Tuesday, June 30, 2015

“Valley Fever” and Liberty Island

•I saw Malcolm Gladwell interview Katherine Taylor, author of the novel Valley Fever, earlier this month, and he was very good at subtly teasing out the fact that this novel required research. Though set in the author’s native Fresno, it bears less resemblance to her own life than her previous novel, Rules for Saying Goodbye. Instead, we are immersed in the seasonal, precarious, and anxiety-inducing lives of Central California farmers, seen through the eyes of a depressed farmer’s daughter, and we learn that even as seemingly effete a pursuit as wine-making can lead to brutal financial backstabbing and emotional betrayal.

With real valley fever (in humans and in dogs) in the news, along with drought and water-wrangling, it’s a perfect time to read this book. Even when describing very pragmatic matters, though, it’s also poetic in a sparse, efficient, Hemingway-influenced fashion, so it’s a great balance between the relevant and the artsy. It’s like reading extremely beautiful bullet points.

•It should not, by the way, be confused with a Sweet Valley High novel, though Taylor knew someone who wrote Sweet Valley High novels. Note that the siblings at the heart of Taylor’s novel are not twins.

•The economics of Valley Fever’s universe is subtle and intertwined with emotional conflict in a way that might make some of my Ayn Rand-loving friends think twice before the next time they approach property rights issues with a rhetorical sledgehammer, but if you want to see a range of fiction approaching econ issues from all angles, from the subtle to the giant-robot-related, always remember to check out the latest stuff at LibertyIslandMag.com.

•With the world having all too few writers about Central California agriculture, Katherine Taylor found herself reading the work of farmer, historian, and political commentator Victor Davis Hanson, though she assured one curious audience member she’s mainly interested in Hanson’s take on farming, not in politics.

Those who really want to see conservative wisdom prevail over lefty hippie ideas in rural areas might, however, enjoy watching this spectacular footage of Germans finally dynamiting the giant, virtually useless windmills that environmentalists duped them into constructing.

•Apparently, there’s a movement afoot here in the U.S. of media folk who want to organize rural presidential debates to counter the outsize influence of the big cities. As a relatively impartial guy who grew up around dairy farms but moved to the ultimate city, it sounds like a good idea to me. It also strikes me that such forums could play to the strengths of a certain self-described “crunchy con” paleolibertarian candidate I like (you know, the one who this week suggested completely privatizing marriage and sought donations from the bourgeoning marijuana industry, fresh off his near single-handed battles against drones and NSA snooping).

Monday, June 29, 2015

“In an Antique Land” and “Outer Boroughs”

I failed to blog about a book last week, but let’s try making up for it this week by blogging about two texts per day in this final week of my “Month of Revisionism” (and final week before retooling my Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter pages for a grander mission). Each day will be five quick bullet points, like these:

•Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land (big h/t to Koli Mitra) is a nifty lesson in cultural, geographic, and historical layers, a memoir of the (Indian, England-educated, Brooklyn-dwelling) author coping with being the oddball in an Egyptian community three decades ago as he tracked down historical information about a traveling Jewish trader, and the slave he adored, in the area a millennium earlier. And you thought your life was complicated.

•Amidst an exhibit of Frederic Brenner’s photographs of Jewish communities in various locations, I got my autographed copy of William Meyers’ more local and ecumenical photo book Outer Boroughs, a book based on the radical premise, still controversial in some quarters, that there are lands within New York City but beyond Manhattan. As with Ghosh’s research, that will be for historians to decide.

•Modernity brings complications like Syria, France, Tunisia, and Kuwait suffering simultaneous attacks by radical Muslims, and things are only going to get more complex, mostly for good and sometimes for ill, if the whole planet goes the way of the U.S. lately, encouraging people to redefine their identities so completely that the white women may choose to be black and blacks fond of the Confederate Flag may be deemed white supremacists. When in doubt, I wish everyone would chill.

•Somewhere out there must be at least one raisin-farming, sick, black, gay felon who plans to increase his factory emissions and then run for office in a new district in order to execute murderers, who sees the past week's Supreme Court decisions as a clean sweep. He might also have an opinion on Arizona checking citizenship status or Germany’s supreme court ordering its legislature to prepare a UFO report, but expecting a single human being to embody those things as well would plainly be absurd.

•On a more serious note, speaking of UFOs, remember that tomorrow is Asteroid [Awareness] Day, and they’ve just declared Queen’s “We Will Rock You” its official anthem. See, that’s a fear I think is relatively rational, maybe even worth spending money on, though ideally only voluntary contributions, of course.

Monday, June 15, 2015

10 Impressions Made by “Fingerprints of the Gods”

Ten thoughts on weird revisionist history -- inspired by a book that claims Antarctica was mapped by ancient civilizations before it was covered by ice:

1. Why read the occasional book by a seeming crackpot, you ask? Well, much as I value epistemological caution and having hard scientific evidence before making claims, there is something to be said for limbering up our dogmatic, narrative-preserving brains by hearing out a truly fringey view once in a while -- and at least getting a feel for how internally coherent and plausible-sounding it might be.

After all, I already think we live in a world in which people mistakenly believe religion, government, and most health reporting are helpful (the evidence that eating lots of vegetables is good for you isn’t even all that strong, yet in nutrition science, that’s roughly the pinnacle of trusted, evidence-based advice).

People recognize the past is filled with silly beliefs, but so few really take to heart the idea that their own favorite present-day beliefs might be wrong -- yes, even the ones you thought made you so goddam intellectually superior to everyone else. Just how different might the real world be if some of the fringe folk turn out to be right? Do you dare to wonder?

2. This exploratory attitude need not cause us to dismiss all we think we know about the past. Some things seem nearly certain and solid: Seasons end on Game of Thrones, and Magna Carta, arguably the first document to limit the power of government, turns 800 today.

3. By contrast, it is only the twentieth anniversary of British author Graham Hancock’s highly speculative book Fingerprints of the Gods, recommended to me by a fellow performer at one of those Electoral Dysfunction onstage political panels (which I’ll appear in again on Saturday, July 18, 7pm at the PIT in NYC).

You might not think there’d be much to learn from a book making the bizarre argument that the Earth’s surface periodically comes loose from its interior and slips around a bit, like a loose orange peel, causing Antarctica, for instance, to relocate from balmy to freezing climes as recently as a few tens of thousands of years ago.

But just as one can learn a great deal about how truly weird some lights in the sky are from UFO buffs -- even if it turns out those lights are meteorological/plasmoid or military rather than Martian -- one can learn things from Hancock’s thesis that leave unavoidably weird questions, even if one doesn’t adopt his whole worldview.

It appears pretty convincingly to be the case, for instance, that centuries-ago mapmakers inherited even older maps that depict the mountains and valleys of Antarctica accurately -- even though modern European culture only began exploring Antarctica 200 years ago, believe it or not, and even though as long as our society has been aware of Antarctica, its mountains and valleys have been hidden to all but the best-equipped scientists by thick ice sheets.

Are the ancient maps just lucky guesses? Were there mapmakers many tens of thousands of years ago, suggesting civilization rises and falls more spectacularly and over longer spans of time than we normally assume? Or was Antarctica somehow located in a warmer spot 10,000 years ago?

4. Before we assume trustworthy scientists and historians have all that worked out already, keep in mind that ABC News was no doubt relying on real, credentialed scientists eight years ago when it predicted New York City would be underwater by June 2015 due to global warming (for out of towners wondering: it is not). Humanity can be very wrong about some very big-picture facts.

5. I say the science-oriented skeptic must keep an open mind but am not for a moment saying this should cause us to abandon science for even less-scientific pictures of the world, such as the Muslim/animist views that inspired Malaysians to arrest tourists there recently for bearing their breasts on a sacred mountain and thus being blamed by locals for an earthquake. We should not punish breasts or blame them for earthquakes.

6. Nor do I think we should willy-nilly accept on an equal footing with science every oddball theory such as the claim by great DC Comics artist Neal Adams that the Earth -- not the universe but the Earth all by itself -- is gradually expanding, and adding mass to boot, in a process covered up by dogmatic mainstream geologists.

7. Indeed, as a DC Comics fan, I have to question whether we should even accept the revisionist claim being made in current issues of Justice League that the Anti-Monitor was once an “anti-god” known as Mobius. That’s not how I remember it! Does the goddess Pandora know about any of this?

8. Since they’ve discovered a tomb in Mexico known as the “abode of the gods” filled with decorative mercury, maybe we should be worried that the real ancient gods were time-traveling liquid-metal Terminators -- but I suppose all that will be sorted out in Terminator 5 in a few weeks, probably with results as damaging for the timestream as current issues of Justice League.

9. If you want some real history in your comics and have wearied of all the endless revisions of the timestream in superhero and sci-fi stories, you might want to check out Alan Moore’s current comics miniseries Providence, telling the (grim) life story of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. He would’ve appreciated bizarre, pseudo-scientific claims about Antarctica.

10. But to get back to the Fingerprints of the Gods hypothesis: it strikes me that if Hancock has been driven to strange speculations, it might be in part because he is unwilling to abandon a powerful dogma of our own day. Maybe climate naturally varies more drastically than we realize and Antarctica really did see some warm, iceless days within written memory. I don’t know. And I’m certainly not saying that in order to boost oil company profits or anything that fussily mainstream. On the contrary, I’m saying it because the occasional anomaly like those iceless maps won’t go away.

Of course, all the water frozen in Antarctica wouldn’t just go away if melted either, so if Hancock were right we’d still have to ask why the oceans weren’t all fifty or so feet deeper everywhere else on those maps. So maybe their depiction of Antarctica was just luck. But I don’t know. I don’t know. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Who Watches the “Shmexperts”?

Professors are often idiots (never mind that obscure faux-black professor in the news today: prestigious universities used to give awards to actual Zimbabwean ruler Mugabe, and now it takes literally 35 quadrillion of his regime’s dollars to buy one of ours). And scientists are routinely wrong. And people who claim to know comedy may have no discernible sense of humor.

Yet our world is largely run by those who get anointed “experts” through one bullshit credentialing process or another, such as getting a Ph.D. or writing for the Huffington Post. What is to be done? Below, a helpful book recommendation and a dozen reminders how full-of-it these people are.

1. The increasingly obvious “intellectual gridlock” between dueling right and left pundits is as good a reminder as any that it's time to set aside the old right/left spats and, embarrassing as it may be, fight the hybrid globalist-corporatist-fascist-socialist takeover -- as fellow anarchists.

Look, I know how that sounds to most people. I mean, just stating the basic facts makes one sound like a sci-fi conspiracy theorist, but, yeah, we actually now live in a world where within about a day (literally) of Sen. Rand Paul singlehandedly putting the brakes on NSA snooping, we found out (A) Obama’s simply ordering the snooping expanded via other routes, especially “near” the border, (B) that for-now-stymied big international trade agreement violates privacy and encourages international data-sharing in various ways, (C) the FBI operates a fleet of small surveillance aircraft perpetually cruising over major cities (do they operate the massive, silent, hovering triangular craft people keep seeing, I wonder?), and (D) China just stole all the U.S. government employees’ data.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the libertarians of New Hampshire were used as a weak argument by local cops for Homeland Security-subsidized armaments, now Reason magazine is being subpoenaed by the Justice Department for (plainly hyperbolic) comments by its online readers in threads on the magazine’s site and in Austria libertarian reporters are literally being watched by Cobra special police operatives at the big annual Bilderberg conference (they’re actually called Cobra).

It’s not my fault reality sounds like paranoia. Who has time to fight all these battles one at a time anymore? Time to reject it all in one fell swoop, I say.

2. On the bright side, paranoia can be entertaining, and I recommend the new USA Network series Mr. Robot, based on the premiere episode they briefly put online. The show airs regularly starting Wednesday, June 24 and depicts an impressively antisocial, spooky, alienated young hacker (instead of the usual charismatic TV-being) being recruited into a left-anarchist cabal that hates society as much as he does but plans to do things about it that he’s not sure he should be part of. I think it’ll be good, and fairly smart.

3. If that’s not punk-rock enough, see the band Mission of Burma with me two weeks from tonight (on June 26) at the Bell House in Brooklyn. These last-minute sloppy appeals for a concert buddy have been working out nicely so far.

4. For a more detailed, book-length sticking of it to “the Man” and all the experts who work for that Man, check out Marc Fitch's Shmexperts when it hits bookstores in November because I’ve been waiting for a book all my adult life that comes right out and says that our high regard for experts, even the ones with actual science degrees and the like, is fundamentally misplaced.

Fitch makes the case, with great humor, that our trust in today’s experts, even when their data is weak and their conclusions wildly overblown, is just another manifestation of that more ancient guide faith, which I’d add is also unreliable. Sometimes everyone is wrong, but no one likes to admit that. And so tomorrow’s papers will likely tell you the “secret to longevity” or (as numerous recent pieces did after some science study or other) the “code for happiness” or some other weakly-supported but eagerly-consumed nonsense.

Fitch sides with the “Average Joe” who suspects the experts are ignorant bigmouths. If enough people read his book, maybe even college graduates will find the courage possessed now only by uneducated bar stool drunks -- to say it’s all bunk. 

5. As noted in my previous blog entry, if all it takes to be regarded as soothsayer is getting a few predictions right, we should all really be getting our futurist insights from Seth MacFarlane, whose show Family Guy, in its complete randomness, seems to keep presaging world events. Maybe everyone should see Ted 2 in a few weeks to help them cope with the increasingly frequent debates over how to define who’s human, female, black, etc.

6. Things are getting postmodern enough to seem as if it all has to fly apart and end soon, so maybe fictional experts at the Onion put it best (h/t Will Pangman).

7. Seriously, though, the problem here is that people are unwilling to admit the good and the bad come packaged together, so they assume someone with one decent insight is brilliant on all subjects. It makes it hard for people to see, for instance, that Elon Musk might be both visionary and a mooch.

8. If the geniuses negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement come up empty thanks to the U.S. Congress, Greece bails on its EU financial obligations, and the bond market falls apart all around the same time, it will be interesting to see who gets blamed for what.

9. It is tempting to think that science is above the fray and offers an escape from all that politicking, but does it really? Witness this litany of distractions and tangents as a columnist attempts to defend abortion without making any real arguments -- particularly that almost dreamlike and irrelevant bit about the kids caring for animals.

And if we’re convinced looking at concrete reality absent ideology yields the “real” answers on such contentious topics, try the clarity and physical specificity of this pro-life tale on for size (just for contrast, mind you -- I’m pretty moderate on the whole topic).

10. The inordinate praise recently heaped on the Faulkner play The Sound and the Fury here in NYC by the Times and Entertainment Weekly is enough to remind us that the intelligentsia actually love being confused, much like cult members, so long as they are tantalized by the suspicion there’s profundity in there somewhere amidst all the crap and distraction, and that it’s profundity with a message they’d still end up agreeing with if they could spot it.

That’s twentieth-century literature in a nutshell.

11. A new Florence + the Machine album came out on June 2, and at least she reaches all the way back to the Middle Ages at times for her chaos and confusion, making it seem a bit more timeless and grand. This number from a prior album makes it pretty blatant.

12. But uncertainty can be managed even if it cannot be fully escaped, and so I am off now to party with Bayesians -- and back next week to muse about whether the ancients mapped an iceless Antarctica, even if the experts understandably ask where all the water would have been at the time. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Seth MacFarlane as Prophet

--Seth MacFarlane (really) missed a plane in Boston in 2001, and that plane flew into the World Trade Center.
--His show _Family Guy_ was accused of predicting the death of the actor who played Brian in the Fast and Furious movies when the _Family Guy_ character by the same name was hit and killed by a car in that week's episode.
--In one episode, the _Family Guy_ title character caused terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon prior to the actual Boston Marathon bombings.
--Five years before Bruce Jenner became a woman, _Family Guy_ character Stewie proclaimed Jenner a beautiful woman whose gender was being lied about by the media.
--An episode of _Family Guy_ depicting Robin Williams attempting suicide aired in the UK _three minutes_ before Robin Williams' actual suicide was announced to the world.
And remember: when Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars, an entire comedy sequence revolved around him being involved in time travel (would the man who co-produced the remake of Cosmos lie to you about how physics works?). And around singing about boobs.
The clues are all hidden in plain sight, people. You just have to decide what you're going to do about it. Above all else: keep watching _Family Guy_ if you want to know what happens next.