Tuesday, March 31, 2009

By Two Waters

On the shores of Lake Nokomis
We once glided on our skis. The
Winters then in Minnesota
Had a certain bite and brightness
Or is it just my memories
That conjure up vast fields of snow?

On the shores of Detroit river
Where Jefferson its traffic bears,
We live our lives more overcast
By age. Fog sometimes covers up
The view. Ships pass unseen but you
Can hear them sadly moaning in
The afternoon. But where’s the sun?

Don’t fret, my dear. Spring’s surely on
Its way again. The fog will lift.
The tower of the yacht club shall
Stand proudly in the sun again,
The waters clear, the sky deep blue,
And Canada, bent down across
The way, shall drink its fill, look up
And wink, and wave at you, and smile.

The Name of the Rose

Within my own family the name of this blog is instantly recognizable as the title of a futuristic novel I wrote ten years ago. I began to market it just a month before 9/11 changed the cultural landscape, although my failure to find a publisher, I hasten to add, had perhaps little to do with that event. The book is rather long and, while technically a work of science fiction, it crosses the boundaries of the genre. This isn’t the case of a would-be author who’d always longed to publish a novel. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s I’d published a number of novels, a collection of stories, and a series of novellas that all appeared in science fiction magazines. I have what is called a “name” in the field—not a big name, but there it is. A search on my name on Google will show that my books are still out there, used copies still available from Amazon.com. Nor did I lack access to publishers in 2001. Several saw the book but chose to decline. Too bad. Ghulf Genes is probably the best work I’ve ever done. Not only that. It is the first in a three-volume work that I’d tentatively named Symphony in Ghulf Major. What I had to say in that series included views that did not resonate with the times, including a favorable take on Muslim culture and a very dark view of the future American empire in the twenty-fourth century and beyond.

The subject of the novel is a fictitious clan, the Ghulfs, whose involvement in space travel is complex and long-lasting—but that’s the outer wrapper. The real essence of the book is the family saga itself, traced across several generations in three separate novels. One of the requirements laid on every Ghulf who wished to participate in the family in a substantial way was that he or she file with Ghulf Records an annual report—by computerized means, of course. When members of my family began to blog in earnest, this suggested Ghulf Records to me, and, consequently, led to my own choice of naming this record after the book in which the clan is introduced to the world at large.

As for the content of this blog, enough of it exists now so that neither introduction nor comment is really required. The perspectives offered here are philosophical, by and large, appropriate for a person of my age and experience. Beyond writing science fiction off and on, I’ve had careers in the military, in big business, and in big government (I was once the nation’s Garbage Man at the Environmental Protection Agency). I’ve been an independent consultant, a self-taught computer wizard, and ran my own small publishing business, Editorial Code and Data, Inc.—which continues on without me. My education, such as it was, centered on literature and history, but most of my work focused on economics, markets, and technological development.

My real interests have always been cosmic, however—and that occasionally bleeds through here although I do try to keep things accessible.
Picture credits: Karen's Whimsy, reachable here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Youth of Our Age

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.
I detect a certain childish innocence in the thought of the Enlightenment, not least in the wisdom of one Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a jurist and thinker, who framed the quotation above—and thought it was a sacred truth. He attributed the saying to Joseph Priestley, although Priestley used a paraphrase. Childish innocence? Yes. Bentham had discovered that all human behavior could be reduced ultimately to pain and pleasure—that such reactions absolutely ruled each individual—furthermore that anything else, such as “relationship,” for instance, was a mere fiction we could do without. When he said happiness as in his sacred truth above, he meant, ultimately, the preponderance of pleasure over pain. Morality thus is what feels good, and pain is naughty, naughty, naughty. Let’s by all means spank that bad, bad chair for hitting your sweet little head. Childish well into old age. In his will Bentham decreed that his body should be preserved and stored seated in a wooden cabinet—where it remains to this day, at the University College in London, and you can see a picture of it here. The head now is made of wax because the original was damaged in restoration. Alas and alack. Postmortem pain. Naughty embalmer.

Said Enlightenment, if not childish, then let’s call it juvenile. There is a certain flavor of that in Voltaire’s pronouncement that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him—a flavor of juvenile sarcasm and pride in having at last discovered that the stork doesn’t bring babies but instead, you know, snicker, snicker. Humanity seems to fall for simplicity as if it really explained something. But keeping things too simple is ultimately stupid.

There seems to be a need to shake off cultural skins—pleasure in skinny dipping, to change the metaphor. The real truth resists institutionalization and shakes off the crust. Then come periods like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in which people discover the obvious, glimpse something of the mechanics of reality, and think themselves struck by the lightning bolt of sacred truth. Pain and pleasure move us! Holy Moses! And everybody feels it! Jeepers-Creepers! They throw the old away, never mind if it’s still useful. Thus the Enlightenment got its extra light by demolishing the last house Western humanity had laboriously built. Yes, yes. The French months of the post-revolutionary calendar: Vendémiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivóse…Vintage, Fog, Frost, Snowy—like the calendar children might make; like the words used by New Age couples who’ve invented their own vows....

We grow up fast, though, and having just mastered the Id, Ego, and Superego—having just discovered that the Will is God (hat tip to Schopenhauer), that God evolves (nod to Hegel), that God is dead (thanks for that Nietzsche)—we encountered concentration camps, atomic bombs, and the mysterious fusion of space and time, particle and wave. I came in around that time and now, thanks to the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith my very visible hand sometimes fails to hit the mute button when I chance across CNN. Man alive. Better get busy rebuilding that old human mansion again before something real naughty comes creeping in through the door-less opening from that jungle out there.

A Late Revision: Recently, thanks to the Siris blog, I was enlightened about the circumstances in which Voltaire made the statement I attribute to him above. Evidently I wasn't very fair to the philosopher. For the real scoop on the subject, I suggest that you read the post on Siris available here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hey Q!

Patioboat, that ever funny and ever surprising blog-opus of a once majestically bearded family member, introduced haikus as its subject just long ago to show how slow I’m on the uptake. On a recent walk, watching some birds, I thought of westernizing the genre by rendering common proverbs into haikus—thinking, foolishly, that the form might improve them. Alas! The result convinced me that the effort, fun although it is, removes some subtle element in the real thing. This suggests that a new name for my western form, something like Hey Q!, might be more appropriate. Two examples.

Birds of a feather
Always flock together in
Spring fall forever.

A rolling stone won’t
Gather moss. But winter’s snow
Oh how slow the roll.
The form requires three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, a seasonal reference, and what the experts call a verbal caesura or a kind of pause followed by another meaning. Not quite sure what caesura really means, but I guess I know it when I see it. In the examples above, the caesura, if present at all, rather limps.

Monday, March 23, 2009


If we look for the sign under which Modernity hopes to conquer, that sign surely is becoming. This fascination with process and change deeply marks the philosophical current of the Enlightenment. Dynamism is everything. Everything’s emergent by a dialectical fusion of the opposites. The superior emerges magically from the inferior as Hegel’s god creates himself. This mode of thought submerges being in a flux. Being remains but merely as a recurring but temporary term. No wonder that even destruction gets decorated with the adjective creative in modernist parlance—much as the word sheikdom must be decorated with oil-rich.

I’m sometimes quite sure that this position arises from a temperament, the temperament itself the product of a state of being, the state of being perhaps stamped on us in a preexistence we no longer can remember. Karma? I simply don’t remember ever consciously choosing the side of being in this controversy. Or did I acquire my mental stance by osmosis during a Catholic education? Perhaps. In any case, it feels more like a skin I came with than an acquisition.

My traditional attitude seems innate because orientation is important and meaningful to me—and orientation seems to require a fixed spot on which to stand (in Archimedes’ sense). The concept of being serves that purpose admirably, but only if being is absolute and prior, meaning all-inclusive, thus including within its sphere becoming itself as one of the modalities of being.

In the traditional temperament, everything has a place. We may change places, but each of those, in turn is also rooted in the firm ground of—let’s call it eternity. What modernity cannot offer, adrift as it is in a torrent of flux, is genuine orientation that has a bite, as it were, that makes a demand on us. The chief orientations appear to be those in space and time, narrowly considered, but these are relatively trivial. Those that matter are dimensions of existence I associate with Paul Gauguin’s questions, placed as the title of one of his Tahitian paintings: “Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?” What I’m seeking for here is an apt name for a dimension that transcends time and space: the dimension of meaning. Too bad that nothing Greek’s on offer to make this sound profound.

Modernity’s answers to Gauguin’s questions are not exactly satisfying. Who are we? Biological products of matter. Why are we here? Because the conditions of matter on this planet favored the appearance of living matter, a state that routinely emerges if random events and background conditions favor the process. Where are we going? Back to the earlier form of matter from which we first emerged. Wow! Five hundred years of scientific thought have truly produced—a mouse… Well, not even quite a mouse yet.

This being the sum and substance of modernity’s meaningful answers, that situation entirely justifies my seeking grander myths of worlds beyond the Mountains of Qaf—as the Islamic mystics would have it. A leaning towards being is not a bad start toward that journey. The Mountains of Qaf, by the way, form the outer shell of the visible cosmos.

The Logic

A second take on this subject—being and becoming. The human mind begins with being because the notion of something emerging from nothing is imponderable nonsense, purest magic; Being with a capital B must already be present at any creation. The promotion of becoming to primus inter pares is based on the dialectical pairing of nothingness and being. If being emerges from nothing, thus becomes (“emerges” in modernist parlance), becoming appears as the veritable agency of creation. But the human mind won’t go there. Nonsense.

What this illustrates, in turn, is that all traditional thought intrinsically relies on the assumption that reason must have real standing before we can make even a toddler’s halting step towards any kind of meaningful knowledge. The dialectical progression from nothing to something violates reason.

Discussing this subject with Brigitte brought the perfect ending to this posting. With that special look she sometimes has, she said to me, “But you have to admit this, my dear. Being Arsen means becoming a blogger!”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hydrocarbon Lottery

The Census Bureau—that worthy supplier of great statistical instruments by means of which we see our world—provides (here) a tabulation of world population going some 12,000 years into the past. I’ve taken these data and graphed them in Excel, plotting the upper and the lower estimates the Census makes available.

The chart, shown below, is sloppy as such things go; the bottom axis, showing years, is unevenly spaced: on the left side intervals are thousands of years, in the center hundreds and then fifties, to the right tens. I present a more properly scaled picture of the same data (second chart), using intervals of 1,000 years. In that graph I’ve shown the 2000 world population as 6.071 billion for both the low and upper estimate.

Looking at these patterns, the first thing that stands out—by not standing out—is that the world’s population, going back thousands of years, barely changed. Our numbers never managed to exceed 500 million at any time until the year 1500, roughly the end of the Renaissance. The first great leap comes between 1700 and 1750—and after that population bursts upward like a geyser! The second chart, with its millennial scaling, shows the rise as an almost vertical ascent.


Here is an analogy. Place a tiny bacterial population on a laboratory sheet of glass. Watch it shrink or slowly increase using some faint residual nutrients clinging to the glass, left there by invisible moisture adhering to your fingertips. Now place a tiny drop of sugary water on the surface of the glass and watch what happens. The bacterial population will explode.

The analogy is apt because the sugary water most easily identified as the likely cause of our surge in numbers is the harnessing of fossil fuels. If we plot U.S. energy consumption from 1850 to 2000, shown below courtesy of Wikipedia, we get a pattern very similar to our population curve. As shown here, coal production predates the harnessing of oil, natural gas, and nuclear power.

The first mining of coal on record in the United States dates to 1748. Modern use of petroleum began when extraction of kerosene from “rock oil” began in 1852, the fuel used initially for lighting. The steam engine, which stimulated coal mining to feed it, dates to the late eighteenth century (the 1770s). The first internal combustion engine, a clumsy affair that ran on hydrogen and oxygen, saw the light of day in 1806, produced by the Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz.

The philosophical implications? One can’t help but think, looking at skyward rising curves that, well, what goes up, must come down. Was it wisdom or luck that opened cornucopia for us—or was it Pandora’s box? In any case, plenty to ponder here—not least the falling curves of oil discovery projected into the future. Will population follow where once it led?

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Back a while now, I think it was late in 2005, Smithsonian published brief profiles of “35 Who Made a Difference.” The magazine, celebrating its 35th anniversary, decided to honor “innovators.” One of the editors’ choices was Edward O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology. His is the scientific doctrine which gives genes predominance over their carriers; thus the egg is greater than the chick; indeed the chick is the egg’s tool. Richard Dawkins made this subject even more controversial in 1976 by publishing a book with a catchier title, The Selfish Gene. While we were still in Virginia and Brigitte still going to school, I bought Wilson’s book for her in “a cloud of unknowing” as it were. The book is monstrous, oversized, evidently aimed at the coffee-table market: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. But while its cover lives up to the coffee-table promise, the contents stray far from English; the book is boring, its message dismal. In the last section of the last chapter, Wilson concludes that in the next century, namely this one, humanity will have evolved to a form no longer recognizably human. He ends by saying: “But we still have a hundred years.” He doesn’t mean a hundred years to fix things. No. The genes will have the last word—and they will have their way. He simply means that we still have a hundred years to experience what it feels like to be human. He envisions a completely planned society, “the creation of which seems inevitable in the coming century.” “In this,” he says, “the ultimate genetic sense, social control would rob man of his humanity.” The book was published in 1975.

On gloomier days we might agree with Edward O. Wilson; we need but look around to see monuments to his predictions…

Sociobiology, curiously, illustrates what fundamentalist religion is all about. It is a kind of passionate reasoning from partially true premises; in both cases the premises are found in holy books; in both cases there is a prophet; for Wilson the prophet is Darwin, for the fundamentalists he is St. Paul. The factual basis on which the structure is erected is never really questioned, indeed may not be questioned.

Wilson starts his book by saying:

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. The biologist…realizes that self-knowledge is constrained by emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system…These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions—hate, love, guilt, fear, and others—that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection… Self-existence, or the suicide that terminates it, is not the central question of philosophy. The hypothalamic-limbic complex automatically denies such logical reduction by countering it with feelings of guilt and altruism…. In a Darwinist sense the organism does not live for itself…. Each organism…is a unique, accidental subset of all genes constituting the species…

[T]he organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA. More to the point, the hypothalamus and limbic system are engineered to perpetuate DNA.

This extract from a much longer paragraph sums up the fundamental problem of sociobiology, indeed the problem of any system which posits an unconscious and emergent causation of mind. It was Archimedes who said, concerning leverage: “Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth.” We’ve improved that by saying: “Give me a fixed point outside the earth…” A fixed point, and outside the system, is absolutely essential for any kind of genuine knowledge. If my thinking is governed by the subtle string-pulls of a vast power beyond me (whether I’m aware of it or not) my thinking is essentially worthless. So is my science: it’s simply whatever DNA wants me to think.

I cannot lift myself by my own bootstraps. I cannot see my eyes without a mirror. Reality demands a fundamental dualism—a fixed point outside. Without that, no genuine knowledge can exist—only a system of reactions. Wilson thus transfers genuine consciousness to the DNA—but in orthodox Darwinian manner he clings to all of the machinery: it all happened by accident and natural selection. As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

Sociobiology is well known primarily because it tackled one of the basic problem in Darwinian theory—altruism. It shouldn’t be there beyond, perhaps, the narrow sphere of a brief mother-child relationship. Wilson explains altruism as the transcending wisdom of DNA guiding us by the “hidden hand” of hypothalamic/limbic influence so to behave that a more diverse gene pool will survive.

If you leave a lot out, if you do not think rigorously enough, anything can be explained by natural selection.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Across the Wide Missouri

In rural south-east Missouri, never a region of particularly rich soil, driving unpaved backwoods roads, you see how thin a layer civilization actually forms. Its brittle surfaces broken and eroded, you see the sickly striving of ill-watered barbarism sprouting like disordered, dusty spreads of weed. Interstate-44, pointing from St. Louis to Springfield, MO, was not long since meth-alley in local parlance. Here, not long ago—maybe this is an urban legend, but if so it is a good one—a motorcycle gang leader was said to have been buried seated astride his splendid Harley Davidson like a feudal lord of old atop his sacrificed white steed. The region is just south of the Lake of the Ozarks, an area experiencing a bit of a boom, and directly south of Springfield is Branson, the recently emerging competitor of Memphis in all things Country Music. That area is booming too. But get away from well-paved and billboard-festooned approaches to these areas and you see a good deal of hidden disorder. But the disorder isn’t exactly new. The landscape is and ever was rather scruffy, the population, now as ever, eking out a living from marginal farming, hunting, fishing, and the salvage of old cars and their parts. To be sure most farms and homesteads are tidy, picked up, and nicely kept, but in the course of a ten-day trip we saw unusually many properties in dreadful disrepair and chaos. Talking to friends and family, we once more tuned in to the old tales of woe: excess of drugs, the consolations of alcohol, dysfunctional families, the seeming failure of the male element to pull its weight: a matriarchal society supporting men who barely function. This is not a scientific survey but rather a sampling of the odor of a landscape.

On the trip from out there to Kansas City, aside from endless giant ads selling fireworks, we saw the wondrous contrast of two cultural forces embattled one with the other: Porn and Christianity. On I-70 bound westward, there is a place where the world’s seemingly largest Adult Superstore raises a gigantic sign trying to attract the needy trucker; and right opposite this place there looms the largest conceivable white cross, its beams the thickness of the Washington monument on the Ellipse in DC.

Thoughts ran through my head during this trip: the thin layer of civilization. The Progressive Age, which either dawned or reached adulthood in the eighteenth century, now fading gradually, envisioned a time of ever-improving human conditions. The thought in my mind on this trip to Missouri was: It’s not about achieving the millennium, my friends. It’s about maintaining a decent level of civilized existence against the relentless pressures of decay that seem intent on bringing down every tower of Babel humanity begins to build.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Story

If you want to hear one of my science fiction stories read aloud—and rather well at that—I suggest you go to this link, click on the title at the head of the page (A Bite of Stars, a Slug of Time, and Thou – Episode 12). A little radio control then becomes active, and clicking on it you can hear my tale, Such is Fate. After the story is finished, some British commentators, headed by host Elisha Sessions, discuss the tale for quite a while—most intelligently. Amazing what you can find on the Internet! Concerning the story, it’s one I dashed off once on several legs of several flights of a business trip back in Anno Long Ago, starting in Atlanta and eventually ending in Kansas City a couple of days later…

Friday, March 6, 2009

Angela Thirkell

While I am in the mode of talking about authors—and for a change in subject—I want to recommend the novels of Angela Thirkell.

She was a twentieth century author of extraordinary prolific output. She wrote a novel in almost every year from 1931 through 1961. These are family sagas; most are also love stories. They are funny and yet deadly serious as well. Each novel’s “time” is the year in which they were written; many of the same characters appear in book after book, first as children, later as adults. Thirkell had the brilliant idea to set her novels in Barsetshire, a fictional county invented by Anthony Trollope.

I’ve found that the novels written during and after World War II are by far the best. The earlier works don’t appeal to me quite so much. Something happened to the English during the war, and this change also deepened Thirkell’s own take on the world.

These are truly weird novels. You fall into them. You start to live the lives of the characters. I’ve read about ten of them now. If my library is a good random sample, there will be two or three of them present on the shelves. I started with Love Among the Ruins (1948) and got caught.

Brigitte got me started. She picked up a stray comment on Thirkell in a column by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times. Klinkenborg said something to the effect that one tends to hide the book lest visitors see what you’re reading (not high literature). Since we think that Klinkenborg himself is right up there with the best of writers, this was enough for a trip to the library. To see Klinkenborg on the subject of Thirkell, read here.