Monday, January 31, 2005

A cascade of sinking feelings

These have not been good days. I've been fretting for myself, and somewhere in the midst of that, I turned to fretting about the world. I know the media distort our view of what is going on; I know they overreport depressing/sensational/idiotic news as a matter of unwritten policy; I know almost every human being I've ever encountered has been decent at heart. All that being said, I still feel we're on a slide towards something frighening. And this isn't just the regular post-asshole inauguration blowing off steam; the more I learn, the more I realize the ideas I've apparently attached myself to have been on the decline for the past twenty years. There are a dozen issues I feel utterly powerless in the face of. If I dedicated all my energy to one and convinced everyone I know to do the same, it would be drops in the ocean.

Let's list some of these: uncontrolled (probably accelerating) environmental rape, corporate dominance of everything (including your mother's last moments), the rising star of religious fundamentalisms (oriental, Western, Middle Eastern), the move from reproduction to production, uncontrollable nucleear proliferation, willing militarization the world over, unstoppable killer viruses, stoppable diseases that nobody cares about, vast public ignorance (memories that don't last over a month). Then I get visions of flower children in ashes, fatalistic old women shuffling down the street much as they always have, a stealthy attempt to teach my children evolution (God knows, school forbids it), doing what the Red Queen did: running as fast as I can just to stay in the same place, because if I slip, there's no net to catch me. I'll be crossing myself or bowing to Mecca; it doesn't matter. I'll do what I have to do to survive. I'll have to turn my head from floggings of the homeless on the street. I'll dodge potholes. I'll give insincere prayers for my eldest son fighting in a "police action" across the world for whatever reason. I'll have to watch myself at every turn. We'll all be wearing burqas, not for religious reasons, but for protection from the sun. Only the Buddha's transcendental wisdom keeps me climbing out of bed every morning, and even I'm not sure whether it's just a pleasant placebo.

Someone please prove me wrong.

Consider:: "...this is a neutrophil taken from the blood of a graduate student."


I've had a frightening brush with that old protestant work ethic. It came upon a realization that I was spending a great deal of emotional energy applying for a job and a volunteer position, and that I was doing this in large part because I want it to be the way to something better. And in a moment of clarity (the commercials blaring out of the TV must have let up for a second) I extrapolated what I'm doing now for 20 more years. I saw offices piled with papers on the shelves; I saw myself shaking hands and pinching my cheeks for that full colour effect; I saw myself walking up and down hundreds of stairs: into department buildings, government buildings, schools, libraries, stores, apartments; I saw the bills on the kitchen table; I saw a relaxing evening with smooth jazz; I saw a futon and an armchair and a television; I saw a queen-size bed in the northwest corner; and I felt the weariness of my bones and the tightness of my arteries and veins. Not surprising, really. The likely scenario--perhaps inescapable.

People in our age are supposed to have an average of seven or eight major jobs, if I recall correctly. That's a lot of shifting and adjusting. It runs counter to all my predispositions. As a result, it is a distinct possibility that I'll be tossed by the wayside even in our "socialist" country by armies of well-bred and clean people waving their CVs and begging for letters of reference, the same people who can play the phone tag for an entire day and think nothing of it. My methods are not compatible with this--maybe this is why I'd be a perma-student if given the chance. I build slowly and strike out randomly, and if I encounter resistance, I run back to cling to my mother's apron strings (metaphorically; my mother doesn't cook).

Case in point: I studied for a bit today, and then got sidetracked reading about M-theory, something that 1) I cannot understand and 2) cannot apply. I spent three hours leafing through something that beat my sense of intellectual grasp to the ground.

Consider (with apologies to D.: "...fools say in their heart / "Rasta, your God is dead!" / but I'n'I know / jah, jah / dread / it shall be dreader dread..."

Friday, January 28, 2005


I can't write extroverted people. I tried once, and it was a disaster. What I can do, however, is take a set of relatively trivial personal happenings, de-contextualize them and spin them off as some sort of commentary. For example, we start with a character (bland, medium height, herd clothing). He is taking a bus. He does not like taking the bus. He proceeds to tell his narrator why he does not like taking the bus. He arrives at work. He attempts to define an ongoing nameless dread. He sits in the cafeteria chewing meat and finds his cafeteria-issue kaiser bun particularly fascianting. Several pages of text spill over into each other. He goes back to work. He thinks about what he is going to do this weekend--he's been meaning to propose a dramatic ultimatum to his on-again-off-again love interest. He obsesses over that while playing solitaire, dissecting their latest phatic conversation. He writes up a plan in his head as he is doing the spreadsheets and e-mails the plan to himself. He's back on the bus; his afternoon commute is even more unpleasant than the morning one. He watches TV while trying to will himself to pick up the telephone. "I'm going to do it. I'll give her a piece of my mind." After some light reading (Deepak Chopra) he nods off to sleep. He has dreams where fiery figures chase each other through the aether.

(It was not my intent to present the last paragraph as androcentric, heteronormative or an endorsement of a carnivorous lifestyle. But it might have ended up that way.)

Consider: "critiquing unstated social assumptions is fraught with false positives. While we sometimes manage to expose and elucidate bias and regressive ideology, oftentimes the critique "game" comes off as wrath-inducing charlatanism. And then, of course, the whole fiedl gets shit dumped on it by the people it's critiquing."

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Describing youself directly is probably the worst way someone can get to know you. I prefer indirect methods that are not quite as polluted by narcissism and self-deprecation. To that end, I have spent hours taking those time-wasting internet personality tests, especially ones of the form "what X are you?". So, here are the results:

Which operating system am I? Windows 95.
Which country am I? Switzerland.
Which high school stereotype am I? The outsider.
What is my Shakespearian tragic flaw? Suspicion, like Othello.
Which Big Lebowski character am I? The Dude.
Which classic am I? The Iliad.
Which (classical) element am I? Earth.
Which Family Guy charater am I? Brian.
Which famous homosexual am I? Eleanor Roosevelt.
If I were a horible affliction, I would be: the bubonic plague.
Which care bear am I? Bedtime bear.
...and so on

For those people that don't know me, this is much more illuminating than any other descriptor of personality I can muster.

Consider: "syncopation is to be preferred to predictable beats. Mad pounding is to be preferred to tear-jerking chord progressions. Growls trump melody. Personal anguish gives way to any attempt to communicate."


I love the snow. I miss no opportunity to write about it as it is falling, and also as it melts and pisses everyone off, as the anti-snow salt ruins my clothes and so on. So why is it that I did not leave the house today and frolic in that snow? I can offer no explanation except some potent neuroses coming together to keep me on their leash. The inertia I feel every weekend is irrational, but very powerful. I can offer no explanation for it (though I suspect it has to do with 1) my upbringing experiences and 2) my utterly ineffective coping/dealing/stress reduction strategies). Instead, I just sit here and try to record it as dispassionately as possible.

Maybe I should stop calling them neuroses. For the more theologically inclined out there, I'd like to get a feel on what they think of our psyhological explanations. Different perspectives break ruts. I know I sure need something like that. Give me some Old Testament explanations. I may not believe them, but I would consider them more that one would think. Because in acknowledging my powerlessness over a situation I become more open to help, I am in fact somehow increasing my own power. This is veering into cliche, but I need that. My voice has atrophied today.

And now for something completely different: "Some philosophers have argued that not-p, on the grounds that q. It would be an interesting exercise to count all the fallacies in this "argument". (It's really awful, isn't it?) Therefore p."

Friday, January 21, 2005

1 a.m.

At that time yesterday I was taking the subway back to my home. The only people on the subway were me and a man sitting across from me. I pulled out a pack of gum and began reading the ingredients.

"I wouldn't read those if I were you," he said.

He was right; having a basic knowledge of chemistry can be a curse. At that point we struck up a conversation. It meandered here and there for the rest of the subway ride. We talked about the shit they're putting in our food, about factory farming, about Africa, about tsunamis and meat packers, about the government, a light sprinking of politics to end an odd evening. Then we each went on our way. I wish more people in this city did that. I can count on one finger the number of conversations I've had with total strangers. I think he was the fourth in seven years. (This figure does not include people who talk to you but you try to ignore even tohugh you can't.)

Consider: "when people say "everyone wants the best, we just differ in how we want to get there," that is a lie. We actually differ in our definitions of the good. Do we all want an equitble society? What if it's impossible? And if we achieve it, to what end did we do it? In my definition of the good, we stop there. Someone else's definiton includes the harvest of souls to appease The Creator."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The man in the radio

I am profoundly afraid of where technology is leading us, in particular various biological technologies. A while back, I was very optimistic about biology's liberatory promise. Did we not manage to free women from the constraints of their biological cycles with birth control pills? Did we not change what it means to have sex? Those were grand accomplishments, but we humans buggered it up as usual. Birth control has in some circumstances created new inequalities between the sexes; women have to bear the risks of "the pill", while both sexes partake of the benefits equally. Other forms of birth control have casualized sex and, by implication, relationships. For someone as needy and clingy as me, this is bad news.

The future promises to be even more exciting or frightening--perhaps both at the same time. I hope for the best, but I know better. Every new technology gets taken up by society, and decisions around the directions of the technology are made by the almost exclusive idiot-caste of those in power. Somehow, despite the best of intentions--or perhaps the finest of rhetoric--we end up creating new imbalances, new dependencies, new centres and new margins, new things to privilege, new prejudices to dress in the Emperor's clothes (shiny, beeping, metallic, test-tube clothes).

An example from biology (because it's my baby): there is a growing movement for free open-source biological data (much like free open-source software). This movement argues that the purported goals of the life sciences (human benefit, general goodness all around) are better served if more researchers had access to patented data. They argued quite well that the third world would benefit if they had the means to make transgenic crops, as opposed to some paternalistic biotech giant patenting seed and selling it to them. (Whole other issue: how the fuck did we allow anyone to patent a seed? Did we allow the chemists who discovered the elements ot patent them? (They actually tried, but the government stopped them.) It migth seem a silly analogy, but it's not.) But are the big companies that invested millions into obtaining this genetic data going to release it for the common good? Of course not. When you strip off the ultrathin veneer of pharmaceutical-commercial-style bullshit, our big corporate "citizens" are concerned with moeny and power. And that is never going to change. I wish it would, but it won't; we tried to a few times, but human covetousness found new forms of expressing itself. So in the end, the old (white male) boys' club enriches themselves at the expense of everyone else.

I give us 45 more years. Then balance will be partially restored. Not the good kind of balance, either. The balancing-out that involves (metaphorically) four hooded riders scattering virulent biological agents and fire and mobs and libraries sinking into the bogs and semiautomatic gunfire and floods and walking rat-fetus hydrids casting long fetal shadows on the wall by the light of the incendiary bombs.

And now some hippity-hop: "I ain't here to argue about His facial features / or here to convert atheists into believers / I'm just tryin' to say the way school need teachers / the way Kathie Lee need Regis / that's the way I need Jesus."

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Horoscope--Liberal agenda

Today's Advice from the Stars: "Now would be a good time to get more work done. Go back and check your premises; you'll find one of them is subtly flawed. Are you sure you've covered ALL the relevant literature? A deadline looms large in your mind."

It's supposed to be a lighthearted play on the stressful life in university. but today I'm not laughing. How can I write an essay in the Social Sciences without using subtly flawed premises? I've done my best to hide that fact, except that I always end up making conclusions that are safe to make, which in this case means nearly nothing at all. This naturally brings into question our ability to be objective at all. But I'll set that aside, I've got to write with an agenda. (Yes, there is a liberal agenda, a scary agenda where we want to sacrifice your babes to the Wiccan Goddess. We want to burn the monasteries and bring down the cathedrals with earthquake machines; we want your blood for genetic experiments. The first tower of Babel failed, but our new biological effort will fix that. Give us your weak and sick as a source of renewable energy. We will sell your grandparents to third-world countries for meat.)

Bah! Ignoire this essay anxiety. Pity the essays, for they are misbegotten creatures, hated from conception, hated through the grading, and hated for their miserable failures to prove what they set out to do. In addition, they are hated by the printers that have to process them, the librarians who file the more important of them, hated by future grad students who may have to read them. The only ones who would appreciate it would be the academics cited in them, whose citation count increases (a process similar to a chain letter). Of course, this only applies to higher academic ranks; nobody cares who I cite or how many citations I make up.

Consider: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Abstract to specific

General commentary: why is it that people impose themselves upon one's field of affect if and only if the situation is in no way propituous for such imposing? Is it a functiuon of the mind to store only the out-of-place events of imposition and ignore the events where the interaction of two or more individuals is contextually appropriate, given certain mutual values and common background assumptions? Moreover, can one say that the geometrical causal neccessity of human interaction taken to its most abstract form is a closed or open stucture? All questions that are very vague. What promped this?

More specific commentary: while waiting in line for labcoats today a person spoke to me as if we were two old friends sharing aqn in-joke. This threw me off just long enough to not be able to make an impression. Isn't that something? And this looms larger in my working memory than the general argument of an essay I wrote today. I'm trying to become a decent conversationalist, but I'm stuck in one of those vicious circles that I occassionaly break somehow (and then have no idea how I accomplished that).

Consider: "I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things evolved. I am not saying how humans morally ougfht to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. ... Let us try to teach altruism, because we are born selfish."

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The lonely monopole

I'm certain that I am for practical purposes indistinguishable from the strong heterosexual. That is a lonely certainty; it seems I've somehow been robbed of feeling incredibly awkward (and at the same time inexplicably uplifted, giddy, etc.) around half of humankind. It's odd that I should feel that, since I have no experience with very broad horizons (let's face facts: I suck at taking opportunities). Maybe it's a havgover from fashionable liberalism. There's one thing I've determined to move away from: the self-righteous approach to helping humankind while pocketing some indie cred along the way. I've never been all that good at being fashionable, anyway.

I'm currently jumping through hoops in order to volunteer at a cantre where anonymous people with problems call in and we, in essence, just listen. There is no room for self-righteousness there, no room for mouthing off, no room to share amusing ancedotes from work with friends over a beer (we are bound to confidentiality, of course). I'm hoping it does me good.

Consider: "good education is, by its very nature, a subversive activity."

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Balls of fur coming in from the cold

Imagine my surprise when yesterday my parents arrived home with a kitten! Now, I had spent months trying to convince them to get one this summer, and they were opposed. It is a nice kitten: a tiny Persian that weighs next to nothing and is afraid of everyhting. The naming of this kitty was the most problematic part of settling her in; as it stands I might appeal the name we've settled on, as I feel it to be too much the product of committee thinking, framed by exchanges such as this one (modified because I don't have a photographic memory):

BROTHER: We need a name! The cat has only one name!
ME: Forgive me if I'm wrong, but right now it has no name to speak of.
B: She needs a name!
M: Can't we all call her different names?
B: No! She needs one name.
M: If there is a law of nature to that effect, please point it out for me.
B: Shut up!
... (perhaps I'm being unfair to my brother's thought process.)

Consider My Favourite Joke: "Q: How many realists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: One."

Friday, January 07, 2005

Mind, ideas, evolution, freedom

For a moment here, let's switch gears, or jump tracks, or however you, the reader wish to term this break from form. What follows is an essay--a personal essay, utterly unqualified for obtaining academic standing--on freedom and the impossibility thereof, a rambling sketch, neccessarily tentative:

I. On What is and What Could Never Be

I find it ironic that the human mind (and surely other mammal minds) believe so fervently in their generative capacity, their power to create (images, sentences, ideas, essays like this one). They carry on as if originality were the crowning achievement of existence, the glorious golden maypole around which we and our progeny will dance around, revelling in the gift of consciousness until the very last suns have burned out, blighting the last atmospheres. But I digress. It's a matter of perspective, a thesis that changes with fickle moods, but refuses to go away: that the so-called powers of mind are nothing but a simple set of combining principles working on a simple set of substrates. The mind is thus a combinatorial machine of the highest order--on my better days a marvellous machine--but not much more.

A troubling consideration comes from evolution. Our mind is a physical object, for the most part unconscious, that evolved physically before cultural transmission had enough mind to work its own peculiar brand of evolution. Evolution never exalted the individual, and neither does culture (merely another form of evolution). We might argue endlessly about the assumption-ladenness of scientific observations, but I accept all but the most egregiously ideology-driven, the work that tells us our utopian ambitions crash and butn on the evolutionary timescale. This is, sadly, intuitive. The example of Doves and Hawks is telling,

Doves and Hawks in this case do not refer to the species themselves, but are names for two srategies that a given organims might use to gain fitness in an way; these are genetically based. Doves are cooperators, while Hawks are fighters. Supposing a Hawk and a Dove encounter a resource, the Hawk will attack and a Dove will flee. The Hawk keeps the resource. Now, if two Hawks encounter a resource, they fight, and in the end, they are worse off for it. If two Doves encounter a resource, they will split it. What happens if a population contains a mixture of these strategies. What ends up happening is that the population ends up at some stable mixture of the two strategies. There is more to it than that, but the point here is that a population of Doves would be desirable (in fact, desirable for the species as a whole), but that state is not stable against invasion by a Hawk. A single Hawk would inexorable spread in such a population. The opposite is not true. A Dove in a population of Hawks would not survive. There needs to be a critical mass of Doves before they are driven to extinction. I've been belabouring the point somewhat to illustrate that perfect co-operation is not stable against cheaters, and also that it is much easier for violent self-interest to aries than co-operation. Of course, the actual situation in the world is much more complicated. There exist more than the two basic strategies.

It might be helpful to note that nature is noe "red in tooth and claw" all the time, ubt neither is it hopeful.

Cultural evolution in the form of ideas propagating themselves across the crania of humans (known as "memetics", analogous to genetics, where the "meme" is defined, somewhat abstractly, as a "unit of imitation") is much faster than the physical selective pressured on out bodies. We are no longer pushed about by lions and leopards leaping from behind rocks which shape our bodies and reflexes and emotions and predispositions (though we are not entirely free of nature's grip: tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, snowstorms, floods, volcanoes etc.); the majority of the pressures we feel are the appeals of religions, cults, diet fads, infectious pop tunes, political affiliations. These operate on essentially the same principles as evolution (how could they not? An idea that can propagate more efficiently than another idea cannot but spread through the population; it's almost tautological). This is why human stupidity and mindlessness and sameness and conformity hold such sway: they are either appealingly infectious, or the counter to them cannot spread itself quickly enough (like a Dove in a population of Hawks). Consider that it might take a decade or more of learning or argument or experience or moral struggle to eradicate the sadly ingrained fear of the "other". So, what is the likely status of most human minds? Darfur, anyone?

It is not ridiculous to speak of a taxonomy of ideas, or at least their methods of propagating themselves. Ideas are similar to viruses; indeed, modern marketing and propaganda is making excellent use of such metaphors.

II. On what Can Be

But there is a modicum of hope, and it lies in the potential survival of a non-orthodox idea, an idea that is difficult, that does not spread instantly to billions of minds but may nonetheless survive at the margins. If I were able to fly but never reproduced, that ability is dead to evolution. Humanity will have to wait for it to pop up randomly through random mutation. This is not so with ideas, especially moral or intellectual ideas. We do not have to rediscover Calculus every generation. This difference is where the hope lies. The category of marginal ideas includes most of the ideas that I believe offer the possibility of a unified world where humainity can work as a unit and cooperate as such, not as a disparate set of nations, cultures, blocs or any other quasi-futuristic dividing bullshit (John Lennon - Imagine.mp3). But our divisions are not all bullshit. They hangovers from our not-altogether-peaceful past. But, there is (I shudder at the word) hope.

Once an idea is produced, it becomes nearly impossible to eradicate (particuarly in the Internet age). Sure, libraries burned and scholars felt the point of ignorant swords at all ages in history (recall the destruction of scholarship by one of China's first emperors; I wish I had the reference or could post links), but minority ideas persisted and bided their time, waiting for the right conditions to carry out something very similar to a biological invasion on the space of ideas, an intellectual millieu, a public gathering, a culture, whatever. (Naturally, this also applies to the "default" ideas: observe the rising tide of religious fundamentalism; cultural evolution is not a one-way process. Complexity does not equal success.)

To that end, every freedom should be nurtured: artistic expression, sexual liberation, free speech, experimentation with drugs, seemigly purposeless tomfoolery, freedom to read, to write, to make endless varieties of music, to judge, to not judge, to preach, to fight other ideas, to advocate, etc. This should not be seen as my apology for my views or my lifestyle: I accept the possibility that I may be very wrong, but I do believe that my views contain a kernel of something greater. Evolution works its effects on variation, and the more variation there is, the more likely we are to strike on that elusive "answer". Or, more likely our progeny in the uncontemplatable future might reach a holy synthesis.

III. Freedom as an Idea

What I just said in the last paragraph is an idea. It got to me through others, and I hope to spread it to others. But there is no guarantee that this will happen. As of right now, it does not exist everywhere in the world; it is suppressed by our ancestral fears of destablilizing society and opening the door to the "other". Even where this idea has been spreading and holds appeal, it may collapse under the weight of fear. It is a young idea in human history; there is not enough data (nor will there ever be) to determine if it is an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. With that fundamental uncertainty in mind, my claims exit the realm of reason and enter the one of hope. I certainly hope this idea--which I have purposely refrained from labelling--continues to spread, or at least survive.

Consider: "I tried to say so much that I might very well have said nothing at all."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Lest I forget

I've been writing a lot more stream of consciousness rants. No structure. No intent. Just volume. I guess it's some sort of misguided attempt to reflect how our society is structured. But who wants to read about our society. Maybe I'll just go back to belabouring the beauty of trees--throw some Victorian language, and people think you're a poet! But SOC has destroyed my ability to form coherent strings of sentences. Damn allure of mindlessness. Today I gave a short talk to a group of people in one of my tutorials, and I was stunned that nobody understood. It was my fault, of course, for I had forgotten how to make things clear, or how to talk with a point, or how to talk without being deeply in love with one's phrases. I think that's been reflected in the mass of non sequiturs in the last entries. I thought it might have been the alcohol, but I think it's a habit of mind. So, how do I break it? Intense Zen focus? But wouldn't that just result in both beautiful arguments and incoherent messes at once? I don't know; this is not my field.

For some reason, children's literature is coming to mind. I know that my most promising effort to renew and expand my French skills has come from watching children's shows. I suppose talking to children forces on to boil down a large amount of material into something simple. It enforces good habits of thought. Damn, those children can teach us a lot.

Purposely butchered quote: "the alternative to thinking in [sentences] is not to think at all. Callow funicular Felix Dobzhansky oyster."

Monday, January 03, 2005

Angelheaded hipsters

I have this dream that one day I'll be able to talk to people on the street, that I'll be able to walk down that same street and feel powerful and large, unlike what I've constructed myself to be: a little leaf node on the tree of life, waiting to blow away with the trick wind, or alternately budding in the middle of January because of a few freak days of warmth and dying an irreversible frost-ridden death.

Where was I going with this? I think it had something to do with increasing the readership to this weblog to more that 0 per day. The answer might lie in features (whatever that means). Or maybe polls. Maybe some essays (of the political and shoe-gazer-esque variety) will galvanize someone to respond. Here is a "feature":

Three methods of passing the endless hours on the net: 1) typing abstract concepts into the Google image search (I can't believe I'm whoring out Google, as if they haven't reached complete market saturation). 2) watching the dusk creep across the globe from real-time composite satellite photos (if this were a simpler time, I might have provided links). 3) Hitting the "next blog" button on the upper right of the screen (but please refrain until you finish reading this).

Consider: "if you want religious faith: go for it! If you want to change religious stripes and orientations as if they were very trendy clothes: go for it! If you want to cast your budding faith away: go for it! If you want to return to it in your desperate old age (or: the truly wise years) as one inexorably returns to the secret lover: go for it!"