Archive for January, 2007

Back East

January 29, 2007

Writing this 32,000 ft. in the air above Lake Ontario, flying from Toronto to Montreal. The early morning sun is shining and glinting off the low cloud tops, reflected in the water below. It’s the last leg of my epic cross-country redeye, marking an odd and somewhat sudden turn in my life. I’ve decided to leave Victoria, perhaps briefly, but possibly for good.

As beautiful and warm as it was walking barefoot on the beach near Witty’s Lagoon Saturday, it is cold and stark back here – the depths of winter in eastern Canada. I must have lost my mind…

And yet I had to go. Irina and I agreed that things weren’t good, and she understood that returning to Montreal and its gritty and familiar realities was the only way to get back on track. Living in Victoria was lovely, but it wasn’t totally living – more a permanent vacation in Lotus-land. Returning “home” to family and friends with some sadness and regret, but also deeply renewed and rejuvenated. The time alone and the introspection were necessary, helping a switch flip somewhere in the back of my head (to “on”…). Purpose and promise beckon.

Sad to leave those majestic mountains and beautiful beaches, but right now the focus must be on work and career, not scenery. Montreal’s harsh setting is perfect for getting back to scribbling at the scriptorium, finishing the work I’ve been hired for, and finding more.

I feel different here, yet it is familiar. Got so much to do…

I’m Walking Into Spiderwebs…

January 21, 2007

…so leave a message and I’ll call you back…

Hoop Dreams

January 19, 2007

Basketball is my game. It came to my life early and never left. I used to shoot hoops through long hours at the gym in high school, not always hanging with my peers but instead with Adult Ed students from places like Senegal and Somalia, who were ostensibly learning English or French, but, like me, played basketball all afternoon in their street clothes, with rolled-up sleeves and shiny, slippery dress shoes…

Later in life, living out in the country, basketball was a way to clear the mind and break out of the spinning mental epicycles. A simple court in a tiny hamlet, a place where you dug the ball out of the creek beside the willows, disturbing little frogs in the process. All in the shadow of an old church I walked by every day on my way back and forth from the court. It was my balancing act to go out there and sweat, hitting tight jump-shots, posting-up against nobody in particular and just fooling around. Makes me think of Burroughs: “K9 was in combat with the alien mind screen — Magnetic claws feeling for virus punch cards — pulling him into vertiginous spins…”

Sometimes I was joined by a troubled local boy…Just bored and then bored some more. Felt bad for him. He learned the game quick, though. Of course he did — he was cocky and clever. That’s what it takes…

I’m a long way from that hamlet now, and the game has slipped away a little. Today was the first time I’ve played ball in a while…Over a year. A long while. Life just got in the way…

Why did I play today? Don’t know, as walking the beach has been my thing since getting here. But there’s a court in a schoolyard on my walk home from the beach, and there was a teenager there, shooting hoops. So I just walked right up and asked if I could play. The court was muddy and full of little puddles, it was getting too dark to see, and the ball we were using was wet, slick and flat. I didn’t care. Missing everything, I was trying to shake the rust off, and swearing a blue streak about it. And here was this boy — John was his name — moving like he’d been there for hours in the rhythm, hitting jump shots from the top of the key with his own unique, “hitchy” style. He asked me to play a game, and we hashed out a little 1 and 1, American rules.

The kid was good. No more than about fourteen or fifteen, he had some moves, stutter-stepping and dribbling like a pro. I am a giant in comparison — a Goliath to his David, totally outweighing him and about a foot-and-a-half taller. Yet he beat me. Sure it wasn’t fair and square, sure I wasn’t pushing him around, going hard to the rim, etc… But I stuck to him and made him work and still he made the shots. He looked tired, but kept hustling and moving. My freethrows were like bricks. Then I started to find a groove, hit a few shots, and make him sweat. We threw some verbal jabs at each other, and like many kids I’ve met on the court, he was sharp. There was talk of Rasheed Wallace and reverse psychology (which always works in sports…). This was no babe in the woods…

And that’s just the point. Here was a kid — a young man, actually — who obviously hadn’t grown up sitting around playing video games or dutifully vegged out in front of the TV all the time. Was basketball a part of that? Probably. That’s what kept me, a sometimes bored and somewhat frustrated kid growing up “on the street”, out of trouble. Sort of.

It’s certainly what kept me from totally plugging into the machine, spending too much time playing Galaga or fooling around with the school’s computers, old Apple II’s that didn’t do much of any interest. Don’t get me wrong…I’m using a computer right now, but there are limits…

You’ve gotta find balance in life, and that comes from being in body as much as in mind. They’re both indispensible. I felt like this kid had to find that outlet himself…Not sure there’s much inspiration for such things in public education these days…There is no real motivation to unplug you — modern educators are modeling citizens for the future, after all. And the future’s not bright when they’re telling you that Toxic Sludge is Good For You. That’s the point of health…of mind and body in unison, of balance — the kind of thing the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipients I saw on Charlie Rose last night are humbly striving for. I get the connection, but who cares? We need less engineering ontology and more ontological engineers. To keep building new word bridges. Words can be like bullets, fired from the mind of God…

Refreshed, dirty and sweating, I said goodbye and told him I would be back, and next time I’d win. “In your dreams,” he said.

I could have come back with something like “we all need a dream, kid”, but I didn’t. He wasn’t really a boy, after all. “We all need a dream,” I replied, “we all need a dream.”

Sure ’nuff. And we all need to learn — in our own way — how to go to the rack and take the hard foul to get the hoop. I know…hoops, brass rings, Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye, etc…Whatever. All of us have hoop dreams.

Don’t you?

Reflection

January 17, 2007

So many words and ideas…Time for reflection…

Hacking the Mind Hacks…

January 17, 2007

I just ran across this piece at Mind Hacks. I appreciate their general approach, but there is whole lot more to be said about this subject. Sure, many people are delusional. But what is this a reflection of? Jung argued that the appearance of archetypes like UFOs and “flying saucers” in the 1940s and 50s was a manifestation of aspects of a modernizing collective unconscious. What, we may ask, is the psychic preoccupation with “mind control” about? I don’t know, perhaps the sense of powerlessness with respect to a massive scientific and government complex cloaked in secrecy and deception…

All that aside, let’s get beyond the psychology (behavioral or otherwise) and into the facts. The U.S. government not only “tried” mind control research — in some cases, they succeeded. There is a clearly documented dark history there. So you may not want to read all the books I point out here. That’s OK. This short film gives the gist of it quite well, I think.

My persona here is conspiratorial, I’ll grant you. But I’m also a professional medical historian, and all this talk of mind control (which is sometimes little more than a refined aspect of social control…) is not only all too true, but important in understanding the relationship between medicine (particularly behavioral psychology) and the modern state. Don’t think Foucault was just flapping his gums all the time to sound postmodern and French…There was a point to all that theory…

Science Since Babylon

January 16, 2007

The other day I read this article (which was probably sourced from here) about the difficulty we may face in the future disentagling the paper trail of scientific discovery. No surprise, really. More than 40 years ago, historian of science Derek J. de Solla Price described the explosion of data and information that would spew forth in the coming years. His first book, Science Since Babylon (1961), mapped the exponential growth of scientific and technical knowledge, the increasingly narrow specialization (and sub-specialization) that would develop from this phenomena, and the possibly unmanagable and overwhelming consequences of it all. Most of what de Solla Price argues is even more true now. He was the first person to point out, for example, that there are more scientist alive today than have lived in all of past human history.

But what kind of “scientistic” society have we created? Does it bear any resemblance to the utopian oligarchic technocracy described in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627)? To some extent. Truth is, big science is dominated by a pragmatic imperative to “make product” — pharmaceuticals and consumer electronics are the essential by-products of our medical and communication revolutions. Lacking strong, unifying theoretical impetus, science has also turned fetishistic, and is too often little more than a process of obsessively recording and documenting everything — maybe it was always that way, but the effect has become magnified and multiplied.

Sociologically inclined, de Solla Price wondered at the implications of these changes. But, as a historian, he also marvelled at the accomplishments of the ancients. He was, for example, the first person to investigate the Antikythera mechanism, a more than 2000 year old astronomical device whose complexity and purpose defy complete explanation…

This artifact reminds us of the twists and turns of history, for it was re-discovered in the early 20th century, but its initial effect may have followed the same pattern as many of the foundational elements of western science. The bulk of the Greek tradition was filtered through the Islamic world in the period from the fall of the Library of Alexandria (much of which was moved in the 8th and 9th century by the Abbasid Empire to places like Antioch) to the Crusades (ca. 1100), and even, arguably, to the reconquista in Spain and the early phases of the Italian Renaissance (ca. 1250-1350). In the 9th century the Caliph of Baghdad commissioned the Kitab al-Hiyal, “The Book of Ingenious Devices”, one of many texts that borrowed ideas from the Greeks (and, of course, from a host of other ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Chaldeans, etc…). It was the dynamic new Islamic world that spurred the incredible marketplace of ideas in cities like Damascus, Baghdad and Samarkand, a place that linked this revolution to the far east. Before Guttenberg in Europe, the Middle East was a center of the book trade like no other. These texts — translations and commentaries of ancient classics, and new original ideas from thinkers like al-Farabi, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sinna) — helped lay the foundations of scholasticism and sparked the re-discovery of Greek philosophy (and science and technology) in the late medieval period.

One reels at the implications of all of this in light of the current world situation, of cold warrior Samuel P. Huntington‘s lame refrain about “the clash of civilizations”, of the destruction wreaked upon the ancient crossroads of knowledge. The Antikythera reminds us of the cycles and foibles of history and time. It is a symbol of what was known, but just as powerfully, of what can be lost…

In 1990, cyberpunks Bruce Sterling and William Gibson collaborated on a speculative fiction novel entitled The Difference Engine, wherein they played with history and imagined a late Victorian world where the mechanical contrivances of Charles Babbage are made real and fully functional. “Steampunk”, they called it. The Antikythera was a primitive computer, a form of difference engine…Built before the fall of Rome. The difference is in the similarities. Not so shabby those Greeks and Romans…They even developed concrete that set under water, an alchemical mixture lost for centuries, and only re-discovered in the mid-19th century.

Where have we been? Where will we go? These are the questions scientists (and science) should be grappling with, but instead they are drowning in data, building war machines for the war machine, and, eventually, leaving not even a paper trail of their passing. And, all the while, Babylon burns…

Navigating Reason

January 15, 2007

Reason is a tricky thing. What is rational to some is irrational to others. Being reasonable is perhaps synonymous with “common sense” — but who has that these days? Long ago, these same thoughts prompted me to express a sense of reason (not my sense of reason, since that fluctuates…) through metaphor. Here’s what I came up with…

Navigating Reason

As conscious, sentient, thinking beings we are awash in a sea of information. But this is no dip in an innocent, tranquil wading pool. Perhaps drowning in a churning, heavy, depthless ocean swell would more clearly capture our fortuneless circumstance. The data stream flows with uncontrollable force, and we are carried out on its unyielding ebb. It is an unbridled, patent necessity, and we are passengers on its currents. How does one stay afloat atop this wave?

Reason. The thoughtful mind is at once prisoner and privateer. Fall victim to the seeming sense of urgency of this information sea, and horizons loom eternal. Set sail with the truth as desired booty, and land will be sighted in good time. The power of reason lies in the ability to set a course, and stay to it.

Thought is the soundest of vessels. Purpose the sternest of sails. Uncharted waters beckon and the clear course does not always correspond with the charts and maps. The clarity that comes from our reasoning selves is the compass to find our way. Heed not the backwaters of technique and pedantry. New maps are not always best to consult – sometimes the cartographer’s art only flourishes with the ages. The sailor’s true wisdom lies within, and no two vessels may follow the same course. Reason, above all, is the means to a safe and fruitful landfall.

Of the present-minded character of the bulk of all new ideas, one must only recall the ancient mapmaker’s refrain – “here there be monsters.”

Wisdom and skill come only from experience, tempered with a clever and curious conscience. Above all, let the truly rational within shine a beacon on dark and moonless nights, as it and only it is the sextant of the soul.

Not bad, in retrospect. l continue my voyage out beyond Ogden Point, just past my local coffee shop (check out the gallery!), needing to come up with a way to describe unreason cloaked as the ultimately rational — wait, I think Habermas and Chuck T beat me to that one — they called it instrumental rationality.

Be nice to have someone to talk to about this — where’s Descartes when you need him…Probably still freezing his ass off and getting up way too early in the morning in some horrifying alternate universe. That’s not very reasonable.

The Earth Will Shake

January 14, 2007

The other night there was a brief tsunami warning out here. Now I’m not a catastrophist (well, maybe I am…), but the idea of a tsunami washing up conjured yet another realization of the dynamism of the world around here — it is ever changing, in fact. Faults and movements deep below the earth around the so-called “ring of fire” — which roughly circles the Pacific — leads, as the label suggests, to occasional volcanic activity. But its effect is more often seen through earthquakes.

The reason for the warning out here yesterday was an earthquake. It was a big one — 8.2 on the Richter scale. You couldn’t feel it here, of course (well, presumably — I wasn’t watching any animals at the time…), since the epicenter was far away. It was across the Pacific, just east of the Kuril Islands, which are disputed, but nominally belong to Russia. The record of the tsunami warnings is fascinating to read…You can follow the sequence of updates on the event as it transpires here. Imagine watching unsteady readouts from some hazardous self-regulating machinery, like in The China Syndrome.

So the tsunami turned out to be a bust…I’m OK with that. The only reason the warning was broadcast at all was probably as a highly precautious security measure — yet another sign of our heavily risk-assessed society.

More interesting is the fact that the Kuril Islands are currently a hotbed of geological activity. Take a look at these charts. There are small earthquakes all over the world, daily, but big ones, over 8 on the scale, are fairly rare. There’s been 14 of them worldwide since 1990. Three of these were centered around the Kurils. Two of those three 8+ quakes have struck in the last couple of months. There’s been a host of smaller aftershocks and the concentration of terrestrial geological activity in this areas is clear.

What is going on?

Who knows. Maybe it has something to do with the North Koreans…They’re not far away…Paranoia aside, it is a rather interesting nexus of energy — a particular moment in geological time…Instead of allowing the ominous rumblings create a delusional association to the current American arsenal of “bunker-busting” mini-nukes (look it up!), I prefer to think of it as a synchronicity marking the recent passing of Robert Anton Wilson, whose books and ideas have been an inspiration to legions. Thus my title, from the first volume of The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles (1982), an offshoot of Wilson’s more famous collaborative work, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975). Wilson’s The Earth Will Shake is set in the heart of the shaking and shifting foundations of the Enlightenment, and starts in 1760, five years after the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake — an event referenced in Voltaire’s Candide (1759). The devastating earthquake simultaneously gave birth to the science of seismology and shook the foundations of belief in many European hearts, putting the ancien régime on the defensive. It was, one can say without hyperbole, “earth-shattering” in its consequences. Aftershocks in the illuminated mind should form when I mention that Voltaire was a writer of some relevance to Wilson, who ressurected themes from the French philosophe‘s classic satire (of a Leibnizian world gone awry) in his own masterful works.

I loved these books, and was even more profoundly influenced by his wonderful journey from macrocosm to microcosm to psychocosm in Prometheus Rising (1983). It was like therapy without the bill. You might even say when I first read Wilson “unbound”, I was promptly jarred out of my previous reality tunnel. For a moment, I could have sworn the earth shook beneath my feet…


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