Swans at the Beachland Ballroom, 9/23/11

Swans are a band.  I'm somewhat at a loss to describe them in more detail; Allmusic has a lot of words about them at this link here.  I'm just sitting here opening and closing my mouth like a fish.

I can't say I wasn't warned.  The opening act, Sir Richard Bishop, graciously accepted some applause during his set and muttered, "Swans are gonna **** your faces off."  And they did.

Swans' set started out loud.  It got difficult to talk over the looped synthesizer, but we didn't see anybody on stage so we weren't sure they were actually playing yet.  A guy stepped out and started hammering repetitively on some hanging bells, adding to the noise.  And another guy.  And another - six total.  It was arrhythmic, throbbing, and glorious.  It droned.

Drone music is usually soft, like late afternoon in a meadow, or like bread that's fallen into dishwater.  Not like this.  Swans are to drone music as the Navy's active sonar is to whale speech.  Actually that's a very good analogy.

Confetti fluttered down from the cieling of the Ballroom.  It had probably been there since New Year's Day, if not longer.  Every square inch of my clothing vibrated, including the soles of my shoes.  I wouldn't have been surprised to look down and see an outline of dead skin cells on the floor around me.  I felt physically lifted up like a puppet on strings.  With every follicle on high alert, the sensory overload wiped out all my thoughts and pushed my consciousness into my body.  My beer went warm. 

God help the poor bastard who was trying to put on a show in the Beachland Tavern in the same building.  (It was the Schwartz Brothers.  Glen Schwartz was one of the early guitarists for the James Gang, and he's kind of a savant.  I figure he either thought the noise was just in his head, or else he went ballistic and preached hellfire from the mic all night.)

Go see Swans.  Bring earplugs.

How did they know???

I regularly caused consternation among the nuns at my Catholic grade school.  During one religion class, we were being taught what "AD" and "BC" meant for calendar dates.  I raised my hand and asked how the people back then knew what to call it.  The teacher reiterated, "it's After Death and Before Christ, Jeffrey.  Now moving on..."  And I said:  no, no, back in 100 BC, how did they know to count the years backwards?  Did they know Christ was going to show up in 100 years??

The class erupted, of course.  This was a head-scratcher.  Nobody really had the presence of mind to tell me that they probably called the years something else back then.  I guess it's hard to see out of such an ingrained way of looking at things.

And now I have my answer:  over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, thonyc tells us that the use of "AD" started around the year 525, and "BC" came into use in the 1600s.  Apparently beforehand, they had numbered the years by the reigns of the popes.

And that's your history lesson for the day.

The Permanent Floating Cocktail Party

A strange thing has happened in the Cleveland meetup.com scene:  there are a dozen or so groups with similar themes throwing large social events practically every day of the week; the same people show up to every single one; and you can't tell them apart.  It's like a permanent floating cocktail party.

Author Larry Niven once wrote of a "permanent floating riot club" that developed shortly after the invention of teleportation in a fictional future society.  Once any kind of disturbance broke out anywhere in the world, word got out, and immediately thousands of people teleported there to break things and loot the place.  It got to the point where there was always a disturbance somewhere, and there was a steady flow of people joining and leaving this flash mob, so it became a full-time riot moving from place to place.

That's kind of what's happening here, but with drinking instead of looting.  And the Internet instead of teleportation (which, admit it, is almost as good).  Cleveland has a beer group, several wine groups, a spirits group, a happy hour group, a nightlife group, a "social" group, a 20s and 30s group, a 30s and 40s group, a "party connection", etc - this is nowhere near an exhaustive list and I don't mean to single anyone out.  My point is that most of them make little or no attempt to differentiate themselves.  To further blur any distinctions between them, events are usually cross-posted to multiple groups.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  What should we expect from a meetup group? 

The value of meetup.com is that it's a filter:  the people who come to meetups are the ones who are open to meeting new people.  In contrast, if you just go to a bar here and try to make new friends, you might get suspicious looks and cold shoulders.  For the most part, I think that's still true in the Permanent Floating Cocktail Party, though I'm no longer new here so it's hard for me to say from personal experience.  Some of my friends, though, have had bad experiences:  territorial behavior, gossip, that sort of thing. 

And this shows us something interesting:  the party has gotten large enough that it's no longer intimate; some people have begun to treat other attendees as though they were random strangers.  There's a strange transition that happens when a group gets to a certain size:  you sense that you'll never know some of the people in it, so you present a persona, a public face, that establishes a reputation for you among the people that you do know.  You start treating people less carefully, because they're just part of the scenery that you're projecting yourself on.  That is clearly happening in Cleveland.

My wife fumes with indignation that there's more than one wine group.  She takes it as a personal affront that anyone might find hers wanting in some way, and she says that the other groups' themes are feeble.  I keep telling her that meetup groups don't really have to have themes, though it's a nice way to bring new people in.  What really makes a group a distinct thing is the personality of the organizer, which sets the tone of the group.  The organizer determines what kind of behavior is acceptable, what kind of activities will take place, and in general how rigid or freeform the events will be.  In the Permanent Floating Cocktail Party, events are very freeform and the organizers make little effort to use the force of their personality to set a tone.  That's one thing that my wife does very well, and it sets the group she co-organizes apart from the others.

Most meetup groups, to be clear, don't involve alcohol or parties.  They're strongly focused on their themes, like book clubs or exercising or blogging.  That's the outsider's view of meetup.com:  that it's a way for geeks to find each other and share their obsession in person.  The vast majority are small and meet infrequently, and that's what their members want.  In that context, these giant themeless social nights are pretty odd.

When it's all said and done, you can go out any night that your schedule is open and have a drink with some strangers who will be willing to chat.  The event itself won't have a lot of personality, and you might encounter some high-school-like behavior, but it can be a lot of fun.  You never know who you'll meet, and in an unscripted live encounter, anything can happen.

The hatchet man

This post is fiction. My objective was to bring together three story elements in 500-1000 words.

Harald didn’t recognize the bartenders. He hadn’t been to Newark Airport in over a year but he remembered this bar having long-timers. That might have been too much to hope for in a place full of fungible employees selling disposable distractions to captive audiences most of whom will never return.

Tourists obstructed the place like arterial plaque. He picked a quick path to an empty stool. Down the center of a high countertop for laptops, a philodendron wound between the spindles of a decorative railing. It was real. Somebody must have been working here long enough to keep this plant alive, he thought, unless travelers have been pouring unfinished Guinnesses into its pot.

The low railing provided a symbolic separation from the person across from you, but it wasn’t enough for privacy. It was there to keep a self-entitled road warrior from pushing his laptop straight back into somebody’s fries. Across from Harald, a birdlike man in purple divided his attention between a small spiral notebook, a wrap sandwich, and the contents of his pockets, darting from one to the next without any apparent plan or smoothness of practice but without tension.

“Joe? Joe Calcioni?” Harald tilted his head with the question. When the man’s face came up, Harald was sure, and he extended his hand. “Wow ... Harry ... I haven’t seen you since high school,” he said. A little blood drained from Harald’s face at that. Joe had been a friend of a friend, and that friend had snapped, as males between the ages of 18 and 20 are prone to psychosis. He hadn’t used guns like some action movie revenge fantasy. He had killed like an animal, rabid, with the superhuman strength of rage and an axe from a fire extinguisher kit. Harald had seen his friend that day, through the windows between the office and the hallway, but their eyes had not locked.

There had been a lot of funerals. And no reunions.

Blinking hard, Harald released Joe’s hand. “So, what brings you to Newark? Are you coming or going or just on your way through?” “Going. I live in Philadelphia but I was in New York for work.” “Me too, Trenton. Environmental consulting for the state government. I live in Chicago now.” Harald took a sip of beer and the great purple bird nodded, the heavy contents of his breastpocket swaying from his shoulder like a sling. Joe had always loved baggy clothes. He’d wanted to look like that singer Bryan Adams but lacked the swagger. “A lot of us moved away. I kept track of a few people and they all went to college out of state and never looked back.”

Harald considered that. “My first year in college is pretty hazy. I was, ah, living in a state not conducive to memory. But I met a girl, kind of a modern hippie, a big environmentalist. I like numbers so I went into engineering. You would not believe some of the post-industrial wasteland this state has to heal.” Harald shook his head, and Joe said, “You ever work with Vertical Power?” “Yeah! They had a big layoff last year though, no big new jobs.” Joe pursed his lips and touched each of his pockets. “What?” said Harald. “How do you know Vertical?”

Joe cleared his throat, looking down. “That was my gig. The layoff. I’m with a human resources services firm. Outplacement.” Harald straightened, his eyes widening. “You’re a hatchet man!” He had practically yelled it. “Hey. I come in to patch things up after the cutting’s already been done. My job is triage.”

The two regarded each other. Cuts echoed forwards from the bodies of their friends through the economy and the Earth.

“Maybe we should plan a reunion.”

Science, justice, and living

I'm a scientist, and as such, I'm a big believer in using evidence and reason to understand the world.  But I admit it's not the only way.  Our legal system doesn't rely solely on rigid rules, and neither should we in our daily lives.

A recent Ars Technica opinion piece talked about why physicists so often try to speak authoritatively about subjects far from their actual expertise, and come across as jerks in the process.  The basic problem is that physicists (and many other technical types) believe that they are experts in the most fundamental, most important kind of knowledge, and in addition they're experts at using logic to defend almost any position.  This dovetails nicely with my last post and the comments on it.

One of the points made over and over again by Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness was that it's a mistake to ignore other kinds of knowledge, for example what you might call intuition.  Or spiritual knowledge.  Or social insight.  You get the idea.  What makes physicists look like jerks is the implicit value judgement that these sources of information are inherently inferior to the firsthand observational knowledge of the natural world that physics is based on.  For many years I was that guy:  I couldn't tell you how many times I was called arrogant because I refused to take anything but what I called "facts" seriously.  I know now that "facts" excludes a whole lot of truth.

Science and justice:
Our legal system was born out of the historical period when empirical rationalism was the leading theory on how to guide people's actions.  That is in contrast to, say, taking theological recommendations as was done in earlier ages.  So the justice system and our Constitution were designed to influence our society like an engineer would design road widths to influence the flow of traffic through different areas.  For example, we decided that drugs are bad for society, so we outlawed them and put punishments in place for those who use them.  It's all theoretically based on cause and effect, though of course some laws are better supported by evidence than others.

But the legal system isn't a machine, impartially reshaping everyone who comes through it.  There is a non-rationalistic, non-empirical element built in:  the jury.  The jury is there to enforce what you might call poetic justice.

Science and living:
What does this have to do with our lives, the choices we make every day?  I've always tried to live my life according to principles, making an informed choice about the best way to live and then sticking to those choices.  When I learn something new, I revise my choices.  It's all very scientific.  But I've been thinking lately that it needs an element of poetic justice.  A truth other than the factual kind, a truth from my inner life in addition to those from the way I've come to see the rest of the world.  My wife has described me as the "king of self-denial", and it's true, I have immense restraint when it comes to doing what I *think* is best as opposed to what I want in the moment.  I've never trusted my impulses.

The thing is, I'm now coming to distrust my very scientific informed choices.  When I look back, I can see that a lot of them were just retroactive rationalizations for following a subconscious impulse.  That impulse might have been to avoid something feared, to approach something desired, or to strike at something hated.  But all those impulses were hidden.  To make a close analogy, as the Ars piece noted, during training in rhetoric one argues towards defending a predetermined position; this position may not be the one you would choose, or even one you think is right, but its assignment to you was hidden from the audience.  The point of the exercise in rhetoric is simply to lay down logical arguments to support it.  It's a deeply unscientific, even antiscientific, practice, and I think we do it all the time to defend our actions retroactively.  We do what we want, and then afterwards we come up with a story about why we did it. 

If we're acting on our desires anyway, why not bring them out of the subconscious and into the light?  Why not see our motivations for what they are, and give ourselves a chance to decide which of them to give in to?  Our rules for having a good life may say one thing, but our sense of poetic justice--or maybe just poetry--may have something else to say.

The benefit of the doubt

"Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity."

You've probably heard that one.  Here's a corollary:

"Never attribute to stupidity that which can adequately be explained by ignorance." 

When you find yourself in a serious disagreement with someone, first give them the facts as you see them.  Stick to what you've observed firsthand, not your interpretations or hearsay.  You'd be amazed at the people you can find common ground with just by sharing your experiences.  Second, if they agree that you saw what you said you saw but they still don't agree with you, silently decide for yourself whether or not they're just dumb.  If you think they are a smart person, you may reluctantly conclude that they are malicious.

Now here's the tricky part:  do them the favor of turning this procedure around on yourself.  Listen to the facts as they see them - carefully restrict them to their own firsthand observations.  Give their observations the same weight as your own in your interpretation of events.  If after careful consideration of ALL the facts you still disagree with them, then silently decide for yourself whether or not you are just not as smart as they are.  If you think you're not dumb, but you can't come to some kind of agreement with them, you might be malicious.

I like to trot this one out during election season, but it never works.

To name something is to begin to kill it

I have a group of good friends who've gelled over the last several months.  Having noticed this, I'm tempted to say to them, hey, we're the somethings - something we have in common - but I'm resisting.  To name something is to create expectations for it, set patterns for its evolution, and to limit it.

There's a saying that the vitality of a form of expression is in inverse proportion to the number of books that have been written about it.  Think of the difference between hip-hop and rock in the early 1980s.  Hip-hop had barely entered the public consciousness--it had only recently been named so people who weren't familiar with it could talk about it--whereas rock had been the subject of hundreds of books.  Hip-hop was thriving with its practitioners trying new things practically every week; rock was moribund, more a commercial enterprise than an art form.

What does my group of friends have to do with a couple of musical genres?  These things are all communities of people trying new things, all of them creating something in some way, and watching what the others do, to form a larger composition - a genre, a group of friends, a scene, an academic discipline, anything.

To name such a thing is to put the first knife into it.  Other blows will follow.  There will be an "elevator speech" that those in the know use to describe it to the uninitiated.  And there's a little prestige that comes with recognizing a thing that can be named - seeing patterns and showing them to people makes you look smart.  After conversations about the new thing, there will be articles, documentaries, books.  Those introduced to the thing at each stage will then seek out what they were told this thing is, but what they look for is only what the thing was yesterday.  They want the thing to freeze so they can experience it the way they were told it was.  With each of these blows, the thing becomes less vital, dies a little.  They start at virtually the moment the thing comes into existence.

I want my group of friends to be flexible and adaptible.  I want us to be able to let people in and let people go, to try doing things together that we've never done, to find new ways of expressing ourselves and new channels of communication.  I'm frankly scared that if I even so much as stand up and announce that we are a group, then even that will limit us.  I can live without the pride of claiming that tiny burst of prestige.  Maybe I'll just let us be.  Just being seems to be working out for us so far.

Blogger's new UI: coming to your dashboard soon

Blogger is beginning to roll out its new user interface to users, one batch at a time.  Previously, the new UI was only available by logging in to Blogger In Draft.  I don't see too many differences between the final version and what I originally saw.  And of course this doesn't affect the way your blog looks to its visitors, only the way Blogger looks to you when you're writing posts.

Over the last few months I've seen new versions of other Google products, such as Calendar, Docs, and of course Google+.  Some I like, some I don't.  Overall, Blogger's changes are an improvement, though I do think they went a little crazy with the whitespace.