Archive for May, 2011

A catalytic process is where an external agent of some sort, usually chemical, is employed to cause a reaction. An autocatalytic process is where an internal agent participates in the process. Most of us are familiar with autocatalytic processes, though we may not recognize them as such. In one example, it takes money to make money; in another, fame feeds off of itself, even when it becomes notoriety or infamy. These processes aren’t blind. Our system of economics is rigged to reward wealth with greater wealth, and fame unfolds in predictable if irrational ways once someone has a first brush with it. For instance, actors, athletes, and other entertainers receive so much excessive, gushing praise that they’re guaranteed to keep our attention riveted pretty much just for showing up and putting on clothes (or taking them off). Call it the incumbency effect. If they are recipients of one or another of a truly excessive number of awards given out annually, whether deserved or not, their fame quotient skyrockets.

If success breeds success, it would seem logical that the inverse would also be true, that failure breeds failure. Perhaps failure is autocatalytic much of the time, but what interests me here is how some people manage to fail upwards, going from disaster to disaster suffering only PR setbacks, which can always be overcome considering how memory is short and information is spinnable. High-profile examples range from CEOs who preside over corporate bankruptcies to U.S. presidents who lead scandalous lives before, during, and after their administrations. These examples differ from the Peter Principle, which states that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position where they become incompetent. Or perhaps the example of the CEO is a perfect embodiment of the Peter Principle.

Business and government both offer ample opportunity for folks to fail upwards, and the best measurement is how they traipse from position to position with alarming regularity. Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, may be a prime example. He nearly started out as a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet but chose instead to go to college and then became a political staffer. He was an adviser to the Clinton administration, had a brief career in finance, was elected to Congress, and then became Obama’s chief of staff before resigning to run for mayor of Chicago, which election he won. So while his many, many appointments and positions would look to many as being well qualified, I don’t find that especially convincing when his chief personal characteristic is being a screamer, which earned him the nickname Rahmbo. Using intimidation and throwing tantrums to advance one’s agenda may be effective, but it raises other issues.

Singling out Rahm Emanuel may be unfair, but his rather meteoric rise reminds me quite a bit of his former boss at the White House — both incubated in notorious Chicago-style politics — and neither has accomplishments to match the hype other than a couple successful beauty pageants, nay, popularity contests elections. Yet both have demonstrated considerable failures of personal integrity. Whether either will succeed in getting worthwhile things done in their respective elected positions is still an open question, but my intuitions are that they will be empty figureheads presiding over a corporate-governmental (and military) complex that runs roughshod over everyone indiscriminately. Sure, somebody has to occupy high office — that’s built into the system, like the eventual winner of a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But the series of throws a player concocts matters far less than the random result of a remorseless algorithm that catapults someone into the winner’s chair.

On the recommendation of The Compulsive Explainer, I’ve begun reading The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. I’m borrowing the idea of book blogging from Alan Jacobs at Text Patterns, though I’ll instead be discussing items of personal interest drawn from the book, not embarking on literary criticism.

The book is divided into two parts: (1) discussion of the left/right hemispheres of the brain and their characters and (2) how the world we’ve made is essentially an artifact of brain/mind structures. Even in the introduction, it’s clear that McGilchrist is far more comfortable discussing the brain/mind than the whole of human endeavor, encompassing history, philosophy, politics, etc. That’s understandable, no doubt, but he ventures into other fields with the recognition that if his thesis is to attract more than academic interest, he must ground it eventually in the world we experience.


The Supreme Court ruled today in Kentucky v. King today that the Fourth Amendment does not apply in cases of exigent exception. Such exceptions include threat of imminent bodily harm or destruction of evidence. The sticking point is where the police create those exigencies by their own actions. The Court ruled in favor of expanded police powers — yet another chink in the plateless armor of the U.S. Constitution.

My reading is that this is merely a version of the ticking time bomb scenario used to justify torture, though the stakes are considerably lower. The significant details of the Kentucky case (PDF of the decision here) are that, upon chasing a drug buyer/dealer into an apartment complex, the cops smelled marijuana fumes, banged on a door (not knowing which door was correct), heard sounds of rustling and scrambling from inside, proceeded to bust through the door, and entered without warrant. I didn’t read the entire opinion, but it seems obvious to me that awarding increased power to the police in a drug case, when police are often known to use overweening force without much hesitation and sometimes without much accuracy, doesn’t rise to a level of urgency justifying abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.

The war on drugs has been a dogged loser for decades now and has only succeeded in creating a criminal class out of a supply-and-demand dynamic that will not be legislated away any better than was Prohibition. While some actors in the drug trade are driven to violence and desperation, a large portion of them are criminal only in the same sense as those who indulge in underage smoking, drinking, or sex. We tend not to crucify underage smokers or drinkers, but those who obey their innate biological urges prior to the arbitrary age of 18 (or whatever the age of consent may be in various jurisdictions) are often prosecuted and classified as rapists, putting them on life-long sex offender lists. The same insane logic applies to prosecuting recreational drug users as criminals rather than treating the issue as a health problem or epidemic, which it in fact is considering how prevalent recreational drug use is among the public.

The balance in cases of hot pursuit or belligerent resistance is tricky, and nearly every news report and anecdote I read about excessive force employed by police officers against, say, grandmothers or 13-year-old girls is accompanied by mediating details that, if shaped the right way, make tazering an unarmed, wheelchair-bound citizen the right thing to do. Actually, it’s rather easy to construct bogus narratives that make any sort of resistance, principled or otherwise, to the state’s monopoly on use of force the actions of a terrorist. Once in a while, though, I’d like to see the balance weighted clearly in favor of citizens, which is among the chief aims of the Bill of Rights.

This blog post was originally published on April 21, 2011, at Guy McPherson’s blog, Nature Bats Last.

I tossed around in bed a few nights ago with insomnia. This happens a lot lately. As my mind wandered, it occurred to me that NBLers lob lots of accusations, judgments, and ridicule about what is wrong in the world today. So, too, do others of every imaginable religious, political, and intellectual persuasion. Identifying what’s wrong is, to use a bit of useless jargon from the military-industrial-corporate complex, a target-rich environment, and with so many diverse targets, it’s virtually impossible to be wrong about what’s wrong. But I contend that as a culture, we have nonetheless gotten the wrong things wrong.

We’re mostly unified at NBL in our belief that industrial civilization is breathing its last breaths even as we speak/type. (Though the comments are filled with pointless disagreements about what form the future will take.) And yet according to the MSM, our problems have more to do with a faltering economy, political infighting, ineffective public schools, recreational drug use, and those damned, dirty, heathen terrorists who hate our freedom. Don’t get me wrong: these things are problems, they’re wrong, but they’re the wrong things wrong. What really threatens us goes unnoticed except by a few. Strangely, those few are pretty noisy about diagnosing what’s going wrong. Klaxons ring all around, but responses range from incomprehension and indifference to straight-faced denial and even outright hostility. We’re assured, vehemently, that it’s we (NBLers and other doomers) who have the wrong things wrong.

Another thing occurred to me that sleepless night, namely, that normal human life-cycles might be described in terms of four phases: (1) growth, (2) achievement, (3) mature enjoyment, (4) and eventual death. If those phases were mapped onto empires or civilizations, they might instead be (1) building, (2) consolidation, (3) profit-taking, (4) and collapse. These phases are not wholly discrete, as different members of society rightly busy themselves with different phases simultaneously. Whatever phase of life one may be in individually, we appear on the scene at a time when our social institutions, our financial and political empires, and indeed our civilization all show abundant signs of imminent collapse.

Meanwhile, members of society are immersed in growing businesses, raising families, developing products, teaching students, and expanding wealth and influence, all first-phase behaviors. A few are preserving and defending worthwhile institutions against decay or corruption, a second-phase behavior, but they are relatively few. Some are manipulating and gaming financial and political systems for personal gain, third-phase behaviors with very limited futures. And finally, the entire population is suffering in varying degrees from deprivations of spirituality, health, education, community, and competent leadership. Except for health, these are not conventional measures of wellbeing, but they should be. Some folks even suffer lack of basic needs (food, shelter, and other sustenance), but that is not yet widespread in the First World. Collapse occurs when institutions can no longer withstand stresses, both internal and external, and fail either abruptly or in slow motion.

Robust activity in early phases and corruption in the final phases attract the bulk of our collective attention, distracting us from the background truth, namely, that all things have their moment and ours is nearly up. The U.S. has arguably been growing increasingly sclerotic and decrepit for sixty years or so, and the intuition of time running out is becoming overwhelming. As collapse and death stalk us, grace to accept our unavoidable fate eludes us, and so motivations purify in aged institutions, more so than in aged people, to self-preservation and survival. The last acts of desperate men rarely exhibit nobility; institutions behave no better. We no longer understand what it means to die well. This lost knowledge is evidenced everywhere as people, corporations, and governments founder and flail with the apparent attitude, “If I’m goin’ down, I’m takin’ everyone with me!”

One of several elephants in the room few have the integrity to recognize or acknowledge is that General Motors, AIG, CitiCorp, Bank of America, and others should all have been allowed to fail along with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. They’re going to anyway, probably sooner rather than later. Similarly, governments around the world should admit they are living on borrowed time (and money), but I have little doubt that those who can will launch further resource wars in desperate bids to eke out their last few dying breaths. Such institutions have taken on lives of their own quite independent from the people they purportedly serve, and their own survival impulse trumps concern for others.

If institutions have abandoned their proper orientation in service to people, the same can be said of technology. Progress demands innovation, we think, but in tragically rich irony, those same technologies that promise progress in actuality deliver doom — another example of the wrong things wrong. Modern technology has driven two intertwined developments: a quick, dramatic increase in human population and the power to transform, consume, and thus destroy the biosphere. There is no larger truth, in my opinion, than our drive to survive, shared with all living things I will add, having caused us to kill off nearly everything, ending with ourselves. This is the ultimate thing wrong, but unlike other living things, we know we’re doing it and simply can’t stop. Call it the final, inevitable manifestation of Thanatos (Death) and his hoary siblings Hypnos (Sleep), Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Moros (Doom), Apate (Deception), Momus (Blame), Eris (Strife), Nemesis (Retribution), and Charon (the Stygian Ferryman).

Over the past few years, I have come to regard with Sphinx-like stoicism our unconscious and perhaps chthonophagic self-destruction. As alluded to above, this is the dark, dreamy stuff of myth and so will remain for most of us submerged beneath layers of obfuscation and rationalization. A few poets may still exist who can tell the story adequately, but we can’t process poetry anymore, so the message will no doubt go unheeded. But let me suggest how the eventual realization of our being up Shit Creek without a paddle may finally dawn on the great, unwashed masses: the disappearance of toilet paper.

We’re all familiar with various bodily complaints, such as fatigue, restlessness, toothache, thirst, hunger, and loss of youthful vitality. Hardly any of us knows what it’s like to suffer the indignity of dealing with our own shit without the use of toilet paper. Hell, in the U.S., we don’t even have the muscle control to squat anymore. We’re advised to stockpile other resources expected to fall into scarcity, but who remembers toilet paper? There will be lots of “oops!” moments, but perhaps none will repulse us so much as the inhumanity of our own vile, stinking, excremental filth. Add to this the fact that in our mad rush to digitize everything, we can’t even fall back to the Sears catalog or the Yellow Pages. Will this become the last, best use of books, newspapers, and magazines? Woe to the lonely librarian protecting the stacks with a loaded shotgun against the smelly, marauding hordes desperate for a simple wipe, ’cause you know that valuable resource won’t be wasted as reading paper.

With attention refocused on rather low subjects, let me also suggest that concern about passing through the coming Malthusian bottleneck overlooks the fact that humanity has already managed that feat once. Only a very few of the very many genetic possibilities make it through Mother Nature’s birth canal and are admitted to the pantheon of species. Once established, even fewer manage for long to avoid being excreted through Mother Nature’s sphincter. In a sense, they’re only slightly different aspects of the same winnowing evolutionary bottleneck: the elimination sweepstakes. Well, we’re definitely in the poop chute now. The question is not about what happens to us; we know what happens. We got ourselves too far into deep shit to be extricated now. Rather, the question is whether Earth can pass millennia of impacted, human waste without suffering harms so grievous she ends permanently disabled. We almost definitely won’t be around to know.

With the direction things are currently going, namely, the widening gulf between the rich (and therefore powerful) and everyone else (not just the poor anymore but the middle class, too), I have been puzzling over what makes gathering wealth and power to oneself so irresistible that those in the narrowest and highest corridors of power are content to reduce everyone and everything around them to squalor even as they sit atop their miserly hoards, staring balefully at the rabble below (if they even bother to look). What’s the point of acquiring fortunes if one ends up besieged?

Numerous answers to those questions arise throughout history. Some want to make their mark on the world, even if they end up being villains. Others thrive on venal manipulation of the rules of engagement for the sheer thrill of success, though how one measures success varies widely with context. Yet others have a psychotic or sociopathic impulse to destroy. What they have in common is a lack of moral restraint, a quality that would keep them from victimizing others without compunction. Those victims may be remote from view, but they exist nonetheless.