Friday, September 07, 2012

Service Interruption notice

You may have noticed is currently down. We're moving servers. Drew informs me it shouldn't take too long. Perhaps tonight or tomorrow. Sorry about that, and thanks for your patience. (And thanks to Drew for his efforts.)
Update: for the duration of the downtime while the DNS migrates, I've turned off the comment moderation. Be good to each other.

Better Update: Okay, we're back.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Occupy Liberation

The spirit of justice is nothing other than the supreme and perfect flower of the madness of love. - Simone Weil

I heard Chris Hedges say, "true spirituality is always an act of rebellion." So I made this.

A collage of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, interfaith and post-religious services at Occupy Wall Street, the faces of Spanish Indignants, and images of police brutality and mass mobilization from Oakland, set to the music of Martyn Bennett's "Liberation."

All credit to the original videographers, the late Martyn Bennett, and the Occupiers and Indignants of the world.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

We Are The Monsters We've Been Waiting For

Our civilized world is nothing but a great masquerade. You encounter knights, parsons, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, priests, philosophers and a thousand more: but they are not what they appear - they are merely masks.... Usually, as I say, there is nothing but industrialists, businessmen and speculators concealed behind all these masks. - Schopenhauer

The Thing That Couldn't Die

Light for some time to come will have to be called darkness. - Nietzsche

They may be our Most Terrible Lizards, but they wouldn't be called the best and the brightest by even the hindmost fart-catcher in Abaddon's human centipede. They can turn blood into gold, playing Last Days' alchemists in the booming catastrophe and collapse sectors, but don't confuse the management of an habituated massacre with a meritocracy. They're the eschaton of open jaws at the close of the food chain, but for no other reason than a cold heart doesn't dwell upon the cruelty of its bite. We're the 99 and they're the One Percenters, and like the outlaw bikers who share the patch, they run the drugs and guns and kill for their club. They're the Killer Elite, but don't call them elite. No. Apparently, and with ironic perversity, that's me and my numerous tribe; over-educated beyond utility at the end of the Age of Useless Things.

And I mean that: the end of things. Capital has exhausted its first fuels, and now it's the creation of poverty, not of wealth, that makes the world go 'round. And naturally, when it's down to your own body, setting it alight before it's taken from you to stoke the engines of the Great Machine becomes the final impudence. Depending upon whether your nation is an appetizer or an entree on the globalists' menu, and how well the kitchen prepares its living parts, such an act may lead to revolution or a passing LULZ.It can go either way.

Over-educated, I mean that too. But it's not a sour boast after half a life being schooled for self-aware obsolescence. If you feel dumber for having watched Jersey Shore, then you too already know more than is good for you. America's public schools are made to fail on a budget comparable with the cost of air conditioning its imperial guard in Central Asia, with assets peeled off to private charters, and teachers discarded upon their broken unions. University, North America's new high school, is corporate funded and corporate branded and humanities' starved, with a deliberately crushing debt load upon students that corrals the choices of the less privileged towards machinery-sustaining, practical careers. The study of subjects that have not been sufficiently monetized and the accrual of empathetic knowledge are sniffed at as elitist pursuits, even as the student is financially wrecked by their mastery.

Terrible lizards. I don't really mean that. Not literally. Not yet. They might, after all, not be alien lizards in masquerade, but their ecocidal reptilian brains just happen to be terraforming a post-mammalian world best suited for the cold-blooded, and engineering a society denuded of human warmth, compassion and mindfulness. Lizards aren't what they were; lizards are what they're to be. This could be the prophetic consummation of transhumanism: the metaphor become flesh.

The Brain Eaters

"You know, we got ourselves into this. No one made us chew Chew-Z." - Philip K Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

It occurred to me last year, when the Gulf of Mexico began coughing up its lungs courtesy of Deep Water Horizon, how it's one of the attenuated consolations of life in Evening's Empire that BP's sole, unmitigated success was to hold up a camera to the ocean's injury so we could all together view another viral FAIL video. I can haz desolation!

Because you know, this is what we're good at. I mean, this is all we can do now. And from lackadaisical blogger to Spectator-in-Chief ("I want to know whose ass to kick"), gazing upon from afar with approbation, from the Mississippi Delta to Fukushima and the next sideshow horror, is about as good as we get. And even then, not for long. Gulf seafood is contaminated but officially safe. Japanese school children are passing radioactive piss but it's not a concern unless they continue to eat radioactive produce and drink irradiated water. Half-waking observation, and the dialing down of our expectations of "normal," are for the most part the extent of our response, and we seem to have lost the means and the imagination to do anything but. Perhaps that's what the mass, deranged mind of the Internet has taken from us, by taking us into itself. And perhaps that's even why it exists.

In other words: if our wired brains are experiencing more read/write errors than the factory warranty led us to expect, I don't believe it's all down to depleted Serotonin and Aspartame. (Though, lest we forget, there is that, too.) We know well enough now, by study and experience, how the Web's interruption system impairs focus, and compounds the cognitive switching cost of our online distractions. It's the subject of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain.... That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.

Whoa! Just a sec there, Joey Google. Maybe I can't live in your Cloud after all. Maybe we should rethink this entrainment of our brains towards trivia, while we can still meaningfully think. Maybe a Kindle isn't worth my kingdom of books. Maybe librarians aren't the enemy, and bookless libraries aren't actually good for children. Maybe literate adults should cease slow dancing with their tablets upon the grave of Johannes Gutenberg. But I don't see it happening.

Anyway, Carr again:

Last year, researchers at Stanford found signs that this shift may already be well under way. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.” Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

Or let's try on Jean Baudrillard's words, from his 1985 essay "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened," and see if they fit us in 2011:

[E]ach cultural and factual set must be fragmented, disarticulated, in order to enter the circuits, each language must be resolved into 0/1, into binary terms, in order to circulate no longer in our memory, but in the memories, electronic and luminous, of computers.

Our culture digitized is no longer our culture, but that of our machines. Our machine culture replaces our own, imperfectly remembers us, and tells us to forget ourselves. Paradise to some. The future to all.

Steve Wozniak, a few weeks ago as I write this, said "we lost the battle to the machines long ago. We're going to become the pets, the dogs of the house." He said this optimistically. "Why are we going to need ourselves so much in the future? We're just going to have the easy life." Optimism and, if you can still stop and really think about it, a dash of madness.

"Once we have machines doing our high-level thinking," he continued, "there's so little need for ourselves and you can't ever undo it - you can never turn them off."

There's so little need for ourselves. Chew on that crazy for a moment, and then try digesting We're just going to have the easy life. What order of nonsense is he talking about here? How many do you imagine are included in Wozniak's "we"? If a dumb machine - "dumb" like the nematode parasite that turns its host ant into a berry-mimic to spread its kind in bird feces - if a parasitical technology could infect its host with thoughts to disarm its opposition, I imagine they would be thoughts like, "why are we going to need ourselves," "we're going to have the easy life," and "you can never turn them off."

My rewired brain has its benefits. It's helped me to make associate leaps with greater confidence, even if some times that confidence has been unwarranted. But outsourcing my working memory has come at a high cost. There's the atrophied recall and attenuated attention span, and I don't believe that's entirely attributable to age and enviro-toxins. If it's true, and I think it is, that I learned more reading one book at a time than trying to read all books at once, then I'm just a chump in the idiot's kingdom called The Information Age. I can blame whoever first flipped the switch on the unstoppable machines, but my mental decline by living better electronically is really nobody's fault but mine.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

"It is sweet to draw the world down with you when you are perishing." - Seneca, Medea

Anyway, what was I saying? Something about the Gulf.

Obama's best advice to Americans during that particular obscenity was that they should shop, swim and pray: one of those crystalline moments that said, yes, this President too is a Celebrity Apprentice to the Criminals Without Borders. Such a stand-up effort won't be forgotten when he leaves his office - an internship, really - and is initiated into Big Money, of which his presidency is merely a rite of passage: a pledge's gofer'ing for the inviolate fraternity of laundered capital. For Democratic presidents and Labour prime ministers, if they actually entered politics with even modest virtue and tepid vision for the public good, they have been richly rewarded for their abandonment. The sudden good fortunes of Clinton and Blair: this is what it profit a man. (By contrast, Jimmy Carter's post-presidency is perhaps an extended act of atonement to win back his soul.) Can there remain any doubt as to which career path Obama means to follow? Bill Clinton has earned more than $65 million dollars since leaving office for motivational "power within" speeches before business executives and similar peers who can afford him. Just imagine Obama's speeches. And his appearance fees. The American presidency is now just something that looks good on a resume, which can lead to a cash-for-life revenue stream.

And BP? Corporations in America may be persons under the law, but they're never persons of colour. If they were, so many would have been shot, hung, gassed or given the chair years ago.

There were many things Martin Luther had wrong. "Strong beer is the milk of the old" wasn't one of them. Another wasn't his revulsion at the Medieval Church's practice of selling indulgences: the tidy revenue stream of peddling Get out of Purgatory Free cards. A posthumous entitlement program for the wealthy dead, and an invitation to sin boldly for those who could afford it. (The poor, as ever, could pay only in the currency of their blood, sweat and souls.) Of course, this turned the teaching of Jesus of its head - rich man, eye of a needle, and all that - but no matter: the Church has made a custom of perp-walking its Christs in a parade of upside-down clowns for two millenia.

Luther's rejection of the selling of indulgences sparked the Reformation, but the practice hasn't stopped; it's merely been secularized. BP paid - or more accurately, promised to pay - an indulgence of $20 billion over four years to cover damages incurred by the sin of Deep Water Horizon. Not even enough to make 2010 a losing year for the company if the amount had been paid as a lump sum. In fact, its stock "surged" on the news that it had just bought its way out of purgatory on the cheap. "The fear was that the government was going to do something so drastic as to effectively push the company into bankruptcy," said oil and gas analyst Brian Gibbons. "Now they can come out of the meeting and say they have held BP accountable and hold up a $20 billion escrow account." That was last year. (Ancient history, and nobody studies history anymore.) This year, the company's bringing unabashed motherfucker back: BP now wants to stop payments based on future losses, saying "there is no basis to assume that claimants, with very limited exceptions, will incur a future loss related to the oil spill." BP points to returning tourists and the reopened federal fishing grounds, and points away from the fish so sickened by diseases and infections and environmental stresses that LSU Oceanographer Jim Cowan says, "I've never seen anything like this. At all. Ever."

And here's where the Medieval Church had it over on us. The rich could only buy their way out of Purgatory, not Hell. Purgatory was the place of temporal punishment, even if it were to last a million years. Hell was forever. And Hell for BP - break it up, bankruptcy, nationalization - was never a serious threat in an era of Too Big to Damn. Unlike, or God help me so it seems, the whole bloody natural world and its profitless life.

But what can you do, Mr President? You're only the titular head of a country that manufactures nothing anymore but weaponry, consent, and high fructose corn syrup. We'll miss our old world like we'll miss our old brains, but the longer it goes on, and the worse it gets, the more we'll become accustomed to it. Like the erasure of a hegemon's great cities to disasters natural and unnatural, its middle class, perhaps even its living memory of peacetime. That's the catastrophe of hope.

And don't think the Sadean few for whom the system works aren't loving the masochistic spectacle of good Democratic foot soldiers debasing themselves as New Deal Sonderkommando, immolating their Social Security on finance capitalism's pyre of a trillion dead presidents before freshening up with a whore's bath of Enjoy President Bachmann ooga booga. (Somehow, moving the goal posts never interfere with their end zone dance.) Maybe, when you're given the choice of Satan, or Satan's Little Helper, it's past time to crash the parties.

So it's the end of America, but it's not the end of the world. That's already happened. If by "world" we mean a viable, global civilization and hospitable biosphere, and if by "end" we mean the extinguishing of fruitful recourse, then we sped past that last resort way back in the Seventies. This may not yet be the final reel of Vanishing Point, but we're deep in the third act and going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street. And our Dodge Challenger is nearly out of road.

Some call this vanishing point, the "Singularity."

Eyes Without a Face

"It makes me nervous," Emily whispered; she held a magazine on her lap but was unable to read. "It's so - unnatural."

"Hell," Hnatt said vigorously, "that's what it's not; it's an acceleration of the natural evolutionary process that's going on all the time anyway, only usually it's so slow we don't perceive it. I mean, look at our ancestors in caves ... they evolved to meet the Ice Age; we have to evolve to meet the Fire Age, just the opposite. So we need that chitinous-type skin, that rind and the altered metabolism that lets us sleep in midday and also the improved ventilation...." - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

The tides of aborted dolphins. The acidification of our oceans and the jellification of its life. The neurotoxicants stunting our children's brains. The nanoparticles "unexpectedly" entering the food chain. The vanishing bees. The excellent chance we'll have pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere by the end of this century that the planet will inexorably warm by 24 degrees, assuring a runaway greenhouse, and the recreation of conditions unseen here since the Hadean Era.

Peak oil, peak soil, peak water, peak food. (And if these play on your mind as at least abstract terrors, then congratulations: you too enjoy more leisure and learning than can possibly profit you at this time, in this culture.) Fondest, most desperate hopes aside, the exigencies of collapse are not calling forth the best behavior from those accustomed to bleeding every stone white. On the contrary, environmental policy, even the most egregiously half-assed, is the first out the window when "shared sacrifices" demand that the vested interests of capital defenistrate the public good. So the ground is fracked and the tap waters flame, and rather than saving what remains of the Amazon, we burn it into becoming the world's greatest emitter of methane.

Not a problem.

If the Singularity is near enough, then the transhumanists may yet have their abiotic rapture. And I'll hand it to them, there's a dark logic to it: perhaps the only way to successfully adapt to a murdered planet is to kill yourself.

"If you draw the timelines," said futurologist Ian Pearson, "realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it's not a major career problem." Pearson is sometimes credited with the invention of that fouler of distinction between home and office, text messaging. And given how all the futurist fantasies of increased leisure time have panned out, no one should take comfort in the prospect that death itself need not encumber job performance. Even though pensionable age and benefits continue to be rolled back vindictively, there was always at least the promise of the peace of the grave.

And the dying planet? Those who would destroy it in order to save it are readying its zombie makeover with one word, or rather, prefix: nano.

"Emerging nanotechnology capabilities promise a profound impact on the environment," writes Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near. "This includes the creation of new manufacturing and processing technologies that will dramatically reduce undesirable emissions, as well as remediating the prior impact of industrial-age pollution." Kurzweil concedes there is the "downside" of introducing innumerable nano-particles, creating "new forms of toxins and other unanticipated interactions with the environment and life." But Singularitans embrace the risk because there's no other way forward. And they have to move forward, and not relinquish one victory of science over the natural world. After all, that's progress.

But before we disappear into simulation, let's get real. Technology won't revitalize the world that it is destroying, in part because the technology is controlled by the same sociopaths who profit by perpetrating the ruin. (Kurzweil himself has served on the Army Science Advisory Group, ASAG, helping to steer priorities for military research.) In other part because technology's end users - that's us, in the over-developed world - are made too comfortable by its benefits to act meaningfully to arrest its progression until everything is too far gone. And in last part because, should our most mad predatory bastards succeed - and if that seems unlikely, just think of how well things have worked out for them so far - they'll escape into their mesmerizing and seemingly superior upgrade. Only nostalgists would want to recreate the real thing, and Singularitans are not particularly prone to nostalgia. They won't be deploying nanotech to repair our global Titanic; they'll be piloting the Elect's anti-lifeboats into post-organic existence while the rest of us go down in steerage class. And by 2050 they may not need to travel all the way to Saturn orbit to skipper their yachts on methane seas.

That's a trip which bio-luddites - like the shaman cultivating plant wisdom; like too-comfortable me and, I suspect, virtually all my plugged-in peers - would never embark upon. Of course we needn't worry ourselves sick over how to decline the invitation: the greater, surviving bio-mass of our species will not be welcome on the voyage. (The other vanishing species? They can make their own ark.) But that’s no insurance against the harvesting of some valuable, stubborn minds to adorn their Cold Heaven. If, say, Shakespeare and Beethoven could have been uploaded to a stable format, forestalling their career-ending decomposition so they could remain contributing citizens of our culture, wouldn’t it be a crime against post-humanity to let them simply molder in the ground like "dumb matter"? Some futurists think so, and argue for the moral imperative of rescuing genius from the grave. In which case, in the event of compulsory resurrection, the only cause worth dying for may be the right to truly die.

And perhaps even Beethoven isn't safely dead yet. (Shakespeare, who can say?) Giulio Prisco, founder of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, which holds that the Singularity will offer credible substitutes for the promises of religion, writes, "I don't think resurrection is incompatible with our current knowledge of how the universe works":

Many rationalists have knee-jerk reactions when the idea of technological resurrection of the dead is mentioned. Perhaps they made a big effort to free themselves from religious superstition and are afraid of falling back into religion. But here we are talking about science and technology, not religion.

Sure we are. Sure we aren't.

The Singularity may be science, but it's unmistakably also mythology, as is evident from the ecstatic visions of Kurzweil, its preeminent mythologist. (Certainly Kurzweil is more than a mere mythologist, as there's no such thing as a mere mythology.) The "freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form" is, according to Kurzweil, "an essentially spiritual quest." The Singularity’s chief apostle sees the universe "waking up" as it is saturated by our intelligence, expanding to fill it at a speed possibly exceeding that of light. ("It will achieve this by reorganizing matter and energy to provide an optimal level of computation to spread out from its origin on Earth.")

Significantly, Kurzweil makes the same moral sidestep of the European conquerors before him who dreamt smaller dreams of coveting mere continents, and presumes an unintelligent void that beckons us to civilize it and turn it to our utility. And since, in Kurzweil's estimation, the universe is silent of the noise of other civilizations and that we have not be contacted by other intelligences, then "it is likely (although not certain) that there are no such other civilizations":

In other words, we are in the lead. That's right, our humble civilization with its pickup trucks, fast food, and persistent conflicts (and computation!) is in the lead in terms of the creation of complexity and order in the universe.

Or, in other words, we need to pick up the Earthman's burden, and develop the universe, reformatting it to maximize its computational potential, until the transhuman mind is imprinted upon every star and nebula. And however it ends, or even if it ever does, will be up to Kurzweil's godlings. "The fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made," he writes in The Age of Spiritual Machines, "one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right."

But here we are talking about science and technology....

Even if Kurzweil has the future wrong, and the mysteries of consciousness continue to recede before the advance of technology, I'm afraid he has the present dangerously right. The Singularity Myth alarmingly justifies and sustains just about every wrong we are perpetrating upon the world right now, leading to its transcendent vision of a New Technopolis rising at the end of the Aeon of Biology. It's a promise bound to be held more desperately as the crises of biology deepens. And desperation for all, with opportunity for a privileged few, will mean a slaughterhouse for most.

In his paper “Religious Motifs in Technological Poshumanism,” Michael E Zimmerman writes:

For Singularity posthumans to be possible, many present and future humans might have to pay a very steep cost. In the name of a glorious posthuman future, one can imagine fanatical posthumanists justifying the extinction of mythic-Christian, post-Christian, and humanistic ideals such as individual liberty, self-realization, and outmoded personal and public morality…. If history is written by the victors, then the coming superhumans will surely find a way to justify the suffering involved in their origin, particularly given that those who suffered (that is, we humans) were not very evolved to begin with.

Since transhumanists are capable of recognizing the grave risks inherent to their God project - Kurzweil's "downside" of new toxins and unforeseen consequences - Zimmerman asks why they rush towards its culmination. “One answer,” he writes, “is that Earth’s biosphere is imperiled…. Technological posthumans would not be biologically based…thereby saving self-conscious life from extinction.”

And that seems to be the answer to so many questions, including those implied by the just smile and blow me sureties of our insatiable overclass. The Singularity may be near, but the end of our hospitable Earth is nearer, and all life forms requiring a temperate clime and low-toxic environment must rapidly adapt or die to our new and endless emergency. Unfortunately for us, the multiple maniacs driving the extinction are still crazy-rich, and are daily securing still more crazy for themselves. All we have are our overwhelming numbers, though as the crises inevitably crashes the population we may not even survive the century with that advantage. Our billions merely present the illusion of too big to fail. But the fact is, in the miserly new world, we're far too many to thrive.

At the Foresight Institute's 2002 "Brainstorming-Planning-Actionfest & Nanoschmoozathon," Leon Fuerth, former National Security Advisor to Al Gore, contended that "The majority of Americans will not simply sit still while some elite strips off their personalities and uploads themselves into their cyberspace paradise. They will have something to say about that. There will be vehement debate about that in this country."

First of all, has Fuerth paid attention to the state of vehement debate in his country?

Norway's terror attacks notoriously reminded Glenn Beck of Hitler. Not because mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik acted like a Nazi, but because his young victims were. ("Who does a camp for kids that's all about politics? Disturbing.") A supposedly transformative president normalizes the criminal perversions of his predecessor and appears to have the fight in him only to beat the legacy of FDR into an unrecognizable pulp. Do Americans have nothing to say about that? I know Fuerth spoke nearly a decade ago, but I remember 2002, and that wasn't a stellar year for policy debate and the public square either. Though of course, like so much else, it's only gotten worse since.

John Steinbeck accounted for the failure of socialism in America by the underclass regarding itself not as the exploited poor but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Silly beggars. But they didn't come by that idea all by themselves. That's the conditioning of decades of political animal husbandry, and the dulling engorgement of mass instruction masquerading as entertainment.

The dimming of culture and diminution of the Western mind perpetuates society's preposterous illusions. If - oh, I dunno - Ted Williams, the homeless "golden throat" pitch-perfect for selling useless shit can make it (whatever that means, and however fleeting), then maybe we can go viral too. The truly accomplished, the acutely gifted, the deeply wise only prick the insecurities of the idiot class, and that's no way to keep the idiots useful, mollified and self-medicated. Especially since there are so many of them, and more every graduating cohort. A good thing, not coincidentally, for the monied few, who mean to separate the fools from their nickels and dimes. ("I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid," explained John Stuart Mill. "I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.")

Meantime, futurists are imagining escape pods for our top predators, and already delivering on their military applications.

A reading from the Warrior-Prophet Kurzweil, from the scripture, The Singularity Is Near:

Although [ASAG] briefings, deliberations, and recommendations are confidential, I can share some overall technological directions that are being pursued by the army and all of the US armed forces. Dr John A Parmentola, director for research and laboratory management for the US Army and liason to the ASAG...describes the Future Combat System (FCS), now under development and scheduled to roll out during the second decade of this century, as "smaller, lighter, faster, more lethal, and smarter." Dramatic changes are planned for future war-fighting deployments and technology. Although details are likely to change, the army envisions deploying Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) of about 2,500 soldiers, unmanned robotic systems, and FCS equipment. A single BCT would represent about 3,500 "platforms," each with its own intelligent computational capabilities The BCT would have a common operating picture (COP) of the battlefield, which would be appropriately translated for it, with each soldier receiving information through a variety of means, including retinal (and other forms of "heads up") displays and, in the future, direct neural connection. ...

The US Joint Forces Command's Project Alpha (responsible for accelerating transformative ideas throughout the armed services) envisions a 2025 fighting force that "is largely robotic," incorporating tactical autonomous combatants (TACs) that "have some level of autonomy.... One innovative design being developed by NASA with military applications envisioned is in the form of a snake."

One of the programs contributing to the 2020 concept of self-organizing swarms of small robots is the Autonomous Intelligent Network and Systems (AINS) program of the Office of Naval Research, which envisions a drone army of unmanned, autonomous robots in the water, on the ground, and in the air. The swarms will have human commanders with decentralized command and control and what project head Allen Moshfegh calls an "impregnable Internet in the sky."

"In the final analysis," said John Kennedy in his American University commencement address, "our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

So far. But Kennedy's final analysis may be invalidated sooner than we think. And what happens then, when asymmetrical warfare achieves its End State? Will it be everlasting peace, or endless conflict, when one combatant cannot be killed, or maybe even neither? The drone armies of Central Asia are a crude rendering of what's to come. The generals don't need the hollowed-out New Man of fascist steel. They just need the steel. And much worse is coming. Probably, worse is already here.

The future didn't go anywhere. it isn't even the future.

Attack of the Puppet People

Opening his eyes he saw a vast quantity of matter without limit; and he became arrogant, saying, "It is I who am God, and there is none other apart from me."

When he said this, he sinned against the entirety. And a voice came forth from above the realm of absolute power, saying, "You are mistaken, Samael" - which is, "god of the blind." - The Hypostasis of the Archons (a.k.a., "The Reality of the Rulers"), Nag Hammadi Library

Nearly ten years ago saw the publication of philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom's paper, "Are You Living a Computer Simulation?" His conclusion: a strong maybe.

A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

So, as though we didn't already have enough good reason to soil ourselves in the 21st Century, let us add the existential dread that we could be living in a simulation, and the risk that it could be shutdown at any moment. Compared to a runaway greenhouse effect, perhaps a frivolous worry, but in the Bostrom-edited anthology Global Catastrophic Risks, cosmologist (and a another transhumanist) Milan Cirkovic writes that until Bostrom is refuted, "it would be intellectually dishonest to neglect to mention simulation-shutdown as a potential extinction mode."

To this potential crisis at least, Kurzweil offers an answer, in The Singularity Is Near:

It might appear that there's not a lot we could do to influence this. However, since we're the subject of the simulation, we do have the opportunity to shape what happens inside of it. The best way we could avoid being shut down would be to be interesting to the observers of the simulation. Assuming that someone is actually paying attention to the simulation, it's a fair assumption that it's less likely to be turned off when it's compelling than otherwise.

According to Kurzweil, the key to holding the interest of our hypothetical system operator most likely entails demonstrating exponential scientific growth. "Indeed, achieving a Singularity of exploding knowledge may be the very purpose of the simulation." Well now, he would say that.

And by the way: I can imagine that the cosmic hubris of Kurzweil and the transhumanists, who regard the Singularity as "an essentially spiritual quest" - albeit one with military applications - and mean to "play God" if only within the specimen jar of a simulation, would have been known and named as something other than a blessed vision by the Gnostics of Nag Hammadi. The God Kurzweil aspires to be, they would likely say, is actually Yaldabaoth, Sakloth, Samael: the Chief Archon, the blind fool, the arrogant adversary of the Pleroma.

From "The Apocryphon of John":

...the power in him, which he had taken from his mother [Sophia], produced in him the likeness of the cosmos. And when he saw the creation which surrounds him and the multitude of the angels around him which had come forth from him, he said to them, "I am a jealous God and there is no other God beside me." But by announcing this he indicated to the angels who attended him that there exists another God. For if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous?

Kurzweil is perhaps not such a futurist as to pass unrecognizable to the ancients.

To John Lamb Lash, whose Not In His Image is more a re-imagining of Gnosticism for this late age than a systematic of Mystery School teaching:

- the Archons are not only mind parasites - delusional nodes in the human mind, considered as quasi-autonomous psychic entities, if you will - they are cosmic imposters, parasites who pose as gods. But they lack the primary divine factor of ennoia, "intentionality," "creative will." They cannot originate anything, the can only imitate, and they must effectuate their copycat activity with subterfuge and stealth, lest its true nature be detected.

Even if we place the question of Simulation and the fear of its shutdown on the back burner, that the race towards Singularity has spawned such existential dreads is perfectly apt, since a Singularitan playing God apes a parochial and delusional Demiurge who can create only the mimicry of a universe and the soulless facsimile of a creature. The message in the bottle of Kurzweil's cosmic imitation is We had better make this simulation interesting. But there are other answers that may make more sense than Kurzweil's idea of what would hold our sysop's interest. And some of them are nasty.

If a civilization has already achieved Singularity and boasts the computational power to run a simulation as complex as our reality - and N.B.: "Physicists Believe Our Universe Is One Big Hologram, And They May Have Spotted the Pixels" - then what would be served by running a simulation for the purpose of itself attaining Singularity? Wouldn't that involve a measure of been there, done that, and how interesting would that be? If interesting is the criteria, then the purpose could be nothing more than entertainment. What if, rather than running us in a program to conduct hard research, the sysop is instead playing an extraordinarily sophisticated game of Sims? (Or worse, World of Warcraft?) Sound crazy? Think of how much of our own technology and computing power is dedicated to amusing ourselves. Would that amount be likely to fall in a transhuman future of virtually limitless tech? A devilish idea, but if devilish is reasonably descriptive of our predicament then perhaps we need to examine all possibilities for how we got here. Given history's bloody futility, it could even be Okham's answer.

Though, having just written that, maybe it's better that we forget the whole thing.

Just my opinion. But if this is a simulation, and we're still here only because the syspop is closer to winning an XBOX achievement than we are of achieving the Singularity, then here is a knowledge which we may safely say is not power. There's no hope for us there, because there's no us there, and all things being equally futile, I'd rather remain an ignorant fiction than a self-aware sim. Because "You see, children, we're bits of programming for entertainment purposes only" probably isn't the best myth to live by.

But then, given how we've been living, and judging by the body counts both human and otherwise, the civilized West hasn't a good record of choosing the best myths. Neither Apocalyptic Dominionism ("Go forth and subdue the world before God destroys it"), nor the lesson from the legendary Great Hunter of conventional anthropology ("You're a bestial predator; go forth and fulfill your destiny"), are congruous bedrock upon which to construct a supremely interesting society, fit for both us and the viewing pleasure of our hypothesized, extraordinarily evolved sysop.

Five Million Years to Earth

Death needs time for what it kills to grow in - William S Burroughs

Let's begin with the system operator, and let's for once succumb to optimism. Because maybe we should hope for better than a mere amusement from an intelligence sophisticated enough to run the simulation which is our universe. And perhaps, for the sake of our own mental health, we really, really ought to. (If someone or something is playing us, it's probably best for us to believe that the civilization capable of doing so will also have evolved a comparable emotional intelligence. Or at least an emotional intelligence far surpassing our own.) In which case, the program may be more ambitious that our beating one another to death as we destroy the world itself. Because really, as we can see, where's the challenge in that? Maybe the simulation's purpose is actually to see us - not just humanity, but all life - fulfill a novel and exquisitely ethical condition.

And now let's forget about the sysop. Simulation is unverifiable - at least currently - and there's nothing to be done about it anyway - at least currently - so we should probably attend rather to the principle implied by the question of making an interesting simulation. Which is really about building a better myth for us to live by.

So if humanity has a plot, where was it along our way that we dropped it? When did This isn't the way it's supposed to be become our signature insight?

I don't want to be overly dramatic about it, but I think people more and more wonder, is this living, or are we just going through the motions? What's happening? Is everything being leached out of life? Is the whole texture and values and everything kind of draining away?

John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization

Zerzan continues: "If machines can be human, humans can be machines. The truly scary point is the narrowing of the distance between the two." The very point, that singularity, which transhumanists honour and hasten towards.

But it's not just our time that has seemed out of time; every generation raises up witnesses to its own wasting sickness. Add it up, and you have history. ("Defeat has been unconsciously the quest of all religions, all philosophies, and all sciences," writes Charles Fort in Lo! "If they were consciously trying to lose, they would be successes.")

For young Americans it may be the surrender of Hope and Change for more of the same, only worse. (Petronius, courtier to Nero, could have warned them: "Just as dumb creatures are snared by food, human beings would not be caught unless they had a nibble of hope.") For those a little older it may be the sense of reality out of joint engendered by 9/11, a stolen election or two, or any of several politically expedient murders. For an Ogoni of the Niger delta it may be the day Shell came to lay its pipeline or the one when the mercenaries first came for those who objected. An Aztec in a time of drought must have wondered why the rains wouldn't come - hadn't the priests sated Tlaloc with the tears and blood of children? Or the ruling classes of the early Roman Empire who, "vexed by fickleness and boredom and by the constant change of their designs," were rendered empty by their own hollow mastery of the world:

They strive to attain their wishes by every available means, instructing and compelling themselves to dishonest and difficult acts. And when their labour is without reward, it is the fruitless disgrace that tortures them - they are not grieved to have desired evil things but to have desired in vain. Then remorse for what they began lays hold of them, and the fear of beginning again, and thence creeps in the agitation of mind which can find no relief - because neither can they rule nor can they obey their desires. And then comes the hesitency of a life failing to clear a way for itself, and the dull wasting of a soul lying torpid amidst forsaken hopes.

Seneca, On Tranquility of the Mind

We could go back further. So far that we leave history for prehistory, even leave humanity for proto-humanity, to find our great departure from the way we might feel it's supposed to be. And our guides should be those defeated religions, philosophies and sciences that have told us there is no other way.

We now know humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor less than four million years ago, or about 16 million years less than paleontologists believed as recently as the 1980s. That's ridiculously recent - more recent by millions of years than our common ancestors learned to walk upright (an adaption actually abandoned by the Great Apes) - but that's one messy implication of holding 99% of our DNA in common.

As problematic as that's been to natural scientists, it's been nothing but a boon to Social Darwinists, who are less scientists than rear-view projectionists "from the more cruel time of capitalist society." (Or so writes William Irwin Thompson in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light.)

"Survival of the fittest" were Herbert Spencer's words, not Charles Darwin's, but the meanness of Spencer's philosophy was justified by his fallacy of drawing economic and political instruction from Darwin's study of the red tooth and claw of nature, including predation upon the weak and the rewarding of aggression with food and sex. Eliminating the weak, wrote Spencer in Social Statics, was "the whole effort of nature.... If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die." Let's call him drummer emeritus of the Tea Party's Ghost Dance at the end of America. In his introduction to Spencer's The Principles of Ethics, Libertarian academic Tibor R Machan explains that "what Spencer did for libertarianism is what Marx did for communism - provide it with what was to be a full-blown scientific justification, on the model of proper science prominent in his day." Without Spencer, Ayn Rand might be best known, if at all, as a pedantic hack with a pathological crush on serial killer William Hickman. ("A wonderful, free, light consciousness.... He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people.") Without Spencer or Rand, John Stossel might be just another selfish prick talking shit to his drinking buddies, rather than "Americas favorite investigative reporter." ("We grow up learning that some things are just bad: child labor, ticket scalping, price gouging, kidney selling, blackmail, etc. But maybe they're not.") Without the easy victory of these sociopathic influences, we might merely be living in an oligarchy. As it is, welcome to the sociopatholigarchy.

That the warlike chimpanzee - an animal which might just as soon bite off your face as blow you a kiss if you look at one the wrong way - is considered our closest relation, both Spencer and America's post-American sideshow of Objectivist cruelty would seem to be vindicated. And if self-interest is the only law, and I got mine holds illimitable dominion over all, then maybe we should do our children a favour and stop teaching them to share and start instructing them to steal. Monkey see, monkey do.

But it's not true. In fact, the chimp isn't our only closest relative. There's one other, precisely as close to us, and that example may be more instructive to those still seeking a better myth to live by.

Since it has been found that chimpanzees sometimes raid their neighbors and brutally take their enemies' lives, these apes have edged closer to the warrior image that we have of ourselves. Like us, chimps wage violent battles over territory. Genetically speaking, however, our species is exactly close to another ape, the bonobo, which does nothing of the kind. Bonobos can be unfriendly to their neighbors, but soon after a confrontation has begun, females often rush to the other side to have sex with both males and other females. Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into a sort of picnic. It ends with adults from different groups grooming each other while the chldren play. Thus far, lethal aggression among bonobos is unheard of.

Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy

Bonobos were first catalogued by Western science in 1929, which is shockingly late for a large mammal. Even more surprising is the scant attention they have received since, despite our close relation, their shrinking numbers, and their matriarchal, egalitarian and orgiastic societies. (They're smart, too: "the bonobos...defied expectations by beating the group of chimpanzees in intelligence tests, because the chimps were too busy fighting among themselves for dominance.") We needn't romantisize them as the Great Ape Hope to believe bonobos have at least as much to teach us about ourselves as the over-familiar chimp. Perhaps more so if, as de Waal speculates, "the bonobo may have undergone less transformation than either humans or chimpanzees, and could most closely resemble our common ancestor."

Herbert Spencer could have made the chimpanzee Exhibit A in his case for Social Darwinism. But if the species had been known to naturalist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin, he might have called the bonobo as witness for the defense of his Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution: "The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that is has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history."

And not just humanity. According to Kropotkin, who founded his research upon the fruits of his exploration of climatically-stressed Siberia,

As soon as we study animals -- not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains -- we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.

Kropotkin was well-aware of the risks in the willful misuse of Darwin, and warned his readers against "the economists who know of natural science but a few words borrowed from second-hand vulgarizers," who "raised the 'pitiless' struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well." On the contrary,

man is appealed to to be guided in his acts, not merely by love, which is always personal, or at the best tribal, but by the perception of his oneness with each human being. In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support not mutual struggle -- has had the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race.

And in common with the bonobo, Kropotkin is today little known, little studied and representative of an endangered order.

Similarly, Elaine Morgan's Aquatic Ape Theory has been relegated to the margins of serious science for some 40 years, and yet it tells a compelling and fresh narrative of our hominization with a relevance lacking in the orthodox version of down from the trees and onto the savannah.

Morgan contends that when the heat waves of the Pliocene Period scorched Africa, erasing great swaths of forest, the apes who tried to make a home of the new, dry grasslands were wiped out by its larger and more numerous predators. There were a few, however, who escaped to the coasts, where the water provided shelter from the big cats who could not venture far without drowning.

It was this adaptive immersion, says Morgan, that made hairless bipeds of our ancestors (but for their exposed heads to shield them from the sun), and "the vestigial hairs that remain...are arranged quite differently from the hairs of the other primates.... The arrangement of the hairs follows precisely the lines that would be followed by the flow of water over a swimming body." (The Descent of Woman) Interestingly enough, the one sport at which women consistently surpass men in stamina is long-distance swimming. Interesting, because to Morgan it was the female who led the adaptive charge: her breasts swelling for the nursing baby (and not for the sexual excitement of the male); her hair lengthening, to which her helpless and slow-to-ween infant could better cling; and the enlargement of her buttocks and the forward migration of her vagina (a trait common to all mammals which have returned to water):

When she first took to a littoral life she had nothing in the way of padding. Her vagina was in the normal quadruped position, just under where her tail would have been if she had one; it was normal also in being exposed, flush with the surface for easy access.... But sitting on the beach was a very different matter [from sitting in trees]....


Once you begin to realize that practically all land mammals use the rear approach to sex, and practically all aquatic mammals use the frontal or ventro-ventral approach, then you are bound to suspect that the connection must be more than fortuitous.

Against Morgan's telling stand "the legend of the jungle heritage": the Tarzan-like character "who came down from the trees, saw a grassland teeming with game, picked up a weapon, and became a great hunter." This narrative, writes Morgan, "has taken root in man's mind as firmly as Genesis ever did."

Almost everything about us is held to have derived from this. If we walk erect is was because the Mighty Hunter had to stand tall to scan the distance for his prey. If we lived in caves it was because hunters need a base to come home to. If we learned to speak it was because hunters need to plan the next safari and boast about the last.

In place of orthodoxy's harsh grassland hunt, Morgan invites us rather to a Pliocene splashpad with the welcoming words "Come on in. The water's lovely."

But is it true? Did drought and predation drive our prehominid mothers into the coastal shallows and make humans of us? Is the convention wrong, and I'm not a son of the Great Hunter of the savannah after all? Is the matriarchal, egalitarian bonobo closer to us, and more instructive, than the brutal, mercurial chimpanzee? Is Kropotkin's mutual aid the greater truth of evolution rather than Spencer's survival of the fittest?

Maybe. Probably. I don't care. At this distance literalism, even factuality, may be as meaningless as for the seven days of creation. When we consider the manifold atrocities committed in the service of discarded and, to our understanding, manifestly fallacious mythologies, Is it true? seems neither a pressing nor even a necessary question to be asked by this particular species at this given moment. In the realm of myth, Is it true? is to miss the lessons of humanity's birth and death stories. And for good or ill, whether a story is true or not has no bearing upon the use to which we put it, and it's that utility we need now above all. So rather than Truth, let's have Creative Fiction: a new draft of the human story that can extricate us from the narrative dead-end into which we've written ourselves.

Nevertheless, our culture does bear the scars of that which was ripped from it long ago by civilizing violence, and we have seen our civilization act with similar cruelty - sometimes consciously and sometimes not, and yet always - upon indigenous cultures even to this day. History may, in part, be the erasure of prehistory: the suppression of a distant egalitarian and matriarchal heritage based upon the natural laws of collective aid and the survival of the most sociable. History may actually be jealous to keep that knowledge from us.

William Irwin Thompson writes, in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light:

For hundreds of thousands of years the culture of women and women's mysteries had been the dominant ideology of humanity. The hominization of the primates in the shift from estrus was a feminine transformation. The rise of a lunar notation and the beginnings of an observed periodicy upon which all human knowledge is based was a feminine creation. Agriculture and the rise of sedentary villages and towns were feminine creations. But civilization and warfare were not; they spelled the end for the Great Mother.... So recent, so revolutionary is that struggle that to this day men have not forgotten, and the slightest stirring of the ancient mother can send them running for their swords and guns.

Thompson then quotes CS Lewis, who names, and owns, in Surprised by Joy our civilization's still anxious state of perpetual revolution: the hive and the anthill we see fully realized the two things that some of us most dread for our own species - the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective.

If you feel like This isn't the way it's supposed to be, then I think you're right, but I also think it wasn't always thus. And those who say "Socialism is fine in theory, but it goes against human nature," may be mistaking our current sick and misinstructed selves for our natural state. Or maybe soon, under the Singularity, be mistaking the transhuman for the human.

Crack in the World

"There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun." - Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

Know what? I've come to believe that the human calamity will frustrate all understanding until we arrive at the conclusion that we are truly ruled by maniacs. Then everything else begins to fall into tragic place.

Because it gets worse. I'm not suggesting a gang of sociopaths have hijacked civilization and are making it bend in service of their desires. I'm saying that civilization itself is insane, and is bending us toward madness in order to feed it, even if it kills us.

The chief predicate of civilization - empire - is growth, which visits mad, bloody mad violence upon all that would impede its advance. In what's often called progress, though better called conquest, the movement of civilization is towards subjugating the natural realm and converting its life and riches to dead, base elements to fuel itself. Bound and determined to feast, madness calls to madness, and opportunistic, privileged sociopaths rise to maintain the consuming machinery of the sociopathologarchy, not sparing a thought to the consequences, other than perhaps a nod to bleeding hearts who want to make the machine sustainable.

To control creatures of conscience, a system without conscience needs to dull the capacity for empathy in the great mass of its unreflective subjects and provide crumbs of comfort for the balance. And so it sustains itself by exploiting our worst and our weakest attributes: desperate selfishness ("college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago"), and desperate hope ("I didn't say change you can believe in tomorrow"). It diminishes attachments to the Earth, and creates euphemisms like oil and gas - poultry and pork - that foster alienation towards the objects of our consumption. Nevertheless, fossil fuel deposits remain giant graveyards, and we're still drowning in its undead biology.

"In what evolutionary terms," Morgan wonders in The Descent of Woman, "are we to explain the Marquis de Sade, and the subterranean echoes that his name evokes in so many human minds?" Foucault offered something of an explanation in his history of insanity, Madness and Civilization:

Sadism is not a name finally given to a practice as old as Eros: it is a massive cultural fact which appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century, and which constitutes one of the greatest conversions of Western imagination: unreason transformed into delirium of the heart, madness of desire, the insane dialogue of love and death in the limitless presumption of appetite.

To Foucault, Sade's totalitarian egoism and radical refusal of solidarity with others was a liberation from the prison of civilization. I would say instead that rather than a breach with civilization, Sade represents stark continuity with its own germane madness. "They wept. No one was moved": is this an extract from an Abu Ghraib interrogation report, or The 120 Days of Sodom?

The evolutionary terms of Sadism may be the evolution of a New Man: unnatural men: Machine Men with Machine Minds and Machine Hearts. The old Nazi project, in other words, but it's not just old Nazis anymore. (Headline: Rich "may evolve into separate species": "Advancements may lead to a divide between the classes and eventually could lead to the super-rich evolving into a different species entirely, leaving his not-so-rich counterpart behind.") Or as Hervé Kempf put it more succinctly, in his How The Rich Are Destroying The Earth, "Naive comrades, there are evil men on Earth."

Tricorned tea partiers may snap the safety off their loaded Bibles when they hear someone conflating "libertine" and "libertarian," suggesting they are at least as much the children of the Divine Marquis as of Paul Revere. And yet it's a doctrine of devils, acclaiming merciless ego and self-interest over solidarity and renunciation of excess. It's not by chance that, in this perhaps gravest economic crisis, and with historic cognitive dissonance, America's populist revolution is radically individualist rather than collectivist, championing the Survival of the Fittest rather than a philosophy of Mutual Aid, and preaches the upside-down Gospel of Social Darwinism while denying legitimacy to Darwin's actual teachings.

The Tea Party may be a sideshow, but its fun house mirror still reflects the pernicious, egoistic spirit of the age, even in science, especially in transhumanism. And perhaps spirit is more than metaphor here.

In his important trialogue with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham published as Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness, Rupert Sheldrake wonders:

As in Goethe's Faust, the paradigmatic scientist sells his soul to the devil in return for unlimited knowledge and power. The guiding spirit of modern science, according to the Faust myth, is a satanic demon, a fallen angel called Mephistopheles.

How seriously do we need to take the idea that our whole society and civilization is under the possession of such a spirit, worshiped through money and power? Milton describes Mammon in Paradise Lost:

Even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific; by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their Mother Earth
For treasures better hid

This is an accurate description of our whole civilization. How much are fallen angels actually guiding and perverting the progress of science and technology? Is a great war between the good and evil angels being acted out on Earth? We hardly know how to think or talk about such possibilities since they are so alien to the official, standard models of Western history.

We hardly know how to think or talk, but if they have their spirit guides, than so must we, and we had better call upon them soon. (Or as Harry Perkins, Prime Minister of Great Britain and steelworker from Sheffield, tells Sir Percy Browne in A Very British Coup, "Remember, I have ancestors too.")

Yet we're told that we don't. We're taught nature is dumb, and supernature is dumber, and that neither want to nor can tell us anything like wisdom. We're instructed to envy the greedy, disdain the gentle and make it on our own - or not - even though caring for one another has always meant survival for the underclasses. Dumbed down and pauperized, the superfluous middle class has become the new poor, and the old poor is now the new disappeared. And before we know how the grey jelly in our skulls receives transmission from potential allies in nature and maybe behind nature - after we forgot to listen for them - we're crashing the receivers with microwaves, neurotoxins, and shortly with nanobots. We will have literally fucked ourselves in the head. Once that happens, perhaps our only hope will be that the bastards choke on our bones.

About 10 days ago Jack Layton, the federal leader of Canada's New Democratic Party, died suddenly of cancer. (Another occasion for me, and by far the saddest, to reflect upon how much the god of this world must truly hate the NDP.) On Layton's deathbed he composed a letter to Canadians - a "manifesto of social democracy," Stephen Lewis called it in his eulogy - that ended with the words, "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."

I loved the man, but...

As a political subject, I'm very susceptible to the hypnotic suggestion that nothing could possibly matter more than an NDP victory - you should have seen me during the last election, I was so cute - but I do know, once I snap out of it, that it's really too late for it to mean that much. Change by increment won't do it now, not when anger, fear and despair are valid and appropriate responses, and perhaps simply a demonstration of attention to this late time and place. Now, we need everything. In the 19th Century, a socialist who said such a thing would have been derisively called an Impossibilist by the reformers, who sought to work within the system for incremental change. (What became of them is today's Labour Party. How'd that work out?)

Stephen Coleman writes:

Like other terms of political abuse which have been absorbed into our political vocabulary, the term ‘impossibilism’ tells us as much or more about the labellers as it does about the idea being described.... The Possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an "all-at-once" end. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum programme’ were labelled as impossibilists.

William Morris was one. "The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless," he wrote, "because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side." If Morris was on to something then, I'd say he's right on top of it now. The vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation has become the doom of the world, and it's not going to check itself. Who can stop it?

Let's not say it's impossible. Let's ask if it's necessary.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

RI board back up


Thanks to all for your patience and good wishes, and thank you Justdrew for your efforts.

Friday, September 10, 2010 service interruption

If you're wondering what happened to take it offline, there's an unknown sql issue that was hammering the server. The provider's help center helpfully suggested I try googling for assistance. I don't know how long the interruption will last; it may be several days. All depends upon how soon I can find a database expert.

Monday Night Update: We're almost there, thanks to Justdrew.

Tuesday Morning Update: We're back, though the server is currently unsteady.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Hey hey, we're the monkeys

He realized at last that the arguments of pessimism were powerless to comfort him
- JK Huysmans, À Rebours

Here we come…

Write about what you know, they say, except what I don't know is much more interesting. So what am I supposed to do?

For instance. Lately I've been less impressed by the fact it's only three years till the end of the Mayan's Fifth Sun than that it's been eleven since the final episode of Seinfeld. Or eight months since my last post. (Is it nine yet?) Or, until Father's Day, that it had been four weeks since I'd visited my tumble-down dad. He told the hospital staff he'd thought only old people broke their hips. A 79-year old widower, whose kids launched their lifeboats years before he went down with the house, said that. The things that must slide by in the blink of his eye. Some more things that I don't know.

One thing I do know is that I'm going to miss Betelgeuse. The star has “mysteriously” shrunk by 15% in only 15 years. That's considerable: a loss of radius equivalent to the orbit of Venus. And it's quickening. Because modern astronomy is so young - we haven't even marked the centenary of the embarrassingly late discovery that the Milky Way isn't the sum of the universe - astronomers can't be sure of what it is exactly that they're observing, so what it means remains uncertain. But what it may, credibly, mean is that the star is rapidly burning through its last reserves of carbon and approaching the end its short life, in which case we could see it supernova during our much shorter, yet main sequence, human lifespans.

Betelgeuse is just four or five hundred light years away, the red giant nearest the Earth, and only six or seven million years old. (Its precise distance and date of birth being two more of those things that neither I nor astronomers know.) It appeared above, completing the constellation of Orion, as the first hominines appeared below, creating the evolutionary branch that differentiates us from chimpanzees. Australopithecus was obsolesced by increasingly sophisticated models of symbologic acuity, able to connect the dots of the night sky into pictograms of their world. And in due, deep time, Orion became our superlative, celestial representation.

When Betelgeuse dies - if it hasn't died already, and we're just belated mourners awaiting the public viewing - its luminosity is expected to increase ten thousand fold, outshining the Moon, before diminishing over several weeks until its shell passes from unaided sight. And when that happens, Orion dies as well. And even for the billions whose night vision has been impaired by electric light, that’s some kind of collateral damage.

To the first humans who saw the heavens as a storyboard, what must it have meant for them to recognize their own form in the sky's most magnificent pattern? If the records we have are suggestive of the accounts that we’ve lost, it meant a great deal, and perhaps even entrained human consciousness to believe us a most favoured and peculiar beast. And if that's true, then its suddenly not being there will mean something for us as well. Even if many of us can’t see it any longer on a cloudless winter night.

We don't need to swallow Robert Bauval whole to admit the barefaced as above, so belowness of the Giza complex. Like Washington’s Federal Triangle was laid out upon the blueprint of the constellation Virgo to create an auspicious sacred space, the three principal pyramids create a fair facsimile of the three stars of Orion's belt, with the southern shaft of the Great Pyramid’s King’s Chamber aligning to the belt’s brightest star, Al Nitak. Though of course he wasn't Orion then. He was Osiris himself, and Sirius wasn't his companion dog star but rather his wife, Isis. And his seasonal course retold the story of his perpetual murder by Set and his perpetual resurrection by Horus.

When I was a teenage evangelical I learned the fanciful doctrine of the “Gospel in the Stars,” that God had arranged the heavens like a dispensational chart to forewarn illiterate antediluvians on the plan of redemption. Virgo, the Virgin Mother, holds a branch: “a familiar Old Testament name for the Messiah.” Aquarius with his water pitcher represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the elect. That sort of thing. And Orion depicted the risen Christ himself, triumphant, foot crushing the serpent’s head.

Until Betelgeuse fails. Then Horus fails, and Set buries Osiris once and for all time. Christ and the Great Hunter lose his red, right shoulder, taking the colour out of space, and the dots which remain above our heads reconnect to depict another form. One in which we won’t recognize ourselves.

Perhaps for the stars to come right, some stars for us have got to go out.

People say we monkey around

And there’s Lovecraft again, several dismaying assumptions ahead of us, implausibly relevant.

But there's more bad news for us, and for those nearly us, playing out our options on Team Hominid. (And what a lonely and denuded bench since we made a last supper of the last Neanderthal.) The UN has called this the Year of the Gorilla, when it is rightly the Year of the Jellyfish, so we should know that for the Great Apes the signs are truly dire. Almost entirely because their survival depends upon our selfless forbearance, which we are too inclined to dispense grudgingly, sparingly and belatedly.

In the Earth’s current extinction event, precipitated by humanity’s going viral, the species most at risk are those that are most complex: the ones that have appeared most recently. The ones most like us. Three per cent of all fish and amphibian species are considered “threatened”; four per cent of reptiles; eleven per cent of birds; and 24 per cent of all mammals. The happy accident of our genus, the late Cretaceous wipe-out of the top of the food chain that left our shrew-like ancestors huge boots to fill, is being undone by our calamitous footprint. It's not the end of the world, but it maybe the end of the Cenozoic Era as we know it.

Nature doesn’t need our two-hanky sentiments to see this for a tragedy. If chimpanzees were in our place, they might try to kill us all, too. They’re that much like us. In her concluding note to Ervin Laszlo's Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos, Jane Goodall writes that in her 45-year study of chimpanzees she has witnessed "emotions similar to those we label happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and so on.... They care for each other and are capable of true altruism. Sadly, also like us, they have a dark side: they are aggressively territorial, and may perform acts of extreme brutality and even wage a kind of primative war." One part of our heritage Goodall never saw was the calm, premeditated manufacture and stockpiling of weapons. Out of his wild and into ours, Santino, the 30-year old chimp incarcerated in a Swedish zoo, recently did just that. "These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way," says Mathias Osvath of the University of Lund. "It implies they have a highly developed consciousness, including life-like mental simulations of days to come."

After her pet chimp/life-mate Travis chewed through her friend's face, Sandra Herold sobbed on the Today show that she couldn't understand what had happened: "Chimpanzees share 98 per cent of their DNA with humans." He could brush with a Water Pik, surf the web and use the toilet - how could he be so vicious? They could probably even travel by night bus to Winnipeg and tear somebody’s head off, but they lack our facility for imaginative violations. (Even with opposable thumbs I doubt chimpanzees would think to pluck out someone’s eyes, stuff the sockets with live maybugs and sew the lids shut. It took humans, precisely three Vichy militiamen, to conceive of that.) As Edmund Kemper put it, in a jailhouse reminiscence of his own career in atrocity: "I'm sitting there with a severed head in my hands, talking to it, and I'm about to go crazy... [But] wait a minute: I've seen paintings and drawings of Viking heroes, talking to severed heads, taking them to parties, carrying enemies in leather bags - part of our heritage." So I don't know: does the answer to Sandra Herold reside in the 98 per cent DNA common to both species, or in the unshared two?

"Life is a hideous thing," begins Lovecraft's Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His family, "and from the background behind it peer daemonical hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous." The facts poor Arthur uncovered took the shape of a mummified ape wearing a locket which bore the Jermyn family arms: his own great-great-great-grandmother. (So Sir Wade's reclusive Congo bride hadn't been the daughter of a Portuguese trader after all.) Impossible, over five generations, but over five thousand it's evolutionary canon. "If we knew what we are, we should do as Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night." Family tree? You're swinging in it.

Lovecraft's story first appeared in the March, 1921 issue of The Wolverine. Five years later, while America assessed the damage of its own monkey trial, Stalin's Bride of the Monster-like whim for an army of atomic supermen set "Russia's top animal breeding scientist," Ilya Ivanov, on the task of crossing humans with apes. "I want a new invincible human being," Stalin reportedly ordered, "insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat." On a budget of $200,000 – considerable funding for a Soviet scientist in 1926 - Ivanov traveled to West Africa to conduct his first experiments in cross-breeding humans and chimpanzees. Though Stalin’s dreams could be as big and as ugly as Lovecraft’s, and he had more will and obvious resources to avail their manifestation, Ilya Ivanov was no Wade Jermyn, and he had no better success when he returned to Georgia to continue his monkey insemination project, after which the stink of his failures inevitably condemned him to the Gulag. Stalin didn’t have the patience for it, nor the sophistication of our own culture’s various devolution projects, but perhaps the unfinished story of human speciation is just another tragedy that, in due time, produces comedy.

Yet despite evidence and ominous portents, our presumed end has often been thought transcendent and divine. Maniacs and the criminally religious have been beatified for seeking God's face, while a few, like Albert Fish who believed the voice holy that told him to make a Eucharist of children, get the electric chair. There’s always been an urgency about the endeavor, but since the 20th Century’s premature triumphalism of positivists it’s taken on a neurotic urgency for those who might ask, What Would Arthur Jermyn Do? Though that annihilating question didn’t exhaust itself on the descent of man, but also implicates the character of God, and all pretenders to the Throne who would claim credit the way Zodiac would claim the souls of his innocents.

Significantly, it wasn’t that the existence of God was in doubt, so much as the benevolence and soundness of the divine mind. The terrible proposition of the 20th Century wasn’t What if there’s no God? but rather, What if there is?

Come and watch us sing and play

“Our little brains,“ rants a feverish character in Frank Belknap Long’s 1928 short story “The Space Eaters,” “what can they know of vampire-like entities which may lurk in dimensions higher than our own, or beyond the universe of stars?

Suppose they had shape unknown on Earth? Suppose they were four-dimensional, five-dimensional, six-dimensional? Suppose they were a hundred-dimensional? Suppose they had no dimensions at all and yet existed? What could we do?

They would not exist for us? They would exist for us if they gave us pain. Suppose it was not the pain of heat or cold or any of the pains we know, but a new pain? Suppose they touched something besides our nerves – reached our brains in a new and terrible way? Suppose they made themselves felt in a new and strange and unspeakable way? What could we do? Our hands would be tied. You cannot oppose what you cannot see or feel. You cannot oppose the thousand-dimensional. Suppose they should eat their way to us through space!

Long described himself as agnostic, and wrote that he "always shared HPL's skepticism ...concerning the entire range of alleged supernatural occurrences and what is commonly defined as 'the occult.'" In other words, he, like Lovecraft, regarded cosmic horror as purely a pulp genre rather than also a metaphysical suspicion. Yet Lovecraft has become the avatar of our doom-struck age because the arguments for such fantastic pessimism have basis, even if only imaginatively so, in science sounder and stranger than Ilya Ivanov’s.

By the mid-twenties, physicists were demolishing Enlightened assumptions about the fundamental states of matter, and though the quantum revolution was still too young to rewrite the textbooks - those "pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science,” in Thomas Kuhn's phrase – its early outrages were known well enough for materialists like Lovecraft and Long to lift them for the premises of their pulp fiction. The weird science informed the weird tales, but the authors themselves could remain untouched and observe the world for their own purposes as old school Newtonians. (Not all artists could. Wassily Kandinsky wrote that “the collapse of the atom model was equivalent, in my soul, to the collapse of the whole world. Suddenly the thickest walls fell. I would not have been amazed if a stone appeared before my eye in the air, melted, and became invisible.”)

In 1926, Schrödinger published his theory of wave mechanics, while Heisenberg began work on what was to become the Uncertainty Principle. Lovecraft wrote “The Materialist Today” in the same year. "The Call of Cthulhu" also, though it wasn't published for two more years. His thin tract is frightening in its own right.

All is illusion, hollowness, & nothingness - but what does that matter? Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them - they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless & purposeless.

Illusions have always mattered - our facility with illusion is the greatest achievement, and perhaps even the point, of our biological speciation - but a science of collapsed wave functions, uncertainty and entanglement suggested that illusions are of paramount concern to physics as well. New physics and ancient intuitions were sources for Lovecraft's weird fiction dream quest - "non-Euclidian geometry" was the signature of the Great Old Ones - but the first mythographer of hyperspace remained resolutely materialist. (Shortly before Houdini's death in 1926, he hired Lovecraft to write a never to be completed book entitled The Cancer of Superstition.) Nevertheles, the shattering of the atomic model prompted a re-evaluation of scorned, occult studies such as alchemy, and non-locality and its spooky actions meant even astrology could merit another look. Early in the course of his own revolution in the science of consciousness, Jung saw the virtue in both. And the later discovery of the double helix suggested the Sumerian-derived alchemical caduceus of Hermes had all along been modelling unaware the structure of DNA.

As the science has grown only weirder, its congruence with Lovecraft's weird fiction has become ever more apparent. Earlier this year, researchers studying gravitational waves in the depth of space may have discovered holographic noise - the "graininess" that comprises our space/time - while the first "tunable electromagnetic gateway or "hidden portal" has this month been scientifically described:

While the researchers can't promise delivery to a parallel universe or a school for wizards, books like Pullman's Dark Materials and JK Rowling's Harry Potter are steps closer to reality now that researchers in China have created the first tunable electromagnetic gateway.

The work is a further advance in the study of metamaterials, published in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society).

In the research paper, the researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Fudan University in Shanghai describe the concept of a "a gateway that can block electromagnetic waves but that allows the passage of other entities" like a "'hidden portal' as mentioned in fictions."

The gateway, which is now much closer to reality, uses transformation optics and an amplified scattering effect from an arrangement of ferrite materials called single-crystal yttrium-iron-garnet that force light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation in complicated directions to create a hidden portal.

McKenna's alien spores and Crick's directed panspermia were foreshadowed in Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth. The mysterious, deep-sea "bloop" from 1997 of a massive and unknown organic source, "possibly a many-tentacled giant squid," was provocatively heard near Lovecraft's coordinates for the sunken city of R'lyeh. The proliferation of cephalopods and jellies in our ever more alien seas, and our skies and fields as well. And then there's the uncanny and ugly efficacy of his imagined grimoire. Because it's not the science only with Lovecraft: it's the myth, magick and religion as well, because his fiction is a conversation with archetypes, and like all fiction that matters, is evocative, which can be about as magical as it gets. (And all grimoires, lets remember, are no less imaginative works.) Whether something exists in itself may now be rightly dismissed as a meaningless question, for gods no less than for a quantum of information. And Lovecraft's myths are acutely resonant in postmodernity, because the dread of his cosmos is its radical indifference to such haughty apes as ourselves.

In 1926, the same busy year for Lovecraft, Einstein wrote his letter to Max Bron from which is cribbed the famous misquote that God doesn't play dice with the universe. His actual words were that quantum mechanics "does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'Old One'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice."

In 1938 Einstein helped a young German Jew emigrate to California. Theodore Gottlieb had seen men eaten alive by dogs in Dachau, where he'd signed away his family fortune for a single Mark, and was to lose much of his family to the Nazis, including the mother rumoured to have been Einstein's lover.

Gottlieb became Brother Theodore, exponent of "stand-up tragedy." ("The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people.") Einstein balked at the implications of his own discoveries. (Lovecraft would think the fuss over his fiction foolishness, too.) Last March, Scientific American asked Was Einstein Wrong? A more timely question may be, was Brother Theodore right?

We’re the new generation

Time flies. Into tall buildings.

I was four years old when John Kennedy was publicly executed, and I was inconsolable all weekend because my cartoons were preempted. Last November I travelled to Dallas for the 45th anniversary commemoration and JFK Lancer conference, and during a Jim Marrs lecture on Obama’s Illuminati-bred socialism I fell inconsolable all over again. Reading Crossfire was my first occasion to have good reason for my doubts and for why I shouldn't get over them, but now Marrs’ cornpone dialectics made me wish I were back my hotel room eating mesquite chips and drinking Texas-bottled Dr Pepper made with real cane sugar. The quiet of a November 21st on Dealey Plaza's grassy knoll was more of an education than another Discovery Channel documentary, but aside from the remarks of consequential researchers such as John Judge and Dick Russell, the funery burlesque of the 22nd was more disheartening than a month of Shark Week.

By 1968 my favourite shows were Mr Dressup and The CBS Morning News. So when our Grade 3 teacher wrote "Robert F. Kennedy" on the blackboard and told us to copy it while she stepped into the hallway to collect herself, I knew why she was crying. I'd woken up as well to the blanched scenes of grief from the Ambassador Hotel.

I didn’t cry on September 11th. Though like Lovecraft's New York detective Malone, I promptly "acquired an acute and anomalous horror of any buildings even remotely suggesting the ones which had fallen in." No, I cried the next Tuesday, when Mr Dressup died. I could have imagined commercial airliners striking the twin towers. But that, I didn’t see coming. A stroke; possibly a stress-induced casualty of the Twin Towers' second-hand smoke. It was hearing on the radio report the familiar, tinkled theme that set me off.

I'm not saying it's all about me. I'm saying, I'm all about it. My own, private Long Count is measured in decorated caskets and bulletins of grim tidings. I suppose that's the inescapable condition for all who share the communion of where were you when, but I don't think that's something to be celebrated.

Eight summers ago, George W Bush sat in a Sarasota classroom looking like a mannish boy draped in his dad's old suit on picture day. Ten summers before that, Paul Rubens was down the road in a darkened theatre choking the chicken out of America's singular boyish man, Pee Wee Herman. Only one of them has a criminal record for his public indecency but neither could get elected president. And I think it's appropriate to speak of them in the same breath, now that they're both returning to the stage.

My own stage, with respect at least to the vigor of the dissenting culture, I’d characterize as acceptance, having idled a long while at grief and anger. Good research and analysis still happen, significant stories still break, but like most deserving things they either fly beneath the radar or someone somewhere has switched off the media’s transponders.

The Truther wars are over, and Loud, Dumb and Misguided hold illimitable dominion over all. The moment for justice has passed, and the truth movement has become an Alex Jonestown. Regardless of how the best and most nuanced work doesn’t deserve it, 9/11 skepticism now wears the clown nose of National Chauvinists suiting up for the Red Chinese on the Mexican border and Obama’s FEMA guillotines. (The noise on the right is now amplified mainstream by the opportunistic likes of Glenn Beck, who keeps his armchair militia in a perpetual state of apprehended Apocalypse while ridiculing the real ruin of the world.) Serious questions and connections re September 11th have been berated and beaten down for the quick confirmation thrill of slapstick forensics which sustained controlled demolition’s imaginary crime. Since first viewing Jones’ The Obama Deception, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt have been “nonstop researching the Internet...for information for at least a month all day every day." Pratt is so changed, his “first rap album is going to be called Infowars.”

Mr Dressup – Ernie Coombs - was a lovely man. Pee Wee Herman was always more creepy than funny. Atlas shrugged, but Jesus wept.

And we've got something to say

Though I won't say I'm having a mid-life crisis. I turned 50 in July, and even with the unearned benefit of a North American life expectancy that would be unaccountably optimistic. The crisis is the same companion I’ve had since reading Lovecraft and Marrs and seeing the Kennedys shot, though I’m finding it more companionable at this time of life. Art Spiegelman, in In the Shadow of No Towers, wrote “I can no longer distinguish my neurotic depression from well-founded despair.” I would have said the same when he wrote that five or so years ago. But now, I’m no longer depressed. I just despair heartily.

But neither is the Earth middle-aged. It’s already about a third as old as the universe, and it took nearly all of that time to turn out overreaching hominids. If we fail, then Earth’s highest iteration of enfleshed consciousness fails with us. (Until we educated ourselves right out of nature, we knew well enough that consciousness doesn’t demand the medium of meat to manifest.)

The planet will be here for five or so billion years before it's cinders and ashes, but most of that time it will be essentially barren. Right now, the acidiphying seas bloom with jellies and tentacled things. Life goes on, but reduced, and reversing direction towards simplicity. Even with that, a biosphere habitable for all but the simplest extremophiles ought to be done by a tenth of the Earth's projected remaining lifespan. And that’s without an assist from our compounding calamities, and the odd but inevitable asteroid impact. We'll be the end of the line for biological complexity, not because we’re as good as it gets, but because there’s not enough time left on the clock, after the rise and fall of the great reptiles and the higher apes, to say third time's the charm.

In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock writes that the proximate cause of this prognosis is the “ineluctable increase in heat from the sun":

Our star, like all stars, burns hotter as it ages, and in 500 million years the radiant heat from the sun will be about 6 per cent greater than now.... [slowly enough to give] ample time for adaptation and further evolution. Already we have a new photosynthetic process due to the evolution of a new class of plants, which biochemists call C4, able to live at much lower carbon dioxide abundances.... [T]his evolutionary step might enable the contemporary biosphere to continue for another 100 million years. Beyond that, further genetic changes would surely extend the lease of life, but given the fundamental limitations of mainstream biology and the inevitability of perturbations, it is difficult to see life extending beyond 500 million years.

Lovelock regards the Earth's carrying capacity for our species to be overtaxed on the order of several billion souls, which will trigger a corrective and unprecedented culling by one means or another as early as this century. This hard truth-telling by the light of his science has marked him, particularly among anti-NWO-styled "patriots", as an apologist for elitist eugenics and mass murder. But to do so is to not distinguish deserved pessimism from wishful thinking, or even wishfulfilment. And there's an irony about this, as Jones' Infowars is content to use Lovelock's words to trash the inefficiencies of renewable energy and the green economy as "verging on a gigantic scam," while remaining in full denial of his gloomy rationale for so doing. Jones prefers the analysis of Spencer Pratt - "It's mind-boggling trying to say there's global warming right now" - and Steven Anderson, Arizona's please taze me bro so I can post it on Youtube pastor who hates the environmental stewardship nearly as much as he hates Barack Obama. ("Let that stupid whale die," says Anderson. In church, yet. "God’ll create a new one in the Millennium and I’ll look at it for a thousand years and Al Gore will be burning in hell!")

Lovelock is 90 this year. That's about three times the life expectancy in AIDS-stricken Swaziland, and barely a flutter of coronal muscle to the brainless immortal turritopsis nutricula. But everything that dies has first to live. (Even if, upon death, the remains are converted to fuel for corpse-eating robots, as a Defense Department-funded project envisions.) Like now. I’m listening to Blossom Dearie sing "Peel Me a Grape," realizing it’s maybe 15 years since I sat 10 feet from her piano at Toronto's lost Top o' the Senator. I left intent to become her lyricist. (I sent her a pastiche of Dave Frishburg and she graciously pretended I hadn't.)

Dearie was 82 when she died a few months ago. The week earlier, Lux Interior of the Cramps passed away at 63, marking another kind of wrong.

The Cramps threw a free concert in 1978 at the State Mental Hospital in Napa, California. “Somebody told me you people were crazy,” said Lux, “but I don’t know about that. You look alright to me.” The same year I voluntarily committed myself to a religious institution, where the Lord taught us different songs. It took another five years or so for me to suspect the likes of Steven Anderson's god might not be the Phantom of the Paradise, since none of his best show tunes were originals.

We're too busy singin'

And maybe that's the question behind all questions: who writes the songs that make the whole world sing?

And you know, maybe it actually is Barry Manilow. When I was in Dallas itching to be a Pepper, it was his old jingle that did the let's all go to the lobby dance in my head. Before Manilow met fanilow, he was catapulting the propaganda for McDonalds ("you deserve a break today"), Kentucky Fried Chicken ("finger lickin' good!") and State Farm Insurance ("and like a good neighbor"). It doesn't matter what you think of Mandy, if you're a child of North America, Manilow's intrusive earworms have made you do things, and made you think it was you deciding to do them. In other words - William Irwin Thompson's words - we're trapped in a commercial from which there is no escape.

Of course Barry was only punching the clock at America's ersatz pop bottling plant, but just following orders shouldn't cut it as an excuse there, either. Manilow and his fellow corporate minstrels would probably become physically ill if confronted with the enfleshed consequence of their art of persuasion: the child obesity, the diabetes, the cancer and the heart disease. Wordsmiths like Himmler and Eichmann didn't have the stomach for seeing their own words made flesh, either.

America may romanticize the singer-songwriter, but it's the factory system that weaned Manilow which produced the country's great songbooks: composers toiling in the sweatshops of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building and Motown, performing their labour to create an audience and then manufacture its consent. (Or the beats-for-sale of "urban contemporary" that can make a recording artist of a real housewife of Atlanta, so long as the voice modulator is turned up to 11). True, original talent - the diamond in the rough - becomes a commodity only when it's machined, polished and sold. Students of politics will recognize the process.

America doesn't elect singer-songwriters to high office, though its culture industries are happy to write for the wurlitzer and play let's make believe otherwise. (Come to think of it, it's perhaps apt that a contracted murder is also known as a "hit.") Obama, like so many succesful candidates before him, even had his own song. He didn't write it, but he sure knew how to sell it. Though some weren't buying.

"Expectations got fueled," Joan Didion wrote last December. "The spirit of a cargo cult was loose in the land":

I couldn't count the number of times I heard the words "transformational" or "inspirational," or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade's war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see. It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism—by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions—"convenient" because such redefinition makes those questions seem easier to answer, "dangerous" because this was a time when the nation was least prepared to afford easy answers.

Yes we can and Hope we can believe didn't sound quite like the Sixties; they sounded more like the Seventies' tin-eared counterfeits you would hear on Quinn Martin productions whenever a crime trail might lead Cannon or Barnaby Jones to a go-go club. There was nostalgia, though not for the dangerous and authentic historical moment, but for the regurgitated mush of the first nostalgia.

And they earned Obama the White House: perfect for a relaunch of that establishment hit factory which hadn't topped the charts since Let's Roll! and Bring 'Em On (Get it on). But Obama is a President like Franklin Roosevelt only in the sense that the Monkees were a pop group like the Beatles. A radical departure from "beltway consensus" was as unwise, to his producers and Chicago entourage, as letting Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork write and perform their own material. Iraq, Afghanistan, Bernanke, Blackwater: a new house singer may bring his own interpretation, but the song remains the same.

Sometimes presidents, like their prefab pop equivalents, balk at their impotent glamour and attempt to find their own voice by trying out original material. It took Kennedy some time to find his, so who knows, Obama may yet decide to do the same. But if he’s attempting to emulate the smart Beatle by provoking the CIA director to launch into a "profanity-laced screaming match" at the White House over a probe of the agency's use of torture, then God help him. Because America's musical isn't a lone nut show, and some nutty lyrics are being written to some ominous music.

During a period of pauperization, the people with a little who have been told all their lives that they have a lot and now risk losing even that are those most inclined to learn the Horst Wessel song. Fascism may be more voodoo than economics, but as Klaus Theweleit writes, “susceptibility to fascism is explicable in terms of the economic degradation of large sections of the middle classes.” And Glenn Beck is mobilizing the Freikorps.

Stupify, scare and starve the middle class long enough and they'll become the perfect mob to torch the least hope for their own best interests. Television, radio or the web will tell them how, because apparently in the United States today, where Vietnam is still the name of an American tragedy and not a South Asian holocaust, there's none more hive-minded than the "rugged individualist" who believes the ad copy written for him. The Ku Klux Klan, let's remember, didn't burn crosses until they saw it depicted in Birth of a Nation. And the art of persuasion has come only a long way since.

We get the funniest looks

But then there are other songs, no less important for all the noise of modern life that render them barely audible.

In folklore, magick and religion, an opening to other realms or an approach to the divine is frequently initiated by ceremonial music and dance, or sounds resonating at particular frequencies. Familiar stuff ("If life is vibration, then music must not be incidental to it"), but not exactly the top of the pops. And perhaps to its credit, it never was.

"It was the weirdest music you ever heard...indescribable," says Mikmaq Mary Rose Julian, describing her family's introduction to the fairy realm in an isolated woods of Nova Scotia. "I asked my oldest 'Do you hear it?' She said yes, and I really panicked then because, you know, I wasn't hearing things."

Julian yelled for her kids to get in the car, then sped away, warning them not to look back. Yet her daughter still glanced out the rear window:

They were, like, just holding hands, jumping around in a circle sort of thing. And another one came out of the woods and they grabbed him, and they kept - they were singing. It was that noise that we heard. It was likethe were singing and dancing all over the place, in a circle. Just over there....

Of course it's effortless to think nothing of this story, even though this story has been repeating since forever in the places where our domesticated world encroaches upon the feral wood. "This was well-appreciated by the Ancient Greeks," says Phil Hine in The Pseudonomicon, "who designated such frontier places as sacred to the wild gods who might well visit terror or transformation upon those who strayed into them." Lars von Trier knows it, too. It's why we have the word "panic," after all.

"As sure as you are sitting down I heard the pipes there in that wood" [on the Hill of Tara], the Reverend Peter Kenney of Kilmessan tells Walter Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. "I often heard it in the wood of Tara. Whenever the good people play, you hear their music through the field as plain as can be."

And they're called the good people, remember, to not risk incurring their offence and inviting horror. The same way it's always a good life in Peaksville, Ohio.

Walkin' down the street

The Earth has its song, too. And it always closes out the show.

If not the least of our worries, then perhaps the likelihood of huge solar storms – to peak, wouldn't it just, in 2012 - may be the more prosaic. Because if we’re right, or perhaps just not completely wrong, about the South Atlantic Anomaly, the tremendous new holes in our magnetic shield - breeches in our planet’s offworld levees - may grant greater privilege to still wilder things that sometimes manifest in visible light.

And not light only. Since the transfer of energy is vibration, we may also experience it as sound. The Earth’s electromagnetic field is a power trio - a soaring ionosphere, fronting a rhythm section of north and south poles, creating an electrodynamic resonating cavity that finds a frequency of 10 hertz. Coincidentally, the same same alpha brainwave frequency for humans and all animals. The sky losing Orion and the Earth changing its tune are not auspicious prospects for the life we call life.

In 1926 HP Lovecraft wrote The Silver Key, in which Randolph Carter "lost the key of the gate of dreams." It was a hard loss for someone accustomed to Lovecraft's imagined landscapes peopled by oddly-robed figures and gibbering ghouls who saw "Earth's gods dancing by moonlight." But by the age of 30, the custom of waking life "had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions." Well-meaning and wise men explained to him the workings of the material world, and he came to be chained to it. But Carter's chains have shown themselves to be one of the weakest of Lovecraft's fictions.

I think of them when what became of the dinosaurs crosses my path: a subway pigeon pecking through litter and pools of piss and purple Slushee. Its ancestors have been bird-like far longer than my own have been man-like; longer even than ape-like. (And the folk knowledge of ancestry predates Darwin and scientific theory. In his Maps of Time, David Christian quotes a Portuguese missionary to West Africa in the early 17th century, Father Alvares, that "there are heathen that claim to be descendants of this animal [the chimpanzee], and when they see it they have great compassion: they never harm it or strike it, because they consider it the soul of their forefathers.... They say they are of the animal's family.") Beneath the K/T boundary that marks humanity's most fortuitous extinction event ever, we're represented by Cretaceous rodentia too slight for the appetites of the feathered theropods.

Yay, team.

"There is no such constellation...." - Lars von Trier, Antichrist