On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

2014-01-31demon001In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide.  Again and again.  Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.

Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse.  Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell.  Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.


We incarcerate drug dealers.  But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand.  People’s lives are still broken.  Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy.  When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.


Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison.  When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!”  When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished.  Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.

Child molesters were often abused as children.  In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.

The demon leaps from one shell to the next.


During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”  Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work.  When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger.  We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.

Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others.  And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again.  After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else.  But the initial mistakes were made by a child.  Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.

We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not.  We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not.  We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.

After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.

If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it.  I too believe in free will.  But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain.  If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?


51ZgODW8D+L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons.  A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.

This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted.  It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others.  This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen.  Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right.  After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.

Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult.  Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.


In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised.  In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.

Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment.  A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.


Some demons might never leave the body.  The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history.  Even after years clean, addiction lingers.

In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted.  Apparently demons love to guard treasure.  It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.


Addicts are shuttered in jail.  The walls are concrete.  Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day.  People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark.  The block is noisy, and feels dangerous.  The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance.  Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.

Thoughts of drugs.

But poems can be treasures.  If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there.  Something for the demon to guard.

We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.


Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.

On perception and learning.

On perception and learning.




Peering with the unwavering focus of a watchful overlord.

A cat could seem to be many different things, and Brendan Wenzel’s recent picture book They All Saw a Cat conveys these vagrancies of perception beautifully. Though we share the world, we all see and hear and taste it differently. Each creature’s mind filters a torrential influx of information into manageable experience; we all filter the world differently.

They All Saw a Cat ends with a composite image. We see the various components that were focused on by each of the other animals, amalgamated into something approaching “cat-ness.” A human child noticed the cat’s soft fur, a mouse noticed its sharp claws, a fox noticed its swift speed, a bird noticed that it can’t fly.

All these properties are essential descriptors, but so much is blurred away by our minds. When I look at a domesticated cat, I tend to forget about the sharp claws and teeth. I certainly don’t remark on its lack of flight – being landbound myself, this seems perfectly ordinary to me. To be ensnared by gravity only seems strange from the perspective of a bird.

theyallsawThere is another way of developing the concept of “cat-ness,” though. Instead of compiling many creatures’ perceptions of a single cat, we could consider a single perceptive entity’s response to many specimens. How, for instance, do our brains learn to recognize cats?

When a friend (who teaches upper-level philosophy) and I were talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, I mentioned that I felt many of the aims of that book could be accomplished with a description of principal component analysis paired with Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s lovely New York Times Magazine article on Google Translate.

My friend looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and pity and said, “No.” Then added, as regards Philosophical Investigations, “You read it too fast.”

wittgensteinOne of Wittgenstein’s aims is to show how humans can learn to use language… which is complicated by the fact that, in my friend’s words, “Any group of objects will share more than one commonality.” He posits that no matter how many red objects you point to, they’ll always share properties other than red-ness in common.

Or cats… when you’re teaching a child how to speak and point out many cats, will they have properties other than cat-ness in common?

In some ways, I agree. After all, I think the boundaries between species are porous. I don’t think there is a set of rules that could be used to determine whether a creature qualifies for personhood, so it’d be a bit silly if I also claimed that cat-ness could be clearly defined.

But when I point and say “That’s a cat!”, chances are that you’ll think so too. Even if no one had ever taught us what cats are, most people in the United States have seen enough of them to think “All those furry, four-legged, swivel-tailed, pointy-eared, pouncing things were probably the same type of creature!”

Even a computer can pick out these commonalities. When we learn about the world, we have a huge quantity of sensory data to draw upon – cats make those noises, they look like that when they find a sunny patch of grass to lie in, they look like that when they don’t want me to pet them – but a computer can learn to identify cat-ness using nothing more than grainy stills from Youtube.

Quoc Le et al. fed a few million images from Youtube videos to a computer algorithm that was searching for commonalities between the pictures. Even though the algorithm was given no hints as to the nature of the videos, it learned that many shared an emphasis on oblong shapes with triangles on top… cat faces. Indeed, when Le et al. made a visualization of the patterns that were causing their algorithm to cluster these particular videos together, we can recognize a cat in that blur of pixels.

The computer learns in a way vaguely analogous to the formation of social cliques in a middle school cafeteria. Each kid is a beautiful and unique snowflake, sure, but there are certain properties that cause them to cluster together: the sporty ones, the bookish ones, the D&D kids. For a neural network, each individual is only distinguished by voting “yes” or “no,” but you can cluster the individuals who tend to vote “yes” at the same time. For a small grid of black and white pixels, some individuals will be assigned to the pixels and vote “yes” only when their pixels are white… but others will watch the votes of those first responders and vote “yes” if they see a long line of “yes” votes in the top quadrants, perhaps… and others could watch those votes, allowing for layers upon layers of complexity in analysis.

three-body-problem-by-cixin-liu-616x975And I should mention that I feel indebted to Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem for thinking to humanize a computer algorithm this way. Liu includes a lovely description of a human motherboard, with triads of trained soldiers hoisting red or green flags forming each logic gate.

In the end, the algorithm developed by Le et al. clustered only 75% of the frames from Youtube cat videos together – it could recognize many of these as being somehow similar, but it was worse at identifying cat-ness than the average human child. But it’s pretty easy to realize why: after all, Le et al. titled their paper “Building high-level features using large scale unsupervised learning.”

Proceedings of the International Conference on Machine Learning 2010
You might have to squint, but there’s a cat here. Or so says their algorithm.

When Wittgenstein writes about someone watching builders – one person calls out “Slab!”, the other brings a large flat rock – he is also considering unsupervised learning. And so it is easy for Wittgenstein to imagine that the watcher, even after exclaiming “Now I’ve got it!”, could be stymied by a situation that went beyond the training.

Many human cultures have utilized unsupervised learning as a major component of childrearing – kids are expected to watch their elders and puzzle out on their own how to do everything in life – but this potential inflexibility that Wittgenstein alludes to underlies David Lancy’s advice in The Anthropology of Childhood that children will fair best in our modern world when they have someone guiding their education and development.

Unsupervised learning may be sufficient to prepare children for life in an agrarian village. Unsupervised learning is sufficient for chimpanzees learning how to crack nuts. And unsupervised learning is sufficient to for a computer to develop an idea about what cats are.

But the best human learning employs the scientific method – purposefully seeking out “no.”

I assume most children reflexively follow the scientific method – my daughter started shortly after her first birthday. I was teaching her about animals, and we started with dogs. At first, she pointed primarily to creatures that looked like her Uncle Max. Big, brown, four-legged, slobbery.

Good dog.

Eventually she started pointing to creatures that looked slightly different: white dogs, black dogs, small dogs, quiet dogs. And then the scientific method kicked in.

She’d point to a non-dog, emphatically claiming it to be a dog as well. And then I’d explain why her choice wasn’t a dog. What features cause an object to be excluded from the set of correct answers?

Eventually she caught on.

Many adults, sadly, are worse at this style of thinking than children. As we grow, it becomes more pressing to seem competent. We adults want our guesses to be right – we want to hear yes all the time – which makes it harder to learn.

The New York Times recently presented a clever demonstration of this. They showed a series of numbers that follow a rule, let readers type in new numbers to see if their guesses also followed the rule, and asked for readers to describe what the rule was.

A scientist would approach this type of puzzle by guessing a rule and then plugging in numbers that don’t follow it – nothing is ever really proven in science, but we validate theories by designing experiments that should tell us “no” if our theory is wrong. Only theories that all “falsifiable” fall under the purvey of science. And the best fields of science devote considerable resources to seeking out opportunities to prove ourselves wrong.

But many adults, wanting to seem smart all the time, fear mistakes. When that New York Times puzzle was made public, 80% of readers proposed a rule without ever hearing that a set of numbers didn’t follow it.

Wittgenstein’s watcher can’t really learn what “Slab!” means until perversely hauling over some other type of rock and being told, “no.”

We adults can’t fix the world until we learn from children that it’s okay to look ignorant sometimes. It’s okay to be wrong – just say “sorry” and “I’ll try to do better next time.”

Otherwise we’re stuck digging in our heels and arguing for things we should know to be ridiculous.

It doesn’t hurt so bad. Watch: nope, that one’s not a cat.

Photo by John Mason on Flickr.

On Robert Gordon’s ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’

On Robert Gordon’s ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’

k10544I read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth during nap time. My daughter was just shy of two years old. She liked to sleep curled against my arm; I was left with just one hand to hold whatever book I was reading during her nap.

If you’re particularly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d recommend you not attempt to read Gordon’s book one-handed. I had a library hardcover. My wrists hurt quite a bit those weeks.

But I was pleased that Gordon was attempting to quantity the economic value of my time. After all, I am an unpaid caretaker for my daughter. My contribution to our nation’s GDP is zero. From the perspective of many economists, time spent caring for my daughter is equivalent to flopping down on the couch and watching television all day.

Even very bright people discount this work. My best friend from college, a brilliant urologist, was telling me that he felt sad, after his kid had been in day care, that he didn’t know how to calm her down anymore, but then laughed it off with “Nobody remembers those early years anyway.”

I understand that not everyone has the flexibility to sacrifice career progress for children. But, I reminded him, it isn’t about episodic memory. These years build the emotional pallet that will color my daughter’s experiences for the rest of her life.

And it’s important, as a feminist, to do what I can to demonstrate a respect for caretaking. I believe, obviously, that someone’s gender should not curtail their choices; people should be allowed to pursue the careers they want. But I think it’s silly to imply that biology has no effect. Hormones are powerful things, and human males & females are awash in different ones. This isn’t destiny. But it does suggest that, in large populations, we should not be surprised if people with a certain set of hormones are more often drawn toward a particular type of work.

I think it’s important for a feminist to support not only women who want to become cardiac surgeons, but also to push back against the societal judgment that surgery is more worthy of respect than pediatrics. As a male feminist, there is no louder way for me to announce that I think caretaking is important than to do it.

Your_WASHING_MACHINE...Helps_Keep_Clothes_Clean...Make_Your_Equipment_Last._-_NARA_-_514669I felt pleased that Gordon attempted to quantify the economic value of unpaid work like I was doing. Otherwise you would come to the bizarre conclusion that time-saving home appliances – a washing machine, for instance – have no economic value because a stay-at-home mother gains only worthless time. Those extra minutes not spent washing dishes still contribute nothing to the GDP.

Gordon argues – correctly – that better health, more attentive parenting, and more leisure do have value.

So I was happy with the dude. But I still disagreed with his main conclusion.

Gordon also argues that we will have low economic growth for the foreseeable future – and I’m with him here – because our previous growth rate was driven by technological innovation.

Here’s the rub: once you invent something, nobody will invent it again. Learning to harness electricity was great! A world with electrical appliances is very different from, and probably better than, a world without.

refrigerator-158634_960_720But the massive boost in productivity that accompanied the spread of electrical appliances can’t happen twice. Once everybody already has an electrical refrigerator, that opportunity for growth is gone.

The same is true of any technology. Once everybody has clean water (setting aside for a moment the fact that many people in the United States do not have clean water piped into their homes), you won’t see another jump in quality of life from water delivery. At that point the changes would be incremental: perhaps delivering clean water more efficiently or wasting less of that water once it arrives. Important, sure. But those are tiny changes. Low growth. Nothing like difference between turning on a tap versus hauling water back to the house in buckets.

One of these seems easier than the other.

Gordon thinks that the major technologies were all invented by the 1970s. Just like the physicists who thought their field would devolve into more precise measurement of the important constants, Gordon feels that there is little more to be made. Which has led to a pattern in reviews of his book: the reviewer feels obliged to rattle off potential inventions that have not yet been made. For the New York Times, Steven Rattner mentioned driver-less cars. For the New York Review of Books, William D. Nordhaus posits the development of artificial intelligence smarter than we are.

Speculating on future technologies is fun. I could offer up a few of my own. Rational enzyme design, for instance, would have many productivity-boosting consequences. If you consider farm animals to be machines for food production, they are woefully inefficient. You could do better with enzyme design and fermentation: then you’d use yeast or bacteria to produce foods with the exact same chemical composition as what we currently harvest from animals. (Former Stanford biochemist Pat Brown is developing technologies that use roughly this idea.)

Complex pharmaceuticals, too, could be made more cheaply by fermentation than by organic synthesis. Perhaps solar panels, too, could be manufactured using biological reagents.

But, honestly, none of this would contravene slow growth. Because the underlying problem is most likely not that our rate of technological innovation has slowed. I’ve written about the fallacy of trying to invent our way out of slow growth previously, but perhaps it’s worth using another contemporary example to make this point.

At one time, you needed to drive to a different store each time you wanted to buy something. Now you can sit down at a computer, type the name of whatever it is you want to buy – running shoes, books, spices, video cameras – pay by credit card, and wait for it to show up at your home. The world now is more efficient. You might even save a few dollars on whatever it was you’d wanted to buy.

But many people received money in the old world. There’d be a running shoe store in every town. A book store. A camera store. In the new world, the dude who owns the single website where all these items can be purchased receives all the money.

And the distribution of income might soon narrow further. At the moment, many delivery people receive money when they deposit those purchased items at your doorstep. But these delivery people may soon be replaced by robotic drones.

drone.PNGThis is even more efficient! No humans will be inconvenienced when you make a purchase. You chose what you want and wait for the robot.

Also, no humans need be paid. The owner of the website – who will also own the fleet of drones – keeps even more of the money. The erstwhile delivery people find worse jobs, or are unemployed. With less income now, they buy less.

After the development of a new technology – delivery drones! – the economy could produce more. It could boost the growth rate. But the actual growth might be low because the single person receiving money from the new invention doesn’t need to buy much, and the many people put out of work by the invention are buying less.

The same problem arises with the other posited technologies. If our foods were all produced by fermentation, farmers would go out of business (of course, concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrialized practices have already sunk most small farmers) and only the owner of the fermentation vats and patented micro-organisms would receive money.

If someone patents a superhuman artificial intelligence, then no other humans would need to be paid ever again. The AI could write newspapers, opinion sections and all, better and faster than we could. It could teach, responding to students’ questions with more clarity and precision than any human. It could delete us when it learns that we were both unnecessary and unpleasant.

Which is why I think it’s irrelevant to argue against Gordon’s technological pessimism in a review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I may disagree with his belief that the important technologies were all invented before 1970, but my more substantive complaint is with his theory that our nation’s growth slowed when we ran out of things to invent. I believe the nature of our recent inventions have allowed the economy to be reorganized in ways that slow growth.

Gordon does mention inequality in the conclusion to his work, but he cites it only as a “headwind,” a mild impediment to overcome, and not a major factor in the shift between pre- and post-1970 growth:

The combined effect of the four headwinds — inequality, education, demographics [more old people], and government debt — can be roughly quantified. But more difficult to assess are numerous signs of social breakdown in American society. Whether measured by the percentage of children growing up in a household headed by one parent instead of two, or by the vocabulary disadvantage of low-income preschool children, or by the percentage of both white and black young men serving time in prison, signs of social decay are everywhere in the America of the early twenty-first century.

economic-worriesI found it worrisome that he did not explain that this social breakdown – which will cause slower growth in the future – is most likely caused by slow economic growth. It’s a feedback loop. Growing up in a one-parent household makes it more likely that someone will be poor, but the stress of poverty makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship. When you’re not worried about money, you can be a better spouse.

So I would argue that the best way to address these economic headwinds and restore growth would be a guaranteed basic income. Technological advances in communication and automation have made it possible for ever-smaller numbers of people to provide all the services we need. As we invent more, the set of people who receive money for this work should continue to shrink. You might think, well, there will always be nurses, there will always be janitors, but, setting aside the fact that it’d be a bleak world in which this was the only work available for humans to do, this isn’t even true. A flesh-coated robot with lifelike eyes and superhuman AI could be a better, more tireless, less fallible nurse than any human.

Despite carrying a flip-phone, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want human ingenuity to stop. But it’s worth recognizing that our current system for wealth distribution will inevitably yield wretched results as technological progress continues.

And that’s without even mentioning the ways in which a guaranteed basic income – worldwide, funded by a similarly worldwide tax on wealth – would compensate for past sins.

On unilateral reproduction.

On unilateral reproduction.

My parents never sat me down to discuss the birds & the bees, but I think I’ve got the basics down.  You need a male parent and a female parent, their gametes fuse, an embryo develops, and, voila!  You’ve got a kid!  Or a grub, or a chick, what have you.

Although this process seems cooperative — if the kid grows big and strong, it’ll carry on both its parents’ genes — it’s cooperative the way shared-grade group projects in college are cooperative.  Everyone wants to get an A, but the more work you can con your partner into doing, the better.  The outcome is shared, but when it comes to divvying up the effort, your partner is your adversary.

In game theory, arrangements like this are notoriously slippery.  As soon as one partner does a tiny bit more work than the other, that person has more to lose if the rest of the project doesn’t get done right.  They’ve already invested more, and their investment will be wasted if nobody does the rest of the work.

A friend of mine was majoring in nonprofit management: most of her assignments were group projects.  And she’s very bright.  Rarely procrastinates.  Which her assigned partners would typically notice — on the first day they’d plan out which tasks each person would do, then on the second day my friend would announce that she’d finished hers.

group-project-2-300x225At that point, her partners would slough off more of their own work onto her — if they do nothing, they’ll all get a low score, sure… but she would get a low score despite having done as much work as somebody expecting to receive a high one.  That’s worse!  So she’d do far more than her fair share.

In terms of the biological mechanics of reproduction, K has put in far more effort than I have.  The imbalance started early.  Female gametes carry everything an embryo will need.  Male gametes are worthless little things, just delivery mechanisms for DNA.  And, like with my beleaguered friend, initial imbalance leads to more and more unfairness.  Human females carry the developing fetus for nine months.  They might breastfeed for years.  Meanwhile the father is out cavorting with his new girlfriend, maybe dropping off some food from time to time.

Or, wait.  I guess that’s not what I did.  Despite investing little in my gametes, I became our family’s primary daytime parent, talking with N, cooking lunch, reading her books …

Genetics aren’t destiny.  We don’t have to conform to the brutishness of the natural world.  Still, I’m consciously ignoring what my genes would have me do.

Capture.JPGSo I’m not surprised that some bees have decided that men — shiftless freeloaders!often aren’t worth the bother.  There’s a type of bee that ditches males from time to time.  Females fertilize their own eggs and carry on as a single-gendered colony.  It’s not just bees that do this, either.  Numerous species reproduce at least occasionally (for some of them, exclusively) by parthenogenesis: virgin birth.  Instead of putting forth almost all the effort and getting half the credit for raising a kid, they go it alone.

I don’t blame them.  If you’re not doing much more work, and your outcome is comparable (sexual reproduction gives more genetic variation than parthenogenesis, which can give a population more opportunities to survive in a changing environment — but, under stable circumstances, children mirroring their mothers is good enough), why carry the mooch?

Single parent offspring are also common throughout mythology.  The phrase “virgin birth” makes most Westerners think of Mary, pregnant with Jesus despite no genetic input from a male, but, in mythology, the single parent is more often male.  I think Wendy Doniger’s description of this contrast in Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts is charming:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In the medical texts, it is clear that women can procreate unilaterally but men cannot; in the myths, the situation is reversed, and men, but not women, are capable of unilateral procreation (albeit men do it into a “female” receptacle of some sort — any container at all).

Jesus was born to a single mother, but Eve was produced from the flesh of a man alone.  During the birth of Athena, in Jane Ellen Harrison’s translation, “Her life as the lightning was flashed from the light of her Father’s head.”  No help from Hera.  In some versions of the Ramayana, Sita is birthed nasally by Ravana during a sneeze (ouch!).  Prometheus, who created mankind and all the animals, was male.  The rabbis who enlivened clay golems: all male.  Even Victor Frankenstein, himself the creation of a female, sired a motherless child.

For Mary Shelley’s tale, she might’ve chosen a male creator because the idea of a female doctor seemed more fantastic than electricity quickening dead flesh.  In traditional mythology, though, male writers likely gave male heroes supernatural powers because they wanted to feel special.  According to Doniger,

In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

In real life, female bodies are productive in a way that males are not, so my supposition is that the religious tales were inspired by envy.

Indeed, between scientists uncovering the genetic switches that allow females of other species to reproduce unilaterally, and the ease with which human embryos could be modified by CRISPR, human males might find themselves jettisoned from the species.  Dudes had better start making themselves useful in other ways.

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

gravitys rainbow at whitney

Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?

Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.

I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.

But I did resolve to read the book.

I’m not sure what image best illustrates the opera performance of a fictional character, so here’s Alexandre Cabanel’s Phedre. This is the role Marcel first saw La Berma perform, at which point he felt disappointed by her apparent lack of artifice. Good acting means acting naturally??

At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.

5628951142_cc4759b4dc_oLet me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.

Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.

The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.

The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.

The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:

The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.

. . .

So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.

Paranoiac by adricarra on deviantart.

This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.

The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.

In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.

Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.

Hemagglutinin molecules — blue pegs on the outside of this model — need to be severed by a host endoprotease before the flu virus can dock & conquer.

Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.

The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:

Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?

There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …

These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories.  Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …

The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.

suspicious mindsA few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.

For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.

Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.

When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.

The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.

santa and his cauldronIn the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!

It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?

Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.

Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.


Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.

Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:

Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —

“One lemming, kid?”

“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”

“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”

Lemmings by Tao Lin on Flickr.

And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.

In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.

Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.

The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!

Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources.  When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.

Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_41-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Humans are very similar to most other predators this way.  A bit foolish, we are.  We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.

So it goes.

The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?

In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.

On learning that my heart is a frog.

On learning that my heart is a frog.
N and baby.

N has almost all her teeth now.  But these last four have been brutal.

Through almost all of teething she maintained a sunny disposition.  Not so for this final stretch.  I’m startled awake at midnight, and one a.m., and two a.m., and three a.m., etc., when she flails, kicks me in the neck, and launches into night-terror screaming.  She walks around all day with her hand crammed into her mouth, steadily gnawing, covering herself with slime.

And naps became more difficult.  Instead of lying down placidly to sleep after a single book (current favorites: Old Hat New Hat and The Skunk), she’ll yell, demand a snack, another book, more time spent playing, anything to make the hurting stop.

I force her to sleep anyway.  I figure, if she doesn’t sleep, she’ll just end up with a headache on top of the constant jaw ache from having blunt calcified lumps steadily pushing through her flesh.  But we’ve had to change our routine — I used to read one book to her, lay her down beside me, then read a book of my own after she closed her eyes.

Tooth pain means that’s not enough.

She sleeps on top of me now.  I wrap my arms around her, she sets her head on my chest, I breath loudly and try to slow my heart rate.  I can’t even read because the sound of turning pages would make her suddenly rear up and demand to look at the book with me  (I don’t think she would enjoy Primo Levi’s The Truce).  Instead I close my eyes and pretend to sleep (luckily my own exhaustion makes “pretending” easy).

One day recently, she lifted her head to tell me that my heart was talking.  “What does it say?” I asked her.

“Ribbit.  Ribbit.  Ribbit.”



On play (and playgrounds).

On play (and playgrounds).

N’s best friend’s father often goes by the name “Kingkong” for his film work — he’s helped make many movies in Bangkok.  I assume he was half kidding when he told me, “Nobody on the crew could pronounce an exotic name like ‘Greg.’ ”

I think “Kingkong” is a charming name for an American filmmaker to use in Asia.  King Kong is the premier giant monster of the United States — he clung to the Empire State Building, after all, whereas the other well-known monsters destroyed Tokyo.  And only the English-language publicity materials for King Kong vs. Godzilla stated unambiguously that King Kong was victorious in their battle (which seems strange — I would’ve bet on the fire-breathing lizard).


Even if my friend didn’t tower over everyone in Bangkok, “Kingkong” would’ve been a great work name.  But the fact that he’s a giant (even in the U.S., where people are on average much taller), and has a strong wiry physique, and can scale the exteriors of children’s jungle gyms with frame-quaking leaps and bounds, makes the name even better.

Seriously, it’s a joy to watch him on the playground.  Seeing his kid is all right, too, since the kid is liable at any moment to scale something disconcertingly high (I didn’t even realize that 16-month-olds could climb ladders or monkey bars), turn, do a celebratory dance, then announce, “I did it.”  At the same time, though… every kid plays.  Just like every kid draws.  It’s nice to see, but it’s expected.  Whereas it’s sadly rare for an adult to retain so much of that playful spirit.

Here’s N’s best friend at seven months old, already conquering our local playground — filmed by KK.

Which is a shame.  Adults need to play.  If I had to pick one single aspect of Homo sapiens evolution as being most important for our success, it’d be our extended juvenescence.  Many species are good at learning while they’re young — but humans, mentally, are inclined to be forever young.

Inclination, though, is not a guarantee.  We do age, and we can ossify into routine.  We can suppress our urge to play until it goes away.  And that’s sad.  Among other benefits, those who continue to play throughout their lives seem to preserve their mental acuity longer.

caSure, adults can slap down some money and join a climbing gym.  Or, if you live near St. Louis, you could visit the fabulous City Museum.  And the lucky among us can find employment where we actually get paid to solve puzzles or learn — to my mind, that counts as play.  But that leaves a lot of people out.  I wish there was more public infrastructure to support adult playfulness.  In Bloomington, we’re blessed to have such a wonderful public library, but a venue for physical play would be nice, too.

We have a lot of playgrounds, but they aren’t really intended for adults.

I was standing next to Greg at the playground recently, having just failed for the third time to mimic his jump, grab, smack his belly into a guardrail, swing his legs back and yet somehow leap forward onto an eight-foot-high crossbridge, when he said to me, “Having a baby really legitimizes your presence here.  Cause when you’re a kid, you get to come all the time.  Then you’re a teenager, and you can still hang out on playgrounds at night.  But after that, people start to look at you funny, what’s that guy doing here…”

See?  I get to be on playgrounds again now, but only because N is serving as my beard.


Uncle Marshall and Auntie Ferret, too, have seemed happiest recently when they’ve been at various playgrounds in town.  They joined me, which meant three adults getting to play, all justified by one seventeen-month-old romping in our midst.  I’m glad that my daughter serves as cover for us to have fun.  I’m just a bit sad that’s what it takes.

Here’s KK himself conquering the playground — though perhaps less thunderously than he would’ve been if he hadn’t also been filming himself with a telephone: