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Friday, April 26, 2013

Building Meerkat's crabclaw rig

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, I've built the spars for Meerkat's crabclaw rig, and today I made the sail. The rig will look something like this:


Today I made the sail. It's blue polytarp put together with double-sided carpet tape. To make sure it had some belly to it, I put some extra bow in the luff spar by, well, making a sort of bow out of it, stringing a line from one end to the other. The spars are laminated from 1 1/2 inch by 3/8 inch western red cedar, so it's going to be fairly flexible.

I need to shorten the spars a bit and paint them, and build a short mast for raising this sail. If I get a few nice days, I could be sailing in a week.

More posts on this topic:

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/06/building-new-boat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat_25.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat-yet.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/putting-on-goop-building-meerkat-very.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/08/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/08/building-meerkat-saga-continues.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/08/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat_16.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/meerkat-now-black-by-popular-demand.html

 http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/splash-launch-and-first-sail-building.html

 http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/meerkat-victorious-building-meerkat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/meerkat-gets-meerkart-and-some-sailing.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/picture-of-meerkat-racing.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/building-meerkat-alternate-rig.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/by-john-macbeath-watkins-well-its.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/building-meerkats-crabclaw-rig.html

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human

by John MacBeath Watkins

On a forum I sometimes frequent, a person I had thought fairly normal recently stated as incontrovertible fact that "the federal government operatives did the Oklahoma City bombing to protect their seized power."

Which left me wondering, why do we have some sort of conspiracy theory for every tragedy?

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia, thinks he has some answers.
In an interview with Slate, he recently said:

"There are number of factors, but probably one of the most important ones in this instance is that, paradoxically, it gives people a sense of control. People hate randomness, they dread the sort of random occurrences that can destroy their lives, so as a mechanism against that dread, it turns out that it’s much easier to believe in a conspiracy. Then you have someone to blame, it’s not just randomness."
Which immediately started me thinking about religion, in which the randomness of life is blamed on god or the gods.
He elaborated:

"Basically what’s happening in any conspiracy theory is that people have a need or a motivation to believe in this theory, and it’s psychologically different from evidence-based thinking. A conspiracy theory is immune to evidence, and that can pretty well serve as the definition of one. If you reject evidence, or reinterpret the evidence to be confirmation of your theory, or you ignore mountains of evidence to focus on just one thing, you’re probably a conspiracy theorist. We call that a self-sealing nature of reasoning."

My heavens, that sounds like religion through and through. Was religion the original conspiracy theory, a way to gain control of an irrational world by assigning blame?

But of course, there is the theory demonstrated in The Invention of Lying, a Ricky Gervais movie in which he plays the only man in the world who can lie, or even conceive of there being such a thing as a lie.

He uses this super power to become wealthy and powerful, but the biggest lie he tells is to his dying mother. She's afraid of the nothingness of death, so he tells her the comforting lie -- that instead of nothingness, what awaits her is the best place ever, where she will live in a mansion and everyone she loves will be with her and she will be young and healthy and beautiful.

The doctors and nurses overhear, and religion is born out of lies and good intentions. It is a vision of a good, kind, but imperfect man whose words send his world spinning out of control.
This is certainly a more benign version of the origin of religion, and at least as credible. And I suppose the assemblage we call religion could have many origins for its many parts.

As we've discussed in the series of posts on the strangeness of being human, we are not entirely logical creatures, and the dominance of logic as a motivator of human action may, in fact, be fairly recent. In the post on the bicameral mind hypothesis, we talked of Julian Jaynes and his theory that for most of the time between the invention of language and the Greek golden age, we were not "conscious" in the sense of possessing a metaphorical space in our heads that narrates our lives -- we were not self-conscious.

He portrays a society in which the gods speak to us through that part of our brains that only the insane listen to now, a society in which the patterns of civilization were written in our myths, which programmed our minds. His theory is that as society began changing too rapidly for this to continue working, we had to learn to think for ourselves.

But are these mythic patterns left behind so easily? There is a deep yearning in mankind for the mythic past, even for the voice of god to tell us what to do, to free us from the terrible burden of freedom. A friend told me last Saturday about how his devout father had yearned all his life for something like the voice of god, and seemed at last to reconciled himself to never hearing it.

I would not begrudge him that dreaming world of mystic voices and certain belief. I do fear he would find what our ancestors found, that the world is changing too fast for the pattern of life to be set by mythic figures that tell us how to live. We must adapt to survive.

But there is a reason we want the dream back. We've seen the nightmare of reason, the Terror and the killing fields.

In the first post in this series, I quoted Yeats:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

And still we yearn for that faery world, in fantasy literature, in new age books, in religious practice. We can look back, and wonder at the poetry of it, and find the wisdom in it.

But we must not expect the bush to burn for us, or the voice of god to give us eternal truths. William Manchester's book about leaving the middle ages behind had an almost perfect title: A World Lit Only by Fire. We have left that world behind us, and the burning bushes with it. In the clean, efficient, industrial light of our disenchanted nights, we remember the dreaming world, and we need to feel the pull back to it to keep our logic from becoming too cold and cruel, but it was logic that gave us facts at our fingertips and the power to shape our world.

Who knows, maybe there is a god, and he's responsible for everything, for the gunman on the grassy knoll, the painfully bland music in the elevators, the martyrdom of random strangers at the Boston Marathon and the Oklahoma federal building bombing. Or maybe there's just a need, and when we don't have gods to fill them, we have conspiracy theories and well-intentioned lies.

It would be a sad coda if that described the god-shaped hole in us. I think it's something deeper, something that these things are only a shadow of, a world left behind that used to define our humanity.



The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26

On being a ghost in a soft machine
 27
On the illusion of the self

Saturday, April 20, 2013

That other explosion: The preventable deaths in Texas

by Jamie Lutton

A factory just blew up, in West, Texas.

This was a totally preventable accident, and it was exacerbated by extraordinarily poor and reckless city design in this small town.

We have known how to  prevent accidents like this  since at least 1947.. This disaster should never have happened, and if it did happen, the loss of life was absolutely preventable. Those who died, those who lost their homes in the blast, those  hundreds who were injured, this was absolutely unnecessary.

This factory had ammonium nitrate stored on the premises  The city fathers, as the town grew, either allowed homes, schools, nursing homes and apartments to be built around this factory, or allowed the factory to be located very, very close to these homes. .... I don't know which

This was all a recipe for disaster. And it is on record that this factory failed some safety inspections, and had bargained down the fines they had received for those violations. They had forgotten the adage 'penny wise; pound foolish.' All the facts are not in yet, but it appears to save a few bucks, they cut corners.

And even if their safety record turns out to be squeaky clean, who in their right mind puts a middle school, a high school, apartment buildings and a nursing home within the blast radius of a factory that handles dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate?  All these buildings were located mere yards from the factory.

The city developers  in West should be held responsible for allowing homes and schools to be built so close to this factory.  There was no excuse for this.

I blame the zoning committee at this city for this madness; if the widows of the firefighters have any sense, they  will sue the pants off not only the factory owners, but the city itself for allowing this. Does the almighty dollar rule over common sense?

Eleven first responders, including fire fighters, and three others died in the blast...and  these were volunteer fire fighters, local men who put their lives on the line; evacuated the homes, apartments, and nursing homes, and who tried to fight the fire, are responsible for their not being a much greater loss of life.

They are amazing heroes.

But - have they died in vain?

 When are we going to enforce safer practices in American factories? Over and over, we have accidents like this, and nothing changes.  

Perhaps insurance they carry will allow the factory owners to rebuild, but what about the loss of life? All those brave firefighters died saving lives in that town, lives that were put at risk because several entities had not practiced any common sense.

We all know better than this.

 In 1947, an accident in Texas City, Texas  killed 600 people and injured thousands when a French ship carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded. The explosion could be heard over a 100 miles away..That horrific fire and explosions were supposed to 'have changed everything' the way the Triangle garment factory fire of 1911 led, finally, to vastly improved safety standards in American factories.

We should stop. Stop..... and think about enforcing the laws we have, and passing tougher laws about safety practices in factories like this one.

My dad worked handling radioactive nuclear waste products at Hanford; he was a radioactive waste expert, an inorganic chemist. I learned from him, from stories he told me, that safety must come first. Though Daddy used to joke about OSHA, Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, harassing him and made fusses over the height of railings and such, but he was damn glad they were there, keeping an eye on safety. .

OSHA has been gutted in recent decades, defanged, so that they cannot force factory owners to keep their workplaces safe from accidents like this.

This same week, three people died and dozens were maimed in a bomb blast in Boston, Mass. This horrified us as it was carried out willfully by young, deluded terrorists. We  cannot do anything quickly about terrorism, young men going mad and building bombs that maim children and other civilians - or what we can do, will mean re-organizing the governments of the world. Some of us are working on that, all sorts of organizations. .

But death and destruction like the ones in West can be easily prevented.

In any town in this nation, we should examine how safe our schools and housing are, and how close they are to hazards like this one. We fret about sexual predators living near our schools; how about fretting about ticking time bombs like this factory? We must insist that that more inspections are done, fines are increased, and that OSHA has the power to shut down factories that are run in a dangerous way.

And NO city planners should get away with placing schools, homes, apartment buildings and nursing homes so close to a factory that they could easily blow up . The death toll could have been much, much higher; they got lucky, and they had well trained, selfless fire fighters working that terrible blaze.  We got very lucky in West. As ordinary citizens, we can petition our government to restore the powers of OSHA, and demand that factory towns are a lot safer. This is a task any single citizen can take on, by writing letters, - real letters, not emails- to your representatives, and  demand that there be safer practices in place.

This is where ''government red tape''' saves lives..both in better city planning, and demanding safer workplaces for all. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Boston bombers, The True Believer, and the odious experiment

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Boston bombing has made me think of a great book and an odious experiment, both of which might help explain the strange behavior of the bombers.

I believe they committed their atrocity in the belief it would somehow make the world a better place. How's that for irrationality?

In 1951, one of the great books of the 20th century hit the shelves. It was The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, a longshoreman who had become an independent scholar by reading and thinking.

Eric Hoffer explored what sort of person joins the mass movement, loses the sense of self-preservation that most of us have, and causes them to commit inhuman acts and sacrifice their own lives.

Hoffer said that "the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure," and needs the movement to give meaning to his or her life. A movement gives such a person a way to act that makes their life heroic rather than insignificant.

And what if it hurts others? Well, if they are part of the movement, their sacrifice is appreciated, and if they are not, they don't matter. They might even be the enemy.

In a profile done when he competed in a Golden Gloves event at Salt Lake City, we have this portrait of Tamarlan Tsarnaev:
Tamerlan says he doesn't drink or smoke anymore: "God said no alcohol." A muslim, he says: "There are no values anymore," and worries that "people can't control themselves."
When he died in a shootout with police, he was asserting his values and his value. His body reportedly had multiple gunshot wounds and a blast injury. No doubt he believed that he was going out in a blaze of glory. To give significance to the story of his life, he killed random strangers, thinking somehow he was acting heroically.

But how could he kill people who had done him no harm, because they were participating or watching an American event? Why did he do something most of us wouldn't do if directly ordered to?

The experiment I thought of was Stanley Milgram's experiment in authoritarianism, which has often been misinterpreted but seems to support Hoffer's view.

In the Milgram experiment, done in 1963, one subject (actually an actor) was hooked up to electrodes, while the actual experimental subject was put in charge of administering shocks. The idea was to see if Adolf Eichmann's defense, "I was only following orders," reflected the psychology of normal people.

The subjects were led to believe they were participating in a learning experiment. Here's the Wikipedia description:

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.[1]
At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.[1]
If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:[1]
  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.[1]
The experimenter also gave special prods if the teacher made specific comments. If the teacher asked whether the learner might suffer permanent physical harm, the experimenter replied, "Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on." If the teacher said that the learner clearly wants to stop, the experimenter replied, "Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on."
Although the experimenters assumed that between zero and three percent would follow instructions right up to the final, massive, 450-volt shock, in practice, 65% did.

Milgram wrote an article about it, Perils of Obedience, and did a documentary film, Obedience.

He found that it mattered whether the experimenter was dressed in a lab coat or ordinary clothing, whether the experiment was done in a high-status building or a run-down location. These were matters of perceived authority.

But Milgram did 20 variations on the study. In the one where the "teacher" was simply ordered to go on, none did. The high rate of compliance went with appeals to the greater good -- as in, "it is absolutely essential that you continue."

Because while people will rebel against simply being ordered to comply, they will commit the most monstrous acts for the march of progress, or the moral improvement of mankind. We do our worst when we are convinced that we are acting for the best.

I'm sure it was the same for American interrogators who used torture, for the people who flew aircraft into the Twin Towers, and for Eichmann himself.

In his television series The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski had a moment when he squatted in  Aushwitz, plunging his hand into the sodden ashes, and as they ran through his fingers, quoted Oliver Cromwell:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken".
He was talking about the 'scientific' racism of the Holocaust, but it can apply to every doctrine, every movement. The cure for certainty, he felt, was empathy:
"We have to touch people."



Monday, April 15, 2013

So, like, filler words, you know? They uh, mean something

by John MacBeath Watkins

So, verbal tics like saying "like" every time you introduce new information, or beginning an expository speech with "so," have received their share of ridicule, but now research shows that they actually mean something.


Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of the University of California at Santa Cruz researched the meaning of words previously deemed meaningless, and considered verbal stumbles.

They were called disfluencies, and considered errors be no less august linguist than Noam Chomsky.

In a recent interview, Clark called them "conversation managers."

The speaker has to keep track of the content of what he or she is saying and of interactions with the other(s) in the conversation. It turns out that if you introduce a new topic without an "uh," it's harder for the person you are speaking to to process the information that would have followed the "uh."

Fox Tree, quoted in the same article, points to the fact that teachers discourage this sort of speech. And yes, it can get annoying if someone is nervously resorting to conversation managers to delay getting to the point or conceal the fact that they've lost the plot, but uh, all languages seem to have them, so they must have a purpose.

Martin Corley and Robert J. Hartsuiker, in a 2011 study, gave subjects a task manipulating objects, sometimes preceding the information with a pause or the word "uh," and sometimes not. The result?
 Participants were quicker to respond when a name was directly preceded by a delay, regardless of whether this delay was filled with a spoken um, was silent, or contained an artificial tone. 
Now, I spent an important part of my boyhood in Maine, where I developed a style of speaking that involved pauses, but did not rely on "uh." When my family moved to the West Coast, I found that if I paused, left-coasters would assume I was done talking and jump in. I had to learn that the syncopated cadence of New England would be misinterpreted in the Northwest, where the expectation was for a steady speech cadence. People would interrupt as I paused to prepare the listener for new information.

In short, I had to learn to say "uh."

In The Jungle, Sinclair Lewis has it that "They use everything about the hog except the squeal."

In language, the squeal is not wasted. 



The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26

On being a ghost in a soft machine
 27
On the illusion of the self

Saturday, April 13, 2013

My encounter with Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (updated)

by Jamie Lutton

I have been dodging The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for forty years...though it was written over a hundred years ago, and set in the South before the Civil War. The problems the child Huck faces come too close to home for me.

A thousand reviews of this book are written every year, but a lot of them miss the point I got from Huck Finn. The message I got from of the book was the experience of looking at adults through Huck's eyes, and finding them wanting.

It is merciless how Twain points out their inhumanity to Huck, to Jim and to each other. The most extreme case is Huck's father (though many who write about this book overlook this, and think the treatment of Jim the slave to be worse).

You can read The Prince and The Pauper, an easier book to get through, (and another favorite of mine)  to encounter a similar father, in both the father of the 'pauper' and Henry the Eighth. Twain  relies there  on what the reader would know about Henry the Eighth, and then contrast the two fathers, and show that they, too, are identical in the ways that matter, not just their sons.

Both boys in that book feared their father's violence and mercurial temperament. Twain proposes a 'better world', and attacks the class system, by showing that the boys were identical (he does this in Pudd'nhead Wilson, too, check that novel out)  All three boys, the prince, the pauper, and Huck, look out at the world and show it up to the 19th century reader and the readers in our time, to be a cruel place full of lies.

In Huck Finn, the fear he has for his father is the great shadow that lies over the book. Other adults are wicked, hypocritical and foolish in turn, and show their lack of humanity toward JIm, the slave, and Huck.  But the boy's fear of his father in chapter four is what makes this book great in my eyes. This is the one of the first times in fiction, that I know of, that an alcoholic, violent parent is depicted without mercy in fiction, from the point of view of a child. I can only think of Dickens parents or adults to compare,and the rawness of the effect of strong drink is not as clearly laid out. (In say, Great Expectations, it is just 'madness' that affects Miss Haversham)

It is the terror that Huck feels that makes reading this book so difficult. .

For all the adults who have forgotten, this is the terror a child feels when they fear their parents.  For a child of two alcoholics, like myself, this is where I put the book down, and could not finish it, for many years.

Twain has slipped in a dagger.  It is Huck's father who is the second subversive figure, here, next to the outrageous  and anarchistic character of Huck, himself. This father is the greatest argument to give a gallows laugh over the ''rights'' of parents over their children. Anyone who works in Child Protective Services should read this chapter, before thinking of returning a helpless child to an adult to has been drunk and abusive.

Reviewers miss that this book is a great rant in favor of the right's of children (as well as blacks).

Huck's resistance to 'civilizing',  his desire to loaf and just be, his smoking (!!) captures the secret heart of all who might come across this book.

How many of us as kids wished to ditch books and just be outside, playing? To go nowhere, and just see what turns up? That Huck is completely illiterate, and did not mind too much, but could hunt and fish really well and take care of himself in the wild makes him even more outrageous. This book is revolutionary, an open call to freedom to anyone who comes across it. Many fictional characters in many books have been modeled on Huck. The first I read was the runaway boy in My Side of the Mountain, who lives in the wilds of the Catskills for 2 years, very like Huck .

The parents and educators who examine The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rail about all the uses of the 'n' word in this book, which is used to good effect to show how badly black slaves were regarded by whites in the Antebellum South.. They usually miss how bad Huck's father is, and that he is right there in the text for the children to see, and to remember, and compare to the authority figures in their own lives.

Even if their own parents are sober, the child reading the text might have an older brother, a bully in school, uncle  or aunt like Huck's dad, or a teacher they are terrified of. Every child knows a violent person who has power over them. . . . ..   .  There are so many adults that act like Huck's dad; he is almost a stand-in for parent, and if not parent, the state and government itself.  But we, like Huck, think that this is normal, Huck's father slips by the modern reader, as we are anxiously looking at how  the black character Jim is presented.

The subversive nature of Jim, who seems to be the only rational adult in the book, sets up  Huck's father as his foil. Huck's father is the subhuman here; that is the most subversive quality of this book, contrasting with Jim's humanity and kindness.

Huck's dad is a very believable character, if you are familiar with the habitual drunkard, who has fallen into the degenerate state of advanced alcoholism.

Huck describes his father as a man  hairy, ragged, ruined by drink, seemingly older than his 'middle age', which was probably about 35.

 He is pale from the misuse of his body, dirty, illiterate, and angry.  Huck is terrified of his father;  this is made clear, that he fears him showing up and taking him away all in very his rough prose. that  preys on his mind that is father will show up and he knows no other adult will understand, and prevent this.

This is the modern feel of this book; it is the eternal typical experience for the child of an alcoholic, in all eras.

No matter how awful the parent, the child is the parent's property, even if the child is in danger of his life. This is true in 2013 as it was in 1840, say. Huck is going about in fear, and has no one to help him, even though he supposedly has 'guardians' to look after him.

The brilliance of this books is that Twain shows the father's remnant of his humanity, in that  he kept his son close by him, ostensibly because he wanted to extract money from his guardians; but from the text, it was evident so that the father would not want to have to be alone. He must have loved the boy,  but would never say so, or act like it by rational standards.

While he had his son with him; he had removed him from his guardians and from school, the father maintained a fabrication of a household; functioned better, hunted, cooked, lived in a shack; but when he was by himself, the father roamed the land a homeless person, drinking and gambling and getting into fights with people over and over, barely functioning as a rational creature.  His son was his reason for living, even though it was a parody of life, as he lived only to drink. Huck can't see this, as he grew up with his dad, and thought this was a kind of normal. Normal, even though he was beaten daily, and badly, and kept locked up. When he is not locked up, he and his dad hunt, and fish, and quietly hang out in the wilderness together. In the text, he recalls his father telling him about how to get by in life - the rationale on stealing things like chickens, for example.

This detailed description of Huck's dad, both bad, very bad, and good is what makes this great literature.   The conversation between Huck and his dad in Chapter 5 could have been written yesterday.  Twain dared to put a realistic violent drunken parent on the page, the sort of parent who, no matter what you do, you are wrong; as in real life.  And the child as property, to perhaps kill if they think that is what they want to do, when they are in that mood.  And, above all,  the child has to listen to them.

Huck's father is what makes this book subversive, and is the hidden subversiveness. Childhood as slavery.  No one wants to say 'this book should not be read' when this book challenges the right of fathers, parents, to batter their children.  People are looking at the wrong part of this book to  suppress, not the use of the 'n' word, but the depiction of the real world of a child of an alcoholic  

The most common analysis of this book say that Huck will end up like his father, when he grows up.  It is us to the reader, reading about Huck's friendship with Jim, and his open skepticism, his wit and his scorn of the hypocrisies of adults,  to hope that he will not.

To hope that there is hope for change in the human heart.

For John's take on this book, look here:
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/what-huck-finn-means-to-me.html

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires (Rethinking liberalism part 11)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Via Ugh, at Obsidian Wings, we learn of the delightful term, "stateless income." It is a product of global capital, and one reason for the parlous condition of the international system. (It's not in his post, but in the comment section.)

Ugh, who is a Washington, D.C., tax attorney, comes at it from the fact that no one really seems to want tax simplification. That's because of the old, old story of those who want tax favors being the ones who can afford the lobbying muscle to actually effect the tax code. The more complex the code, the harder it is to see who's bought a favor.

And stateless income is certainly a part of this particularly annoying bit of corruption, but it's also a part of a larger trend.

The American Revolution started in 1776, the same year Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was published. Capitalism was in its gestation, not even its infancy. Most politicians were either physiocrats or mercantilists.  The physiocrats tended to be planters, who valued that philosophy for two of its major tenets: That all value came from the soil, and the lasseze faire idea that government should leave business alone. The latter was attractive to planters whose wealth was built on slave labor, because even at the time of the revolution, people like George Mason were saying that slavery was immoral.

Mercantilists, on the other hand, were natural empire builders. They believed that the state should work with business to increase the wealth of the nation, and in many cases, that meant getting colonies to supply raw materials for manufacture in the home country. India could grow cotton, for example, but it was shipped to the British textile mills. Gandhi rebelled against this, telling Indian men that they should spin and weave their own fabric.

Of course, it would be far more profitable for the cotton mills to be in India, where the labor was cheaper and the transport costs of the raw material less. And had the mills been in India, the people who lived there might actually have been able to afford the fabric.

Forget the Maine
But under the mercantilist system, the most profitable parts of the process were to be in the home country. The result was that the taxes needed to support the very expensive business of maintaining an empire were paid by the companies that benefited from the empire.

But the most envied positions in business are monopolies and free riders. If you can't swing the monopoly -- and starting with the Grange movement after the Civil War and culminating in anti-trust legislation, societies became increasingly hostile to monopolies -- the next best thing is to be a free rider.

This is inherent in the nature of public goods. For example, the most frequently used example of a public good is the lighthouse.

The problem became evident when private industry tried to supply the crying need for lighthouses. They were a benefit to all mariners, but who would pay for the use of a lighthouse? It's lit or it isn't, and if someone else pays for the lighthouse, it's impossible to exclude anyone from the use of a lighthouse.

So, governments granted lighthouse owners the right to collect fees, and ended up enforcing that right. Essentially, it took the government to collect the fees to support a private lighthouse.

That solved the free rider problem, but then it became evident that the incentive for lighthouses was to crank up the fees and spend as little on maintenance as possible, an example of rent-seeking by a monopoly.  This led to public demand for the state to provide better lighthouses.

Think about this in terms of public order. The British Empire, at tremendous cost in lives and treasure, maintained a relatively peaceful and lawful place to do business in India, and its merchant class brought profitable business to Britain that paid taxes to support the empire. But you can no more exclude someone from peace than from the spinning ray from the Fresnel lens of a lighthouse.

Ford was probably not the first, but in 1926 the company built plants to produce the Model T in India for the Indian market. Given how much help America had been in WW I (damned yanks, late to every war...) it was not politically practical to tell Ford to take a hike, and in any case, the age of empires was ending.

Ford was a harbinger of the age of global capital. It is an age in which companies have no loyalty to country. As Mitt Romney was wont to note, "corporations are people, too," but they are people without empathy, loyalty or conscience.

In short, a corporation is a sociopath. Unless, as with some small corporations like Twice Sold Enterprises, Inc., all the officers are one person, it cannot have the character traits we value in people. Lacking loyalty, patriotism is an emotion a large corporation cannot feel.

It is the perfect free rider, not caring about the unfairness of it taking advantage of a system it undermines by dodging payment for the service it enjoys.

At present, nearly half the world's military expenditure is spent by the good ol' USA, a country that comprises close to 25% of the world economy. The pax Americana is partially defrayed by the money paid by some other countries for the protection we offer. Japan, for example, pays about $2 billion a year to help maintain American bases on Japanese soil (well, mostly on Okinawan soil, which is a bit of a sore point with the people of the Ryuku Islands, annexed by Japan in 1872 and still treated as a somewhat separate people for matters such as who marries who.)

But it's becoming increasingly evident that America, like the empires before her, cannot maintain the world system. The expense is simply not paid by those who benefit.

There was much to despise in the old imperial system. The Sepoy Mutiny would hardly have happened in a harmonious nation where people actually liked being ruled by foreigners. The competition between countries that had empires, such as Spain and Britain, and those who desired them, such as Germany and Japan, led to horrendous wars with enormous loss of life.

The systems that have replaced it -- the competition of the Cold War and the resented hegemony of the Pax Americana -- isn't necessarily any better. Granted, when a country asks America to leave, we do. (My father flew as a navigator/bombardier on B-57s, and we had to leave Laon in 1958 because De Gaul did not want any American nuclear delivery aircraft on French bases. Yep, it's as easy as that to get rid of us, just tell us to leave and we go.)

But is the world as safe as it was before governments of powerful countries started to realize that all that money spent on wars was never coming back?

Presumably, stateless income and free riders on the international system will at some point undermine the safety of overseas investments to the point where they are not a profitable investment. At the same time, if wars are not profitable, there may be fewer wars.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The power of forbidden words and the imposition of order

John 1

King James Version (KJV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John The Baptist, by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1774

 by John MacBeath Watkins

In several posts, (1, 2, 3) we've explored the way modernist writers and more playful genre writers have responded to the power of language. But it's always well to remember that our ancestors were at least as smart as we are, and understood things we are rediscovering.

I've often wondered what the above biblical passage really means. From William Warner, University of California at Santa Barbara English Department:
The word for “word” here is“logos”, the Greek word for the indwelling logic, orrational order of things. But it also refers to and translated the figure of “Wisdom” from the Hebrew scriptures. The first 14 lines of John 1 thread together three distinct ways of understanding the productive power of God’s “Word”: creation,incarnation, and the communication of the “good news” of the Gospel. 
There is, of course, a great deal more to Warner's analysis, and I recommend you click on the paragraph above to read more.

For our purposes, perhaps the most important thing here is that in this ancient text, John the Baptist showed an understanding of the power of language to organize our world and to carry forward the wisdom our ancestors had gleaned and incorporated into language.

Language gives us the symbolic categories we use to think. Just as any tool carries within it the range of things we can do with that tool, language both enables us to think and, unless we invent new language, limits what we can think.

And, of course, there are always those who wish to limit what we can think. When Thomas Aikenhead spoke about his atheist beliefs, the indictment on a charge of blasphemy read:

That ... the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, in profane allusion to Esop's Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.[3]
Well, as a recent anti-bullying campaign told us, words hurt. And hurting those who have the power to kill us can turn out to be an outstandingly bad idea.

Aikenhead came to understand this after he had been sentenced to death, and petitioned for a reduced sentence because of his youth (he was 20 when he was indicted) and the fact that he was a first-time offender. The court ruled that it would only consider reducing his sentence if the Church interceded on his behalf.

From Wikipedia:
The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged "vigorous execution" to curb "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land". Thus Aikenhead’s sentence was confirmed.[1]
Profane words have a mystery at the heart of them. They are words that no one is allowed to say, but that everyone knows. It's a bit like the Harry Potter books, where Voldemort "must not be named," but everyone knows his name, and it soon becomes evident this is because everyone names him. It's a bit like the prohibition against saying the name of God.



And the nature of profanity changes over time. We are far less sensitive about religion or sex now, but no one should say the word "nigger." Oops, I just said it, and now you know that forbidden word. And yet, by knowing it, have you become more racially insensitive than you were before? No, but if you use it, knowing it is a forbidden word, you are saying that you are, and by knowing the forbidden word, you know what using that word says about the speaker..

These words are made profane to put them outside of what is acceptable, but how can we know what is unacceptable unless we know the profane word? And some words are forbidden not because they are profane, but because they are sacred.

Forbidding the word is a way to make the symbolic category of thought it represents unthinkable. The sacred works a little differently from the profane. A powerful church could, by making the name of God unspeakable, make excessive familiarity with God unthinkable (Oh, Jehova? Yeah, I used to have a thing with Him. Tall guy, big beard, booming voice, a bit overbearing if you want to know the truth. He actually, and I'm not kidding here, this is God's own truth, had my buddy Abraham right on the point of actually murdering his own son. Well, that was the last straw, I said, listen, 'hova, you know I love you man, but you're turning this into a cult...)

When they start using the diminutive of your name, your authority is right out the window, I suppose. "They call me Mr. Tibbs" is several steps below "you are not worthy to say my name," but it is an effort to insist on dignity, on a recognition of power.

But while the realm of the profane continues to thrive, moving easily from sex acts and religion to race and sexual orientation, what words are now forbidden because they have sacred power? None I can think of in society as a whole, although there will always be sects that preserve this linguistic outlyer. Forbidding excessive familiarity is an exercise of authority. When there is no authority that can insist on forbidding its name, this may represent an increase in freedom or a loss of order. Which you see depends on which you value more.

The power of the profane forbidden word is there to set boundaries, the power of the sacred forbidden word is to buttress authority. I cannot help but think the power of the profane is more important.



The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26

On being a ghost in a soft machine
 27
On the illusion of the self

Monday, April 1, 2013

Drunk on the milk of paradise: The spell of the story, and the works of Pratchett, Holt, Fforde and Jones

by John MacBeath Watkins

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

-- from Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake


In our series on the strangeness of being human, we've discussed, among other things, the seductive way stories shape us, the power of language to shape our thinking, and the flight from meaning by some 20th century writers.

One theme I'm seeing in some of the more playful literature is a self-consciousness about stories. I've just re-read Open Sesame, a comic fantasy novel by Tom Holt in which many of the characters are trying to escape from escapist literature (Ali Babba and the 40 thieves) into reality.

Holt is following in the comic fantasy steps of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld universe is composed in part of the element narativium, which cases everything to turn into stories. And of course, Jasper Fforde's Tuesday Next stories are about a police woman who goes into texts, becomes part of the world of the story she's read herself into, and has to foil the villain who has discovered that by going into the manuscript of a novel, he can change the story in all the books containing that story.

Diana Wynn Jones approaches this in more subtle way. In The Spellcoats, the main protagonist is a girl who can weave a story into a rug coat, creating an enchantment that can change the real world if the right spirit wears it. It is an allegory about the power of stories, rather than the more obvious approach the other authors I've named have used. All are playful in their approach to the problem. (Jones, by the way, was always published as a juvenile author, but I've noticed she is usually bought and read by adults.)

Contrast this with the flight from meaning that was such a powerful theme through much of the 20th century. Once the power of language began to be understood, some thinkers began to cry Beware! Beware!

From one of Samuel Beckett's letters:
Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.
 And, of course, Belgian Jacques Derrida worried about the "violent hierarchy" of signified over signifier, and Louis Althusser worried that the structure of language dictates what we can think.

These sincere efforts to do something with the insight that language is powerful, that it gives us the categories that we use to think, seem to me like a dead end. Inherent in Althusser's fear of the power of language and the structure of society it encompasses is the assumption that language is a prison.

But language can change. We change it by using it, playing with it, imagining new meanings for old words and inventing new coinages. The playfulness of writers like Pratchett, Holt, Fforde and Jones means they are not taken as seriously as the severely depressed Louis Althusser or the deliberately obscure Derrida, but they are doing with language and with memes what humans have always done, played with them and learned through play, which is the main way mammals learn.

It is as if the early pioneers, such as Ferdinande de Saussure, made the discovery of language's power, the next intellectual wave was a reaction of horror and fear, mixed with a desire to rebel -- "language, you are not the boss of me!" -- and we are now seeing people comfortable enough with the notion to play with it and laugh about it. I suspect we will learn more from those who play with the notion than we have from those who rebelled against the power of language. After all, language is a tool we created, and one we are not eager to abandon.

And it is not so easy to rebel against a tool. Beckett's attempts to undermine language fell into the trap he probably feared, that anything you can communicate through language is within the box called language. He did not escape it, he just enlarged the box, which is what creative people do.



The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26

On being a ghost in a soft machine
 27
On the illusion of the self