Sunday, September 12, 2021
Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Macro and micro, use the same clock
'cause they're in the same time
Sunday, August 22, 2021
For a change, check out my altered-ego Harry the Human's latest post, "Meaningless dreams," at
Sunday, May 23, 2021
A frame story is a story within a story. Maybe the most famous is One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales framed by a story about a sultan who, in order to relieve the pain of his first wife's infidelity, decides to marry a new virgin each day, sleep with her that night, then have her executed the next morning before she has a chance to cheat on him. After a few years of the sultan's madness, the realm is almost out of virgins. The court frantically wonders what to do, when Scheherazade, the daughter of the grand vizier and a virgin, offers herself to the sultan. Her father objects, but she has a plan. On the night of the wedding, after her deflowering, she beguiles the sultan with a compelling story. It is too long to finish in one telling, so she promises to continue it the next night. The sultan is so engrossed by his wife's endless story that night after night he implores her to continue, each time extending her life by one day.
Just like Scheherazade's, our stories interlock with frames that turn like gears, promoting the arrow of time with beginning, middle and hopefully end.
On December 26, 2004, my story was that I was camping in Death Valley, and the frame was the life in Los Angeles I had left behind, but when the car radio reported that a giant tsunami had killed 200,000 people near Indonesia, that became the main story of the world, framing mine and everyone's stories.
The opposite would have happened- the world would have shrunk- if Ubehebe Crater, a few miles from my camp, had erupted that morning, as it did hundreds of years ago in a phreatic rage that dug a hole 777 feet deep. The shock wave would have flattened the camp, eliminating the tsunami entirely from my frame, diminishing the world to a few local square miles.
There was frame shrinkage in Los Angeles after the magnitude 6.7 earthquake in 1994. Earlier that week, an L.A. Times headline read, "Serbs' heavy weapons pound Sarajevo." Before the earthquake, that seemed like a relevant topic; after the earthquake there was almost no consciousness of war in Sarajevo because our frame story did not extend beyond our city.
In the last few months a number of events have been powerful enough to attract worldwide attention and frame everyone's story. Often these frames had the stage to themselves for a few days, so the whole world could think about them and decide what if any action to take. Some were conflicts, e.g. Israel vs. Palestinians; Russia vs. Ukraine; Armenia vs. Azerbaijan; Myanmar, China and maybe all governments to varying degrees vs. elements of their own people. Some were slow-moving but threatening, like climate change. Some were medical tragedies, like India's lack of oxygen for covid victims; some were natural, like several powerful volcanic eruptions. Each defined a global frame story.
Our minds are accustomed to alternating between global frame stories and local ones, but disasters of a type that formerly might have captured world attention are hitting the human sphere with such regularity and frequency that everyone's frame story is at risk of shrinking down to their immediate environment. If the time comes when every place on Earth hosts a catastrophe such that everyone's frame story becomes local, we will experience mass, unconscious censorship.
Such censorship happened in a limited way on January 6, 2021, when Business Weekly broke the news about possibly dangerous covid variants. The story was urgent enough, you would think, to frame and reorder our lives, but because of the D.C. insurgency on the same day, covid news seemed trifling, out of the frame.
In most populated areas it wouldn't take more than a disabled Internet to shrink everyone's frame story down to their visible world. Adding a few more calamities- like failure of a power grid or a new pandemic- could force a reversion to the provincialism of the agricultural Middle Ages, when most people stayed within forty miles of home their whole lives, and information about the world was rumor.
The tendency of disasters to limit broader perspectives renders them useful to those who might want to curtail the population's worldview and ability to influence events. Even earthquakes and hurricanes are suspect, at least if you believe magazines available in City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco which claim that the CIA has an earthquake producing machine and that China can control the weather. I have not seen allegations that volcanic eruptions can be induced, but how hard could it be?
We seem poised to enter a period of increased catastrophes and shrunken world-views. At its most extreme, a shrunken world-view translates to a total lack of influence on one's surroundings and society. For now, through voting and regular pummeling of newspapers with letters to the editor, we have the illusion of influence. The illusion may pass.
People will look for ways to stay sane as our frame stories shrink. Some will find solace in religion and worship. Some will read novels or watch movies. Some will study their own dreams.
In my case, I have a fantasy that there will be a new American political party based on the reality of our shifting world. This party will expand people's frame stories beyond the purview of local catastrophe. It will produce strong feelings of trust. People will think the party is speaking to them, that it is authentic. I know what you're thinking: "Don't hold your breath." But I am holding my breath.
Saturday, March 13, 2021
Early Hollywood films often featured cute baby chimpanzees who mimicked human behavior with infantile gestures, grimaces and clownish antics. But, although there are plenty of adult lions, elephants and giraffes in early movies, there are no adult chimps. Adults were retired to "reserves" far out of the city. Chimp handlers knew why, but the general public did not.
That changed over recent decades as a series of horrifying attacks by adult chimps on humans were reported in the media. Adults can weigh up to 200 pounds and are generally twice as strong as the average adult human male. The attacks entailed faces and genitals torn off, hands amputated and other targeted attacks that appeared designed, not necessarily to kill, but to permanently debilitate the victim both physically and psychologically. The victims typically were taken by surprise. Often the chimp had been raised by the victim from babyhood, or the victim might be a friend of the owner who knew the chimp well, or thought so. The trigger for many of the attacks appeared to be jealousy, or a sense of betrayal. One woman brought a birthday cake to a captive adult chimp (removed from her custody for dangerous behavior) in the company of two other chimps. One was so jealous of the cake that he bit off the womans lips and nose and destroyed one eye. A man who brought a toy to a chimp he knew lost his genitals when he tried to take back the toy. It is now illegal to own a chimp as a pet.
While our society was learning about the nature of adult chimps in captivity, scientists were learning about chimps in the wild. Search "chimp attacks in Africa" and you'll find beautifully shot narratives by producers like Discovery and Planet Earth-BBC Wildlife depicting a murderous species, often out to expand its territory. In one program, a band of adult male chimps, led by its alpha male (the dominant male animal in a particular group- Webster) silently creeps through the forest, stalking a neighboring colony of chimps. The alpha, who not only determines the group's behavior but defines its virtues, deficits and moral tone, brings the group to a halt as the "enemy" comes within earshot. The males huddle together in intense, intimate concentration. The group attacks and manages to capture a baby chimp from the neighboring group, which they kill by pulling off its limbs, after which they sit in a circle, gnawing on the limbs and sharing them with each other. There are many iterations of such behavior.
Why dwell on this? We are compelled to because chimpanzees are our closest relatives. Human DNA differs from chimps' by only 1%. In contrast, human DNA differs from dogs' by 75%. The difference between apes (like chimps) and monkeys (like capuchins) is 7%, meaning that we are closer to chimps than chimps are to monkeys.
[Note: Our DNA is likewise only 1% different from the chimps' nearest relation, bonobos. In the 70's and 80's, bonobos were touted as "flower-children chimps" because of their uninhibited displays of affection- including social conventions like handling each other's genitals or rubbing them together- and the lack of male combat. The hippie association was dropped after researchers noticed that many males were missing thumbs, which had been bitten off by females in this matriarchal alternative to chimp patriarchy.]
As with humans, not all chimps are murderous. A Discovery UK episode tells the story of two peaceable chimps, Hare and Ellington, who, though members of a large warlike group, spent their days together in tranquil strolls through the forest. One day Ellington was beaten and mauled to death by members of the group. Hare then wandered alone, depressed and distracted, finally finding his place taking care of baby chimps orphaned by his group.
Are we like chimps in behavior as well as DNA? A study of human history suggests that we are. Many anthropologists speculate that homicidal impulses in our ancestors explain the absence today of any other types of humans than our own. There is fossil evidence that there were other types of humans, notably Neanderthals and Denisovans. Genetic analysis indicates that we interbred with these humans, but we also witnessed their extinction. There is no evidence that we intentionally eliminated them (an action we would now term "genocide"), but the question remains, where are they?
We are proud of our hunting heritage, but unlike, say, lions, who after millions of years of hunting and eating impalas and giraffes have not caused the extinction of those animals, human prey tends to disappear. A well known example from prehistory is the wooly mammoth, though we don't have evidence either that wooly mammoths were hunted to extinction or that "natural causes" were involved. There is plenty of evidence that needless killing of fauna and megafauna has been prevalent in historical times. The settling of the American West provides notable examples of animals slaughtered in numbers far exceeding people's need to eat them. When Europeans arrived in North America, passenger pigeons comprised up to 40% of the bird population, their migrations filling the sky. "Sportsmen" would fire straight up and revel when dozens of birds fell to the ground. From an estimated 3 to 5 billion pigeons when the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Rock, their numbers fell in two hundred years to zero. The American bison (commonly called the "buffalo") numbered around 30 million before Europeans came. Horace Greeley wrote in 1860 that, "Often, the country for miles in all directions had seemed quite black with them." The railroads sold tickets for bison killing excursions to New Englanders looking for adventure. When herds of bison ran across the prairies near the tracks, rifles were issued to passengers so they could shoot them from train windows. The train did not stop to recover the mounds of carcasses for any sort of use. Today the bison is designated "near threatened." "How the West was won" should be rephrased as, "How the West was cleared of lifeforms that suggested humans are not the dominant species."
Back to genocide- the modern term for humans intentionally killing (or attempting to kill) entire groups of other humans- we often treat it as a recent aberration stemming from Adolf Hitler (the term "genocide" originated in the 1940's), but far from being unique to World War II, genocide (which continued after the war and is ongoing today) has occurred repeatedly since the dawn of humanity, starting, possibly, with the disappearance noted above of any other sorts of humans than us, the Denisovans going extinct about 80,000 years ago, the Neanderthals about 40,000.
Moving forward, there is archaeological evidence that the Indo-Europeans (from whose language group almost all current European languages derive) committed genocide in the course of their expansions starting around 4,000 BC.
Something genocidal appears to have struck ancient Britain, as there is genetic evidence of a 90% population turnover in the 3rd millennium BC. This could help explain how genetic analysis of "Cheddar Man," a 10,000 year old skeleton found in Somerset, England, suggests that he had "quite dark skin and blue eyes" (The power of archaeology and genetics, NewScientist Magazine, 5/29/21). We've been wondering for a long time who built Stonehenge. Surprise!
In historical times, both the Athenian city-state and the Roman Empire achieved much of their stature through genocide. The list of genocides after the Romans is long, covering all continents.
The quest for empire and hegemony- straight from the chimpanzee playbook- seems a prime factor in human genocide. Since the advent of large civilizations around 3,000 BC, it's been one alpha male ambition after another, producing brutal, genocidal empires that are then toppled by the next empire-building alpha, which is toppled by the next. It seems never to have occured to people that one might just live happily munching leaves, replacing glory and bloodlust with the simple pleasures of a satisfied existence, not unlike the lifestyle of another of our close ape relatives, gorillas (whose DNA differs from ours by 1.75%).
In fact the idea of just existing is repulsive to many people; we call it "vegetative," as if we know what it's like to be a plant. We think we are supposed to manage everything, maybe even dominate everything, as our choice of comic book "superheroes" shows.
I see the tendency in myself, at least in my childhood taste in fictional heroes, such as those from the TV series Star Trek. Was it the spectacle of James T. Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise and cutting edge of the human race, landing on one planet after another, subduing its inhabitants, always winning? Or First Officer Spock (half-human, half-alien, a hybrid alpha) who matched Kirk's ability to dominate the environment but went beyond it by also dominating his inner self? Of course Kirk and Spock were depicted in each episode as gaining the moral high ground by adhering to Starfleet's "Prime Directive," that none of the ship's missions would interfere with indigenous cultures. That's why it's called science fiction.
Returning to the real world, President Trump was lauded by his tribe as the mean alpha, jumping up and down, hooting and fulminating throughout his four years as the dominant male of America. The other night, when people watched President Biden address the nation about his $1.9 trillion covid relief plan, there was widespread relief that Trump had been replaced by Hare, the gentle chimp who cares about children (of course Biden is a facade; the wheels of war turn more quietly now, but as relentlessly as under Trump).
Where does the chimp and human animus come from? What happened in the ancient forests of Africa, to us and to chimps? As William Blake phrased the question (though addressing a tiger):
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Scientists are not asking that question, but they are tangentially finding out interesting things about alpha males, in particular that there is a correlation between alpha males and a high level of the "flight or fight" drug serotonin, produced in a cluster of cells in the human brainstem called the raphe nuclei. When the raphe nuclei direct a large dose of serotonin into the amygdala- a brain center that controls our emotional state- the amygdala directs us to become alphas and run the show. Submissive mice have been transformed into alpha's after injections of serotonin, and alphas have been demoted when their serotonin is decreased.
Interesting, but the question becomes, why did the ancient raphe nuclei feel the need to squirt so much serotonin into men's amygdalas? We get a shitload, which is probably why we can't stand a sky full of pigeons.
There's not much evidence to explain what the raphe nuclei were so afraid of, so once again we must guess. My guess is that we and our chimp cousins feared non-belonging. The forest had rejected us in some fundamental way. We did not fit. Chimpanzees reacted to this ostracism by terrorizing each other into a structured existence. People fought back by becoming smarter and more resourceful. Some of the response was practical, bringing development of improved hunting implements and use of fire. Some was psychological, as when ancient Egyptians built giant pyramids to inflate the standing of the ruling alphas and humble the slaves. Some was suicidal, as when, in our time, we learned how to blow up and poison the planet, threatening the alphas along with everyone else. Perhaps we secretly hate the Earth and resent Creation for sending us here.
Genesis tells the story metaphorically. After Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the Earth was revealed as inhospitable, requiring people to build artificial environments lest they starve and freeze. We're not the only creatures who have to do this: birds build nests; beavers build dams. But humans need to reconstruct the whole forest, the whole world.
There is growing understanding that our quest to reform the Earth under the guidance of the alpha male (and an enabling Eve) has gone awry. As the dream of a compatible Earth flounders, we turn to space- with its endless planets full of monsters to defeat, hellscapes to terraform and indigenous cultures to leave in pristine condition- hoping the effort out there will go better than it has here.
The question this essay asks is, what is the future of the alpha male who has guided us to this point? We are acquiring biological tools that will enable us to recreate ourselves. Through CRISPR technology we will be able to assemble our DNA into any combination of characteristics we want. If we envision a new way, one that seeks co-existence rather than dominion, we could, if we choose, phase out the alpha male and seek a softer, more cooperative humanity.
The fly in the ointment is that the people in charge of our re-creation will likely be alpha males (and alpha females, since we fluctuate now between chimp and bonobo) who are motivated to make vast fortunes and dominate the humans around them. The chimps will be in charge, driven by their terror of not being in charge.
What can we do about this? Cut off the supply of serotonin? It's unclear. Stay tuned for Part II of this post: How to ensure that the new humanity is not as homicidal and generally berzerk as the current one.
Sunday, March 07, 2021
Sunday, January 17, 2021
What if every conspiracy theory you ever heard, no matter how outlandish, were true? Before you object, let me clarify that although I mean "every" literally, I don't mean "true" literally. You may have wanted to object, for instance, that Hillary Clinton does not run a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza restaurant. If so, your point is well taken because obviously she does not, and the conspiracy theory is not literally true.
In its tone, however, the false story suggests a truth, that Clinton and other leaders are members of an organization that pays tribute to morality while enjoying, covertly, vast money-making prospects in a hyper-sexualized atmosphere induced by the well-documented aphrodisiacal effects of power. Everyone is on the honor system, like in Vegas. There is no pizza joint with a basement, but the reality does suggest a sort of Chuck E Cheese Adult Club.
If you consider their subtexts, every conspiracy theory is true in some sense. The post-war charge that President Eisenhower was a communist, for instance, was silly, but the subtext was that our leaders put on a show of reviling putative "enemies" while secretly making deals with them. Richard Nixon, after outing "reds" to jumpstart his career, had no trouble schmoozing with Mao and normalizing relations with China. No one outside the Chuck E Cheese Adult Club can do that.
Conspiracy theories are central to what happened January 6th of this year. Many of the people who stormed the nation's capital believe that wealthy powerbrokers around the world are conspiring to bring about "the Reset," a current term for installation of a world government. This world government would not be a repeat of the toothless U.N, but would actually replace the governments of all current countries. By the end of the process, countries will be gone and humanity will be controlled by a single, dictatorial power.
One of the unfounded assumptions in the January 6th version of this narrative is that attacking Congress and harming officials would act to forestall or impede an approaching world government. That assumption is false because officials in the capital have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the Chuck E Cheese Adult Club. Why would they want to give that up for a world government? In this sense the protesters attacked their natural allies.
The world government conspiracy theory, however, contains elements of truth. Current national governments are incapable of solving humanity's existential problems, such as the lack of new culture to replace cultures dismantled by industrialization and urbanization, or the questionable status of the current human model as new, improved models come online. The more important and critical the challenge, the less capable governments are of addressing it. At some point then, current governments will fall, and there probably will be attempts at a proto-world government.
Conspiracy theories can damage a movement by confusing its focus. The authors' of these theories often write in a double language, one literal and one figurative, hitting two audiences, the outer and the inner. The literal is for the outer, sparking outrage, but no way to act on it. The inner is figurative, gently hypnotizing people using their secret hopes. The capital protesters clung fiercely to a figurative and fictional interpretation of the world government conspiracy, a highly detailed narrative, as in a novel, in which members of Congress plan to undermine the U.S. government and subsume it under a world power. As noted, there is no reason to believe that narrative. Current leaders in the U.S., aside from enjoying their perks, are primarily occupied with creating the illusion that they are working to solve the worst of our problems. They are not really doing that, because they can't, but their minds are far from attempting to replace the government.
The damage done by conspiracy theories is intentional. By tricking the capital invaders into thinking the insurrection would address their grievances, the world government conspiracy theory worked to separate the volatile elements of a potential anti-world government movement from its more strategic and diplomatic elements, weakening in advance any such movement. This suggests that the perpetrators of the Reset conspiracy theory may themselves be conspiring for a world government.
The Biden administration, in order to benefit from the foil of evil provided by the insurrectionists, must play its part by reinforcing their delusions. It did that with the presidential inauguration, spending vast funds to maintain it as an imperial pageant, now with dystopian visuals (e.g. the population cowering at home; the incoming leader isolated in front of the capital, surrounded by military and police forces) worthy of a science fiction book cover. The dark extravaganza (like the failed second impeachment that followed) served to reinforce the delusion of the Anti-World Government Army that under Biden they will be relentlessly persecuted.
World government may arrive with or without a conspiracy, but the fallout from our enhanced confusion on the subject does not bode well for an orderly transition. For our own protection, as conspiracy theories arise we should look deeply into them, at both their falseness and their truth. This will help us understand the world, not to mention the Chuck E Cheese Adult Club.