Saturday, February 27, 2010

Earthquakes 'n sunshine

It's sunny in the mountains, and here I am stuck writing a twelve-page paper this weekend.

Mt. Saint Helens photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service, public domain

Actually I'm mostly tempted to rent a car and and head west to catch the small tsunami creeping up the coast. There are a number of harbors that will probably amplify the effect with good views at a safe distance.

Of course the wave from the Chilean earthquake is also a reminder that someday it will be our turn here in the Pacific Northwest, with 9.0 subduction quake unzipping the entire Cascadia zone from Northern California up into British Columbia.

On one hand the chances of this happening in our lifetime should be remote. Typically Cascadia tends to operate in clusters of four quakes spaced out three hundred years apart, followed by five hundred to a thousand years of silence.

However, this is nature and nature is uneven. While the 9.0 January 26th 1700 Cascadia quake was the fourth in the most recent cluster, groupings of five are not unknown. And there has been a fair amount of aseismic slippage taking place up around Vancouver Island in recent years. Additionally there is some recent evidence that the southern half of the fault ruptures more often than the northern half--normally every 280 years.

In Portland a full 9.0 quake along the length of the Cascadia zone would result in four to five minutes of long period shaking at 7.0 on the movement moment scale. Where normal quakes are violent and short lived, this one would involve drawn-out swaying over a prolonged period of time with a much greater amount of total energy being imputed into man-made structures.

That will be enough to take down older bridges and buildings, and isolate the region with landslides on all of the major highways and mountain passes.

Here in the city, high-rise buildings are a matter of particular concern. Normally these are the safest structures to be in during a quake. Tall steel-framed buildings sway gracefully and spread out the moment of impact in a wave across the length of the building rather than bearing the burden of each shake all at once. Four to five minutes, however, might be enough to put such buildings in resonance with the quake, meaning that the entire structure will be moving in synch with the ground.

Big Pink, pictured above, will at the very least end up shedding all of its glass and its marble facade during such a quake, and bury the streets around it four-feet deep in jagged debris. In the worst case scenario it will end up in forced resonance and vibrate itself to pieces.

Worst hit will be the region's un-reinforced masonry buildings. Bricks tend to work themselves loose and whole buildings come down.

Afterward, it will likely take a week or more for major relief to reach Portland. Not only would many of the region's bridges and mountain passes suffer damage, but the airport is built on an old flood plain, which will almost certainly liquefy underneath the runways. The Columbia River would also likely be un-navigable for a week or longer as its shipping channels would need to be re-dredged.

As bad as it might be here, Seattle and Vancouver, BC, will have it far worse.

While the oceanic plates that North America is overriding dive down steeply into the Earth's mantel along most of the coast, under the Puget Sound region the angle of attack is shallow. The means there is a broad band of locked contact between the North American Plate and the Juan De Fuca underneath it, and this zone extends inland. This overlap already leaves Seattle and Vancouver vulnerable to earthquakes from both the North American plate and--as in 2001--from the Juan de Fuca plate beneath it. In the case of a subduction zone quake--in which shaking will originate offshore for Northern California and Oregon--slippage and energy release will occur beneath the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island and subject Seattle and Vancouver to thirty-two times as much energy as Portland (8.0+).

The two northern cities are also largely built on jelly-like sedimentary runoff from the nearby mountains, which is likely to liquefy when shook. Additionally, the nearby Cascade Mountains will reflect a good deal of the quake's eastward moving energy back into the cities.

Recent research also shows an apparent link between Cascadia quakes and earthquakes on the San Andreas fault that runs across half the length of California. In other words it looks like Cascadia quakes often trigger San Andreas quakes to the south.

In the best case scenario, separate sections of the Cascadia fault will rupture in a series of 8.0+ quakes over the course of a decade or two. This will largely spare the inland cities, but repeatedly hammer the coast with large earthquakes and tsunamis.

All of this could take place today, or it could go down in another five hundred years from now. Part of the problem with estimating risk here is that we do not fully understand what the aseismic movements underneath Vancouver Island mean. Then there is the unexplained 1999 incident in which a large area of the zone quietly moved backwards several inches. The current best-guess estimate based on offshore sediment samples that contain a ten-thousand year record of quake-caused undersea landslides puts the fifty year chance of a full Cascadia quake at fourteen percent. However, based on the same evidence, some geologist believe that the southern half of the fault ruptures more often than the northern half, with an average of two hundred eighty years. If true, that means that Southern Oregon and Northern California are overdue for a Chilean-sized quake that would also transfer a large amount of stress into the northern San Andreas. The given odds for such an event in the next fifty years stands at eighty-percent.

Something to think about.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Speaking of the 90s...

Yeah, I'm completely jumping on the blogoshpere bandwagon by posting a link to Clifford Stoll's 1995 Newsweek article on why the internet was going to be a passing fade.

However, it's not schadenfreude I'm interested in so much as why do we humans consistently underestimate the scope of important changes? Particularly with regards to trans formative technologies. Supposedly Thomas Edison predicted the telephone would fin only a limited use, with just a handful in each city.

And it's more than just that. When it comes to dealing with abstracts like risk management, investing strategies, or finance in general, human beings are consistently irrational. Often to a degree that can be quantified.

My personal opinion?

Our rationality is still in beta. While we have this brand-new associative forebrain that allows us grasp conceptual information and model potential futures, our emotions are still geared towards day-to-day survival within the context of a small family-band or tribe.

And those emotions are the weight of our thoughts as we balance competing models of the future against one another.

In the chaotic world of our ancestors, the future was so unpredictable that they never needed an emotive array geared toward planning beyond the next season's hunting and gathering necessities. When food was uncertain and we lacked preservation technologies, a mentality of getting it while the getting was good was a sound survival strategy, and this left us with an emotional bias towards on short-term gratification. Similarly, living in a world of food scarcity, many of our progenitors never acquired an innate inhibition for their appetites.

Related to this is our lack of an emotional handle on large numbers. Above one hundred, our intuitive understanding quickly breaks down.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Still grooving on the Vedder would think this is the 90s or something.

Excerpt from: The Evolution of Human Thought

Taken from a document I use to keep track what I've learned about the development of human thought over the past fifteen years.

"Something beyond our understanding occurs...the transformation of an objective cerebral computation into a subjective experience."
~Oliver Sachs

Basic sentience possibly arises from a mapping function in which sight, sound, touch, smell, and feel are woven together into a representation of the external world and internal body[1]. Such an animal consciousness perceives only the timeless continuum of the now, and its first apprehension of the past was the short-term memory system, which holds impressions for just seconds or minutes in the form of electrical currents between neurons[2].

Procedural memory--also known as reflex memory or muscle memory--was the first system of durable memory to arise in our evolutionary history[3]. Procedural memory involves protein synthesis, writing out new neurons or strengthening existing neural connections, thus allowing organisms to learn new physical skills as well as to refine innate reflexive skills passed down genetically--skills commonly referred to as instincts.

Declarative memory arose as a mechanism for storing and recalling two types of information: episodic and semantic. The episodic memory subsystem encodes the autobiographical recall of past situations that have been experienced[4]. The second subsystem, semantic memory, stores information that is independent of the situation in which it was learned.

Semantic memory allows for the creation of meaning by enabling individuals to remember the abstract commonalities of multiple events, and thus discover underlying relationships. Knowledge of such cause-and-effect dynamics is preserved in as concepts. Not surprisingly, words, one of the ultimate symbols and shapers of abstract meaning, are stored within the semantic memory.

Once written in the declarative memory, experiential and semantic information is not laid out in neat, static lines, but in interconnected web-like networks. The brain by its very structure defines the present by the past, cross-referencing new information with preexisting data in a process of association. It is the highly developed association areas of the cerebral cortex that neurologically distinguish humans from other mammals and even our primate cousins. Within this cortex, external perception, internal thoughts, and emotional triggers are integrated and balanced to create volitional responses. At the heart of this decision-making executive function is the orbital frontal cortex[5][6].

Situated behind the eyes and massively integrated into the emotion-mediating limbic system, this specific area not only generates emotive reactions to external perception and internal cognition, but also regulates these responses through inhibition or signal modulation[7]. It is also through the integration of perception, cognition, and emotion that the frontal lobes help to create a coherent and holistic worldview known as a paradigm[8].

It should be noted that the word paradigm has been badly abused. True paradigm shifts are not trivialities like new business models, but rather changes in the bedrock assumptions of how existence works.

The cognitive constituents of a paradigm are concepts, ideas (alternate states or potential changes in the world), and simulacra--simulacra being the autobiographical and muscle memory recall of physical objects and their properties. Tangled webs of interrelated concepts, ideas, and simulacra form sub-maps known as fields of knowledge. Each field of knowledge covers an aspect of the world and gives rise to some understanding of that broad area's dynamics. The overall paradigm that emerges from these fields of knowledge is a worldview and model that influences which aspects of reality a person notices.

In the words of the political philosopher Samuel P. Huntington, we use our paradigms to:

1. order and generalize about reality;

2. understand causal relationships among phenomena;

3. anticipate, and if we are lucky, predict future developments;

4. distinguish what is important from what is unimportant; and

5. show us what paths we should take to achieve our goals.

The world-awareness that a paradigm makes possible is known sapience. Sapience is a tool of unprecedented power and extends our comprehension of possible consequences and potential outcomes into the future, as much as our episodic memories allow us to look back into the past. This has allowed us an unmatched flexibility in fulfilling our survival needs.

To be fully utilized, the world awareness of sapience incorporates an advanced awareness of self: A complex and emotionally driven model that includes assessments of personal capabilities as well as needs that must be satisfied. This requirement for a representation of self gave rise to the neurological machinery of self-image[9].

The building blocks of this self-image are schema, which are emotional convictions about capability and self worth. The setting of schema is large part of childhood-development. Such convictions are not easily altered or changed, and the lifetime evolution of schema is the core story of personal growth and maturation.

Additionally, self-image is heavily influenced by the opinions of others. Our ancestors evolved in a niche in which their survival was closely tied to their ability to function within a troop or family band, and it may be that the network of mirror neurons[10] that run through the emotional limbic system of our brains play a crucial role in giving the views of others a weighty impact on ones self-image.

While schema are the unique property of individuals, concepts and ideas can be communicated and shared. The rise of syntax-structured language either allowed or accelerated the process of these memes accruing in common bodies of knowledge and values known as culture[11]. Cultures act as repository of such memetic information and aid in passing down concepts and ideas between generations. This process has also allowed concepts to undergo a multigenerational Lamarckian evolution[12].

Bodies of culture (mythos)in turn helped to generate the material stability and intellectual climate that gave rise to the Logos: a body of empirically derived concepts. The fruit of the Logos, technology, has impacted the development of human thought in part by creating lives of leisure, the likes of which our forebears could have scarcely imagined. No longer burdened by the struggles of day-to-day survival, the dreams, fantasies, and the pursuit of happiness have played an ever-larger role in the lives of the post-industrial world's inhabitants. Where their grandparents were pragmatists who soldiered through lifetimes of limited opportunities, current generations are faced with the temptations, possibilities, pitfalls, and challenges offered by economies of affluence.

This essay is about the ongoing evolution of human thought from its biological origin to the distinct religious and secular paradigms that have arisen during its course. It also entails an examination of emotion, as cognition and feeling are inextricably linked in the processes of thought. Emotions in a sense are the weight of thought, as situational external awareness, concepts, ideas of risk and potential outcomes are weighed against one another in the processes of decision making. Understanding thought also means understanding the nature of the brain, and so we will first examine the organ of thought and the evolutionary forces that shaped it.

Evolutionary factor 1: Choosing what to eat

The status of our ancestors as omnivores has played a central role in the physical and mental evolution of humankind[13]. Our ability to choose between a wide variety of plants and prey animals presents us with an array of troublesome decisions summed up in Dr. Paul Rozin's famous phrase, the omnivore's dilemma. In short, where dedicated carnivores and herbivores spend little if any mental energy on deciding what to eat[14], omnivores such as humans are confronted with a wide array of potential victuals, some of which are nourishing and in times of scarcity may make the difference between life and death. Or, these foods might be toxic and lead to painful debilitation or death.

Life as an omnivore calls for analytical intelligence, a keen pallet to detect possible toxins, and a prodigious memory to recall what can and can not be safely eaten. In humans it may have also favored the evolution of language instincts as a means of sharing information on both the availability and safety of food types. As Michael Pollan points out in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, cultures act as repositories of food lore, often encoding warnings into the very names of lethal foods, such as the "death cap mushroom."

In addition to the choices offered by an array of potentially edible fungi and plants, the ability to eat meat shaped the evolution of our brains. Acquiring calorie-rich flesh, whether from hunting, scavenging, or cracking open bones with basic stone tools to access the nutrient-rich marrow, allowed for the survival of individuals with larger, calorie-intensive brains, as well as supplying a steady source of the vitamin B-12 essential for the functioning of the brain and peripheral nervous system.

Evolutionary factor 2: Emotion and reason arose from the body and remain interwoven with one another

We experience our emotions in the body, and even the rational intellect's operations are expressed physically, whether in a sense of frustration when attempting to solve difficult problems, a sense of satisfaction upon resolution, or the intense thrill that accompanies a moment of profound realization.

This is because emotions evolved from bodily feelings.

Well before it could reason, a major function of the mammalian brain was to generate behaviors that would sustained homeostasis (thermal and chemical equilibrium within the body). Such behaviors were encouraged by intuitive representations of internal body states such as the feelings of hunger, cold, and want. As the brain became increasingly sophisticated in depicting the external world and more capable of generating models of possible futures, it used bootstrapped versions of these intuitive body-state representations to create a finer motivational matrix. Such upgraded and nuanced bodily feelings are our present day emotions, which more often than not drive us to behave in ways that further the body's short-term prospects for maintaining homeostasis.

Not surprisingly then, the brain is tied into its needy body to high a degree, and the brain-body organism constitutes a massively complex system of constantly shifting feedback loops[15]. In other words, those areas and systems within the brain that play major roles in regulating the body's homeostatic biochemical processes are very much linked to the areas and systems that generate emotions as well those responsible for conscious, rational thought. The biological regulation of the body heavily shapes emotion and reason, just as emotion and reason in turn often influence the body's chemical operations.

As a means of generating behavior, emotion governs memory. The emotion-mediating limbic system encodes our autobiographical memories based on emotive weights. In other words, the more emotional the event, the more likely it is to be remembered over the long run. Encoding memory based on emotion also serves as a means of mapping emotional motivations on to the objects and phenomena of the external world. The physical world that we perceive is a landscape embedded with emotional reactions that provide us the drive to ignore or to focus on phenomena that we encounter. This associative emotive landscape is known as a salience map function.

Evolutionary factor 3: The body is the brain's topic of representation

In addition to creating emotional responses to internal states and external representations, the brain also models of the placement of the body in relationship to objects around it, as well as the position of the body's limbs relative to each other. In essence the body is also the brain's physical frame of reference as well as topic of representation. We exist at one time, in one place, and experience external events from a single, limited point of view. This most fundamental of facts shapes not only how the brain generates its maps of external reality, but also the mind's attempts to overcome these epistemological limitations.



[1] The brain's parietal lobe—which appears to orients us in space and time—may play a key role in shaping this consciousness. One of its roles appears to be the filtering of internal information from the continuum of sensory inputs. From there, the brain appears to use specific sets of neural pathways to process information that has been tagged as referring to the self. Information pertaining to other humans and objects within the environment travels though a different set of processing paths. A seizure of the parietal lobe has been cited as one possible biological explanation for the mystic's experience: a state of consciousness in which the barriers between self and the universe are dissolved, and the subject experiences all of existence as an undifferentiated unity.

[2] This system of memory--essentially currents flowing between sets of neurons—may have first evolved so that an object or a threat would not vanish from awareness the moment it passes out of direct sight or hearing.

[3] Procedural memory appears to be stored within the hippocampus, the declarative in the more recently evolved cerebral cortex.

[4] Procedural memory may provide clues to individuals whose ability to create new autobiographical memories has been destroyed by neurological trauma, as happened with the fictional protagonist of the film Memento. Dr. Oliver Sachs describes a real-life patient who had also been left unable to recall anything in his life after the removal of a brain tumor, in the story "The Last Hippy." After several years in a hospital, the sheer familiarity for moving around the ward—perhaps captured by procedural memory—allowed the patient to recognize that he had been there for some time as well as recalling the names of those whom he frequently interacted with. Oliver Sachs, An Anthropologist on Mars (Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1995).

[5] Interestingly, this area appears to exhibit a great deal of variation between individuals, both in humans and in other primates.
[6] The limbic, anterior cingulate cortex plays a crucial role in supplying motivation. Patients with damage to this area display little or no signs of volition, and those who recover from injuries in this cortex report having experienced an utter lack of motivation to take self-initiated action or respond to events around them. In the words of neurologist Antonio Damasio the anterior cingulate cortex is a location within the brain where "…the systems concerned with emotion/feeling, attention, and working memory interact so intimately that they constitute the source for the energy of both external action…and internal action…." Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Penguin Putnam, New York, New York, 1994), pgs, 71-74.

[7]The inhibitory/modulation processes are a function which can obviously be impaired by alcohol or various narcotics. Also, some neurologists classify the orbital frontal cortex as a part of the limbic system.

[8] This should not be taken to mean that the orbital frontal complex is the site of our awareness or consciousness. Memory is distributed in various regions of the brain, and sensory information is processed in discrete cortices. Awareness may be a series of synchronized parallel process which generate simultaneous representations of external events and internal states. As such, consciousness may arise from cross talk between the various cortices and nuclei which are active within such a representational process. These representations in turn, may be composed of patterns of potential within circuits of neurons, which when fired as a group cause a sensory cortex to generate or reconstitute an image or sensation. Or they can cause physical movement by activating a motor cortex. These depositional representations are proposed by neurologist Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, pgs. 94, 102-105

[9] The need for self image may have also given rise to the internal narrative voice heard within ones mind. Or this inner voice may have been a means of harnessing the spoken to word to serve as a medium of thought, creating an unprecedented power to solidify vaguely sensed abstracts into concrete concepts. One explanatory hypothesis for schizophrenia is that the internal voice of the mind is a fusion of several sub-voices that represent the various functions or inputs of awareness. The breakdown of a timing mechanism may cause the various sub-voices to fall out of sync, thus creating a perception of the component voices as irresistible or near-irresistible external speakers, despite having an internal origin.

[10] Mirror neurons fire when an individual observes the actions, expressions, or experiences of another, causing the watcher to experience an echo of the observed person's emotion or physical sensation. Such a sympathetic experience may help in creating emotional interpersonal bonds, as well as with imitating performed actions, and play a role in self-contemplation. As one scientist notes "…mirror neurons may enable humans to see themselves as others see them, which may be an essential ability for self-awareness and introspection." Broken Mirrors A Theory of Autism, Lindsay M. Oberman and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (Scientific American Reports: Special Edition on Child Development, September 11, 2007) pg. 25.

[11] Various troops and bands of monkeys and apes appear to develop unique bodies of grooming practices, social gestures, and forging techniques. Thus it can be argued that culture in predates both humans and syntax-structured languages. Early primate memes were passed on by imitation and non-verbal instruction rather than the spoken word. Additionally, language as we know it may have evolved out of a combination of gestures and cries.

[12] Lamarckism is the idea and an organism passes on characteristics to its offspring acquired during its life time. An example of this is that if an animal builds strength through exertion, it will pass this strength genetically to its progeny. While widely discredited in modern, neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology, Lamarckism has enjoyed something of a resurgence when applied to memes, in that these mental replicators are actively modified by the thinkers who hold them, and then passed along thus changed.

[13] Among other physical traits shaped by our place as omnivores are our jaws and teeth, which allow us to process both plants and meat. Additionally, the taming of fire may have allowed the intestines and jaws of our ancestors to shrink considerably, as we no longer needed such muscular mandibles and extensive guts to process an all-raw diet. Our largely vestigial vermiform intestinal appendixes appear to be a non-functional holdover from their era of larger intestines, which may have allowed our ancestors to digest uncooked leaves. Individuals born with out appendixes suffer no ill effects or drastically reduced digestive capabilities. The taming of fire also affected our species' development by vastly expanding the amount of plants and animals that could be eaten, as cooking broke down many of the toxins, bacteria, and structural features that prevented us from consuming many types of flora and fauna. Finally, the reduction of the jaw its extensive infrastructure of tendons and anchor points, may have been key in allowing our foreheads to expand, becoming less slopped in order to accommodate a large cerebral cortex.

[14] The most famous example of the impact of a single-food, low-thought diet is that of the koala. These mammals apparently went from eating a varied diet, to dinning exclusively on eucalyptus leaves. As a result, natural selection worked against the species' large, calorie intensive brains, resulting in a congenitally atrophied, minimalist brain, which occupies only 60% of the cranial cavity--the rest of the skull's internal volume being filled with fluid.

[15] The brain communicates with all portions of the body via the peripheral nervous system, as well as the blood stream, which transports hormones and neurotransmitters in both directions between the brain and body. Part and parcel of the peripheral nervous system, the autonomic nervous system strives to maintain chemical homeostasis by regulating processes such as digestion, heart rate, pupil dilation, perspiration respiration rate, salivation, and sexual arousal.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dreams as Catalysts

From 2004

I'm thinking about dreams.

Not dreams in the sense of the neurological phenomenon that takes place during REM sleep, but rather the unspoken assumptions and cherished fantasies that animate our lives. As children, teenagers, and even adults, we entertain notions of what we would like to do in the future. As I've grown older, I've become ever-more fascinated by how these imaginings move us through life.

How our fantasies of the future play out, or if they even touch upon the real world in any meaningful way seems to vary greatly with each individual. I've reached a point where I have witnessed many of the possible outcomes for dreams. I have watched them realized among friends and family, and I have also seen them crushed by the weight of the world. More often than not they become ghosts, pushed to the back of the mind during life's necessary practical routines.

Sometimes neglected dreams unearth themselves when an adult enters into middle age. It can be a fearful experience for a person to realize that a lifetime's desire will never come true. I've watched desperation-fueled tragedies play out after this, sometimes leaving the person with far less than they began with. Others found renewed determination and made positive changes.

There are also the friends who are happily adapted to a life of eight-hour workdays and quiet weekends. They seem satisfied with dreams becoming daydreams—-silent fantasies to immerse themselves in during slow or peaceful moments. Others have actively made their dreams happen.

Dreams are not static. They are conceived, evolve, and can change into new visions along the way. They can be forgotten about, they can die, and they can be destroyed. Dreams can be a violent fuel that propels a person through life to success or suicide. Some must give up their fantasies in order to survive, and others die inside the moment they let go of theirs. Dreams are also not passive, they can be tenacious, deeply rooted, and dominate those who carry them, for good or ill.

"Better lucky than good."

There are a happy few whose dreams are well suited to the life they are born into. These individuals may simply be in the right place at the right time or possess a plethora of innate talents that allow them to easily succeed in their pursuit of happiness. These persons may never have to exert themselves to realize their dreams, and others must fight at every step in order to simply have enough to eat each day.

For the most part, our grandparents' lives were guided by necessity. Increasingly, however, in the wealthy developed world, ours existences are shaped by our dreams. What we do in life is no longer rigidly spelled out in the form of cultural expectations. Rather than shunting aside our dreams at age eighteen, getting married, and starting a family, we entertain many notions about what we might make of ourselves. What's more, we are now bombarded with dreams crafted by professional storytellers. We grow up within a cultural energy field of movies, books, and, graphic images, all of which shape our expectations.

At the pinnacle of our instinctual animal dreams reside the celebrities, the tiny handful who live out the primal ideals of beauty, status, lust and luxury. Even those with such privileged lives can still have more dreams than they have means to fulfill. There are unlimited wants in the human heart, but only finite time, energy, and talent with which to pursue these desires.

For chronic dreamers it often seems necessary to cultivate a sort of discipline of dreams--to weed out those wants that are idle and from those that are central. For those who have no dreams at all or have fallen into a rut, a similar, material type of discipline is needed. To find a new dream, a trapped person must often cease indulging in the shallow activities and banal pleasures that form a theater of distraction.

(I'm still trying to write an ending for this essay.  I suspect I'll need at least another twenty or so years of that research which we call living to do it right.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

One of the pleasures...

...of the Pacific Northwest is the wine.

While the region is better known for beer, it boasts a number of vineyards that have come into their own over the past two decades. The various founders were primarily a collection of Americans trained at UC Davis and ambitious young French vintners who did want to serve out grueling twenty year apprenticeships that would leave them embittered by the time they were able to oversee the creation of a product. Their choice of land to cultivate--The Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area--runs from the Columbia George across the warm and grassy uplands of the Columbia basalt plateau. Additional vineyards can be found in portions of the Willamette river valley in Oregon. The result of the two broad schools of craft existing side by side has been a number of wines that have taken international prizes.

The drawback for those of us on the West Coast is that discovery and success means that a fantastic bottle of Zinfandel that used to go for nine dollars a bottle now commands a twenty seven dollar price. But the region still produces a number of good wines at reasonable prices. Columbia Crest is one of those vineyards.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter in the mountains...

...,spring down here in the river valleys.

Into the Wild soundtrack videos

I've been popping over to YouTube to watch these videos several times per day for the past week. It's been years and years since I was an Eddie Vedder fan...

Migrating essays

I'm in the process of re-posting my essays here on Infinite Monkey. Several of the older pieces are hosted on Myspace, but I'm thinking about closing down that account as nearly everyone I know has moved to Facebook.

Going in reverse chronological order, next up is "Winter Journey"

Winter Journey

From early 2005

Up at four AM and then down a winding 1930s staircase burdened with a heavy black bag and a thoroughly stuffed olive-green duffel. Goodbye to elegant Lund in the black morning, and so long to Sweden. No more endless dinner parties, and never again the suspicious glares of white neighbors. No acid bath of petty hate in the future, no more miasma of anti-Americanism.

After explaining that I was on my way home, I was treated to an extended burst of Middle Eastern conspiracy theories for the duration of the drive to Malmö. In stilted but otherwise quite good Swedish, the Lebanese cabdriver launched into a run-on about how he liked Americans but could not understand how close minded they are. He went on about how for six months we had pretended that it was an Arab who had blown up the Oklahoma City federal building. Osama had only admitted to the World Trade Center hijackings because Bush had paid him to. Also, the United States had tried to colonize Somalia under the pretext of famine relief.

Surprisingly, he did not mention the most recent theory making the rounds—the one expounded on in the main stream Arab-language media—that the US had triggered the recent South East Asian tsunami by detonating a nuclear weapon under the sea off Indonesia.

Being a Lebanese Sunni, he was a bit surprised and then happy when I told him that I am one-quarter Lebanese as well as American. Such a stark mixture of respect and hate that many working-class Muslims have for us, and such a far cry from the friendly curiosity of the university-educated Middle Easterners whom I had enjoyed the privilege of going to school with.

This last encounter was nice, though. There was still very much a want for friendship between peoples, and on a vindictively selfish note it's good knowing that a significant portion of the Muslim world's complaints about the United States are as well founded as those of Western Europe's.

During a finial dinner with some Swedish friends an individual inquired how I felt about Congress having outlawed the term French fries. This well-educated person was deadly serious in his belief that use of name "freedom fries" was now the law of the land under penalty of jail.

Ok then.

What else did I hear in my time there?

George W. Bush has outlawed stem cell research and is well on his way to criminalizing abortion. Gay people hide in fear, afraid to be seen on the streets. Racism plays a dominant role in US public life. We have a murder rate comparable to Somalia or Ethiopia. Violence did not decline during the 1990s, it has only been covered up by a media conspiracy. North Korea is no more repressive than any other Far East Asian nation. We have a massive imperialist army of millions. The history of slavery, the killing of Native Americans, and evolution are not taught in American schools.

The American Indians were exterminated.

"Where are they? Have you ever seen one?" one fervent individual had asked me.

On my first meeting with my girlfriend's grandmother, she asked me: "How do you feel about your country having killed so many Indians?"

Probably the same as you feel about your people having burned to death Sami who refused to convert to Christianity, I thought.

Social Security does not exist; neither do welfare payments, public housing, Medicare nor Medicaid.

Congress is in charge of the Army; the Marines answer to the President.

The US government is utterly incompetent. It flawlessly controls the global media and is on the verge of world domination. It's dominated the world for years. It's a new Roman Empire. It is ascendant. No it's in decline. Wait it's still rising to power.

It was the Soviets who liberated Western Europe from the Nazis.

The cab driver and I parted ways at Malmö's central station. In the warm rain, we exchanged promises to meet and talk again at some unspecified future in order to talk and solve the world's problems.

Thus far it had been a muggy and messy winter in Sweden. There had been no frosts, and instead of renewal, there were trees blooming in mid January.

I said farewell to the muddled season on the ride across the Öresund bridge to Denmark. Most of the train's adult passengers were strung out in an early morning semi-conscious stupor. Two snow-suited children were ecstatic to be on their way to the airport. Then there was me, riding some crest of adrenaline and supernatural clarity despite the night of forgone sleep.

Something leftover soldier adaptation there, that when the demand rises up, a homunculus residing in the brain presses a switch, banishing not only need the need for sleep, but sleep deprivation's hangover side effects as well. I had skipped slumber in hopes fast forwarding nine time zones to eastern shores of the Pacific, and when sleep finally came—after several hours of security lines—it was on a plane as planed.

I woke up over Holland under a still black sky and looked down on luminescent orange flows of engineering and economic rationality. Radiant towns shone under a translucent veil of low-altitude clouds and formed knots in the curves of lit highways. These in turn were flanked by the rectangular glass infernos of industrial-scale greenhouses.

This orange-illuminated civilization seemed to float on water, supported by only a film of land that was crosshatched by the straight-cut slashes of dark-blue canals. Then the urban core of Amsterdam overwhelmed everything.

This is the religious experience of travel that I love--seeing the varied faces of the world while feeling a sense of underlying unity. There are so many variations of "the same but different" to experience in this life.

Slept deep on the next flight. Didn't wake up until there were twenty-kilometer long plates of ice visible through the window. Said hello to North America at a Canadian expanse of glacier-worn rock rising up from a wasteland of white. Not a good place to crash. Below there were only rounded gray stone cliff faces and razor-like snow to greet anyone who managed to successfully fall out of the sky alive.

It was somewhere over the plains states that the adrenaline really kicked in while listening to Led Zeppelin with an echoing thought of how cool it was to be screaming over the US at five-hundred miles per hour on the way home.

Flying over Southern Texas there swamps, moss-draped trees, and wide muddy rivers on the approach to Houston. Customs was sticky.

We-the-masses were corralled into lines still wearing our heavy winter clothing, while the local officialdom was attired in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. That was all right though. We-the-masses were going on to cold 'n clammy San Francisco in a California reeling under three-weeks of the heaviest snow storms seen since 1916.

Baghdad by the Bay was drenched in rain when I arrived, and the Sierras were still choked closed with snow. Starting to feel hollowed out and having been on the move for twenty-four hours and with no place left to travel to, it was crash time.

Thunder woke me when a conflux of cold and warm air collided above the city. After eight hours at a Best Western I was feeling West Coast synced. Breakfast was last night's pizza and the morning's exercise a nine-block duffel-bag hump to the Grey Hound station. My black bag hadn't made it. I'd put her on the conveyor belt after clearing customs in Huston, and somehow she'd found her way off into the astral world of the Continental luggage system.

Baggage happens, as they say.

As it turned out, the Hound wasn't running yet. The passes were still closed, and the station was a refugee camp of Asians on the way up to Reno for cheap gambling, blacks on their way to points all across California, and humpbacked white pensioners with purple hair out for a weekend in the casino wilderness. The best part was to come in Vacaville, when two correctional facility officers put a newly released felon on the bus.

"Good morning to the bus," the just-released man said, once we were underway.

Even louder: "I said good morning to the bus!"

By the second greeting the large bouncer riding shotgun was already on his way back to deal with this problem.

The Hound takes no shit from anyone.

That was still four hours in the future though, and rather than hang around to enjoy the camp atmosphere in the meanwhile, I wanted to wander The City. For two dollars I checked my duffel and emerged in the financial district.

Beautiful. Gray steel and glass rising up and up. Fog, bagels, and a cup of weak coffee. I drifted on the fringes of the morning workday rush with a cardboard beverage container in one hand and a folded edition of the Chronicle under the other arm and drifted up Bush Street.

Did you know that there is a Clinton Street in San Fran that predates Slick Willy, just as Bush Street was around before both Senior and W? Got a Powell Street there too as well as a Hayes and Polk. One day I will devise a dragon-track system for predicting the rise and fall of the Federal political elite based off the road grid of San Francisco.

It was not the time for such deep thoughts just yet, though. Rather, this chain of unscripted moments and small pleasures was made for climbing past small barber shops with rates advertised in German, Japanese, and English. Narrow concrete steps led me up through pedestrian alleyways between tiny homes for multi-millionaires and billionaires to the top of Nob Hill.

There the city spread out around me. Heavy clouds shrouded the mountains to the north, the ocean was steel colored, and the bay was a slate gray.

After too damn long, after four years of petty hate directed at my homeland, it was so good to be back in the chaotic reality of good and bad that is the United States. This was no stuffy dinning room of Swedes taking satisfaction in my people's setbacks, shortcomings, and sufferings--both real and imagined. The here and now was rain and salt and living cold. It was the surroundings of wealth, the homeless poverty on Market Street, and the vast enveloping middle-class suburbs. It was the Gray Hound station, the icy Sierras ahead, the brown eyesore that is Reno, the balance of Madison, the forward-looking spirit of Portland, and the sublime beauty of the Oregon coast.

Home is love and failure and rejection and triumph.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thought for the day

Alex is interested in attending grad school but does not want to go into debt.

Alex is also interested in analytical work, i.e. collecting data on a situation and synthesizing a summary.

The Oregon National Guard is recruiting for Military Intelligence analysts and will defer a considerable portion of grad school's costs.

Something to think about.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Winter: Sometimes a green and mossy notion

Rather than the epic winter that the rest of the continent has experienced, we've essentially had one long and rainy spring up here in the Pacific Northwest.

Sidewalks, walls, and roofs are turning green.

From Portland up to British Columbia it's been cherry blossom warm

A little less mossy in my San Francisco-looking neighborhood

Colorful city under a gray sky

Magnum photo collection...

...of interesting romantic shots.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Underlying premises

•Our minds are an extension of both our biology and the universe that shaped that biology.

•Just as the universe has undergone an epochal evolution from its initial simplicity of pure energy to the current diversity of elemental matter, so has humanity followed a slow and uneven arrow of cultural development. Century by century we have embraced ever-more complex societies as well as an expansion of the circle of humans whom cultures grant basic rights and recognition to.

•Humanism is better than Rationalism. The eclectic worldview that emerged from the Enlightenment encompasses much of the hard-learned wisdom that our species has accumulated during its time on this earth. The Rationalist worldviews that emerged during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries consists primarily of well-thought-out models based on catastrophically poor premises. These secular ideological worldviews killed more people in one century than religion did over the previous 100,000 years of human existence.

•We are communal beings. However, one paradox of our existence is that we must develop ourselves as individuals before we can reach our maximum potential within a group or community.

•Personal self-development and a good upbringing are crucial in the making of a human being.

•Self-development and the choice of friends of good character are the two things that an individual can control. Talent, upbringing, and our base-line personalities are matters of genetic and cultural chance.

•Rationality and empiricism are powerful, artificial modes of thought based on a combination of boot-strapped talents and unnatural training. Over the past four centuries these have allowed us to comprehend many of the natural world’s dynamics.

•Rationality and empiricism are amoral forces.

•Ethical systems based off rationality have had short-life spans. Moral systems based on human intuition and traditions endure for centuries or millennia.

•Morality is a survival trait: We have an innate propensity for it.

•The reciprocity-based altruism that underlies most classical morality systems is an effective risk-management survival strategy.

•When tempered by the expanded circle of rights, pre-modern virtue-based moral systems are functionally superior to modern relativist theories of ethics. In other words such systems actually get used in practice.

•Emergent behaviors appear as systems grow more complex. Each of these emergent levels can not be described in the terms of the lower order that spawned it. Physics can not fully describe the dynamics of chemistry, which in turn can not predict the laws of biology, which do not describe the rise of human cultures, and so on. However, a level of existence can echo the system dynamics of a lower order.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Angel-A (2005)

Similar to It's a Wonderful Life, only with street hustlers and ass-kickings....and it's in French.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dreaming of God

Originally written in 2008. The first dream was from late 2008, the second from 2005.

I dreamed of God a few days ago, which is odd because I am not much of a religious person.

It was a good dream, in which the Apocalypse was imminent.

It largely played out against a peaceful outdoor backdrop of childhood memories from Northern California--quiet open fields around the town of Fairfield in late afternoon and in sunny 1960s-built neighborhoods. The weather was beautiful, and the only tension present was the shivery feeling of running home to get indoors before rain starts to fall.

The end was coming, and it was time to be inside.

The dream's indoor locations were tiny hardware stores that had already been emptied in preparation for being shuttered. God was a white-haired Caucasian man: old, friendly, spry, and rotund, who was simply shutting everything down.

He would close a shop, tell my childhood self to meet him at the next one, and then I would be off and running—happy, at peace, but anxious to be indoors before the end set in.

Somewhere along the way I became aware that there were other Gods, all of them identically old and white, who were shutting down other old shops as well. It seems that a multitude of universes were all closing up at the same time.

The gentleness of this ending for a very brutal and violent world surprised me when I finally woke, and I struggled to hang on to that sense of kindness. I've been to places on this planet where truly monstrous things have happened, and the thought that the world might end so softly felt odd but welcome once fully awake.

If there was any greater meaning to this dream I can not remember it, though meaning seemed to pervade the air in the dream, much the way it does the world when you are a child. All the things and people and events around you are significant at that age, even if you do not know why exactly they are important. It's a mystery, in which somehow everything everywhere all fits together.

A few years back I dreamt of the devil.

He was a friendly and scruffy young man in his early twenties, with a ragged beard and long dark hair. He wore a black beret, a black Che Guevara t-shirt, and baggy camouflage pants.

He had invented all of the world's ideologies in an attempt to bring peace to mankind. They had all backfired murderously, and he now lived as a drifter in a nameless small town in Central Nevada.

His father, Satan, was a howling lunatic who lived on the fringes of town whenever he wandered in from the desert. He had invented all the world's religions to bring man closer to God, and they had all backfired murderously.

His sorrow over these monstrous failures had driven him to insanity.

The good-natured son attempted to look out for the father when he could, and in the father's more lucid moments, they talked.

I can not recall if they were hiding out in this small town--trying not to screw anything else up with their grand ideas--or if they had been exiled there for their presumption.

Either way, there was a moral in that dream that stayed with me: We humans were meant to figure out our own destinies.

"When I see a mountain like that, I know that there must be a god. When I see a mountain like that, I know that we don't need a god."
~Edward Abbey, Confessions of a Barbarian

What more to say about religion.

I had an epiphany a few months back, not long after moving here.

I was walking out on the coast, looking for the sense of infinity that often comes over me there. What came to mind, however, was an article that I had recently read in Scientific American, which detailed how the arrow of time is an inexorable part of the cellular geometry that makes up space-time itself.

The nature of space seems kinked against the long-term survival of life in our universe. Space-time is flat, apparently, and therefore destined to inflate infinitely into a vast, rarified void.

I was coming to terms with that, resigning myself to the likely fact that our existence would expand like some bubble of heated glass until it eventually diffused into a homogeneous mist, devoid of differentiation or color.

Then I turned around and found myself facing a white cross up on the hill, exactly across the highway from the spot where I was making my peace with the inevitability of oblivion. It was a bit unsettling, as I had not seen a single cross out on the entire Oregon coast until that very moment.

My epiphany then, the feeling that came over me, is that existence does go on. There is a reality beyond this one, and it is eternal.

Other thoughts on this matter:

I read somewhere once that Stephen Hawking said that time has an imaginary component that becomes stronger the further one goes back in time. In other words there was a time when time was less defined. I've also heard that the same thing is true of the far future, when all of the stars will have gone out and even the black holes will have evaporated into a kind of quantum haze.

Maybe time will lose its meaning at that point. Maybe then the past will be just as real as the present. In the absence of time there will be only a long moment, stretching form the vacuous chaos of the beginning, through the light and color of the present, into the black of eternity.


"In history we marry argument to narrative."
~Professor Katy Barber

A good gem today from the prof. who is teaching this term's Pacific Northwest history course. What it means is that in addition to a chronological narrative of events that happened, historians provide an interpretation of why they happened.

Generally the events that we seek to explain fall under two categories: Prosaic ones that illuminate the everyday condition or mentality of a group, or events with long-duration significance that drive historical change. In the case of the latter we still often discuss mundane events in order to give context to such events.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Into the Wild (2007)

I'm not a Sean Penn fan, but this is by far the best film I've watched in a long time. While I had to wander a fair amount physically and philosophically to arrive at my set of truths in adult life, I'm glad that I did not have to pay the costs that this brave soul did for his. On the other hand he seemed to have been better at making connections with people along the way.

Simplicities that will rot your brain

• Rush Limbaugh
• Michael Moore
• Ayn Rand (Especially if you are under the age of 21)
• Howard Zinn
• Ann Coulter
• Noam Chomsky
Glenn Beck

Seriously, if you are getting your news or viewpoints from an angry individual, you are forgoing wisdom.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Riding the rails

Spent the day riding the MAX around the greater urban area and thinking about what comes next. Grad school and debt, or hopping back into the job market debt free.

Grad school is an oddly attractive option. On Friday my cultural history professor handed back a perfect A+ on a twelve-page paper that I had been worrying about. It's the third perfect paper I've cranked out among a number of lesser but acceptable plain-Jane A's. I'm also on the Dean's List now, which is an odd place to be given that I nearly flunked out of the university the first time around.

(verse on the train)

And that's what make's grad school so attractive. Because I can. Well that and I truly love history. Not just the reading and research; the critical analysis or the clever syntheses; but the knowledge itself and the ability to successfully engage people with it via the spoken or written word.

(The glass tube on the wall holds a bore sample drilled out in preparation for the construction the West Hills MAX tunnels and the subterranean train station seen in these photos. With its intertwined geology and evolutionary biology lessons, this is my favorite of the MAX stops.)

The problem with this course of action is that there are ten to fifteen deeply in debt PhDs fighting for each history professorship. Nearly all of them will never pay off their student debts or even practice in the profession that they have spent years readying themselves for. And it's not much better for public historians--i.e. historians who present history to the public via museum exhibits, public projects, television, etc...

Normally taking such a long-shot chance on landing a fulfilling job would be acceptable. Risk taking usually seems to pay off for me, and I've always landed on my feet, but in this case taking a chance would also mean taking on debt - lots and lots of debt. That's something that I've managed to avoid so far in life.

Writing remains as always a part of the future (one that the tea leaves of my life continue to argue for), but science fiction is such a poorly paid genre that even if everything continues to go well it would be several years before I could reasonably hope to support myself off it.

Therein is a major strike against grad school: it distracts from writing. My level of literary productivity has fallen through the floor since the start of this term with its three 400-level classes. I'm doing great as a scholar but it takes up so much time and mental focus as to be incompatible with serious sci-fi writing.

Part of me wants to take whatever drone job I can get after graduation in order to regain some financial security, rebuild my savings, and to be able to stay here in downtown Portland. Even a fairly modest salary would allow me to sustain a lifestyle acceptably focused on writing and traveling around the Pacific Northwest during my down time.

That being said the last round of trying to be homo economus didn't exactly work out very well. Taking on a wholly normal office job would probably leave me restless and looking at the horizon in six months or less.

There's also always the possibility of finding a reasonably exciting job with a BA. While there are a lot of people fighting for jobs here in PDX, but I do seem to present myself well to perspective employers.

So, much to think about and research during the next month.

Needing to think is a good a thing as I still haven't ridden the full Green Line yet. So far my favorite is the Yellow: North Portland has a nice Midwestern feel during the winter, and an idyllic 1950s Northern California atmosphere in the summer months.

'cause Herman Melville was teh hardcore punk

By Portland's The Decemberists