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Tuesday September 6, 2005

Personal Continuity

Of all the stuff I read this week (I've spent about 5 hours a day on my computer reading blogs, news sites, watching clips. Links to significant items is here) it was W. David Stephenson's website that inspired me to do something. I'm hoping that the failure of our state and the profound incompetence on display will foster a resurgence of American collective pragmatism.

I realized that I have quite a bit of practical experience in disaster preparations and business continuity. I want to take this opportunity, while people are more aware than ever how fragile the infrastructure that supports them is, to try to help them prepare. I've made your standard worried sysadmin 'backup your data' pleas in the past. But this is a little different. I think it is time to transition what you can of your lifestyle and the trappings of your identity into a more redundant format.

Who didn't kinda chuckle at dad when he made a disaster kit in the basement or gathered the family to talk about what to do in an emergency? I mean, it all seemed absurdly inadequate. We were all convinced that we were going to be ground-zeroed out or irradiated and some batteries and blankets and water would only prolong the grizzly end we'd seen in doomsday movies. But as you grow older, you start to understand how much you depend on comfort and security. And how it's made of lots of little things you have to look out for.

I don't chuckle any more. I've grown more responsible. I've lived in the 3rd world and seen the disparity of support that a government can provide. And I'm interested in improved communications systems because they are a humanitarian gift and at the same time, purely because of their intrinsic beauty.

I'm certainly not one to dwell on terrorist attacks or doomsday. I feel a strong urge to temper fear and panic. Survivalist freaks are all waving their guns and saying "I knew it was coming". Allen G. Breed has told the amazing story of some folks in one area of New Orleans that seems to justify those fatigue-wearin inbreeding weirdo's: French Quarter Holdouts Create 'Tribes'

But I want to focus on how these events bring people together and how we'll be able to communicate during and after. In fact, I revel in power outages and any other disturbance of the infrastructure. (Except maybe routine traffic) There is something immensely beautiful about seeing your environment and the way people in it are immediately transformed when some aspect of the infrastructure stops working. I'm mostly talking about situations where people had all their toys and technology yanked from them suddenly, leaving them unshackled from the churning machine of daily life. Everyone suddenly has to ask a serious question: "What do I do now?" it's a question that no body ever asks themselves because it's always being answered for them. It's the snow-day phenomenon. It's why thousands of people go to Burning Man. (God, what a week to be off the grid. They're going to come back to a whole nation that has a much worse hangover than they do.)

I first experienced 'release' at Autodesk where I worked as a systems administrator. The days would roll on, fixing computers, crisis after another resolved, keep the whole thing going and then suddenly, all the coders and information workers who I supported suddenly couldn't use their machines. They were doing work on the highway and the entire campus' power had been cut. For the people in our group, who were used to being the ultimate support system for these people, it was quite a shock. There's usually always a way around a problem. But no power meant no job. I remember the realization, and was shocked at its abruptness. The power went down and I slowly lifted my fingers from the keyboard, listening to the silence. This wasn't the first time it happened and I'd been told that if the power went off for more than a few minutes, it would have to stay off for hours. Grid fail-over mechanisms required this. The initial impulse was to wait for it to come back and sit around and figure out if there was something else we could do to go on. But there wasn't. In fact, we were forced out of the building (as a commercial building without power is a dangerous place to be) and literally turned out onto the streets in the blaring Marin sunshine. And there was nothing to do but hang out and talk with one another or go home.

This may seem naive and insulting to people who truly suffer in these situations. I don't want to make that seem trivial. I've never been in a terrible situation like we are seeing in New Orleans this week. And I'm not making a comparison of a power outage at work to a hurricane and flood. But the disturbance can come in many unpredictable ways. And you have to be imaginative and flexible in dealing with it. Any thing we're dependent on can be snatched away from us in an instant. And we're dependent on a huge web of goods, services and infrastructure. Imagine the banking/credit infrastructure zapped. Image the transport of all goods and services suddenly frozen. DeeDee and I are photographers and have a large portion of our work in the form of little fragile pieces of gelatin film sitting in our closet. I think about something as simple as a candle in our neighbor's house causing a fire and burning down our house down while we're at work. Fire safes don't protect negatives.

So let's get on with some collective pragmatism. How far to you want to take it? Survivalist thinking is a slippery slope. Do you prepare for the most likely and probably least damaging circumstances, or do you reevaluate every facet of existence and determine how you could provide it for yourself if someone else couldn't. This is roughly the difference between getting a fire extinguisher for your kitchen and wholly owning your own hideaway in the woods, fully stocked for new-pioneer life on the other side of societal extinction.

My approach here is going to be the former. The latter is well documented in all the survivalist rags and strikes me as a thinly disguised luddite fantasy land. And I'd like to investigate the dependencies to find out if there are some really simple and low-barrier things we can do to make ourselves less disaster prone. You can never simply explore all the possible threats and then figure out counter-measures. You use design principles that are proven to provide fault-tolerance and recoverability and you hope your ass is covered.

I did a lot of these things when I left for India. When you carry everything you have in backpack and you're on the other side of the world, you have to think about how you will start from scratch if you loose everything. It forced me to think about where I was going stash a backup copy of my passport and how I would get it if I had nothing and was nobody. Living there for months with no chance of mail forced me to put every connection I had to financial systems into 'online' mode and become 100% virtual. One of the best things this forced me to do was sign up for and use an on-line check writing service. If this is available from your bank, you'll never use (or order) paper checks again.

You may argue that becoming so virtualized makes me more dependent on computer systems. It is true that if I didn't have access to a computer, much of my personal information would be lost. But it is so much easier to make computer systems redundant than all the bits and scraps of personal detritus trailing you. That is why I say the first step should be to move as much of your paper-based identity into digital format as you can.

Think about all the physical items you depend on to keep your life going: identity cards, keys, little black books, business cards with numbers on the backs of them, hanging files filled with documents, credit cards, your laptop! How thick is your wallet? How clogged is the bottom of your purse? Sure we can all get over the loss of these things, but what if you lost your house and you wallet? If you could have your wallet back easily, wouldn't that make it easier to be homeless? You can't digitize your house. But you can digitize all the stuff in your wallet.

Never fear. With the added dependence on computer systems comes much more flexibility in your ability to design systems that are redundant. Far from being a slave to digital systems, they are a way out of the determinism in a disaster situation. In order to have continuity, where you have one thing that is broken or gone, you need another of those things to take its place. Whatever makes copying these things and distributing them around easier should be given primacy.

While you are thinking about how you are going to digitize everything you have, get a DVD burner and make a backup of all the data you have. This is important: don't wait until you have new data. Make the backup first, then try to figure out what to do with it. The first few you will make will probably be failures. As you make more you will learn how to do it better. And you must learn how to do it because no one else can. Do not count on an accountant.

It is crucial when making these backups that you use the absolute "lowest-common-denominator" technology available. Do no assume that programs and systems you used to make the data are going to be around to access it. Text files are a good idea for 'bootstrap' type of information, like the details you need to access you ISP.

And when I say all the data you have I mean everything. There is no point in being picky about it. And don't let attempts to 'get organized' get in the way. Mail the big, sloppy backup DVD(s) to someone in another state. Your mother is probably a good candidate.

Don't put this off if you can't get all your data backed up. You can even mail off old backups you might have made on CD's that you have laying around. Don't put it off if you don't have everything in digital format. The point is to start moving in that direction. It can take months just to virtualize your banking.

I'll be writing more about this later. There are a million little tips and things to consider in the small area of personal continuity but I'd also like to consider some of the things that will make each person a better member of a smart mob. Having all your personal information will help greatly. Systems will go off line for a short period but they will come back. I'd also like to explore what we do when things go off line or worse. I'll be reading more W. David Stephenson.

Sunday June 29, 2003

"Fuck softer toilet paper, where’s the Darwin dividend? We eat food pellets and wear water bottles like better rats, what happened to our early promise? When we were ugly and died all the time, all anyone talked about was salvation, family, overcoming desire, throwing off these chains and more dessert for the guests. Now that everyone’s a king—aren’t we even interested? "
-- a quote from The T hree Manifesto.

My favorite song of late has been "Fool" by Cat Power. Number six on the new album. In a lilting, sarcastic and sad way she sings about an "Apartment in New York, London and Paris" and then later says, "Why can’t we see as fortunates see? Living as legends have lived." And that last line explodes into so much for me. It's beautiful and comforting to know that I have been living as legends have lived. That my life is legendary when I take just a tiny little step outside my solipsism. And this is no stupid exaggeration. I'm talking about a historical context (pluck a random person from the first half of the 20th century to observe our lives and watch their jaw hit the floor) but also a geo-social one.

I don't need an apartment in New York, London and Paris to be a legend. And I don't want to see myself as an ordinary. I am humane but not ordinary. (Oh, get a hold on your democratic disgust. This is hubris for the sake of making a point.) I was talking with some friends the other day who had traveled to the 3rd world and some who hadn't, and they both said that they must have it exactly the way they have it now. Meaning that even though they know how superior their current lifestyle is to those poor fuckers, they would not tolerate being treated in a superior way. That they are more or less equal to the persons they deal with on a daily basis (as one would want it to be, I agree) and that they would not play a part to any unequalizing forces if they were to travel in, say, oh I don't know, in India.

They would not feel comfortable with maids, cooks, porters, drivers or any of the other symbols of a ruling class. How about a guy to shave you every day? The idea of someone taking care of them is also offensive to their sense of independence. What struck me is that this is selective anti-colonialism when it really doesn't matter. If you go to the trouble of spending more money than a person makes in 10 years to fly all the way around world, leaving your life of leisure to visit them, don't you think they'd be amazed and puzzled? Why try to act like you're equal? You might even see how it would be offensive to someone; even appear to be condescending to that poor fucker, when that person who is fabulously wealthy and exotic tries to play out some fantasy of equality.

And it's parochialism clothed in good old fashioned decency. And it's white guilt. Is it so hard to remember that every day of our life is a wondrous fairy tale to 90 percent of the other people on the planet? If someone puts you on a pedestal, you can try to climb down, but then they'll wonder why their statue would be so unmagnanimous as to self-destruct. Why don't they throw down their Chinese takeout right into that designer wastebasket and toss those American Spirits off their weather-treated wood deck? How can they put up with subjugating the entire earth for all that shit? Because the plain fact is that nobody is going to give up what they got without a fight. No matter how much they got.

"We’ve become gods, so now we must create or we will destroy." - 3

Nobody I know is more hedonistic than me (except for my friend Miguel I guess) so I don't want to put on that I'm some "sustainable living" nut. I'm kinda saying the opposite: That you need awareness first of your wealth and position and privilege. (By the way, I recommend getting it first hand, not reading about it on some website.) You need to give thanks for it, not in the weak-ass protestant way of "Yes Holy Father, I'm a sinner and I don't deserve it", but in the "bless these genes" absurdly lucky way that it is, and get on with taking advantage of your advantage. I brought those poor fuckers back with me and they ride around in the hip pocket of my $140 jeans.

The obvious response to this is that I am rationalizing plain, old, boring, over consumption. That I'm on Oprah explaining why I have to drive my Escalade down the freeway to Target and no one is listening. That even the awareness and thanks that I spoke of makes no difference. I say awareness and thankfulness is the only difference.

Read The T hree Manifesto again, even if you read it 5 years ago when I posted it first on It's mostly for college-age kids but older people enjoy it as well.

"Cool people advertise a playground to sell their ghetto." -- 3

Thursday January 17, 2002

Turday I was walking down the street with my chicken and I saw "DON’T' BE AFRAID" tattooed on the sidewalk in front of the old folks home on Guerrero street. Good one. That's the best one, in fact. There's lots of sidewalk stencils in my neighborhood and I have to say that this one is the number one best piece of advice you could give. One that every human being is capable of using, to some extent.

I was having sparkling dinner conversation a week ago with Megan and David and Adam and they were talking about how sad it is that people are so uninformed about how their diet affects or doesn't affect them and how misguided people are about the things they choose to concentrate on. One example was how vegans restrict their diet to the point that it has profound effects on their ability to be part of society and this stress inducing "social irritant" in the end may have much more detrimental effects on their over-all well being than any benefit from the change in diet. People's obsessive focus on minor things (for example, attempts to be "holistic") are a sure sign that they are overinformed and in the dark.

Good stuff, yes, and the main point was that people basically gather random anecdotal "health pointers" from news headlines (don't eat too much salt) (a glass of wine a day is good for you) which may be based in some sort of scientific study but by the time they get it, it might as well be some passed down shit from the middle ages. And the problem is, of course, that the information is uncorrelated and at worst, contradictory. Depending on which newscast you watched, you'll get a different set of mandates. You assimilate them into something you think is a comprehensive view of health but it's not based in real understanding. It's just an umbrella made of doilies and it's about to rain.

Adam's head was about to explode. Yeah, the misinformation was a bad one, but his choice for supreme evil was fear. Why, god, oh why are people so afraid? Why are healthy young members of our society routinely traumatized by fear-mongering parents? Their little souls are crushed by adult obsessiveness and pettiness. And why are those adults afraid? What have rich Americans got to be afraid of? Why is the machinery of the media, measuring out regular doses of late local fear, so effective in sublimating us into trembling puppies pissing on the floor?

But I butted in, in a voice verging on yelling, right there in Valencia Pizza and Pasta, that that's small shit. There's a chunk of knowledge that's easily the most basic and most fundamentally important thing for every human on the planet to know which remains solely in the realm of academia: how the brain works. Namely, that science has started to get a handle on the last bastion of the unknown, the thing that we thought would never be known, and it's only a matter of time before the people know it and start to use it.

There is one dark corner where all our folklore, wives tales, pseudoscience, quackery and intuitions still flourish. Modern psychology and self help have touched the surface but most people still interpret their existence with a very limited vocabulary. All the superstitious beliefs resulting from ignorance, behavior problems, fears of the unknown, trust in magic or chance -- they all prosper because no one understands their own mind. More specifically, people don't understand their emotions. But science is starting to. much more than feelings.....feelings are but the tip....of our icebergs of emotions.

The light of scientific discovery and understanding chased away the bullshit in many fields of understanding (we know why we get sick and it doesn't have anything to do with bodily humors, spirits, magnetism, or any other shit that's been suggested over the years). Hell, just the fact that we know about germs explains sooooo much and renders obsolete multitudes of belief systems we developed to cope with the things that germs were doing to us. If you've ever studied anthropology, or studied cultures that don't have any idea what a germ is, (or anything microscopic, for that matter) you'll see that they sometimes have good ways of coping with hygiene and that their belief system may have developed safeguards that protect them from germs even though they don't imagine in their wildest dreams that they exist. But which culture would you rather be in? Frankly, I want to know about germs. Even if it means that I have to give up going to church, stop listening to the elders, I'm in it for the enlightenment. Some crazy people go so far as to suggest that you should keep this kind of information from others so that it won't corrupt their belief systems and destroy their culture. Whatever.

Neurobiology of emotion. Affective neuroscience. From what I can tell, the discoveries are revolutionary. Like musket-ball-in-your-fucking-face revolutionary. Scientific understanding of the emotions of humans is such a significant and all-relative and a-priori body of knowledge that most people will have to go through a major paradigm shift if they are going to assimilate it. Emotions as psychological "states" are about to die. Most people are just trying to catch up with the popular teachings of psychology but if I was a psychology student, I'd be thinking about another major. In fact, they'll probably be changing the name of the department in a few years.

Cognitive Science, the blending of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, neurology, artificial intelligence and biology, as a discipline has only started to wake up. It's a very young branch of science but it is easily the most important. The people doing Cognitive Science are the Aristotles, the Galileos, the Newtons, and the Einsteins of today.

The reason "DON’T BE AFRAID" is the best piece of advice you can give is that fear is the most important emotion and emotion is the most important brain function and humans are the exclusive source of their own fears.

I've got to go down the street and get something to eat right now. Hopefully when I get back, I'll begin to convey to you what I've learned in the book, "The Emotional Brain: The mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life". That's why I started writing. Or at least that's the best guess I have as to my emotional motivations for writing tonight. Cognitive science has been sputtering to a start but Joseph Ledoux and his contemporaries have grabbed it and steered it onto a superhighway of discovery.

Mmmmm. Good falafel. Now, I don't know about that brave soul who stenciled that shit on the sidewalk but I'm not trying to imply that fear is a bad thing -- as in, bad: to-be-avoided. No, we should not fear fear. That would be ridiculous. We are made of fear. It would be like telling the ocean to try not to be so wet. I think that the statement "DON’T BE AFRAID" is effective not because you would follow its advice. Hah! That's a joke. No, I like it because it points directly to the fact that we are the ones that make ourselves afraid. We have no natural predators except for our own imaginations.

This is for Megan and Adam, and to those folks who think that eating at Burger King is equivalent to self mutilation, yes, those well-intentioned folks who are sure that their child will be instantly plucked off the street by one of the thousands of pedophiles roaming the neighborhood if they were to leave them alone for 1 minute.

Never got back on track after that falafel and two Mickey's. Oh well. I'm posting what I got so far.



It doesn't make much sense to mention this but it is a couple days later and I've got one less Mickey's in my blood so I'm gonna try to continue. If you see a number in parenthesis, it's the page number of LeDoux's paperback.

Do we have control over our emotions or do they control us? And how do our emotions shape every other aspect of conscious life -- perceptions, memories, thoughts and dreams?

The basic points that I want to focus on are that emotions go on mostly unnoticed (primarily because they are better off that way) and when they are noticed, they are liable to be misinterpreted. And further, that the awareness of emotions is generally a one-way street and consciousness (our thoughts, desires, plans) has a very limited ability to control or stop them.

This may seem like common sense and anybody will admit to frustration at not being able to overcome an "irrational" fear or forget about a doomed infatuation but the incredible thing is that we all act and talk and assume that we can control our emotions. Society, and its rational fairness and peacefulness is the most glaring example of the way we believe in the primacy of the things our cerebral cortex's come up with.

Emotions are biological functions of the nervous system and their workings can be uncovered in the same way we understand digestion. For years, psychologists have been trying to understand the emotions by asking people about their emotions. Entire systems featuring emotional maps, like the one by Robert Plutchik, have be constructed based on the feedback of people in psychological studies. People are asked, "What emotion were you feeling when that occurred?" And the results are tallied into some sort of cause-and-effect matrix. But this is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons.

Scientists who study emotion have set things up so that they will not understand emotions until they've understood the mind-body problem, the problem of how consciousness comes out of brains, arguably the most difficult problem there is and ever was. (268)

Figuring out the exact nature of consciousness and the mechanisms by which it emerges out of collection of neurons is truly an important problem." But, it's "not necessary for emotion researchers to wait for the solution before studying how emotions work. (281)

One of the reasons for this is that our emotional systems have been conserved through evolution and the systems that developed to allow us to feed ourselves, find shelter and procreate are still active. They are amazingly similar to the brain functions of other animals. The fact that we developed language and higher cognitive functions has not made them obsolete. They are still active and working in parallel with higher reasoning. When these system function in a conscious brain (like in humans, a possibly higher primates), feelings are the result. But most brains, most of the time, don't even produce feelings. Feelings, when they happen to occur in a conscious being are similar to exhaust coming out the back of car. This is where psychology has had its nose for the last 50 years -- trying to diagnose an engine by sniffing a tailpipe.

The study of emotion focused on where subjective feelings come from rather than on the unconscious process that sometimes do and sometimes do not give rise to those conscious states. (269)

Freud was a notable exception to this, he located our drives in an unconsious and unaccessable place, but he proposed an abstract state of trauma (like where boys are afraid of castration) which drives the various emotional responses. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It all started in 1884:

William James published "What is an Emotion?" in the journal "Mind" and the question of what is an emotion and he answered with another question: Do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run? The obvious answer, that we run because we are afraid, is wrong. James argued that we are afraid because we run. For the first time, the discussion of emotions was framed as some arousing stimulus that ends with a passionate feeling (a conscious emotional experience -- being afraid). The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology, not vice versa: we do not tremble because we are afraid or cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and sad because we cry.

James suggested that our conscious feelings were recognizable and differentiated because different emotional responses manifest them selves differently in the body. We read our bodies reactions. But in the 20's Walter Cannon, a physiologist who was studying the Autonomic Nervous System, the neural network responsible for arousing the body during an emotional reaction, said that the bodily responses were too vague and there's no way we could get all the various feelings from the simple, blood pressure, heart rate, sweat, adrenaline etc. -- the activations of the Autonomic Nervous System. This became known as Cannon-Bard Theory and they furthered James's thoughts by claiming that emotion is felt first, and then actions follow from cognitive appraisal. In their view, the thalamus and amygdala play a central role; interpreting an emotion-provoking situation and simultaneously sending signals to the ANS.

But this was during the reign of the behaviorists. Their claim was that subjective experiences were currently unmeasurable by science and therefore, good, hard science must ignore them completely. The means by which stimulus's gave rise to conscious feelings was ignored because they feelings were not "legitimate phenomena for scientific investigation." Research continued in the fields of behavioral conditioning (Pavlov's dog) and around 1960, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer came up with a theory that's been the way we've proceeded up to this point:

Schachter and Singer started with the assumption that physiological response in emotion -- sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, muscle tension -- inform our brain that a state of heightened arousal exists. However, since these responses are similar in many different emotions they do not identify what kind of aroused state we are in. Schachter and Singer suggested that, on the basis of information about the physical and social context in which we find ourselves, as well as knowledge about what kinds of emotions occur in these particular kinds of situations, we label the aroused state as fear or love or sadness or anger or joy. According to them, this labeling of the aroused state is what gives rise to and accounts for the specificity of felt emotion. In other words, emotional feelings result when we explain emotionally ambiguous bodily states to ourselves on the basis of cognitive interpretations (so-called attributions) about what the external and internal causes of the bodily states might be. (47)

They were so successful that for the next 30 years the study of emotions concentrates almost exclusively on the role of cognition in emotion. Cognitive science was going strong and we were programming artificial intelligence in computers, modeling a cat's visual systems and other information processing tasks of the brain. "Cognitive Science treats mids like computers and has traditionally been more interested in how people and machines solve logical problems or play chess than in why we are sometimes happy and sometimes sad.

The cognitive appraisal of a stimulus started to become the very essence of the emotional system. There was a stimulus - the bear - you appraised its danger value, the judgment you make, whether good or bad triggers a feeling. Boom. The essence of an emotion was altered in order that emotions could be conceived as reasoned thoughts about situations. All the blood and guts had been taken out of emotion and it became just another high-level cognitive process like reasoning or speaking.

But then around 1980, Robert Zajonc argued, quite simply, that preferences (which are simple emotional reactions) could be formed without any conscious registration of the stimuli. This, he said, showed that emotion has primacy over (can exist before) and is independent of (can exist without) cognition.

He proposed the existence of something called the "mere exposure effect". If subjects are exposed to some novel visual patterns (like Chinese ideograms) and then asked to choose whether they prefer the previously exposed or new patterns, they reliably tend to prefer the preexposed ones. Mere exposure to stimuli is enough to create preferences.

The twist to the new experiment was to present stimuli subliminally -- so briefly that the subjects were unable in subsequent tests to accurately state whether or not they had seen the stimulus before. Nevertheless, the mere exposure effect was there. The subjects judged the previously exposed items as preferable over the new (previously unseen) ones, in spite of the fact that they had little ability to consciously identify and distinguish the patterns that they had seen from those that they had not. As Zajonc put it, these results go against common sense and against the widespread assumption in psychology that we must know what something is before we can determine whether we like it or not. Recognition (a prime ingredient in appraisal) is not a precursor to emotion. (53)

Judging from what has been learned by studying fear and the defense mechanism, the current model for how the brain has an emotional experience is that there are multiple systems operating in parallel, mostly unconscious, that process stimuli and memories in a series of feedback loops. It's important to remember that the system for other emotions could be very different and involve different parts of the brain. LeDoux has only studied fear because he believes the defense mechanism is common across all species and what we know as fear is those survival mechanisms at work.

An image of a bear goes in your eyeball and then to your visual thalamus. From there it branches -- part to the amygdala and part to the visual cortex. Studies have shown that the amygdala is capable of some low level evolutionarily programmed responses -- on the order of a general "go/no go". It's been observed that monkeys who have been isolated in laboratory cages for their entire life, will still instantly recognize a natural predator on first sight and react violently. The amygdala has many connections to other parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, as well as direct outputs to the nervous system. It is in charge of activating the adrenal gland and other aspects of the ANS. Simultaneously, the information has been sent to the visual cortex and, along with the hippocampus (the area where long term memories are stored) it is surmised out that we have a bear on our hands and past experience says that it's dangerous. This is merely on the level of disembodied information until is correlated with what the amygdala is putting out. There still is nothing in consciousness that we would identify as a feeling of fear. Only when the bodily feedback is assimilated does the emotion begin to escalate or abate. The hippocampus has the ability, at any point, to short-circuit the amygdala and tell it to stop arousing the body. For example "Oh, that's just a cardboard cutout of a bear.", or "It's a grizzly -- meanest man eater of the bunch."

The outcome of the appraisal, which includes past memories, the strength of the body's reaction, and new incoming sensory information, is re-input into the amygdala and the entire system is either amplified or neutralized. This amplification loop continues until the danger is overcome or the brain *thinks* the danger is over. All of this can happen without ever becoming aware that you are having an emotional reaction. You may be afraid and running but you don't know you're afraid until your legs have already stared moving and there's sweat on your palms.

And what is consciousness, that breeding ground for feelings?

What we know of as the present moment is basically what is in our working memory. Working memory allows us to know that the "here and now" is "here" and is happening "now." This insight underlies the notion, adopted by a number of contemporary cognitive scientists, that consciousness is awareness of what is in working memory. (278)

This functional aspect of the brain is an assimilator of different sensory inputs and integrator with memory. It has been shown that it is capable of holding about 7 distinct items at any point. It functions similar to a data buffer in a computer. Information is pushed out as new information is added. Guess which system determines which sensory input is most important? The emotional system, or more specifically, the amygdala.

Working memory can be thought of as a serial processer (one at a time) while the rest of your brain is working in parallel to process the emotion. The amygdala is working with memory and various processing regions in the cortex -- visual, auditory, linguistic, spacial, etc. In any emotionally charged situation, the amygdala immediately influences the cortex and focuses its attention to what it thought was most important. In addition, it triggers over-all brain arousal and body hormonal and nervous system arousal -- signals in the body and those signals are then returned to the brain (gut feelings).

LeDoux believes that the human brain, in its current state of development is imbalanced. Basically, there are stronger connection going *from* our "automatic" unconscious emotional systems to our cortex than the other way around.

The amygdala has greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on the amygdala, allowing emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking. Throughout the mammals, pathways from the amygdala to the cortex overshadow the pathways from the cortex to the amygdala. ... At the same time, it is apparent that the cortical connections with the amygdala are far greater in primates than in other mammals. This suggest the possibility that as these connection continue to expand, the cortex might gain more and more control over the amygdala, possibly allowing future humans to be better able to control their emotions. There is some hope that the future evolution of the human brain will take care of this imbalance. (303)

One curious development over the last few hundred thousand years (a blink in biological time) is that we've eliminated all our natural predators and have become our own worst predator. Our ability to think abstractly -- to imagine things and events that aren't happening at that moment -- has freed us from immediate dangers involved in trying to find food, shelter and avoid predation. But we have just replaced those sources of danger with ones of our own imagination. We have an innate (genetic) and unconscious emotional reaction to a number of things but I can guarantee you that elevators aint one of them.

What is so useful about being afraid of heights or elevators or certain foods or means of travel? While there are risks associated with each of these things, the changes of them causing harm are usually relatively small. We have more fears than we need, and it seems that our utterly efficient fear conditioning system, combined with an extremely powerful ability to think about our fears and an inability to control them, is probably at fault.(266)

William James said that nothing marks the ascendancy of man from beast more clearly than the reduction of the conditions under which fear is evoked in humans.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt renowned ethnologis: "Perhaps man is one of the most fearful creatures, since added to the basic fear of predators and hostile con-specifics come intellectually based existential fears."

O. Hobart Mowrer : The capacity to be made uncomfortable by the mere prospect of traumatic experiences, in advance of their actual occurrence (or reoccurrence), and to be motivated thereby to take realistic precautions against them, is unquestionably a tremendously important and useful psychological mechanism, and the fact that the forward-looking, anxiety-arousing propensity of the human mind is more highly developed than it is in lower animals probably accounts for many of man's unique accomplishments. But it also accounts for some of his most conspicuous failures.(233)

Anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder are all fear based psychopathologies. All can be seen as replacements for threats that we are no longer exposed to.

I want to finish up with a large quote on the inaccuracies and untrustworthiness of our feelings and our ability to explain or even express them. (By the way, there are very good reasons why emotional processing goes unnoticed -- for the same reasons that when you want to walk across the room, you don't want to be aware of the instructions from your brain that move your legs each time you take a step.)

Stimuli that are not noticed, or that are noticed but their implication aren't, can unconsciously trigger emotional behavior and visceral responses. In such situations, the stimulus content of working memory will be amplified by the arousal and feedback that result, causing you to attribute the arousal and bodily feelings to the stimuli that are present in working memory. However, because the stimuli in working memory did not trigger the amygdala, the situation will be misdiagnosed. And if there is nothing in particular occupying working memory, you will be in a situation where your feelings are not understood. If emotions are triggered by stimuli that are processed unconsciously, you will not be able to later reflect back on these experiences and explain why they occurred with any degree of accuracy. Contrary to the primary supposition of cognitive appraisal theories, the core of an emotion is not an introspectively accessible conscious representation. Feelings do involve conscious content, but we don't necessarily have conscious access to the processes that produce the content. And even when we do have introspective access, the conscious content is not likely to be what triggered the emotional response in the first place. (299)

Thursday January 10, 2002

I'm not too sure about whether I want to promote viewing this or not. I suppose we're all adults. It's Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina trying to explain why the boards and management of HP and Compaq want to merge. What struck me about this video is that it pulls out every cliché and yet still managed to move me. Not move me in the direction she wanted, I'm sure, but it sickened me that she was cashing in on what two entrepreneurs did 60 years ago and trying to use it to get people to go along with some huge corporate merger. As if the two had anything in common!

Having worked in what I thought was a big computer company (3,000) that was headed by a female CEO, I can imagine what kind of shit storm this is stirring up. But I've never worked in one as big (80,000) as HP. This video is scary because I can imagine the hordes of tech workers lapping this shit up. Over and over again at every "All Hands" meeting. "Here's the new boss, gonna give us a pep talk." This is what keeps people going. This is the myth that they are sold. This is the reason that Americans dominate high tech when we really shouldn't. The stories are still powerful. This is the new religion. You think I'm being hyperbolic but don't you think every other big company summons the ghosts of their founders and gets people all fired up? This is the reason I'm writing and posting this link -- because so many people don't even know the myths that are being built into our culture. The myths we're using as fuel to build our culture. This is the one that sucks the best and brightest engineers out of Stanford. They don't believe in anything...except this "inexorable march of technology" shit.

I actually have a soft spot for HP. In case you were wondering who was responsible for all those quirky, loose "dotcom" corporate environments, with their dogs, drinks, daycares and dressdown; it's HP. These casual trends have spread to many other industries. Computer companies had always been big, old, male and stuffy but those two Californian engineers who were named H and P decided that their company was going to be different. HP is the reason Apple is so "cool". Apple copied HP's culture and so did every other new company in the Valley. I enjoyed that shit for 7 years so I'm kinda thankful to H and P. It's still fucked up and political to be in a big company but at least they tried to make it less dehumanizing on the surface.

Wednesday January 9, 2002

I just found an article by a guy named Ethan Watters that interested me. Summing-up a generation of people, a-la Time Magazine, trying to create a demographic with a book or a few articles, or trendspotting is generally repulsive to me. But none-the-less, it seems my existence is being thrown into relief up on the wall, my own mind can not escape it. I don't give a shit if it's on Good Morning America but it's fucking me and my friends up. I'm in my 30's and not married. Apparently I'm a "never-married". I should marry but I DON'T. It's a phenomenon that Ethan is labeling "Urban Tribes". Mr. Watters (although he's apparently engaged) counts himself among this group. And now that screenplays about dotcom life are not selling so well, they're reshaped into the old, "My Generation" sort of drivel that he's going to pack into "URBAN trIBES OF THE NEVER MARRIEDS: Secrets of Community from an Unlikely Source"

Read what he says about Urban Tribes. He's describing life in San Francisco. You're young, smart, got a job and great friends, had a few serious relationships, but you can' Your parents were divorced, sure, your married friends are boring, well some of them, but your biological clock is hammering on you night and day and still, you don't get married. And though it all, you know how you're gonna spend the 4th of July: BBQ'ing with those same old friends that you watched the Super Bowl with. From Ethan's perspective (already, it seems, sliding into the world as viewed from marriage) we substitute the closeness and support that marriage provides with a group of friends (that sticks around at least as long as the most hard-core of them can hold out). He implies that as soon as the comfort of your tribe gone, (everyone gets married?) you’ll go running into a marriage.

I don't think I have an Urban Tribe. I don’t think I’ll get married. Does this mean I should get one? Will I be unprotected in the coming disasters of my life? Will I have no one to share the exhilarating triumphs with? Who will change my diapers? Fuck it. I never cared up to now...

I've spotted the tribes, yes they exist and San Francisco is a particularly fertile breeding ground for them, but I keep moving. Maybe it was because the tribes felt like stale marriages already. What's troubling is the fact that Ethan must come up with a meme to counter the societal pressure to get married. It shows that saying "no" to marriage isn't enough. I rant on this subject continually. I'm not even going to discuss the desire to have children. But I should say that I never assumed that I was going to have kids, thinking that I’d probably hate their mother at some point, and they didn’t need to be put through that. So marriage seem superfluous and once I forgot about marriage, having kids didn't make much sense.

Every "never-married" has a reason why they are not married. Some say selectively, "I would but I haven't found THE ONE", some say humbly, "I want to make sure I'm ready" some say shamefully, "I missed my shot" but how many truly forget all about marriage and rise above it? I'm talking about some evolved, modern shit. I mean, if you have gone through all the self-help training of the 90's, enjoyed all the wealth and freedom of those same 90's, and you've straightened your existential shit out like no human has in history, then what's with the marriage stuff? You got yourself to the point where you are completely self-sufficient (a point where normally you'd be more than ready for marriage) and now you NEED something else? What’s the matter? Life’s too easy for you? You bored?

Here's a thought: marriage is not necessary. Like everything else in this culture, it is a lifestyle product, marketed and bought like any of those finished IKEA rooms. You can ignore the seductive music of it or you can not. I believe, the backwards intellectual that I am, that you get what you want, but what you need is only given to you. At its most useful it's a shorthand way of describing your life with another person to society. "Married? Oh ok, I won't ask you out on a date then." Folks, this is not something to ruin your life over! It's not that hard to explain why your finger has no ring on it.

One could say that marriage provides you with a mental reality that focuses your behavior toward the long-term. It allows you to relax and be more forgiving. Instead of "living together" and constantly re-evaluating the relationship on a day-to-day basis, you get a "lease". Instead of constantly judging the other person for worthiness and, it follows, instead of them constantly being in interview mode and putting their best foot forward, you really get to see the other person. Wow!

Fine! But I contend (and I don't have to remind you that I've never been married) that giving yourself the "lease" isn't something that you should sit and yearn for when you are single. This supposedly perfect state of affairs has people wallowing in loneliness. It is something that may be bestowed on an already working relationship. How can you go shopping for that? You don't. And I don't know if it's a good remedy the supposed purgatory of "living together" either. The only people who get themselves in that state of constant judgmental re-evaluation are people who are dying to get married for whatever reason and could give a fuck if they have a perfectly fine, short term relationship on their hands.

Everything thing that I’ve just said is subject to revision, of course.

Monday October 29, 2001

This is a stupid little rant about dressing up in costumes. The gist of it is: costumes bore me. The fascination that my city and my peers have with dressing up in costumes is inordinate. It wasn't very intriguing before coming here in my early twenties but living in San Francisco has aggravated my disinterest into rebelliousness. The Number One Holiday in San Francisco is Halloween. Nothing else comes close. They make a big deal about Christmas on TV but that's only for the advertising. Halloween is the explosion of all the extrovert tendencies that plague most of the citizens here.

Oh sure, I reap the benefits from it -- freakwatching is one of my favorite sports and there's a pretty reliable supply of street fashion to be had. You could say that any of the other 364 days in San Francisco would rival the One Hallowed Eve of many other towns in America for weirdness. I love the diversity. But nobody seems to notice the point where our diversity turns into orthodoxy.

I think I finally witnessed my share of costumery at Burning Man. I went for the first time this year and was surprised at the focus being so much on putting on funny clothes and taking X and going dancing in the dirt. A costume rave? This was what was supposed to change your life? It seemed especially ironic to me when I realized that the people who where there were already so weird and the situation was so extreme. I mean, goddamn it, we were doin' it. It's enough to be out there. Dressing up was just providing a little extra eye candy for the folks. No need to feel selfish if you weren't doing it. You didn't build a gigantic sectional bus that looked like a dragon and had a DJ in the tail either. And besides, who you tryin to impress by wearing a feather boa in the desert?

Was the dress-up just following? I couldn't tell but I had a hunch that some of the old-school "core" BM people had indirectly, coercively, in a high-schoolish kind of way, imposed their specific brand of freakiness on the whole thing. I think I know who they are and I can see their trademark. This is getting off the subject of costumes a little bit, but I took issue with the whole "burning man aesthetic". (I later found out from a woman I met named Maya (a bitchin graffiti artist) that her art (big donuts with pink paint-icing dripping down) had been censored by the curators committee because it didn't conform to this aesthetic.)

I was an instant critic. It wasn't a whole new unique world to me. It was a transplant of every art-futuro-punk party I've ever been to in SF. I've been to a lot of those because I like them. I like the spectacle, I like the cybergeek smashup derby carnival a lot. But at Burning Man, the whole "there are no spectators" nazi crap makes everyone nervously strap on a dildo or put on a cowboy hat so they won't look like spectators. "Oh no, we're not RV spectator trash tryin to peep some titties, we're real burners, dude." Ok, so it started to look conformist instead of expressive to me. That's what bugged me. Burning Man is essentially the same thing as Halloween: both big parties with San Francisco-style dress codes.

So with so many people dressing up for Halloween (and the adults here only get dressed up to go to parties) I feel like saying "Fuck that. I'm wearing what I usually wear to parties. If I feel like dressing up, I'll have plenty of chances to do it at one of the other 50 parties I go to in a year." Better to wait till you have a real costume idea and some real spunk to make it work than force yourself to half-ass some "well, at least I didn't come in my street clothes" excuse for a costume. I mean, come on.

Sounds like sour grapes, right? Like I'd be telling all the little kiddies about Santa Clause if I had the chance, right? Like I'm just complaining because I didn't have any good (realizable) costume ideas this year. Fuckit. I like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Halloween is just on the other side of the calendar from St. Patrick's day. It's amateur night. Get on the fake trolley, get belligerent, try to get laid with your (cat suit if you're a girl) (vampire getup if you're a guy) boring costume and go back to your office job. I hate you.

Friday October 5, 2001

Skawennati, are you into different fashion designers and stuff?

........It's gonna getcha. It's gonna getcha!........

Did you see those plastic strapon wigs that he did?

Ok y'all where are the jetpacks? I mean, you can stitchandbitch all you want but somebody's gotta stand up and demand their jetpack. It's almost two thousand and two. Somewhere along the line we never made the jetpacks for everyone. I mean I was there. People I know where there. We had the technology. What'd we get? DVD players and DSL lines. That's the best you can get. It don't matter where you shop. You can't even get a mobile phone that works in the desert. Fer crissakes, if you asked someone relatively technological back in the 50's what your average American would be more likely to strap on when they head out the door: a wireless telephone smaller than a pack of cigs or a jetpack; do you think they wouldn't go with the jetpack? Have you gazed upon a 1950's Cadillac? Jetpacks. Of course. Everybody wanted them. They were the future. Personal flying transportation dominated the skies of the futurtopias. Those people got jobs in R&D. I know it. We got pretty much every thing else we wanted. Didn't we? Where are all the Jetpacks? You can't even find ONE! I don't even remember a big failed product launch.

EUREKA #2 by M. Moore, B. Sutton, & Howell
Retro-sci-fi at its finest! After a daring jetpack-assisted escape from the crazed neo-Luddites led by the crazed General Diego, Nelly and Dr. Tyson become separated in the wilds of the Belgian Congo. Meanwhile, Professor Applewhite prepares to move his mysterious archeological find. Is it indeed a flying saucer? ....

I'll be covering this in more hyperlinky detail later.

Monday September 24, 2001

I'm thinking about moving to Los Angeles. First it was Eben who mentioned that he's leaving Seattle for either Oakland or LA and then it was Davemaze musing that his life might not suck so much down there. Last week we were supposed to take a little road trip down there. LA is strangely alluring to me right now.

Dave called me on Friday and said something to the effect of "You can't stop us, YES, we will prevail. They cannot beat Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. They're culture-carpet-bombing the earth. Turn on the TV! Oh my God, Stevie Wonder. We cannot lose with these guys on our side. I see it all now and I'm not afraid." Or something like that. He's right of course. There's a beam of bright white light shooting into the sky out of Hollywood and splintering into an umbrella of 5 billion stars. We have reach that no terrorist could ever dream of. It is the closest thing we have on the earth to "The Force".

Not only do we have more media, not only more sophisticated media, we have BETTER media. The Oscars is the most important global cultural event of our times. For sheer concentrated planetary focus, it kills the Olympics. I saw people drooling over the Oscars in India that spoke no English and never went to anything but Bollywood films. I'm sure to be accused of cultural elitism, slanting the story to make it look like an Indian kid is going to choose Michael Jordan as a hero over Sachin Tendulkar. No, calm down, these things are incremental. But I do know that even though the kid has never shot a basketball, he still wants a Chicago Bulls jersey.

This is what makes me want to go down there. As my man Eben said today, "LA is where the rubber meets the road. People in SF, yeah they make art but people go to LA if they want to get their stuff out there. That's where you go to get seen and heard. That's what I'm in it for and I want to be surrounded by people who are going for it." Fuck the pseudo-integrity of obscurity.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I always associated moving there with the countless duffs across America that pack it up and try to make it in show business. I always thought LA was shallow. I always thought it would be too much driving. None of that shit seems to matter to me any more. I've already made it. I embrace my surface qualities, revel in them even. I'm going down there to be with the other stars and lend my bit of light to the force. I'm gonna test drive a '73 Porsche 911 Targa tomorrow.

Thursday September 13, 2001

Don't know where this is but I think it's in front of Dave Farsan near Babulnath Chowk. Bombay.

I just watched Gandhi for the first time since 1985. It was very moving and relevant. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu extremist who thought he was giving too much away to the Muslims during the shaping of independent India.

Indians today know almost nothing of Gandhi nor do they care. They learn about his political role and his philosophy is brushed aside as naiveté or extremism. While I was in India, I was very curious about this mass amnesia of the ideas of the father of their country. I lived on his street for a while. It's something similar to our society still playing the music of the late sixties on the radio all the time but the ideas that went along with it are derided old "hippy daydreams" -- naked, dirty failures of the "Age of Aquarius". They will say, "Gandhi is ours" but he is not theirs any more. I will not let them have him. They just want him, so when it's convenient, they can flash a cardboard cut-out of him to the world and say, "this is our great father, our ancient culture deserves your respect". This is the most disingenuous crap I can imagine. I could go on forever about all the conflicting and countercultural ideas that got Gandhi killed but I won't.

I felt really bad yesterday. I'm sure everyone did. I watched too much TV. You shouldn't watch too much TV I think. I say that as Peter Jennings streams live on my laptop.

I tried to get a handle on why I was feeling so bad. I felt the immediate pain of the scene -- imagining falling 1000 feet inside a crumbling, flaming office building. But my own brand of fear was not a feeling of vulnerability -- that it could happen to me, but hopelessness that the attack would not further polarize the earth. I was in India when the nuclear standoff with Pakistan was at its most insane. Many people who've been to Israel have witnessed the brand of intolerance that I saw all over India. Hindus and Muslims have been killing each other for a thousand years there. Actively and enthusiastically killing, stopping only for brief periods when they faced a greater enemy, such as the British Raj.

These two groups were so similar to me (at least relative to a westerner). They were all Indian and I was confounded by their hatred of each other. The differences between Hindus and Muslims are not as great as their difference from the west and Christianity but the hatred and fighting is more intense because of proximity. While I've never been to a purely Muslim country, the northern region of India is very traditional and has had less multicultural and modern influence than the south. To my untrained eye, the Hindu areas of the north resembled traditional Islam more than they resembled the Hindu areas of the south.

Sure, for a thousand years Muslim conquerors had swept down from the north into the Indian Subcontinent. Temple desecration is a favorite sport of both groups. They have different views of God, Islam is more exclusive and Hindus are supposed to think that every God is holy, but so many other things are similar. Some of the cultural differences that make Muslims hate the west so much -- the debasing sexually explicit conduct, personal selfishness and independence, the secularism, moral relativism, equal rights for women -- all are equally opposed by traditional Hindu culture. These are things that worry all Indians as the west begins to erode their culture. "MTV is ruining my daughter."

Their society cannot battle the new temptations that the media imports. Commercials make people ashamed that they don't have sparkling white smiles but nobody can buy toothpaste. Why the ads? It seems like a most cruel form of punishment and I don't blame them for the rage that boils out of their helplessness. They want to fight but they don't even have the skills to combat the media. We fight media with more media but what do you do if you don't want more media and aren't very good at making it in the first place?

Most Indians, Muslim and Hindu distrust the west and its "we're superior, so of course you want to be like us" smugness. (Although I must admit that, naturally, most of the people I spoke to were enthusiastic about becoming "westernized and modernized". They were businessmen and convent-educated upper-class urbanites, but these people were a very small minority.) Living in that climate has made me feel that I understand the mindset of our "enemy" in a way that is not possible if you've never been to that region. It made me feel the pain more. This is my home but I know what people are like over there. I know a little bit of what they respect and respond to. And I think I know why they did it. It was more painful because it wasn't so random to me. It was as if I'd seen threats made into reality.

This was very hard for me to take but even harder was the thought of what we would do. I know that subtlety will be completely lost on these people. We watch in-depth coverage for 10 hours a day but they get at most a sound byte from the President. I'm afraid that we can do nothing short of annihilate them to achieve the kind of safety we want. Completely spiritually breaking these people, so that they do not raise all their young to one day become suicide bombers, is a gruesome task. The American people are ready for carnage I'm sure, but snapping the backs of every country in the region until they all become happy democratic capitalist outposts is going to require a lot more killing than we did in WW2. I'm very pessimistic.

We can do nothing also. I saw how Hindus and Muslims can coexist. The week I spent in Ajmer is an example. Ajmer is predominantly Islamic. I was taken by Hindus to one of the most holy Islamic shrines and was welcomed there. I was shocked that my Hindu friends acted like it was their own church. They knew the rules and they were devoted worshippers. What happened to me in the Dargah was the most profound religious moment of my stay in India. It was religious for me because of the tolerance I witnessed.

This was an example of the pacifying aspects of religion. I think there are too few of these to sustain the people. I saw a lot of prejudice (prejudice like we Americans are not allowed to express). Our country was founded on religious freedom and even though people generally don't want to behave, those rules do have some restraining properties. Hindus and Muslims trash talk each other and think nothing of it. "They're dirty" or "They cannot be trusted" are common asides whispered by a new confidant. Almost every person I met tried to win me over to their side. I was shocked to see very caring and rational doctors say stupid racial things as a matter of fact. This is where I noticed the caste system kicking in. It's perfectly "holy" to act as if someone else is genetically inferior to you.

If we do nothing we will look like fools to half the world. I'll bet dollars to donuts that Indian Muslims will not pull out the words of Gandhi, (There is no way to peace, peace is the only way), who once was their protector -- and died for it, and praise us. They will mock us as incompetents. There is no great leader to pour higher meaning on this situation and have it penetrate into Islam. Gandhi could do it but what have we got? George Bush? Fer crissakes. He keeps saying "good" and "evil". Those words suck so bad. George, Mr Christian, listen to what Gandhi has to say about Christianity in the West:

It is my firm opinion that Europe today represents not the spirit of God or Christianity, but the spirit of Satan. And Satan's successes are the greatest when he appears with the name of God on his lips. Europe is today not nominally Christian. In reality it is worshipping Mammon. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom." Thus really spoke Jesus Christ. His so-called followers measure their moral progress by their material possessions.

It is a very curious commentary on the West that although it professes Christianity, there is no Christianity or Christ in the West, or there should have been no war. That is how I understand the message of Jesus.

Consider this when you strike back in the name of God. And also consider what Gandhi said on avoidance of anger:

I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.

I spare neither friend nor foe when it is a question of departing from the code of honor.

It is not that I do not get angry. I do not give vent to anger. I cultivate the quality of patience as angerlessness, and, generally speaking, I succeed. But I only control my anger when it comes. How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice.


Thursday September 6, 2001

I was reaching over to try to clean up the semen and I knocked my clock radio on the floor and it suddenly turned on the radio. I usually turn if off right away when this happens but I heard a voice coming from the little plastic box (that I got when I opened my first checking account here in SF) that made me lay back and put my head on my pillow and just stare at the red numbers.

Dr. Charles Stanley had me agape. What occurred to me as I listened to this excellent sermon on How To Handle Those Who Hurt You was how much the behavior he was describing was like what I experienced last week at Burning Man. That warm fuzzy. That unconditional love was such a powerful force out there in the desert that the very moment I started to sway under it, I checked myself. With it came a mild unease. Like something inside of me was telling me to run. I think it was my "cult alarm" going off. Reading the signs coming into camp (get over yourself, no spectators, pick up your counterculture utopian rhetoric guide at the gate) was a little like the orientation at Bible camp: "Here we offer love. If you refuse, you will be branded an evil troublemaker. We have not made up the rules. We only follow them."

As Dr. Stanley read "But I say unto you, that whosoever",-- the very words of Jesus -- I heard an echo in my head of William S. Burroughs' soggy recitation of The Sermon on the Mount from "Dead City Radio" and was comforted and conflicted. His was the voice of the devil. At the end you hear the old codger muttering: "Of course it's absolute, it's biological suicide. It's absolute madness, no, it's just ridiculous."

38 seconds into this RealAudio you hear, "Now, it's not easy to love an enemy, but it is possible, if we have the right attitude."

10 seconds into "Love Your Enemies", Mr. Burroughs says, "It isn't easy to love an enemy, as this goes against your most basic survival instinct. But it can be done, and, turned to an advantage."

And that, (thank you Bill), is the question of morality. What is our nature? And should we follow it or try to overcome our nature with willpower? Is there a Golden Rule encoded in our genes? I've got to know, can both Dr. Stanley and Dr. Benway be right? Is there an element of what Jesus says that is part of our nature? Because knowing what I know about emotions tells me that there must be. Namely, that humans are not moved by ideas, as much as we would like to believe. 90% of what moves us is playing on survival mechanisms developed early in evolution. I'm talking before there were even humans. My clock radio had pulled me into a morning reverie.

The sermon ended and the "DJ" came on to talk about what was coming up. This is part of a 5 part series. Other subjects include:

If it itches, but I don't scratch it, is it God?
How can there be Evil when there is so much god?
Straightening out the money crunch.
Why do good things happen to bad people?
What does God say when I pray? I can't hear him.

Right now there's some (undoubtedly fat and sweaty) southerner blathering on about the wrath of god and the wickedness of man. He has showmanship, yes, the ability to make one's heart race with his very words, but I hate him and long for the simpler teachings of Dr. Stanley. He's my Christianity. Whops, did I say hate? I meant, he's aesthetically unappealing to me.

Sunday August 5, 2001

I wrote this little essay for Heather but I figured I might as well post it.

This photo, called "Tourist Panni" is one of my favorites to "explain". It has so much loaded up in the accidental moment my camera went off. I like to use it to talk to people about India because it's not what it seems at first, and most people have wildly romantic visions of India.

For me, this photo is the best example of how the tourists --Indian and western -- interact. It's not what you would expect. During the annual camel fair, the villagers that stream into town get to see a lot of things that they don't normally see, (carnival rides, strange food, people from villages hundreds of miles away), but the foreign tourists must be the strangest. At the height of the festival there are hundreds of thousands of people swarming the streets as this photo shows:

As I was moving through this crowd I spotted the guy in "Tourist Panni" and felt compelled to get a shot of his bottle of water. The bottle of water identifies the guy with the backpack as the tourist literally but in fact, he's the "attraction". He's come from half way around the world to look at the exotic things around him but actually he's creating a spectacle even greater than the one he's watching.

If I was to guess who was having more culture shock at this moment, I would have to say the local. The villager woman looking at him, who is making the "pull my sari to cover my face" gesture, may have never seen a white man in person before but what she's really shocked by is the fact that he's not wearing any pants. I couldn't get that in the picture but she's gawking at is his BARE LEGS. Sure, men wear shorts in India but only poor laborers and boys. Men of status only wear pants. To her, a rich westerner is astronomically high in status and yet displaying himself as if he's a beggar.

On top of all that, this display is sexually explicit and that's why she's trying to cover her face. She's not trying to cover it so she won't look, she's trying to cover it so he won't see her. His gaze, especially when he is half naked, defiles her in their culture. Seeing a woman's beautiful face is one step removed from seeing all of her -- and since women and their beauty are possessions, one step from possessing her. Her urge to cover her face is the result of being trained in self-shame, yes, but it's also an attempt to discharge the sexuality of the gaze. Indians are so repressed; they're more sensitive to the power of gaze than westerners are.

When I walked through a new town as stranger looking for a human connection in the faces of the people, and had women cover their faces when they became aware of my presence, I got a palpable sense of what I was being denied. But I could infer what they were being denied: they'll never know a man other than their husband or his brothers.

Purdah, or the traditional practice of covering the face, is one of the things that bugged me most about the northern region of India. When you know why they do it, it becomes a symbol of repression that you see every where you go. After months in India, when so many of the things I saw had become symbols of corruption, repression or stupidity, I had to get out. I loved the moments of revelation and understanding but soon they turned to disappointment and frustration.

All these photos were taken in Pushkar, in the state of Rajastan, India.

Pushkar Village Goddess

I have a lot of opinions about the beautiful yellow piece of fabric that the woman has to wear over her head. I want her to read this web page. Yeah, right. Never gonna happen.

Saturday August 4, 2001

This may seem like a bit of puffery, braggadocio, or skullduggery but I wish to humbly assert that it is merely a way for me to understand myself. The un-rehashed life is not woth living.

When I went camping last week I was sitting in an old diner in the Sierra foothills with Garrick and talking about trash. His shirt said something about the garbage heap of the world that was America. I said, "What's your shirt mean? you." He said something like the potential of America is so great and yet it just ends up all shitty. He said, "Look at this place. What a piece of shit."

I happened to like the bright orange vinyl booths and wood paneling. It reminded me of my mother -- of a gentler time. I told him the thing that's best about it to me is that people can rise up and change their lot in life. I looked at our waitress -- probably 50, overweight, dopey expression and nodding her head upwards when she addressed you in a low-class country sorta way. I didn't imagine much change in her station. But then I noticed that everyone else working in the cafe was asian and there was even an older guy that looked like the owner -- a prejudiced guess that they were first-generation restaurant owners. Then I thought of the "dollar per item" chinese food joint on Mission and 18th and how I'd walked past just 2 days before and heard the vietnamese woman screaming "call 911" as she had a tug-o-war with a black woman over the cash register drawer. These Sierra dudes got it pretty good, but I figure even those people down on Mission do too.

It's relative of course. I could look at my present situation -- right here as I type. The Beck's I'm drinking is Ice Cold (that's good) and it's 8:41am (that's bad, some would say). Is it pathetic that I'm drinking so early in the morning? To me, I'm happy that I'm even writing -- and I after a night of hard drinking something mysteriously woke me up at 8am so I could move my car and not get a parking ticket. So what's that? I've already downed a gallon of water so the Beck's does quite nicely.

So back to the whole "rise above your lot in life" stuff. When we were in the cafe I said to Garrick that he need look no further than two feet straight ahead to reassure himself -- I am a shining example of America's promise. From my humble beginnings I've managed quite a bit. The first book I ever read was the paperback treatment of the movie "The Jerk" (yes, they made it into a book). The Jerk is just such a story. I've not had the meteoric rise and fall that Navin R. Johnson had but I've managed to use my imagination to make myself into a modern day Eliza Doolittle.

I once met someone who had stuck wasabi in their brother's eye when they were 5 in a fight. I was like, "what the hell is a 5 year old doing with wasabi" at first and then I was like, "wait a minute, wasabi didn't even exist in the 70's." It didn't compute for me. I thought sushi sprang into existence around 1990 and was only available in sushi restaurants in San Francisco. The guy explained, "Yeah, well, my parents used to make sushi at home." I was like, "I don't know where the fuck-all you came from. We ate goddamned shit-on-a-shingle." But now I'm lighting some incense and boosting the Chi in my apartment. I just turned my friend Rose onto the Mountain Goats and....ok, you're saying, "Big deal. Big whoopy ding. So he found out about some culture. So what. Everybody does that." Well I have to disagree with you. No they don't. And it's not about just more culture. I have always made the distinction of "better".

I'm a snob. No bout-a-doubt-it. How did my parents, who would've had Tom Brokaw kissing their hallowed worker hands, raise a snob? Maybe that's beside the point. I think I thought I was better than everyone from the moment I scored a 99 on the California Achievement Test in 3rd grade. My mom would say, "David, no one's better than anyone else, that's why we live in a democracy. The Japs and Germans thought they were better than other people and look what we did to them."

You'd have to know quite a bit about how shitty my family was to get a real sense of the things I've had to "overcome" but that's boring whiny stuff and I mostly want to talk about the sly tricks I used to remake myself. Wait, forget about "sly" -- they're ridiculously overt. And I want to wonder aloud if the makeover is really is just surface stuff. The most fitting metaphor I can come up with is the self-fulfilling prophesy.

Robert Merton wrote a book about it in 1957 called 'Social Theory and Social Structure', and I'm living proof. In it he says that the Pygmalion phenomenon occurs when "a false definition of the situation evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true." Logically, as a kid, I should have believed I was going to die a loser like everybody else I saw. But I didn't. I don't know if my definition was false or not. The one trump card I had up my sleeve, as it turned out, was that I was adopted. I didn't have to believe that I was going to turn out like the people around me. Somehow, after looking at my relatives (yikes!) I believed my genes were going to save me.

The self-fulfilling prophesy, or fake-it-till-you-make-it is what most people do unconsciously. I was so overt and conscious of it that it appears to be extreme hubris. By the way, it's heartening to note that these expectations can even be passed between a coed and a rat. (Oh, and I discourage further reading of the linked material as it may make you feel even more unhappy, insignificant and manipulated in your current work environment.)

First thing is attitude. Around the same time as the CAT tests, I was riding home from church in the car with my dad and he stopped at the corner of 12th and Union. I looked over at the Winchell's Donuts shop and and then at my dad. Then suddenly I hear a pathetic whimper come from between his lips and his shoulders kind of shook and he bowed his head forward and started crying. His was a most shabby form of crying. A high whiny voice bounced off the windshield and he held his hands in his lap, palms up. He tried to talk and regain his composure. His lower lip flapped in and out under this front teeth. He said, "David, what ever you do, don't work with your hands. I want you to get an education so you don't end up like me. I didn't get an education and now I'm just an old, beaten up, worthless man. If you work with your hands, nobody wants you when you get old." I think he was around 55 at that time. I said, "I know. There's no way I'm going to work with my hands." He didn't need to tell me of course. I had a sense that I was going to be different already. But it did succeed in lowering my opinion of him even more. I use this example only to point out that I had already started envisioning myself before anybody around me tried to "help me out". As a side note, the moment was important for me because this was the fucker that routinely smacked me around and seeing him crying and feeling like a failure empowered me. This is where the attitude comes from.

When I was pulling down 100 grand a year I'd ask myself, how I got from a Subculturally Strained "Lower-Class Boy with a Middle-Class Measuring Rod" to a Provider of Effective IT Solutions. By the end of high school I had visions of grandeur (of not sucking) but I was starting to replicate my home life in the world. I was a social retard. Social scientist Albert Cohen loves to study delinquent boys and he claims that losers in the competition for status experience strong feelings of frustration or deprivation. Most of them adopt a "corner boy" attitude which is what Bill Whyte described as the thing which drives young men to hang out on the corner. It seems I developed corner boy attitude as well but it just drove me into a corner. I hid. I shut up. I ran scared.

Lunch was the worst time, of course, for anyone who's been a geek will tell you that lunch is hard on geeks. I didn't want to sit in the library and read with the "uber-geeks". Those people represented booksmarts and I hated booksmarts. I imagined myself streetsmart and having lots of friends all over the school. Our school was a two-story square donut shape and after eating my vending machine food out by the football field (didn't want anyone to see me eating alone), I'd come in and walk the halls. I walked the whole lunch period and didn't stop. The halls were a square loop and I could switch floors at any corner so if you happened to be lingering in the hallway, you wouldn't notice that I'd just circled and come around again.

But here was the imagination: every time I walked by a person that required eye contact, like someone I'd been schooled with for the past 10 years, I would speed up my walk to a "late-for-class" pace and whiz by them with a wave and a "gotta go" and zip around the corner. Once safe, if this hall was deserted enough, I could slow down to a good time-chewing pace. It always looked like I was going somewhere, I didn't have to explain it. I though it effective. This is an example of how you settle in and start to accept alienation and wait for something to break.

The big break came when I could move away from home to start college. I immediately renamed myself from David to Dave in order to take on a more friendly, happy-go-lucky air. I sensed a change when people started respecting me for how big of a bong toke I could take. But by the end of freshman year, things were starting to slide back into a pattern of alienation when I got the lesson of my life.

My friend Doug, who I admired greatly for ability to disdain those around him only to have it returned as adoration, once gave me a sound lesson in social dynamics. (Remember, my master is a pot smoking, Maiden-listening, mechanical engineer.) We're walking down the street between dorms and this guy that was at the same party we were at last night, but whom neither of us has ever talked to, walks by. He gives the "Hey, how's it goin" and Doug returns, "Wassup" and then he's past. I launch into a rant that I'm confident Doug will support: "God I hate that, why do people have to say such inane things. It's not like you're going to spill your guts to him right on the street. He's asking how are you and he doesn't even care. I just hate smalltalk. Just think, you could go for years and never say anything more than 'Wassup' to that guy. If you aint friends with someone, why not just blow right by them?" And Doug replies, in the most touching gesture I'd ever seen him make, "Dave, if you don't say 'Hi' to people on the street they're gonna think you're an asshole."

With that one phrase my entire pathetic life up to that point had been unscrambled. To this, I immediately added the technique, as shallow and inauthentic as it may seem, (especially for some one as pissed-off and intense as I was) of trying to smile more often. I hated the idea of it but I wanted friends more than anything. I was now ready for the big leagues.

But it wasn't until 2 years later in the middle of college that I began to fully kid myself into a higher social class: a cool person.

It happened when I met Eben Carlson at my job at the College Inn Cafe. He immediately started in on the task of getting me up to snuff to hang out with him. He handed me "It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" and by inference let me know that if I said something, it had to be funny in some way. Our friendship cemented by night-long philosophical talks over 12-packs in the park, I was introduced to his friends.

I cannot stress this enough: Here is where I first learned what I wanted from my life. I wanted to be like Eben and his friends. Up until this point, I had only been presented with examples which I immediately rejected and I could not imagine anything else. I cannot do justice to the magic that swirled in the air when his apartment on Howell street was filled with them. Nils and Patty and Larry and Charles and Kathy and Tammy and Dale and Robin and a bunch more who filtered through. Eben would laugh at this now and he would've then but it felt like the bigtime to me. I'd never met people so funny, creative and nice. It was a revelation to me because it seemed like all the dumbfucks had been filtered out. A secret society -- but by what magic? It was like when you're a kid and you go over to your new friends house to stay the night and they do things completely differently than you do at your house: Take you shoes off before you come inside? What? No milk with dinner? Huh? Only Dad touches the remote? Why? Grab a spray can and paint graffiti on the wall? OK! Now we're talkin'!

It wasn't my life but I imagined having my own one day. Like Navin R. Johnson, I was forming ridiculous images in my head of the high life. "The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here! Page 73, Johnson, Navin, R.! I'm somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, you're name in print, that makes people. I'm in print! Things are going to start happening to me now."

Everyone's probably been in a situation they admired but felt they couldn't contribute to. I was struck dumb. Rockstars party around me. I just sat there and smiled. I knew that copying them wasn't good enough. I had learned a wonderful post-adolecent lesson: be unique. I mean, these people had done it, (Hadn't they? Maybe I just didn't know who they were copying.) and I guessed I could be unique too (is that copying?). I just sat there and smiled. (And isn't that really the key?) After months of this someone recognized my presence, I think it was Tammy, and said, "Dave. How cool is Dave? He just sits there and doesn't say anything. That's sooo cool."

But I still didn't have any friends. I point that out because the true social acceptance I was looking for was a long way off. Nobody called me. I was included (parties, shows, BBQ's) only when I was in the vicinity or if I called while it was going on. My efforts consisted of hovering about and trying to be within shouting distance when a leader rallied the pack. These were only my acquaintances (and by proxy at that) but I could see the lifestyle I wanted.

And this isn't something as shallow sounding as lifestyle shopping -- even though I did use that word. I was barely clinging to my sanity. Intense loneliness drove me to do the most humiliating things. Ugh, I can't go into it.

I became a rock journalist so I could be involved in the scene (which was damn good around 1989) and continued to fake my way into the world of the beautiful people. As an aside, I should add that when I mean beautiful people, they weren't exactly pretty people -- and many of them couldn't live without lots of drugs. It just felt beautiful because of the creativity and community. But enough of that mush. I had been declared "cool". Three more years of serious make-believe and I was a full blown hipster and ugly as hell on the inside. By the way, during that time I started to feel like I needed to do something to deserve being called "cool". I couldn't imagine what, so I left Seattle.

Well, this is getting to be a pretty long story. I think I'm tired of it. The short way out of it is that in SF over the next 5 years I had a total breakdown and rebuilt myself from the inside, (with no role models in sight) concentrating on being a nice person and loving people. This is the point when it became clear I was not faking it, i.e.: "a false definition of the situation that evokes a new behavior" because I was starting from scratch. Then I quit my job and started to call myself an artist to anyone who asked and just this week, 2 years later, I sold my first piece of art to someone who wasn't my friend.

I don't know if today I could handle hanging around that bunch of 23 year-olds on Howell street. I honestly can't remember what they were like. They pointed me in a generally upward direction. They reminded me of my promise to my father when I was a kid. I wasn't going to be ordinary. I still like beautiful people but I don't try to be like them any more.


Monday June 4, 2001

A photograph of a London alley. I can't remember where I was when I took this. I think I was walking down Upper Street in Islington on my way to the tube.

I'm gonna whip around and come out into the light. I've had it with going to sleep when the sun comes up. I stayed up last night until noon and slept until 6pm so today I'm going for mid-afternoon. Soon I'll be on a schedule that should give me a decent number of daylight hours. I just haven't been able to get my errands done because everything's closed.

I want to write about a conversation I had with Amy on Saturday night. It was about plans. (As I write, the music I'm listening to accidentally warbles, "Gina, this isn't how I planned it") Plans and me haven't mixed much. I used to hate them because when I was younger, "you gotta have a plan" was a way for adults to make me feel like I was unmotivated and unfocused. I now know that plans have nothing to do with motivation and focus. What is a plan?

This question I posed to Amy because we were talking about what she wanted to do with her life. I will go as far as to say that plans don't have anything to do with what you want to do with your life either. Or, a good plan shouldn't.

I started off saying something that most people over 30 have figured out, that things never turn out the way you planned them -- and thank God for that. Most people will concede, when they look back, that their desires do not age gracefully and if the past is any example, what you want for yourself now is not what you're gonna want for yourself in 5 or 10 years. Amy agreed but said, "That is not what plans are for. They're for right now, so you know what you're doing and you're relatively sure what you're working toward." Ah ha! Yes. So plans are not blueprints for the future, they're a safety blanket. Plans are only a way to give meaning to what we are doing. It fits in the plan.

Well, this may be a severe distinction but is one that is important to me because it makes it alright for me not to have a plan. I don't have to succumb to societal pressure to say, "Yes, well, I'm going to buy a house and have 3 kids by the time I'm 40." 3 years ago I wanted to get married. Why? Fuck if I know now! How could I have made plans that included a permanent arrangement? When you make a plan you're saying, "I'm going to act according to my present beliefs and desires for the foreseeable future." Isn't this ruling out the potential to learn? Isn't it learning that makes getting older more fun?

So you've got all kinds of points for me to consider. Whoops, this is a one way conversation. I will concede that there is a genuine satisfaction that comes with having a plan and executing on it -- even if you never manage to achieve your goals. Any cassette-tape-slinging self-helper will tell you that. Should you make a plan and try to do it because of that? No way. You might say, "Yeah, well, getting married is one thing but what about planning to learn HTML or something? Small plans are quite functional." To this I say, "How long does it take you to change your mind? Do you want to do the same thing every day?" Short term goals are even more susceptible to getting re-thunk than big life changers.

You say, "I never get anything done! Yes, I change my mind a lot. That's my problem." So are plans the antidote to your fickleness? Think again. Or, just think harder next time. Analyze your desire. True living. No recipes. Sticking to plans, (like sticking it out for the stock options) can kill you.

Sunday May 27, 2001

I'm a bastard. I just realized it as I was washing the hair tonic off my hands. Christ almighty, is that my problem? I can only wonder. I don't know any other bastards. In that sense, I suppose I've risen above my station. There must be lots of bastards out there. I thought of it because I just watched a documentary on PBS about a Korean woman who was basically sold to an orphanage so that she could be adopted by an American couple. She's having a hard time reconciling of course. She feels alienated from her white parents. (Sooo white. And Sooo alien they are.) And yet, she can't hang with the Korean folks. Bummer. But at least she's going for it. It made me think about getting my shit on with my bio-parents. Primarily ol' Richard Britt down there in Florida. He's probably gonna die soon if he hasn't yet. Forget about Michelle Hafner up in Seattle. She's a friggin basket case and I've given her more than enough chances. Dick down in Florida accepted and then refused to reply to a certified letter asking for his help in providing genetic and hereditary information to his bastard son -- me. "Fuck that bastard", he probably said (in a southern accent).

From: "Grahn, Johan"
To: "Positive Atheism" []
Subject: Yes, yes I know. I'm a bastard!
Date: Tuesday, October 24, 2000 8:25 AM


How are you? I hope everything is alright with you.
I have a tiny, little, insignificant correction to 
make with regards to your response to: "Four 
questions from a High-School Teacher." ......
Ok, I can go on now. What I was thinking was that I'd just give that old guy a call and yeah, my brothers and sisters would probably want to meet me and, what do I wear, and there's always an awkward moment when you meet but then it's all beautiful and yadda yadda and then I was like, "There's no way he's gonna want a BASTARD showing up on his doorstep." But before you go feelin sorry for me, just ask yourself, "Wouldn't it be kinda cool to be a bastard?" To show up and go, "Hey Pa! I'm yer bastard son!" You gotta admit it'd be funny for a second.

I don't think I can write about being a bastard any more because the woman who's sitting behind me at the laundromat has the ability to look over my shoulder as I type. And even though I'm posting this on the Internet where anyone can see it, I still don't want someone reading it when I type it. I need a little bit of privacy for the creative process to occur.