Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Slow night

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

(report from Crawpappy's Bar, Tulsa, Okla.)

Life in Crawpappy's slows down for the summer. Perhaps that hot Tulsa sun just sucks the life out of all my partyin' buddies and they find some cool damp hole and crawl in till autumn. Or perhaps -- and this, sad to say, is far more likely -- there's a whole secret network of drunken lake getaways and allnight naked pool parties I know nothing about. There's a guy named Johnny who used to cruise up to Crawpappy's or Woodland across the street late at night in his white Rolls-Royce. He looked like Burt Reynolds and he owned a big titty bar in West Tulsa and he'd show up with slicked back hair and a dark suit, chomping a fat cigar with a girl on each arm. They said he had the best pool parties ever but I never got to see them and about a year or two ago he and his Rolls just glided out of our lives and headed for another town. Ten years ago I'd see a lot of guys like that, guys in white cowboy hats, slick-talking businessmen playing cards or sweet talking some sucker, brassy ladies with big shiny hair as tough as Brillo. Every once in a while some girl would get up on a table and dance and maybe if you were lucky she'd take her top off. And they're just about all gone now. Like the circus leaving town in the middle of the night, they all struck their tents and headed west.

So when Richard warned me it would be a wild night, I put on a silk Armani jacket - an old big shouldered one, so I could be like those cool cats in Miami Vice or Richard Gere in "American Gigolo" -- and a Hawaiian shirt and just strutted into that bar. Oh that place was packed and I felt that old forgotten thrill come back. But then, about 9:30 as if by some prearranged signal that crowd just melted away. And that happy music blared but the circus was gone. The thrill sagged and hissed away like a punctured balloon. I looked around that empty bar and I thought of Oscar Wilde, that most elegant of revellers, how he got locked up for a crime that wasn't a crime and left prison a tired sad old man. Somewhere there's a painting of me getting younger. I thought of Peter Pan, now that's a guy I admire. In fact when I grow up that's who I want to be. But tonight my thoughts kept drifting to that big ol' crocodile with the clock in it. And the clock is age and time and the crocodile is DEATH and the party music played on but all I could hear was TICK TICK TICK.

Sometime around midnight the crowds poured back in and all those gloomy thoughts melted away like snow in the Sahara. "Slow night," one of the waitresses said to me. "It was," I said, "but it's looking pretty good now."

Brian with woman image


The Dismal Science

Martin Hunt headshot by Martin Hunt


This article, "The Dismal Science", is a preliminary personal exploration of economics. I make no pretense that I know much about contemporary economic theory. I've tried to get into it a number of times but have always been repelled by (what is to me) the obvious idiocy of the economic thinking that I've encountered.

I see this as a paradigm problem. The ideas that make up the paradigm of mainstream economics just don't survive in the ecosystem of my mind, because they get attacked and destroyed, perhaps before I fully understand them.

It is obvious to me that I have my own understanding of economics - my own paradigm if you will - and that it is this paradigm that is blocking my acceptance of mainstream economic theory. But my own internal paradigm has never been brought fully into consciousness. While I hope that my paradigm is coherent, I must say in all honesty that I have never articulated it in a way that is complete enough to tell. I've decided to attempt that articulation.

Reading Thomas Kuhn has led me to believe that any paradigm, conscientiously explored, is better than no paradigm. One learns more by being clear, even if mistaken, than by being muddled. This exploration is an attempt to be clear enough that my mistakes will be obvious.

The Dismal Science

Economics has been called the "Dismal Science." My dictionary says that "dismal" means "gloomy, dreary, depressing, bleak." This definition certainly resonates at this time, at least here in British Columbia; it is getting harder and harder to make a living, and the provincial government is busily making it even harder. At every turn, when you seek answers to why this is happening -- the paraphrased answer is "Economics."

Personally, I think it a mistake to call Economics a dismal science because I don't think that it is a science, any more than theology is a science. In economics, as in theology, the central truth is assumed to be true (not demonstrated) and the whole conversation is dedicated to exploring the implications of that assumed truth and to various convoluted apologia whose purpose is to make the assumed truth seem more reasonable.

The Great Balance Sheet

In Economics, I think that the assumed truth is that an economy can be described by something like a balance sheet. This, it seems to me, is a result of the fact that economics has been concerned with money. Before things can even be thought of in economic terms, those things must have money values assigned to them. Once the money value is assigned then the thing can take its place as a number in the Great Balance Sheet.

If we ask the question "what is the proper money value of a thing?" we immediately confront the flaw in the balance sheet idea. The balance sheet is meaningless unless money values can be assigned, and the balance sheet takes on different states according to the actual money values assigned. Therefore the valuation of things determines crucially the information that a balance sheet provides.


I take it that the market is generally invoked as the means by which money value is assigned to things. In this context the market is seen as an external, objective reality beyond human control. The market is seen as automatically assigning values to things, in a way perhaps similar to the way that gravity naturally stratifies immiscible fluids of different densities within the same container. Just as no one tells the oil to float on water, supposedly no one fixes the price of a chocolate bar at a dollar -- it all just happens.

But with oil and water the relative densities are determined by physical details of atomic structure. There is no comparable physical fact that determines the value of a chocolate bar. What is the value of chocolate and peanuts? What is the value of the work that makes and distributes the chocolate bar?

Let's look at the value of chocolate. If I like chocolate, it has a high value -- if I don't like it, it has a low value. Thus, the effect of chocolate on the Great Balance Sheet depends on people's preferences. But how are preferences determined and measured? Supposedly, the market automatically and impersonally is affected by all the preferences and assigns a value for chocolate that reflects the average preference at any moment. The reason I say "supposedly" is that markets are obviously not affected by all preferences. Markets are only affected by those in a position to buy. The preferences of those who cannot buy are not, in general, influential on markets. Moreover, the preferences of those who buy a lot are much more influential than those who buy a little. Therefore it is clear that the money value that a market assigns to things is not determined by an average of all preferences, but by the preferences of a small subset of the population.

This seems very natural -- it is built into the logic of markets. It's only when we bring the assumed truth of economics, the Great Balance Sheet, into consciousness that the skewed valuation provided by markets is seen to be a problem. This is because the numbers that make the balance sheet meaningful are not really a true measure of value, but are instead just an assertion of the preferences of a small subset of a population. Thus the meaning that can be extracted from the Great Balance Sheet, presented as an objective representation of fact, is in fact a subtle but powerful promotion of the interests of those who are already rich against the interests of others with different needs and preferences. It is for this reason that economics, dismal as it may be, is nowhere near being a science. Of course a corollary of this is that the information provided by economics is not to be trusted.

I don't think that all markets are the same. Some do seem to provide a rational valuation. The market for chocolate bars would probably be a good example of this type. Due to wide voluntary participation in the market I'd bet that the selling price of chocolate bars is fairly directly linked to the costs of production and distribution, with a modest profit thrown in.

The valuation provided by some markets is determined more by issues of scarcity and popularity rather than by the cost of production. Most of the arts fall into this category. And while this may seem unjust to some, it does no great harm and makes a kind of sense. The labor market also falls into this category and in this case the result is not nearly so benign. Because the value of labor is not related to its costs, vast numbers of people are forced by their circumstances to sell their labor for less than the cost of their maintenance at a reasonable standard of living. This is what it means to be among the working poor. It is a hard cold fact that there are many people who cannot produce any value with their labour, and the labour market cannot provide any sustenance for such people. These are extremely serious issues about which the labour market has nothing to say.

The capital markets, that is the markets for stocks and bonds, are of a different type again. These are largely speculative markets driven by the desire to make money by means of financial manipulations rather than by production of any sort. Indeed, circumstances often arise where it is more profitable for the speculators to break up a productive resource than to maintain it. But more often this comes about because investment is not focussed on need but is rather driven by emotion and fear as the speculators seek to make something from nothing. Typically, the fact that speculators want something for nothing is disguised by the risks they take in their speculations. But the risk that speculators undertake is not a productive activity, even if it enables production. And -- let us not be blind -- speculation doesn't only enable production, it also inhibits production, because the reward to speculators in the form of interest and dividends is subtracted from the resources available for production as far as the Great Balance Sheet is concerned.

There is a certain irony here, for the speculators typically think of themselves as the source of wealth and production. Here is a quote from the Premier of British Columbia: "I'm surprised that they haven't figured out yet that it's private sector investment that actually generates the income that supports their jobs." I take a different view -- it is the work of people at their jobs that generates the wealth that private sector speculators rip off. When it comes right down to it, people at work are the only sources of wealth there are and it is this fundamental fact that the Great Balance Sheet makes invisible.

An interesting problem caused by the stock market arises because it causes productive entities to have two values -- the value of the company's assets minus its liabilities as its book value and the value of its stock to speculators as its stock value. Now apart from the fact that this double valuation further reinforces the idea that the Great Balance Sheet is not objectively meaningful, it is also very destructive. For instance, if speculative market forces cause the stock value to fall below its book value the company is vulnerable to being broken up by the speculators who hold its stock, even though the company is viable in other respects. When this happens it causes great harm and destruction. People lose their livelihoods and even if they regain it elsewhere later, the interval is still a time of loss, stress and suffering -- a price that they must pay so that speculators may profit. The very significant thing is that the suffering of such people never makes it onto the Great Balance Sheet and as far as economics is concerned is of no importance at all. To add insult to injury, economic theory seems to present such destruction as a positive thing -- a clearing out of deadwood that makes the economy more efficient -- as if the people involved were so much garbage.


So, the idea of the Great Balance Sheet causes a double distortion of our perception of economic reality. First it doesn't register non-monetary values, either positive or negative. Things like suffering caused by economic disruption don't get included in the conversation that the Great Balance Sheet informs. Neither do positive values, like (say) the satisfaction that people feel when they are secure, get entered into the Great Balance Sheet. Instead, these non-monetary values are used as the carrot and stick that causes most people to jump to the speculator's tune. The second distortion is that speculators, and it seems economists, tend to look at those who work in production as parasites -- a drain on wealth rather than as the source of wealth that they are. (See the quote from BC's Premier above.) This is extremely ironic of course, for the speculators really are parasitic.

I have a negative attitude about speculators. Perhaps it's obvious. I must qualify my negativity. First, and most important, I don't mean it personally. On a personal level, speculators are people who, for one reason or another, have a pool of value that is in excess to their needs that they are willing to let others use. Often enough, on a personal level, the hope of profit isn't the only or main reason why that value is made available. And often the pool of values that speculators possess was gathered by sacrifice and valuable work for which they had the good fortune to be rewarded. I do think that speculation is a bad social institution, but I also think that individual speculators must be seen as good or bad according to their circumstances, not because of their social role.

A second important point is to acknowledge the supreme importance of the existence of pools of capital and also to acknowledge the historic fact that speculation has been the primary and most effective way of accumulating such pools. Some would say therefore, that far from being negative, speculation is a positive boon that has brought us prosperity and freedom. I take a different view. It is clear to me that the potential benefits of pools of capital are not realized due to the wastage and ill-focused decision making that is characteristic of the speculative system. The best that can be said of speculation is that it serves as a bootstrap mechanism allowing pools of capital to form in the first place, but I believe that now that same mechanism has become an albatross around our collective neck, restricting our progress and driving us down dangerous paths.

If we have no speculators, what other system would accumulate pools of capital? This is a good question, the kind of question I'd hoped this paper would turn up, and a question for which I have no ready answer, yet.

Other good questions

Who or what should control the pools of capital. This is very vital. On the one hand, how do we ensure competent management so that the valuable pools are not frittered away? On the other hand, how do we prevent the controllers of those pools from turning into dictators if we discard the present anarchic system of many competing speculators?

In closing, what is the assumed idea upon which my own paradigm is based? What is it that I offer as a substitute for the Great Balance Sheet? I don't think that accounting, or even money, is what economics should be about. As a species, we have a task. That task is, bluntly, to support ourselves in the manner that we think fitting. The way we support ourselves is by working to extract the materials we need from our environment and by working to transform those materials into things that are useful to us. I think that economics is the study of how we support ourselves, how we propose to accomplish our great task.

Of course there are many different ways that we can support ourselves. We can set the task so that we are all subsistence farmers or we can set the task so that we are all participants in an industrial society. I don't think the choice of task we undertake is a matter of economics, it is more a matter of philosophy and ethics.


Monday, October 30, 2006

F*ck Love

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

What you have to understand in order to grasp the import of what I'm about to relate is that March 17 is the biggest loudest most venerated day on the calendar of the drinking man. Now not by coincidence that very day is a big and honored holiday in the Republic of Ireland, but the drinking thing just cuts across all nation borders. Now where I live is one of the fifty biggest cities in the U S of A, but it is still a small town in some ways and one of those ways is that just about everybody goes to the same bar. So that bar was the epicenter of that most revered night's festivities and if I hadn't gone so early with most people still outside watchin' the sunset I might even now still be in the line that snaked out the door. And of course I was dressed with a festive night in mind, shinin' bright white wool jacket, shirt starched stiff and gleaming as a dinner plate fresh from the dishwasher, with bold blue stripes just to grab your attention, and in honor of the occasion a green plastic bow tie. And it was indeed a lovely jacket and shirt but no one cared, everyone wanted that tie which was not a famous designer tie but was instead a 69 cents plus tax tie from Med-X convenience and drug store. Girls were promising me just about anything if I gave them that tie and they were drunk enough that they would probably have followed through. Ah but I turned them all away, I wanted that tie. So many girls, so much noise and laughter, it was like the whole world was a big bubbling glass of champagne. And I talked and joked and laughed and even sang out loud when they played that old Irish song about the rover, whose rovin' never no more. And people liked me, sought me out, took my photo and in general thought I was an asset, a welcome addition to their night, and I rode on the waves of their affection and in general just felt like a hero. And on and on I rode, buoyant, and then came the big realization. Day after day, hour after hour, I search for love and troll for love and beg for love and dream of love. Like a man in waiting, waiting for the love of my life to show up and my life to begin. So last night it just hit me. F*ck love. It don't get better than this.

St. Paddy's day epiphany
St. Paddy's day epiphany


Back on Tulsa Time

Brian Schwartz headshot Brian Schwartz

It was a cold and starlit night. Wind whistled through darkened streets, the dead leaves of summer blew in spirals past unlit buildings, deserted, or perhaps the few residents of this warehouse district were hidden cowering behind bolted doors. Some-thing strange, electric was in the air, far beyond the ken of the simple folk who lived here. Suddenly, high-powered head-lights sliced the night, and the sleek streamlined shape of a Grey-hound bus glided past and came to a halt. The door creaked open. A man stepped out. He was tall, wiry, and despite his exhaustion from two nights in this cramped metal tin, he moved with an easy confidence. It was his town, after all. Brian was back.

Brian and the Okie image


Friday, October 27, 2006

Paradise Emporium

C. L. Frost

This article was included in the Storyblogging carnival LVII.

When Mr. and Mrs. Jackson first read the ad, they shook their gray heads in mutual disbelief.

"Too good to be true," Mr. Jackson croaked.

"The schemes these advertisers come up with," Mrs. Jackson groaned. The newspaper shook in her hands as she moved it to a distance from which she could read the tiny print through her bifocals. "You have to admire their cleverness. Or maybe, their audacity."

Paradise Emporium picture
Image by C. L. Frost

Mr. Jackson nodded as he swallowed his morning pills - a scored orange tablet, two green and white capsules and a pale blue lozenge - with a mouthful of decaffeinated, artificially sweetened coffee. The ad reminded him of those he'd read inside matchbook covers and on the back of comic books in his boyhood. It reminded Mrs. Jackson of those Elixirs of Everything, secret formulas guaranteed to cure heart-ache and aging, sold in the housekeeping magazines that her mother had read for decades; newer magic potions, those offered nowadays, added "lost medicines of the Incas" and "remedies derived from recently discovered esoteric Hindu teachings" to the concoction. She cleared the phlegm from her throat and began to read:

"Deal of the Century! First annual Gray Sale, for senior citizens only. Amazing discounts! Lazy-Boy loungers with kid leather upholstery, only $25. Big screen TVs, only $30. Golf carts, only $10. Do you live on a fixed income? Trouble affording that computer you want to buy your grandson? That piano for your granddaughter? New laptops only $50. Baby grands, and a year of free music lessons, only $100. Want to help your daughter remodel her kitchen? Refrigerators, all sizes and colors, just $50; ranges only $40. Everything must go, all prices slashed. First 300 shoppers win a free Caribbean cruise, two weeks in January aboard the Merit Fleet's premier luxury liner. First 500 win a free hot tub, guaranteed to sooth aching joints. Merchandise limited; come early before inventory's gone. Sale one day only - Saturday, September 1st, 10 AM - 8 PM at the Paradise Emporium on Rte 8 at the Elmsbury fair grounds."

Mr. Jackson reached for the paper and squinted at the miniscule, faint print that his wife couldn't see.

"Discounts are made possible by funding from the federal and state governments," he read aloud. "Plus a long line of insurance companies." He paused. "I wonder what the catch is."

"Some trick, for sure." Mrs. Jackson licked her parched lips and sipped tea to wet her mouth before continuing. "We'll get in there and find bargain basement clothes with designer labels - look-alikes until you examine the seams, which are already unraveling. Or big boxes of cereal that look like they could feed an army, but with hardly enough inside to fill a baby's breakfast bowl. If there's a baby grand, it'll probably be made out of plastic and small enough to fit in a dollhouse. The golf cart'll have torn sides and rusty wheels - dragged there straight from the city dump. Probably another scam to fleece us old biddies. Aren't we all dim witted? Isn't everyone with wrinkles and bad knees senile? An easy mark? Don't we all drool over our pudding, dribble Ensure over our bibs and wear adult diapers?"

Mr. Jackson nodded as he placed a red check mark in the upper left corner of the calendar box for Wednesday, to indicate that he'd taken all his morning medications.

"And I never heard of altruistic insurance companies," he muttered. "But, we have a few days until the sale; maybe enough time to find out what really lies behind that ad."

When Mr. and Mrs. Jackson left the house to investigate, they found that all the senior citizens were talking about the sale. Maxine Stritch, the bony seventy-five year old neighbor who lovingly weeded her garden daily despite her arthritis, seemed to bounce on tip-toes; excitement had sucked the pain out of those knobby joints. Anna Difrancesco, the baker's widow, gestured enthusiastically; her plump but agile hands drew arabesques in the air. Tom O'Toole, raconteur and retired electrician, spoke faster and faster, until he began wheezing and perspiration beaded on his reddening scalp.

"The Gray Sale? Of course I'm going!" exclaimed Maxine. "I'm getting there early, 6 AM. Maybe 5 AM, with a fat pillow and a blanket to camp out in front of the door. I want to be one of the lucky three hundred, spend winter basking under the hot Bermuda sun. And my grandchildren want their own computer, not just scheduled time on their parents' machine; they keep asking for one, but you know how much you can buy on a school teacher's pension and social security. So, this is a windfall - if I can beat the lines."

"It's the deal of the century!" Anna's large brown eyes sparkled like those of a restless adolescent in love. "Haven't you seen all the commercials? Every fifteen minutes; they've been advertising for weeks. Just one dollar gets you a raffle ticket for a Cadillac - straight out of the factory, shiny new, any color you want. And they're giving away two hundred. Two hundred! Winners'll be announced just before closing, and I'll be in there, waiting; I'm driving out of there in a sparkling new, hot pink Money-Mobile. Even if I don't win -" She paused to pat her thick gray hair into place. "Everyone always laughed at me for keeping Alfie's truck, the one he used for delivering breads and cakes. 'What's a widow-lady going to do with that big clunker?' they wanted to know. Well, come Saturday, they won't be wondering any more. With everything selling cheaper than week-old pumpernickel, I'll be pulling every credit card out of my purse and thanking the gods for plastic money. Don't need it this year? I might need it next year. Not sure if I can use it? One of my kids or grandkids might use it, and like it for a gift. No excuse not to buy, and that truck holds a lot of stuff. If they sell big TVs and Lazy-Boy Loungers with suede cushions, I'll be storing a new living room in there. Not a Junk-mobile - now it's my treasure-mobile."

"Of course it's real!" laughed Tom. "My son, the one in city council, says they've been planning this for months. Most of the nursing homes are renting vans to take their residents to the event; some didn't want to at first - with all the liability issues, what if Joe Nasty's Grandma gets trampled by the crowds? - but the residents got too excited when they heard about what was coming, demanded to go and threatened to beat the administrators with their canes if they were kept in. The big city's chartered special buses to drive us golden oldies to the sale; the city papers have been advertising Paradise Emporium for almost a year. Buses with fat velvet cushions and seats that recline, for us oldsters with bad backs. Pick-up at our own front door, if you so request. A nurse on every bus, just in case. And other cities and towns, every one that's less than a hundred miles from the fairgrounds, has plans for transporting its seniors."

Tom paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his shiny pink scalp; then, grinning like an aging leprechaun, he inhaled deeply.

"On September 1st," he mused, "Hundreds of buses, all filled with grannies and grandpas wanting to shout a Hip-hip-Hooray camp cheer, will speed down Route eight. Pity any policeman who dares to stop one of those buses! The passengers might beat that cop bloody with their walkers, strangle him with their Foley catheter tubes, sting him with the insulin needles they carry concealed in jacket pockets. Folks'll get feisty, even the sick ones; don't keep us from the Mall-of-all-malls! And can you imagine the evening headlines? 'Cop attacked by mob of seniors, who behave just like teenage hooligans.' Might be the start of a new movement; we might see laws describing canes and catheters as lethal weapons."

That day and the next, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson toured the town, speaking to old people whom they knew already and old people who were strangers. They drove to the Senior Activity Center in the long, wide Ford they'd bought during an era when they thought they'd live forever; with many replaced parts, the lovingly waxed, lemon-yellow car was almost as old as their marriage. They entered Sam's Deli, favored by seniors because it was owned by one capable man as old as themselves and staffed by family members who knew every customer's name: while slicing cheese or spreading lox across warm bagels, Sam would chat about politics or the marital problems of a grandson who lived on the other coast. They strolled into Tony's Foods, the last individually owned grocery in an age of chain supermarkets filled with glaring fluorescent light and clerks trained to smile robotically through their indifference; at Tony's, the amber light softened craggy profiles and treated old eyes gently, and the proprietor's warm welcome made even an old person feel that he was still human, not yet an invisible ghost.

Sam's Deli and Tony's Foods would be closed on Saturday; Sam, Tony, and most of their patrons planned to spend the whole day at Paradise Emporium. Sam even proposed making September 1st a holiday, National Geriatric Day, to be celebrated with parades of costumed marchers wearing masks of wrinkled faces with sagging jowls and thin lips; the marchers might dance nimbly around walkers and twirl canes like batons while high school bands with off-key tubas played favorite old tunes.

"Ideally," Sam winked at Mrs. Jackson, "The band would play perfectly. But, have you ever heard a high school band with all the horns on key? Doesn't exist! So, we soothe our nerves, jittery from all that bad playing, with gourmet feasts cooked without salt and entirely with low cholesterol, antioxidant-rich foods. Sorry, none of my prime Mozzarella on Old Age Day!"

Tony glanced at the personally stocked shelves in his store and shrugged.

"I'd close the shop anyway," he said as he fixed price labels to cans of tomato soup. "Want to get Timmy that bike he's been asking for all year; they're selling ten-speeders for thirty bucks. But who'd come here anyway, even if I kept the place open? No one - not when they're offering a free all-you-can-eat lobster buffet at five, and a big band playing Glenn Miller's greatest hits. Lobster! I haven't tasted it in years; buying it is like buying diamonds. So I'll be there all day, mouth watering."

Early each evening, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson returned home exhausted from their rounds of listening to old people enthuse about the Sale-to-beat-all-Sales at the Paradise Emporium; no one asked why the government and insurance companies would treat the elderly so charitably. Mrs. Jackson called her friends from the Senior Activity Center. Mr. Jackson called his poker buddies - five limping, sometimes incontinent, stiff-jointed but sharp-eyed men who formed his "circle of curmudgeons".

"Everyone else is going," Mrs. Jackson said on Friday night, as she ladled rice and peas onto her plate. "I usually don't like crowds, but I wouldn't want to miss a great event."

Mr. Jackson placed a green check mark in the lower left corner of the calendar's Friday box, indicating that he'd taken the scored orange tablet, the crimson capsule, the two green and white capsules and the huge tan pill prescribed for dinnertime; the tan pill always scratched his throat, stuck in his esophagus and squeezed into his stomach only after several gulps of water. He added a check mark to the lower right corner, indicating that his wife had also taken her evening medication.

"Jeff - the guy with the colostomy bag," he began hoarsely, "Jeff's excited about the sale; he's going with his sister, who's staying at his place overnight and drove six hours to get to the event. Ned, the one with gout who sees through my poker face every time and says that I'm too bad a liar to ever play at real poker; penny poker's it for me, as high as I'll go. Well, Ned thinks that the politicians recognize how many people in this country are over 65; we're a big voting block, can make or break a candidate. So, the politicians want to get on our good side. 'Make nice to the seniors,' they say, 'If you want to keep our seat in congress.' So, we're right to question the motives behind this Paradise Emporium. They're not really giving charity; they expect us to repay them at the ballot box. But, that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy the spectacle and capitalize on a few bargains."

Mrs. Jackson crushed a pea under her fork and watched the pulpy green interior ooze up between the prongs.

"It's probably just my overly cautious nature that makes me uneasy," she said, and reached for her teacup. "Maybe I'm too skeptical, too conservative. Sometimes you have to trust people and take risks to get the most out of life."

"So true," Mr. Jackson mumbled, then swallowed his mouthful of rice. "I had my doubts too. Big doubts. But if the curmudgeons are eager? Some of those guys wouldn't trust a little kid peddling Girl Scout cookies; they act as though everyone's trying to sell them land on the moon. If they don't sense anything wrong, neither should I. Any unease is just my suspicious nature acting up." He cleared his throat and spoke more loudly. "So, what time tomorrow do we leave for Paradise?"

Mrs. Jackson shrugged.

"Whenever," she sighed. "When we've finished breakfast, had our warm showers and feel ready. No reason to get up early for the mad rush; we need our sleep. Besides, where would we put a hot tub?"

The next morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal and Ovaltine, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson drove under a bright, high sun to the Elmsbury fairgrounds. Yellow police tape and sawhorses blocked off roads. Filled parking lots gleamed as metal reflected the white sunlight; to Mrs. Jackson, the snugly aligned cars resembled nesting beetles. A policeman stopped the yellow Ford and directed the Jacksons to a lot three miles away; a shuttle bus drove them back to the fairgrounds and deposited them at the end of the line of people awaiting entry into Paradise Emporium.

"It's a tent!" Mrs. Jackson exclaimed when she saw the white fabric arced between steel poles and rigging. "It looks like a series of snowy mountains. And the line - there must be five hundred people between here and the entrance."

Mr. Jackson sighed as he considered the long wait ahead of him, pulled a tube from his pocket, rolled up his trousers and rubbed analgesic cream onto his knees. Alerted by the whiff of menthol, Mrs. Jackson reached for the tube, then rubbed the ointment into her lower back. A monitor in white trousers and a navy jacket stitched with gold brocade on the cuffs and pockets, one of at least fifty patrolling the grounds, sniffed, strode briskly to a ramp, then rolled two plushly cushioned chairs towards the newcomers.

"We want you to be comfortable," the monitor said as he patiently helped Mr. and Mrs. Jackson into chairs. "No reason to strain those joints while you wait."

A cheery hostess pushed her cart parallel with the line, stopped before the Jacksons and offered to pour them glasses of cider, bottled water, sugar-free lemonade, or iced tea.

"We also have finger sandwiches and three kinds of soup, all cooked with low cholesterol products, if you get hungry." The hostess, as slender and professional as an airline attendant, smiled at the Jacksons. "When the line moves forward, you can stand up and push your chair; it has wheels. But if you're tired, you can flip this switch and activate the motor; you can navigate by pushing this lever, let the chair roll you forward and do all the work. It doesn't move very fast, so you won't bump into anything. Besides, a monitor's always watching; one of us will be there if you look like you're going to hurt yourself. If you need anything, if you need something to drink or need to use one of our bathrooms, just push this big button. A monitor will see the blinking lights on the sides of your chair and come to help you. Any questions?"

Mrs. Jackson shook her head. Mr. Jackson activated the motor, let the chair wheel him back a foot, then returned to his original position; a light nudge moved the lever.

"I wouldn't mind having a chair like this at home," he marveled as he sipped spicy warm cider. "And if I turn this knob, the bottom slides out and I get a foot-rest; I can keep turning to raise and lower my legs. The people who organized this event understand how old feet need to be propped up."

Mrs. Jackson let Seltzer water bubble over and clean her tongue. Overhead, a lone cloud floated nonchalantly in the crayon-box blue of one of late summer's perfect days. Sunlight caressed her, warm but not hot; breezes cooled, but didn't chill, her. An ambulance idled silently fifty yards away, medical care available for anyone who needed it. The door of one of the many Porta-potties opened and a uniformed monitor helped a hunched woman back to her seat. Meticulously coifed hedges, with not a branch out of place, lined the fairgrounds' perimeter. Closely cropped grass extended as far as she could see, like a green carpet; Mrs. Jackson couldn't smell pollen or the pungent aroma of fresh lawn clippings. The day was just right.

"Yes, they planned well, thought of everything," Mrs. Jackson approved. "I never expected refreshments or seating. At least we'll be comfortable, even if the line's bad."

A scrawny man, just ahead of the couple in line, rotated his chair to face them.

"You think this line's bad? You should have been here at 5 AM," he grunted. "We're the last stragglers. One of the caterers told me that people started arriving before midnight; by 5 AM, the line was four miles long and spiraled around the tents eleven times. But, at least the Paradise staff was prepared. The monitors were already out here, offering people chairs and handing out blankets to anyone who wanted to sleep." He paused and glanced down apologetically. "Sorry for not introducing myself; you'd think that I left my manners back in the office when I retired. I'm Dan. Glad to meet you, it's always good to meet someone in the line to Paradise."

The hostess stopped her cart beside a plump woman who offered to show her pictures of the grandchildren; she examined the frayed photos and praised each. The grandchildren were all so beautiful and charming, had faces that could be on TV, obviously made Grandma proud; the hostess sang out her praises rhythmically, as though energetically reciting a mantra. Mrs. Jackson unzipped her purse; the snapshots of her own grandchildren, tea stained and years out of date, lay at the bottom of the bag, under the pill jars, brush, comb, compact mirror and pounds of spare change. Mr. Jackson wedged his hand into his pocket, feeling for the wallet where he stored his driving license, social security card, family photos and other valuable documents in plastic compartments.

"They didn't need to call in police reinforcements until 10, when the place opened for business," the round-faced grandmother suddenly trilled. Finished with displaying her photos, she'd swiveled her chair to face the Jacksons; she drank her lemonade quickly and relaxed into her cushions. "A few people tried to cut through the tent, unsuccessfully because the fabric's so strong, but most people waited patiently through the night and early morning. Napped, played cards with the people near them, embroidered, wrote letters; all peaceful and quiet, what you'd expect from a bunch without much fuel left in them."

The woman pushed down the white corner of a snapshot that poked up above a rim of fabric, then patted her pocket to be sure that all her grandchildren were safely in place.

"But, when the flaps opened," she continued, "A crowd stampeded forward. Rushed, as much as they could rush. Maybe only 25 or 30 troublemakers, but twenty-five's enough to bring in the cops. I don't know where those folk found the energy, they must have ignored their bad tickers and all the doctors' warnings. An amputee got pushed to the ground; one man charged at the ambulance crew with his wife's knitting needles when they cut in front of him. A woman from far back in the line stormed away, then tried to ram her car through the side of the tent fifteen minutes later. She sat very low in the driver's seat, her head barely visible through the side window; a man fainted when the hell-car sped forward, seemingly driven by its own will."

Mr. Jackson, noticing that the plump lady wore sunglasses, rubbed his own eyes, which teared in bright light.

"Typical crowd behavior," he sighed, then turned to his wife. "The tent makes sense - easy to put up and take down. How many people do you think it holds?"

Mrs. Jackson shrugged.

"It could hold several football stadiums," Dan replied. "That's what? - thirty thousand people? A hundred thousand? Four, maybe six, miles of people have snaked their way in."

"And no one's come out," the round-faced woman added.

"No one's left," Dan agreed. "We'd see them. That dark opening at the far left, that's the exit. But no one's come through there, not even a janitor."

Mr. Jackson didn't ask the man how he'd distinguish an exiting customer from a janitor. He didn't ask why none of the shoppers had left yet; the bargain hunters would be trapped inside by their own greed. Instead, he drew circles in the air with the toe of his raised shoe and tried to resign himself to waiting. Mrs. Jackson shifted the heavy purse on her lap from her right thigh to the left, then back to the right; the mounds of coins clinked as they thudded from side to side and the stiff vinyl edges dug into her skin.

"A shame that we didn't bring magazines," Mrs. Jackson said after a while.

"A shame that we don't have a deck of cards. Nothing better than a game, penny ante, to help you get rid of those coins at the bottom of your purse; you wouldn't have to jingle whenever you move," Mr. Jackson replied.

The two folded their arms across their chests and gazed ahead, vision blurred and thoughts slowing as they made ready for a long wait.

"No more allowed inside for now, the tent is full," a monitor, flanked by a burly policeman, announced into a microphone. "We sincerely apologize to all of you, who've been waiting so patiently. We hope to admit many more of you, all of you eventually, as soon as some shoppers leave. As a consolation prize, we offer all of you a choice of free--"

Several from the front of the line stood abruptly and marched towards the tent; others, limping and shuffling behind them, yammered protests.

"Stand back!" The cop barked and blew his whistle "Wait here or come back in three hours!" Seeing that the old people wouldn't obey, he retreated a step and frantically beckoned to his fellow officers. Five policemen silently moved into guard position between the crowd and the tent. A German Shepherd bounded towards the entrance, its taut muscles rippling; a cop gasped to keep up, gripping the leash in one fist while clutching at the holstered gun that his jiggling belly threatened to dislodge.

"Three hours!"

"You keep us waiting all this time, and then you turn us away?"

"And in this hot sun! It may seem balmy to you, but 'balmy' becomes hot when you wait and get nothing!"

"I thought this operation was organized. What's with you people?"

Many in the crowd grumbled and muttered reedy curses: Damn them, they can't just toss us out like bags of rotting old garbage! But what can we expect, isn't it always like this for us, the dispensable ones, the faceless leftovers? Some hissed; the most energetic hollered. A woman shrieked and hurled a bottle of Aspirin at the policeman; another kicked him with the steel-reinforced instep of her orthopedic shoe and scratched at his face with brittle nails. A whistle screeched; a dropped radio crackled static under pounding heels. As more police rushed forward, old men brandished metal walkers and swung their canes.

"Who are the old farts now?" a raspy tenor yelled. "You're the old farts - full of hot air promises! Chasing us away after we've stood here all this time. And with our heart conditions and asthma? How fair is that, you good-for-nothing windbags, to let us risk our health and then get nothing in return"

"You'll get in, just a little later. Lets not start a riot here, a little extra time in line isn't worth a riot," the monitor intoned in a velvety baritone. "We'd let you all in now. But we can't. It's a matter of safety codes; regulations limit how many can occupy the tent at one time, and we have to obey the law." He glanced nervously at the cop beside him, a lanky redhead this time, then continued in a slow voice as rich and soothing as molasses. "I know that regulations don't mean much when you've been waiting so long, when you're tired, disappointed and furious. I've been in your situation - not for something as big as this, but for something that was very big for me - and I felt like ripping the tongue out of the manager who made me wait: I wanted to skin him alive. So, believe me, I know what you're feeling. No, we can't give you back the time you've lost to waiting. But, perhaps, we can offer you proof that our apologies are sincere. Our hostesses stand ready to pour you Champagne, scotch, gin, red wines and beer; they'll also be serving crab salad and shrimp cocktails, originally intended for the buffet, to help you through your hunger. And one of our musicians, a virtuoso violinist, has agreed to leave the tent and perform especially for you - any tune, a classical piece or a love song from your honeymoon days, just ask and he'll play what you desire."

The angry old people stopped, looked at each other, shrugged and nodded, and began trudging back to their chairs; drained by their outburst, they shuffled more slowly and paused more often to lean into their canes and catch their breath.

"They have a point…about regulations," one stooped man muttered between gasps for air. He inhaled deliberately, wheezed out a cough, then wiped the sweat from his ruddy cheeks. "When I was a carpenter…everything was codes….Had to obey the codes…or get run out of business."

A plump woman, who still bothered to dye her hair, spoke, then glanced up at her husband, then continued speaking as she fixed her gaze on the ground in front of her.

"Champagne's not so shabby," she reassured. "You have to admit, they're doing their best to make a bit of bad luck as pleasant for us as possible. And a violinist especially for us! Maybe we can get him to play that Italian love song we liked so much when we were courting; I wish I could remember the name, but if we hum a few bars, he'll probably know which song we want. Just thinking about it takes me back, makes me feel like I could dance across the floor with my skirt whirling and the pearls swaying back and forth across my chest."

The husband grunted.

"Violins don't make me feel young again." His fingers rose to a plastic button in his right ear. "Don't hear the high notes like I used to. But crabmeat - that's special by itself; how much does it cost at the store, when they even bother to stock it? I guess the Paradise people do have something for everyone, even during an emergency."

The old people sank back into their motorized chairs. Some chatted with those waiting near them, the first strangers they'd befriended in years. Some merely closed their eyes, hoping to absorb energy from the warm, restorative sunlight.

"Don't let them fool you, even if they look peaceful now," a cop stationed at the back of the line warned an officer near him. "They're like old cats - a bit slower, but they still have claws and teeth. Old cats can be cranky and unpredictable. And some of them don't know they're winded and creaky until after they've attacked."

Mrs. Jackson turned to her husband.

"We don't really want to wait around, do we? It's almost two-thirty; Mike's coming at three. We don't want to keep him waiting, do we? Not when he's going off to college in a week; we might not see him again for months."

Mr. Jackson shook his head; he, too, would miss his youngest grandson.

As the couple strolled south, hoping to meet a bus that would drive them to their car, an inconspicuous man in an attic two blocks away pushed a button.

"Mission DebtKill complete," he muttered into a phone as the first flames shot up and shock waves from the explosion knocked the Simpsons to the ground.

In a room far away, government officials and CEOs heard the message over a speakerphone and sighed in collective relief. From this, and thirty other Paradise Emporium sites scattered throughout the country, the same words were broadcast: Mission DebtKill complete.

"So, how many do you think we got?" the director of military operations asked. "I know that we'll have to wait for a body count, plus missing person reports where the remains are too charred to be recognizably human. But, as a best guess - a few million?"

"Whatever, it's a big step forward in debt reduction," a CEO asserted. "Big savings for everyone in the long run. We'd have to pay out life insurance premiums anyway, but at least we can bypass all the health insurance payouts. Not to mention the savings for the Medicare and Social Security people. Maybe we missed ten or twenty percent of them, mainly the ones who are ready to die anyway or a few who are too rich to be lured out by anything - but they're not the ones who'd cost us in the future."

The men in that room raised glasses of champagne in a toast to the success of their plan.

In a hospital near the Elmsbury fairgrounds, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson winced as ER doctors treated their superficial burns and pulled metal splinters from their skin. Both remembered only a sudden roar and a blast of heat.

"You suffered mild concussions," the doctor told them. "But you're both very, very lucky. The explosion killed everyone in that tent, and most of the people near it; now there's just a big crater in the ground where it stood. If you hadn't already walked quite a distance away, you'd have been killed too."

"It's on all the news stations," a nurse fretted. "Maybe fifty thousand killed in that explosion. And not just here - also near Atlanta, near Dallas, near San Francisco. Someone targeted all thirty Paradise Emporium tents; all the sales were scheduled for today, and all the tents exploded when they were filled with shoppers. The government's blaming terrorists."

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, the doctor and the nurse gazed solemnly at one of the televisions mounted in the ER and strained to hear the reporter over the din. Probable terrorist attack….We know where the terrorists come from, even if no one can prove their identity; in a country at war, everyone knows who the terrorists are….In outrage, the nation mourns this slaughter of its esteemed elders.

Mrs. Jackson cringed as she imagined Maxine and Anna hunched over booths, examining potted saplings and glittering trinkets seconds before the detonation. Maybe Maxine had tripped in her garden and been kept away by a limp. Maybe Anna couldn't start the Junk-mobile, and missed the explosion while waiting for a mechanic to adjust the carburetor. Maybe an asthma attack had kept Tom O'Toole home. But, as a lifelong realist, Mrs. Jackson didn't sustain herself on hope; she tallied up the odds and guessed at what was probable. Suddenly, the red patches on her skin felt very raw and hot.

"I was uneasy about that emporium," Mr. Jackson stammered as they walked out of the hospital. "Maybe suspicious for the wrong reasons. But terrorists bombed the place. Terrorists! I was right to feel uncomfortable."

Mrs. Jackson nodded.

As they drove past the closed door of Tony's Foods and the dark windows of Sam's Deli, Mr. Jackson felt his stomach lurch. He imagined the curmudgeons picking over fishing reels and examining decks of cards with a magnifying glass while debating whether or not to buy. At home, he dialed each number from his list, then listened to jarring rings or to a gruff voice from the dead asking him to leave a message.

"It's just you and me now," Mrs. Jackson said after a long silence at dinner, as though reading her husband's thoughts. Both pushed cooling spaghetti listlessly across their plates, then dumped the uneaten meal in the garbage.

A week later, the town held a memorial for the victims. At the ceremony, Mr. Jackson learned that one of the curmudgeons, Andy, had survived; an angina attack on the first had confined him to a hospital bed.

Two months later, Sam's family moved away and sold the delicatessen to a fast food franchise. A realtor moved into the space once occupied by Tony's Foods. Young people chatted merrily on streets that looked unchanged to them; they noticed the same shops and the same people as before the disaster. When they passed the crater at the fairgrounds, they vaguely recalled that this was the site where many old people had died. But those old people lacked faces or voices; they were members of a foreign species, invisible and unheard, except when they tugged at pockets for a handout or demanded that a wheelchair be pushed.

"I wish we could move," Mrs. Jackson sometimes said.

"But where could we go?" Mr. Jackson replied.

Mr. And Mrs. Jackson forced themselves to shop at the supermarket with too many brands and too many lights; they forced themselves to swallow morsels of food that always tasted bland. They made themselves watch the evening news and sit for dinner at 6 PM, routines that meant they were still alive and human, even if the food went uneaten and they stared unhearing at the screen. Several other old people had survived, but the Jacksons didn't try to find them. Their joints ached so much more, possibly due to their new gauntness, and their people were gone; they needed a good reason, an unavoidable chore, before they'd go into this new town of the young. A wan sediment of dust settled over their furniture; the leaky faucet dripped rhythmically, marking minutes and hours. Only Andy ever visited; Andy had been coming for years, belonged to the old life and the old town.

A year later, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson read an ad for the Hall of Hope, featuring a "funhouse extravaganza designed for the handicapped; a garden of delights for the deaf, the blind, the crippled, the cognitively challenged. Only the handicapped admitted, free of charge due to the generosity of our sponsors. A one day event only, at the Elmsbury fair grounds along Route eight."

Mr. Jackson passed the ad to his friend Andy.

"Would you go to this?" he asked.

Andy read and shrugged listlessly. "Yeah, maybe, if I was handicapped. Who knows? It's free, not expensive like those amusement park rides," he mumbled. "So, what's to lose?"

When Mr. and Mrs. Jackson went to the supermarket, they found that everyone in the checkout line was talking about the Hall of Hope.

"Makes me almost wish I were handicapped," a woman with garishly colored curls twittered. "Who'd miss a chance to have this kind of fun? And all - for nothing!"

"If I had any kind of disability," a portly man asserted, "I'd be there at dawn with my handicap-ticket. Even if I had a little disability - I'd be there with the doctors' certificates or school records testifying that I deserve admission. I might have two legs, but I'm handicapped all the same; this form proves it - so move over, Buddy, and let me in!"

"There's that home for the retarded at the end of my block," another shopper added. "Those kids - hardly kids, most of them are in their thirties - they go to the sheltered workshop every day, then come back to eat and sleep. There's not much excitement in their lives; a Hall of Hope funhouse would do those kids good. And my sister, who's teaches special Ed and knows about these things, says that there are millions of people in this country with serious disabilities. Those people need a little hope."

Simultaneously, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson felt a cold shiver of premonition tingle through their spines, and glanced at each other.

"It's just you and me now, we're alone together in this," they thought in unison.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bardo of Buffalo: Why No One From Buffalo Goes To Hell

Richard May headshot by Richard May

Loosely bonded quark gluon plasma rained down for twenty-four hours with thunder and lightening upon the eternal City of Darkness, nestled in the heart of the Nigerian sewer system; snowed down upon the autumn trees, sticking to their still-unfallen October leaves, collapsing sturdy branches and entire trees, along with power and phone lines into more than ten million tons of living wood debris. This event was a record two-foot lake-effect-snow storm of a predicted mild El Nino winter. Days followed of seeing one's breath indoors at 48 degrees F, only candle light and flash light by night, day after day without heat, electrical power or internet access for more than 260 thousand denizens of what is called Western New York. Actually, as explained previously but known to only few, the city of Buffalo is in fact a part of the Nigerian sewer system, connected to the real Western New York area by a wormhole in 11-dimensional hyperspace.

In the past I had always imagined that I would eventually attain the release of death by sheer ontological eccentricity, however invisible, or from the unbearable shame of once having imagined that I had a name, certainly not by sampling the heat death of the universe from within a sewer. But seeking to enter the clear light of the void through the internet, removing a sewer grating from over head, I ventured out above ground through a wormhole, walking along a road that appeared bombed out by Nature, to the Café Lagos locally owned and operated by enterprising Nigerian sewer rats.

Feeling in an especially convivial mood and suffering extreme internet-withdrawal symptoms I opened the door to the Café Lagos, finding to my terror and disgust that it was not empty but inhabited by my fellows. Nevertheless bravely stepping up to the counter, a radiant being appeared before me, apparently some sort of deva, asking me what I would like. Was I having a classic "near-life experience" brought on by stress?

She was in her early twenties, encapsulated in flesh, smiling seductively, repeatedly calling me honey, calling everyone and everything honey. What would I like? Remembering Plato's definition of philosopher as that most royal king who drools over himself, I drooled. But maybe Plato said rules.

Somehow I managed to ask her with an almost straight face if she had any muffins. Smiling her unending wonderful ben wa smile, she responded, "No", her muffins had all been eaten.

She wore a difficult-to-decipher name tag. "You're Lesley?" I asked. "No, LooselyLoosely Plasma," she radiated! I said "Aha!", as though it all made sense to me, because I was so hip.

Once I was able to get online at the Café Lagos I went to Matt Drudge's web site only to learn that a spontaneous exodus of the cockroach population from Buffalo had been observed and that F.E.M.A. is considering providing assistance to the fleeing roaches. Perhaps tiring of talk of football games and chicken wings, one fine spring morning years ago the lofty slugs left Buffalo en masse, leaving behind only their slime trails on the sidewalks as a reminder of their wisdom. Hence, you will readily understand why there is no one from Buffalo in hell. Satan refuses to admit Buffalonians to hell, regardless of their otherwise superb qualifications. He can't stand seeing the boundless joy of the damned upon learning that they're in hell, not Buffalo anymore.

May-Tzu, without internet access except at the Café Lagos, Bardo of Information Death.



Staffan A. Svensson headhshot by Staffan A. Svensson

The pieces of this puzzle should be combined in a way that will be the obvious answer when found.

the puzzle

Look below for the solution.


puzzle solution


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The young woman and the sea

by Maria Claudia Faverio

She was not like the other women.
She loathed idle chatting,
the fetters of family,
rootless as a dismembered star
or a naughty thought
kicked out of the mind.

After years and years
of wandering,
she had put her seven league boots
on the shoe shelf
and had settled down by the sea.

She had slowly forgotten
the anguish of windscreens
and winding stairs
and let uncaged time
run freely in her hut.

They had eased into a new identity
crowded with details
exiled by the retinas of the masses -
chance encounters of cloud and sunlight,
white processions of gulls
remindful of priests
in sultry countries,
and other funny features
that gaze through creation.

They stripped bearded clichés
of their dullness
and enjoyed the eloquence of the unsaid
and the bidding touch of the invisible,
counterpointing nature with an inner melody
only freaks and angels could hear.

Until one day time said:
"We have to go now.
Let's go to the land
of the uninterrupted sun."

She put snatches of verse
and scattered colours
in her backpack
and followed time,
peacefully strolling
into the ocean
without looking back.

There was a sudden stroke
of heavy wings,
then silence,
and a giggling
in the distance,
far, far away.


Monday, October 23, 2006

"It's Only Natural"

(lyrics and music to a new song)

Dan Barker headshot ©2006 by Dan Barker

Song lyrics are not meant to be read like a poem . . . they tend not to read as well on paper as they sound in a song . . . but these lyrics are interesting, I think, as a "popular" song, in that they incorporate evolution as the most natural idea. I was inspired by Dawkins's book Unweaving the Rainbow, where he makes a plea for more science in the arts.

Also, I wanted to write lyrics like Cole Porter, that can be sung by male or female, gay or non-gay.


It's only natural that I would want you;
It's only natural that you want me.
A million years of evolution had its way,
So we can blame it on our parents' DNA.

I move instinctively in your direction -
Somehow you signal me to turn and see.
You will always be my natural selection,
As a voluntary choice, naturally.

Download a pdf version of the score.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Life at Crawpappy's Bar is better than a Mastercard commercial

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Telling a pert and feisty redhead in high high heels lots of interesting stories about pigs (pigs as a form of wealth and status in New Guinea, pigs as the favorite meat in China, pigs I saw eating excrement deep in the wilds of west Cameroon) and having her tell me she could step on me and puncture my stomach.

MasterCard NOT

Payment to girl in exchange for not stepping on me: ten dollars

Meeting a real live school cheerleader just like the ones who snubbed me in high school and fulfilling a childhood ambition by touching her rock-hard, overmuscled gluteus maximus.

Payment to cheerleader: twenty dollars

Telling the bartender at great length about all my superhigh test scores and all the high-IQ societies that should have let me in on the basis of those scores but didn't.

Tip to bartender: twenty dollars

Being alive and really drunk: priceless

Life and beer are gifts of God, for everything else you'd better carry a lot of cash.


Yesterday morning I got this email from one of the girls who works at Crawpappy's. It's just so lovely that I decided to share it with you... especially since my little "weekend updates" present a less optimistic picture. I saw her last night and got her permission to do so.



You are absolutely wonderful and I truly enjoy your weekend updates. I really hope you know that you mean a lot to a good amount of people in Tulsa. Of course, your family... crawpappy's loves you to death, but many people know you and you touch their lives in meaningful and inspiring ways. I really hope you know how great you really are.

Love you - ___________________ .


Real Life

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

I have a friend who thinks too much. You're not a real friend, she told me, just an internet friend. How can you think you know me when you've never been within a thousand miles of me? You've read my blog and that's about it. So I told her, "that presents interesting epistemological and perceptual questions. Lets say you really pour your heart out in your blog, as fully and honestly as you can, and of course most people will read and not understand, but what if someone reads and it suddenly clicks, somehow he or she totally understands, doesn't that person know you better than a coworker with whom you have exchanged superficial work-related chitchat every day for years? Yes, I'd say."

Big words, lets see how it works in real life. I shall set down various conversations I had last night, in real life with real girls in a real bar after drinking a real lot of real beer. You will be the judge of how profound they are.

Hey, I told this girl, I just picked my myspace URL, look at it and be prepared to see the coolest URL you will ever see in your life! And I showed her a card on which I had carefully written what is indeed the most awesome myspace URL ever known to man. myspace.com/Brian-rocks! Hey, mine is myspace.com/carla, she told me. Yeah right, said I with a touch of skepticism in my voice, that's what you told me last week and I checked it and it's a 16 year old girl in the Phillippines. I'm not a 16 year old girl in the Phillippines, she replied indignantly, I'm 26 and I'm right here in Tulsa! So she won that argument. I forgot, she told me to clinch her victory, it's really myspace.com/kk, try that and you'll get me for sure.

Having achieved an intimacy far greater than I could hope for in the most torrid internet relationship, I moved on to the next table. The next girl I talked to was also 26. She and Carla had something in common. She said she'd seen me earlier. That showed she's perceptive and has good judgment. And she told me her myspace address was BS_Queen, and that made me sure. That's my initials, I said, BS!! Surely we were destined for each other!!!!! She told me that the B was the initial of her first love, Brian. That is so cool, I thought, when she gasps my name in passion it will be so easy for her to remember.

We talked and talked, mostly me saying God knows what, for quite some time. Now it was time to put her depth and commitment to one final test. Oh, I must be boring you, I said, sometimes I talk so much you'd have to sit on me to get me to shut up. Now I was taking a tremendous risk, but nothing ventured nothing gained as they say. She was definitely not overweight, she looked just perfect, but she was quite tall and most definitely voluptuous. I don't know her exact weight, I was so distracted I just forgot to ask! But still, if she chose to sit on my chest, I'd have to lift every ounce of that unknown but not inconsiderable weight with each breath I took. And just as when you do sit-ups the first is so easy and each future one gets harder and harder, each breath would be more and more of a struggle until after twenty minutes or so each ragged, gasping inhalation would be a major battle. And she was with friends, what if she got to talking with her girlfriends and just forgot about the man feebly struggling beneath her? I could be there for hours as she laughed and chatted. Or maybe she was in one of these college sororities I've heard about, where they have initiation and hazing and a girl can't join unless she's sat on a man for a really really long time. So as I said I was taking a really big risk, but it was the only way to test her character. Just like the waiter rule, which states that if an executive is a good person he will be kind to waiters, so if a girl is kind and compassionate she wont sit on you even when you offer. And she passed with flying colors. She didn't sit on me at all!!!! Instead, she simply said, no, you're not boring me at all. Definitely a keeper. I'm getting ready to write a BS_Queen email right now.

So there you have it. A true, unvarnished account of the intimacy possible in real life. But hey, you're an Internet friend, I've never been within a hundred miles of you. Do I really know those bar girls better than I know you?

Brian Wrestles Reality


Don't Be Just Another Gun Fatality Statistic

by Fred Vaughan

Don't be a statistic


Living in Postmodern Times

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

They've written a lot about the glories of ancient Greece, and the mythic but very real earlier city of Mycenae, where proud Agamemnon reigned. But not much about what came after, when the palaces lay in ruin, the pride and glory gone, the once-great halls and vaulted archways the domain of jungle plants and wild beasts. But farmers lived among the ruins. They knew that something great had gone before, but not what. They knew that humans like themselves had built those walls. Or perhaps they thought they were built by giants, or demons, or gods. They could see the painted walls and the inscriptions, perhaps found the scrolls scattered in the dust, but they knew not what they meant. Maybe they used some of the massive stones to build their small barns and hovels, shelter them as they dreamt of petty harvests, puny plans.

by Giovanni Battista Piranesi


A Bostonian In Buffalo

Richard May headshot by Richard May

The bourgeois citizenry run up to you like canines, sniffing you and sticking their noses in your most private places. Not all of them, of course. Only the more sensitive ones are capable of such refinements.

Crucified in Buffalo
Crucified in Buffalo

We see that you are lying in the street bleeding, did something happen? Howyadoin? What are those tire marks on your face? Doin good? How does it feel there, where the blood is coming out? Are you in the Bleeder's Union Local 66?

(This pool of blood could stain the street and lower property values!)

Speak to us of your pain and tragedy! Not that we care in the least about you. But tell us your business! What is your work schedule next week? Where do you bank?

(Has the game started yet? Get me the Inquisitor's Chair.)

Did something happen? What are those tire marks on your face? Howyadoin? Look at the blood pouring forth! Doin good? Perhaps now we will have something to tell the neighbors.

(I am concerned that this growing pool of blood will stain the street and lower property values!)

Who are you, I mean what do you own? How much did your father earn in 1943? Are you in the Saturn Club? What is the pain like?

No, no, do not speak to us about ideas or the spirit! How much money do you have in your pocket? And the other pocket? Are you in the Bleeder's Union local 66?

Did something happen? Howyadoin? What are those tire marks on your face? Doin good? Do not call for an ambulance too quickly. We may have something to tell the neighbors tonight.

Someone should call the City to remove this pool of blood before the street is stained, lowering property values!)

Hey, you might as well entertain us, because you can't move anywhere. Howyadoin? What's the name of your lawyer? Did you mow your lawn this week? How long is your grass now?

Look at the blood gushing out! How does it feel there, where the blood is spurting out? Do you have more money in your savings account than in your checking account?

Who are you? I mean what kind of vehicle do you drive? What year?

(Oh, has the game started yet? Watch out for the blood! We don't want to miss the start of the game.)


Pop War

Sean J. Vaughan headshot by Sean J. Vaughan

Something that has been on my mind from time to time is the ironic difference between what Americans like in their epic war movies vs. the way America (well, the leadership) acts in the real world with regard to war.

A recent example this millenium is "The Lord of the Ring: The Two Towers". Besides the obvious mistake that I and many folks I know make of calling the evil two towers "the twin towers", America clearly resembles the evil side much more than the good side. The ring clearly represents technology and the way the "good" side looks at technology vs the way the "evil" side looks at technology eerily maps to how many in the Muslim countries (including bin Laden) and western civilization view technology; namely: If "the good" use the ring they succumb to its power and become evil; if "the evil" use the ring they can and likely will destroy the world. Even the manner in which "the good" eventually win the day partly utilizes "terrorist" methodology: common creatures (hobbits) infiltrating the "evil" territories and destroying the ultimate weapon (the ring) which has the side affect of weakening and helping in the defeat of the evil enemy.

The scariest example of this irony is with Star Wars (at least the first three movies). The imagery of the destruction of the Twin Death Stars eerily coincides with the imagery of the twin towers' destruction; not to mention the actual methods employed by The Rebels and Al Quaeda to produce said destruction. The scariest bit of all is how America's government fully embraced the relationship by terming the retaliation "America Strikes Back," a clear link to "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back". Why are we so eager to embrace the evil side?

Another weaker example is "Gladiator" where Maximus goes from being a celebrated Roman war leader to a lowly slave gladiator who sticks it to the resident Ceasar. Weakly analogous to Bin Laden working with American interests against The Soviet Union only to "turn against" us later.

Movies provide a very good mirror for what people's perceptions are. The more popular the movie the more people likely relate to the protagonist or message. Based on this information, it seems clear that Americans should be able to relate to the Al Quaeda situation fairly readily. (Not necessarily agree with it, but at least have some understanding for their plight).

It makes sense that Senator Murray and Representative McDermott from the Seattle area would have more understanding than other congressional leaders about this: the new popularization of coffee originated around here and was first popularized in Muslim countries. (A pretty major shift in Islam was caused by disagreement between the religious leaders and "the people" on whether consumption of coffee was "ok" or not as I understand it).


Bedtime Story: George And The Chosen Prions

by Richard May

GWesus Once upon a time there was a wonderful president of all the people named George the Compassionate Christian. He wanted to protect the American people from buying dangerous Canadian pharmaceutical drugs, which would be a form of economic terrorism against the impoverished mom-and-pop-store pharmaceutical companies, just trying to scrape by. George also wanted to make the world safe for democracy, especially important in the end times.

Apparently, according to George, Jesus loved assault rifles, transnational conglomerates and was an American Republican too, because he preferred depleted uranium to universal health insurance or to testing beef cattle for prions, which would be a form of economic terrorism against the cattle industry.

Jesus often said, "In my Father's house there are many cash registers." Jesus also said that the European Union was deceived by Satan and only Americans were good, because some few of them had the most money of all.

George was good, and he loved good people, so he decided to tax the so-called indigent and the so-called homeless, as the tax evaders they were, as a kindness to improve their self-esteem. The wicked socialists, i.e., anyone who foolishly thought that humans were sentient beings and corporation were not sentient, and that this actually mattered, objected to this; and to George's plan to reform the tax code, such that those with the lowest income were now to be honored with the highest taxes, as a kindness to improve their self-esteem.

But Jesus was said to work for the U. S. Justice Department and the wicked socialists, i.e., anyone not in a high corporate position or not a right-wing Republican, were now classified as supporters of terrorism, because the neocon Republicans were terrified some of the wicked socialist ideas would catch on.

So George saved the American people by always doing what was in their best interest in the end times. For example, George understood homelessness as just maximized American freedom, "considering the lilies of the field and how they grow …", not a social problem at all, as long as the so-called homeless paid their new homelessness tax.

George had wonderful values, was very wise and understood that such trifles as the nuclear and biological holocaust of a World War III, the effects of sudden global climate change on the ecosphere, environmental effects of greenhouse gasses and supposed deleterious heath effects of high arsenic levels in drinking water, the prudence of testing more than one percent of American cattle for BSE and trivialities such as healthcare were just wicked socialist concerns, certainly not important moral issues, like preventing gay marriage, especially during the end times.

Happily the endless end times finally arrived as a self-fulfilling prophesy, because George wanted to fulfill the lucid prophesy of the Texas Book Of Revelation, miraculously discovered under his dad's bed. During the Final Days, it was revealed that God actually had been living in a little town in Texas as a cattle rancher, after He retired from Texas Big Oil. God created the Earth about six thousand years ago, standing in Texas with an assault rifle.

So everyone on Earth died happily ever after! The best American people died smiling in their own personal underground bunkers, which were really modified SUVs, stocked with upsized delicious genetically modified and irradiated junk food, copies of the authentic Texas Book Of Revelation, written by Jesus, himself, and very large-screened plasma TVs, because they were the best.

Only God's chosen prions survived the end times in the brains of victims of CJD, many of whom had already been deliberately misdiagnosed as Alzheimers victims. By cleverly jumping from species to species, the meek prions inherited the Earth, as foretold in the Bible.

Jesus was exceedingly happy that the beef industry was healthy during the Final Days, a term apparently referring to the stock market, according to the chosen prions, which were all Republicans and fundamentalist Christians, needless to say. Eventually the by now highly evolved prions, aided symbiotically by internet viruses and trojans, went forth in warp drive starships to colonize the brains of the many brane worlds of the meshuggahverse, as the most noble CJD, exactly as God had intended from the very beginning.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Speculations on the Brains and Minds of Cetaceans

Huntley Ingalls headshot by Huntley Ingalls

"Genius in the sperm whale? Has the sperm whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in doing nothing in particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence. And this reminds me that had the great sperm whale been known to the Orient World, he would have been deified by their child-magician thoughts…

"Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man's and every being's face….If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant's face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful chaldee of the sperm whale's brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.

"My object here is simply to project the draught of a systematization of cetology….But it is a ponderous task"to grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one's hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!" - Herman Melville

Anyone familiar with the brains of higher mammals is shocked when first confronted with the physical appearance of the cetacean brain. Its size, globular shape, and elaborate convolutions suggest what might be imagined as the brain of a superior being. The typical weight of a human brain is about three pounds, of a dolphin about 3.5, of a large baleen whale 13, and of a sperm whale 20. The convolutions of the cetacean brain are far more elaborate than those of the human brain. The density of neurons and the complexity of neural connections in the two brains are comparable. The thickness of the cetacean neocortex is less than that of the human, but its greater surface area supports, in some species, an equal or greater number of nerve cells. The early whales of Eocene times, about 50 million years ago, were fully aquatic but had small, primitive brains. Large-brained cetaceans appeared about 30 million years ago, and large-brained humanoids about 5 million years ago. The greater length of evolution for the cetacean brain is not proof of greater advancement, but it is a startling suggestion of refinement.

Brains are metabolically expensive and such huge neural systems cannot be mere embellishments. They are unnecessary for simply operating a large marine animal. The whale shark, which is sometimes 50 feet long, does well with its primitive fish brain. The enormous development of the cetacean brain has evolved through survival advantage or social selection and must support functions of great importance to whales. We will try here to imagine the possible nature of these functions. Most of the ideas presented are highly speculative, but at least some of them are testable in principle. Even wrong ideas are often valuable if they can stimulate further thought or suggest experiments and tests which sharpen old conceptual landscapes or illuminate new ones.

Whales have limited ability for physically manipulating objects. This alone would form their minds differently from human minds, because our concept of objects and physical space is greatly influenced by kinesthetic interaction with the environment. As far as can be determined, sound is the only familiar sensory mode in which they are extensively involved. This is a very effective sense mode for life in the water. Sound travels farther and 4 1/2 times faster in water than in air, is little affected by murkiness or depth, is an excellent means of echolocating objects and an excellent medium for socialization. Thus it seems quite likely that very elaborate sound processing is a major function of the large cetacean brain. A large part of the human brain is involved in processing visual information. Light waves vary in length from about 4 to 8 hundred thousandths of a centimeter, but sound waves used by cetaceans vary from about a centimeter to over 70 meters. Perhaps the relative physical grossness of sound would require more neurons and cell assemblies in order to process sound data with a resolution of detail approaching that of vision.

Whatever intelligence cetaceans may have appears to be different from ours. This is indicated by the ease with which they are killed by whalers or trapped in fishing nets. Yet the size and complexity of their brains indicate enormous activity and possibly an extraordinary rich mental life. Their mental life is probably much more involved with social relationships than problem solving. The intelligence of dolphins is indicated by their love of play, complex social behavior, and the ease with which they learn tricks in captivity. Gregory Bateson1has shown that dolphins not only can learn new tricks, but also can learn that they are supposed to learn a new trick in new sessions. The new trick may even be the negative of behavior which was rewarded earlier. He notes that the dolphin cannot do this by conditioning from a single sample, but must do it from the structure of a complex sample. This kind of learning operates on a higher logical level than learning from the repetition of a type of instance.

Humpback whales sing complicated songs that are as long as half an hour. The songs evolve from year to year, indicating an impressive memory. The whales do not sing in their summer feeding grounds, but they begin the previous season's songs when they return to their winter grounds and gradually change them as the season progresses. They are able to memorize all the complicated sounds of a song, as well as new modification, for at least six months as a basis for further improvisations.

Man's brain
Figure 1. Brain size is a rather crude indicator of brain capacity, and a man's (above) is by no means the largest at 1,450 grams. For instance, the brain of the dolphin weighs 1,700 grams, and that of the adult fin whale (left) weighs 6 to 7 kilograms (From Donald B. Tower, 1954, Journal of Comparative Neurology 101:27.)

Animal brain sizes
Figure 2. The comparative size of the brain in the dog, orangutang, human, and sperm whale. Note especially the development of the cerebrum.

The cetacean brain has evolved in a simpler, less kinesthetically manipulable, and less demanding environment than that in which the human brain arose. This contrast is reflected in the different organizations of the two brains. The lamination and regional differentiation of the cerebral cortex are comparably developed in both species, although differently arranged. In cetaceans the areas of the cortex receiving information from sense organs, especially those representing the ears and face, are very large. Motor control occupies less cortical area than in the human brain, indicating orientation more toward perception and less toward action and motor skills than in humans.

Each hemisphere of the human brain has three basic, concentric formations representing successive stages of neural evolution. The innermost and oldest, the rhinic lobe, supports the basic survival functions. The middle, or limbic lobe, is the seat of emotional activity and motivation. The third and largest, the supralimbic lobe, is the seat of rational processes. Cetaceans have a fourth formation, the paralimbic lobe, between the limbic and supralimbic lobes. This is a unique, very large feature not found in other mammals, a specialized region in which all sensory and motor areas are represented together. In the human brain the different sensory areas are widely separated. For example, the motor area lies next to the touch area but is separated from all other sensory regions. An integrated perception of sight, sound, and touch is dependent on electrical impulses in the neurons that travel long distances in which time and information are lost. Apparently, the paralimbic lobe supports the very rapid formation of integrated perceptions.

It has been suggested that the scattering of sense projection areas in the human brain evolved from the need for quick danger response. Each of the sensory areas is bordered by interpretation areas which deal with only one sense. When a sound suggesting danger is registered, the neural system signals alarm before receiving visual conformation. Neither does vision wait for sound or touch. Our intellectual functions are based on these separate sense interpretation areas. Perhaps this favors abstract thought in the human mind, while the paralimbic lobe favors an immensely rich apperception. If the cetacean brain has fewer separate association areas, the cetacean mind may have a smaller variety of concepts. It would be more difficult for whales to have abstract ideas because there would be less variety of basically different things to compare. Hence they would tend to have less problem solving ability and less intelligence than humans, although not less, and possibly greater, cerebral activity.

A. In whales and dolphins, the areas of cerebral cortex receiving sensory inputs and initiating motor responses are distributed along the medial wall of each hemisphere. This meiobasal view of the right hemisphere of the bottlenose dolphin shows the highly folded and continuous nature of this sensorimotor cortex. bottlenose dolphin meiobasal view of right brain hemisphere
bottlenose dolphin dorsal view of brain B. Dorsal view of the brain of the bottlenose dolphin covered by a filmy layer of meningers to show the high degree of folding of the cerebral cortex which results in a surface area of the enocortex that is greater than in man.
C. Lateral view of brain of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) emphasizing the richness of cortical folding and showing the characteristic foreshortening and increased height of the cetacean brain. bottlenose dolphin lateral view of brain
bottlenose dolphin basal view of brain D. Basal view of the brain of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) which, in the adult, weighs about 1600 grams. Emphasized is the cerebellum which, in Cetaceans, may comprise up to 20 percent of the total brain weight, considerably more than most other mammals, including man (about 12 percent). The intact pituitary gland is also shown in position, near the middle of the rain in this picture.
E. This medial view of the right half of the brain of the bottlenose dolphin shows clearly the continuity of sensorimotor areas of the paralimbic lobe. The dashed lines are superimposed over deep clefts that demarcate this lobe sharply from the rest of the hemisphere. bottlenose dolphin medial view of brain
Figures 3.A - 3.E. Cut-away images of bottlenose dolphin brain structure.

Sterling Bunnel, a psychiatrist, suggested that the evolution of the large cetacean brain originated in the needs of river dolphins to find their way about by echolocation in the murky waters of rivers and estuaries.2The Ganges River dolphin is blind. In rainy seasons it leaves the river, pursuing fish through flooded forests in very turbid water. It is necessary in these rangings to form detailed maps to prevent being trapped by receding waters. Thus the auditory and tactile senses and the general association areas of the brain in which memories are stored have become highly developed. It is true that small-brained bats have good echolocation for capturing insects and for navigating in caves, but sonic memory maps are not needed to capture insects and bats spend only a few minutes each day navigating to and from their fixed roosts. The very early whales, which evolved from land animals that adapted to the sea, had small brains. If large-brained whales evolved in the rivers and estuaries, they could have returned to the sea and replaced the more primitive whales. In the sea the cetacean brain entered a second stage of evolution and continued to increase in size. The continuing increase may have been a result of social selection, because the demands of survival in the marine environment do not seem sufficient to evolve such huge brains. Elephants have a complex social life, and their brains may have evolved through social selection after their great size made their lives more free of danger. Our own large brains may have evolved not only from the advantages of problem solving ability and deceptive behavior, but also from social selection of desirable psychic qualities such as empathy and sensitivity. Highly developed social interaction, including deception, requires the ability to image, model, and remember the psychic state of other beings, and such ability requires a very large amount of neural activity.

Bunnell3believes that the cetacean's senses and great memory capacity, developed for navigation in murky water, are ideally pre-adapted for social communication. The echolocation apparatus not only can project complex signals, but has the capability for detailed three-dimensional perception of the physical and emotional state of another cetacean's entire body. Echoes arise from the interior body as well as the skin of another cetacean. Actually, stronger echoes arise from the air-filled cavities and the bone of an animal than from the skin. This enables the pulsations of the vessels and viscera, and hence the emotional state and health of an animal, to be easily perceived, adding a new dimension of social interaction.

Thus the need for elaborate sound processing is the most likely reason for the great development of the cetacean brain. Sound is used very extensively by cetaceans, and water is much more pervaded by sound than light. Sam Ridgway, a dolphin researcher at the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego, believes that much of the great development of the dolphin auditory system is a result of a need for great precision and speed in processing sound.4But surely dolphins are also processing more sound data and processing them far more elaborately than bats or owls. Indeed, if sound data are to be processed into sensory field comparable to vision, the data would need to be processed very rapidly and precisely. Let us consider in more detail some of the possible uses of elaborate sound processing.

The two basic possible uses for elaborate sound processing are communication and perception. The whale's environment does not seem sufficiently complex to require a vast amount of information communication. But the possibilities for social communication and selection of feelings, emotions, and aesthetic sound patterns are extremely rich. It seems likely that they frolic with their minds as well as with their bodies. Perhaps they can create sound so elaborate, beautiful, and satisfying that they have selected that capability just as birds of paradise have selected spectacular feathers. Such feathers have no survival advantage and no severe disadvantage in a benign environment, but they are strongly preferred by the birds. There are occasions when animals do act for immediate satisfactions. This is vividly demonstrated by the extreme case of self-stimulation, to exhaustion, by rats which are able to activate electrodes implanted in the pleasure centers of their brains. When an action is not automatic as breathing, reflex, or nest building by insects, it may be done for pleasure or avoidance of pain rather than for some direct survival advantage. The survival purpose of an action may arise secondarily rather than by choice. When young animals play, they are not aware that they are developing social and survival skills. Elaborate behavior or effects may be selected for gratification when there is no definite survival disadvantage.

It is possible that whales use advanced sound forms and are involved in aesthetics that are inconceivable to us. The functions of the paralimbic lobe may have the effect of fusing the various senses in the manner that hearing speech fuses sound and meaning. The areas of the human brain that process sound and meaning lie close together. We do not hear a word and then translate it unless we are struggling with a new language. We hear meaning. Thus the cetacean's senses may be fused by the paralimbic lobe to produce a direct apperception of a richness and beauty unknown to us.

Bunnell5notes that vision is a special sense which gives simultaneous information in the form of pictures with poor time discrimination, and that our auditory sense has very limited space perception but good time discrimination. Thus our languages are composed of sounds in temporal sequences. He suggests that the cetacean auditory system is essentially spatial with much simultaneous information. Cetacean communication apparently consists of complex sounds perceived as a unit. These communications are probably not a syntactical language of technical information or abstract concepts. Perhaps they project ideograms representing entire social situations, elaborate emotions, extensive sequences of events presented as a picture, or all of these in one extraordinary unit. The paralimbic lobe may well have enormous memory capacity, which would expand potential size and complexity of an ideographic vocabulary. Bunnel further speculates that the cetacean echolocation system produces detailed images of objects, and that perhaps they can recreate these sounds and directly project sonic images to one another.

Projection of images of one's bodily state, past, present, and future, and of the states of others would be a powerful way of expressing feelings and emotions. Cetacean language may be somewhat similar to Chinese ideograms in which pictures are equated to ideas. It may be possible to confirm some of these conjectures by comparing audiograms of reflected and projected sounds. Similar patterns in the sounds would indicate communication of perceptions, especially if the patterns were very complex. The social, emotional and aesthetic life of humans would be greatly enriched by the ability to project visual images to others that would be as detailed as the actual viewing of an object, scene, or situation.

The fusing of received and projected sonic messages with other sensory experiences has vast possibilities for aesthetic and social experience. Some idea of what this may be like is suggested by the special experience of eye contact. They are special because quick, subtle movements and light changes interact within the actual time of the mental processes. Such real time interplay is much diminished in communication through delayed serial clusters of speech. The intimate interactions of eye contact seem to fuse with the emotions of the moment. The nature of sound allows perception from all directions and makes it possible for more than two cetaceans to enter into such communication. If three or more people could engage in eye contact at the same time, could generate and project meaningful patterns of light both bodily and ideographically, all in real time and fused as intimately as meaning and sound are fused in speech, then humans might have experiences similar to the possibilities of cetacean social life.

The other major use for elaborate sound processing is location and perception of objects. The sperm whale has the largest brain of all and it is also the only whale which dives to great depths for prey, at least to 3600 feet and possibly to two miles. This is certainly an environment in which sonic echolocation and very detailed sophisticated sonic perception would be of prime usefulness, especially since the whale can remain at such great depths for less than 45 minutes. The obvious usefulness of sonic perception at great depths is consistent with the sperm whale's great increase in brain size. This may be a third step in the evolution of the cetacean brain. The enormous neural development for social life, which may have arisen after river dolphins returned to sea, would be a natural basis for further evolution needed for deep diving.

Our basic visual field is two-dimensional, which can be appreciated by looking at bright light with closed eyes. The third dimension of visual space is given by a system of distance values assigned through elaborate cues, such as ocular convergence, binocular disparity, texture density gradients, motion parallax, superposition, and illumination direction. Another three-dimensional sensory space is the kinesthetic space in which is experienced when moving about in a dark room. This space is much more highly developed in blind people. We have a poorly developed sonic space because the sound elements have very little connectivity, although a continuous, rapidly varying pitch can give a suggestive glimmer of a one-dimensional sonic space. Blind people are able to make remarkable use of sound for gauging their surroundings, but this is not a sonic space. It is rather a kinesthetic space closely associated with sonic data. Sensory spaces are not physical space, although they are coordinated with it. Visual space can be distorted by lenses, drugs, or brain injury, but physical space is distorted only by extreme conditions, such as very powerful gravitational fields, which are not encountered in ordinary life.

It seems possible that, if cetaceans can assign definite directions to sounds, they can convert sound stimuli into neural patterns that generate a three-dimensional sonic sensory space. If this is true, then the whale would experience itself immersed in a three-dimensional sonic space similar to our immersion in three-dimensional. That is, it would "see" with sound. The immediate sonic field would probably surround the whale, unlike our immediate visual field which is in front of us, although the greatest clarity and acuity would be in front because the head region is better innervated for sound reception. The head is also the source of sound projection, and the echoes of projected sound are more unidirectional in the high frequencies.

Objects would be located in this space as we locate objects in visual space. There would be both sources and reflectors of sound, just as there are emitters and reflectors of light in the visual world. If sound has sufficiently high frequency, it can be reflected with such coherence that an object, e. g., a fish, would be perceived as a fish in a manner comparable to our seeing a fish. The selective reflectivity of different frequencies by various kinds of objects might even be perceived as qualities analogous to color.

The cetacean's sonic space would differ structurally from human visual space. Perception in sonic space would have less acuity than in visual space and the acuity would vary with the frequency of the sound. The distance range of detectable sound in water varies from a few feet for extremely high frequencies to many miles for very low frequencies. There is a noticeable time delay of one second per 5000 feet in the transmission of sound in water. The frequency of sound from a source is increased or decreased by the Doppler effect when the source moves toward or away from the observer. In contrast, perception in visual space is much sharper, has practically the same acuity and range for all wavelengths of visible light, and has no time delay or Doppler effect in ordinary life. These differences between sonic and visual spaces are evident because sound is far slower than light and has greater wavelengths. An object cannot reflect a wave whose length is greater than the size of the object. Dolphins can emit and detect sounds at least as high as 120,000 cycles per second. Sound at that pitch can be used to detect objects as small as an inch. This is a resolution of about 7 minutes of arc at 20 feet, although proportionally less at closer distances. Dolphins can also determine the direction at this sound with about the same accuracy. It is possible that the dolphin can use even higher frequencies which would give still better resolution. The resolution of human vision is about a minute of arc. It is also quite possible that the dolphin combines its sonic and visual spaces into a single sensory space which would have more structural uniformity and better resolution at close ranges. Combining these spaces may be one of the functions of the paralimbic lobe.

Far more must be known about the mechanism for generating visual space from the neural activity of the visual cortex before we can understand the manner, or even the possibility, of generating a sonic space. Even then we may know if the quality of the space is sonic or visual, i. e., whether it would be occupied by sound or by visual sensa supported by sonic input. All mental activity is based on electrical impulses in nerve cells, and all types of these cells have the same kind of impulse. The sensory quality of an experience depends on the processing and organization of the impulses. If the nerves of the inner ear were connected to the visual cortex, sounds would be experienced with a visual quality.

Cetaceans do not have an organ concentrating an array of sound detectors similar to the array of rods and cones in the retina. Dolphins have two inner ears that receive sound via fatty deposits inside the jawbone and a region of the forehead called the melon that possibly functions as a sonic focusing device. If they experience a sonic space of two or more dimensions by means of this apparatus, that space must be supported by some means of storing the data as they are received through the two ears. Somewhat analogously, the visual impressions from the moving spot of light that scans the surface of a television tube is held by the observer through persistence of vision for about 1/10 of a second, long enough for the scan to cover the entire tube and enable the observer to experience an image. If this were not so, we could perceive only a moving spot. The dolphin's two inner ears cannot construct a two-dimensional field from a fixed position, but head movement, swimming, and deliberate beaming of emitted sound in different directions could generate variations sufficient to support such a field. These movements would also widen the perceptual field for the high frequencies. It is also possible that cetaceans can detect sound through pressure variations on the skin. If this is the case, it might be possible for them to have a two-dimensional space of sensations via an array of sensors extending over the body surface. Such an array has the advantage of greater sonic data input for a given time interval, and data based on the array is more easily organized into a sensory space of more than one dimension.

Huntley Ingalls and friends
Huntley Ingalls and friends

The field of vision is experienced as a coherent continuum. This seemingly simple property cannot arise from a mere array of sensory elements alone. There must be some process which binds the elements, or they would be independent and would not appear together as a single expanse. This coherent field of vision may be supported by some sort of neural scanning mechanism. This is suggested by an interesting visual effect which can be induced by a flashing stroboscopic light. When an observer looks at such a light flashing between 6 and 30 times per second, his visual field becomes filled with complex, changing patterns such as dark or colored zigzag lines vibrating on a light background. Other patterns may be like the spokes of a wheel or a whirlpool. The zigzag lines may sweep from one side of the visual field to the other or form intricate mosaics. These effects do not come from the retina. This was demonstrated by Gray Walter,6a physiologist, who found that the electrical pulsations in the retina show no unusual effects under such flashing stroboscopic lights. Similar phenomena occur on a television screen when a studio illuminated by a flashing light is monitored by a television camera. Complex patterns of dots and lines dart and zigzag across the screen. This happens because the moving electron beam is scanning the screen to form the picture can illuminate the screen only during the very short intervals when the light is on in the studio. Thus only disconnected bits of the beam's rapid path over the screen are visible. The particular form of the patterns depend on the particular nature of the scanning mechanism. Possibly the whirling spiral that is often seen under stroboscopic flicker indicates the type of scan in the neural system which supports the visual field. This scan is not, of course, anything like a moving electron beam. It would perhaps be some sort of rhythmical firing of banks of nerve cells.

If an organism has a two-dimensional sensory field supported by a neural scanning mechanism, such a mechanism might be detected by electrodes in an appropriate part of the brain which can register the scan's electronic signature. If the firing of banks of cells in the visual cortex of a mammal has some characteristic erratic signature under stroboscopic light flashing at critical frequency, such a signature may also characterize other two-dimensional sensory fields and could be used to test for their existence. If this is the case and a dolphin were subjected to extremely short bursts of sound at constant critical intervals, and erratic firing of banks of auditory cells, similar to that of visual cells under stroboscopic flicker, might become evident. If the sonic data under the scan are stored longer than the duration of a single complete scan, then the sonic field could be two-dimensional with elaboration to three dimensions through cues such as the Doppler effect, modification of sound reflections by the shape and texture of surfaces, and by differential time delays of reflection from objects at various distances.

Suppose a two-dimensional space of sonic data with its three-dimensional cues can be held in storage for a few seconds while other, similar three-dimensional spaces are rapidly and continuously constructed and stored. The fields might be stored by repeated firing of banks of cells. Suppose further that a higher scan surveys this continuum of three-dimensional spaces and integrates them into a single manifold. This would have the effect of a four-dimensional sensory space in which span of time would have a spatial representation. Such a feat would require and enormous neural system. This conjecture is, of course, very speculative, but here may be some natural base for such a development. The huge supralimbic and paralimbic lobes of cetaceans very likely have enormous memory capacity, and if they store data to support sonic fields, this could be a base for a next stage of perception. If cetaceans do experience three-dimensional sonic spaces, then some survival or social advantage for another dimension of sonic space might induce such a development. The sperm whale's largest brain size suggests the greatest development for processing sonic data. If there is any survival advantage to the ability to experience four-dimensional sonic space, it may well be associated with deep diving.

It is not certain that this ability would be of any technical advantage to the whale. The sperm whale's limited time at great depths must be spent very efficiently to capture enough prey to support so large a creature. A capacity for four-dimensional sonic perception would allow it to perceive the trajectories of its prey imaging dynamic processes that would enable it to capture prey more effectively. Possibly a whale would also be able to monitor the activities of other prey while it is actually feeding. Such perception has an advantage at great depths because there is no continuous field of contiguous objects such as we experience in our daily life, but separate objects moving about in a sonically dark, or relatively dark, background. A four-dimensional sensory space would be most effective if its span represented a few seconds. A longer span would clutter perception. A whale's aesthetic and social life would be enormously enhanced by a four-dimensional sonic space. Perhaps they could create music, sonic arabesques and sculpture, or social messages beyond our comprehension.

Humans experience a slight, crude four-dimensional visual space. This is manifest when we see the trajectory of a rapidly moving light in a dark room. We would be unable to see a picture on a television screen if our perceptions were strictly from instant to instant. We would see only a series of dots as the electron beam scanned the tube. The slight persistence of hearing combined with the running memory enables us to experience rhythms. Thus we operate in a crude four-dimensional space, but its span represents only 1/10 of a second.

If tests indicate that cetaceans experience sonic fields, it may be possible to make tests indicating four-dimensional sonic perception. This might be done by implanting electrodes in the auditory region of a cetacean's brain and presenting objects for it to echolocate which arouse a definite electronic signature. The rapid repetition of the signature for a sustained time would suggest a four-dimensional sonic perception. That is, we might try to determine of a sound pattern "reverberates" in the cetacean's brain. In another possibility, a signature might be linked to a very transient event, such as an abrupt change of direction by a darting squid, and the time span of the event found to be less than that of the signature repetition.

Cetaceans may be less proficient problem solvers than humans, but they surely have enormous cerebral activity. A creature is a being when it experiences a conscious sensory field, and is a person when it has a concept of the self and an awareness of its own self. The self may have arisen from the needs for survival planning by problem solving creatures in dangerous environments. If this is true, then cetaceans are less likely that humanoids to have selves. But the sense of self would enrich cetacean life and would be very useful in social competition. If cetaceans' sonic transmissions contain some symbol for the sender and for each individual, i. E., a name, personhood would be suggested. All cetaceans are almost certainly beings. Perhaps some are prodigious beings, and conceivably persons.

Boulder, Colorado (1992)

Child next to whale

1 "Observations of Cetacean Community," Gregory Bateson in Mind in the Waters. Assembled by John McIntyer. Scribners/Sierra Club, 1974.

2 "The Evolution of Cetacean Intelligence," Sterling Bunnell in Mind in the Waters. Assembled by John McIntyer. Scribners/Sierra Club, 1974.

3 Op. Cit., "The Evolution of Cetacean Intelligence."

4 "Physiological Observations on Dolphin Brains." Sam H. Ridgway in Dolphin Cognition and Behavior: A Comparative Approach. R. Schusterman, J. Thomas, and F. Wood (Eds.). Lawrence Erlaum associates, Hillsdale, new Jersey, 1986.

5 Op. Cit., "The Evolution of Cetacean Intelligence."

6 The Living Brain. Gray Walter. P. 102. Norton, 1953.