Sunday, July 25, 2010

Whale Watching

When I was quite young my peer group played a game called “don’t laugh”. It was a staring game that began with the two players standing toe-to-toe. The opponents would stare into each other’s face with a look of absolutely stoic composure. After a couple of seconds one of the opponents would deliver the pitch. In slow measured syllables the pitcher would say “d-on-t L-au-gh”. A properly delivered pitch would have the receiver busting a gut in uncontrolled giggles before the pitch was even complete. Extra points were awarded if the receiver snorted while laughing. Still more points were garnered if the snort produced a snotcicle. I am still amazed at the utter lack of approved safety equipment available to us as kids.

The idea behind the game was that once the suggestion of laughing was presented (the pitch) it was impossible to think of anything else. Once one thought of laughing hard enough it was impossible not to laugh. Though I’m not sure if playing “don’t laugh” with an adult would be as interesting, or as sticky; the basic premise the game is based on is worth examining. That premise is that it is very hard to not think about things.

In earlier entries I discussed mental tracking at length. I have discussed forming dugways of thought that resonate with enhanced cellular neuroanatomy to create robust thought patterns. Practicing useful patterns enhances the ability to use them with different levels of conscious control. The same is true of useless or harmful thought patterns.

Guilt is a good example of a negative thought pattern. There are ways that guilt has both personal and cultural uses. On some level guilt is useful as a learning tool. I certainly want you to feel guilty if you harm me, or impede my progress. However, once guilt has been established the thought pattern quickly outlives its usefulness. Enhanced cultural awareness gives way to self denigration. The individual transitions from just feeling guilt into being guilty. Guilt is only one of many named negative emotional feedback loops.

How does one get out of a negative emotional feedback loop? One can attempt to “just let it run out”. Eventually, without the primary source of the emotional irritation, the loop decays in intensity. The problems with this approach are that the primary irritation may not go away, and that after the loop peters out it leaves neural pathways molded into ruts that enhance future negative feedback loops. So the loop may continue or may start up again with little difficulty. We all know of people that can wallow in self-pity with amazing skill.

Another popular coping skill is to de-prioritize the negative feedback loop. By “keeping busy” or pretending that things are not a problem the loop can appear like it is not there. The major problem with this approach is that the de-prioritized loop can become a background process that creates stress. A popular difficulty with this approach is achieved when de-prioritization is done for the sake of appearance. “My friends expect me to be over her so I just will be”. Ignoring one’s state of mind only de-prioritizes ones personal identity. De-prioritizing is akin to just hoping something will go away by magic; very little good can come of it.

Interestingly enough the third mechanism is one stolen from spiritualists. It is called many things depending on the context. I will call it meditation here. The nice thing about meditation is that it works.

Meditation is practiced by consciously focusing on thought patterns occurring in one’s mind. Then each loop is slowed and stopped. Through meditation even some so-called autonomous loops, like heartbeat, can be slowed. Crude objective measures of neural activity, like brain waves, can be minimized. Mediation not only feels like it is affecting the thought patterns in the brain; it looks like it is also.

The idea is that by slowing or stopping thought loops in the brain one has an opportunity to refocus on productive thought patterns. The stopping is achieved through meditation; the re-focusing is achieved through creative pre-positioning. Let me provide one of my favorite examples.

I have told this story many times. Some of you valiant readers have heard it before. If you have I ask that you enjoy it the way you would a comfortable pair of socks while walking across a cold tile floor.

Decades ago (in a galaxy far far away) I became convinced that the best way to know true human intimacy was to engage in absolute celibacy. I decided to go on a pilgrimage like a monk of some strict sect of some iron-age religion. Like a monk I reduced my possessions down to a very small set. Basically I limited myself to some clothes, bedroll, a pack, some stuff I don’t recall like utensils, and the largest book I owned. Like many of my awesomely bad ideas the whole celibacy thing did not last long, but I inadvertently began the process of pre-positioning for a meditation catalyzed change of mental focus.

The largest book I owned at the time, not including textbooks, was Moby Dick. There probably was some thought given to the irony of taking a book with a title like “Moby Dick” on a celibate pilgrimage into the great American “further”, but I will not recall it now.

The celibacy decayed into a process of discovery wherein I found one of the great loves of my life hidden in the personage of a good friend. The voyage stretched on into weeks, and the great American further became the backwoods of several western states. In Yellowstone I filled an empty three-pound coffee can with sulfurous mud from a mud-pot geyser. In Washington state I ran –covered in nothing but mosquitoes and screaming- across a mud-slick flooded sagebrush desert. I saw simple vistas that could not fit into my east-coast imagination so I expanded my imagination to let them in.

There was an unnamed stream-fording in northern California where I saw a dying salmon with what looked like a lamprey attached to it. Shortly thereafter I found myself on a pot farm who-knows-where in a crude A frame that had almost no furniture. In the center of the A-frame’s main room was a meter cube appliance box filled with cassette tapes. Each tape had a hastily scribbled label on it which consisted of a date; sometimes a city name. The A-frame belonged to the “maybe-ex” of the woman who had morphed into this great love of mine.

I was out of my comfort zone. I am such a fierce teetotaler that I agonize over cold medications should such substances accidentally affect my ability to examine my thought and feelings, and here I was on a pot farm. There was a box that represented what must have been years of (probably covert) surveillance tapes. I was being forced to examine my weeks-long Honda-bound relationship in the light of a multi-year co-habitating real relationship that yielded up all sorts of emotions I had no part in. Worst of all there were two foot long toothed leach-like parasites in the water. There were so many sources of counter-productive thought-loops that I would need to re-prioritize in order to perform simple tasks like peeing. I needed to leave.

Northern California, if you don’t know, is a great place to leave anything. Armed with a scrap of highway map, two cans of beans, and the amassed positions I catalogued earlier; I hatched a plan. I would hike into the Sinkyone wilderness a day or so, feel miserable, and hike back out. The Sinkyone wilderness state park is a stretch of coast where stands of California redwoods reach out to the Pacific over cliffs so rugged no road could be built anywhere near it. I knew that there, among other things, I would find banana slugs.

Since my company was quickly not entirely welcome I was able to secure the loan of a car and I was on my way.

On the second day of backpacking it dawned on me that a three-pound coffee can full of mud weighs much more than three pounds. I could not, of course, just pour it out.

That is how I came to be on top of that cliff. Pre-positioning had given me the memories that come with just having finished Melville’s most famous epoch, and a can of volcanic mud, and time, and nowhere to go.

The hiking path ran in the shadow of the redwoods; just over a slight rise a mere 20 yards from the cliff’s edge. Between the edge and the rise was a tiny meadow of wildflowers. The sun was still rising in the sky, but it was already warm. The pacific was hidden beneath a quilt of fog that ran into the cliff about halfway down. I could hear waves on the rocks at the base of the cliff, but I could not see them.

It made perfect sense that I should remove all my clothing and coat myself with the mud. It took a little stirring, but the mud came out as sticky as I could have possibly have hoped. Once coated in the mud I decided I would meditate. There are only so many reasonable things one can do while covered in mud and perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

I sat in a relaxed lotus position and put a hand –palm up- on each of my knees. I tried to focus on my breathing but the sound of the waves on the hidden shore was too distracting. Soon I found I was breathing in arrhythmic syncopation to the waves. Everything was still and warm. My thinking changed state. I was not happy, but I was no longer miserable. I did not know where I was going to go, but I knew I was not going anywhere right now.

As the sun rose higher in the sky it baked the mud coating my body. The mud began to crack; it would itch slightly as pieces fell off me. I became aware of insects; probably the loudest were bumblebees polenating the wildflowers of the field. I slowly opened my eyes to gaze out over the Pacific Ocean. The sun had burnt holes in the quilt of fog through which I could see open ocean.

In one of the holes I saw a shadow-like appear on the surface. A spray of water shot up from the shape and it disappeared. Several more appeared and sprayed. It was a pod of California gray whales migrating to Baja.

I was on my feet in an instant. So quickly did I transition from lotus position to dancing that I could swear I performed some acrobatic maneuver impossible to reproduce. I waved my arms about and spun like a top. I pointed and gesticulated at the whales, and all the time I was screaming.

“Aye the grey whale is a mighty whale but tis no Moby Dick” I screamed “Hump like a snow hill”.

It was several full minutes before I realized that by standing I was now in full view of the slightly popular hiking trail. Silently meditating while hidden behind the rise, and camouflaged by the mud coating, was one thing; jumping around in full view while naked and screaming was another. Modesty rapidly prevailed, and I quietly got dressed before heading farther on down the trail.

It was at least a day before I realized I was not miserable. In the interim I had realized that I really thought banana slugs were cool. In the interim I realized that the sound of waves on a cobbled beach was delicious. In the interim I tried to time my breathing with waves as they appeared and rose and crashed. Every once in a while, in the trough between waves, the whiskered face of a seal would pop out of the water to look at me.

Meditation provides a mechanism to actively change one’s point of view.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Concrete Blockhead

I have been somewhat lax in pursuing the central goals of this project. This statement might be counter-intuitive given the extended length of some of my most recent posts. The verbosity I have been indulging lately has been motivated in large part by the punctuated nature of specific current events. One set in particular, the spate of recent deaths, has continued unabated. Yesterday another friend of mine died.

I have been lax in pursuing the central purpose of this blog project because I have been examining the stuff of psychology and other more modern pathways to understanding of the human condition. I trust reasoned approaches to the discomfort and emotional pain associated with the death of someone I care about. I can holistically transition to acceptance without ignoring aspects of my personality because they might displease some imaginary superfriend. I can view the painful feelings I encounter as precious proof of humanity rather than hints that a god wants me to suffer or has ignored my pleas for emotional comfort. By being solidly human I know that there is the potential for (my regular readers can fill in the rest of this sentence without pause) love.

The purpose of this project is to reach back into the mechanisms used in religious context and move what is useful into a non-religious context. In other words I should be spending more time stealing what might work and re-shaping it as new. I need to keep the theological chop-shop open.

The reasons for wanting to take from religious tradition are numerous, but I tend to return to the same anecdotes when describing them. When the current Abrahamic theism was ascendant many aspects of pagan cultures were abandoned. Amongst these was the recipe for concrete.

The many castles and fortresses of post roman Europe exist mostly as ruins. These structures were needed to enforce the Christianity that would become the Christianity we know today. Wherever there was a population that needed to be enlightened a fortress arose.

The post-roman fortresses of Europe were big piles of rock. Some existed in the shadow of great roman structures (like the aqueducts) which would eventually outlast them. Quickly the natural forces that scatter piles of rock reduced the medieval fortresses of Europe into scattered piles of rock.

I know there are gaps in this history through which two could pass abreast. There are the instances where the fortresses were actually attacked and destroyed. There were fires and other catastrophic failures. The list of what one can leave out of a thousand-year-plus history in just a few short paragraphs could fill volumes.

The point is that they concrete could have made a big difference in medieval Europe and the medieval Europeans did not have concrete. The reason they did not have it was that they did not steal it from the Romans when they destroyed that civilization.

We need to make sure we do not make a concrete mistake while creating a future without religion. Avoiding a concrete mistake is one of the primary purposes of this blog.

I want to avoid alluding to the notion that something is worthwhile because it is a religious tradition. There is a tremendous amount of crap in current religious tradition, and most of it should be discarded. It is, in fact, the overload of crap which is a major motivator for the discarding of religion altogether.

Every time someone in a community can stand up and say something like: “My name is AOA. I’m an Atheist, and I did not eat any babies today.” People feel safer about having us as neighbors. There are challenges in simply living as an open Atheist in today’s world. Panning for potential concrete ideas in the sewage of religiosity is too often a disheartening exercise in futility. Luckily not everyone has to do it. As long as a dedicated few –like AOA- are willing to conduct this effort, and report their findings, then we should get all we can use.

I'm AOA and I need to dust off my hip waders.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Sixty-five years ago today, at 0529:35 on 16 July 1945, a group of scientists and engineers in the desert of New Mexico listened intently to a radio. The faint scratchy sound of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite could be heard. Then a voice began counting down. Ten seconds later the world would end.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Two hundred and eleven years ago today, on July 15th 1799, an expedition of Napoleon’s French soldiers under the command of Captain Pierre-François Bouchard discovered an interesting stone in the town of Rashid. The French did not like the Arabic name of Rashid, so they had renamed the town Rossette. The British, who arrived shortly after the rock was found, decided the name Rossette had to go, and they renamed the town Rosetta. The stone, which the British transported to the British Museum in 1802, has been known as “The Rosetta Stone” ever since.

The Rosetta Stone is the most visited object in the British Museum today. It owes its popularity, in part, to the adoption of the name “Rosetta Stone” as a generic name for a (sometimes metaphorical) translation device.

The original stone was one of several stones carved in 196 BC to announce the Decree of Memphis. Ptolemy V had just undergone coronation and the decree instructed everyone to begin worshiping him as a god. This is an early example of the concept of transubstantiation that was carved in stone.

Several more god-making decrees were found making for an entire Rosetta stone series. The earliest were the Decree of Canopus stones carved in 238 BC for Ptolemy III. The next were the Decree of Raphia stones for Ptolemy IV. The last were the Decree of Memphis stones for Ptolemy V in 196 BC. In 42 years they had created at least three new gods; how industrious of them.

Ptolemy V (P5) was given the god name of Epiphanes Eucharistos. Epiphanes souns kinda like epiphany, so I think it is fairly good god name. What do you think your god name would be?

Interestingly, P5 was made a god just about year after the emperor Antiochus IV (A4) kicked some serious Egyptian butt in a preemptive strike meant to prevent P5 from taking Syria and Gaza away from the already too large Seleucid Empire that A4 had inherited control of in 175 BC. So P5 was a puppet king for A4; even though he was a god.  Maybe P5 was compensating for something by becoming a god?

A4 made a name for himself by pissing off all sorts of gods in addition to P5. He remains most famous for forcing the Jewish god to make a lamp burn for eight days on only one-day’s worth of oil. I bet that showed A4 who was boss. Apparently the Hellenistic emperors were never good at bronze-age flashlight tag and Jehovah was exploiting this little-known weakness. The amazing miracle of this not-perpetual-but-a-really-long-lasting-little-lamp-that-someone-later-lost-light is celebrated the world over as Chanukah. The Seleucid Empire soon collapsed, and I’m sure this had something to do with it.

Hellenistic Emperors must apparently die before becoming gods (there are rules you know). A4 apparently thought P5’s choice of a god name was cool and took the best part. At the age of 51 he became Antiochus IV Epiphanes the god.

Epiphanes is a cool name; perhaps I should rename this blog “Adult Onset Epiphanes?”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sixth Sense

This last Friday I spent a considerable amount of time talking with a small group of people about god. On Saturday one of those people died. I will not go into the particulars, but I should state that the death was caused by an accident whose details suggest a more than passing reference to suicide. The event was sudden, unexpected, and traumatic to those who knew him. I did not know him well at all so his sudden death was decidedly less traumatic for me than many other people. My most important connection to him was that I was one of the last people to speak to him.

I should tease out a observation from this: “One of the last things he ever did was speak to an atheist about god.”

The human mind generates patterns from significant events. With this death, and the recent death of my former roommate, and the cancer scare with a close friend, I have some material well suited for use in developing intricate patterns. The mind brings together partially experienced phenomena to form the glue for these patterns. With highly traumatic events the patterns can be so real as to form the backbone of some truly horrid pathologies. With less severe events the patterns are easily distinguishable from reality so they can be examined, and may yield clues about the workings of the mind upon close examination. I do not mean general clues about generically human minds, but actionable information about actual minds. In this case the mind is mine (A mind that is very important to me).

Some of my loyal readers will detect a tone of self-centered unconcern for the significance of events in this post. A man is dead. This fellow thought about stuff and made decisions that led to his death. People cared about this guy, and those people now question what impact they had on his unfortunate end. There are people on our planet juggling feelings of inadequacy, comfort, doubt, fear, love, loss, and a host of others. There is hurt enough to go around and I might possibly, through the application of human empathy, lessen the burden of some caring people. Instead I dispassionately remark that I could use this as an opportunity to examine some arcane aspects of my personal reality. I hope this apparent self-centeredness comes as a surprise.

I should leverage the self-centeredness by pointing out that I am sitting here writing about a person’s death on the anniversary of my birth.

Death is such an iconic event that lives are defined by it. Atheists are especially defined by their death. There are many stories I have been told of Atheists finding some sort of god, usually Jesus, on their deathbeds. My favorite stories of deathbed conversions have involved public figures who are not dead (or even very sick as far as I know) yet. Everyone dies, however, and I am constantly asked what I think happens after we die. I do not think that people who are perceived as believers are asked this same question as often as I am. While posing as a Christian (for social or survival purposes) I have never been asked this question yet. The answer: “it isn’t really going to matter to me; is it?” has not proved to be sufficient to anyone.

Death defines lives and drives conversations about god. Death emphasizes the interaction I had with the fellow who died, and our conversation was about god. However, the conversation about god was not about death. The fellow who had already begun acting on his unfortunate plans (which after some additional decisions would result in his death) was interested in life. He was interested in “finding” a god type entity that would help him in life.

I am not immune to doubt. I have wondered if lying about a god of some type would have resulted in a more productive Saturday for this guy. I think I could lie convincingly about the existence of a great bearded father in the sky who answers prayers and loves everyone all the time. Would this lie have saved (in a purely literal sense) this fellow? Some people readily state that: “we’ll never know”. I don’t think that question is a satisfactory capstone to the events, or my feelings on them.

There are many things that I will never know. I will never know, for instance, if George Steinbrenner would have lived longer if the Yankees had won 8 World Series. I will never know if drying my wash outside was seen by space aliens as a signal to go home, and that is why they don’t visit. The things I will never know range from the mundane to the fantastical. The things I will never know range from the unimportant to the heartbreaking. The things I will never know range from things I never want to know about to those things I would pawn my future to purchase a glimpse of, but they are all just things I will never know.

My doubts are easily driven by the society I live in to question my reliance on reason as opposed to the supernatural. Reason also invites doubt as a method of tempering the impact of partial knowledge on behavior. Doubt, in my mind, is caused by significant events, not by significant uncertainty. The reason for this is simple. I pay attention to events more on the basis of their significance than on the basis of any uncertainty connected to them. Because of this “focus bias” a very significant event with small uncertainty will cause much more doubt than a mundane event with very little certainty. I can look across the street and see that my neighbor’s front door is closed, and I have no idea who closed it, and I will probably never know.

So, now that I am over 900 words into this entry, let me reach back towards the beginning to gather an idea I left there, before it gets too far away. I mentioned the mind using significant events to create patterns. Just in the last paragraph I mentioned “focus bias” causing doubt in direct proportion to the significance of events. These two psychological predispositions work in concert to provide strong perceptual manipulations.

Perception is also manipulated to provide stronger focus. I can remember the unfortunate fellow’s face after a single evening’s conversation where I cannot remember most people’s face…ever. I can remember portions of the conversation that would be unnoticeably forgettable under most circumstances. This additional focus enhances focus bias and provides additional details from which to create patterns.

There is just one psychological feedback loop after another going on in the reaction to significant potentially traumatic events. It is not surprising that entire event cascades can be fabricated to fit the ever deepening groove of psychological resonance. The fabricating of events feeds the feedback loops with new material not available from unadulterated reality. Fabrication can also be used to enhance the significance of events, leading to even more pronounced patterns, and focus bias, and more fabrication. It is easy to see how a significant life event can, along this spiral path, lead to psychological pathology. I’m sure there are many other pathways to psychological illness also.

What tools can be used to halt this self-destructive spiral? Initially one can use denial. This is one of my favorite tools. The idea is to minimize the focus bias and pattern formation by downgrading the significance of the events themselves. This can be like applying the brakes; the spiral is still active but it is slower. Hopefully the additional time can be used to employ additional tools.

Re-directing attention, sometimes called sublimation, can be useful once denial has been successfully employed. The brain works by enhancing often-used patterns of thought. By working in established patterns (as opposed to furthering the establishment of a new pattern) the psychological resonance of the new pattern is diminished. Sometimes just getting out and going for a walk “clears the mind” enough for reasoned observations to be useful. I find more engaging activities, like cycling or swimming, are most effective. One must be careful with highly engaging activities as they may require a minimum level of attention in order to be safely performed. Failing to notice oncoming traffic while recreating the particulars of a conversation with a becoming-ex-lover can be very hazardous.

Eventually reason must be used to allow acceptance of the significant events. If reason is applied too early in the acceptance cycle it can be used to fuel the cycle of psychological pathology. Reason can only be properly used once perception is under control. Anything that alters perception, including (perhaps especially) mood or psychoactive drugs, can potentially pervert the effects of reason. I should ask “what happens in dreams?” but this is just a blog post not a dissertation.

Reason can provide context. Up until this point focus has been on the significance of the events and the effect that significance has on the way the mind handles the perception of the reality of the events. Up until this point the perception has been self-directed. Looking at the contextual events provides a means to rationally assimilate the significant events. They become more like events that the perceiver participated in and less like events that occurred to the perceiver. The perceiver is now afforded choice in the actions he performed; no longer is the perceiver a marionette driven by events.

Only after the choices can be identified can the actions be examined for what they were. In extremely traumatic situations it may be impossible to accurately recall the actions; let alone decide on the choices which led to them. In less traumatic situations (like this one for me) the choices can be examined.

I presented this guy with information on god(s) that I thought was honest and helpful. I wanted to be honest and helpful. I wanted him to have many enjoyable Saturdays, and thought the information I provided him would help him enjoy them. These were my choices: to be honest and caring. If more people chose more often to be honest and caring there would be more honesty and caring in the world; this is a good thing.

The doubt that drives me to think I should have lied and provide information I think is almost always harmful is a necessary part of my response to the events I am dealing with. I welcome that doubt. I welcome the denial, the re-direction, the rationalization, and the human emotions they protect. I welcome my humanity. Though frail enough to evaporate at the touch of a few poor choices my humanity brings me the experience of love (some of you were probably wondering when I would mention love. I’ve gone on much longer than normal without slipping it in). Love cradles my perception with mind-blowing elegance.

The fellow who died was cared for and loved. He undoubtedly left holes in the fabric of some people’s lives. I cared about him before he died and his death left me with some knowledge of how my perception of the usefulness of caring can be perverted by my human ways of handling emotional stress. I just hope I can use this knowledge to process some of the real doozie stressors coming my way.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

PC future

Sometimes events provide definitive clues concerning future events. Once the sound of one shoe hitting the floor has been noted the future sound of the other shoe is assured. One could (if one were a tad obsessive) even use this knowledge to divide the future into two segments, and perhaps even provide abbreviations or acronyms for each segment. I would call the time until the other shoe dropped WD (waiting for the other shoe to drop) and the time after AD (after the other shoe dropped).

Once the WD-AD boundary condition has been realized by the dropping of the other shoe the WD time segment can be described in terms of all observed events that took place within it. In other words, the status of the WD time segment changes from anticipation to narrative. Many people believe that the narrative exists before the WD-AD status shift, and is merely transcribed onto reality as time nudges us closer and closer to the boundary condition.

There is utility in believing that the future exists before it is realized; it may provide actionable information before it becomes history. There is an obvious paradox in this situation. If you are able to see accurately into the future and you act on that information about the future you must be able to change the future therefore your information about the future is inaccurate. If the paradox holds it is incorrect to view the unrealized future as a fixed narrative; instead it would be a set of suggestions. Hidden within the suggested narrative would be unavoidable events, like the WD-AD boundary condition. This view could also be illustrated by a picture of the future as a probability cloud (PC), with each of the apparently infinite potential events being given a distinct probability.

I view the future as PC and I can tell you, without hesitation, that it is unsatisfactory. Firstly a PC future is wildly confusing, and for events that are not certain most probabilities are fairly random guesses. Secondly a PC future ignores those potential outcomes that are unimagined or disregarded (the so called black swan events). The PC future is dependent on the ability to focus on potential events while at the same time one must be aware that focus on a particular event distorts the ability to accurately place that event in the context from which the very probability of its occurance is derived.  An obsesive attention to particular events in the future can distort the future time-space contimum, and result in a rather pshcologically disturbed individual in the present.  A PC world future view is so wildly unsatisfying that it is often reduced to only performing the simple task of answering the question:”What do you think future is like before it becomes history?”.   I do not personally get asked that question every day.

I think I would much rather have magical knowledge of the future. This desire ignores the obvious constraints this situation would impose on physical laws, like gravity, that are dear to my heart. I would couple it with the magical ability to act on the future knowledge. The ability to act on knowledge of the future would have to be limited to me (or maybe a very small handful of folks) or else it would not be magical; would it? The knowledge would also need to be un-saturating; in other words I would be able to retain some mystery of the future to keep me interested in the progression of time. In fact... a mirror of my mental state resplendent with magical abilities and privileged information would be quite acceptable. When I was insecure about the future my feelings would be fixed by magic. The future would provide the abundance, and opportunities for everything I desired, and I would have the magic treasure map to it.

Because the magical knowledge future (MKF) is so very tempting it should come as no surprise that it has many followers. For most of those I have spoken to, who believe in MKF, their belief is that MKF is almost just barely obtainable at any point in time. One may be separated from MKF by the need to sacrifice a few goats; perhaps one must purify one’s body by repeated and violent cleansing of the colon. For some the visions of MKF are murky, and the interpretation of the future is suspect, requiring application of probability to make the intelligence actionable. To me the latter sounds much like a PC future only with more goat meat and diarrhea.

I would love to interject a story here. It would be a story about someone who believes in a MKF. The story would be complete with ominous threats of death, visions of paradise, unnecessary blood transfusions, adventure in far off lands, the discarding of all worldly possessions, and ultimately disillusionment and depression. I would love to tell this story, but some of you would recognize the protagonist, and I do not think I would tell it with the level of respect the protagonist deserves. The telling of such a story might come across as theist bashing.  Although theist bashing can be: enlightening, productive, and good clean fun; it is not what this blog is about.

I should say something about what this blog is about. A little over a month ago I declared that I would be on summer vacation and therefore writing much less. Instead I wrote more...much more. I will stop posting so many of my “this day in history” pieces as they were originally for another project. I would also like to say I will be less wordy in my other posts, but look at how long this one is already (almost 900 words, and it’s still going strong).

Without a very workable PC future (or MKF for that matter) I am stuck with an approach to the future best described as “muddling through”. There are things I “know” will happen like the dropping of the other shoe (ie. the WD-AD boundary event), but I do not know what the drop will sound like. In some cases I may have so many doubts about the particulars of an event that apparent doubt will be cast on the certainty of the event itself. If I do not know enough about what an event will actually consist of, what certainty can I place on the occurrence of that event? To be even more disjoint I should suggest that some events interfere with one’s cognitive ability to observe or judge the event’s occurrence.

When I think of the future I like to think about love. This is partially due to my constant desire to think about love, and partially my desire to imagine a future filled with love. Unfortunately love is associated with such an indirectly knowable event system that it is difficult to predicatively visualize. This is not because of “black Swan” type love phenomena, which are as rare as they are delightful. This is because of the way love arises from the cognitive machinery of the brain.

Comparing love to smell is particularly useful due to similarities in the neuroanatomy of both of these stimulations. We describe smells by comparing them to other smells. We describe love by comparing one instance of it to another (possibly fictional) instance of it.

The setting sun teases with the possibility of a green flash over the pacific whose waves slowly erode the base of those Palos Verdes cliffs.  The orange-ing glow catches her hair and obscures the color of her eyes. Later I am reminded of sitting across the table from her, except for the lack of sunset, cliffs, or the anticipation of a possible green flash. I am reminded of the expression on her face, except for the fluorescent light that reveals the color of her hair and eyes and everything else. Almost all describable elements that unite the moments are reductably exceptional, only a few trivial particulars remain: the smell of coffee and night, the sound of automobiles, the touch of unfamiliar fingers. The descriptions that can conjure the memory of love only serve to define the stage upon which it was played out, and yet love is described.

Some attempt to describe love by its secondary symptoms. One could, for instance, describe the quickening of the circulation or the tunneling of attention. To me this often makes love sound more like an illness, or a poisoning.

Because of this “blind spot” in recounting love it is difficult to predict its onset. The event can be as much of a certainty as the attractive forces between two mutually attracted individuals in close proximity can surmise, but what of the attending phenomena that will eventually be used to describe the love onset event? Sure, one can attempt to set the stage. Driving the rickety VW bug to the cliff-top trail just before sunset… but how does one plan tripping over every root and stone on the short stroll to the cliff’s edge? Once I even ran out of gas while driving with a leggy blond on a breeze kissed quayside road, and I have never decided if I had set that stage on purpose or not; that young lady ended up marrying me.

The end of a loving relationship is easier to describe. Describing the symptoms accurately recalls the emotions and state of mind. This may be due to the resonance between the tendency when describing emotional events by their symptoms to make emotions sound like disease, and the disease-like feelings associated with the ending of a love affair.

The progression from love to lying to loss may describe a trajectory as certain as those ballistics defined by physical laws, but the particulars remain ill-defined. Looking into the eyes of a lover as they talk themselves into your past tense gives no hint to the pathway of their exit. It is always possible, perhaps even preferable, to ignore the lies that begin disturbing the surface of the shared experience that is the relationship. But the first ripples give way to waves and fire, and before long a new whole land is formed and one of you is not on it. Understanding which words -what look- or what event causes the start of the decay is sometimes impossible. Sometimes the question: “what was I even thinking to begin with?” can obscure the dropping of the first last shoe. And the second last shoe can seem to drop just once or a million times. The reconciliations, the memory loss, the reminders….

Depending on the amount of ancillary life that became attached to the relationship there is an inevitable physical adjustment period. This can be accompanied by moving out or just watching her walk out the door with a strange finality in her step. Then there are the friends wanting to know what happened and/or the lawyers trying to make something of what happened. Each step is an opportunity, not necessarily utilized, to mark the progress of the relationship’s dissolution. An ideally manufactured person could theoretically mark this progress dispassionately, but I have never met anyone who was able to even convincingly lie about their skills in this area.

Then there is the social recovery: the re-discovery of time, space, and the enjoyment of them, the discovery of and exploration of a new lover. The grounding events like the (as has been all too common for me) accidental happening upon your ex (or soon-to-be-ex)in an uncomfortably comfortable embrace with her new lover.

In those relationships where little is held back the process is akin to putting all the above steps in a blender and making some sort of emotional blender drink; like a fruit smoothie made with broken glass.

There are some who believe that the breakup is the inevitable “other shoe” to the one that is dropped when one takes a lover. I do not (with very little evidence) believe this pessimistic vision of all futures is accurate.

I have never gone, and never plan to go, bungee jumping. I imagine the weightless falling moments wondering if the bungee will catch and hold. I imagine the doubt and fear increasing as the ground rushes up. I know that, given enough bungee jumps, the failure of the bungee cord is a statistically certainty. The amount of doubt has no effect on the cord. The amount of fear only colors the experience, and I’m not sure it would be worthwhile to even jump without it.

The breakup of a relationship may be a memory more easily recalled than its conception. The inevitability of a breakup following the onset of a relationship may be empirically suggested by my experience. That the pain of a breakup is directly proportional to the amount of effort put into a relationship is a theorem I would state as true. However, I gladly doubt these apparent clues (along with all rational thought) for a chance to believe things will be marvelous forever this time; whenever "this time" is now.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gang of four

One hundred and forty five years ago today, on 7 July 1865, four people were hung from the same gallows in fort McNair SW Washington DC. The four people were Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. They had been sentenced to death on June 30th for the conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of President Lincoln.

Marry played a minor role. Mary ran a boarding house (now in Chinatown) whose quarters were vital to the conspiracy. She became the first woman sentenced to death (and hanged) by a federal court.

Lewis Powell actually attempted to kill Secretary of state William Seward. David had accompanied him, but when Dave heard shooting he got scarred and ran away. Lewis did not kill Seward with the gun so he tried to stab him to death. Despite having been severely wounded in a carriage accident –still with a splint on his arm- Seward fought Lewis off and survived.

George avoided all involvement in the actual events of April 14th by getting drunk and missing his scheduled appointment to assassinate the Vice president.

Booth, the mastermind of Lincoln’s assassination, is thought by some to have escaped unharmed and lived to an old age under a fake name. Some believe that the corpse produced by union soldiers on April 26th (which very closely resembled Booth), was proof that he died. Either way Booth avoided the festivities on July 7th.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


One hundred and eighteen years ago today, on July 6th 1892, a strike in Homestead Pennsylvania ended dealing a major setback to efforts of organized labor.

At 10:30PM on the night of July 5th the Pinkerton security agency loaded 300 men armed with Winchester repeating riffles onto some armored barges. Under the cover of darkness the barges were floated down the Ohio River from the Davis dam island to the Homestead steel plant that was surrounded by striking workers. The slowly moving barges were detected sentry stikers and at 2:30 Am an alarm whistle was blown to alert the other strikers.

The armored barges were strange looking, and by the time they approached their landing area a crowd had gathered on the shore to stare at them. Some of the crowd threw stones but were quickly stopped by strike leaders. The crowd just stared... until the Pinkertons began shooting at them. Two in the crowd were killed outright, and eleven others were seriously wounded. Unionists began firing back, and after about ten minutes had killed a couple of Pinkertons, and wounded a dozen more. The tug gathered the wounded agents and left. The remaining Pinkertons were stuck. They could not disembark and they could not float off downstream.

The crowd swelled to over 5,000. Someone produced an antique brass cannon to blast the barges out of the water. When they attempted to fire at the barges the cannon blew up killing several of the strikers.

Attempts were made to float dynamite down to the barges. Oil was poured into the river in an attempt to burn the barges. Many of the newly recruited Pinkerton agents refused to fire any more. By 4PM things were winding down. By 5PM the Pinkertons raised the white flag and surrendered.

The Pinkertons were marched through town under a hail of stones, spit and clubs. Onlookers were horrified.  News of the strikers' poor treatment of their prisoners carried the day.

Monday, July 5, 2010

start and stop

One hundred and eighty years ago today, on July 5th 1830, France invaded Algeria. Forty eight years ago today, on July 5th 1962, Algeria would gain its independence from France. After one hundred and thirty two years of French rule the country that received its independence was more European than any other African country.

The occupation began with an incredible population decline. Disease, starvation, and strange (sometimes occult) insurgencies killed over a third of the population. Algeria had been hit hard by plague in the 15th and early 16th centuries, now it was hit even harder. The population plummeted despite a rapid influx of European settlers. Tens of thousands of settlers came to Algeria.

Infrastructure was built. Roads, sewers, farms, irrigation, libraries, and schools were built. The gorilla warfare meant as a resistance to the sometimes brutal French targeted, more often, the infrastructure that would assist the native peoples. Literacy, once among the highest in Africa, dropped precipitously. Disease and malnutrition became commonplace among the non-Europeans. Generations would pass before the non-European population could claim ownership of what they had not destroyed in the getting.

By 1962 one could travel to Algeria in almost the same amount of time it took to get from one end of mainland France to the other. Instead of being a part of France Algeria remained African. Instead of being full of French citizens French Algeria was crowded with people who were treated as a sub-human indigenous blight.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Birth of a nation

Happy 4th of July

We should celebrate our gratitude that the United States was founded as a secular nation with freedoms ingrained in our founding documents both for and from religion. This has had a profound effect on all the citizens of the world.

1st amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Thomas Jefferson on the 1st amendment: "wall of separation between church and State."

James Madison on the 1st amendment: "Strongly guarded. . . is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Charge it

One hundred and forty seven years ago today, July 3rd 1863, General Picket would lead 12,500 men through heavy artillery fire into a wave of small arms fire in what would come to be considered one of the greatest military mistakes ever recorded. This event would be forever called “Picket’s charge” and it would cement the battle of Gettysburg’s iconic place in history as the bloodiest battle (in terms of American troops) ever. More that 6,555 of the men (and at least one woman disguised as a man) that general Picket led on his infamous charge would lie wounded or dying in that Pennsylvanian landscape. Picket’s charge lasted little more than an hour and had little impact on the union forces.

Picket’s had ordered his men to form a long line and march to within a hundred yards of the union line. A line of 12,500 men stretches out for over a mile in width. I’m sure it was an impressive sight. There were few trees in the fields the march started in so the entirety of the force was in view. Slowly the line marched towards the union forces on little round top. When the line came to within artillery range it quickly shrunk; by the time it reached the bottom of the hill it was less than half a mile wide.

"They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were thrown and tossed in to the clear air. ... A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle." --Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, 8th Ohio

When, years later, General Picket was asked about the withering defeat, he quipped: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ivory flatware

One hundred and twenty nine years ago today, on July 2nd 1881, Charles Julius Guiteau got his shoes shined in the now demolished Baltimore and Potomac Railroad’s “Pennsylvania” Station in Washington DC. The station sat at the corner of Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, where the National Archives building now stands. Guiteau (nicknamed “Gitout” by some of his associates) paced around a bit in his freshly shined shoes and finally engaged a cab. He asked the cabbie to wait for a bit and then give him a ride to jail. He should have realized that when one assassinates a president they get a free ride to jail.

Guiteau shot President Garfield with his brand new British Bulldog pocket revolver (chambered in .442 Webley), twice at point blank range, put the pistol back into his pocket and calmly walked towards his waiting cab. Patrick Kearney, a policeman who happened to be in the area, offered Charles a free ride to jail, which he accepted. So excited was Patrick at this arrangement that he neglected to take the revolver (which still was loaded with three unfired cartridges) from Charles till several hours had passed.

Charles had hoped the revolver would be preserved for posterity in a museum. When he purchased it he wanted the ivory-handled version because he thought it would look best in the museum. Unfortunately he could not afford it as the .442 Webley chambered Bulldog cost considerably more than the $5 price tag of the low powered .44 Bulldog chambering (I know it is a bit confusing that there was a .44 Bulldog chambering of the British Bulldog revolver). Charles had only borrowed $15 for the gun, cartridges, shoe shine, and cab-ride to jail. The extra dollar for the ivory handles was more than he could afford, so he bought a pen-knife instead. Had he known about the free ride offer he may have gotten the ivory handles instead of the pen knife. It would not really matter in the end as the revolver “disappeared” from the Smithsonian museum before two decades had passed.

Charles was not a very capable assassin. Both of his bullets missed vital organs, and despite an initial prognosis that the president would not survive the night, Garfield survived his wounds. Doctors continued to probe his open wound with dirty fingers and unsterilized instruments until they were able to do with infection what Charles was unable to do with his revolver. Eighty days after the shooting, on September 19th, 1881, President Garfield would die. Had the president received care competent by the standards of the day, he would have, most likely, survived.

Charles would outlive the President by quite a few months; he would hang on June 30th 1882.

Charles was told by God to kill the president. He had been a member of the Oneida cult but he did not enjoy much success with the ladies of the group (despite communal marriage ideals) and left it to form his own cult (where he continued to be unimpressive to the oposite sex). By the time Charles left the cult Oneida had begun the process of transforming itself from a fringe polygamist religion to a world renowned silverware company. By the end of the century Oneida would be flooding the market with its “community plate” marked flatware. In 1935 they officially changed their name from Oneida community to Oneida Ltd.

John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida community in 1848 and shortly thereafter coined the term “Free Love”. The followers of Noyes believed that Jesus Christ had returned in 70AD. This was the same year that Emperor Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple therein. Titus reportedly refused the wreath of victory stating that there was :"no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God”. Had Titus known that Jesus Christ was in the crowd he may have behaved differently.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Spliting "The Atom"

On July 1st 1946 at 0900 the first of three planned atomic bomb tests were conducted at the Bikini atoll in the Marshall islands of the Pacific Ocean. This first test was named Able. For Able a 23 kiloton device was detonated at an altitude of 520 feet. The Able bomb was called Gilda and decorated with the likeness of Rita Hayworth. Due to a small targeting error ground zero for Able was right over the empty transport ship Gillian.

Within months Louis Réard (a french automobile engineer turned lingerie salesman) would design the world’s smallest swimsuit and call it “The Bikini”. According to Réard a two-piece suit wasn't a genuine Bikini "unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring”.

Between 1946 and 1958, twenty-three nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll. The most famous of which was the March 1st 1954 detonation of the first hydrogen bomb (a 15 megaton device called “shrimp”) in the Castle Bravo test.