Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Information Bear 1

            It was still warm, even though the sun had set half an hour earlier.  The whole “family” was out on the back porch finishing one of Leslie’s outside summertime meals.  I imagine they were sipping glasses of lemonade or some such.  This was about a week after a major event: getting an elby big enough to lift a four-and-a-half kilogram weight.  That was ten pounds, back before David made everyone switch to metric measures.  So, this night’s dinner was something of a celebration, meaning it ended with an unimaginably rich chocolate cake, courtesy of Leslie.
            I can only imagine.  I’m not kidding.  Leslie is dead.  And I’ve never tasted chocolate cake.  Came close, once.
            Anyway, with Roger nearly comatose from overeating, Ishmael diverted the conversation to how elbies could hope to compete with other, more developed sources of work-energy.  David smiled broadly.  This was a question he had waited a long time to answer.
            “People living on the grid don’t appreciate the extent to which technology has determined lifestyle.  Thomas Edison knew he was inventing an industry when he commercialized electricity transmission.  What he may not have realized was that he was dancing to a tune that would be recapitulated in nearly every business sector.  It’s all about mass movement.  Large quantities of information-bearing substances, from cargo to oil to books to contracts to home appliances to cosmetics to entertainment.  These became the substrate on which to grow the knowledge base that defines modern social systems.”
            “What do you mean ‘information-bearing substances’?” Ishmael replied.  He was doing his best to keep up.  “The economy is based on goods and services, isn’t it?”
            “The economy is based on what’s in peoples’ heads.  As the economy has grown it has created a knowledge base of possibilities that swells with every different noticeable distinction.  Take lip gloss, for instance.  A fourteen-year-old girl at the neighborhood drug-store looks at the array of brands, colors, styles and marketing features of a hundred different products called lip gloss.  And to her they’re all different!  She will not confuse ‘creamy peach’ with ‘summer peach’.”
            “Once upon a time,” Leslie chimed in, “a made-up woman used lipstick, and there was only one color.  Red.  Perhaps a few different shades of red, but it was all red.  These days, it takes more than two full store aisles to hold all the different cosmetic products, and a sizeable portion of that is devoted to lip products.”
            “So an information-bearing substance is something like a product line in which each small variation is considered a separate product,” said Marta.
            “I get it.  The more products, the more choices you have to consider.  And choices require information,” said Ishmael.  Then he added, “What does that have to do with my original question?  Adding elby-energy to the mix of energy products expands the menu of choices.  But the other products are already so developed, who would care to use this one?”
            David resumes his argument.  “As I said, the knowledge base that enables the design, production and selection of information-bearing substances exists in peoples’ heads.  The economy is largely intangible, since it’s based on choices that people can be trained to value.  But the knowledge base has become increasingly unstable.  That part of the KB that’s in peoples’ heads is supported by an infrastructure that is narrow, kind of like a mushroom.  At some point it’s all going to fall apart—actually, I think that has already started.  Costs will go sky-high, so to speak, and most of the available choices will simply fall away.  It’s not just cosmetics that will disappear.  Most of the current civilization’s KB will disappear.  It will usher in a time of profound ignorance, another Dark Age.”
            Roger sat up with a start.  There was something on his mind.  He wanted to jump to the punch line so he could ask a new question.  “OK, OK, so we’re creating elby-energy.  And it’s not part of the current KB, so it won’t be lost—”
            “That’s it exactly!”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ignorant Food 2

(Continued from "Ignorant Food 1")

As Delores and a friend were driving to see a movie, the sky began blazing with searing orange clouds.  The view captivated both of them.  Delores observed that human beings seem to be the only animal that can be transfixed by the beauty of a sunset or marvel at the splendor of a rainbow.  Her friend thought that was an agreeable comment.

Yet, how many times do we find that people fail to direct their attention to wonders such as these?  Delores has been known to complain that she, of all the drivers on their way during a morning or afternoon rain shower, seemed to be the only one to look up at a stunning double rainbow—much less even park the car to fully take it in.

The same is true of food.  Do we fully take it in?

The German language has an interesting distinction that speaks to the manner in which food is eaten.  One word, fressen, denotes the type of eating that animals do.  It is a mechanical or desperate act, driven only by the biological need to reduce a motivational state called hunger.  The other word, essen, is meant to conjure the human act of eating.  A refined and civilized human being takes pains to make food and the manner in which it is eaten an experience of splendor.  Certainly, humanity has been at its most creative in turning food into any number of unique and memorable occasions.

But something is wrong here.  To those of us in the developed world, the production and delivery of eatables is an arrangement that is in full swing.  Food is an ever-present given in our lives.  Do we take it for granted?  Do we fully take it in?  Do we expect food and eat it automatically at the appointed times?  Do we ess or do we fress?

And this is why Delores was stunned by Nils’ sharing of the powerful idea from César Chávez.  (See Ignorant Food 1.)  Of course the farmer comes to the table three times a day!  Of course I am eating the labor of people!

Delores had her eyes opened.  She can now look at people eating and see the truth.  They are not eating the labor of people.  They are not eating the resources of the earth.  They are not eating the energy-structure of living beings.  They are not eating the ingenuity of the system.  They are not eating the generosity of friends.  They are not eating the wonder of food.  They know not what they do.

Eat your tasty food.  Fress up, happy animals.

(More at "How I Consecrate Eating")

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ignorant Food 1

Molly, who is the grandmother of Sarif and Rahul, once told this story to Nils.  Molly and Nils are like-minded in certain respects.  It is logical, then, that the story—a memory that Molly found quite moving—affected Nils in a similar fashion.

César Chávez was the legendary champion for the civil rights of migrant farm workers.  He co-founded the United Farm Workers union.  One source describes him as “a self-taught rhetorical genius”.  And so it was that Molly drove forty miles to hear Chávez speak.

Many things were spoken that day.  Of them all, a single thought lodged firmly in Molly’s mind.  You are about to receive this idea.  It is simple.  It has survived the eighty mile journey, the interval of two decades that passed until Nils heard it from Molly, and another ten years until Nils thought to share it here.  It still has the power to raise goose bumps on his neck.

“The ‘farmer’ comes to your table three times each day.”

There is more to this story.  Naturally, Nils shared this idea with Delores.  Her first reaction was, “I eat the labor of people.”  The idea cooked itself in her brain, and then food ignorance took another turn.  To be continued.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tag Enrichment

When Prudence gets down and low she knows not to wallow there.  She knows that the antidote—literally—is a behavior that’s incompatible with sadness: playfulness.

Imagine this game.  You can obliterate graffiti geometrically.  This is better than erasing it or painting over it.  That only creates a blank slate and invites more of the same.  But the geometric enrichment would add extra lines, curves, loops and dots to camouflage the original message.  To work most effectively the additions would have to be rendered using the same style, technique and materials as the original message.  Let’s see an example.

The original message is still there.  It cannot be read very easily, however.  (By the way, see Val’s comments, below.)

Another advantage to this is that doing this doesn’t require any special artistic skill.  (Prudence insists that she has no drawing skills whatever.)  Therefore, just about anybody could participate in such an enrichment activity.  Prudence is sure that kids would love doing it.

There is the possibility that a gang would take offense at its tagging being messed with.  Prudence thinks this consideration is just an opportunity for more creativity, and she goes at it with a passion.  Here are a few suggestions.

  • Find one letter that is common to the tagging of rival gangs.  Then enrich only that letter.

  • Or, contrary to what she said before, Prudence says you could specifically not use the same technique for the enrichment.  That way the original message remains readable.  Like this.
(Prudence wants to get technical on us.  She says that this variation can be understood as a slight reduction in the signal-to-noise ratio.  Big whup, as Grace might say.)

  • Protect the tag message by drawing a boundary around it.  Then do the enrichment outside the boundary.  (This assumes that the tagged surface provides the extra area.)  Here is an example.

VAL COMMENTS:  Val was waitressing at Sizzler where Prudence was working on this.  Val remarked that it made the graffiti look like art.  Then she suggested submitting this idea to the Pepsi Refresh Project for positively affecting your community.  Well, if it comes to that, guess who shares the credit for that?  Right, Val?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

environMENTAL 1

This morning, because the rain clouds seemed to be clearing, Nils took a squeegee to his car’s windows, carefully scraping away the drops of water.  He felt self-conscious as he did this, and he wondered if others would think him silly.  If someone were to remark that his behavior was pointless, that more rain was in the forecast, he decided that he would say proudly, “This is an optimistic act!”

Truth be told, Nils doesn’t feel much optimism these days.  He looks around and notices how woefully unaware most people are of the human impact on the earth.  There appears to be tremendous impetus to keep the current unsustainable lifestyle going.  Indeed, judging from our purchasing and transportation choices, the vast majority of people are voting for more, not less, of the rich lifestyle.

How can we do this?  Nils thinks it’s because of an unhealthy optimism that pervades our psyches.  We tell ourselves that everything will work out fine.  Everything will be OK.  We do the wrong thing and hold onto an irrational hope that nothing bad will happen.  And, when we look around and see everybody behaving the same way, that becomes—reasonable behavior.

Nils sees this as a form of storytelling.  Stories are a vital part of our mental landscape.  We consume them voraciously, in books, television, cinema, newspapers, blogs and magazines.  We have a need for stories that is so powerful that great industries have grown up that provide them for us, around the clock and at a moment’s notice.  People like stories for their drama, for the emotional rush, and especially for their happy endings.

There’s nothing really bad about picturing your life as a story.  Nils realizes that it’s more than a useful metaphor.  It’s an organizing scheme the brain uses to make sense of events and attach meaning to them.  It’s a built-in human need, and pursuing that need creates within us a sense of satisfaction.

If we use that need inappropriately, then our stories become fairy tales: sweet imaginings that charm and reassure children.  An addiction to stories that portray a false picture of the world is an expression of denial, a refusal to grow up, and a failure to take responsibility for our collective behavior.

If we continue to believe in the happy ending, then we will not avert the consequences of our actions.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Perhaps, through knowing Grace, Prudence has changed.  Perhaps she is able to be compassionate towards tobacco smokers.  Even if it might be their fault that they took up the smoking habit, she reasons, can one hold them responsible for not quitting?  Prudence decides the answer is, “No”.

In the form of cigarettes, nicotine and other constituents are an addictive complex the likes of which were never seen.  Firstly, there is the permanence of the addiction: once an addict, always an addict.  Many tobacco users can expect to never be free of the cravings.

Second, there is the biological and chemical engineering of the base product, tobacco.  Today’s tobacco probably bears little resemblance to the product sold fifty years ago.  Through plant hybridization, along with the use of chemical additives, the contemporary tobacco’s addictive potential far outranks that of its predecessors.

Finally, there is the sales and marketing system whose single function is to maintain a chain of production, sales and consumption of tobacco (and related nicotine-delivery products such as gum and patches).  That chain is, in fact, a chain of enslavement.  Human beings are the means of producing wealth by funneling a drug—nicotine—into their bodies.

Once that faucet is opened, it can never be closed.  The wealth-gatherers are as addicted to their chain of income as the smokers are to their tobacco.

Maybe it makes no difference what Prudence thinks, whether she is compassionate or not.  A non-smoker cannot understand the smoker’s experience.  Perhaps the only true compassion can flow from one smoker to another.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Lonely Smart

You do not need to be exceptionally smart to make a decent life for yourself in the United States.  You can get by with a mediocre education and still “succeed”.  Let us agree that raising a family, or buying a house or running a business are some of the common markers of success that our culture uses.

This, of course, leaves many unaccounted for, doesn’t it?  If you don’t sport any of the commonly accepted markers of success, then you are some sort of an outcast, aren’t you.  You don’t belong to the average, to the majority.  Now there are many obvious types that don’t belong.  You might be racially, physically or psychologically “disabled”.  There is another interesting class of those-who-don’t-fit-in.  These are the lonely smart.

The lonely smart don’t talk like the average majority, don’t think like the average majority, and they are definitely not considered huggable by the average majority.  They eek out an existence in society by adapting to roles that the culture forces on them: scientist, writer, artist.  Many of them accept these niches—even compete to attain them—because they have accepted the social program to one degree or another.

The lonely smart are tolerated, even looked upon as useful.  But they are not admired by the average majority, not championed, nor held as figures worthy of emulation.  They don’t play professional sports, sell gold albums or star in blockbuster movies.  They are—by the standards of the average majority—odd.

The lonely smart have something that pretty much ensures that they won’t fit in.  A different set of values.  They seek things like truth, mental flexibility, intellectual prowess, the good of the species or the welfare of living beings.  They can find passion in a rock, or awe in a biological design, or beauty in the language of the wind.

Oh, and the really smart ones?  They can see past the petty squabbles and political divides and fashionable views.  These folks won’t play the petty games that all the rest find so meaningful, will they?  They learn to blend in, and they don’t reveal to any but a very few the way world gets organized in their minds.

Will Rogers said in his autobiography (
The fellow that can only see a week ahead is always the popular fellow, for he is looking with the crowd. But the one that can see years ahead, he has a telescope but he can't make anybody believe that he has it.

 Does this make you ache?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Prudence Makes a Discovery

Prudence didn't know she had a blog inside her. A blog means you write a lot. She used to look at Nils and think, "Now he knows how to write!" In truth, Nils and she have a lot in common. They both like to think, and both of them are intellectual explorers, willing to sacrifice opinions for truth. Looking back, Prudence would admit that she found inspiration in Nils' writing.

It took her by surprise. She was riding her bike (actually Sarif's bike, on long-term loan) along the river bike trail on a breezy, sunny, not-too-warm day last week when it struck her: I have a lot to say! She realized that it could take a lifetime to get her thoughts published in the book market. But why should that stop her? There is all this blogging technology out there, so why not use it!?!

The idea, having taken root, would not die. It seemed to grow the more she thought about it (which, of course, she is very good at). After poking around a bit, Prudence has finally taken the plunge. This brings us to today. Welcome, Dear Reader.