December 03, 2014

A Reply from Professor Oscar Pemantle

A few months ago I wrote a post on this site describing, among other things, a class I had taken from Professor Oscar Pemantle at Berkeley in the fall of 1966, and in particular Mr. Pemantle's "summary" lecture on Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground, a book which remains, I could say, a touchstone of my own philosophical development.  I took a few liberties in my description of Mr. Pemantle's flamboyant presentation without also pointing out that Professor Pemantle was a marvelous teacher and my first true introduction to the Socratic method, which he employed to  superb effect.  It took a lot of energy, patience and time to do a class the way he did, to draw the discussion of general, fumbling impressions toward finer elucidation.  The class was always packed, and I can't remember ever missing a single session.  I certainly never missed one of the summary lectures and learned that you had to get there early to ensure a seat.

One testament to the lasting effect Mr. Pemantle's class had on my intellectual development is that I can remember the books we studied, nearly 50 years later, and can remember many of the points Oscar drew from the syllabus.  The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus taught us that the search for meaning in life was ultimately futile (but make the most of that realization); Notes From the Underground, where Fyodor hilariously brought home the idea that the "man of action," the ambitious actor we are all encouraged to be, is fundamentally confused and "limited" in his understanding of what life is really about (I think that perhaps Oscar was right after all - it's about love, not accomplishments, which are the "soothing walls" we rush to crash against).  And Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, where the Viennese master told us that we don't really think what we think we think, so we better think it through again.

Speech 1, Fall 1966, Berkeley, California, Oscar Pemantle presiding. One of the many class rooms that ringed the auditorium in the massive, old and gray Wheeler Hall.  A good place to learn in those days long ago when Berkeley was in ferment and agitation.  It's what education should really aspire to be. 

It does not surprise me that Professor Pemantle devoted his life to pedagogical excellence, as his kind letter demonstrates.  As with all of us who were up, about and doing in 1966, and still here to talk about it, the years have taken their toll on his health, as his letter suggests and which I will not elaborate upon, because it his vital force in pursuing his passions which is most interesting and most gratifying to hear about. It's also clear that this kind and gracious man was at all times himself actuated by love, for teaching and for those he taught.


Dear Mr. Willis,
    A friend of mine just read your interesting article to me on my class in Berkeley, my evening lecture on Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, and the nature and form of my teaching.  It was a very interesting article displaying a vivid and perfectly accurate account of the class and my view of teaching. You might wish to know what happened since those good old days.

    On leaving the University and the Department of Speech, I turned to education and its relation to the alienated political culture so well described by Dostoyevsky, Max Weber, Lukacs, and others. Reform on the level of the University was closed. So I decided to begin from the other end with reform from the ground up. I formed a nonprofit corporation called Black Pine Circle and began with a modest program called "The Arts and Sciences Workshops" offering Socratic teaching to young kids from the ages of five or six on up to eight or ten. The unexpected success of this program which I conducted for two years prompted me to found a school called BPC Day School which I organized and directed for the next twenty years. Sometime around 1994, I was hit by a car breaking my leg in four or five places and requiring some major surgery. I was forced to leave the school and took a couple of years to recuperate and get on my feet again. So, when I was fully recovered I formed another nonprofit corporation, The Institute for Active Learning, and began a program of professional education and teacher training for our public schools in the Sonoma-San Francisco region. And, sometime later I developed an outreach program across the border in Mexico, with plans for an event in Cuba perhaps in April of next year.

    The work we have done in California can be seen by visiting our website, .  And the work we are doing in Mexico can be viewed from our website, Centro Culiacan, Centro Mazatlan, and Centro Guadalajara.  I am also enclosing an interview conducted electronically by Ricardo Tapia, a reporter for Crucial, a well-known magazine in Sinaloa. On the more theoretical or scholarly side, I am presently completing a set of six articles challenging the dominant academic orthodoxy.  They are presently being translated into Spanish and Portuguese for publication in Mexico and South America (including Brazil), Spain and Portugal, and of course Britain and the United States. Below is a copy of the list, later to be published as a small book called Contrasting Arguments: The Debate on American Education.
Well, that's all the news for right now, and good luck with your interesting blog.


Oscar Pemantle

November 16, 2014

Over at Fielding Mellish Observations

My neurotic, New York, Jewish, intellectual, atheistic alter ego weighs in on being American.

November 01, 2014

See further observations

Over at Fielding's place, a new post is up.

October 13, 2014

A New Idea

Try this out.  It might be fun.

The Further Observations of Fielding Mellish.

October 12, 2014

A Note on the Pleasures and Difficulties of Blogging

I was unacquainted with what "writer's block" meant until I got into the regular habit of blogging. One way I might describe it is this: if you're in any line of work where you have to talk or explain things at length on a regular basis (law, teaching, sales, maybe leading a revolution or running for office), you've probably encountered that problem where you get sick of your own voice. You just can't stand to hear yourself say another thing.  It becomes a physical revulsion. 

I think it's because most of us who operate on a reasonably elevated intellectual plane have a certain way of phrasing and packaging our inner thought patterns into words.  We call that "writing style." It's an elusive concept, but it's real.  Style arises from your experiences and your influences, and while it  can evolve over time (usually from complexity toward greater simplicity, as you come to terms with the truism that hiding a banal idea in grandiose prose doesn't really get you anywhere), you're pretty much stuck with the way you write, after a certain amount of practice at it.  Such as regular or semi-regular blogging. 

I've never been completely clear, even with myself, what this blog is supposed to be about. I began it eight years ago with the very naive assumption it could make some sort of difference.  It does not and it cannot.  I will say this for that realization: it's at least learning something.  Part of the phenomenon of uselessness is the sheer volume of writing available in the Internet age.  There was a time, not so long ago, when we left writing to the journalists.  They established reputations by moving up the ladder of major newspapers and winning the trust and respect of the general reading public.  Some of them were very fine writers, and some were complete hacks.  If you blog yourself about some of the same things as the current events writers write about, you become more attuned to and discerning about this dichotomy.  In general, I would say that the writers who made their reputations through the blogging channel (such as Glenn Greenwald, for example) write every bit as well as the bona fide journos such as Tom Friedman, although that's a poor example because Friedman is such a crummy writer. With his penchant for travel, he really would have been better off doing something like selling time-shares.

The Internet destroyed major newspapers of course, and with their destruction we also wrecked the idea of investigative journalism, which requires time and an operating budget. So instead of that, we've moved to a system of "access journalism," where the journos capitalize on their close relationships with power brokers in politics and the world of high finance  (our two power centers).  Thus, the so-called "adversarial press" needed to become buddies and co-celebrities with the very people they're supposed to be "covering."  This was the only operating space left, however.  The world of current events writing is absolutely inundated with amateur writers who, as noted, frequently write as entertainingly as the pros.  Sometimes the amateur writers are actually pros in another and useful field, such as Glenn Greenwald's background as a constitutional lawyer, which means his writing is informed, whereas Tom Friedman's background is in writing with no substantive, structured expertise whatsoever.  To compete in this maelstrom, the pros have to sell their access, and to keep their access the pros have to become the buddies of their sources.

In such a culture, propaganda thrives, which is why utterly insane courses of action, such as almost the entirety of U.S. foreign policy, or to allow planet Earth to become uninhabitable through climate change while we wage war to defend our access to oil, can be treated with a stupefying respect and gravity by the mainstream media.  If it strikes you as nuts that the United States would be firing up another war in Syria, for reasons no one can figure out, or doing everything it can to engender bad relations with Russia, it isn't that you're crazy.  You are simply holding things together in your mind calmly and seeing the picture whole.  You are not trusting the organs of information in the MSM because you have come to realize that they are, almost to a man and woman, completely corrupt and mendacious.

So that's really why I blog.  It's personal.  I do it as an act of mental hygiene.  I do find that by wrestling intellectually with current events I work through them in a way different from that employed by more casual observers.  Writing about something "captures" it in your mind and organizes your thought processes.  It lets you see where you've been and probably where you're going.  It's the "diary of ideas" that George Orwell recommended.

September 21, 2014

Sunday Morning Sermon: We've Always Been at War with Mideastasia

Brought to you by Peet's Garuda blend...

The text for this morning's homily is furnished by Andrew Levine, who frequently writes amusingly and disparagingly about the incumbent President:

Now that Barack Obama the dove has metamorphized into Barack Obama the hawk, the President and his people are more than usually in over their heads.  It isn’t just that their past and present enemies in Iraq and Syria – Iran and the Assad government – are now also their de facto allies; or that those “Syrian moderates,” who haven’t exactly panned out in past iterations of American meddling, are now, again, their great Islamic hope. They are so confused by the situation they helped bring about that, at first, they couldn’t even decide what to call their enemy.  Nor could they figure out whether to call this latest phase of the Bush-Obama perpetual Middle Eastern war a “war” or something that public opinion might find more congenial.
Yes, that sounds about right. I was, as always, utterly bewildered by last week's prime time speech by Mr. Obama, where he informed the American public that we were going to bomb ISIL or ISIS or IS or the Islamic Bad Guys or whomever.  And if we have to, we'll bomb them in Syria (heh heh), because these terrorists, you see, they can run but they can't hide. This last bit was a more or less conscious repetition of Bush's old "smoke 'em out of their holes and get 'em running," but then Bush would finish with "and bring 'em to justice."  How far we've come.  Justice is now meted out by the Drones themselves, thus freeing up valuable docket time in the American court system. Also, not incidentally, we now have the "casus belli" for conducting overt war operations in Syria, which we abjured last year because Vladimir Putin came up with the preemptory tactic of convincing the despotic Bashir Assad to dispose of his chemical weapons, the ones we were going to use as an excuse to topple him which we wanted to do because he's friends with Putin, and as you know, we don't like Putin anymore.  Anyway, if we can get the right stooge in power in Syria then that Arab natural gas pipeline through Syria can be under our control and we can pry Putin's death grip loose from Europe's gas meters. 

Does any of this sound like it could really work? You see what Mr. Levine means about the Obama Administration exceeding its competence.  We need to "destroy and degrade" ISIS/ISIL so that it doesn't threaten the Iraqi government which we just installed to replace the failed replacement government of the prior-installed Ungrateful Nouri al-Maliki, who was moved in to take over from Saddam Hussein, whom we toppled for as yet unspecified reasons.  Destroying and degrading ISIS/ISIL will probably breathe second life into the despotic reign of Assad in Syria, since ISIL is also his enemy, but that's okay for now, because we'll get around to toppling Assad in due time and replace him with a group of new religious fanatics, although the question arises: can that be done without boots on the ground, the very boots that Mr. Obama said emphatically would never touch the bomb-cratered sands of the Levant?

As Mr. Levine notes: are the Syrian "moderates" really a reliable Great Arab Hope?  Do they actually exist in Syria, a country of 22 million people where 9 million are now displaced refugees because of the civil war that's been raging since 2011?  Can anyone be moderate in such a place?

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sees the possibility of boots on the ground, even if his nominal superior doesn't like the idea.  Suppose, for example, we want to take Mosul back from ISIL?  Can we rely solely on the 250,000 Iraqi troops we spent $25 billion training not so long ago to defeat ISIL, which has nearly 1/8th as many troops?  Of course not.  So as General Dempsey told Climate Change/Reality Denier Senator James Inhofe at a recent hearing (do you see how hopeless this all really is?):

It's good when subordinates set the record straight.  Mr. Obama wasn't being serious, after all.  Of course we're going to use combat troops; did you see those beheading videos?  If that ain't a casus belli, then George Bush ain't a pickup-driving brush-clearer.

Pundits even more cynical than Andrew Levine suggest the real "strategy" is to make the Middle East and all of North Africa into such a chaotic mess that the conditions are somehow more advantageous for American control of its natural resources.  I don't completely follow that; it seems another Rorschach reading of a bumbling Administration that is simply trying to appear tough and militaristic to avoid a Republican takeover of Congress in the fall, which will probably happen anyway because, after all, it's time to change again back to the other system that doesn't work.

September 15, 2014

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience in a Time of Global Warming

The following is copied from Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! Blog (h/t: Dan):

“Unjust laws exist.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” The naturalist and pacifist asked, “Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” His answer was simple: “I say, break the law.”

One hundred and sixty-four years later, on May 15, 2013, Ken Ward Jr. and Jay O’Hara did just that. They navigated a small lobster boat, named “The Henry David T.,” to a point off the Massachusetts coast near the enormous Brayton Point Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built in 1963 that is the largest source of carbon emissions in the region. They dropped anchor and blocked access to the pier, preventing a cargo ship from unloading 40,000 tons of coal. They suspended banners from their boat reading “#CoalIsStupid” and “350,” a reference to the international climate action group Three hundred fifty parts per million (ppm) is the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists feel is the maximum level that will allow the planet to avoid catastrophic human-induced climate change.

Ward and O’Hara succeeded in blocking the coal shipment. From the boat, they reported themselves to the local police and were later arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard.
O’Hara, a Quaker and a sailmaker on Cape Cod, explained, “We were charged with ... disturbing the peace, conspiracy to disturb the peace, negligent operation of a motor vessel and a failure to act to avoid a collision of a boat.” They faced years in prison.

They decided to mount a “necessity defense,” admitting that they broke the law, but claiming that they did so only to prevent a much greater harm, i.e., the burning of coal that increases global warming. Last Monday, Sept. 8, they finally went to court. Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter offered them a deal. He dropped all criminal charges against them in exchange for a guilty plea to a civil offense and a fine. D.A. Sutter then went a step further — a few steps, actually, to the plaza in front of the courthouse, where he shocked the two defendants and close to 100 of their supporters with a short speech:

“The decision [we] reached today ... certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset, but was made with our concern for their children, the children of Bristol County and beyond, in mind. Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking ... we were able to reach an agreement that symbolizes our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.”

Sutter’s incredible demonstration of political leadership is timely, indeed. This week, the World Meteorological Organization released its latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, packed with dire statistics about the accelerating threat of climate change. “The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013,” the WMO reported, with current concentration of carbon dioxide at 396 ppm. The WMO also warned, ominously, “The current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented at least over the last 300 million years.” Defendant Ken Ward, a former deputy director of Greenpeace USA, noting the urgency he feels for the climate, told me, “We should ... be taking emergency actions everywhere we can. And the very first emergency action is to stop burning coal.”

Henry David Thoreau is best known for his book “Walden,” in which he describes the year he spent living in a cabin he built on Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass. Thoreau opposed the 1847 U.S. invasion of Mexico. He was a staunch opponent of slavery. To protest these violent policies, he decided he would not pay taxes. When he was jailed for his protest, he was visited by his friend, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is said that when Emerson asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there,” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience was one of the first modern articulations of the resistance tactic of nonviolent noncooperation. His words and actions have inspired millions, among them Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The People’s Climate March will happen in New York City on Sunday, Sept. 21. Organizers expect it to be the largest march for the climate in history. The march’s slogan: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.” Sam Sutter says he’ll be there, as will the two activists he prosecuted. I asked the district attorney and the defendants if they would be marching together. They all smiled. Prosecutor Sutter said, “It’s certainly possible.” Jay O’Hara concurred, “Sounds like a plan.”

August 24, 2014

Sunday Morning Essay: The Oligarchy Strikes Back

Now that I have my tin foil hat correctly oriented to pick up elusive frequencies, I'm back in business. We have ousted the despised (although once favored and even celebrated) Nuri al-Maliki from his position as Prime Minister of the "democracy" in Iraq for the grave, although completely understandable, sin of outfoxing our "special" President, George W. Bush.

To recap the clever manipulations of The Ungrateful Nuri:  GWB the Younger, as you'll recall, took us into war in Iraq on false pretenses.  The war was, first, last and always about one thing and one thing only: access to Iraq's huge oil reserves.  We want 'em, Iraq's got 'em.  The Iraqis are a simple, backward, Third World people who don't need that oil like we do.  It's only fair.  Yet as the Iraq war turned into an utter disaster, even GWB started feeling remorseful about what he'd done, and in an impulsive moment he agreed with Maliki, whom we had installed as our preferred Piece of Shiite, to withdraw ALL American combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. As the Great Schnozz would say, what a revoltin' development that was.  Nuri stuck to his guns, and pulled his hole card on Obama when negotiations over a new SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) broke down because Nuri refused to grant the customary immunity from local prosecution to American GI's, who are in turn accustomed to running wild when stationed abroad (just ask the local Japanese in Okinawa).

This was tantamount to admitting that we'd brought about the deaths of one million Iraqis for nothing, not to mention our own casualties and one trillion bucks down the drain. The ruling Oligarchs must have wondered: what's the use of controlling politics in America if this is the kind of thing they're going to pull?  And where's my fricking oil?

Fortunately, history smiled upon us.  Thanks to our feckless meddling in Syria where, for a while at least, we talked as if we wanted that numbnuts Bashir al-Assad (I do not understand why all these Arabs have the middle name "Al") out of power, we supplied, in the style of the great Milo Minderbinder, 1st Lieutenant and Chief Mess Officer, Catch-22, money and war materiel to our mortal enemies, al-Qaeda, which in due course found its way to the "folks" (Obama's, as with Bush, favorite group descriptor) at ISIS, the New Caliphate people who are anxious to take the Arab world all the way back to the 7th century, instead of mucking about in the 12th century, or however far they've gotten.

God, who watches over fools and drunks, then sent ISIS on a rampage across the Sykes-Picot Imaginary Boundary between Syria and Iraq, where the ISIS folks began a program of crucifying, beheading, raping and in general causing great mayhem wherever their travels took them.  It also spooked the "democratic" leadership of Iraq in Baghdad, including the Ungrateful Nuri, who began to wonder whether that clever ploy where he refused American GI's immunity from the mullahs was such a brainy idea after all, especially when the Ungrateful One, on awakening in the increasingly heavily fortified Green Zone every morning, would first check to see whether his head was still attached to his body.  ISIS, meanwhile, would take a break from crucifying and decapitating to seize oil fields and Iraq's largest dam and reservoir.  Finally, they were preparing to storm Baghdad itself.

The Oligarchy's front man, President Obama, kept his cool during these developments and let ISIS have its way, promising American military assistance so long as certain "modifications" were made in Iraq's democratically-elected government (the one Obama had bragged about in Brussels not too long ago, you'll recall, when he pointed out the difference between the American incursion into Iraq, where we brought Jeffersonian ideals to our Arab friends, and the evil Putin, who instigated a completely illegal plebiscite in Crimea).  But I digress.  Obama maintained his disinteresed aplomb just long enough for Nuri to see the better part of wisdom and step down, as democratically-elected American puppets are supposed to do.  We then began bombing the shiite out of ISIS and talk resumed about returning "some" ground troops to Iraq, where the monster military bases we've already built there are waiting to fill up again with oil field security guards.  We could bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age, but, of course, they never really left.

So there you have it.  The U.S. will defeat ISIS, a ragtag group of barbarians completely dependent on our weapons and fighting vehicles, with one hand of Obama's wrapped around a 5-iron at Martha's Vineyard.  We may have to join forces with Assad, whom we hated last year and were about to bomb till Putin got in the way, in bombing the enemies of Assad, namely, ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliates we were arming and assisting in their anti-Assad revolution.

As Milo Minderbinder would say, it's all for the Syndicate and everyone gets a share.

August 23, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Sublimation Time and the Livin's Too Easy

Brought to you by Peet's & Its Exploitation of Juan Valdez...

I am not necessarily claiming that this is an apothegm worthy of Heraclitus, that amazing Greek sage who gave us "character is destiny."  Yet still...after reading, again, Civilization & Its Discontents, that masterpiece written by the guy I consider the first Jewish standup comedian, the dour Sigmund Freud, laugh-a-minute chain cigar smoker, I think I may be on to something.

Civilization condemns us to a lifelong, low-grade dissatisfaction with our existence.  That is because civilization, in the final analysis, is a boring tradeoff between existential security and the forfeited instinctual drives, which were and always will be the only possible sources of true joy and ecstasy.  As Sigmund said, the attempt to satisfy the primordial urge with a sublimated, ersatz replacement, will never be the same as the "real thing." 

Thus, during an online chess game with my old neighborhood buddy, we were congratulating ourselves on the "wisdom" of older age, and it occurred to me: of course, we have never learned a single thing.  If we avoid some of the "problems" caused by the greater hormonal and energetic flux that drove us in the years that are is simply and only because we're now too tired to get into the same kind of trouble. 

And that, of course, is nothing to crow about.

August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning Essay: Meme Along With Me

One highly regrettable aspect of the rise of the Internet and social media in particular is the "participation" of the general public via Twitter, Facebook, e-zines, comment threads and the virtual world in general in every criminal case that possesses the right meme-worthiness to sustain itself for the 3 or 4 day attention span (liberally speaking) of the American populace.  One such story, following along lines similar to the Trayvon Martin case, was the very recent shooting in Ferguson, Missouri of one Michael Brown by a police officer named Darren Wilson.

The MSM had everything they needed to generate a Tweetapalooza with this one.  The clean-cut young African-American on his way to college gunned down in the street by a brutal, "militarized" police.  Another young life destroyed by out-of-control cops.  The Huffington Post poured it on, cable news had a field day, the streets of Ferguson erupted in violent demonstrations (along with opportunistic looting and general vandalism).  It was Watts and Rodney King all rolled into one.

I feel obliged to observe that the problem of police brutality and militarization of local police seem like very real problems.  They are what you might call broad social issues which have everything to do, no doubt, with the USA's bad habit of fighting wars nonstop in Muslim lands for no discernible reason and to no apparent advantage.  This has been going on now for 13 years.  Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have served in miserable theaters of war where death can come at a moment's notice from innocent-looking locals.

It would appear that the military-industrial complex just can't help itself.  Among other problems, such as national bankruptcy, this Sparta-like approach to foreign policy tends to produce vast numbers of ex-soldiers who are understandably on hair trigger after spending years expecting the citizens on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul to suddenly blow themselves up or pull out a concealed weapon and open fire. These soldiers come back to a lousy jobs market, but they are expertly trained in patrolling the streets in a certain way, and law enforcement seems like a natural continuation of their previous work.  And the Pentagon has even been thoughtful enough to furnish the local cops with the same kind of up-armored, humongous hardware, such as MRAPs and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, that these guys already know how to use.

Chalmers Johnson told us it would come to this a long time ago, but of course he was "radical." Maybe not so much.

So the Michael Brown story was perfect for dealing with the "militarization" of the police and police brutality in general.  Eric Holder, who is apparently still the U.S. Attorney General, aroused himself from his customary comatose state to say something.  President Obama took a break from the 4th tee in Martha's Vineyard to weigh in.  This was the issue du jour: what are we going to do about these militarized police and police brutality?  Well, Mr. Obama is the Commander in Chief, and Eric Holder is some kind of top lawyer, apparently, so one idea would be: how about the Pentagon stops furnishing the local Mayberry gendarmes with all this Army surplus?  Just a thought.

But solutions aren't really the idea when the Tweets are screaming at the 140 decibel range and the Facebook pages are erupting, and Arianna Huffington, the Zsa Zsa Gabor of serious political pundits, has gotten hold of something that even distracts her from "Gaza" for a couple of beats so she can run 50 point red fonts in her headlines:  "FERGUSON!"

It was all perfect.  Then the local police chief, the (always-described-as) "embattled" Thomas Jackson, releases a convenience store surveillance video of Michael Brown on the very same day Jackson identifies the police officer involved.  The video was taken a few minutes before Michael Brown was fatally shot:

I saw the police chief being interviewed yesterday.  In a moment of unintentional hilarity in this sad and tragic episode, the chief was grilled and subjected to hostile cross-examination by a suddenly aroused press corps (some of them from big national outlets) on his highly questionable decision to release the video without being able to prove that the cop in question had known about this "strong arm robbery" at the time of the shooting.  Chief Jackson seemed pretty calm and collected about the whole thing. He offered the somewhat lame reason that the video had been the subject of many FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, and he knew he had to release it eventually.  So he did it now. The chief did not make much of an effort to prove the shooter cop knew about the robbery; the apprehension of Michael Brown was because Brown was walking down the middle of the street and did not cooperate with Wilson.

When you think about it for a moment, though, it's pretty extraordinary that such a surveillance video should exist of an event that happened within moments of the fatal police-citizen altercation, and to conclude, as the MSA are anxious to conclude, that there is no connection between a strong-arm robbery in which the decedent was the perp (and this is the correct legal definition of the heist Brown pulled off - it was larceny accomplished by force, ergo, robbery) and what happened a few minutes later.  But the real problem for the MSM and the Big Meme Machine in general is that this video makes Michael Brown look pretty damn bad.

There's just no getting around it.  In the longer versions of the video (taken from different perspectives) Brown takes his time pawing through cigars (as if he owned the place, you might say), loads up on a lot of smokes, and then insouciantly strolls toward the front door.  The proprietor, a diminutive Asian, attempts to restrain Michael Brown.  Brown, who was 6'-4" tall and over 200 pounds, uses his left arm to shove the owner away with considerable force.  And then when the owner has the temerity to come toward Brown again, the felonious Mr. Brown "rises up" over him in a display of dominance and intimidation, then turns and walks out the door.

This short film has a lot of meme-killing elements.  Number one, Michael Brown comes off as a thug and a bully.  Second, the diminutive Asian is just all wrong for his part; after all, he's another minority and Michael Brown is oppressing him, which is something our clean-cut and college-bound victim/hero should not be doing if this story line is going to work.

So naturally the media gave Chief Jackson the business.  How dare he release this video!  Naturally, there were instantaneous allegations that the chief was just trying to "smear" Michael Brown, but let's face it: Michael Brown, the star of the video, does a pretty good job of that all on his own.

Was Michael Brown gunned down in cold blood by an out-of-control police officer in broad daylight for no good reason?  I don't think we know the answer to that question yet. I found a very long and in-depth analysis in the Washington Post which made that point.  The only real eyewitness is Michael Brown's friend and accomplice in the convenience store robbery.

The problem for the Meme Machine in an encounter like this is that it's anecdotal and full of idiosyncratic factual circumstances  The media do not like this.  Michael Brown needs to be a college-bound nice kid, not a thug shoving a little Asian around in the Asian's own convenience store.  Darren Wilson, the cop, needs to be a cold-eyed killer who shot Michael Brown "execution style" not a cop on the beat who was perhaps himself subjected to Brown's brutality and sociopathic behavior. There are parts to be played here, dammit.

Zsa Zsa Huffington loves the phrase "cannot be unseen" when she runs photos of weird things on her screed-zine.  This is the problem for the MSM and the Meme Machine generally: the video of Michael Brown cannot be unseen.  It's unthinkable that the video wasn't going to surface in the near future.  It's clueless and disingenuous to claim that it's "irrelevant."  It's a reminder that these sad incidents always involve very specific facts, that the protagonists are not actually acting out assigned roles in some greater "social drama," but just going about their lives.  Maybe someday we'll find out what really happened, and long after the one or two elements of the original story that were used to build a national controversy have faded into obscurity in favor of the next outrage.

July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Where there is no solution, there is no problem

Brought to you by Peet's nuclear fusion strength dark roast...

An old friend from the neighborhood called yesterday afternoon, out of the blue, a fellow I hadn't talked to for years.  Because of the office and the requirements of a guild I belong to (the State Bar), I'm one of those increasingly rare people with a listed land line.  So you can always find me.  Ready or not, here you come.  Anyway, an interesting conversation ensued.  This guy (a little younger than your bloggerspondent), has always somewhat overrated my, what would you call it?, my insightfulness, but I had a tendency to do that myself with certain key people in my life, and not much harm comes of it.

We talked for about an hour.  This conversation followed on the heels of an e-mail I received recently from another friend with a "life calculator" attached that allowed you to figure out certain things about yourself based on your date of birth.  For example, I had never thought of this but I was conceived in 1947, with a guesstimate of the actual night of sperm-meets-ovum of May 25, 1947. I realize that what they're doing here is assuming a couple of things, that human gestation is 280 days from commencement of last menstruation to birth, and ovulation on the 14th day, and normal full term.  Recent research, I discovered after googling around a little, indicates that "normal term" varies a lot, and tends to get longer as mothers get older.  My mom was 30 when I was born.

But May 25, 1947 is okay.  The event of most note of that day (besides the parents' get-together on a balmy spring evening in upstate Alabama) was a coal dust explosion in New Mexico's Centralia mine which killed 111 miners.  Also, Karen Valentine was born May 25, 1947.  Two of my best friends from Berkeley days were born in 1947, one in April and one in July (as you may have gathered from a recent post).  With respect to April, of course, there was no overlap, but as to July it's interesting to consider that I was a work in progress even as he emerged to view the stars (cf. Dante).  But a birth on July 12, 1947, of course, implies coital origins in the latter part of 1946.

We've all been around, in other words, somewhat longer than perhaps we commonly think.  Whether you want to date yourself from the gleam in your father's eye or the water slide event itself 266 days later (thereabouts),  a fantastic amount has changed during the lifetimes of my contemporaries.  Consider that when I was born, there were 131 million people in the United States. I read yesterday that Lagos, Nigeria has a problem with the ebola virus and the CDC is worried about contagion because 21 million people live in Lagos, and the country has a population of 170 million, which is to say, many more people than the United States on the day I was born.

The old friend and I talked about the coming inundation of the old neighborhood where we grew up, which is constructed on bay fill.  The guess is that in 40 to 50 years, it will be under about 5 feet of water.  Well, San Francisco Bay is only about two-thirds the size it once enjoyed in pre-industrial times and I guess it's going to reclaim its former extent and glory.  I imagine the steeple of old St. Timothy's church, where so many of my neighborhood friends used to attend catechism, will still be visible above the dark waters of the Bay as it rises, so I will use that as an excuse to add Debussy's piano piece about an engulfed cathedral of legend, which was always one of my favorites of Debussy's strange creations.

The power of exponents.  I sometimes wish I had paid more attention to algebra and those silly graph functions we used to draw.  You know, parabolas and stuff.  That's the story of everything now.

July 12, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Hands Across the Water, July 12, 2014

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Happy birthday, amigo.  I'm glad you stuck around to bear witness to the epochal unwinding of the human experience rather than opting for an early exit, stage left, before all the kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, viscounts, uncles and aunts, and various court hangers-on were sprawled dead and dying all over our rotten Norway of a world.  It will be a big finish, and not one you would want to miss.

I never really had any doubt.  As I said to anyone who would actually listen, you're fundamentally a tough guy, and I knew you would vanquish the hydra-headed monsters with "itis" suffixes (or "emia" or even the British "aemia") in good time, that behind the miasma of confusion and delirium you would, like the South, rise to fight again.

Way to go.  I'm glad your care was attended to by a country where the first priority is not figuring out how to put you back on the street at the absolute earliest opportunity, as the Bouncers (oops!..."social workers") were wont to do in the case of my dear departed mother.  If you're a Medicare patient and you want to go home?  Hey, not a problem!  Just let me stick that bone back inside the skin where it belongs.

While you were convalescing, the Commerce Club conducted a survey of modern medical systems, using various weighted parameters,  and found that the National Health, overall, was really the best in the world. The United States was number 11, which is not too bad till you notice that they were ranking 11 countries.  "Timeliness" was a weaker point for Great Britain, but I think they mean you wait a while for a hip replacement.  Overall, that can be endured, and it's usually safer than trying to send someone home from the hospital with a hematocrit of 20.

As Ingrid's stuffed-shirt, but valiant husband said to Rick Blaine, "Welcome back to the fight.  And this time, I know our side will win."

May 24, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Too Tired to Write A Saturday Morning Essay

Brought to you by Peet's store-bought dark roast...

Contrary to the conjurer's illusion, I don't actually write these things on Saturday morning. I think of snippets during the week, usually just before falling asleep, and I write them down the following morning.  I believe this has some neuroscientific name, like "incubation" of the creative process. Whatever, it keeps the blogging process from being a chore and more of an enjoyable compulsion.

But it's actually Saturday morning right now and I'm caught out.  I didn't write anything during the week.  I read the news, about Ukraine, about the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, other trivia, but I never got around to writing anything. So it's stream of consciousness time at the Pond...

Speaking of which, it is now inevitable, probably within a few decades, that the world's large coastal settlements will be underwater (a lot of water).  While the forecasts are usually couched in terms of a century or two, everything in climate change happens much faster than the preliminary hopeful estimates.  If you will recall, the melting of the Arctic ice sheet was not supposed to be complete till much later this century.  In reality, the Arctic is likely to be ice-free at the end of the summer melt not later than about 2020, or 6 years from now.  A confounding of estimates perhaps is understandable when you consider that (a) climate science is a developing field (b) dealing with the complex interplay of numerous positive feedback loops (c) with impacts on society at large in crucial ways (d) that nobody really wants to hear about (e) because it upsets our cushy life.

However, the news is now out.  How do you sell a seaside condo in Jupiter, Florida at this point, or a house along the Seadrift strand of West Marin County?  Jupiter would be easier, I think.  You could make your sales pitch to Evangelicals and emphasize the Denialist viewpoint.  "Do you really believe God would allow this magnificent white sand to be submerged beneath ten meters of ocean?" This approach is unlikely to work in the pagan world of Marin County, however, although a New Age angle is probably feasible.  A New Age angle is always feasible out here, since it requires nothing more than a statement that it is so.  "Buy in Seadrift.  Become the ocean of your dreaming self."  Yeah, that will fly.

The Ukraine (I was trained, from playing Risk as a kid, to use the definite article) remains an amazing triumph of American propaganda.  Even by Council of Morons standards, Tom Friedman's column in a recent New York Times was a triumph of Imperial Stenography.  Here's how Tom handled the knotty question of just how it happened that Ukraine's democratically-elected President, Yanukovych, was forced from office by a coup d'etat:

Yanukovych opted instead for a closer economic relationship with Russia, so The Square People in Kiev toppled him, challenging every aspect of Putin’s K.G.B.-shaped worldview. Putin does not believe any political protest can ever be spontaneous. If a large body of Ukrainians gathered in the square of Kiev to demand an end to corruption and closer ties with the E.U., it could only be because the C.I.A., NATO or the E.U. inspired or paid them to do so. Putin’s whole mind-set is top-down, and the notion that the combination of globalization and the I.T. revolution might have given the “people” both the ability to see things they could never see before — and the tools to collaborate and act on them from the bottom up — is totally alien to him.

 So first one must apologize for exposing the reader to another of Tom's absolutely awful coinages:  The Square People.  When Friedman gets going with one of these clever turns of phrase, you just have to stand back and let the terrible writing run its course.  However, where might Putin get the idea that The Square People of Kiev were not just a "spontaneous" demonstration of freedom-loving, pro-European Union, plug-and-play iPhone app code-crunching Tweeting Instagramming Americanesque Slavs, but paid operatives of the American government, and Neo-Nazis at that?

I dunno.  You'd have to ask Friedman, because Tom has already affirmed that he knows how Putin thinks, and Tom, wunderkind that he is, knows that Putin doesn't know anything about computers or social media or globalization (surprising, in a way, given Putin's advanced degrees from top-flight Russian universities in scientific disciplines, not to mention his chess-playing, which is at the Master level).  Putin, however, runs a top-down government, unlike the American democracy which only caters to the preferences of its lowliest citizens.  

However, Box-of-Hammers Tom might want to ask a preliminary question: wasn't this guy Yanukovych, whatever his failings of "corruption," democratically elected by the people of Ukraine with full knowledge of his pro-Russian leanings?  Did it actually come as a surprise to the general citizenry of Ukraine that the fellow they just elected favored Moscow over the bureaucratic elites of Brussels?

Try turning this around, Tombo.  Washington, D.C. must have a Square somewhere or other.  Suppose that the Tea Party, fed up with the idea of Minority Rule in the U.S. (and by Minority Rule, you know what I'm driving at here), "spontaneously" organize a coup d'etat in the United States to overthrow the "corrupt" rule of Barack Obama and force him to flee to, I guess, Kenya.  Certainly the charge of corruption could be sustained.  Didn't professors Gilens & Page just conclusively demonstrate, through rigorous regression analysis, that the U.S. adopts policies that favor a tiny sliver of the American populace (if you count multinational corporations as part of the "populace") to the exclusion of the interests of the American commoners?  Yes, they did.  Even the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve (the pinko Janet Yellen) could not gainsay the suggestion from Bernie Sanders at a Senate hearing recently that the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy.  So couldn't the people of the world, or Russia's version of Tom Friedman (there's a strange concept), quote our own academics and the Chairperson of our own Federal Reserve to the effect that Barack Obama is the head of a corrupt, undemocratic government, and thus his overthrow was appropriate, indeed, the highest realization of the lofty ideals of Square People everywhere?

So what then, Mr. Friedman, does your criticism of Vladimir Putin consist of?  That he objects to rule by mob?  Sometimes it's better not to get carried away with vacuous propaganda just because you come up with a crummy phrase like "Square People" and want to explain the whole world with it.  You start sounding like an idiot.

But as I say, I have nothing to say this morning anyway.

May 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: The Eternal Now & Other Pointless Experiences

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Events in life arranged themselves in such a way a couple of days ago that I took a round-trip voyage to San Francisco from Larkspur Landing aboard a Golden Gate Ferry.  The trip over was mid-day; the return was during commute hours.  The ferries now are high speed catamarans which can traverse the waters behind the Tiburon Peninsula, cross the Raccoon Straits between Tiburon and Angel Island, and sail to the lee of Alcatraz to the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street in about 30 minutes.

More than twenty-five years ago I used the Larkspur ferry as my usual commute to work.  I had an office at One Market Plaza (the taller of the two sand-colored buildings pictured above in my own photo).  I once calculated that I made about 2,500 crossings during those commuting years. A ticket cost about two bucks, versus the $9.50 fare charged the usual working-age commuter now.  Parking was free and easily available.  It now costs a couple of bucks to park, and the lot is jammed.  Parking is arranged through a smart phone app.  It can be reliably assumed that the two bucks is a teaser rate designed to get people used to paying to park where they used to leave their cars for free.  In a year or two, I'm sure it will  cost five bucks, then seven, then ten.

What I can remember about commuting is that after the initial adventure of the experience wore off, I settled into finding a comfortable seat where I could read the San Francisco Chronicle in the morning and work the crossword puzzle, then read the Examiner in the evening and solve its.  I didn't look at the view; I had seen the view after a few crossings, and it was more trouble than it was worth.  In retrospect, that was a silly way of looking at things.

I came to recognize a few regulars on my usual schedule.  There was one woman I regularly saw who wore stylish business attire, low heels, her flouncy auburn hair blowing in the Marin breeze as she walked briskly to the boat.  I think she was a lawyer in a big firm somewhere in the Embarcadero.  I surmised from the regularity of her habits, her trim body, the big chunk of ice on her left ring finger, that she was a well-married and highly competent professional who had probably gone to Stanford Law School and had found life a series of confident triumphs.  She was pretty without being glamorous, and it was always reassuring to see such an attractive person using the same public amenity as myself.  I still see her from time to time at the market near my home where I drop in occasionally to spend more for food than is at all reasonable.  She's aged, like me, and I don't think she works anymore.  She has a couple of grown daughters I see her with.  I never learned her name, and I've never uttered a word to her.  I simply remember her.

I don't remember much else besides, as far as the ferry-riding years are concerned.  All told, with the waiting, the boarding, the voyages themselves, I imagine I spent about 3,000 hours in Golden Gate Ferry commuting.  In those days the boats were lumbering single-hulled craft which took at least 45 minutes to cross the Bay.  I can remember the woman I have described walking ahead of me one day, briefcase in hand, her auburn hair bouncing.  But the memory is only of a few seconds.  I cannot remember a single word, or a single clue, of the thousand or more crosswords I worked.  I don't remember any conversations aboard the boat.  There were no shipboard romances.  Nothing really happened, as far as I can remember.

I once wrote a short story about this elusive quality of memory, about how the mind works when it "recalls" something.  Things done repetitively, like commuting, like making coffee, like getting ready for work, like work itself, do not really register.  When we remember them, all that we do is to conjure a few representative flashes of memory that we allow to stand in for the generality of the experience we are recalling.

It's fairly obvious that the brain evolved to be exquisitely attuned to the present moment.  The purpose of memory is to retain survival skills and to remember danger signals, not to act as some sort of DVR of what happened long ago.  So a wiser course in riding the Golden Gate Ferry would have been to stand out on the fantail on every crossing and take the brisk bay wind full in the face, feeling the salt spray churned up by the plunging bow.  It made no sense to deal with the time that was passing by engaging in distractions.  Any way of dealing with life's passing moments that elevates a given moment over another is based on an illusion.  Once lived and forgotten, all moments are equally pointless.  As they happen, all are equally valuable.

May 10, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Door Number One, or Door Number Two? Better to find a Door Number Three, I suppose.

Brought to you by Peet's Colombian blend...

(Video doesn't seem to want to embed; worth watching - 8 minutes of Noam Chomsky's deadpan description of "Challenges of the Anthropocene.)

Climate Denialists point to the natural variability of weather, the waxing and waning of solar maxima and minima, the wobbling of the Earth around its axis of rotation, and other factors which have, given very long periods of time in which to subtly influence the climate, led to ice ages and eras of significantly higher average temperatures than prevail today.  These things did not happen in the ancient past, however, when the Earth was inhabited by 7 billion people combusting fossil fuels at the current rate. While the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been higher in the ancient past, even without the influence of fossil fuel burning, the rate at which we are increasing CO2 concentrations is unprecedented, as far as we can tell.

Also, it should probably go without saying that there have been no ice ages of any consequence (just a couple of Little Ice Ages of abnormally cold weather, of centuries duration, such as was occurring in Valley Forge the night before George Washington led his troops across the Delaware) since the era of agriculture began about 12,000 years ago.  The explosion in human population over these twelve millenia has depended on a moderate, predictable climate, as Craig Dilworth explained at great length in the indispensable Too Smart For Our Own Good.  These moderate, ideal conditions are what we have now trashed for good.  This is a stunning achievement, when you think about it.

It is perhaps true that modern humans spend an entirely unnatural amount of time in virtual realities or in artificial environments generally, and this is particularly true in advanced human civilizations of the First World.  Still, we were once arboreal foragers and hunters, and we remain exquisitely attuned to perturbations in the climate around us.  Lately, people have begun to notice that the weather is getting somewhat whacked.  This accounts for the very recent explosion in the sheer volume of airtime that the issue of climate change has begun to command.  As little as a year ago, it seems the subject never came up on the evening news or in the halls of Congress.

Led by breakthrough research and thinking by Jennifer Francis at Rutgers University and Paul Beckwith at the University of Ottawa, the effect of "Arctic amplification" has moved to center stage as an explanation for what the hell is going on.  Such as: granted, the song told us it never rains in California, but I thought this was poetic hyperbole.  I didn't think we were going to arrive at the point where it actually never rains in California.  Or: the "polar vortex" attacks on the Northeast and Southeast during a very rough winter, while the Arctic itself (and Alaska) remained unseasonably mild through the dark, sunless months.

With the Arctic warming and the Equatorial Earth remaining fairly constant in its temperature, the thermal gradient between the 0 latitude and the Arctic Circle has broken down.  It was this gradient  and the resultant flow of warm air northward toward the Pole, which was in turn bent laterally into the west-to-east jet stream by Coriolis force, which controlled our predictable weather in days of yore.  We took care of that.  Now anything goes, as Cole Porter would sing it.

Admittedly, I've gotten a little obsessed with the subject, because that's sort of the way I roll. Like my cats, I'm a little too curious for my own good. I find myself reading books, or watching movies, that were written or filmed ten years ago and taking solace in the idea these characters were living in a world where you didn't have to worry about which bizarre meteorological thing was going to happen next.  Now we don't have that grace, ease and comfort.

I think we've run up against things, hard, implacable things, all of a sudden, and that is why we're so disoriented.  Why those three a.m. disquietudes are so unsettling.  Even the climate scientists seem shocked into silence.  On the most recent open thread at, a persistent question from the posters took this form:

Speaking of the weather, I actually have a climate science question.
How long before Arctic amplification causes the Jet Stream to completely collapse, and what will happen then?

Others seconded the question, but I didn't see any of the climate science moderators take the question on.  What is there to say?  The predictive models did not really forecast this particular manifestation of global warming, but if we wanted to point to just one effect of AGW, wouldn't we talk about this weather weirding attributable to the disappearance of Arctic sea ice and disruption of the northern jet stream?   So this thing that has us totally freaked out - we didn't even see it coming.  What does that suggest to you?

Noam points out that Homo sapiens has figured out another reliable way to bring on the End Game, which is thermonuclear war.  This post is running a little long, but since I only write once a week, I will venture this observation which I have not seen voiced in any of our official organs of public opinion, even the chief propaganda rag of D.C., the New York Times.

To wit, beginning in late November of next year, 2015, the great nations of the Earth will gather in Paris for what is widely considered a make-or-break climate conference.  It is slowly dawning on the Big Thinkers that given the 40-year lag time between a given CO2 level in the atmosphere and its effect on climate (meaning, this weird weather and the crazification of the jet stream reflect emissions up to 1974), and that it was well after 1974 that China and India came on board with their coal-burning jamboree, that maybe, just maybe, we better get this thing the fuck in gear. So, my question: given the manifest need for international kumbaya, is it absolutely the best time for the Obama Administration, egged on by the Council of Morons at the NYT, to bring back That 70's Show called the Cold War with the Soviet Union Russia?  To conjure up images of the "Domino Effect" by pretending that Russia is in imminent danger of invading Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, or pouring through the Fulda Gap to overrun East Germany?

Personally, I doubt it.  Dmitry Orlov referred to our President in his latest blog as a "claymation figure with a teleprompter," which I admit is damn good, and reflects my own take on the extent to which Mr. Obama actually controls American foreign policy.  The State and Defense Department apparatchiks are more likely running the show, and they seem intent on playing this "Great Game" bullshit over the world's remaining oil and gas pipelines and reserves, and of maintaining American strategic primacy in regions far distant from our (acidified) shores.

There comes a time when Utopian idealism is actually more realistic than what we used to think of as realism, and I suspect that time has arrived.  Realism of the old kind leads to extinction, through either Door Number One or Door Number Two.  It is, as Baudelaire said, time to get drunk, on wine, poetry or virtue as we choose, that we may not be the martyred slaves of Time.

May 03, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Simple Stringed Pleasures, Episode 2

Brought to you by Trader Joe's Italian Dark Roast blend...

A longtime buddy of mine and I once kicked around the idea of writing the "definitive history" of the housing tract where we grew upThis Peninsula subdivision was built about 18 miles south of San Francisco as the seagull flies, in an area that had once been part of San Francisco Bay but then filled in and covered with modest family homes in a rectilinear gridTrees were planted, a school was built, a park in the center of the tract was laid out, and a shopping mall was erected at the far north end of the main street running north-south through the gridHouses were built on quarter-acre lots, two or three bedrooms, one bath, a dining room, a living room and a kitchenYards front and back, a single-car garageIn the second California Gold Rush, beginning with the Dust Bowl and continuing through and after World War II, such subdivision housing sold out quickly, acquired by people like my parents, in search of a better, or at least different, life than that experienced elsewhereWhich makes me think that life elsewhere might have been pretty rough.

Later I discovered that it was unnecessary to write such a history, bestseller though it might have been, because a fellow named D. J. Waldie had written a book with the unlikely title Holy Land, about the town of Lakewood, a suburb of Los AngelesD. J. described housing tracts which were a lot like the ranch-style ghetto of my youthIn his meticulous re-creation of the town's planning and development (enabled by voluminous research into newspaper archives, land records, court files and minutes of the planning commission), and through his own detailed account of the experience of growing up in Lakewood, Waldie captured the sense of alienation from the natural world induced by such a place, how the abstract nature of a layout where the houses, the street lamps, the scrawny trees (tapping their roots into saline soil), the mall, the school, the amenities and even the designed relief from the monotony (the park) were so utterly predictable. You might even sayabstract.

An assignment in a first-year English class at Berkeley, taught by the marvelously self-important Oscar Pemantle, was Notes From the Underground by our man Fyodor, often referred to on this very blog as perhaps the most definitive of the existential writers, although I realize he is not ordinarily grouped with them. In Notes, Dostoevsky wrote about the only subject which serious literature can seriously address, which is the meaninglessness of life. At one point St. Petersburg is described as the most "abstract" city in the world, and Professor Pemantle, trolling for suckers, asked the class what Fyodor had in mindThinking about my own humble origins in the housing tract, I told Oscar I would give it a try, and then opined that maybe Dostoevsky was suggesting that St. Petersburg was too carefully planned and constructed, leaving one with the disturbing feeling of living somewhere unnatural and contrived, "alienating the psyche from its habitat." I thought that last phrase had a genuine Berkeley pseudo-intellectual flair, and Oscar seemed to like it, even if there was no communication between us of what either of us thought it meant.

Nevertheless, when Oscar Pemantle gave his formal lecture on the book, he did not adopt this insight as his ownThese were performance pieces, by the way, these "definitive" lectures. The class was full to overflowing with the regular students, and with other professors and their teaching assistants sitting in, along with many drop-ins from Berkeley's endless supply of scholastically omniverous intellectuals, all there just looking in on the high-minded fun. Oscar would don a three-piece blue suit, a silk tie, wing tips, and even sport a gold watch chain for good measure, which he would ostentatiously consult during his orationMagnificent in his glowing, unlined mahogany skin and stylish barrister's attire, his dark hair swept back, his gold-framed glasses glinting, his voice, with its faint Indian intonation, chopping and parsing words with great precision, prancing and preening, wheeling and dipping as he walked back and forth across the classroom, Professor Pemantle told us that the book was really

I didn't buy it, myselfI thought he was just trying to be controversial.

I think I understand abstraction, because I lived it first-handBear in mind also that my generation was really the first to go all-in for video lifeI doubt seriously that life would have been conceivable in the housing tract without it, unless you were from one of those extraordinarily weird families who sat around a table reading Bible verses to each otherand then plotting the axe murders of everyone they knewThus, outside in the "real world" (the abstract suburb) was nothing recognizable as nature, and in the house was a television.

In 1968 I bought Mason Williams's music book, a book called "Music" in his usual deadpan way, for $2.50If you've been paying attention, you know that by 1968 I could read music for the guitar, and I wanted to learn "Classical Gas," the better to charm Berkeley co-eds withMason included some poetry in his book, such as "The Censor," which had a line about television which knocked me out:

"And light up like welding shops the ho-hum rooms of America."

I used to walk or ride a bike home at night through the tract, often after hanging out with the buddy who is co-author of the unwritten bookThere were no easy paths home since in my part of the subdivision the blocks were laid out in long, parallel, dogleg fashion, with no cross-streets breaking through. You can imagine why. It would have been much nicer to relieve the monotony of a long street lined with identical houses, but you lose a lot or two every time you penetrate the avenue with something as useless as a cross-street. Anyway, I would gaze into the ho-hum rooms of America as I walked in the cold, windy air, and that's exactly what they looked like: blue welding shops, fusing the families together with an alloy of intense boredom and self-loathing.

Later, years after university daysI read the social critic Lewis Mumford's observation that the experience of living in suburban houses ruled by television sets "inured" the American populace to the idea of nuclear annihilation. To wit, at least a thermonuclear holocaust would be something to do, strange as it might be, and Americans were already thoroughly imbued with the sensibility that life was, at base, kind of preposterous in its usual routines. In a sense now we have taken television culture to an exponentially higher level, since electronics permit forms of television to be carried on the person at all times, so that even the outdoors can be included within the ho-hum regions of America, since the generations that succeeded mine have eschewed the natural world altogether in favor of its holographic representations.

I don't know what Mumford would make of the present situation. The United States these days appears to be deliberately provoking Russia in the service of a geopolitical "strategy" to maintain American hegemonyPresident Obama, in his utterly goofy, clueless way, is being wheeled around like a ventriloquist's dummy by various D.C. "power players," and since Mr. O can't really tell the difference between a good idea and a very bad one, he goes along, since the alternative would be to disagree, mounting a powerful, cogent argument of his own, forcefully delivered.  More or less in the style, come to think of it, of Oscar Pemantle in days of yore, and I don't see that happening.

If a thermonuclear holocaust begins (and it all simply depends on whether Vladimir Putin decides to start one in response to relentless American provocation), there will be a lot of "platforms" to get the word out, providing a lot of "content" which will instantly go "viral" until an electromagnetic pulse shuts it all downThat will be the main bummer about the whole overkill thing; since nothing in our times can be said even to exist until it is Tweeted or texted, captured by cell phone camera or iPad and included in a conversation thread on Facebook, in a way the end of civilization won't really happen in terms we can grasp anymoreThere will just be time for a cliche or two: "Didn't see that coming!" "WTF?" And then our abstract habitations, such as they are,  will all be fused glass.