders to facilitate the rise and expansion of capital, the two of them in their increasing power together are what you might call semi-autonomous, and science has been the Utopian thrust to alleviate suffering and make a better world.
He's a bit more optimistic and positive than I can be, but other than that, um, yeah.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Once in a blue moon

If you change "your fellow Americans" to "people" in this Melissa McEwan post, I actually agree 100%. Just mentioning.

Strictly local field effects

This is quoted in the fairly poetic wikipedia entry on the observer in quantum physics. It comes from somebody at NASA, but it's a bit unclear who actually wrote it. I have nothing to say about it, I just like it.
Let us ask a simple question: When you look up at night and "see" a star, what is "really" going on? A Newtonian philosopher might answer that you are "really seeing" the star, since, in Newtonian physics, the speed of light is reckoned as being infinite. An Einsteinian philosopher, on the other hand, would answer that you are seeing the star as it was in a past epoch, since light travels with finite velocity and therefore takes time to cross the gulf of space between the star and your eye. To see the star "as it is right now" has no meaning since there exists no means for making such an observation.

A quantum philosopher would answer that you are not seeing the star at all. The star sets up a condition that extends throughout space and time--an electromagnetic field. What you "see" as a star, is actually the result of a quantum interaction between the local field and the retina of your eye. Energy is being absorbed from the field by your eye, and the local field is being modified as a result. You can interpret your observation as pertaining to a distant object if you wish, or concentrate strictly on local field effects.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Business Week: Initial Jobless Claims in U.S. Unexpectedly Climbed

Unexpectedly according to whom, exactly? Certainly it comes as no surprise to me. And I'm not that bright.
The lede: "More Americans unexpectedly filed first-time claims for unemployment insurance last week, indicating companies lack confidence the economic recovery will be sustained."
Later on: "An unemployment rate that's projected to average 10 percent this year will likely weigh on consumer spending, preventing the biggest part of the economy from accelerating. Without additional gains in sales, companies will be forced to keep cutting costs, limiting staff in order to boost profits."
Still later: "Worker productivity kept surging in the fourth quarter as companies squeezed more out of remaining staff to boost earnings, another report from the Labor Department also showed."
I was going to comment further on this, but all of a sudden I'm just too tired. Instead I'll just repeat these wise words a friend of mine said to me today: "I just love your sense of humor. You take care now!"

A story kept by businessmen

Paula Gunn Allen, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepeneur, Diplomat:
John Smith developed into a writer of some skill. It is from his True Relations, accounts of his voyages and adventures, along with a few other contemporary accounts, including records of the Virgina Company business affairs, that the bare skeleton of the story of Pocahontas is known. It is an English story. It is a story kept by businessmen and adventurers. It becomes an American story, base narrative of a nation where "the state of the nation is business," as President Coolidge so aptly informed us. Despite its origins, it becomes a romance, lending a mystique to those original corporate executives and their struggle for power within the company that would otherwise be lacking.
It's funny how one can be very aware, how one can strip away layer after layer of the fundamental, unspoken assumptions that make up our societal psyche, and always have more work to do. Until I read these words, Allen's point here had never occurred to me, at least not directly. I knew that the American founding myths were about a bunch of assholes, but it had honestly never occurred to me that they were about a bunch of corporate assholes. The stories of "those original corporate executives and their struggle for power" having been imbued with the romantic qualities Allen discusses is a central sickness in American society.
We idealize and idolize these early CEOs and middle managers. They romanticized their own narratives and we bought it, repeated it, exaggerated it. We learn about these supermen incessantly from early childhood, starting long before we're capable of understanding what these stories mean, so by the time we might be able to question them, we don't think to because they've become so ingrained. And while we rarely discuss their nature as company men explicitly, the message comes across and we transfer this idealization, even if only subconsciously, to contemporary company men. We learn to overlook the plain fact that these men's greed led to mass death, so we are able to overlook it when it happens now. And we need to knock it off.


Tonight at 8:00 EST your friend and mine, John G. Miller, is hosting a "webinar" on Outstanding!, his recent book, which I am almost (but not quite) tempted to read. The link to register for the "webinar" (webgister) is on his blog. I'm going to be doing worthwhile things with my time (watching the season premier of LOST, which is waiting tantalizingly for me on my computer, and then probably exercising and reading about Pocahontas, if you're interested), but if you've got nothing better to do it might be hilarious (weblarious).

Not recommended

On the way to work this morning I thought I'd put Nina Simone on on my headphones. I had to turn her off, though, because how could I ever have gone into work after listening to "Sinnerman"?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Further proof of the moral superiority of the Obama administration

We have shown ourselves able to get "useful, actionable" intelligence about Yemen without torture!

That's right: we can now find useful pretexts for murdering hundreds or thousands without ritually mutilating any individual beforehand!

Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!

Just occurred to me

The use of ludicrous corporate-speak in the workplace might function for some people as a sort of magical means of separating work-life from real-life. Saying, as I just overheard someone say, "What's your estimation of their receptivity?" might serve as a ritual reinforcement of I-am-at-work, where the more human "Do you think they'll like you/be interested?" would tear down the boundaries between work and life and create a harmful rift.
I don't know if anyone actually uses it this way, consciously or unconsciously, and if anyone does, I don't know how many do. Nor do I know how effective it is. But thinking of it this way makes me less inclined to hate it. Anything that helps remind us that our time of being exploited is or at least can be separate from our time of being what we want is a positive thing.

QBQ! Chapter Six: "Why Is This Happening to Me?"

The question (incorrect question! incorrect question!) that serves as the title for this chapter was introduced back in Chapter Four, wherein Miller said it was "not a very productive thought," one that makes you feel "powerless, like a victim" (and between then and now we sure learned what a terrible thing it is to be a victim!). I begged to differ.

Here's how Miller frames his in-depth, less-than-a-full-page-of-text investigation into why this question is "incorrect":
Stress is a choice. Do you buy that? Some people have a hard time with the idea. They think it's the people and events in our lives that stress us out...but it isn't true.

Yes, bad things happen: The (sic) economy sours, our business struggles, the stock market tumbles, jobs are lost... Life is full of these. But still, stress is a choice, because whatever the "trigger event," we always choose our own response.
If you're wondering what I removed with the ellipses, it's just boring lists of interpersonal difficulties: "someone doesn't follow through," that kind of thing. I left in the portions of the list that I left in because I find it illuminating that these bad things that Miller tells us "happen" are not things that just happen. His phrasing reminds me of these plaques they have up at the rest stops on the New York Thruway: "History Happened Here!" These things aren't natural disasters or random accidents. The economy souring and jobs getting lost? That does not just "happen."

People with vast wealth and power make these things happen in their efforts to gain still vaster wealth and power for themselves. Because "the economy"? It doesn't exist. It does what it does because people decided that it does that. Sure, there may or may not be a central cabal of people consciously running things this way, but there sure are a handful of people who could just decide one day to stop.

I'd also love to see Miller have his big house in Denver with the living room bigger than a convenience store and his wife with the Sarah Palin jacket he spent several years of my income buying her and his seven children (three adopted!) and all of his speaking engagement fees and the respect from the corporate world and his appearances on Fox News programs all taken away. What kind of "decision" about stress do you think he'd make?

Now pay attention:
Stress is also the result of our choices. When we choose to ask a question like "Why is this happening to me?" we feel as if we have no control. This leads us to a victim mindset, which is extremely stressful.
Do you see this?

I'd like to point out first that Johnny G-Man does not actually explain why asking "Why is this happening to me?" leads to feeling out of control. The reason he doesn't do this is that it's impossible, because his premise makes no sense. In fact it is diametrically opposed to reality. In reality, "Why is this happening to me?" is a response to feeling--more to the point, actually being--out of control. Things happen that are beyond our control, and we ask, "Why is this happening to me?"

And as I said in my commentary on Chapter Four, this is the most empowering question we can possibly ask. So long as we don't duck the question with "everything happens for a reason" nonsense (a bit of "folk wisdom" designed to serve the ruling class every bit as much as "money can't buy happiness"), asking the question is an important step into becoming aware. And the more people who are aware, the more likelihood there is that we can work together to change things.

This, of course, is exactly why John G. Miller and the people he serves don't want us to ask the question, why they try so hard to convince us not to. As a matter of fact, Miller addresses this very truth directly, if opaquely, in the final sentence of the chapter:
Even in cases where we actually are victims and our feelings seem justified, "Why me?" thinking only adds to our stress.
As we are told time and time again in this excrescence/excrement of a book, self-education, awareness, and efforts to retain our humanity are terrible things to be avoided at all costs, no matter how justified these actions might "seem."

QBQ! Table of contents

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

IS no. 11, 1967

over the past two months, i've been reading through Christopher Gray's Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International. i cannot stress how important this book is. granted, it is not the original SI publications, but it is a fantastic selection. last night, i was reading the entry entitled, "Nihilism" and was blown away by this statement:

"As a last-ditch effort, Power has produced the spectacle of nihilism - on the principle that the more we contemplate, as spectators, the degradation of all values, the less likely we are to get on with a little real destruction."

i know i fall victim to this when it comes to large matters, but i'd like to think that i've found ways out of it in small acts and gestures. is it enough to be quietly subversive? or does it just lead to more reform? i have a pretty good sense of an answer, but would like to hear someone else's thoughts on it.

Critical mass

...any claims that it even approaches the status of universal convention are bogus. I mean, if you're poor, it's real enough, but at the level of a trillion-dollar annual deficit it is basically a totally self-referential metafictive device.
This is exactly what I've always said. Money rules every single aspect of our lives, no matter how hard we try to separate it at least from certain spheres, but in the end it's entirely fictional. It only has any signficance because we all agree, every day, that it does. If we stopped doing that, money would cease to matter. And it wouldn't take very many immensely wealthy people calling off the drama to end the pretense once and for all.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us who do not have much money, the only way we could be successful in ending the fiction is if we all did it simultaneously, which will most likely never happen. The personal risks to each of us if we're the only ones who show up are just too high. This is the same reason why a lot of things that should theoretically be easily achievable will never actually happen; for example, it's why they'll never give a war that nobody comes to.

Interview with Bill Watterson

There's not much to it, but it's nice to hear from him again.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Brief thoughts on Under the Dome

Except for a brief period in late high school and early college where I thought I wasn't supposed to, I've always liked Stephen King. He writes way too much to be consistent, so he has a lot of crap out there, but the good stuff is really something.

His most recent, Under the Dome, which I just finished about five minutes ago, is the good stuff. You need to have a high tolerance (which I understand not everyone has, and that's fine) for his folksy-pulpy writing style and for sentences that include words and phrases like "upper body," "intestines," "splatters," and "like a juicy bug" (taking just one sentence as an example) to make it through, because there's over a thousand pages of that, but if you can, it's worth it. There are some tiresome Bush/Cheney parallels that are definitely shoved up into the foreground, but the parallels have some emergent phenomena that make them worth it, if that makes any sense; interesting things that I doubt King was doing on purpose but which he nevertheless did. As for the ecological allegory (because a small town trapped inside a mostly impermeable barrier undergoes ecological collapse much more quickly and simply than the entire Earth, but for the same reasons), it's not remotely subtle but is I think very well-done.

This is all very vague, because I don't want to go into too much detail. But I think my favorite thing about the novel is that it combines, first, the kind of Lovecraftian nihilism I find so simultaneously aesthetically appealing and accurate as a description of the universe, with, second, a sort of warning (because this is in many ways a massive cautionary tale) that we need to care about each other, be nice to each other, and be one with one another, or else, which I think is necessary. Aesthetically appealing, accurate, and necessary is a good combination.

Well lookee here

Given a choice between cutting school and state services on the one hand, and raising taxes on the rich on the other, Oregon voters chose the other. Apparently they haven't been snookered into believing that $250,000 a year is a middle-class income.

I don't know the specifics of the tax plan yet; I imagine it most likely doesn't go as far as it should. And we can argue about the merits of state services and public schooling, of course. But in broad outlines this is awesome news.

Realism is unrealistic, part two

OK, so that good point I mentioned at the end of the first part comes in sections three and four of Ted Gioia's essay, in which he contrasts the stylistic experimentation of Joyce and Pound and Faulkner with the subject-matter experimentation of (unnamed) sci-fi and fantasy writers of the same period. Though he makes the somewhat questionable assertion that the latter were significantly more commercially successful than the former, the point is interesting, and one I hadn't particularly considered before; namely, that the sci-fi writers are just as experimental as the stylistic innovators, but that, as Gioia puts it, "they did not experiment with sentences, but rather with the possible worlds that these sentences described." He also seems correct that the sci-fi (I feel no need to use "conceptual fiction") mold of experimentation won out over the formerly literary type, as he points to examples like McCarthey and Saramago and Rushdie and Chabon and so forth (mentioning Paul Auster, incidentally, before trashing the mystery genre, which is inexplicable to me) as the new literary elite, inspired more by sci-fi's innovations than Joyce's.

I'm not sure I understand, though, why these two strains need to be placed in opposition. For one thing, not everyone falls firmly on one side or the other: Pynchon comes to mind; Saramago and Auster are other examples Gioia himself mentions but seems to unwittingly discount in these terms. For another thing, stylistic experimentation in "realistic" narrative is every bit as much a Houellebecqian rejection of the terms of the actual real world as is reality experimentation in traditionally styled narrative. The two are complementary.

The works of art I tend to respond to most strongly are those that in one way or another reject the world-as-it-is. Because the world-as-it-is is, to me, unacceptable, and by rejecting it we demand that it change (regardless of whether that change is possible or even definable). I can't exactly define the general form of this rejection, but I recognize it when I see it, and it's why I tend to lump a lot of non-sci-fi works in with sci-fi in my mind's conception of the genre, works like (and these are the first examples that pop into my head, from different media) Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Celine's Journey to the End of the Night and Arrested Development and the early music of Iggy Pop and the paintings of Egon Schiele.

These are works that, though they may "take place" in the real world, are not content to, and so are of a piece with works that don't take place in the real world, not solely for escapist reasons, but out of necessity. This rejection is I think key in formulating a meaningful reaction to the world, in expressing anything of value. And any method that allows us to express such a disavowal of reality is one we should welcome and take advantage of, rather than partitioning off into competing marketing categories.