Archive for February, 2010

Traffic Report No. 04

Posted: February 25, 2010 in Blogosphere

My blogging pace has dropped off dramatically over the past few months, though my commenting at other blogs has picked up. Those comments often direct a few readers back here, but visitors don’t appear to stay and certainly don’t comment. My hope that four years’ worth of blogging might lead a curious few to investigate my archive has proven vain. But oh, well. I don’t want too much attention anyway. Skyscrapers and The Boneyard continue to drive the most traffic, the last spiking unexpectedly in the past few days. I updated the appearance a bit to add voting/rating to the interface, which is a nice WordPress feature. As expected, no one votes. (Nor do I at other sites.) I tried one of those pointless polls at one point and also got no input.

The principal reason my posts are appearing with greater infrequency is that I’m always processing, processing, processing, which is to say, considering and developing ideas but only rarely putting them satisfactorily to bed in a blog post. Some new idea or bit of information always comes up that I want to incorporate, which takes time, which delays my pushing the publish button long enough for the original impetus to blog to have withered on the vine. I’ve also been struggling with too much first-person blogging and a creeping sense of fatalism. Other bloggers have characterized their blogging activity as speaking/writing to a silent audience or into a vacuum, which while better than an echo chamber still threatens to undermine the whole endeavor. But considering how this blog is for my own working out of ideas, feedback is welcome but not truly necessary.

If a central concern can be found among my diverse blog topics, it might be social justice. With all the whining I do, there is no secret that I believe social justice is fundamentally missing in modern life, not that I mistake it ever having been the norm in the past. I tend to view the problem of social justice through the microcosm of the school playground. Everyone is familiar with the usual players: the bully, the picked on, the watcher, and the righteous defender. The bullies attract most of the attention and are typically the psychopaths who become the cool clique and the criminals later in life. The picked on are the losers and disenfranchised who are tormented by the bullies and who later become either the technonerds or the oppressed underclass. The watchers are most of the rest of us who stand idly by and don’t participate much, happy to avoid the bullies’ attention. And the defenders are the few who belief idealistically in a better way and are willing to work and/or fight for it, sometimes at personal sacrifice. No doubt there are those who cross or sit astride categories. I drift between being a defender and a watcher. The real heartbreak for me is when the defender achieves some success and notoriety and transitions to being a bully. That personal story is commonplace in politics.

Barstool Wisdom

Posted: February 15, 2010 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

I always thought a subtle brilliance attaches to the line “stupid is a stupid does” from the movie Forrest Gump. The titular character is mentally challenged, and his mother supplies that line as a comeback to bullies, presumably to be followed by “oh yeah? well if you’re so smart, you tell me what it means.” The brilliance of it is that no bully wants to admit he doesn’t know its meaning, yet it means precisely nothing. These sorts of meaningless phrases appear in political speeches all the time, and this thinking underpins all sorts of individual and aggregate behaviors that promise to be our undoing as history grinds on. And yet we all nod approvingly and go on about pretending what a nice suit of clothes the emperor is wearing.

Just how deeply that unchallenged idiocy runs is among the subjects of Curtis White’s new book, The Barbaric Heart. White’s thesis, as well as two other parts of the book, appeared as articles in Orion Magazine some time ago. They’re all quite engaging and convincing, though White appears to be working at cross purposes, namely, presenting ideas subtle and circumspect enough to be out of reach of most readers while simultaneously saying we’re a bit too smart and have outwitted ourselves. For example, White cites Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, saying,

The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself.

So if intelligence enables the artfulness and artifice that got the financial sector (and the entirety of Iceland) into so much trouble a couple years ago, stupidity presumably protects us from such overreaching. A slightly more accurate statement is that intelligence has at its disposal too many tricks and tools for denying reality, whereas stupidity has fewer (but its own nonetheless). So less subtle thinkers lack the cleverness to outwit themselves with rationalization or intricacy and instead give us what amounts to barstool wisdom. The truths revealed when freed from inhibitions and illusions may not be proud moments, such as a willingness to cozy up to each other when donning beer goggles, but they’re at least honest and clear.

I’ve added Guy McPherson’s blog Nature Bats Last to my blogroll. I like the name of his blog a lot better than my own, and his blog is populated by posts about the coming industrial collapse (which will regrettably bring with it ecological collapse) and comments by folks who appear to get it, though most appear to still be seeking solutions or escape hatches. It’s one of a handful of blogs where I go to get my doom on, and I sometimes comment. No one is a regular reader or commenter here at The Spiral Staircase, so I’ll offer (again) that doom is not my primary blogging focus, since it’s too horrific and soul destroying for me to blog about full time. I’m more of an armchair social critic. Prof. McPherson earns my admiration for being one of the few truth-tellers I have read, and he’s free of the New Age delusions commonplace at many similar blogs. In addition, he blogs with authority as Emeritus Professor of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Whereas some have considerable disdain for scientists and academics, who are sometimes revealed to be just as human as the rest of us, I’m more inclined to believe the truth claims of science once evidence is weighed and consensus is reached. In fact, the whole point of scientific inquiry is that knowledge and understanding are sharpened and corrected by continuous reexamination, which is a procedural strength few other areas of inquiry can claim to uphold as diligently.

The reason Nature Bats Last is being added to my blogroll is that Prof. McPherson was kind enough to post at my request an entry called Entropy Revisited. A correspondent of mine had accused me of misunderstanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and although I’m confident I have the basic principle correct, I doubted my ability to describe the details accurately. So I contributed the basic idea of the blog entry, an initial draft, and some editorial effort. Prof. McPherson gets most of the writing credit, so I only quote a bit of it here. Go there to read and comment. The intro provides a nice snapshot:

You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game. Those kernels are my favorite descriptors of the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. Respectively, the clauses mean (1) energy is conserved (First Law), (2) entropy never decreases, thus precluding perpetual motion machines (Second Law), and (3) it is impossible to cool a system to absolute zero (Third Law).

The thrust of the blog entry is that we’re poised to fall off a cliff with respect to available energy, mostly the fossil fuels we’ve been using up for the past 200 years or more. The Second Law binds us to that fate. Two familiar images of Wile E. Coyote from the old Roadrunner cartoons come to mind: (1) the character suspended in midair before plummeting to the ground as sheer momentum carries him past the edge of a precipice, and (2) some hairbrained scheme that ends by bringing some large piece of the cliff down upon himself. Both scenarios apply to our current situation. The first is sometimes chalked up to simple population overshoot, but the second is what haunts my sleep, which is that we’re actively engineering our own awful fate. Or to extend the metaphor “nature bats last,” we know that Nature (the reified form) is a far more powerful contestant than are we and will assuredly get the final say or at bat, yet we’re determined to pitch a series of beanballs to crush her skull and spine before we take the inevitable line drive to the face. That makes us a tragic species, not merely because the principles we set in motion bring about our own destruction but because we know it as we enact it and are determined to commit ecocide alongside suicide. Prof. McPherson professes an optimism I can’t share. Perhaps I’ve succumbed to a learned helplessness, or what I’ve heard called a convenient fatalism. Still, I haven’t progressed to full-bore nihilism and doubt I ever will. The best I can manage seems to be admitting reality, understanding its harsh mandates, and reporting.