Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Business as Usual...

Two weeks ago, I had a rather unsettling experience.
I'm going to relate this little DAILY incident so we can reflect on what this means for the way we are doing business.
Blithely surfing through (no that is not an advertisement), looking at the publications of one of the U.S.'s great intellects, the philosopher Mortimer Adler, I noted with interest that he had written a book about linguistics.
"Cool", I said to myself. I respect Mortimer Adler, and would like to read what he has to say on the subject (even if the book is old, well, the Bible, and Goethe are old too, so on subjects like these, I don't feel a pressing need for what has just jumped off the presses. Very often it can be.. LESS interesting than what our ancestors wrote and thought, by the way.)
The book is out of print.
So I checked out amazon's sellers.
Drum roll...
The difference in price for this book ranged from... $600 to $1.67...
Are you in shock ?
Is this price range NORMAL for presumably identical copies of the same book ?
Na. Not in the least.
I think that this example shoots a big hole into any misconceptions that we might have that the markets are... "free" in these days of zero REGULATION. Think about it. It takes more than 0 regulation to make a FREE market. I should say, it takes something DIFFERENT from 0 regulation to make a free market, because I'm not sure yet just how regulation makes the market virtuous.
(Hey, look, that word "free" is there. A light bulb just lit up in my brain connecting to my favorite Smithsonian zoo lions in the cage story. Hmmm. Will have to think a little more about the implications of this.)
Now, my local farmer's market is a FREE market.
When people are selling TOGETHER, and COMPETING TOGETHER WITHIN A COMMUNITY, I think that there is a pressure for prices to come together. With slight variations, of course.
But, in my opinion, something else is happening in order for such enormous variations in prices to exist, as per my example.
Could it be that...
We have bottomed out so much the idea of money in our minds that it really has no meaning for us any more or that...
Our individualism has reached such proportions that we have managed to bottom out EVEN the RELATION of competition ??
Think about it. You have to have a minimum of identification, a minimum of sense of community to even engage in competition. Like apples don't compete with oranges, for example. Keeping up with the Joneses, for example presupposes that you recognize that the Joneses are OTHER PEOPLE. People... LIKE YOU. More or less.
That's a paradox, granted, but it seems true to me.
So... could those prices be an indication of the end of the road towards INDIVIDUALISM ?
Like... the Joneses are no longer even OTHER PEOPLE for us ??
Just a question.
I welcome my reader's comments.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Brahms/Goethe : "Harzreise im Winter"

Here as promised, is Goethe's poem, taken from "Harzreise im Winter", set to music by Brahms as the Rhapsody for alto, male chorus and orchestra (opus 53). I am sticking down the original German, and a translation that is not credited in my version, that of Kathleen Ferrier with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Clemens Krauss.

Aber abseits, wer ist's ? / But who is that, standing apart ?
Ins Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad, / His steps recede into the bushes,
hinter ihm schlagen / behind him
die Straüche zusammen / the thickets close,
das Gras steht wieder auf, / the grass straightens,
die Öde verschlingt ihn. / the wilderness swallows him up.

Ach wer heilet die Schmerzen / Alas, who will heal the suffering
des, dem Balsam zu Gift ward ? / of one for whom balm has become poison ;
Der sich Menschenhass / and who sucked hatred of mankind
aus der Fülle der Liebe trank ? / from the abundance of love ?
Erst verachtet, nun ein Verächter, / Despised at first and now despising,
zehrt er heimlich auf / he secretly devours
seinen eignen Wert / his own worth
in ungnügender Selbstsucht. / in insatiable self love.

Ist auf deinem Psalter, / Father of love, if there is
Vater der Lieber, ein Ton, / a sound on your psaltery
seinem Ohre vernehmlich, / which his ear can discern,
so erquicke sein Herz ! / then quicken his heart !
Öffne den umwölkten Blick / Reveal to his clouded gaze
über die tausend Quellen / the thousand springs
neben dem Durstenden / by the side of the thirsty man
in der Wüste. / in the desert.

I'm not going to do a full critical analysis of the way I read this poem right now. Maybe someday here, who knows ?
For the time being, I would like to borrow an image from Philip Pullman, in his Dark Materials Trilogy.
Pullman talks about "dust". The most spiritually rich people in his epic saga are surrounded by layers and layers of invisible to the naked eye "dust", which Pullman seems to suggest (sorry Phillip for explaining your work...) is a manifestation of the eternal love affair between spirit and matter.
This poem, for me, is surrounded with "dust", too.
Its timeless images hark back to the most powerful ideas at work in our civilization, and cristallize them in a living way.
Just a few, pointillist brush strokes for my readers...
"over there"... "standing APART"...
the grass STRAIGHTENS AFTER when he walks on it...
The wilderness "SWALLOWS him up"...
"SUCKING hatred of man from the fullness of love".

And after.. "FATHER"...

As I said in my last post, this is Goethe's and Brahm's manifesto, their CREDO, written with words and music FOR MODERN MAN.
Modern man who does not believe... in anything, and as a result, well... can no longer believe in himself.
And the poem describes in great detail what happens SINCE modern man can no longer believe, and have faith :"devouring one's own worth in insatiable self love" born of... self hate, of course.
"Quicken"... is the biblical word used to speak of the fetus in the womb. It means to bring to life. The first movements of the fetus in the womb. Because, of course, for us, movement IS life, and our perception of it can not be divorced from our perception of life itself.
I suggest... that my readers listen to Brahms WITH Goethe, and let the MAGIC of the work tug gently at OUR hearts, right ??

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Melancoly Musings

This morning I'm going to take a break from the hard, dry stuff.
It gets on my nerves sometimes that some people don't understand that it is possible to think, and talk about something, about life, whatever, without sounding like a stuffed opposum, or a computer.
Sometimes I think that since we invented the machines, particularly the calculating kind, we have taken it upon ourselves to ressemble them more and more. Like.. the machines are perfection. Look : they don't die, they don't make mistakes (!!!!! well, yes, they make "mistakes", but we are continually convinced that THEIR mistakes are OUR fault...).
A little bit of observation would enable us to understand that the machines... run down, make mistakes, wear out, conk out, DIE, if you like in a DIFFERENT WAY than we do, but, well, they too are subject to the inevitable bulldozer destruction of TIME, so, well, maybe we shouldn't see our SALVATION in them, or be constantly belittling ourselves in comparison to them.
This morning I was listening to Philippe Cassard's program on our national public radio, wherein he presented and analyzed several Brahms lieder, accompanying a Canadian soprano.
I have been listening to Philippe Cassard for quite some time now.
(I beg forgiveness from my readers if I have already spoken about him at length here.)
Philippe is a talented classical pianist AND he analyzes classical music with great sensitivity, subtility, and finesse.
He plays music AND talks about it.
That is NO MEAN FEAT. It is almost as difficult to talk about music as it is to talk about wine, or odors, for example.
But Philippe does it very well. And his program is a lesson in how to combine analytic thinking AND sensitivity/emotion.
We NEED to achieve this combination in my opinion. I will come back to this in the future.
But where is the melancoly ?
In Brahms.
I first met Brahms seriously when I was 26, and was preparing a concert of A German Requiem at the time my father died suddenly and unexpectedly. I never sang the Requiem, (I had to take off across the Atlantic for the funeral) but it brought me unspeakable comfort and consolation, along with Brahms' First Symphony, during the long ordeal (for me..) of my father's death.
Through the years, I have felt tremendous gratitude towards this man who was dead long before I was born for the music that has kept me propped up in trying times.
Through the years, our relationship has blossomed, become more complex, as I have got to know him better, through his music.
Philippe knows a lot about Brahms that he shares in his programs. The fact that Brahms knew his Bible by heart, for example. (That is evident when listening to him.) That he had an intimate, personal relationship with God, and that, like many people in the 19th century Romantic movement, he worked hard to find exactly WHAT he believed, and what he could believe in. That his idea of God was definitely not a pre packaged one.
I don't think that Brahms had pre packaged ideas or beliefs anywhere, anyway.
He was an insatiable reader. Curious about everything. And a wanderer, like so many other Romantics. Upon arriving in a new place, he would search out schools, assemblies, to hear the music the people were singing/playing. (Germany has always been a country where music has a vital, living place in the culture. How's music doing these days, Toby ?)
Brahms did not often use great poems and literature to compose around, because he believed that poetry... well, it was self sufficient, and that it was disrespectful to set a great poem, and a great poet to music. As someone who writes poetry, I understand, and respect that.
One of his exceptions is.. the Rhapsody for Alto and Men's Choir, set to one of Goethe's greatest poems, I think. A poem that must have spoken particularly to Goethe, AND to Brahms. A kind of manifesto about modern man and his incapacity to believe, or be comforted.
A poem that speaks particularly to me, now...
I will write it on the blog for the next post.
Sadness is in the air today, for me. The mood will last a while.
You know... we really cannot escape the consciousness of our own mortality.
We can stick death and suffering somewhere in a corner, and pretend they don't exist, (we can stick our old people out of sight in nursing homes, and our dying in the hospitals) but they WON'T STAY in the corner. We can pretend that the consciousness of our mortality is an illness too, and trivialize our noblest, most beautiful, and subtlest feelings while sticking reductionist labels on them to try to make our pain and fear more bearable.
But in spite of all this effort... the consciousness of our mortality will not go away.
Best to look for ways to be comforted, I say, than try to pretend that death and suffering don't exist, trivialize them, or turn them into illness...
And our whole civilization, in the course of its history, has produced a multitude of beautiful expressions that can accompany us to comfort us in the face of death and suffering.
And we can SHARE in the expressions of our ancestors to find continuity with them AND comfort at the same time.
You know... if you TAKE THE TIME to sit down with a beautiful Brahms lieder, READING THE WORDS WHILE LISTENING TO THE MUSIC, you will hear how the music and the words go together in an inimitable way. It would be simplistic to talk about "illustration", because the music does not illustrate the words. It's more complicated than that. The relationship between music and words is... beyond words, you know ?
Next time, Goethe. Promise.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Growth, Resilience, Efficiency and Sustainability

In recent months I’ve been trying to understand money as ‘objectively’ or dispassionately as I can. The framework which strikes me as most likely to yield helpful results in this endeavour is systems theory. My earlier posts show how important it is for me to understand components not in isolation but in context. I believe more and more that properties of ‘things’ are emergent, not intrinsic, even at the subatomic level (see Durac’s negative energy sea for one man’s take on how this might be). My struggles to get a grip on money’s relationship with society and culture have been an attempt to understand economics from a systems point of view, and not in isolation. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing makes sense in isolation.

On to the diagrams:

Existing readers will remember the earlier money-flow diagrams I sketched, showing how money-as-debt must never be paid back in total, for such would mean No More Money for the economy. However, this is only a quickly intractable and self-destructing process if all people competing for as large as possible a share of the too-small money pool do equally well. In this case (which I think of as symmetrical repayment of debt) none could pay back fully the amount owed – there is not enough money in the pool to cover the interest – so none would benefit, and all loans would be written off. Whereas some benefit and some loans are paid off in the asymmetrical scenario sketched above. An infinitely preferable outcome for lenders, which goes some way to explaining how the debt-money system has survived so long. Another reason for its relative longevity is that the process does not begin with zero ‘good’ money or real wealth in the system. It always starts with much to be turned into debt.

Ultimately though, regardless of the successful firms acting as a source of profit for the lucky banks, there can never be enough money in this system to pay back the debt. With money creation as a profit-motivated enterprise performed by private companies, economic growth can only be debt-growth. Conversely, debt-reduction can only mean a shrinkage of the money supply, which means negative economic growth, which means recession or depression. Here not-growth is bad. Frugality is bad. The more credit extended (up to a point), the better the chance a bank has of making a profit.

With money-as-debt, new wealth is only ever created as a consequence of an uneven distribution of money over time among the system’s participants. Should money-as-debt be evenly distributed throughout the economy, there would be zero growth, and zero wealth creation, financially speaking. The system can only grow as a consequence of ‘disequilibrium’ (in terms of distribution); the more unbalanced, the greater the success of the few who do well, relative to the failures.

Furthermore, since money-accrual is the sign of success, and since money-scarcity is by design the systemic property which engenders competition – with winners securing their positions then hampering open competition – the debt-money system is inherently prone to stubbornly lopsided growth. Indeed, it can only be said to be ‘functioning’ when lopsided growth is occurring. Trickle-down is the assumed balancing mechanism touted as a redistributor of the system’s lubricant (money), but because being rich is logically better than being poor, and because debt growth is inextricably tied to continuing wealth growth, trickle-down cannot balance the system and make it sustainable; the pressure to game the system is just too strong. Debt-money systems are therefore not sustainable, nor can they ever be, nor are they fair. And, believe it or not, fairness is very important to humans.

Our beloved debt-money system grows therefore in a cancerous fashion by design, cancer being uneven and perpetual growth. Were the human body so designed it would barely last a month, all nutrients being hogged by the brain, for example, as the rest of the body withered away. Were an ecosystem so designed it likewise would have a very short life span. The reason for this is a systemic decay of versatility and resilience as, in cuckoo-like fashion, the strong-nodes of the system become stronger and stronger, the weak weaker and weaker, until its growing fragility and lopsidedness cause breakdown. Sadly, we think this process of favouring and encouraging the strong ‘efficient’:

“Critically what this says is that the very absence of order (even if its potential is never activated, and therefore unnoticed and unmeasured) plays the key role for a system to persist over the long run, to adapt to changing environment, or survive unexpected challenges. [ snip ] Systems that endure – that is, are sustainable – lie in dynamic balance somewhere between these two poles of order and disorder, efficient performance and adaptive resilience.” Lietaer et al.

The folks responsible for the research that produced this sustainability scale are mighty confident it proves efficiency can be overdone. This is, to my mind, a very exciting idea. However, what does not show up in the graph, is how well a system recycles its waste, nor how balanced it keeps its consumption of its environment’s resources relative to how quickly its environment can keep producing those resources. The idea that multiple money-types (see Bernard Lietaer) would make the economy more stable is most likely correct, but how ‘robust’ an economy ought a society to have, in order to have a sustainable relationship with the environment? There is, after all, far more to society than money-fuelled consumption!

The question I am currently unable to answer definitively is whether all money systems or monetary arrangements are necessarily cancerous (over time) and therefore unsustainable, not for reasons of over-efficiency, but for reasons of perpetual growth. Expressed as a question: Is money the only mechanism for metabolising society? Also unclear is whether society without money (a resource-based economy) would be too resilient and therefore become stagnant and die.

My crude reasoning goes as follows: since money is a tool for distributing scarce goods and services, incentive to accrue more than you need is built in and can’t be removed. Money promotes ever increasing consumption; a society’s economy is considered healthy the more consumption there is taking place. Likewise, with money as the only tool for rationing out life’s bounty, there is an ever-present motivational pressure to hoard, no matter how bountifully available those items that exist for sale might otherwise be. The distribution mechanism – the price system – makes things scarce whether they are or not. Slowly but inexorably, hoarding results in an increasingly lopsided system, over consumption produces real scarcity, which both inspire yet more hoarding as the have-nots slip towards poverty and deprivation, and being poor becomes That Which Must Be Avoided, at all costs. However, is this inherent and ever-present tendency to increasing imbalance a guarantee of systemic collapse? Or can forces such as government and art and others ‘deal with’ greed and hoarding, via, for example, taxation and morality, such that sustainability is ‘assured?’ In all honesty I just don’t know.

What strikes me though as a no-brainer is that sustainability should be the real test of a system’s mettle, the true hallmark of success. In that 99% of all life forms that ever graced this planet are now extinct, working out how to live sustainably is a tall order. Being a member of the exclusive club that makes it past a few hundred thousand years is an honour indeed. Driving shiny cars may well be ‘cool’ and impressive from our point of view, and it is certainly an incredible and unique achievement to have put members of our species on the moon, but our greatness will be quickly forgotten if we saw off the branch we are sitting on.

Keep it simple, stupid! If we want lasting success for our species (I certainly do), our priorities should be sustainability and living healthily, both individually and societally. Focusing on these things above all others would not preclude incredible achievements and fun – we are an intelligent and curious animal with opposable thumbs no matter what – but would give us a chance of a much longer stay on this spectacular planet, and elsewhere in Universe should we figure this challenge out.

My systems take on what money is, might be summarised as follows:

Surplus + scarcity as emergent property of ‘taming’ nature per domestication
Trade as emergent property of surplus + scarcity
Money as emergent property of trade
Greed and lopsided growth as emergent property of price-system-distribution of planetary resources

But there’s more to money than rampant growth. Functionally, money is probably most useful as a unit of account, a way of keeping tabs on what goes on. So, should we fully automate clean and renewable energy generation, food growth and distribution, water too, throw in housing, basic white goods and so on, and so be able to provide a good life to all without a price tag attached, and thereby make poverty, most crime and war history, and deal with the looming pension problem too, we may well still need money for ‘everything else,’ not money as we have it now, but as some sort of unit of account, not for driving consumption, but perhaps as measurement of energy used, or societal contributions, or something else.

Thinking forward, we ought to bear in mind that money is a bit ‘weird,’ and here’s why: Debt is bad for the body, but surplus is too. Holding our breath causes a growing pressure to breathe, but when we start breathing again we gasp and pant only until oxygen debt is redressed. We can’t carry on panting to store a surplus of air in our lungs in case a shortage ever happens again. If you drink too much water you drown. If you eat too much food for long enough you build up energy reserves as fat and become unhealthy. Debt and surplus in the human body, and elsewhere in the natural world, seem to be a whirring tilting and balancing, a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ (living systems are said to operate “far from equilibrium” in systems theory), and not a constant drift towards debt in one place and surplus in another. Even squirrels hoard for a specific period, to deal with a specific challenge. As far as I know they don’t ‘overdo it.’

For now sustainability must be our top priority. I don’t think our well paid experts are up to the job though, and we’re running out of time (please see Sylvia Earle’s presentation on the state of the Ocean’s for TED). Systemic greed, unchecked, combined with our ‘improving’ technology, have the power to wipe us humans out. We have to get wise.

"Everything is dying," a woman said as the town hall meeting was finally coming to a close. "How can you honestly tell us that our Gulf is resilient and will bounce back? Because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our Gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know when you don't know." Naomi Klein, writing for The Guardian

Friday, June 18, 2010


About 10 years ago I was sitting in my best (Brit) friend's house, drinking tea with her after the kids' school. Both of us were peeling ("éplucher" in French) Brit weekly magazines, and I was reading the Economist, the letters section. And I came across a letter from an American university professor, living in California.
He stated that he was amazed to notice that the kids in his classes looked more and more alike.
More and more of them were wearing the same clothes, had the same haircuts, the same expressions on their faces, the same vocabulary, and intonations even. That they even had... the same ideas...
He said that this phenomenon had been creeping up. That it bothered him, this... uniformization.

In the 1970's, even the 1980's, it was possible to find a variety of women's clothes in the U.S. Not all... one style, or one color. Something for everybody. (In France, it was harder, though. There has always been an autocratic streak in French couture. Like, if it's summer 1990, then the tent skirt HAS to be turquoise blue, and it will exist in no other color. You can walk the streets in winter and see masses of people wearing black polyester coats.) That is not true any more, I think. There is much greater uniformization of clothing, even in the States now. And of course... the stuff looks incredibly cheap, coarse, and tawdry, too. A lot more than in the 1970's.
But I digress...
I don't like this uniformization.
A lot of people think that totalitarianism is a political regime exclusively.
But.. IS it, really ?
Isn't this uniformization that makes our kids and us look alike from one continent to another a form of totalitarianism ?
Can we impute it solely to globalization ?
I'm not sure about this. Globalization has always existed in the form of economic exchange from continent to continent. Even... population migration. Up to and beyond Antiquity, as a matter of fact.
I AM sure that... we have specific ideas about what "globalization" means. These ideas vary, of course.
WE have an idea about globalization that makes it synonym with BIG structures and institutions, whereas it doesn't have to be big. It can be done with lots of small interconnected structures.
And structures that are not identical, that are not perceived as identical and DON'T HAVE TO BE IDENTICAL, carbon copies of each other.
To ensure... DIVERSITY. The biggest antidote to totalitarianism that exists. In my book.
A lot of the way we understand globalization depends on how we understand words like.. "one", "total" "global", right ?
These are really really complicated words, as I said before.
The MOST COMPLICATED words of your language, the ones that... LOTS depends on, are the ones you never bother looking up in the dictionary, because they come up so often you think you KNOW what they mean...
And they mean... a lot more than you think or know they mean, that's for sure...
And they pack in them the history of our civilization, too.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On with (my...) structural linguistics : the lexic

These days I am thinking a lot about language.
It is one of our most preoccupying problems at this time, I feel.
While I became very interested in our problems with money, which are at the forefront of our collective consciousness at this time, it is my observation that our problems with money are intricately linked to our problems with our language, and that THIS observation is not receiving as much attention as it could, or should, for evident reasons.
Because... talking ABOUT language is not an evidence. It requires being in a particular place in order to see what is going on. And most of us, well, we simply are not at that place, and maybe it is not such a good thing to be at that place. As I have said before, there is a price to pay for being at that place, and it can be very high.
It is important for me to try to transmit to my readers what I feel are insights towards understanding where we are, at this point in our civilization, and what this means for.. where we are going.
A word of warning here. Much of what will appear here will appear... deceptively obvious and evident. The problem is that we can perceive obvious things WITHOUT drawing out all the conclusions that come from these obvious observations. We compartementalize our knowledge. It is not easy at all to start drawing out the conclusions from some of these observations.
Because we are too close to what is going on, what is happening, to see what it means for/to us.
Quick recap on the previous posts :
I demonstrated at the atomic level of language, the phonetic level, how we create meaning at its most elementary level by determining difference between sounds against a backdrop of continuity : bat/bet/let. We hear the difference between the "a" and the "e". Then the difference between "b" and "l". We are constantly OPPOSING AND COMPARING discrete elements to determine difference and CONSTRUCT meaning from that difference.
I told you that a child of 2-3 ALREADY knew the structure of his mother tongue without ever having cracked a book, and that he was capable of understanding the incredibly complicated "idea" of linguistic "representation" : the word is a kind of symbol for WHAT he is talking about. It is a generalization that PERMITS us to TALK ABOUT our world... (not just, but we won't go into that here).
I said that all of this knowledge remains at a very unconscious (...) level, and that what is at an unconscious level determines us WITHOUT our knowing that it is determining us.
So... today we are going to talk about the lexic, the molecular level of language.
On to the four year old.
He has a basic vocabulary at his disposition.
He has never opened the dictionary, but he knows what at least 300-400 words mean.
Not... what do the words mean, but HOW DO WE KNOW, LEARN ?
That one is pretty easy, isn't it ?
We learn what the words mean.. by listening to other people around us use the words.
If you learn a foreign language, you will ALSO use this process (in addition to your books...).
Our first ideas about what the words mean come from our observation of how other people are using them.
And once again.. we will be comparing, and differentiating.
We will be listening to how different people use the same word, for example. And comparing what the words mean FOR THEM.
Something else in the comparison game...
We will be comparing the words BETWEEN THEMSELVES, just like we compared the individual sounds, to DIFFERENTIATE THEM.
Look, to know the difference between "bat" and "bet".. I compare and OPPOSE the sounds/..words.
Let's take a word that you probably never looked up in the dictionary....
You never had to look that word up in the dictionary, did you ? People RARELY even look that word up in the dictionary.
So... let's look at HOW it means.
Let's compare it.
WHAT are we going to compare it with ?
Remember that with our phonemes, AT ANY ONE TIME, we will be comparing it with ONE OTHER ITEM.
Let's start...
A more historically recent one.... man/machine
Are you impressed yet ?
Do you think it's as awesome as I think it is ??
All those contexts... for sure I haven't exhausted them at all. This is just a start.
All those OPPOSITIONS layered up, INTRICATED, make up the meaning of the word "man". For us. And.. the oppositions are a RELATION. And this relation is constantly shifting. The words MEAN in relation to EACH OTHER, and they are constantly bouncing off each other, their meaning being subtely inflected.
So... this is HOW the word "man" means, and how we discover and understand what it means.
REMEMBER... if you take a word OUT of the system, or stick a new word IN... ALL of the words will have to be redefined in relation to each other... (Do you see where I'm going, and why I say this ?? ;-) )
And we do this... from INSIDE the SYSTEM of language.
It all means... from INSIDE the system.
And the system.. well, we only have the illusion that the system is in relation with our natural world, I believe.
And WE, well WE have to find our SYMBOLIC place WITHIN this system.
It's not a piece of cake. Not at all.
Because... there is a big problem.
Our bodies. US.
Are our bodies... IN THE SYSTEM ? Outside of the system ?
Between the inside and the outside ?
Big questions, big questions...

Now think about... the polarization that is going on in our society at this time. The OPPOSITIONS between liberal/libertarian, for example..
We are desperately trying to redefine meaning at this time.
One of the ways we redefine meaning is through... POLARIZATION.
I will come back to this. It is very important.
By the way.. for ME, at any rate, what Freud called the Oedipus complex figures in my post above. Knowing what "man" means, supposes knowing what... "child" means.
IN OUR CULTURE. In almost all cultures, probably, even if their INDIVIDUAL DEFINITIONS differ from culture to culture.
There is a universal phenomenon involved in KNOWING WHAT THE WORD "MAN" MEANS.
After that... the definition itself, well, that can change from culture to culture, and from historical period to historical period.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Goodbye Thai

During a tridaily jaunt over to the jungle of SuddenDebt, I tripped over an announcement that my friend Thai just died of a heart attack.
What to say ??
Words are all we have sometimes, but they can be woefully inadequate, and this is ONE time, that's for sure.
I first "met" Thai (no, never seen him, never touched him, or heard his voice... that's virtual for you, right ?) four years ago on Sudden Debt, and HE was definitely one of the reasons I stuck around on the blog.
A little over a year ago, Thai was responsible for getting Sudden Debt's spawn off, Street Rat Crazy Saloon off the ground. I think he was concerned that our grab the ball and run with it explorations of science, religion, fractals, economics, the Ancien Regime, were going too far off into deep space for Hell's blog, and that opening the saloon would allow Hell to keep the ship on course.
And... WE got to do the deep space exploration in our small, private space.
The honeymoon, just launched days of the saloon were heady stuff for everybody.
And towards the end of MY time in the saloon, when things were getting a little tense, Thai and I had our occasional wrangles, but nothing serious. We.. ribbed each other.
In my book, we were very much alike. Thai had his fractal passion, and I, well, I had other passions.
I haven't forgotten that I'm writing this for other people, so here goes.
Even though I never met Thai, I BET that there are some things that I know about him, and I am almost willing to stick my hand into the fire, that's how much I BELIEVE they are true.
First off..
Thai was an excellent emergency physician, a dedicated doctor, with a very high idea/ideal of what it means to be a doctor.
He was very demanding of himself, and harder on himself than on anyone else.
Even if he got exasperated sometimes with the people who showed up to be cared for, he never treated them as numbers, he saw them as individuals, and he firmly believed in the HIPPOCRATIC oath, the one that doctors are supposed to believe in, by the way, and practice.
He lived life at 100 miles an hour, or more. He was exhilarated to be alive, curious about everything, and excited about finding out new things.
He was... a TRUE scientist.
He was an example to the people around him.
He was a model to his sons. Who can be proud of who their father was.
When the funeral service comes up, wherever it is... there will be MANY people there for Thai. Colleagues, friends, neighbors, maybe even a few patients, who knows. To say goodbye to Thai. To tell his family how much he meant to them. How fond they were of him. How he was anxious to find ways to please people, to help them when and where he could. How he cared deeply about them. How he was.... a peacemaker among men (and women).
I'm letting my imagination play a little bit here, admittedly...
I lost my own father, a prominent medical examiner, to a heart attack when he was 57, and I was much older than Thai's four children, but it remains a shock... to this day, some thirty years later.
Tonight thinking about Thai, the old questions came up again (they never go away, once you've been in the place where you first ask them...).
Thinking about just where HE is, an image came into my mind.
Of Thai, sitting (!!!) SOMEWHERE, with a big beautiful book in his hands (yeah, I know, I know... patience), filled with an undecipherable language on luminous pages. And Thai, looking through it... seeing all those fractals, and finally understanding them the way he never could when he was "here".
Kind of corny, I guess. But... it's keeping me a little bit warm, you know.
Goodbye, Thai.
I will miss you. I miss you... already.
You know, the older I get, the more death is an injustice to me, even if it is inevitable, and natural. We are all irreplaceable. But some of us manage to live our lives in such a way as it is even more evident how irreplaceable we really are. Thai was one of those people. It's what makes his death even harder for me to bear...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

All the pretty little chickens...

Almost every day I go for my morning walk, on a fixed rout (like Kant...), and I pass by one of our suburb's last wide grassy spaces, with a newly dead but still majestic grandaddy walnut tree, a nicely enclosed little paradise for hens and an occasional rooster.
I stop to say hello to the hens and try out hen language on them, which either interests them, or amuses them, or both, because they cock their heads and look at me, and cluck in response to MY clucks. (By the way, in case you haven't noticed, generally speaking, if you say hello to an animal, while REALLY giving.. it ? him ? her ? your FULL attention, generally it ? he ? she ? will respond back in some form or another...)
Last week there were no hens in the enclosure...
When I finally crossed paths with the hen owner (do you OWN hens ? not sure...), I asked her where her hens were.
And she pulled a long face, and told me the following story.
About two weeks ago, over the weekend, she woke up and went to feed the hens in the early morning, and found... six or seven of them still outside (she keeps them in a hen house at night) dead, mangled, and half eaten.
The remaining two were in the hen house, along with the... badger that had got them, and was sleeping off his hangover in the hen house. She and a neighbor took care of (!!!!) the delinquant badger ( a clear cut case where MAYBE three strikes and you're out was overly generous...), and cleaned up afterwards. No more hens to put in the freezer.
When I related this incident to one of my friends who, in all fairness, has ALREADY kept hens, and knows just what it means to lose them to the occasional predator (that is NOT human), she took the badger's side, saying that the lady should have taken better care of her hens.
Maybe. And the lady probably was negligent in shutting up her hens that night.
But i say that an animal that has already got THAT kind of a taste for hen's blood stood a good chance of coming back for more, and that... a swift execution was probably merited in order to keep the lady's hens safe NEXT YEAR, for instance. This may simply be my prejudice. I am not an expert in this matter by any means. And I don't extrapolate to hold that THIS solution is good for human beings, either, by the way. I am firmly opposed to the death penalty in all cases... for HUMANS.
Now... WHAT could possibly have been going through the head of that badger that made him take off after 9 hens, kill them, and then NOT eat them ?
Shall we say... the badger was NOT acting very rationally, now, was he ?
I hope you get a belly laugh out of that one...
i say that MAYBE what went through the badger's.. mind ? OTHER organ ? was similar to what went through... a particular trader's mind ? OTHER organ ? when he pushed a button and lost millions for his bank...
It's NOT for nothing that we have now come up with the expression "predatory capitalism", and I find this expression... appropriate at the same time as it WILL induce certain things in the way we consider doing business, and in our attitudes towards the world around us.
So.... WHAT can be done about predatory capitalism ?
Lots of people STILL seem to believe that making up lots of rules and regulations to limit this kind of behavior is the appropriate thing to do.
I'm not so sure.
Because... in the same way that the badger was NOT being rational (lol) in going after those hens, the rules and regulations would work IF man were SOLELY a rational animal.
But... he's not. And no amount of wishful thinking is going to MAKE HIM a solely rational animal.
While waiting for the second coming (of pure rationalism...) why not BUST UP the big banks, the big companies ? Shouldn't we be busy trying to put a face and a name on business, and on customers again ?
THIS is the BIGGEST INSURANCE against ill doing that I know.
And the BEST WAY of recreating empathy.
There is NO reason to have empathy for a number. There is EVERY REASON to have empathy for a person who has a name, and a face AND A BODY, too while we're at it.
One of the other things that we could also do to limit this kind of behavior would be to... recruit more women WHILE AT THE SAME TIME organizing the workplace so that they could have lives outside the workplace too. Having and raising children. All this towards the goal of social MIXITY, avoiding having too many people of one sex together in any one organization or structure.
Instead of self righteously going on about psychopathy, sociopathy, and all the rest, we SHOULD be taking a long, hard look at all the ways our society these days goes about.. DEHUMANIZING us for each other.
The real problem is there. In my opinion.
And it's been going on now for a long time.
Now... if we REALLY WANT to have our (business as usual) cake, we are going to have to admit that we will not be able to eat it too.
And so... shut up about predatory capitalism.
Sorry for all the capital letters.

Friday, June 4, 2010

La Complainte du Progrès

France to U.S., France to U.S. (and Berlin...) : Can you read that little accent over the last "e" in my title ? The French language has been wrongfully amputated if you can't...

Along the lines of lightening up from the deadly heavy stuff in my previous posts, here is a little bit of fluff from Boris (Vian) that my daughter dutifully copied for me so that I could give you a somewhat lazy lump translation. (Boris is NOT the Bard, but he is an excellent modern day French prophet who wrote these delicious lyrics to a cha cha rhythm during the days when I was sucking on my bottle in the seven sleeper's den (thanks to John for that one). Boris was a great jazzman, and a guy who even invented a domain called "pataphysics" in the long line of critique against scientific materialism started by William Blake in his 18th century epic poems.) (My GOD, can you believe it, I just corrected "prophet" from "profit" above... thirty lashes with a wet noodle for such a DEADLY sin...) I'm talking about the 1950's for those of you who may still find my dates rather..obscure from above.

Here it is in French, for the Francophiles among you :

"Autrefois pour faire sa cour
On parlait d'amour
Pour mieux prouver son ardeur,
On offrait son coeur.
Maintenant c'est plus pareil
Ça change, ça change
Pour séduire le cher ange
On lui glisse à l'oreille...
"Ah, Gudule, viens m'embrasser et je te donnerai...
Un frigidaire un joli scooter un automixer et du Dunlopillo
Une cuisinière avec un four en verre des tas de couverts
Et des pelles à gâteaux.
Une tourniquette, pour faire la vinaigrette
Un bel aérateur pour bouffer les odeurs
Des draps qui chauffent
Un pistolet à gaufres
Un avion pour deux
Et nous serons heureux !!!"

Autrefois s'il arrivait
Que l'on se querelle
L'air lugubre on s'en allait en laissant la vaisselle..
Aujourd'hui, que voulez-vous ? La vie est si chère
On dit "Rentre chez ta mère", et on se garde tout...
"Ah Gudule, excuse-toi ou je reprends tout ça... :
Mon frigidaire mon armoire à cuillères mon évier en fer et mon poèle à mazout
Mon cire godasses mon repasse limace mon tabouret à glace et mon chasse filou
La tourniquette pour faire la vinaigrette le ratatine ordures et le coupe friture"
Et si la belle se montre encore rebelle
On la fiche dehors pour confier son sort..
Au frigidaire à l'efface poussière à la cuisinière au lit qu'est toujours fait
au chauffe savates au canon à patates à l'éventre tomates à l'écorche poulet
Mais très très vite
On reçoit la visite
D'une tendre petite qui vous offre son coeur
Alors on s'aide car il faut qu'on s'entraide
Et l'on vit comme ça jusqu'à la prochaine fois..."

My translation :

Once upon a time when wooing,
We spoke of love
To prove our passion
We offered our heart
Now things just aren't the same any more
Gotta keep up with the times
To seduce the dear angel
We whisper in her ear...

"Ah, Gudule, come kiss me
And I'll give you :
A refrigerator freezer a pretty scooter a robot mixer and a comfortable mattress
A stove with a glass oven a stainless steel cutlery service and cake servers
An electric whisker to make the vinaigrette salad dressing
A nice air cleaner to gobble up smells
Heated sheets
A waffle gun
A plane for two
And we'll live happily ever after.

Once upon a time, when we got into arguments
We would take off with a downcast look, leaving the dishes in the sink
These days, what do you expect, life is so expensive
We say "Go home to your mother"
And we keep all the loot.
"Ah Gudule, say you're sorry or I'll confiscate everything...
My refrigerator my spoon case my iron sink my kitchen stove
My electric shoe shiner my slug ironer my ice chest and my thief chaser
The electric whisk to make the vinaigrette salad dressing
The garbage compacter and the French fry cutter."

And if the damsel is STILL rebellious
We chuck her out, to hand over our fate to
The refrigerator the dust effacer the stove, the always made bed
The shoe warmer the potato gun the tomato eviscerator the chicken flayer

But before you can bat an eye
We get a visit from a tender morsel
Who offers her heart
And so we help her out, because we all need to help each other out
And we go on living this way...
Until the NEXT time."

Sorry you can't hear the luscious rhymes and the snazzy cha cha rhythm.
My favorite line is the "tourniquette pour faire la vinaigrette".
You would swear that Iseut has just consented to give herself to Tristan in the Wagner opera...
Boris was a genius. I haven't done him justice here.
You can probably download this song on Youtube. They've got... everything but the kitchen sink there, right ??