Sunday, April 29, 2007

Pearl Harbor

Flipping through the nothing on TV last night, we came across the movie Pearl Harbor, released back in 2001.

World War II was humanity's last great orgy of conquest and vengeance. It was the culmination of a primitive model of interaction that began when people first realized they could use their hunting skills on each other. It did not take long for hunting and war-making to separate and become more specialized for greater efficiency.

The Second World War was the last romantic war and the last unfettered expression of nationalistic violence we would ever enjoy. For the last time, distance and geography were strategic factors. For the last time we could unquestioningly launch ourselves at each other as enemies with every resource at our disposal and still believe we would have anything worth keeping at the end of it.

Men and women could fall in love and do what comes naturally. Then the men could shoulder arms and march off, leaving their pregnant wives behind, because the higher calling of war demanded it. You didn't have to like it, but you didn't question the basic model, no matter which side of the war you were on. Aggressors attacked and defenders defended and counter-attacked. It's only natural. It's manly.

One overhead shot of sailors struggling in the water beside sinking and sunken battleships reminded me of a bunch of frogs thrashing in a pond. Each human struggle for life became an unidentifiable little wiggler, anonymous as a sperm cell, and as desperately determined to live.

By the end of the war we had raised our lethal technology to such potential for instant slaughter that we ruined war completely for ourselves. As horrible as each new advance from the American Civil War onwards seemed to be, by the time World War II started no one would be shocked at the level of carnage, as they had been by the casualty figures from World War I. We could accept the impersonal death by explosives, or by a hail of machine gun fire from a flying machine swooping down, and concentrate on the new breed of hero that can function in that kind of environment, without face to face acknowledgment by one's adversary.

The movie focused on aviators. Air combat is the most flamboyant, extravagant form of homicide. A single warrior, in an expensive, complex piece of machinery, engages in brave and skillful maneuvers against another warrior, similarly equipped (generally at taxpayer expense). Hours of training, months or years of room and board and spending money, not to mention the machinery cost all lead to a few crucial seconds and death or glory. Sometimes both.

Humans are so easily bored that for many of us the challenges of hiking, mountaineering, boating or flight don't hold our interest without the extra spice of someone trying to kill us. Yet at the other extreme there are many people who don't want to get off the couch at all. And in between are the ones who manage to enjoy themselves quite actively without feeling the need to pick a fight or hoping to have one picked.

Who is right?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Evil Geniuses Rule

Most of us rent on the Internet. We don't own. Perhaps we only squat. The 'net is owned and operated by smart, smart people with devious minds. They keep the rest of us like domestic animals.

If they needed to slaughter us, they could. But we are the ducks who lay the golden eggs. We are the fumbling creatures who provide the amateur entertainment for our technological superiors.

By connecting every aspect of our lives in a convenient network we gain the ability to transmit all sorts of content, for a price, using machines most of us don't understand. We can play and work up to a certain level of proficiency, but someone always seems to know a little more. The masters are those who have taken the time to master. We joke about the apparently jobless, unshaven geeks, bathed in screen light in some windowless room, but who else is investing the time? That's what it takes: investment of time. Power goes to those who seek it. The rest of us must deal with how they choose to use it.

As with any heterogeneous group of people, some use their powers benevolently while others revel in the ability to sow chaos and misery. In between lies all manner of generosity and mischief.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Speciation in Mass-Produced Devices

As humans learned to produce elaborate tools, they began to want to duplicate the best ones. This eventually led to the Industrial Revolution, but even as that took shape, creation of mechanical devices retained some qualities of art.

The ideal, finally achieved in the Twentieth Century, was to create production facilities as automatic as sexual reproduction, in which queen ants could pump out thousands of identical offspring, tended by workers who had only to follow very standardized patterns of motion and behavior to make their contribution.

While the system remains imperfect, the majority of products do represent the descendants of the original common ancestors: the wheel, the lever, the inclined plane, infused with lightning and bred in vast nests from which they issue forth across the landscape to compete or cooperate with each other for dominance, survival and further replication.

While more individually-crafted devices represent their creators, mass produced devices tend more and more to represent an agentless replication in which no individual person has responsibility. Humans at some level still decide which ones live or die, but the large populations have some resiliency. They emerge, flourish and become extinct like living things, as conditions change to favor them and then to take them away.

A species gains security when it becomes a vital part of human life. Telephones, automobiles, refrigerators, luxuries which became necessities achieve species stability when standardization makes more economic sense than wild mutations in engineering and savage competition for market share based on real technological differences. A daily-use device needs to be able to function in its environment immediately. If it does represent a radical departure, it must prove itself quickly enough to displace established competitors.

Think of cats arriving on an island full of flightless birds. Or mass-produced, affordable automobiles arriving in a market previously held by artisan car-builders catering to the carriage trade. Soon the new species has branched and the world is overrun with subspecies that do not cross-breed, but aim to function in the same niche.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Unblinking Eye

I'm watching a private citizen get thrust into the interrogation-room lights of internet scrutiny. I will not brighten the glare, but anyone reading this who happens to know what I mean knows what I mean.

In this instance it is a harsh and disproportionate response to offensive, but private, behavior on the part of the original transgressor. And it illustrates how any person might be made into a reluctant celebrity.

Andy Warhol knew nothing when he tossed off his remark about everyone's share of fleeting fame. We are constantly told that the email we can't find when we need it still exists somewhere in the sprawling complex of the information megalopolis. It's not as easy to find as the one we deleted and hoped would be forgotten forever, but it is there. So an Internet lynching goes on and on and on until someone finally might need to delete the last vestige of it to save a video of celebrities picking their noses in its place.

Internet celebrity only goes as far as that closed world until enough people view it and talk about it to bring it to the attention of mainstream media. Then it jumps to the next tier at least temporarily. At that point, the laws governing public media will prevent a private citizen from being dragged through every living room unless the material has enough commercial potential to make it worth defending legally. There is still such a thing as invasion of privacy, for now.

Ubiquitous videographers have been dogging entertainment celebrities for quite a while. Now they are turning their attention to political leaders. Now anyone in public life must assume that almost any moment could be recorded, rewound, scrutinized and edited for greater impact in countless ways. This will mean that only the most megalomaniacal among us will dare to stand for public office, further improving the quality of our leadership. History has shown how reasonable and balanced such people are. But I digress.

The more insidious peril to the average citizen with a toe or more numerous or colorful appendages in the turbulent waters of the worldwide web is that an adversary with the right combination of vengeful nature and technological skill could create irrevocable publicity for that citizen. Only costly legal action, bringing its own publicity, could even partially undo the damage.

In the case of which I speak, I'm fairly sure the current victim, viewed as an aggressor by those whose vengeance he has aroused, did not expose real identities or direct any unwanted attention beyond the initial uncouth but legal comments that started the whole contentious tangle. While the person in the spotlight at the moment invited retaliation by inflammatory behavior, the response has been worthy of any self-righteous vigilante.

The truth is, you can't protect yourself on the Internet. Maybe your bank account stays secure, and no one poaches your credit card numbers, but anyone with a little motivation and the time and patience to connect the dots can throw your real identity up on a free blog or other easy-access site if you piss them off.

While this may seem at first like a very good thing, it means that anyone voicing a controversial point of view could receive this kind of unwanted attention. The person directing the unwanted attention decides what transgressions merit it.

For all its other strengths, our computerized network really just turns out to be the biggest gossip pit of all time. It's a vast petri dish of familiarity breeding contempt.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Pride. Isn't that one of the seven deadly sins?

Putting aside the notion of divine retribution, the Big Seven don't do much to help human relations, no matter who's in charge.

The recent White Pride email I had the misfortune to see exemplifies the misplaced conceit some people seem compelled to feel about things they possess, but did not create. You happen to receive a body with a certain set of characteristics when you come into this world. People who lived before you prepare a set of circumstances for you. Neither of these should be a point of pride.

Don't confuse pride with self respect. Don't confuse pride with a sense of accomplishment. You can feel good about yourself without being proud. If you feel proud of your circumstances or the attributes you happened to receive at birth, you are part of the problem, not the solution.

This is true regardless of your background.

Anyone who has triumphed over adversity deserves to feel a sense of accomplishment. This does not mean the wronged can do no wrong. The wronged may need to be even more alert to avoid a sense of entitlement beyond what is reasonable. Someone born into a currently or recently downtrodden group falls under even more pressure to feel solidarity and some measure of entitlement in compensation.

Some say the situation is hopeless. Some days I am one of them. But that doesn't mean I don't have to watch where I put my feet and how much I look down my nose. No sense making things worse. They might work out in a century or two.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

More thoughts on fashionable racism

The fashionable racists probably mean no real harm, because they choose their philosophies based on whatever's getting the the most interesting publicity at the time. Don Imus may have killed the fun for them, though.

Remember how the Oklahoma City bombers kicked the legs out from under the militia movement in the United States? Talking smack about attacking the government was one thing. Actually turning your fellow citizens into dog food with your home-made bomb was something else entirely. Doubtless the true believers in the militia movement are still fomenting happily, but the posers melted away as fast as they could toss aside their Confederate caps.

Way back in the late 1960s and early '70s, a large anti-war movement demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. Conservatives complained at the time that the whole peace community was infiltrated by traitors and Communists, external enemies of the United States of America. At the time, peaceniks mostly chalked it up to right-wing paranoia. Later we all found out there was some truth to it. Of course our county's enemies would take advantage of a convenient movement to oppose a major policy of our government.

Right now the fashionable racists play into the hands of the die-hard racists who have never given up on the idea that human division is far better than equality and real freedom. They encourage the fashionable use of racist terms across the divide and the idea that a balance of racism is better than an end to it.

Fashion will probably shift away from the slinging of these particular insults, unless tempers flare enough to lead to some irrevocable harm to human relations. Genocide, anyone? Some people would welcome it. Fad racism ratchets up the tension and makes an incident more possible.

Ignorance and Pride

Racism is very fashionable right now. This is because tolerance was fashionable a few years ago, and you don't stay fashionable by sticking to the same thing year after year. I had the misfortune to stumble on this essay in my perambulations on the interweb. I get the impression it is something people are emailing to each other.

"Proud To Be White

Someone finally said it.
How many are actually paying attention to this?

There are African Americans, Mexican Americans,
Asian Americans, Arab Americans, Native Americans, etc.
And then there are just Americans.

You pass me on the street and sneer in my direction.
You Call me "White boy," "Cracker," "Honkey,"
"Whitey," "Caveman" .. And that's OK.

But when I call you, Nigger, Kike, Towel head, Sand-nigger,
Camel Jockey, Beaner, Gook, or Chink ... You call me a

You say that whites commit a lot of violence against you,
So why are the ghettos the most dangerous places to live?

You have the United Negro College Fund. You have Martin Luther King
Day. You have Black History Month. You have Cesar Chavez
Day. You
Have Yom Hashoah You have Ma'uled Al-Nabi You have the
You have BET.

If we had WET (White Entertainment Television) .. We'd be

If we had a White Pride Day .. You would call us racists.

If we had White History Month We'd be racists.

If we had any organization for only whites to "advance" OUR
lives ..
We'd be racists.

We have a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a Black Chamber of
Commerce, and then we just have the plain Chamber of
Wonder who pays for that?

If we had a college fund that only gave white students
... You know we'd be racists. There are over 60 openly
Black Colleges in the US , yet if there were "White
colleges" ..
THAT would be a racist college.

In the Million Man March, you believed that you were
For your race and rights. If we marched for our race and
You would call us racists.

You are proud to be black, brown, yellow and orange, and
Not afraid to announce it. But when we announce our white
pride ..
You call us racists.

You rob us, carjack us, and shoot at us. But, when a white
police officer
Shoots a black gang member or beats up a black drug-dealer
From the law and posing a threat to society .. You call him
a racist.

I am proud.
But, you call me a racist.

Why is it that only whites can be racists?

There is nothing improper about this e-mail.
Let's see which of you are proud enough to send it on"

The short answer, Whitey, is that their ancestors did not buy and sell your ancestors. Their ancestors did not create and maintain a society in which their race enjoyed automatically higher status based purely on skin color, not on individual merit.

The longer answer is that everyone can be racist. Many people choose to be racist. If you want to live in a society where we foster these divisions, keep spitting slurs at each other. Keep making blanket assumptions based on physical attributes. Answer one person's resentment with another's. Get pissed off and stay pissed off. Rather than seek a human understanding that transcends those smaller divisions, settle for a balance of power based on mutual insult and distrust.

Maybe that really is as good as it gets, especially if so many of us are so ignorant. If so, prepare for the real world war, in which we finally just start fighting each other mindlessly, wherever we stand, to see who survives and gets to possess whatever is left of the Earth after we're done.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"Extreme Commuting"

News Flash! Sitting on your ass in a car for an hour or more is bad for you!

According to the Disney Morning News today, about one in ten commuters has more than an hour to drive each way, each day, and the health costs are mounting. Back pain and spinal injury sound like the most exciting consequences, but the report briefly mentioned loss of sleep and lack of exercise as other drawbacks.

"And it will only get worse," the voice-over announcer added.

Really. I love the way we just accept our fate while a problem gets worse, and then try to solve it when it has become a pillar of our social order and economy. We accept being canned and shoved down a conveyor belt day after day. We accept our increasing hatred of one another, just based on how we act driving our cars down crowded raceways.

Keeping us in cans may actually help control the expression of hatred, because we're mostly too busy to stop and act on it. We come wired to dislike each other. Each technological advance through history just gives us new options to employ. For every overt act of road rage, dozens more dissipate in vulgar gestures and mouthed profanity. Add to that the hundreds, thousands of moments of aggravation that only produce muttered curses or mental images of retaliation. Oh, how you'd show that son of a bitch if you didn't have to rush to an appointment right now.

The solution is not smaller cars, alternative transportation and shorter commutes. Every long-distance commuter should do it in a motor home and bring the family along. Carry your whole life with you. "If you were homeless, you'd be home by now." Don't own a house. Just buy a nice lot in a suburban neighborhood, and build a docking bay for the family barge.

Combining the power of the Internet with home schooling, the kiddies could attend accredited classes while on the road. You can be involved in their lives and still live out in the land of malls and sprawl.

An entirely mobile society could reduce the cost of transporting food to the people by transporting people to the food. While the designated driver drives and the designated worker telecommutes on the nationwide wireless network, the kids absorb their educations and the family pet tries to keep its balance in a constantly moving world, the whole rolling box of Joneses can drive to where the fresh veggies are. No need to feel guilty for that fresh produce in the middle of northern winter.

Hybrid-powered motor homes could reduce the atmospheric carbon output of the family behemoth, and increase fuel economy. We would have to widen our roads a bunch, but it's for the betterment of humanity.

Shopping on line, the mobile family could receive its goods en route, either by arranging a rendezvous with the delivery truck or by actual in-flight resupply. The delivery truck could haul alongside, while the occupants of each vehicle pass the loot across. Wal Mart could shut down the stores and beef up its fleet of trucks.

Life really is a journey. Come on. Hit the road. You're late already.