Wednesday, December 28, 2005


As mentioned in a previous post, Carbon, I believe it is self-evident that superior systems emerge from lower-level systems. I believe this makes things better, in a general sort of way, by binding entropy in complexity and in systems. Call me an optimist. Parasitic or predatory systems (forgive me for being unable to differentiate the two) do manage to bosh the process occasionally with oversuccess.

The optimal predator/parasite's energy needs are equivalent to the prey system's energy loss due to entropy. A large system, say, a thousand wildebeest, manage to lose track of five calves in a month, due to loss of information among the system's members. Well evolved lions adjust their behavior and population so that they eat five calves a month. Any less and they starve, any more and the energy gained in extra wildebeest is made up for in angry wildebeest. Predators do not want an epic stuggle, and they don't particularly want angry prey. We enjoy watching Epic Struggles not because we admire the drama, but because it means someone else is doing the struggling. Oh, my king and my hero! Lead me to battle, and stay well ahead of me!

Back to our wildebeest and our hungry lions. Imagine now that the lions are symbiote with a neural parasite that makes wildebeest deaf, but not lions, and that it is waterborne, passing easily between lions and wildebeest. The parasite increases entropy in the wildebeest herd by limiting information transfer between members, and the lions get fatter without being kicked or gored.

This would be incredibly nifty for the lions, but it would rarely happen in the natural world. It takes a lot of time and a lot of randomness, factors that favor the prey animal. With more wildebeest than lions, it is more likely that the wildebeest have evolved something that promotes feline tooth decay or something along those lines, like feline leukemia virus (FeLV). But let us assume that the lions have somehow gotten the upper hand in the epidemiological war. The relationship is seriously busted now, as the prey system grows smaller, its ability to evolve resistance to sickness weakens, their health slumps, entropy increases, lions get fatter (and there's probably a lot more of them). Sudden crisis for prey, not-too-distant crisis for predator.

What happens if one lion population hosts the deaf wildebeest virus and another does not? It raises interesting questions. I leave it to the reader to find analogies in the business world.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


All good systems seek to maintain themselves. If they do not, they cease to be systems, so any behavior that it not self-maintaining is, by definition, bad. At the same time, the system maintenance must be able to change quickly enough so that the environment does not destroy it. An atom is a system, and a darned good one, as it has generally worked quite well for many billions of years, depending on how you tell time in Riemannian space. It fails in places like singularities, but as Reason itself breaks down around singularities, that's really not much of a failing. The reason for the success of the atom is that it is tightly bound to the environment. Its appendages into the environment, electrons, are small enough that they can hear raised voices from the Planck distance, the most basic unit in the reality grid. In other words, if change is occurring, it's hard to make a change so small that an atom can't hear it. Furthermore, being so small itself, the atom does not neet Project Managers to communicate the change to all its parts, although occasionally there are spin-offs and mergers.

The electrons themselves are sensitive to probability. If the fourth dimension is time, and probability is a sort of ill-defined fifth dimension, then things like electrons and gravitons are the movers and shakers in this odd sphere. Mass is concentrated probability, and it slowly gathers things to it, forming suns and planets. Chemicals bind the escaping energy of the cosmos into stuctures that hold that energy in a pattern, gathering more probability as the universe wonders exactly how that energy is going to get out, like an audience at a Jenga game. The structures grow into systems, and eventually systems like you and me can begin wondering about how these structures came to be in the first place. We do this because we can see the "might-have-beens", the crucial fifth dimension that allows us to navigate around things like trying to commute past high schools with nothing but a two lane access road.

So our system, life, has seen itself in the mirror. Congratulations. Science can now continue, but life's next step is a bit more difficult, as it involves organizing systems into the extremely contentious supersystem we call "society", or "culture", or whatever it is they are calling it in this year's intro to anthro textbooks. We need to think about this because, as anyone who witnessed the twentieth century can tell you, the work done in this area has been lacking in rigor.

Living systems are the best analogy we have for society's integration of complex systems (humans). We can start with the rise of genetic material from mobs of mere molecules 3,800 million years ago. It is important to realize that there were an Enron-sized pile of fuck-ups even at this early date. Even after a life system was established, wild imbalances in the system resulted in environmental destruction unmatched even today (see "Oxygen Catastrophe"). Unlike carbon atoms, however, we supposedly have an information exchange between human beings that is capable of correct the larger supersystem and the behavior of the subsystems, i.e., you and me. Also unlike carbon atoms, we have ideology, religion, and the Heritage Foundation. Humans win by default, as we have not yet destroyed all life with poisonous gas. Nuclear weapons are far prettier, in any case, and the only art carbon atoms are interested in is jewelry.

Since we've established that human beings have at least the capacity to be smarter than carbon atoms, let's move up a level, to another established system. The human brain is, arguably, a self-correcting system (most of the time) that can get most of its ducks in a row when the environment changes - without destroying its internal structure (almost more than half the time). It does this via a host of control mechanisms, most of which are located, stupidly enough, in the same office block as those housing our Mortal Sins. When your hypothalamus is trying to route hemispheres occupied with the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, it is going through that one time in fifth grade that Lesia let you put your hand up her skirt. The reason for this is that your brain's first priority is your system first, and your supersystem second (although current research indicates that some folks are preselected for sacrifice in a human population, it is not the norm).

Being a free carbon atom is nice and all, but the supply of information reaching you is negligible in comparison to the information flow your friends are getting on the quantum highway inside their huge RNA molecule. It doesn't make sense to be a carbon atom. You abandon being an atom because you see much bigger things in your future (literally) as part of a system. The body did the same thing with its neurons, via cell specialization, the hypothalamus and assorted control mechanisms. Human society has done it with a successive grouping of social constructs so myriad that I am not going to google them all. It doesn't even matter what they are all called. What does matter is that the supersystem must be able to navigate five-dimensional space in a symbolic fashion, and dodge the symbolic semi running a red light.

So human society needs better information exchange and a new hypothalamus or organizing structure, but that means saying things about religion and ideology that I really don't want to get into here. We're already well down the road on the information exchange part, but a rigid control will make a rigid supersystem, unable to make timely changes. We traditionally haven't had to worry about information and reactionaries in the same space, but suffice to say we've seen a new sort of religious fundamentalism, one that isn't afraid of the internet, electronic survellance and ID tags. I don't want Dr. James Dobson to write the hypothalamus of 21st century humanity, because 1) I think it would be a suffocating world, and 2) I don't think his ilk have the vision of a carbon atom, much less that of blue-green algae.


I am a first generation American on my father's side, a second generation on my mother's. My family did not go "over there", to come back to peacetime. They came from there, Europe of the twentieth century, Rwanda with panzer armies and no jungle. My mother's family was confused and scandalized by actions of family against family, of men fleeing women, never to return. My father's family was confused by actions of self against self, but with these various near-psychotic characters somehow staying together. As the only enemy I have ever acknowledged is myself, I naturally have come to sympathize with my father's family more. Psychosis and Russianness are like ice cream and apple pie.

Natural sympathy, of course, is no substitute for a good story, and my father's family has plenty of that. They were Cossacks, hardly domesticated, at least to hear grandmother talk of them: marrying their stepdaughters, poisoning their wives (when they complained), initiating pograms and writing damned good poetry about all of it. Even the pograms had nursery rhymes written about them:

The Chechen sits in the dark by the lake
He is sharpening his knife
The rest of the village is drinking and dancing (they have lots!)
But the Chechen still sharpens his knife

Then communism happened, or rather, as P. J. O'Rourke memorably clarified, "communism with Russians in it". My family fled. Starting out as groups of constitutional monarchists (Kadets), they settled in Yugoslavia. They established a sort of miniature Kiev, complete with their own miniature Russian Orthodox Church (now known as ROCA, or ROCOR, as opposed to the Russian Orthodox Church, which was re-started after the fall of communism), waiting for the day Lenin and his dastardly Jewish cohorts might be brought low. High hopes were had for a Hitler-Kadet restoration of Imperial Russia, but Hitler's penchant for enslaving and/or killing anyone east of the Dnieper put a clamp on that idea. Hitler came into Yugoslavia and killed some people, then the Americans came and killed absolutely everyone. The United States military doctrine about entering towns was pretty simple back then: if there is even an appearance of resistance, bomb the living shit out of it.

My great-grandfather was shot by partisans sometime in this period, something that always made me wonder. Why would they shoot kadets who were on their side (as grandmother has said out family was)? Was great-grandfather collaborating with the Nazis? I have read in books that the Kadets were generally inclined to hug Nazis, in a large-scale history book kind of way, but it is a hard thing to know about your great-grandfather. It would not be a moral failing if he was. Morality in general was having a hard time on the Eastern front. The partisans come in and shoot anyone who doesn't cooperate. Then the Nazis come in and shoot anyone for cooperating with the Partisans. Roving Albanian gangs come in and shoot everyone that hasn't been blown to bits by B-17s. At least the Nazis had snappy uniforms, and that's something I can see an old Tsarist appreciating. So many possibilities. More likely than any of them is simple larceny. He was well-off, and known to be well off (virtue of the snappy uniforms) and the partisans, like all young men with guns, relieved him of his well-offedness without a whole lot of political thought.

My grandmother tunnelled from the rubble of stone and corpses that was Belgrade and went to find a displaced persons camp. Somewhere in this period my father was born. She probably wasn't actually looking for a camp or much of anything at this point, but wandering and trying to survive. It is shameful that there is still a quarter of the world's population living like this. It sounds easy to accept when it is your family, but not easy when you are there, I imagine, probably impossible for many in that poor old continent. My grandmother's childhood friend hung herself before they could reach anything like sanctuary, somewhere on the road from Belgrade. It was not a terribly uncommon way for young women to pass to rest: willowy bodies rotting, strung in the cherry trees, like toys or kites abandoned in childhood. Too heavy to live, too light to fall.

My grandfather had a somewhat less grim time of it, although perhaps this is simply my impression, as my grandfather died before I grew interested in such things as history or the Reichswehr. An engineer, he was conscripted to shoot at Germans, but proved to be sincerely terrible at it. The Germans took him to a POW camp briefly before it was blown to bits by B-17s, and he made his escape on top of a Panzer. He wandered Europe's ruin as well and decided to up and head for America. Whether or not grandma and grandpa had some sort of scheduled rendevous I do not know, but I do know they found each other in the processing stations at Ellis Island, sometime in 1947. Planned or not, that must have been something to see. I hope everyone's life has a moment or five like that.

The one good thing about my life is that I have had moments that I think were like that. I always let them go, like a kid with toy balloons. This is partially because I enjoy hurting myself but also because I do not want to squander my chances of having another, and another, and another. Those moments are the reason for life, and getting to them is the act of living. I have internalized the exile. As the exile wishes to return, I wish for nothing but yearning. I want nothing more than to want. And so I will walk.


Sometimes separation is unbearable. Not the violence of the moment of separation, or the obscurity or distance that we sometimes mistake for separation. It is the object's awareness of another, and the other's awareness of it, without rendevous or hope of meeting, that is separation. Earth and Luna dance about each other, tidally locked, separated. We watch the lovelorn orbit a beloved, yearning, as Kim Stanley Robinson so aptly put it, "for orbital decay", the moment of impact and ecstasy. In the vacuum of modern life orbits never decay, and we fly through lives unimpacted, unscarred, and alone.

I have many scars. The tracks of sharp instruments are everywhere, some wielded by another in anger, more wielded by myself upon myself. Lines where the teeth of a bear entered into me. Doctor's cuts over my lower back. The long wide scar underneath my left arm, where that limb was torn from my body. The arm is again part of me but will never be as it was. I have been separated.

My bedsheets stink of fearful dreams, disfigurement, and madness. Six thousand newtons on my twenty-third birthday, I fly from the saddle at one hundred and fifteen feet per second, forearm the first to make contact with five tons of concrete. Angular momentum twists my body around; the humerus rotates in the shoulder joint until it comes out. It keeps rotating, pulling the flesh from its moorings, like a drumstick being pulled from a turkey. No pain, not yet, but in dreams the pain is always there, the swinging useless meat is filled with it. I often dream of old love before the dream-arm is torn from me. I see the face, feel sweetness, a hot fire, wholeness, then impact, and the agony of something taken away forever. I can see me coming apart from me. It is no dream.

So I avoid mirrors. I avoid them for the same reason I can not watch the end of Cinema Paradiso, or enjoy romance, or read Inferno without bursting into tears. The flesh, the love, the divine: all of these things are separated from the self by a barrier. We build the first barriers between our selves and the outside. Barriers outside of the self are the key to language and intelligent existence. They are necessary. Some barriers are unneeded, and their erection causes pain, as they separate things that should be inseparable. My barrier is between myself and myself. I can see it in my reflection. It has been put there by enormous energies, and it will take an enormous energy to remove. I will do this.

I am leaving early next year to walk two thousand miles up the Eastern seaboard of the United States. I am enough of a backpacker to know that no great understanding comes of this. There is too much pain, eating, sleeping to be done for serious cogitation. But it can shrink these terrible spaces. I will draw closer to the world and to my own poor body, the separation drawing down to a tiny distance. And then we shall dance, like the Earth and the Moon, separated.

O Earth

Those of us gifted with a self-destructive pathology are often obsessed with the image of rebirth. The attraction to it is not in renewal, of course, but in the havoc that must precede it, a havoc to which we are inexorably drawn. We sink our claws into ourselves and pull off our skins, looking for the perfect stranger hiding in our guts. The stranger is never there. He has already been warped by the pain you have brought to him, and he huddles, as twisted and evil as you were when you started, in the life you yourself have broken. He cries and begins scratching, and soon it happens again. The stranger grows into your hateful self, over and over, flaying its crusted hide until it chokes on scar tissue and you are dead. That is your "rebirth". Rebirth is a scam and it's run by Hope.

Backpacking is the perfect activity for such as us. At first I had bought into the rebirth gimmick and thought that was what was happening to me in the woods. I know now it is much simpler. The venom reserved for myself flows instead into the great hill that rears above my head. I dig my talons into the hill and pull, drawing myself forward, each step a little universe of pain and glory. While I pull at the mud, the stranger inside me cries and I see, clearly for the first time, that it is a child, a perfect tiny child. It says thank you, o earth, for bearing this thing that would hurt and flense me. Thank you for your beauty and endurance. Thank you, thank you.

Regarding Journals

Syncretism is in my nature. It is my great blessing and my curse. It allows me to learn new concepts quickly. It also makes any error in my understanding disturbingly persistent. Take, for example, the relationship between King John and the Albigensian Crusade. King John fought a losing land battle at a proximate time to the eradication of the Cathari. As both the King and the Cathari lost, I had assumed an alliance between them, and have even argued in favor of it. No such relationship existed. I formed similar misplaced opinions about the relationship between the Paduan reformers and the firebrand Italian Protestants. I had assumed that their similar radicalism was a direct offshoot of both being spurned at Trent, when in reality people like Martyr Vermigli and Ochino would never have rejoined the Rome of their time. They would have gone to the extremists regardless. What looks like conspiracy is more often coincidence. There is never a big picture, and if there is, the actors of history never glimpse it from where they stand. Such was the death of my belief in ideology as an historical force.

Often, in defiance of my gifts, I plunge into byzantine levels of detail, an act that is at once painful and educational. From the detailed process I sometimes gather a syncretic understanding, more often I do not. My thesis is an example of where I did not. No matter how much detail one gathers, it does not prove intent. The theological reformers of Padua had no longstanding plan to join with the rueful wiliness of the Church in England. Gathering a detailed process of how airline trips are made does not give one an understanding of why they happen, or of how a travel agency reserves seats on an airplane. These processes just happen, and can only be truly understood by joining with them.

So this journal is not centered on detail. It is a syncretist account, the form of my mind after being subjected to the details of the trail. Some things may stand out enough to be assimilated into a journal entry. Most will not. This is not a crisis, as everything there is to say about rain, cold, hostels, mud, hotels, food, snoring, and the countless other physical trail experiences has already been said, and probably better, by more concise journal keepers than myself. This journal is an account of my mind, and not my body.