You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Politics’ category.

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The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918.  Although the region had longstanding cultural, religious, and political differences from the rest of Germany, its existence as an independent kingdom was a direct result of Napoleon’s great wars of conquest.  The French emperor redesignated the former duchy as a sovereign nation (under the Emperor’s control of course) and suddenly Duke Maximilian Joseph (a Francophile who had even served in the French army) became King Maximilian I.  Maximilian had a majestic royal regalia created to go with his new throne, but he never wore his crown in public or even arranged a coronation series (he was known as a somewhat avuncular monarch with some of the eccentricities which marked his descendants).  Maximilan’s first wife died before Napolen made him a king, however his second (Protestant!) wife Caroline of Baden became Queen Consort.  This crown was made for Caroline (Karoline?) in 1806.  It is one of my favorite of the Napoleonic era crowns both for its classical 8 arched shape (which always reminds me of a regal octopus sitting on someone’s head) and for its huge magnificent natural pearls.  The crown of the Queen of Bavaria survived the dissolution of Bavaria as a kingdo (at the end of World War I) and today it is kept in the Bavarian treasury in Munich.   For a landlocked nation, it is one of the most ocean-themed crowns out there, and if it just had some shells and flounders and maybe some corals and aquamarines it would be perfect for Amphitrite.

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Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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More information has come in concerning last week’s fatal incident involving an autonomous car and it is not good.  That robot car just straight up murdered the poor woman walking her bike across the road: it didn’t even try to stop.  The human “back-up driver” onboard was also utterly useless (although this might actually be a pretty accurate representation of how people will be once they get in one of these things and start watching Netflix or writing opinionated blog posts or whatever).

Now Uber is far from my favorite company.  I dislike their creepy name (with its third Reich overtones) and their extraction-based business plan of squeezing drivers/franchisees as hard as possible while avoiding all meaningful oversight and liability.  They perfectly exemplify the MBA’s “heads I win-tails you lose” mentality and it doesn’t surprise me that they have botched things so badly right out of the gate.  Additionally, the homicidal actions of their sloppy robot have made it harder to ignore the voices questioning what sort of autonomous future we want for the roads.  So maybe it is a good time now to heed those voices and brainstorm about the things we want from autonomous automobiles!  Here are some of my requests to the powers that be, just jotted down as loose notes:

1)      Non-monopolistic: We need more than one or two big companies making these transportation units, or we are going to all be held hostage by their cartel.  The big company will make the decisions about national (or international) transportation priorities and the rest of us will all be dragged along for the ride (as it were).  We already had this model in the middle of the 20th century when automobile companies ruthlessly dominated infrastructure/land-use planning and suppressed other modes of transportation or city planning.  It worked barely…for our huge growing country, but those days are gone and now we need…

2)      Trains trains trains: America has one of the finest freight rail networks in the world, but our light/passenger rail is terrible.  China has leapfrogged us completely.  In the Middle Kingdom, you can make a trip from Beijing to Shanghai (a little farther than New York to Chicago) on a high speed train in a bit more than 4 hours.  During peak hours the trains run every 5 minutes and cost about 80 dollars.

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3)      Ability to recognize things:  An idea which has come up is that robot cars won’t be able to recognize humans with lidar/radar/sonar and suchlike electronic sensors alone.  Pedestrians and bicyclists will need to wear beacons to avoid death by Uber (domestic animals and wildlife will obviously be out of luck).  This is unacceptable! Back to the drawing board, tech guys—your cars will have to do better than this

4)      We need these cars to be tamper-proof.  If hot-rod teenagers can hack the things and make them go 300 miles an hour over washed out bridges, then the technology will not be sufficient to keep riders safe from tampering or to keep car companies safe from litigation, or to keep the roads safe at all.

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Cars are all made in some robotic factory anyway—the price comes from setting up the automated equipment.  This means that there is not much price difference between making a super luxury car and an ultra-economy model (they are both twisted into shape from the same steel and wires).  The fact that the luxury car costs 4 or 5 times as much as the hatchback is because some MBA guy decided people would pay that much more for increased status.

One of the biggest problems with our roads are the extent to which they reflect status.  Somebody driving an expensive car often takes liberties and chances with other people’s lives which make it apparent that they really think they are worth many times more than the underclass nobodies they are crushing.  Will robot cars reflect this dynamic?  Traditional car companies must be desperate for such an outcome (they make a lot of money with luxury models), yet I hope we have a more egalitarian result.    If the future consists of giant robot tank/limousines going 200 miles per hours with carte blanche to knock anyone off the road, we might as well keep the dangerous broken system we have.

I have been enthusiastic about robot cars and I continue to believe they offer astonishing new realms of freedom, leisure, and opportunity for all. I can move to the country! Grandma can go shopping whenever she wants! But after looking at the inhuman mess which big companies have made out of the energy industry, the medical industry (shudder), the aviation industry, or the telecom industry, it seems like corporations might need some guidance from the rest of us.

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So, the super massive ulti-mega-omnibus funding bill passed today (despite a last-minute executive tantrum) and the bill is…good?  This goes against all of the doom-and-gloom scenarios which dominate the news (and this blog), and it is unpalatable to praise any product from the 115th Congress of the United States of America, but, despite the president’s recommendation for massive cuts to fundamental scientific inquiry, Congress coughed up a LOT of new money for science.

I know you are all smart, so let’s get straight to the numbers. For its annual budget, the NIH received 3 billion dollars more than last year (an 8.7 % increase). The National Science Foundation got a $295 million budget raise (3.9 % increase).  The USGS received a $63 million budget (6%) expansion, while Congress increased the budget of the NOAA by $234 million (4%) to $5.9 billion.  The Department of Energy received a whopping 16 percent raise of $868 million dollars: their annual budget is now $6.26 billion (obvs. we need shiny new nuclear weapons…but maybe there is some money for fundamental nuclear research in there too). Even the EPA kept the same budget as last year and experienced no cuts.

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Best of all NASA gets a much-needed lift.  To quote The Atlantic (which was the source of these numbers):

Nasa will receive $20.7 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The space agency’s science programs will increase by about 8 percent to $6.2 billion and its planetary-science program, in particular, by 21 percent, to $2.2 billion.

Of course, the biggest slice of the pie goes to the military, however a lot of Defense Department money ends up going to research too… although I would be happier if, instead of building manned aircraft appropriate for the Cold War, they spent more money on blue sky research and moonshot scifi stuff like wormholes, grasers, super robots, and railguns.  But that research (and more) is in there too…somewhere…so hooray!

I have been marching around with a pitchfork and a torch demanding that Congress be defenestrated…but this budget unexpectedly satisfies my most cherished demands.  Maybe if there were more blueprints like this I could swallow some more tax give-aways and religious idiocy and what not.  When I am having political arguments, I always say I will support any stupidity as long as there is more money for fundamental scientific research.  This government has really pushed just how far such a bargain extends…and yet they came through in the end.

Of course, there may be some people who cry out that all of those millions and billions could be given to impoverished communities (Democrats) or to needy multi-billionaire plutocrats (Republicans), but ensuring scientific research and keeping Visigoth hordes from swimming the ocean and sacking our cities are the two things the government MUST do to ensure there is a future….and they have done that.  The future generations who will have to pay this leviathan $1.3 trillion tab, might actually get something for their money: a yet-unknown equivalent of the internet, the capacitor, the moon landing, or the wonder vaccines of yesteryear. At least the government is trying to fulfill humankind’s most fundamental aspiration—to know more about the universe and how it works so we don’t destroy ourselves (sadly, this great quest, as construed by the powers-that-be, involves building tons of super-weapons with which to destroy ourselves, but nobody said life was easy).

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Of course it is a tumultuous time and I may be saying a very different thing next week, but for the present the seed corn for the crops of the future has been stowed away.  I am pleasantly surprised to say “Good job!” to our elected officials.

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RIP to the first victim of an autonomous car.  Details are still coming in, but it seems like an Uber robot SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was walking her bicycle.  Well, I guess technically some rich guy was already killed while incorrectly operating his semi-autonomous Tesla, however today’s accident feels more real to me and, judging by headlines, to everyone else as well.

I used to be deeply in love with the idea of cars.  They represented power, freedom, and status…until I tried to drive one and realized A) I am terrible at it; and B) it is profoundly easy to hurt or kill someone with a car.  American society is designed to normalize this in all sorts of ways… to such an extent that most people don’t even notice our rising traffic fatality statistics.  In Holland, if you kill somebody with a car, no matter what the circumstances, it is a real problem, but in America, even if you pretty much straight-up murder somebody through volition or grotesque incompetence, the police will come and rationalize a way it was the bicyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault and give you a hug and a root beer sticker. (If you kill more than six people you get a free foot-long hero sandwich!)

The deep indifference of the authorities is born out by the numbers: in 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States.  If 40,000 people died in a war or by gun violence, society would be up in arms (so to speak) and we would be having a national conversation about how to improve things (editor’s note: in 2016, 38,000 Americans were killed by guns. What sort of dark carnival are we running over here?).

America is too spacious for us to ever be free of automated carriages.  I live in New York because, despite the cars, I can bicycle here (barely) and because there is a 24-hour subway (also barely…thanks a lot, Cuomo).  But beyond the coral-reef lifestyle of America’s one worthwhile city there is too much distance to cover.  Even if we were all Lance Armstrong (and we’re really not) we would still need motors to get around.

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We have decided not to invest in effective national mass transit. Likewise, we are not redesigning roads in ways which have been proven to make them safer in Europe and Japan (safer for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike).  Our only hope of diminishing the carnage and damage wrought by our 1950s/60s era national transportation system is effective robot cars.  This won’t work if we take the lamentable current state of transportation as something to aspire to.

So, although today’s headline was scary and terrible, we need to keep looking at the bigger picture. We are fixated on the person tragically killed by a robot car because it is novel and garners attention (look, here I am writing about it too), but the real headline should be the hundred people who were killed in the United States today by normal human drivers.  Of course, that is the same story every day so nobody remarks upon it.   So Uber (and Google, and Tesla), get your act together.  Break down the data and figure out what went wrong and fix it.  Why didn’t your car stop (they are supposed to have faster reflexes than any person)?  Also, why was the “car” a giant hulking tank to begin with?  What is wrong with robot cars that are adorable little soft alien bug cars, like the Japanese are working on?

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Robot cars are coming and I believe they will be glorious, but a lot more work is needed…and more imagination and creativity are needed too.  So let’s slow down for a moment, but then speed up.  Think of the one person killed, but think of the hundred too.

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I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

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Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness sakes!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

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The Fisherman and His Wife

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a filthy shack near the sea. Every day the fisherman went out fishing, and he fished, and he fished. Once he was sitting there fishing and looking into the clear water, and he sat, and he sat. Then his hook went to the bottom, deep down, and when he pulled it out, he had caught a large flounder.

Then the flounder said to him, “Listen, fisherman, I beg you to let me live. I am not an ordinary flounder, but an enchanted prince. How will it help you to kill me? I would not taste good to you. Put me back into the water, and let me swim.”

“Well,” said the man, “there’s no need to say more. I can certainly let a fish swim away who knows how to talk.”

With that he put it back into the clear water, and the flounder disappeared to the bottom, leaving a long trail of blood behind him.

Then the fisherman got up and went home to his wife in the filthy shack.

“Husband,” said the woman, “didn’t you catch anything today?”

“No,” said the man. “I caught a flounder, but he told me that he was an enchanted prince, so I let him swim away.”

“Didn’t you ask for anything first?” said the woman.

“No,” said the man. “What should I have asked for?”

“Oh,” said the woman. “It is terrible living in this shack. It stinks and is filthy. You should have asked for a little cottage for us. Go back and call him. Tell him that we want to have a little cottage. He will surely give it to us.”

“Oh,” said the man. “Why should I go back there?”

“Look,” said the woman, “you did catch him, and then you let him swim away. He will surely do this for us. Go right now.”

The man did not want to go, but neither did he want to oppose his wife, so he went back to the sea.

When he arrived there it was no longer clear, but yellow and green. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

The flounder swam up and said, “What does she want then?”

“Oh,” said the man, “I did catch you, and now my wife says that I really should have asked for something. She doesn’t want to live in a filthy shack any longer. She would like to have a cottage.”

“Go home,” said the flounder. “She already has it.”

The man went home, and his wife was standing in the door of a cottage, and she said to him, “Come in. See, now isn’t this much better?”

There was a little front yard, and a beautiful little parlor, and a bedroom where their bed was standing, and a kitchen, and a dining room. Everything was beautifully furnished and supplied with tin and brass utensils, just as it should be. And outside there was a little yard with chickens and ducks and a garden with vegetables and fruit.

“Look,” said the woman. “Isn’t this nice?”

“Yes,” said the man. “This is quite enough. We can live here very well.”

“We will think about that,” said the woman.

Then they ate something and went to bed.

Everything went well for a week or two, and then the woman said, “Listen, husband. This cottage is too small. The yard and the garden are too little. The flounder could have given us a larger house. I would like to live in a large stone palace. Go back to the flounder and tell him to give us a palace.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “the cottage is good enough. Why would we want to live in a palace?”

“I know why,” said the woman. “Now you just go. The flounder can do that.”

“Now, wife, the flounder has just given us the cottage. I don’t want to go back so soon. It may make the flounder angry.”

“Just go,” said the woman. “He can do it, and he won’t mind doing it. Just go.”

The man’s heart was heavy, and he did not want to go. He said to himself, “This is not right,” but he went anyway.

When he arrived at the sea the water was purple and dark blue and gray and dense, and no longer green and yellow. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh,” said the man sadly, “my wife wants to live in a stone palace.”

“Go home. She’s already standing before the door,” said the flounder.

Then the man went his way, thinking he was going home, but when he arrived, standing there was a large stone palace. His wife was standing on the stairway, about to enter.

Taking him by the hand, she said, “Come inside.”

He went inside with her. Inside the palace there was a large front hallway with a marble floor. Numerous servants opened up the large doors for them. The walls were all white and covered with beautiful tapestry. In the rooms there were chairs and tables of pure gold. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The rooms and chambers all had carpets. Food and the very best wine overloaded the tables until they almost collapsed. Outside the house there was a large courtyard with the very best carriages and stalls for horses and cows. Furthermore there was a magnificent garden with the most beautiful flowers and fine fruit trees and a pleasure forest a good half mile long, with elk and deer and hares and everything that anyone could possibly want.

“Now,” said the woman, “isn’t this nice?”

“Oh, yes” said the man. “This is quite enough. We can live in this beautiful palace and be satisfied.”

“We’ll think about it,” said the woman. “Let’s sleep on it.” And with that they went to bed.

The next morning the woman woke up first. It was just daylight, and from her bed she could see the magnificent landscape before her. Her husband was just starting to stir when she poked him in the side with her elbow and said, “Husband, get up and look out the window. Look, couldn’t we be king over all this land?”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “why would we want to be king? I don’t want to be king.”

“Well,” said the woman, “even if you don’t want to be king, I want to be king.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “why do you want to be king? I don’t want to tell him that.”

“Why not?” said the woman, “Go there immediately. I must be king.”

So the man, saddened because his wife wanted to be king, went back.

“This is not right, not right at all,” thought the man. He did not want to go, but he went anyway.

When he arrived at the sea it was dark gray, and the water heaved up from below and had a foul smell. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then,” said the flounder.

“Oh,” said the man, “she wants to be king.”

“Go home. She is already king,” said the flounder.

Then the man went home, and when he arrived there, the palace had become much larger, with a tall tower and magnificent decorations. Sentries stood outside the door, and there were so many soldiers, and drums, and trumpets. When he went inside everything was of pure marble and gold with velvet covers and large golden tassels. Then the doors to the great hall opened up, and there was the entire court. His wife was sitting on a high throne of gold and diamonds. She was wearing a large golden crown, and in her hand was a scepter of pure gold and precious stones. On either side of her there stood a line of maids-in-waiting, each one a head shorter than the other.

“Oh, wife, are you now king?”

“Yes,” she said, “now I am king.”

He stood and looked at her, and after thus looking at her for a while he said, “Wife, it is very nice that you are king. Now we don’t have to wish for anything else.”

“No, husband,” she said, becoming restless. “Time is on my hands. I cannot stand it any longer. Go to the flounder. I am king, but now I must become emperor.”

“Oh, wife” said the man, “Why do you want to become emperor?”

“Husband,” she said, “go to the flounder. I want to be emperor.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, “he cannot make you emperor. I cannot tell the flounder to do that. There is only one emperor in the realm. The flounder cannot make you emperor. He cannot do that.”

“What!” said the woman. “I am king, and you are my husband. Are you going? Go there immediately. If he can make me king then he can make me emperor. I want to be and have to be emperor. Go there immediately.”

So he had to go. As he went on his way the frightened man thought to himself, “This is not going to end well. To ask to be emperor is shameful. The flounder is going to get tired of this.”

With that he arrived at the sea. The water was all black and dense and boiling up from within. A strong wind blew over him that curdled the water. He stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh, flounder,” he said, “my wife wants to become emperor.”

“Go home,” said the flounder. “She is already emperor.”

Then the man went home, and when he arrived there, the entire palace was made of polished marble with alabaster statues and golden decoration. Soldiers were marching outside the gate, blowing trumpets and beating tympani and drums. Inside the house, barons and counts and dukes were walking around like servants. They opened the doors for him, which were made of pure gold. He went inside where his wife was sitting on a throne made of one piece of gold a good two miles high, and she was wearing a large golden crown that was three yards high, all set with diamonds and carbuncles. In the one hand she had a scepter, and in the other the imperial orb. Bodyguards were standing in two rows at her sides: each one smaller than the other, beginning with the largest giant and ending with the littlest dwarf, who was no larger than my little finger. Many princes and dukes were standing in front of her.

The man went and stood among them and said, “Wife, are you emperor now?”

“Yes,” she said, “I am emperor.”

He stood and looked at her, and after thus looking at her for a while, he said, “Wife, it is very nice that you are emperor.”

“Husband,” she said. “Why are you standing there? Now that I am emperor, and I want to become pope.”

“Oh, wife!” said the man. “What do you not want? There is only one pope in all Christendom. He cannot make you pope.”

“Husband,” she said, “I want to become pope. Go there immediately. I must become pope this very day.”

“No, wife,” he said, “I cannot tell him that. It will come to no good. That is too much. The flounder cannot make you pope.”

“Husband, what nonsense!” said the woman. “If he can make me emperor, then he can make me pope as well. Go there immediately. I am emperor, and you are my husband. Are you going?”

Then the frightened man went. He felt sick all over, and his knees and legs were shaking, and the wind was blowing over the land, and clouds flew by as the darkness of evening fell. Leaves blew from the trees, and the water roared and boiled as it crashed onto the shore. In the distance he could see ships, shooting distress signals as they tossed and turned on the waves. There was a little blue in the middle of the sky, but on all sides it had turned red, as in a terrible lightning storm. Full of despair he stood there and said:

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh,” said the man, “she wants to become pope.”

“Go home,” said the flounder. “She is already pope.”

Then he went home, and when he arrived there, there was a large church surrounded by nothing but palaces. He forced his way through the crowd. Inside everything was illuminated with thousands and thousands of lights, and his wife was clothed in pure gold and sitting on a much higher throne. She was wearing three large golden crowns. She was surrounded with church-like splendor, and at her sides there were two banks of candles. The largest was as thick and as tall as the largest tower, down to the smallest kitchen candle. And all the emperors and kings were kneeling before her kissing her slipper.

“Wife,” said the man, giving her a good look, “are you pope now?”

“Yes,” she said, “I am pope.”

Then he stood there looking at her, and it was as if he were looking into the bright sun. After he had looked at her for a while he said, “Wife, It is good that you are pope!”

She stood there as stiff as a tree, neither stirring nor moving.

Then he said, “Wife, be satisfied now that you are pope. There is nothing else that you can become.”

“I have to think about that,” said the woman.

Then they both went to bed, but she was not satisfied. Her desires would not let her sleep. She kept thinking what she wanted to become next.

The man slept well and soundly, for he had run about a lot during the day, but the woman could not sleep at all, but tossed and turned from one side to the other all night long, always thinking about what she could become, but she could not think of anything.

Then the sun was about to rise, and when she saw the early light of dawn she sat up in bed and watched through the window as the sun came up.

“Aha,” she thought. “Could not I cause the sun and the moon to rise?”

“Husband,” she said, poking him in the ribs with her elbow, “wake up and go back to the flounder. I want to become like God.”

The man, who was still mostly asleep, was so startled that he fell out of bed. He thought that he had misunderstood her, so, rubbing his eyes, he said, “Wife, what did you say?”

“Husband,” she said, “I cannot stand it when I see the sun and the moon rising, and I cannot cause them to do so. I will not have a single hour of peace until I myself can cause them to rise.”

She looked at him so gruesomely that he shuddered.

“Go there immediately. I want to become like God.”

“Oh, wife,” said the man, falling on his knees before her, “the flounder cannot do that. He can make you emperor and pope, but I beg you, be satisfied and remain pope.”

Anger fell over her. Her hair flew wildly about her head. Tearing open her bodice she kicked him with her foot and shouted, “I cannot stand it! I cannot stand it any longer! Go there immediately!”

He put on his trousers and ran off like a madman.

Outside such a storm was raging that he could hardly stand on his feet. Houses and trees were blowing over. The mountains were shaking, and boulders were rolling from the cliffs into the sea. The sky was as black as pitch. There was thunder and lightning. In the sea there were great black waves as high as church towers and mountains, all capped with crowns of white foam.

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh,” he said, “she wants to become like God.”

“Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.”

And they are sitting there even today.


piero_di_cosimo_prometheus_1.jpg

Last week’s essay about fear has made me think about the opposite of fear: desire.  I don’t mean romantic desire (although maybe that too), but instead what we really want…not just over the course of an afternoon or in junior high school, but for all of our lives. It is a big question!  And it becomes bigger when we start talking about what people want collectively at a city or national level (or at a level beyond that). What do we want for ourselves within a decade? What about a lifetime?  Or many lifetimes? But, whereas fear is very miserable, at least we tend to have a strong sense of what we are afraid of, and why.  Desires (beyond immediate obvious sorts like mates, status objects, good outcomes for our loved ones) are abstruse and inchoate.   We seem to know exactly what we are running from, the question of what we are running towards is much more elusive.

Humankind is a hive organism… a super colony like mole rats or termites, but we exist at a planetary scale, so it maybe behooves us to honestly talk about the things we all want and the directions these aspirations are leading us in.

836c91e0797991fcd5993f8daf4c4fcd--animal-painter-early-american.jpg

This week, in order to more fully explore these issues, I have chosen three animal fables concerning what humankind wants and the lengths to which we will go to obtain our desires.  They seem like simple stories, however, the more you think about them, the less facile they become.

I say these are animal stories because, in each case, the guide/interface to humans reaching what they want is an animal.  The animals in these stories represent the “natural” world with its power, glory, and strength.  The tales seem to set humankind apart from that world and from other creatures–as a different sort of being even from magical talking animals–yet I am not sure we are so different (neither from real animals nor from the ones in the stories).  Religious people see humans not as animals at all, but more like a sort of lesser “junior” deity.  I think we are an extreme manifestation of the animal kingdom and there are no gods–divinity is only an abstruse concept we have created to give shape to our fears and desires. Yet maybe that is not so different from what the religious people think (the idea of divinity makes a big appearance in these three fables as well).  I love animals and I mostly like being one (although greedy angry primates aren’t my favorite creatures).  I have my own strong ideas concerning where humankind needs to go and it seems like we are going the wrong way.

Piero_di_Cosimo_012.jpg

Enough blather: I am losing the thread!  I will present each of these tales without commentary.  We can talk about what they mean after they are done, however, as you read them, please keep thinking about what you want the most both for now, and for the far future when you are long gone.

What is the most powerful force in human affairs?  Most people would probably assert that love is paramount.  Compassion for one’s mate, one’s family, or one’s fellow beings  is as beautiful and dominant as its reputation.  Powerful arguments can be made that pursuit of status is the most important thing (I suppose this includes ambition, greed, pride, and fame-seeking in all of their guises, good and ill).  An idealist would say the pursuit of wisdom is our greatest drive:  it is only through wisdom that we understand the world and collectively move upwards (or, indeed, know anything at all).  Cynics might say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates people.  Religion, with its false certainties and self-serving rules could also conceivably be named as the prime motivator of our social species (probably by some priest in a silk robe riding a palanquin weighed down with gold).

Unfortunately, these are all wrong.  The greatest force of human affairs is fear.  Any felon or dictator (or middle manager) knows the fastest way to make people behave a certain way is to credibly threaten them. Fear also lies beneath all the other drives listed above. Even when people are motivated by love, it is their fear of losing love (or never finding it) which makes them act.  To motivate a parent, tell them their children are in danger! Economists tell us that the pain of losing a thing is more cutting than the pleasure of attaining it (and I believe them). But superseding any of that, fear is a fundamental constituent part of all of us.  Terror and anxiety are hardwired into us by evolution.  An animal which doesn’t watch out for predators, traps, and adversaries is soon dead.

I will tell you another reason I say this.  I am afraid.  I am afraid to even write this terrible truth. When I was a child I lay awake, unable to sleep because I was afraid that God would send me to hell for some infraction.  When I realized that there is no deity except for the ones we imagine, I was afraid of the infinite oblivion of death.  I was afraid that nuclear war would burn away our cities and civilization and leave the last survivors to die rotting and screaming of radiation-poisoning.  I was too nervous to talk to girls.  I hid in books and even they made me afraid. In sleep I was tormented by nightmares.  The only time I haven’t been afraid was when I was drunk.  So I drank as deeply as I could.  Then one day I became even more afraid (rightly) that drink was dragging me to my grave and robbing me of myself.  Our fears are not necessarily wrong or false—but feeding them by indulging them…or trying to escape them…it only makes them worse.

I have told you that fear is the main motivator of folk (of all our fellow animals, actually). It has saved us time and again…it is how our forbears survived this world of fangs, traps, spears, Assyrians, and mustard gas to reproduce. But it is a terrible weakness too. Politicians and the press know this better than anyone.  Listen to the speeches.  The main point is generally that you will be gunned down by madmen or outdone by foreign competitors if you don’t follow a certain leader.  Watch TV and look at how the ads manipulate you to buy snake oil and salad shooters by invoking your fear of cancer, old age, or other people.  The news today is instructive.  One group of politicians says “if you don’t carry a gun, you will be gunned down by a madman and the other side wants to ban guns!” the other side says “only if we ban guns, will we not be gunned down by madmen” and on and on they go, in a circle, about every subject.  It is driving us all crazy and reducing us to sad, angry tribes of wretched cowards.

This is just terrible! No wonder the authoritarians are creeping back and the quacks and con-men do such boom business.

There is only one recourse.  I am sure you know what I am going to say…but my point is a paradox, so I will say it with a tale ripped from popular literature. Did you read ‘A Game of Thrones”?  It is the story of an execution and its aftermath. The first scene foreshadows this, and has the best moment of the series.  A group of conscripts and draftees are attacked and slaughtered by unstoppable monsters.  The terrified survivors of this attack run away and are subsequently caught by the authorities (the main characters!) who put the defectors to death.  The beheading is seen through the eyes of a child watching his father act as executioner.   Afterwards the child is confused.  One brother said that the condemned man was afraid when died, but his other brother said the prisoner was brave and died well:

“What do you think?” his father asked. Bran thought about it.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Only when you are afraid can you be brave.  Only through such bravery can you avoid being ruled by fear. The theme is echoed later on as the protagonists’ fortunes falter and their little sister is lost in the midst of a brutal civil war.  To make her way through this terrifying world of armed goons and psychopaths with knives, she repeats a mantra again and again.  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It allows her to keep her wits when others freeze. It lets her do things she would be afraid to do otherwise.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is a platitude from a dime-store fiction (and a metaphor–don’t test it at home!), but it embodies a critical truth.  Winston Churchill said it as “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

On the other side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said it in his first inaugural address to nation terrified of the Great Depression “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” I am saying this to everyone, but most of all to my fellow citizens.  We need to remember FDR’s words again and again. In our world of seething change and garbage content which indulges facile drives, these words are as true as they were back when World War II bore down on all of us.

We MUST change.  We must look long and deep at whatever scary thing the clickbait article says and then think instead of just feeling. We must listen to our cowardly leaders carefully…and then we have to ignore our instinctual emotions and repeat  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”  Look at what I am saying right now (it’s scary stuff) and then repeat this mantra. Embrace your fear and understand it…and then do what is right instead of what makes you less fearful. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Repeat it when grasping old cravens on a screen tell you to give in to fear and submit to them.  Otherwise we will not live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We will instead be in the land of fear, the home of the slave.

My family is from West Virginian and I have some relatives back home who are fierce red partisans who ardently believe that fascist mismanagement of our country by the executive branch will restore some imagined golden age (I, on the other hand, think that America’s leadership crisis is dangerous and will, at best, make the future dimmer and more difficult… but we’ll talk about that closer to the midterms).  At any rate, on a vexing Facebook feed from the Mountain State, I spotted this meme, which is meant to counter the idea that politicians are beholden to financial contributions from the gun lobby.  Ripped straight from the frothing mouth of social media, here is a list of the top 50 lobbying spenders:

Untitled-1

These numbers are worth talking about on two levels.  First, although this list doesn’t explain much about NRA contributions to candidates (why! they’re not even on the top 50 list!), it shines a rather disconcerting light on why American healthcare costs more than twice as much as it does in other developed nations. Health outcomes from our system are not nearly as good as they are in, say, Chile or Slovenia, and life expectancy in the United States is falling, yet it seems like pharmaceutical and insurance companies have found a way to spend some of their loot!  This differently organized chart of direct political donations by industry over the last 20 years makes this point even more dynamically:

gunlobbygraph

There are some other unpalatable truths in there, as well, if you are in the mood to find out why net neutrality got binned or our national transportation policy is a mess.

However, both of these charts are misleading when it comes to the gun lobby, which brings us to our second point. Here is a rather more accurate breakdown of NRA spending.

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The red and pink parts are what shows up in the earlier charts.  That yellow portion of the pie is “outside spending”.  This money does not directly support candidates, instead it is used to attack opposing candidates who propose gun legislation.  These ads tend to come from “Americans for safe homes” or suchlike anodyne organizations which are funded by the NRA’s “Political Victory Fund” (or they can come straight from the NRA which likes to have member, after all).

I suppose my libertarian cousin, were reading this, would angrily retort “Yeah! But what about the outside spending by insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and trial lawyers? What is that like?”  I have no answers (and I am tired of looking at charts), but that really IS an excellent question.  Here is another one: how are we supposed to have a democracy when figuring out who is paying for different sorts of political outreach is like figuring out Chinese shell companies?  (as a side note, if you invested a lot of money in Chinese public companies, you may wish to look more closely at the control of such entities).

I grew up in the country and I actually sort of like guns, although they have no place here in Brooklyn (there’s some smug coastal NIMBYism for you).  Unfortunately, the glowing fantasy of power and control they provided is evaporating as I get older (I, mean, even if I had a firearm…the fact that I go through life unarmed makes such notions an even greater stretch).  We’ll get back to America’s relationship with guns and power later this week, right now though, looking at these charts is making me feel even more powerless.  I have no MONEY.  How is one to make one’s point to the world in such circumstances?  A bunch of dull charts about how giant nebulous lobbying groups are misleading us with dark funds?

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