Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Season of the Witch: David Talbot's Passionate Social History of San Francisco

Season of the Witch, subtitled "Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love," this 2012 book by the founder of Salon.com is both well-researched and a page-turner. It's romantic and dramatic and probably - simply because it dares to offer a defense of San Francisco and the mainstream electronic corporate media is so filled with haters of the political and social values that emanated from the city - controversial.

Deftly alternating between the culture of San Francisco and its odd politics - with the almost mythic Hallinan family running a thread throughout the book - Talbot has, in effect, written a bare-knuckles defense of what right wing quasi-fascists have denigrated as "San Francisco values." Some of these values would be: we Americans ought to take care of each other, we have the right to compassionate health care and living wages, and we need to tolerate differences among ourselves in order to keep the culture rich and vibrant. Indeed, San Francisco's history seems to have pushed an avant action in favor of the right to pleasure as a basic good. Sex, music, art...these are basic human pleasures and should be as close to free as possible.

No wonder the children from families of Nixon's "silent majority" came flocking to San Francisco as a Mecca in the 1960s.

                                David Talbot, born 1951, author of Season of the Witch
                       
Make no mistake about it, Talbot loves his adopted city (he was born in LA to the family of film actor Lyle Talbot), but it is in his narrations of SF's inferno days that he really shines. And he pulls no punches: freedom is hard. The birth pangs last. And they come on, seemingly indiscriminately, such as the now oft-forgotten Zebra killings that terrorized the city from the fall of 1973 to the spring of 1974, when an African-American cult loosely aligned with the Nation of Islam drove around the city and killed caucasian-looking people randomly, and at times mutilating their bodies.

Around the same time, a seemingly lone mad crazed killer named the Zodiac baffled police, journalists, cryptanalysts, and private sleuths. Zodiac and Zebra seem ripped from the pages of some particularly vile comic book, but they were all-too-real. The Zodiac case has never really been solved (although there are many claims to have "proven" who it was); the police caught a couple of lucky breaks in solving the Zebra killings, after 179 days of sheer, city-wide terror.

Then there was the New World Liberation Front, which seemed to be a bunch of brazen and violent Maoists, but turned out to be one proto-Kaczynski and his PR man, and nameless followers. "They" had plenty of coverage in the underground press and bombed Mayor Alioto's house with a trick box of See's candy. "They" also terrorized via firebombs, vandalizings, death threats and bombing attempts of prominent conservative politicians John Barbagelata and Quentin Kopp.

This is a wonderful book filled with the Summer of Love (Bill Graham, Janis, the Dead, Hendrix, Moby Grape, the Human Be-In), heroic and compassionate doctors in the Haight-Ashbury and at UCSF and then all throughout the city, witty nonviolent street theater anarchists The Diggers, the wonderful Cockettes (only in SF?), and dozens of other life-affirming stories, but Talbot has a particular knack for uncovering "forgotten" or repressed histories, and the New World Liberation Front (NWLF) is one of those:

"The NWLF bombed dozens of targets in the Bay Area, including corporate buildings, Pacific Gas and Electric Company power stations, and even luxury cars and homes owned by rich businessmen. The public face for the NWLF was a tall, lean, mustachioed man in his early thirties who called himself Jacques Rogiers (real name Jack Rogers). Rogiers, operating out of an Oak Street flat, churned out threatening communiques on his Poor People's Press. When Rogiers - the son of a Minnesota Twins baseball scout who'd once played professionally - was finally arrested, the group launched a campaign to release him, accusing Barbagelata of squelching his freedom of speech. Leaflets depicting Barbagelata as a bloody-fanged rat were brazenly stuck to the marble walls inside city hall." (p.286)

When conservative Barbagelata was threatened again, the Reverend Jim Jones of the People's Temple offered protection!

I had no idea, before reading this book, how entrenched and well-connected the People's Temple were inside San Francisco politics. They seemed to help very liberal mayor George Moscone get elected. And Harvey Milk seemed to think they were creepy, but he used them for political gain. Maybe the People's Temple and "Father" Jim Jones helped Moscone steal the election from Barbagelata. Hell, they probably did!

November 18th, 1978: the Jones cult commits mass suicide in Guyana. The news rips through the city: family members and friends are stunned in horror, liberals who bought Jones's colorblind church of the poor, Jesus-was-a-socialist line in order to garner votes scramble to decide what to make of it. Then, only nine days later, lifetime loser Dan White cold-bloodedly slaughters the Mayor and the gay's political leader, Milk. After sneaking into city hall through an open window. He murdered them, point-blank, in their own offices. As soon as the news hit the SFPD, "Danny Boy" was heard on police radios. Those fighting for "San Francisco values" had to overcome very many entrenched enemies of those values in their midst.

I remember staying glued to TV and newspapers as a teen in the suburbs of LA when this all went down, but over the years it had seemed like a dream, too weird and hideous to be truly real. But it was real. And it only gains back that quality of stark too-real verisimilitude when I watch films like Robert Stone's documentary Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac. Or Milk, Gus Van Sant's 2008 film. Or read books as vivid as this one...

But I'm getting carried away by the craziness of those times and how well they are rendered by Talbot.

The SLA and Patty Hearst (which leads to multiple tunnels down the C.I.A. conspiracy rabbit-hole), Altamont (the most horrific rendering in prose about that concert I have ever read), Charles Manson, and the incredible story of the conservative Catholic's and the SFPD's man Dan White's murder of Moscone and Harvey Milk: they are all here. (Including Dan White's admission to a friend, after serving five years at Soledad State Prison for the city hall carnage, that he had premeditatedly planned to kill not only Milk and Moscone - Twinkies had nothing to do with it! - but another liberal supervisor: Carol Ruth Silver. And Willie Brown, future mayor.)

                                 Radical agnostic anti-fascist lawyer Vincent Hallinan, left,
                                 defends ILWU leader Harry Bridges in court, Nov. 15, 1949

Talbot's history of San Francisco really starts in June, 1932, with a marvelous prologue that makes Vincent Hallinan a hero-lawyer along the lines of Clarence Darrow, with maybe some William Kunstler mixed in. But Talbot writes it as if it's part of a plotline from a film noir, with Hallinan and his famously sexy and street-smart wife as a sort of real-life Nick and Nora Charles.

The book barely touches on the history of the city before the 1930s, but Talbot mentions San Francisco had always been embracing of the weird, the wonderful, the eccentric, the bawdy, the free-spirited. It was made into a city by people who'd rushed there to get rich by finding gold. Longtime defenders of the West Coast counterculture have often proffered the idea that the truly maverick genes in Unistat left the settled East Coast cities for the San Francisco frontier in the 1850s, and this explains the genetic caste of the city, which still seems as good an explanation to me as any other...

The book culminates with San Francisco's success in going it alone when the AIDS crisis hit: Reagan refused to even mention the word. Widely circulated was the idea that Reagan and most of his cabinet thought those deviates were getting what they deserve. It was put-up or shut-up for San Franciscans and their proud liberal values. And they made it. It wasn't easy. As far as AIDS treatment, they led the way, and the rest of Unistat followed.

For anyone who loves San Francisco, this is a must-read book. For anyone who is interested in the epicenter of the "culture wars" in Unistat, this book is essential. For anyone who loves to read well-researched history with a gripping narrative voice, this may be one you'll want to get to over the coming long hot summer nights.

Publisher Simon and Schuster's and Talbot's 2-min promo for Season of the Witch:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Imre Lakatos: Another Favored Hungarian

How does science work? In the long history of physics, from Aristotle to the string theorists of today, what precisely went on to bring about the change from one model or theory or mode of working to a newer way? How did similar things happen in math, chemistry, or other areas of knowledge that humans have sought to inquire into, to probe the inner workings of "reality"?

Perhaps the most influential High Culture text of the second part of the roaring 20th century was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's creativity and rhetoric has proven very powerful. When your friends drop the word "paradigm," they may not know it, but they're probably borrowing from Kuhn at an nth removal. Kuhn said - of course this is far more complex than befits a single blog-post - but after a bunch of stabs in the dark, a new science gets going because some thinkers used metaphors that turned out to yield more satisfying corollaries. Eventually specialists working under the sway of a theory that seems to have won out cannot see any alternatives, or have been inculcated by their mentors in this theory that any rival theory or new idea must be wrong, or mistaken, or fraudulent. This is when a science is in its "normal" stage: scientists are working under such a powerful theory that it provides plenty of good problems to solve, and workers under this paradigm, while acknowledging that certain phenomena keep appearing that can't be accounted for in the theory, figure it's only a matter of time before someone working under this Great Theory will come along and figure it out. Meanwhile, anomalies keep piling up, and scientists keep putting them on the To Be Solved Later shelf. (Philosopher Ian Hacking's recent Q&A on the 50th anniversary of Kuhn's famous book, and how it's holding up.)

Eventually, a different way of thinking comes along. It is attacked by the dominant paradigm-workers; they have their whole lives invested in the reigning order. But the new paradigm starts to show that it can not only account for the older paradigm, but it starts to account satisfactorily for many of the anomalies the older paradigm couldn't solve; the older order and its adherents eventually die off, and the younger people with their new paradigm carry on, in their version of "normal science." A revolution has occurred.

Prior to Kuhn, possibly the most influential thinker in the philosophy of science was Karl Raimund Popper, who - and I'm leaving a woeful amount out here - said that a good theory must be "falsifiable" to be taken seriously. When tested, if falsified, great doubt is shed on the theory. If the theory is subjected to a thoroughgoing round of conjectures and is still found to fail, it should be abandoned for something better. (Popper's "Three Worlds" of knowledge idea.)

                                                    Imre Lakatos: One wily, funny,
                                                    rational cat!

Enter Imre Lakatos (say "EE moo ray LAK uh tosh"), who was born Imre Lipschitz, changed it to Imre Molnar to avoid Nazi persecution when they rolled into Hungary, then he later changed it to Lakatos (which means "locksmith" in Hungarian), possibly in honor of a Hungarian General who fought against Nazi rule in Hungary, but also maybe because his old shirts had "I.L." on them, so why not save money when it's scarce after WWII?

During WWII, Imre became a communist. He also attended the private seminars of Georgy Lukacs, the prime mover of the Frankfurt School. But eventually he had a difficult time dogmatically toeing the Communist party line (It's Imre Lakatos! Of course he couldn't help but question the Authorities!), and they threw him in prison for the crime of "revisionism." Imre spent 1950-53 in prison, then went back to academic life, radicalized and allied with at least one group that furthered the march toward the disastrous 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

And here we have that same old story, of political strife in Hungary driving its geniuses out of the country, where they usually flourished in England or especially Unistat. Imre found his home at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he met Karl Popper and a host of high-powered thinkers, became a very popular professor until Imre's untimely death in 1974, his lectures crowded with excited young intellectuals. Imre was never boring and told many jokes. As the philosopher Ernest Gellner said of Imre's talks: "He lectured on a difficult, abstract subject riddled with technicalities: the philosophy of mathematics and science; but he did so in a way that made it intelligible, fascinating, dramatic, and above all, conspicuously amusing even for the non-specialists."



He developed his method of doing the philosophy of science by first developing a method of dialogue surrounding a theorem in mathematics, showing that, if one questioned every attempted conjecture, a counterexample was almost always found. How did conjectures and counterexamples arise in the first place? One might be tempted to say they were arrived by well-educated thinkers using creativity on the problem, or even by something like Charles Saunders Peirce's "abduction" in logic.

Lakatos said a form of "thought experiment" was used, and, being the Hungarian sort of mathematical mind and seeming to fetishize "rationality" above all (more on this below), he admitted that thought experiments that led to tests of a theorem qualified as "quasi-empiricism." This mode of thought was very important and indeed, heuristic: it helped to generate auxiliary hypotheses, kernels of thought that, Hegelian-like (Lakatos was heavily influenced by Hegel) and with refutations and counterexamples...led to to the growth of knowledge. Moving on...

Lakatos wanted to find a middle way between Popper and Kuhn. At the LSE he became heavily influenced by Popper, but Kuhn's book (first edition published in 1962) had to be criticized and accounted for, and justified with Popper's falsifiability idea. Over the years, Lakatos often spoke of Popper1 and Popper2. The former was the Popper that is misread by his readers, or the Popper represented by bad readings of Popper; the latter represents the close, insightful readings of Popper, but many critics have said that Popper2 is really Lakatos himself.

Popper had said something along the lines that, scientists propose hypotheses, and these are tested. If the tests show the hypotheses did not work as thought, then this was Nature saying "No!" Think of something better. Here's Imre's rejoinder to that: "It is not that we propose a theory and Nature may shout 'No!'; rather we propose a maze of theories and nature may shout 'Inconsistent!'" - p.130, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. There's something telling here: in Imre's very complex epistemic formulations, we do not criticize individuals, we criticize the methodology being done within a certain research program. As his pioneering work in mathematics - in which he argued via imaginative reconstructions of actual different mathematicians' attempts to prove a conjecture, arriving at the idea that no theorem in informal math is "true" and "final," only that no counterexample had arrived yet - this was also how scientific knowledge should be worked upon. Highly mathematized, too rationalistic, too Idealistic? Maybe...

Imre thought that, because Kuhn rejected Popper's falsification and justification ideas, he'd fallen back on "mysticism" and, because Kuhn had not demonstrated a logic of scientific discovery other than something resembling a political revolution - or even plate tectonics - that his ideas were tantamount to irrationality and "mob rule." (See Imre in this passage from 1970's Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge) Speaking from my current state of confusion and ignorance, I think Imre wanted people to be as Hungarianly rationalistic as he was; however, they are not. I'm not sure they ever were. Rarely have groups of humans - even scientists! - behaved rationally in the way that Imre idealized. Scientists are humans too, with emotional stakes, cutthroat competitiveness, and adhering to party-line dogmas like Churchmen.

But now we're getting to why I think Imre Lakatos is such a fascinating thinker on the human stage. (He died of a brain hemorrhage suddenly at the age of 51.)

Eventually, Lakatos struck up a friendship with the anarchist-epistemologist and philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, an Austrian, had fought for the Nazis, as he details in his wonderfully readable autobiography, Killing Time, eventually ending up with a professorship in Berkeley. Imre's mother and grandmother had died in Auschwitz. But Imre's and Paul's intense intellectual interests led to very heated and civil exchanges, and very many letters, all of Imre's to Paul lost, because of Feyerabend's carelessness. He said he tacked some to his walls in Berkeley to keep the rain out, if memory serves. Imre, meanwhile, dutifully filed every letter from Paul, and you can read Paul's letters to Imre in the delightful For and Against Method: Imre Lakatos/Paul Feyerabend, edited magnificently by Matteo Motterlini.

(John Kadvany's photos of Imre, Popper, Feyerabend, and Imre's Hungarian milieux.)

Despite Imre's intensely rationalistic mind, and his deep desire to take Popper's thought further, Feyerabend, a very close reader of Imre, Popper, Kuhn, and many others, repeatedly failed to see a difference between Imre's implied historical "logic" used in scientific discovery, and Feyerabend's own, "anything goes," best seen in the third edition of Feyerabend's, in my view vastly underrated Against Method. Throughout their correspondence, Feyerabend, playing Socrates tinged with Pyrrho, points up again and again that, when followed to its conclusion, Lakatos's "method" is virtually the same as his: anarchistic!

How could two seemingly polar temperaments be friends at all? First, both were deeply in love with intellectual thought, and especially dialogue. It was Imre who cornered Feyerabend at a party in 1970 and said, "Paul, you have such strange ideas. Why don't you write them down? I shall write a reply, we publish the whole thing, and I promise you - we shall have lots of fun." Paul's Against Method was his side; Imre died too soon to write his reply. Nevertheless, we can read the book of letters, and Imre's books and come to our own conjectures.

The second reason these two men were such good friends was humor. Imre's students knew that, no matter how difficult the subject of a lecture, some jokes would be forthcoming to retain levity. Feyerabend, a fascinating, irascible, complex character who I think qualifies as one of the great guerrilla ontologists of the 20th century, wrote in a letter to Imre dated 16 April, 1971:

"Criterion for being a lefty: you lose your sense of humour and become a self-righteous bastard (or bitch, as the case may be). In this, of course, you do homage to an age old American tradition: Puritanism. Now, I am un-American to the extent that I despise Puritanism, whether it comes from the right, left, or centre. 'But what about the truth?,' people ask. The truth, whatever it is, be damned. What we need is laughter. You have got the gift for laughter, even where your own position is concerned, so, as far as I am concerned, you are a good guy (and you are 'good' even theoretically, for your theory is equivalent to mine, as I have said above and in chapter 25 of my magnificent AM."

There is very much more to be said of Imre Lakatos, thinker extraordinaire, but I have gone on too long once again. I will leave by exhorting readers of Robert Anton Wilson, who are interested in his epistemology and his ontology, to maybe check out Lakatos and Feyerabend. Popper and Kuhn are far more well-known, but Imre and Paul should go a long way toward further mindcopulae, and I'm thinking especially of readers of RAW's The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. Also, as per Imre's inner working from within the logic of scientific discovery: when an idea within a research program is being tested via creative criticism and the dialectical sparks that occur therein, a progressive program will yield startling innovations. Nick Herbert talks about a couple instances of conjecture and refutation that led to innovation or new ideas that he was involved with, in quantum theory, here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Obesity, OR: "Does Our Butt Look Big In That?" (Pt. 3)

A lyricist named Bernie Taupin once wrote this line in a song called "The Bitch Is Back," sung by Elton John:

"Times are changin' now the poor get fat."

And if anyone wants to know why or how this historical turn of events took place, it's easy to find out that  our ingenious modern era with its manipulation of science and technology has produced food at a level to mock Malthus, and cheaply, too. (In the rich countries.) Evolutionarily, for 99% of the time we've been homo sapiens it's been a real slog to capture enough calories and eat a diet with enough protein, fat, and carbs to keep us going, and the average life expectancy rose to the unheard-of high of 38 years old in Unistat by 1850. Evolutionarily, we were pretty much programmed to die by 40. Why sit around as old people and use up the precious tribe's resources? Just for your stories and wisdom? Write that shit down, grandpa, and die already. You're taking up space and it's been at least five years since you used the plow worth a damn.

Sir Thomas Malthus was a catastrophist. If you were around when he was doing his version of what Sir Martin Rees is doing now, and you were prone, let's say, to "pessimistic thinking," you might have thought him a prophet. Basically he said we humans reproduce at an exponential rate, while the rate of food production is arithmetical. It was only a matter of time before famines became common and quite widespread. Malthus was a Man of God, too...No wonder his outlook was so prone to bleakness...(I tend to listen worriedly to Sir Martin Rees, though, truth be told, but that's for another blogspew.)

                                    Reverend Malthus, 1766-1834. Sociologist, economist,
                                                         pessimist.

All too human, Malthus did his futurology and prognostications while living in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Mediocristan: he was using far too simple mathematics and couldn't factor in something totally unknowable but fairly Black Swan-ish: we were able to harness mind-power to produce more and more food in smaller and smaller areas, and quicker and quicker, and then transport got better and faster, and refrigeration came into its own...another futurologist proven wrong. (Temporarily?)

But in the ultra-short period of, say, 125 years, this easy access to sugar (which was always hard to find for 99% of our existence), fat, and carbs - all delightful, life-enriching and acting on dopamine levels in the brain (AKA the "reward system") - threw us a curve. We didn't know how to handle it. And then other sciences and technologies combined forces and made our lives comfier and comfier, to the point where, very very suddenly, on our evolutionary scale, we sit around all day long, every day, and eat rich, fatty food. Meanwhile, our bodies are basically the same ones we had a million years ago. No wonder we're fat!

Now we are so rich we've extended the average lifespan to double what it was in 1850, and we're dying of degenerative diseases. Now the game is not predicting when the food will run out, but when we'll learn how to handle the food. And maybe our analytical tools are more sophisticated than Malthus's.

We saw in my last entry that the NCHS/CDC say the stats showed the obesity epidemic is leveling off already. A recent mega-research paper predicted 42% of the Unistat public would have a Body Mass Index of 30% or higher by 2030, but we have reasons to doubt that. The CDC in 2003 predicted that by 2010 40% of the public would be clinically obese (BMI above 30%); the number turned out to be 35.7%

The British Dept of Health predicted in 1999 that by 2010 25% of Brits would be obese. They updated this prediction in 2006 to 33%. By 2010 the number was 26.1%. Fudge factors? Yes, all sorts of them. First off, of course, many who responded by admitting they were eating fudge as they spoke. Then again...

Some numbers were obtained by phone surveys, asking people how much they weighed, and people tend to prevaricate in that situation. Nonetheless, the numbers are probably pretty close. They have turned out to not be as bad as our best predictors predicted. Do the predictors have a vested interest in their High Numbers? Yes, probably. More money gets thrown at Public Health and obesity-related problems, and some of that money sticks to the predictors and their colleagues. But still: we have a long road to hoe, and it's not going to be easy.

                                Chicago-style deep-dish pizza: now qualifies as a "vegetable"
                                in Unistat schools, thanks to the Goliath food and beverage 
                                industry and their lobbyists. Man, this looks good right about 
                                                       now! Eh?

Why will it be difficult? Well, that too is a very complex problem, but if we look at the Goliath-like Food and Beverage Industry and what it can afford in lobbying Congress, versus the public interest groups that want to educate and restrict massive amounts of sugar and fat in schools, or curb advertising aimed at children, well, David gets stomped to death by Goliath like an ant. In the last three years, four government agencies sought to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to kids: Congress killed it. The Center For Science in the Public Interest - a bunch of do-gooders who object to 9 year olds who weigh 170 pounds already - spent $70,000 last year lobbying Congress. The Food and Beverage Industry spends that every 13 hours. Pizza is now classified as a "vegetable" in schools. According to this article from Reuters, the food/bev industry has never lost  a significant political battle, and their tactics are the same as what the tobacco industry's were: we're just giving people what they want in a free society. There's no real proof our food and drink is making people sick. They need to moderate their own intake, and exercise more. If you made a hefty paycheck working as a lobbyist for big Food and Bev, wouldn't you say that too?

Note that Ol' Captain Buzzkill William Dietz makes an appearance in the above-cited article: "This may be the first generation of children that has a lower life span than their parents."

Here are two classic takes on why we're fat, from different points of view. First, check out Professor Richard McKenzie, who may be getting some of that sweet Food and Bev money alongside his emeritus professor dough. Yes, we're fatter. On average, Unistatians are 26 lbs heavier than they were in 1960. SUVs were made for fatties. Gurnies have had to be reinforced, stadium seats widened. Because we're on average 26 pounds fatter than 1960, we use an extra two billion gallons of gasoline and jet fuel. We create much more greenhouse gas and our medical costs have skyrocketed. But, as he argues in his book Heavy: The Surprising Reasons America Is the Land of the Free and Home of the Fat, it's all due to lowered tariffs, cheap imports, and "our growing economic freedoms," which go with political freedoms. No reason to change any of the freedom stuff! (I'll let you mull this one over on your own.)

I think it's a classic, valid libertarian view. There's much to say for it. I'm not completely sold on how we're economically freer now, though. But the freedom argument holds some appreciable weight (sorry!) with me. What I object to is the ultra-monied Food/Bev lobby and their louder bullhorns. They don't want frank education about food and what it's doing to us. For guys like McKenzie, money equals freedom, but I'd like more "freedom" for the educators.

                                     Jonah Lehrer, brilliant popularizer of neuroscience, 
                                     the latest psychology, and very creative science writer,
                                                born in 1981.

From Wired, here's a typically smart article from Jonah Lehrer. Why do people eat too much? Well, we're really bad at recognizing when we're full. (That long legacy of hungry homo saps.) Also, restauranteurs think we expect huge portions, and we probably do. So plates have gotten bigger and bigger. Serving sizes are up, Lehrer says, 40% over the last 25 years. We're prone to mimicking the behaviors of those around us. And yes, Big is Good. But why? Lehrer links this to primate status-seeking, which I find fascinating. The problem is: seeking high status by getting the big serving, we get obese, which lowers status. Talk about a vicious circle!

As always, Lehrer suggests a way our of the predicament: if we become mindful of the power/powerlessness module in our primate brain that links Big Food to High Status and therefore, Power, we realize the folly. Mindfulness. It's a big theme in much of Lehrer's writings on neuroscience. But it's easier said than done.

In closing, I suggest we meditate - or ruminate? - a bit on the epigraph Jonah Lehrer uses at the beginning of his article, the quote from M.F.K. Fisher. Is it true? If so, how much do you think it explains about our obesity problem? Do you think some subconscious part of our brain tends to equate food with security, security with love, love with food?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Obesity: More Observations (Pt. 2)

When I was a pre-teen I was like a lot of kids today: obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records. (Some elementary school teachers I'm friends with say old Guinness Books found at garage sales for a dime each will keep quite a lot of 4th graders in thrall, even today. Books? Today? Anyway...)

A very old one I received one Christmas was very entertaining, and among the wonders first encountered there were palindromes, which have nothing to do with Sarah Palin. Palindromes are words or sentences or a sequence of sentences that read the same backwards as forwards, exempli gratis: "Madam, I'm Adam."

Apparently there were certain types of geeks who were obsessed with finding the world's longest palindromes, and as I recall there were some crazy doozies in there, but the one that stuck in my mind, the one I was able to remember and entertain grandma with, was this one:

"Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod."

I thought this one just sounded funny: a guy calling a doctor out on his purported expertise? It sounded forced, but I guess it would have to. A long, eloquent palindrome seems too much to ask. I thought the dissenter was probably wrong anyway: a fast does make you lose weight. Or so I thought around age 12.

But now, from the current dietary and nutritional data that I think holds sway along these lines, a fast usually results in a rebound and gaining your weight back. Most starvation diets do. And they're probably not all that good for the overall body's biochemistry and its astonishing intelligence and search for homeostatis. And cod appears to be quite the non-fatty fish, high in protein and Omega 3s. The smart-aleck in the palindrome was right in calling out doc!

Lesson for the dieters: sometimes palindromes contain uncommon wisdom. Read every palindrome with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar! And if you're going to make cod a major part of your diet: you're gonna want to use seasonings, or really just anything to add a little TASTE to your meals. Plain cooked whitefish like cod tends to be beastly dull. Good luck!

                                     Cod, that old staple. Needs broccoli and potatoes?

Obesity: A Huge Deal These Days
Earlier this month a group of Experts (ut-oh!), who'd made a grand study of the obesity epidemic in Unistat, advocated a "major overhaul" of American life. I'm not making this up. Their report - which was 400 pages of fat itself - says around 67% of Unistatians are too fat, and Something Must Be Done in virtually every facet of life to "reverse trends," or we will sink under the weight of...oh, these "fat" puns are too easy and probably too boring for The Reader so I will try to steer clear.

Anyway, the good folks at the Institute of Medicine cram their study - or so I've read about - with "synergies" and how if we do this and that it will "empower" the overweight and we need to take a "systems approach," all of which sounds dandy. We also note how, when reading these reports, there's a whiff of social engineering lurking between the words. Let us not be totally naive idiots and just say it: the Food and Beverage lobbies have everyone cowed with this one: social engineering is code for brainwashing, or at least "Nanny State," right?

Right?

Let those who cower in fear at the looming ever-present threat of the Nanny State relax a little. I will explain why in a bit. (Actually, tomorrow. - ed.) For now let's just say your guys have the money.

So this Major Study says we spend $190.2 billion a year due to the ravages of obesity. That's a lot. Let's not ask about their statistical model right now. It sounds bad. Makes us maybe feel like foregoing that second helping of waffles staring us in the face.

Here's a problem they point out, and every other study done I've seen in the past five years that wasn't funded by the Food and Beverage folks: poor people (that's more and more of us) tend to not have access to affordable, healthy, decent nutrition. We can afford Taco Bell and Mickey D's. Also, and less persuasive in all of these studies: the poor - who are prone to the ravages of obesity at a higher rate than the better-off - need time and space to exercise. I can see poor kids in urban concrete canyons not having adequate space to do the exercise they want to do, but what about walking? Is it too dangerous to walk around the 'hood? There's probably something I'm missing with the exercise space issue, and I guess if you're working a crappy 40-50 hour per week job that barely pays a living wage, you will find it exceedingly difficult to find the time for exercise, the lack of space being but one of your problems.

This study also has 17% of school kids obese, which has tripled in 30 years. Separate research predicts 42% of all adults in Unistat obese by 2030, and 11% "severely obese" by then, up from the 5% now.

And according to some right wingers, we already have too much of a "Nanny State." I wonder how fat we'd be without Nanny hovering around us? Or would the Invisible Hand be guiding all of us to our correct, thin and healthy weights? I'm not seeing the Nanny lately. Haven't seen her for good long time, but people say she's lookin' good. I'd like to see Her myself. I bet she couldn't keep me from the Oreos! I'm too sly...Hey Nanny: bring it on, baby!

(Whenever I hear "Nanny State" I picture a 7-foot-tall beautiful black woman, like some African goddess. She's wearing an apron and a long, flowing blue dress with little white checks all over it. She's got a thin waist and big breasts. I find her very sexy. She's always catching me staring at her boobs and she tells me to go finish writing "that thing you're always yakkin' on about." I have no chance with her. She's not "Nanny State" for just any old reason. But that's me...)

                                 My personal Nanny State figure looks a lot like Erica Badu,
                                 Queen of Neo-Soul. She tells me when to put back the 
                                 Chips Ahoy, and I know she's right. Personification can 
                                  be a whole helluva lotta fun, friends!

Another Big Study: Time: Recently
Along with Experts at the CDC, Research Triangle Institute, International and other do-gooders, Duke University's Global Health Institute says recently that we need to try to keep obesity rates level so we can save $550 billion over the next 20 years.

Hold on. I know stats problems mount up quickly - for many independently variable reasons - but if the above study says we spend $190.2 billion a year now due to obesity...times ten years...double that for a second ten years...and I get a number quite a bit higher than $550 billion. Obviously, all sorts of differing criteria and shenanigans (<-----great name for a sports bar that sells Guinness, by the way) will yield different numbers. I know the folks at Duke used the Bureau of Labor Statistics and factored in the likely unemployment rate and how that affects obesity, and also fast food, alcohol and fuel prices.

When we boil any one of these studies down, all discrepancies aside, we're fat, and the Situation looks dire, and we really need to do some major league "slimming," as the Brits call it, a term I first encountered in that same Guinness Book. Here's a brief story a Slimmer of the Year, who, spurred on by a nasty comment from his daughter's friend, lost 12 stone, 10 lbs, or 178 pounds. Unistat Experts consider being over 100 pounds overweight as "severely obese."

Dr. William Dietz of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is often quoted in articles on long term effects of obesity. He says here that - you guessed it - healthier choices must be made more accessible and affordable.

                                                   DrWilliam Dietz of the CDC
                                                   He cares about our collective girth.
                                                   That's his job. He looks serious to me.
                                                   He cannot compete with Erica Badu,
                                                          though.

Some Good News!
Okay, enough with the prognostications from the researchers at the Institute of Fat Studies saying we'll all look like Fat Bastard by 2030, while the Experts at the Dom DeLuise School For the Study of the Zaftig say we'll all be "plumper" by an average of 13.7% per capita compared to today's numbers and blah blah flabbedy-flah blah. Two lovely women, one from the CDC and one from the National Center For Health Statistics (NCHS) point out that, pretty much, Unistatians' ballooning obesity rates may have leveled off already. That's something to jump up and down about until we start wheezing and have to sit down in a beanbag, right? Dig:

Recall that we have decided a rather crass way to determine obesity called Body Mass Index (BMI): take your height and weight and you get number. If you're below the normal range, you need to get into the kitchen, STAT! There's the normal range, and then if your BMI is 30 or over, you're "obese." The stats from this analysis has obesity rates stable from 1960 to 1980. From 1976 to 1980 we spiked 8%. They measure obesity every two years. Between 1988 and 1994 another spike of around 8%. (Why?) Between 1994 and 2000 a rise, but between 1999 and 2008, a leveling off. Around 2000, women in Unistat were fatter than men, but in the ten years since then, women have gotten thinner, men fatter. We're about equal now.

Enter good ol' William Dietz again, who takes the long view and compares public health education and individual consciousness to cigarette smoking. The knowledge that smoking was bad for you started to be broadcasted regularly in the mid-1950s, and between 1950- 1965 we see very little in the way of people quitting smoking. These things need time to percolate into mass consciousness before people start to get tough with themselves (with a little help from the State). By the 1980s, we began to see a steep decline in cigarette smoking, and Dietz thinks the obesity "epidemic" will see roughly the same trajectory. So we may have already leveled off.

We may have.

It could be that all the "by 2050 everyone will be built like a planet" warnings from experts are all wrong.

Maybe. This is part of why this subject is so fascinating to me: the complex of dynamic adaptive characteristics of the problem make it an intriguing thing to try and get a handle on. And the problem is so close to all of our homes. We're all in this. There are many steps to be taken, pun intended. And with the scope of the problem I think it's safe to say we have enough on our plates to....ooops! Sorry! One too many for today.

NEXT: the elephant in the room, AND: some Big Thinkers on why we're fat.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obesity: Some Observations, Part One

I've been wanting to write about a complex problem from many different viewpoints. There appeared to be numerous topics in the physical sciences and the humanities, but I've chosen to tackle the obesity "epidemic" (note how our language has largely adopted the "medical model" over the last 30 years) for the emotional freight it carries. Fat jokes are everywhere. (I recently heard a comedienne say she greets her female friends with, "What up, fat-ass?" as a phrase of affection.) It's one of the most-cliched tropes in mainstream media: cite a new study that shows how we're getting fatter, then show anonymous shots of 300 pounders meandering in the streets. For me, there's something not only garish about this aspect of the spectacle, but maybe a bit of the sadomasochism of everyday life.

Hey! There's a commonality between many thin left-liberals and right-conservatives: they love to cluck tongues over the fatties. Then there are different levels of acceptance towards the obese. I once acted as a chauffeur for an old man who was one of the kindest people I'd ever known. He was 80 or so, and never had a bad thing to say about anyone. He was quite thin, and as I remember he volunteered to me, socially liberal but conservative about economics and his own personal finances. The worst thing I ever heard him say about anyone else was when we were in a parking lot and a very obese woman was in the midst. He leaned over and quasi-whispered to me, "Can you imagine letting yourself go like that? It must be...so...difficult!" That really was the most "negative" thing I ever heard him utter about anyone else. After studying obesity and our attitudes towards it, I now see him as in the avant-garde.

Last night I had dinner with a dear friend who was agonizing that she'd gained 20 pounds in two years, and she's over 50, has stepped up her exercising, went into too-minute detail about self-imposed dietary restrictions that hadn't worked, and of course, the emotional turmoil. The thing is: she's still relatively thin. She looks good. But she worries, puzzles over loss of control. It seems common to think we can stay the same weight throughout life. As a fact, most of us cannot. And we can't control that as we think we ought.

                              Hippocrates, who over 2400 years ago knew we all had different 
                              metabolisms and body types, and that different foods were more 
                              more liable to make us fat than others, knew we should eat less
                              and exercise more. But he also thought we should vomit to control
                              our weight: "Fat individuals should vomit in the middle of the day,
                              after a running or marching exercise and before taking any food."

I think that's maybe the most insidious thing, aside from the very real human misery and health costs related to true obesity: loss of control. Wanting to be in control in this ever-accelerating world. And you can't even keep your own weight down! 

How many times I've had to listen to my female friends wax vexingly about their perceived issues around weight! I have male friends who are overweight, but they seem relatively more accepting. Maybe they just don't want to talk about it? But I think the pressure to be thin and beautiful in this heavily mediated world is quite the recipe for depression and self-loathing. And let's face it, it's not all that interesting a kvetch, as kvetches go...

I am not fully conscious about why I have zero weight issues. (To those with perceived too much adipose tissue, take heart: I'm a too-nerdy neurotic asthmatic, who, despite thinness, is genetically predisposed to high LDL cholesterol. Also: I have not been scanned, and there's a chance I'm a "tofi"and wouldn't THAT put me in my place! The "thin outside, fat inside" finding is just one of many weird, counterintuitive things I found when reading on obesity.)

I've always been able to eat as much as I wanted and I have always been thin. In my late teens I took up weightlifting and protein shakes in order to gain as much weight as I could, with limited success: lots of muscle on bone. Even though I've reached 50, I still can't get over 170 pounds on my 6-foot frame. Why? I don't know, but there's plenty of reasons to chalk most of it up to genes. Because I don't feel "proud" of my genes (which reminds me of the avowed racists I read who say they're "proud to be white": how about taking pride in something you accomplished?), I can't summon much opprobrium for the obese. 

                                   Nietzsche had read - of course! - the famous The Art of Living Long,
                                   by the Renaissance Venetian Luigi Cornaro, who said he'd eaten 
                                   like a pig in his younger days, but now ate very little, and what he
                                   did eat was bland and virtually tasteless.  Cornaro seems to 
                                   prefigure some of the annoying tofu-addicted food-scolds
                                    I see around Berkeley. Fred N has this to say about Cornaro: 
                                  "A scholar in our time, with his rapid consumption of nervous energy, 
                                   would simply destroy himself on Cornaro's diet. Crede experto -  
                                                  believe me - I've tried."

Of course, there are those who seem the very picture of gluttony, but the news out of various corners of neuroscience and genetics and other lines of thought mucks this picture up too much for me. I will give plenty of credence to the "fat and sugar act as drug-like rewards in the brain" line; or the "food as drug-addiction" rhetoric, which I find very persuasive. And addiction is not, in my eyes, a conservative Republican's simple moral issue of self-discipline. I think we'd see even more of this cant from conservatives, but too many of them are obese themselves. (Which doesn't stop them from railing about addicts of other drugs.)

And there's plenty of reasons why those the government would classify as "overweight" (Body Mass Index over 25), obese (BMI of 30+), or "severely obese" (BMI over 40, or 100 lbs overweight) feel bad about themselves. Well, not all, but probably most: the non-obese culture tends to look down on the  corpulent for reasons that seem not to do with concerns about human health and happiness, but, as Louise Foxcroft writes in her history of obesity, Calories and Corsets, from "aesthetic distaste." 

In reading a couple hundred articles on obesity, and about it in many books recently, I'm not at all sure we have as much agency as the popular culture would assign to us and our fatness. More of it seems out of our hands than meets the eye.

                                      Lord Byron, archetypal progenitor of gorgeous movie 
                                      and rock stars, binged and purged. Is there
                                        nothing new under the sun?

My study of obesity met my needs for something personal (friends and fellow citizens) and urgent (the spiraling costs of health care). It was also filled with enough complexities that I felt sufficiently "whelmed": not over- or under- . The study impinges on biochemistry, economics, public policy, environmental interactions, all-too real politick, evolutionary psychology, social perception, sex, genetics and epigenetics, neuroscience, aesthetics, rhetoric, history of diets, creative solutions and counterintuitive studies, futurology, delusions and depravity, and lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I hope to not bore The Reader and instead impart a sense of optimism that we can, if not solve, greatly ameliorate the suffering of obesity. I also hope to encourage a more nuanced understanding than is usually found in the mainstream press. As I alluded to earlier, I think the notion of personal agency is much more difficult than is generally appreciated. 

Fatness is a touchy subject, and fraught with emotion, and I know that if I write, "If this bothers you, why don't you put down that box of lard, get off the couch, and wheeze around the block, you tub of goo!," I might be misunderstood, as the Internet is filled with Missing Information; you cannot know that I would be saying this ironically, and that I care deeply about us and this weighty problem. Our problem. I also abhor Political Correctness. When a subject becomes almost taboo to talk about, I am one of those who will talk or write about it with reckless abandon. So: a sense of humor, please? Or do you think that, because I'm personally not obese - or have at least presented myself as such - I have no "right" to joke? (Rail in the comments, please!)
                                                                   

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Writing Exercise: Advice/Etiquette Columns

Prologue: Childhood and the Sports Section
I think I read the sports section of the Los Angeles Times every day from the age of nine or so, following baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. And a few other stories of boxers or cyclists or Pele or Jimmy Connors or maybe even jockey Willie Shoemaker, who after retiring got drunk and crashed his car off the freeway near my dad's house in 1993. I was really one of those kids who studied the box scores or the Top 10 Leaders in Passing, or Scoring. Why? I'm still not sure...

                                          box score for a famously wild NBA game

Age 12-40: Utterly Brazen 'Tude Towards Etiquette-Talk
Then, around age 12 I started reading the rest of the paper. I remember Dear Abby, and as a long-haired pagan kid I thought this was the most ridiculous part of the paper: people writing in and asking for advice from some old bag they didn't even know, because somehow "Abby" had become an authority on manners or some crap like that. Only the daily horoscope was stupider than this twaddle.

I pretty much kept up this attitude through my 30s. Although I did make a quiet, very informal and ongoing study of manners - one finds one must, really! - Abby and her sister "Ann Landers" and others like Tish Baldridge, Miss Manners and Amy Vanderbilt were the subject of humor rank and vile around my often rock-musician friends.

"Should we have another beer?
"I dunno. What would Dear Abby say?"
"She and her **** sister can **** my ****, but I'm pretty sure they'd say it's entirely appropriate to have another beer AND some more of that sweet ganja."
Than someone would fart. And we'd laugh. Or act "offended."

OG Hits Big Four-O
Around age 40, I became much more interested in manners. I'd read some of Edmund Burke, the great (true) conservative thinker (O! How I wish today's Republicans were more like Edmund Burke!), Irishman, philosopher, and essayist. He said he thought manners were more important than laws, which blew my mind. It really made me think. Of course laws are important. Bad laws really bother me, and there are plenty of those. But in those personal worlds that we so often inhabit, don't insults, or inadvertent slights, or little indignities or gracious acts by a friend or stranger affect us more than laws? I think so.

The really tricky thing about manners: they seemed related to the species we know of as "morals" and "ethics" but manners seemed more mysterious. Indeed, look at how much great comedy is produced with the anxiety about "what's the correct thing to do here?" as the backdrop. We all know those situations, and hilarity will ensue when the main characters make a far worse go of it than we would have...and most of us find ourselves unsure often enough. Look at Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm: they're all about manners, those unwritten "rules" that we all must somehow know, and when you violate them - whether you knew it or not, whether you agreed with the "rule" or not - there will be consequences.

You know the Fellini-like music that runs through Curb Your Enthusiasm? Larry David said, "You can really act like an imbecile and this music is going to make it okay." Yep. You need that music to take the edge off the utter cringeworthiness of those situations...
 -------------------------------------------------------------------------
Introducing Henry Alford
So I'm reading a very funny book called Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?, by Henry Alford. He reminds me of Robert Benchley (one of my writing heroes since around age 23) writing an etiquette book, although it's a meta-etiquette book; he's more fascinated in etiquette than I am, he's writing about thinking about etiquette. He has adventures, he makes mistakes, he does research on etiquette, he lives in Manhattan and compares it with his (hilarious) trip to Tokyo, etc. Alford cites Mark Caldwell's book A Short History of Rudeness (which I haven't read, but whatta title, eh?) in which, from an anthropological view, manners have "almost always served as 'tokens of solidarity in a distinct human group, which - if status is high enough - can decree anything polite by fiat.'" (Alford quoting Caldwell) "Caldwell writes of a sixteenth-century aristocratic German tradition whereby Christmas revelers festively pelted one another with dog turds at the dinner table." (pp.37-38, Alford) I just happened to see it on the shelf in my local library - Alford's book, not dog turds - and couldn't put it down. Gawd, this guy is a blast!

                                           Henry Alford, a very witty writer on manners.
                                   
About 3/4 of the way through I arrived at a chapter about advice columnists, and was astonished to see Alford explain that he'd pick his favorite manners-writers and read the letter to the expert, then, without reading how the columnist responded to "Confused in Concord" "Mad in Moline" or "Sad in Saratoga" or (I'm making these up) "Vile in Virginia Falls," he'd write his response in a notebook as if he were the columnist. And that's what I had done twenty or thirty times over the years, as an exercise! Alford's a better writer than I am, but I felt a kinship when I read about his exercises.

"When devising your response to etiquette columns, it's naturally much more fun to disagree with the manners maven; you learn more this way, since you're forced to solidify or retinker your opinion," Alford writes on p.170. Indeed, I have three basic approaches to my answers:


  1. I allow myself to be outrageously flippant, even unspeakably rude, a throwback to those rock band days I mentioned above. It's a way to let the Id out. Other times I act like the Stephen Colbert character, George Carlin, or "Ed Anger" from the The Weekly World News.
  2. Having read the columnist a handful of times, I try to predict what they'd write to "Dirty in Des Moines." It's a way to see how my etiquette chops are coming along, and a test of whether I "get" the advice columnist's approach to manners. (Alford does this too.)
  3. I use my response as a way to exercise "style," whatever the hell that is. In my ordinary world, I hardly ever talk about manners. I think Alford nails this: "On the one hand, you want to be omniscient, gentle, loving, sensitive, practical, subtle, clear, objective, and kind; on the other, you don't want to be the most boring person on the planet." Alford doesn't mention that he does what I do: I try to "channel" Gore Vidal, Aldous Huxley, or sometimes Erica Jong. 
Alford does say that these exercises are like a "literary ventriloquism." That's when he's trying to guess what the manners-expert would say. (His favorites and mine intersect.)

Me and Wilhelm Reich
One Big Thing I've learned about myself: I know the Western world's adult population at large tends to be more reverential and...oh fuck it, I'll say it: stuffy about sex. Much moreso than I. So I had to spend a lot of time weighing whether I should dial it back on my tendencies to just let it rip about sex. As a minor scholar of Wilhelm Reich, with my idiosyncratic interpretation of him and a few (but not most!) of his followers, I have decided to err or the side of possible embarrassment. We need to get over our sex hang-ups. That doesn't mean I'll discuss my own genitalia or friends'; there must be a point to it all. I will try not to cause embarrassment for others just for the sake of it. That would be cruel, and I definitely want to avoid that. But because we are so hung up, so fucked up, hypocritical and pretentious about sex in our culture, I will push the envelope a bit, and a few times I've gotten in hot water, especially with the online world. I've learned from these instances. I know now that I'll be joking with people I'd probably never want to socialize with in "real life." The online world is tricky: too much Missing Information. (Alford has a wonderful chapter on this: chapter 5, "Being a brisk snowshoe across the winterscape that is the Internet," pp.87-112) Alford, a gay man who writes for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and NPR, doesn't seem to agree with me...which may be part of why he is where he is and I am...here. <cough>

Am I tilting at windmills here? Probably. I'll probably always be a bit of a "punk" when it comes to this stuff. Aye, I still find myself behaving like a Visigoth or Dartmouth frat-boy every now and again. (I did NOT go to Dartmouth; the line was meant as a put-down. O! The irony!)

Etiquette and Phenomenological Sociology and Cognitive Science
Alford mentions he'd found out about the "theory of mind" while researching the book. Basic to cognitive science, it's about knowing that others do or don't know that you know, to put it most simply. A basic study: children watch a film of a child putting candy into a box, then see the child going outside. They then see an adult take the candy out of the box and put it in a drawer. Then the children who watched the film are asked: when the child comes back for the candy, where will they look? At 2 1/2 years old, only about 20% of the children said the box. By four years old, almost all the kids say the box. By four you have a theory of mind.

Alford wonders if, rather than manners being based on something like "empathy," which he had guessed at before learning about the theory of mind, that "Maybe good manners are your ability to take on another person's point of view regardless of your own." I think this is one reason why manners fascinate me so much: the hidden dimension of everyday "reality." I've long been fascinated by phenomenological sociology and Ethnomethodology (Alfred Schutz, Harold Garfinkel, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, the sociologists who do Conversation Analysis like Harvey Sacks, etc.): the "seen- but-not-noted-world." A current trope: paying attention to manners is a way of "hacking" much of the unseen/unspoken social welt.

                                         Professor Harold Garfinkel, founder of the branch of 
                                         sociology called Ethnomethodology, which sought to
                                         tease out the hidden "rules" of everyday life. To me,
                                        Ethnomethodology was intensely intellectual and sort 
                                        of whacky; it was super-microsociology and also a
                                        meta-critique of the Social Sciences. Garfinkel was one
                                        of Carlos Castaneda's PhD advisors. 

There's a finesse to manners. This isn't about social register or "class" or "good breeding," although all of those seem related. When one frames "manners" as being something that could operate among hoboes along the train-tracks, I think we've found a more true and just look at what manners are. (Maybe?) After having crashed Jonathan Haidt a month or so ago, I think he's groping towards something along these lines vis a vis those who differ from our political POV: trying to embody someone else's point of view despite your own cherished models of "reality."

Exercise Tip For Your Writing Chops; OR: Just Fer Kicks
Alford says his favorite are Mary Killen from the Spectator (which I like too for its exotic British tones); Miss Laura's TransTerrific Advice Column (for the transgendered); Miss Manners; Philip Galanes's "Social Qs" in the NYT; and Dan Savage. My favorite is Savage, but I also read Miss Manners, AKA Judith Martin. I like Dear Prudence from Slate. Because I once wondered why it seemed that heterosexual males writing etiquette was fodder for jokes, I found The Answer Man just to see if a straight guy could pull it off. He's not bad, in my opinion. But the others have better style. You can just Google "advice column" and find someone, anyone, read the first letter, then think how you'd like to respond, then write. If you're like me, you might make yourself laugh at yourself! Anyway...

I also read Carolyn Hax, and before I sat down to write this blogspew, I read her May 9th, "Friend's Estrangement Calls For Compassion, Not Shunning," which gave away her game right there in the title.

                                       Emily Yoffe, who pens the "Dear Prudence" column 
                                       for Slate; she's fearless and has awesome poise.

Because the title "primed" my brain to pretty much agree with her about "Dan," I still found myself wondering if the advice-seeker's girlfriend might have had a "thing" for Dan, and has not been forthright with any of us. Clearly Rachel's unsavory and has problems, and Dan maybe oughtta grow a pair and look elsewhere. Then - this is why I like Hax's column - a respondent to Carolyn's advice says what I had been thinking: "Why is she so obsessed with Dan?" Then I thought maybe I'm projecting. Truly, instead of shaming Dan, girlfriend and others who care about him should exude compassion, and hope he makes the right decision. I think someone (I'm looking at you, Dan!) needs to tell Rachel to take a hike (but how's her body? what's she like in bed?), and maybe Dan should think of some client-centered Rogerian psychotherapy. But it's complicated, right? Hax nails it again at the end. There's something intimidatingly adroit about the really good manners mavens...

Thinking about complex social situations involving the unwritten laws of etiquette and delicately nuanced human emotions involves the theory of mind and its exercise, often using intuition, memory of past experience, and moreover, our wits. Manly men who think etiquette is sissy-stuff? You're missing out on a rich field of social discourse! You ignore this stuff at your own peril!

Finally: if you decide to study this stuff in a more-than-cursory way, bring your personality and sense of humor "to the table." Just as those Robert Anton Wilson fans who know what makes the Law of 23 go, you'll no doubt "see" manners everywhere after awhile. And that can make experience richer. There's a lot of deep humor in this sphere. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Overweening Generalist Becomes a One-Year-Old

Yes, a one-year old. And I've just crapped my blogging diapers, so I'll try to make this short (fat chance, baby!).

This post is the 183rd of my first year of blogging, or an average of one every two days. I started on May 6th of last year and tried to do the very thing all the Experts warned is not a good idea: writing about all sorts of topics. You're supposed to find a niche. Everyone knows that!

I'm not sure I can call the experiment a success (45,000 pageviews - counting "referrer spam" - in one year? some blogs get that in one day), and it might be because I did something else the blog-world cognoscenti (i.e, Experts) say is a no-no: my blog posts tend to be too long by far. But I've had fun, so screw the Experts. There's an essayist who has written a lot about writing, William Zinsser. One of his Thangs is "writing to learn." By and large that's what I've done here. Via some wonderful alchemical process, writing allows me to learn, and alter my own consciousness. Oh yes, and then I try to be entertaining.

I said try. Sometimes I can't muster my best voice here due to depression or anxiety. That's been an eye-opener. Other times I found I could pull a Nietzsche and write myself into an exalted mood. It's all process for me here...

I think I've defended my thesis quite poorly. Despite the easy-to-find encomiums from Experts that being a Generalist is valuable, I have yet to see any real tangible benefits from it that one might label extrinsic. I was running ads for Google Adsense, but they got pulled (and my accrued $30+ too) because I wrote about SEX in a way I still don't understand would reflect poorly on advertisers of college textbooks, Ron Paul, or some diploma mill somewhere. <sigh>

Being one's own editor can be a pitfall. You can't "see" your fuck-ups just after you've committed them. Often I only see my howlers, errors, typos, catachreses, etc, the next day or next week. Or never, so feel free to email me with a head's up on something you've caught. Often I'll finish typing a blog and put it online, and I'm burnt on the topic; I just don't want to read my crap and think few readers will either. So I probably miss a lot.

The intrinsic rewards of being interested in just about Everything seem considerable; I am convinced. It works for me. I just wish I could convince others. Others who'd pay me even a lowly amount to write as a Generalist. We are, despite what I'd like to believe, in an epoch dominated by Specialists. (To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: "I couldda been somebody. I couldda been a programmah.") The Business Community largely dictates what work will be well-compensated. Writing has never been a smart career move. In the Digital Age, everyone's a writer, and it's been sobering to investigate which bloggers are making a living off of it. I can't say I'm surprised, but a deeper look has been suggestive of what folks who read blogs value. I have no moral qualms about it. Just another inane OG "observation."

                                              An overweening generalist, ectomorphic,
                                              sans locks, rare bird, ridiculous, pedantic, 
                                        "enthusiastic" in the 18th century sense of the word.

If you read this blog and like it, I really appreciate you and think you're probably wonderfully weird like I am. If I haven't met you yet in the flesh, I hope to someday. What sort of weirdo reads a blog like this? It's all over the place, it's too long, and frequently veers into pedantry, for which I seem congenitally at risk of falling into at times. I tried to address this self-consciousness of (sombunall)  writers - including me - in this blog post...

I owe an incalculable debt to a small handful or fellow bloggers. Tom Jackson has been far more supportive than I ever could have wished. We share a love of Robert Anton Wilson, and Jackson has pull as a journalist near Cleveland, Ohio, and I just got lucky. He's driven more traffic to the OG than anyone else. See his RAWIllumination blog. He's impressive in his knowledge of Science Fiction, he loves classical music - and other kinds, as I found via emails - and he's a sweet guy. One day we'll do beers together.

Following closely on Jackson's heels: Sue Howard of London, or parts nearby. Someday I hope to meet her; we've been writing about issues we have in common for years, sharing links. She's scary-smart and I always learn from and enjoy her writings and comments. She's aligned with many sites - or so I assume - but I'll just mention two: News Frames, which seems to elucidate George Lakoff's work even better than Lakoff himself, which just impresses me no end; and Anxiety Culture, which is a site that, when I read it, I want to take their writers out for beers, but we're 6000 miles apart in what we laffingly call the "Real World," so it'll have to wait. I owe you guys one. The subtitle for their site reads "How to Stop Worrying and Other Gimmicks," which made me literally LOL when I first saw it.

Annabel Lee of Double Dip Politics has been a valuable supporter; I get lots of looks at the OG from run-off from her site. She's near the Baltimore, MD, area and writes passionately and intelligently about Unistat politics and cares about, basically, the same issues I do, but I get depressed writing about that stuff, while she seems to revel in it. She's tough, takes lots of mean-spirited jibes from right wingers, and always treats them with respect back. I could not hang with that. She's got something I don't, and it might be called...courage?

Always considerate and with comments imbued with hilaritas, Robert Anton Wilson scholar Eric Wagner has long supported this blog and my writing. Thanks, Professor! See Eric's new blog Ask Eric. If you have any questions about poetry, I suggest you try Wagner; he will not disappoint.

I also need to mention Oz Fritz, Mike Gathers, Bobby Campbell and about eight or twelve others who emanate from the Robert Anton Wilson subculture. Thanks to anyone who has commented, even once.

The "Followers" (40 as I write this): I appreciate being Followed, but I have yet to learn the etiquette for how to - or whether to - greet, approach, or whatever the Followers. One thing I have learned from the Followers: I click on your pic, and I get "Other Blogs I Follow," and that has led to some wonderful serendipities! So thanks, Followers! Please feel free to chime in in the comments, if only to say hello or drop a non-sequitur. I love those!

Family members and a friend who won the Prairie Schooner Prize for Best Poetry Book of the year all have given me a variation of this, when asked if they'd checked out my blog: "It was way over my head." "I didn't get it." "That stuff is way beyond me." Etc. Which was sorta baffling and depressing, as I was actively trying to NOT be opaque. Another eye-opener for me...

Here's how I write the OG (not that anyone asked): I think, "I really should do a blogspew today," and make a list of four or six topics. Then I read my files I've collected on the topics, make notes, draw arrows all over the place...and then Something jumps out at me, and I end up writing about something else that wasn't on my list. Odd? Yes, I think I must be.

Finally...

Here's perhaps the most telling thing about a year of writing Overweening Generalist: How utterly surprising my Top 10 posts have been to me. If I recall accurately, seven of my top 10 were ones I decided to write on the spur of the moment, sometimes because I had just finished reading a book, or other reasons. The Top 5 are "runaway" posts: they "took off," and I don't understand the underlying logic of the blogosphere in this at all, at all. A few times I finished a piece and thought, "This is going to get some hits and generate comments; it paid to put in the extra effort," only to see the post fall stillborn and seemingly float off into the ethernet. Here's my Top 10, and you tell ME if there's any logic to it:

Here's my Top 10, counting down to my most popular post:
10. There Is No "Scientific Method"
9.  Meditation on "Paideuma"
8. George Lakoff and Metaphorical Framing For Occupy, u.s.w.
7. Remembering Robert Anton Wilson
6. Missing Public Discussions: Income Inequality
5. One-Eyed Shark Fetuses and Other Animal Wonders
4. John Von Neumann: Hungarian...Martian?
3. Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonte'
2. Epigenetics: The Revenge of Lamarck!
1. Free Sex, Free Love, Sex-Politics, and Neat Stuff Like That

To quote a 20th century existentialist: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."

The Exoplanet Revolution, Pt. 2

We on this rocky world had no compelling reason to believe the universe would make small rocky planets like ours so efficiently. We could hope and dream and exercise our imaginations and speculate. But it turns out to be true. However, the cascade of confirmations of new exoplanets in Goldilocks zones relative their own stars is not confirmation that these things are watery. It's very suggestive, though. And we will obtain more precise ways to take visual fingerprints - spectroscopic signatures - of the chemical makeup of the surface of these planets...

As far as astrobiology goes, planets are it. They're the show. And yes, even though these billions of rocky planets in our own Milky Way are in our own backyard, relative to the known universe, the distances between any one of them and us, given the speed limit in physics as we know it (When has Einstein been wrong? Not often.), messages sent between electromagnetically intelligent beings "out there" would take probably 1000 years to send-receive questions/answers/how's it going?-like stuff (that's one helluva delay, eh?), I don't think that's any reason to lose hope of making some sort of contact. I find the distances plus speed of light sobering, though. The 1000 years is probably being overly optimistic, too. It's probably around 100,000 light years across the galaxy from "end to end." But still: billions of other worlds in our galaxy, possibly some with life? Marvelous to think on, no? Some with technologically intelligent life? Who haven't yet made themselves extinct by the time they sent us a message? Beyond marvelous!

                                      Johannes Kepler. A workhorse of a telescope aiding our
                                      search for exoplanets was aptly named after him.

And then maybe rocky planets in habitable zones with water with atmospheres, with...the luck we've had?  It could be the details make us very rare. But still: the sheer numbers of possible worlds that could harbor life, and maybe technologically intelligent life...it's a new new thing! It's a scientific revolution. We've seen it happen over just the last 14 years or so. Things have changed at breathtaking speed when it comes to the exoplanet question, and those changes have been accelerating.

In yesterday's post I showed a graph of the exoplanets discovered by year and mass. The graph went up to 19 January, 2012. I hope to convey something of the rapidity of change in this area of science, right now:

Science Daily, 2 February, 2012: a new Super-Earth discovered orbiting a star in a triple-star system. They think it's potentially habitable. The planet, called GJ667Cc (they need to work on this naming thing, right?), has a 28 day orbital period and it's about five times the mass of Earth, and it's "only" 22 light years away. (Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second. That makes for about 6,000,000,000,000 miles a year. That's 6 trillion miles. Times 22 equals 132 trillion miles away. And that's considered fairly "close" to us, considering....) The star this new Super Earth orbits lacks metals our sun has, so it suggests that habitable planets could make up a greater variety of elements than we'd thought. One of the lead discoverers of this new exoplanet says, "This planet is the new best candidate to support liquid water, and perhaps, life as we know it." Yes, maybe.

                                     Edwin Hubble, died in 1953. Developed a classification 
                                     system for galaxies, based on their shapes. He has a 
                                     doozy of a telescope named after him.

BBC, 21 February, 2012: "Distant Water-World Confirmed." Another group has found a planet 40 light years away. It's a Super-Earth, about two and a half times the diameter of Earth but seven times the mass. The Hubble Space Telescope was used. A large fraction of this new world is water! But what kind of water? It's "like no planet we know of," says one researcher. It's about 392 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface, so the mass and pressure and temperature might mean it has a different internal structure than our Earth, and might contain exotic matter like "hot ice" (which I think means sodium acetate?), and something called "superfluid water."Weird stuff. This planet, which I call "Superfluid World," the astronomers call, at present, GJ1214b. It orbits a red dwarf, which for some reason, every time I see that term I think of a David Lynch film. But that's me...

Moving on.

San Francisco Chronicle, 24 February, 2012: Rogue planets may outnumber stars in the Milky Way. Note that the writer and editor of this piece fall prey to what most of us do when we're talking about this stuff, because the numbers and scales are so large and mind-blowing in their implications: early in the article there may be perhaps "thousands" of rogue planets. But the crux is that, for every main-sequence star in the Milky Way - around 200 billion - there may be 100,000 rogue/nomad planets for each star! I don't know what the current scientific consensus is on this idea, but in an intellectual domain already fraught with seemingly absurd data, this seemed to really take the cake for me. These nomadic planets are thought to be Jupiter-like, and according to the team of scientists here, they may be powered by internal radioactivity, possess thick atmospheres, and harbor microbial life. So, this team of researchers, centered at Stanford, posit 200,000,000,000 x 100,000 = the number of homeless, wandering planets in the Milky Way!

How do they figure? They know the mass of the galaxy. They added the mass of all known comets, planets (that are confirmed: by this moment it was 500 confirmed exoplanets and about 1800 pending), and stars in the galaxy. They got a number that was far too low. It didn't come close to the known mass of the galaxy. Hence, rogue Jupiter-like planets. Scads and heaps and hordes of them! Swarms and masses and crowds of them!

Now: I'm merely a generalist, if an overweening one. But could it be possible that these guys and gals with PhDs in astrophysics are hinting at a solution to the Dark Matter problem? It's often been called the "most embarrassing" problem in science: our ignorance of two things that sound alike, but are probably very different: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Dark Energy makes up about 73% of Everything, and we don't have a decent theory of what The Stuff Is. Dark Energy is about 23% of Everything, and we are having a rough time accounting for it also. That's 96% of Everything we're ignorant about. Here's a little chart that lays out the glaring embarrassment:


Moving on...

28 March, 2012, Wired: Ten Billion Earth-Like Planets May Exist In Our Galaxy. Now it's Earth-Like planets! 10 billion of them. 40% of red dwarf stars may contain Earth-ish planets with the right conditions for life. Red dwarfs aren't as hot, so these things, even if Super-Earths, could orbit at 0.5 of an AU and still be "just right." With water, etc. This article gives "700 confirmed" exoplanets. It seems like only 36 days ago the confirmation number was 500, and indeed it was. We're talking acceleration of knowledge, folks.

New Scientist/Slate, 8 April, 2012: Interview with the founder of 70 of the first 100 exoplanets, Dr. Geoffrey Marcy, given ample space in my previous blogspew. Read the interview. He's the Pioneer of Exoplanet Hunters; now he's got some great ideas for SETI and explains how using lasers is the way we'll contact The Others.

Marcy says we can break planets into three main classes:

  1. Jupiter-like thingies, consisting of mostly hydrogen and helium. Big, gassy blobs.
  2. Water-dominated planets that are pretty big, but not as big as Jupiter: Icy Neptune-y and Uranus-ish guys.
  3. Rocky Ones, like us and our immediate cousins (who, admittedly, have their problems): Venus and Mars.
Note that Marcy says his team has submitted a paper that claims 1090 new exoplanets, coupled with the 1235 they announced last year! (So, clearly, there are competing teams worldwide and "acceptance" has lag periods for different groups.) If there are potentially 100,000 Homeless Rogues (times 200 billion stars) and 10 billion Earth-ish things out there, we've confirmed about 700 with let's say 3000 pending. In 1995 your little nephew or niece might have asked you, "How many planets are there?" And you'd've said nine: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Now a kid asks you and you say, "There's eight in our solar system, but about 4000 outside it, and maybe...hundreds of billions that we suspect are out there. Sorry, kid! Let's just say it's a LOT!"

Finally:
May 1st, 2012, Phys.org: Four white dwarfs have been caught eating their Earth-like planets. What?

Okay, a white dwarf is at the end of its life as a star. Our star is about halfway through its life-cycle. It still has about another five billion years before it goes Red Giant, totally burns to a crisp Mercury and Venus, and scorches with extreme prejudice the face of Earth. That's what they found orbiting those old white dwarfs: discs of dust containing the tell-tale nickel, sulfur, and iron...stuff that's at the core of our planet. So: for rocky planets at or less than one AU from their own Type G star, they're gonna be toast. After the star goes Red Giant, it contracts, turns into a cooler white dwarf, and loses mass. The bigger outer planets probably lose their moorings; they old star can't keep them tethered any longer, and they...go rogue. They wander. Probably many of them bump into each other, shattering in unspeakably large cataclysmic events into more dust, asteroids, comets...Dark Matter?

"My theology, briefly, if that the universe was dictated but not signed." - Christopher Morley

"At the last dim horizon, we search among the ghostly errors of observations for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and will not be oppressed."
-Edwin Hubble