Sunday, December 30, 2012

The End of the End


As 2012 putters out with the world still intact, I think it is worth looking back at a previous End that failed to materialize to see how the survivors dealt with their ongoing existence. I’ll leave out the purely religious Ends since these raise issues beyond the eschatological. The Heaven’s Gate cult might qualify since the members planned to escape by joining the aliens on the passing Hale-Bopp comet on March 26 1997 – which is sort-of nonreligious – but, since there were no survivors among the comet-boarders, they didn’t have much to say.

There was a strangely similar bunch of folks more than 40 years earlier, however, who did survive a predicted End. The group’s pronouncements fascinated psychologist Leon Festinger when he first heard them, so a few of his researchers infiltrated the group and provided him with the details he later used in his classic book When Prophecy Fails. The group leader, Marian Keech, had experimented with “automatic writing.” This technique involves writing without letting your conscious mind guide your hand; it is used by some spiritualists to receive otherworldly information and was used by WB Yeats to inform A Vision, his peculiar prose work on occult matters. Keech, however, didn’t receive messages from spirits; her revelations came from living beings on the planet Clarion. They warned her of a great flood that would strike the world on December 21, 1954, but said they would arrive in a flying saucer and save her followers at midnight. There was a catch: no metal objects allowed. The members removed all watches and jewelry, snipped zippers off their clothes and cut the metal eyelets out of their shoes. Festinger describes the scene as they waited eagerly for the saucer on the evening of the 20th.

Midnight came and went without a flood or a flying saucer. Not one to despair, Keech received another message from Clarion and jotted it down with automatic writing. Her little group had “spread so much light” that the End was canceled, she announced, so there was no need to evacuate. She and her followers had saved us. The group began a media campaign to spread the word about what they had accomplished. Only two of her (legitimate) members were disappointed enough to leave the group. Keech continued to channel messages from aliens until her death in Arizona in 1992.

This was an admirable solution to the problem faced by Keech.  Surely someone out there today is insisting he or she (and followers) appeased the Mayan gods and thereby saved us all from destruction on the 21st just past. Perhaps they did. At the very least, they deserve their own reality TV show for it.

The Saucers Aren’t Always So Benevolent

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Retirement Plan B


The world didn’t end on the 21st of December, which was a major disappointment to some folks. “It was my only retirement plan,” one friend grumbled.

Well, don’t despair. There is always another catastrophe around the corner. There is a one-in-1,000,000 chance of a civilization-destroying asteroid hitting the earth within the next 100 years. Many lotteries have far worse odds. There is a 1-in-50,000 chance every single year of a super-volcanic eruption on the scale of Toba, which nearly wiped out humanity in its prehistory. There are several technologies (not all of them military) that potentially could end civilization, though it is harder to put odds on these than on natural events. The possibilities for destruction are endless. The risk of each one individually might be low for any given year, but all together the risks add up. Besides, there is bound to be some ancient calendar somewhere that bodes ill for 2013 if we only examine it closely; maybe that one has it right. So cheer up.

Of course, there is always global warming to worry us, and that threat won’t simply vanish the way the Mayan Apocalypse did. The Wire recently noted, “The really inconvenient truth: We’re toast.” The author was referring to the less-often-mentioned scientific consensus about global warming: because of lag times in climate response to CO2 levels (mostly due to ocean temperatures), changes already are locked in place. Cutting current emissions back to 2000 levels and capping them (however advisable and laudable for the longer-term effects) would not slow warming noticeably in the lifetime of anyone alive today, much less stop it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims that warming is irreversible for the next millennium. Even James Lovelock, British chemist and climate activist with the IPCC, remarked about the chance of changing the trajectory in the 21st century, “Not a hope in hell.” With regard to the UK’s contribution, he no doubt made his colleagues cringe by saying, “Everyone could burn coal all day and drive around in 4x4s and it would not make a scrap of difference.” Apparently, it’s time to start building Dutch-style sea walls as ice melts and oceans rise. True, none of this need end civilization directly, but related economic and demographic dislocations are imaginable which could do it. It’s not as satisfyingly simple an end as an asteroid strike or the pole-shift depicted in the movie 2012, but it’s something.

Still, the more I write of the time frames of all these threats, the more advisable it seems to prepare an alternate retirement plan.

While that last thought is a downer, I’m just as happy the world didn’t end of the 21st anyway. 17 guests at my house on the 25th arrived and departed at various times between 3PM and 3AM. (Actually, a few stayed over, but they turned in by 3.) Two were family and the rest were friends. It was a pleasant party with good conversation, and I wouldn’t want to have missed it. I think it would be cool if the world doesn’t end before our next get-together, too.

If It’s Not One Darn Thing It’s Another


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Feeding Time


Beginnings and endings always grab our attention more than the middles where most of life plays out. Classic publisher’s advice (origin uncertain):  “The first three lines of the first page are when you win or lose a reader.” Classic producers’ advice (origin also uncertain): “You’ve got to have a good Third Act.”

The first three lines in all of literature were etched on clay in Sumer, in present day southern Iraq, sometime after 3000 BC. We don’t know what they were, but they must have been pretty good because the Sumerian authors kept at it, and neighboring peoples soon adopted their cuneiform script. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing arose soon afterward, apparently independently; written Chinese appeared a bit later, also apparently independently.

We don’t know the origins of the Sumerians themselves. Sumerian is a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language. Several (conflicting) hypotheses of relationships to other languages have been offered, but none has found widespread scholarly support. There might be a clue in their word for themselves, which literally means “black-headed folk.” In southern Mesopotamia? You might as well try to distinguish yourself by saying “We’re the guys who have ten toes.” It seems likely they migrated from somewhere where some people didn’t have black hair. Guesses have ranged from the Caucasus to the Indus Valley. Whatever the case may be, once settled by the Persian Gulf they developed a remarkable urban culture and got the whole of human history started.

If the friends of mine who are throwing an end-of-the-world party are right (the Mayan Apocalypse and all that), human history will end tomorrow. I suspect they’ll be stuck with the job (bummer) of cleaning up after the party on Saturday, but I suppose one never can be 100% sure about that. Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Few people take the apocalypse seriously, but I can’t help noticing a tone of growing pessimism about the future in everyday casual conversation. I sense a conviction that, while the world may not end with a bang tomorrow and while Apple may have yet more gee-wiz gadgets to offer us, civilization nonetheless is grinding down as demographic, economic, and environmental realities slowly catch up with us. Oh, to be sure, there always have been people convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The following poem dates at least to 1910 but might be older:

My grandpa notes the world's worn cogs
And says we are going to the dogs!
His grandpa in his house of logs
Swore things were going to the dogs.
His dad among the Flemish bogs
Vowed things were going to the dogs.
The cave man in his queer skin togs
Said things were going to the dogs.
But this is what I wish to state
The dogs have had an awful wait.

Yet, the Zeitgeist really was more confident when I was a kid. Even though the existing social conditions by and large were far worse than today, we had high expectations. We were going to end poverty, end injustice, colonize space, and (my generation’s lagniappe) usher in an era of peace and love – in our lifetimes. Really. I don’t hear much talk like that anymore. At least it’s not mainstream opinion. In part, this has to do with an economy seemingly permanently jammed in first gear (in many Western countries anyway), but it goes deeper than that. It extends to personal expectations, too – even to romance. While relationships always have been tough (Sumerian proverb: “Marriage for pleasure, divorce to regain it”), we didn’t assume formerly that the odds were against us. Now (correctly) we do.

Does the first civilization have anything to tell us about the current one and the patience of dogs? Yes. After a period of heroic poetry and mythological literature, a literary genre called Lamentation developed in Sumer. It was what it sounds like. We read in these poems about defeat in war, about the end of law and order, about the drying of rivers and canals, and about how a shekel of silver can buy only half a sila of grain. Sumer was going to the dogs. To be sure, The Lamentation on the Destruction of Nippur ends with a call for hope and change (translation by Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer):

A day when man not abuses man, the son fears his father…
A day when there is no strife between the weak and strong, when kindness prevails…
A day when all suffering will be gone from the land, light will pervade it,
A day when black darkness will be expelled from the land, and all living creatures will rejoice.

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, more Lamentations followed. Then they stopped, because so did Sumer. When was the last time you met a Sumerian? The Sumerians were crushed by the Akkadians to the north and vanished as a people.

So, civilization didn’t end. It flourished. But Sumer ended. At least in a local context, the pessimists of the day had a point.

Modern civilization in a grand sense is likely to continue as well in some form. However, it’s worth paying attention to the warnings of our Cassandras. (We tend to forget that, in the Greek myths, Cassandra was right.) It’s entirely possible that, at least in our corner of the world, we soon could be dog food after all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nothing To Be Saturnine About


It’s that time of year again when folks celebrate whatchamacallit. Much of the worry over nomenclature seems silly to me. Call December Twenty-something Christmas with the Christians, Soyal with the Zuni, or Yule with the Wiccans. Fine by me. Though I’m about as secular-minded a fellow as you’re likely to find, I personally don’t care whether displays in public parks have religious themes, or, if so, which ones. (In an American legal context, there is a constitutional issue regarding the use of tax money for the purpose, but the public purse is not the sole source of cash.) I don’t care whether a tree is called a Christmas tree or a holiday tree or just an evergreen. 

This time of year always has been a festive season on account of the winter solstice (in the Northern hemisphere, of course). Since prehistory it has been as good a reason to festivate as any. The solstice was December 25 in the Julian calendar as adopted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The 25th also was the Roman sun cult holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (day of the birth of the unconquerable sun). The Nicean Council settled on December 25 for Christmas in 325 AD. On the slightly inaccurate Julian calendar, the solstice drifted 14 days between 46 BC and 1582 AD. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, it didn’t cut two weeks from that year in order to reset the calendar to 46 BC. It reset to 325 AD so that the solstice fell on December 21. Whether one reason was to separate Christmas a little from the solstice is anyone’s guess. (The Gregorian calendar tweaks the Julian by eliminating the leap day from any century year not evenly divisible by 400, so that 2000 was a leap year but 2100 won’t be; this makes the calendar accurate to within one day per 3300 years.)

The Puritans waged the first war on Christmas in North America; they banned the holiday because it had pagan origins. They were right… and wrong. Many of the holiday traditions do have pagan precursors, such as the gift-giving and the Yule log. The Christmas tree could be argued either way. Pagan Germano-Celts used evergreen wreaths at the solstice and they were seriously into their sacred groves, but if they decorated indoor evergreen trees they didn't record the practice anywhere. The trees are first mentioned in print in the 16th century in Germany and the Baltic. One can't help suspecting, though, that the real gripe the Puritans had was that someone might have fun.

The most commonly noted precursor to Christmas is the Roman Saturnalia, which involved an exchange of presents and lasted from December 17 to December 23 on the Julian calendar in a run-up to the solstice. You’ve got to give the Romans credit for knowing how to party. The satirist Lucian (c. 150 AD) describes some of the other activities. He puts this dialogue in the mouth of Cronos (aka Saturn) in whose honor the festival is held:

During my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

I expect the usual motley assortment of guests at my house on the 25th (pretty much the same crew as Thanksgiving, plus a few). I don’t think they’ll hold back on anything on Lucian’s list except maybe the naked singing. But you never know.


Eartha Kitt Santa Baby (1953)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Valley of the Dolls


Last night’s interleague roller derby match between The Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade and the Happy Valley Dolls of SCAR (State College Area Rollers) took place on the Punishers’ home track in Morristown, NJ. The bout originally had been planned for last month, but a little incident called Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to much of Morristown and made many roads impassable, so the match was rescheduled. About the only good thing to come from that storm was this late-season bout. It was a spirited and knock-about contest from start to finish.

I last saw SCAR skate several months ago when they defeated Skyland in a double-header bout, and knew they would be hard competition for MorristownThe Punishers and the Dolls are both experienced teams, with no obvious great advantage or weakness on either side. This rough equality was evident in the first half. #80 Kyssing Kaos scored the first points for the Dolls in the opening jam. #1203 Hits Spaniola put the Punishers on the Board in the third. For the first 25 minutes of the 30-minute first-half, the scores were rarely more than two points apart, with the lead teetering back and forth between the two teams. The blocking was especially fierce and well-organized on both sides, with hits and pile-ups of a sort one rarely sees this early in a game. The Punishers frequently rushed the start of jams by creating a no-pack (this releases the jammers), showing confidence in their jammers to use the full two-minutes of a jam effectively. The Dolls countered by forming formidable walls of blockers, and frequently taking down Punisher jammers, with #69 Danni Savage hitting particularly hard. Doom Hilda marshaled the Punisher blockers.

Outstanding jammers for the Dolls were Kyssing Kaos and Queen Guillotine. One strength of the Punishers is a depth of competent jammers. Heinz Catchup had an especially good night, but Hits Spaniola, Maggie Kyllanfall, Brass Muscles, CaliforniKate, and Doom Hilda all added points at critical moments. The break for the Punishers came in the last minutes of the first half when penalty calls against the Dolls allowed them to rack up points in power jams. Heinz Catchup scored four grand slams (if I counted correctly), raising the Punishers’ lead to 81-51 at the end of the first half.

Twenty minutes (and five Irish bagpipers) later, the second half began. The Punishers built on their lead, again assisted by the penalty box. (All aggressive skaters spend time in the penalty box, but sometimes the temporary loss of a key skater is decisive.) The Dolls responded by stiffening an already tough defense, taking down Beast Witherspoon repeatedly in one power jam, though this didn’t stop her from pushing through the pack and scoring points. The packs were a very rough-and-tumble place to be for skaters of both teams, with pile-ups and downed skaters common. Heinz Catchup and Maggie Kyllanfall both managed to scoot through some very unlikely holes in the pack, however. The Dolls continued to add points throughout the second half, but they weren’t enough to keep up; the Punishers had the momentum and built a strong lead into a commanding one. In the final jam of the bout, Doom Hilda took lead jammer position; both she and Queen Guillotine racked up points, but Doom expanded the Punishers’ already insurmountable lead.

The bout ended 247-114 in favor of the Punishers. Queen Guillotine was chosen MVP for the Dolls and Doom Hilda for Morristown.

All in all, it was lively match. While it’s always fun to see the home team win, the bout clearly could have been very different had the penalties been reversed and momentum shifted the other way. I’m sure the Happy Valley Dolls are aiming at that different outcome in 2013. I plan to be rinkside.





Monday, December 3, 2012

Underrated


The US birthrate was in the news last week. It has fallen to 63.2 per 1000 women, which equates to a fertility rate (the average number of lifetime births per woman) of 1.9, which is the lowest since national records have been kept and about half the rate of the peak year 1957. A fertility rate of 2.1 is replacement level, so at the current rate the national population would decline were it not for immigration.

The US is not alone. Several countries with advanced economies have rates that are even lower (e.g. Canada 1.5, Italy 1.4, Japan 1.3, among others), though global population goes on burgeoning thanks to continuing high birthrates in the countries that can least afford them.

There are economic consequences that worry policymakers. Even with immigration, the decline in the US birthrate and the steady drop in adult workforce participation (presently 63.8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 66.6% a decade ago) bode ill for federal and state budgets, all of which count on wildly unrealistic expectations of growth in the number and incomes of employed taxpayers to meet entitlement and pension commitments.

Editorials last week proffered several explanations for the decline, with the ongoing economic malaise in the US always figuring prominently. The problem with that explanation is that the decline in the birthrate started decades ago. It has persisted through good times and bad. While the dip below 2.0 this year was attention-getting, it wasn’t any deviation from the long term trend. Nonetheless, I’m sure economic factors play a part, but they play a part that won’t change much even if GDP perks up. The fact is that raising kids in the US is insanely expensive, and it’s getting worse. According to the USDA (I don’t know why the Department of Agriculture tracks this, but it does), the average cost of a child born in 2011 (in constant dollars) is $235,000 for the first 17 years, which means before college. Upper income households will spend $390,000. And what of college or other higher education? In real terms it costs triple what it did 50 years ago.

There is another reason for the change, though, that might be even more important. The average age of first marriage is the highest on record (27 for women, 29 for men) – and that is for those who get married at all. The majority of adults are presently unmarried. Over half of adults under 35 never have been married and half of those express no interest in ever becoming so. Marriage is not a prerequisite for having kids, of course; more than a third of births in the US are to single moms after all, which actually is a low fraction compared to some European countries. However, the added difficulties of raising kids alone surely discourage having a lot of them. Furthermore, those married couples tend not to remain couples, often breaking up before starting a family.

I certainly saw some of this at my Thanksgiving table (admittedly an unscientific sample). As I mentioned in an earlier blog, all of the dozen, ranging from young adults to 81, were single: never-married, divorced, or widowed. Four of them were parents, but all of their kids together were outnumbered by those over the age of 35 present at the table. Only one person of any age was altogether positive about a previous marriage or primary relationship. All the others had disaster stories of varying scariness, often laced with negative self-judgments. One fellow remarked, “Guys are such idiots,” referring to his own folly in romantic matters. A lady guest (who hadn’t heard him) not more than 10 minutes later said, “women are such dopes,” while discussing a philandering ex-beau.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon. In a story about virtual reality games, for instance, one fellow commented to Japanese 2channel, “I don’t like real women. They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend." A female Tokyo fashion editor agreed in gender-reversed fashion to The Guardian: "Maybe we're just advanced human beings. Maybe we’ve learned how to service ourselves.”

There always has been a battle of the sexes. It always has been a staple of popular culture. (Let’s leave the likes of Aristophanes and Shakespeare aside, though it would be easy enough to go there.) It’s hard to find a more mutually sadistic couple than Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), for example, as they relentlessly get at each other for unspecified past wrongs. Yet I can’t help noticing a change in tone which kicked in after the ‘70s: a rising expectation that that romance means letting oneself in for emotional abuse – e.g. Joan Jett I Hate Myself for Loving You. Clearly, everyone doesn’t feel this way or there wouldn’t be a next generation, but I really do hear a lot along this line from both sexes.

Perhaps there is something positive to this rising cynicism, if cynicism is what it is. It really is better to be single than to be with the wrong person, and smashing our rose-colored glasses might help us distinguish the wrong ones. If another consequence is giving politicians fewer taxpayer pockets to raid, perhaps that is for the best, too. They might have to consider spending within our means, though that may be too much for which to hope.

The Offspring’s Global Hit in the 90s Apparently Struck a Chord


 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Smart is That?


As the first significant snowfall of the season turns the local streets beyond my window into a bumper-cars arena, I once again question the sense living in a northern state. It’s the same question I’ve asked myself each winter for decades. I’ve yet to come up with a good answer, thereby giving credence to Claudette Colbert’s assertion in The Palm Beach Story (1942): “Anyway, men don't get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.

Whether our species as a whole is getting brighter as it ages is a question that vexes scientists. The popular science journals sometimes report one way and sometimes the other. Professor James Flynn, for one, believes that the increase in raw IQ test scores in the past 100 years indicates a change that is at least partly biological (see earlier post: All in All, I’d Rather Be Errol ), whether due to improved nutrition, epigenetic factors, or some other influence. Others dismiss the improved scores as an artifact of education; they argue that people today simply are more accustomed to taking standardized IQ-like tests, and so do better at them. True underlying intelligence, they say, is in long-term decline. In the latter camp are paleontologists David Geary and Drew Bailey who note that skeletal evidence shows that cranial capacity peaked 20 000 years ago (see earlier post The Incredible Shrinking Brain ); since then, brain size has shrunk, and by a significant amount. The biggest drop occurred between 15 000 and 10 000 years ago, but did not stop there.

This past week the “getting stupider” hypothesis was in the news again thanks to Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford University. In an article in the journal Trends in Genetics, Crabtree reiterates the physical evidence and adds, "A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly extreme selection is a thing of the past." In short, dunces aren’t culled out. He notes that, even without reverse selection, failure to weed out dimmer bulbs will result in a downward genetic drift due to normal mutation rates in the genetic code. If between 2000 and 5000 genes are involved in intelligence (the generally accepted range), each of us should be carrying two or more maladaptive mutations that arose with the past 3000 years: "If selection is only slightly relaxed, one would still conclude that nearly all of us are compromised compared to our ancient ancestors of 3,000 to 6,000 years ago."

Crabtree has evoked numerous rebuttals, mostly on the grounds that his article is speculative and that his arguments aren’t testable.

So which is it? Are we brainier than our great grandparents or are we halfway down the slide to the future portrayed in Idiocracy? Are the two mutually exclusive – which is to say, could we not, by training and education, be doing more with less? I tend to the “dumber but better educated” view based purely on personal observation, but I could be wrong.

I recommend re-visiting Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato before deciding whether we are brighter than our ancestors. If nothing else, those ancient Greeks were smart enough to live in a Mediterranean climate.

Perhaps Not All of Our Paleo Predecessors Were Brainiacs (double-click for full-screen)


Friday, November 23, 2012

An Old Fashioned Black Friday


As usual, my Thanksgiving table yesterday was attended by an eclectic mix of ages and characters. The only thing they all have in common is that all are single. That is, of course, the new normal. A year ago, for the first time, a majority of adults in the US were unmarried, and the number of singles continues to rise. Married people are now the ones pursuing an alternate lifestyle. Ad hoc table assemblages like mine soon may be the rule.

But that’s not the topic of this blog. (If I ramble, blame the effects of turkey overdose.)

Now the Day After T’Day progresses, and, as the afternoon transitions to evening, the aftereffects of yesterday’s overindulgence slowly wear off. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine trolling the malls the day after Thanksgiving. For me, no Black Friday deal can be that good. Plenty of people feel otherwise.

For more than 100 years, the Christmas shopping season has been regarded as beginning the day after Thanksgiving, which in 1939 FDR moved from the traditional last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday. (In 1939 the last Thursday was the 30th, so his change shifted it to the 23rd, which added an extra shopping week.) However, I don’t recall the term “Black Friday” being used for the day when I was a kid. A quick look at Wiki reveals that the term became general around 1975, having been local Philadelphia jargon for about 20 years prior. The folks in Philly used it to complain about the traffic and crowds. As the term spread, it took on another meaning: it is the moment in the year when most retailers’ balance sheets finally move from red to black.

It’s common for terms to have multiple origins. As a totally unrelated example, the name Jeep apparently came from GP, which was just an otherwise meaningless manufacturing designation painted on the Ford version of the vehicle (the most common version, built under license from Willy’s). However, it was a general purpose vehicle, and most soldiers assumed GP stood for general purpose, which helped spread the term. Willy’s smartly adopted Jeep as a trademark.  (The brand is now owned by Chrysler.)

The Black Friday I remember from my schooldays was September 24, 1869 (not from personal experience but from history class – I’m old but not that old) . The US went off the gold standard in 1862, and in 1869 the greenback currency had not yet returned to it. President Grant wanted to expedite the return. The first step toward that goal was to stabilize the price of gold through strategic sales and purchases by the Treasury. Grant’s desire for a convertible currency conflicted with the plans of big-time speculators Jay Gould and Jim Fisk who schemed to corner the gold market. They commanded enough resources and drew in enough banks into gold and gold-futures purchases to drive the price up from $125 per ounce to 165. One of their confederates, however, was Abel Corbin, who was married to Grant’s sister. On this occasion the connection did not serve him well. In the presence of Gould and Fisk, he asked President Grant not to intervene against the rise in the gold price. It was the wrong thing to ask. Grant understood what their game was, and on September 24 Secretary of the Treasury Boutwell dumped government gold on the market, which sent the price crashing from 165 to 138. A panic ensued as brokerages and banks closed down. Thousands of investors went bankrupt. Jay Gould, however, came out fine. He had sold on the crest of the market. Fisk seems not to have been harmed either. A Congressional Committee could find no smoking gun, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Gould got the word from someone in the Treasury about what was about to happen.

Much as I prefer a good price on gold to a good price on a TV set or winter coat, we’re probably better off with the modern version of Black Friday than the old one. Both have a way of emptying pockets though.

From the October 16, 1869, Harper's Weekly



Clip from Trading Places

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Late to the Party


I all but missed the mash-up of the intra-league Jerzey Derby Brigade roller derby in Morristown last night, which makes this entry shorter than usual. Personal obligations occupied me elsewhere until 8 PM, and then Morristown proved to be more than usually jam-packed with Saturday night partiers  and singles-bars cruisers. The nearest parking space to the rink (for those who know the town) was a healthy walk away at the public lot on the corner of Elm and Franklin. As I wandered into the rink in the final minutes, however, the outcome of the bout remained very much in doubt. Thanks to Richard (another Richard) for catching me up.

The Brigade divided itself into Red and Green teams, with additional skaters participating from Shore Points Roller Derby and Skyland Roller Girls. The division was done well, because the match was a close one throughout, characterized by alternating power jams and a see-saw scoreboard. #57 Heinz Catch-up in Green, skated and jammed well, as she always does. #1203 Hits Spaniola in Red also racked up points, as she did the October mash-up. # 6 River Slam was a hard-hitting blocker and Queen Guillotine was effective all-around.

As the clock ticked down, Green expanded on a small lead with Heinz adding final points. The score was 166-140 in favor of Green.

The mash-up surely helped further hone tactics and skills for when the Brigade takes on the State College Area Rollers in an inter-league bout on December 3. My intent is to see all of that one.


Friday, November 16, 2012

White Suit, Keen Eye, and Sharp Quill


In 1968, at the high-tide of the counterculture, I opened The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on a Friday and finished it over the weekend. Most probably (I no longer remember), I ignored assigned school reading on the same weekend. The book details the adventures of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Merry Pranksters on their cross-country tour in the psychedelic bus Further. The reviewer for The New York Times, Eliot Fremont Smith, commented at the time, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not simply the best book on the hippies, it is the essential book.” So it was, and is. Tom Wolfe brought his creative, exuberant, and off-beat style to his reportage, capturing images, dialogue, perspectives, fashions, and tone perfectly. Ever since that weekend, Tom Wolfe steadily has expanded his territory on my bookshelves.

Wolfe’s nonfiction (e.g The Right Stuff) reads very much like fiction; yet, not until he was 54 years old did he write a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Appropriately enough, The Bonfire of the Vanities reads very much like nonfiction. In this dark, cynical, but funny book, Wolfe captured the social milieu of ‘80s New York so well that he uncannily presaged the Bernie Goetz affair in his plot. The book, by the way, should not be judged by the 1990 movie, which was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actress, and Worst Screenplay. (For all that, the movie has acquired a cult cachet in recent years.) Wolfe’s next novel A Man in Full dissects the adolescent (or, more properly, primate) social jockeying of players in the debt-driven prosperity of the ‘90s, as they dance on the fence-top between opportunity and disaster, success and jail. I am Charlotte Simmons in 2004 was a spot-on depiction of prevailing values and youth culture on college campuses. In this novel, Wolfe once again was prophetic. At the fictional Dupont University (which bears striking similarities to Duke), a scandal in the novel involving the basketball team presaged the real 2006 Duke lacrosse team scandal.

In 2012 the octogenarian Wolfe shows he is not ready to hang up his keyboard. His latest novel, Back to Blood, is set in Miami, the most ethnically diverse city in an ever more diverse America. The blood of the title refers to bloodline, not blood spatter. (Tom leaves spatter to Jeff Lindsay and Dexter.) An underlying theme: despite (or because of) the intermingling of Haitians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Russians, African-Americans, Anglos, etc., ethnic and racial consciousness infuses everything – often subtly, but sometimes by megaphone – in politics, on the job, and in personal relations. Individuals are rarely just individuals. One character, a newspaper editor on the ever-more-irrelevant Miami Herald, mulls to himself about this: “Everybody…all of them…it’s back to blood! Religion is dying…but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable – you couldn’t stand it – to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random item inside a supercollider known as the universe. But believing in something by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it.” The  plot involves a pornography addiction therapist, a Russian billionaire who might have donated forged paintings to a museum, and a hero Cuban cop who is reviled by his own family because he rescued but then helped arrest a Cuban refugee off-shore (automatic asylum applies only to Cubans who first touch land). The portrait of Miami (and not just Miami) that emerges is detailed and convincing; the image is far from pleasant, but it is entertaining.

Upshot: a thumbs up for Back to Blood. One only can hope that this novel, too, is not prophetic.




Tom Has a Friend on YouTube

Posted by a fan

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Empowerment


My power clicked on over the weekend. I’m lucky. The road crews and utility crews have worked long and hard under unpleasant conditions. Of course, linemen usually work under unpleasant conditions. When else does power fail? Yet, for all their hard work, there still are thousands of customers who have received no promises of service before Thanksgiving. The available resources to throw at the problem are just too stretched.

While appreciative of the efforts at restoration after the hurricane, I can’t shrug off the feeling that we used to be better in the US at construction, reconstruction, and fixing what needs to be fixed, in both the private and public domains. Example: on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria (not the present one) which was demolished in 1929, excavation for the 102-story Empire State Building began on January 22, 1930; the Empire State Building opened for business on May 1, 1931. In 2012, work on the new 104-story 1 World Trade Center is in its eleventh year and remains ongoing. After losing most of its capital fleet on 12/7/41, a short four years later the US Navy was sailing an astonishing force of nearly 7000 ships including two dozen full size aircraft carriers and scores of smaller ones, a building program hard to imagine replicating today – the navy presently operates 288 ships. Having once produced lunar-capable Saturn V boosters, we no longer can launch our astronauts as far as low earth orbit.

Much of this is a matter of evolving regulation and management styles, which in their present form often seem purpose-designed to slow everything down. When my dad built houses back around 1960, he could submit a subdivision proposal to a local planning board on Friday, get approved that night (assuming the proposal asked for no exceptions to the zoning ordinance), and start work on Monday. Today, for a similar subdivision proposal, the process of review – not just by planning board(s) but the DEP and EPA – is likely to take (quite seriously) five years, with no certainty about what, if anything, will be approved. The change in large part explains why – to reference a recent political flap – "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as expected."

Perhaps I’m wrong in suspecting that, had an equivalent storm to Sandy hit the Northeast 50 years ago, the response would have been more “can do” than “we’re trying.” But I don’t think so. Oh, well. I personally am not as can-do as I used to be either. Maybe graying has something to do with both the individual and national cases: the median age in the US is at an all-time high of 37.1 and rising. We’re all getting a little creaky in the joints.

The great Northeast Blackout of 1965, covering much of Ontario, New York, New Jersey and New England, was caused by a cascade failure of relays. Since the lines remained intact and there was little damage to other hardware, power was back up in 12 hours. The New York Times the following year quoted doctors who reported a spike in births in the affected area. Actual birth records don’t show any such spike, but then 12 hours aren’t such a very long time to go without electrically powered recreation. Between 7 and 24 days are along time. If a spike proves real next July/August, I’ll take back the adjective “creaky.”


OK, It's Not This Bad







Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Not So Hot


It’s another evening hunkered at my office. Power is still out at my home, which means there has been no light, heat, or water (I’m on a well) there since the 29th of October. Snow is falling tonight as is the temperature. This poses a threat to my pipes in which some water no doubt lingers. Though I’m NJ born and raised, I’m increasingly aware of the advantages of the Southern states – the sky high real estate taxes in NJ, which I paid today, are at this point just a secondary issue. Yet, long before central heating – even before property taxes –  NJ was a populated land. The Lenni-Lenape lived here. What were they thinking?

I suppose they were thinking that, on balance, it was worth shivering through a few months. By the time of the Dutch arrival, the Lenni-Lenape were not quite sedentists, nomads, farmers, or hunter-gathers. They were a mix of all four. They planted crops in the spring, traveled to the Jersey Shore in the summer for the fishing and clam bakes, returned to harvest in the fall, and then hunted through the winter. To outdoorsy types, this probably sounds pleasant. Even if I wanted to, though, I couldn’t really emulate their cold weather lifestyle by hunting the area around my abode (numerous though the deer are): the neighbors would complain.

The toughest part of their lifestyle surely was the planting and harvesting.  That they bothered to do it suggests their numbers already were taxing the environment. Anthropologist/historian Jared Diamond commented that settled agriculture was "the worst mistake in the history of the human race." The Lenni-Lenape were halfway to making it.

Why did Jared say that? Because hunter-gatherers have easier, healthier, and more relaxed lives. Most of the handful of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples live in extremely marginal environments. Yet even in the Kalahari Desert the !Kung spend between 12 and 19 hours per week collecting food. The Hazda nomads in East Africa spend 14. They have a two-day work week and can spend the rest of their time as they like. In temperate regions, rich with game and edible plants, the task would have been much easier. Hunter-gatherer diets are more varied and nutritious. So much so, that, based on skeletal evidence, between 14,000 BC and 3000 BC, as farmers superseded hunter-gatherers, average height fell by 6 inches (15cm) and life expectancy dropped by 7 years.

No one knows for sure why, despite the disadvantages, people settled down after so many thousands of years as nomads, but the most convincing hypothesis is “by accident.” The one advantage to farming is productivity: 25 people can live off 25 acres instead of 25,000 acres (or more). Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples are careful about their births since they have to carry everything with them, including small children. Still, such control is never perfect and numbers can grow. If population ticks up enough to overtax a reasonable foraging range (while neighboring tribes limit the option of moving), it makes sense to supplement wild foods with some planted crops. The resultant surplus then allows population to tick up some more. At some point it simply isn’t possible for all the people to live off the natural wildlife. They are dependent on the crops and have become sedentary farmers in spite of themselves. Oops.

As soon as there were full time farmers producing surpluses, there were full time politicians and their goons to take the surpluses away from them; the politicians then enhanced their own power by  re-gifting the food as though it were theirs to soldiers and other retainers. They never have stopped doing that. Toss in some bean-counters who figure out a way to scratch down records of the leaders’ swag, and we have civilization.

Now that I describe it, civilization isn’t sounding like a very good idea either… All the same, lacking the skills to live off the land in NJ (much less the Kalahari), I’ll be happier when my lights are back on.

(PS -- All I’ll say about the election is that I vote third party. To steal and remold a line from a more mainstream partisan, voting for major party candidates just encourages them.)


Steve McQueen in Papillon (1973). Papillon escapes from Devil’s Island and discovers the simple life. Why does he leave here again?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Not My First Troubles from a Sandy


“I need power!” complained a neighbor yesterday. Don’t we all?

She meant electric power specifically which has been out at my house since Monday (October 29) courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It will be out quite a bit longer by the looks of the dangling telephone wires, snapped poles, and trees hung up in electric lines along the surrounding roadways. Some local homes have generators, but these are sputtering to a halt as gasoline runs dry – few area stations have functioning fuel pumps, and those that do have long lines of cars stretching down the road. The power at my office, located on a main route, came back on last night, which offers me some private refuge from the cold and dark. At 946 millibars, Sandy tied the 1938 record for the most severe hurricane on record north of Cape Hatteras. Utility crews have lots of work.

My damage wasn’t severe in the way such things are measured. At the office, one tall pine tree came down in the parking lot, my sign blew down (two 6 x 6 inch posts snapped), and shingles stripped off the roof. At home, one pine hangs precariously over the garage and another one fell across the driveway. Otherwise the trees missed anything important, though fallen ones litter the yard. I've already cut up the trees in the driveway and parking lot.

Hurricanes, like earthquakes and other forces of nature, remind us of historian/philosopher Will Durant’s line: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Oh, we can prepare and fortify, and many of those efforts pay off, especially in more modest events. Sometimes they don’t. I remember an acquaintance in Lower Matecumbe Key in Florida who once had lost his furniture to flooding. So, when a hurricane was forecast he lashed his furniture to the ceiling; there was no flooding but the wind took off the roof. Ultimately, some things are bigger than we are. Sometimes all we can do is pick up the pieces as best we can afterward.

Much the same goes for many man-made disasters. Much as we like to believe that, in social matters at least, every problem must have a solution and that good intentions are all we need to find it, history provides us with no reassurance. Humans are full of their own forces of nature which run amok. Not all of the disasters involve bloodshed, though there are plenty of those types, too. Consider, instead, economic turmoil of the sort documented in This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Princeton economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. This was published soon after the 2008 financial crisis and is still one of the best analyses of that event and others like it. Their conclusion is that these crises are recurrent “equal opportunity” events that occur in all types of economies. One inevitably will happen again despite any measures we put in place, because “a financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics, and profits no matter how well regulated it seems to be.” Ultimately, there simply are limits to the human capacity for self-governance – limits which grow ever more evident as I grow older and more cynical – and sometimes there is little to do but pick up the pieces after our follies lead to smash-ups.

Nothing we do to ourselves, however, can match what Earth can do to us when she gets cranky. Let’s hope her mood is pleasant for a while.

Clip from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Of Wheels and Wails


The streets of Morristown NJ last were crowded with goblins, vampires, and other costumed revelers getting in their hijinks before Hurricane Sandy arrives tomorrow and lingers to dampen Halloween proper. The real mayhem, however, was inside: the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby), Morristown’s newest team, took on the Hartford Wailers in a bout that was rough-and-tumble even by the usual standards of derby. I didn’t attend NJRD’s previous away-game in Hartford (ending in a Hartford win), but was told by one team member that it, too, had been particularly raucous; so, both teams were primed for last night’s rematch.

In its very first match last April against the JSRG (Jersey Shore Roller Girls), the NJRD had shown itself to be spirited but lacking a depth of experienced skaters. That since has been corrected by honing its own talent and also by picking up skaters with experience from other teams (e.g. Maulin Rouge and Naughty Nessa). Even with team captain and key skater Pixie Bust on the sidelines with a knee injury, the NJRD had effective jammers and blockers to spare.

The bout began with #44 Maulin Rouge picking up the first points for Morristown. Maulin continued to be a major asset throughout the bout. A series of lead jammer positions built up a lead for the NJRD early in the first half. #10 Miss USAHole at one point slipped past the lead jammer to pick up 4 points for Morristown. Nevertheless, Hartford, through fierce blocking restrained the NJRD score while their own jammers (notably Diesel N’Gin and Monkey Brains) consistently won points of their own. Aided by well-timed power jams Hartford briefly nudged one point ahead. The first half ended with a negligible 96/95 lead for Morristown.

The pre-game and halftime band from The School of Rock was particularly good, and the Halloween costume contest was pleasant fun.

Usually, the intensity picks up in the second half, but in this case there was not more it could increase. In both halves, hits by both sides were as hard and aggressive as in any bout I’ve seen. All the skaters (special note to #12 Gunz, Miss USAHole, and Bloody Shannonigans) deserve credit for getting back on their skates after being taken down hard, and sometimes till go on to score points in the jam. Blockers piled up on several occasions. Effective blocking by both sides prevented a series of alternating power jams from delivering a commanding lead to either team. However, Morristown blocking kept Hartford from taking full advantage of few timely power jams, and the NJRD built up a point lead. The whistle blew with a final score of 237/195, win for NJRD.

It was a bruising and exciting bout. Perhaps on the next rematch, I’ll make the trek to Hartford.

(Note: for derby terminology and rules, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T8izdlc-dY )




Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Seeds of Doom

The Blockbuster channel all this month is running films that portend the end of civilization as we know it, e.g. The Terminator, Disturbing Behavior, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. The theme is appropriate not only for Halloween but for all of 2012. After all, only 57 days remain in the 5125.36 year Mayan Long Count Calendar, which some folks interpret to mean the world will end this December 21. (Why the ancient Mayans would have been privy to this information is not entirely clear.) Most of us treat this prediction with amusement, yet the fact is that civilization will end – not on December 21, I’m willing to bet, but sometime. We tend not to think much about this most of the time, just as we tend to avoid thinking about our individual mortality, yet both are equal certainties. The threats to civilization are geological, astronomical, demographical, biological, and geopolitical (war).

Since the end of the Cold War we tend to regard wars as local or regional catastrophes. Yet, arguably, the ongoing spread of NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) weapons is more dangerous than the old bipolar East/West standoff ever was. If we nonetheless manage to escape civilization-shattering war, we may fall victim to civilization-shattering love, which is to say we may overbreed. The global population is currently 7 billion, up from 2.6 billion when I was born. Can earth really support the 10 billion people projected for midcentury (assuming a continuing decline in birth rates)? What about 14 billion by century’s end? Even if we somehow contrive to feed ourselves, the planet has other tricks up its sleeve. The human race was nearly extinguished 70,000 years ago when the Toba supervolcano coated much of Asia and Africa in ash. Earth is spotted with other dormant supervolcanoes including, famously, Yellowstone; they will wake up sooner or later. A truly nasty bug that outraces our ability to counter it remains a possibility today. Then there is climate. On at least four previous occasions glacial ice extended to where I currently am sitting and typing; whatever global warming may do in the short run, in the longer run the ice will return again. Never mind the long-term fate of the sun, since that literally will end the world, not just civilization.

So, as unlikely as it seems, we live in a kind of Golden Age. Survivors of the Collapse will tell tales of us and set fantasy stories in our time.

The Collapse is coming. The threats are too multifarious and inexorable to escape. When will it happen?  Probably not on December 21. Probably not in our lifetimes. Maybe not for centuries. Maybe not for millennia. Yet, it will happen, and it could be sooner rather than later.

There are more than a few survivalists who take the threats seriously enough to build doomsday bunkers and post-apocalypse survival kits. Doomsday preppers form something of a subculture. They include some surprising people, such as Morgan Stanley hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, who, in his book Wealth, War and Wisdom warns to “assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure” and adds that “your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food.” Well, someone who earns a living selling hedge investments might be primed to think defensively. I don’t know what kind of bunker Barton has built for himself, but some bunkers are truly impressive.

In the Svalbard Archipelago (aka Spitzbergen) in the Arctic is a particularly remarkable doomsday bunker. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built by the government of Norway but its operations are largely funded by private donors. The vault was built to house seeds, not people. Since 2008, hundreds of thousands of crop seed varieties have been stored there at -18 degrees C. Even in the event of total power failure the internal vault temperatures would remain below freezing for centuries, thereby preserving the seeds for the future. The vault is buried deep in a mountainside well above any possible rise in sea levels. It can survive a missile strike. In the short run, the vault helps preserve seed diversity, but the elaborate safeguards are designed with an eventual global catastrophe in mind. Should civilization collapse, future farmers will not have to restart agriculture from scratch. They can reseed from the vault. Of course, not only will they have to know about the vault, they will have to go to Svalbard and force their way through a series of steel doors and airlocks to get at the seeds, all of which suggests knowledge and abilities beyond those of primitive farmers.


The vault receives funding from the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto Corporation, the Syngenta Foundation, and many others. The money from these private sources alarms some people with a certain conspiratorial mindset. “Do the superrich they know something we don’t?” the alarmists ask. Probably not. More likely, the donors know exactly what we do, and that is reason enough.


Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. 
--Robert Frost

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault



A Boy and His Dog (1975 post-apocalyptic film)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Brigade Maneuvers


The Jerzey Derby Brigade was back in Morristown last night with an intraleague bout. The two teams of the Jerzey Derby Brigade women’s roller derby league are the Corporal Punishers and the Major Pains. Last night, however, in a Halloween themed event, two ad hoc teams were formed from the league membership (plus a little help from PA): LMFAO and Dark & Dangerous. Despite some mixing and matching, LMFAO was still, more or less, the Punishers while Dark & Dangerous was still, more or less, the Pains. They wore special uniforms for the occasion. Dark & Dangerous had the better ones: black with a death’s head vs. LMFAO’s pink.

It was clear the Jerzey Derby was using the intraleague bout as an opportunity to hone skills for interleague bouts and also to give some newcomers to the teams track experience. The teams employed the one knee start method was tested more than the usual number of times. This start method releases the jammers, thereby preventing an opposing team from burning up time by slowing down the start of a jam, as it might choose to do if a key player is in the penalty box for a one minute penalty. (For anyone unfamiliar with derby terms and scoring, see this instructional video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T8izdlc-dY .) For all that, the evening was not simply a practice session. It was a full-fought rough-and-tumble bout, as #91 Pussycat Mauls can attest after she was injured on the track. (She got up and left on her own wheels).

In the past two years, the Jerzey Derby Brigade teams significantly have improved their defensive blocking, which was once (no pun intended) hit and miss. The importance of this showed last night when LMFAO jumped into an early lead and maintained it through the first half, despite the two best jammers on the track last night skating for Dark & Dangerous: #57 Heinz Catchup and #9 Baked Beanz,. Both Heinz and Beanz are very fast in the open and both expertly can exploit holes in opposing defenses, but both were slowed by LMFAO blockers, especially the formidable combination of Doom Hilda and Bruta Lee, and so their point totals were kept in some check. Dark and Dangerous blocking (special mention to Easthell Getty and Ginger-Ail) also was strong, but the edge went to LMFAO.  LMFAO fielded several good jammers. Particularly impressive was newcomer Hits Spaniola; I expect to see more of her in upcoming bouts. Voldeloxx and Californicate had a good night jamming for LMFAO (Californicate took some serious hits in the process), and Stevie NixHer (guest skater from Wilkes-Barre) also had a very strong performance.

The first half ended 82/49 favoring LMFAO. At halftime, prizes were awarded for both children’s and adult Halloween costumes.

The second half, as usual increased in intensity as the lead team struggled to defend its lead while the trailing one struggled to close the gap. Dark & Dangerous succeeded in reducing the spread, frequently employing what the announcer called “hit it and quit it” – which is to say calling off a jam immediately after scoring points in order to make best use of the clock. It wasn’t quite enough. LMFAO prevailed 139/110.

JDB delivered another fun night, and is well prepped for the next interleague bout on November 3.

On October 27 the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby), Morristown's other derby league, comes home to skate. I’ll be there too.





Thursday, October 18, 2012

Faltered States


A few evenings ago I watched a DVD in the company of two college sophomores (a young guy and gal). The film was Wes Craven’s Cursed, a modestly parodic werewolf movie starring Christina Ricci – at least I think Wes intended parody. Maybe he didn’t. Regardless, more interesting to me than the movie was the way the sophomores watched it. At the same time the DVD was playing, they ran computer games on their laptops while sending and receiving texts (and accessing the internet) on their cell phones.  How much attention they paid to each electronic medium I couldn’t say. (One thing that they didn’t do very much was talk to each other.)

This is the new commonplace. I see similarly distributed attention in all sorts of settings. (I don’t pretend to be a good multitasker myself.) Is this immersion in communications media an expansion of human consciousness of the kind once sought by 50s/60s gurus, or a dilution of it by multiple distractions? I don’t know, but I’m inclined toward the latter. Quaint as they seem today, the mind-expansion gurus were a fascinating bunch, and many of their ideas involved eliminating distractions in order to raise one’s awareness of the moment. Some of their methods involved mind-altering drugs. Among those with legitimate scientific and academic credentials, Dr. Timothy Leary is the best remembered experimenter with psychedelics, but he was far from alone. Psychedelic drugs didn’t enhance anyone’s ability to perform everyday chores and calculations. Quite on the contrary. While trippers perceive the objects and people around them in a new way (sometimes seeing things that aren’t even there), they don’t do so in a manner compatible with multitasking. The frequently experienced one-with-the-universe sensation cannot survive answering a text message while navigating a first-person-shooter video game. But while the gurus are most notorious for their drug experimentations, they also tried non-pharmaceutical techniques such as meditation. One of the most radical non-pharmaceutical methods of eliminating distraction as a gateway to higher consciousness (one that I’ve never tried, but might yet) was the sensory deprivation tank.

The sensory deprivation tank was the brainchild of neuro-psychiatrist John C. Lilly. In the early 1950s the prevailing view was that consciousness was intimately connected with environmental stimuli; deprived of any stimuli, a person would fall asleep. Lilly wasn’t so sure. He constructed his first tank in 1954 to test the idea. In a soundless dark chamber a person would float on salt water at body temperature; to the extent possible, all physical sensations, including gravity, were eliminated. Sessions lasted from one to several hours. Few people who tried it slept. Their experiences ranged from complete relaxation to rampant thoughts to hallucinations. Typically floaters lost a sense of time, and were unable to judge how long they were inside. Lilly thought the tank sessions enhanced consciousness and creativity; he tried combining deprivation sessions with LSD, which was legal prior to 1964, with results that were often interesting and sometimes alarming. Other researchers copied his tanks and tweaked the design. Private businesses began to rent time in them to the general public, and these commercial sensory deprivation tanks became something of a minor fad in the 1960s.

The tanks fell out of fashion (like so much else of 60s culture) by the mid-70s. In recent years, however, they have made a comeback. Nowadays they are more commonly called isolation tanks or float tanks, and a fair number of commercial spas offer them as relaxation therapy. The supposed benefits, along with altered consciousness, include pain reduction (sessions do seem to promote endorphin release), stress reduction, and lowered blood pressure. Joe Rogan, the host of Fear Factor, is a big fan of them, telling The Atlantic writer Kyle Dowling, "I think it's one of the most incredible pieces of equipment for self-help and introspective thought that you could ever find." The benefits arise from not multitasking during the sessions – or even tasking.

I think modern communications and electronics are wonderful. It would be silly to feel otherwise while blogging on the internet. Distractions have their value. However, there is something to be said for cutting them off now and then. For anyone who feels the attraction of the iPhone too strongly to achieve this through simple meditation in a dark room, sessions in an isolation tank might be a solution. Close the chamber door, float, and let time vanish. Alone with ourselves, we can meet our own thoughts. It used to be called mind expansion. Perhaps it is.


A Particularly Swank Sensory Deprivation Tank



Altered States (1980): In sensory deprivation experiments, William Hurt alters his consciousness (and gets a helping hand back). I wouldn’t count on experiencing anything as colorful as this.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Tea and Chimpanzee

Earlier this year I missed seeing in the theater the huge hit film The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ YA novels, but it turned up on satellite a few nights ago. It was more enjoyable than I expected. The movie depicts a dystopian future in which a ruling elite in the Capitol demands as tribute two young people from each of 12 formerly rebellious outer districts to compete in Hunger Games as entertainment. (This harkens back to the mythic tribute of Athenian youths and maidens demanded by King Minos of Crete to face the minotaur.) In a contest called the Hunger Games, the tributes go out into the wild and hunt each other until only one survives. The winner is celebrated and feted. The sport is followed by everyone in the districts. The denizens of the 12 districts, by rooting for their own local contestants, become invested and implicated in the games and in the society.

Humans-hunting-humans is an entire genre of film, even if we leave out war movies, detective movies, and fugitive movies (even scifi as Logan’s Run) in which the sporting element in them is obscured. In all those cases the public interest is the nominal motive (even if misguided) for the violence of the characters. As Maxwell Smart says to Agent 99 in an old Get Smart episode, “We have to shoot, kill, and destroy: we represent all that’s wholesome and good in the world.” Just the films in which the gamesmanship is overt are numerous enough. A few examples:

The Most Dangerous Game (1932): This is the granddaddy of the genre. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray survive a shipwreck only to be set loose in the jungle on the private island of the immoralist big game hunter Count Zaroff who hunts them for sport. This film has been aped and parodied many times – even on an episode of the The Simpsons. The original is still the one to see.

The 10th Victim (1965) is a Franco-Italian, based on the short story by scifi author Robert Sheckley. Contestants – all volunteers – compete in the Hunt for prizes, sponsorship deals, fame, and fortune. There are ten rounds for each contestant, five as hunter and five as hunted (“victim”); the victim doesn’t know who his or her assigned hunter is. You win by killing all your opponents in all ten rounds. The Hunt is the most popularly followed sport in the world, and has the advantage of eliminating from society its most violent members. Despite undeniable campiness and some nice location shots (including the Coliseum) in Rome, this is a silly movie. Stick with Sheckley, whose writing is clever and funny.

Death Race 2000. What can one say about this cult film from 1975? On a cross-country race, drivers (David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone among them) in pimped-out sports cars score points by killing pedestrians.

Running Man (1987). In a movie made well before “reality TV” became a staple of programming, Richard Dawson hosts a near-future game show in which convicted criminals are released into a linear arena to run for their lives. They are chased by “stalkers” who have themes and nicknames like those of wrestlers. One called Fireball uses a flamethrower, another called Buzzkill uses a chain saw, and so on. If a criminal survives, he or she wins release. The (wrongly) convicted criminal this time is Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know the rest: bad news for stalkers and bad puns for us.

Death Race (2008). In a reimagining of Death Race 2000, drivers battle each other to the death in order to win pardons for their crimes. Once again, it is a televised sport.

These are just a sampling. The persistent popularity of books and movies with the theme suggests that they connect with something deep in the human psyche. Humans are not alone in this. The days are long gone when primatologists entertained the pleasant image of chimpanzees, our close relatives, as peaceful vegetarians. Today we know that meat is a significant part of their diet in the wild (monkeys are a favorite), and that chimpanzees hunt chimps from neighboring tribes in a way that looks a lot like sport. In the BBC film clip below, chimps raid a neighboring territory where they catch, kill, and eat another chimp. They seem to enjoy it.

Humans have the choice of rising above our natures. Most of us get along well enough with our neighbors – we don’t usually cannibalize them anyway. But we probably can succeed better at being a kinder gentler ape if we acknowledge the part of ourselves that isn’t. Denying our nature just makes it crop up surreptitiously, such as in ideologies that categorize appalling violence as justice. It is better to indulge our chimp-like qualities in a game of Halo or by watching violent movies such as The Hunger Games, while we enjoy tea with the neighbors.


Chimp hunger games  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Caveman Delicacy


A local deli offers a lobster salad sandwich that looked too good to pass up today. So, as much as I like to fight for my lobster meat by assaulting chitinous carapaces, today I merely unwrapped a sandwich.

Our ancestors must have been very hungry to have discovered the sweet taste of lobster, because in truth the ugly critter doesn’t look especially appetizing. Nevertheless, excavations in a cave at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, show that early modern humans were cracking them and other shellfish open 164,000 years ago, tossing the shells aside – the (continuing) human careless way with garbage is a great boon to paleontologists. Neanderthal sites in coastal Europe 110,000 years old also reveal a taste for any and all shellfish.

Much more recently, the ancient Romans liked lobster. A Roman cookbook survives that often is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, but is actually only named after him. Apicius, who lived in the first century AD, was a notorious gourmet; dinner at his house was definitely the invitation to wangle if you could. The anonymous authors of the cookbook describe how to make the meals he served up to guests. The recipe for lobster is as follows:

[399] Locustum Elixam cum Cuminato
Real boiled lobster is cooked with cumin sauce and, by right, throw in some whole [illegible], pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, a little more cumin, honey, vinegar, broth, and if you like, add some bay leaves and malobathron.

That sounds pretty spicy, even without the illegible mystery ingredient, but I suppose you don’t need a written recipe for “boil, crack open, dip in butter.” We don’t know if the Romans did that, too. If so, they didn’t mention it in any surviving manuscript.

Despite this long history on the menu, until modern refrigeration and handling in the 20th century, lobster was a purely coastal dish, because it doesn’t travel well. Without being cooked or frozen, lobster becomes inedible very quickly after it dies, and it dies very easily in transport. Accordingly, while the dish wasn’t found inland for most of history, lobsters were dirt cheap at the shoreline – literally dirt cheap: Native Americans fertilized crops with them.  Early 19th century New England employment contracts for household servants specified that they would be fed the lowly dish lobster no more than twice per week. All that turned around when long-distance transport became possible but expensive – cost always gives panache to a product.

For the past century, lobster has been a delicacy, and, as human populations grow while lobster yields don’t, it only can get more expensive in the future. Because lobsters are cannibals – they eat each other insouciantly – attempts at farming them (aquaculture) haven’t been commercially successful. So, their numbers seem likely to remain limited to about their current level.

Though in general there is little particularly enviable about being a lobster, they do have one intriguing characteristic. As far as we know, lobsters are immortal. Oh, they can and do die – our chefs often see to that – but they don’t senesce.  80-year-old lobsters are as vital, healthy, and fertile as two-year-old ones; they are just larger. Lobsters keep growing for as long as they live. The largest on record was caught off Nova Scotia. It was 106 centimeters (41 inches), 20.15 kilos (44.4 pounds), and more than 100 years old, maybe 200. No doubt there are bigger ones down there. Presumably, disease, parasites, accidents, and top-line predators (sharks, squids) catch up with them eventually, but they don’t age in the usual sense.

As previously mentioned, I enjoy battling with the shell for the meat inside, though this can lead to awkward moments. Take one example. There is a local restaurant called Sammy’s that, true to its secretive origins as a speakeasy, has no sign or any exterior indication it is a restaurant other than the cars parked in the lot. Its specialties are steak and lobster. Some years ago there, my sister squeezed at the base of a lobster claw with the cracker. The claw popped off, sailed across the room, and dropped perfectly into the coat pocket of another diner, who didn’t notice. She spent the rest of the meal trying to decide whether to tell him. (She didn’t.) I’ll leave the various ways this might have played out later with the owner of the coat to the imagination of the reader.

The sandwich is now several hours gone, but the image of Neanderthals enjoying a lobster and clam bake lingers. It is somehow pleasing.

Teenagers from Outer Space Plan to Use the Earth to Grow Giant Lobsters. (Wisely, studio marketers left the big crustacean out of the trailer.)