Saturday, September 25, 2010

Game Over!

First, let's clear up any misconceptions: I am the same person I was yesterday, joyful to a fault and utterly convinced of the worth of the human condition. I don't think people should avoid going to the voting booth in November to keep the Tea Party at bay, and I think there are plenty of things the average citizen can do to stave off disaster. But on Sept. 25, I was slightly more willing to snap up that Republican bumper sticker, "How's that hopey changey thing working out for you?" I was slightly more ready to mouth the anarchist mantra, "If voting could change anything, it would be illegal."

The feeling has been there in the background since Scientific American published a study a few months back, saying that on at least four vectors of ten, the environment has already passed the tipping point of irreversible damage. This is not an excuse for inaction, but a reminder that the world's a shit and we're knee-deep in it.

Yesterday, I saw the movie Gasland after heavy prodding from my friend Hilary, and I'm very glad I did. Josh Fox demonstrates that natural-gas drilling is perhaps the most toxic form of resource extraction, yet there is little that can be done to mitigate the poisoning and brain lesions, because Dick Cheney's secret energy-policy meeting of 2001 was set up primarily to craft a 2005 Energy Act that exempted oil and gas drillers entirely from the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Since hundreds of thousands of new natural-gas drilling sites now dot the U.S. landscape, it's almost too late for catch-up. And now several oil drilling advocates are actually rejoicing about the North Polar ice cap melting, since it will allow tankers to traverse the North Pole, making further exploitation easier. Shit, we won't stop until the last landscape is devastated.

Meanwhile, my annoyance with the present administration went up a notch on Friday when the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force raided peace centers and activists' homes in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, and California. Oh, sure, they have great stories about looking for FARC and Palestinian connections, but at the end of the day, it sure looks like a Bush administration action - meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And this is not surprising. Obama and Clinton, as I am never tired of reminding everyone, were candidates of the Democratic Leadership Council. This is the minuscule range for change allowed in this country, yet it enrages the paleo-right to talk about "socialism in America." The only question left is whether the republic or the environmental landscape collapses first, but time's pretty much up.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Crystals, Annealing, and A-Ha Moments

The following two poems require a bit of explanation. 'Local Minima' was a proem (prose-poem) written in early August 2009, in an attempt to draw together problems in annealing algorithms and their relation to new ideas, with the repetitious faults one might encounter in the Tibetan Buddhist wheel of reincarnation. It deals with only two souls, albeit many lives, and one instance of crystallization. 'Local Minima' seemed unfinished at the time, though I performed it twice in 2009, with some random lines from Laurie Anderson's 'Closed Circuit.'

This past spring, I discovered the wonderful work of Liane Gabora and her 'Beer Can Theory of Creativity,' explicitly bringing the concept of simulated annealing into the apparently random process of creative enlightenment. Last week, I had a discussion with the astonishing poet Carolyn Srygley-Moore about the hidden math patterns of Jackson Pollock (which even Pollock himself was unlikely to be consciously aware of), and their relations to the random walk and traveling-salesman problem. She just finished a poem, 'reflections on a conversation with a friend,' which forced me to think about crystallization, melting, parasitic minds and emergent intelligence. Now 'Local Minima' has found its companion, 'Hive Crystals.' The two poems are NP-complete. They're a closed circuit, baby.


My depth of gratitude for Clint Takeda’s simple words was not evident until the evening we leaned against the Knight Rider pinball machine in the long-demolished 15th Street Tavern, our inclined angles almost in parallel to the careening ball finding temporary traps in the pockmarks of David Hasselhoff’s painted face. Isobel was chanting, whispering perhaps, and it suddenly occurred to me the bardo pond looked just like the oscillating trap that those testing mixed-signal integrated circuits call “stuck-at-fault.” The bardo pond felt just like the point at which the energy daemon in a game of simulated annealing becomes “stuck at local minima.” The energy daemon felt just like the last pinball in the round.

Experts in genetic algorithms tell us that the energy required to overcome a local minimum is at least twice that to begin the process of annealing. From the point of view of the pinball, the valley walls are sheer and high, and the pond is cozy, maybe a bit warm for the mountains. There’s beer and brats for the beachfront property. Only that ominous I-70 sign warning truckers they have not reached bottom yet, reminds the pinball it is far from its poky little home, where its mother is no doubt greatly displeased. How does the pinball reach the flippers? In the wheel, the minimum quantum of energy is one lifetime. In pinball, the minimum quantum of energy is tilt. Twice the energy at go would suggest cheating at some point.

Western Missouri in 1842? Serb highlanders in 1942? Maybe the jerky pattern of those whispers is the sound of a record skipping. Call upon the gods of choice, but escaping the local minimum and leaving the canyon is a matter of chance. And the next annealing may not be the karmic destination you were hoping for. Maybe it’s best to sit by the pond in the bright sunshine and wait for the next streetcar to Pleiku.

Loring Wirbel

Aug. 8, 2009

Hive Crystals (for Carolyn)

Time it was the ones with guns
blotted my tears with tales of swarm intelligence, hive minds.
But if the living cell is a parasitic accident
the mitochondria as drone assassins
turn each instance of accidental grace
into the idealized snowflake,
the singularity of honey gone solid.

Emergent intelligence annealed is Jack Frost's friend
Each human hunch absent the need to know a frosted window.
One mind's stumble in an Ice-9 world
where every revelation begins with oops
with Honey Bear bottles in the solid entanglements
begging for a shot in the microwave.
Understanding introduced with a dose of Bisphenol-A.

Emergent intelligence melted, smelted
at a place where the crystallization moment
is lost in a Poisson pattern.
Worker bee's crystals embedded in dance.
Soldier ant's burden is and was weightless.
And the synaptic re-enactment enters the swarm.

Loring Wirbel
Sep. 19, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Idiot Chic

Friends on Facebook know that this week, yours truly launched the "Idiot Chic" group, dedicated to worshiping the rise of know-nothing behavior in modern society, making art and humor out of the rejection of logic, discourse, and the scientific method. Is this cruelty? Is this irony? Hardly.

As David Thomas of Pere Ubu reiterates on his Hearpen site, it is important to rid yourself of an abundance of irony (or cynicism, for that matter), and say what you mean. OK, clown mask off.

garage  icon
An Irony-Free™ Site

In 1984, I was among a group of well-meaning clowns who ran a dog for president, under the double moniker of the Disgusted with Yuppies Party and the Stupid Toy Society. Though this was before the rise of Gameboys and smartphones, we could foresee the consumer world defined by its stupid toys. Revel in the madness, tra-la, tra-la.

Similarly, here in the 21st century, it was disheartening to watch Clay Jenkinson of Thomas Jefferson Hour get so disheartened over a "New Dark Ages" - sure, I agree with him, there is a surfeit of literacy and little concern for making a rational argument any more. In fact, large sectors of the political and cultural world stridently reject rationalism in favor of making emotional faith-based or authority-based arguments as a way of establishing identity. My old friend Sandy said that it's of little use to lament the passing of the Enlightenment - humans have been idiots through most of their evolutionary history, and are not going to change because you whine.

In fact, we are so busy spotting the two-steps-back, we fail to notice the baby steps forward. Sure, the society is getting scary-dumb these days, but at least in Western culture, we see few of the violent gangs to enforce conformity that we saw a century ago. Today, stupid is a fashion statement, an art form. If the three most common culinary icons in 2010 are bacon, cupcakes, and IPA beer, why fight it?

Hence Idiot Chic. Like the steampunk movement currently running out of steam, the rise of cultural vapidity requires a documentation, a celebration, a reference point. Dedicated web sites or blogs are too blase, Twitter fails to give us the cultural richness we need, but a Facebook group fits the necessary dumbness model. But for those of you who refuse to bow to Mark Zuckerberg's Frankenstein monster, consider this blog an occasional and indirect portal to the moron in all of us. Hail Idiot Chic.

Honor Among Witches

Here are two poems from late August I have been remiss at posting:

Restoring Honor and Yellow Pinstripes

(for a rodeo clown)

Some weekends restore more honor than others.

Languorous nickel cones, for example,
Plump eggplant A’s and T’s sighing searchlight pinstripes
in Fisher-Price choo choo rows
before McAllister pocket windows
flex valor in buckets
but won’t turn over for curse or blessing.

Or the ’57 Chevys overflowing from Rosie’s
Honorable keepers of keys left snoring in the lot
as an officer searches catacombs for an off-switch to alarms.
Restoration at a price, always a price.

If I still owned a timing light,
If I still cared for honor
Michigan’s loveliest pinstriper
could accessorize medal upon medal upon medal.

But I misplaced the dueling pistol,
sold off the rapier,
told the half-brothers that sisters aren’t strangled
for infidelities on my watch.
Honor leaves silvery tastes of beef tongue, dust motes
I wait instead for the instrumental moment.

Loring Wirbel
Aug. 30, 2010


In a Land of No Witches

Goodwill trembles in the thistle-choked ditch
Fruit fly proboscis in each tear duct
Afraid to look at the aid administrator declaring
“Witchcraft has been banished since Lugard
bullwhipped the Niger.”

Emilohi weeps behind a battered door
Clothes with buttons
dictate the separation of cups – Six of Cups? –
terror of spells, child abuse

Abby asks if the expansion of scientific inquiry drove miracles away
I tell her Lives of the Saints is a bullshit Bunyan tale
Goodwill begs there be no witches

The clinical saints march in cadence,
Forbidding clitorodectomal horrors here, there
eye of a newt, a purple flurp
a large, one-eyed, no-nosed nothing
The clerical saints panic, torn between exorcisms of choice
and a temporal alliance with the ancient ones,
living outside the law of Newton
Pagan priest, pederast saint, both in the last band
Of armed ‘Ndrangheta
Hawking hollers, “Come on out with your hands up!”

And as our rationalist gang plays Whack-A-Mole
We miss the hairline cracks seeping spells
Even still, even still
Goodwill trembles.

Loring Wirbel
August 27, 2010