Thursday, December 24, 2009

Serpentine and Watermelons of Repose

Last night, before bed, I sat on the guest bedroom floor with this computer and tapped for awhile to friends,  and loved ones for a bit, then watched whatever the Charlie Brown Christmas special is called.  Merry Christmas Charlie Brown?  Perhaps....
Must be interesting watching Charlie Brown if your a depressed person... a source of humorous torture, or something.  The show is remarkably true to Shultz's downbeat creation.  I had forgotten that.  In any case, it's a fun show.   Something nice to end my second (!) day with my Mom and Dad.

Earlier in the evening I discovered to my total shock that I had accidentally grabbed my version of the book I bought my father for Christmas (a sort of ridiculous pean to himself by James Lipton, on Inside the Actors Studio, a guilty pleasure of mine, back when I was crazy enough to watch TV.... all night long sometimes.)  Lipton is sometimes unintentionally hilarious, like his posture (which is so bent, it suggests he must have been a slouching orphan for the first few decades of his life) and other times, like with his early book (An Exaltation of Larks) about the fanciful names in English for groups of animals (Jenny and Ande I think you would be highly interested in this) Lipton verges into an almost perfect imitation of a clueless academic, who knows all about, but nothin' much dead on.  You know the sort of names I mean (apparently a group of larks, is an "exaltation")  a "murder" of Crows, a "pride" of Lions, a "Clan" of Rednecks (all animals have some kind of name.)  I'd love to meet the clown who named a group of fish a "school."  Schools of fish have extraordinary behaviors, which have been schooling us for decades... perhaps the cad who named fish "schools" somehow just knew they'd play a role in studies of emergence.  Jeez, I'll ask Mr. Lipton: "Say, Jim, what's your favorite word?  What's your favorite color?  What's a group of Three Toed Sloths called?"

He'd answer every question, deadpan, "authentic, Andy.  Quite... Authentic is my favorite word."  Keepin' it real, Jim.

I'm sitting in my parents living room, and have been looking at the glowing mountains for a few minutes here.  One mountain top is purple, others are dark already.  More or less a hilariously nice view.  People ask me all the time, "So, you going to Arizona for Christmas?"  Oftentimes I just say, "yes."  I'm not always in the mood explaining how very un Arizona this place is.  Though Arizona is nothing to complain about in the winter.  I loved living there one winter years ago.  Amazing place.

All day long I've been thinking about what looks like Serpentine, a green rock used in buildings, and for sculpture:  it sorta looks like green marble.  I saw this "serpentine" while passing through the "canyon" which is the part of Interstate 40 east of Albuquerque that you take to get  to my parents on Highway 14, the so called Turquoise Trail, which was, I suppose the original highway to Santa Fe.  In any case, it goes there.  My parents are between one third and halfway up 14 to Santa Fe, in Sandia Park, named after the Sandia Mountains, which in English, somewhat hilariously, are Watermelon Mountains.  How the hell did they get that name?  You would think Watermelons (which are from Africa) would not possibly have reached New Spain (Mexico, and portions of the Southwestern U.S,) till three or four hundred years ago.  And the minute someone saw these mountains the sun just left dark for the evening, all they could think of was "Watermelon," Sandia?  Oh well, Spaniards had a lot on their minds, with the Blood of Christ Mountains in Santa Fe, the Sangre de Christo's, and other macabre manifestations to contend with (like killing the natives) perhaps there was a winking irony in naming these New Mexico red sun dappled piles of rock after fruit:  not the blood of the Savior, but big juicy balls of fruit.  Sure.

What's wonderful about these mountains is that they arent' granite, like their northernmost neighbors, the Rocky Mountains, for the most part are.  The mountains here are, when you look at them, comprised of tilted beds of sedimentary sandstone, limestone, and some kind of metamorphic rock, which is always a sedimentary rock, heated and put under huge pressures until it bends.  From what I have read, and common sense, the  rock here was originally either sand dunes, or ocean bottom.  Limestone, in Bloomington, came from the great inland sea's that covered North America a number of times prior to the last great glaciation of the earth, twenty thousand years ago.  They say we're still warming up from that freeze up.

In any case, the rock's here were sediments like sand and silt, compressed and baked like a kiln until the silicates melted and fused rock together.  The reason I mention this, is that something strange happened after that.  Unlike the Rockies, with originated due to a series of great orogenies (a fantastic, seemingly lewd word that means "springing from the earth due to strange, mysterious forces in the mantle.) the mountains here began as a huge flat expanse of desert sand, or ocean bottom, dried up (or not.)  Slowly these huge many mile across chunks fractured from one another, somehow.  And each chunk, due to the fact that it is not only huge across (above the ground) but three dimensionally huge (below the ground, the entire thing know as Terrain) begins to float, somewhat, on the Earths mantle.  And slowly a huge series of chunks all would tilt sideways, until they are at a thirty to forty five degree angle.  Exposing the great rock from deep in the earth, on their backsides, and plunging the previous above ground sediment from the ocean or desert, deep into the ground.  Of course at the top of this half buried cube, is what was at one time flat ground, like the deck of the Titanic, now sticking way the hell up in the air.  After thousands of years of erosion, all of this gets rounded off, and plants take up habitat, and snow falls on the gracefully curving features in winter.  You have what are undeniably mountains.  But if you look carefully you can still see the carefully laid down layers of the millions of years when there were no mountains for hundreds of miles around.  It's, more or less, completely nuts.  And cool. And fun.  And what Darwin studied, in order to develop a new conception of time, so as to imagine lengths of time long enough to watch a Finch's beak change it's shape.  Tens of millions of years makes a hell of a picture show.

And of course, God did it all for me.

Merry Christmas from the Watermelon Mountains.

Note:  My Geology describes the famous Basin and Range "Terrain" of the Southwestern United States. My cousin Tim's friend Andrew came to visit on my last evening with my parents, and, I got a chance to ask about these "sedimentary" mountains.  Andrew was cool enough to point out that the part of the mountain I was looking at was granite sheathed in a "thin" layer of sedimentary rock.  On the other side of the mountain, the granite was exposed by the dropping of the Rio Grande Fault.  And the mountains here were caused by the Rio Grande Fault, not my basin and range idea, which is what I wrote above.  I was a little embarrassed to be so wrong, but enlightened by his wonderful explanation (and lifetime advocation.)

It wasn't my "fault."  Puns.... low humor for a lowdown fool.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Funky Ho Down

Recently I copied this passage from Mae-Wan Ho's insane and wonderful The Rainbow and The Worm (the physics of organisms) into an email to a friend concerning the magic of muscles:

(after writing at length about the magic of an organisms eye, and the manner in which it collects data, and the rate at which that data is organized, processed, and refigured to usefulness, she writes...)  Another instructive example is muscle contraction.  About 40% of our body is made of skeletal muscle, i.e., muscle attached to bones, like those in our arms and legs and trunk.  Another 5 to 10% is smooth muscle such as those in the gut and body wall, and cardiac muscle in the heart.  Skeletal muscle consists of bundles of long, thin muscle fibres, which may be discerned under a magnifying glass.  These fibres are several centimetres in length, each of which is actually a giant cell formed by the fusion of many separate cells. A single muscle fibre, magnified a hundred times or more under the light microscope, can be seen to be made up of a bundle of 20 to 50 much smaller fibres, or myofibrils, each 1 to 2 micrometres, or one millionth of a metre in diameter.  A myofibril has regular, 2.5 micrometre repeating units called sarcomeres, along its length.  Adjacent myofibrils are aligned so that their sarcomeres are in register.  Under the much higher magnifications from the electronmicroscope-- thousands to tens of thousand times-- one will see extremely regular arrays of the periodic structures.  One will also see that each sarcomere consists of alternating thin and thick filaments, made up respectively of the two main muscle proteins, actin and myosin.  In three dimensions, there are actually six thin actin filaments surrounding each thick myosin filament, and the six actin-filiaments are attached to an end plate, the Z-disc.  Contraction occurs as the actin filaments surrounding the myosin filaments slide past each other by cyclical molecular tread milling between myosin 'head' groups and serial binding sites on the actin filament, forming and breaking cross-bridges between the filaments, in all three dimensions in the entire array.  (here she continues with a bunch of stuff about the uptake of ATP and it's conversion, ect. ect. very interesting, but not completely necessary to the mind blowing conclusion.)
(Continues...) In a typical muscle contraction, all the cells in the muscle-- billions of  them at the very least-- are executing the same molecular treadmilling in concert.  Simply waving our arms about is a veritable feat requiring a series of actions coordinated instantaneously over a scale of distances spanning nine orders of magnitude (!!!) from 10 E-9 metre (or a nanometre)  for intermolecular spacing between the actin and myosin heads, to about one metre for the length of our arm;  each action, furthermore, involving the coordinated splitting of 10 E19 individual molecules of ATP.  Now, then, imagine what has to happen when a top athlete runs a mile in under four minutes;  the same instantaneous coordination over macroscopic distances involving astronomical numbers of molecules, only more so, and sustained for a long period without break.  
(Cont..)  It is truly remarkable how our energy should be available to us at will, whenever and wherever we want it, in the amount we need.  Moreover, the energy is supplied at close to 100% efficiency.  This is true for muscle contraction, in which the chemical energy stored in ATP is converted into mechanical energy, as well as for all the major energy transduction processes, as for example, in the synthesis of ATP itself in the mitochondria where carbon compounds are oxidised into carbon dioxide and water in the process of repiration.  If that were not so, and energy transduction can only occur at the efficiency of a typical chemical reaction outside living organisms, which is 10 to 30% efficient at best, then we would literally burn out with all the heat generated.  
(Cont.)  To summarise, then: being alive is to be extremely sensitive to specific cues in the environment, to transduce and amplify minute signals into definite actions. Being alive is to achieve the long range coordination of astronomical numbers of submicroscopic, molecular reactions over macroscopic distances;  it is to be able to summon energy at will and to engage in extremely rapid and efficient energy transformation.
(Cont.) So, how is the sensitive, vibrant whole that is the organism, put together?  An organism that develops from the relatively featureless fertilised egg or seed to a complicated shapely creature that is nonetheless the same essential whole, until it dies?  
We have certainly not exhausted the wonders of being alive.

Oh no, we have not.

  The most important concepts in The Rainbow and the Worm, for me, have circled around the concept of life as a great big web, intimately associated with it's habitat, solar system, and sun; but built for comfort far above the thermodynamic equilibrium.  I'm crazy for these structures that catch falling electrons (a name of one of the chapters in RATW)  and crazy for the structures further down the chain that maintain the "quality" of the energy that the falling electrons give us, storing it as carbohydrates, or using that self same energy for enormously useful stuff.  Coupled with the history of the Earth's surface once it met cute with life: this oldest of materials (for example: you) has not only the usual fascinations assumed when one is speaking of life, but has terraformed the world to it's dictates:  and stolen from the way things ought to be: to sing a ballad in praise of "the will."  

Among the delights of this "oldest of materials," life, there is the oldest of questions, like, why is life improbable.  Or, rather, why doesn't life just self assemble, in the laboratory, without much trouble.  Turns out the selfsame high energy that I was describing in the above paragraph, stored in very large amounts in covalent bonds as electronic bond energies, make frankenstein smoothies a bit difficult:  equilibrium states simply, by definition, don't fluctuate much of anything into a high energy life form like you.  You're special. Even in the morning before you've had your coffee.

This is such a revelation to me.  

And it doesn't just go for organisms: since very, very large, complex systems, also contain high energy flows, and material cycles, which form interdependent reflective relationships: witness the jet stream effect on flows, and temperature of air masses, and the weather they create.  Witness the probable impact of CO2 on ocean streams cycling from the tropics to the poles:  change.... what kind of change, who knows, but any change means serious changes in the weather of places that are rather culturally unready for sudden lattitudinal changes in their "normal" weather.  The material of our world: quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, cause a change in gross flows of material and energy gradients, which as boring as that sounds, is the difference between zero Celsius and zero Fahrenheit. 

The entirety of The Rainbow and the Worm is a sort of elaborate metaphor, carefully built by a physicist,  and constructed amongst a dozen fields, to show how the seemingly material qualia of physical organisms, are in reality constructed of highly organized energy, and complex structures that result (and proffer) such organization.  

Among the subroutines of the metaphor are discussions of a number of fascinating topics:  for example:  The Benard-Rayleigh convection cells.  These are the convective movements that make the honeycomb holes in your shallow pan of rice, before you give it it's final stir.  Unless your some kind of bachelor slob, who microwaves his way through life, you have undoubtably seen these honeycomb patterns in a pan.  While it's fascinating to know they have a name, I'm sure, why do I mention them?  Well... they represent a sort of H20 molecular roller coaster for individual molecules:  each cell comprised of something like 10 E23 water molecules, cycling around and around.  So, picture this:  a giant playground where happily squealing kids (I walk through one such lovely place with a more or less public sidewalk going through it, when I stroll over to my friends' Mike and Luane's place.  The other day I was sort of time machined by the squealing of a few of the girls: so high pitched and random: never changes, never will... thank God.  Dennis Lehane has a kind of extended ode to such behavior as part of the healing and grieving process by his father in the incredible Mystic River... it made me really admire Lehane's grasp of real fatherhood, and love.)  Let me try this again... picture this: a giant playground where happily squealing kids are running around American style (not doing martial arts, for crying out loud) about as organized as you can well imagine.  All the sudden, the sun rises a bit higher, things heat up a bit and every single kid grabs another kids hand in in strict formation pinwheels like some Cirque de Soleil skit.  The teachers are delighted until they realize... there's no stopping it, as long as the sunshine flows, the kids pirouette....   those annoying little shits have become dancing zombies (what'll we tell the parents?)

This is more or less what happens to the water molecules; it's strange, extremely strange, since below a certain temperature, the water molecules dart about like any fluid must, when not frozen: randomly moving about, without a lick of organized movement.  But the moment the Benard-Rayleigh convection cells form (at just below boiling temp): suddenly a molecule moves in a relatively tight formation (though huge for the molecule, given that there's 10 E23 of them per cell...)   As long as the heat remains (energy flow) a "structure" of cycling molecules is maintained across the shallow pool of heated water.  

Throughout the rest of the book Ho makes arguments for energy to create other, perhaps not similar, but you might say, similar enough, emergent structures.  Other cycles, energetic, chemical and material, are evidenced for scrutiny of the physics at play within living things.

In a previous post about falling electrons (I've been rereading this incredible book for almost four months) I mentioned the rattling around that a unit of energy has to do, through the structure of the biosphere.  This rattling around, amounts to the obstacle course that ecosystems put up, which in effect is what allows life to rob entropy blind.  So while things wind down, anyone who knows me, knows that I (something of a lifeform) don't wind down in the least.  

Interestingly, for folks bored silly by all this biology talk, there are implications from these very questions at the bleeding edge of studies done on energy creation, storage, (fuels) and policy.  In other words: the rising costs of energy, and the seemingly endless questions surrounding where we might get the electrons we need without begging alchemists for suggestions.  How much energy is in the worlds biomass?  A very interesting question, indeed, discussed by one of my favorite professors at MIT, whom I have been watching the lectures of for the last year, and who influenced my views on energy enormously.  He received an enormous grant from the recently unveiled partitioning of the DOE's stimulus money.  I wrote a blog entry on it a few weeks ago, given that I am considering investing in his commercialization of electrolysis.  His lab developed a special catalyst to split dirty water, at lower temperature, and atmospheric pressure, than the state of the art electrolysis machines.  Read: cheaper hydrogen.  This gentleman, Dr. Dan Nocera, has an arresting way of looking at energy, around the world.  And after you hear his views on how our Earth's population is going to consume energy, you will realize how implicitly uncompassionate  even our most pedestrian views about global policies are: we depend heavily on the poverty of others, so as not to have to share in a common endeavor.  I'd love to hear some of my less thoughtful friends ponder these things, for the solutions are hardly available through even the best of thoughtful lifestyles.  Solutions like building one nuclear power plant A DAY, for the next forty years, to have even a fraction of the energy we will need.  Nuclear power is a dead end, globally.  But you won't hear that frequently.  I mention all this, because Dr. Nocera is one of the more admired surveyors of estimation of global biomass energy.  His numbers speak to how much energy is in our total global biomass (whether burned, or turned into biofuels, total energy.  Here's a link to his incredible talk on MIT World: you should watch him.  Be advised however, he's a Doctor, Jim, not a course of Paxil.  You might have trouble sleeping should you listen very carefully.  If you give a ^&$% about human beings.  You do... you really do.

So, lest you think I've gotten off the topic.... I HAVE NOT.  I promise.  For Ho, in The Rainbow and The Worm has a few things to say about storage in the biosphere:

(don't worry about these numbers too much. they're real, and interesting, but not at the heart of why I am sharing this excerpt....)

Ho writes:  Unlike chemical species, however, energy cannot be tagged, for example, with a radioactive label, and its fate followed through the system; so the residence time for energy cannot be measured directly.  However, as the flow of energy into the biosphere is always accompanied by the flow of materials, especially CO2, into the system , the mean residence time for energy can be taken as the mean residence time for carbon in the system.   (Cont.) The size of the various carbon pools on the surface of the earth has been estimated, giving the toal biomass (both living and dead) on land and in the sea ats 2.9 X 10 E18 gm and 10.03 X 10 E18 gm, respectively.  The values for carbon flow, i.e., the total fixed by photosynthesis per year, on land and in the ocean, are respectively, 0.073 plus or minus 0.018 X10 E18 gm and 0.43 plus or minus 0.3 10 E18 gm.  Putting these values into the Flow of Species  formula :

Flow of species = Total amount of the species in the system/ Mean residence time

gives residence times of 40 years (on land) and 21.8 years (in the ocean) repectively. (!!!!)  

(briefly... I ask you to ponder that for a moment.  That's how long it takes carbon to "cycle."  And this material cycling of forty years duration, and 21 years duration for land and sea, is presented to stand in as a material shadow, for energy, material and energy flows being siblings of equivalent scale and relevance.  How lucky I am that such simple stuff can make me so very, very happy. Now for a little more funky "Ho down"....)

An interesting question arises here: what is the significance of the long residence time  of the energy that comes to the biosphere in photons from the sun?  The energy of the photon meanders through innumerable cycles and epicycle of metabolism such that it is released and stored in small packets ready for immediate utilisation or in medium term depots such as gradients and fields to longer term deposits in the form of glycogen and fat, and even longer term depots in the form of fossil fuels.  The efficiency (and perhaps stability) of metabolism is associated with this drawn-out web of coupled energy transfer, storage and utilisation within the highly differentiated space-time structure of the organism and, in the case of ecological systems, the ecological communities of organisms.  Metabolic and structural complexity prolongs the energy residence or storage time, perhaps by an equal occupation of all storage times (or all storge space times), affording the organism an efficient and stable living.  

So, not only are the falling electrons of the biosphere captured in high energy bonds, which then give and degrade and change through the "innumerable" cycles, and "space"/"time" of the biosphere, but the entirety of this extremely complex pinball machine, serves possibly to stabilize, and smooth out both the mega structure of the biosphere and the individuated structures of the organism, one being something of a fractal of the other.  See what I mean, Ho is a poet of energetics and our physical realm.

In future posts I would like to discuss a little more closely some of the things I have learned from Ho, and from another book, Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun, about photosynthesis.  The mechanisms life has at it's employ operate in a manner quite unlike the tools we utilize to accomplish the tasks we sometimes imagine as similar to the mandates of "living things."  The truth about the engines of the biosphere is far weirder, and more wondrous than our fleshed out metaphors could attempt to mimic.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Free" is NOT The New Black

Everywhere you turn, should you turn to the media, you find people discussing the supposedly riveting concept of "free."  Free is the new black.  Info wants to be free.  Blah blah blah.  Much of this seems, as intelligent observers sometimes manage to concede, to be apologist rhetoric for mass theft of intellectual property.  Sucking it to the record companies is a lot less abjectly immoral when the songs just wanted to jump into your ear.  And I have to hand it to the previous kings of music distribution, the greeting card is possibly no less immoral a device for intellectual property (a song) than some super small time thieves' hard drive.  Though, don't quote me on that.  Theft is theft.  Not greeting cards.

What's odd is how thoroughly very intelligent people seem to ignore the tempest in a teapot nature of this seemingly interesting subject.  Terabytes of data are large amounts, yes.  And much of this is more or less in the public domain (or available with a library card, or student ID) sure.  And it is super interesting that such a service has become available due to the classic scalability of systems.  Definitely!  But axioms should not apply to service this phenomenon, that pretend to say something new.  The water company provides water very cheaply, where I live, but it is hardly free.  Merely consumed ubiquitously.  Not free.  And it don't want to be.

Same with other "utilities."  A word that, unlike "free" deserves to grow in usage and relevance.  The truth is that "free" as we experience it in the digital realm, is (as everyone knows) not free.   It is paid for by elaborate structures that belie its seeming simplicity, in an aping of nature, not in release of her "surly" bonds.  If anything, in greater service to them.

Aren't humans funny?  Though many of us hurt when walking due to arthritis, it is rarely posited as a human dream to "simply be able to walk without pain."  The old man I live with put this in an unintentionally hilarious way one night when, over dinner, he said in a slight mockery of grace, "God bless those who can swallow!"  His point?  Sometimes, swallowing can be a struggle.  So enjoy it while you can.

And so it is with "free."  We experience greater ease and access to something, and come to nearly supernatural conclusions (sometimes elaborating at 350 pages of nonsense, knowing people are gluttons for fantasy, despite the nose on their face.)  Imagine if all the nonsense on the internet, including these fantastic denizens of the "ultimate sale" were somehow to provide their concepts for peer review.  I wonder what sort of attitude the Second Law of thermodynamics would have toward the sudden appearance in human history of something for nothing?  Oh yeah... there's something for nothing, just about everywhere you go in the world.  And hiding behind the celebratory signage are the sobering facts that con-artists leave out.  These claims are not sometimes a scam.  The are not the new black.  They are always a scam.  Always a diversion.  Always a shell game.  Almost always cleverly just to the left or right of the MAIN THING (for example, your value system:  put more bluntly, your rather fickle desire to "make a difference.")  The examples litter history, and how often are they clothed in the finery of progressivism?  Frequently.  Ah, the good of the people rests on theft from the big shots.  Somehow, as much as it would be nice if that were true, Beaver, I thought better of you.

Lastly there is the little matter of what causes "free" in the first place, which the so called intellectuals who traffic in this tawdry subject rarely seem to feel is interesting enough to look into.  Occasionally some wag will hear that economics and fluid dynamics can be seen together, dining at a swank place endorsed by Science.  Well... I should hope the two are comfortable in a math book together, but on a Friday night this would earn either little cache, don't you think.

"Free" is not possible due to some sweet little metaphor tidily escaping a genie bottle of compressed air, gas, heat, or other simplistic calculus, involving not much more than a numerator and denominator.  Oh, sure, such entities would be necessary to describe "free", in the manner such a description is possible.  And it is, in a sense, possible.  "Free" is an emergent phenomenon having very little to due with social good.  "Free" didn't care about your Grandma's water bill, just as it doesn't care about yours.  "Free" comes about due to the manner in which systems of delivery of immutable pieces of information were built.  Their architecture (servers, packet switching, and the software, mathematics and theory behind all of this) is complex, systemic, and yes... to use an overused word: chaotic.  As such, phenomena, which have happily been surprising us, have been emerging for years.  Like YouTube.  Few could have guessed the appearance of, market for, eventual actual demand, and underlying capacity (throughput) possible, for the "service" known as YouTube.  YouTube is commonly regarded as "free."  In truth, of course, its value was readily settled upon by the parties that bought and sold it.  And readily paid for (as some contentious observers worry about to this date) by Google.  Shouldn't free stuff be free?  Plenty of people who value YouTube would tell me I am missing the point.  THEY don't pay, so it's free.  And this too, their time and attention, and the value of both, seems to confuse the hell out of everyone in this discussion; just as it confuses the hell out of some of my friends who think their time is worth their self estimation (a very low value) and therefore never make any money, regardless of their skills, or opportunity.

To further elaborate, in a less popular vein, the Internet was designed to provide redundancies which, by design, have value, in the manner that a self repairing car would be incalculably more valuable than the sort we are cursed to drive.  Many of the qualities of the web are powerfully valuable due to their novelty in nature, and especially as in deference to some of the systems that grew in the natural world: like the social and economic dynamics of locality.

This Internet "system", or web, was not created to deploy the qualities that we eventually most powerfully desired of it.  It was never meant to provide, and never will provide, something for nothing.  That it has powerfully deployed efficiencies of scale and information theory, changes little in the maintenance of power demanded to continue it's use and growth.  All the while, it changes our lives, creating less predictable futures, and less relevant roles for our skill sets on the time frame of a human lifetime.  Ask an economist next time you get a chance, "Which is it, that most pressures deflation over a time span of the last ten years: computers, or recession?"

Computers have yet to be blamed for recession, but one of the hallmarks of a recession, the loss in value of an economy's goods, over time, is deflation.  And one of the greatest drivers of deflation is the most powerful tools being used across all industries to replace laborers, services, costly mistakes of inventory, and overall logistical choreography: Computers, of course.  These savings for Paul, have meant a serious loss of revenue for the Peter's who previously provided costly services that computers have replaced.  Hence intense downward pressure on the value of bookkeepers (Quickbooks, however, still cost's hundreds,) simplistic piece manufacture (laborers to robots,) "counters" and others who labor to "see it all" (spreadsheet and inventory management, as well as RFI tags, and other radio frequency devices that have taken the handlers out of much of the shipping and receiving industries.)  And don't forget about the more or less novel expertise of logistics players, like UPS, who reorganize local systems like the mail system in the former Twin Towers, which was so slow that people used the US mail, rather than brave an "inter office" system which was built to fail.

So what's happened to those of you affected by all this progress?  I guess you're free, eh?

You can't stop progress, but you sure as hell can call it something other than "free."
 I bought a chopsaw the other day, that was worth nearly $200, for $20.  The price of such tools has dropped over fifty percent retail, and possibly more wholesale.  There is currently a consolidation amongst the largest players in the power tool world: significantly Stanley Tools, and Black and Decker (maker of Dewalt) wish to merge their famous yellow badges.  Gonna hafta settle on a slightly different yellow tonality, methinks.  But in any case, the change in cost, across our economy, depending on the sector can be astonishing.  For some things: like copiers: the makers of the device recoup the cost in servicing the machine for its life.  Automobiles have more or less worked this way before.  Less and less to be sure, but still a significant portion of the value of a car company comes from the dealers privilege to raise the "flag" and do business in concert with the reputation of the cars badge.  Any fool knows that service at the dealer is supposed to be a premium.  And costs reflect this for the customer.  And "value" of companies sure as hell reflect it as well.

  Hulu (the web video service) is from nowhere.  Yet it is a rich, reasonably ubiquitous source of experiences and brands known the world over, and seamlessly entered into the expectations of the new user who types in Hulu's URL.  Due to the fact that Hulu is supported (and they do not pay its bills in full, as of yet) by ads, many people perceive their experience watching Hulu as free.  And yet Hulu is considering charging a small fee in the future to supplement it's ad structure.  This perfectly demonstrates the perception of free, vs. it's deployment.  Somehow, free gets paid for.  By the rich, or by the relatively poorer.  "Free" is an emergent phenomenon of complex systems we just love to fall into.  Our pleasure, so rare amongst these well worn brands, is easily mistaken for "free and easy."  But hasn't that been the case since the first shill ever sold an otherwise worthless rock as an arrowhead?  Your sensations of novel pleasure are "emotionally valuable" and there fore, in a sense, value added.  What was once a [30] Rock, is now a sexy projectile.  Both of them are not free.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I'd Like You to Meet A Friend

(Muertu is an old character of mine, who I've had some very good times with.  In some ways for me, she's like a very old girlfriend or something.  In any case, I'm hoping to write a little Novella about her and her life.  Sort of a Genre fiction thing, at least my approximation.  I hope you like this taste of her, and I'll be posting more, as long as she's willing to answer my calls.  Enjoy.)

Chapter One:  (".... I had thought we said goodbye...")

Muertu placed her hand on the long broken door knob that was only slightly cool due to the fact that it was on the interior side of the door.  Turning the knob, like a game of chance, resulted in some strange combination of broken pieces within the mechanism until finally, three cherries popped up, and the door miraculously popped open.  You're the only thing more broken than me, she thought, smiling at the fact that she had a few years left of sometimes working herself.

Eighty seven years in this world and still willing to be cranky, she knew, the end would come when she found herself smiling too often.  She had managed to avoid the seemingly inevitable desire to be with small children constantly.  Books, the radio, the garden, and yes, a very occasional friend, were all that she needed besides the work.  And tonight she moved through her garden, simply enjoying it without much thought, savoring her slow approach to the street, and the path beside her house that led up to the ridgetop she loved in the manner of all terrestrials.  If you can't go up by wing, scaling a hillside should be the next best thing.  But then, even a bird loves a tower... what we love, must be in some measure what we need... our feelings sometimes our curse, and others our reward.  How many times had she been glad to feel nothing at all?

Her thick, dark grey hair, pulled into more a mass than a bun, swung very slightly none the less at the cadence of her efforts up through the trees.  She touched their bark, sliding her fingers over each as she passed it, in greeting, and self pleasure.  Of all the big troubles in the world a tree stands opposed... somehow crucial to everything else, but without need of even the slightest rancor.  Save fire, or windstorm, causing it to basically die, and fall through her roof, Muertu had never once been anything but gifted by these trees company.

A breeze blew just slightly more than the the dead stillness below, up here.  Some of the oaks rattled in their wintry death sounds.  Muertu knew she was a little colder than she preferred, but endured it for the sight of her valley, stretching an improbable distance away.  How she had resented this dead quiet place as a young woman.  How each detail spoke nothing to her singing ardors.  How entirely different she viewed the place now.  She giggled (senility should be a little fun) at that silly child.  How often it feels bad to have it good, was a question she'd have tucked within her, like a flower in the hand, when she died.

A hawk sat in a tree, near the edge of the woods, where pasture met the incline of the hill.  So still and quiet, waiting for a rabbit or mouse or other less careful being... making crossing of the grass beneath the sky.  Muertu could not see it terribly well, there at the bottom of the hill, through the trees.  But she could see well enough it fall to the ground, then take flight... with something invisible in it's talons (or perhaps a failed hunt altogether... she couldn't tell.)  And as a little girl she'd thought this animal was going to be extinct by the time she was retirement age.  All of life a fresh surprise: for better or worse.  But never according to the plans, and fears, of man.

Her regard for the animal benumbing the ache of her day, flew nearly as fast away, as Muertu startled to the vibration in her pant pocket.  Damn... why did I forget to leave this demon home?

"Yes," said Muertu.
"Boss, we found your old friend..."
Muertu dropped the phone from her ear, for a few seconds, looked for the hawk, but could not see it.  Things lost and found... so long and she had nearly forgotten.
"Jesse is she alive?"
"Oh yeah, she's more or less in perfect health.  Two and one half hours from Alsterbern.  You could see her tonight, if she'd have you."
"She's not going to want to see me.  Christ, I have thought she was dead so long, I can't believe this."
"Well, right or wrong, we now don't know how the story ends, Dr. Saco."
"Thank you Jesse, I'm on my ridgetop just now,"
"That sounds like you,"
"There are times I wish my home was more or less my description.  But as you know, were that the case, I wouldn't have to take your God damned calls."
"Nor my company, Boss.  I've always somehow enjoyed the fact that we weren't friends.  I like you more than a number of my friends. Strange, but true."
"Pity will win any number of accolades, Jesse... but you've lots of time to be pressed beneath the burden of that truth."
"See what I mean... strange.  I suppose you'll call me, I don't wish to injure your feelings with any further attempts at contact.  Is it even remotely possible that I'll receive your instructions?  Or can I go open a bottle with my wife?"
"Drink with your wife, should it be necessary, I'll drive."
"Oh, that's good, 'cus when she learns I'm working tonight, sobriety isn't going to help matters."
"Like you said, Jesse, it is convenient  for all concerned that we are not friends.  As it stands, you'll hear from me when I need you."
"Ok, Boss."
"Thank you, Jesse."

Muertu dropped the phone back in her pocket after turning it off.  The fading light of the sky, released the spinning forms in her mind, and as per usual in such circumstances, what appeared to be ghosts wandered the sky and pathway with her.  Good heavens.... Saraheim, how have you made it this far.  Muertu had never expected to live this long.  Though, she had never expected to die, and even today, it seemed deeply unlikely.  Which made no sense for an old woman to think.  But there it is.  She had always expected Saraheim to die young, and when she disappeared?  There was no need to over think it.  A woman without a soul in the world knows ecstasy enough, and danger, to be lost in the snowdrifts of consequence, without note by anyone.  No one named her loss as a tragedy, or as even newsworthy.  Even Muertu, once so close to the woman they could finish one another's sentences (and fight until a miserable silence realigned their estimation of one another,) found herself calmly accepting the inevitable.  Was having lived so close to death for so long, and dying a tragedy?  Muertu coldly thought it unfair to equate Saraheim's death with real tragedy.  She was sad, but felt little confusion on the subject.

But now, as was always the case with their friendship, this news brought fresh uncertainty, old worry, and tired curiosity.  Even an old crone with that woman's blood... this is going to be a bitch; she always was. 

Muertu passed the quietly heroic trees, which waited out the mysteries of the world, she was cursed to parse.  And slowly, in as much foreboding, as arthritis, found her way back to the door's broken handle.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Deck The Halls (with Daddy's Folly)

Stopped at a cafe in town today, and since I've known it's proprietor for ten years, sat down (bad idea, I was tired and I felt even more so, once sitting) and chatted with her and a mutual friend of hers and mine, and the friends daughter.  The proprietor and her friend were decorating the Christmas tree with what looked to be 1000 ornaments encircled by neon signs of christmas lights.  It was very Vegas, very bright.

Anyhow, most of what they were saying had to do with Christmas Tree strategy, so I looked over at the girl, Megan, and said, "say Megan, why aren't you helping them?"

Megan was staring deep into the eyes of the Universal Teenage Phone Thingy, and was kind enough to raise her eyebrows in salute.  "I'm talking to Chris," she said.

"And Chris is your great uncle, from Peduka?" I asked her.

Funny snorting sounds erupted from behind a star on top of the Christmas tree, with a hand wiggling it into a semblance of uprightness.

"No..." said Megan, looking away from the UTPT and up to the tin ceiling of the cafe, "Chris is my boyfriend in Atlanta... and Mom, he has the money next week."

I had no idea what that meant.  Mom said, "well, your going to use it wisely, not foolishly, huh?"

"Oh, of course!" said the fifteen year old.  I raised my eyebrows this time.

"None of my business, of course," I said, "but what money, from where.  Is he a crack dealer  or something?"

More snorts from the approximate position of a tinfoil jacketed gingerbread man.

"Of course not," she shrieked in mock teenage alarm, while texting on some awful subject.  "His father died and left him money, which he will be getting next week."

"Your kidding..."

"No," she smiled, looked me in the eye for the first time, and actually dropped her phone to her side, just to think without distraction, on this golden thought.

"So... uh, I'm curious..." I asked her, "outside of his dead fathers money, what exactly does this guy do for you?"

A chorus of, "That's mean, Andy." Came from the Christmas tree.

"It is?" I asked them, turning around. "My fifteen year old friend who won't graduate from high school for three years, has designs on an inheiritence owed to a boy her age, by his DEAD father, and I'm mean for wondering why the money is even a conversation piece by a mere love interest.  I'm mean?  What does this money have to do with anything even possibly good. My God, she's fifteen."

Everyone just looked at Scrooge.  "Sorry I'm being mean," I told Megan, "'cus, I guess the real truth is that you really love this guy, huh?"

"Oh yes," said, Megan, "and you weren't too mean, I can't understand what your saying anyhow."

"Well, it's hard for everyone to text and think," I said, "and besides, I am definitely a boring guy."

She read the remaining sentence in her UTPT, and sort of startled when she realized I had stopped talking.  "Why do you say... you say you're definitely a boring guy?  Why?"

"Well isn't it obvious," I explained, "my Dad's alive and well."

The Christmas tree fell over...