Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How We Became Posthuman

No. Really. Behold the "beautification engine" which mathematically maps "normal" faces into "more perfect" shapes.

In other words, it uses computerized data manipulation to map embodiments onto the body. Yay.

PS: This is probably tripe to everyone else... it is just a note to myself

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Truth system trumps reading comprehension in Wired

Wired magazine is currently running a good, informative article on the battle over vaccination. In it, they provide a wonderful quote by the late, great Carl Sagan, in which he presents reasons why the persistent belief in wacky pseudo-science (like the totally unproven link between vaccines and autism) may not be driven simply by ignorance and stupidity:

“A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

In other words, people don't believe pseudo-science because they are weak minded, but because capitalism sucks, and does a lousy job of providing support for human beings, which it tends to treat as machine tools. (Yes, I am aware Sagan does not single out "capitalism" for critique here. I am attempting to extend the useful Mormon tradition of posthumous conversion for use by us socialists.)

However, rather than build on Sagan's words, Wired seems to ignore them, as the very next sentence in the article suggests that proper middle-class rationality is self-evidently superior to all other forms of thought, and is only ever ignored because it is just too hard for the dumb, lazy masses.

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves — beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace — the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

Let me be clear here, I think the vaccine deniers are wrong, and that preventing children from getting vaccinations is a terrible mistake that could have deadly consequences. However, treating people as children who just need to be properly "disciplined" will only ever make them act as children. If we want to earn the public's trust, we have to build a system of knowledge production (and of production in general) worthy of that trust. One they can be confident is working for them, not to enrich some CEO. Until we do this, their fears will continue to manifest themselves in these dangerous and harmful ways.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pop Music, Memory and Digital Media

A few weeks ago, Bruce Sterling posted a reflection on "plots [that] can’t exist in a world of ubiquitous computing," to his blog. He discussed the challenges horror-movie writers face working in an always-connected world (how do you isolate a helpless victim when everyone has the ability to call the authorities always in their pocket). Before moving on to point out the consequences of our pervasive communications networks to another genre, "lovelorn, romantic torch songs." This song by Everything But the Girl for example:

Sterling quips:
Tears your heart out, right? Well, why doesn’t she go on freakin’ Facebook? Why doesn’t she just Google him? It’s not that alligators ate him: he just blew town. Big deal. Get video Skype. Your vanished lover is probably married now and has two kids in Omaha, but hey, that’s another problem.

The introduction of always on digital communications and information storage into the everyday lives of ordinary people (at least among the relatively privileged classes of the developed world) does indeed alter the shape of memory, loss, and longing. The experience of discovering a "vanished lover... married now [with] two kids in Omaha," or any of the other encounters we have with those digital ghosts, those patterns of data connected to people we no longer really know but who persist in the linkages of our social networking software, reminds me of another pop song. Namely, "She's got you," in which Patsy Cline mourns that:
I've got your picture that you gave to me
And it's signed "with love," just like it used to be
The only thing different, the only thing new
I've got your picture, she's got you

She goes on to list other artifacts she once shared with her beloved - records, a class ring - before concluding "The only thing different, the only thing new/I've got these little things, she's got you." The objects of love, stripped of the aura of the beloved, a dilemma probably older than human language - since even bower birds court using gifts - but in this song already betraying the effects of the regime of mechanical reproduction. Snapshots and records easily and efficiently commit memory to mechanism, capture shared experiences now stripped of their original context. The regime of the digital multiplies these "little things," creates the data ghosts that can so easily haunt us. But it does more than that. Because digital artifacts are non-rival, we can easily share "little things," broadcast them not only across our social networks but even to the world at large. Take for example the website My Parents Were Awesome (one of many websites using the "tumblr" service to share photographs, and one of the few not committed to schadenfreude), which invites participants to share scanned in old photographs of their parents. The only context is the site title, but that title suffices to make these little things a powerful meditation on history and mortality, as the user scrolls by picture after picture of youthful people, knowing everyone depicted has since grown old enough to have a child capable of uploading photos to a tumblr site. It is the sort of meditation one might have had with a box of family photos in the age of mechanical reproduction, in the age of the ubiquitous digital network, you can always find someone's family photos.

Thus our digital ghosts invite us to both narcissism and communion. The boundaries of memory are what has changed.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mid-town towers from the staircase of the High Museum of Art

I haven't been blogging here too much lately. I've had too many other possible outlets to share brief thoughts with friends (facebook, twitter, et. al.) and too much work to do to compose longer ones. Just in case any friends are still checking in here, I thought I would share this cell phone photo I took during a visit to Atlanta's High Museum of Art. I like art museums, in part, because they give me an excuse to stare at objects without feeling self-conscious. Really, I often would like to carefully investigate the way light plays over a piece of junk in the street, or get lost in the texture of the sidewalk. But then people stare. If I spend 10 minutes looking at the brush-strokes of a painting, everybody thinks I'm erudite and refined.

Which I am not.

Anyway, I liked this window in the staircase of the High as much as I liked the collection.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My other other Blog

I've ended my long stretch as a bad blog-team member and added something to the Food blog my twitter friend Carlo was nice enough to invite me to join. You can read about me trying Atlanta BBQ here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Democracy is in the Streets

This one goes out to all the wanna-be revolutionaries, frustrated leftists, and boomers who are still living in 1968 I have met during my time in the humanities in the American Public University system.

It is time for us to get off our asses.

Have you been watching the news? Have you been monitoring any of the many forms of informational media we have available to us in our 21st century ecology of spectacle?

If you have, then you will have noticed what I have noticed, namely, that we are getting our asses kicked. The crazy right has organized to intimidate, harass, and shout down the elected officials we worked so hard to elect over the last two campaign cycles, as those officials campaign for health care reform that will literally save lives.

Its working. The shouting mobs are swinging the media narrative to the right, creating the impression of "grassroots" opposition to reforming our expensive, broken, ineffective health care system. Robert Reich fears lawmakers may be swayed to pass weak, ineffective reforms, reforms that might provide little real help for under-insured and uninsured Americans and thus weaken public confidence on the very notion of "health care reform."

There is only one way to fix this, we need more bodies in the town-hall meeting rooms, we need our people to be in front of the TV cameras, not just theirs!

We need to get off our asses.

So lets go! We've been waiting for this! The good fight waits to be fought, Democracy is in the Streets again.

You can find health-care events and meetings near you via the FireDogLake campaign silo widget, which I've embedded on the right hand side of this blog, or via HCAN, which also has tips for effective actions in the face of the Teabag mobsters.

This is our fight to lose. Get mad. Get organized.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Gates, the Police and the History of Race in America

As usual, I'm well behind the ball on this, but I did just want to say one thing about the whole Henry Louis Gates affair. There has been a lot of good commentary on this, but one thing I've been surprised by is the constant drumbeat of "responsible" advice dished out by many well-meaning commentators, white and black alike, who stress the importance of never, ever raising your voice to a Police officer. One particularly egregious example can be found in the recent Salon article by Gene Lyons: Black men, white cops and media mind readers. In it Lyons tells us that Gates' arrest is justified since, "it's not a crime to act like a jackass, but cops can't have crowds seeing them cowered by a loudmouth." Lyon's conclusion is that the whole arrest can be blamed squarely on Gates, who could have avoided the incident if he had acted with, "a degree of self-control."

In other cases, the advice to avoid raising one's voice to, arguing with, or otherwise aggravating officers of the law is explicitly positioned as "survival advice" for Black men. In a recent piece on NPR, King Anyi Howell describes the techniques he has developed for dealing with the undue Police attention he finds he attracts simply by "Living While Black." He writes:
And I've been profiled so often that I've almost developed an art form for asserting my rights, while not offending the officer. I read recently that black men, when pulled over, have to be some odd combination of Samuel L. Jackson and Sydney Poitier, the former being known for his aggression and the latter for his eloquence. It may sound appalling to some, but that's exactly the tightrope I've learned to walk in dealing with the blue line of racial profiling. There's an unspoken understanding between the offending cop and me when I get pulled over. We both know it's not necessarily because a taillight is out, or my music is playing too loudly. And we both know it will likely end up in some sort of search. I don't act indignant because I'm the Jedi master, employing mind control to get us both out of the situation as quickly as possible.

I'm disturbed by two things here, the first is the notion that some or all citizens should show automatic and unquestioning deference to officers of the law, men and women who, if I understand the constitution correctly, are ultimately answerable to the sovereign people of the United States of America, bound to "Protect and Serve" not to command arbitrary respect based on arbitrary authority. The second is that no one seems to want to mention that when people of color are advised that they must always be careful not to act in a manner that might be seen as aggressive or threatening in the presence of a Police officer, this advice, however well meaning and well informed by the situation at hand it may be, implicitly conditions people to think of themselves as second-class citizens, hemmed in by arbitrary power beyond their control. I'm reminded of a passage from Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," in which he describes his Mother's actions after she found him injured in a fight with white boys in the neighborhood.
She grabbed a barrel stave, dragged me home, stripped me naked, and beat me till I had a fever of one hundred and two. She would smack my rump with the stave, and, while the skin was still smarting, impart to me gems of Jim Crow wisdom. I was never to throw cinders anymore. I was never to fight any more wars. I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again. And they were absolutely right in clouting me with a broken milk bottle. Didn't I know she was working every day hard in the hot kitchens of white folks to take care of me? When was I ever going to learn to be a good boy? She couldn't be bothered with my fights. She finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn't kill me.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Wright's mother here, after all, she just wants to keep her boy safe. But can a system that makes keeping your loved ones safe mean teaching them to be subservient ever be just? In the end, the responsibility for changing that system rests with us, the sovereign people of the United States. Why do I fear with have become too fond of the shallow stability provided by our near-police-state to take up that responsibility and see justice served.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Leaving Northwest Ohio

My last week here in this flat, flat part of the world. There are many things I will not miss. The decided lack of proper pizza or, for that matter, much of anything in the way of edible cuisine. A surprising scarcity of good, fresh produce. A certain degree of cultural isolation.

I will however, miss this: the fact that, any time I wanted to, I could hop on my bike and ride out the long, flat, straight trail into the silence and emptiness of the corn, soy and wheat fields that stretch out here like the Bonneville flats rendered in grain. A landscape that seemed, at first glace, the very picture of natural bounty, only revealing itself as an artifact, as an engineered landscape, upon deeper inspection. For a cyborg romantic like me, there was something beautiful and captivating about the arrow-straight rows of crops, mechanically perfect in their geometry, flickering by as I rode past them like the spokes of a spinning wheel.

The corn flats of Ohio are, perhaps, the apotheosis of our industrial culture at the dawn of the 21st century: monotonous, isolating, hungry for diesel, and incapable of producing anything could sustain a human being without massive industrial intervention. Nonetheless, they are possessed of their own stark beauty. I will remember that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Somethings wroooong here...

This ought to go without saying, but when Robert Reich argues (in his current TPM blog post) that waiting until after the August congressional recess to get a health care reform bill out of the Senate Finance Committee would be "a death sentence" for the bill as, "the gravitational pull of the mid-term elections of 2010 will frighten off Blue Dogs and delight Republicans," he documents something badly, badly wrong with our democracy. When impending elections threaten to derail legislation supported by over 70% of voters who the hell is our government representing?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The rest of the internet has had their say, so why shouldn't I?

I think this Obit on Daily Kos gets a lot of things right.

Some have wondered if the allegations that Jackson was guilty of child abuse should be playing a larger role in our collective remembering of the man's life.

I think that, in a way, Jackson epitomized the obsession with the pedophile as monster in America at the turn of the millennium. A monster at once genuinely evil and completely pathetic. An evil so queer, so far from ourselves that we can hate it without any reservation. Without ever seeing the monster in the mirror. And weak. Jackson's frail frame assuring us that this is a creature that could only feed on children, that we ourselves could confront it safely and easily.

I am reminded of a certain creepy hanger-on to my group of friends when I was an undergraduate, a poor, broken thing with an unfortunate habit of leering at other people's girlfriends. I confronted him once, brandishing a baseball bat. Oh, the supreme confidence I felt, assured of moral righteousness and an easy victory.

How easy it was, in that moment, to forget my own monstrosity, my own violence...

Oh, but of course some will protest, "that is not at all the same, a pedophile's crimes are far worse."

True enough. But is our response, the space they hold in our collective unconscious really proportional to their crime? Or are we propelled by the same impulse that lead me to that ridiculous confrontation in a dormitory parking lot (and ultimately an anti-climactic one, as the creepy little man held his ground! I stormed off frustrated) the impulse to find someone both weak and evil, the better to forget the evil lurking in our own souls, and the evils committed by those strong enough that we fear to confront them (knowing, of course, that it is our cowardice that allows those evils to continue).

Jackson was a brilliant artist and, as the Kos eulogist puts in so beautifully,a dismembered soul. We, of course, held the knives. To what extent does that make us complicit in any crimes he might have committed?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

I didn't get to be an Astronaut when I grew up

But now I can exchange 140 character or less messages with them!

Some of you may remember this post from awhile ago, wherein I speculated on the possibility of using a spacecraft on a suborbital trajectory to make a super-fast trans-Atlantic flight.

Of course, once I found an actual shuttle astronaut on twitter I had to see if he could confirm my idea. The shuttle, you see, has the ability to glide to a landing at emergency landing strips in Spain and Africa if something goes wrong with the main engines during liftoff. That's a fairly similar flight plan to the one I speculated about in my post. Not quite exactly the same, but probably the closest thing anyone has ever planned for or simulated (no shuttle mission has ever had to actually use the emergency landing option).

So I asked him in a tweet how long it the flight would take, lift-off to landing.

His response, "Roughly 30 minutes"

Which was my prediction! Go me!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Andy's Rules of Networked Subjectivity

Rule 1 - The Phenomenology of Memetic Epidemiology: When the nodes of a given network are richly interconnected, and the connections between nodes are very fast, any new phenomenon spreading through the network will, from the point of view of any one node, seem to appear nearly simultaneously from several points of origin.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Missing the Point

There was a time I had a great deal of sympathy for the Libertarians. Those days are waning.

It doesn't help when they trot out bits of flimsy argument like this article by Brendan O'Neill posted today on Reason Online.

In it, O'Neill criticizes what he sees as the unfair treatment of Bill O'Reilly and other right-wing talking heads who, he writes, have been implicated in the recent murder of George Tiller "in the kangaroo court of liberal opinion." O'Neill argues that, "rather than seeing this dreadful killing as the action of a probably crazed individual, too many liberal commentators are discussing it as the logical outcome of the "dangerous" words and images propagated by O'Reilly and others." O'Neill makes the case that this represents a liberal version of the "'"effects theory,' the idea that certain of speech are so irresponsible and inflammatory that they can easily provoke unhinged individuals to take unhinged actions." This serves, in O'Neill's view, to improperly shift responsibility for violence away from individuals who actually commit violent acts, where he believes it belongs, and onto individuals who, like O'Reilly have merely expressed their opinion on a controversial matter "vividly." Attempting to hold speakers, rather than actors, responsible is unacceptable to O'Neill as it blurs, "the distinction between words and actions" and, in his mind, threatens to create an environment of pervasive censorship. He writes,

To seek to restrict a broadcaster's speech on the basis that it might inflame viewers to do something awful is an insult to all of us, since we're treated as little more than dumb attack dogs that hear "orders" and then carry them out. And to seek to restrict speech on the basis that it might coax one or two unhinged loners to do something awful would be turn society into the equivalent of a lunatic asylum, where everyone watches their words and controls their tone of voice just in case they give a madman the wrong impression.

It is in his repeated invocation of that essential libertarian figure, the individual, that Mr. O'Neill misses the point.

Th danger is not that Bill O'Reilly's rhetoric will somehow turn otherwise safe individuals into killers through the sheer power of its language alone, as if by magic. Nor is it that we must restrict O'Reilly's language because it is dangerous if individual members of some class of people imagined as being especially susceptible to outside influence, like children or people suffering from mental illness, should happen to be exposed to it.

Rather, the problem is that Bill O'Reilly, and many of his fellow "mainstream" public opinion makers on the Right are part of a larger right-wing movement, one that includes violent, extremest elements. Glenn Greenwald and David Neiwart, among others, have done painstaking, remarkable work documenting this movement and how it functions. It is not that O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh et. al. are all part of some literal conspiracy along with men such as Scott Roeder (Dr. Tiller's assassin), or more organized violent elements of the right-wing such as the Militia movement, the Minutemen, or the Klu Klux Klan. Rather, "mainstream" right wing talk TV and talk radio cultivate a sense of shared cultural and social identity with these groups. By adopting the violent rhetoric of these groups, as O'Reilly did when he called Tiller a "Baby Killer" and ranted that the Democratic Governor of Kansas had "blood on her hands," these "mainstream" pundits become part of a larger social formation. They benefit from their participation, as extremists and their fellow travelers make lucrative and devoted fans for their programs. Extremist movements also benefit when national media figures like O'Reilly co-opt their ideas since they gain ideological cover for their positions, and access to huge national audiences.

To put it more briefly, it is not that Mr. O'Reilly's program is the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, it is that his program is analogous to Radio Hutu.

Thus it is neither Scott Roeder, alleged murderer, nor Bill O'Reilly, public speaker, who are the whole story as individuals, though clearly the law will and should find Mr. Roeder legally accountable for his actions. Rather it is the ways in which the two of them are linked in a larger cultural formation. Doubtless Mr. O'Neill would find this entire line of argument ludicrous and distasteful. For him, the individual is the end all and be all of decision making and agency, whereas I believe human beings exist in cultures that fundamentally shape their actions and beliefs. I leave it to the reader to decide which of our models of human nature he or she finds more plausible.

I will, however, agree with O'Neill about this. O'Reilly should not be censored. Not because it would somehow be unethical, but because it would not work. Using the blunt instrument of the law to drive a movement like this underground without building a strong, broadly based coalition against it would simply leave it to fester, and return even more dangerous. Instead, what is crucial is to make ever more public the links Greenwald, Neiwert and others have found between "mainstream" right wing thought and racism, violence, and other broadly unappealing forms of action, to force those within the movement uncomfortable with murder and hate to reconsider their actions, and to galvanize public opinion against these hateful and ultimately self-defeating ideas.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Future We Got

People like to complain about the future we got, the 21st century we all ended up living in. "Where's my flying car," they ask, "my jetpack, my Martian vacation?" I admit, I've done it too. The 21st century can just seem so... mundane.

But, then again... maybe it ain't...

A doctor providing access to late-term abortions was murdered in Wichita today.

This, sadly, is nothing new. This sort of terrorism has been a staple of American politics for decades.

No, what is a sign of the times is the instant coverage the man's death got on Wikipedia, and of course the vandals who quickly descended on the article to crudely mock him.

I should note here, that I want to discuss these acts of vandalism here, not because I support them in any way, but because as a Wikipedia fan and scholar I find them interesting, in the same way a biologist might find the parasites and diseases that flourish in the natural environment interesting.

I should also note that only someone closely watching the page, as I was, either because they were curious about the editing proceedure, or actively assisting in editing, would ever notice that any of this vandalism ever took place. At most, the vandal's messages persisted on the page for a minute or two. I would estimate that most of the time the vandalism was erased in less than 30 seconds.

Some of the acts of vandalism were quite normal, boring really. One called him a "baby killer," another changed his occupation to "executioner."

Others were stranger.

One flippantly joked about the Doctor's murder using references from pop culture, writing that he had "gone to the Land of the Lost" and replacing the text of one section of the page with "Slestak him."

Another expressed his enthusiasm for murder in the patois of internet message boards and chatrooms, calling the killing an "Epic Win."

I must admit, both these cases caused me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, though I should have known better. We do not think of the sort of person who laughs at the killing of doctors who provide access to abortion as being the same the sort of person who talks about Sleestaks in the voice of an LOLcat. Yet here these two activities were overlapping.

I couldn't help but wonder, were these young, hip conservative hard-liners, teens or twenty somethings with a taste for kitchy pop and internet memes and a fanatical devotion to a vision of Christianity so warped it celebrated the murder of supposed enemies? Or were they 4chan style provocateurs, in no way committed to any political cause, simply on the nigh-on sociopathic pursuit of "lulz," disturbing others just for the sake of showing they could do it, and laughing at their discomfort.

I suspect the latter is at least part of what is going on here, but I cannot rule out the former, and I admit I find the former more interesting, and troublesome. If there are christian hard-liners among the net-meme crowd, it suggests the fanatical right will be with us for a long time, and will not succumb to generational change, either human or technological.

So this is the future we got - IP identified griefers making fun of a dead man on the 8th most visted website in the world using the language of a net-based subculture, either for the cause of reactionary politics, or of simple sociopathic glee. It isn't the best future, but you gotta give it this, it ain't a boring one.

Here's a happier note about our Century 21. I've been reading an Asimov novel, Nemesis set in the 23 century. In it, the protagonists build a faster than light starship, and head out for the stars. Pretty cool and futuristic, right? Here's the thing, they don't know where to go, because in the 23 century of the novel, no one has discovered any planets circling around stars other than the Sun yet.

Here is wikipedia's list of extrasolar planets , those are all the planets we have already discovered around other stars.

Oh yeah, Asimov wrote Nemesis in 1989.

We've come a long way into the future, baby.

And the future maybe sorta weird and scary... but it is also pretty cool.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Journey I Took

I haven't put a post up here for awhile, mostly because I've been trying to figure out whether or not I want to write something about my recent experiences, and if so, how I want to write about them.

Ultimately, though, I don't think I can get back to blogging without saying something about this, so here goes...

This winter I was scrambling to find something in the way of employment. The academic job market is bad, and I hadn't heard anything but rejections from the faculty positions I had applied for. I had always been interested in joining Peace Corps, so I figured I might as well fill out the application.

To make a long story short, the Peace Corps needs English teachers and they quickly accepted me and nominated me to serve in a position in Central Asia.

That is not the journey I ended up taking.

Peace Corps requires a health evaluation for all incoming candidates. As part of mine, I had to have some lumps, or nodules, on my Thyroid gland I had been aware of for the past few years re-evaluated. I wasn't too concerned, the prior workup had indicated the nodules were benign.

I went in to have the nodules re-biopsied just before Easter. The Monday after Easter the doctor called, the biopsy had returned "suspicious" results. There was only a 20 percent chance it was cancer, he said, but I would have to have at least part of my Thyroid surgically removed to rule out it out.

Thyroid Cancer, I should note here, is a disease with a generally positive prognosis, for cancer at least. 15 year survival rates for the more common varieties run upwards of 95%. Most patients diagnosed under the age of 40 live out normal lifespans. Those of you who know how I deal with disease will know this comforted me not at all. I already knew a great deal about the rarer and more deadly forms of Thyroid cancer from the last time my nodules had been evaluated, and now I learned a great deal more about the possible complications that could render the less aggressive forms deadly. Every sensation in my body became a harbinger of doom. A back ache was a sign of a bone metastasis, a head ache of one in the brain.

After two weeks of waiting for a surgical consult (um, yeah, no matter what a health insurance company shill tells you, there ARE wait times for care under our precious market based health care system, at least if you are not a millionaire) I met with the surgeon. Who told me that, based on his reading of the history, he felt I was actually looking at a 70% or better chance of having cancer, and that he wanted to completely remove my Thyroid gland. Terrified, I consented to the surgery and drove myself home feeling slightly unreal.

The week between the consult and surgery was surreal. I was in some ways less afraid than I had been before the consult, in some ways more. Foremost in my mind was the risk of damage to my voice. Thyroid surgery requires the surgeon to work close to what are called the recurrent laryngeal nerves, any injury to these can paralyze a vocal cord and leave you permanently hoarse. As someone who relies on the presence of his booming voice as an important part of his teaching repertoire, this possibility terrified me. And of course there was the fact that I had been told I was very probably facing a cancer diagnosis. It was a long week.

My mother came out to help me through the surgery and recovery. The night before the operation was scheduled I wrote letters to friends and family, to be opened if anything should happen to me, and slept a few fitful hours. We drove in to the hospital before dawn, since my appointment was for surgery at 7:00am. The surgical prep area played a recorded loop of the sound of ocean waves. The pre-op nurses were chipper, joking with me to try to keep my spirits up as I sat through a long progression of anesthesiologists and doctors all asking the same questions about my medical history, and describing my procedures to me, not knowing I had already read every scrap of information on them the internet would bring my way. I had IV lines inserted into both hands. I wondered if these would be my last moments with my voice, and found it ironic that there was so little to say. My mother came in to sit with my for awhile, and then they wheeled me into the operating room. The sedative they gave me made me giddy. All my anxiety melted before the brunt of chemistry, and then there was blankness.

I came to confused, and in a fair amount of pain. I think my first words were "I hurt" though by then I knew enough to realize that it was a good thing that I could say that without too much trouble. My mother told me that the doctors were saying they thought my Nodules had been benign after all, based on what they had seen during the surgery, though I knew we would have to wait until later in the week when the full pathology report was finished to be sure. At the very least the rarer and more lethal forms of cancer had been ruled out.

Time acted strangely during my stay in the hospital. Probably a side effect of the morphine. The day wasn't too bad, other than some pain and weakness from the lingering effects of the surgery and anesthesia. I vomited up my first clear liquid meal, which was more embarrassing than anything else. My voice came up to nearly full strength fairly quickly (it had suffered some temporary damage from my intubation during the procedure), and that was encouraging. I managed to send some email and other messages from my mother's laptop. I slept on and off.

My room mate, it became apparent from the discussions I could hear his doctors having with him through the thin curtain dividing our room, was in the hospital to have a surgery related to complications stemming from chemotherapy he was undergoing for lung cancer. It is terrible to say, but the realization of how lucky I was in comparison to him relaxed me tremendously.

Oh, and somewhere in there I regained the ability to pee, which was nice. The day after surgery was all about regaining things I had never really considered losing.

Then evening rolled around, and my mother left, and my room mate was discharged, and things got weird. I wasn't with it enough to concentrate on even so much as a television show. I drifted in and out of consciousness. Time passed incredibly slowly. I woke up thinking it was the middle of the night, only to realize it was 8pm.

Morning came after what seemed endless night. After a long day of waiting, testing to see if my stomach was ready to tolerate food (by feeding it deplorable hospital cuisine, who can screw up grilled cheese and tomato soup? seriously) I was discharged.

I lay on my futon watching TV, trying not to move my stiff and tender neck too much, while my mother spent her time (I am somewhat ashamed to say) cleaning my apartment, which she found unacceptably dirty.

On Friday, the surgeon called. The pathology showed my nodules to be benign. My mother, who had been stoic until then - trying to keep me from falling further in to my constant near panic - cried with joy.

And I slowly got stronger. I stopped needing vicodin for pain after a few days. My father came out to relieve my mother, and she returned to work. My surgical drain (which was gross) came out after a week, my stitches a few days later.

But my thyroid was gone for good. Since you need thyroid hormone to live, I'm now dependent on synthetic thyroid hormone for life. Taking the synthetic hormone is no trouble, just a small tablet every morning. Looks sort of like a birth control pill, actually... maybe pills delivering artificial human hormones lend themselves to a certain form factor?

I read a variety of accounts of what it is like to be on Thyroid hormone replacement drugs before my surgery. Many patients report no major side effects. Others report a wide variety of problems, weight issues, depression, anxiety, memory issues, cognitive difficulties. So far, I feel fairly normal, though I have only been on the drugs for a few weeks, and the lingering remnants of my natural thyroid hormone have not fully left my system. It is wait and see, but I'm hopeful I will be able to get on with my life on the drugs without any real difficulty.

In any event, I am starkly aware of how lucky I am not to be facing a cancer diagnosis. Oncologists like to tell thyroid cancer patients that they have a "good" diagnosis, but they still face the challenges of constant monitoring for recurrence of their disease, radioactive Iodine scans and treatments that require them to be withdrawn from their thyroid replacement drugs (which causes them to become ill as their metabolism runs down without the necessary hormone), and life on a "suppression dose" of synthetic hormone - essentially a very slight intentional overdose of the hormone that helps prevent their cancer from coming back. Even if I do end up facing some challenges because of my hormone replacement, they will pale in comparison to all that. I'm ready to face them.

Still, my pill every morning can't help but remind me that my life hangs on a slender thread. In effect, I now am permanently facing a death sentence one month away, on indefinite reprieve. Every month I will go to the drug store and pick up another month of life.

Really though, this was always true. Our lives are never as certain as we pretend them to be. In a sense, all this has simply forced me to see life the way it is, without guarantees.

So, that is the journey I ended up taking, when I tried to join the Peace Corps. Frankly, now that I've written this, I want to put it behind me, and blog about silly things and TV shows and politics and digital culture.

Except, of course, that I hope I don't lose this sense of how good it is to be alive.

I just want to take this chance to thank all my friends and family that stood by me as I took this trip. You really can't know how much your support has meant to me, unless you have been through something like this yourself, in which case you understand what the support of friends and family means in the deep way that I only now have come to comprehend.

So yeah, thanks everybody. Life is good. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Rare And Little Seen


Peeparodon Andyus

Happy Peep eatin' season!

Thursday, April 02, 2009


For the sake of an Update.

Deep Thought: If you die in a prominent act of violence or major natural disaster, and you hold dual-citizenship or are a naturalized citizen of one country who claims heritage from another, there will be at least one Wikipedia discussion about how to count you among the dead.

That is all.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Best Line

From Matt Taibbi's recent article on the Bank Bailout from Rolling Stone

The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. When challenged, they talk about how hard they work, the 90-hour weeks, the stress, the failed marriages, the hemorrhoids and gallstones they all get before they hit 40.

"But wait a minute," you say to them. "No one ever asked you to stay up all night eight days a week trying to get filthy rich shorting what's left of the American auto industry or selling $600 billion in toxic, irredeemable mortgages to ex-strippers on work release and Taco Bell clerks. Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your ass in jail instead?"

Word. I hate how people use, "I worked really hard," as their justification for every goddamn unjust thing they do in this country. "Sure, I'm brutally exploiting people, but it is hard work." "Hey man, its true that my job pays me obscene sums to devise ways to keep insurance companies from having to pay sick people but I work really hard." "Designing new SUVs that will capture public interest, thus ensuring the continued burning of unsustainable amounts of fossil fuels is a lot of work."

I'm not gonna strain myself too much saying this, but fuck you. Maybe its time for us, as a society, to stand up and actually make some goddamn informed decisions about what sort of work does and does not deserve reward, instead of just blindly following some Puritan impulse to throw money at anyone who can make a convincing case for having followed some BS protestant capitalist work ethic.

If you'll excuse me I'm going to go back to goofing off listening to NPR's Saturday Afternoon Opera and slowly writing my government funded dissertation. Look at it this way. At least I'm not working hard to blow up the economy or doom the fucking planet.

Friday, March 13, 2009

None of Us Are Free, If One of Us is Chained

House is a terribly silly television program, but I love it for its performances, and for turning me on to Solomon Burke:

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Nostalgia for Industry

There was a great moment on Battlestar Galactica this past week. Starbuck is briefing the pilots of the fleet on their duties. Among them, searching for any habitable planet the fleet might call home. The reward for any pilot that makes such a stupendous find? A tube of toothpaste. "The last tube of Felgercarb Toothpaste existing in the known Universe," she announces in a worn deadpan, presenting the unique treasure.

I thought this was a well drawn moment, showing the larger loss in a telling detail. Even more, the detail chosen suggests what the fallout of losing an industrial civilization might look like. Once common commodities, mass-produced objects like bars of soap, cans of soup, tubes of toothpaste, become precious and unique objects. Treasures of a lost world. Like Walter Benjamin's "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" running in reverse.

The world has never really lost a whole industrial civilization before. The collapse of the Soviet sphere might be the closest analogue. I wonder if Russians my age ever have nostalgia for the state-produced products (however poorly made they might have been) that were the common artifacts of their youth. I suspect they do. I read a study somewhere once, that said they found people who grew up in the mid-twentieth century or later associated strong childhood memories with the smells and flavors of manufactured objects - the chemical smell of playdough, the impossible sweetness of kool-aid. I, for one, am reminded of my Grandmother by the flavor of plain Colgate, a staple at her house growing up. The scent of a particular laundry detergent calls forth the memory of a young woman I was once in love with, makes me remember both her and how I once felt about her with a terrible urgency. If this detergent is on sale, I will pass it by, to avoid walking around in a cloud of lonesome memory for weeks.

All this is made more pertinent by the fact that an awful lot of very smart people seem to be concerned that the world may be, in fact, right now in the process of losing an industrial civilization. Namely ours. Bruce Sterling has an interesting post along those lines here. I had the chance to spend some time with another prominent media scholar this weekend. He was less dire than Bruce, but did argue that the surplus we have enjoyed as Americans for the last fifty years was a historical aberration, and was likely in the process of going away.

Of course he also made the point that said surplus had been managed and spent poorly. I would agree. I would add that it was often gained unjustly. My point is not to glorify industrial culture. I deeply hope we can build something better out of its ruins. My point is simply relate to you, my friends, the ways in which I have been anticipating my coming nostalgia. For the luxuries we take for granted. Oranges in Northwest Ohio. Blueberries in Winter. For bottles of oily blue washing detergent that smells like teen angst.

To think this way, makes you see the world as it is, strange and unprecedented. I walked into Kroger supermarket in my fugue of anticipatory nostalgia and found a magical and impossible place. Brightly lit, smelling of fresh bread, coffee stacked in rows, long aisles of our unlikely surplus. The likes of which will never be seen again, at least, not in the everyday lives of poor students and workers. Perhaps the ultra rich will keep a few as preserves. Trade the last can of Chock Full o' Nuts coffee amongst themselves, commenting on its cheerful yellow exterior, the uniformity of the machine-ground beans within.

And maybe, just maybe, a haggard President Obama, nearing the close of his second term, will address a nation huddled in extended families around a handful of still operational television sets. "My fellow Americans," he will announce in a worn deadpan, "we are still looking for any sustainable method of political economy. For the citizen who finds it, I offer this reward: the last tube of regular flavor Colgate toothpaste existing in the Universe."

Friday, February 06, 2009

In which I pick sides between New and Old Media

I have some very, very serious reservations about the "social networking" site Facebook. Mostly, these revolve around the fact that Facebook (much like, um, blogger, which I am using now) is a commercial website that actively extracts information from its users for the benefit of advertisers. That makes it a fairly pernicious form of surveillance, leading to the very real possibility of the commodification of yet more of our existences, yet more opportunities for capital to take our lives away and sell them back to us.

Yet still, I have to admit, Facebook users have managed to build a fairly compelling social space within this sort of virtual shopping mall. That is what makes the danger of surveillance and commodification so dangerous. All that said, I thinl criticisms of the social habits of Facebookers like this one are badly off the mark.

This author sets out to criticize facebook's "25 Things" meme, which I had myself been annoyed with and had parodied a bit here. I had thought "25 Things" to be worth critique because it invited people to share facts about themselves in this environment of surveillance. And, I admit, sometimes I found people's facts a bit boring.

The author of the article I link to above, however, seems to take offense at the very notion that the proles might dare to write about themselves in this crass new medium made of tubes "the internets." First of all, it distracts them from their proper task of working their assigned jobs within the system! "Assuming it takes someone 10 minutes to come up with their list," she writes,"this recent bout of viral narcissism has sent roughly 800,000 hours of worktime productivity down the drain." Oh noes! Its not like our society is currently undergoing a "crisis of demand" where we can't come up with consumers for all our precious productivity! No, no... back to work proles! We see you slacking on your facebooks! Your role in life is to toil, never to write.

Her other critique is that Average people Suck and should not be permitted to express themselves. You think I'm being too hard on her. Here is what she says in her own words: "Most people aren't funny, they aren't insightful, and they share way too much. Facebook is a loose social network; a "friend" on Facebook might translate to someone you'd barely recognize in real life. I don't care that my college roommate's sister is anemic or that my stepcousin's boyfriend gets nervous around old people (apparently he's afraid they're going to die)." Hear that average people, you aren't funny or insightful! You must SHUT UP now and permit your duly appointed scribbling class the honor of expressing things for you. You couldn't possibly have anything to contribute.

You know, I'll admit it, I'm not always entertained by the things folks share on Facebook. Sometimes I'm even annoyed by what I see as clumsy language or cliched expressions. But listen, Time magazine writer person, shouldn't that make us wonder what is wrong with us, rather than them. People everywhere are clearly desperate to express themselves, to share something of their lives with a larger community, even through imperfect electronic means. There are important reasons to criticize the means, to try to make them better, but I don't think there is any reason to be so condescending to the people who are using them. Maybe, instead, we should take the time to listen, to get to know our fellow human beings, rather than insisting our knowledge of humanity come pre-packaged in pithy prose by writers who have been approved by the proper social elites and commercial enterprises.

One Thing

Just for the sake of updating the ol' blog. Wasn't tonight's Episode of "The Office" a pretty solid episode? I felt like the promo shot, with what's-her-face Jim's girlfriend from last season, heavily pregnant were meant to set us up a bit as viewers. Make us do the math in our heads. Make us wonder "will they really go there? I thought they were smarter than that?"

And ultimately, they were smarter than that. I like how they have steadfastly refused to break Pam and Jim up this season, and present us with a completely unbelievable "Ross and Rachel" style relationship-on-permanent-hold to somehow attempt to keep "tension" in the series. Instead they've tried to render two people trying to make things work, imperfectly but honestly, within the sit-com format. I think that has been a brave move, even if they have sometimes faltered in their execution (the whole "oh look they are having a crisis" resolved with a "wait no they aren't, they love each other EVEN MORE" bit is starting to wear a little thin).

So there, my opinion on the current season of The Office, for what it is worth, which is very little.

Oh and the new judge on Top Chef is a total ass. What a tool.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

25 Things

So there's this 25 things thing going around Facebook (I know, Facebook... shudder). You're supposed to post "25 random things about yourself." Problem for me is, I'm such a narcissistic loudmouth, I've already told everyone in ear-shot everything they could ever want to know about me, and many things they never wanted to know. So, in lieu of 25 random things about myself, I'm going to post 25 things on a different topic.

See, thing is, tonight the "Stimulus Bill" proposed by President Obama passed the house. That is the good news. The bad news is that the President and the House Democrats watered the bill down to try to make it palatable for the Republicans. They did things like take out funding for family planning, and add tax cuts. You know what they got for these compromises, made in the name of "bipartisanship" and unity? Nothing. No GOP representatives, exactly none, voted for this bill.

So I'm writing this note to say: To hell with bi-partisanship! Here are 25 things I want added to the Stimulus Bill in the Senate, just to piss off the Republicans.

1. Money to buy 14 billion condoms and 300 million doses of Plan B, and to drop said supplies out of low-flying C-130 cargo aircraft over every populated area in the United States.
2. Language declaring National Coming Out Day a National Holiday, and providing funds to celebrate it in the public schools.
3. Block grants for bloggers, with 10 million dollars specifically earmarked for the Daily Kos.
4. Funding to install organic rooftop gardens on all public housing projects
5. To raise funds, the bill should establish a program to forcibly re-posses Hummer SUVs and melt them down. Scrap to be used on public works projects. All Hummer owners to be issued pink Priuses as replacement vehicles.
6. Full funding for Bike trails in all urban and suburban areas. All bike trails to be marked with clearly legible signage reading "YOUR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT LOVES HIPPIES."
7. Oklahoma to be sold back to appropriate Native American Nations for a set of Rosary Beads and one of those "Magical Prayer Mats" you get in the mail unsolicited.
8. Charles Darwin and Issac Asmiov's birthday to be celebrated as joint holiday (like president's day) to be called "National Secular Humanism Day." Army of MFA metal sculptors hired to build giant abstract sculpture depicting Darwin and Asimov's love for humanity in the medium of their choice. Homoerotic overtones are to be encouraged, but not required.
9. Travel grants for same sex couples to go to states where full marriage equality is practiced and get married. Extra funding to be granted if couples need to avoid traveling through Congressional Districts with GOP congresspersons.
10. NEH funding increased 4000% At least half of the funding must be devoted to special projects on Pro-Feminist Pornography
11. Money to tear down border wall and replace it with "Borderlands! A Water-Fun Park Devoted to the Work of Gloria Anzaldua" Several Waterslides will cross the US-Mexico border.
12. UAW/SEIU/AFL-CIO get their own bailout grants. Money is specifically permitted to be used on government lobbying and lavish parties.
13. "The L-Word" to be named national treasure. Vast staff of Queer Theory scholars hired at lavish salaries to maintain archival material and perform fan ethnographies.
14. Funding for Peace Studies programs to be established at Annapolis, Quantico, and West Point.
15. Residents of East Hampton and Orange County to be evicted by armored units of the National Guard. Funding provided for homes to be converted to communal housing for musicians devoted to copyright-free music
16. Money to hire coders to re-write Linux kernel. They will be instructed to "Make it more communist."
17. Biologists hired to establish the species with the highest incidence of same-sex sex (other than human beings). This species to be named a special protected species. Homes of high profile GOP politicians to be seized in eminent domain for the purpose of creating parks for preserving this species. Homes will be preserved intact, signage to be posted reading clearly "Government Preserve for Gay Animals."
18. Massive farm subsidies for Arugula farmers. Tofu producers to be given similar subsidies.
19. Hire crew of painters to paint a giant Pot leaf on the Hoover Dam, while we're at it Hoover Dam to be renamed in honor of Ralph Nader
20. "Faith Based Charity Funding" provided for Nation of Islam community self-policing projects.
21. PBS and NPR funding to be massively increased. Specific earmarks for programming on "Why Kinky Hair is Good Hair," "Gay Communities in the Islamic World," "NASCAR is Stupid: An Expose," and "No, For Serious People, Global Warming is Very, Very Real."
22. Money to establish K-12 curricula on Critical Examination of White Privilege, Critical Race Theory, and Advanced Evolutionary Biology
23. Funding for Vegan school lunch programs.
24. Coors bottling plant to be seized, sold to Tsingao brewing company for write-down of Chinese held debt.
25. Money for changing signage etc such that, all gov't buildings, vessels, etc. named after Ronald Regan to be renamed after Harvey Milk, Al Gore, Bobby Kennedy, and Eugene V. Debs

There you go! 25 things! Who has more?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Economics of War

I don't agree with much of Classical economics, but I will agree with this: if you make a certain course of action cheap, people will tend to pursue it rather than alternatives.

If you make bombs cheap, for example, everything starts to look like a target. Take the current situation in Gaza, almost certainly helped along by the United States providing Israel with Two Billion Dollars of military aid annually (aid that must be spent for US-made weapons, making it essentially a giant welfare check for Lockheed, Boeing, and Raytheon). So the Israeli's attempt to solve the "Palestinian Question" by using multi-million dollar fighter planes to drop bombs on tenement buildings.

Oh, and shell the place with nice, cheap, readily available American made White Phosphorus shells.

Follow that link. It couldn't be clearer. That brightly burning stuff falling from the sky, trailing white smoke? That's White Phosphorus: a high temperature incendiary that keeps burning after it lands on you, and has the handy side-effect of being highly toxic. Whether the photograph shows an intentional strike or the side-effects of using WP as a light or smoke source over a built-up area hardly matters. You can see what this stuff does when used over one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Hey, I've got an idea, if we really want mid-east peace, why don't we stop giving all this crap to the Israelis? Why don't we make war expensive, and see if that generates some more creative thinking on how peace might be achieved?

That would be change I could believe in. Why do I feel like we're unlikely to get it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

So Late It Is Early

Trying to reset the old out of whack diurnal clock by brute force, seemed like a good idea two hours ago when I was nice and alert and able to read...

Now I'm watching the sky grow brighter and the temperature fall on my little weather station.

Morning like this, you step outside and can feel the cold of space against the skin, thin skein of the atmosphere is no protection... body heat just wicks up and out, into the long dark deepness between the stars.

Morning like this, it occurs to you that this moment now is, effectively, the moment you die, no rupture, no protection, just the all too brief present unfolding in its always accelerating way until it runs headlong into oblivion's grasp. Into the long dark deepness of the inanimate from which you sprang, to which you shall return.

A morning not so unlike this one, not so long ago, I sat in the window seat of a tiny turboprop, waiting to take off on the first leg of a transatlantic trip. Flying makes me nervous, the sheer number of moving parts involved in commercial air traffic overwhelms my ability to make sense of the system, forces me to take on faith the notion that one will safely be conveyed to the edge of space and back as one flies from here to there.

My imagination being what it is, I began it picture how things could go wrong. Imagined the blades of the prop outside my window coming apart violently. Imagined myself decapitated, my head surviving a few seconds as the urban legends say it will. If that were the last bit of the moment granted me, I thought, what will I wish I had done?

And I looked at the play of the raindrops being blown back across the plexiglass window by the propwash, their tiny convexities splitting dull gray morning light into subtle, leaden spectra. Watched them dance up, then down, as the engine throttled.

I thought, I would wish I could write that down.

And now I have.

It must suffice.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Lazy Food Blogging

Originally uploaded by choo_choo_pictures
I took some pics of my prep from the food I made to share with friends on New Year's eve. I meant to write up a "food blog" post, but I am too lazy. The pics are on my flickr with some basic descriptive captions, though... so click the picture to them out if you would like.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's Day

We've made it to see another year friends.

Remember, whatever happens in 2009, so long as the Supervolcano under Yellowstone doesn't explode, taking two-thirds of the Continental US with it, I'd say we've done ok.

That kinda puts our human-level tragedies in perspective, don't it?