The Scat in Eschatology

There are people stockpiling guns, batteries, solar panels, burying shipping containers, buying gas masks, dehydrating food, filling hidden tanks with water, and lining underground shelves with food all around us. You may have seen their outposts in sun-blasted wastelands, have heard about surging weapon sales, or seen survivalist literature in your local bookstore and wondered. The people behind this movement, self-described ‘preppers,’ are generally hard to see due to their penchant for camouflage clothing, but my work gives me the privilege of direct contact with them: I primarily build commercial photovoltaic (solar) systems, but also off-grid and backup power systems. Preppers comprise a significant portion of our customer base for the latter portion of the business.

The internet, conveniently for one looking to learn more about this culture, is a breeding ground for communities of paranoid people; it creates a marketplace for fringe theories and products that would otherwise not exist in society. A cursory glance on the internet reveals that there are a few people with legitimate concerns regarding ecology and the sustainability of our industrial economy, but the overwhelming majority of the adherents seem to have already been attacked by some sort of brain-sucking amoeba that has left them constantly oscillating between schizophrenic fight or flight outlooks on life. Articles abound like: “When Colera Comes to Town.” “Martial Law Survival Strategies You Should Know.” “Body Disposal in a Crisis.” “Backcountry Belt Kit: Essential Tools to Carry Around Your Waist.” “How The Zika Pesticide Spraying Could Eventually Kill Us All.” There are a hundred times as many discussions about Chinese-made LED flashlights as there are about Malthusian economics.

I am accustomed to the preppers asking questions like, “Will this equipment withstand an electromagnetic pulse?” I have learned how to discuss Faraday Cages with them and to avoid voicing my questions about what they imagine the apocalypse will be like. I had perceived these people as benign and merely victims of marketing and politicking that breeds paranoia to generate sales and votes, until a recent conversation with an intelligent coworker, who is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), made me realize I might want to rethink my opinion. We had just finished building a backup power system on a McMansion, for a man who makes and sells Biblical interpretive videos, when there was a blurb on the radio about climate change. I couldn’t resist making a remark about how we need to make some dramatic economic and cultural shifts to avoid creating a living hell, that the alternative energy industry needed to grow by leaps and bounds.
“There are billions of dollars spent each year by people like Al Gore to make you think that we need to act immediately and change what we are doing,” he expressed with skepticism.
“Yeah and there are billions of dollars spent each year to make you disbelieve that it is happening. I saw it with my own eyes when I was visiting islands in the Indian Ocean a couple years ago. It is a terrifying prospect for hundreds of millions of people and we will not be immune to its effects here either.”
“I don’t deny that it is happening, just the cause.”
“So you don’t believe that humans are causing it?”
“Not necessarily.”
“Then what is happening?”
“The Rapture, The Second Coming of Christ,” he said without irony.

IMG_0752From that point on I have been fascinated. As you can imagine, I was elated when I saw a billboard on my way to work the other day that advertised the Ready2Go convention – the first gun, auto, and preparedness show in Utah. The same fairgrounds would also be home to the Patriot Film Festival. That is how I found myself tearing down I-15 through rising concrete skeletons and past an endless stream of cars piled high with outdoor gear and pickups towing dilapidated campers headed out for the long weekend. Riding a motorcycle is, for better or worse, a heightened sensory experience, particularly with regard to smell. It smelled of food smoking, then of sausage, then of raw sewage, then of just plain exhaust.

Before we get to the convention, it is worth touching upon theology for a very brief moment. Almost every religion employs, as humans have an affinity for them, traditional narrative arcs that have a beginning, a series of crisis, a climax, and then a resolution. In religious parlance: a creation myth, trials and tribulations involving the believers and the non-believers, an earthly crisis, and then the an end brought about by a deity. The field of theology devoted to the study of the final events of history or the ultimate destiny of humanity is called Eschatology.

The Bible has many passages that reference catastrophe or apocalypse for followers to emphasize. The Gospel of Matthew 24:21-22 records Jesus saying that upon his return “There will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of time to this world, no, nor ever will be. And unless these days were shortened, no flesh would be saved, but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.” From Isaiah 66:15-16, “For behold, the lord will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the lord will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the lord will be many.”

Mormonism uses the King James Version and the Book of Mormon as primary texts. The Mormons have a long-standing tradition of prepping that is deeply rooted in their theology. Prophecy holds that there are certain events that inevitably will precede the second coming of Christ, the most relevant here are: earthquakes, widespread warfare, social unrest, and climactic weather. There are storage facilities, with billboards along the side of the highway, that specialize in food storage. The church requires each member to store a minimum of a three month food supply.

In both cases it appears that Christ will lift up the believers, scorch the earth, and punish the non-believers. I am not sure where the earth-scorching fits in, maybe it is like how the right to destroy a sandcastle is reserved for the child who builds it.

IMG_0731I arrived at the gate of the convention and I was slightly nervous that they would know I was unprepared, a Pollyana, a part of what preppers calls The Golden Horde. The Golden Horde is the teeming mass of unprepared losers that will desperately swarm the prepared in the event of disaster, and a Pollyana is someone who is irrationally optimistic in contrast to their irrational pessimism. There was a sign at the entrance table that says, “NO AMMUNITION CHECK YOUR GUNS HERE.” The man in front of me, who wore a black T-shirt with Hillary Clinton transmuted into The Joker, patted his pants and told them that he had a handgun on him. He showed his concealed carry permit and was allowed to keep it with him. I paid my entrance fee and was given a voucher for a free box of ammunition to be redeemed at the Armitek booth inside.

I continued to the booths and nearly jumped in the air at the crack of an overweight man testing out a taser to my left. IMG_0736I wandered through booths selling handguns, fudge, weight-loss pills, caramel apples, devices for food preparation, sniper rifles, solar panels, Chinese-made knives that look like they are exclusively made for slaying carnivorous reptiles, backup batteries, The Republican Party, purses and belts covered in glittering rhinestones, Senator Mike Lee, portable emergency communication platforms, and dog clothing. Generally, it was as if Sharper Image’s designers became deeply paranoid, abandoned producing clever desktop entertainments with swinging balls and automated vacuums for more violent products, and then were forced to hawk their wares at a county fair.

I walked past the Armitek tent, but I did not redeem my voucher for a free box of ammunition.  I got the impression that the free box of ammunition was for dealing with The Golden Horde, which I am a part of, therefore I felt it wasn’t right.

IMG_0739There was one booth of particular interest that sold underground shelters impervious to nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and the screams of others on the outside. The price list on the wall had prices running upwards of $65,000 for a shelter, not including a backup power system. I walked in and was immediately engrossed in conversation with a woman who is surely the high priestess of the prepper cult.

“How many of these do you sell each year?”
“We are constantly busy, we have a factory that stays busy and we are always upgrading or working on other shelters.”
“Where are people building them?”
“Everywhere. We work all over the US, Canada, even in the Bahamas. I have one up in the mountains here that you can come see.”
“What are your customers primarily worried about?”
“Electromagnetic pulse,” she answered emphatically.
“The shelters aren’t cheap. Who are these people?”
“Well you don’t have to be wealthy to afford one. You can do a lottery with your friends where 65 people put in $1000 each, and then you draw straws for the ten or fifteen people that are allowed in.” I found this so strange that I lost my train of thought as I contemplated it – my mind went immediately to my friends and family screaming outside the hatch.

We proceeded to discuss nuclear weapons; shelter theory; alpha, beta, and gamma rays; nuclear fallout; how EMPs function; and nuclear winter. I learned that the optimum place for the Soviets to detonate an EMP is at roughly 400km about the surface of the earth and situated above the center of Kansas as this would affect a radius of roughly 2200km. I did not dare to inform her that the Soviet Union had broken up and that we had entered the 21st century. The woman was convincing, her answers were cogent and pragmatic. There was a creeping concern on my part after half an hour in the tent, a feeling that I was naive and naked. The logic is contagious when it is grounded in our contentious, violent geopolitical reality and appeals to one’s innate distrust of power structures and human decision making. I couldn’t argue. I left the tent with a price list and a five part installment entitled, “Nuclear Weapons: Who, What, When, Where, How?”

IMG_0744Once outside of Utah Shelter Systems tent, I sat on the grass and looked around at the guns, the food dehydrators, the armored Corvette, and the fudge. I stepped out of the milieu of paranoia generated therein and contemplated the allure of prepping. I was suddenly reminded of that fact that I don’t want to preside over or repopulate a vast wasteland of death and decay.

I reflect upon the convention on my ride home through the sprawl of Salt Lake City. Apocalyptic thinking intrigues and frustrates me as it is a denial of a continuous trajectory to history. It is waiting for a tumultuous break, when breaks are merely convenient narrative devices used to interpret history: The Depression, World War II, and The Renaissance. We currently are dealing with famines, seemingly interminable warfare, climactic weather events, the curtailing of freedoms, tens of millions of refugees, and suffering on a massive scale. Apocalyptic thinking is a convenient philosophical device for absolving ourselves of agency or any responsibility for what is occurring around us; it allows one to deny reality. I simply want to ask what if we let these things continue to gradually worsen and there is no break in history? No savior, no dramatic apocalypse? How do you prepare for that?

He Lived For Your Sins

We use objects to tell the stories of our lives, as much for ourselves as for others – they serve as a link between our memories and the physical world. A sauce pan might bring you back to digging through a dumpster in the warehouse district of Berkeley one lovely fall. A particular coffee mug might evoke memories of a perfect nipple illuminated in dim morning light.  A coin from New Zealand might remind you of the sound of a loaf of Wonderbread hitting a pedestrian from the back of a moving truck in Auckland. Yet letting go of memories and material things is a requirement for mental sanity. It is an axiom that everything must fade.

With that in mind, I try to live a minimalist life devoid of the voluminous trappings that have become the comfortable bars of the prison that is modern Western existence. I feel that people who have storage units are abhorrent and unquestionably mentally ill.

ajmleditresizeI have a just one small contradiction though: I find the raw, pungent stank of second-hand literature irresistible and difficult to relinquish. I have hundreds of books, possibly thousands, scattered in my room, other people’s rooms, my basement – everywhere. My walls are lined with millennia of human history and thought – intimate connections to people and places that I treat with deep reverence. Each one a human mind laid bare, but also an object with a story itself. I was at crisis point for months, fretting with scant space in which to pace. Getting a storage unit, selling the books, or creating a prurient display in my living room were fraught with complex issues. After much deliberation there seemed only one sensible option: to build a library memorializing myself that freely shares my wealth with others.

ajmllargeI will have to let go of lovers, geniuses, friends, dopers, malingerers, creeps, and curmudgeons of the first rate. I will miss you at your best, in the heady days of Tangiers, Mr. Borroughs. Mr. Darwin – if we evolved from apes, then why do we seem so much more capable of committing self-destructive acts and base cruelties that seem beneath all other species? Bret Easton Ellis – you have always been there as that twisted friend that I understood and enjoyed hanging out with as long as too many people didn’t see. John Nicols – the chotas and zopilotes will never take our minds or our humanist solidarity. Mr. Robbins – if only you were a woman… Naomi Klein – let me finish my goddammed coffee before we go starting any revolutions; take it easy!  To all of you: I can only hope that all of you find eyes as greedy and minds as credulous as mine.

In turn for my generosity I get space for new books that are more offensive, hilarious, and confounding than anything that has ever graced my shelves besides Finnegan’s Wake.

Don’t forget me while I am here. Swing on down to the Alex Jahp Memorial Library – Sugarhouse Branch.


The Riddle of Riddles

Whether I was drawn here initially by sheer luck, skin walkers, or crystal vortices I am not sure. What is important is that I am still wandering the desert, floating down rivers, and hiding in the shade during the height of summer – this place has slowly carved a chasm in my soul. There is something about the timelessness and ruggedness of this place: in the rocks from a time when no life existed on earth, in the mysterious drawings left on cliff walls and boulders, in the juniper trees that burst forth from cracks in the rock, or when a thunderstorm turns the desert into a series of rivers and waterfalls.

IMG_3624I have learned to read the canyon walls as books that tell stories of otherworldly landscapes in their leaves: shallow azure seas that teemed with life, towering crimson sand dunes, volcanic eruptions that leveled coniferous forests, a supercontinent that spanned half the globe, or one small waterhole that dinosaurs frequented. It is a monument to cycles spanning time frames that are incomprehensible to us. In the depths of the canyons at night I often imagine myself hurtling through space amidst the shimmering sea of galaxies as a mere speck on a speck. In those moments I feel completely free.

I have come to feel a bond with others that have lived and died here over thousands of years. Those that have farmed these river bottoms, hunted game along these creeks, roamed these vast expanses, and boldly run these rivers. In untold numbers of canyons I have crouched on my hands and knees to marvel at the still visible finger prints of people in the mud of granaries, examine desiccated corncobs, and compare my own hands to the white outlines others left on the walls. I ceaselessly ponder the figures crowned with horns, wraith-like figures that fade into the rocks, the spirals winding into nothingness, and the big horn sheep dancing across the patina of desert varnish. I cannot explore or read enough. Each alcove and ledge offers the possibility of the unknown, and each additional visit a chance to put together another piece of the riddle.

Traveling here can be difficult, but the rewards of being swallowed by the canyons are immense. Others since time immemorial have sat along the shore of the river and looked out at the vultures soaring along the cliffs with wonder, gazed with awe at the bighorn sheep living out their lives on crumbling vertical ledges, and have tried to decipher the ceaseless murmurings of the river cutting through this land of stone. It will change you. I learned to see what is written in the canyons and sky because one man was so enraptured by these places that he spent his life  sharing them with others.

Thanks Dee.

Forget the Finches

A rainforest can appear vacant and silent, but there are some people who say that there are more eyes than leaves, that you just have to keep your mind blank in order to see and hear the life.

IMG_3536 (1280x1280)Madagascar is a small continent, massive and isolated from mainland Africa for over 70 million years. Geographic isolation and a variety of unique ecosystems ranging from desert to rainforest have led to the evolution of an incredible array of diversity, the likes of which exists nowhere else on earth. 90 percent of the reptiles and amphibians are endemic – a number which accounts for two thirds of all known chameleon species in the world. 80 percent of the 10,000 known plant species are endemic, as are roughly 50 percent of the birds. Oh and the lemurs have radiated into dozens of species filling a broad variety of ecological niches – some are the size of mice and others the size of children. The beauty of the adaptive radiation exhibited by the lemuroids and the rodential tenrecs make Darwin’s finches look like a flock of inbred sparrows.

IMG_3151 (1280x1280)Seeing an animal means recognizing a sound or animal form that fits a pattern latent in the mind. This process is innate, but takes cultivation. Maybe it is a set of golden eyes or a rustle in the canopy. Or the strange, beautiful humming noise a Milne-Edwards Sifaka makes just before launching sideways from one tree to another until it disappears through the jungle. Possibly the haunting horn-like wail of the Indri Indri cascading through the forest.

Everything in the rainforest is alive. Leafs jump through the air on two hind legs. Sticks sprout legs and crawl. A group of flowers bursts into a kaleidoscope of butterflies. A gigantic centipede has IMG_2963 (1280x1280)leeches riding upon its back waving furiously in the air looking for a host. A small frog living inside the cup created by a broken stalk of bamboo. A Giraffe Beetle awkwardly poised on the end of a perforated leaf. Life growing upon life.

Variegated packs of birds move through the forest amidst a medley of songs and chatter. Blue Cuoas jumping from branch to branch, swallowing tree frogs whole; Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers diving through the lushness trailing long white feathers; and Crested Drongos making regal sounding proclamations.

IMG_3107 (1280x1280)Under the impenetrable blanket of the canopy the night resounds with a cacophony with barks, beeps, trills, and hums of frogs. Other nocturnal creatures are furtive and carefully climb through the trees with nary a sound, like the Eastern Wooly Lemur and the Brown Mouse Lemur. Their presence is only known by the reflection of their gilded eyes through the branches. The eyes of the Leaf Tailed Gecko offer no reflection; one must discern its aborescent disguise amidst myriad other dead leaves dangling from a branch.

Chameleons crouched into leaf-like forms can be found stoically sitting on the ends of branches to better feel the approach of predators. Some are less than an inch in length, others more than a foot. Some are rose-colored, others are emerald, sky blue, grey, white, black. All of their eyes move independently, but with equal suspicion.

IMG_3383 (1280x1280)In the center of the country, rugged, seemingly barren granite mountains burst forth from the plateau. A thick fog often envelopes them as the moisture laden air rolls in from the east. There is no towering old growth forest here – this high desert teems with life at a different scale. Out of the proliferate cracks in the granite massif pours forth spring water about which gather flowers, ferns, mosses, and bugs. IMG_3380 (1280x1280)These microcosms abound with tiny insects traversing a world of undulating sand particles and plants that give the terrain a surface area hundreds of times that visible from human scale. Shy, incongruously neon Carpet Chameleons wander the plains below. Rainbow Bush Grasshoppers clumsily jump about in a confidence likely rooted in their toxicity. The night is quiet as frigid air descends off the mountain and the lights of our galaxy begin to wink on and shimmer against the black unknown.

The west has arid desert that is home to baobab trees and cactus. The vegetation takes hundreds of years to grow in the harsh dry environment. You could walk along in this landscape dying of thirst indefinitely, but there is a chance that you would come upon one of the canyons that slice through the landscape as verdant gashes of life. These perennial streams are lined with tropical vegetation that shakes with flying lemurs and echos with the calls of birds.

IMG_3387 (1280x1280)In walking amidst such profusion and diversity of life I am reminded in a profound way that we are part of a vast organism. Wandering in the wilderness is a mental odyssey to our origins; with proper attention you can see the eternal cycle of death and rebirth that has stretched on since the dawn of life. The chameleon crawling up your shirt with its oven-mitt hands; the leech sucking away on your inner thigh; the malaria carrying mosquito buzzing around your head; the wild, edible berries along the trail; and the lemur urinating on you are striving to reveal a fundamental truth about existence.

Explore Mauritius

It is a strange undertaking to simply arrive somewhere with the intention of undertaking a project, but with limited knowledge of the place, an inability to speak the local language, and no idea of what type of project to undertake. There were the additional constraints of having only five months worth of time and quite limited financial resources. I found myself last November in just this situation. For the first few weeks I watched insects crawl on the walls, read books and papers on climate change the environment, tested if I could give myself diabetes with mangos, figured out that the local beer made my hands and feet itch, and contemplated the human condition. I could identify many things that other people should be working on like pollution, waste, energy production, food security, education, inequality, corruption, and industrial tourism. Mauritius was not very different than the majority of the world in the problems that it faces, but many were more acute due to the constraints of living on an island. None of these areas seemed appropriate for me to delve into though.

After a month I felt no further along. I could not help but think that I could not find anything to do because I had an incredibly limited skill set and simply was not up to the task I had set for myself. If you need a problem to deal with you can always create one yourself. The first project that I needed to undertake in Mauritius was to help myself as the malaise and boredom were too much. I abandoned the illusion of altruistic action and returned to just IMG_4609 (1024x768)doing what I enjoyed. I set about exploring the scattered remnants of natural areas on the island. I found happiness in the quiet of the forest and the inspiration on the peaks. I breathed deeply in the open, relishing the reprieve from the oppressive concrete sprawl and sugarcane wastes. It did not take long before I had hiked all of the well-known trails and peaks. I began scouring the internet and asking around to uncover new frontiers. I began bringing my GPS with me, taking photos, and writing about the trails. I hiked during cyclones in the howling winds and rain. I baked my arms in the tropical sun and came home sliced to bits by vicious tropical plants.

Thus I found my winter project in the creation of a website called Explore Mauritius. I aimed to compile a detailed comprehensive guide that would enable Mauritians and tourists alike to experience the same joy I felt in the limited remnants of nature on the island. Additionally, I hoped to foster a stronger community around outdoor activities to protect these areas for posterity. In sharing something that I love I managed to combine many of the various skills that I already possessed and also learn a few new ones as I designed the website itself and the interactive map that became the centerpiece of it all. The map was built using Google Fusion Tables as the platform and Garmin Basecamp for editing tracks.

IMG_5682 (1024x768)The number of people who use the website and are getting outside is growing every week. I stumbled into doing exactly what I intended to do at the outset.


I am no longer marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean. My departure had overtones of finality as it is unclear when I will make it back to a part of the world that is about as close as I can come to the opposite side of the world from Utah (see Map Tunneling). In my head I said goodbye to the faces of friends; the stress over my failure to learn French or like baguettes and foie gras; my disgust with the hoards of overweight, leathery tourists sunning themselves like glutted Komodo Dragons; the miasma generated by the billowing smoke of trash fires; my addiction to the fried, rolled curry deliciousness that is roti; my fragile mind addled by boredom that bristled with the shouts of the crazy lady that lived next door, the CD of Christian music that played on repeat everyday, and the kid who made noises like Moses Hightower from Police Academy. I reflected that I was orphaning my interminable project – (I wrote about the project here) – to map out the trail systems and natural areas of Mauritius. I felt proud of this child, but realized that I would no longer be there for it and could merely hope that it goes out into the world and labors arduously forevermore. I sat in Charles de Gaulle airport and kicked my feet up in anticipation of the joy I imagined that deadbeat fathers experience when they leave home into the bliss of utter irresponsibility.  No more ballet recital or parent teacher conferences, just cheap beer, Pizza Bagels, and Eggo Waffles. It never came; I was not cathartically transmogrified. Mauritius still occupied my thoughts – in that moment I felt a deep connection with the place, it felt like a part of me. The foundations of my life philosophy were shaken by the thought that being a deadbeat might not be so easy as it is impossible to fully abandon anything. I furrowed my brow, deep in contemplation. I wanted to give form to Mauritius, to find a way to relate to it in a more concrete manner.

I groped for parallels with every object around me. Mauritius is not like a notebook, a smelly sandal, a bag of dried fruit, or a trashcan. The exercise felt ridiculous after a moment, but maybe I didn’t have to create a convoluted analogy, maybe the answer was right under my nose.  The thought that Mauritius has no readily apparent utilitarian raison d’etre shed some light on the matter; it is bold and vain. After ruminating on this thought for a few minutes I felt the fingers of my hand gently twisting the ends of my mustache. Sacre bleu! Mauritius is most akin to the baroque mustache flourishing on my upper lip that I call ‘The Rajah.’

It is an ever-flowering wellspring of youth that brashly bursts forth with joie de vivre on a face that otherwise is a monument to functionality in a steady state of decay. It exists largely on aesthetic grounds, serving as a reminder that life in the end is a gigantic practical joke. Mustaches are not all tickles and giggles though – vanity has a cost. A mustache of any complexity requires two utilitarian hands to regularly groom it and twist it into shape – it is not capable of supporting itself. A mustache strives to look effortless, pristine, and independent, but this is only the appearance it offers from a distance. As one comes closer the heavy traffic that the mouth requires to support a variety of superfluous appendages like mustaches must pass through the baleen-like barrier of the mustache. Countless flavors and smells accumulate in profusion – the rich and the rotten. The existence of a mustache requires adaptability to changes in the dictates of style, a recognition that the upkeep grows correspondingly with time and complexity, and there is always a risk that it will simply run it course. Mustaches draw ire and accolades, but in the end both are senseless; it is just there – it need not be justified or explained.

The Rapture of Digital Truancy

Dear Dr. Bacastow from Penn State,

It is crunch time this semester. I just received your email regarding Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution. I will be unable to submit my Final Project (capstone) on time or ever. I hope that you can understand that I have had a very heavy course load over the past few months, including Introduction to Thermodynamics – Transferring Energy from Here to There, Physics I with Laboratory, and The Age of Sustainable Development. I would like for you to be aware that my non-attendance to your course was not unique: like last semester, I didn’t make it to a single course this semester. Before you rush to judgment and ignorantly begin throwing digital stones in your virtual ivory tower, I think that I deserve an opportunity to explain myself. I feel like you never took the time to get to know me as all of your emails were addressed to the fake name that I used when I signed up for Coursera. More importantly though, I feel like your course really wasn’t appropriate for someone who is completely uninterested in the subject matter – possibly you could try and throw in something a little more enticing or provocative from a different field to reach a broader audience. It wasn’t just you though. For Physics I the virtual laboratory felt completely inaccessible. And I am going to be frank here about Thermo: the faces that Margaret Wooldridge – Arthur F. Thurnau Professor made in her course description that made me want to stay away from school.

I will be fair though and admit some fault on my part. Each time I received an email from you or Dr. Sachs I felt a tremendous sense of power and a release when I subsequently chose not to attend your lectures. I have never liked school very much and truancy has been a part of my relationship with academia since my storied career began. It was a costly game to play before, but through technological innovation I am able to not attend courses on a scale that was impossible before. I want you to understand that your work is not in vain though as I read each of your emails with relish and downloaded your lectures, but I then mirthfully choose to do something else like going to the beach or making some food. You are giving contrast to my life – thank you for your regular appearance in my inbox. I am thinking about not attending the following courses during this next session:

-Introduction to Clinical Neurology -Digital Systems

– Sistemas Digitales: De las puertas logicas al procesador (Bilingual)

-On Strategy – What Managers Can Learn from Philosophy  – Part 2

-And possibly Theater and Globalization to round it out with a course from the humanities.

Could this count as my Final Project (capstone)?

Thank you,


Licking a Banana Slug in the 21st Century

“It was really a sad day. I took the camera out and I was going to take some pictures. And then I said, well, he deserves more than that. So I skinned him. I skinned his whole body. It took me all day. It was raining. So it was a really sad time. I’d skin a while, then cry a while. I was just like a baby,” a rancher named Ralph spoke softly out of the speakers of Steven’s car. A re-run of This American Life he guessed.

Steven had tuned in late, but the story seemed to be about a gentle and famous showbull that had passed away…that was then stuffed. He turned out of his driveway and drove towards work.  Steven veered around a broken down truck. He rocked back and forth in his seat – a symptom of a disease his wife called ‘restless head syndrome’ – as Ira Glass explained that the bull had been cloned to create Second Chance; they were physically identical and shared the same mannerisms. His owner Ralph fell in love with him as if he were the original. An emotionally rattled producer of the show narrated watching Second Chance brutally maul his owner Ralph.

The section about the bull ended and some girl, who sounded like a propagandist for The Daughters of the American Revolution, began prattling on with patriotic rhetoric about the Marquis de Lafayette. He turned off the radio and drove in silence. His eyes watered with weltchmerz as he thought about the twisted parable. Steven pulled into the parking lot at work. He stopped as he was about to open the door to his office and winced. He had forgotten, again, to stop by Comcast. He wished he could just tell Nancy that he wouldn’t do it – that he felt like he died a little bit inside each time he went there. Like a conscientious objector.

He took a deep breath and swiped his card. He then hurried towards his office, avoiding eye contact with the security guard – or was he a secretary? – whose name he had learned and embarrassingly forgotten. He made it to his desk without incident. He had just returned from a few days in Miami Beach doing a site visit and didn’t want to be there.

He got out his computer and began giving a cursory reading to the many articles that news aggregators had piled into his inbox. He felt like seeing a hundred articles on the same issue, day after day, for years, made it all seem so trivial and futile. When viewed from a meta-perspective they just looked like trends, rumors, hearsay rippling through the internet. 31 stories one week about how climate change might affect chocolate production, 14 on how the tourism economies of remote small island nations were likely to suffer in the coming decades, 19 on the meaning of the dropping price of oil for global emissions, 15 articles vociferously supporting or rejecting various outlandish geoengineering proposals. Climate change was the perfect news story in a way: no data to parse, not location specific, no characters, no beginning or end – pure echo chamber.

One article announced that the drought in California was not caused by climate change. This, confusingly, came on the heels of months of articles touting it as a tangible manifestation of climate change. Apparently climate change models did not show drought in California as a probable outcome in their projections. Steven could no longer understand what was meant by climate change; it just seemed too nebulous. Computers would decide what was climate change and what was not.

He clicked another email: Meeting with Tim moved up to 9:15. He chuckled mirthfully, thanking the lord that there is Tim Connelly to remind us why we are doing our jobs. Steven grabbed his notebook and walked quickly towards the conference room. The air conditioning made it feel as if he walked into a cryogenics lab. He was convinced that Tim probably had some Californian theory about how cooler temperatures decrease aging and that he was doing the world a favor. Steven grabbed a seat at the middle of the table.

The room gradually filled. Tim entered the room last, as usual, with a flurry of activity that made him seem like a circus performer or some sort of magician.

“Good morning. Thank you all for coming.” He took off his glasses with an exaggerated motion, aware that everyone was watching him. “We have a big week this week. A lot happening. I am hoping that we can all work out our individual schedules on our own time and that we can use this collective space to do some conceptualizing. I mainly want to share some ideas that I am going to discuss at a TED conference later this week. It is just a primer.” He smiled and then said “I’ll send you the link to the talk so you watch a master at work.”

He squared some papers officiously; papers that Steven imagined were blank.

“Climate change is not a tangible thing. It is a set of ideas that are driven by technology. Computers and networking have enabled us to amass information regarding our planet in a way that was completely impossible several decades ago….and to analyze it. In this way we have built an image of a planet in flux, one that is warming due to increasing c-oh-two concentrations. We all understand this point, but bear with me as I am going to explain how this is the theoretical basis for our business.”

“The next step in our field was to build computer models that projected these trends into the future. Then we were able to conceive the possible impacts that these broader trends could have upon different economic sectors, different nations, different locations. We saw more powerful storms, coastal inundation, droughts, and feedback loops. The calculation done by the models is beyond the capability of a human mind. The volume of data and the complexity of the interdependent variables are too vast.”

Tim took a dramatic pause, looked around the room, and then resumed.

“The propagation of these ideas has been advancing almost lock step with the rise of computers as a platform for communication, entertainment, education, and professional work. We have spent decades now working to get people to integrate the theoretical reality of climate change into their thoughts and actions. Call it education, sensitization, scare tactics. We are, in effect, asking people to substitute a computer model for their personal reality, to subjugate their personal decisions to a reality that is not intelligible to them as individuals. Stop and think about this for a moment. This is how we will save this planet. If people do not integrate these ideas into their thought, we are in trouble.”

Stephen looked out the wall of windows at the contrails crisscrossing the sky and had to constrain a rising urge to yell. He wasn’t sure what, but something. Maybe just a primal scream.

“The models describe and prognosticate, but they do not serve to explain. They model a reality given certain initial conditions and project them into the future. They do not adequately model the human economic or political responses – they are in fact intended to inform these responses. We are presented with this model of an almost helpless mass of humans… seven billion of us. Particles in an algorithm. You could log stack seven billion people into a cube two kilometers by two kilometers.”

For a few moments there was nothing but the hum of computers and the click of keyboards. Steven could not tell if people listened with rapt attention or were wracked with boredom. He hoped that nobody was listening or taking notes, and instead writing poetry or sexting.

“The important part for us is that people take this step of internalizing a reality that is anything but intuitive. Our business exists in the space created by this form of thought. The more people are willing to accept this computer generated reality and picture of humanity, the more of a market we will have.”

“Basically,” he boomed in a voice that brought everyone to attention as they knew it signaled a conclusion, “what I would like to emphasize for our business and the protection of this very planet, is how important it is that we continue to emphasize the models. We are in the business of selling solutions to this model of mankind, insurance against these potential realities. We sell ideas and peace of mind.”

One person awkwardly ventured to clap and then the room erupted.

Tim looked around the room briefly. “Any questions? I have to run, barely fit this meeting in today. Thank you for your time.”

Steven wondered if there were never any questions because nobody ever had any fucking clue what Tim was talking about. Tim put his glasses back on, grabbed his papers, and left. Everyone followed suit and hurried back to doing whatever had just been explained.

Steven opened up the information that he had gathered while in Miami Beach regarding the luxury condo building Faena House. He had met with an engineer and an actuary. He looked at similar policies they had written in the area. He felt good about his research and the numbers.

While Steven had been there he saw the streets flooding during high tide. It felt surreal looking up at the shimmering glass and steel as water burbled out of the sewers. Everyone knew the area was devastated by any tropical storm that hit the south of Florida. Yet buyers lined up for some of the most expensive real estate in the world because it could be insured. Steven’s company would not truly insure it, the state would underwrite the policy. Steven, along with the other parties in the transaction knew that the state would not be able to pay out the policies on their books, but as Tim had said, this was the space that they existed in.

His head was awash in numbers and projections. He sighed in relief when he had plugged the necessary information into an algorithms and it spit out a yearly projected cost. He started typing up the contract. He repressed ideas that assailed him about whether this was responsible and ethical. He didn’t get food for asking questions. He wondered if humans could learn to do any task, no matter how illogical and unethical by Pavlovian training? Were there limits?

He nearly completed the contract, but his mind felt frayed and he decided he was done. He had put a meeting on his calendar for the afternoon anticipating that he would need to get out. He got into his Prius and drove south towards the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz.

He parked at the trailhead on a trail that he had hiked often in college. He changed into some shorts, a UCSC t-shirt with holes in it, and his flipflops. He tossed water, snacks, and a book into a small backpack before setting off. The trails were spongy with pine duff, he could hear its murmurs underfoot as he walked in solitude. This park had always been his refuge, a counterbalance against the grinding logic of work and school…or more lately the grinding illogic. Everything in the forest was tangible, it was in order. He laughed at this thought, but it was true. He felt like he was at home there, like he fit into the order of things.

He walked off the trail and started wandering. He passed scattered, rusty iron logging equipment. He stood with his back against the trunk of a towering redwood and stared up the ridges of bark that led towards the upper stories of the tree. He sat down on a felled tree and felt the deep ridges with his hand. He relished the fecund smell of the forest. He snapped a carrot between his teeth and then progressively ate the root down.

He could not properly savor his pear as Tim’s voice kept repeating phrases from the meeting that day; they arose like ripples and swells in his mind. He wondered how much time anyone in his office, each of them likely a self-identified environmentalist, spent in nature. How can we expect people to be proper stewards for something they minimally interact with and therefore have only a rudimentary understanding of, these people who are merely concerned with how resource scarcity or natural variability will impinge upon their lives? Tim’s whole idea of an external, technology-based reality seemed to be driving the problem that it was now striving to solve. He realized that anyone living completely abstracted from nature is unlikely to lead humanity in the right direction. It seemed simple to Steven: there was only one reality, in which man was an integrated part of an environment that he effected and that effected him in turn. How could it be any other way? He shook his head. He wondered whether he should just confront Tim Connelly and ask him whether he was a cyborg. Maybe he kept the air conditioning so low to keep his processors from overheating? A rain drop burst upon his hand and sent him scrambling.


He shouldered his pack and got back on the trail. The sound of the rain grew into a hushed roar. He ran quicker. Suddenly one massive drop struck him in the forehead and he stopped in his tracks. He peered straight up and let his eyes follow individual drops as they seemed to emerge out of the ether hundreds of feet above. Birds were chattering about the rain. Banana slugs slimed their way across the trail. He laughed, remembering in college when his friends had convinced him, on a backpacking trip to the Lost Coast, that licking one would make your tongue go numb. He put one in the palm of his hand and everyone huddled their faces around his hand. He grinned and then ran his tongue down the entire length of the banana slug.  It didn’t work, but he demanded a bottle of cheap red wine to rinse out his mouth and that started off an incredible night. They howled at the nearly full moon, swam naked in the surf, and laughed at the rest of the world that Jess kept calling ‘a mere simulacra.’ Everyone drifted off to sleep as the fire burned out and the bottles went empty. The heavy bag of weed from a friend’s farm was Steven’s only company as he passed hours transfixed by towering, moonlit waves that seemed to shake the earth as they broke.

He set off running again, this time with a feeling of boundless joy. He reached his car and took off for home. He swung by the co-op on his way and bought apples, walnuts, fresh greens, goat cheese, wine, and chocolate. He was going to make a feast for everyone in celebration of living.

It was twilight when he got home, that meant Nancy and the kids should be there. He intentionally burst into the house still wearing his filthy, soaked clothes. He hoped they noticed and asked him about his day. Nobody was in the kitchen, but there was an assortment of nearly empty takeout boxes from PF Chang’s and white rice scattered about the counter.

He heard voices and saw colors from the television flickering against the windows in the living room. Nancy was watching one of her sitcoms about miserable wealthy people.

He waited a moment. “Hey Nance.”

She continued watching TV and responded distractedly with, “Hey hun. We already ate dinner. I left some out on the counter for you.”

“What are you watching?” Steve was trying to make conversation.

“Oh just that show Revenge. I know you don’t like it, but you could make yourself a plate and come watch.”

“Maybe in a bit. I bought some things to make a salad. What are the kids doing?”

“You know them. School work and talking to friends.”

He walked up the curving staircase towards the kid’s bedrooms. Mika was sitting on her bed wearing headphones. She was rocking back and forth just like Steven – restless head syndrome. She reached for her Iphone and saw Steven in the doorway. She smiled and waved.

He continued on to Stevie’s bedroom. He was at his desk, but saw Steven in the doorway out of the corner of his eye. He quickly closed a few windows on his computer and awkwardly turned around.

“Hey dad.”

“Stevieeee – what’s going on?”

“Oh just doing some trades on fantasy baseball. Too bad the Giants suck so much. We need to bring back steroids.”

“How was school?”

“The same shit that always does. You went to school didn’t you?” Stevie said dismissively.

“Well there were beautiful girls, and fights and I failed tests. We greased pigs and released them and  had massive food fights.”

“Well it is great that you got to be an extra in Dazed and Confused, but we stare at Powerpoint presentations all day and use Facebook to do our bullying and courting.

“Yep times have changed,” Steven calmly answered in jest. “I am going to make a salad – with goat cheese and I’ll make a dressing. You want any? I got some chocolate too,” he asked hopefully.

“No. I gotta get a few things done. Enjoy though.”

Steven went downstairs and ate his salad in a house that felt vacant.

The Year of the Hotdog

As we proceed through life we should never forget that the routine ingredients that flavor our lives would lose their importance if they were not underlain by mystery and shrouded in chaos.

Life is a mystery nestled in a bun of chaos topped with all of the simple, standard ingredients of existence. The universally identifiable toppings give depth and meaning to mystery and chaos, but they cannot be fully understood and appreciated without reflecting upon the mystery of that underlies them. We can only appreciate the mystery though, as it will forever remain beyond the understanding of science and logic. Speculating upon the constituents of the hotdog proceeds under the misguided belief that the object of scrutiny is the mere sum of its constituents. Even if we could agree upon the nature of its contents, the question of how such glorious flavor and beauty could be created out of seemingly nothing would persist.

I propose that this year we no longer idly muse about the nature of the hotdog and instead that we eat of it and relish the mystery.