Monday, October 24, 2005

Various Essays

1. Logicobabble

I read a fair amount of science fiction. Though overly maligned by the self-appointed literati, there is (like in most genre fiction I'd think) a good deal of artistry hiding in there for those willing to delve into the pages to find it. Biased SF geek that I am,* I'd go on to point out that speculative literature can offer the reader totally unique viewpoints from which explore human nature and all the other things that literature is good for. There is in SF (as in most genre fiction) a range of talents out there for getting these unique viewpoints communicated. Nerdy connoisseurs (ahem) like to twist their panties over the "hardness" of given works of science fiction. This is basically a question of what kind of scientific verisimilitude has the author pulled off.

A SF author at the rock solid end of the plausibility spectrum will violate no known scientific laws, but may speculate on technologies or environments that are workable in principle, but as yet undiscovered. (This is usually dry for my tastes.) In the sandy middle, however, where most authors operate, the behavior of the known universe may be tweaked here and there for the purposes of telling a story, or a broad-sweeping and unlikely technological advancement may serve to prop up the premises of the tale. And that's all fine with me, so long as there's a good story or a clever point that comes out of it. But as you get down on to the soft, mayonnaisey end of the hardness scale, fictional technological devices exist only to advance the plot in an ad hoc fashion, since the author wasn't resourceful enough to unwind the plot using logic or character motivation or anything within his previously established framework of built worlds. Usually these transitions read like a mad lib of smart-sounding words, but when parsed by knowledgable readers make absolutely no sense whatsoever. This disconnected tangle of jargon has a special term: it's called technobabble. If you've seen Star Trek, then you know what technobabble is. It's amazing how many space-time anomolies can be defeated by reversing the polarity of the tachyon field.

Well, you've read the title of my post. Have you guessed where it's going?

That's right, somehow the punditocracy has become corrupted with a steaming, stinking infection of logicobabble. Like technobabble, logicobabble uses a multiplicity of seemingly rational English words, such as may be used in logical discourse, but when analyzed by those who know better, fail to hold together. Like technobabble, logicobabble serves mostly as a convenient and lazy means to get from point A to point B. Like technobabble, logicobabble is employed by hacks not quite bright or motivated enough to concoct a good story from the premises they constructed in the first place.

Logicobabble has traditionally (in my lifetime) seen its home in the storied caricatures of liberal academics, railing against the androdominion of the phallocracy and all such nonsense. But it hardly ends there. In fact, the degree of logicobabble used by today's policymakers is what I find particularly alarming. The pages of the National Review and the Weekly Standard are awash in the stuff. I present Slate's own Christopher Hitchens as the pinnacle of the art. Lots of words, no real sense.

Logicobabble has been needed badly in those circles lately, since it's hard to get from the previously accepted axioms of conservativism to the current state of affairs without piling on a whole lot of obfuscation. How do you get from balanced budgets to massive deficits? Don't waste your time with logical arguments, just load in a lot of smart-sounding words and cultivate the properly smug attitude of the know-it-all. Is logic keeping you from invading another country? Hell, wave a few vials around, make a lot of pretend arguments, and go in anyway. You just have to reverse the polarity of your integrity field. No real need to cover your rhetorical ass either, just claim that whatever's happening is why you were there in the first place; it's not like anyone can call you on it.

I wish I knew how to make it go away. My advice on the matter is cheap: think; write; reason. Try to communicate honestly, though it may take more work. Maybe this infection of logicobabble can be beaten, if only we can derive the prognostication Re: our self-actualizations.** As Captain Kirk would never let us forget, it's a one-in-a-million chance, but it just might work.

* Even my acronym of choice reveals this: "Sci-fi"? As if.

** Unfortunately for the purposes of this post, it seems I suck at doing this stuff intentionally.

2. How Easy It Is

"How easy it is, how little strength it requires, to do so much good."

Thus soliloquizes the charming but oafish Pierre Bezhukof, about a quarter of the way through Tolstoy's War and Peace.* The quote occurs during his first visit to his estates; two years after inheriting immense wealth, he undergoes an awakening of sorts and sets off to alleviate the toil of his serfs (one of those fine institutions from the ass-end of history). In this segment he gets railroaded by his cunning overseer who happily showcases Pierre shining faces of peons he's helped, while the author takes the time to demonstrate how each of his well-meant reforms have produced opposite the intended effect. It's a brief parable of the failure of good intentions, of faith without deeds, of the responsibilities of those who would govern.

Poor Pierre is getting railroaded by everone--he's a likable guy but with the unfortunate constitution of room-temperature gelatin. Most of the characters in this book (so far) are "the rich," a true aristocracy, and Pierre is both the richest in wealth and poorest in integrity. Yet, I have a hard time drumming up a blanket condemnation of all of these society creatures (due in no small part to the love with which Tolstoy paints them), because they are doing what people really should have the liberty to do--live freely and pursue happiness--they are easy to identify with, even while the cloud of an evil construct social looms over all of them. No it's not a fair system, but they are people too.

So Pierre as an empathetic buffoon, even while he facilitates the depravity of the world. I'd call it prescience, but I imagine it's always been this way. Is Ken Lay a hapless oaf ignorant of Jeff Skilling's; is Ebbers a likable lummox unaware of Sullivan's nefarious work; is George Bush a good man giving into the temptations of an easy life and excused belligerence while getting pushed around by the wily Cheneys and Roves? Maybe, but it doesn't matter much to the serfs, and the boss's failure to govern accountably has likely made things even worse.

But this is not only a screed against the rich, because it's not like these failings are confined to them. What the hell responsibilities is Keifus doing with his comparative advantage of (relative) wealth and freedom from hunger? (What are you doing?) Advancing science? Learning with an open mind? Raising responsible people? Writing out "thoughtful" sermons to a tiny audience? These things sound like hardly a start. The thing is, doing good is not easy at all. It takes work at least, and probably sacrifice. Too easily we settle for the mere intent of compassion, in ourselves and in others. Lazy, privileged bastards the lot of us.

* Probably this is a favorite sophomore essay topic. I promise I will do no worse. Next week I may move up to junior level and compare this novel with Crime and Punishment or maybe the The Great Gatsby.

3. Keifus, and then some

Alt title: I've seen more naked old men in the last three weeks…

Alt title: the great white bulk

Alt title: Oh…a gyyym*

I am not an unattractive man. Or rather, I have always had reasonably good raw material with which to be attractive, were I ever willing to do very much about it, to pay adequate attention and cash for clothing, grooming, to practice being smooth, and so forth. But I find life too short for that kind of crap. Even though I suppose I've traded off some measure of getting laid as a consequence, I'm happy to have weeded out any number of superficial annoying people. (Shut up.) I've come to grips with the fact my personality is essentially sort of dorky, but my physique is a different matter. In that, I've spent seven years in increasing denial.

They say the camera adds 20 pounds. Self-descriptions on the internet subtract at least 30, but I'm being honest here, I swear (quiet you). At 5'11", I have a biggish build that puts me at a natural 190 pounds or so (less and I look scrawny, so shaddap, wouldja?). Unfortunately, I'm now pushing 215, and it's become more than an aesthetic problem. Last fall, I was clued in rather painfully to the fact that I can't casually lose weight like I could in the B.C. days. Trucking my tottering bulk around at top (allowable) speeds on spindly joints was doing nothing less than tempting fate, and thanks to that hubris, it looks like I'll be lucky to pick up my stick again this fall. It greatly annoys me that I have to train to do the athletic activities I enjoy now, instead of just doing them and calling that my training. I suppose I should be thankful that I've thus far avoided hypertension, diabetes, etc, but I ain't exactly getting any younger (shut up!), and there's no point in being in a risk group. So it looks like it's that time again…

I've started working out more times I think more than anybody I know. Sadly, the effort has always succumbed to a pattern of shifting schedules: new semesters, then new jobs, and always new residences, year after year. It's my piss-poor time organization that always fails me--11 PM jogs, 1 AM games, bagging out of work early--none of these things are compatible with adult activities.

But fat takes its toll, and a month ago, failing to suck it in, I finally sucked it up. I joined the early morning crowd, starting the routine again for the hundredth time, but with hopefully more stick-to-it-iveness.*** For several weeks now, I've paid for the privelege of comparing myself with the old man dunlop**** crowd. I feel better beside these sagging speedo-tanned (or all-over pale) specimens, and I'm also still a lot faster and stronger than most of these guys. I'd be happy to let my faux superiority end there (knock it off, ok?), but since I need to proceed to work afterward, a shared shower is inevitable. These men's bathing habits…let's just say I'd have been happy not to witness them. After the chilly pool, everyone's scrotum looks like a wizened pale walnut and everyone's penis looks like a swollen Vienna sausage (but not mine--it's huge--shut UP!). It's not that I'm looking, but it's been burnt unwilling into my brain. I'm still frightened of the sauna.

While I'm at it, let me put a couple of myths about the pool to rest right now. First, buoyancy is no advantage. I do twelve laps mandatory (after the weight room I'm already tired out--shut up) and I'm pausing to suck wind at the end of every one of them. The second myth you chubby bastards may be entertaining is that swimming is easy on the joints. Au contraire: I can't help but keep stretching my erstwhile sprained ankle in uncomfortable ways, and my ancient knee issues still flare like white plasma when my legs push in unaccustomed directions. Meanwhile, the saggy old men proceed--slowly it's true--lap after lap after lap. But I'm faster, right?

If there's anything I've found out about excercise in all these attempts, it's this: resignation will trump resolution every time. All the times I've tried to take it up in the evenings, it's just seemed like just another chore when I got home, and as an optional one, it never worked when the excitement wore thin. The morning is treating me surprisingly well. It's easy to be resigned when my alternative is going to my crappy job. I think it's really going to be different this time (and why won't you just SHUT UP?!)

* pronounced gyme
*** The most annoying word in the language, followed closely by "winningest."
**** [southern accent] My gut "dunlop" overy my belt

4. Alarmed? Who's alarmed?

Today, it was burgers for lunch. It's the sort of grilling weather of which switters would approve, topping 95 degrees and humid, up here in the Northeast. There was something very assuring about the juicy patties rendering their fat to the fire, sending flames sizzling up through the grate as tasty PAHs condensed blackly all about, seared flesh filling my nostrils as I did my manly duty in front of the grill.

Meanwhile, yesterdays news revealed a U.S. cow, downed last year, has been positively identified for mad cow disease. Our beef supply is in trouble.

The government reassurances are ludicrous. This one was caught in the screening, therefore the screening is working, we're told. (Um, how are they screened? Are only the raving psycho cows culled?) There is no danger to humans, since this animal didn't enter the food supply. (Which ones did?!) Where the cow may have come from, is, of course, hush-hush. Bovine Spongiform Enephalitis, or BSE, comes from recycling animals* (and animal feces) as feed, principally from nervous tissue. It's so damn cheap to do use this offal, it's nearly impossible to get ranchers to stop, and producers have lobbied for less strict measures than are in place elsewhere on the globe, where people have actually died. In particular, activists worry about the loophole through animal waste. Feeding cow innards to cows is banned, but it's OK to feed them to chickens, and all right to put the resulting guano back into cow feed. The USDA has already lost credibility with regards to its testing procedures, assuring a negative, then declaring a reluctant positive, months later. And frankly, feeding herbivores shit and entrails fails the conventional wisdom test.

The USDA is so defensive in its assurances to be self-evidently lying. For some cynical amusement, compare their protestations to the color-coded Terror Warnings which are so fervent in their sweaty declaration to the affirmative, that they have also evolved past credibility. Words, or at least public words, have come to mean the precise opposite of what they say. No cause for alarm? Better duck under the sheets. Terrorists are out to get us? Better look at what idiotic idea they're trying to sell.

According to Richard Rhodes in his book Deadly Feasts, one of the scarier things about BSE is that the incubation time is ridiculously long, and the contagion is damn near impossible to destroy; contaminated equipment may well be sufficient to start killing people down the line. Dedicated measures may not be enough to stop it, and reluctant, halfassed ones definitely won't be. You have to cut cows out of your diet today if you want to insulate yourself from a possible outbreak 15 years from now.

Rhodes' book, however, is science journalism, written by a layman. He gives it a good go,** but it's not an actual scientific review. It focuses mostly on the character drama in the BSE research community--the stuff you get from interviews instead of reading research publications. Your Keifus has been too lazy to follow up on the current research, but less than a hundred Brits have succumbed, and the disease has been known for a good while now. That is, far short of an epidemic so far, despite the dire warnings. Similar diseases in sheep and deer have failed to get into people as well, so far as I am aware. I am also highly skeptical about the nature of the alleged contagion itself (Nobel prize notwithstanding), as are many others who are much more informed than I am.

Given the fact that I work with lots of chemicals (toxicological effects unknown), and that I drive like a retard, it's not BSE that's likely to kill me. I feel a lot guiltier about feeding cows to my kids.

But damn, those were good burgers.

*not only a protein-based animal feed, but insulation for low income housing, a high explosive, and a top-notch engine coolant "."

** In particular, he does a good job at examining the skepticism of the community regarding prions--the mystery contagion. And bless 'im, he brings up Langmuir's classic notes (gratuitous self plug alert!) on pathological science, worth applying to damn near anything you read.

5. Shut the fuck up
Somewhere along the line, someone apparently told you that there's no such thing as a stupid question. This was no doubt greatly reassuring to you, and, as a virtuoso of obtuseness, you took it as a challenge. The nuance behind that old saw, which you've unsurprisingly failed to grasp, is that it's something that's said by teachers who are trying their level best to dispel your ignorance, and that it doesn't apply to you now, and probably didn't even apply then either. What your teacher meant is that there is a time and place for stupid questions, and that you should ask them at the time of the lesson, not at the time when you'd be accountable for the knowledge. But you were no doubt the retarded joker that earnestly asked what all those squiggly lines were in your engineering course, the night before the final. And you grew up to be the guy that runs an advanced R&D program in the field, still without getting the deal with all those squiggly lines and big words. If it's not a buzzword, chances are it's not in your working vocabulary (and even then, chances are you don't get what it means).

There's a fine line between admitting ignorance and brandishing it, which, like all subtleties, you insist on blundering across at the expense of my time. Raising a battle cry of corporatespeak or misunderstood technobabble, you wave your lack of knowledge around the room like a sword, heedless of whose head is in the way, least of all your own. You tilt the lance of your naivete at immovable windmills of fact, or worse, against the very real dragons of the marketplace. Fortunately for you, there are lots of other wannabe salamanders out there, and I rest assured that as you waste away my hours, your contemporaries are wasting someone else's, and ultimately you only tussle with each other, or hire each other as circumstances may dictate, while the real dragons ravage and the real windmills grind away. I pity only your minions, and the suckers who don't know you yet.

It wouldn't be so bad if you were passingly aware of your stupidity. If you didn't perceive your brainless irrelevant queries as stunning esoteric wit. If by this improbable attempt to aggrandize yourself, you weren't making the rest of us look so very stupid. If you weren't making us so very ashamed of our entire organization.

But what the hell, it's not as if I had anything better to do with my day. What's another meeting? To you they're justification. What are more squiggly lines? To you, they're baubles of your empire, like great art dangling in the hallways of the nouveau riche. What's another idea lying fallow? You plague me for innovation and then cast it aside uncomprehending. Or borrow it and label it your own, or assign it to someone else.

I suppose it would only embarrass me if you took it to heart anyway. You still boggle that this stuff could be good for the things I proposed three years ago, which didn't seem attractive until you discovered someone who was doing it outside, that you could contract at three times the expense and half the IP, already behind the curve, and now we both must watch this new unlucky scion you're grilling as he struggles to answer you. You, smugly thinking that you've bested someone you don't realize is far smarter than you. Me, uncomfortably knowing that he's awkwardly coming to grips that you're question is nonsense. On behalf of all of us, just shut the fuck up!




twiffer said...

ACK! don't modify "unique" i HATE that. not to mention that it's wrong to do so.

okay, i'll continue reading now.

Keifus said...

Twiffer, just so you know, I think your viewpoint is really unique.

(OK sorry, I try to keep the grammar radar on, but sometimes they sneak in).

You realize these essays are 100% recycled, right? Told a friend I'd been writing, and he asked what...

You remind me I should really get around to making the rounds. Been busy.


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