Friday, December 24, 2010

Singaporean Christmas

After wandering through the muggy tropical night, aimlessly wondering what Christmas is all about (and such tropes), I decided to rest my quickly blistering feet by hopping on a train.

Disembarking I found myself on a main avenue, Raffles Road, walking on past parks and fountains. In an underpass I stumbled past some hip young adults and teens who'd reclaimed the space for practicing break dancing moves.

The youth here, as someone observed, are culturally just hitting the 1970s. Which is all good by me. I hope they like Stevie Wonder.

Following the crowds past the regal hotel driveways I found myself crossing a bridge towards the Marina Bay hotel - the new, casino-friendly, wildly expensive, let's-take-a-shot-at-being-Dubai resort that made international headlines opening earlier this year.

As a foreigner I went into the casino - they charge Singapore residents $100 to enter to discourage gambling. If your passport isn't local you get in free and are free to spend as much as you like.

Singapore has a few things to learn about casinos. I can give them some tips, having been in most of the ones Reno offered.

First - don't make them open and airy. Paths should be convoluted, and entrances hidden. Instead there are plenty of helpful people there waiting to show you the way out - using the broad, easily navigable paths.

Second - mix all the games together. That way if you do poorly at blackjack you can turn around and try slots or roulette. Also: clocks? Seriously? Not a good idea.

Third - I saw exactly, looking carefully, two other white folk. Now, since Singapore is a multi-ethnic society I can't know for certain that the thousands I looked upon weren't perhaps from Hong Kong, or Malaysia. But I don't think the $100 is keeping the Singaporeans out.

The rest of the place was pretty nice - skating rink, food and shops. I walked back across another bridge, a double helix of DNA, (with geeky AT and CG lights - it was nifty) and skirted the waterfront. I found myself by a church - the oldest in Singapore as it happens - right as people were entering for a midnight service. Raised Episcopal (American Anglican) I decided to go inside and sing some hymns.

The hymns were the best part. The service was pretty confusing - lots of elements that Episcopalians leave out, I guess, and the sermon was just plain awful. People started texting, reading, looking at event calendars, chatting... I'm glad I wasn't the only one who tuned out: most of the congregation did.

Around 1:30 I got back to my hostel, unable to walk. Sleeping-in I start Christmas around 11 am by Skyping family. In the hostel Mickey and Scrooge are in the background quoting Dickens.

Singaporean Christmas. Not a bad thing at all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

People Who Need People

If you've never lived in a hostel you'll find something out very quickly: life here reverts back to the collegiate dorm. If you never stayed in one of those, then... well, that's the only experience that mirrors it.

I spoke for hours with a Londoner who is adrift, without a degree or career, wondering what she wants out of life.

I spoke for hours with a German business start-up designer about Jared Diamond and cultural exceptionalism.

I spoke with Cuban underwater archaeologist, stopping over on his way to Indonesia for his next project.

These are three of the seven roommates I have. And I've only been here three full days.

But, while the delightful conversations are what I most cherish, the dormitory living doesn't end there. The shared sex bathrooms, the beanbag furniture, toast for breakfast, and the huddling in the common room: these are the hallmarks that make me feel ready to go register for classes tomorrow.

From San Francisco to Scotland to Singapore I've hosteled all over. The nicest I ever had was in Istanbul. The worst was Belfast. But they're basically the same. The marks of a good hostel:

Not too many in a room - blankets and bedding provided.

Breakfast, even a token, provided.

Sufficient showers for guests and clean bathrooms.

Nice staff and a nice place to hang out.

Free wi-fi.

If your hostel has these things it's a good joint. Most backpacker's and student hostels will. If they don't have these basics then you should find a place that does. Some try and be buddy buddy - tours! trips! join us Tuesday night for ____ in the common room! Frankly I don't care for these. On the other hand I've been in places where 18 are in a room and no one talks to each other at any time. So happy mediums are worth looking into.

The best breakfasts were in the UK - Liverpool, particularly, had a great full breakfast. Unfortunately many hostels still don't have wi-fi, or internet is just free on the computers provided. This always leads to bottlenecking and unhappy techy hostelers, which is increasingly all of them. If it has neither of these then they're being stingy.

Laundry generally isn't provided, as a service or with machines. There are too many issues to deal with to also have to calm hostelers losing socks and fighting for the next free machine. Don't expect it.

I've heard of places that charge for bedding, which is ridiculous - you are paying for a bed, toast, and a little security. Speaking of which - expect in most to pay a key deposit for either a room or hostel front door key. If you want a locker they probably will charge if they have them.

My current arrangement, 'The Inn Crowd 2' has all of this. The only drawback is that power strips are in the common room, meaning that I can't do simple tasks like charging my phone or computer in my dorm room. Instead everyone sits around in the commons while their tech powers up. In this case it leads to a fairly sedentary group of backpackers. In my specific case it apparently leads to lengthy blog updates.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


...isn't as bad as I thought. But it's currently peaking, so I'm sure as hell in doors. I'm not a rabid canid or a Londoner, after all.

But there are two nice Londoners in my hostel.

Singapore. After an uneventful flight rife with fun-inducing turbulance (it's like a roller coaster!) I got in around midnight. I bought a sim card for my phone, and now have a new telephone number to use for Singapore business.

Then I went to my hostel, checked in and slept in until 8. Taking my new metro card I canvassed the areas I need to know for meetings coming up, went to the main branch of the National Library (what year was it, again, that the world's libraries decided to modernize and make all of their walls glass? 2003?) and Anderson Junior College, where I'll supposedly be teaching.

The MRT (trains) are really great. I hope to find a decent apartment near to my work fairly soon - two weeks would be great for a January 1st move-in. In the meantime I'm in a nice little hostel, the Inn Crowd, in an eight bed mixed dorm.

So far the only downside is that my right foot is acting up, and a limping 6' ang mo (trans= roughlt 'red hair' or 'red devil barbarian') like me tends to stand out pretty badly. (Incidentally I'm working in Ang Mo Kio, which translates to 'red tomatoes'. It's MP is the PM, Lee, too.)

So far it feels like New York - enclaves of ethnic groups, a little grimey, but pretty darn modern. Taking the MRT basically all around the city, most of it above ground, I got a good idea of the predominance of NYC-style apartment islands. But since the population is predominately Chinese the ethnic shock isn't very pronounced - it just feels like a big Chinatown. I mean, SF is a pretty good practice ground for Asian immersion.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

List Compulsion

Apparently, list-making is not always a bad thing.

This is tremendous news for someone like me who makes lists all the time. Umberto Eco gave a nice interview a while back on the subject:,1518,659577,00.html

In many ways my curriculum building acts as a means of list arrangement. Planning out my courses ahead of time and what I'll do on which days gives listing a practical outlet. Which historical events are most important, and in what order should I cover them to facilitate clarity?

I have to pick an extra-curricular to guide or teach when I get to Singapore. Last year it was comedy improv. I'm not sure this will go over well, so I'm scratching my head, and making lists, of possible alternatives:

Cooking. I love cooking, and haven't had a chance to use my skills in a long time. I imagine a class where every few weeks students are challenged to recreate dishes I set before them with the specific knowledge of the previous lessons. The problem is that too many cooks in the kitchen can be awful, and costs are high. Not to mention the need for facilities.

World Cinema. A chronological tour through cinema history and world differences. Highlights would include early German and Soviet films, French new wave, classic Indian and Japanese noir, and contemporary Chinese and Latin American works. Possible problem: censorship of media/unavailability of certain landmark films.

Art History. Every year I cover the basics with my students: Rembrandt, Greek red and black ware, Raphael, Picasso, etc. Honestly, though, the basics are pretty much what I've got, and while I usually spend one day on Chinese Art of the Song Dynasty, I can't claim to have much knowledge of world art. Students might not be interested in a class focused solely on Western art.

Western Philosophy. Much of the bulk of Eastern Philosophy is going to be taught in my history classes anyway, as national requirements have it. Perhaps there is some interest in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the 20th century? The problem here becomes one of exclusivity - only some students can handle the material. Philosophy, past the Greeks, is best left to students 16/17 or older.

American Music of the 20th Century. Now I'm reaching. Covering music and styles from ragtime to 90's pop, with blues, jazz, rock, r&b, hip hop, and show tunes. I'd probably have interested students for this one. But I'm not sure if this is a 'legit' enough offering from a school's point of view...

Epic Literature. Anyone want to read Moby Dick?

Geopol. Each week students learn about critical geopolitical countries and their...stuff.

Book Club. books?

I guess I'll have to wait and see what things are like at the school I'm working at.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Glimpse of Author

A blog can be an impersonal thing, like a letter written by a stranger. Intonations are lost, meanings remain hidden, connections lie squandered.

So, in an attempt to make my online persona more accessible, here are some random selections from my Amazon wish list. I should think they give a decent idea of my personality.

"The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy" by Brillat-Savarin, price: $16.50

"Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" by Abelson et al., price: $68.99

"The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon", price: $22.12

"How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator" by de Guillame, price: $5.00, used.

"The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Gibbon, price: $9.79

"Krazy and Ignatz: The Kat Who Walked in Beauty" by Herriman, price: $22.76

"The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious" by Freud, price: $10.20

"The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, in Ttwo Volumes", price: $26.75, used.

"Oeuvres de Fermat", price: $29.99

"The Dream of Red Mansions" by Cao Xueqin, price: $34.15

So there you have it, or a sampling of it, anyway. A little gastronomy, computer science, autobiography, humor, history, comics, psychology, art, science and literature rolled in to one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

World History

I'm in the process of editing a very, very concise world history text for adolescent readers. Covering Austrilopithecenes to Y2K in 50 pages is, obviously, a little ridiculous. Here, instead, is the same outline, in 1,000 words. It is totally ridiculous.

Humans evolved out of Africa roughly 200,000 years ago likely on forest peripheries. Their precedent species had already developed tools, fire, walking upright, art and religion, so Homo Sapiens didn't accomplish much besides eliminating all opposing Homo species (Neandertals) and moving to everywhere. Women did most of the labor and child rearing since men have useless nipples, but since women's foraging provided most of our calories they were respected, while male hunting was respected for the imminent death factor. Travelling with migratory animals we may have planted seeds hoping they'd be ready to eat when we returned. Once we decided to keep animals rather than follow them around we needed to make sure there was food, like vetch, for year-round pastoralism. Then 2+2= agriculture for humans.

The 'agricultural revolution' took place only about 20,000 years ago but, significantly, ensures human survival in new ways if food is a guarantee. With sedentary farming the tribal families morphed into both collective village security and increased awareness of ownership as plots of land become inherited based on direct patri-lineage. River valleys are conducive to this farming and villages grow - they now need more organization and protection from free-loaders and raiders. Worldwide astronomy pays off with it's predictive-religious powers, such as in Egypt where knowing the seasons lets you foretell Nile floods.

Village contact is regulated through periodic warfare to reconfirm boundaries, and through trade which requires oversight and regulation. Courts of law, born from tribal custom, along with quantifiable weights and measures, and chicken-scratch writing like cuneiform all help with these tasks. With agricultural surplus comes population growth and some people no longer work on the farm for a living - an elite class of artisans, priests, and rulers. Bureaucratic scribes keep the necessary records, and importantly, calendars. As Burke points out "with a calendar you can give people a date and a deadline" which allows more efficient tax collection, regulated time off, and schedules for construction and labor.

Bigger cities, more trade, more raids, bigger walls and bigger, standing, armies. Mathematics is refined and literature is recorded from oral narratives. Since many rulers claim divine status they must quell foes or their religious power is questioned: ergo empire. Vast wars lead to vast civilizational dominance, such as in China, Mexico, India, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Non-fertile areas, like Amazonian South America, the frozen Arctic regions, and the deserts from Australia to the Sahara ensure these areas remain nomadic and develop only the most limited agriculture. Likewise Pacific islands don't unify until the Polynesian Empire in the early Common Era.

The Jews make a series of important leaps: monotheism (which means not shifting gods when the crops fail) and historization of their creation. Adam was, not a archetype or mythological person from the 'before time', but a historical person with a traceable lineage. Inadvertently, through genealogical fastidiousness, history was born. An explosion of prophet-religions in Eurasia made rulers mortal politicians. Empires of note were the Romans, Han, Guptas and Maya.

Although ambitious trade and sea-faring had existed since the Phoenicians it fell into decline for Europe and Asia for roughly 1,000 years. In the Americas a couple of empires began to emerge, from a diverse patchwork of nomadic and agricultural entities. A rekindling of Eurasian trade and warfare with the Crusades jump-started a political and economic revival. Europeans, now Christian, wanted to bypass the Middle East, now Muslim, in order to get goodies from India and China (now Hindu and Confucian, respectively). Portugal and Spain initially dominated, going West and East and colonizing what they could. China had already done it's exploration thing and decided to close it's ports; likewise with a newly-unified Japan.

Since peoples in the Americas were generally not agriculturalists they hadn't lived with livestock, and as such did not benefit from millenia of immunities to livestock diseases. So when the Europeans came and depended on the aid, willing or no, of local populations for their colonies, this inter-mingling of populations lead to a mass die-off. Likewise, West African populations were effected, since European racism and military superiority elevated colonists from labor, slaves populations were imported. Empires were depopulated of their males and African civilizations and cultures reeled.

Meanwhile France and England had a dynamic, bloody rivalry which, in extending to colonialism, eventually eclipsed the Portuguese and Spanish. Include the Dutch and nearly all of the globe was now under the influence of five or six major European powers (including Russia) - the only comparable bloc remaining being Qing China, who shared influence with Europeans in it's sphere. The English gained the upper hand with the harnessing of water, and then steam, power. Combined with a new type of steel and ample reserves of coal Industrialization was off. Populations grew faster than ever, factories made production mindless, efficient, and mechanic. Ever since explorers had looked to private funds for financing voyages there was now a very prosperous middle class, and wealth was amassed privately on unforeseen scales.

Some cited, correctly, that this rich-poor gap was unfair and perhaps should be stopped. The concept of privilege, however, was finding defenses in all sectors, from pseudo-scientific racism to economics. Scientific method, in the 1600s, had allowed for increasingly rapid discoveries and improvements to technologies and well-being. Likewise medicine improved, often to fix the broken soldiers who were being damaged by improved military technology. This culminated in the wars of Imperialism, and the First and Second World Wars.

In the 20th century empires were abolished for common good, and new concepts like human rights were spread with a new global fervor. Competitive political-economic theories of Communism and Liberal Democracy eventually favored the latter. Globalization necessitated global communication and increased awareness. Lifespans increased in well-off countries, while subsistence was no longer guaranteed for those who had once been colonized. While America was going to space and cultivating polio-inoculated Wall St. billionaires, many elsewhere were suffering in every conceivable fashion. The retaliation is the beginning of the story of the 21st century.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If That Ass Hadn't Shown Up...

"I will now read the minutes."


"Continuing. In the last sessions there has been no steady progress towards a resolution of labor disagreements. The current economic and working climate between both parties has been found to be unsatisfactory towards both parties. Negotiations began three months ago, and despite the concessions made at the last meeting neither has reached satisfaction."

At this point the Morlock representatives walked out, clutching their heads in despair.

* * *

"Going to the party tonight?"

"Fuck off."

"Everyone's going, come on. Don't be a pain."

"I don't want to see anyone. I'm going up on land."

"Dude. Dude!"

He scuttled up after him.

"There's nothing here! Air-plants! They suck!"

"I find it soothing."

" slowly dehydrate. If there was anything interesting here I'd tell you to stay. But everyone'll think you're a dick if you don't go."

They scuttled back into the waves.

* * *

It was an incredibly dull dinner party. He wasn't up to his usual tricks at all.

* * *

Weena went over to pick up some fruit off the ground. The others were playing a game which also, unsurprisingly, dwelt on fruit.

Munching away she wandered past the others, who took no notice of her, to the water. She slipped.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Post 200: Music Update

I am exactly half of the way through Tom Moon's 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. Of the first 500, 395 have agreed with me. The other 105 weren't so hot, including:

"Toxic" by Britney Spears
Living with the Law by Chris Whitley
Rapture by Anita Baker
Psycho Soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann
The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore and John Latouche
Joshua Judges Ruth by Lyle Lovett
Short Sharp Shocked by Michelle Shocked
Live in Japan by Sarah Vaughn
Hello Dolly! by Jerry Herman
Wild Gift by X

and many more. Some of the awesome winners that I was introduced to include:

John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic
The Complete After Midnight Sessions by Nat King Cole and His Trio
N'ssi, N'ssi by Khaled
Inspiration Information by Shuggie Otis
The Best of Carlos Gardel
Turandot by Giacomo Puccini
Balkanology by Ivo Paposov
The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson
Chester and Lester by Chet Atkins and Les Paul
Emperor Tomato Ketchup by Stereolab

and many more. I hope this percentage continues throughout the second half of the work.

In other music news here are the 2011 nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kindly note that the people I want inducted (Gram Parsons, Kraftwerk, and Roxy Music) are still absent.

Alice Cooper - I can only think of "School's Out".

Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique is a masterpiece.

Bon Jovi - Sure.

Chic - No disco please.

Neil Diamond - Meh.

Donovan - Is no worse than some others.

Dr. John - I own two of his albums: Gumbo and Gris-Gris.

J. Geils Band - Who? Apparently some Worcester band that had some the '70s...

Darlene Love - Background singer.

LL Cool J - I guess Radio is a classic.

Laura Nyro - Oh man, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a good album.

Donna Summer - No disco!

Joe Tex - Apparently a fore-runner to rap.

Tom Waits - Blech.

Chuck Willis - An early bluesman? They have a whole separate category for guys like this...

There were far too many this year I had to look up. The only three I really want to win are Laura Nyro, Beastie Boys and Dr. John. Pad that with Bon Jovi and Donovan and we'll be cool. The worst list would be Tom Waits, Chic, Donna Summers, J. Geils, and Chuck Willis, at which point I may lose faith in the R+R HoF.

So that's where I stand.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Here's a game. I'd say fun, but tastes differ.

Go to which is the Singaporean film censorship database and see if the movies you own would be banned in Singapore, or perhaps only allowed with editing.

I've been going through my collection. Here's what I've found so far:

Apocalypse Now - Passed Clean, that is unadulterated. I was surprised - war violence, the proximity in Southeast Asia. Huh.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - Passed Clean. Apparently child torture is okay.

Clerks. Passed Clean.

The Shawshank Redemption. Passed Clean.

Blazing Saddles. Passed Clean.

Milk. Passed Clean. Even though homosexuality is illegal... Same goes for Brokeback Mountain.

The Godfather. I don't actually own this, now I'm just seeing if I can push buttons. Passed Clean.

Snatch, Scarface, White Heat, Taxi driver. Passed Clean. (The latter, almost cutely, warns "violence AND course language" D'aaaw.)

Romeo and Juliet. Passed Clean. I guess there're no objections to depictions of underage nudity, either.

Passion of the Christ, Schindler's List. Passed Clean. ("some nudity" is the warning for the latter.)

Well, I guess that's it. Maybe I was wrong. Singapore is apparently pretty tolerant. I guess I'll just go through the rest of my collection. What have we here? Oh, yes

Life of Brian. BANNED.
Well, shit.

Of all of my movies, and many movies I don't own but could rationalize censorship for, my copy of Life of Brian is what's banned.

Here's what's interesting. Some titles are both banned and not banned. Like The Big Lebowski or A Clockwork Orange.

Also, some titles don't even appear, like The Third Man. Dr. Strangelove does not exist either. If they were banned they'd show up. They simply...aren't.

My entire collection is a-okay for importing (at a fee) except for a Terry Jones comedy. Because it pokes fun at religion. You can't do that. But you can:

Depict open homosexuality
Glorify crime
Demonstrate drug use (which in Singapore would result in death)
Show underage nudity and child violence and torture
Exhibit violence of any variety
Present any harsh language, including racist slurs and profanity
Make fun of bureaucracies and government incompetence

Oh wait! Wait! I had forgotten I own a movie. Let's see if I can get away with

Reservoir Dogs. BANNED.

Right. So the pattern here is...? I mean, Taxi Driver and Scarface, those are fine. Zatoichi, with outlaws killing outlaws and cross-dressing...a-okay. Both parts of Kill Bill are Passed Clean, too.

So I guess there is no pattern. Arbitrary decisions made by mindless bureaucrats. Fear the mindless.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The SF Green Festival is Decadent and Depraved

A rainy Sunday for free parking and a check-up on the health of America's hippies. Great!

San Francisco - the motherland, the home-stop. 9th annual this time. San Francisco in the 2010 Hope-bust. Obama had been here a few weeks before. Now he's in India.

Crowds don't change. Whether the sloppy weather would drive people away or inside had me nervous enough to show up in the late afternoon. Last day - perhaps some good discounts on whatever the hucksters flung my way.

Rather than the Cow Palace, whose halls I know, the greens had come to significantly more lush auspices. Parking a block away from the SF Tennis Club, I wonder how many members the recession has driven away from an admittedly lousy locale. This part of town, 5th and Bryant, is useless for living, although some artistic types pleasantly resign themselves to these Tenderloin outskirts. I'm not sure of any American neighborhood so well-named.

But even if greyed the light is still from sun-source instead of lamp post, and the festival-goers are out in droves. Too slight a drizzle to keep them away, but enough to drive them inside.

My tickets were free, and there were hot pink hospital bracelets at the entrance, that no one would check for the duration.

Besides a check-up on the green movement, which I'd not looked in on in ten years, I was curious to see how it was adapting to the infirmities of middle age. They were young and strong in the late '60s and '70s, and fully adult by the 90's. After the 2000 mid-life crisis I dropped out of it, and concepts like watersheds, r-value, foodwebs, solar and snow leopards had been replaced by buying a gallon of organic each week.

The ulterior motive for this was to see if there was free ice cream and business shirts good for the tropics.

We'd missed the ice cream - that was on Saturday. So up we went to the fashion section. I should mention I was with my father, whose slate ponytail was not out of place.

Plenty of greens in the building. Were they aware of their playing to stereotypes?

The man with the trimmed white beard, beret, and suit. Olive oil vendor.

Dreadlock babies, cute eye-linered girls so fashionable they'd passed to the other side, the well-meaning hipsters in skinny jeans and caps asking the critical question "What is falafel, anyway?"

Earnest teens ready to exchange cleavage for business, and two girls showering in what was some sort of demonstration in water-recycling or soap.

Asian people selling Asian remedies, offering Asian bodywork, handing out Asian business cards.

A young girl in pink and grey rhythmically kazooing towards the kid's arena where the hand-made stuffed dolls waited.

The San Francisco suits, always men in pairs, looking for something to brighten their lives.

Gauged ears and shaved heads, goatees, long greys, and a polyester-clad braided Native American man whose bright shirt I couldn't out-manoeuvre.

Oh, the hippies are alive in 2010. I'm just not sure they are well.

The festival isn't festive at all. It's a shopping market, a indoor street fair-cum-ethics violation. Which booth do you support: the one for hard working rural Kenyans or the one for hard working rural Guatemalans? Both are fair-trade and organic! Gluten-free!

Or do you instead, I think, buy whichever is cheapest?

Not that cheap items were abundant. Besides the clothes, which I abandoned after two rounds, there were home furnishings, crafts, jewelry (of course jewelry - the American entrepreneurial ideal survives on the potential of home-made jewelry), food to go and cook and food to eat for lunch, subscriptions and petitions...

"This man who had no chance of winning, a junior senator that no one had heard of..."

Keep trying to rally the faithful. I wonder if they voted last week.

...books on every type of spiritualism and green investing, paper made of elephant dung, soap and shampoo and cream and conditioner made of anything from goat's milk to bee spit to acai juice (probably) and all of it peddled by young ladies ready to convince you why their product was the greeny-est. Water bottles water bottles water bottles: sleek, patterned, self-purifying, a collapsible bowl made of recycled chopsticks.

My dad found two rival ink cartridge refill programs, and got their business cards. I would walk away with no such find. Hemp shirts may wick water effortlessly, but at $55-95 per, I wasn't buying.

These hippies had itching palms: but what else but expensive art and crafts was there? A few speakers, getting a few listeners. Amateur musicians. Movies.

How can the hippy survive on mark-up? All the corners of the idealized world were sharing wares: Tibet, Africa, Chile - anything third-world would do. No booths bragging their items were from Paris or Tokyo. California was a safe bet: Buy Local!

Corporate greenwashing has become the green movement at the San Francisco Green Festival 2010. Nothing outlandish like BP. Just every vendor in the place happily accepting Visa or Mastercard for your [exotic location][thneed]. Even if you said "Fuck it - I'm only supporting the Guatemalans this year" you'd still feel the trap spring shut on the way home when you realize you'll be cherishing this thing because of it's dear price rather than it's ethical capital.

When your apartment burns down and all the third-world do-gooding merchandise is gone will the pang come from cultural loss of knickknackery, or loss of stuff? To put in Buddhist terms: are you attached to your organic fair-trade vegan lifestyle and do you need that wrap to prove it?

"Save the fucking planet? We can barely take care of ourselves!"

When we decided to split re-entering the San Francisco early evening glow the walk back to the car landed on any topic of conversation besides the Festival, from blinds to bars to cross-walks. A busted afternoon, void of revelry but secure in spending, the American hippy is either buying or selling.

Geographic Fluency

I am fluent in:

San Francisco Bay Area

Boston Area

Bennington, VT

Reno, NV

Greater Aspen Area

I am partially fluent in:

Leeds, UK

New York City

Los Angeles

Washington DC


Columbia and Greenville, SC







With help I can regain fluency in:


San Jose, Costa Rica

San Diego, CA




Manchester, NH


I will soon be fluent in:


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Life and Times of Young Teetotaler

I can only imagine what a difference alcohol makes in a person's life. As a life-long abstainer I've found no use for the stuff. Yet, now that studies are beginning to show that moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than no alcohol consumption, I feel a slight pull to defend my position in light of health benefits. Further, since teetotaling is relatively rare amongst youth, it may do well to explain what appeal it holds for me.

* * *

I'm 24 years old. I've not been legally drinking for three years now. I didn't illegally drink for 21 years before that. My whole life has been one of abstaining from alcohol.

There's no religious reasoning to my decision, which I presume accounts for most youth teetotalers. Having no religion I have no religious qualms as Muslims or Baptists or Mormons might about the dangers of drink.

Let's not kid ourselves about those dangers, either. The other day in the UK there was a study showing that the effects of alcohol were in that country more damaging than heroin. Simultaneously there is research being vaunted by the pro-tipsies that alcohol in moderation is linked to longer lifespans than no alcohol at all. What to make of this?

I think the latter study on the benefits of alcoholic moderation is correlative rather than causative. That is, I'm not surprised that most people who drink a bit live longer lives. I think alcohol is, for many, the number one stress reducer in their lives.

Stress, as much more research has shown, really is a killer. We can reduce stress through chocolate, or sex, or alcohol. Chocolate only goes so far, and a great many people get together every Friday desperately looking for sex, so I think alcohol may be the way most people choose to relieve their tensions.

Obviously, as a drug (more accurately a poison) we know that alcohol has horrid side effects, in fact many more than a Hersheys. The liver damage is one deterrent, no matter what, if anything, it does for the heart. My heart is fine - I want my liver to be as well. Like any drug it also has the potential for addiction.

Here's a story: Once when I was a teen I was contemplating pot usage. Literally all of my fellow classmates were users, with the exception of only two or three individuals (who later were). A fellow I wasn't fond of took me aside and gave me some solid advice.

"Three things could happen. First, you could try it, find out you don't like it, and not smoke it anymore. Or! Or! You might just try it, find out you like it and that it improves your life giving you depth and clarity that you didn't have before, and be a regular user. Or you might turn out like Jesse."

Jesse could not, medically, have been addicted to marijuana. But the dude was addicted to pot. This was the kid who smoked up after school, before school, and in-between classes. He smoked at least three times a day, and got horribly irritated if he didn't: docile as he may have been high, he was a mean cuss when deprived of his weed.

So I didn't try it. 2/3 odds? Not good enough. To this day I still don't smoke.

This same type of roulette applies to alcohol. Someone very wise once pointed out: No one starts to do drugs with the intention of becoming an addict. No one initially starts smoking or shooting up or drinking hoping to become a victim of abuse. Yet millions of people fall prey to addiction.

Some day, genetically, we'll be able to know who is more likely ahead of time. But that day is still only a glimmer at the end of my lifetime. For now there is no way of knowing with your first hit, first drink, or first smoke, what the outcome will be. Whether you will escape or have it ruin your life.

Here's part of where the atheism comes in: I only have this one life. I'm not going to play around with a possible loss of ten years to drink or drugs and (hopefully) rehab. Even as a possibility it is abhorrent - an obvious path to avoid. Would you take the road whose warning sign said 'Caution! 1/3 chance road will lead to inescapable cliff!' You're lucky if you survive the fall, and far too many don't.

Furthermore, from a social perspective, we know that alcohol is very damaging and costly. As The Streets succinctly put it: "Government funding for further education pales in insignificance when compared to how much they spend on repairing leery drunk people on the weekend in casualty wards all over the land." We repeat the mantra over and over: Don't Drink and Drive. Every year innocents keep being killed.

Even if we enforced the laws we had there'd be a nice change. Try and figure this one out: Drinking in bars is legal. Being drunk in public is illegal. An interesting thing it would be if police stood outside bars waiting for the drunks to hit sidewalk so they could arrest them. Maybe bars would have special sobering-up rooms - not allowing patrons to leave until it's all worn off.

But enough reasoning for a bit. On to the life and times.

Being a teetotaler does put you at odds with a society where drinking is common in some obvious and other more opaque ways.

Dating is more difficult. Think about it: if you don't drink why go to a bar? Most people who drink or not have had the experience of being the sober one surrounded by people drinking. Everyone who has knows what a bad time it is. Some do it for charity, and put up with it out of kindness. Others simply feel like they're wasting their time being around drunks.

So if you don't drink going to a bar is very awkward, unless you stick to a close group of friends, in which case it's, at best, just a dull time. On your own, however, it's a little peculiar to try and chat people up for flirting if you're sober in a bar. The same goes for young people's parties, of the collegiate sort, and clubs. I suppose you can still dance at a club without drinking. But so often there is a drink minimum that you either waste your money or don't go.

Besides the brusque social and dating ramifications there are subtler ones. I love food and love good restaurants. Ever been to a 4-star restaurant with a date and not ordered wine with dinner? The waiter is never pleased. Or assumes you're a mature looking teen playing 'adult'. Neither experience is much fun, but hopefully when my hair goes grey that'll begin to change.

Teetotaling can also be a slight strain on relationships. The only two major fights I've ever had consisted of sober me and a girlfriend who'd been drinking. If being around drunks is a bore or outright unpleasant to you, then if your partner is drinking it means spending time with them can be a bore or unpleasant. Drama!

Then there are the small details: the aisles in the grocery store which you will never go down, the commercials on television for beer, the toast, the shared experiences and mindset you've not had.

Two final stories.

The first can't be told by the guy who lived it, a friend of mine from high school. Avery Mathieu and I were just beginning to cultivate a great friendship the end of my Junior year. We shared a similar sense of humor, intellectualism offset by silliness, and we could sit a jaw for an age. Ironically, before a drunk driver killed him that summer, the last thing we talked about was how he wanted his funeral to be joyous. I miss him.

The other was from a work colleague telling a story, which I will try to recapture while doing justice to the original, of some times he had in Hungary:

"I was drinking the night after exams and I got totally wasted. In Hungary they have a game where you take two shots for every one someone else takes, and I was already buzzed on beer. I started the evening in the bar I usually do. What I remember next is kind of fuzzy, but:

First I ended up in a bar I didn't know with some girls I didn't know.

Then I was sitting on the sidewalk of an alley with some bums puking and crawling towards a streetlamp.

Next I somehow ended up in the middle of the street, lying down, with cars driving around me.

I may have been naked at that point, come to think...

Anyway, I don't know how I got home, but somehow I ended up back in my room. Ii didn't go to work the next day. In between these visions, these episodes, I must have blacked out. I have no idea what on earth happened, and talking to my friends they don't know either. Who knows what I did. I don't even know. It's a weird knowledge that part of your life you lived without knowing it."

* * *

In a way I find the latter story sadder than the first. I have only one life to live, and I want to be aware of it. So my teetotaling will continue. Thank you, out there, for putting up with it. I do my damnedest to put up with you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What I've Cribbed from Philosophers

Or: Lessons Learned With Consequence

The first philosopher who influences my current thinking is Socrates. Those before him are interesting to me only in an academic way: Empedocles, Democritus, Pythagoras and Epicurus amongst the rest. Socrates, for many, is the purest philosopher, a martyr for Truth. The shadow-figure of Socratic practice would be Diogenes, who took Socrates' distaste for the shallows of society to a logical conclusion, forswearing home, family, and decency.

Cribbed: An avoidance of cocktail banter, except serving as a means to get to richer stuff; The notion that honesty will be vindicated; Convinced me that applying my cooking talents may not be the best use of my life (from either Gorgias or Parmenides, I can't recall).

Plato was a bit of a rotter. I don't think I'd like his society from the Republic and Laws. Nor do I think it would actually work. Come to think, most of Plato's ideas don't jive with my own. His ideas-forms dichotomy is bunk. I like his gymnasium school, though, educating both the mind and body.

Cribbed: The importance of educating the whole person; Why it's important to avoid false dichotomies.

Of the Greeks the last to be influential for me is Aristotle. Plotinus and the rest don't do it for me. To some small extent I think Zeno the Stoic is sort of useful, but I can't claim to be a stoic. Aristotle, on the other hand, was the best for his passion in studying everything. Yet his desire for theory to overwrite fact was rather disastrous. His logic was a great foundation, even if it took a couple millenia to be built upon.

Cribbed: A partial fluency in Aristotelian logic; An ethics of potential and achievement; Regard for scientific fact and observation being more powerful than theory.

The Romans didn't produce much of note. Likewise the Middle Ages were relatively useless for me. From Boethius to Maimonides to Aquinas I've found little of relevance. The next philosophers for me would be Descartes and his rationalist buddy Leibniz. Descartes' 'Cogito' is rewarding for young philosophers looking for stability. As Russell points out Leibniz was a powerful thinker, who, unfortunately, applied his talent poorly in his writings, seeking expedient fame over philosophical greatness.

Cribbed: Increased appreciation of how theory can get you nowhere fast; Increased wariness of dichotomies, esp. of the mind and senses.

Having read Locke only politically, so too do I categorize Hobbes and Rousseau. Having skipped Berkley, I pass on to the arch-Empiricist, Hume. His ethics are dull. Humean existence, too, is a bit iffy. Since we can't trust inductive reasoning we end up not knowing "what will happen if...". Like the Rationalists causality is very peculiar. All the same his Dialogues are the finest I've read in English.

Cribbed: Many arguments for atheism; A healthy skepticism of the differences between deductive and inductive reasoning; A greater acceptance of Carl Sagan as my lord and saviour.

Kant's ideas initially made me bristle. Now that I'm a duller person I'm beginning to come around to his thoughts. The mind tries to reach beyond itself, and in failing to do so creates a dichotomy. Still, his noumenal and phenomenal transcendental answer to the Rationalist-Empiricist debate had me upset for a long time.

Cribbed: Further need for an ethics that applies to context; A few more good arguments for atheism; Elucidations about the nature of what philosophical inquiry can get you: a look behind the noumenal veil.

After Kant you have Hegel and Marx. These two clowns ruined everything. Hegel's view of history is atrocious. Marx's is not so horrible an image, but equally flawed in reasoning. Lots of structure with little support.

Cribbed: A serious distaste for Marxists and Hegelians.

Countering Hegel and Marx you have Kierkegaard. The poor sad sack was not popular, and verged, I think, on misanthropy. His views of personal religion I don't care much for, but his ideas on society and our role in it are fine. Along with Soren I'll lump in Nietzsche, whose ideas have been profoundly bastardized. These 19th century thinkers were the first to emphasize personal discovery of the truth in a fashion resembling Socrates. It was the beginning of a back to basic questions about existence movement.

Cribbed: Derision for people who misquote and use 'subjectivity' as a cover-up for sloppy arguments; A healthy dose of paranoia regarding the intentions of those around me; Increased moral relativity.

The American Transcendentalists I find to be philosophically not worthwhile. Likewise the Utilitarians had a good idea, but poor support. William James I consider fundamentally to be a psychologist rather than philosopher. Instead I turn to the 20th century existentialists Heidegger, Sartre, and Tillich. Heidegger finally resolved the Rationalist-Empiricist debate without recourse to transcendentalism or elaborate messes of needless structure. Sartre's 'upwelling's are wretched stuff, but his emphasis on projects is dead-on. Tillich's definitions of faith and belief dissolve much of the religious debate nonsense.

Cribbed: Peace of mind regarding the nature of my existence; Calm in the face of death; An understanding of Purpose that goes well with Aristotelian ethics; The weight of total responsibility for one's life and actions.

Out of the Analytical mush of such projects like the Principia there came one good voice: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Eccentric, to say the least, his early logical face lift is not as interesting, to me, as his later post-teaching work on language. Many of the earlier problems of philosophy, he argues, were not, as presupposed, epistemological, but instead were linguistic.

Cribbed: New insights into meaning placed in words and the lack of coherence in many philosophical arguments; Philosophical vindication for the depth I'd read into Alice in Wonderland.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I'm sure someone said elections are the great American pastime. And if it hasn't been said yet, it should've.

Elections are wonderful for bellyachin'. Conservatives bellyache about the liberals. Liberals bellyache about conservatives. Both camps bellyache about the non-participants, who in turn bellyache about the whole thing.

Firemen all of a sudden become very important. So do teachers. Every two years education is inflated to The Most Important Issue Facing Our Country. Then the rhetoric goes away again, and the schools stay very much the same.

Here in California the political climate has been tremendously heated. The ads are non-stop. Meg Whitman, Jerry Brown, Carly Fiorina, Lee Stone, Tom Torlekson (sp?). Some races are garnering international attention, like Whitman's spending, while others you'd only care about in San Mateo County, or Pacifica.

I wonder who'll be SF's mayor after Newsom. Also, if the World Championship Giants can have beards why can't politicians? Some of SF's former mayors, like Sutro, had incredible facial hair.

Hats and facial hair - two male fashion standbys - gone with WWII as far as I can tell. But I digress.

In a few days we'll all vote (if we haven't already) and some stories will gladden our hearts, while others anger us and probably a few surprise us. As the camps become increasingly disparate then the elections will become increasingly important - eight years of hard work to undue the mess of the last eight years, and then when the rival gets elected another eight years to mess it up again. It only depends on your point of view of which party makes the messes.

Many of the incessant ads are patently false, and ethics committees are quick to point out which candidates are fine with that so long as they get in office. Unfortunately the ethics committees don't run ads themselves, so people who don't do research are likely to just listen to the ads and vote on the rhetoric.

I suppose voting on rhetoric will be good in one way: no matter which candidate you vote for, at any level of office, they want to help fix education. Republicans, Democrats and Independents all agree. They may say that their opponent has a terrible past, or is lying, when they say they want to help. But if you listen to the opponent's ads they will assure you that education is actually their primary concern. Oh joy.

The other evening I was discussing with a friend how different our political process would be if voting was mandatory. Think of it! The fringe element, on either side, being a minority. Wouldn't that be nice? No highly-organized loonies adversely derailing the process of government. Tea Partiers would maybe get a single candidate. Maybe. And if you don't like anyone, but are forced to vote? Well, as someone else pointed out, you can always write-in Mickey Mouse.

Not that I'd ever want Mickey to run government. His track record is laughable.

So here's to democracy, American-style (hot and spicy, with gravy.) May the first days of November usher in candidates who are sound, and policies that are reasonable.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about human rights recently. Singapore had the highest death penalty sentencing of any country in the 90s. So let's take a look at the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which is binding for all UN members. Singapore is recognized as the 117th UN nation, and, to be fair, we'll compare the record against the 1st member, the United States.

The first article states that all humans should act towards each other in a spirit of brotherhood. We're all entitled freedom and dignity.

Well, neither is exactly top scoring for brotherhood, but they aren't slavers (anymore) and maintain some dignity, each. I guess they'd be about even.

The second states that all the rights are to applied to all human beings without any distinction of any kind, regardless of the statehood of the person.

Until we look at the specific rights we're okay. If, however, either country treats anyone as a second-tier citizen, then they will fail this most basic injunction.

Third: life, liberty and security of person.

Liberty, security of person, okay. "Right to life" is a bit of a stickler. Does this mean that capital punishment isn't allowed? In that case both are guilty. But if it means arbitrary killing... well, it's still sticky.

The UN's fourth right allows no slavery.

In reality there is slavery in both countries. However it is not officially endorsed in either. So I guess they're okay.

Fifth, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Do we define the death penalty as a cruel punishment? If someone innocent is sent to the gallows, then definitely. It requires little empathy to put oneself in the horrific mind frame of an innocent man or woman headed to the hangman. Since we have plenty of examples of this I would condemn the death penalty as cruel: it is irrevocable and can be misapplied. The US is especially guilty here, since our fighting forces recently were torturing Iraqis.

Sixth article: Everyone has the right to be recognized before the law.

Again, the US with it's secret prisons...

Article the seventh states that all persons get equal protection under the law.

I think Singapore has some difficulty with this one. The judiciary is too buddy buddy with the executive branch - they defend the government against the people without hesitation.

Eight states: "Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law."

If the US violates in constitution then the US people have the right to a national tribunal, as does Singapore. Who knew?

The ninth article disallows arbitrary arrest, exile, or detention.

Both fail. The US has Bush-era detainees and Singapore has three acts by which detainees may be arrested without warrants.

The tenth article is right to a fair and impartial public trial with jury.

Singapore does not have a jury system. All decisions are made solely by those judges who are buddy buddy with the executive. So, no.

Eleventh: innocent until proven guilty.

I guess they both hold up to this. Some laws are presumptive, like Singapore assuming intent to deal if you have a certain amount of drugs on you (which leads to the death penalty).

Number twelve declares a legal protection of the right of privacy.

Again, Singapore has three laws that circumvent this. In the Bush years the US did, too, but this illegal aberration ended with Obama.

Article thirteen guarantees freedom to move around your country, as well as reentry upon leaving.

I think we're both good here. Unless it means you can't deport or exile people. In that case both have issues.

The fourteenth grants asylum in another country, so long as the person isn't be prosecuted for non-political criminal charges.

While not claiming to know too much about this, I think both are okay.

Fifteen ensures the right of nationality to all people.


Sixteen better be quoted: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution." It goes on to require mutual consent in marriage and legal protection of families.

It doesn't say that men and women have the right to marry each other. It just says that all men and women have the right to marry. I take this, in conjunction with the second article stating no one is to be discriminated against, as legal entitlement to gay marriage along with heterosexual unions. If this is the case then the US has a mixed record, and Singapore, which outlaws male homosexuality, is worse.

The seventeenth requires that all have a right to security of property.

There are no problems with this in either state that I know of.

Next, the eighteenth allows freedom of thought, conscience and religion, with all the latter implies regarding practice.

Singapore fails here. Jehovah's Witnesses (who, really, seem like a nice-ish lot) are banned from practicing their religion, distributing materials, or worshipping in Singapore. Why, you may well ask? JW's refuse to serve an army, and in Singapore there is compulsory service for males, age 18.

Article nineteen: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Singapore fails again. The two media outlets are run by, and censored by, the government. They have a bureau of censorship which edits and bans materials. Historically they are one of the worst nations in the world (last year ranking in the 130s) for free speech.

The twentieth necessitates right to peaceful assembly and safety from compulsion to join assemblies.

Are we counting permits as a restriction, here? I doubt it, although in Singapore, in league with the above, you can't assemble if your intentions are deemed to be bad.

Twenty-one insists that all people have a right to participate in government, either through voting or office, and that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."

I think the US does a decent job of this, although campaign finance may be seen as a prohibitive factor. Regardless Singapore fails. In the most recent election individuals were barred from running at the discretion of the government in power at the time. As such the will of the Singaporean people was not exercised.

The twenty-second article protects social security.

Who knew? Both have a decent record here. For now.

The twenty-third and twenty-fourth are worker's rights: choice of job, equal pay for equal work, choice to join trade unions. The latter ensures rest and leisure time, and reasonable working hours.

The role of unions in both countries is a bit delicate, to put it nicely. As for equal pay for equal work the US fails since women are still payed .75 on the dollar for equivalent male work. I'm not sure if there's a discrepancy in Singapore.

Then again both countries probably have illegal labor, most countries do. But, again, both governments make a serious effort to crack down on sweatshop conditions.

Number twenty-five maintains an adequate state of living, including medical care, along with guaranteeing disability and other protections for those who are unable to provide for themselves. Kids born out of wedlock still are entitled to all basic rights.

Both Singapore and the US do a good job with these provisions.

Article twenty-six demands a free, elementary compulsory education, of the parent's choice. Interestingly this education must: "promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

I'm guessing both would have passed until you get to the latter part. I know there are schools in the US where conservative teachers badmouth the UN. I'm glad to know that they should be fired. As for Singapore I don't know what their relation to the UN is. I'd imagine it's a little strained, given their human rights abuses.

Number twenty-seven is a little odd to me. It guarantees cultural rights, such as the enjoyment of the arts. The second part, however, protects "right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author."

I'm not sure if any author on earth actually has the moral rights of their work. Material, sure. Moral? How do enforce that? At any rate both countries are fine, excepting, of course, Singapore's ban on free speech and self-censoring journalists.

Twenty-eighth, to me, is repetitive. It entitles all people to having a social order wherein these rights are observed.

However, now that we've seen what the rights are, I'd say the Singaporean people, and to a lesser extent the citizens of America, are being failed on these counts. So far the US is currently in breach of 5 points they've sworn to uphold, whereas Singapore has violated the international agreement in 9 places.

Penultimately, the twenty-ninth declares that in league with the ideals of the UN "In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society." In other words, 'your rights end where my rights begin' in a democratic society.

Both countries are democracies of limited functioning status(the US system allows only the wealthy the run and Singapore is setting up dangerous precedents of a future dictatorship by barring candidates). If we ignore this, then we must ask whether both uphold morality, public order, and general welfare. Here I'm again wary: whose morality do we uphold? But the UN has anticipated this: it clearly states that it must be in accordance to the principles of the UN. In this case both fail. Neither country insists upon a morality that is consistent with the UN's ideals. If they did there'd be no social conservatives in either state.

Lastly, article thirty wisely points out that no one at any level can interpret any of the above articles as allowing for the destruction of the rights and freedoms the declaration has set forth to advance.

The US and Singapore both are guilty and innocent of this. They are both guilty in that neither has upheld more than roughly 2/3 of the articles. Both are innocent of the specific charge, however, since they don't interpret the articles in the manner described.

Rather both openly and defiantly flaunt their choices to not uphold the most important and inspirational humanist document ever written. Singapore doesn't give a damn that it's people aren't free to speak their mind, while a cowardly un-democratic government hides behind 'security' as the vicious stand-by for ensuring compliance through a biased judiciary. The US is slightly better, now that Bush's human right's violations are the stuff of nightmares past. But still the democratic system is replete with corruption and gerrymandering, not to mention being too influenced by wealth. Neither country treats gays as less than second-hand citizens. Both have the death penalty.

So there you have it, with a final score of US with 7 atrocities and Singapore with 10 affronts to humanity. Almost makes you feel proud.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Old Idea

When I was a child I had an idea that, now that I'm an older child, I've realized was not so unique as I'd considered. How interesting would it have been if Benjamin Franklin could see the 1990s!

As a kid I pictured Ben sitting in the car next to me, flabbergasted by the speed we were demonstrating. Electric lights! The thing that reset the bowling pins and the aerosol sprayed into our bowling shoes would delight him. I was confident that Ben would enjoy our world.

Now I stop and think what his experience would really be like, after the first months of giddy excitement had worn off. So, too, I wonder what other the founders would think of this new 21st century. What employment would they find? What would they praise and deride, especially politically? Would their Enlightenment visions be closer to fulfillment, or gasping for breath?

So here are the four I think of when I hear 'founder': Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. You could make the case for Hamilton, but I don't think there's anything uniquely Hamiltonian that isn't covered by the actions and thoughts of the other four. My slight portraits are divined from public actions as well as private letters and diary entries. It's important to note the distinction, for all four men, of these two realms.


Ben Franklin - the non-presidential founder. In a way the most well-rounded founder, an Enlightenment man with Renaissance man distinctions. As the oldest of the pack he should get first billing, and, as a factoid, he's the only founder to have put his name on all four critical documents: Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Paris, Treaty of Alliance with France, and the Constitution.

Franklin was a public figure: always in the spotlight and very beloved by his fellow colonists and foreigners. He had a Puritan background, but a generic deist view of religion. He subscribed to no particular church. This alone may have disqualified his political career these days.

He subscribed, falteringly, to the 13 virtues he set down in his Autobiography. These are fairly straightforward, such as humility, temperance, and sincerity. Later in life he was an outspoken abolitionist. I can only assume he would be a strong advocate for civil rights and tolerance.

As an ambassador he was a rather worldly fellow - he helped secure the Treaty of Paris - with positions in both England and France. His reputation was well known as a scientist. I think he'd support global warming (he did a lot of work in meteorology) and be rather pleased with where electrical science had progressed to help people.

Fundamentally he was a thinker: I doubt he'd be pleased with 'liberal elitist' being used as a slander. As a satirist he supported and knew the power of the pen. He founded the American Philosophical Society and an academy in Philadelphia. Knowledge was power for Franklin. His scientific inquiries were the reason he was charmed in Parisian society, and without them he'd not have been as potent a force as he was.

The flip side to Franklin was his industry. He was a monopolizing business man who used gregariousness as an advantage for his printing empire. He retired very young, and was like the other founders fairly wealthy. Something should be said of his family values, too. His son sided with the English in the Revolution, and neither of them, despite efforts, ever healed that rift. As far as his fidelity is concerned his record is closer to John McCain than Barrack and Michelle.

Franklin might not have thrived in the 21st century, but of the founders he may be the best adapted to it. He'd undoubtedly enjoy the comforts of modern medicine with his gout, and probably enjoy most technological innovations. Unlike Jefferson or Washington, Franklin was a man who'd worked in an industrial capacity to gain his fortune: seeing America as a place of business would probably make him happy. Although as a dedicated philanthropist with his wealth I'm sure he'd have some choice, biting words for current corporate ethics.


For me, Washington has always been rather enigmatic and unapproachable. He's my least favorite founder, although I'd be hard pressed to say why. As the first president he set many precedents for the office but I spend little time on him, and never have found him to be an interesting person. If I invited all four major founders to the future, I think I'd spend the least amount of time with him.

Brought to the 21st century Washington would be one of the most conservative, although he definitely wouldn't be a tea partier. He favored a strong, Federalist government. Not surprising, considering the novelty of the 13 states he was attempting to unify into a cohesive union. I'm not sure if he'd be a Democrat, either. Since Kennedy and Johnson the Democrats have been a very socially liberal bunch what with civil rights. Washington gave oodles of support to France to help quell the Haitian slave rebellion. At the same time he was a Mason and dedicated philanthropist.

But I doubt he'd be a republican, either: Washington strongly disapproved of party politics and spent much of his two terms attempting to ensure that the United States did no fall prey to parties. He would have undoubtedly been horrified and upset by our party system with its mutual attacks and ad campaigns. I think he'd be a strong advocate of campaign finance reform: he initially refused a salary until he realized what a dangerous precedent that would be. He didn't want only the rich to be able to run for office.

Like the other founders he was a deist, and he made a point of visiting and attending multiple churches. In office he had no trouble exercising power - The Whiskey Rebellion was put down by invoking the local militias.

All in all I think of him as a big government libertarian. He would be an outcast in our political world: he wouldn't support the Republican big business and wealthy party attitude, but he's too conservative socially for the liberal democrats. As a man who sincerely wished to have peace at his Mt. Vernon estate I doubt he'd be a fan of our hyper-connectivity. The 21st century would not suit him too well, I don't think.


What to say about Adams? The man wasn't very popular, quarrelsome, and fairly pompous. His single-term presidency was only somewhat noteworthy. He was not an inspired ambassador, but was a gifted lawyer. With all of this in mind I feel as though Adams would be best politically suited to modern times.

Most of our presidents have a legal background: and Adams was the first of this notorious set, comprising 22 out of 44 presidents. His legal abilities allowed him to see things from multiple perspectives, perhaps most notoriously when defending the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre.

As President Adams had negotiate the tenuous balance that eroded between Washington's ideal of having no parties, and the opposing Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Adams was a Federalist, supporting a national bank and strong central government. Yet he personally got on very poorly with Hamilton, the Federalist leader who was very close to Washington. Jefferson and Adams also had a falling out over the relative strength of government, which Jefferson thought Adams abused.

Principally of these abuses were the Alien and Sedition acts, levelled at quelling dissent. Only 10 people were tried, and no one was deported, but it was a serious blemish on the record. So too did Adams engender no sympathy by the appointment of the Midnight Judges, a rather petty move to try and influence the courts after his term. Jefferson overturned both of these measures. He also created the first property taxes.

In terms of foreign policy Adams had more success, fighting the Quasi-War, and using all his powers to avoid an all-out war with France. Like Washington he felt it best not to meddle in foreign affairs. After his Presidency he again retired to Massachusetts, eventually rekindling his friendship with Jefferson, and watching the young republic grown and change. Religiously he was of course a deist which manifested as a Unitarian.

Adams was the only non-slave owner of the four (Franklin had two, whom he released). As a lawyer and orator I'm unsure if he'd be happy with the litigious element in today's America. As he was a victim of violent attacks in the newspapers of the time I'm sure he'd view today's 24 hour journalism with contempt. As for the role of America as world's police, again, I doubt he'd be entirely happy. On the one hand he genuinely believed in the spread of democracy and relished power and authority. On the other hand, he took an almost isolationist stance and was vehemently anti-war. I rather think Adams would be displeased with 21st century America. His ideals for politics are no longer present, nor would he stand for those worst elements of American culture: greed and duplicity, conspicuous consumption and anti-intellectualism. Yet, in terms of his character, I think he would be very involved in this political arena which he would find disgusting. Adams was a man who rolled up his sleeves to get things done and done right. I can't help but assume that he would wade into the mire with determination.


Lastly we have Jefferson. Darling of the American people, perhaps the founder most beloved after Franklin. This is sensible, considering the many qualities they shared.

Jefferson rose to notoriety as the main quill behind the Declaration of Independence. The ideas of this document are profound and inspiring, the bedrock of the later constitution and most American's view of their country.

As president he repealed taxes, and continued to strengthen the American military, as Adams had done, including the founding of West Point. Contrary to Adams and the federalists Jefferson oversaw the first foreign war, The Barbary War, which proved to be an American victory.

Domestically Jefferson is famed for the Louisiana Purchase, and infamously known for the first anti-Indian acts: hoping for conversion but willing to resort to extermination. He ended the importation of slaves, but was a slave owner. He considered putting abolitionist language in the Declaration of Independence, but kept his slaves until death. He was perhaps the most committed deist of the lot. His 'Bible' eradicates any element of the supernatural being attributed to Jesus.

Jefferson tested the boundaries of executive privilege - when subpoenaed he initially refused to appear. In the end he had to anyway, although his bristling against the Supreme Court extends to the celebrated Marbury v. Madison ruling. Jefferson considered the ruling to be unconstitutional, but figured vetoing it would do no good.

Against the Federalist he supported limited government and was vehemently opposed to the national bank. In his private life, and after the presidency, he founded the University of Virginia, constantly tinkered and invented nifty new devices, and was one of early America's better architects.

The Jeffersonian model is the foundation of small-government and state's rights, with all of the good and bad those concepts contain. His vision for American was agrarian, hence the Louisiana Purchase and desire for westward expansion. This expansion came at a price, though, for native peoples and the slaves who would work the land. Much has been made, for two hundred years, of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, the slave woman he likely had children by. I can only look at it from the view of a family and with some disdain that a father would keep his own children in captivity.

Entering the 21st century Jefferson would be, I think, rather saddened. The role of corporate America's power and the banking industry would definitely being repugnant. The inter-marriage of money and politics would be frowned upon as well, I think. I would hope he would support civil rights, but his record is so mixed it's difficult to say. As for the agrarian model it has failed: the breadbasket Midwestern states which he secured for the country are now owned by the corporations as well. Small, independent farms are a rarity. The country has followed what may be called his lead in the foreign sector, with the world's strongest military and a presence overseas. As one of the original beneficiaries of political parties I doubt he'd side with our current incarnations, though. The Republicans, although they say they are limited government, have a track record that proves otherwise. I doubt he'd be so naive to pay no attention to the history of the party he decided to join. On the other hand, the Democrats, while liberal like Jefferson, may be seen as too similar to the conservatives regarding spending and power. I can't picture him getting on well with Obama or Clinton, even if he preferred them to Reagan and the Bushes.

Jefferson would probably enjoy the perks of the subsequent technological developments, but, like the others, bemoan any anti-intellectual spirit. The plantation owner in him, like Washington, would prefer the rarefied air of Monticello than the hubbub of New York City. As a dedicated francophile I think he'd have been put out by this country's recent francophobic tendencies. Unlike Adams I doubt Jefferson would get too involved in the 21st century. He'd want to learn about it, but from the ease of a salon armchair. I picture a man reading the newspaper with some regret, tempered with an arch-humanist's hope.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Time Isn't On Anyone's Side

Initially I considered starting this with the old stand-by: "I think there may be something wrong with me."

I don't do a lot of internet research. I generally profit from the research of others. I love Wikipedia, but don't scroll through a daily checklist of forums, news and blogs. Three people posted three different things, which, being read in the same hour, were profoundly interesting.

The first was an article posted by my former history prof on Facebook. From the NY Times it discusses cutting back the humanities courses at SUNY Albany (where Bennington occasionally borrowed professors). The arguments weren't particularly new: the relevancy of humanities courses in the global economy, trade schools, historic context of everyone getting a degree, utility of Emily Dickinson. Lots of talk about democratic society. Read it here:

The second thing I read was, without trying to be, very optimistic. A Cracked article from their foremost intellectual writer, David Wong, it discusses the long-term implications of the internet and free access. There are some interesting assumptions underlying his premises on the indesctrutability and inevitability of the net, as well as the irreplicable fusion of capitalism and society. And, you know, funny pictures and stuff.

Finally, from a far more capable blog, John Wiswell wrote a nice little story. It happens to be about academia and human folly:

We seem to be going back to Hegel, which is unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable. Hegel was the philosophic 'cause celebre' from the time of Napoleon to roughly the inter-war years. A few outspoken philosophers disagreed, like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Husserl, and we now tend to read them more frequently. In their own age, however, they were far from popular.

Hegel, in the simplified husk of a nutshell, basically said it's going to keep getting better. The notion was that human conditions will keep improving and perfecting as new ideas come along to better modify the lousy old ones. When explaining it to students I suggest the concept of a tournament: first you have 16 teams, then 8, then 4...

For Hegel this process had an end-point, and that was as near to perfection and God-like status as humans could achieve. It was a fine, rational concept that embraced Darwinian evolution and Industrial progress. (And Marxists, just in reverse.) But the fallacy at it's heart was an old one.

If there are 16 people alive today who came from 8 parents, that means there must've been an original 2 parents, right?

This Adam and Eve confusion is fundamentally wrong, and also part of why I found those three articles oddly bewildering. I expect a young child to be puzzled by the chicken and egg riddle, but not an adult. The egg came first. It just happened to be hatched by a proto-chicken. Just as there weren't two first humans, but some larger number of proto-humans.

For Hegel to be right would mean that there are a finite number of ideas modes of living. This may be true, but only if the earth is static. So long as the earth keeps changing, our modes of life will keep having to change along with it. As new climactic shifts occur, and new species and pathogens are made known, humanity will change course, again and again. People do not live the same way know as they do when the Plague hit Asia and Europe. But they might again, in the future.

Even if we eradicate every disease known to man new ones will occur. If we found a means to harness the weather (even though we can't even predict it currently) there would be a means of losing that power. Add in culture and politics and you have a veritable stew of unpredictability.

Technotopias erase these elements. Disease isn't an issue. Weather is fine. People are happy. Politics are a thing of the past. Culture is respectfully diverse while simultaneously uniform. It can't be otherwise: traditions are too conflicting and beliefs are the stuff wars are fuelled by.

Although an economist may disagree with that one. For the economists everything comes down to money: resources, services, ideas, land. Everything has a price tag and dollar sign affixed to it. It's no coincidence that modern capitalism was being born around the time Hegel began writing. Capitalism is based on the very same notions of Hegel's dialectic: that a competition of stuff (ideas, investors, whatever) will lead to a final end-product that is superior. The free-market argument depends on this concept. If this type of competition didn't lead to improvements then capitalism would be very, very flawed at its core.

And typing that made me shiver, because it confirms a suspicion I've been developing for years: capitalism has outgrown its usefulness. There are many telling signs: The dependency on an entrenched poverty sector. The 'dynamic' cycle of boom and bust that, when translated to people's lives, is catastrophic. The fact that some of our most important and essential societal needs we don't trust to the free market - health care, education - without devastating consequences. As David Wong points out we can't rely on charity, because for humans charity is given only when we're in a certain mood.

So, too, from the cauldron of the late 1700s European Enlightenment came another fundamental idea, this one taking the form, most successfully, as a state. Or rather, 13 states. For functioning democracy is as much a rationalist product as capitalism or Hegelianism.

Now, as many are quick to point out, we don't have a functioning democracy. The biggest flaw, that is, what I find to be the most basic and corrupting influence, isn't human nature but the role capitalism plays in politics. Vested interests, lobbyists, campaign finance and all of that bullshit are, quite literally, ruining politics. I plan to vote in a few weeks, but I know that there will be no real change. The Tea Partiers are naive to think their candidates won't be destroyed by party interests or business interests.

Corporations have the power. They have for oh these many decades. Corporations of such size can only exist with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and one we take surprisingly for granted given its youth. Bureaucrats are a relatively modern invention. They are fundamentally modern, originating in the early days of the modern era, say it with me, the late 1700s.

Bureaucrats are good at keeping their job safe. They are efficient only when very small. They are best at entrenching themselves. Dissolving bureaucracies is no easy task. Being tied to both the legal world and money-making they are very secure pill boxes, whose destruction requires extraordinary strength.

Four concepts: bureaucracy, capitalism, democracy, and Hegel's utopian 'Progress'. Let's play the Hegel game. If you had to pick one of these four concepts to survive what would you pick? Let's rationalize the answers.

If you pick bureaucracy then you're going to see a world where the red tape never disappears. Bureaucrats are the masters of the 'it's my job' rationale. "I'm just doing my job." It takes a certain element of human coldness to give that answer to someone who is in need, or pain, or suffering. More importantly, we've all met such people: at airports ("I'm sorry your bag...") or at government agencies ("I'm sorry but you must first...") or in a dozen other places ("I'm sorry..."). These people are often useless or inept. Consider the many, many cultural critiques and scathing remarks we have for them from the funny pages, to Kafka, to Kurosawa. We hate these people, and with good reason. Zygmunt Bauman goes so far as to detail their necessity in carrying out the Holocaust. A handful of idealists couldn't have done it: and anyone whose seen the masses of forms and paperwork that details pounds of hair and concentration camp populations, not to mention the fanatical arm tattooing and gas chamber logs knows just how horrific a bureaucracy can become.

If you picked capitalism then you are a big fan of lotteries. Careful money management is a joke. You can be as careful and prudent as you like and lose it all: your house, your job, your finances. Or you can be as reckless as they come and have a fortune at your feet. The odds are less likely in both cases, but those are just odds, and, as someone who like lotteries, odds aren't your thing. During the current recession it's easy to point fingers at Wall Street and the rest of the bastards, from banks to mortgage to insurance. To assume that they'll stop having people who are greedy at the helm, or that the board of trustees will ever be less intimidating and powerful is stupid. Very stupid. Stupid in the 'trick me once, shame on you, trick me for a century and a half... next time will be different, right?' kind of way. No amount of regulation is without loopholes, and no laws protecting us can't be overturned if money and politics commingle (see: Reagan deregulating the Wall St. reforms that had been in place since, and because of, the Great Depression).

If you pick democracy then you may have picked the right answer. It depends on whether our country's version of democracy can be fixed. Currently, no big surprise, its broken. A few problems have lead to this:
1. Curtailing free speech. Now that the Bush years are over sedition seems less likely to be an offense. But take a look at the journalistic integrity in the U.S. and weep. I have only slightly more respect for CNN or NBC than I do for Fox. This 24-hour news cycle and punditry is devastatingly ruinous to free speech.
2. Education improvement. We suck at education. Like, a lot, you know? There are many reasons for this. First, there is a gap between diplomas and dollars. To start one's life in debt and be unable to get a job with an expensive degree is beyond disheartening, it's jading. Second, there is a palpable lack of good teaching and good teachers. We need a lot of very good teachers, due to our enormous size as a country. We can either a) fill up classes to bursting and hire as many people, regardless of quality, as are willing to work for charitable wages or b) make teaching a lucrative and respected profession, so more high-qualified teachers are vying for jobs and class sizes can be smaller due to increased numbers of educators. So far we've been doing choice 'a' because it's more cost effective. But an uneducated democracy is a dangerous thing indeed.
3. Poverty. Poverty and poor education go hand in hand: they call it the poverty cycle. It is, like most cycles, very hard to break, and there is no cure-all. You need money for a good education, and a good education may get you a good job and more money. But without that initial shot of money then you get a bad education, lacking skills you get a job that requires no skill and is therefore paid poorly. Without this $ you can't send your kids to a good school. Only in rare and inspirational astral alignments due children break free of this. And, as everyone whose been on the border lands of middle class and poor knows, it is much easier to become poor than rich. There are plenty of safeguards in place to ensure that the poor stay poor.
If we are able to fix these things, at the cost of capitalism and bureaucracy, then democracy may be the right choice.

Finally, if you picked Hegel, then you are a profound optimist. Hegel's Progress is very optimistic, seductively so. Who wouldn't want a world where tomorrow is always going to be better than today?

But there is a reason why Hegel fell out of favor after WWI. WWI was about as bloody, and irrational a war as they come. Millions slaughtered, over what? And what was achieved? The whole war was tragic - not just for those who lost but for those who won. This was new. War hadn't, usually, been seen in a tragic light from the victor's viewpoint before WWI. In the Great War, the plain pointlessness of it all precluded such a reaction.

There is no guarantee that tomorrow is going to be better. Tomorrow the sun may not come out. It may rain. Or you might get Ebola. Or the president might be assassinated. You don't know, can't prepare, and will have to do your damnedest to cope. Some will thrive with change, and others will merely survive. Many, many others won't even survive. Count yourself fortunate if you do.

So if you opt for Hegel, and as I said at the start it seems he is on the popularity rise, then get ready for change - change you may or may not be able to live with. Because Progress, like capitalism and bureaucracy, lives only to serve itself.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ten People Who Should Have Gotten the Mark Twain Award for American Humor

...Before Tina Fey.

I like Tina Fey. She is very talented, and very funny. At 40, she'll be the youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Award ever. This award is for the best comedians in the country, the Immortals. George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart.

Someday Fey should be inducted. But not now. Not while there are people who haven't been honored with stunning legacies. Like all awards, the Twain awards are time-sensitive: they are not posthumously awarded. Here, then, are ten people who should get the award sooner than Tina Fey. With luck they'll be the next ten winners.

1. Mel Brooks, 84

Mel Brooks was one of the foremost comedic directors and writers of the 20th century. After Hollywood he had immense success on Broadway. See: Blazing Saddles, The Producers, The 2,000 Year Old Man.

2. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, 84 + 73

Really, they were part of the fantastic inner circle, and wandered show to show. Two of the best of the era. See: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show.

3. Mort Sahl, 83

Can there be a more fitting winner from the Kennedy Center? Sahl was close to John, and wrote jokes for him, besides helping invent modern stand-up comedy. See: modern stand-up comedy.

4. Carol Burnett, 77

Six Emmys and five Golden Globes testify to the Brilliance of The Carol Burnett Show and its host's comedic talents. The intro Q+A was more influential than anyone initially realized. See: The Carol Burnett Show.

5. Woody Allen, 74

Allen is indisputably a great comedian. As an author and director he helped invent the romantic comedy, as well as being a gifted actor. See: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

6. The Smothers Brothers, 73 + 70

Tommy and Dicky were wonderfully sly subversives, as well as silly. Besides their Comedy Hour the never-quite folk singing duo recorded numerous classic records. See: Mom Always Liked You Best, My Old Man, I Talk to the Trees.

7. Garrison Keillor, 68

The mind behind the Prairie Home Companion and the folks of Lake Woebegone. So quintessentially American I'm stunned he's not yet been honored. See: The Prairie Home Companion.

8. Christopher Guest, 62

As an actor he has plenty of great roles, but he's also been the writing (and directing) force behind many classic comedies. His style and humor have helped defined three decades. See: This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Best in Show.

9. Robin Williams, 59

Williams started as Mork from Ork, and played his manic lunacy into a very successful stand-up career, winning oodles of awards. "There's no one faster." See: Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Good Morning, Vietnam

10. Jon Stewart, 47

If you are going to award someone in their forties, why not Stewart? The Daily Show is probably going to have a longer legacy than Thirty Rock anyway. See: The Daily Show, Colbert and Carrell's careers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Time Enough At Last

"I hate Pilgrim's Progress. It's the only book I've ever put down without finishing."


"It's dull and poorly written. It's supposed to be a classic, but instead it's a poor allegory."

"Isn't that true of most classics?"

"I couldn't get past the 'Slough of Despond'. I don't even keep it on my reading list."

"Why would you?"

"I keep a list of books I've read, and a list of books I want to read. In between those lists I've wedged a 'partially read but not completed' list."

"Why don't you just put it way down on the bottom of that list? That way you can keep reading other books, but it'd still be on there."

"I'd be more prone to read every other book in existence first."

God pricked up his ears. Actually, it was his omniscience, but no one understood how that worked anyway.

"This ought to be fun."

Lou looked up from his paper. "What?"

"Dylan Ross just said he'd read all other books in existence before Pilgrim's Progress."

"Yeah, I know."

"Don't lie. So I'm going to hold him to it. Should be fun."

After a few decades of not aging Ross decided he had to 'go vampire' and retreat from the world. Watching Groundhog Day a couple of times he felt familiar enough to work through the steps. He was very happy with her, until the day she died.

But he was still around. He couldn't perform miracles, couldn't die, could love, could commit crimes and kill (he stayed clear of Nevada for a long time after that). He tried various religions: sat and meditated for a few hundred years as the world whistled by. His mind was fine and sharp, and his health didn't waver. Under various guises he did a lot of good: righting wrongs and earning karmic brownie points in case this was some sort of purgatory-thing.

He dwelt on all of his regrets and did everything possible to right them, in case one of them had been the tip in the balance. He kept busy reading new books and old books, and reserved the spot for Progress at the bottom. Eventually he began to notice that he was looking a little unevolved. One day, finally, cold fusion actually wasn't 'fifty years away'. The resulting cold fusion weapons threatened to destroy - oh, wait, there they went.

By now Ross had given up trying to figure out his purpose. Once everything on the planet, including the planet, was destroyed except him and millions of books floating in space, he got it.

"I see."

So he gathered them up as best he could, and read. Floating and reading, noticing the subtle galactic spin and shift. When he'd finish a volume it'd disappear. If he didn't read it thoroughly, or skimmed bits, it stuck around.

No longer interested in time, and with no means of measuring it anyway, eventually there was just one book left. He picked it up.

It was The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

"Wait, what? Did I read it without knowing? No - I'd have remembered. What the hell?"

He looked around very thoroughly, and eventually just read the Gladwell. When that was over nothing happened.

"Well... shit."

God chuckled. Lou shook his head.

Over the Waves

Things you have to thinka-bout before going overseas for extended periods:

* What's the voltage, Hz, and amps over there?
* What sunscreen gives me the best value per oz?
* Who do I have to give a change of address to besides the post office, everything that has my credit card, and everyone I email?
* Where is the US embassy located in [whatever country]?
* What all do I have to cancel: subscriptions, Netflix, other services?
* What records might I need besides copies of my transcripts, licenses, diplomas, medical and immunization records?
* What do I need besides my credit cards, passport, ID, extra passport photos, and duty-free cigarettes to barter my way out of a civil war or coup?
* What are the laws regarding [anything you own] in [whatever country]? Do I have contraband? How can I smuggle it in without them knowing? What happens to me once they've caught me?
* How do you get a library card/ set up internet/ get a phone?
* How do you set up a will and power of attorney in case something happens overseas?
* Do they drive on the right or the left? Is it bicycle friendly? Pedestrian friendly?
* What's the food like, and do I have a prayer in trying to prepare it myself?
* How much is [everything]?
* Really? I can't believe milk is so cheap while potato chips are that expensive. Huh.
* What is there to do to stay occupied? What's the low-down on the various neighbourhoods? Which parts of town are crime-ridden, touristy, or bargain shopping meccas?
* How do you say [anything] in the local language?
* Which newspapers are popular? Radio stations? TV channels? Blogs?
* Just whose in charge, there, anyway? Are they popular? Is it an election year? What's the voting age? How does their government function? How is it dysfunctional?
* What are the social norms? Who do you tip? Which hand do you use to eat with? What hand gestures do you avoid? How do you greet someone in [any scenario]? What are the religious beliefs and all of their customs and procedures?
* What's standard boilerplate for a renter's contract? An employer's contract?
* Are they on metric?
* How do you convert to metric?
* What don't you need to bring? Should you bring your social security card, voter's registration, birth certificate, parole officer's card?
* How do they dress? Should I dress that way? Where can I get those [garments]?
* What is the weather like?
* That bad, huh?
* What lives there, grows there, and passes through? How big will the spiders in my tub be?
* Where is it cheaper to buy [anything]: over here and pay shipping, or over there?
* What's the cheapest way I can call [whoever]?
* Which entertainment items/tchotchkes/clothing items/supplies will I need? What will be unnecessary?
* When was the last time they had an epidemic/flood/fires/nuclear meltdown? How did the government handle it? Which areas are safest?
* What's the public transportation like?
* Why am I doing this?

* Why would I not be doing this?