Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Big Hands

 I once saw a blurred black and white photograph of an Amerindian tribal dance, I believe of the Northwest—the dancers, depicting spirits, were dressed in masks and wore big hands, hands that reduced the dancers to puppet size. The big hands represent the enormous reach required to contact the spirits—or was it the great power of those spirits? I can’t say. It’s possible the caption writer made it all up. Maybe for that dance someone came by and said, “Try it with big hands.” “Why? Last week you wanted us to wear false eyelashes.” “I don’t know. Just try.”  It should be obvious—I have big hands on my mind. They have a nightmare aspect. An apocalyptic element. Like the Oscar Mayer weiner mobile, say.
Keep away from this truck, they're up to no good, believe me.

(Why am I always disturbed and disgusted by the Bread and Puppet Theater and their solemn promenades?  Is it their frozen display of virtue? Those puppets definitely have big hands.) Then consider, if you will, the guys on corners holding up foam hands, orange or green, to encourage us, usually, to look at real estate—a whole new subdivision or small crop of townhouses.  Are these guys, perhaps, agents of a hearth goddess? If I went into street advertising and had a choice, I’d prefer waving big hands to that other attention-getter, the gigantic foam sombrero. Imagine, if you will, this scenario: you are a young pop singer in search of a media moment – why not use a foam hand to make lewd gestures in a micro-outfit while singing on an awards show? That’ll grab ‘em. Said pop singer would be on to something. Thanks to their presence in the media’s illusion apparatus, celebrities are granted big hands, but they usually don’t have a clue how to use them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Manifesto 117B, The Starmaker in Shmoo-ville

1. Seek out weird cosmologies, wherever they lurk: a treasured tome of natural philosophy, the small advertisements in comic books, or a worn blue velvet Cutty Sark sack.
2. Reread at least a few panels of 'Lil Abner the daily strip that  intrigued me most of my childhood--and which I far preferred to the overly-subtle Pogo. "He [Al Capp] was a very angry man" -- rough quote from a Capp biography. 

Too many subtexts, not enough time, just enjoy the cereal.
 3. Do something with the etched ribs I bought on a whim at a temple flea market in Kyoto. At least find out if they are genuine Edo-period erotica or just crass imitations of delicate yet crass originals. (I don’t currently have a den in which to bring my guests--male or cigar-smoking new women of the 1920s--pour tumblers of scotch, and say, ‘ah yes, something I picked up whilst in the Orient.’)
4. Uphold my vow never to learn a single magic trick, particularly one involving playing cards or small tongue depressors.
5. Continue to “enjoy my publishing journey” as one children's books agent suggested in a brush-off line.
6. Never purchase a shrunken head—even if Walmart starts to stock them at discount in its ‘weird yet lively accessories’ aisle.
7. Sign daily at least three on-line petitions that are at cross purposes. 
8. Never trouble over ways to conclude an essay involving a list as structuring device.   
9. Someday finish one of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novels (not the kids' books, I've read those), and, while I’m at it, one of Olaf Stapledon’s idea heavy yet narrative light essay-novels (I've made it at least halfway through one). It is about time we all learn who the Starmaker is. 

    Monday, August 26, 2013

    Brain Eating Zombies

    I recently read John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades (2006) and Gene Wolfe’s Home Fires (2010) two works from science fiction wizards that feature a trendy science fiction premise: the uploaded mind. The futurist website “Lifeboat Foundation” explains, “Mind uploading, sometimes referred to as nonbiological intelligence, centers around the controversial proposition that cognitive processing can be implemented on substrates other than our current neurons.” The reward is immortality—as a digitized mind leapfrogs from form to accessorized form through the centuries. The concept traces back, in part, to roboticist Hans Moravec’s Mind Children (1988) and colleague Ray Kurzweil’s books The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). These books predict artificial intelligence far surpassing that of the human mind. The uploaded mind, just one element in the coming revolution, makes human participation possible in what these technologists foresee as a posthuman or at best cyborgian (i.e. “transhuman”) future. 
    My Mind Upload - (Before and After). Definite phrenological improvement!

    Science fiction provides a stable home for the uploaded mind premise. The concept of an immortalized mind has long been a part of the genre—with brains in boxes or consulting heads in jars popular—as in the Captain Future series of the 1940s and Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms (1987), while Victor Frankenstein and his assistant were plugging in brains and channeling animal magnetism in the early nineteenth century. Our more recent technologists, along with science fiction writers, have added digitization to Mary Shelley’s re-animation scenario.

    In Wolfe’s book, the mind scan of a dead woman—the protagonist’s mother-in-law—is downloaded into a live woman’s brain; the protagonist pays for this luxury service to please his fiancée at her homecoming from a deployment fighting aliens in the stars. In Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” trilogy—(the book I read was the second) soldiers are vat-grown and upgraded in various ways to form a deadly special forces shunned by the “realborn” as monstrous. The hero, a vat-grown soldier with the downloaded brain of a rogue scientist, struggles with a massive identity crisis.

    Many futurists believe the upload idea will soon escape from science fiction. Participants at the Global Futures 2045 International Congress this summer in New York gleefully discussed the day when silicon encoded mindware will replace the wetware of the central nervous system. Their optimism is based on impressive achievements in artificial intelligence and robotics. Even better, Big Science appears to be accommodating this radical vision. In February 2013, President Obama proposed a new initiative, akin to the cracking of the human genome—to map the entire neural network of an active human brain—that is, construct a “connectome.”

    Participants at the Global Futures Congress were also cheered to learn that researchers with the European Human Brain Project had just completed an atlas of a 65-year-old woman’s brain. Dubbed rather prosaically, BigBrain, the atlas offers a three-dimensional neural map fifty times more precise than its predecessors, based on thousands of microscopically thin slices of this woman’s (obviously no longer active) brain. The fine-grain “connectome” that uploaders seek, however, requires immense computing power not yet available.

    Most biologists and neuroscientists are not kind to the uploader dream. MIT neurobiologist Sebastian Seung, involved in connectome research, argues that the process of deconstructing the human brain does not automatically guarantee knowledge of how to construct an artificial brain. Other critics note that futurists might not only be confusing the map with the territory, but refusing to accept that aspects of the territory may always remain elusive. Roger Penrose rejected the possibility of machines ever harboring consciousness, simply because there must be some non-computable characteristics of mind that designers cannot encode as algorithms.

    True believers know better—and await the Singularity. Relying on Moore’s law of steadily increasing computing power, transhumanists project 2045 as the year when superintelligence emerges from its silicon matrix to transform all of Being. Bloggers describe the Singularity much as fundamentalist Christians might the Rapture, Norse pagans Ragnarok, or Cubs fans the World Series.  The approaching Singularity has its crass side. An internet search on the name Ray Kurzweil leads to an advertisement, “The Singularity is Near, stay healthy the Kurzweil way.” We are then treated to a host of products that Ray Kurweil and physician Terry Grossman assure will keep up in shape for the Singularity.

    Fast forward to 2045. You have been staying healthy. You know your vitamins and supplements. The Singularity has arrived. You’re ready for the upload, and a zombie-like machine is prepared to eat your brain. Will you become immortal? That depends. Will the marooned neural pattern feel like a self, and if a self, like “you”?  Will living as information result in a crushing existential crisis? Might thousands of copies of “you” invent infinite futures—each of them clearly no greater in significance than a performance of a flea circus? Or, having finally cheated death, are you feeling healthy enough to conquer a solar system?
       When perplexed about mad science, I turn to science fiction.  Reading the recent books by Wolfe and Scalzi finally clarified for me why the “zombie” idea has been so popular this past decade: artificial intelligence’s leading lights are guiding us directly to zombieland. Victor Frankenstein—who really didn’t pay enough attention to his fiancée—had an agenda. Moravec, Hayworth, and  Kurzweil have their own. Yes, immortality might have its positive side—like living forever—but it is as easy to imagine the many new hells that might ensue. Consider this: you are rude to a technician at the upload company. They inject your mind into a virtual environment with companions that include Dick Clark constantly celebrating the New Year; one former celebrity from Hollywood Squares (Zsa Zsa Gabor?); the reality TV star of the month, and one or two serial killers. Add eternity and no exit. The digital afterlife may not be an “upgrade.”  But what can zombies expect?

    Thursday, July 25, 2013

    My Huffington Post: Too Freakish a Place - Ray Palmer and the Invention of "Psi-Fi"

    Ray Palmer was an American original. Born in Milwaukee in 1910, he was struck by a milk truck at age seven, shattering his back and forcing him to be bedridden for much of his childhood and crippled for life (he remained a hunchback). After seeing the first issue of Hugo Gernsback's landmark science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories, in 1926, he became hooked on science fiction. An early enthusiast (it was then called "scientifiction" or stf), Palmer co-edited the world's first fanzine, The Comet, with its first issue in 1930. When fans honored Hugo Gernsback as the "Father of Science Fiction" at the Worldcon--or more formally The World Science Fiction Convention--in 1952, Ray Palmer also was honored as the "Son of Science Fiction."

     to read the full blog please go to the Huffington Post.

    Sunday, May 19, 2013

    Days of Reckoning Press

    I once was the editor of a “zine” that made it through at least four issues with the spiffy title The Days of Reckoning Press. At the time I was living with a young woman, lets call her Z--,  who was my co-editor. We were on the fringes of the punk scene. That is to say, she was in the punk scene and I wasn’t. It was a few years too early to call us “slackers,” plus Z-- worked a real job in the research division of the NYPL, while I was a low-paid “journalist” for suburban newspapers.  We collected weird pamphlets and books. Z-- kindly introduced me to the writings of Charles Fort (whose wit and creativity make him transcend the crackpot category). Other treasures collected include a pamphlet about the benefits of “rebound” exercise (on small trampolines), aka "reboundology," and one I since have lost about Baltasare Forestiere, the Mole Man of Fresno, who carved out an enormous underground house in the desert of California for a bride in Italy who refused to join him. My rather miniscule collection still includes a homey history circa 1940 of the Purefoy Hotel in Alabama. Z-- subscribed to a very bizarre newspaper out of Hollywood in which all manner of strange theories were promulgated, and in which one B-movie actor, Aldo Ray, a friend of the publisher’s, was treated as one of the all-time greats. (David Goodis’s Nightfall is still one of my favorite noir novels but I have never seen the movie starring the great Aldo Ray.)

    The idea with Days of Reckoning was to mimic a crackpot publication--like that one out of Hollywood. For inspiration, we read all of Martin Gardner’s books on pseudoscience. We also had both gone to college in Santa Cruz, California, so our memories of the bulletin boards there, full of testimonials for groups like the “Breatharians” (who claimed they did not need to eat but only breathe mindfully to survive) provided added inspiration--in Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, trying to escape from the jargon-laced ensnarements of Est-graduates was also part of daily survival. A few friends contributed columns. I drew a picture of a lizard for the front cover that also served as the handbill that we posted on street corners.   We pasted up each edition the old-fashioned way and then ran it off on what were then termed“Xerox” machines—since we didn’t have access to the even less efficient technology of a mimeograph machine.
    In the zine, I included  brief biographies of characters such as Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. I didn’t know what I was doing but tried to make these pieces read like slightly zany Jorge Luis Borges essays. Instead they read like something that belonged in a zine.  I suppose it was a bit sophomoric. We had a few avid fans, including my older brother, who tends to like all my dubious stunts. (My writing career probably began in high school when I wrote him long letters when he was off being a ski bum that he read aloud to his roommates in Colorado to apparent great effect.) The advertisements for Days of Reckoning outlived the publication--one of the phantom handbills with a ripped up lizard survived near a loading dock off of Bleecker Street for nearly a decade after we closed the press.

    After this period of youthful/punk/bohemian/absurdity I broke with Z--, floundered around, got married, got a Ph.D. and learned better how to research and write about historical characters such as Hahnemann. My dissertation was filled with biographical sketches of electro-therapy showmen, stage hypnotists, anti-Spiritualists, and New Age salespeople. The Days of Reckoning impulse had undergone a sea change--it's hard to be a father, raise two children, and live absurd. I still love writing about people who uphold bold ideas contrary to the status quo--call it the Quixote impulse. [See Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey]

    The Days of Reckoning no longer seem to be upon me. With that, I can live.

    Friday, May 10, 2013


    I recently adopted the word Interwebs, after puzzling over it and then gleaning online that the term began its life as one of George W. Bush’s malapropisms. I like the way it takes the slapstick to the word Internet, makes the medium seem, correctly, as stupid or smart as the people involved.
    Participants in an early Go tournament in Pittsburgh, 1934.
                With his slip of the tongue, W. joined the longstanding project of science fiction writers to conjure up future slang. In the early 1930s, science fiction editor Ray Palmer ran a competition for new slang in his column “Spilling the Atoms” in the fanzine Time Traveller. The offerings weren’t great, for example, “Go Oil a Robot,” and “That’s gravitude for you.” Yet SF writers forged on, coining names for  technologies and practices alien to the present. Much of it was obsolete on delivery if you can "grok" what I'm saying.
                 It took a mainstream novelist, Anthony Burgess, to invent a virtuosic slang that borrowed from Russian to animate his droogs' patter--for example, the joy Alex and pals feel after they "tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood."  
                 Philip K. Dick, who projected a future where all was not gleaming, shimmering majesty, realized the true potential of such slang – offering up not linguistic bravado based on false utopian promise but instead words with a stale wholesale quality. Like his heroes, his slang was schlubby, schleppy, borderline mensch. When I first began reading his books, I found his invented names off-putting, irritating; the words looked dead, dispirited. Slowly I realized that they helped define a future that was slightly anemic, mildly dystopic, and at times downright psychotic.
                Dick’s characters read self-editing “homeopapes,” they lived in “conapts” (a term that still bothers me, but bothers me more when not a feature of his future worlds); they used “skins” (of alien fungi) or “crumbles” to buy products created in “autofacs.” If they are lucky they fly in their own “flapple” or “squib”—all this far from the heroic gadgets imagined in the 1930s by Hugo Gernsback and his fellow enthusiasts for space opera. When depressed, Dick heroes enter “Padre booths” for guidance. If marooned on a dystopic Mars, they take the drug Can-D with friends and set up a “Perky Pat” layout so all can become characters in the imaginary landscape of this Barbie-like figure.
               Dick’s slang created an architecture for perishable futures. If Dick was a pre-cog he saw that the future was never futuristic and in fact slipslided, usually in undesirable directions.

    Saturday, March 23, 2013

    The Space Age Candidate

    The Space Age not only forced people to reckon with the otherworldly flavors of Pillsbury's Space Food Sticks and the orange powder drink, Tang, but also the arbitrary nature of national borders.  The Berlin Wall remained, but dogs, monkeys, and people were circling the globe.  Not just anarchists but corporations were working towards a utopian flow of ideas and goods across those pesky lines. A new space age perspective emerged. In the 1960s Buckminster Fuller started talking about "Spaceship Earth," and soon after environmentalists offered slogans and battle cries such as "Earth First!"
             As early as the 1940s, SF fans had begun to talk of having the “long view,” as the space age they predicted and helped nurture took shape. Then came sightings of flying saucers, hovering over cities and onto movie screens. Children, particularly boys, added astronaut to their list of future jobs. Space, however, was expensive. Many of those in the era's occult underground morphed into 'Flying Saucer People.'  You no longer had to meet the Ascended Master St. Germain somewhere beneath Mt. Shasta--instead initiations now took place in outer space amid glowing lights and soothing music. Without the benefit of a national space program, many "contactees" came forward (especially on late night talk radio) to insist that on their own they had come into contact with alien beings, aka “Space Brothers.”  And so, in 1960, we gained our first, and, so far, only, Space Age Candidate for president, Gabriel Green.

              Relying on his base as president of the Amalgamated Flying Saucer Clubs of America, in 1960, Gabriel Green sought the U.S. presidency. This contactee candidate offered a utopian future. Free energy devices would run “automatonic” factories whose secrets he had gained from Space Brothers. He also proposed world peace, an end to nuclear weaponry, an end to pollution, better dental care, schooling, lower taxes, and an end to traffic jams.  His sixteen page pamphlet was free. Regrettably, I have never found a copy. 


    [note: contactee subculture aka "Flying Saucer People" are covered in both of my books in slightly different ways. See: Wonder Shows; Man from Mars;  what can I say, I admire those involved in contact sports.]