Friday, May 21, 2010

The Oil Debacle = Return of the Repressed

The oil gusher is not a "spill." We call it that because we are far more familiar with marine oil disasters involving tankers. This crisis is about a gusher, which is a great thing on land (and a very rare thing these days, since petroleum discovery peaked in 1964) and a total disaster in the water. It's around 95 thousand barrels per day.

My days of professional journalism about oil are long over. I haven't really followed industry trends since FTW folded in 2006. But I'm still thinking about it, and POETRY-POLITICS-COLLAPSE is where I do my thinking on current affairs, with my 46 subscribers and my Don Quixote helmet.

The oil gusher disaster is the return of the repressed. It is the outbreak of the deep past, raging into the present like the suppurating narcissistic wounds of childhood busting upward from the unconscious in the form of somaticized neurotic symptoms--a facial palsy, a tic, a paralysis, an addiction, or a tremor, or poor dear Fairbairn's inability to urinate--and plenty of mental symptoms into the bargain. The somatic symptoms are like the wrecking of the biosphere; the mental symptoms are like the mounting ecological anxiety of the culture, together with its two major defenses--denial and hysteria.

The oil is the deep past; it's the intolerable & heartbreaking message of extinction, not only because the popular mind associates the origins of oil with the dinosaurs, but because in reality petroleum is the product of two enormous algae-blooms from 150 m.y.a. and 90 m.y.a. (long before the meteorite that vaporized the last Tyrannosaurus Rex).

The algae was alive an unthinkably long time ago, a length of time which utterly dwarfs not only the timescale of a human life (102 years), but even the timescale scale of the entire human species' tenure on Earth (~2 x 106 years). The older of the two algae-blooms was 1.5 x 108 years ago. It has been totally transformed into hydrocarbons, whose amazing level of energy storage evokes the vast size of the ancient blooms, the vast energy of the incident sunlight they captured, and the vast aeons it took to "ferment" their myriad microscopic corpses into petroleum.

We call it "rock oil," as though it were as inorganic as stone; in reality, it is liquid death, the "excrement of the devil," which ruins every country in which it's discovered. How? By bringing a cloud of corporate vultures who will kill anybody whose priorities differ from those of capital. Oil brings in The Man, to do what Shell did to the Ogoni in Nigeria. With its easy wealth, it also erases the folkways of traditional expertise; by the time the exportable oil runs out, nobody is left who's old enough to remember how to grow food without it. Pretty soon, there's not even adequate supply for domestic consumption, and things get sticky, as they've begun to do in Britain since the North Sea petro-bonanza ended, sinking Maggie Thatcher's star below the horizon.

Now we're confronted daily with the bizarre spectacle of apparent abundance--a gusher like Spindletop, right out of 1901--but this time even CNN realizes we are only out there drilling deepwater because all the conventional giant fields are in decline, from Ghawar to Cantarell, depleting at about 14% per year. It's a weird tableau of abundance and scarcity.

The oil is precious; human beings busted their asses and risked their blood and treasure to get at it; it is all going to waste; it is toxic and flammable, intensely concentrated liquid power; it is time and sunshine made tangible; it's the materialization of Sun light, that life-giving, life-taking mindless force of the blazing thermonuclear furnace to which we owe our existence; it ruins everything it touches; it is invading the ecosystems of the Gulf and an ever-greater portion of the coastal United States.

BP is behaving like a typical corporation--utterly amoral, hubristic, venal--lying through its teeth, hoarding information, treating the rest of the human community with utter contempt. That's not news; they always do that. The news is that this time, a non-trivial minority of Americans actually know something about Peak Oil; they know about the appalling fragility of the biosphere, and that when it crashes, we all perish; they know the whole industrial food empire runs on cheap & abundant fossil fuels which are rapidly becoming gone things. They even know that before the "spill," the ocean was afflicted with gigantic dead zones and islands of floating trash the size of various New England states.

The Bush crime family, whose lifeblood is gasoline and heroin, recently sent its cat-torturing scion to the White House, where in 2006 he told their battered Stepford bride she had to quit her habit: "America is addicted to oil." Well, it's late in the game for that, since Ford-Firestone and Standard Oil gutted our public transportation systems a hundred years ago and then Ike replaced them with the interstate highway system. Then Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto drove the farmers off the land and into the industrial cities, so we all forgot how to feed ourselves without off-the-shelf Twinkies at our disposal. Then manufacturing went to China, since the American ruling class decided around 1980 that compared to F.I.R.E. (finance, insurance, and real estate), making material things of intrinsic value was a sucker's game. Throw in narco-traffic, war profiteering, and money-laundering, and the picture of the U.S. economy is much closer to completion.

Everybody's in debt, there are no new jobs, and the old jobs all suck--working for the Wal-Mart "folks" who own the country, as their big-box armada homogenizes the entire landscape of the lower 48, eating small businesses and excreting their digested remains in the form of billboards, strip malls, and chain after chain, franchise after franchise, plastered with the smiley emoticons of fake happiness and atomized emotional hypothermia. Brrrr, that Slurpee's cold! So is bowling alone...

But whether we produce or consume, it all runs on cheap oil. At this point the price has plunged toward $50/barrel, apparently because the weak euro is making everything cheaper in dollar terms. That won't last, especially with the shitification of the deepwater oil industry.

Meanwhile, Republican Louisiana Governor Robert Jindal (hands off the "Bobby" nickname; it belongs to RFK, not you) sees fit to wait for permits before building sandbag installations, perhaps because he thinks this emphasis on red tape is helpful to his absurd life's work of being an anti-government governor. The irony there, of course, is that a bit more of the dreaded "big government" regulatory enforcement might have prevented the disaster that's currently crippling his state.

The gusher at the bottom of the ocean is a wound. It is too deep under water to repair. The pressurized oil comes from an even deeper place, below the surface of the ocean floor (in that regard, it's a bit like the balrog that slept underneath the mines of Moria; holla back, my nerd homies); depth under depth. It represents all the bitter self-knowledge we cannot yet tolerate, but which is blasting up out of the unconscious and into the blogs, the press, the conversations (remember those?) at a rate of 95 thousand barrels per day.

That inexorable black plume is the unfinished business of America's drunken dream. It means we are coming to the point where our systems of food, transportation, and economic exchange are going to start failing. Only then will a majority of people be forced to break the law and squat in properties they don't own, hoping for the best until the werewolves of the law come knocking; growing their own food and raising their own animals in the hope that the zoning laws won't kick them into the street; walking and biking after the cars just die in the driveway and stay there. Digging up the pavement to plant corn, and hoping it isn't loaded with cadmium and lead. And so on. Meanwhile there's this other little problem of the hottest year on record, with all the nasty consequences for crop yields.

It's as if the planet is saying, "You want oil? I'll give you oil..."

The good part of this current disaster is the forced march toward integrity, the excruciating uphill slog into truths we can hardly bear to notice, let alone deal with. The dead wildlife won't benefit from our soul-searching, but whatever survives down there will probably have a few years' respite from the trawler-fishing that's devastated coastal shellfish populations to the brink of collapse. With any luck, it'll be like the DMZ in Korea, where animals are free to eat each other alive without interference from man--not because we grew up and learned to respect "nature," but because the Korean War is not yet officially over and the no-man's land of the North-South dividing line happens to be several miles wide. I hear the deer are thriving at Chernobyl.

"There is plenty of hope. But not for us." --Kafka

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

photosynthesis, electrons, consciousness

Though this fascinating news story, Untangling the quantum entanglement behind photosynthesis is about quantum mechanical effects in the optimizing of light absorption by chlorophyl molecules in photosynthetic bacteria, it should thrill the people who study consciousness via cognitive neuroscience--especially those like Roger Penrose, who say the computational model doesn't amount to an explanation of consciousness unless the computational brain is understood as a quantum mechanical system. But the conventional wisdom (which has only recently come into serious question) holds that quantum mechanical effects like entanglement only become observable in exotic laboratory conditions, and probably don't occur at all in the relatively "hot and noisy" environment of the brain. The parrying argument from Pensrose and others was the hypothesis that certain very tiny "microtubules," which had been observed in neurons, might provide enough shelter from the brain's internal "heat and noise" for such effects as quantum entanglement to arise in the brain. The next step is to wonder if those otherwise rather mysterious microtubule structures exist for that purpose--to create entanglement-friendly conditions the brain can exploit for their awesome computational power, just as any other "quantum computer" does. Critics remained skeptical.

So along comes this news story about the quantum entanglement of electron pairs playing an observable role in photosynthesis. It makes no mention of neurons but I bet the microtubules people will be all over this thing like qualia on rice.

I hope this remarkable new work on photosynthetic bacteria leads to even more funding for research on quantum effects in the human brain, which might somehow "solve" the Hard Problem of consciousness. I don't pretend to understand it. Every aspect of our experience gets encoded into coordinated electrochemical flows of firing and non-firing trillions of networked neurons, and somehow consciousness is the result. Neurons and glia, configured in myriad stacked webs, such that it all somehow gives rise to--experience!

Then I think of qualia like the color blue, the flavor of stawberries, the timbre of a bell, and I can't imagine how they arise from computation. It's much easier to imagine the gist of how the sense organs of sight, olfaction, and hearing are able to take in data from the environment and encode it into electrochemical information for the brain's neural network to "process" somehow; it's much harder to imagine any "process" by which those electrochemically encoded data could eventuate in what I experience as those phenomena, when I impale this strawberry with a blue handled fork and take a bite as a distant bell tower rings the time.

I think I get the layman's gist of the neurology of a sea slug or a bacterium exhibiting a tropism and locomoting away from hydrochloric acid. What baffles me about consciousness--this emergent property of the brain--is just how it emerges.

Excerpts below from

Untangling the quantum entanglement behind photosynthesis The schematic on the left shows the absorption of light by a light harvesting complex and the transport of the resulting excitation energy to the reaction center through the FMO protein. On the right is a monomer of the FMO protein, showing also its orientation relative to the antenna and the reaction center. The numbers label FMO's seven pigment molecules. Image from Mohan Sarovar

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC), Berkeley have recorded the first observation and characterization of a critical physical phenomenon behind photosynthesis known as quantum entanglement.

Previous experiments led by Graham Fleming, a physical chemist holding joint appointments with Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, pointed to quantum mechanical effects as the key to the ability of green plants, through photosynthesis, to almost instantaneously transfer solar energy from molecules in light harvesting complexes to molecules in electrochemical reaction centers.

"This is the first study to show that entanglement, perhaps the most distinctive property of quantum mechanical systems, is present across an entire light harvesting complex," says Mohan Sarovar, a post-doctoral researcher under UC Berkeley chemistry professor Birgitta Whaley at the Berkeley Center for Quantum Information and Computation. "...this is the first instance in which entanglement has been examined and quantified in a real biological system." 10 May 2010.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

REVOLUTION IN MIND: The Creation of Psychoanalysis, by George Makari. Or, DECENT BOOK, EDITORIAL DISASTER.

This is a competent narrative of the origins of psychoanalysis. My judgment of it is clouded by two personal factors: my resentful envy of the prestigiously prestigious prestige with which the book is saturated (the author's "numerous awards," Harper Collins Press, Cornell U., Columbia U., etc.), and my scholarly obsession with issues of English grammar and rhetoric that most people regard as trivial. The two combine in the thought that if a less privileged author were to make this many mistakes of this kind, the book would be trashed in the press or completely ignored. I don't want to ruin anybody's day, but from my perspective the villain here is the "wonderful editor" named explicitly on page 488.

The great William Arrowsmith is the only translator of Nietzsche into English who bothered to render the closing section of the first of the four Untimely Meditations, in which Nietzsche offered a large sampling of the infelicities (often amounting to what we call "howlers") in the writing style of "David Strauss, the Writer and Confessor." Here is a similar bestiary of what Harper Collins allowed out of the house in this book by George Makari.

p.263. Makari makes some good use of the famous remark by Ferenczi, "In times of war, the Muses are silent." He meant that the nascent psychoanalytic community would have to temper the theoretical creativity of its more intellectually independent members until the discipline matured, otherwise such creativity might exacerbate the factionalism that threatened to destroy psychoanalysis as a viable branch of medicine. Fine. But then we get these lines:

"Members who wished to rewrite 'our Science' had to be silenced. This Nuremberg directive had Adler's name on it, but he showed little interest in modifying his views or deferring to these concerns. In the end, he was the Muse that needed to be silenced."

So Adler was a Muse? Adler was nobody's Muse, and even if he was, that's not what Makari is trying to say. He means that Adler was the PERSON who had to be silenced, but he goes for the repetition as if this did not matter. Also, "to be silenced" was absolutely not what Adler "needed." This is a street idiom, where the needs of the aggressor are stated as the victim's needs--as when a thug says "you need to give me your money." No, you need my money; what I need is a cop.

p.264. "Freud had tolerated Stekel, even admired his uncanny critical acumen, but was contemptuous of his theorizing." This is the first we've heard of Stekel's "uncanny critical acumen" or Freud's admiration of it. There's no footnote. Surely such a strong formulation demands at least one example?

p.266. "Freud publicly touted his tolerance of diverse opinion, as exemplified by his barely contained capacity to endure Wilhelm Stekel..." What Freud "barely contained" was his contempt for Stekel, not his capacity to endure Stekel. Was his capacity going to escape?

p.267. "When Freud announced Stekel's departure to the Vienna Society..." We can work out from the context that "to" governs "announced" and not "departure," but good prose does not burden the reader with ear-snagging ambiguities like this one; the author is supposed to resolve them, so that the reader doesn't have to slow down and do it himself. This book has all too many grammatical ambiguities of this sort.

p.268. Along these lines, read the last complete paragraph on page 268 and watch yourself backpedaling to be sure of just who is "he" and who is "the older man."

p.269. "The long paper did not appear to be a rebel's yell, for it opened by paying homage to Sigmund Freud's dream book and took as a given that that hero of classic Greek drama, Oedipus Rex, was living inside us all." The phrase "rebel yell" comes from the American Civil War and is out of place here. If accidental rhyme in prose is to be avoided, "book and took" is not good; neither is "that that." The literature of the Fifth Century BCE is called "Classical," not "classic." The name of the figure in question, like the drama which bears his name, is simply Oedipus, not Oedipus Rex (which is both Latin and extraneous).

p.270. "Like Helly Preiswerk, Frank Miller was an adept, a woman who made the unconscious manifest." I may have missed something in previous pages (I did go back and look again), or I may be the only educated person who hasn't heard of Helly Preiswerk, but who the hell was she?

p.271. Summarizing Jung's interpretation of the fantasies of his patient Frank Miller, Makari writes: "Her psychological struggle with the 'Father Imago'...provoked unconscious religious fantasies that traced the historical movement from the moral decadence of Roman times to the founding of Christianity and Mithraism." The incoherence of this passage is perhaps more Jung's responsibility than Makari's, but a different sort of writer might direct the reader's attention to the problem instead of merely repeating it. Is it Jung or Makari who writes of "the moral decadence of Roman times"? Decadence is a decline; exactly what morally superior past is supposed to have preceded this decline? Are "Roman times" the decadent times? Surely the early Republic with its citizen-farmer-soldiers was not a decadent society, and surely "Roman Times" include "the founding of Christianity and Mithraism," since those gradual events preceded the fall of the Western Roman Empire by several centuries. If "moral decadence" refers to the reign of Nero, there's a chronology problem, since that emperor allegedly illuminated his rooms with the burning bodies of Christians; they were already around during his reign, so its "decadence" cannot have resulted in "the founding of Christianity."

p.273. "Freud then added innocently that his own thought moved forward when he felt 'compelled to by the pressure of facts or by the influence of someone else's ideas.'" His thought moved forward when he felt compelled to--to what? To move forward, in the kitchen?

p.274. "Again, Auguste Comte's curse rose." Specters rise; curses do not.

p.283. "Jones had not mentioned anything about secrecy, but Freud emphasized it: 'this committee had to be strictly secret in his existence and in his actions.'" Again one can't tell whether the error lies with Freud, or Jones, or Makari; obviously we want a third person singular possessive pronoun which was probably his/its in German and has unfortunately been rendered (by whom?) "his" instead of "its" in English. If the error predates Makari, he should have inserted [sic:]; if not, he or his editor should have fixed it.

p.286. "But Jones also expressed reservations." Nope. Jones, too, expressed reservations. You want to add Jones to the list of people with reservations, not add reservations to the list of what Jones had.

p.290. "But some core propositions--especially the defining of the unconscious--were very difficult to prove." The defining was difficult to prove? The defining was a proposition? This is just incoherent.

p.298. "The Viennese philosopher Ernst Mach..." Mach was a physicist, one of the most important figures in the history of that discipline. Makari calls him a philosopher because Makari is only interested in the small part of Mach's work that fits neatly into philosophy (so it can be more easily related to psychology), and apparently has not heard of the rest.

p.298. "Mach argued for description only in science, and he viewed synthetic explanations as unwarranted." The word Makari needed was "speculative," not "synthetic." For a neo-Kantian like Mach, "synthetic" propositions are already part of our a priori knowledge of the world by virtue of our inborn epistemic equipment; we cannot elide them without landing in what James called "a blooming, buzzing confusion." Without synthesis there can be no description, let alone theory.

p.324. "Food was scarce, funds unavailable, and the capacity for communication outside Hungary difficult." Nothing like a difficult capacity, eh?

p.326. "Jones had little interest in laymen, but Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs took the Brunswick Square applicants and expressed the wish that by bringing these people into the fold..." He took them? Where?

p.328. "The establishment of such guidelines was of TANTAMOUNT IMPORTANCE..." People make this sort of mistake because they have neither read enough books in English to absorb the idioms of the language by rote, nor learned enough about language in general to know that "tant" is a correlative pronoun that means "so much, as much as." Paramount importance, not tantamount.

p.339. "He digested the standard cafe fare: Weininger, Schopenhauer, and Kant..." Not in that order, I hope.

p.344. "Therefore, conflicts...were entirely out of conscious, which meant..." Conscious is an adjective. We speak of "the unconscious," but I've never seen "conscious" used as a noun--certainly not without an article.

p.374. "Like prewar Berlin itself, Abraham gave little hint of originality in his early writings." I can't imagine what that means.

ibid. "In this regard, Abraham shared Ferenczi and Rank's belief that more attention be paid to the analytic situation." Trainwreck.

p.377. "...modes for interaction" This should be "modes OF interaction."

p.393-4. "For the close reader, Sterba had let the Technical Seminar's rabbit out of the bag." That's "cat out of the bag," not "rabbit out of the hat" and certainly not "rabbit out of the bag."

p.401. "Much of these discussions occurred at..." Should be "many," not "much."

p.417. "The victory of the Nazis and the Aryanization of the Berlin Institute was a catastrophe not just for Germany. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it also announced a grave, immediate threat to Europe and more immediately, Austria." I am not calling anybody an anti-Semite, but in a book about Freud and the origins of psychoanalysis this passage just stinks. It's like writing a book about the origins of Blues music and saying the slave trade was a disaster not just for the shipbuilders whose galleys were often wrecked on the ocean, but also for the investors in those shipping companies. Not very sensitive.

p.428. "This conclusion encouraged Klein's move from the complexities of inner and outer to just the inner." Writer and editor are sleeping peacefully.

p.437. "...who Anna introduced.." WHOM she introduced.

p.438. "After the rise of the Nazis, many German analysts came to Vienna to participate in the stimulating analytic scene, despite the risk that Hitler's shadow loomed over Austria." I see no way to construe this that does not involve a mistake. "Loom" is not a transitive verb. Also, risk + shadow + loom = redundancy.

p.453. "...continuum between biology, psychology, and sociology." The preposition "between" is used for two elements; AMONG is used for three or more.

p.454. "...moral and ethical self-reflection.." What is the difference? If there is none, or if you haven't the space to specify it, then choose one term and drop the other. As it is, you're blowing smoke.

p.465. "In 1938, 30 percent of the I.P.A. membership lived in America, and that percentage was about to grow exponentially." That's a howler.

What is the smallest exponent? 30 to the zero power is one, so he can't mean that. 30 to the one is 30, which is no growth at all. But then 30 squared is 900. That means that out of every 100 (per-cent, remember?) psychoanalysts, 900 of them live in America. Or if he means 30% times 30%, then the number is getting smaller, not growing.

p.466. "On the first day of September 1939, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland." That's the worst way to put it. The Wehrmacht invaded Poland; millions of enthusiastic racist Nazis from Germany and Austria invaded Poland under orders from Hitler, the mentally ill puppet of military industrialists and financiers like Krupp, Thyssen, and Bayer.

p.471. "A series of ten discussions took place between January 27, 1943, to May 3, 1944." FROM x TO y, or BETWEEN x AND y, but not BETWEEN x TO y.

I haven't cited any of the merely typographical errors which plague this celebrated book. The errors I have cited above are the sort that students make--intelligent students who are simply too young and inexperienced to have read the thousand books you've got to read in order to accumulate so much mental exposure to good writing that you stop making these errors. But this book--which has its merits, and even a few passages of grace and beauty--bears four flatulently adoring blurbs from Harold Bloom, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lear, and Murray Gell-Mann. Heck, let's throw in the very Nobel Prize withal, shall we? Somebody pick up the phone and call Stockholm...

Meanwhile, can I have my $32.50 back?