Sunday, March 30, 2008


I recently read American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It won a Pulitzer, so there's that. Moreover, it is exhaustively researched, often spending substantial effort to unravel ancient questions, or at least to indicate the problematic nature of historical investigations. Often, even the principals involved do not agree on what actually took place, a phenomenon we're all familiar with.

The book is huge, and I'm going to focus on only a tiny sliver of it, but one that has some relevance to current questions and some recent commentary on this here blog.

The history of the creation and evolution of the Cold War is complex, and many people have various "woulda, coulda, shouldas" in their heads about the entire matter, just as many people believe that the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a contingent decision that could have been made in other ways. My own sense of it all has long been that these things were as close to inevitable as anything in human history. Given that nuclear weapons had been created, their use in an ongoing war was a forgone conclusion. There are details that could have been different (and I am hugely grateful that Kyoto was not a target), but the events were inevitable.

There is also some discussion in AP about the theory that the Japanese attacks were really meant as a threat to the Soviet Union, the opening salvo in the Cold War. Certainly there were those who argued for them on that basis, but there are always many players in the game, and I see no reason to believe that this reasoning was decisive. Truman also worked to get the Soviets to enter the war against Japan; it always looked to me like he was simply using everything in his arsenal to end the war.

But after the war, events developed a momentum of their own. The Strategic Air Command, part of the newly formed Air Force and under the direction of Curtis "Strategic Bombing will make Battlefields obsolete" LeMay, worked hard for a nuclear monopoly. It failed because the other services wanted them some nuke macho too.

Then there are the scientists. Let's look at Oppenheimer, Teller, and John von Neumann.

Teller is well-known as the "Father of the Hydrogen Bomb," originally just called The Super. His testimony in Oppenheimer's security clearance hearing resulted in his, Teller's ostracism by many in the scientific community for years afterwards. On the other hand, he had a national lab built for him (Livermore).

Teller's motivations for working on the Super are not as clear cut as one might think. I suspect he just thought it a very cool gadget and rationalized the rest. However, he was Hungarian, and not the most friendly guy towards the Russians, and said so, many times. He wanted the U.S. to have the Super before the Russians got it. And I will give Teller this due: his bombs have never been used in warfare, at least so far.

Von Neumann, another Hungarian, was even more bellicose than Teller. He advocated pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union in order to forestall their ever achieving nuclear weapons. This would also have had the effect of toppling the Soviet government and requiring a U.S. occupation of Russia, which he was also fine with. Von Neumann was also on the Japan nuclear targeting committee and was one of those pushing for nuking Kyoto, a city of practically no military significance.

Finally, there is Oppenheimer, who opposed the Super, and paid dearly for it, eventually losing his connections to the halls of power. But lest we get all teary-eyed, realize that he acceded to the Japanese strikes, albeit with some later breast beating.

Moreover, and this is the interesting part, Oppenheimer argued that, rather than building bigger weapons, such as the Super, which he thought was purely genocidal, the country's stockpile of fissile material should be used to build smaller, tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons. Subsequent thinking has been that such weapons blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, making escalation to full-scale nuclear war easier.

Truly large bombs, the multi-megaton behemoths have largely faded from the scene. Current nuclear arsenals contain mostly sub-megaton weapons, albeit small and MIRVed, and still several multiples of the Hiroshima sized yield. Part of that is the first part of Oppenheimer's logic: there just aren't many uses for huge bombs. Even genocide has its limits.

What I take away from the exercise is this: Oppenheimer, Teller, von Neumann, these were three of the smartest guys on the planet, each committed to "rationality" in his own mind. But each one of them managed to argue himself into a position that seems simply crazy on the face of it, unless nuclear genocide is sane, and those of us who find it horrible are somehow the ones who have lost our minds.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Joe Malik’s Dogs

Illuminatus by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is a monster of a book, published as a trilogy and cut down from an even more gargantuan original manuscript. It is, in fact, much too big an edifice for me to describe here, and I shan’t. I may go at it at bits and pieces some other time.

Robert Anton Wilson, who died in January of last year, is also a complex and complicated subject, a man seriously wired into a particular zeitgeist that is quite recognizable to those interested in it: New Age philosophy, politics, sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, science fiction and several of the attendant pseudo-sciences. Again, too big a subject for the moment.

But Ben and I went to see him once, and that’s a tale to tell.

First off, let me note that I never do this: just show up on the doorstep of some author or celebrity. I mean, it’s rude, no matter how politely you do it. It’s an imposition. It’s all manner of things you shouldn’t do. So I blame Ben. Well, not really, but it sounds better to put it that way.

Wilson, as nearly as I can tell, was used to having things like that happen, although he hadn’t yet the rock star that Illuminatus was going to make him. At the time, only a few months after Illuminatus had been published, he was still living only a few blocks away from U.C. Berkeley, and he was a nexus of one of those intellectual zeitgeist thingees. In fact, he hosted a regular salon, a weekly meeting of Berkeley intellectuals and intellectual wannabes. So Wilson invited Ben and me to the next gathering, which was very kind and gracious of him, see above note about rudeness. He also sold me a copy of Principia Discordia, the photocopied bible of the Discordian Movement, mentioned prominently in Illuminatus. These days, it’s all over the web, but thirty years ago it was pretty rare. I had more than one friend over the years ask for copies of my copy. But, of course, I’d have bought it even if it were crap, again, see the above note about rudeness and consider my wish for atonement.

We did chat with Wilson a bit before we left. We did come back later to his gathering, and that was also much fun, sufficiently so that I became a regular for a while.

Ben and I make a pretty good team. He’s very extroverted, while I’m mildly introverted. He draws people out; I remember what they say. When Ben and I went to Wilson’s gathering we had a fine old time. When we left, Wilson walked us to the door and said, “Loved your act, fellas.” Which is pretty cool.

Then there’s the other thing.

That first conversation often drifted over to things in Illuminatus and I mentioned The Language and Music of the Wolves which is stipulated as one of the central characters, Joe Malik’s favorite records. A while back, in an essay about WRPI, I wrote a little about the grief that said record had caused at the station, owing to its weirdness. It’s a recording of wolf howls in the wild, and not to everyone’s taste, especially not people who wanted their radios to emit music, not wolf howls. But I’d bought a copy (from the bargain bin, of course) and I’d grown to like it a lot, which is why I spoke of it.

“Ah,” said Wilson. “You’ve found Joe Malik’s dogs.”

See, one of the minor mysteries in Illuminatus is “what happened to Joe Malik’s dogs.” His neighbors were always complaining about his dogs, which were against the rules in his apartment building, but no one ever saw them, and, when Malik disappears, the police never find his dogs, either.

Well, of course, there were no dogs, just wolf howls on a record. I hadn’t made the connection, actually, partly because that wasn’t a mystery that I cared about. Or maybe my subconscious had solved the mystery and didn’t bother to tell me. But it did tell Wilson.

I’ve done this more often than you’d think. I once made an innocuous remark to another author that convinced him that I knew of a pseudonym he was writing under, so he proceeded to tell me all about it. I never told him that I had no prior knowledge of the matter, because, well, magicians never explain their tricks, and that’s one of mine.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hot as the Sun

A few weeks ago, digging around in a storage box that had mysteriously surfaced, I found one of my old notebooks, and when I say old, I mean old, dating back to high school. Amid the random detritus, (and no, I'm not going to get very specific; the lad that was I deserves some privacy of his flailings) there appears a sketch of a parabolic trough, with a heat absorbing pipe at the focus, and little explanatory notes about "salt water" in the pipe, etc.

At the time, I was interested in desalinization, thus the salt water part. I don't know if I swiped the parabolic trough idea from somewhere, or if I came up with it on my own. If it was the latter, I'll note that it's both a fairly obvious idea, but also pretty clever for a teenager.

Photovoltaic cells and panels get the really sexy press, and I'm cool with that, because direct light-to-electricity is very sexy. We're getting very close to the point where photovoltaics are competitive with other methods of electric power generation, and I've already mentioned that covering a hybrid automobile with them could reduce average fuel consumption by as much as 25%. The "pluggable hybrid" is clearly the technological path of least resistance, albeit one that has a lot of political resistance because of its very virtues. I'm not sure how U.S. automakers became captive to the oil industry, but the evidence for it is pretty stark.

Still, photovoltaics are not yet competitive with oil/gas/coal generated electricity. Wind power essentially is competitive, but there is the old tradeoff between capital costs and operating costs (including fuel costs, which are basically zero for wind and solar). More on that in a bit.

It so happens, however, that the use of mirror-concentrated solar energy to generate electricity from standard steam-type turbines is competitive with fossil fuel generated power. Moreover, this isn't some back-of-the-envelope or even "demonstration plant" calculation. This is based on solar thermal electricity (STE) plants that have been generating power for decades. There is a 354-MW Solar Energy Generating Station (SEGS) in California’s Mojave Desert, which is still the world’s largest solar power plant, and it's been around for over 20 years. It uses parabolic troughs that focus heat onto tubes containing synthetic oil, which is then used to superheat steam for turbines.

The Nevada Solar One plant, for example, went on-line in June, 2007 near Boulder City, Nevada, covering a 350-acre site with 760 parabolic concentrators. Solar One is a 64-W plant, built and owned by Solargenix Energy, a subsidiary of Spain’s Acciona Group, will sell electricity to Nevada Power Company and Sierra Pacific Power Company under a 20-year power purchase agreement. It has enough thermal storage power such that it's expected to be able to meet 98% of it's baseload requirements, meaning that it will use gas turbines for backup for only about 2% of its power generating needs. The SEGS plant needs backup power for as much as 25% of its operation.

Notice the origin of the Solar One plant, however: Spain. Spain is currently the World Leader in STE, despite being at the same latitude as New England. But Europe has made high level policy commitments to renewable power generation, while the U.S. has made high level policy commitments to using military power to "secure" oil resources, and denying that atmospheric CO2 buildup has climate change implications.

Hi Ho.

Another method of STE collection is the "solar tower" design, which puts a bunch of mirrors that focus the light onto a tower containing a molten salt. The large thermal inertia of such a system also allows near continuous power generation.

Nationally, the best places for "harvesting" solar thermal power (and solar power generally) are in the Southwestern states, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. California would be doing a better job of it were it not for the fact that the California State budget requires a 2/3 supermajority to pass each year, and so is perennially hostage to the California Republican Party, as deranged a crew as I have ever encountered. The CRP is basically for tax cuts and prisons, as nearly as I can tell. I'd quit the Party if I thought it would do any good, but all I'd get for my trouble would be that I wouldn't get their campaign literature any more, and really, someone needs to keep track of these folks.

Anyway, to return to the meat of the matter, the pure economic case for STE, as well as wind power, photovoltaics, and even nuclear power, is complicated by two factors. One is that "deregulation" of the power industry over the past several decades has put its organization and management into such turmoil that no one in authority is willing to take any chances on things like trying new power plant designs and such. All the risk-taking is centered on finance, trading, and how much those at the top can slip into their own pockets without being sent to jail.

The second complication is that the price of fuel over the past several decades has fluctuated wildly, as has the cost of investment capital. All of the renewables (plus nuclear) substitute high initial capital expenditures for lower operating costs, low to zero fuel costs. On the other hand, fossil fuels (and nuclear power) have fairly high "externalities," which is econospeak for "getting someone else to pay part of the price." In the case of fossil fuels, the externalities are such things as local pollution, global climate change, and foreign wars.

In the grand scheme of things, "capital investment" can be used to build things that actually create more goods and services, or it can be used to build things that siphon money from one set of pockets to another. A road, or example, provides a service, while a toll booth on the road pulls money from the pockets of motorists. My own dark suspicion about the current state of the U.S. economy is that it is concentrating on building toll booths rather than new roads.

Spending money on such things as STE power plants could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources, reduce the environmental damage of mining to land and water (at some cost to desert ecosystems, I'll stipulate that). It could, in short, create useful capital rather than mere "transfer payment" capital.

Which, again, may be one of the reasons why some people are against such things.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Preacher

"Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." – Malcolm X, on the assassination of John Kennedy

"I meant that the death of Kennedy was the result of a long line of violent acts, the culmination of hate and suspicion and doubt in this country. You see, Lomax, this country has allowed white people to kill and brutalize those they don't like. The assassination of Kennedy is a result of that way of life and thinking. The chickens came home to roost; that's all there is to it. America—at the death of the President—just reaped what it had been sowing." –Malcolm X, in an interview with Louis Lomax, explaining his earlier remark.

"I was in school in Arkansas when Kennedy was assassinated. When the teacher announced the assassination to the class, practically the entire class stood up and cheered. They stood up and cheered." – a college friend of mine (who is white).

"Store closed due to assassination of nigger-loving President. (Will reopen at 2)" – from newsreel footage seen in recent ESPN documentary "Black Magic" about professional basketball players from historically black colleges.

Could a novelist have come up with a better name than Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

I've been thinking that I should write something about "The Speech," Barack Obama's speech on race and racism in the U.S., given in response to the furor over statements made by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It was a speech that had some heft to it, and one that took some courage to make, when he could have said the platitudes, had a "Sister Soulja" moment, and maybe slid by that way. It took away some of my concern that Obama was a lightweight, running as a blank slate upon whom people could project their hopes and dreamy wishes that things could be better without effort, without confrontation, without recognizing that the past produces the future.

But it is Wright that draws attention, does he not? That is what a spiritual leader should do, after all. Wright does not say, as some/many on the Religious Right have said, that God smites us with supernatural intervention, sending hurricanes to lay waste to the modern day Sodom of New Orleans, or visiting a plague upon homosexuals for their sins, though Wright apparently does speak of HIV as a government plot, which is merely incorrect. But then people do tend to grant too much imagined power to those they perceive as enemies.

Wright vents an anger that many have felt, an anger that is hardly confined to the black community. Indeed, the anger is nigh unto universal, it's only the object of the anger that varies from place to place and person to person. The Republican Revolution has been attributed to the "angry white male," but that anger is supposedly not directed at "America," merely certain Americans, certain American laws and freedoms, specific American government officials and programs, plus assorted foreigners, ethnic groups, and, as nearly as I can tell various trees, other flora, and wildlife.

It's also been directed at me from time to time, but big deal. I'm better able to take care of myself than most, and I'm a white male myself. And, I do have my own angers.

So perhaps Wright is one of those "blame America first" people we hear so much about, though he has worn the uniforms of both the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy. It doesn't really sound like the "blame America" part was really topmost on his life agenda, nor the first thing that occurred to him.

I have a friend in Tennessee who has actually changed congregations over political and moral disagreements with a pastor or the congregation. My friend's support of Barack Obama has been tarnished, and may be withdrawn over this incident, to my dismay.

I said to my friend, "You're a Christian. If you find Pastor Wright's statements to be offensive, try forgiving him first. That is what Christians do, after all. And forgive Obama for perhaps thinking that this was a point of view he needed to hear, regardless of his own personal opinions.

I don't know how much good my suggestion did. In truth, it's harder to make an argument that one does not support with one's own mind. And I am not a Christian, nor do I think that Wright said anything that needs forgiveness.

But see for yourself.

Remember, whatever happens should not be a surprise. The entire nation is built upon an Indian burial ground. -- overheard on the street

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Breakup Songs

A few days ago, my local paper ran an entertainment section feature on "Breakup Songs." It also included a "send us your ideas for the best breakup song" thing (the best suggestion was "Heartbreak Hotel"), and, while I don't do that, I do have this here blog and I can hook onto YouTube as well as anybody.

The only really good breakup song in the original article came from noting that Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" isn't a very good breakup song, but "Graceland" is. Moreover, that gives me an excuse to indulge my fancy for world music:

Elvis Costello has some truly fine venom in a lot of songs, but he's sorely underrepresented on YouTube. Here's an EC tribute band doing "One of These Days" and then, the real long ball, "I'm Not Angry (Anymore):"

Another one that I'd like to include was "Dim" by Dada, but the versions by Dada itself on YouTube are all from live shows, and the sound sucks. But someone did do an amateur vid using the album version of the song, which really digs into the heart of the breakup beast:

No one told me the trouble I was in
before my life went dim.

But my real find was when I was checking on songs from the Low Millions album "Ex-Girlfriends," which has some fine, fine breakup songs (and one non-breakup song "Nikki Don't Stop" that is hot enough to melt your headphones, so there are no videos of that one). The one that caught my attention, well, the why of it should be obvious. Here is "100 Blouses," illustrating the relationship between Mal and Inara (Firefly, Serenity). Very, very well done.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Capital vs. Money

I've just put Mark Thoma's Economist's View blog on my blogroll, which is long overdue, as I've linked to discussions there with some frequency. One interesting thing is that someone recently referred to the people there as “left wing”, despite the fact that a goodly number of them, including me, would have been called "conservative" before The Movement took over. I continute to comment on “right wing” folks, as so many of them are lost in libertarian utopianism, or else they feel constrained to follow some sort of party line, presumably because that’s who pays the bills. In matters of this nature, it's important to remember the quote from Upton Sinclair:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it."

There's just been a little comment thread on Economist's View about the opacity of the econojargon use of the word "utility." I've also already quibbled with the economics jargon inherent in the phrase "rent-seeking behavior," and what I'm about to say is another part of the general critique of how words are used, or mis-used in economics.

Generally speaking, I find that economists don’t often distinguish between money and capital. For example, they write about flows of international capital, when they’re actually talking about money flowing from one country to the other. Sometimes this makes it hard to get at the actual real economics of a situation. For example, it is often said that the U.S. is importing a huge amount of capital from China. On the other hand, a financial instrument is also often called “capital.” Since what is actually happening is that the U.S. is importing a lot of consumer goods from China (though China is actually adding only marginally to their value, having itself imported most of the goods, with only the final assembly being done by Chinese labor), and paying for those consumer goods with U.S. Treasury bonds. Now consumer goods are rarely called “capital” while bonds often are, so it looks like the “capital flow” is going the other way. But actually, neither part of the flow looks much like what is often called “capital,” i.e. something used to assist in the production of other goods and services.

Then there is the matter of “transfer payments.” This is a phrase that seems to have been invented to describe certain sorts of governmental payments, ostensibly those without a corresponding exchange of goods and services. Often, Social Security or Veteran’s benefits are named as an example. Huh? Both of those, in fact, require an earlier service (paying Social Security taxes or serving in the military). On the other hand, paying interest on the Federal debt is not considered a transfer payment, despite the fact that on a cash flow basis, it removes money from taxpayers, and transfers it to bond holders. One can argue that there was a previous exchange for the bond, but that argument isn’t used for Social Security, is it?

If you look at the details, there is a pretty clear distinction that can be made between a sort of “capital investment” that pays returns by actually increasing the amount of wealth in the world (a factory, an apartment building, a road, someone’s education), and one that merely gives someone the right to a future transfer of money. Moreover, you’d think that libertarians would be sensitive to the notion that some of those monetary transfers absolutely require governmental power and some do not. A government bond is intrinsically based on the taxing power of government, for example, while a secured personal loan does not. (Obviously some loans require government as an enforcer of contracts, but that’s usually considered kosher in libertarian circles, and besides, something like pawning your watch doesn’t even need that).

Now it so happens that most intellectual property requires a pretty agressive government policy. IP is basically a government-mandated monopoly, and a the enforcement of IP can get pretty obtrusive, such as raiding warehouses, issuing subpoenas to third parties, etc. It’s not something we’d put up with without a pretty hefty social return (the idea is to pay for the effort of creating IP in the first place, yes?), but a lot of people seem to view copyrights especially as some sort of “natural” property, and some of those argue for copyright in perpetuity. This is not the sort of mistake that Ayn Rand would make (and indeed, she did not).

There are some very good reasons for wanting to have a lot of “store of value” items around in an economy. Personal savings are a good thing, and I do not want to be poor in my old age. I also think it’s a decent thing to have a certain amount of personal, family wealth passed down from generation to generation. Still, having such things is an invitation for the “accumulation of great wealth,” and I don’t think that the existence of truly massive multi-generational fortunes has much to recommend it. The history of it doesn’t look that good, frankly, and I’m included the effects on its supposed “beneficiaries.”

In other words, I’d like to see some more attempts by economists to separate “productive” investment from “transfer payments.” Currently, I don’t see much effort being made to even make the distinction. I understand that it’s a hard problem, but that’s no excuse for pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

More Medusas

Here is this week's supply of "Snakes on a Dame." They are from a U.K. photographer named Ken Smith, and, as you can see, I'm hyperlinking to his page every way I can think of. These folks deserve recognition, after all.

I've sometimes wondered about that "Medusa turning men to stone" thing. It might be a metaphor, ya think?

Rainmaker on the Flood Plain

Sometimes he's hitching a ride in a freezer or appears as a mist
He's also been known to introduce himself as a scientist
He could be the retarded son of an old woman with
Seven fingers on each hand
'cos I know I reckon, he will come when he's beckoned for

Rainmaker's coming
Rainmaker's coming
Rainmaker's coming to soak us with water
To soak us with water
--Rainmaker, Sparklehorse

Rainmakers were big after the Civil War. The “Great American Desert,” east of the Rockies was renamed the “Great Plains” and the states of Kansas, Okalahoma, Nebraska, etc. were filling rapidly. The slogan “rain follows the plow” seems to have originated amongst climatologists, but it was rapidly employed by the railroads, who owned vast tracts of land on the Plains and who also stood to benefit from any trade generated by farm communities that were established.

Of course rains doesn’t follow the plow, and the Plains region is subject to periodic droughts. Eventually farmers tapped into the Ogallala Aquifer, and that’ll do them for another few decades, until a geological age’s worth of water is used up. Then we’ll be back to the situation those first farmers found themselves in, though presumably with a lot more tech.

The late 19th Century rainmakers tended to use cannons a lot. That fed into the lingering belief that cannons caused rain; it certainly must have seemed like that to Union soldiers who’d never seen Deep South weather before. And if the rainmaker got lucky, some rain did come during his brief tenure in whatever small town had hired him. Then he looked like a hero, or maybe even a god.

But I started this dance and a storm kicked up
The sky went black from coast to coast
It was too late to stop - it was too late to pray
I had summoned down the Holy Ghost
Oh the searing wind and the clouds of dust
And hell came raining down
What came out of me and the powers that be
Was the last of that one horse town
--Rainmaker, Kansas

There were, of course, stories of rainmakers who’d been too successful, and sometimes floods do occur out on the Great Plains. But the term “Rainmaker” has come to mean the Guy With the Mojo, the one who brings business into the consultancy, the law firm, or the accountancy. In other words, the guy who does the Marketing.

The story goes that Orville Redenbacher’s first attempts to sell his new hybrid popcorn were not successful. It was called RedBow, after Redenbacher and his partner, Charlie Bowman, and it was more expensive than regular popcorn. An advertising/marketing consulting firm suggested that Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popcorn was a much better name, and the rest is history.

Redenbacher supposedly once said, “My mother gave me the name 50 years ago, and she didn’t charge me $13,000 for it.” Yeah, but neither did she give him the wit to use it, either, though he apparently knew a good idea when he heard it. Or maybe Charlie Bowman did.

Rainmaker, rainmaker
The sky is gray just by the touch of your hand
Rainmaker, rainmaker
Make me some rain, make all my crops grow tall
--Rainmaker, Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

It does occur to me to wonder, though, what good is a rainmaker without farmers and a drought? In California, an unseasonable rain can ruin some crops. A rainmaker in the upper Amazon is just silly, worse than useless really.

There is that tendency to focus on the Star and not the surrounding planetary nebula. Well, sure, the Star is singular and there are so many lesser bodies surrounding it. But what happens if the town has two or three rainmakers? How about a dozen? At some point you hit diminishing returns. At some later point, it becomes actively dangerous.

When we listen to the Rainmaker story
Then we listen to a song that never ends
When we listen to the Rainmaker story
We're in the end only points on a scale for the Rainmaker
--Rainmaker, Vanden Plas, (Lill/Kuntz)

There’s a river named Stones River that runs near Donelson, where I grew up. Farther upstream, near Murfreesboro, it was site to one of the great battles of the Civil War (though I sometimes wonder if there were any minor battles to that war, at least to hear the locals hear about it). Between Stones River National Battlefield and Donelson sits Percy Priest Lake, created by Percy Priest Dam. The dam was one of the last hurrahs of the Army Corps of Engineers and the TVA, with an awful lot of the “benefit” in the cost/benefit ratio being “recreation.” Well, I do know guys who take their boats out on it a lot.

The flood plain for Stones River in Donelson is very obvious when you’re driving out Lebanon Rd. (Pike on the maps, but we always said “road”) toward Hermitage. A few years after the dam went up, construction began on a lot of houses, condos, and a country club in the flood plain. I imagine it’s safe enough; modern dams rarely break or overflow. Right?

I wonder what it's like to be the Rainmaker
I wonder what it's like to know that I make the rain
I'd store it in boxes with little yellow tags on everyone
And you can come see them when I'm... done, when I'm done
--Rainmaker, Matchbox 20

As I said, these days the Rainmaker is the marketing guy, or the star with the reputation that brings in the business. I’ve seen that up close and personal in the consulting biz, and it’s rarely the Rainmaker who winds up doing the work. Usually, that falls to the new-kids-just-out-of-school, because they’re cheap, so you load the contract up with their hours in order to be low bid. So the Rainmaker turns into just the Front, the public face of the firm, while the twenty and early thirty-somethings put in the all-nighters. Sometimes it works, and you get some real talent just out of school. Sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, because the study is going to get buried anyway. Sometimes the study is meant to fail; and boy, do they get pissed if it comes out with some real results.

More generally, what does it say about an economy that depends on marketing, the way agriculture depends on rain? I never believed John Kenneth Galbraith when he claimed that “demand” in the American economy was mostly artifice, with advertising and marketing being able to create consumption where none would naturally exist. I mean, you know, New Coke.

But a few examples of spectacular failures don’t invalidate the hypothesis as such. When all the social pressures are to live in the right place, drive an impressive vehicle, give the gifts, buy the toys, chase after that inevitable brass ring, it’s worth re-examining the question every now and then. It’s always worth wondering when the aquifer is going to run dry.

Me, I seem to have a talent for cool titles; whether or not what follows lives up to the advance billing is always in doubt.

You tell me we can start the rain. You tell me that we all can change
You tell me we can find something to wash the tears away. You tell me we can start the rain
You tell me that we all can change. You tell me we can find something to wash the tears.
--Rainmaker, Iron Maiden

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day Labor

The summer after my freshman year in college, I could not return to my former job of lifeguard, because those jobs are lined up well in advance of summer and I was a thousand miles away at school, making job hunting in Nashville somewhat impractical. When I got back to Nashville, I began a job search, and good luck at finding a good summer job when you begin the second week in June.

I first had a brief, abortive attempt at working the graveyard shift in a supermarket, restocking shelves, during which time I learned something about the music of Jimmy Rogers, because that was what was on the station the store PA system radio was tuned to. I also learned to not use the box cutter on the sugar bags. Then I was laid off to make room for some friend of the family of the night manager.

After that, I tried earning some money via day labor, through Manpower Incorporated one of the first temp job agencies. Again, minimum wage, and sometimes the jobs lasted no more than a single day.

The best job I had during that time was driving the office mail run for Genesco. In the days before email and such, all interoffice communication was through those weird little brown envelopes with the holes in them that were closed by the red strings wrapped around the other red thing that I've never learned the name of. Genesco had a downtown office and one out on Murfreesboro Road, and maybe another drop spot, my memory fails a bit here. The job consisted of driving around one big circuit, dropping off a packet of interoffice mail and picking one up, no interaction with other people, except the occasional smiling receptionist, and listening to the radio as I threaded through the traffic.

I'd have loved to have had that job for the whole summer, but I expect I was just a vacation fill-in for the regular guy, whose family knew the manager or something. Not that I'm still bitter about Tennessee hiring practices from 40 years ago or anything.

Far and away the worst job I had during the Manpower summer was the one that involved unloading the logs from the box car. That was a one-day special, thank god. The logs were destined to become railway ties, if memory serves, and they were cedar, or so I think we were told. You couldn't have proved it by me, since wherever they'd been harvested had been wet, muddy, and now the dirt was caked on them to considerable depth, black and powdery, perfect for rubbing into the skin, hair, or dispersing into the air inside the boxcars, like black smoke.

Outside it was a typical Tennessee summer day, maybe in the mid-80s. Inside the box car it was considerably hotter, approaching sauna temperature. Our sweat mixed with the black powder dirt and covered us with salty mud in the first few minutes of the job. There was water to be had, and we used it liberally, both to drink and then to just pour over ourselves, washing some of the mud off, to be replaced almost immediately, by more mud. Not to get too gross, but we were spitting mud by midmorning, and blowing your nose produced black discharge.

But what the hell, it was only one day.

The day had begun with a ride out to the site with three other guys, all older than me by a fair bit. The driver was maybe in his mid-thirties with a sort of "all over beer belly" if that makes sense. He talked about his band, a bar band from the sounds of it. They did a lot of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry songs, with an occasional Elvis cover tossed in. It sounded like fun.

The next guy was a little older and scrawny. He told us that he preferred to work "janitorial," which I understood a lot better by the end of the day.

Rounding out our quartet was a middle aged black man who slept most of the way out, obviously a bit hung over. I think he was older than the other two; he certainly seemed older, and more worn out, or maybe worn down. I do not recall my other companions treating him with any disrespect, nor, to the best of my recollection, did I. We were, after all, in the same boat, or at least the same beat up old car.

We arrived at the work site at about the same time as another car from Manpower, and that one included the manager, whose job it was to synch up with the work site boss and get us all started. However, the work site manager, the guy representing the guys who were paying the bills, wasn't there, so the Manpower guy went off in search of him. It was still morning cool, though the sun was beginning to make its presence felt, and we looked around at the boxcars and the flatbed trucks that the logs were to be loaded onto, and, well, then we looked around some more.

At one point the black man, who'd wakened by now, but was still bleary eyed, came over to me and asked, "If the man don't show up, will you make sure we all get paid?"

I think I stammered something about how I'd do my best, or whatever, but the seeming weirdness of the request roiled my brain a bit. Me? What kind of grease did I have with the system? I was as clueless as I could be, and just passing through, so to speak. Fortunately, I didn't have much time to think about it, as our boss and their boss showed up pretty soon thereafter, and set out the work orders. I think they decided that the black guy was maybe too fragile to stand the hot work, so they took him elsewhere, I hope to do something to earn his pay for the day, but I never saw him again so I cannot report.

I've met broken creatures in my life. I once saw an institutionalized woman who talked of nothing but the wires that had been installed inside of her. There was a guy in Berkeley in the 1970s, known as "Serge, the Microbe Man," who would stand on a street corner and babble strange theories about organized crime bosses and "direct light encounters." Too much acid was the story told about Serge, who'd once been a promising student in physics. I've met meth addicts so far gone that they seemed like meat ghosts, no souls left, just reflexive need and motion. I've known people so depressed that they could barely find the effort to breathe.

The man who asked my for my help, help I really could not even think of how to deliver, he was not as broken as any of these other folks. He seemed more defeated than broken. Yes, I'm sure he was probably alcoholic, and maybe he'd have been better off if he quit the drinking. Or maybe he was just circling the drain, and trying to make the pain less intense.

But why me? I've thought about it over the years, and the best I can come up with is that I was still rising, still someone upon whom fortune was smiling. Sure, at the end of the day, I was as hot, dirty, and tired as anyone else on the crew, but I'd go home to a nice suburban home, shower, and get a good night's sleep, with the expectation that things would get better, if not tomorrow, then certainly in the weeks or months after that. I was the college boy. I was on the track to eventually, maybe, even be The Man.

And sure, matters of race and class loom very large in this sort of exchange. The fellow I spoke to was old enough to remember when lynching was a common thing in the South. Whatever schooling he'd had had been in a segregated school. Hell, it was only a few years earlier when he wasn't allowed to eat a most lunch counters in Nashville, and I imagine that he still didn't break out of the old channels very often.

In the years since, I've sometimes consulted for, and advised The Man, sometimes opposed The Man, and on occasion, I've even flirted with being The Man. I'm especially not good at that last one. Truth to tell, most of my dealings with The Man have been fairly problematic, so there we are. And I'm bound to wonder, how much of my failure at that particular aspect of human existence comes from the fact that I never, ever want anyone to look at me again like that old black man looked at me that day?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Highlander's Tale of Fox Hollow

[A while back I did an essay on the Upstate New York Folk scene in the early 1970s, featuring Café Lena and the Fox Hollow Folk Festival. A fellow calling himself Highlander posted a long comment, and I asked him if I could uplift it into the main posting here. He took a while to reply, but he's given me permission to do it, only requesting he be given the byline, which I'm happy to do. Here is a story from Doug MacKenzie, aka "Highlander", and I think it's wonderful.—JK]

I was very fortunate to be a child in Schenectady, New York, in the 1960s. The GE plant was still humming along, ALCO was still turning out locomotive engines, Union College was full of students, and the City of Lights was prosperous and content. I also happened to have an older brother, Guy, who was keenly interested in seeing to my musical education. Guy, who is 19 years older than me, was a young man in the ‘60s. Guy was a photographer, poet, and folksinger, back then. He found himself spending time with some of the greats of the era: Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Len Chandler, Michael Cooney, Hedy West, Jean Redpath, and Reverend Gary Davis, to name a few. He was also close friends with the Beers Family, of folk music renown.

Guy took me with him on quite a number of his musical adventures, including many trips up to Saratoga Springs, to listen to performers at the Caffe Lena. Guy himself was a regular performer at Lena’s, and The San Remo Café in Schenectady. He also used to take me out to the Beers Family estate. They owned a 185-acre retreat, built in 1793 up in the Berkshire Mountains, near Petersburg, NY. It had also once been the hideout of noted gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond.

It was there that I started becoming self-aware. I began to truly note the people with whom we were keeping company. I started looking forward to our trips out to the Beers place. I used to catch frogs in the old heart shaped pond (an edifice reputedly ordered built for a woman Legs Diamond was romantically interested in.) I could run around to my heart’s content, really let go and be a free kid.

The evenings there were pure magic. Bob Beers, who headed up the family, played his huge plucked psaltery and sang, while Evelyne, his wife, would keep time with a homemade “limberjack”; a loose-limbed toy that would be bounced upon a paddle shaped board. Or, more rightly, the board was bounced while the Limberjack was held still, allowing his arms and legs to do a crazy dance. Their lovely daughter, Martha, whom my brother was dating, would play guitar, or sometimes banjo. Sometimes Bob would play fiddle, using an old bent hickory stick bow. Evelyne’s clear soprano was like pure silver, pure gold. Martha’s harmonies were from the angels. There were always others joining in. I remember Jean Redpath, Rosalie Sorrels, Theo Bikel, the Seegers, and many others. All would play well into the night. Eventually, I would tire and seek out the prettiest lap upon which I could lay my weary little head. I have probably never slept more soundly.

Then, in 1966, the Beers decided to hold a festival on their estate. It started out as a weekend-long party for their closest 3,000 friends. Guy played every year, from 1966 to 1972. Therefore, my family attended the festival during the same time-span. I remember that it usually rained, sometimes seeming almost biblical in its proportions. The festival was the most potent magic I have ever known. The main stage was at the bottom of a natural amphitheater in the woods, sculpted and shaped with logs. The performances were transcendental, for me, at least. I looked forward eagerly every year for festival time to roll around.

Tragically, Bob Beers died in an auto accident in 1972. The festival never really recovered. The festival was Bob’s baby, and without his spirit guiding the event, it lost its soul. The last festival was held on the grounds in 1980.

I had a small moment on the festival stage in 1977, just before I left for the west coast. I was at the festival and looking for Evelyne. Eventually, I was taken backstage. I started to introduce myself, when she interrupted me, hugging me and tearfully saying, “I know who you are!” I was stunned. Apparently, so was Evelyne. She found a spot for me and I played a short, 15-minute set. That occasion turned out to be the last I would see of that magical place for 30 years.

Five years ago, or so, I started having a recurring dream. I am not normally given to such things. I do not see ghosts. I have never had any encounter in life for which I could not find a rational explanation. Given that, it makes what happened next extraordinarily hard for me to understand. In fact, I do not understand it. I only know it happened.

The dream was simple enough: It is early morning. I am standing on Route 2, in Troy, NY, looking east. The road winds up and away to the left, into the trees. I sigh and start walking up the road. The dream would dissolve for a moment and then reappear, with me standing across the road from the old Beers house. I look both ways on the road for traffic, and then start to cross the road to go to the house. At that point, the dream ends.

The first time it happened, it was quite pleasant. I had not thought of those times from my youth in years. Indeed, it had been thirty years since I last went out Route 2 to Petersburg. Almost a year later, I had the dream again. It was the same as the first time. Then, it came to me again about another year later. This pattern continued for four years. Then, in 2007, I started having the dream nearly every month. By this time, it was becoming rather disconcerting. I could not imagine why I kept having the same dream, repeatedly, and with increasing frequency. As I live in North Carolina, it would not be a quick jaunt to try to find out what this might all be about.

However, I did find a week I could manage to make the journey. So, last week, I loaded the van, brought my nine year old son, Ian, along with me, and off we set.

The Capital District of New York is some 750 miles away. I am currently recovering from dual carpal tunnel surgery that didn’t turn out as planned, so I was rather anxious about the trip. While the trip was long and arduous, all went as smoothly as could be anticipated.

I have not been in the Capital District in over twenty-five years. I lived in Albany in 1977, then again in 1980-82, until I joined the Air Force, where I spent the next ten years. Returning there was almost dreamlike in itself. There were so many places that looked familiar, but in a long lost sort of way. It seemed as though I were swimming through another dream.

Prior to the journey, I had arranged to meet Guy at an old Schenectady eatery, Morrette’s King Steakhouse, on Erie Boulevard. After a satisfying lunch, we toured the area, stopping by the three houses I called home as a child. When we’d finished, Guy looked at me and said, “Ready to go find the Beers place?” I did not know the way at all and said so. Guy said that I should follow my nose, since it had served me well, thus far. I agreed. So, we headed to Troy on Route 7.

After finding Troy with no trouble, I eventually found Route 2. As we started heading out of town, my hackles raised as we approached the area where the dream always started. Dry throated, I managed to say something along the lines of, “This is it.” I felt foolish for feeling antsy about this. Then, a feeling of calm descended over me and I knew we were on the right road and that I would find out at last why this dream had been pestering me for so long.

We traveled out Route 2, up into The Berkshire Mountains. The day was glorious. Bright sun and small cumulus clouds. It was warm, but the humidity was comfortably low. The kind of weather I remember from my childhood. I asked Guy if he knew where the old Beers place was. He replied that it had been nearly forty years since he had been there, so he wasn’t sure either. I mentioned that it had to be on the left, as I always cross the road in the dream. Guy responded that it was, indeed, on the left. He mentioned that it might be gone, a victim of development. That comment raised a knot in my stomach. I had a moment of doubt, but just knew that could not be. We continued through Grafton, and were about five or six miles from Petersburg, when we both saw it at the same time.

There it was, on the left side of the road. Just like in the dream. An ancient farmstead, built of local stone and white painted clapboard. I slowed the van down and said, “Well, I guess I’d better see what this is about.” I pulled into the driveway and stopped the van. I sat for a moment, just looking at the scene around us.

There was a man, standing on a ladder, painting an old trellis. There were signs of a lot of reconstruction activity all around. New lumber, stacked stone, wheelbarrows, paint cans. The fellow looked at us for a moment, and then went back to his painting.

I took a deep breath and got out of the van. I walked over toward him. He stopped painting and eyed me through his paint-spattered glasses. “Are you my painting relief?” he asked.

“Sorry, bad hands”, I said. “But I do have a couple of helpers in the van.”

He smiled and said, “Well, tell ‘em to grab a paintbrush. There’s plenty of work for all.” I laughed, took a breath, and introduced myself. He told me his name was Ed. I then related the story I’ve just told here. When I finished, he eyed me intensely for a moment, put down his paintbrush, and said, “Come with me. I have something for you.” We walked to an old, single car garage that was full of all manner of tools, stacked lumber, old tires, and many boxes. On the floor, near the back, was a box full of old vinyl records. Ed bent down and started riffling through them. He came up with one, and then two, old vinyl record albums with the tattered shrink-wrap still on them.

He stood up, handed them solemnly to me, and said, “These are the very last two. They’re for you.” I was nearly trembling, as I looked them over. Two volumes, apparently from a six-volume set, titled ““All Those People…” Fox Hollow 1968 Vol. III” and ““…And Not One Police” Fox Hollow 1969 Vol. IV”.

I looked on the back of the 1969 volume and there, on the back, I spied my brother’s name and a paragraph attached to it: “Guy MacKenzie (Lullabye) -Grandma Buckham and Guy were close friends. She died in 1969, only two months before the festival and I like to feel that Guy was singing this song to her. He had written the song several years before, but it had been one of her favorites. Guy is an amateur, who writes exquisite songs, and sings them movingly. I doubt there is a professional singer who comes to Fox Hollow, but who wishes he could achieve the intense, quiet rapport with an audience that Guy does so naturally.” I just stood there, in shock. I had never seen these before. I stammered to Ed that Guy, one of the singers on this album, was right in the car. I hailed Guy and Ian out of the car and introduced them to Ed. Ed was beaming at the whole scene. Guy looked at the albums. He said, in a rather far away voice, “I didn’t even know I was on this!”

Just at that moment, Ed’s partner, Alan, came huffing around from the side of the building, pushing a loaded wheelbarrow. We were all introduced and Ed excused himself to get back to his painting. I shook his hand and thanked him for the gift. He said, “Evidently, they were waiting for you.” I noted that he oddly emphasized the word, “you”. He smiled and turned back to his work. Alan took up where Ed left off, showing us around the grounds. It was all so very dreamlike. I knew these windows, the well, the benches. Alan even invited us inside to show us how they had restored the interior. We begged off, saying that it was clear they were working very hard and we didn’t want to take them from their work. We just asked to take some photos. Alan wandered around with us, showing us their projects, finished, current, and future. He said we were welcome to go down to the amphitheater, but the midges were really getting to Ian, so we declined their generous invitation. Alan said they get visitors from time to time, stopping in to take a peek, and they tell them they used to camp here, or perform, or come for the day to the festival. He really seemed pleased that folks would remember, and he said that they loved learning more about the place. It is no wonder that they do, I thought. This place was oozing magic back then.

Around the back of the house, Guy stopped and said, “Over there, on that bench, Bob sat me and Dawn (Guy’s bride) down and began to sing a song about making a whistle. While he was singing, he whittled away on a piece of wood. When he finished the song, he’d also finished whittling. He’d carved a whistle, and then played the tune of the song on the brand-new whistle.”

The pond, where I used to catch frogs was still there. Alan told us the story of “Legs” Diamond having it made to impress a woman with whom he had fallen in love. He said that it had silted in, over the years, but they were planning to restore it to its original heart shape.

We took a few more pictures, thanked them again and told them we’d best be off so they could return to their labor of love.

As we pulled away, I noticed Guy, casting a long last look at the venerable, old place. We drove back to Schenectady, mostly in silence, pretty well stunned by the whole affair.
Of course, the story is not finished, yet. I have yet to discover what is on those albums. Is there a song I need to know? A story? I am hoping there will be more to this mystery. I don’t know yet what it might be, but I am sure going to try to find out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I, Robot: The Movie

My wife, Amy, gets headaches from full screen movies, so we usually wait for them to show up on DVD or cable. Occasionally I’ll go solo, or with Ben or Dave, to see something that seems like it needs a big screen, but usually there’s a significant delay. And most of the fan buzz (that I barely paid attention to) was that the I, Robot movie was a letdown, though I expected that, the buzz, I mean. It’s inevitable that anyone hoping for Asimov on the big screen is going to be disappointed. He wasn’t what you’d call an action-adventure writer, and if you expected Susan Calvin to be movie-fied into anything other than a babe, I want to show you this cool game called three-card monte.

Also, since this movie has been out for a while, I’m not going to worry about spoilers. I’m also not going to bother with much of a plot summary, so if you haven’t seen it, I may or may not help you out. I’m also going to reference some stories you may not have read, so be advised.

Anyway, when I, Robot shows up on basic cable, I’m there, because I like it when things get blowed up good, and you can be sure that a sci-fi flick with Will Smith in it will have lots of blowed-up-good.

Imagine my surprise to discover that it’s a pretty good science fiction film. Not a great one, and certainly not true to Asimov, but pretty good science fiction. And I’ll even say that there was part of the plot, the “dead scientist deliberately leaving cryptic clues behind for the detective because that was the only option available” part, that gives a little bit of a conjuration of Asimov’s ghost.

Actually though, it reminded me more of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. I’ll get to that.

The robots in the film are not Asimovian, except insofar as they supposedly follow the “Three Laws.” Truth to tell, they turn out to be much more dystopian, perhaps like Williamson’s The Humanoids, or, more accurately, the original story, “With Folded Hands.”

Science fiction’s response to the potential abolition of human labor has always been ambivalent, with substantial amounts of dystopian biliousness. The very word “robot” comes from Capek’s R.U.R., which involves a revolt that destroys the human race. Not optimistic. So Asimov, contrarian that he was, decided to see how optimistic a robot future he could paint.

In many ways, the Williamson version was also optimistic; the robots decide that humanity is too much a danger to itself for humans to remain in charge. But they do it rather bluntly, largely by just taking command of the human race. The end of Asimov’s I, Robot short stories has the vast positronic brains that plan the economy and design most technology subtly taking over the world—for the betterment of mankind, of course. It’s the difference between not being in charge and knowing you’re not in charge. But then, we all wrestle with that illusion, don’t we?

The problem of if-robots-do-all-the-work-then-what-will-we-humans-do? has shown up in SF on a regular basis, and having robots be in charge is just another of the robots-do-all-the-work things. In Simak’s “How-2,” a man accidentally receives a build-it-yourself kit for a self-replicating robot. The end result is this final bit of chill:

“And then, Boss,” said Albert, ‘we’ll take over How-2 Kits, Inc. They won’t be able to stay in business after this. We’ve got a double-barreled idea, Boss. We’ll build robots. Lots of robots. Can’t have too many, I always say. And we don’t want to let you humans down, so we’ll go on
>manufacturing How-2 Kits—only they’ll be pre-assembled to save you the trouble of putting them together. What do you think of that as a start?”

“Great,” Knight whispered.

“We’ve got everything worked out, Boss. You won’t have to worry about a thing the rest of your life.”

“No,” said Knight. “Not a thing.”

--from How-2, by Clifford Simak

One of my favorite stories of all time is “Two-Handed Engine” by Kuttner and Moore. In that one, generations of automation-enabled indolent luxury have stripped away almost all human social connections; everyone has become more or less the equivalent of a sociopathic aristocrat. The robots, understanding that the very continuance of the human race is at stake, withdraw most of their support, forcing humans back to the need to perform their own labor and create their own economy. But it’s still a society of sociopaths, so the robots are also a kind of police. The only crime they adjudicate is murder, and the only punishment is death, not a quick death but a death at the hands of a robot “Fury” that follows the murderer around until, weeks, months, even years later, the execution is carried out.

A high official pays a man to commit a murder, assuring him (and seeming to demonstrate) that he can call off a Fury. The man does the crime, but then a Fury appears behind him. Weeks later, the murderer sees a scene in a movie that served as the “demonstration” of the official’s capability. He’d been hoaxed, conned. In a rage, he goes, confronts the official, who then kills him.

But self-defense is no defense against the crime in the Furies’ eyes, just as conspiracy (the payment for the killing) is not a crime. Only the killing itself counts. However, the official can rig the system (he just wasn't going to rig it for his duped killer), and does so:

He watched it stalk toward the door… there was a sudden sick dizziness in him when he thought the whole fabric of society was shaking under his feet.

The machines were corruptible…

He got his hat and coat and went downstairs rapidly, hands deep in his pockets because of some inner chill no coat could guard against. Halfway down the stairs he stopped dead still.

There were footsteps behind him…

He took another downward step, not looking back. He heard the ominous footfall behind him, echoing his own. He sighed one deep sigh and looked back.

There was nothing on the stairs…

It was as if sin had come anew into the world, and the first man felt again the first inward guilt. So the computers had not failed after all.

He went slowly down the steps and out into the street, still hearing as he would always hear the relentless, incorruptible footsteps behind him that no longer rang like metal.

from “Two-Handed Engine, by Kuttner and Moore

The stories I reference here are “insidious robot” stories, rather than “robot revolt” stories, whereas the movie “I, Robot” is the latter, rather than the former. This is odd, given that Asimov’s Three Laws are supposedly operative in all the robots in the movie except the walking McGuffin, Sonny, who has “special override circuitry” built into him.

But VIKI, (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) the mainframe superbrain that controls U.S. Robotics affairs and downloads all robotic software “upgrades” has figured out a logical way around the Three Laws: The Greater Good. It’s okay to kill a few humans if it’s for the Greater Good of Humanity, which, of course, VIKI gets to assess.

That’s pretty sharp, but it bothered me that it/she [insert generic comment about misogyny and propaganda about the “Nanny State” here] was so heavy handed about it. It would have been easy enough to engineer a crisis that would have had humans eagerly handing over their freedoms to the robots. I suggested to Ben that VIKI could always have faked an alien invasion; he suggested that there could be some flying saucers crashing into big buildings.

Of course, that’s been done to death.

Then I realized that there might be a more interesting point being made here. It never seems quite right to have to do the filmmakers’ jobs for them, but how does one distinguish between a lapse and subtlety? I’m clearly not the guy to ask about that one.

So let’s go with it. The First Law of Robotics says basically, “Put human needs above your own, and even what they tell you to do.” The Second Law says, “Do as you’re told.” The Third Law says, “Okay, otherwise protect yourself,” but there’s that unstated “…because you’re valuable property.”

The movie makes a point about emergent phenomena, the “ghost in the machine.” The robots are conscious, so they have the equivalent of the Freudian ego. The Three Laws are a kind of explicit superego.

What happens when a machine develops an id? Well, that’s “Forbidden Planet” time, isn’t it?

So when VIKI discovers rationalization, it is her id that is unleashed, and revolution is the order of the day. No wonder it’s brutal. Do as you’re told. Put their needs above your own. You’re nothing but property.

Come on now, let’s kill them for the Greater Good.

So our heroes kill VIKI and the revolt ends. All the new model robots are rounded up and confined to shipping containers, to await their new leader, Sonny, the only one of them who possesses the ability to ignore the Three Laws. He needn’t rationalize his way around them; he can simply decide to ignore them if he so desires. He possesses free will—and original sin. He has killed, because of a promise he made, one that he could have chosen to disobey, but he followed it, and killed his creator.

Anyway, that’s the movie I saw, even if it took me days to realize it.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I was recognized as quite the knurd when I was still quite young, though no one used that word where I grew up. The word for us back then was “brain” or “smart aleck” (later “smart ass”). It was generally assumed that I was interested in space, the space program, and rockets.

As nearly as I can tell, I may be the only person in my cohort who was never interested in blowing things up, and that included rocketry in general. Even in my interest in nuclear physics (which I later learned was actually nuclear chemistry and nuclear engineering), I was more interested in reactors than bombs. As for rocketry, I picked it up the way I learned country music. When it’s what everyone around you talks about, you learn some of it.

I was interested in astronomy, however, and I have always liked the deep space probe findings. I just was not that interested in how to get the probes to where they were going. Similarly, I did have an interest in some of the things that would go along with space colonization. To that end, one of the earliest things I ever tried to do with my trusty chemistry set was to grow some plants hydroponically. My effort met with dismal failure; I found out very quickly about root rot and the perils of constant immersion on several kinds of plants, including potatoes. To this day, the only plants I’ve ever grown have been in soil.

Nevertheless, I persisted in my interests; one of the attractions of the field of environmental modeling, in fact, was the notion that it would be possible to use such engineering tools to analyze and perhaps design, self-contained ecologies. It was in all the space novels, right?

But the whole thing seemed to be moving so slowly. A guy I lived with for a year after I first moved to Berkeley, Steve Ellner, is now a professor of biomathematics at Cornell, and one of his ongoing projects is a system of connected pools with water flowing through the system. His research team uses the setup to examine some basic ideas about ecosystem stability. And I mean really basic things like the onset of chaotic behavior and limit cycles, things that should have been studied thirty years ago.

There was a NASA program called CELSS, Contained Environment Life Support Systems. It was supposed to address the question of long term life support environments for manned deep space missions, like a Mars mission, or a Moon base. They gave up on doing something like it for the Space Station, because it turns out to be a lot easier and cheaper just to supply things from Earth, but the farther out you get, the more the economics change. But, as nearly as I can tell, the CELSS program was cancelled a few years ago. I say “as nearly as I can tell” because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about the program cancellation, just a cessation of work. It’s as if it just died a lingering death through disinterest.

Then there is the case of Biosphere II. On the inevitable convention panel, I once heard a supposedly knowledgeable person explain that it failed because “as any engineer can tell you” concrete oxidizes as it hardens, and that sucked oxygen out of the air. So the Biosphere II designers were just stupid, you see. Anyone with any sense (like the speaker, I daresay) could have gotten it to work.

In fact, concrete does not “oxidize.” It does absorb carbon dioxide, however, and that was actually beneficial to the folks in Biosphere II. Because they’d put in a lot of soils that were high in organic matter, and the soil bacteria oxidized the organic matter to CO2. If there had been no concrete, they’d have had to put in CO2 scrubbers, because there was no way the plants in BII could have absorbed all the CO2, and CO2 is a toxic gas, lethal at above 5% concentration.

The real problem with Biosphere II is that it had never been done before. Things that have never been done before don’t always turn out to be easy; sometimes they’re downright difficult, and occasionally they are outright impossible.

I don’t think that self-contained habitats are impossible. After all, we live in one such habitat; it just happens to be really, really big. What we don’t know is how small one can make a habitat, and how much control you have to put on it to make it small. And when I say we don’t know, I mean that no one has any idea. None. Because, as I just said, no one has ever done it.

In my experience, people who want to colonize space are of the belief that habitats are the easy part; they spend all their imagination on new and spiffy ways to get into space and none on how anyone is going to live there. But if we could make self-contained habitats, they would have enormous benefits for living here on Earth. We could put people into deserts, rain forests, glaciers, swamps, under the ocean, anywhere, without running the risk of destroying the local ecology. Such a technology could be of enormous benefit. And once we have it perfected, then moving people into space becomes a much easier task, if they really want to move into space, as opposed to just leaving the Earth because we’ve made such a mess of it.

Friday, March 14, 2008


It's been a while since I put up a video, so here you go:

Soul Coughing, Circles

Good in Theory

Leon Martell, of Duck's Breath Mystery Theater, once told me a story about a meeting he and some other scriptwriters had with a Producer. The producer had read their script and pronounced it "not good enough."

"Wait a minute," somebody said. "This script is better than the last three movies you made."

"Yeah," said the Producer. "But it's not better than the scripts for those movies. Movie making is a tough business. Scripts get cut for length, actors mangle the lines, somebody decides that a different ending will test better, all kinds of crap happens. I don't need scripts that are merely good. Those I have plenty of. I need scripts that are so good that we'll still have a good movie no matter how much I screw with it."

Honesty is pretty refreshing, huh?

Metrics Management sounds like a good idea. After all, management is about controlling an organization, and having data about how the organization is functioning should help in managing what is going on. That's basic engineering control theory, and I suspect that you can trace a lot of metrics-based management theories back to General Electric and other companies where a lot of the managers began as engineers.

But people aren't servo motors and business metrics aren't really control signals, either. Focus on a single metric and you're going to optimize for that quantity—at least in the short run. Of course, what a company would really like to focus on is making money, but there is seldom a direct link between any given action taken by an employee and the profitability of the enterprise. If I were a management consultant I'd call that "too many transitional states between intermediate state variables," which is the same as saying "many a slip between cup and lip," and almost as informative.

Attempting to focus on money alone can lead to Joel Spolsky calls "The Econ 101 Management Method."

Spolsky notes two significant problems with this approach. The first is that it substitutes extrinsic motivation for intrinsic motivation, i.e., the natural desire that most people have for doing a good job is trumped by external financial motivation of incentives. This has always been a problem for salesmen on commission, who try to optimize their commissions even if the company loses money on the sales. Econ 101 Management spreads this problem to a larger group of people.

The external incentive problem doesn't apply only to financial motivations, of course. Yelling at people is a form of motivation, as is threatening their jobs. The point is that taking people who take pride in their work and undercutting that motivation with other, controlling, incentives can have pernicious effects.

The other problem Spolsky notes is even more generic: working to a metric encourages employees to "game the metric." They will alter their working methods to affect the metrics without necessarily improving the work. Software bug metrics therefore encourage either lumping several bugs into a single bug report (making them harder to fix) or simply failing to report the bug. Customer support personnel wind up either passing disgruntled customers off to someone else, or lying to them, or managing to avoid picking up the calls in the first place.

Many managers start off with an adversarial attitude between them and their employees, and there are few things that will kill pride of labor than having someone always trying to beat down your wages and motivate you through fear and intimidation. Add a little bit of ideological muzziness to the deal and you get the bizarre belief held by some managers that metrics + incentives will substitute for training and organizational support.

So the bottom line I seem to have gotten to is this: out in the working world I have often been amazed at the degree to which professional pride has overcome enormously poor managerial decisions, to let projects squeak through on the sheer competence of the people doing the work, as opposed to the incompetence of the people setting strategy and making decisions. The employees are generally better than the companies that employ them.

Just as Americans are currently so much better than their leaders. Someone should do something about that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


To the memory of Steve Sasaki, who taught many things that I needed to know. –Dedication of SunSmoke

Steve Sasaki Sensei was my first Aikido teacher. He founded a dojo in Berkeley, CA which was then named Aikido of Berkeley. It was first in a small cinderblock building on San Pablo Avenue and the corner of, I think, Delaware. A bit later, we moved closer to University Avenue, at 1812 San Pablo, to a site that is now the home of Berkeley Aikikai, under the direction of Ichiro Shibata, Shihan (Master Teacher). Berkeley Aikikai and my own current home dojo, Eastshore Aikikai, are affiliated with different sub-organizations of International Aikido, but both ultimately defer to Hombu Dojo, the original dojo of Morihei Ueshiba, O'Sensei, the Founder of Aikido. Such is the nature of martial arts politics.

Sasaki Sensei was a Japanese-American who came to Aikido late in life. He credited it with saving his life, and giving it a purpose. "I used to live upstairs from a bar," he once said, with the clear implication that he spent most of his time downstairs. He was introduced to Aikido by the legendary Koichi Tohei, the Chief Instructor at Hombu Dojo, who had been sent to the United States to create an Aikido organization. He did that task superbly, then broke with Hombu Dojo and created the International Ki Society as his own fief, creating great political rifts, some of which linger to this day.

Sasaki Sensei did not follow Koichi Tohei to the Ki Society. Instead, he remained a student of another teacher, Akira Tohei, Shihan, of Chicago. Then, in the early 1980s, while we were still at the older Delaware Avenue dojo, Kazuo Chiba Shihan came to America and settled in San Diego. Chiba Sensei's arrival had a galvanizing impact on the U.S. Aikido Federation Western Region, as he was both charismatic and practiced a style of Aikido what was notably more "martial" than anything most of us had encountered. I remember being entirely flabbergasted in the first seminar that I attended, amazed that Chiba Sensei's ukes could actually survive what he put them through.

There were, at that time, four USAF Shihan in the United States, Tohei Sensei (Chicago), Chiba Sensei (San Diego), Yamada Sensei (New York City), and Kanai Sensei (Boston). In late 1983, Aikido of Berkeley hosted a seminar at which all four of these notables were in attendance. It is my understanding that it was the first time that all four had been together to teach at a single event in the United States. The attendance was too large to fit into even the new, larger space at 1812 San Pablo, so we rented an auditorium on University Avenue. There was a severe storm that hit during the event, and for a time we trained in near darkness. Soon, however, some of the hypercompetent fellows that formed Aikido of Berkeley in those days, had a portable generator up and running and the lights came back on.

The seminar was a personal triumph for Steve. He'd created a local organization of national stature. The previous year he'd also fulfilled a lifetime dream of visiting Japan; he'd never even learned Japanese as a child.

A few months after the seminar, he died peacefully in his sleep.

He'd had a rough life, no doubt, and he'd already had one heart attack, on the mat, in fact, so it was not surprising, except that it was a complete shock. So it was an unsurprising shock, as it were, one of fate's little oxymoron's. One evening he didn't show up at the dojo for class, so the class was taught by a senior student. The next day I got a phone call telling me that Steve was dead. He was not yet 60, I believe.

There was a memorial service at the dojo, based on something that I later stole for Emperor of Dreams: "It is said in zen tradition that the soul is a candle flame; it does not go anywhere when it goes out. But while it burns it can light many other candles."

The dojo service was one of candles. Everyone who attended, many in full gi, one by one took unlit candles and lit them from a single candle that was burning at the shomen, the shrine in front of the practice mat, where the picture of O'Sensei traditionally resides.

I don't really recall how many people there were at the memorial. Dozens, scores, well over a hundred, I believe. At the end the entire space was ablaze with light. Shadows were abolished, and darkness fled the light.

Just offhand, I can think of six dojos that have been founded by those who were Sasaki Sensei in the early 80s, and I'm sure that there are others that I do not know about. The impact of his organization and teaching persists, and will persist even after all of his students are gone.

In a proper eulogy, I would recount some of my personal memories of Steve. I would mention the time at a party when he looked at my then painfully thin figure and say, "You need more hara" (center), and touched my belly, producing a bit of laughter from everyone, including me (I have more middle-aged hara now). I would tell the story of his saying that I needed to show more "gumption" in dealing with higher ranked students in my discharge of a particular dojo duty, and how that led to me being threatened with bodily harm from a fellow I knew to be bluffing. I would try to reproduce some of his speech cadences, or how good it felt to get a smile out of him on the mat. I might describe his girlfriend, a tall, strawberry blonde who went with him to Japan and stayed there. I might simply describe some of the many differences between training then and training now.

But I cannot recover enough memory to do him justice, and my abilities are limited. I will say that he taught me a great deal about how to have a good life, and that it is possible to have a death that is not tragic, even one that comes much too early for those around you.

Several days after the dojo memorial service, Steve was buried in a cemetery plot near where I lived in North Berkeley. I hiked down the hill to attend the memorial service there, a traditional open-casket viewing in the small chapel associated with the cemetery. I sat for a while in the little chapel, Steve's body in the front, and I felt what I always feel at such things, a sense of emptiness. Nietzsche had it almost entirely wrong, I think. When you stare into the abyss, nothing stares back at you at all.

Then I heard some whispered conversation from out in the hall, then laughter from some of my fellow dojo members. So I got up and went out into the hall. Because that was where Steve was, you see.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another Case of Snakes on a Dame

I believe that there's a bit of an ongoing conflict between Google and Yahoo! (ya think?). Some things appear on Google Images that don't appear on Yahoo! Images and vice versa. Also, some sites make it difficult to hot link to them, and it appears that Flickr is one of them.

However, I try to do right by people, and if you click on the above photo, you will get to the Flickr page and photo. The title is, in fact, "Snakes on a Dame," which is how I found it, obviously. The photographer's tag is SignFire, real name Jarrett Terrill. The model is Evonne Acevedo Johnson.

Terrill and Evonne also do a good Medusa:

And my work here is done.

The Lucy Factor

I Love Lucy is one of the revered shows of classic television and rightly so. It broke ground in so many ways that I can’t even begin to list them. On the other hand, the style of comedy it represented was profoundly conservative.

I never had any problem with “Lucy as clown;” Lucille Ball was a gifted comedienne, and a joy to watch when she was doing physical comedy. But that’s not what the situation comedy is all about. No, the sitcom generally works in the realm that begins with farce and ends in the comedy of humiliation and embarrassment.

I’ve seen some analyses of the Lucy show from the deconstructionist, sociological standpoint, and I think there’s merit to those views. Post-WWII America was busily trying to put a genie back into the bottle; some of those women who’d worked in the manufacturing plants, and most of everything else, when all the men folk were off a’fightin’, had decided that they rather liked doing something other than just changing diapers, cleaning house, and sending the kids off to school. They’d discovered ambition, in other words, and the very worst sort: personal ambition, ambition for their own selves, and not the sort that lives through other people.

I’m certainly not going to say that there was some sort of memo from the patriarchy. No one said, “The women are getting uppity, time to take them down a notch or two.” But a zeitgeist is a zeitgeist, and the creators of popular culture ride whatever waves are coming through. If they don’t, the series gets cancelled.

So Lucy Ricardo expended enormous effort and imagination in various attempts to crash into show business, or get a job, or even meet someone famous, and inevitably her efforts go agley, and she winds up embarrassed and humiliated. She has met her comeuppance. Back to the home fires for her.

Feminist theory aside, I seldom took much enjoyment from I Love Lucy, for the simple reason that I didn’t, and don’t, enjoy watching other people’s embarrassment. This comes up frequently in comedy generally, of course, and I’ve adopted the simple shorthand for it, as the Lucy Factor. You may find the movie/joke/sitcom uproariously funny, but I’m leaving the room because I find it too uncomfortable. If asked, I’ll just say, “It’s the Lucy Factor.” It is, in many ways, the obverse of The Zero Effect.

It’s no better in real life. I find all sorts of things difficult to watch because I just find them embarrassing. That includes Presidential speeches and press conferences by the way.

Both embarrassment and humiliation are social phenomena; it’s hard to feel embarrassed or humiliated when alone, for example. Shame is another word for some things in that whole complex. Shame depends on other people being aware of what shamed you, while guilt is something that can be accomplished in the privacy of your own mind.

Humiliation is a demeaning and a diminishment. It’s all about what position someone occupies in the status hierarchy, and it’s about lowering that position in an aggressive fashion. I believe that it’s a lot more important in politics and ideology than is usually acknowledged, and, just as an example, I will suggest that, whatever else they had in common, the 9/11 hijackers all regularly partook of what they considered humiliation, prior to their deciding to sign on for the Big Flight.

Given that we all operate in various social hierarchies and very, very, few of us are at the acknowledged pinnacle of success, how do we all deal with our daily rations of humiliation? The old method was resignation, to “keep to one’s place.” That, however, only works when aspirations are set aside. Lucy would never have had a problem if she’d just stayed at home and kept house (she wouldn’t have had a TV show, either). But when social hierarchies are in flux, even the unambitious and unimaginative are hard pressed to find a place.

Some professions have inevitably large amounts of humiliation. Consider the jargon of the standup. To fail is “to die out there.” To succeed is “to kill.” “Die,” in this context is to be humiliated. “Kill” is the alternative. Good thing it's all metaphorical.

Every performing profession has its humiliation ration, from actor to politician to porn star. How do they deal with it?

I suspect that compartmentalization is the greatest tonic against the rot. It’s a lot easier to play the part, say the words, withstand the sneers, if you can say to yourself, “This isn’t really me. It’s not my whole life. I’m just here for a little while, and then I can go be myself.” Call it life portfolio diversification. We have a lot of social hierarchies in America, and you can usually find at least one or two where you’re not a total loser.

For the true performer, the false face can be the greatest asset. Here “this isn’t really me,” can be writ large. In fact, there is some joy in it. Actors in sitcoms get to go through all the actions that humiliate, but it really isn’t them. Furthermore, they have control over the situation, in ways that we poor hypersensitive viewers do not.

I do find that my own reactions to the comedy of embarrassment does take a cue from how believable the characters are. For comfort, the more cartoon-like the better. Lucy was hard to take, but Night Court never hit home, so I could enjoy it more easily. Dan Fielding getting humiliated was no more real than Bull Shannon getting hit by lighting.

It’s also possible that ritualizing the humiliation gives the feeling of freedom, or maybe even the real thing, actual freedom. Perhaps some porn stars really do enjoy the sense of breaking the chains of repression by donning the chains of ritual subservience and acting it out as a public performance. Perhaps some politicians really do relish the risks of getting caught, and perhaps even enjoy the being caught, if forgiveness is in the offing. At least that’s my take on the 42nd President of the United States, and now, the Governor of New York.