Tuesday, May 27, 2008

MISSISSIPPI SAMADHI: YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN… BUT YOU CAN’T STAY

Don’t go looking through your cookbooks for this one, trying to find what comes after masala, trying to figure out just how this guy might mix and mash a single metaphor for public consumption without resorting to various linguistic chutneys and high-flying adjectives that might be seldom used and therefore perfect for describing the indescribable, the little upward-flowing diverticula of consciousness and lapses in synapses that occur when a sentient being becomes caught in the cross-fire between his responsibilities and his desires, his past and his future. No, samadhi is meditation, pure and simple, hopefully, and more than a little appropriate considering my own Asian leanings, precariously toward the horizontal, and the birthplace and birth race of my wife. Every people get the religion they need I suspect, and meditation founded in Hinduism and grounded with Buddhism, certainly fills the bill. If anybody needs to stop the internal dialog and take a chill without taking a pill, it’s them, and by extension me. It could have been disastrous, after all, taking my copper-toned slanty-eyed succubus of a wife home to meet the homies after years of whisperings and wonderings and educated guesses gleaned from the pages of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Of course most people don’t know the difference between Thailand and Taiwan, so facts tend to be half-baked at best, three minutes in the microwave of public opinion, stir, then serve liberally, for Mississippi at least, with ketchup, as in catching up with the present. She charmed them of course, just like she charmed the pants off me seven years ago. The Asian dragon-lady image is the stuff of downtown Hollywood after all, not Thai Town, and anybody who has tasted the forbidden fruit of inter-racial Biblical knowledge knows that those fetching displays of exotic product are much more likely to have a stuffed animal lying on the bed back home than whips and chains or pipes and papers.

Broken English itself can even be charming at first byte, full of wild gesticulations and broad non-grammatical vocal inflections full of heartfelt if inarticulate meaning, washed down with frothy smiles. That shit gets old of course and there’s no substitute for correct grammar, something few Asian immigrants over the age of thirteen ever accomplish. It’s a female thing, the old-fashioned type, climbing ladders and accomplishing through wiles and intuition what she lacks in vision and technical expertise, gaining more by standing under than by understanding. That’s not the history they teach in books of course, full of wars and conflicts, generals and majors, general snafus and major disasters. It’s the history of cultural drift, following paths of least resistance and imitating successes, long before anybody thought about writing it down and claiming credit. The Industrial Revolution may have had its heroes, but the Agricultural one didn’t, just people following their instincts and their neighbors, to better pastures and a better future. Governments notwithstanding and frequently falling, Asia is more a continent and culture of accommodation than enforcement. That’s what’s held China together for millennia, the culture in continuous transmission, outlasting and even absorbing hostile governments. That’s the basis of ancestor-worship, essentially time-worship, dedication to a lineage extending back into time immemorial, all converging on a single point presumably. If many cultures pride themselves on their individuality, Asia prides itself on its conformity. It’s a female thing, the old-fashioned type, favoring compromise and conciliation over conflict, the perfect breeding ground for either Buddhism or Communism; take your pick. Asia’s pretty cool, but can become stifling and over-stuffed, silly and superstitious. It can become full of itself and full of IT, the smell of decay overwhelming.

So can Mississippi. If LA reminds my wife Tang of Bangkok, then Mississippi reminds her of Chiang Rai, my home of birth reminding her of hers. I guess there’s some poetic justice there. Her parents didn’t come from there originally any more than mine came from Mississippi. My grandmother was born in Harlem back when it was full of German immigrants. They came south for opportunity and land. Tang’s probably did the same, except north, and from Lampang. Ironically while Chiang Rai is relatively prosperous nowadays by Thai standards, Mississippi still lags in most standards of US development. That’s not all bad of course. Land prices in Mississippi and Chiang Rai are similar right now. Wages are not. If anything Mississippi is more beautiful, probably the greenest place I’ve ever seen, including Brazil and Ireland. It has its problems of course, not the least of which is a crime rate in Jackson that must rival that of Johannesburg in creativity, if not sheer numbers. The latest fad is car-jacking. The thief pirates your car while you’re still in it. That way the engine’s running and you can open the door for the new recipient of your old car. It saves time that way and you get to inspect the sidewalk. That somewhat mitigates the circumstances of the other major problem: a police-state attitude toward law enforcement. If that only applied to the mugger fuggers of course then no problem. But no, it applies to me. They wait on the highways at night like fishermen monitoring a pole for any slight wiggles in an imaginary line which represents your trajectory from the immediate present into an indeterminate but well-defined future. They can help you with that; no meaningless infinities allowed here. Ever had a gun held on you by Bozos in Blue talking like the characters on ‘King of the Hill?’ I have. I’ve got a witness. It ain’t pretty. They had the wrong guy. Imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d been the right guy. Imagine infinity.

Mississippi has come a long way since ‘the nigra problem’ and its attendant bifurcation of society into rednecks, blacks and so-called ‘nigger-lovers,’ i.e. me and a few others with errant DNA. There were also a few ‘Uncle Toms’ but they usually didn’t last long. It’s truly gratifying to see blacks and whites working together at all levels of public service and if they aren’t mixed together at all levels of society, that’s mostly an economic problem, not a racial one. White flight to the suburbs didn’t start in Jackson nor will it end there and many blacks are counted in those numbers also. As a friend says, “every murder in Jackson means six new residents of Brandon,” my old country home and now suburb. Still old habits die hard and some whites just don’t know how to act around blacks as equals. Mexicans have arrived in heavy numbers also, presumably doing many of the jobs that blacks used to do, or as the president of Mexico once famously said, “even blacks won’t do.” Old habits die hard. Thais are routinely scared of black people and excess body hair. It’s as much esthetic as racial. Thai women spend millions trying to whiten their skin and pluck those pesky underarm hairs religiously. You heard it here first. They’re scared of ghosts, too. As for Mississippi, the few Thais there pretty much got the run of the place. There’s only one Thai restaurant in Jackson so sales are good while the food is uneventful by Thai standards, ditto with Mexican food. Good things take time. Coming back to LA is like landing in Bangkok for Tang, Thai Town a half-way house for recent immigrants. She can even speak northern Thai dialect there, eat Northern food, and talk Northern gossip. I can even be an ex-pat in my own country of birth, hell of a deal. It saves on flight costs. It’s a way of life, crossing borders in minds if not on maps.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

…WORRY ABOUT GLOBAL DEPRESSION

I reiterate, “Am I the only one who’s noticed that the world’s bastard-twin little monster problems, i.e. global warming and oil depletion, seem to be somewhat self-canceling, i.e. the depletion of oil will reduce global warming, hopefully just-in-time?” This is not a rhetorical question. I’d really like to know. Maybe I’m just na├»ve, simplistic, or an idiot, or maybe this is an honest approach to a complex problem. It’s not like a want a free-fore-all forum here or something, but I’d really like to know. Believe it or not, I’ve actually researched all this quite a bit, gracias a la Internet. But nowhere have I seen anyone mention this. Naturally you don’t want people to get complacent and buy multiple SUV’s, but then you don’t want them to commit suicide, either. My main concern right here right now is honesty and articulation, straightforward discussion without smokescreens and pretexts. It’s like all the rap and America-bashing over the budget deficit, exchange rates, and foreign debt. It can all be solved, more or less, by the simple two words that no one wants to say: raise taxes. How many times have they predicted the collapse of Social Security, and how do they resolve the problem every time? Raise taxes. Again, you don’t want to get carried away and watch your precious democracy become reduced to bureaucracy, but you don’t want it to become an unhealthy and uneducated, but lowly taxed, land of slums and slumlords, the few filthy rich lording it over the remaining filthy poor. It’s government’s responsibility to take responsibility where individuals are unwilling or unable to do so, while consciously maintaining a level playing field for all. Government should take from the rich and give to the poor, especially when that means taking from windfall oil profits to encourage alternative energies. For those who cry foul, I assure you it’s usually the other way around, tax breaks for unearned wealth and bailouts for predatory and irresponsible corporations. Considering that our next best energy hope, hydrogen fuel cell technology, is at least forty years away, best guess, this could get really hairy.

But that’s not the real problem. After all we’ll probably survive as a species, but as a technologically advanced culture I’m not so sure. The Dark Ages happened before, and could happen again, Western civilization and its accumulated knowledge stagnant or misplaced for a millennium. Fortunately, last time other cultures transmitted the knowledge onward, Islamic Aristotelians, Syrian Christians and Spanish Jews, so all was not lost. Now, though, who would be up to the task? Internet heads? Yeah, right. Cultures are so intertwined these days that they would probably all fall together, if they fall at all. Who then would transmit nuclear technology on to the next generations? Hmmm, maybe better not… Or what about advanced weaponry? Hmmm once again… Okay, well what about rocket science? I haven’t seen the complete movie about Billy Bob Thornton building his own space rocket, but the prospect is pretty unlikely. A break in a mere generation since the Apollo spaceships to the moon meant that scientists basically had to start over for the next round, presumably to include Mars. All the German scientists who developed the Saturn rockets are long gone and nobody thought to save the plans. Can you believe that? This may be more essential to survival of the species than surviving global warming. After all we may be able to curb auto emissions, but we’ll never control volcanoes. This has been the cause of most major climate changes on the Earth, that and continental drift, and maybe a meteor strike or two. The climate has previously surged far higher than anything imagined from global warming, all within the period of biological florescence, including dinosaurs. What killed the dinosaurs may very well have been post-impact cooling, in fact, not warming.

On the other hand it’s now generally thought that the Earth was a snowball not long before the Cambrian ‘explosion’ of Earth’s first large-scale biological diversity, a period which cyanobacteria apparently survived handily, despite extreme conditions. In short there is no normal Earth temperature, only an average. The fact that we are here having this conversation is a miracle beyond anything that could be imagined given the improbable starting point. Intelligent design? Probably more like brilliant mistake(s). The possibility of intelligent life forming on this or any other planet is infinitesimally low, somewhat supported by the evidence that this planet has itself seen billions of species, but few of them smart enough to induce global warming, much less smart enough to cure it. That remains to be seen. Life out there, yeah, they’ll find that sooner or later, probably not so much different from non-life. Computers and rockets, even stick shifts and turntables, are another thing. Simple single-cell life existed on this planet before the advent of complex organisms longer than the non-life period preceding. We don’t need rocket science to find the others ‘out there,’ we need it to survive the next extinction event, whenever that comes, something like Noah’s ark, maybe Barack’s Boat. Global warming? What a joke! Global warming probably couldn’t extinguish even half the current species extant in the world, about the same as a healthy super volcano like Yellowstone in a good year, no big deal.

Seriously, though, the problem will be survival’s after-glow. Will technology die out for lack of fuel? Will capitalist economic expansion die out? Will we become de facto communists simply for lack of resources and better alternatives? Or will technology save the day and create new fuel sources without limits nor rings around the bathtub, nor artificially red sunsets? The initial phase, starting about right now, will be one of withdrawal, something like a gasoline maintenance program of increasingly smaller doses up to some indefinite vanishing point in the future, which will never be reached but will hopefully become meaningless. Tell that to the policy makers. Even those in countries touting their ‘greenness’ are building new airports as the fuel runs out. Welcome to Thailand (this is a Thai blog after all). A tentative shift to ‘bio-fuel’ will probably accomplish not much more than driving up the price of food. Considering their margins, it’s not likely they will ever come down again. Believe it or not, the price of oil actually could. Will high prices of oil and gas push us into economic depression? No way, though shortages could. They won’t. At that point, production will increase and prices will stabilize at least, maybe even fall. Oil-rich Arab states aren’t about to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. They’ll play it for all it’s worth, insh’allah.

Don’t laugh; it all happened before. The sharp price hikes of the late 70’s and early 80’s gave way to dirt cheap oil again in the late 80’s and 90’s. The price of a barrel of oil ten years ago was twelve dollars. All it takes is the discovery of a major new source and stagnant demand. They’re looking deeper than ever in the oceans now, and looking to take a layer off Saskatchewan in Canada just like is happening to Alberta to process ‘oil sands.’ Remember ‘oil shale?’ Maybe the Russians are right and oil is a renewable resource if only you look deep enough. Don’t worry; one way or another they’ll find and use every last drop (that’s the conspiratorial ‘they’; read “us,” the editorial “we”). I’ll be glad; if there’s life beyond oil, then let’s get on with it while our elders can still remember life before oil. You don’t have to cut down the last redwood to realize they’re irreplaceable. Look for more nuclear power and more electric cars and charging stations and better battery technology, still pathetically inefficient. “Still won’t be enough,” you moan? You’re right. It’ll take changes in lifestyle, also. Got bio-fuel? Get a horse! That’s how we got here, on their backs. It’s in our genes. Take comfort in the fact that the Golden Ages of both Art and Science occurred in the early 1900’s, long before the Auto-Age of self-indulgence. Since then we’ve only done more more bigger bigger, dumbing ourselves down in the process with our fancy toys. Still depressed that the party may be over? Boredom’s tough to deal with. The depression will be more psychological than economic. Is meditation not your style? There’s always Second Life, the on-line alternative reality. I hear land’s cheap. Watch your back. Eventually the meek will inherit the earth. That’s the part I like.

Monday, May 05, 2008

DON’T WORRY ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING…

So now all the metaphors of the Earth as a living organism, living and breathing and having its being, begin to make sense, now that its death seems imminent. What is life, after all, without death? The one certain fact of life is death. Reproduction is optional, and most of us are just going through those motions, which is good. After all overpopulation is still a problem, though no longer problem number one anymore, or is it? It’s hard to say given the exponential potential of population figures, given to long-term surges and spikes that defy short-term analysis and remedies. Considering that the Earth got its first billion around 1830 and got its sixth around last Thursday, the conversation usually deals with surges, but the opposite can happen also. This was certainly the case around the time of the Roman Empire, when the same population movements and political turmoil that toppled Rome also stifled population growth, which was stagnant for a thousand years. Other population ‘bottlenecks’ may have produced the conditions under which our freakish little g-g-g-g-great-granddaddies survived and thrived while others normally the most likely to succeed perished. The thought of excessive population growth was simply never discussed until the 1960’s and particularly with the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb. He predicted looming disaster for a world that at that time had only just reached three billion and some change. However right he might have been, he was equally wrong, as was Malthus before him, both proponents of the ‘small world’ mentality that assumes that resources are limited and that stupid humans will breed themselves into extinction if given the chance. The rapid technological advances of recent years that have increased grain yields by 250% were simply never envisioned, much less the idea that thinking people might consciously limit their families as a part of a continuing cultural evolution. Inconceivable to many people to this day is that fact that many others simply have no interest in having children AT ALL under any conditions.

In fact some commentators even say that the world faces under-population, speculating that the world population will peak at somewhere between seven and a half and nine billion somewhere between 2040 and 2050 and then drop sharply. While those numbers may be close enough, it’s probably too early to tell whether population will actually decrease or merely increase at a slower rate. Either way it should become less of an issue, though keep in mind this is a population much larger than today. The commentator even points out that at the current birth rate of 1.4 children per married couple, Japan’s population will be down to 500 by the year 3000. While this is a fairly absurd scenario, more fodder for Hollywood movies like Children of Men than reality itself, it not only shows the difficulty of making predictions, and hence policy, but also the dangers of extrapolating current rates of anything indefinitely into the future, including rates of global warming. So much for computer models. The same mentality that made a conscious adjustment in the past can also make one in the future. People are agents with some degree of free will not reducible to statistics. Nevertheless there just might be another law of population yet to be articulated. We’ll call it the law of ‘Nature hates a vacuum.’ It seems that, given time, people will fill any and all open space(s) to the extent that it is suitable to sustain them and there are populations available to fill them. Over time an equilibrium should be reached, except in cases and places where viruses and bacteria still rule. The only populations expected to increase significantly beyond 2050 are the relatively under-populated Africa and Middle East. So if overpopulation is such a non-issue these days that a Google search generates less than two million hits (!), guess what generates the most hits as the world’s leading problem?

Okay, after the Iraq War, guess what generates the most hits as the world’s leading problem? Global warming, maybe, with forty million hits or so? How about rising oil prices with sixty million? Certainly these would rate anybody’s top five, maybe along with world hunger, AIDS, and maybe another minor inconvenience or two. So why is no one very worried about any of it? Earth Day last week should’ve been the biggest ever, shouldn’t it? It wasn’t. Obviously oil and gas prices are rising; no one can dispute that. It certainly seems that the planet’s weather is increasingly turbulent and the predictions are dire indeed. We should trust our scientists shouldn’t we? They are our best and brightest after all. They wouldn’t deceive us, would they? Surely this is not just some plot to contain China and her economic expansion, is it? Maybe, but I doubt it. Nobody’s THAT conspiratorial. But then again, Ehrlich was wrong and Malthus was wrong. Do the mass of people know something that the intelligentsia don’t? They just might. Surely I’m not the first person who’s noticed that the world’s two biggest long-term problems are somewhat self-canceling, am I? Rising oil prices means oil scarcity means oil depletion, right? The direst predictions put depletion somewhere near the end of the current century. The direst predictions for global warming also assume that things will be really bad by the end of the current century given current rates of fossil fuel consumption and related warming. But wait a minute. With the oil gone and populations level or decreasing, global warming should also decrease, shouldn’t it? I don’t see why not. Admittedly it could be a close race with some anxious moments, but we just might make it through, mightn’t we? We just might. Of course coal will never run out, but we’re not likely to be filling our car’s tanks with that, are we? So now they’re saying that the reason Antarctica hasn’t experienced much warming is because the ozone hole allows heat to escape. Will we revive the use of CFC’s to fight global warming? This could get really absurd. Let’s just chill, folks, let’s just chill. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

If the rationale doesn’t convince you, then the rising price of petrol just might. The closer we come to oil’s vanishing point, the faster it’ll rise, and the less we’ll use, right? But just like the earlier increase in grain production, gas prices are mitigated by advances in technology that get for our newer cars much better mileage than the old family Buick. So, once adjusted for inflation, we’re problem paying less for our transportation as a percentage of our budgets nowadays than we were in the 1970’s when the Saudis turned off the pumps to teach us a lesson. Hopefully we’ll have learned it by the time they do it again. If we had a viable substitute for oil, then Islamic jihad and Venezuela-inspired revolucion would vanish like LA smog under a downpour, in addition to easing the threat of global warming. All of a sudden nuclear power starts looking like the green alternative. Maybe dump the waste in outer space? If rising gas prices hit hardest in the US, it’s only because we’ve been shielded from it for so long. Though the same dollar increase, US prices are a 100% rise over a few years ago, less than 50% for the already far higher rates in Europe. Only now are prices equal to the inflation-adjusted record-high of 1981 at the start of the Iran-Iraq War. Of course we’re talking about much-devalued Confederate dollars now, so I’m not sure how they ‘adjust for inflation.’ Want to see a funny movie? See ‘CSA: The Confederate States of America,’ a 2004 mock-doc movie about “What if the South had won?” It’s hilarious. The joke about Darkie toothpaste is real of course, available anywhere in Thailand as ‘Darlie’. Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are still widely available of course. Don’t turn up your nose. Spike Lee produced it. It’s almost like the real-life movie about, “What If George W. Bush had won in 2000?” I wish I could laugh at that one. Nevertheless it keeps life interesting. Back when life was rosy and secure, I was bored and listless. Now I can’t wait to see what might happen next. Will there be a happy ending?

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