Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review of Our Kind by Marvin Harris

[note, if anyone read the first draft of this...I'm sorry.]

So much of history, as it's usually presented, is either a local microcosm or a culturally specific snapshot, it fails to capture the big (the big impersonal) picture of the human experience. Philosophy follows a similar flaw of intimacy, driving for a first-principals explanation of the human condition, proceeding from axioms created in our skulls to as many future conditional progressive tenses as may be (here's how I think I think, therefore, here's how society should work). I am liking the empirical perspective lately, that is, the anthropological one, observing the evidence of human coexistence and making inductive generalizations from the pattern of the data. It's been my growing conviction that for all the myriad ways we're fucked up on an individual level, human behavior in the aggregate is a lot more predictable and explainable than six billion partisans would have you believe.

In Our Kind, Marvin Harris moves quickly to an important distinction in this explanation, in truth another one I've been wrestling with: that cultural evolution is different than the biological sort, faster, and even if it's not working through genetics, it's force is similarly powerful. Harris describes how cultural development as an unconscious, collective means to most efficiently realize our various biological imperatives. The species is, more or less, equally endowed, but we react in different ways to the externalities of different communities: different availabilty of proteins, vitamins, and heat sources, differnt population density, different history, and varying degrees of feasibility that somewhere else exists to go. The outlines of politics and culture derive from these parameters. He puts the lie to fertility as a biological imperative, digging up anthropological evidence and biological analogies to show that humans are more wired more for sex than we are for babies, and develops the consequences. He pokes at race as an artifical construct. Our body shapes and colors over the generations correlate more to local geography than our ethnic heritage, both because of cultural selection and extensive interbreeding (Jews, he notes in an example, generally look more like the locals than they do Jews elsewhere, which is maybe one hint that journalists should be careful not to casually conflate ethnography with genomes.)

It gets touchy in parts. Harris outlines ways in which early societies dealt with population pressures, reducing the idea of war to a means to deal with this, and correlating that with misogyny. Preservation of a warrior class limits population more than in the obvious way, Harris says, and includes selection for male heirs for the patriarchy, pushing toward female infanticide as a remarkably common device, even in modern times. Historically, life has officially begun at the point parents decided to keep the child, sometimes months ex utero. He questions the cost of misogyny in terms of male life expectancy (along with the contemporary unwillingness to question this), paints government as an inevitable consequence of animal domestication.

I don't think any of the above discussions are comfortable, but the cases are strong. His religious angle is perhaps the most sensitive. He describes "killing" religions, entailing animal and human sacrifice, as a development of a means of protein redistribution, drawing patterns across the globe from Aztecs to the Vedic to the Pacific island traditions. The non-killing faiths he paints as reactionary creeds developed to address the failure of the faiths that passed out meat, usually in response to specific political pressures. He draws a line from here directly to subjugation empire, implicating the gentler religions as a direct enabler of military powers. Why? Because making a virtue of poverty and delaying material rewards past death suits would-be emperors brilliantly. The first act of conquest of non-killers, cites Harris, is to convert to the non-killing faith, as true of Christianity, as of Jainism, as of Buddhism. The proscription against killing, historically, has been easy enough to circumvent, but the faith in ethereal rewards much harder to shake, and murderous zealots have been useful tools of tyrants. (One amusing point: even as Harris constructs a general condemnation of religioun that quite clearly includes the Pauline faiths, he sticks with the western conceit of weighting Biblical history toward the factual, using Christian-formal terms like 'year of Our Lord', and citing that holy book, and only that one, using chapter and verse. It's got to be force of habit.)

Stylistically, Marvin Harris both worked for me and didn't. His ultra-short sections--the book is five hundred pages long, but every third page was a blank title--got right to the point, but they were so brief and un-footnoted, that it lent to a less than scholarly feel. It's not that the sections are unresearched: the author has done his share of influential work the field himself, and there is a a detailed bibliography for each tiny chapter in the back. He just doesn't point to it. He also has a penchant for scribbling over his weaker points with anecdote or irritable analogy. For example, he's probably out to lunch on his message of gender identity--not so culturally controlled between sexes as all that--but on the other hand, his message that cultural selection usually satisfies the biological preferences in the aggregate is almost certainly true, and biologically, he's largely divorced sexuality from both reproduction and gender anyway. I admit that I'd be more bothered by his idiosyncratic style if I agreed with less of it.

We all know how short the timeframe of civilization is compared the earth's history, but even our species is young, only around for a hundred thousand years or so. By contrast, our various hominid ancestors populated the earth for about 3 million years. (Our most recent evolutionary analog, the Neandertals were a short-lived species, only lasting about 200 thousand altogether). Even given the age of our genome, sapient, language-using humans have only been evidenced for a fraction of that, about 35,000 years. I can't accept that early humans were any differently intellectually gifted (and neither can Harris, which is why he describes evolution in the cultural sphere). In that short time, we've graduated from the stone tools that our ape-plus ancestors and cousins had used, and covered the earth in dense societies, razing mountains and forests, and erecting countless evidence that we lived. Although we may still fight like animals, we've made a hell of a mark in the short time our kind has been civilizing.

And the big question remains this: are we going somewhere, or have we achieved our ecological niche? According to ideas of punctuated equilibrium, species persist for a long damn time, but originate and fill in their ecological space very quickly. In terms of biological evolution, the fossil record and all that, 35 kiloyears ain't much. We humans are probably still spreading into our role As a conclusion, Harris calls our penchant for empire and evil as the likely inevitable cultural consequences of our nature. Our failures to will into being benevolent governments are a result of the unfortunate statistical average of human action. They've all followed similar paths. Is there hope, he wonders, a conclusion beyond the state? I have to think that there's not going to be any success in regressing pre-state, that the factors that pushed governments into existence--food dependence, population, and circumscription--seem to only drive one way. But here's the thing, the catch: trying to will cultural evolution forward is how our biological imperative works, and there may be a point we haven't yet achieved with it. We're certainly on different ground this time in terms of communication, size, and boundaries. Is there still time to realize a better existence than empire?

I'm not very optimistic actually--existential brinkmanship can't continue forever--but the idea of a better future beyond nation-staes is the hope I can find. Maybe we'll get there.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cool Vibrations

If you think about it, all of engineering is a question of how energy is transformed from one form to another. Science can be said to occupy a slightly different (but overlapping) inquisitive geography, covering a lot of area to explain how anything works at all, but engineering is, at it's heart, how to make stuff do other stuff. In the land of mechanics, the goal is often to trick nature into converting some kind of time-domain phenomenon into the frequency domain, to transform natural forces into some reciprocating or rotating device to mimic the rhythmic thudding and pounding of our own bodies. Gasoline is exploded to turn driveshafts, water's toppled over a dam to make alternating current, uranium is pounded with neutrons to do either.

At its best, this sort of engineering can be elegant. In 1824, Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot published a famous thought experiment that reduced a heat engine, such as the steam engines that had been tinkered with for a century, to its very essence. In his minimalist picture of energy conservation, heat is transferred from one constant-temperature thermal reservoir to another, transforming some of itself into useful work in the process. (The devil's in the details of course--probably in a pissing match down there with Maxwell's demons--but Carnot had the insight that even when all of the heat operations are completely reversible, it's still impossible to get one hundred percent of that heat turned into mechanical work. This would be later reflected in the formal theorem and the textbook thermodynamic cycle that bears his name, and from there proceed to bore ten generations of engineering students to tears.) The opposite of a heat engine is a heat pump. In this picture, work is added to the device to move heat from hot to cold--you need energy to move it uphill. Carnot's engine outlines the minimum legal moves, assuming each step occurs on level ground, but since heat can flow either way at those constant-temperature steps, turnign a Carnot prime mover into a heat pump is easy. They work in the real case too, and end up subject to the same theoretically mandated inefficiencies.


That's heat, but what about work? I mean, it's mechanical energy, but it's not all that useful taken straight from the tap. Human-sized work, power on-demand, always consists of something clumsily stroking back and forth or ungracefully spinning round and round. It doesn't really do it for me. There are some nice-looking machines out there, to be sure, but to me, elegance implies some level of minimalism, a sort of Platonic expression of beauty that is only as complicated as it needs to be. I find it hard to grant such a standard to some chortling, vibrating motor, wires and vacuum lines dangling like dreadlocks, that insists on screeching its gears and clearing its pipes at me to clamor for the center of attention.

Turning heat into reciprocating work has been inelegant for centuries. About the time that Carnot was monkeying with proto-thermodynamics, a minister in Scotland was building something like the Frenchman's pure heat engine. Stirling's device had gas moving back and forth between a hot and cold cylinder, each one equipped with a piston and timed so that the gas would be in the right place to push the hot cylinder open as it expanded and pull the cold one closed as it contracted. Visualizing the actual timing is kind of like those spatial IQ tests, and isn't overly interesting really, (you can find out more than you want to know here, as well as a hundred other places), however it gets more interesting once you start making analogies. In 1979, Peter Ceperley realized that the time lag between the pressure and motion cycles of a gas inside a Stirling engine was the same as in a traveling acoustic wave. Pieces of this had actually been known for a long time: glassblowers, for instance, realized that their tubes would start to hum when the hot ends were being worked, and pulse tube refrigerators, which work on similar principles, had been around for awhile too, but it's safe to say that Ceperley and German researcher Nikolaus Rott started the modern study of thermoacoustics. Turning heat directly into sound, it turns out, can be both efficient and useful, able to accomplish the same things that a mechanical heat engine or heat pump could do without all the grubby rigamarole. Thermoacoustics is elegant.

Consider an acoustic wave: unlike a wave on a string or on water, it doesn't move the medium up and down, but squeezes it in and out as the sound energy passes through. If you take the point of view of a tiny chunk of matter that's caught along in the disturbance, it will also move back and forth a little bit as it compresses and expands. If you could furthermore put a tiny thermometer in that element, you'd find that, just as with the gases you learned about in high school chemistry, there's a tiny increase in temperature as it's compressed and a tiny cooling effect as it expands. Normally, this amounts to not a goddamn thing (except for maybe a way for intense sound waves to dissipate energy), but if you can harvest those parcels of heat--remove the heat of compression when the gas is over here, add some heat to the cooler gas when it's over there, then you've used acoustic work to carry heat over a small distance. Start counting up the infinitude of those tiny elements, and you've got a heat pump on a useful scale, and it only consists of an acoustic source (a speaker, basically), a tube, and a surface (a porous material with lots of surface area) to take care of that heat transfer.


Your home air conditioner or refrigerator has a great big compressor that condenses a gas to a liquid, pumps it through some plumbing where it evaporates, absorbing heat, and then carries it back to the beginning to be dropped off before the fluid is condensed again. Like an AC circuit with jiggling electrons, an acoustic chiller doesn't actually have to pump material all the way along the whole loop, but is content to rob the energy from those short-distance oscillations. Your normal compressor, the heavy bastard in your fridge say, doesn't shrink down well, it doesn't run at variable speed (nothing like hearing it switching on and off all night long), it's got sliding seals that leak and age, and it's full of environmentally nasty refrigerants. Most of the desire to develop alternative refrigeration strategies like thermoacoustics has arisen from the desire to eliminate ozone-depleting CFCs and HCFCs. (Thermoacoustic devices typically use helium. Check out what Ben and Jerry are doing with it.) Thermoacoustic refrigerators don't outperform the old models yet (about 20% of the ideal efficiency as opposed to 35%), but they should at some point. Some versions of these devices have been predicted to approach Carnot's limiting performance.

We can go more elegant than this even, and build a device with no moving parts whatsoever. You can build a device that is both a heat engine and a heat pump. One end generates an acoustic wave from a heat source, while the other end consumes the sound energy to perform cooling, there is no driver. Heat-driven coolers have a few niche applications. In one, Praxair is working on liquefaction of natural gas using enormous, barn-sized thermoacoustic coolers, gas-fired on one end, with liquid propane dripping off the other. I'm more enthusiastic about the impacts this sort of technology could have in the developing world, where centralized power production is unreliable. English researchers just got 4 million dollar grant to develop portable heat-driven coolers (the figure is cribbed from October's Popular Science). One end would run off a cooking fire, the other would preserve your food. Siphon off some more of that energy, and you could even generate electrical power in between. I want one.


It's cool stuff (so to speak) and in case you wondered why I'd been going on for months about thermodynamics, it's because I've been dabbling.

Additional links for free further reading:
Los Alamos National Labs do some of the best work in this field. (Greg Swift is one of the biggest names. Check 'em out.)

Greetings from the Digital Age

Well, I finally ditched the dialup service, and bundled my soul and shipped it off to the cable providers. When they came and set me up, they pointed out the two dozen or so mismatched and split cables, as well as the three or four lines to nowhere that snaked through my walls as the possible cause of my poor television service thus far. They may have had a point, and I postponed the first installation for a fabulous weekend of snaking wires through the walls and, in some cases, abandoning them to the interstitial oubliette. With nice fat cable and a minimum of splicing, my internet and phone service is spectacular, and now I can look at all of your wonderful images and YouTube clips without any difficulty at all.

Sadly, however, it looks like the internet is still full of the same old crap.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

C'mon, c'mon--it's either one or the other.

(Self-involved, maudlin, and possibly illogical. You were warned, O hypothetical reader.)

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the federal reserve is standing up before congress this morning, preparing to receive, I imagine, the economic advice he's coached them to give. Tuesday night NPR's Marketplace painted a story of looming economic stagflation: the twin perils of low economic growth coupled with inflation. The economics witches would have the esteemed chairman sail closer to the beast than the maelstrom, maybe lose a few hands, but not the whole ship. Rate cuts by the Fed would help avert a recession they say, but those same cuts would also enhance inflationary dangers. The Fed, and Marketplace too, seems to think that a recession is worse than inflation. Is it?

As an aside, I suppose the interpretation makes sense. A rate cut will encourage more borrowing to absorb more goods-n-services (and it's not like that's ever bit us in the ass or anything), and the generation of that bank debt as well as the usual money creation from the reserves will cause the inflation. [Yes, I'm being coy with the word "usual." Money creation, I'm reading, is a little more nuanced than I realized--I'd actually thought that the Fed was jiggering with the velocity of money in these rate cuts, but evidently not so much. I always imagine this stuff would be easier if they presented a straightforward mathematical frame. It's no so unworldly to have variables depend on one another, but so much of what I read is like a debate between tastes great and less filling.]

In any case, I'm going to proceed as if Marketplace's analysis is basically correct, and we're facing an ultimatum between interest rates and growth. The consequence of low growth is, as I understand it, fewer jobs, stagnant wages, and decreased demand for stuff. The consequence of inflation is higher prices.

Daniel Gross pooh-poohs decreased demand as a bonus, even when if it holds a hope that housing prices may finally adjust back to income levels, or that any rational person might rejoice at seeing the managerial class (Gross's hope is more and better MBAs) finally getting an overdue swift kick, or that market forces should dare push us to consume something more commensurate with what we produce.

The extent to which I agree with Dan, Ben, and NPR has a lot to do with what I want to believe about wages. Real wages have been stagnant for ten years now, even while profits and overall GDP for that matter have been doing just fine. To the extent that compensation increases to cover inflation, it doesn't work me up too much how the currency is valued. In that same decade, however, home prices have doubled, and energy prices have tripled. Health care costs have bumped up at least 50%. For the last three or four years, my cost of living increases have not covered this enhanced cost of living. I have an okay mortgage, but can't move to the nice neighborhoods the repairmen and nurses fifteen years older than me live in, and it's harder than ever to climb out of the hole of student and other debt. To divert the concept of stagnant wages, some conservative economic analysts like to add benefits (retirement and health care) to it, that is, treat employee costs as wages, but Krugman's closer to my anecdotal experience to be sure: wages flat, and if it costs more for my employers to keep me around, then that's another critical problem, not a feature.

A situation of low growth and low inflation sounds better than the opposite case, provided I keep my job. It's no fun standing still, but growth does me dick-all if I don't get paid more. Borrowing for growth bets that, when the debt is paid off, the growth will have outstripped the funny money, and unless I increase my personal debt against bubbled assets--home equity and a 401k is all I've got, both of which cost money to borrow against--then the way that growth has been working isn't helping me much. When the economy is based on lending, it seems to be a good deal for the lenders. [IOZ nailed this one (again).] But still, until we immigrate or breed ourselves into even less availabe space, my house is still only worth so much "real" value, and there sure as hell won't be oil forever.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Five More Thoughts: Growth Stinks! Ed.

Yet another five thoughts, riffing on macroeconomics and Massachusetts, football and the human condition, corruption and politics.

1. "Allowing retailers to make money off of sick people is wrong."
My default assumption about local politics is endemic corruption, which I imagine increases as a function of history, poverty, and the tendency of the available money to be packed into a small population of brahmins. (The last thing may be more an indicator of corruption than a cause.) In Boston's case, my conjectures are further fueled by a combination of Edwin O'Connor's classic caricature, and the real-world clusterfuck of the Big Dig. Even if I've got to pay for it, I'm still glad I don't live there.

A lot of you may not realize that the current mayor of Boston, Massachusetts is a high-functioning retard. Well, that may not actually be true, he's got to be brighter than he appears when he's speaking. Listening to him, Tom "Mumbles" Menino carries himself with all the presence and persuasion of Milton from Office Space. How could someone who can't even use the language possibly market himself to the masses and become, very nearly, the city's longest serving mayor? (Yeah, you're thinking what I'm thinking.) I can't stand him. Even here, well outside of the city, I constantly hear the guy on radio interviews, awkwardly gladhanding his way through some civic event or local news. His political philosophy seems to be the expensive sort of liberal variety (which isn't precisely what annoys me) and the people who Menino really seems to upset are the right-wing and libertarian types, who are righteously pissed about the mayor's gun control platform, and his tendency to dance around the city worker's unions (which is also a point in his favor). No, the problem is the zealots may be more or less right about him.

As a principle, I support federal health insurance, if for no other reason than it's a better deal than our current system of private largess. On the other hand, that doesn' t mean that private care shouldn't be an option, and in those rare cases where pay-per-use health care can fulfill that market ideal of cost reduction via competition, then it's foolish to disallow it. One of the problems with our current insurance model is that routine medical services, whether preventative or basic responses, require full doctor's visits, or, for those without insurance, a ridiculously expensive, demoralizing, and time-wasting trip to the emergency room. If setting a bone or curing an ear infection (or obtaining a referral to a professional)--or you know, reaching poorer sectors in the event of any possible virulent contagions--can be taken care of by a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant for a minor fee, if it can do this and leave the heavy-duty infrastructure open for actual emergencies, then what could be the possible objection? According to Menino, he can't bear the idea of people making money off of the sick. It might also make six of the ten largest employers in the city uncomfortable, I suppose.

Corrupt, stupid, or dogmatic: it can hardly matter.

2. Sign number 1,354,894 of the housing bubble.
I like New England, but I'll be the first to admit (and the first to go on about) how the cities up here are a special breed of ugly. Manufacturing hit here sooner than it did the rest of the country, and left here earlier too. Everywhere you look are the abandoned husks of old industrial mills, many of them from the textile powherhouse days. Not only are the industries old and dead, they've got an endemic shabbiness about them that persists: there aren't factories of glass here, but complexes of stone and brick, great and blocky, dropped over rivers, and towering over the local landscape. The towns they spawned are (excepting the financial and shipping sectors of Boston, Providence, and Hartford) single-story and drab, old rows of identical housing and crumbling storefronts, with buzzing old neon, obsolete television aerials, paper-thin linoleum, and gunk at the corners of the baseboards that's probably a century old. There's a lot of interesting history in all that, an ample supply of immigrant cuisine (well, in some communities) and comfortably dive bars, but it's hardly a pretty place to live.

Housing prices throughout eastern and central Massachusetts are some of the highest nationally, and as evidenced my own experience, the most resistant to the bubble economy. My schadenfreude is hardly limited to the financial plight of the big boys, but when it starts to hit towns like Lawrence, then I start to feel a little bad. If it were limited to the Boston commuters, their aging coifed brows peering fitfully from behind the pillars of their McMansions, it would be one thing, but even in their case, there's a reason they can't afford to live where they work. Lawrence is a sad town, a particularly ugly relic among a landscape that's dotted with ugly relics. I've lived in Willimantic, Connecticut, and had family in Waterbury, and those burgs look positively ritzy by Lawrence standards. It's no surprise that the housing crunch in this state would hit there first, but you know, if a $250,000 condo in Lawrence ever looks like a wise investment, then you just might be living in a bubble economy.

3. Marketing the NFL Network
Of course New England is more than a post-industrial geographical region, it's also a kickass football team. The NFL relented under congressional pressure on the last weekend of the regular season, and allowed its matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Giants to take place on network television. For the game, we were treated (much as we have been treated during the playoffs) to a running advertisement for the NFL network. On December 29th, it was practically extortion. See what you're missing! Talk to your cable provider today!

Let's leave aside the corruption of corporate monopolies (in the case of the NFL), distribution monopolies (the FCC), and content oligopolies (cable--It's CraptasticTM!). The problem with the NFL network is that it made the mistake of previewing its content when it was bundled in with the rest of cable. Best I can tell, in addition to it's three showcase games a year, the programming consists of draft coverage, replayed games (which run about an hour after the commercials and uneventful play are stripped out), and fantasy analysis that makes ESPN announcers look dignified and wise. Even during football season, that stretches out the network schedule to three or four hours of programming a day if everyone talks really slowly. Throw in some cheerleader bios, high school and Canadian league coverage, and then rerun the whole thing again in an eye-gouging loop, and that only leaves about 12 hours a day to fill with...something or other. Maybe they can force some more jocularity out of Jason Sehorn and Eddie George?

The reason no one wants to pay for the NFL network is because it sucks. At the end of the day, you really do have to have a product.

4. Growth Stinks
When I drive around my own depressed--and depressing--New England town, I look around at the old garbage-strewn lots, the construction sites, the homes on the hillsides, and mentally paint original forest onto the landscape, thinking what features may have been important to the aboriginal societies, how it might have felt to walk around under trees. It's not exactly romance--I don't fool myself that the early times were anything but freezing, hungry and filthy--but I hate the celebration of the mediocre achievements of the human condition above all other things.

Reading (on Mike's recommendation) Our Kind has been reinforcing my belief that civilization, organized war, and other innovations of the species are almost exclusively a function of population and resource pressures. For a given rate of energy production (or protein production), and to the extent that human behavior can be viewed in the aggregate, then there's some optimal population which can be sustained without taking the reduction measures of emigration, war, or rationing reproduction. Buried in that equation is increasing productivity--getting more yield per effort--which will raise the population ceiling, but on a global scale we're at some point going to saturate on energy input. Only so much sunlight lands here, and there's only so much oil in the ground. It may in 50 years instead of 10, but too few people are talking seriously about too many people.

Although I piss and moan about this frequently, I'm actually on an economics thought here. The financial health of this nation and others is judged by growth. Everyone's scared out of their pants about a recession this quarter, but the wisdom of growth economies is gradually getting lost on me. In order to enhance the GDP, you need more consumption, more investment, and more exports. More people exchanging stuff faster, in other words. There are a number of ways that this happens, but as much as we hear about how super the productivity growth is, what we're really depending on is the growth of people. Banking our entire economy on a continually expanding population? What could possibly go wrong?

I worry about where it's going. Harris cites abortion, infanticide and growth of patriarchies as two ways societies can self-regulate population growth to avoid starvation and disease (the latter allows for a perpetual and disposable warrior caste and distributes women carefully), but it's reassuring that affluent societies tend to self-limit their populations too. Europe's modern population, famously enough, is declining in most places, and in the U.S., most of the increase is due to immigration, with the established families sprouting less kids. (The political marriage of anti-immigration sentiments, anti-abortion, family values, and economic is dysfunctional by nature.) Are we headed to population control through increased opportunity for all citizens, disaster, or a growing military patriarchy? Tough call.

5. Welcome to the Bozo Bin.
Of course, any political candidate to come out screaming for zero population growth will be written off as a nutter with no respect for the culture of life, the good ol' days, or the unbridled growth of the gross domestic product. As a voter, it's important to analyze political candidates' stances on various issues, as well as evaluate, with very nearly zero relevant information, their ability to promote those issues. The body politic, especially at the nationally level, is a monster of inertia, a body at rest that would prefer to stay that way, even when the status quo is destructive. The laboratories of foreign economies have demonstrated pretty well that the existing health care approach is less than optimal, for example, but of you question the dominance of private insurance, the actions of the military-industrial complex, dare to undervalue the warrior caste, advocate more equitable economic rules (not even talking redistrubition), or unmolested personal freedoms, then you're too fucking crazy dangerous to play with the big kids. So we have McCain, Romney, Clinton and Obama all saying more or less the same thing on economic and foreign policy. Yes, the differences are important, especially if you have opinions on abortion, but they're not as deep as they'd have you believe.

This makes me warmer to those alternative loony candidates. I'm going to have to hurry up, because I've just come to realize that Massachusetts is going to allow independents to vote in party primaries this year. But just because they're written off by the professional Americans, doesn't mean they're not actually nuts. Ron Paul really is a xenophobic whackjob. I'm looking closer at Kucinich--who'll probably receive my vote, actually--but at my current glance, his government really does look big and intrusive, and he peppers it all with obnoxious hippie aphorisms. Too bad the Dodd is out.

Writing off people is a necessary tool in life. Some of them will hurt you if given the chance, and it's risky to take the time to judge everyone you first meet as thoroughly as they deserve, and even when you know them, it's very difficult to evaluate them one interaction at a time. Fitting people to a personality model ends up being a necessary, if inadequate, approximation. Morally, I think it's important to use fair criteria--less how someone looks, for example, and more what they do and how they justify it. Is there a political person who doesn't come up wanting? Any person at all?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Review of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

That's right, "books for buds" is on an eponymous kick, and if I know a guy who insists on calling himself Gregor Samsa, then he'd have to be pretty damn forgettable to avoid this list. Gregor, as it happens, is not. He's interesting enough to get away with being a contrarian prick, a deadpan provocateur, and when misjudged, he can toy with his verbal opponents as if they were insects. The depth of his irony can be hard to judge at a glance, and you wade casually into his posts at your peril. His style is what makes him go though, a reasonable argumentative voice, and he uses that voice to be funny, wry, or, you know, seriously argumentative, or sometimes all those things at once. Almost like that Kafka guy.


The Metamorphosis is so canonical, it's hard to offer an honest (or an interesting) review. A story like this one especially, which is loaded with bizarre props in an otherwise realistic story, drives academic types to hunt hard for symbolism. The endnotes to the story contain the most tedious sorts of observations, whether offering strong hints that it's an allegorical story (the business with the father throwing apples at Gregor), or the cultural symbolism of open or closed doors and windows, or dreary notes on technique (the three boarders are indistinguishable, which cleverly adds to the spookiness of the story--sorry, if I saw it used in Bugs Bunny, then I refuse to be awestruck). It may all be true even, but although Kafka is careful about the mood he builds, the purpose of the story isn't quite that mind-boggling. Importantly, the story holds up just fine as a story. It's more an odd exhibit to be appreciated than it is a puzzle to be solved, and Kafka manages to evoke emotions and convey scenery with economy and skill, and on the basic level, here's one that doesn't shy from being read and enjoyed.

I'm sure that any pointy-headed academic would be the first to tell you that the sturdy storytelling is part of what makes this story so damn beguiling (and here I start off on my own wacky overanalyses). The style holds up against, and cleverly contrasts, the giant absurdity of the premise. Kafka avoids in his own language, as does Gregor himself, the predictable hysteria that would surround the appearance of a gigantic insect in Gregor's bed one morning. His bugginess is by no means ignored, but there is, in places you'd otherwise expect it, a big, beetle-shaped hole in the exposition. (It's a shame sometimes what breaks through into the vernacular. Wouldn't a cockroach upstairs be more evocative than proverbial family-room pachyderms?) It's a different sort of balancing act than Robbins was into, one that gets the very structure of the narrative up onto the tightrope with everything else.

And as much as I hate to dig into the comparative meaning of every-goddamn-thing here, Kafka does choose his language with precision. The opening, "as Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams" sets up his contrasting views splendidly. It's not just an opposition between the concrete prose and absurd circumstances, there's a deep division at work here between the intellectual (or realist) and emotional planes. Gregor is the thinker of the story, approaching his new body with (quite obtuse) rationalism. How will he open the door, he thinks, how will he explain to his boss that he's late? He's the character that is shown trying (and failing) to express himself with reason instead of the predictable alarm. But Gregor's every action is verminous, and without his point of view, would only be seen as mindless: he exudes filth and craves garbage, scuttles about the ceiling and stuffs himself into dark places. To his family, he hisses uncontrollably in anger, and creeps around stealthily surprising their conversations. The people in the story act, by contrast, emotional and un-intellectual when confronted with the monstrous Gregor. Their actions are all expected and natural, but Kafka robs them of their reason in the face of horror. Kafka pulls all sorts of switcheroos with these dichotomies, playing with Gregor's empathy (much stronger than his family's, though his sister shows glimmers of it), with physical strength (Gregor's and his father's waxes and wans), and morality.

The last contrast was perhaps Kafka's most dearly expressed. It's not hard to imagine how a young man working for an unappreciative, exploitive family (but one which is loyal in its fashion), could come to view himself as an unloved pest, with the story proceeding from there as a literal interpretation of that sentiment. He goes on to invert it however: Gregor's efforts to keep his family afloat had been enabling them to be lazy and useless, and through the young man's transformation and eventual death, they (especially the sister) grow, and become transformed themselves, in a positive, and conventional, human way. I think it lacked universality, frankly. Yes, it took some novelistic chutzpah to turn that blame the misfortunes on Gregor himself, and enable their growth only with his misfortune, but it read as more personal, more of a projection, than the rest of the story did. Kafka evidently hated the ending, and perhaps it was because the family's transformation wasn't as compelling as Gregor's.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Paul / Brady Axis

Not a big fan of Ron Paul.

He's a politician, and even if he's got a looser tongue than what either party orthodoxy is usually willing to allow, he's still at some point had to sell any alleged soul to the campaign process, had to whore himself out to selfishly interested contributors and the idiot convictions of the masses. (Or worse, maybe he believes them). I'll stand by the "pick two" axiom in which politicians are incapable of simultaneously being, smart, effective, and honest. Paul's particular combination of stupidity, idleness, and/or corruption remains to be seen, at least by me. Maybe he'll mean well, but any bureaucracy has a habit of discouraging the ascension of leaders savvy or noble enough to oppose it, and if you think your boss is an idiot, imagine the what the army of office-chair surfers in Washington can winnow out.

I'm leaning toward honest but stupid. Paul's convictions seem genuine, but he speaks about them as a person who believes that under the right political conditions, people will become frictionless and spherical, and start acting like the rational self-interested creatures that Adam Smith in his most addled dreams approximated them. He adopts basic libertarian economic viewpoints on faith, at face value, including the "endowed by our creator" part, conveniently ignoring countervailing evidence, and just like anybody who uncritically shoves off dogma--even principled dogma--as thought, he's not to be trusted with power. He's got the special libertarian disease of arguing anecdotally and hypothetically to the best-case scenario, even when history has demonstrated it doesn't work like that. The resource-hungry free market has done dick-all for preserving the environment, for one example. It took legislative action to enforce responsibility on polluting private companies, which market forces had thus far managed to avoid. Perhaps Paul is also cognizant the tightly knit historical relationship with the government regarding the development of open land, from frontier policy to the highway system, and possibly he believes that laws that "allow" litigation of filthy corporations to be implicit, but he doesn't read like like he gets the irony. Paul's strong feelings toward respecting privacy and against foreign intervention end with immigrants, and he'd secure the borders and patrol the populace in order to police them, to protect us from terrorists and Latin Americans. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt with respect to racism (in which case his awareness of the last 150 years of immigration demonstrates mere ignorance), he evidently doesn't realize what sort of apparatus that level of security would take.

I suppose we do need to thank Paul for opening up a debate on surveillance, on state power in general. It's certainly taking a measure of glib out the libertarian arguments these days, even if there's no shortage of the stupid and earnest (see those comments) on that frontier either. And the catch is that while I have negligible faith that Ron Paul will competently pursue any of the things that he professes to believe, I feel pretty much assured that Hillary Clinton will not competently extend universal medical coverage, Mitt Romney won't stop the Mexican menace, and Barack Obama will certainly fail to unite the country under his warm benevolent glow. There's even a case to be made that Paul or Kucinich (see Jeff in Texas working 'emhere, for example), while loony on some things, aren't fundamentally loonier than other candidates' positions on other issues: if one must choose between bad foreign policy (in Clinton's case) and bad abortion policy (in Paul's), then at least that's a policy difference beyond the usual dreary popularity contest and impossible predictive evaluations of managerial acumen. I'm not for a second convinced by the legions who'd project saintliness and their own circuitous values onto Ron Paul, and like I said, he leaves a lot to be desired. But so do all of them. Maybe I'll write in Kucinich.


My high school didn't have a football team. While I'd have (literally) fallen all over myself to fail to make the hockey team that we also didn't have, football didn't draw me as a kid. What impressions I did have of the game came from movies and television, painting players as over-entitled meatheads, who effortlessly wooed the girls that in my youthful fantasies might have otherwise been interested in a somewhat quiet, somewhat obnoxious, somewhat good-looking nerd. In the universe of high school caricature, as I didn't experience it, the arch-enemy of the Dork is the Quarterback, the handsome white kid who has the world on a string, who gladhands his way through academics and grins his way into the pants of cheerleaders, effortlessly breaking the heart of any sweet but unpopular young thing in the process. This pigskin lothario has a cold, dark heart off the field, drinking and vandalizing and using people, while coming off scot free in the public eye, so long as he throws touchdowns. He's a consummate politician, a cult of one, dirty to the core beneath his charming dimpled grin.

Somewhere between that unlaid secondary school experience and now, I grew out of this childish antipathy. Maybe it was a continued failure to meet anybody that looked like that particular straw man, maybe it was the fact that I got along well enough with the couple football players I did know. Most likely it was because I started to enjoy watching the game on the teevee. It dawned on me over the years, that these guys, even though they're playing a silly game, were far more dedicated to it than I was (am) in any of my serious pursuits, and football, especially the quarterback position, requires a good measure of mental acuity.

I grew to appreciate the way that scrutiny from the media can magnify any stupid comment, and for a group of people who aren't trained for such a thing (except for those useless communications degrees), it's a credit to them that the stupid comments are as infrequent as they are. The better ambassadors quickly learn to get up on camera and make non-controversial assertions after the game about teamwork and effort in response to the reliably insipid questions of the sports press. My wife and I joke about Tom Brady doing this, guessing in advance what he'll say, if he'll ever top his bland quips ("well done is better than well said") borrowed from Ben Franklin and his dad. It's funny, because you see him talking shit to the opponents on the field, mouthing a "fuck" as often as not. I can't imagine Tom Brady cracking a joke in his lifetime, but it's hard to deny the man's passion off-camera, whether it's for the game or for its perks, like good living and supermodel nookie. You gotta love the guy because his raw athletic ability is so much less obvious than his work ethic and his focus--what kind of guy can keep that optimism alive when stuck on the second string behind the franchise guy? You love him because he says the right things when people are watching, and makes public efforts in all the right directions (the boyish good looks don't hurt). He's attended Bush's state of the union address, but his political skills are on more transparent display as he works the sidelines, encourages or congratulates every player on the team ("hell of a long snap, there Lonnie"). Mostly you gotta love him because he's just got winner written all over him. Hell, I'd vote for Tom Brady.

[And maybe this video is new to you. Offered in memory of The Poor Man.]

Genealogical Meanderings

Some unexpected nugget passed through my glassy-eyed torpor last week, goosing an unsuspecting neuron or two. It was my own fault for not having my defenses up: I'd only been walking by when the lame pre-teen TV drama caught me in a weak moment, and I was standing there fazed for who-knows-how-long, hypnotized by the lullaby of its low-effort awfulness. My kids were no doubt likewise getting their noggins numbed, making room for instructions on what to consume.

I shook my own head, trying to regain my senses. My coffee, I realized, had gone cold some time ago. I registered giddy schoolgirls.

"Tom Higginson? How cool!"

Evidently, some distant cousin is a popular musician. (A popular musician! A popular musician!) Surprising to me, because I imagine it as the sort of name that you'd think a famous person would change his name from (but in Tom's case, I can see how no one would really expect "Hey There Delilah" to be such a hit). It's the sort of name that is just rare enough that your ears perk when someone else utters it, but not so unusual that it presents any phonetic challenges. (Or so you'd think. About half the people I meet read it as a Higgins--which is considerably further up in the collective consciousness, but regrettably calls to mind either insufferable English pedants, or insufferable English servants. The other half think there must be any number of Es in it.) But more than being somewhat distinctive, it's a little conspicuous. It bubbles up comically out of the throat with a couple too many syllables for those hard Gs. There's definitely a giggle in it, and there will always be some joker in the group that can't resist offering up a playful version, which usually sticks. My wife still hasn't forgiven me for making her a Higgy.

I know little about our particular line, but the family name already seems to have been decently mongrelized before it ever came to America. My grandfather was Irish (great big pumpkin head and everything), but if it's an Irish name, it evidently means "descended from Vikings" (talk about your lethal injections) with the patronymic then applied in an English fashion. But it's more likely from the big island in the first place, one of a zillion medieval diminutives of Richard. (Maybe they meant descended from the Saxons?) According to certain purveyors of genealogical kitsch, a line of Higginsons showed up in the county Sligo "in the old times," and according to a less dodgy source, they've been haunting northern Ireland since at least in the fifteenth century, imports from everyone's favorite neighbor.

I asked my father when the clan made the trip over the Atlantic, and he answered "during the famine" in a way that made me feel dumb for asking. In order for this to be true, my great-grandparents would need to have been at least 50 years old when my grandfather was conceived in the States. I understand that they had children late, but even if you stretch the math, it wouldn't really jibe with my favorite family story (indeed one of the very few I know), in which my great-granddad met and fell in love with a woman on the other side of the line ("Dad, I don't think there was a line in 1850"), or at least across the sectarian divisions floating around Ulster, got married, and then got the hell out of the country. Quite probably there's a missing generation (or some other error) in there, and it was hard enough to pry that piece from my grandfather, who didn't associate with his relatives. Like many of his generation that lived as children through the Depression, he ended up bitter and eccentric. Of the 150 or so Higginsons that came to Ellis Island in the 19th century, about 40% were from Ireland. I did find one with my great-(great?-)grandfathers name, in the alleged time frame. Maybe it's him.

I probably come out "English" by means of percentage, but those ancestral Brits on both sides are really all old Yankee families, back from when Great Britain was in the habit of exporting the Puritans along with all of their interesting people. (The direct line from minor American revolutionaries involves a runaway's re-emergence in another state, which didn't quite satisfy the imperious DAR hags when a cousin was interested in her status.) It's seasoned here and there with more recent immigrant stock, the aforementioned Irish being the most prominent, but I'm an octoroon Swede too (that one's too recent an addition to be violent), and the same fraction German (the timing of which could actually work). I don't feel a claim to any of it, really.

Google puts the lie to any claims of a scarcity of Higgies. There are a number of prominent ones out there. In addition to cousin Tom ("Can I call you cousin? No? Too bad."), there's an athlete, an actress, an important civil engineer, and a chef, these last two sharing my first name (the former sadly died this June). There's a retailer of industrial products, and (aptly enough) a publisher of genealogical histories. There's even a (perhaps even more aptly) Higginson enema. No shit!

Historically, Higginsons have become British military dinosaurs and royal family suckups (yuck), among the original witch hunters in Salem MA (even worse), and philanthropists (hey, what about family?). I've no idea if any of these people are my relations, but I like to imagine my father's forehead and jaw on Thomas Wentworth, who can safely be called the most famous holder of the surname. He was a minister and writer who came to the radical conclusion in the nineteenth century that there was no moral excuse to offer blacks and women anything less than full equality and opportunity in society. He put these beliefs to test, leading an (otherwise) all-black regiment in the Civil War, and preaching and publishing and corresponding in impressive volume. He's probably most well known for discovering and publishing Emily Dickinson. We're almost certainly unrelated, but if I had a son, I'd have lobbied to call him Tom, and certainly not after the pop star.

There are, I've read, more people alive today than have ever lived. I suppose that means there are more Higgies than ever too. You see them everywhere once you start looking, and that's no doubt the case for anyone who likes to pretend they have an obscure appellation. It's kind of a trip posting under my own name here, and if I worry a little about nutters taking an undue interest in me (which admittedly is a remote possibility in my professional life too), it's also satisfying to have a crack at knocking "Keith Higginson Financial Services" off the top of the Google results page. All of that information at our collective fingertips, and it's as impossible to break out of anonymity as ever. Thank god.