Saturday, May 31, 2008

Production vs. Redistribution

One of the major achievements of the Conservative Movement, and its fellow-traveling economists, has been to convince the Conventional Wisdom that Production is accomplished by the Private Sector (and that the Private Sector is identical with Corporations), whereas the Public Sector (assumed to be identical to Government, sometimes called "The Government" despite our multijurisdictional Federal system) is good for nothing but Redistribution, sometimes called "Transfer Payments," but almost always sneered at as "taxes," or "tax and spend."

Such are the power of magic words that this fantasy image dominates the political landscape. There's also the "dog whistle" aspect of it all, since "The Government" is also that Thing that does all the bad stuff like interfering with Free Enterprise, Forced Busing of School Kids, coddling criminals, and the like. Putting pot growers in jail, enforcing copyrights, or criminalizing abortion, those are done by "The Legal System," which somehow avoids being part of "The Government."

But I'm going to keep to economics here, so I'm going to use a simple model. I'm not even going to put the math onto it, but rest assured, there's some math lurking just below the surface.

Let's consider an island, a chunk of attractive real estate that sits off the coast of some mainland somewhere, maybe even in the middle of a large river, or, best of all, in the mouth of a large river or some other natural harbor.

As I say, it's attractive real estate, having a large coastline relative to its size, so there's natural portage, perhaps some nice beaches, and some natural exclusivity and scenery that can be put on the housing brochures. In the natural course of things, depending upon history, other situations, etc. there would first be some ferry service of some sort to the island, then someone would decide that there should be a bridge.

Long story short, the bridge gets built. Most probably, it is built and maintained by the authorities that run the rest of the transport system, i.e. "The Government," or at least an organization with governmental powers, like a Port Authority or a Transportation District. Conceivably, the job might be driven by a Private group of some kind, or at least contracted to one, but it doesn't matter that much really. If the bridge is big enough, it will probably be a toll bridge, both to recoup the cost of building it, and also to offset its costs. If a quasi-governmental organization is responsible for its operation, the tolls might be used to cross subsidize some other transportation methods, such as mass transit, or even parts of the old ferry line, if it had any sort of clout.

As an aside, I'll note that quite often bridges are built by governmental agencies with the secondary purpose of enriching private contractors. See The Great Bridge by David McCullough for a good description of this.

All well and good. The existence of the bridge, and the transportation that it provides, makes the land on the island, and on the nearby mainland, more valuable. Some of this value is recovered by the tolls, some in property taxes, but most of it winds up in private hands, which is to say those who own the land on the island and mainland. Some of the wealth also flows through the hands of the new businesses that are created to service the increased populations, any port services that obtain, and so forth.

Inevitably, the bridge begins to see some congestion at some point. It's done its job, creating wealth by providing transport, but now more transport is called for.

Or is it? After all, building a new bridge is a risk. Suppose there isn't enough demand to support the additional traffic? Will the new bridge undercut the cash flow from the old bridge? Besides, bridge building is expensive, carrying other risks.

So we might just raise the tolls on the old bridge, especially at rush hours, thereby moving to what is called "congestion pricing" of the resource, which is "efficient," in economics terms. What "efficiency" means here is that the resource is rationed by price, meaning that those with the greatest wherewithal get served, while those with shallower pockets do not.

Alternately, someone could build another toll booth. This seems silly, but it's perfectly acceptable if there are access points to the bridge that are in hands other than those who own the original bridge. This would be the case if the bridge were actually something like say, an oil production and delivery system, where tankers or refiners might raise their rates even if the oil fields are still underutilized. I'm just using the island/bridge as an analogy, after all.

And let's be clear about this, the higher tolls or new toll booths are by far less risky an "investment" than building a new bridge. So if your vision is just to accumulate more money via investment, higher tolls are the way to go.

What happens when the highest returns on investment go to investments that do not create wealth, but merely move money from one pocket to another? What happens when "economic growth" is calculated based on the rate at which this money is transferred around? What happens when people confuse redistribution with production, merely because the redistribution is done by organizations and people who are nominally "private?"

I'm not entirely sure, but I have a feeling that we've been finding out for the past 30 years or so. Or at least the last seven.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Vocoder

In Between Planets by Heinlein, the intelligent dragons who lived on Venus used a “voder” to speak. “Voder” was clearly a contraction of “vocoder,” which itself is a contraction of “voice encoder-decoder.” In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Mike, the intelligent computer, used a vocoder.

The vocoder was a real device and a pretty cool gizmo. It took a sound sample and fed it through a series of notch filters, very narrow bandwidth filters, and measured the amplitude of each narrow frequency, making it essentially a device for producing a power spectrum. That’s the encoding part. The decoder essentially reversed the process. If you put enough bands into it, you can get more-or-less recognizable speech out of the decoder, at a small fraction of the bandwidth of full speech.

The trick is that you are tossing out phase information, the connection between each sound frequency, so you never get the sound of real speech out of a vocoder, no matter how many frequencies you segment the sound into. What you get is one of those “robot voices” that you’ve heard in movies and TV since the 50s. You can also twiddle with the playback by changing the nature of the original frequency set, or even imposing a voice envelope onto other sounds. That’s how Disney and Bell Labs TV specials got all those “talking instruments” ‘way back when. I’m not sure about Gerald McBoing-Boing

The unnaturalness of the vocoder output sent sound researchers back to an older vision: vocal tract modeling. I’m told that before the phonograph, there was a lot of interest in “talking machines,” literally, machines that talked like people do, by expelling air through a vocal tract. Vocal tract modeling attempted to do the same thing, only digitally, and it met with about the same success: not much. It sounded okay if restricted to some very amenable phrases (“We were away a year ago”), but more frequently, it was just unintelligible.

Eventually, cheaper hardware, especially memory, came to the rescue. Current speech generators simply look up words in a dictionary, and spit out the correct phonemes, linked together with some special rules. They can sound fairly realistic, provided your idea of realistic speaks with a Swedish accent. Stephen Hawking uses one of these types of speech synthesizers, by the sounds of it, but he has it set to sound more like the old vocoder style of robotic intonation, perhaps to emphasize that it is a robotic voice he’s using, or maybe because Hawking is a bit of a card.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Way I Talk

When I first moved to California, I went to a lot of concerts, and one of them was Gil Scott-Heron. That would have been at the Berkeley Greek Theater, an outdoor amphitheater. During one of the breaks I went over to the porta-potties for the usual reason, and there was a line, as is generally the case during the breaks. While waiting in line, I got to talking with a couple of young ladies from Oakland. The young ladies were black.

It was a very pleasant conversation, and afterwards, I tried to analyze why I had felt so comfortable. Their young lady-hood obviously was part of it, but it occurred to me that part of it was their accents and manners.

What has come to be called “Ebonics” is actually a large sub-variant of the southern accent and grammatical quirks. My relationship to the southern way of talking is complicated, of course, given that I grew up in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky, then left for what still seem to be very good reasons. Nevertheless, I have the same reflexive it’s-okay-for-me-to-criticize-but-not-for-you-to-do-so that everyone has about their family, town, state, and country. Added to that is something that I’ve mentioned previously: speaking with a southern accent means that people automatically make all sorts of assumptions about you, including that you are dumb and ignorant.

The black conservative economist Thomas Sowell has written that Ebonics (as well as a number of other features of “Black Culture”) is actually derived from “Cracker Culture,” which in turn was a English/Scots transplant that was pushed on African slaves by their white overseers. One of the features of my mild prejudice in favor of blacks is that I tend to cut black conservatives a little more slack than I do white conservatives, so I lean toward the belief that Sowell believes that American blacks are held back by their culture and would do better if they got rid of it—akin to my own ditching of my southern accent, for example. Nevertheless, Sowell tells only half the story.

The reason why people in the south, both black and white, talk the way they do is partly informed by slaves learning English from Scots overseers, but once that happened, some of the slaves then became the house servants of the southern plantation owners. In particular, they assisted the plantation owners’ wives in household duties, including child care and child rearing. In many cases, they served as wet nurses.

Guess who the children learned to speak from? There have been cases recently of largely absent parents being shocked when their children began to speak Spanish, or Tagalog, or whatever the native language of the main care-giver. In the case of the old south, they learned to speak from the negro slaves, who spoke a creole compounded from Scots grammar and African intonation. In other words, the slave owners began to speak like African-Americans. And when the wealthiest and socially prominent members of a community talk in a certain way, the rest of the community tends to begin talking that way.

The way you speak marks your social class. Every upwardly mobile young person learns this quickly, and the lucky ones are good at dialect. If you are reading a newspaper story, and the word “articulate” is used, chances are that it is being applied to a black person, even if race is not mentioned in the article. It’s one of the standard code phrases, and it means that—surprisingly—the black person doesn’t sound dumb.

Similarly, I would advise any black high school student to work on their accent. The best thing would be to somehow arrange to live in England for a little while and to develop a trace of a British accent. That adds about the same number of assumed I.Q. points that a southern accent subtracts. But any non-Ebonic, non-southern derived accent will do. It’s just part of the tool kit.

A couple of years ago, I was listening to some NOVA special (some PBS thing, at any rate), and one of the speakers sounded familiar. It took a little while for me to place it; he sounded a lot like me. In reaction to a former southern accent, the speaker slightly overemphasized the trailing consonants of words. So while the southern accent says walkin’, thereby dropping the trailing “g”, the reformed southern accent says walking, slightly overemphasizing the trailing “g.”

There are some other features, no doubt. One place to hear them is on Comedy Central, either Dave Chappelle or Stephen Colbert. Chappelle is black and Colbert is from South Carolina. In some ways, it’s the same thing.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bad Wisdom

When I was twenty, under somewhat consciousness-altered circumstances, I became aware of what felt like pressure in my back teeth. A trip to the dentist confirmed that the sensation had been either real or a fortunate coincidence; I had impacted wisdom teeth, four of them.

I had them out over a Christmas break, while visiting my parents in Illinois. I think it was done in two operations, right side, then left side; I'm not positive of the memory of the whole thing because the first surgery is what sticks in my mind, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I've never cared for the idea of general anesthesia, so all the dental work I've ever had has been under, at most, local novocain or nothing at all. This isn't as tough guy as it may sound, since I've been blessed with remarkably sturdy teeth. When I was twenty I had yet to have a single cavity, and the only traumatic dental work I'd ever had was the removal of my two bottom front baby teeth, when my adult ones came in behind them and failed to undercut the roots. Still, I have to admit that having two fully-rooted teeth yanked out when I was six feels a little painful, even at this distance.

As a complete aside from the main story, I'll recount that I also had an odd bit happen with the novocain when they were prepping me for the wisdom teeth extraction; they hit a vein with the needle. Novocain is a trade name for procaine, which is the anesthetic, but it's usually administered with adrenaline, which is the trade name for epinephrine. The epinephrine causes blood vessels to constrict and keeps the procaine in the local area longer, reducing the need for more injections. However, when, as it sometimes happens, the needle hits a vein, the epinephrine goes into the whole body. Epinephrine is the "fight or flight" hormone, and sometimes can cause panic reactions, especially if the patient is already anxious.

However, despite whatever trauma I had as a six-year-old, dentists are not a source of fear for me. Quite the opposite. No cavities. Great teeth. It's an ego thing. So, rather than having a panic reaction from the adrenaline, I had a different, although common reaction, which is a sense of "I feel like I ought to be afraid but I'm not." All the physical symptoms of fear are there, but none of the emotional involvement. It was an odd feeling of disconnect, which, it turns out, was about to get useful.

See, there's a downside to this "Look, Ma! No Cavities!" thing, and that is that it is a product of hard teeth, and hard teeth are brittle. Now let's see what I mean by "brittle."

"Impacted" in a tooth means that it is trying to grow towards another tooth. In my case the angle was fairly extreme; there simply wasn't enough room in my jaw for them to come up naturally. The standard procedure for impacted wisdom tooth extraction, at least when I had it done, was to file a couple of grooves in the teeth and hit the grooves with a hammered chisel, breaking the teeth into two or three easily extractable chunks. I've since been told that this is a pretty primitive procedure, and most such extractions are now done by sawing and such, but, 1970, central Illinois, who knew? I certainly didn't. Nor did anyone know what was about to happen when the hammer came down.

My oral surgeon hit the first blow onto the chisel and nothing happened. Then he hit it again, and said, "Oops."

Yes, dammit, I got my very own Bill Cosby "Oops." From my dentist. What had happened was that the tooth hadn't broken into two or three easily manageable chunks; it had shattered into more than a dozen pieces, shards, splinters.

So, the guy spent the next half hour trying to make small talk as he fished around in my open gums for little shards of tooth. He didn't get them all, either; bits of tooth were coming to the surface for months afterwards.

Then I got to go home and have my first experience with Demerol. Some people like the stuff; it makes me violently ill.

So, gums sewed up, still bleeding a bit (and one of the sutures had been sewn a little tight, so, what with the swelling, it cut into my gum and leaked blood for days), I got to vomit maybe two or three times before I figured out, don't take the Demerol!

And, of course, stomach acid is just the thing to sooth those raw and bleeding gums.

The second round of extraction went much easier, what with the no shattering teeth and no vomiting afterwards. I barely remember it, in fact.

Then, back at school, like I said before, months of having little tooth splinters come to the surface.

Ah, but it doesn't end there. It so happens that tooth extraction leaves a little halo of bone burrs around where the tooth used to be. Usually, these little spikes of bone get reabsorbed by the jawbone. Not mine. No, instead, sharp little bone spikes inside of gum plus chewing, moving the jaw, equals minor, ongoing gum lesions serving as infection sites.

After months of sore throats, persistent colds, coughs, etc., a dentist in Troy figured out the problem and took an X-ray, which confirmed it. The treatment was simple: open up the gum again and file down the spikes with a rasp.

Local anesthetic works well on pain, but it does nothing at all to keep you from hearing the sound of your jaw being filed down with a rasp, incidentally.

Finally, as a lasting little reminder of the whole thing, the months of infections caused a couple of drainage lymph nodes on the right side of my throat to permanently swell. My dentist told me to resist any attempts to biopsy or otherwise mess with them. This is now their "natural" state, and they'll probably be that way for the rest of my life.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Some Other Guy’s Anecdote

My high school friend Mark went off to Oberlin College in Ohio. One day his roommate came in and said, “Hey, want to go to a Simon and Garfunkel concert?”

“Sure,” said Mark.

The concert was in Denver.

So they got into the roommate’s car and drove, non-stop to Denver, saw the concert and headed back. College students do that sort of thing. It’s part of the educational experience.

In Kansas, one of them fell asleep at the wheel.

“So that,” explains Mark, “is how I wound up walking down Main Street in Russell, Kansas carrying a radiator. Did you know that Russell was home of the National Spelling Bee Champion? They had a big sign, just on the edge of town…”

Kid, don’t try this at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Women and Snakes: Collier and Rubens

Lilith, by John Collier

One of my commenters suggested that the last bit of "Women and Snakes" artwork I posted did not meet his standards of artistry. That's okay; I can handle dissent. However, I pity anyone who cannot appreciate either of these two, for whatever reason.

Adam and Eve, by Rubens

Two different artists, and the only commonality is the snake, really, as Lilith only appears as a woman apocryphally, and not in the Christian Bible as such.

I'm tempted to let my own projections run a little while. Lilith, Adam's first wife (apocryphally), embraces the snake, and makes him her own. There is a small suggestion of this with Eve, but her downcast eyes are looking not at the snake, (who is above her in the tree), but rather in avoidance of Adam's scolding. Hmmph. No wonder Lilith left him, the jerk.

In the great folk engines, Lilith is related to Circe, Kali, and all the other female powers that were driven into darker aspects by...something. What this something might be I leave as an exercise for the reader, acknowledging that the entire thing is just a stroll around the litoral regions of Lake Id and Superego Cove.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Noted, with Previous Observations

Another example of neo-colonialism in America:

Like many immigrant families, he notes, his parents took education seriously. His brother, now a property developer in Britain, went to UCLA; he went to Oxford, where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics, going on to the London School of Economics for a master's degree and earning his doctorate from Cornell University's department of development sociology .

"At home, we had nutritious food, mostly Indian food," he says. But soon, long working hours and busy schedules made convenience foods appealing. "Sometimes we ate in the car," he admits.

"When I explain to people outside the U.S. that 20 percent of American fast-food meals are eaten in cars, they are absolutely gobsmacked," Patel says. "They ask me, 'Is it because Americans love their cars so much?'

"I explain that Americans are working so hard in order to access the things people in other industrialized nations take for granted - health care, education, a pension, a living wage," he says. "And increasingly, communities of working people can't afford to live where they work. They're holding down two jobs - we shouldn't be surprised that people are forced to eat fast food in their cars."
--Raj Patel, author of Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Maybe It's That Simple

I'm having more of a slog through the latest issue of Helix than usual, partly because of a recurrent back spasm that renders me intermittently immobile, but also because I usually start with the John Barnes column, The Well-Bitten Hand, and there's a lot to gnaw on this time. To begin with, Barnes is telling us what being a semiotician means to him, and since he gets paid to be one, it's a good thing to pay attention to what he says, money being what it is and all.

Also, in the first part of his essay, he's dealing with some of the issues that are often trotted out when people discuss science fiction, and, more specifically, why some people don't like science fiction, and perhaps why some people have trouble reading science fiction. This is often summed up in the phrase, "The door dilated," which is supposed to signal the savvy SF reader that we're not in Kansas anymore, but which troubles the regular reader, because, perhaps, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I'm actually giving away a bit of my own argument here with that last sentence, because the sort of literary analysis that Barnes is critiquing calls these things "reading protocols," and suggests that non-sf readers either do not possess the protocols that make sf readable, or they do not enjoy using those protocols.

My own suggestion, which Barnes does not really mention (though I'm sure he's considered it), is that some people just don't like science fiction. It's not as if this is a feature of the landscape that is confined to literature; there are plenty of sf movies, tv shows, comics, etc., and there are many, many people who simply don't care for them. The same is true of various sorts of fantasy. A friend of mine had a long-running (and joking) argument with his wife and daughter about Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. They loved it; he refused to even watch it. He preferred The Sopranos, which is a different kind of wish fulfillment fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. He even agreed with this when I pointed it out. However, he still preferred The Sopranos.

Similarly, there are currently entire genres that are, by classical standards, science fiction, but which regular science fiction readers disdain because they don't speak to whatever said sf readers really want. I'm thinking here of the cross-genre romances, the paranormal romances, the time-travel romances, and so forth, which spoil all the good sf action with that "chick lit" stuff.

In any case, I'm pretty sure that Barnes skips over this part of the argument because he wants to get on about reading protocols generally, and what he calls "dip and flip," as a result of a series of observations he's made of people reading in public places:

One thing stood out vividly: about half the observed readers who appeared to be under 35 began each new page by looking at the center, scanning outward from there in a sort of loose clockwise spiral, and then beginning to read left-right-diagonal-down once they had found something of interest. From eavesdropping I could tell they were looking for a word or phrase to catch their attention, checking back to contextualize it, and then reading only as long as the text was still about that word or phrase (or until another word or phrase took over as focus of interest). And like many of the ad-readers and sentence-excerpters, their conversation indicated that for them, that word or phrase was what the article was "about."

(I put "about" in quotation marks because in different reading protocols "about" seems to mean something different to some readers than it does to others.)

Barnes correctly notes that the "dip and flip" protocol screws up any attempt to convey ordered information, so it is particularly vexing to technical writers and the writers of clean, linear fiction. Indeed, as a card carrying member of both groups, let me suggest that Barnes is being very kind by not suggesting the traditional label for such reading protocols: functional illiteracy.

Of course this is an argument that goes back forever, and includes the Evelyn Woods "Speed Reading" controversy of decades ago.

"What is astonishing is that they think that 80% comprehension is enough. Kennedy was a speed reader. 'Bay of Pigs?' That must have been in that other 20%." –The Firesign Theater.

Barnes spends the rest of the article on providing some tips for how stodgy old linear writers can tap into the "dip and flip" market, primarily by telling their stories in small, bite sized chunks, each of which must have a sugar glaze and a crunchy center. And, truly, I'm pretty much fine with that as far as it goes. Make the scenes shorter, put in some self-contained vignettes, make both geography and point-of-view less static, and more energetic, sure. I'd have done even more of that in SunSmoke, if I'd thought I could get away with it.

But, ultimately, I don't think that there is as much gold in them thar hills as we'd like to think. It's true that the number of casual readers dwarfs the number of dedicated ones, but it's not obvious that one can make all that much of a cake from crumbs. And if I want to really connect with a readership, I think I'll go after readers who want to connect back.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rick or Ricky?

Persons of a certain age, the first chunk of the Baby Boon generation, in fact, have a good part of their childhoods projected against television images of the "perfect family." These are almost entirely sitcom families, and the titles of the shows are chatchphrases: "Leave it to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," are the canonical Trinity. The movie "Pleasantville" over on my newsgroup, which hinges on a fictional TV program that is something of a distillation of these 50s sitcoms, but it is looking through a different end of the telescope, or maybe a different imaging system entirely, than what I'm using here.

The breakout star of "Ozzie and Harriet" was Ricky Nelson, sometimes billed as "Little Ricky Nelson." He was one of the prototypes for the "smart mouthed sitcom kid," who we see in practically every other family sitcom that has ever swam the airwaves. Then he became a teenager, and discovered rock and roll. Not all by himself, of course. There was an entire generation of kids discovering rock and roll at about the same time. But he was on television, his dad had been a bandleader, and "Little Ricky" got himself some regular prime time exposure. He was also gorgeous, and just enough of a rebel to make the girls swoon, but white/safe enough not to scare off the parents. Hell, Ricky was on television, as part of an ideal family.

There are all sorts of downsides to being a child star, one of them being that children take their responsibilities very seriously. And Ozzie Nelson used that as yet another tool in the parental control toolkit. There are literally hundreds of people who depend on us for their livelihoods, the father told his son. So don't screw this up for them. Keep in line. And so on.

I knew none of this at the time, and paid little attention to the O&H show, or, for that matter, "Leave it to Beaver," and "Father Knows Best," although there are a few episodes lodged in my head for each, so I must have watched them occasionally. I just didn't buy into the sitcom family notion, and I'm sure I had Ricky Nelson pegged as another incarnation of Pat Boone, translating real rock and roll into sliced white bread.

I'm not sure how I ran across "Another Side of Rick" and album released in 1968. Memory suggests that a cousin left it after visiting our house; perhaps it was too different from what she expected. As the name suggests, it was Little Ricky trying to grow up a bit, or out, or something. The song that struck me was "Dream Weaver," written, as were many of the songs on the record, by the producer, J. Boylan.

Little girl what's that look clouding over your eyes
Little girl what's all this about life tryin' to pass you by
Yes I'll listen and try to be kind
But remember I'm only a thought in your mind

And I'm a dream weaver
A love receiver and I get around
Yes I'm a dreamweaver
A word deceiver look up and down
Dream weaver's comin' to town

--J. Boylan

Sorry I can't find a video for it. So let's use this one:

Rick continued on his folk-rock trajectory with his Stone Canyon Band, which leaned heavily on the country side of folk, unsurprising for someone with rockabilly roots. But, bills to pay, mouths to feed. It was the same old sitcom grind, only this time it was also his own family to support. So Nelson came to one of the "Rock and Roll Revivals," at Madison Square Garden, and after playing "Hello Mary Lou," went into "Honky Tonk Woman." Oops. Boos and catcalls followed. Then he wrote "Garden Party" about the incident and scored his last Top Ten Hit.

If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I rather drive a truck…

And it's all right now, learned my lesson well
You see, you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

It strikes the right chord, and informed many a boomer caught between desire and duty. But, there were still mouths to feed, and alimony to pay, and by the 1980s, Rick was backed by neon that said "Ricky." Still, if you listen, you can hear more than memories in his singing. He loved rock and roll to the end, dammit.

There are still stories that the fire that caused the plane crash he died in were from freebase ether. The official FAA investigation suggested that it was really an electrical fire, probably from a defective heater. But when drugs enter the narrative, the narrative becomes all about the drugs. Rick Nelson deserved better than death at 45 and idiots making jokes about his demise.

Little girl I could tell you the places I've been
But my words are just whispers that lean on the wind
You must listen and try to believe
And I'll give you a dream I've been meanin' to weave

I could love you, if you want me to
That won't be what it seems
Yes I could love you, if you want me to
Then again I'm just a weaver of dreams

Yes I'm a dream weaver
A love receiver and I get around
Well I'm a dream weaver
A love receiver comin' to town


[This essay originally appeared in my newsgroup on Feb. 25, 2007. I'm uploading it here because I'm about to post an essay on Rick Nelson, whose early life appeared on a sitcom.

Note: the first couple of times I began this essay, it dissolved into failure, mostly because I was attempting to synopsize portions of the movie. Big mistake. Movies are experiential, Pleasantville even more than most; if you haven’t seen it, you should might want to skip this essay, not so much because of “spoilers” but simply because what I’m saying may not make much sense. If you have seen it, but need some reminders, there is a pretty good synopsis on the Wikipedia.

Also, Roger Ebert wrote a decent review.

My take differs, of course.]

Old black-and-white sitcoms do tend to blur together in memory. I can locate the episode of “Father Knows Best” where Mr. Anderson gives Bud a $10 a week allowance (quite a sum in those days) with the stipulation that Bud can only spend the money on himself. He soon finds that it alienates him from all his friends, so he goes back to doing chores for a smaller allowance that has no strings. It was an interesting little parable on the downside of wealth, among other things, and I pinched the seed of the idea for my story “Heart’s Desire/Anything You Want.”

I remember the next one also as being “Father Knows Best,” but it could have been “My Three Sons.” The teenage son (Bud? Chip?) is experimenting with ham radio and talking to his friends, when a mysterious (and sultry) female voice shows up, teasing them etc. They rig up a direction finder and track her down—discovering that she’s the shy girl they all know with the bad stammer. She’s mortified, and can’t talk in person without the stutter—until they ask her about her radio rig, and suddenly the speech impediment disappears. Yet another bit of proto-nerd chic.

I can easily remember a dozen 50s-early 60s sitcom plots that could never have appeared on the imaginary Pleasantville. But that’s because Pleasantville isn’t about 1950s sitcoms, any more than it’s really about suburbia, or the 1950s generally, or even about childhood and adolescence. It’s about memory, memory and its bastard cousin, nostalgia.

Current nostalgia for the suburban 1950s targets the memories of boomers such as myself, but it depends upon the coincidence of those memories with the more general phenomenon of childhood memories. “Those were simpler times,” is how it is often put, but they were simpler only to children, because children are simpler beings. In truth, the 50s were no more simple to those who had to struggle for their lives and livelihoods than any other era. It’s simpler only if you had no responsibilities to bear.

Moreover, the suburbs themselves reflected a sort of nostalgic longing for something that never existed: the idealized remembrance of small town, rural America. Some suburbanites came directly from the rural towns and tried to reproduce their own histories in that way. Others came from the cities, fleeing modern life, with all its temptations, temptations they themselves had already sampled, but, well, best to protect the kids from them. Kids do all sorts of crazy things.

As indeed we did, as we were bored beyond imagining, hoping to get the hell out of there so our lives could “begin.” Jean Shepherd used to start up his college gigs by asking his audience, “How many of you out there believe that your life hasn’t started yet?” He mocked the raised hands as being naïve, or worse. Life is life; if you haven’t figured out that it’s already begun, then you’re doomed to be waiting for a long, long time.

So the outsiders show up in Pleasantville and things begin to change. Jennifer/Mary Sue is rebellious from the start, introducing her first date, Skip, to sex, and bringing the first bit of color to the scenery (a single red rose). Skip misses a basket during basketball practice and everyone treats the ball as if it were radioactive; no one had ever missed a basket before, nor had they ever lost a game. But sex spreads and saps the energy from the hitherto perfectly sublimated athletes, and they lose a game, again, a first.

Then Mary Sue teaches her Mother about sex (a deliberately ironic role reversal), including how to masturbate, which turns Mom technicolored and lights the tree outside afire.

But it’s David/Bud who turns out to be the real subversive, despite his love of the television show, though maybe because he likes the characters. He introduces his soda fountain boss to Art, and the boss’s artistic tendencies blossom. Bud has read the books that have previously been blank, and as he recounts the stories, the pages fill in with text. He shows the fire department how to put out the fire that his Mother has caused (yeah, yeah, “burning bush” joke) and in doing so, becomes a town hero and gets the cookies that Margaret was supposed to bake for another boy. He he helps his mother cover up her color change with makeup. Bud is the really dangerous one.

The color change is the central visual conceit of the movie, and various notions have been argued for what causes it. “Epiphany” is offered. “Change” is another theory. “Strong emotion,” yet one more.

Mary Sue changes color not when she has sex, she’s done that plenty of times in the “real world.” She changes when she dons her Pleasantville glasses and begins to read (D. H. Lawrence, it’s true). She breaks stereotype. Bud changes color when he slugs Whitey (who then bleeds a bit of red blood). Again, when he acts against type.

It’s not just the violence or strong emotion. The crowd that throws rocks through the painted window of the soda shop doesn’t change color; the scene is taken from news footage of civil right riots. It may not be “pleasant,” but it’s entirely within the character of those character types in the 1950s. The book burners are also in black and white; the scene has been compared to 1930s Germany, but burning Beatle albums are just as good a comparison.

The Mayor never gets angry; when he does, he loses his shades of gray, and loses control of the town as well.

As they lean about sex, the soundtrack spouts rock-and-roll. When Bud explains that there are places where the roads don’t just run in a circle, “Take Five” begins, a late night radio piece that promises a road to the Great Beyond. They’re all looking for a way out, and they finally find it, in sex, in art, in the act of becoming more than what they are supposed to be.

So we were children and our world was small, narrowly circumscribed. Then it became larger as we grew. It was several concerted accidents of history that made it all seem of-a-piece. In fact, everyone has that journey offered to them; each of us takes it to varying degrees. Pleasantville should be a reminder of that journey. I hope it has resonance for a broader group than us aging Boomers. It seems more universal than that.

But I do so wish, given the wry ironies about Bud’s “colored girlfriend,” and the use of images that obviously emanate from civil rights marches and sit-ins, that there had been some actual black people in Pleasantville at the end. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t think of a way to do that without it seeming forced. There were no black families living in Donelson when I was young. It was only my thrice weekly trips to downtown Nashville that let me view the world in black and white, and not just white.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Women and Snakes: Steven Stahlberg's "One Last Time"

Part of this "Women and Snakes" series thing is that I do the web searching so you don't have to. There are some really bad photos, artwork, and other crappy images involving women and snakes on the web. There are also some very nice ones, and the one above is one of the the best. The artist is Steven Stahlberg, whose web site is

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Bit More on a Frequent Subject

[Originally posted to my newsgroup, July 26, 2007]

I've been ruminating about that sub-genre of stories that I'm such a pest about: stories that use fantasy tropes as part of a real world story involving characters having fantasies.

If I were doing, say, an academic thesis, a course syllabus, or an academically oriented collection of stories on this theme, one thing I'd be doing is to try to trace back the origins of the form. But there it gets tricky. One can, for example, read many Bible stories that way, with the result that, for example, the story of Abraham and Isaac gets very creepy. Kierkegaard, got a whole book, Fear and Trembling, out of that one.

Alternately, many folk tales, myths, legends, etc. are examples of "magical realism," where miraculous and magical things take place and the characters accept them as real and realistic, albeit perhaps a bit extraordinary. By contrast, people having fantasies is very ordinary, and those fantasies affect their behavior, in ways ordinary and extraordinary.

The first short story that I can find where a character's fantasies dominate the narrative is Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." That's typical, since Poe did almost everything first.

This sort of storytelling is quite common in cinema, so common nowadayds that it barely registers when we are given glimpses of a character's internal landscape. One can easily trace such conventions back at least to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which takes place almost entirely in the mind of a madman, with the audience not privy to that fact until near the end of the film.

By contrast, we're told at the outset of Don Quixote that the poor fellow is crazed, and we are seldom shown more than a glimpse of how the world looks to him. Come to think of it, that might make a good story.

In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the fantasies rarely have an effect on the character's external actions, save for the implication that his inner landscape is either an escape from his drably normal life�or the cause of it. In "That's What Happened to Me," by Whitt Burnett, the very grandiosity of the events described tell us how sad the life of the narrator really is. In The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop, the last chapter is set in the character's fantasy world, a world now so bizarre and changed that the reader can only guess at the final circumstances of J. Henry Waugh.

But notice the jump of centuries between Quixote on the one hand, and Caligari and Mitty on the other. What exists in between? One very trite example is the "it was only a dream" stories, elevated only if the dreams are of high enough quality (Alice's Wonderland, Little Nemo's Slumberland), and we don't really see the exterior world sufficiently to judge the effects of the fantasies. By contrast, Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" is rife with repercussions.

A more difficult trick is to write a story where both the fantastic and the mundane interpretations are equally valid. The tour de force of this is Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm, or maybe that's just my interpretation. All other reviews I've ever seen of the book (and Lindholm's own comments on it) indicate that readers generally believe that the fantasy dominates and that the "mundane" sections are simply magical attacks (of some sort) on The Wizard. Still, one reads the books one reads, and not the ones that others read.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Versions of Immortality

In my general musings about science fiction substituting as religion (for some people at least) and the social implications of that substitution, I thought that the offer of the hope of temporal immortality might be a big item. On further thought I realized that this isn’t the case. People, or at least the Americans of my experience, are so hungry for any hope of a loophole on death that they glom onto anything that seems like it offers said hope, even if they are conventionally religious and the hope goes against that religion.

At least that is my interpretation of such oddities as the “weight of the soul” idea (21 grams?), which lots of people seem to buy, even those who profess to believe in the “immaterial soul.” Still, maybe people who believe that something immaterial nonetheless has weight are merely ignorant of what “immaterial” means.

In any case, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to hope for “scientific immortality” though I suspect it helps.

One of the current magic wands, The Singularity, is substantially science fiction-y. As nearly as I can tell, this is the idea that we’ll soon have artificial intelligence and that said intelligence will be able to evolve exponentially to higher and higher intelligences, and at some point said AIs will become indistinguishable from God, even down to the part about loving each and every one of us so much that He, She, or It will grant us physical immortality. Or maybe we get mental immortality, by uploading each of our minds/souls into the Great AI, to dwell in the presence of the Lord forever, amen.

Apparently I’m not much of a fan of The Singularity.

Of course, the upload/download thing has been around for quite a while (Tron, anyone?). It’s an extension of an older idea, that Everything Is Information. I once had an immortalist on the Compuserve Science Forum try to convince me that the information contained in my brain is important (which I certainly believe), so important that it constitutes my essence (which I don’t buy for a minute). Yes, without my memories I’m not me anymore, but putting my memories into some other brain doesn’t make him me, not even if it’s my genetically identical clone. It just means there’s two guys walking around thinking they are me, which I don’t believe is the same thing, and neither would they, I’ll bet.

The Pop Culture version of immortality is that our souls are made of some sort of Special Matter. We know that it’s matter because it has weight (see above), is immortal (which, in actuality, matter more-or-less is and spirits aren’t, nearly as I can tell), and can give you a body image even without a body wrapped around it. In other words, a ghost made out of ectoplasm, an astral projection, a hoodoo of some sort. When physicists go off into these nether realms, they start talking about the “physical basis of consciousness” and try to conjure up special particles, special physics, or paraphysics. Going back a ways, you get physicists who are interested in parapsychology.

J. B. Rhine, who kicked off the whole parapsychology movement, was pretty specific about his aims. He believed that it should be possible to directly perceive God. Of course, if there were some aspect of the mind that was not part of physiology and beyond conventional physics, then all the wonders of the immortal soul would be real, even if not necessarily concrete.

John W. Campbell bought it hook, line, and plot device, so we had a couple of decades worth of psi stories, whose tropes are part and parcel of science fiction, so well established that you really don’t even need to explain them any more. Though they are déclassé in the “cutting edge” part of SF, they are well represented in mass media SF, and will no doubt outlive us all.

Later we had cryonics, the Disney version of the Egyptian afterlife, as it were. That Uncle Walt is in cryonic suspension is an urban legend engendered by the coincidence that there was publicity for cryonics on the same day Disney died, and some reporters covered both stories, with speculative results. After people began to realize just how much damage a frozen corpse had sustained, nanomachines came to the rescue, at least fictionally. For all I know there’s a nanotechnology story that has someone resurrecting Egyptian mummies. Or maybe there will be soon. My favorite nanotech story was the one where Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to discover himself transformed into a giant jelly donut.

I remember a story, by del Rey I think, that begins with the observation that every ghost story, even a horror story, is a bit hopeful, since if the ghost survives after death, then that is evidence that death isn’t the end. As I recall, the story then specifically torpedoes that hopefulness, but most ghost stories do indeed fulfill that purpose, to provide just a little more confirmation that death might not be the end to your own personal viewpoint.

Science, of course, has powerful mojo, and people generally would like to appropriate that mojo for their own ends, including the “be not afraid” part of religion. The crassest kind of comfort is the kind that says that what you’re afraid of doesn’t exist, in this case that death is somehow contingent, that there are loopholes (just like for taxes!), and all will be taken care of because someone who is all powerful is watching out for you.

For my own part, I remember being struck by a line in an F&SF story many years ago. One character asks another (who, if memory serves was the Devil), what would happen to his soul when he died. The Devil answered, “What happens to the information in a book when you burn the book?”

Years later, at the memorial service for my first sensei, someone remarked, “In some of the Zen traditions, the soul is a candle flame; it doesn’t go anywhere when it goes out. But one flame can light many others while it lives.”

If you spend all your efforts in trying to keep the one candle lit, you might not be lighting the other candles. That, ultimately, is the danger of promises of immortality, that you spend so much of your life trying to compensate for your own fear of death that you fail to expend effort on living your own life, whatever that may mean to you.

The Atheist in Church

From Dark Underbelly/Blood Relations

"That sounds like a case of 'atheist in church,'" Lewis said when I was finished.

"Atheist in church?" I asked. "More wise sayings from the Founder?" Lewis was not above quoting from the writings of the Founder of Stochasticism, who is never referred to by name, mainly because he gave so many names, all of them false. Quite a Trickster was the Founder.

"The very same," Lewis said. "The Founder had a lot of things to say about religion and what place it has in society. 'The Atheist in Church' is one of his best essays. He says, look, there are a whole slew of reasons for having churches. They're a form of social organization, you meet people, get moral instruction helpful for living in society. They can be a store of wealth, a means of education, all that stuff. So even an atheist might wish to join a church, regardless of what his opinion of the theology might be.

"But an atheist makes the theists nervous. He can abide by all the same rules, profess the same moral code, and still the regular churchmen don't like his presence. He's not committed to the group, you see. He doesn't say the password. A secret password can't be something that you can figure out by just being reasonable, it has to be something arbitrary. So religions make their believers do things that just don't make sense. That's what really defines the group, the things they do that don't make sense."

"So what does that have to do with me?" I asked him.

"It's a matter of freedom," he said. "We like to think that freedom is a good thing, but joining society means giving up some freedoms. And society doesn't want it to be a conditional thing. It's not supposed to be a matter of choice. We much prefer to have people who can't rather than won't transgress. Which is the better husband, the man who couldn't beat his wife no matter how he feels, or the man who simply refrains?"

I opened my eyes to see how closely he was watching me when he said that. But he was staring out a view panel at the clouds. "I thought that the whole point of it was moral choices," I said. "You talk as if not having a choice is better."

"'Lead us not into temptation,'" he quoted. "Because we might succumb." He looked over at me and grinned. In my current exhausted state it looked a little like a grimace.

"There are a lot of things in life that we don't know about until they happen to us. It's a lot of potential rather than actual freedom. And the potential may be bogus. We might not be able to do it when push comes to shove. That's part of what dice living is about. To test the limits. But if you do it from the dice, the gods might not get so angry at the freedom. That's a clear thread in most mythology. The gods get very angry when confronted by a free man."

"So do you think that it's just the gods being angry with me?" I asked. I smiled again to show that I thought it was a joke.

His face got a bit more serious though. "That's all metaphor," he said. "'A man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a meta for?' The gods are stand-ins for human fate in human society. Stick your head up too far and the body politic will try to shear it off. You make people nervous, pardner. They don't know what motivates you. They don't know what you're capable of, but they're pretty sure you're capable of more than they want to know. If there's the choice of having dinner with someone who hated me and wished me dead -- but couldn't do me harm no matter what -- versus someone who liked me, but could kill me without a thought if he so chose, well, most people would go for the first guy, not the second."

I sat up and looked at him carefully, but he was back to watching the cloud patterns. I looked out at them, but I knew that he saw things in them that I'd never see. And vice versa.

"What about you?" I asked. "You said 'most people,' but you don't say about yourself."

He looked at me and grinned. "Oh, I'd probably go with the first guy also; at least I'd load the dice that way." He paused for a moment. That's the secret of the punchline: timing.

"Present company excepted, of course," he said.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tumbling Dice

As I have said before, the late 60s actually took place in the early 1970s, and it was an interesting time, with a lot of ideas in the wind. One of the ideas in the wind was probabilistic decision making.

I suspect that the I Ching had something to do with it. All those college kids taking a hit off the bong, tossing the coins, then reading poorly translated Confucian texts in an attempt at fortune telling. It sounds very hippy dippy woo woo, but some of us knurds looked at it and said, "Aha! A probabilistic response to a non-full knowledge game." Then we'd take another bong hit.

Then you had Dungeons and Dragons, with all those weird polygonal dice. Given the degree of emotional investment in D&D characters, it was probably inevitable that someone would try something similar in real life.

D&D came out in 1974, but The Dice Man, by George Cockcroft (writing as "Luke Rhinehart," the ostensible protagonist of the novel) was published in 1971. The story is of a psychiatrist who, suffering from boredom and midlife crisis, decides to start making decisions based on the random toss of dice. Then, as zest, he begins adding some "forbidden" possibilities, including raping the wife of his next door neighbor. This being the sort of fantasy that it is, the dice pop up with that order, he complies, and she enjoys it (I know, I know).

He introduces his patients to "dice therapy" and things get out of hand in the sort of way that novels described as "funny, bawdy, [and] outrageous," get out of hand. A cult forms around him. The government gets involved. All very counter-culture in its way.

So, was it D&D or The Dice Man that was responsible for the following scene at a science fiction convention in the mid-1970s? Elevator stops, doors open. Outside is a woman looking into the elevator. She shakes her hands together, looks at the dice, then looks back at the elevator and waves goodbye.

Anyway, plays have been written, songs sung, lifestyles devised and documented. It struck a chord. I saw no reason not to use it as part of the basis for a religion several centuries from now. It's not as if randomness is going to go away.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Minoan Snake Goddess

There is a wealth of material concerning the Minoan Snake Goddess, much of it speculative, in that wonderful way that archeology manages to project the psychology of archeologists via learned discourse and much brushing of dirt.

For my own part, I'm just laying out the gallery. If someone wants to read a female dominated religion and culture into it all, I'm fine with it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Listening to the Radio Late at Night

I’m sure there are people whose memories are better than mine; I just haven’t met many. On the other hand, I’m sure that some of my self-perception of having a good memory is illusory. One does not remember what one forgets, after all. Still, I have many clear and verifiable memories of events, personal encounters, books read, TV shows watched etc. that has impressed enough people for me to grasp that most people don’t have this sort of access to their past.

Most people do remember where they were, what they were doing, etc. at times of great import, like 9/11, the Kennedy Assassination (assuming you were actually alive then), the Fall of Saigon, and so forth. One feature of my own situation may simply be that I have a lot of marker events in my childhood, so my memories got organized at the same time I was acquiring them. Maybe, self-centered dweeb that I am, I consider my own life events to be as important to me as the world shaking events that others remember.

One type of such event is moving, changing houses, which changes the entire “atmosphere” of a memory. That can sometime deceive, as when you go back for a visit to the old place, to see old friends, but usually the surroundings, the frame of the memory is a pretty good test.

In the spring of 1954, my family moved from a house we rented on McRory Creek Road to 2935 Ironwood Drive in Donelson, which was a move of only a few miles, but it felt huge. In at least one way it was huge; McRory Creek Rd. was semi-rural, while Donelson was definitely sub-urban. At least the Post Office thought as much; the McRory Creek residence was a rural route; the Donelson house had an actual address.

Mapquest tells me that McRory Creek Road has been swallowed by Nashville Intl. Airport. At that time it was Berry Field Air Base, where my dad worked as a radio operator. The house in Donelson, on the other hand, was still there the last time I was there only a few years ago.

So I have a set of memories that are bounded in time by the move. Any memory I have of McRory Creek Rd. happened before I turned 4. I remember my 3rd birthday party; that’s probably close to the limit of my memory. I’ve heard people who claim that they have memories from before they were 3, but, according to developmental psychology, such claims are dubious, though I’ll allow that great trauma might linger in memory longer than other forgotten images of childhood.

“I have a friend whose father every week took him to the toolshed to sandpaper his ass. He’s been trying for 30 years to repress those memories, without success.” – Merle Kessler.

On clear memory I have from the McRory Creek house was of our old radio, one of those huge, jukebox looking affairs, late at night bringing forth music. At least the memory feels late at night, dark, no one else around, calm, private. My best guess is that the radio got left on somehow and I got up in the middle of the night. I had an early bedtime when I was a child.

The song I remember is “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, a song that seems like it should be angry, or scornful, certainly the lyrics have that in them, but the delivery conveys more about the hurt and loneliness that the anger is trying unsuccessfully to mask.

I remember both “Chicken Road” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, and “The Wayward Wind,” by Gogi Grant (and later by Patsy Cline, but the Grant original is the one I remember), from the Donelson House. The "Wayward Wind" is from 1956; I may not have even heard the Ford song on the radio, since my dad had the record. But it felt like a late night song.

So did “Heartbreak Hotel” which made me an instant Elvis fan at the ripe age of 6. That one is tagged as heard first in Illinois, so that would have been from a trip to my grandparents in early summer of 1956, a couple of months after the release of the record. I slept upstairs, where no one could hear the radio if you played it real low, late into the night.

There’s a feel about late night music radio that you don’t get any other place. McLuhan famously divided media into “hot” and “cool,” with “hot” meaning (more or less, and McLuhan was nothing if not slippery and ambiguous) “high definition” and “cool” meaning “low definition,” both indicating how much participation the medium required. He did, however, classify television as “cool” (as compared to movies, perhaps), but maybe that was a mistake.

In any case, radio gives you a sense of “not from around here.” Television puts everything in your living room, radio shifts your sense of presence to the Great Beyond. Late night radio music is as much a signpost to the World Out There as the train whistle or the truck horn as it moves past your small town headed to who-knows-where. Wherever it’s heading, there are adventures to be had, love, fame, success, whatever it is that you want, and you can’t get where you are.

A lot of songs lack that quality of longing, but there are so many that have it. Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” pulled me from sleep one night, as did “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. The Beatles had a slew of them, from “Strawberry Fields” and “I am the Walrus” to “Eleanor Rigby.” The Rolling Stones came through first with “2000 Light Years from Home” and “Paint it Black” then topped themselves with “Gimme Shelter.” I’m not going to try to make a catalog of Motown late night songs, because Ray Charles alone would run to excess. Even uptempo song can be late night radio songs, like “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas.

The choice spots at WRPI, the ones that had the most prestige were late night, the signoff slots. You didn’t have to follow the format, and the show was open-ended, with a scheduled signoff time that you could go as far past as you liked. Sometimes the DJ would go until 3 or 4 in the morning on weekends, and many is the time I’d listen to radio in bed, thinking I’d turn it off as soon as something came on that I didn’t like, and I’d wind up listening until the signal went dead. Firesign Theater’s “Echo Poem,” “Legend Days are Over,” by Beaver and Krause, “To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb” by Lenny Bruce, you just don’t turn it off when you’re listening to those.

I’ve frequently put The Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Sessions on the iPod rotation. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is another late night Hank Williams song of loss and despair. But there is an affirmation to it, as there is in so many of them, an acknowledgment that there are things worth having and living for. Something worth having is worth grieving over at its loss, late at night in the dark, with the music whispered in your ear by a sweet voice from the Great Beyond.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Edward Norton Lorenz died on April 16, 2008. Lorenz has been called "The father of Chaos Theory," and it was he who delivered the paper, "Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas" at a AAAS Conference thereby creating the conditions for the phrase "The Butterfly Effect." It helped that a graphing of the "Lorenz Attractor" looked sufficiently like a butterfly.

I myself used Lorenz's butterfly image when describing a storm in SunSmoke, not realizing that I was just ahead of an avalanche of such usages. It wasn't a cliché when I used it in 1983, honest.

It's also been noted that Ray Bradbury used a crushed butterfly to set off all the change-the-past stuff in "The Sound of Thunder." From a scientific point of view, Bradbury was far too conservative. He had meddling in the Jurassic merely change human history; it could have erased human history entirely.

People have as much trouble with chaos theory as they do with quantum mechanics and parallel worlds. There is a tendency to underestimate the effects, to bring them down to human scale, for example. But the point is that small changes in initial conditions can have, under certain circumstance, large changes in outcome. It's also important to understand that this isn't always the case. Not all systems are chaotic.

Suppose you have a very round ball bearing and a very smooth surface. Drop the bearing straight down onto the surface and you can be pretty sure that once it stops bouncing, it is going to be very close to where it first hit the surface. If there is a depression in the surface, you can be even more certain. The bearing is going to wind up at the bottom of the depression.

Now put another ball bearing down below the first, and drop the one onto the top of the other, as best you can. Where will it wind up?

You can be pretty sure that you aren't going to get two ball bearings stacked onto each other. Past that, well, it's anybody's guess, and guess is the operative word. Conservation of momentum says that the two bearings will ultimately be on opposite sides of your starting point, but they could be very far apart if there isn't much friction in the system. The smallest offset between the centers of the two ball bearings get multiplied very quickly by the bouncing.

Multiply this situation by a few dozen orders of magnitude and you have atoms colliding in a liquid or gas. Look at the system in fine enough detail and you can see "Brownian movement," the effect of bunches of atoms randomly hitting one or the other side of something preferentially for brief periods of time.

In truly chaotic systems, like those showing fluid turbulence, the small effects can magnify as time progresses, and produce major, macroscale phenomena. It's not just the butterfly wing that can set off the tornado, Brownian movement can also. So can a single quantum fluctuation, the radioactive decay of a single atom, the ionization shower from a single cosmic ray, the heating of a single molecule by a single solar photon.

Or maybe not. Sometimes things do cancel out, perhaps. We don't have access to all those alternate quantum universes, so we don't know how many there are, nor do we know how different they would have to be to no longer be here. Identity is a slippery thing, after all.

But weather is chaotic, so all possible weather events probably happen in the Great Beyond. Read any history and count the number of times when weather played a big role in the life of a nation, a people, or just individuals. Crops fail, and famine is a chaotic event.

War is chaotic, of course. Every soldier is a fatalist, knowing that the difference between life and death is often a matter of seconds, or inches, or a single random impulse. Plagues are chaotic, with disease vectors jumping around (literally sometimes) like fleas.

That's three of the Four Horsemen. The fourth one is Death, and he looks like Chaos to me.

But Life is also chaotic, even at the beginning. It's sometimes said that the fastest sperm gets to fertilize the egg, but in fact, it takes a mass of sperm, containing enzymes that break down what is called the "zona pellucida" to allow a single sperm to get through. So it's more like "We're taking the 3,887,996 caller."

Every conception is a random throw of the dice. Every birth is a door from chaos into chaos. Every individual creates a myriad universes, just by existing.

Is that enough? I mean, what more do you want?