"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here." -- A. Lincoln

BUT TO HELP YOU FIND IT
Israel, Hezbollah, the State..08/12/06
Bandwidth Theft ...07/04/06
I "Collapse" Jared Diamond...04/04/06
The "Cartoon" Riots ...02/24/06
Pay-first by Law..02/07/06
Bateson and Flexibility..12/30/05
New Orleans and Katrina..09/25/05
Iraq, Islam, and Toynbee...08/24/05
Epigrams from Wilhelm Schussen...06/06/05
Thoughts on Terri Schiavo...04/03/05
"I've Got a Little List"...01/09/05
Christmas...12/23/04
My new webhost...08/10/04
Ronald Reagan's Eulogy...06/13/04
Thoughts on Spirals...01/17/04
The 'Springtime Effect'...10/18/03
'About Me' pages...09/17/03
Maxims from Chaos Theory...06/08/03
back to our current Essay


"If all the Jews move to Israel, that will save us the trouble of hunting them down all over the world." -- Hassan Nasrullah, leader of Hezbollah


WHATEVER the final form of a ceasefire in the Lebanon war -- and its actual working-out in reality -- some things are already clear. First, Hezbollah has stood up to the Israeli army longer and better than any previous Arab force. If you're seeking the why's and hows of this, I'm not your source. Trying googling "netwar" for starters. And don't give all the blame/credit to their Iranian suppliers and paymasters. You can't buy that kind of ferocity and perseverance under fire.

Yes, guerilla forces have always been notoriously dificult to defeat on their own terrain. But they've had compensating weaknesses, primarily an inability to withstand heavy armor and to project their power beyond their home base. But now Hezbollah has scored some hits with antitank missles, and the rockets falling on northern Israel have changed the power-projection equations fundamentally. In World War II the V2 took the whole Nazi military-industrial machine to produce -- and even for that was almost prohibitively expensive. They were so huge they could only be moved by rail, and the launchers were of necessity fixed positions (and easy bombing targets). But technology progresses inexorably toward lightness and cheapness, and capitalist efficiency has enabled the world's arms industries to produce more output than even a planetful of paranoid nation-states can absorb -- not to mention that Israel is only about the size of New Jersey. So now we have reached the stage where a band of state-within-a-state guerillas/terrorists can move rapidly by truck, and hide within ordinary buildings, a rocket arsenal that would turn Hitler green with envy.

And speaking of Hitler...am I the only one that saw those newsclips of the military parade in Tehran? The goose-stepping soldiers. The black-clad commandos giving the "Heil Hitler!" salute. These people know what they're doing. They may be madmen, but not fools. And the West's diplomats -- like their 1930's counterparts -- try to bring them into "civilized" disputes about the division of the pie, while they're scheming to grab it all. It's a particularly malodorous enterprise. The Iranian Revolution started with a blatant attack on the principle of diplomatic immunity, and it and the whole so-called Islamic Resistance have gone from bad to worse since, violating every norm of "civilized" nations -- like not deliberately targeting civilians -- and getting away with it, to the point that it's almost a degradation of one's self-respect to deal with them at all.

But the diplomats may have no choice. The single most effective air raid against the Third Reich was the destruction of the Rumanian oil fields at Ploesti. Try the equivalent this time (and I can't think of anything besides a thorough nuking that would make these bastards behave decently) and you're looking at a worldwide economic breakdown and super-depression, with gasoline between $7.00 and $10.00 per gallon, assuming you've got the ration coupons to buy it at all.

Somewhere out there, "if the Lord tarry," is a chunk of asteroid with our planet's name on it, and I find myself reaching out to it, with those totally ineffective tendrils that bowlers use to control the path of their ball, to bring it here sooner rather than later, and land it in the vicinity of Tehran and Natanz. But God hasn't shown an interest in bailing humanity out of its self-created messes (by those means anyway), and if He did, might well show a different priority in targets. Like, say, Las Vegas.

Stepping back (or trying to) from the situation, this is one more evidence of trouble for the whole institution of the national State. The State has existed so long that it seems perfectly natural. Chaos Theory says it isn't. The State (especially its modern form) is a highly ordered institution, and in this Universe, the Second Law of Thermodynamics runs all. So the proper question to ask, it seems to me, is "what has kept the State a dominant institution for so long?"

And the answer has to be, that it has given those who are part of one an overwhelming advantage over those who aren't. Let's be clear what kind of advantage we mean. This isn't like cable versus satellite TV. A State covers everybody within its range, or nobody. So the "advantage" is a military one, dependent ultimately on what percentage of people oppose the State, how strongly, and what capabilities are open to them.

The old Unionist government of Northern Ireland had the unwavering support of two-thirds of the population, but was unviable because of the opposition of the Catholic third. The State of Bosnia-Herzegovina went through a long war, and required a lot of international intervention and arm-twisting, because the Serbian 10% of the population did not want this State to exist.

So if now a non-state organization like Hezbollah can resist -- not only the Lebanese State, but the Israeli...In one respect, this shouldn't be surprising. Knowledge diffuses, and capability increases (only posession of natural resources remains concentrated). Guns and such are old technology. The IDF soldier on the ground is not armed materially better than the Hezbollahi. The weaponry that only a State can handle -- aircraft, primarily -- has been developed overwhelmingly around the mission of infrastructure destruction. That makes perfect sense fighting other States. It's been singularly ineffective against non-states. Consider. Israel and Hezbollah, as I write this, have been fighting for a month. The devastation, to judge by the on-scene reports, is incalculable. But the death toll, from both sides, is "only" about 800.

I don't want to sound callous. Even one death is too many to those who know the victim. But 800 is only a quarter of the number killed on 9/11 -- in one hour.

This could suggest to some that the State should get busy finding more effective ways to bring death massively to non-state fighters who claim to be willing to meet it. But I don't know what ways they would be. Nukes are primarily -- once again -- an anti-infrastructure weapon. Make them "dirty" enough to be otherwise and you'll wind up contaminating your own territory. Not to speak of the PR fallout, although if you're at the point where you have to consider going nuclear you're way beyond the point of being able to care about what the rest of the world thinks. Gas? It's a ninety-year-old technology, and way too easy for Hezbollah to get from Iran -- or whomp up in their own clandestine laboratories a la Aum Shinrikyo -- and put on those Katyushas.

I don't want to suggest that nothing is being done. What I am saying is that, despite all kinds of advances, the State, as State, is losing its overwhelming advantage. And that's very bad, because non-states have always fought harder. The barbarians fought harder that the Romans. The Indians fought harder that the U.S. Cavalry.

The State, fundamentally, is losing control of its own ground. I don't need examples from the Mideast or anywhere else to back that up -- look around you. In the area where its control should be most absolute -- the prisons -- the State can't eliminate drugs, or even gangs. There are areas of our cities where the police hang out in well-lighted areas at night, leaving the rest of the area to the "bad guys." The unstated premise -- on both sides -- is "don't bother us and we won't bother you." And why should the police try? For one thing -- and they'll tell you this unless you look like somebody that would put it in print -- they're outgunned.

Those selfsame "bad guys" are putting a "don't snitch" message out on the street, and there have been cases in my area -- I'm sure there are others in yours -- where half-a-dozen witnesses have recanted their sworn statements on the stand. If this goes on -- and reaches a stage common in Latin America -- we will come to a point where the police will form death squads, just to keep something of a lid on a criminal element that cannot be controlled any longer by legal means because the people are too intimidated to testify. That this will bring on all the Latin problems of police brutality and popular alienation goes without saying. And your alternative?

This year, there were death threats against the valedictorian at a high school graduation, because his sister had testified in a murder trial. Despite a massive police presence -- and metal detectors -- at the ceremony, "control of the ground" was judged insecure enough that the student had to give his address by closed-circuit TV.

And I can't neglect the "spiritual" element in this, what the Founding Fathers called "We, the People," and the Chinese "the mandate of Heaven." The State is losing legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens as surely as it's losing control of the ground -- and even when its performance is actually improving. I have to plead guilty here. We sixties radicals were really a highminded bunch -- didn't break anything but a few "sumptuary laws" -- but what we could do to destroy the legitimacy of the American government, we did. Yes, we were fighting a "Power Elite" whose unbelievable arrogance cost them every advantage they'd accrued over the preceeding half century, ...but...

We started by denying the false equivalence of wealth and achievement -- and ended by denigrating all achievement (I'm thinking of that poster where the astronaut's booted foot on the Moon is about to step into a pile of shit) and showering our musical favorites with obscene amounts of money -- after which we scorned them for having "sold out." We sought to free sex and language from the trammels of a hypocritical prudery -- and ended by draining much of the meaning from both. We touted psychedelic drugs as a path to spiritual and artistic advancement -- and found, only a few years later, merely a new set of artistic conventions and an incredibly smug and shallow atitude of "if it feels good, do it." We trumpeted the value of freedom and sold our youthful enthusiasm to foreign totalitarians.No, this is not all there was, but as a whole, as a Movement -- to a Nation thirsting for new goals and ways to achieve them, we held out a poisoned chalice of antinomian Epicurianism.

We're still suffering from the hangover.

I've heard Black activists on public radio talk shows, and their overwhelming refrain is "we need jobs." Untalked about -- breaks too many pc taboos, I guess -- are the obvious questions of why any business would locate in the middle of such a foul-your-own-nest crime area, among people where "attitude" obliterates the most obvious principles of politeness and customer relations. Not to mention that the jobs these activists really mean -- good-paying jobs that a man can feel good about doing -- have just about all been sent overseas, and what remains can be done better by women (who don't seem to be bothered so much by talking a "foreign" dialect) or by immigrants (legal or otherwise) who aren't too proud to break a sweat for minimum or subminimum wage. Don't accuse me of racism. I've run a small business in an area like this and I've met the exceptions to the stereotype -- helped them when possible -- and sorrowfully watched many of their efforts fail before I failed myself and had to move. The "street" is a self-validating world-view and it's doing a pretty thorough job of recreating its neighborhoods in the image of its beliefs.

Are the ideas and attitudes the cause of the Decline, or mere epiphenomena to the "real" material causes? Is all this an indicator of anything more than a change in the technological balance between the forces of order and disorder? Not valid questions in the world of Chaos, where a can be both cause and effect of b. They work together.

It would be easy -- so easy! -- for the situation in the rest of the world to come here. "Islamic Courts" a la Somalia taking root in the ghetto. IEDs set for police cars. The U.S. Army operating against "insurgents" in our own cities. Give it 10 or 12 years. Call me crazy. Call me paranoid. The only thing I want is for Tomorrow to call me WRONG!

--posted August 12, 2006

 

The law locks up the man or woman that steals the goose from off the common.
But lets the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose
.-- English proverb

I've been writing about our wider world of late -- no apologies, I live here too -- but this time I'm sticking closer to home. After all, I'm not a "leader," I'm an artist -- and a man -- seeking conditions in which he can live and work. So we'll start by examining the state of this fractal "community" of ours, and the first consideration has to be

BANDWIDTH THEFT: If there is anything that has taken the shine off "Schlaraffenland" for me, this is it. I started with a great burst of web-era generosity, telling everyone in my "conditions of use" to basically use what they want, if personal; and ask me first, if political/social/religious. I didn't consider I was losing anything thereby. After all, it's not like I've got art directors pounding on my door for a chance to sign me to megabuck contracts. It's also obvious that for anyone with the slightest interest and/or ability in fractal art at all, vanity if nothing else would lead them to use their own stuff. And by "use," I meant, and expected -- right-click it and upload it to their site.

But no, now we have this mob of selfish brats -- and people old enough to know better -- who just link to your images and run up kilobytage on your website to create content on theirs. No links, no by-your-leave. They're leeches, ruining things for everybody, and as arrogant and unshameable as any hooker on the street when you catch them at it.

Those who read "Wired," and similar magazines will have run across the writings of Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court against recent big-media-financed extensions of the copyright laws. I generally agree with him. After all, look at it this way: Goethe steals from Æsop and writes a poem about a magician-in-training: no copyright, no problem. Dukas steals from Goethe and writes a piece of program music with a killer bass hook: no copyright, no problem. Disney steals from Dukas and makes a music video featuring a mouse in a funny hat: no copyright, no problem. Now somebody wants to ...BRAAPP!! (What's wrong with this picture?)

But if the RIAA were being charged actual money (and not just hypothetical lost revenue) for every song changing hands on Kazaa/eDonkey/JollyRoger...I think even Lessig would object to that.

When I started out I named my pictures clearly and with the spelling correct: It helped me keep track of them, of course, but also helped other people to find them. That's what I wanted. But now I have to misspell and use a personal code just to keep the thieves at bay. I've also had to take the names my pictures had when they stole them and transfer those names to a little advertisement of mine:

It's funny. These people have no compunctions whatever about making me pay for their backgrounds, but once they see that they're carrying my advertising, they don't want to do it! Unfortunately, I can't even find some of these people -- their offending addresses show up in my usage statistics but the sites themselves are locked behind .php? logins.

I have to say that the Germans do a better job at policing this stuff than we do. I spent a fair amount of time finding the sitemaster address of a Black site in this country and reporting a particularly obnoxious offender. No response. He wound up carrying my advertising. On a popular German myspace clone, there's a notice at the top of every personal site: "to report an infringement, click here." So I did, and a day later when I checked it had been taken care of.

The thing is, I found myself feeling sorry for the poor girl who'd done it. After all, she had good taste (ipso facto!) and I'd even lured her to the crime by naming the picture in German. But all she had to do (and I told the sitemasters too) was right-click...but no, it was steal or nothing.

But after fending off a bunch of thieves by these methods -- and right-click-protecting the pictures they stole into the bargain -- I found that my attitude had changed. And not for the better. I had to consciously ignore the little thefts just to keep a mindset conducive to creating more work.

You would think there would be a technological fix for this. And there is...but. The most elegant method involves a fair amount of programming knowledge -- and courage -- and mostly, access to your .htaccess file. Of software solutions, most are server-side (once again, requiring the cooperation of your web host) and IIS (Unix-hosted of the world, unite!) Then there are the encryption schemes, which not only require the reworking of every image page on your site, but rely on Java. So many people in this virus-invested cyberworld of ours (including me) have disabled Java in our browsers -- we have lost some great fractal home pages in consequence -- that that's not a fair solution either.

I realize that none of this is news to those working in computer graphics, and that it's mild compared to some of the vicious hacking going on on eBay. But it's discouraging.

-- posted July 4, 2006

 

"If I saw someone running toward me with the express intention of doing me good, I would run in the opposite direction as fast as my legs could carry me."-- Henry David Thoreau

 

I've been reading Collapse, by Jared Diamond (Viking, New York, 2005) an account of the rapid implosion -- for reasons broadly ecological -- of various past societies (primarily Easter Island, the Anasazi of the Southwest, the Classic Maya, the Greenland Norse, and some others) along with an examination of various troubled modern societies and some suggestions for ways out of the seeming impasse we are approaching. The past collapses themselves are very well presented, and Diamond is quite able to pack his accounts with the hard data that separate this kind of thing from being merely somebody's "opinion," without bogging down his story or becoming boring in the process. It's when he moves on to the modern world -- above all to "solutions" -- that it becomes clear that he has ceased to be only a researcher and has become a "true believer" -- and not necessarily merely in ecology.

For one thing, he calls this a "hopeful" book. A change of path is possible, he says, and he is no longer the environmental determinist that he was in his previous book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond denies this is a complete flip-flop (though a critic might be unconvinced) but in one respect it's not a change at all. Determinism in that book, and non-determinism in this, serve exactly the same purpose -- to kick the intellectual underpinnings out from any sense of special mission that peoples of European ancestry (shall we dispense with the pc terminology and say -- too narrowly, but it still has to be said -- the White race?) have for themselves.

And he is not above descending to pc truisms or dipping into their special brand of you-are-convex-but-I-am-not-concave swear words (like "sexism" or "homophobia"). When he speaks of societies "reexamining their values" to determine which are actually appropriate to their situation, he refuses (I cannot believe he is incapable) to distinguish between accidentals, like the proper value and highest use of land, from absolutely central moral principles. Nor has he refrained, as any good researcher (though not advocate) should, from oversimplifying the objections to his point of view so he can dismiss them as "one-liners."

But what's scariest for me is the nature of his "hope." Diamond presents several ecological "success stories," but most of these are small, isolated, or preliterate (or all three). The complex, "civilized" examples are all dictatorships: the Dominican Republic (a "partial" success) and -- Tokugawa Japan!

Really! Japan under the Shogunate was an obsessively ordered, bureaucratic, everything-not-compulsory-is-forbidden society that controlled the birthrate by starving the peasantry, preserved the forests by making them freeze, and did everything in its power to suppress the commercial classes -- those people, in short, who lived by their brains and enterprise instead of by tending plants and giving or following orders. Is this really the direction in which he wants us to move?

To be fair to Diamond, he does profess great admiration for the way the people of the Netherlands have worked together to move in ecologically friendly directions -- perhaps not surprising in a people who have always had to work together to keep the land they've won from the sea. But this doesn't address, he admits, Dutch society's ecological "footprint" on the rest of the planet -- carbon dioxide emissions, consumption of tropical hardwoods, etc. And he doesn't address the 500-lb. gorilla in the room: all these accomplishments of the Netherlands have depended on a large amount of unspoken agreements among her people -- attitudes which the current flood of (mostly Muslim) immigrants do not share and to which they've shown a marked disinclination to adopt.

But then, who would administer all the Tokugawa-style regulations and programs necessary to save us from ourselves? Why the bureaucrats, of course! -- trained one and all in Academia and increasingly moving back and forth between it and the bureaucracy. I'm far from attempting to oversimplify and demonize this class, and certainly don't want to sound like one of those Republicans who complain endlessly about the Government but unhesitatingly call it in whenever it suits their purpose. But "where you stand depends on where you sit," and Academia is is one of only three major fields (government and medicine are the others) which do not face competition from overseas and (consequently?) have been able to continue raising the price of their services at double-digit rates. And academics don't have to compete for their jobs every election year or face malpractice lawyers. Forget tenure (it's increasingly hard to come by, thanks to economics and some particularly outrageous statements by Black Studies and animal-rights-oriented Philosophy professors); forget even an increasing "précarité" and wage stagnation in the younger faculty: this is still not a work situation conducive to an understanding of the problems faced by the rest of us.

Make no mistake: Diamond is an academic (what else, one might well ask, could he be in the current configuration of the world) and not enough something -- anything -- else. For all his attempt to comprehend many societies over long times, he remains a member of the academic-bureaucratic class and his "solutions" are the solutions of that class. And like all class solutions, they boil down to four words: Give us more power!

It's instructive to compare this book with Robert Zubrin's Entering Space (Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1999). The kind of society that Diamond seems to be demanding is what Zubrin would call the Pax Mundana: a hyperregulated, intrusive system hostile to all change, creativity, enterprise and true freedom. I can't share Zubrin's enthusiasm for the habitability of Mars (maybe I would if I were young enough to go) but he's got a real point about this Earth. Western society has been "unsustainable" for a very long time. The shipbuilding industry was well established in New England by the mid-1700's, because England was already beginning to run short of the highly specialized old-growth trees necessary for ship ribs and masts. Western society was within an ace of losing highly necessary lubrication and illumination (not enough whales) when Edwin Drake sank the first oil well in Pennsylvania. More recently, just as the loosened morality of the 60's and 70's was about to make the large retail store as we know it impossible due to an epidemic of shoplifting, science once again came to the rescue with those anti-shoplifting tags.

I could multiply examples ad infinitum, but I trust I've made my point. Western society has been absolutely dependent on human enterprise and ability to make changes for a very long time now. Any attempt to put it onto a "sustainable" basis will inevitably produce something very different from what we know as Western society.

Of course, it's also true that just because enterprise and technology have solved our pressing problems before, we can't assume that they will continue to do so in the future. Many of today's problems, in fact, are the direct outgrowth of yesterday's solutions. Diamond holds this very thing against technology. But when has any solution to anything been permanent? Men have always solved what they must (or can) knowing full well they were leaving a full plate of issues for their children. Ruling technology out a priori seems uncomfortably close to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A different question, of course, is whether we have any alternatives beween the Pax Mundana and building 20-ft. seawalls around all our major coastal cities -- indeed, whether we have already made the decisions which must lead to those seawalls (and the Pax Mundana by default into the bargain). Unfortunately, the only group that can deal with that question has a vested interest in the answer.

When the bigwigs start showing up at climate change conferences in hybrids and "pregnant roller skates," THEN I'll believe we're dealing seriously with a crisis. Till then, there's almost nothing in the environmental program that doesn't reduce to "keep the hoi polloi down" and that couldn't be signed onto by Tokugawa daimyo -- and the Sheriff of Nottingham!

-- posted April 4, 2006

 

"America has two inestimable blessings: free speech, and the wisdom never to use it." -- Mark Twain

THE 'CARTOON' RIOTS continue, and I feel compelled to put my own two cents into the discussion -- once again, from my usual Chaos Theory viewpoint. For that Theory has more than a few things to say about unstable situations -- arrangements that MUST soon change to one thing or the other -- and perhaps also, viewed more metaphysically, about describing a process in terms of two different, irreconcilable sets of parameters. So with all due respect, and knowing all too well the limits of my knowledge, I begin: in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti (or if one prefers, bismillah al-rahman al-raheem)

First, a delineation of my own starting point: not easy, this isn't a simple matter. But the following quote from philosopher Roger Scruton should be good for a start:

“People of different religions or none can co-exist — so we hope, and so we have reason to believe. But co-existence with someone requires respect for the icons, rituals and symbols of his faith.

“It is as wrong to mock the religious taboos of a Muslim as it is to pour scorn on the icons of Christianity. Unfortunately, because we have got used to the continual childish blasphemy against the Christian faith that passes for sophistication in the film industry, on television and in the art schools, we think that others, whose experience of Western society is more recent and who are not yet inoculated against its hooligan iconoclasm, will also respond with a saddened shrug when people pour scorn on their faith.

“We have so lost the habit of respect for sacred things that we are astonished to discover that others can still be devastated by public acts of desecration. This kind of blasphemy is not a form of free speech, any more than pornography is. On the contrary, it is the kind of behaviour that makes free speech impossible.”

This is a very clear statement of why this kind of thing should not have occured, and has the added benefit of seeming to provide, from the Western side, some common ground with what thoughtful Muslims have written on the issue. Unfortunately, it did occur, and now that the Jyllands Posten has stirred up for us all what Dos Passos called "the hornets' nest of clerical unreason," it offers no hints of how we should respond, and what common ground there may have been is completely gone.

But first, to give credit where it's due, the great majority of the Muslim clergy have been voices for order. Not acceptance, certainly, or anything the West might consider "reasonable," but urging their point to be made in ways that don't involve people getting killed or embassies getting burned. But these are men, after all, who deal (supposedly rationally) with the questions of life in terms of a great body of tradition (the Hadith) in a manner that seems not unlike that of the Jewish Rabbinate, and the logical absurdity of protesting the characterization of their Founder as a terrorist by a resort to violence cannot have escaped them.

Not all of them, however. One cleric's response could only be adequately translated by Tony Soprano: "If only they'da whacked that Rushdie creep..." And now we have yet another cleric in Pakistan offering a reward for the murder of the cartoonist, perhaps not realizing that there were twelve of them. Well, if Rushdie is still alive, don't thank God, or more cool-headed imams, but MI5. And of course they did "whack" Theo Van Gogh.

Which starts to get at the problem of why common ground is so hard to come by. We in the West have fought a long hard struggle (at a great and still continuing cost in blood, may I remind my Muslim readers) for freedom of speech and the rule of law. We reject "taking the law into one's own hands" even for the sake of a cause we approve. In Dar-ul-Islam, however, the only serious -- let alone successful -- struggle for limitation of the secular power was to deny it the authority to interpret religious doctrine. For the rest, the prince did whatever he pleased -- because he could -- subject only to the principle, inculcated on both moral and practical grounds, that a ruler should surround himself with wise advisers and listen to them. But that principle was known -- and ignored -- in Old Testament times, when both our ancestors and the Arabs' were still running around in the wilderness killing each other with crude weapons and worshipping the sun, the moon, and their sexual organs.

But if the actions of the secular power strayed too far from the dictates of the Faith (which were, in this context, always more democratic, often more merciful, and sometimes even more rational than those of the prince) there was a way opened, as it were, and sanctioned by Religion, for a man who cared deeply enough to do something about it. "Assassin!" we hiss. "Shaheed! (martyr)" they applaud.

There's no question for me as to which method of restraining power is more effective. But I'm a Westerner, which skews not only my answer but the way in which I frame the problem. I fully expect that a conservative Muslim, looking around at the mess our culture has made of itself, could make some good arguments for his position. The difficulty only comes -- has come, is here now, and shows no signs of leaving -- when each side tries to enforce its own methods on the other.

But even leaving violence aside (God grant that all shall) the Muslims are finding a powerful weapon in the boycott. Boycotts are powerful. The boycott and its institutional big brother, diverstiture, were a major factor in the fall of apartheid. It was a boycott that finally drove the California growers to the bargaining table with the Farmworkers Union. I'd like to see Christians in this country wield this weapon more selectively and effectively. I'd like to see the people of this country use the boycott against China, for human rights violations and their treatment of Tibet. Even an unorganized boycott can be powerful. Sales of Mattel's Barbie tanked the Christmas after Sixty Minutes ran a November exposé of conditions in Asian toy factories.

In one respect, of course, this boycott is totally unfair and irrelevant. The Danish government, and even more, Danish businesses, have no power at all over what one newspaper decides to print using its freedom of the press. But this is a part of the world where separation of powers is meaningless, and whatever happens is assumed to have at least the tacit acceptance of the group in power. Once again, a complete absence of common ground. But right or wrong, it's clearly the right of Muslims to spend or not spend their own money as they please.

But before we get too apoplectic on the threat to Western values, consider Apple Computer's "think differently" ad campaign of a few years ago. That campaign came to an abrupt end after Apple used the Dalai Lama as one of its featured different thinkers -- the reason being an ultimatum from the Chinese government: can it or you're not selling any computers in China. For some reason this did not set off the alarm bells that are being rung now.

And much as I and every other person of good sense, Western or Muslim, deplore violence, consider Madonna's latest troubles in Poland. What? You didn't hear about them? Well, it seems the Material Girl decided to plug her latest album and tour with a poster of her and her daughter's faces pasted into the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the holiest icon of Polish Catholicism. Now a desecration of the Black Madonna is not QUITE, to a Polish Catholic, what the Muhammad cartoons are to a Muslim -- but it's pretty darn close! But while the Poles were outraged, they're too civilized -- perhaps a Muslim would say rather, too Western -- to break out in riots and burn things in effigy. But if they had, do you think the Media would have allowed you to remain ignorant of it?

What can or should or will be done? A few weeks ago I would have said, Nothing. The Muslim street would eventually consider that they'd done enough to defend the honor of the Prophet, the rulers decide that they'd allowed/fomented enough unrest to demonstrate their good-Muslim street cred, and the West congratulate itself for standing firm for free speech: in short, everybody would publicly claim victory while privately feeling "the agony of defeat" and storing up a reservoir of ill-will to be let loose, with yet more horrific results, when the next incident happens.

But it's not turning out that way. Some groups in the West are offering "apologies," and some Muslims have scented blood. There's an increasing demand in some quarters for trials, and European Muslims have filed civil suits against some newspapers that reprinted the cartoons. The head of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque and University -- as close to a universally recognized authority as one gets in the decentralized and peer-reviewed world of Sunni Islam -- came out with an astonishing proposal: convene a UN conference to draft a law banning desecration of religious symbols, holy books, and founders; and stating that two participants in this conference should be himself and -- Pope Benedict XVI!

In another time and circumstances, this proposal might have some merit. I take nothing from the depth of Muslims' feelings, but Christians' have been offended at least as deeply, and far more often. And I'm sorry to say that we have accomplished virtually nothing toward stopping such attacks, or making the perpetrators pay some sort of price for making them. So if we were to receive any relief from such a conference, we would owe it purely to the Muslims. And I for one am not willing to incur the debt! As Martin Luther said when offered asylum by the Sultan of Turkey, "God protect me from such a protector!"

Such a conference would never fly, though, but not because of the "sanctity" of free speech. Europe in particular has many restrictions on free speech: laws against Holocaust denial, ethnic slander, "hate speech," etc. The real problem is this: the overwhelming majority of intellectuals and artists (the people directly affected by such laws) support the current restrictions, but would vehemently oppose the others, for reasons which Scruton enumerates and of which Madonna once again reminded us (as if we needed reminders)

So what happens now? It's easy to say that we need mutual respect. Too easy. Respect can't be forced, or legislated. Above all, it's a two-way street: that each individual, before provocation is given -- OR OFFENSE TAKEN -- will say to himself, Do I really want to put the world (or at least my little part of it) through THAT again? But I don't see any sense of "we went too far" emerging in Muslim opinion. What I see is a stubborn pugnacity: push hard enough for what you want, and you'll get something. That's very far from the flexibility needed for true mutual respect. What's needed is more people on our side like Scruton; and on theirs, like the Jordanian newspaper editor who asked, Which images defame Islam more, scurillous Western cartoons or self-proclaimed Muslim kidnappers beheading their hostages on internet video?

It goes without saying that any direct attempt by either side to produce these in the other will generate exactly the opposite result.

It should also go without saying that nothing I've written here, especially nothing reflecting anything favorable to Muslim positions or sensibilities, applies to the actions of the Iranian government. They have forfeited their claim to share in any moral high ground that Muslims may occupy. They have acted like a bunch of Nazi bullyboys, behaving outrageously because -- like the originals -- they're getting away with it. If I say any more I'll start sounding like Winston Churchill. And I might have to, because I hear voices out there starting to sound like Neville Chamberlain.

And if you still think you know where you stand on the issue of free speech, consider this: earlier in January a reporter for the Detroit Free Press lost his job because of comments he made in a personal blog, from his home computer, on his own time, and unconnected in any way with his position with the newspaper, critical of the Martin Luther King holiday and Blacks in general. I heard this on Establishment network TV, and the consensus of opinion of the lawyers they asked about it was, If your free speech conflicts with a stated policy of your employer, you're on your own. Hello? Granted, a newspaper has a legitimate interest in insuring that people it hires as reporters do not make themselves obnoxious to large sections of the community; but if you can be fired for exercising your free speech, WHOSE SPEECH IS FREE?

-- posted February 24, 2006

 

"The cops don't need you and man they expect the same." -- Bob Dylan

I GOT AN UNPLEASANT SHOCK on the way home tonight. At the end of a day driving around on business, I stopped at one of my favorite gas stations. Their prices are very reasonable. They even pump it for you. And no, this is not in New Jersey where self-service stations are banned by law. But when the guy came to my window he informed me, rather apologetically, that gas stations in this township were now REQUIRED BY LAW to collect payment first! Seems the local police are tired of responding to drive-offs...

"Let me get this straight," I said, "the cops are demanding that legitimate businesses use the same payment method as prostitutes and drug dealers?" Yes, he replied, it's a law all over the township. But since he was nice about it -- not to mention over a legal barrel -- I stayed and bought the amount of gas I'd planned to. I did tell him, though, that it was the last time I'd be stopping there.

But as I drove home I wondered -- with the kind of intensity that would have turned into rage five years ago -- how DARE they mandate a business's payment methods! By what right? And where is the supposed dedication to individual liberty and free enterprise that suburban Republicans commonly profess, especially in election years?

It should be obvious, from the question I asked the attendant, that I consider pay-first gasoline a major step backwards in common courtesy. Why care about it, or write about it? Well, I can't do a thing about suicide bombers, inflammatory cartoons, outrageous slurs on my own Faith (never mind anybody else's), government deficits, environmental degradation...the list goes on. But if gas station A or its corporate management choose to go pay-first, I can -- and do -- take my business elsewhere. It's their right. But it's mine too. In fact, it's one of the few rights I have left, the freedom to not spend my money with businesses which don't treat me as I feel I ought to be treated.

So here comes Government again, telling me I don't have the freedom to do that because they're now mandating everybody to treat me unacceptably. The ACLU, in my opinion, should haul these township council Yahoos (Swift's meaning, not the internet's) into court. But I'm not holding my breath. And I doubt that a Federal judiciary that connives at demands for tax payments in advance of proof that they're due would be very sympathetic anyway. (I also don't live there or I'd be taking action myself).

Is this matter really worth this fuss? Pay-first is such a minor annoyance, such a small loss. Right. One here, one there, another one later on, and you open your eyes and look around you years later and find your life/town/country/planet have gone to Hell. Pay-first gas is one more chip out of Civility, and Civility itself is like a lush forest in a fragile environment. Its richness is deceiving. It has grown only by small steps over hundreds of years, and once it begins to be destroyed, however inadvertently, it isn't long before erosion runs rampant and sweeps it all away.

-- posted February 7, 2006

 

"The more things stay the same, the more they change." -- Jo Coudert

A CAVEAT, RIGHT at the beginning: you don't need to know anything about chaos theory to appreciate fractals, any more than you need to know quantum mechanics to watch the TV or listen to the radio. But for many of us, these deeply fascinating mathematical pictures are an irresistible attraction to learn more about the emerging science of Chaos. And once embarked on the path of knowledge, it's also difficult to avoid turning the insights gained toward the study of our own Society. It leads to some very interesting conclusions. In most science the observer stands apart: but in society-considered-as-Chaotic-system -- like Relativistic cosmology -- there is no priviledged "apart" in which to stand. And as in the quantum world of particle physics, the act of observation changes the system.

To take an example from the stock market (a favorite source of examples for writers on Chaos): a financial analyst -- the more prominent the better -- considers the factors moving the market, and makes a prediction. But as soon as it's published, it becomes one more condition that moves the market. In concrete terms: E.F.Hutton (or whoever) reports that the stock of XYZ Corp. is undervalued and an excellent buy. Hutton's readers promptly act on that information, and in the process bid up the price to a level at which the point of wisdom would be to sell -- but please, do it before Hutton recommends just that in their next newsletter!

What passes for the Right in this country has understood this exquisite sensitivity-to-intereference in the economy for some two generations now. But they seem unable to recognize it in the ecology. It shouldn't be that difficult. Both come from the same word, the Greek oikos, household, both are highly complex systems packed chock-full of interlocking feedback mechanisms, and both can profitably be described in terms of energy flow -- the only difference being that for one the flow is best denominated in terms of calories, and for the other in dollars. But the Right can't or won't complete the analogy. A lot of that is self-interest, but there's also a very large case of ideological indigestion here. After all, a traditional formulation of individual liberty and its limitations goes, "My right to swing my arm stops where your nose begins." But a study of ecology shows that the environment is packed solid with noses.

What passes for the Left understands this for the ecology very well, but they won't apply it to the economy -- or the culture. As with the Right, that's mostly self-interest, though some of it is residual Marxism, a good deal of it an honest concern for the poor, and more of it plain simple will-to-power than anyone might care to admit. It leads them -- to confine myself purely to economic matters -- to idiocies like a loud support of trade unionism and "living wage" laws while pursuing policies whose inevitable effect is to drive unionized and good-paying jobs overseas.

What's perhaps more fundamental to both views -- though hardly thought of by either -- is the maintainence of some actual wiggle room in the system, a freedom to do or not do. To illustrate from the culture this time: that a young woman of 18 -- 16? what matters is not the exact age but that she can without euphemism be described as a young woman -- can engage in sexual relations without being labelled a slut, tramp, or some such, is one thing; that a 12 or 13-year-old girl is expected by her contemporaries to give oral sex, is quite another.

The best thought on this problem that I've come across is from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chandler Publishing Co., 1972). "Anthropologist" is probably too limiting a term. Bateson's interests ranged widely, he stepped on a lot of academic toes in the process, and tended to be dismissively pigeonholed as "Mr. Margaret Mead." But his thinking was ahead of its time in many respects. Hopefully this extensive quote will not get me in trouble with the Copyright Police, but I heartily recommend the book even if I don't agree with all his conclusions (the ones I present here are not among those, however). Here goes:

"To achieve, in a few generations, anything like [a] healthy system, or even to get out of the grooves of fatal destiny in which our civilization is now caught, very great flexibility will be needed...Indeed, this is a crucial concept. We should evaluate not so much the values and trends of relevant variables as the relation between these trends and ecological flexibility.

"..I assume that any biological system...is describable in terms of interlinked variables such that for any given variable there is an upper and a lower threshold of tolerance beyond which discomfort, pathology, and ultimately death must occur. Within these limits, the variable can move (and is moved) in order to achieve adaptation. When, under stress, a variable must take a value close to its upper or lower limit of tolerance, we shall say, borrowing a phrase from the youth culture, that the system is 'up tight' in respect to this variable, or lacks 'flexibility' in this respect.

"But because the variables are interlinked, to be up tight in respect to one variable commonly means that the other variables cannot be changed without pushing the up-tight variable. The loss of flexibility thus spreads through the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the up-tight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology...

"The...analyst faces a dilemma: on the one hand, if any of his recommendations are to be followed, he must first recommend whatever will give the system a positive budget of flexibility and on the other hand, the people and institutions with which he must deal have a natural propensity to eat up all available flexibility. He must create flexibility and prevent the civilization from immediately expanding into it...

"The healthy system, dreamed of above, may be compared to an acrobat on a high wire. To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise ('I am on the wire') he must be free to move from one position of instability to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics. If his arms are fixed or paralyzed (isolated from communication) he must fall.

"In this connection, it is interesting to consider...our legal system. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to control by law those basic ethical and abstract principles upon which the social system depends. Indeed, historically the United States was founded upon the premise of freedom of religion and freedom of thought -- the separation of Church and State being the classic example.

"On the other hand, it is rather easy to write laws which shall fix the more episodic and superficial details of human behavior. In other words, as laws proliferate, our acrobat is progressively limited in his arm movement but is given free permission to fall off the wire...

"It is asserted above that the overall flexibility of a system depends on keeping many of its variables in the middle of their tolerable limits. But there is a partial converse of this generalization: Owing to the fact that inevitably many of the subsystems of the society are regenerative, the systems as a whole tends to 'expand' into any area of unused freedom...

"In other words, if a given variable remains too long at some middle value, other variables will encroach upon its freedom, narrowing the tolerance limits until its freedom to move is zero, or, more precisely, until any future movement can only be achieved at the price of disturbing the encroaching variables. In other words, the variable which does not change its value becomes ipso facto hard programmed...

"From all of this it follows that to maintain the flexibility of a given variable, either that flexibility must be exercised, or the encroaching variables must be directly controlled.

"We live in a civilization which seems to prefer prohibition to positive requirement, and therefore we try to legislate (e.g., with antitrust laws) against the encroaching variables; and we try to defend 'civil liberties' by legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.

"We try to prohibit certain encroachments, but it might be more effective to encourage people to know their freedoms and flexibilities and to use them more often."

--posted December 30, 2005


Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? -- old song

AS THE HORRIFIC images and reports continue to come in from New Orleans it's hard to escape the conclusion that this Government is floundering, improvising on the spot, flailing around in that undefined area between "working on Plan B" and "doesn't have a clue!" Simple hurricane planning was organized and went well: set up the Superdome as refuge of last resort for those who couldn't evacuate and wait for the storm to pass and the water to recede. But when the waters didn't recede -- in fact, kept rising...

And yet -- this scenario was not unknown. The possibility of it was discussed at the beginning of this year's hurricane season. It was in many minds around the time of Ivan's near miss last year. New Orleans water managers have been warning of the possibility of it to the media, to the National Geographic, to anyone who would print it, for at least a decade.This was not something unquantifiable like an asteroid impact, not a function of human malice and human prevention like a terrorist attack. It was not a question of if, but when. And despite that, when "when" happened...the Government fumbled.

I'd like to look at some of the factors that led up to this mess, to a major city below sea level and doomed to be submerged in toxic sewage, if one is to believe the reports, for three or four months -- assuming nothing else goes wrong. But I'll start by saying that I'm not one of those who believe that Nature is benign or always knows best. She's a cruel mother and cares nothing for any individual child. New Orleans has always been a city prone to floods. And hurricanes are devastating even to humans living in relatively intact ecosystems. Thousands may have died in New Orleans but hundreds of thousands died in a viscious storm that struck Houston -- with no warning -- early in the last century. Still, circumstances have combined to make New Orleans far more vulnerable than she was before to the kind of disaster she's just experienced.

First, human greed and shortsightedness. The old French weren't fools, they built their city on the highest ground, the natural levee of the river -- and sure enough, the French Quarter sustained very little flood damage. Later arrivals didn't have that option, and when the levee ring around New Orleans was completed (after a severe 1927 flood) the city found it had some swampland it could "develop." But the peaty soil was 85% water, and when it was drained and dried out, much simply blew away and the rest subsided some 8 to 10 feet. The neighborhoods built on these lands are now -- Surprise! -- under 8 to 10 feet of water.

Then, the river itself. As rivers like the Mississippi slow down near their mouths, they drop some of their silt. This both lengthens the river's path to the sea and brings the gradient of that path ever closer to zero. The level of the river relative to the country it's passing through actually rises. This is an unstable situation: the river "wants" to find a shorter path to the sea, and at some point -- typically, during a catastrophic high-water situation -- it does. The Mississippi has changed its final course many times since the glaciers' retreat, and was set to do it again. A certain percentage of its water already leaves the river and heads southward as the Atchafalaya: and it was known, midway through the twentieth century, that the river was getting ready to make that Atchafalaya its main stream. This, of course, would cause permanent flooding all down the Atchafalaya's course and leave New Orleans flooded on a brackish backwater. In the sixties a massive dam project was built to stop it from happening. The diversion almost happened anyway. Before the dam was completed, an exceptionally snowy winter throughout the West combined with an unprecedented spring thaw to send a huge flood of water down the Mississippi. I've since spoken with one of the men who were working to protect the levees near the project. It was a frightening experience. The waters were more than twenty feet over flood stage. Frantically laying sandbags on the top of the levee, he could look down on the roof of his house. If the waters had broken through, the Mississippi would have changed course then and there, and nothing we could have done would have put the situation back the way it was before.

The barriers held, of course, and the dam system was completed the next year. But the problem that the Mississippi was piling up at its mouth remained. And it was aggravated by development upstream in the midwest. The more land was cleared for farming, the more riverine wetlands were drained for development, the less water was held back for slow steady release and the more came down in floods. This necessitated an ever more extensive system of levees around New Orleans and the surrounding country, and that fed into another problem -- subsidence. As the land in southern Louisiana is riverine flood deposits, it's the most natural thing in the world that it should subside, as the weight of newer layers slowly compresses the deeper ones into stone. What's kept the land in balance is the deposition of new layers of flood silt on top. But the levees have stopped that and sent it all out to sea.

Louisiana bayou country, as has been reported in may places, is vanishing at an alarming rate, sinking under the waters. Some scientists claim that the extensive oil and gas drilling in this region is hastening the subsidence by removing so much material from beneath the bedrock. Others dispute that. But what isn't questionable is that the channels dredged for oil platforms and pipelines have accelerated the erosion of the wetlands. And these wetlands, do I have to add, are the first defense of inland cities against hurricane storm surges.

A student of Chaos Theory will recognize an accelerative feedback loop here, in which every step toward disaster necessitates, paradoxically, yet another step toward disaster. And that is even with the outside environment staying constant, which of course it isn't. Atlantic hurricane frequency seems to vary on a decades-long time scale, the reasons for which climatologists can't begin to guess. But, natural variation or global warming, the Gulf of Mexico this year is 2 degrees fahrenheit warmer than average -- sufficient to grow Katrina, barely a hurricane when she hit Florida and a mere tropical storm once she passed it, into a Category 5 monster in the space of a week.

And how does one factor human stupidity into the system? I heard today (Sept. 2) on NBC News that the Louisiana Congressional delegation has been trying, for more than a decade and in vain, to get funds for reinforcing the very levees that gave way into the Federal budget. And new allegations are emerging that the New Orleans Levee Board was funding crony-payback and pork-barrel projects rather than protecting the city -- the kind of behavior that would have gotten an old Venetian harbor master hung.

In view of the hard times that seem to be in store -- for New Orleans and the country -- let me make a "modest proposal" -- that it would have been cheaper, in lives, in disruption, and even in money, to have let the Mississippi change course back in the sixties and go where it wanted! Not in the catastrophic way it almost did, but planned, with time to move people out of the way and position the supplies that would be needed to help them with the transition. Nature is generally not too averse -- if you know how to ask her -- to doing what she wants to do anyway on your schedule rather than her own. I propose this more as a "thought experiment" than anything else. Such a proposal would meet political roadblocks that not even an absolutist government like the one forcing Three Gorges down China's throat could overcome. It would be hideously expensive and disruptive, of course. But how much, and how long, is it going to take to restore New Orleans now? We could have afforded costs like that far easier in the sixties than we're going to find that we can now. And New New Orleans would have been set on a river basically healthy for the next several centuries, instead of the sick waiting-for-the-next-accident waterway we're going to rebuild her on. That should satisfy even the most idealized version of those Iroquois tribal elders who supposedly considered what the effects of their decisions would be for the next seven generations.

To sum up: Katrina would have been a killer, and not the first such, even in the best of circumstances. But we as a society have made decisions -- have rewarded people for making decisions -- that have greatly degraded the protective capabilities of our coastal areas in general and the Gulf/New Orleans region in particular. I can't help feeling that the Netherlanders would have done a far better job dealing with this crisis. They're intimately familiar with the needs of cities below sea level. They would never allow the integrity of their dikes to be embroiled in the parliamentary "pork" process. By the time the storm arrived they would have had Plan B fully worked out, and the supplies for it already in place. And most likely Plans C and D as well. But on the other hand they probably wouldn't have to deal with looters or people shooting at rescue helicopters either. All my sympathies -- and as much contributions as I can spare -- are with the people of New Orleans. They deserve far better than they've gotten so far.

--posted Sept. 25, 2005

 

IT'S GETTING HARD to maintain the sardonic-clown stance of late...too many casualties from Iraq and news like the London subway bombings. I feel I ought to say something...but what? I spent a week and a half in Israel/Palestine some thrirty-three years ago. That certainly doesn't qualify me as any kind of "expert." I worked with some Egyptians a year or so before 9/11, and the only one I became any kind of friends with was the one committed pray-five-times-a-day Muslim among them. But I guess those who recognize God can recognize each other (skeptics can of course translate this as, 'we shared similar views of what was important in life.'). But keeping up your spiritual exercises in the midst of a foreign and uncaring culture is itself a sign of strength of character -- some of his countrymen, by contrast, struck me as having abandoned all that was best in their own culture while absorbing only what was worst in ours. My friend was, strangely enough, American in many ways -- reliable, dependable, a man willing to work long and hard hours (including his Sabbath). He was American in another way, too -- it was almost impossible for him to learn a foreign language. The language, unfortunately, was English, and there were times I had to help him out. Despite that, I figured that he would eventually make just as good a citizen as my German great-grandfather; but no, he went back to Egypt.

This doesn't qualify me as an expert either. But the dimensions of the problem can perhaps be indicated by this: I would be saddened, but not surprised, were I to learn that my friend had become al Qaeda.

I've lived on this planet over half a century, though, and had plenty of opportunity to fine-tune my B.S. detector. And it beeps pretty regulalrly, I'm sorry to say, around the President's rationales for what we're doing in Iraq. I don't mean the spook and counterspook of WMD, who knew what or should have known what or did whatever they damn well pleased despite what they knew. That is a matter for experts, and unfortunately for this hasty age, they're called historians. I'm talking about the whole concept of democracy from the top down. Any country can be unlucky -- England get an Ethelred the Unready, Germany a Hitler -- but when you're talking about a part of the world that for over four thousand years has known nothing but absolutism or anarchy, you can count on it there's a reason. Or rather reasons, deep-seated and interlocking ones, and not likely to be rooted up in a few years. Yes, we were largely successful in "remaking" Japan and to some extent Germany after World War II (though Germany already had a democratic tradition, running from the Napoleonic wars right up to the Reichstag fire), but did this bunch of chicken hawks forget just how supreme the Allied powers were -- that there was not one power, not one person of any consequence willing to see a revival of the defeated regimes, and above all not one on whom we depended for the very fuel to run our military machine?

And anyway, Germany and Japan were both centralized regimes on the modern Western model. The Arab/Muslim polity, by contrast, is one that classical political thinkers, from Macchiavelli to deTocqueville, would have called "aristocratic." Power may be absolute in such systems, it may be cruel, but above all it is diffuse, spread through a web of family and tradition and connections that even the most absolute tyrant has very little control over. Pakistan's Musharraf is a dictator, but according to reporter Robert D. Kaplan only about 1% of Pakistanis pay any taxes. Chalk up one for the hawala system, an "aristocratic" institution par excellence. Such regimes, according to Macchiavelli, are relatively easy to defeat, but virtually impossible to hold. There's no end-game figure, like the Japanese Emperor, to seize. Trouble breaks out here, then there. And the troublemakers can always count on a web of support, preexisting, deep-rooted, and very hard to penetrate.

But their political arrangements are obviously not the only thing "aristocratic" about the Arabs, and here I fault the media and the intellectual elite. In the seventies the Left was fond of disparaging all our government's attempts at "democratization" in South Vietnam by pointing out the concentration of ownership and the pervasiveness of corruption. Well, where are these armchair Marxists when it comes to the Arab world? Who owns how much of what? Do our academics only exert themselves when there are Communists to be aided? Or are they afraid of making Israel look good? And as for corruption, I think it's significant that the only Arabic word most Americans know that doesn't have anything to do with religion or drugs is baksheesh.

Even ignoring the Arab treatment of women (and how can the modern West ignore it?) this is a part of the world where literal chattel slavery is still in existence. Saudi Arabia didn't abolish slavery until 1961 (under heavy pressure from the U.S. government). Mauretania didn't end slavery legally until 1991 -- and most of the slaves in actuality are still not free. And then there is the continuing horror of the janjaweed in Sudan. All these slaves are black Africans. That so many American blacks are nevertheless turning to Islam is a testimony to:
a. the depth of alienation in the Black community
b. the irrelevance of much contemporary Christianity
c. mankind's inexhaustible well of stupidity and perversity
d. the enduring power of the message of the Prophet
or all or none.

British historian Arnold Toynbee considered that a civilization's breakdown began when its leadership ceased to be a "creative minority" and became a mere ruling class. And one of the signs that this had happened was a failure of "mimesis": its lower classes and foreign neighbors no longer wanted to copy it. Why mention this here? Well, the West has what should be a "natural" ally in the Muslim world -- the women. In fact, in the 'fifties some progressive Muslim women began to wear Western dress -- a very conservative version, to be sure, but still a "fashion statement" of some boldness -- but "mimesis" here, as in so many other places, has broken down: and if women's rights, modern Western version, means that their sons may be less than men, or that their daughters may begin to dress like, talk like -- Allah forbid, even act like! -- Britney Spears or any number of rap divas, why then it's thank you but no thank you, they'll put on the hijab and try to reinvent the wheel, Muslim-style.

Whenever the Western media deigns to notice their efforts, it's reflexively supportive. But how could we forget (and certainly our elites have not helped us to remember) that to change the relationships between men and women is to change the very heart and soul of a culture. Did we expect Muslim men to stand for that, to accept it and the whole Western neue Weltordnung just because it's better by our standards? Well, the Latin Americans and East Europeans have (though the cultural divides were much smaller), the Far East (except North Korea) has. And the reason was the same for all: the alternative was to stay poor and powerless. But the Arabs, and Muslims generally, have not. They've got their pride. They've got their Islam. And above all they've got their oil to pay for it, to allow them onto the world stage as full and important players while they retain their old social system. I'd love to see the experts consider the manifold implications of that.

And a last parting shot at those, like Salman Rushdie, calling for a Reformation in Islam. For one thing, that's something for which only a Muslim has any right to call. But there's a deeper point. I'm a Protestant, a child of the western Christian Reformation, but one who's spent his business and creative life intimately associated with Catholics. I've seen the best and worst of that Church, and say, with the greatest respect, nein danke. But I've studied the history of my own faith, and Gibbon was right when he called its great leaders, men like Luther and Calvin, "fanatics masquerading as reformers." There was a wholesale discarding of that tradition, at once humanizing and legalistic, that may have allowed the Church too much opportunity for compromise with this world but also enabled it to do much good, especially for the poor and vulnerable. Nothing was to be allowed but their own conception of the Word -- which, as New Testament Christianity is in good measure a reaction against an Empire whose utter predominance and decadence we are perhaps just beginning to be in a position to understand, meant, whenever practical action had to be taken, a return to an Old Testament of semibarbarian Semitic war-bands. Reading both literally (note the caveat) bin Laden's Koran of semibarbarian Semitic war-bands is actually an advance. How much of that new communications medium, the printing press, that could have spread both the ancient and the new learning, was diverted to the sterile fields of theological controversy? How much of the new wealth of trade and discovery, that could have raised the people's standard of living, was squandered in the attempt to enforce this or that doctrinal persuasion? If Europe was not engulfed in a wave of assassinations and what we today would call terrorism, don't credit the Reformers, or even Christianity, but the technology of the time that limited how much damage a small group of men, no matter how determined, could do. And what brought it all to an end was not a confident return to sanity or an accesion of more moderate Reformers, but the Thirty Years' War. So disgraceful and ruinous was that conflict that by the end of it everyone with even half the intelligence to in any way participate in the development of Europe had come to a common, if unstated, conclusion: You shall not kill in the name of God. That Europe soon found equally compelling reasons for slaughter isn't the point. The point is, Dar-ul-Islam was never a party to that conclusion.

A Reformation in Islam? Allah kerim! They're having one. God save us all, Jew Christian Muslim and unbeliever alike.

--posted August 24, 2005

 

SINCE ALL my musings on Chaos Theory as applied to modern society lead me to the sort of conclusions I dismiss in others as idle bloviating (unless, of course, they agree with my own preconceptions -- and sometimes even then) here are some of my favorite quotes from the early 20th century German writer Wilhelm Schussen (translation my own):

Who has never yet envied the ass his wisdom is worth nothing at philosophy.

A book that can stand a second reading gains by every succeeding one.

Often it's even the mirror's fault that one appears so badly.

Yawning goes best in company.

The ivy climbs just as high as the oak.

If who you knew was all that mattered, then every scoundrel would be a VIP. And often enough, they are.

The most beautiful diamond is nothing without the stream of grace of light.

Who wanders alone, speaks with nature. Who wanders in company, speaks about nature.

The ass is far more often the rider than the ridden.

Morning is an optimist.

--posted July 6, 2005

 

The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. -- Shakespeare, King Lear


IF THE WORLD can stand one more voice raised in the matter of Terri Schiavo (or even if it can't...) I have some things I feel I have to say. But not on the issue of Right to Live/Right to Die. That's been discussed and debated and argued extensively, endlessly, with about as much progress toward generally applicable conclusions as in the question of Why? to the December earthquake and tsunami. Which is to say, None. What I want to talk about is judicial arrogance.

But first (we Fractalists should demand this of everybody) a statement of my "inital conditions." I've had more experience in this field than I'd like. My father died in his sleep last year. My mother woke up and .. so it was. The paramedics came very quickly, but...how long had it been? (And this was much the same situation as Terri Schiavo's husband was faced with when he came home and found her unconscious and not breathing) My parents had talked about it. They had their do-not-resucitate orders. My mother declined to let the paramedics try to restart his heart, for fear of what might have been lost in the interim. It was their choice to make. They knew each other's wishes. And he was 90, not 26.

But I've known this with the young, too. In the late '70's I called a friend of mine, a drummer, about an upcoming gig. He was tripping on...something. Obviously high, but more coherent than a lot of alkies I've worked with. I wished him bon voyage and hung up. And then I got a call a couple hours later saying that his mother had found him curled up on the bathroom floor, stark naked and not breathing, with a John Lennon album under his arm. I was the last one that had spoken to him. He was rushed to the hospital, of course, and hooked up to every machine in the medical armamentarium of the time. The rules for visitation in the ICU were thrown out in his case. The doctors let all of us come, whenever we could, hoping that something, somebody, would strike a spark and pull his consciousness out of the netherworld it had retreated to. It didn't work. Eight days later they pulled the plug, and in a couple minutes he was dead. But people have been dying in a couple minutes since the world began.

With Terri Schiavo we're talking about a court ordering a procedure resulting in certain death, not in a couple minutes, or even hours, but two weeks. If you want to know what it feels like to die of thirst you might check out Antoine de Saint-Éxupéry's Wind Sand and Stars. After a crash in the Sahara he and his co-pilot were within seconds of terminal collapse and convulsions in the sand when they were found by a wandering Bedouin.He described it clearly and it is not a pleasant way to go! We hear the opposite from the medical establishment, of course -- or at least that part of it listened to by the court -- but their evidence, such as it is, comes from people of lucid mind whose internal organs are shutting down (much like the Pope) and who have decided that if things have come to such a pass that they can no longer take nourishment "naturally," then they don't wish to prolong the agony. The exact opposite of Terri Schiavo.

I keep coming back to the cruelty of this method of death because it was obvious to everybody -- except the court. Many of you are too young to remember the archetypal "right to die" case of Karen Ann Quinlan. Quinlan was another young tragically brain-dead woman whose father had to fight the hospital bureaucracy tooth and nail all the way up to the Supreme Court for the right to turn off her respirator and let her die in peace. He won. The respirator was removed. But Karen surprised everybody and lived for another nine years -- with a feeding tube, thank you, which no one ever suggested removing.

But this is where the arrogance of the courts shows itself. Terri Schiavo should indeed never have become a federal case -- because, if this country did work as our Founders intended, the Florida courts would have recognized that the Legislature's passage of Terri's Law had changed the rules of the game and decided acordingly. After all, it was the courts of this country which first set the precedent, in numberless civil rights and "discrimination" cases, that if you don't like the results there is ipso facto something wrong with the rules and they must be changed. But Terri's Law was declared unconstitutional, for no better reason that I can see than that the courts didn't like their judgements questioned and their power limited.

And the Federal courts, despite the overwhelmingly clear desire of Congress that they do so, refused to take an action that would have weakened the power of their common judicial class. I suppose we shouldn't have expected them to. In 1992, in the Smith case (involving, ironically enough, a member of the Native American Church working as a drug counselor) the Supreme Court destroyed the traditional standards of protection of religious freedom in this country. Under the current Supreme Court standards, in order to claim an exempton on religious grounds from any law, one must prove that that law was specifically crafted to discriminate against his religion and serves no important social purpose. By this standard, even the demand of the old Roman Empire that everyone burn incense to Caesar would have passed muster! This disturbed -- I think justly -- very many people of all political persuasions, and in 1997 the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (returning the standard to what it was before Smith) was approved by all but three members of Congress and signed by President Clinton. Unconstitutional, said the Supremes, how dare you try to second-guess us. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- who had rejected the imposition of Smith-type standards (in 1988's Leahy v. District of Columbia, a compulsory social security number case) when she was an Appelate Court judge, signed on.

Well, isn't that the way the system is supposed to work? Absolutely NOT! During the Civil War, Congress removed the power of Habeas Corpus -- one of the citizen's oldest and strongest defenses against arbitrary government throughout the English-speaking world -- from the courts. They accepted. In 1866, in the course of Reconstruction, Congress forbade the courts the power to issue injunctions and declarative judgements -- two other powerful defenses against arbitrary government -- in tax cases. Again, they accepted. Habeas Corpus was restored, of course, but these two are still banned. In the 1930's the Supreme Court reversed many judgements it had made only a few years before in response to Roosevelt's threat to "pack" the Court with his own appointees. In 1956, this country almost lost those self-reliant "plain people," the Amish. Congress had put the self-employed (including farmers) under Social Security, and Amish plow teams -- even farms -- were seized by federal agents for non-payment of Social Security taxes (the Amish have religious prohibitions against all forms of "insurance.") Tax collection is not just a "compelling" but an "overwhelming" interest, said the Supreme Court, there's nothing we can do. Fortunately for the Amish (though it's an annoyance to them most times) they're a big tourist draw in an important state, and the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation soon crafted, and got passed, a narrowly tailored law that exempted them from Social Security taxes. I fail to see one scintilla of harm that has come to this Republic as a result, but under the standards motivating our courts today, that law would be declared unconstitutional since it was passed to overrride a court decision. Perhaps the Amish could then ask for an injunction. But I fear I expect too much consistency.

And so a helpless woman -- or what was left of her -- was condemned to a slow and agonizing death. They say she couldn't feel pain. But they used to think that infants couldn't remember pain and operated on them without anesthesia. While Terri Schiavo lay dying the Discovery Channel ran a frightening piece on people who wake up while under anesthesia. One such patient, realizing in horror what was about to happen, struggled to break the grip of the paralytic portion of the anesthesia to tell the doctors she was awake. "She's moving," said the doctor, and the anesthesiologist increased the dose -- of the paralytic. How heavy a price do we have to pay for this kind of arrogance?

To my own life, again: I remember my son's cat. He left him behind to go off to college, of course. But when my wife fell and seriously injured her back, the cat came through in ways we usually associate with dogs. He did his absolute catly best to see that she was comfortable, and comforted. It was little enough, of course. But there was so little we humans could do. Death comes even for the best of us, though. He was getting old, and had a succession of urinary tract and kidney problems. We'd had him to the vet many times, and after the last visit we were told, "if this happens again, there's nothing more I can do." And it did, of course. Big time. He could barely walk, there was no question. I took him on that final drive alone, my wife was too upset. I wasn't much better. The vet fitted two hypodermic inputs into the veins of his leg and left me alone to say goodby. What do you say to a friend and comforter more compassionate than many people you know? Did he understand what was going to happen? It's too easy to be anthropomorphic. But he was so sensitive to our moods and emotions that he must have known something. Could he give, somehow, a kittie version of "consent?" Around that question roil deep waters of psychology, philosophy, and theology. I'm not jumping in. He was too weak to react in any case. I called in the vet. He hooked up the hypos. A squeeze, a shudder, and it was all over. He died in my arms. Hopefully painless, undeniably fast. One of the reasons we give ourselves for doing this to our animals -- I don't think it's a cop-out -- is precisely that they can't know and understand the way we humans do. And I'm sure that's true, even if it's less true than most people might want to think.

But he had more cognitive function than Terri Schiavo.

So am I advocating some form of euthanasia? By no means. It's too steep and slippery a slope, and this is not a power we should thrust into the hands of men and women sworn to life and healing. They've tried it in the Netherlands, and from what I read the doctors have been asked not so much by the terminally ill seeking to end their sufferings as by the putative heirs, concerned that no more of "their" money be "wasted" on futile efforts. But what I am saying is that, if Michael Schiavo was so determined that his wife be killed when so many of her birth family were willing to assure her care, then an apparatus like what was done for our cat should have been hooked up for Terri -- and let him be the one to push the plunger!

Meanwhile, this case has been a giant step in moving our country from a government of laws to a government of lawyers. I can't think of a better way to kevork the Republic.

-- posted April 3, 2005

 

 

But it doesn't make much difference who you put upon my list. For they'd none of them be missed. No, not one of them be missed! -- Gilbert and Sullivan


IN THE INTEREST of restoring public civility, I hereby present my short list of people and things whose absence would render this world a better place. It's fun to do. You could make up your own list. It might even include Fractalists who make up lists of people the world would be better off without. Oh well. With malice toward all, with charity to none, here goes:

Corporate phone representatives who won't acknowledge a negative conclusion about their company even though it is the only possible one that can be drawn from facts they've already admitted to be true.

Pay-first gas stations.

Pay-first gas stations with attendants who can't speak English.

The worse-than-idiots who leave their car radios blasting out bad rap music while they've got the engine turned off pumping gas (whether they had to pay for it first or not).

Commercials that try to sell their products by making people look stupid.

HMO beancounters who treat your doctor's prescription like it was a request for funny mushrooms from an Amazonian shaman.

Public Broadcasting executives who unhesitatingly adopt every neologism put out by civil rights, feminist, and homosexual activists, won't use the term "partial birth abortion," and then run hour-long discussions of "Is the Media Biased?".

The people in control of the thermostats in shopping malls this Christmas season, who must be either fund-raisers for al Qaeda (or at least OPEC) or frustrated perverts who want to watch the jailbait eyecandy running around with their belly-buttons showing.

And while we're on that topic, let me hereby nominate "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" for "Song Most Likely to Make Me Want to Spend the Month of December in Morocco!"

--posted January 9, 2005

 

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night! -- Clement Moore

WELL, IT'S TWO NIGHTS before Christmas: I'm the only one stirring, and with three cats we're not even going to discuss any mouse. I've been thinking and dreaming a lot, but rather than lay it all out (I remember Bob Dylan's guillotine) I'll confine this -- mostly -- to Art.

Now we are a family that likes to do things ourselves rather than buy some corporation's ready-made efforts. I've been making our Christmas cards for years. I made the granddaughters' Christmas and birthday presents last year so this year was my wife's turn and she got out the crochet needles. And one of the things she made was a bright red and green 5 1/2 foot long scarf for me. One of the nice things about Christmastime is that a man can wear such a thing to work and not seem weird. Heck, you can even get away with singing Christmas carols under your breath -- auch in deutsch -- and nobody minds. Which is great, because I like to make my own music, too. Not that it's better than what's available on CD -- my voice sounds so much like a duck that I could get a bit part in Mozart's Die Ente-Führung aus dem Serail -- but it's mine.

It's nice to see Christmas become a time of "toleration" for higher culture -- especially since the State continues to persecute the most innocuous public expressions of the real meaning of the holiday (some school district in New Jersey banned the singing of Silent Night this year). So what does this mean for Fractals? Good, by and large. The quality of the fractal art I see is generally going up, and some of the new programs are really amazing. Public appreciation seems to be growing, too. This web site has been viewed -- and people have bought prints -- from some of the most unlikely corners of the world. We might just be creating the (or at least "a") characteristic art of the new global culture which seems to be inexorably developing whether any of us want it or not. Since they're fundamentally based on Mathematics rather than any culture's artistic traditions -- or any movement's perversion of them -- Fractals are an excellent candidate.

Assuming, of course, that the whole enterprise isn't fatally derailed by people who can square beheading with doing the work of God. But we won't consider that now. Peace on Earth to all, even if it can only be peace in the soul.

-- posted December 23, 2004

 

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. -- Anonymous

WELL, FRACTAL FANS, if you're reading this my site is up and running on my new web host. Maybe a word or two on the switch would be in order. Briefly, I changed because, when the time came for renewal, the old host decided to "fix" a problem with my wife's site which had not given us any trouble at all (a propensity all too rampant in politics today, may I add) - the "fix" however, completely destroyed her mailbox and customers' email addresses. Were the host people sorry? Pig's eye. Their attitude was,"oh well, we fixed your 'problem' and you can't get it back anyway, so why are you upset?"

Not one note of contrition, nothing approaching a "we should have known better" or "we should have informed you of the risk before we did anything." A lot of people (including myself) have had some harsh words to say about outsourcing, so let me emphasize that these people were (and I spoke to them on the phone) native born Americans.

A customer is not without honor except in his own country.

So we went looking for a different web host, and found a better deal financially - time will tell if it's better servicewise. And while I'm aware that you get what you pay for, I am not shelling out for rudeness, ignorance and inconsideration (except when I pay my taxes). So wish me luck and enjoy the fractals.

-- posted August 10, 2004

 

"De mortuis nihil nisi bonum." -- Cicero

To speak only well of the dead is the part of courtesy and honor -- no doubt -- but that restraint leaves a corresponding obligation on those who speak for the dead to eschew partisanship as well, and above all to avoid making highly debateable or downight false statements as matters of fact while trusting that respect for the deceased will allow them to pass unchallenged into the record. That's yin to our yang, the unavoidable intertwined reciprocity of things (you were expecting anything else from a Fractalist and student of chaos theory?). But when President Reagan's casket was brought into the Rotunda Wednesday night Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska broke that obligation , and badly. Also completely gratuitously. Vice President Cheyney's speech on the occasion was entirely dignified and fitting, and if a political pit bull like Cheyney can act properly, anybody can.

So if I seem now to be placing myself in the company of people whose politics and personal choices I thoroughly despise, please remember that I am not striking the first blow.

What did Stevens say to set me off? Words to the effect that Reagan "reversed the trend of ever-increasing government control in our lives." Reagan did many good, or arguably good, things in his presidency, but this is blatantly false. There's a very simple first-order test for government control, and it's this: how many places are you asked for your social security number? By this test Ronald Reagan is no different than his former idol Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1984 this Number became required for all stock transactions, alimony payments, and cash sales over $10,000. In addition, a 20% "backup withholding" for those refusing to give their Number to payers of interest and dividends was instituted. And just to make sure the right shackles were on the right feet, the victims were required to check them themselves and fill out a "Form W-9," an admission that they not just passively, but actively, consented to becoming a number. This is a practice of the same kind -- though obviously different in degree -- as Saddam Hussein's tactic of forcing the relatives of his victims to pay for the executioners' bullets before they could get the body back.

This is not all. One year later the Number was demanded for home mortgages. Not identifying yourself to the IRS by Number was made a crime. A tax return without it is legally "frivolous" (this is not the first or last occasion that Fiesleresque language was applied to those standing up against the "Mark of the Beast").

In 1986, in the middle of one of those makes-War and Peace-look-like-a-pamphlet Tax Reform bills, the Number was demanded for all children five and over. (Despite the IRS practice of calling it a "Taxpayer Identification Number." Where was George Carlin when we needed him?) Reagan's responsibility is particularly clear here. This action had already been proposed -- and rejected -- in both the House and Senate versions of that bill, and was only restored, at Administration insistence, in the Conference Committee version. This, of course, could only be voted up or down.

These, Senator Stevens, were not the actions of a man who reversed --or even slowed -- the trend of increasing government control of our lives. I cannot, especially at this time, condemn Ronald Reagan for doing no differently than his predecessors and successors have done. But you should have a little more respect for a man who played a large role in ending the "evil empire" than to try and rewrite history and redefine words in your own personal Ministry of Truth. You and your ilk of Number-demanders have pretty well beaten me into submission over the years, but even a slave can rebel over a trifle and "you have not converted a man because you have silenced him."

Our sympathies, even in the midst of this unfortunately-necessary altercation, are with Nancy Reagan. Imagine being called to the city morgue to identify a loved one mangled almost beyond all recognition. Now imagine doing it every day for ten years.

-- posted June 13, 2004

"Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve." -- Herman Melville

WE'VE ALL WORKED with spirals. Even when we're working on something else, as like as not there'll be one or two lurking in the background. What's the source of our fascination? Well for one thing, spirals are common in this universe, from the very largest to the smallest scales, and in many of the signature forms of Life. Plus they're generated by simple ("elegant") but powerful mathematics of the type beloved by the old Greeks (as opposed to the God-awful endless you-ain't-doin'-even-one-iteration-without-a-computer-bozo character strings that some of us 21st century Artists have been known to use).

Certainly the spiral seems unexcelled at drawing us in, a trait it shares with its Eastern cousin the mandala. And as a different sort of mathematics constructs an accretion disk around the mysterious black hole (itself a mathematical construct), the spiral seems linked to the deepest levels of cosmology. It's even become a symbol for the ever-lessening degrees of freedom and humanity in processes like addiction, poverty, bad relationships, and a host of social pathologies whose precise names and causes are of course, dear Reader, dependent on your "initial conditions" of outlook, ideology, and position in the socioeconomic pecking order.

But that may say more about ourselves than about spirals. Because, after all, they come with no directional arrow and it's just as natural and consistent to see a process spiraling outward, like normal healthy growth or freedom. (Does anyone remember normal, healthy growth? Let alone Freedom?) As for the rest, like so much else in Life it's a matter of scale and perspective. No matter how much the spiral may seem to continue inward toward some sort of singularity, zoom in and there's always a space of quantum uncertainty and freedom at the center, which remains even at the end of week-long "deep cycling" experiments. And no matter how much the spiral looks like it could expand forever, the mathematics (again like Life) usually decide that they have other things they'd rather be doing and veer off in completely new directions (usually just outside the arbitrary rectangle we put around this process to call it Art).

At the top of this article is a "typical" spiral. (click the picture for a larger view) The astute observer, in whichever direction (s)he chooses to move, will notice perhaps half a dozen processes (perhaps more) evolving from the background chaos, strengthening themselves as distinct entities, and then once more fading into the background. But notice that (once again like Life) the progress of dissolution does not mirror the steps of formation. And even the term "background chaos" is a convenience of scale. The picture to the right is an expanded view of one of the small brown oblongs toward the bottom of the spiral. There's just as much complexity (or more) bubbling here as in the "main" spiral.

It leads inevitably (for me anyway) to a consideration of what simpler-on-a-larger-scale pattern the overwhelming twists and turns of our lives, and even of our societies, might be mere "background chaos" to. But here, perhaps, I'm starting to tread on a ground reserved for Religion. It wouldn't, certainly, be the first time that Mathematics has led someone there. One more reason for our fascination with Spirals.

-- posted January 17, 2004

 

IF ANYONE HAS DIFFICULTY making up their mind, it's a Libra. If anyone insists on seeing all sides of a question (even if they have to make up a side or two for theoretical balance) it's a Swabian. I'm both. So you can imagine my state of mind when I read about the FAR screensaver contest. Almost anyone could pick their ten best Fractals: getting it down to two, even for the ultradecisive, is a feat worthy of a Joseph Campbell hero-cycle. And as my mind began to gnaw on the question, like a rat in a maze constructed by Piranesi, I became aware of another problem.

Another problem? First, understand that being accepted into the Fractal Artists Ring meant very much to me. It was peer acceptance -- nothing sweeter in the whole world-- a validation of my efforts as Fractalist and website designer, and even more welcome as it became plain that a certain other fractal ring was going to leave me languishing in queue for months (still waiting) without so much as a "beat it kid, ya bother me." It was so important to me, in fact, that I unconsciously began to separate my Fractals into "pre-" and "post-" Ring. It's been a great time. I feel I've learned a lot. So imagine my disquiet and dismay, as I began the long hard process of whittling my favorite Fractals down to just two, to observe that almost all my candidates were from the "pre" camp.

Now to be fair to myself, the "posts" weren't totally excluded, and some of my special favorites were out of contention from the beginning because they couldn't be made to look good within the rectangle of specific aspect ratio demanded by the Contest (though that excluded some good "pre's" as well). But it was hard to avoid thoughts not exactly consistent with ideas of my personal Progress. In earlier times I'd just shrug this off as the vagaries of the Muse, but I guess I've reached the age where you start to worry about these things.Your knees are the first to go, say the jocks, and they're right (although sixty more pounds to push around doesn't help either). Then it's your creativity (or is it your memory? I can't remember.) and what goes after that has launched a million spams.

But of course it's possible that all this is just a self-perception ungrounded in objective reality, the result of what I'll call "the Springtime Effect" -- that tendency of the mind to invest one's first essays in any new field with a glory they don't really deserve. Are any of our memories as sweet as those of our first real love? How could we meet someone so wonderful, so right for us so early in the game? But it's all, or mostly, that Springtime Effect, and some of the worst stories of violence and cruelty I've heard (and I've heard enough for several Country albums) have been told to me by people who married their high school sweethearts.

And in the Arts, unfortunately, maturity and development doesn't equal better. Our popular music songwriters can draw on immense stores of harmonic complexity, melodic invention, and lyrical subtlety: but if you were to ask 1000 people to try to remember the songs of the last fifty years that have most moved them, the song that would appear on more short lists than any other would probably be -- "Try to Remember." Paul Simon is a musician and lyricist of the first order, and not one to let stylistic grass grow under his feet, but has he ever done another album as complete, direct, and affecting as his early "Sounds of Silence?" Certainly Crosby Stills & Nash' first album was their best: add Young and there"s nothing, except for "Teach Your Children" and "Southern Cross," that isn't equalled or exceeded by Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. For all the drug agitprop about "infinite horizons," most psychedelic groups shot their wad with their first album: Jefferson Airplane actually managed to stretch it to three (and "Baxter's" is still the best sonic portrait of the San Francisco Scene, right down to the 5 1/2 plus minute acid commercial at the end). One of the things that made the Beatles great was the way they continued to grow and improve for so long. And I have to mention the Grateful Dead, who flunk by any standard measure of "goodness" and yet kept getting better at whatever it was they were doing right up to the end.

I'll stop now, not so much because I've made my point as because for many (perhaps most) of my readers, the above names are deathly boring PARENT MUSIC, to be avoided as much as possible. The jibe is just -- and, considering my youthful violent reaction to Mitch Miller et al., entirely fitting. But go back to the music of your generation in a few years, young hypocrite lecteur -- mon semblable -- mon frere! and tell me there's no truth in what I say.

So am I, despite self-perceptions distorted by the Springtime Effect, actually getting better and better? Am I filling in my "valleys" while honing my skills, preparing to climb yet higher peaks in the near future? Or am I just plain over the hill? (Hill? What hill? I don't remember any hill.) In one sense it doesn't matter. I enjoy Fractaling and I intend to keep doing it! But getting my efforts in the FAR screensaver...that would be nice. (Fade, to a chorus of Dr. Hook's "Get my Picture on the Cover of Rolling Stone")

--posted October 18, 2003

 

IF YOU HAVE to put a name on it -- a disclaimer increasingly used these days, both for new technologies whose possibilities have outrun the evolution of language and for old sins whose political protectors still can't abide hearing called by their true names -- Fractals are "abstract art." Even if so many of them wind up looking like oceanic or insectan life-forms. Even when we paste in recognizable real-world objects almost as if they, too, were just iterated. And furthermore, they're a species of "found art," with an initial basis (the algorithm) completely independent of the artist. But I'm not trying to pour new wine into old bottles, I have a different point to make: even with all this distance from "reality" or even "humanity," the personality -- or at least the persona -- of the artist shows through in every fractal site I've ever visited.

This is very much as it should be, although I may care about it more than most. I know I always read the "About Me" or equivalent page (if one exists) in any site that interests me: I want to know what sort of person it is who has created these images. Not that I will always find out, except perhaps by indirection. I've visited sites with magnificent Fractals done by artists who can barely form a coherent sentence. Still, that's something right there, and it's good to see there are still venues where one can let one's work do all the talking (although it reminds me of the young German noblewoman who said of a particularly loutish lover, "Speech is not his language.")

Still, it brings up the old question of the relation of art to the artist's life. "Our" mission is supposedly in some sense to elevate human existence, but our own lives (I confess it of mine freely) have often not been particularly elevated. I don't want to put too fine a point on this: if one were to insist that the creator have led a conventionally moral life in order to grant any "spiritual" credence to the artwork, then Music Composition ends with Bach and Poetry with Emily Dickinson! But I think there comes a point at which a Life/Art contradiction can destroy the validity of anything one tries to do.

Shakespeare, who so magnificently painted the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet -- if it were proven that he was gay, would it matter? Fundamentally, no, and that's even without the "politically correct" blessing that homosexuality has gotten in the past decade or so. But if A.A. Milne had been a pederast -- would THAT not matter? What about Wagner? Can we divorce his music from his Nazi-forerunner status? Probably -- though that's easier to say after 1945 than after 1933. But von Bülow should still have shot him: he richly deserved it and it just might have taught Germany something she badly needed to learn.

Thos of us who lived through Vietnam cannot forget (or forgive) John Wayne. This portrayer of Western heroes used his fame to savage anyone who dared question what we were doing in Southeast Asia: but he himself had spent the entire Second World War comfortably ensconced in Hollywood, while so many others -- my father, uncles, and even his fellow actor Henry Fonda among them -- were in the military enduring discipline and hardship and facing a bold and well-armed Enemy. The Life/Art dichotomy is too great, I can't and won't watch John Wayne. And on the "other side" -- though for virtually identical reasons -- I can't stand John Lennon either.

Let's look at this from the "positive" side. The Little Prince is probably the ONE French book that any American with a possibly-sufficient knowledge of the language tries to read in the original. And we can accept what is really a very sentimental message because it was given to us by a man of undoubted courage, an aviator from the days when flying itself was dangerous, who disappeared returning from a combat mission with the Free French. If it had been written by someone else -- Oscar Wilde, say, or even Dylan Thomas (who spent the Blitz cowering in a basement) it would be unreadable.

Graphic artists seemingly get a free pass on all this. An artist may paint an angel like the hand of God, but nobody expects him to be more than a man with his model -- or less than a devil with his patron! Gauguin abandoned his wife and children to go off to Tahiti. That's wrong, of course, and we certainly wouldn't want our daughters or grandchildren treated that way, but then...isn't that what that South Sea Island mystique is about? It would be different if he'd run off to paint scenes of domestic tranquility: then, you could almost hear the Duke's pistols going off in the background.

The one artist who's probably on all our short lists is M.C. Escher. It's not hard to see why. The artistic problem he set himself -- the "regular division of the plane" -- is of course not the same as our "problem" of self-similarity at all scales (though a lot of us work on it too, under the name "seamless tiling"), but it's the same kind of problem. Both Fractals and Escher's work require much mathematics for their creation -- but almost none for their appreciation. So how much do any of us know about Escher's life? It's not that he was a graphic Thomas Pynchon fanatically covering his tracks, but the details of his life just don't seem important, in the way that Van Gogh's, Gauguin's, Picasso's, or Michelangelo's do. His life is more like a scientist's in that respect -- his work is fundamentally independent of it.

So is the whole point of this essay invalid? Hardly. The "personal" is not a feature of Escher's art, and his life is conformable -- a simple "workmanlike" life, not obtruding his personality on the public. It's a life the Attic vase-painters and gargoyle carvers of Notre Dame would recognize because it was theirs, too, rather than the overheated exhibitionism of some of the other artists I've mentioned. And if Escher wasn't given to talking about himself, he did talk about his art, and his words are of a piece with his pictures -- lucid even when dealing with the unfamiliar, with flashes of the same wry humor that comes through in his prints.Also, as woodcutter and etcher, he had a hands-on intimacy with his tools and materials denied to those of us who work with computers.

 So am I saying that Art will forgive anything except hypocrisy? Perhaps -- although it's a sin that only the improbably blessed and the undoubtedly damned are entirely without. And in this present age -- where our supposedly democratic governments have arrogated to themselves the right to know more about their data-subjects (formerly called citizens) than even the tyrannies of the Thirties, and we're expected to provide them that information ourselves, with a smile and (of course) our serial number -- it's even an unfortunate necessity of existence! Although, considering the current state of most of the arts (our own humble Specialty excepted) perhaps that just proves my point. But I'm going to keep reading those "About Me" pages anyway. We're a strange bunch, we Fractalists, out on a mathematical vision quest through landscapes of unutterable weirdness, finding -- now here, now there, staring right out of what should have been a thornbush thicket of numbers -- a beauty straight from the warm garden pools of Life! We reveal ourselves even in the masks we choose. We ought to find out who we are.

--posted Sept. 17, 2003

SOME MAXIMS ON CHANGE, distilled from my readings in chaos theory:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else. You can't change anything without changing everything.

  2. Despite this, complex systems (organisms, ecosystems, and even more those human constructs of culture and economy) are laced with interlocking feedback systems which continually make small compensating changes in order to keep the system as a whole in equilibrium.
  3. Nevertheless, such a system can be changed to a new equilibrium by overloading it at a certain key point or points.
  4. Nothing will happen for most of this process, until the critical values are reached. Then the change will be sudden -- and large.
  5. The new equilibrium will have its own interlocking feedback loops, and thus require an enormous input of energy to overload them and return the system to the status quo ante. In enough cases, this will not be possible at all.
  6. Where those critical points are, and what minimum value constitutes "overload," are usually determinable only in retrospect.
  7. Any system in which a possibly-sufficient number of elements are working together for change of this sort is already seriously out of whack.
  8. Just as repeated iteration overwhelms initial conditions, so do the minor or unforeseen consequences of any consciously initiated change often overwhelm -- or destroy -- the reasons for which it was made. (this is a fractal restatement of the Law of Unintended Consequences)
  9. Proceed carefully, life has no Undo button. But the system is already iterating.

--posted June 8, 2003