Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Clovis First Theory Disproved!

Clovis First Theory Disproved!

Unless you are an archaeologist of some kind (professional, in training, armchair) or – completely distinct form the first category – one of those people who can never quite manage to dig up an alien on the History Channel, you will almost certainly never have heard of the Clovis peoples of lower North America, and probably remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are at the centre of one of the most contentious issues in American prehistory.

This being, I assume, the case, you’ve not yet heard about the exciting new dig in southern Texas where even now evidence is being unearthed that is roiling the archaeological community, and in a surprise up-set has conclusively ended an eighty year old, strife-filled conflict that may once actually have lost some people tenure.

A Word of Explanation

We all learned in grade school that the ancestors of the Native Americans crossed over from Asia by way of a stretch of Alaska-Kamchatka that had conveniently decided to no longer be 500m below sea level. You’ll recall that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea under similar circumstances. In case your fourth grade history has gotten a little rusty, science suppose that this worked out because roundabout 15,000 years ago there was a fairly large ice age going on and all of the water that is now covering the Bering Land Bridge was busy being frozen somewhere in Canada at the time – or possibly carving out Half Dome – exposing a lovely highway for Pocahontas forebears and the occasional woolly mammoth to reach the Americas.

The prevailing theory has always been that sometime between 12,000 and 17,000 years ago, a group of roughly 500 (that’s right, 500. No zeros forgotten, no comas misplaced. 500. Crazier still, the entire genome for all Native Americans from Aztecs to Eskimos, can be traced to an ancestor group of only 70.) people crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska and gradually worked their way down all the way to Chile. This gave rise to the Clovis culture, concentrated in the American Southwest, by around 13,000 years ago, and eventually the Olmecs and Aztecs in Mexico, the Inca in Peru, and any other of dozens of cultures that were later wiped out by Spaniards and smallpox.

This theory differs from its more popular relatives, evolution or gravity say, in that this is legitimately only a best guess rather than a near certainty. In fact, this is one of the least studied, least study-able periods in planetary history. Hell, until now all of our evidence of this era has been dependent on some caribou shitting on a spear head before a flood or something, so that grad students from the University of Austin can come along and dig up that spearhead and carbon test that shit and place the whole mess in a 500 year window or probability.

If you can imagine how a theory that literally includes all organic life in its evidence locker (plus finches and stuff) can be seriously opposed by a theory with no evidence of any kind (show me the ark, damnit!), then you can easily see how an idea supported only by undergraduate capacity for faecal endurance and jargon-filled gymnastics about arrowhead dimensions might have its detractors.

The above version of the story was called the Clovis First Theory, and any evidence that called it into question was lumped under the heading ‘PRE-CLOVIS’ (an acronym standing for: Please Refrain from Extending Credibility, Legitimacy or Veracity, Its all bullShit). But most people who specialise in American Prehistory are used to rejection, and those archaeologists who believed that the New World was settled before Clovis tenaciously stuck to their guns. Until very recently they had two dusty pieces of evidence in support of this belief, pulled ceremonially from trunks and crawl spaces like pictures of a real UFO or an Iron Cross, and displayed to only the most like minded. Or maybe more like pictures of a real UFO, flaunted at every available opportunity because scientists just wont see!

The Evidence:

1. Above I mentioned that the entire American genome can be traced to the same group of 70 people, and that the total migration was believed to be of only about 500. The difficulty here is that even if you assume this to be true, the genetic material of those 70 was very different from their Asian peers at the time. So different in fact that the only possible explanation for it is several thousand years of divergent evolution before any of them set foot in America. The (clumsy) orthodox explanation for this was that a group of Asian hunter-gatherers some how got split off from the rest of the herd and were then trapped in isolation by some spontaneous geologic feature or glacier or something until they were able to pick up shop and head to the promised land: Alaska. Proponents of Pre-Clovis habitation point to the fact this theory is dumb, cough something that sounds suspiciously like Occam’s Razor under their breathes, and then counter-suppose that a group of 500 settlers migrated to the Americas much earlier and spent the missing millennia proliferating rather than… right.

2. While it may seem to spoil the conspiratorial fun, dig sites do exist that seem to predate Clovis. The difficulty is that most of them have yielded only a few artefacts, or have been contaminated and mainstream archaeology has been unwilling to tip a cherished sacred cow on just that evidence. The best documented and most convincing such site is in Monte Verde, Chile. Archaeologists have uncovered more than enough proof to establish human settlement as early as 14,500 years ago, which if that math is right, leaves at most 1000 years for a group of hunter-gatherers to get all the way from northern Alaska to southern Chile, meanwhile popping out babies quickly enough to populate everything in between. Pretty damning evidence, but the site wasn’t technically Pre-Clovis and it was in Chile of all places, so let’s ignore that one.

By now you’ve probably gathered that the Pre-Clovis camp has been rich in common sense and simple logic yet still reduced to begging spare proof outside of Burger King. To make matters worse there’s a perfectly logical reason why there would be very little evidence of any Pre-Clovis Americans. From the beginning of time people, from the Phoenicians to Michael Jackson, have loved living near the water. If you assume that early Americans (who were likely mostly fishermen along the lines of indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest) felt the same way, and only gradually migrated landward, you could easily imagine bustling coastal communities thousands of years earlier than Clovis that only slowly made it into Arizona and New Mexico at some time around their 13,000yrs BP (Before the Present) appearance date. So why not just dig up these coastal villages? The simple answer is that for the same reason you can’t walk to Russia anymore, these villages are at best 500m below sea level, and if you haven’t had cause to try it yourself, wooden tools and beaver hats tend not to last 15,000 years submersed in salt water. The best evidence for a Pre-Clovis migration is mostly gone and entirely inaccessible.

But leave it to the subversives to come up with the proof anyway and undermine the Archaeological Establishment. (Wait, there’s an Archaeological Establishment? I’m guessing its two stories, no plumbing and in Chile.)

The (New) Evidence:

Recently, a group of archaeologists excavating a Clovis settlement outside of Austin, Texas made a startling discovery: beneath it, by a good 2,500-4,000 years (that’s a metric measurement of dirt right?) they found a cache of more than 800 new artefacts that conclusively predated not only the Clovis people, but the supposed arrival of any kind of people on the continent. Bear in mind that these artefacts were found in Texas, thousands of miles from Alaska, and the Bering Migration has to be pushed back to at least 20,000 yrs BP. To put that in perspective, the world’s first city was founded a measly 10,000 years ago, and that makes the Bering migration doubly as old as civilisation.

The discovery single-handedly upended the orthodox prehistory of the Americas and a suitably outraged public rose up to demand the blood of those dirt-dusted dogmatics that had kept us in the dark for so long! (Or whatever happens to archaeologists when they have to throw eighty years of bullshit out the window. So, I guess Jack Nicholson sent another letter to Obama demanding that he release the Ark of the Covenant and National Geographic declined to print an article…)

But Really Now, Why Should You Care?

Well hell, I don’t know. I usually like to say a few words here about how these little pet issues of mine might be relevant to you and your life, but honestly this is the sort of quibble that even bores geologists about a group of people best known for sun worship, casino management and a fatal appreciation for shiny hats and English blankets. I guess one might theorise that if people arrived in the Americas long before we had previously thought, they may have arrived in new and interesting ways. Perhaps they were even technologically advanced than we thought. Hell, there are batty theories galore explaining things like the technically impossible construction of the pyramids and ruts in the desert that only begin to resemble animals at 500 feet. But realistically, all of the artefacts were talking about are slightly sharp rocks and charcoal, supposing that a people who were at least 10,000 years from mastering pottery could navigate the oceans, let alone fly, requires a suspension of disbelief so all-consuming that it just might get you happily through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So yeah, that’s it. Clovis First is down for the count!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011



In 1812 Napoleon led a loose coalition of dominion states with a combined troop strength of roughly 690,000 in an invasion of the Russian Empire. Historians estimate that it was the largest army the world has seen since Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, and as Alexander I commanded a comparatively trifling 150,000 men there was every reason to believe that the Russians would be easily defeated in any direct engagement. The Russians of course knew this and after a single spectacular defeat they refused to engage the Grande Armee directly for the remainder of the war. It is a sort of popular misconception that Napoleon was defeated because he suddenly found himself amidst the charred wreckage of Moscow in late September and only then realised that he had failed to anticipate winter. In reality Napoleon had never intended to go to Moscow at all, let alone still be mired in an intractable war against a phantom force come September; The Russians were supposed to fight, they were supposed to lose, and the Tsar was supposed to surrender. They preferred to lead Napoleon on a wild goose chase through thousands of miles of hellish Russian hinterland and in the end he returned to Paris alone.

More than a hundred years later another diminutive European dictator would try almost exactly the same thing: a mad dash into the vast Russian heartland, gambling everything on securing the resource that would allow the invasion to continue only to find on arrival that the Russians had burnt it. In late June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarosa with almost 4 million infantry around a backbone of 3,600 Panzers and 4,400 combat aircraft. The plan was to take the petroleum reserves at Yalta, and if Hitler had been able to do so it is entirely possible that the Eastern Front could have been closed by mid autumn. People tend to think that Hitler’s problem was the winter also, but the real difficulty wasn’t the winter, it was the summer. When the snow melts Russia briefly ceases to be an unlivable arctic wasteland and becomes an unlivable festering swamp. There’s an old story that a peasant was walking down a muddy stretch of road one day when he came across a top hat. He picked it up and under the was the bald pate of the local aristocrat. He ran off to the village and came back with a crew of serfs to dig him out. Sure enough, under the pate they found the aristocrat, and under the aristocrat they found his horse. As you can imagine, a morass like would be inconvenient under the best of circumstances, and is downright embarrassing if your entire invasion plan depends on the continued mobility of 25 tonnes of steel. Hitler, like Napoleon before him was stymied, and like his predecessor he refused to cut his loses. Frost and famine cut them for him.

All in all, a classic proof of Santayana’s maxim about history, doom and repetition.

So, what’s the point? Why rehash High School World History?

I’ll tell you what the point is, damn it all! Speaking statistically you probably had no idea about any of this. You’re just as likely to think that Napoleon is a sort of striped ice-cream, and Russia is a plot device invented by Ian Fleming. In 2009 only 47% of American teenagers were sort of, slightly competent enough in history to score even a ‘Basic’ on the National History Test. By way of context, despite mothers and politicians everywhere swooning with the thought that American teens are being out scored in math and science by their international counterparts, 64% of them were able to muster a ‘Basic’ on the National Math Test. Despite this gap, federal education standards, including No Child Left Behind, and Mr Obama’s initiatives, have failed to take history into account at all.

The problem is worse, if such a thing can be conceived, at the state level. Many states teach history only once, and that in junior high, while others neglect the meat and bones of history in favour of ‘abstract concepts’ that presupposes an interpretation of facts that the students are not privy to. In Delaware for example, and I quote from the states official standards: students ‘will not be expected to recall any specific event or person in history.’ You read that correctly: Not a single specific event or person. George Washington, the Civil War, the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr., all of these are no more than examples of general principles, chaff clinging to the wheat of our impersonal ideals. And where the curriculum hasn’t been diluted to the point of inanity, its being outright poisoned. In Texas, students are urged to actively question the separation of church and state, and ‘evaluate efforts by global organisations to undermine US sovereignty through the use of treaties.’ Not only do these standards blatantly neglect and in some cases pervert the facts, but worse yet the students who are their victims are never given access to the unadulterated facts themselves. Taught like this, perhaps we should thank god that our students are so determined not to learn.

But why should you care?

Well I’ll tell you that too. It might not be easy to be a good worker without some math and science on your resume, but without some history in your past it is impossible to be a good citizen. History shapes the present day. It sets the precedent for our politics, foreign and domestic, patterns our relationships, from the office to the bedroom, and is whether we know it or not the unconscious bedrock of our beliefs, our principles and our national identity. History is the context in which all of these things make sense. More importantly, it is a context that is bitterly contested.

Unseen beneath the surface of the Culture Wars, in the divide between Democrats and Republicans, between Doves and Hawks, progressives and conservatives, there simmers an unrecognised battle over the right to interpret, represent and in many cases misrepresent historical fact. Democrats and Republicans alike wield a party-approved selective interpretation of history to justify a certain decisive understanding of contemporary times, and these cherry-picked, politically motivated, pictures of the past are most pernicious because the average American has nothing like the historical competence to judge for himself between fact and forgery, and this ignorance has very real consequences.

With a partial picture of Taliban rule to whet their appetites, Americans ate up the invasion of Afghanistan with a spoon and licked the dishes, perhaps if the place had been sold under its historical epithet ‘The Graveyard of Empires,’ someone might have taken pause. We’re only beginning to think of this debacle as a new Vietnam, but it might be more accurate to say that Vietnam was a new Afghanistan. Going back hundreds of years the British and Russian Empires poured men and material into the seemingly bottomless maw of Afghani guerrillas and hellish environments, and even Alexander the Great had the good sense to go around the damned place. And yet, with typical hubris and historical ignorance we fools rushed in where Kings and Emperors, Warlords and master tacticians feared to tread. We might as well of invaded Russia.

At home the situation is no better. We have Republicans fighting for creationism in school curricula, Tea Partiers using a blatantly false narrative of early American history to justify American Exceptionalism, bashing brown people, and a vision of this country as a lawless, taxless anarchy that would offend Ayn Rand, and Democrats surprised again every time any of these tries to pass off factual untruth as a legitimate difference of opinion.

And the American people know no better. It’s gotten so that Michele Bachmann can tell an audience of credulous thousands that the Founding Fathers ‘worked tirelessly until slavery was no more.’ Nevermind that most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, many worried publicly that counting a black person as 3/5ths of a human being might be too generous, George Washington cut his teeth on a plantation in Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson fathered more illegitimate black children than Will Chamberlain.

The Tea Party likes to present themselves as the heirs of our tax-hating, freedom-loving, gun-toting, bible-belting Founding Fathers, when the only real similarity between them is that both created a stink about legitimate taxes (lower now than they’ve been at any time since the 1950s) to disguise ulterior motives that would embarrass their progeny.[1]

Where does this leave us?

The sad fact is that virtually none of this, from Napoleon to ‘The Smuggling King,’ is taught in schools with any real dedication. It’s not terribly surprising that American schools are wary of painting the Founding Fathers as farcical pirates, but it seems inexcusable that they fail to give their students a view of the broad sweep of history that would put this sort of thing, and more importantly the longstanding debates in modern politics their proper context.

The Second Amendment was written at a time when the most advanced firearm on the market had a range of 500yds, fired once and took nearly a minute to reload. It was also a time when you had a halfway decent chance of coming home to find a bear in your living room.

We keep the Establishment Clause around not out of some inherited sympathy for atheism but because Democracy and Theocracy have been proven incompatible. It’s a matter of historical record.

We like to contort our history to justify some sort of American monopoly on Freedom and we like to forget that Cities on Hills tend to spark resentment in the slum-dwelling valley folk, especially if the city rose on their backs and is founded on their bones.

But we don’t study this sort of thing. American children to-day are growing up thinking that World War II ended when Hitler was machine-gunned by Italian Americans in a movie theatre, and that Vietnam is some sort of necrotic STD that leads to homelessness, heroin addiction and the mange.

Santayana aside, history may be no great predictor of the future, but when we as a people decide to simultaneously forget the facts of our past and invoke the mythology of it, we willingly invite exploitation and the very tyranny that we have been bred to reject.

[1] Rant: The government line on the revolution is that freedom loving American patriots threw off the yoke of oppression when the tyranny of unfair taxation finally became unbearable. It would be more accurate to say that profit loving American smugglers fomented rebellion when the British government threatened the black market’s commercial monopolies.

It’s a simple story. In 1754 Major George Washington of the Virginia Militia started a world war over control of the Ohio territory by massacring a French scouting party on French soil. The resulting war lasted seven years, sprawled across three continents and almost bankrupted the British government. Great Britain decided that it would be reasonable to expect the colonists to shoulder a small part of the cost of a war waged in their defence and began enforcing taxes. Mark that, they began enforcing taxes, they did not begin by levelling new taxes, they enforced existing taxes that up unto this point the colonists had simply refused to pay, and the Crown had never taken issue with that. (It should be noted that the full amount of taxes levied in the Americas, of which a minute fraction were paid, amounted to 1/27th of the taxes paid in full by British citizens at home. 1/27th. That’s right, 1/27th). The Americans responded by taking to the streets, burning customs offices and tar and feathering tax collectors (which despite sounding like some sort of a sticky pillow fight typically killed its victims). But that’s a proportional response; dislike taxes, burn property and kill civil servants. Simple. Rather than prosecuting the colonists, the British repealed the taxes. Take a moment to think about that – The British government repealed taxes vital to their national security based solely on the fact that the colonists preferred not to pay them. Is this some sort of volunteer tax code??

But the British weren’t about to give up on their fiendish plan to provide for the common defence and improve the lives of their subjects. Their next plan was the now infamous Tea Act. Most people think that the Tea Act was a tax on tea, and that this was why the colonists opposed it. In fact the Tea Act was a contract with the East India Company for the provision of high-quality, low-cost tea to the colonies carrying a small tariff that would go into government coffers. Up unto that point the colonists had gotten the bulk of their tea from smugglers working between the Virginia coast and Barbados. The East India Company’s tea was both better and cheaper (even with the tax) than the smuggled tea. (Also the tax was less than 1/4th of what native Brits paid in taxes for their tea). Seemed like a win-win, but just to be sure, the Crown presented the proposal to Benjamin Franklin, America’s REPRESENTATION in London and he approved it enthusiastically.

The only group that Britain thoughtlessly risked offending was the smugglers. As luck would have it that group included John Hancock (AKA ‘The Smuggling King’) and John and Samuel Adams. They collaborated on a smear campaign to paint the Tea Act as a covert attempt to wring taxes out of the colonies, and the rest is history.

Monday, 14 February 2011

What is Wrong with Jerry Seinfeld?


Jerry Seinfeld has a problem. He is a respectably good-looking man living in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. He has an interesting job, a compelling circle of close friends, and he is funny. Let us not underestimate the seductive power of a well-placed and witty observation about the varied incongruities of modern social life. And yet despite a steady stream of attractive and eligible bachelorettes parading through his apartment under the watchful gaze of cornflakes and Cocopuffs, he remains, after a full nine seasons of relentless questing after love, unremittingly single.

What is Jerry’s problem? Why is it that a man who fills his days with the search for romantic companionship, a man who is, under any circumstances a perfectly eligible bachelor, even, shall we say, quite the catch, why is he unable to find true love? Or failing that, a committed relationship. Even George Costanza, the perennial dunce and incurable, for lack of a better word, screw-up, was able to keep up an (intermittently) steady relationship with a woman for the better part of three seasons. Even to the point of engagement and, if it hadn’t been for her untimely postage related death, marriage.

But Jerry has no Susan. Despite his romantic entanglements with unquestionably more women than George (I would hazard to guess that Jerry dates two to Georges one) he cannot seem to find anything more than these mere entanglements. His brief encounters with women, sexual and romantic, never seem to become more than that. Why? What makes Jerry so different, even from George, of whom he said ‘I think I’m pretty much like you, only successful.’ Why does Jerry, so successful, have so little success in exactly that area of life to which he devotes more time, energy and dialogue than any other?

Jerry is a paradox: the serial dater who cant seem to keep a partner around beyond the third date, an eminently datable man who finds plenty of sex and no love. Why can’t Jerry make it work? Why is this question so important? Why should we care about the romantic hang-ups of a fictional character from the mid-nineties? Well, let me tell you.

Jerry’s problem is our problem as well. His is the problem is the problem of every serial dater, man or woman, teen or centenarian, who can find plenty of tail but no love in the modern world. Jerry’s problem is the problem of everyone, lonely and depressed, who comes home from another failed first date and asks themselves ‘Why can’t I find someone? What is wrong with me?’ Well, let me tell you.


Wrong. Convincing as it sounds, Jerry is unable to find a committed relationship not because he can’t commit but because he can’t relate. Jerry’s problem is that he is so desperate to find anyone at all that he isn’t satisfied with anyone in particular. The women in his life are not individual people they are candidates auditioning for the role of girlfriend. He reduces each of them to pithy ciphers (Mulva, the Virgin, the Two-Face, and the ever-popular ‘Oh, You…’) and compresses them from living, three-dimensional people into two-dimensional labels.

But this is just a symptom of the more basic problem, and the more basic problem is attitude. Jerry automatically and unconsciously collapses his romantic prospects into nothing more than game-pieces in his romantic puzzle. The who of these women, the other person centred in another life, is entirely eclipsed by Jerry’s need for them to fill a role, and the only requirement for the role is female genitalia. Jerry cannot find love because he is not looking for a girl in all her unique particularity, he is looking for Girl, any girl, as an appendix to his own life. Jerry’s Problem, ultimately, is that he is not looking for a human being, he’s looking for a girlfriend.




One of the greatest problems with love in the modern world is that the heart-sick seekers after companionship are not looking for people, they are looking for roles. The lonely man wants a Girlfriend, he doesn’t want Anne, who works at the office supply store and smiles into her cash register when he refreshes his stock of printer cartridges and pencil lead. The twenty-something who always dreamed of raising a family to the tune of Subarus and Labradors isn’t interested in Tiffany, who sat in front of him in History of Political Theory and dropped her pencils with alarming regularity, he wants Woman, Wife and Mother.

If this all sounds a bit chauvinistic, even a bit ‘every man wants to marry June Cleaver because she presses his shirts, cooks his meals and is his mother,’ well there’s a touch of that but it misses the point. Jerry’s Problem is not just Jerry’s, it is also Elaine’s, and neither of them are looking for a Cleaver. Or not exactly. Jerry may not be looking for a sous-chef cum launderer, we may as well give him that much credit, he may be looking for the woman he will dote on, the woman who will laugh at his jokes, even the woman that he will give everything to, but at no point is he looking for Susan, who was a lesbian for a short time, collects dolls and for better or worse loves you.

The point, which again we return to, is that Jerry and you, yes you, you who cycle through romantic partners, who likes but does not love, who goes on plenty of first dates and precious few second dates or gets caught up in a dolorous succession of luke-warm relationships, you, your problem, and of course Jerry’s Problem, is that you are looking for person ‘of your type,’ and people don’t come in types, they come in singles and in lucky moments doubles. The search for ‘a girlfriend,’ a woman who will enter your life and become caught in your orbit like a fledgling moon, cold, dead and smiling, is not only unrealistic, it is doomed to failure. Love is a merging of two lives, not the addition to one of a secret ingredient that makes everything taste better and nothing essentially different. Jerry cannot find love because it is impossible to love a type; people must be loved as themselves and only that. In the end it is not surprising that there can be no love and no relationship between Jerry and ‘The Two-Face’ or between Jerry and ‘Mulva,’ but there could perhaps have been love between Jerry and Anne.

* The author would like to make it expressly clear that he is writing about Jerry, the character in the television show ‘Seinfeld.’ He knows nothing about the actual Mr. Seinfeld and therefore could not be writing about him.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Last Man to Know Everything

On May 10th 1829, the English renaissance man, Thomas Young, died at his home in London. In his 56 years, he revolutionised no less than five branches of physics (including pioneering the wave theory of light), three medical specialties (including inventing a rule of thumb for converting adult drug dosages for use in children), developed a new method for tuning musical instruments, wrote extensively on philosophy, and partially deciphered the Rosetta Stone, leading directly to its full translation by Jean-Francois Champollion. Despite this impressive array of accomplishments, Thomas Young isn’t very widely known to-day. He is undeniably one of the giants on whose shoulders modern science stands, but his ideas fell mostly into that grey area between gravity and relativity, too technical to be of use to the average person and not shocking enough to interest him, and perhaps that’s all for the better. The coefficient of elasticity is rightfully not all that compelling these days. But Dr. Young was marked out by history in at least one way that deserves a little more recognition: he is widely believed to be the Last Man to Know Everything.

So, what does that mean? For most of human history, it was possible for an educated person to know literally everything that was known. Now of course, ‘the known’ was a fairly limited field at the time. Thomas Young, or Da Vinci, or Francis Bacon (all contenders for the title) surely would have been stupefyingly ignorant about Confucianism or Antarctic geography, but within their limitations, these men were familiar with everything it was possible for a man of their time to know. And this doesn’t just mean that they had read all the latest in physics and economics and astronomy, but also that for any given piece of furniture in their houses they could tell you how it was put together and came to be in the dining room, they knew how the wax for their candles was produced, their ink mixed, their books printed, their wine farmed, fermented and bottled, their horses husbanded, ad infinitum.

Of course, whether any of these men actually knew ‘everything’ about all of these things, it is certainly the case that they were recognised experts on every facet of their worlds. It was possible for Thomas Jefferson to know how walls are raised and beer brewed, how pulleys and cotton futures work, how universities and countries are founded, and still be able to cogito and ergo sum with the best of them, while to-day it is possible for a Nobel Prize winning physicist to come home from a day at Los Alamos and not have any idea how to work his TIVO.

Now, none of this is meant to unfairly elevate the genius of Thomas Youngs over the genius of Nuclear physicists. Give Thomas Young a copy of The General Theory of Relativity and he would certainly be so far out to sea that he just might reach India; and surely Nuclear Physicists know quite enough without the TIVO. The reason that no one knows everything these days isn’t that geniuses are any less brilliant (far from it) but that there is just too much to know. The point is really much simpler, and has much more to do with the intelligent layman than with the Renaissance Savant.

Once, and not so long ago, it was reasonable for an educated person to be intellectually familiar with everything in his environment. Now, it’s become paradigmatic that no one person in the world understands all of the processes involved in the creation of a simple pencil. The comparison isn’t a value judgement, very few of us have any great need to produce pencils, and a lot more people can programme computers now than could in the 1800s, but all of this does illustrate a rather interesting philosophical shift.

The shift: we know longer know about things generally, we know about things specifically, or rather, specific things. Educated people in the past knew most of what there was to know about everything. Educated people to-day know a great deal about a handful of things, but not much about the rest.

Whatever there is to be said about the virtues of a well-rounded education, the shift was an absolutely necessary one. The body of human knowledge had simply grown to large to fit in any one human head. If people were perfectly rational, things might have gone on like that, the human world developing into an agglomeration of mutually indifferent specialists operating only within their own ideal division of labour, but things went in a slightly more difficult direction.

Rather than a world of experts in their spheres who leave other spheres to other experts and let that be the end of it, the split has evolved into a world of laymen with an almost religious awe of the magic of expertise, and experts who think nothing of practicing their magic by day, but who are just as ready as anyone else to gawk in the shackles of technological superstition by night.

Take a simple example: an older person has a computer problem. A young person is called. The young person may, and likely does, have no better an idea how to solve the problem than the older person, but they are more than willing to tinker around a bit and figure out a solution. But the older person cannot do this; he has completely abdicated the realm of computers to the ‘people who know about computers,’ even in cases where there is no reason at all why his personal initiative shouldn’t be enough to solve his problem. But he can’t bring himself to it. Prying into someone else’s specialty is no less than spitting at the ghost in the machine.

Perhaps this expert-layman polarity is more a feature of the last generation than the present one. In the last fifty years any number of social revolutions have risen to power, or authority from the experts and authorities and return it to the disenfranchised individual. But if this was our grandparents’ thesis and our parents’ antithesis, our synthesis ought to have some fairly organic relationship to it. It's something to consider.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

An Experiment

An Experiment

Assume that the world, or at least the human world, will end. You have a trunk which you might bury in the mountains or some such thing, that may be expected to survive the coming apocalypse. The contents of the trunk will be preserved, to be discovered by whatever peoples, human, sub-human, post- or meta-human, or alien of whatever kind, that will stumble upon the wreckage of our world and discover these last archaeological traces of humanity as we know it.

Which 10 (or 5) items in your possession would you put into the trunk?

Remember that these 10 (or 5) items may well be all that the future knows of our species and all that we have done or been, thought or said, felt or loved. And remember that it must all be taken without context or explanation. What pieces of humanity would you choose to survive humanity? And don’t choose Guttenberg Bible’s or anything like that, what do you own that ought to be recorded in cosmic history?

Think about it.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Catch-22 Etc.

I met an interesting man to-day. Together we were the only one’s eating alone in the deli of our neighbourhood Whole Foods equivalent: The Market of Choice. The moment I saw him I knew (toyed with the idea) that he was one of these ex-anti-establishment intellectuals, a veritable wise man of the mountains who periodically combs out his leonine facial hair, dons his Birkenstocks and ball cap and descends to take his noonday bacon-lettuce-and-avocado in the Market of Choice and wonder where the ‘60s went. We exchanged the occasional glance, synchronising our bemused appraisals of the various surrounding displays of consumer and familial foibles in this our late stage capitalist society, and bringing our respective senses of irony, bred on the one hand by the decline of western culture and on the other by the decline of the tradition that has traditionally catalogued the decline of western culture, into ever more perfect harmony. We agreed that not only had the Revolution been televised, but we were currently eating it on Rye.

Or perhaps he was thinking none of these things and our brief moment of pre-verbal human contact while mutually feeling the pull of existential loneliness over a half-eaten all-natural synthetic meat product and avocado sandwich was just that: a briefly human encounter between two merely spatially and not at all ontologically unaccompanied individuals into which I have inserted an entirely unwarranted over-abundance of adjectives and pseudo-intellectual innuendo? Perhaps this is just a be-ball-capped gentleman enjoying a sandwich? For that matter, maybe I’m the hermitic malcontent catastrophising over the mass-consumption of anti-consumerism and the brand name insurrection so carefully marketed to children of all ages between the bulk-buy spelt and the eco-bottles? Am I just projecting these ramblings into the eyes of the as yet mute sage three tables over? I am, after all, the one wearing the Birkenstocks…

He gets up. Actually I don’t notice, there’s a tiny blonde boy wandering around in such a daze that he manages to walk into a shelf backwards. A philosopher in the making. They say Thales fell down a well. Or perhaps a budding amateur social critic; is there a glint of madness in those bleary eyes? In any case, he (my aged co-conspirator in counter-cultural critique, not the boy) pauses beside my table.

“Catch 22? Kids still read that these days?”

Do kids still read that these days?? Kids do still read that these days! At least this kid is reading it, and a fair number of kids of his acquaintance have read it. These days. Of course, this kid is not particularly familiar with the literary tastes of kids these days and once decided that it would be a good idea to wear a monocle to first period econ. A fair number of kids of his acquaintance have been known to intentionally cultivate foreign accents and publicly lament the passing of the days when it was possible to use words like ‘smashing,’ ‘authentic,’ and ‘well-dressed’ unironically.

“I have no idea really, but I’ve been loving it.” I responded. “Apart from being hilarious, I love the idea of Catch-22. I’d never known that part of the Catch was that agents enforcing Catch-22 don’t have to prove that Catch-22 actually includes the provision that the accused violator is accused of violating. If you did a find and replace – Catch-22 for PATRIOT Act – I wonder how close you’d get to the literal text…”

He laughed. Of course he laughed, my partner in dissent and freethinking! Right now, somewhere in the parking lot, there are probably two men in sunglasses, dressed like the early Beatles, arguing over which government listening device, the one stuck under his collar, or the one in my coffee cup, gets to record this conversation. His tail has seniority, but mine’s only got until I finish my latte before he has to plant a new bug.

“I first read it in 1962. I was at Stanford at the time, electrical engineering and philosophy, I wanted to be a big time intellectual, know something about science, religion, a little bit of everything, and in those days part of that was doing analysis. I walked into my first session a few minutes late, and my analyst had his feet up on the couch reading Catch-22. Bought a copy on my way back to school.”

I was speechless. I’m a philosophy major! And I find my probably prejudicially incomplete knowledge of quantum physics a fascinating complement to my likely horribly distorted conception of Buddhism! For god sakes, I sleep with a copy of the Interpretation of Dreams under my pillow just in case! And I want to be a big time intellectual! Unironically!

“Was that the sort of thing kids read those days?”

“Oh yeah. We read Heller, Salinger, Hesse, Camus; I wrote a paper once comparing Catcher in the Rye to the Stranger for a modern lit class. Professor was the most interesting part of that class; he resigned the next year and set up in Menlo Park, turning people on for a fee. It was a different time back then.”

“I hear that a lot.”

“It’s true. We were trying to change the world. It’s hard to imagine now, but Peace and Love, the idea that you should actually be aware of how you live your life, it was all revolutionary. We were trying to live like no one had ever lived before, we were trying to wake up.”

They were also probably the last generation to honestly believe they could change the world. The last generation to think that there was something to wake up for. For whatever reason the wave broke and rolled back, leaving scummy pools of Anarchists, artists, Beats, Buddhists, Hippies, potheads, psychonauts, reactionaries and rebels splattered across the desert from San Francisco to Seattle. Even the kids these days that still think they can change the world, or at least know it needs changing are reading the books their parents read back when they thought they could do it. We read Heller and Salinger and Camus because we don’t have anyone who can write like they did. Where did the 60s go? What happened to the revolution you promised us? Has it really been reduced to Che Guevara’s head (for 5 points name the country of his birth*) and ironic facial hair (what does that even mean? mutton chops on a vegetarian?)?

“Well… Hopefully it was all a preparation for something. Take care, kid.”

[Editorial Note: while the above is loosely based in reality, the emphasis is on ‘loosely.’ The Author does not intend to accurately represent a conversation as it took place, and any similarities to real events are entirely adventitious.]

* Argentina

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Pauli Effect, Baader-Meinhof Phenomena and Synchronicity

In theoretical physics there is (or more precisely was between the years 1900 and 1958) a principle known as the Pauli Effect. Named after the renowned quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, it is, simply stated: Experimental equipment will inevitably mysteriously malfunction in the presence of Wolfgang Pauli. The Pauli Effect was so feared by physicists world-wide that Pauli, despite his own prominence as a theoretician in the field, was barred from laboratories on three continents and wracked up unaccountable technical catastrophes in Germany, Switzerland and at Harvard. In one case, a friend of Pauli’s was so impressed by the mysterious total failure of his equipment during an experiment that he immediately wrote to the absent, and presumably far distant, Pauli cheerfully exonerating him only to discover that the good doctor had been changing trains on a nearby platform at the exact moment of the inexplicable debacle.

The principle survived Pauli’s death in the more general form: ‘The equipment of eminent experimental physicists will inevitably mysteriously malfunction in the presence of eminent theoretical physicists,’ and in large part the Pauli Effect owes both its birth and its endurance to its namesake. Pauli was firmly convinced that his pet principle was a reality, and he spent a large part of his career corresponding with the psychologist Carl Jung and other like minds about synchronicity and related parapsychic phenomenon in an effort to prove it.

The point of all this is not that physicists believe screwy things, nor am I trying to convince anyone that screwy things happen and look! a physicist agrees with me and that’s all the proof anyone should need, the point is more disinterestedly to draw attention to a fascinating phenomenon that, regardless of its foundations in science, pseudoscience or chicanery, has extremely interesting implications for the way we think about awareness and causality.

So, the long-awaited morbidly self-conscious statement of authorial intent: Whether you’re inclined to buy that there is some sort of parapsychic lattice of meaningful coincidence underlying reality or not, if you examine your life with an eye for synchronistic, or more popularly serendipitous, happenings, you will discover your own web of uncanny relationships that can be both useful and revealing. Chalk it up God’s plan, the ways of the Earth Spirit, or if you’re of the scientific ilk, some sort of awareness bias in which rather than certain things happening with unnatural regularity, the observer simply starts noticing certain existing things with increased regularity, whatever your philosophical views on the subject, exercises in synchronicity can hardly fail to entertain and edify if you’re of the mind for that sort of thing.

I imagine that most of the people who might be reading this are unlikely to become eminent physicists of either the experimental or theoretical variety, and are therefore, sadly, unlikely to have cause to observe the Pauli Effect in their own lives. Luckily for those among us that don’t have access to particle accelerators or just aren’t that good at math, there are other species of synchronistic effects that, if less spectacular than Pauli’s, can be just as fun. My personal favourite of these are the Baader-Meinhof Phenomena.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German terrorist organisation financed by the communist East, but the group itself is only anecdotally related to the principle. According to theory, whenever you learn about something new, be it an idea, person, place, thing, etc, that particularly strikes your fancy, you will begin to see signs of it, or references to it, or even the thing itself with surprising frequency. These events are called Baader-Meinhof Phenomena because the original incidence that led to the formulation of the theory was the peculiar recurrence of references to the Baader-Meinhof group.

This sort of effect is interesting for three reasons. In the first place, it virtually guarantees that the subject of the phenomenon is cemented permanently in memory. It’s been demonstrated neurologically that the brain forms memories by forming connections; a new piece of information is associated into the existing framework of memories, and the more associations a new memory carries with it, the more solid its foundation in memory. If you are told about the terrorist activities of the Baader-Meinhof group by a friend, then in the video store chance upon a German foreign film about the group, and finally find yourself reading a terse but amusing blog entry about Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, you are far more likely to remember the significance of the name than if it had only formed one of those associations. In this respect, the Phenomena can be extremely useful; by a simple trick of perception, new and interesting ideas are circumstantially reinforced in the mind of a person who is aware of the tendency towards concatenation of meaningful coincidences.

In the second place, and though it is a bit technical, it raises interesting philosophical questions about the reciprocal effects of perception and reality. Specifically, there is very little way to know if the tendency of events to group themselves in meaningful but unrelated ways is a property of reality as such or the result of an unconscious categorising faculty of perception. On the one hand, there may be a synchronistic lattice underlying reality that is responsible for organising the world around nodes of powerful meaning. On the other hand, it is equally possible that these nodes of meaning are the tangible result of the spontaneous organising activity of the brain, catalysed by a powerful stimulus, using material that had always been present in the environment to construct meaningful complexes.

And in the third place and most important place, these sorts of synchronistic events always occur around ideas that have an especially deep emotional resonance. They are immediately a window, at a very deep level, into your evolving values and passions. Whenever you stumble onto one of these relationships of meaningful coincidence, it is the sure sign that the nucleus of the affair ought to be looked into in much greater depth.

You may perhaps notice, if you are a student, or remember your student days particularly clearly, that even when taking four perfectly disparate classes there is a tendency for several of the same ideas or themes to appear and be discussed in all four, or at least three, of the classes. That, I believe, is the archetypical form of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, though admittedly it does seem to complicate our lovely little picture by hinting that perhaps the resonance is as much with the cultural gestalt as with the individual one. Be that as it may, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomena in this case is the ideal opportunity to capitalise on and consolidate the skills learned in each class and bring them to bear on a particularly salient interdisciplinary problem.

And now it seems that I’ve painted myself into a bit of an authorial dilemma, the Pauli Effect being quite obviously not a Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, it seems high time to examine the general principle underlying both Pauli and Baader. The Ariadne’s thread is the ‘acausal connecting principle’ theorised by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and termed succinctly: Synchronicity.

The idea is deceptively simple, that there is a principle that leads events with similar meanings to group together despite the fact that they are causally unrelated. The classic example comes from the memoirs of Emile Deschamps. In 1805 he was treated to a dish of plum pudding by a stranger named M. de Fortgibu. Years later, at the end of a very fine dinner at a Paris restaurant, Deschamps ordered a cup of plum pudding only to discover that the last of it had just been served to the same M. De Fortgibu. Finally, in 1832, Deschamps was served a plum pudding at the house of a friend, he began telling the story of his mysterious coincidences around the dessert only to be interrupted by the entrance of one M. De Fortgibu.

When I say that the principle is deceptively simple, it is not because the element of the uncanny in the these such events is difficult to discern, nor because it’s difficult to sum up, but because the theoretical psychological justification of why such things should occur at all is by no means as simple as its demonstrable effects. Synchronicity serves as a sort of psychic parallel to the traditional chain of cause and effect. Just as causality operates in the mind as well as in the material world, synchronicity is not limited to the space between one’s ears, but also has a distinct effect on outer events.

In the same way that the organising principle of causality is the transfer of energy through matter, the organising principle of synchronicity is a sort of magnetic attraction between events of similar meanings. While causality is entirely determinate in its limited applicability to individual cases, in the main it is probabilistic and synchronicity chiefly describes the improbably frequent occurrence of the improbable in highly meaningful situations.

By way of example: In the mid 20s Jung did a statistical analysis of the relationship between astrological sign and likely marriage partner using a randomised sample of data from all over Europe. Midway through the study, having found no statistically significant relationship between birth sign and spousal choice, he left the rest of the number crunching to a student. This student was herself a devotee of astrology and was very much hoping that the study would validate her views. In the end it didn’t. The final result was that there was no statistically significant relationship between astrology and betrothal. What was statistically significant was the difference between the results calculated by the sceptical Jung for the first half of the data, and the results calculated by the emotionally invested student for the second half of the data. The numbers were re-tabulated and results were the same: the random distribution was such that the sceptic had been validated in his scepticism while the believer’s belief had meaningfully raised the incidence of a correlation that statistically speaking should not have existed in the data.

At this point, Wolfgang Pauli and the fledgling field of quantum physics became involved. Following an inspired conversation with Pauli and Albert Einstein, Jung and Pauli began collaborating on the daunting project of uniting the uncanny probabilities of synchronicity with those demonstrated by quantum theory and evidenced in Einstein’s relativity theory.

Certain foundational principles of quantum mechanics (entanglement, the collapse of the wave function under observation, the dual nature of light as wave and particle) were believed to precisely mirror on the subatomic level the macro-level effects that Jung was had described in his theory and that Pauli experienced every time he touched lab equipment.

But, to resurrect this discussion from the abstruse depths of technical so and so, the further history of this theory is far less illustrious. Shortly after the deaths of its principle proponents it was taken from the cold hands of the brilliant crackpots by the crackpots otherwise unspecified. Synchronicity was intended to be the beachhead from which hard science would begin to grapple with the awe-inspiring mysteries of free will, fate and divinity. It has become quite the opposite, an umbilical through which new-agers and charlatans more interested in a pseudoscientific justification for areligious mystification than in anything properly described as a quest for demonstrable truths leech legitimacy from the body of credible science. I would go so far as to say that no greater hell would be necessary for the doctor’s Jung and Pauli than an eternity in a simple cell furnished only with a stock-ticker tracking sales for ‘The Secret’ in real time.

This sort of popularisation-for-the-sake-of-capitalisation of infant interdisciplinary theories only serves to increase the numbers of scientific dogmatists who wont touch the stuff on principle because it’s been made so manifestly ridiculous by the ludicrous preachers of pragmatic pietism. The only person who has ever made a fortune playing the synchronicity stocks is the one who wrote it up into a self-help book. The sorts of spiritual sophists who float their faith on the market for magical solutions would do their cause much better by contenting themselves with self-discovery, terrorist trivia and the occasional plum pudding.