June 30, 2008

Really Sharp things

I can't get knives sharp.

I can use a steel or whetstone, or even a grinder with moderate proficiency. But I can't get a knife really sharp. By sharp I mean hair-splitting, dry-shaving, samuri cloud-carving sharp.

It's a technology that I've studied somewhat, but the skill or patience or persistence or something just isn't there. It shouldn't be that hard! It's something we've been doing since flint-knapping fell out of use.

There's a medieval weapon maker who I used to see at the Philomath Renfaire. In the front of his stall he displayed a huge two-handed battle blade, in a massive stand that raised the sword above the level children could easily reach. It had a sign underneath saying, "Extremely sharp. Touch at your own risk." Even so, he'd have to come out from the stall periodically to wipe away the blood.

It was a very effective advertisement, if not an effective warning.

I'd like to know how to get a blade that sharp. It's a technology that, for me, borders on wizardry. And that is a point I find very interesting.

The saying goes, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The late Arthur C. Clarke, I think. And it's true not only about cutting edge technology, but about archaic edge technology, and many other archaic technologies as well.

As I've said here earlier, that's possibly why we are so attracted by fire, and also why fire performing has become so popular. It's an archaic technology: who uses a wood stove to cook dinner, or candles to see or read by at night? Yet we love campfires and fireplaces. And every city in the US has at least one monthly firejam, and some have several each week. At these events, people spin and dance with fire-poi, staff, meteor, whip, wings, fingers, jump rope, and even fire hula-hoop. Fire is dangerous, of course. It's also self-correcting when we get singed. But it isn't as dangerous as it looks to the uninitiated.

Still, people try to explain it away: "It's stage fire."

It isn't. It's quite real and people do hurt themselves, sometimes quite badly. The techniques that make it relatively manageable and reasonably safe are not that hard to learn, but they are not intuitive, and trial-and-error doesn't work well here. It's an example of cutting-edge archaic technology.

Archaic technology is part of the attraction of steam-punk: Victorian clockwork and steam technology pushed to Jules Vern limits. Two outstanding examples of steam-punk as performance art are the Sultan's Elephant, and the Telectroscope. Their back stories make them all the more real. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sultan's_Elephant, and http://www.telectroscope.org, which also has a nice Wikipedia article.

Just using Google will get you people's home photos, with no story, no mystery, none of the feel essential for experiencing them, so don't go there first. Suspend your disbelief, and experience them in the manner that their creators intended, as a mystery. As magic!

June 29, 2008

what i learned on summer vacation

From Babylon 5. The technomage Elric, speaking to Sheridan, about magic vs. the creations of God vs. technological miracles.

"It is within that ambiguity that my brothers and I exist. We are the dreamers, the singers, the shapers, and the makers. We know the true secrets, the important things. The fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. The seven words to make them go without pain. How to say goodbye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to re-discover dreams when the world has stolen them from you."

The last four are down, I think. They took only 60 years. Typical that I'd start at the back end.

This was my first blog post to Tribe, November 17, 2005.

June 27, 2008

Soul Food

Smells, odors, scents, go directly to the oldest part of the brain distinguishable from spinal cord, and from that place elicit memory and association. Images, sounds, tastes, emotions, all these are brought forth with a simple scent.

The scent of apples, particularly green ones, pierced or cut, overwhelms me with the presence of my 4th and 5th summers. I am there, completely.

I feel the sun and the dry itch of the dusty hillside with its abandoned orchard overlooking a long, long valley and the non-working farm where I was born. Green apples, many now brown, cover the hill, fallen from the scraggly, untended trees.

Find a switch, long, thin, flexible, and spear a smallish apple on the end of it. Hold the other end and fling the apple off the tip, high up, far, much farther than you could ever throw it alone, and then down and down, and frighten the rabbits by the stream so they scurry away to their holes and hideaways.

My first woomera, my throwing stick. It taught me parabolas, ballistics, timing, patience, the scientific method, and where the rabbits went. The reward was itself, and sometimes rabbit stew. Those two summers, ending forever with the news of Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, shaped the rest of my life. But still the smell of fresh, green apples brings me back to the beginning of my life, when I first became a conscious participant and actor in the world.

First published in Tribe, November 29, 2005

June 23, 2008

A Very Good Day

Read and responded to Altaira's blog entry (Yahoo) and checked mine (Tribe) to see if anyone saluted yesterday's entry, and realized that the blogosphere was simply Usenet without pretense (but with a bit more OCD): It's always been about performance space.

Of course I knew that about Usenet from day one, but didn't really appreciate how much of a watered-down form blogs were. No social pretense or interaction is required to blog. Sooo Hollywood. At least on Usenet you had to stay on topic and within group purview.

The start of a lovely day. (Jeez, I live in my head a lot! But some heads are nicer than others. Shit, I could be Riz!) Then I packed up $780 of product to send to Brian, Greg, and some woman in Pasadena, and drove off to the post office. Mailed the product, bought $450 in stamps (for the Enigma mailing), got a half gallon each of Scoresby and Boords at the liquor store, went to Red Robin to order hamburgers to go (Judith, mine spouse with the low sodium, phosphorus, pottasium, purine, and sugar diet [lard is okay] decided the pain would be worth it), and had a nice mid-day scotch rocks at the bar, waiting for the burgers while reading Kuhn's defense of Jane Jacobs' methodology.

Inductive thinking, I knew about. But Kuhn takes it further, describing this other, better scientific method as a distinct improvement on the hypothetical-deductivism of the old paradigm. Then Lonergan suggests that inductive reasoning is necessary for truly understanding understanding, and it's what people do anyway. I love you Jane Jacobs, that philosophers and scientists work so hard just to say that you said it right, which I knew as intuitively and immediately as you did when you wrote it. (Thus verifying Kuhn, Lonergan, Jacobs, and me!)

Inductive reasoning is verified by the sharing of Mini-ahas. (You get it? You got it!)

Is this a great day, or what! On the drive home, NPR interviews an anthropologist who has found that in Senegal, chimps make and use spears to kill prey which they then eat. Hey! Welcome to the club, guys! Except it's not the guy chimps, it's the females, followed somewhat by the juvenile chimps.

It seems Senegal is a difficult environment for chimps, and that they respond by making up three relatively independent subgroups: adult males, adult females, and juveniles, each pretty much on its own for acquiring anything more than the subsistence left over from the males' hunting and gathering and sharing of it. So they're in competition for food, or at least the females and the juvies are, with the adult males. But who is it that invents and uses the spear? The females.

The males see them making and using spears and getting extra food, but they don't get it. The paradigm is too different, and the guys can't quite put it together. Perhaps it's because they get whatever they need without too much trouble, and so don't feel the pressure to innovate. At least they're not burning the ladies at the stake. (Duh! No fire yet!) But the girls get it. Spears mean more and better food, for themselves and for their babies.

Some of the juveniles do get it (both males and females) and awkwardly emulate the larger and stronger adult female spear-makers and users. Will some male and female chimps grow up understanding the technology of tool building and tool using? Will they discriminate against chimps who don't get it? Will they get that they get it, and get what getting it means? Most unlikely, but the possibility! . . . the possibility!

What happens when spear users fight with non-spear users? Will the larger-stronger males who do use spears discriminate against the females who compete with them in spear use, or is this the first instance of Mutually Assured Destruction? Will the old-school males kill and eat the uppity spear users because "they ain't like us and they do weird things?"

Ah, civilization. Ain't it grand?

I never thought I'd be excited about the possibility of war.

Consciencisacion! Not as nice a word as I once thought it was. Still, yes, definitely. A very good day. With nuts.

First published on Tribe, February 24, 2007 -

How to be an MC

I've done very little MCing, but I've been introduced by many and watched them work and prepare their work. It's an art form in itself. Here are a few thoughts and observations useful for a first time, or relatively new variety-arts MC.

First and most important, the work of being an MC is not about you, it's about the show and the acts. You are the smooth interface that gets the show and the audience safely from begining to end. So you don't have to "be" anything more than pleasant, clearly articulate, and accurate. As you'll see, that's quite enough.

Doing your own schtick is entirely secondary to your purpose for being there, and everyone else's. It's not needed. A first impulse is to "cover" yourself by putting on a character, doing schtick, or bringing a friendly pet with you, so that there is something between yourself and the audience. This is usually a mistake. The best and easiest cover is a larger, more cheerful, and possibly more aggressive version of yourself. A super-you. People do like you, don't they? Just make yourself a bit larger than life, a bit more firmly in control, and go with it. Many performers and MCs use this technique, and the natural adrenaline of the moment will help it happen.

Another way to think of MCing is as a version of being a proper party hostess. The hostesses job is to keep things pleasant and flowing, make proper introductions, and send everyone home happy, regardless of how awful the canapes are, how badly the housekeeper and caterer have screwed up, the little traffic accident in the driveway, and despite Uncle Ernie getting the kids drunk and then falling into the pool. And if you really need table games or charades to keep them entertained, you'll just have to find more interesting guests to invite next time. The guests make the party, and the acts make the show. You, the hostess, just make the show/party move pleasantly from beginning to end.

Speaking of charades, many experienced variety artists who are drafted for MC feel that they must do some kind of humorous thing in between acts. This is a kind of cover for them, because they know and love their own stuff and feel comfortable with it. But unless you have a great deal of stage experience and have verified proof (outside of friends and family) that large groups of people really do find your "things" charming or funny, I'd avoid it like the plague! Really. MCing is a special kind of performance that is difficult enough all by itself. If you could do whatever-it-is really well, you would have been invited to perform, not to MC. So keep it simple. Your task (again) is to present the acts competently and clearly, and to make sure the show proceeds smoothly from beginning to end, no matter what. That's plenty, and if you can do just that, you'll be in demand for other MC jobs.

A well-run variety-arts show will require all the performers to be inside the theater several hours before the show. During that time the director, stage manager, producer, and you, will have to put the show together and test-run (tech-rehearse) it so that the sound, lighting, curtains and lineup are established, and everyone knows what to do and when to do it. When several repeats of a show are scheduled, a dress rehearsal as well as a tech rehearsal may be required a day or so before the first show. They may also be combined into one run-through, but the purpose is the same.

If you are inexperienced, pay attention to everything. Every event is different, and few are done perfectly. When you meet the performers at the rehearsal, tell them you need to have their intro cards completed now, and pass them out  (with a pen) before they go anywhere else. The cards should have space for their stage name, number of performers, type of act, its length, and the exact wording of how it is introduced.

While you are doing this the performers will be much more concerned with makeup, getting into character, the state of their own nerves, and lunch. So you'll still have to chase them around individually. Be polite but firm about getting what you need. If you know the act well, add whatever color and sizzle you think fits that introduction. If you don't know the act, gather whatever you need to make their introduction interesting, but only as an introduction to their preferred introduction. Get each of them to spell and pronounce their names for you, and repeat their name (and the act name, if any) back to them until they approve your pronunciation. Read the intro back to them to check it, along with anything you might add so they can check it for accuracy. Get all of this down on one or more cards for each act, and put the cards in the show's order of appearance once that's been established, and number them.

Check with the stage manager or director to make an exactly parallel order of line-up. (He or she will have his own 9,000 things to do, so don't pester. Check once, thoroughly, and be done with it. They'll let you know if things change.) Unless someone is introducing you, you will begin the show, introduce yourself, and welcome the audience. Make a card for that. I've seen MCs, even experienced ones, forget their own name when the lights first hit them.

Make a card to introduce the intermission. This is typically where announcements about mailing lists, t-shirt sales, etc. are made. You'll also need a card for the close, where you thank the audience, invite them to next year's show, and remind them to drive home safely. The director can tell you what else is needed at the start, intermission, and close, but be sure to ask. All of these announcements should be brief.

You set the tone, sense of excitement, and joyful expectation at the beginning and middle by your own attitude. At the end the audience may already be leaving their seats (especially if the house lights are up too soon) so you'll have to speak a little faster and louder (they'll be talking to each other). You still have to speak clearly and distinctly, and sound like you're having fun too.

You may also comment on each act after it closes - just be kind, no snark! - and then move right into the next introduction. Try not to use the same terms and phrases repeatedly. A store of pat phrases is useful, but they have to be appropriate. Performers have off nights and on nights. Watch the show enough to know which was which. Then don't lie to the audience -- they saw the same act you did and probably have the same reaction. You don't need to diss or slam the mediocre or bad acts. You're an MC, not a critic. Just thank them and move on.

Your backstage friends are not the performers, who will have little or no time for you anyway, but the stage manager/producer, who will give you the final line-up and make sure everything works, and the tech people who will handle your microphone, lighting, sound, and curtain (and a dozen other things you don't need to know about).

Take notes during tech rehearsal so that you at least know how things should unfold. When they don't, be ready to continue regardless. Somebody has to take responsibility for ensuring that "the show goes on." You are the face of the show, and first in line of command to take charge of what happens in front the curtain.

You are the visible facilitator of the show and who the audience will blame or praise, but the people who really make it work are behind the scenes and it is good manners to publicly thank them at some point, perhaps between acts or after the intermission. (Yes, put it on a card!) This will include at least the producer and host, who may want to make a speech or dedication of some kind, so be sure that the stage manager/producer works this into the tech rehearsal so nobody is surprised.

The rest of the monkey gang that really did all the work don't expect to be named, but they should be generally acknowledged and publicly thanked.

Things will go wrong. You don't have to apologize or explain any glitches to the audience unless it's going to delay things for more than a few minutes. Don't feel you have to cover by entertaining them in the meantime (though that can be useful). Just let them know what's happening, or simply tell them things will be delayed a bit due to "technical difficulties," which is an acceptable way of saying an actor is having an hysterical fit or the electrician isn't quite sober yet.

By now you may have gathered that you will be holding a set of cards tightly in your hand for the entire evening. Once you have the final line-up, number each card clearly in a corner reserved for that purpose. Then when you drop them you won't have to shoot yourself.

It's perfectly acceptable to read directly from your cards. Even the Academy Awards presenters and the President use cards (though on a teleprompter). If you have really never done this before, then a week before the event you should make up a set of cards for an imaginary show and rehearse, using the cards, speaking aloud, and tape recording yourself. Then listen to the tape, and do it again. Are you enunciating clearly? Are you speaking slowly enough? Do you sound like you're having fun? Would you like to see the show that you just MCd? Do it again and again until you get bored. Then do it again, making it seem like fun even though you are bored. Does it sound artificial or genuine? Think of this private rehearsal as speaking to a friend on the phone, or to your mother. If necessary, actually call up a friend (or your mother) and really do the whole thing on the phone. (Just remember that parents and friends will never, ever, tell you that you're not absolutely wonderful. But they may help you to relax and to sound relaxed, even though you are being Super-You.)

A last point:
Your pet or your child does not belong on stage. There is a very good reason why actors often dislike working with children and animals. Pet owners and parents think their own pet or child is not only wonderful, but loved and tolerated by everyone else too. They are wrong. Pets and children must be trained to instant and absolute obedience before they can reasonably be included in your shtick. (Think of the Chinese Emperor who, before a battle, would send ten of his warriors to the front of the army so that they might simultaneously behead themselves with their own swords, simply to demonstrate their loyalty and discipline. Expect no less from your pets or children.)

Anything that interferes with or screws up the introduction of an act, such as your own humor, a wayward pet or child, or simply mispronouncing their name, will make that performer hate you forever. And even if they do forgive you, they certainly won't ever trust you again.

Now that I've upset and frightened you, insulted your doggy and child, and messed with your mind . . . go out there and kill! You'll come back a star . . . or at least an MC.

First published in Tribe, some time ago.

June 22, 2008

Add Yeast and Knead

[This is the second of a two-part essay. The first part is immediately before/after this one.]

As promised a week ago, here's my suggested plan of action for the renewal and revitalization of the Socialist Party.

Change the monthly or bi-weekly membership meetings into working meetings. The work must be meaningful in scope and be within the capability of the membership. That is, it must have immediately observable results and must achieve of the goal set for that meeting.

This is impossible if you decide to stop the war, end world hunger, bring justice to the Philadelphia police department, or attempt any similar goals. That has been the problem with the SP, at least here in the U.S.A.   So you should begin with small things. Things that can actually be accomplished with the physical, financial, and organizational resources at hand.

Socialists are unused to tasks of this kind, so begin with household chores at the home where the meeting is held: emptying trash, vacuuming rugs, sweeping the porch, weeding, etc.  Like all organizational meetings, you should start by deciding the work to be done, determining who shall be responsible for its achievement, and agreeing on what criteria will be used to ascertain success and failure.

Some meetings should concentrate on joint efforts at a single task, such as painting a shed or a room. Other meetings might focus on a related category of tasks, such as emptying and taking out the trash, dusting exposed surfaces, etc. All members should have roughly equivalent tasks proportional to their abilities. Members may trade tasks.

Each meeting should be held at a different member's house, so that all may benefit. Consideration and analysis of work done and work to be done should be an ongoing item of agenda at meetings, but should never take more than one quarter of the total time allowed for any working meeting. Self-criticism and constructive suggestion should be encouraged as it is much more useful than disparagement. Discourage analysis that does not lead to action.

Eventually the group will come to local meetings with the expectation of doing something worthwhile, no matter how trivial, and come away from these meetings with a feeling of accomplishment, no matter how small. This is an unusual feeling for an American Socialist.

After a time, the members will begin to enjoy working together for the common good and will take pride in their group's achievement and in their part of it. Sooner or later the membership will express an interest in doing work outside of their own homes. This is the beginning of social consciousness which is the foundation of socialism. Groups should consider work that can be done in a given neighborhood and accomplished in a few hours -- just like the house and yard work they have been doing in each others homes. Some work will be seen as requiring several meetings to accomplish, or need daily or weekly application. Each group will find it has a unique range of interest: street cleaning, graffiti removal, helping the elderly, conducting neighborhood conflict resolution clinics, doing habitat for humanity construction, stream restoration, kudzu or English ivy clearing, night-time community patrolling, and so on.

When a group's current selection of work is completed, is no longer needed, or has proven untenable or counterproductive, they should celebrate appropriately and begin new work immediately. If nothing comes to mind, the group should return to doing basic household tasks. This will help the membership to more readily recognize when it's time to move on, what it is possible to accomplish, and to more quickly recognize how much can reasonably be accomplished with the resources at their disposal.

A succession of accomplishments and completed projects can only improve the group's self-image and pride. The hope is that this behavior will generalize into other areas of their political and personal lives. The more the group becomes intimately involved in the needs and problems of its community, the more effective it will become at finding solutions and resolutions. In some groups this may lead to city, state, national, or international action. But working groups must always begin with and be grounded in the most basic and needed actions.

The SP, along with much of the left, both secular and religious, has concentrated for too long on repetitive behavior as a means of making their will felt. Unless such behavior produces immediate and visible change, it should be discarded. To continue doing the same thing each time may be comforting, but if nothing changes, it is without purpose. Most protests, leafleting, vigils, and rallies should be recognized as, at best, social functions, and at worst as replacing good work with inefficient or pointless work. Social functions are good for group solidarity, but recognize when that is all that's being accomplished.

When you rally in a park, also have a party or dance, and then clean up the park and sweep the street. When you protest the behavior of a congressman, wash his windows, empty his trash, vacuum his rugs, and invite him or her (and staff) to join you for a drink at the local pub. Every action should result in some observable change for the better.

This all seems simpleminded and petty when weighed against larger problems. But consider what socialists have in fact been able to accomplish, which is too often damned little. Even though the concepts of socialist fairness and equity have become a part of American economic and political reality, socialists themselves have had little effect on the issues of the day.

The Working Meeting is an attempt to return to the best precepts of American socialism: fairness and equity, good work, and immediately observable results. These are the things that attracted the working class to socialism, and made proud traitors of many members of the middle and upper class.

The economic and social theories of Marx have mired us in analysis instead of action, re-election instead of new work; and most self-declared socialists no longer think of themselves as Marxists. At the same time, the Democratic Party has adopted the guise and words of fairness, equity, good work, and observable results, while systematically betraying their meaning. We must return to our roots and rediscover what made socialism attractive. Begin small and do good work. See what then becomes possible.

First published in Tribe, March 8, 2007 -

The Inevitable Rise of the Masses. Not.

In the last few months (now the last two years) the Socialist Party USA has lost about 50% of its membership (now 80%). While I don't subscribe to Marxian economics or political theory, I'm sad to see one of the few humanitarian-based political movements disappear. So I offered the following analysis of the State of the Party.

The principal and various Socialist Parties in the US live on the fading glory of the accomplishments of their forebearers. Current members no longer do anything that affects the political structure or the actions of the nation. All thoughts are turned inward, and what little action is taken affects only themselves. They argue about how things might have been different if things had been different, and periodically rearrange their organizational furniture and refine or dilute their principles.

Because there is nothing else to do, someone eventually accumulates enough institutional power to exclude those who object to such power gathering. Because there is nothing else to do, the excluded ones and their friends re-group to insure that such exclusion shall not happen again.

In this way the various parties, tendencies, and factions proliferate while getting ever smaller. New members are recruited from those who appreciate the group's history and principles, but they soon leave on finding that there isn't any there there. Those who aren't bothered by this lack of substance stay to participate in the furniture moving, historical fantasizing, principle polishing, power accumulating, and re-grouping.

Occasionally a more power-hungry group begins to prey on other groups (which may or may not be Socialist) by infiltrating them and sowing dissension about furniture placement, etc., and offering safe haven for the disaffected or excluded.

Through the individual exercise of socially useful skills and abilities, some members may achieve public office. But the Party neither funds nor supports them because they will not take stands which will surely alienate the larger public. And though they may claim to abide by the greater principles of socialism, they must co-operate with other politicians if they wish their own agendas to be supported. This further isolates them from the Party until the Party no longer recognizes them at all.

Some party members find that a career of denouncing the Socialist Party is lucrative, and even affords influence and power among parties with principles antithetical to Socialism. Their influence increases with the vehemence of their denunciation, and their rewards increase with their ability to portray Socialism as a vast structure with grave threats and dangers.

In all these ways, everyone gets to feel that they have been taken advantage of or that they are a persecuted minority. This justifies any action they might individually or collectively take, such as power accumulation, exclusion, regrouping, predation, isolation, or denunciation. It also justifies not taking any action at all, which relieves everyone of the responsibility and guilt for breaking tradition and actually succeeding at something. A secure position of inaction also allows one to criticize any action plan proposed, and undermine it if it is pursued.

And so the Socialist Party in the US continues.

When you find yourself helplessly perpetuating a self-defeating neurotic cycle, the first thing you must do is to stop doing that. If you must, analyze why stopping hurts so much. Then do something entirely different.

Next week:  What to do instead.

First published in Tribe, February 28, 2007 -

Unhelpful Spelling Hints

A as in aisle, (I'll)
B as in bdellium, (dellium)
C as in czar, (zar)
D as in djin, (gin)
E as in ewe, (you)
F as in phonics, (fonics)*
G as in gneiss, (nice)
H as in heir, (air)
I as in Iago, (ee-ah-go)*
J as in Jai Alai (hi-lie)
K as in knot, (not)
L as in llama, (yama)
M as in mnemonic, (nemonic)
N as in Nguyen (yuen, ruan), also Ngo (go)
O as in Ouija, (weegee)
P as in phthalate, (thalate)
Q as in quay, (key)
R as in Argentina, (okay, it's a schwa; so sue me)*
S as in tsunami, (sunami)*
T as in tsunami, (sunami)
U as in Uitlander, (oitlander)
V as in veldt, (felt)
W as in wrote, (rote)
X as in xipe, (hype)
Y as in ytrium, (Itrium)
Z as in Zouave, (djoo-ahv)

There are several print and Internet versions of this exercise, all very much alike (see esp. the remarkable www.questrel.com/records.h...ch_letter, or tinyurl.com/2am3zt, and then "Word That is a Confusing Code for Each Letter," and surrounding lists), but none are perfect, including this one.

I like mine better than the others, but there's no accounting for taste. I'd rather use words that begin with the letter they name (see * above) but don't sound. I'd prefer to avoid foreign or obscure geographical names. But then, "obscure" is relative. Ask any Scrabble player.

I have used non-Western names if they are not uncommonly used in the U.S., and commonly recognized regional or ethnic terms (Uitlander, Zouave), but I would prefer to use relatively common American-English terms findable in Webster's 11th+ Collegiate dictionary or the equivalent.

All of the Websters' have been thoroughly combed, along with the OED, and other standard references, so we'll just have to wait for new words to be coined, foreign words to be adopted, or old words to become popular again.

Please use, modify, and distribute this list as you will. A few of you may be so enchanted as to memorize it and use these words to "help" spell other words that are unclear to the listener. Will Shortz routinely does this. In addition to being the "puzzler" of National Public Radio and the editor of the New York Times Crossword, he is also the historian of the National Puzzlers' League, whose monthly magazine I started printing the mid-1980s. Hence my interest in such silliness. I hope it's yours, too. If it is, please see www.puzzlers.org for a lifetime of fun.

=Eric Bagai, Portland, 2007

First published in Tribe, April 7, 2007 -

Mintz, anyone?

The last time I really disliked someone, he grew up to be Eliot Mintz. You see his name in the papers sometimes, but when I knew him in the mid-sixties he was the phoniest wannabe executive hippie in Los Angeles.

He wore tailored disco clothes long before there was disco, with a small brass bell on a beaded rope around his neck. Out of nowhere he became a programmer (advice for teenieboppers and lost/befuddled hippies) and a producer at the Pacifica station KPFK, where I was working. I borrowed his girlfriend for a few weeks (she turned out to be Harlan Elison's girlfriend, too, but that's another story) before she went back to Eliot, who was crazier and more manipulative than it ever occured to me to be. But that's what the beautiful Dona wanted.

She decided I was bedable when I corrected her, on the air, after she announced that the fund drive had reached its goal. It was $7,000 short. She liked correction, a lot. I evidently clinched it when I saw her toying with her food at the Copper Penny restaurant and said the magic words "anorexia nervosa." She turned pale and insisted that we go back to my place, immediately.

I'm sure I was merely a nice change of scenery, and probably a vacation for her. Now that I think of it, I was probably an assignment, too. Marvin Siegleman, the ex-CIA station manager of KPFK, had tried to co-opt me by having his wife (his beard, actually) seduce me, possibly for whatever influence I had with Judy, who he fired because her show, The Drop-Out University of the Air, had the most subscribing listeners. (The Firesign Theater had the most non-subscribing listeners.) Whatever the reason, it didn't work.

Dona tweaked my pheromone receptors with much more success than Mrs. Siegleman, but when she started talking about how some very powerful people wanted Eliot to be their agent with important celebrities, and how she and I had talents that Eliot would find useful, I started laughing.

Even then, in 1966, at age 22, he was a Personal Manager. Now they call them Publicists. His first client, who I'll bet anything doesn't appear on his resume, was Sal Mineo, who was mysteriously attacked and beaten to death, thus losing Eliot his first client. The speculation was that it was payback for not heeding the "safe" words in some S/M games. Equally speculative was the theory that in real life he was just as whiney as the characters he played, and got on the wrong person's nerves.

Mintz later managed John Lennon and Bob Dylan, and I think still does Yoko and son. Makes you think that the conspiracy crowd may have a point, or that there are some who play at making weirdness happen at high levels because it suits their weird-fuck little minds to do so, and because they can.

Nobody that I knew and liked at KPFK took Eliot seriously. And many refused to work with him or take his guidance even when he was appointed as their show's producer. He had the sense never to impose on anyone who wasn't a fan already. When Dona told Judy (my wife now of 38 years) that Eliot wanted her to submit an outline before every show, Judy told Dona to tell Eliot to go fuck himself. Dona turned pale and said she couldn't possibly say that to him, but she'd take him a note if Judy signed it. He never asked again.

Leonard Brown, by far the finest audio-collage creator at Pacifica, made a point of obscurely dissing Mintz to his face. "Eliot, did you know that sideburns were so-named for General Burnsides? Like you, he had magnificent sideburns, but he was a piss-poor general." And Ted Sturgeon, Judy's friend and frequent on-air guest, once announced to her after-show crowd, while Eliot was standing a few feet away, that Eliot was the only person he'd ever met who wore a bell around his neck and had no sense of humor. There was dead silence for five seconds, and then six people laughed so hard they had to sit down.

The Firesign Theater crew was decidedly anti-Eliot, and riduculed him whenever possible. The night they took over the station, played the Star Spangled Banner continuously, and announced every ten minutes that the people's revolution had arrived, their original plan had been to gag and tie Eliot to a chair and set him naked in a window as a show of their earnest intentions, but Eliot kept away from the station that night.

I don't know if Eliot was really evil, but he was certainly creepy. That impression came directly from his expectation that everyone should think he was very wise. Exactly why anyone would think that was never clear, but Eliot assumed entitlement to near-worship, respect, and deference to his obvious wonderfulness, and let you know it in his every word and movement -- and so he often got it. Perhaps it was his voice, which was radio-resonant. Perhaps it was his habit of granting people permission to do whatever it was they felt mildly guilty about doing -- that they deserved the pleasure they sought. Given the power over people that he was constantly seeking and often getting, I suppose it's only natural that he got where he is today. Had we all had the sense and the courage of our impressions to have shot him rather than laugh at him back then, the world might be a better place today. Perhaps Mineo would have become the first John Lovett, perhaps Dylan might have stayed acoustic, and just maybe John Lennon could have lived a little longer. Ah, well.

I see the Eliot made the society gossip column in the Oregonian today (May 9, 2007), for confessing to a judge that he, her personal counselor and publicist, had told his friend and client, Paris Hilton, that she could drive to work (work?) despite a suspended license, so she really shouldn't have to do the 45 days of jail time the judge had sentenced her to do, because it was really his, Eliot's fault that she busted her paroll.

The judge, a wise man, recognized horseshit when he saw it, said as much to Mintz, and sent Ms Hilton a-slammer-o. That Sunday at his church, the congregation gave the judge a standing O for his perspicacity.

I may join that church.

First published on Tribe, May 9, 2007

June 21, 2008

Conspiracy of, for, and by Dunces

It should be apparent to everyone by now that the questions of whether Bush and friends created, enabled, or faked the tragedy of 9/11/2001 cannot be resolved.

Believe what you wish, but understand that the purpose of conspiracy theories is to keep people intellectually and emotionally distracted, wasting time and energy that they might use to actually do something. Newspapers should start printing box scores on conspiracy theories, just like they do baseball statistics, and with about the same effect on the game (or reality) itself. Fans of conspiracy theories are just that and only that: fans.

They are not players, nor are they theorists, they are second-hand fabulists, picking which of the hundreds of opinions to adopt and mouth as their own, and carefully choosing which little hill of sand to build their castles on. They are consumers, not producers, and they do not particpate in democracy.

They are politically irrelevent, morally bankrupt, and physically impotent to affect or confront power. The lesson they teach is that nothing really matters because the truth is not findable; and even if you found it there is nothing you could do about it because it's bigger than you are. Dictators, fascists, and unitary executivists all love fans of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy buffs make their jobs easier.

Do not listen to the conspiracy fanatics. Do not argue with them. Do not respond to them. Do something real instead: picket a recruiting station, speak to students about what war really is, march and vigil against injustice, write editorial letters, blog, raise funds and knock on doors for local candidates. Be active in, and be a meaningful part of, the world you live in. Nothing you can say about any conspiracy will ever change anything. So do something that can.

First published August 28, 2007 -

Sexual Ambiguity Solidarity

Some years ago a friend called me, asking for my advice about his daughter and her progressively ambivalent relationships while she was in college, and what they should do about it. I ask for some details, and he related that:

In her first year at SDSU she informed her parents that she was no longer a virgin.

During her second year she declared that she was a lesbian.

In her third year she quietly shared that while she still enjoyed sexual relations with women there was a definite place for men in her sex life as well.

In her fourth year of college she announced that, now that she was more experienced and aware of the larger world, and rather than limit her relationships, she would go on to graduate school in her true identity, as a Goth.

I had known these people since the 1960s, and watched each of their four children grow up. I felt I had to say something soothing, encouraging, and practical. So, I told him that they had no choice but to take a longer view of these things, and that sometimes one just had to let bi-goths be bi-goths.

First published in Tribe, September 15, 2007 -

Amonia! Amonia!

There's an old New Yorker magazine cartoon showing an alien humanoid crossing the desert on hands and knees, pleading aloud to the barren landscape: "Amonia! Amonia!" This of course is a parody of the cartoon of an exhausted man crawling across an earthly desert, crying "Water! Water!"

It's time for a similar cartoon, this time showing a typical American family, crossing the desert together on hands and knees, with the father pleading for "Insurance! Insurance!"

But lack of insurance is not the problem, particularly for our health. We have health insurance, for those who can afford it. What we don't have, and desperately need, is universal health care.

Yet we ask for insurance, not health care. We might as well ask for amonia.

In the sixties, Kaiser Hospitals discovered that merely by managing the Medicare program for its own members, it would increase profits by $3-million a year. No new services or further medical care, just shuffle the paper and increase your profit margin. Blue Cross and all the other HMOs had the same epiphany. This established the Medicare model of health care as a commodity rather than a service, and the search for the bottom line was shielded from ethical scrutiny by multiple layers of insurance accountants. Now, the more that is spent on health care, the better -- so long as the HMOs and insurance companies get their cut.

Doctors, who are now free to advertise their services and incorporate themselves (to escape liability), are quite happy to be shielded from responsibility of managing costs as well, and eager to point helpless fingers at everyone else, beginning with patient demand, unscrupulous lawyers, and terminally befuddled juries.

Other factors accounting for the failure of our medical system are the subversion of the university research system to serve industry rather than need, and the failure of government to regulate science and industry sufficiently to protect citizens from predation and abuse.

We have allowed the creation of a health system that is run by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Using their wealth, they have leveraged their power to control the direction and scope of medical research in our universities. It used to be our wealth, our health, and our science. Now it's theirs.

We need to take it all back, to manage and regulated it so it serves our needs, not theirs. And if this can't be done without "destroying the system," then it's time to destroy the system.

Trust No Man

Today Barack Obama said he'd approve the revised FISA bill that the House just passed with the help of half the Democrats.

It was not a compromise. It was not even a wise political move. It was a sell-out.

Obama is a constitutional lawyer. He knows better.

He's asking us to trust him. We shouldn't.

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
- John Adams [1772].

That said, those who support Obama should continue to do so. But they should also watch him, and call him on his presumption that he can be trusted in all things, and on his assumption that we will accept whatever he does.