Archive for May, 2014

Leviathan’s Revenge

May 25, 2014

Q:  What’s black and white and red all over?  A: Despite the corny old joke, in this day and age it’s certainly NOT a newspaper –they’re folding (for lack of readership) faster than a three-handed origami master.  The answer to this riddle is no joke:  it’s a whale … after being hit by an ocean-going ship.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has received reports of a higher-than-usual rate of whale strikes along the Eastern Seaboard for this time of year.  On May 4 a cruise ship heading for New York struck and killed a sei whale and dragged it into the Hudson River, discovering the collision had occurred only once it had reached port. A necropsy on the whale found it was killed by blunt force, confirming that it was killed by the ship.  Three days later, another dead sei whale was found entangled in the hull of a container ship that was docking near Philadelphia. A third  recent strike involved a fin whale.  Further north, an unusually plentiful food supply has recently been credited for a large increase in the number of humpback whales off Massachusetts, where large schools of a fish called the sea lance have turned the mouth of Massachusetts Bay into a “whale feeding ground.”

The usual rate of whale strikes by ships is about one every few weeks, NOAA said, compared with the three reported in just the past few weeks.  A National Marine Fisheries Service worldwide survey covering 1975 through 2002 found 292 records of confirmed or possible ship strikes of large whales. The agency issued a reminder to mariners of measures already in place to protect whales, including speed limits and distances.  “Nobody wants to hit a whale,” said Marjorie Mooney- Seus, a spokeswoman. “So we want people to have a greater awareness that they’re out there now.”


Cheeki Rafiki_20140523

Well, maybe the whales are hitting back.  Picking on something a bit closer to their own size.

A U.S. Navy warship located the overturned hull of a British yacht on Friday 1,000 miles off the coast of Massachusetts., a week after it went missing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Rescue swimmers were able to examine the wreck of the Cheeki Rafiki, and reported a breach in the hull where the keel had broken off. The boat’s cabin was completely flooded and its windows shattered. Underwater images showed the yacht’s life raft still stowed in its storage space. There was no sign of its crew. Coast Guard officials said “extreme sea conditions” at the time of the distress call on May 15 put the crew’s estimated survival time at 20 hours.

So, on the one hand, the keelbolts could have been undersized, corroded or otherwise compromised by shoddy Antigua workman- ship.  Or a semi-submerged cargo container might have been floating just beneath the surface.  But on the other hand, in a world where cosmic justice might occasionally exist, perhaps a pod of angry whales decided to re-enact the final chapters of Moby Dick.


Once Bitten, Twice Shy

May 22, 2014

Rule #1:  Sequential events are not necessarily correlated, nor are they (necessarily) causally linked.

Rule #2:   Ya nevah know.

Despite considerable anecdotal ‘evidence,’ when it comes to predicting an earthquake by observing animal behavior the jury is still out –way out.  Fortunately for the world’s growing population of urbanites living in areas with a relatively low density of observable animals, there may be a mechanized alternative:

The National Park Service is investigating what caused the elevator at the Washington Monument to malfunction on Wednesday, May 14.  The elevator stopped about 20 feet above the ground floor at shortly after 6:30 p.m.  About 60 people were on the observation level 500 feet up and had to walk down nearly 900 steps.  By 7 p.m. the monument was open and the elevator running once again.

Well, there was a full moon on May 14th … But that’s not quite all:


The U.S. Geological Survey [reported that] a small earthquake shook central Virginia on Wednesday night [May 21]. The quake, with an estimated magnitude of 3.2, occurred at 9:47 p.m. and was centered 32 miles west of Richmond. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. In August 2011, a magnitude-5.8 earthquake centered near the central Virginia town of Mineral was felt from Georgia to Canada and caused cracks in the Washington monument that kept the 555-foot obelisk closed until just last week.

In the earthquake prediction industry a one-week lead time is considered pretty good advance warning.   So just who manufactures that elevator in the Washington Monument?   Is it Otis, Schindler or Thyssen-Krupp?


Cousin O

May 20, 2014

They have their own Twitter hashtag, a swelling celebrity bandwagon, and Michelle Obama on their side.  The colonial forces of Britain, the United States, France, Spain and Israel have deployed on their behalf.  Global emotional outrage has been mobilized, massed, and magnified by the world’s mighty media machine.  But somehow it may not be enough to bring back the Babes of Boko Haram.   Desperate times call forth desperate measures.  Time to invoke the mysterious power of African occult tradition:

Five hundred traditional hunters from three northeastern states, ranging in age from 18 to 80, have mustered in the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, eager to use their skills and supernatural powers to find nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram.   Police have said that more than 300 girls and young women were kidnapped from a boarding school in the remote northeastern town of Chibok on April 15 and driven into the nearby Sambisa National Game Reserve.   The extremists are believed to have camps in densely forested parts of the reserve.  Boko Haram recently destroyed the only bridge linking Borno state to neighboring Cameroon and Chad, where they have hideouts in mountain caves and another forested game reserve.


Armed with homemade guns, poisoned spears and amulets, the hunters have been specially selected by their peers for their spiritual hunting skills and gathered in Maiduguri at the suggestion of a state legislator.  They rely on magic charms, amulets of herbs and other substances wrapped in leather pouches as well as cowrie shells, animal teeth and leather bracelets to protect them from bullets.

Officially, they’re not calling upon traditional deities for assistance:

A spokesman for the hunters stopped short of actually criticizing the Nigerian military. “We’re not saying we are better than the soldiers, but we know the bush better than the soldiers,” said Sarkin Baka. “We are seasoned hunters, the bush is our culture and we have the powers that defy guns and knives; we are real men of courage, we trust in Allah for protection; we are not afraid of Boko Haram,” said one elderly hunter, Baban Kano.

Since these guys are almost certainly Hausa tribesmen rather than Yoruba, nobody is going to be heard mentioning the name of Oxossi (or his northern equivalent).  But old gods don’t fade away just because mere humans cease to believe in them.  After all, what self-respecting god would have to rely on lowly humans for His actual existence?

Oxossi (O-SHOW-see) is the Yoruba god of the hunt and the forest.  His emblem is the bow and arrow.  He is associated with abundance of food and energy.  He is the patron of justice and the hunt, and a master of all air attacks: his name is invoked when devotees are looking for swift justice from above.   Oxossi is one of the three warrior [gods] referred to as the “Ebora” in the Yoruba religion.

The other two members of the Ebora warrior trinity are Ogun and Exu (aka Elegua).  Oxossi is associated with/invoked by the color green, trickster/messenger Exu/Elegua’s colors are red and black (or white and black), while blacksmith/warrior Ogun is associated with the red of fire and blood.

In Rio de Janeiro, Oxossi came to be syncretized with Saint Sebastian, but he is depicted as Saint George in the Bahia region of Brazil. In Cuba, Oxossi is identified with Saint Norbert.  He is the patron of those who work with animals, dogs in particular, and is often supplicated when an animal is mistreated.


Curiously coincidential cross-cultural connection…

The etymological origin of the name Ebora is from the ancient Celtic word ebora/ebura, plural genitive of the word eburos (yew), a species of tree, so its name means “of the yew tree.”  At the time of the Roman Empire, the city of York in northern England was called Eboracum/Eburacum, named after the ancient Celtic place name Ebora Kon (Place of Yew Trees).

Those of  ‘yew’ familiar with the Anglo-Saxon folklore legend of Robin Hood will know that wood of the yew is the primary material used in construction of the hunter’s longbow.  …  Just sayin’.

Of course, as far as Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham were concerned, the band of merry men were just a gang of poachers illegally slaughtering herds of deer in the King’s game preserve.   So maybe Nigeria’s traditional hunters are tarred with the same backwoods brush in the eyes of official military forces.  All the same, it might be a good idea for everyone to remember Gary Cooper‘s role as Alvin York in the classic Hollywood film “Sergeant York.”  Hillbillies have always had a place on the battlefield, and this here Borno scenario is cryin’ out for a big-budget, fasttrack Nollywood film treatment.  Nome sane?


3rd Dan Brown Belt

May 17, 2014

Public imagination was captured by a novel idea — The End of The Law, an apocalyptic view of the end of the world linked to Mahayana Buddhist belief.  A deep pessimism took hold of people’s minds and they seemed to be awaiting some radical breakthrough.  In such an age, it might seem that the last thing to appeal to the human mind would be a solemn, gorgeous, and grandiose edifice; instead, an amorphous vision of infinite emptiness would probably take root.

At times when great emptiness prevails, the equilibrium of the status quo can easily be disturbed.  Disequilibrium then provokes excess, deviance, and a flippant inversion of expected norms.  It is at such moments that the creative spirit of the demiurge propels us to an achievement beyond human scale.  The image of the gigantic inspires a sublime excitement: the bizarre, the unsound, and wondrous are welcomed. Immersed in an aura of mass excitement, bigger is better, and a potlatch frame of mind prevails.  The resulting creative leap into the void entails construction of a volume of untoward proportions, importation of unfamiliar fabrication techniques, and the grandeur of a new and overwhelming spatial setting.

What is being described here?  The herd psychology that drives the annual Burning Man ritual?  The making (and re-making) of Godzilla’s cinematic adventures?  Donald Trump’s latest real estate venture?   None of the above:  instead, these paragraphs succinctly summarize Arata Isozaki‘s explication of the social context –1000 years ago– that eventually resulted in construction of Jōdo-dō temple.  But he might as well have been writing about the day before yesterday, because there too one might readily see “an infinite emptiness,” “a deep pessimism imprisoning people’s minds” as they “await some radical breakthrough.”  Status quo in disequilibrium?  Excess, deviance, and an inversion of social norms?  Got it all covered, right here and now.

So who is the creative demiurge ( demos + ergos –> the people’s worker ) who will propel 21st Century Americans to “achievement beyond human scale?”  If not Elon Musk, then perhaps Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr.?

Brown [facing election later this year] presented a lively case for a fourth term in office, articulating a passionate defense of a high-speed rail plan connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, a 520-mile project expected to eventually cost $68 billion.  Republican gubernatorial candidates have dubbed it the “Crazy Train.”

Huge Deficits Follow Balanced Budgets

“In America we’re losing the capacity to make decisions, to be unified as a nation and have a vision, and move forward to make it happen,” Brown said. “I’m going to build great things, I’m going to do big things, and I’m not going to be intimidated by fears of things that are part of life.  We can build it.  We can link the north to the south.  We can reshape land use in the Central Valley.  We can do it with renewable energy, we can do it in an elegant way … and it will be a model for the country.”

[In discussing budget conflicts with the California legislature,] Brown waxed philosophic. “First the desire emerges, then the desire becomes a need, and the need becomes a right, and the right becomes a law, and the law becomes a lawsuit,” he said. “When I was in Japan, practicing Zen meditation … each of us would say:  ‘Desires are endless.  I vow to cut them down.'”

… And yet … somehow the bullet train project is not (also)(merely) a desire?

What would Chōgen say?


Late Breaking Update:

A 35-foot-tall sphinxlike sculpture made of sugar is on display in the cavernous interior of the former Domino Sugar Refinery in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  Artist Kara Walker‘s monumental installation used four tons of sugar to create the female figure, which wears a kerchief on her head and has slightly exaggerated African features.  Her breasts are bared and her fists are thrust out.  There are several smaller sculptures of young boys covered in molasses with fruit baskets holding unrefined sugar.

Richard Drew_sugarbaby

The full title of the work is “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

Apparently, the giganticism of which Isozaki spoke also applies to the titles of artistic works in this age of infinite emptiness.

Walker said in an interview with Complex Magazine that she thought of the sculpture as “this woman-like creature or guardian of the city, the keeper of the riddle, the devourer of heroes.”

Lunghu has two comments:

  • Why not sculpt the figure out of brown sugar instead of white … or perhaps even jaggery?
  • Was the goddess Oshun specifically invited to the opening reception? She was definitely in attendance, but should have been seated at the ‘A’ table.


In The Zone

May 14, 2014

Recently I was reading portions of a certain well-known East Coast elitist weekly magazine that sees its mission as reporting on matters of literature/ medium-high culture in America’s foremost island metropolis. In the middle of a promotional feature piece describing the career and oeuvre of a wildly eccentric video artist, I came upon this quote:

What identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others.  You are your ‘area’ [quotation marks added] rather than you are yourself.  If someone describes you, that description becomes part of your ‘area,’ whether you like it or not.

The article’s author paraphrased/clarified by reframing this statement in the following way: rather than constituting personal identities, ‘areas’ are the totality of each person’s cumulative effect on others.  (And, I would add, this process is conditioned on the way that those multiple inter-personal effects are differentially reflected back upon the ‘originator.’) From this perspective, individual existence in human society is much less about defining one’s self through actions and behavior than it is a matter of adjusting one’s outlook to accommodate the overpowering reality of collective perceptions that define who you ‘actually’ are as far as others are concerned.  Hmmm, sounds to me like subjective gaze –in a hall of mirrors.

I used the term ‘others’ deliberately, because I got the sense from the article that this wildly creative artist hadn’t actually read Foucault, Derrida, Lacan et al. (really, who has?) but was instead glibly glossing secondhand snippets of their thought without knowing exactly where it originated or what it might imply.  That kind of approach is completely understandable in a 21st c. artist who knows –or instinctively feels–  that being perceived as a big-idea intellectual would be a fatal career move among his target market.  It’s also completely understandable in the case of an artist who might just be creating (whatever) as the spirit moves him, and isn’t concerned with an ontological framework that explains the theory of everything.  So this post isn’t about bashing some guy I don’t even know by claiming that he’s a superficial chucklehead showman.  Not at all.  Instead, this post is (almost) all about me … in theme, if not entirely in content.

So … provisionally accepting the hypothesis that each of us may be socially defined by the cumulative, aggregated totality of perceptions and expectations residing in the minds of others, what does that mean to ‘you’ and ‘me’ (on a day-to-day basis)?  First, it means that we don’t have to accept the term ‘area’ decreed by some guy we’ve never met and whose credentials as a social theorist are shaky at best.  I strongly favor the more-or-less equivalent term ‘zone‘ –mostly because advertising research has demonstrated that words with ‘Z’ (or ‘X’) sounds are way cooler than other consonant-based phonemes, and definitely way, way cooler than mushy vowels.  Thus we can casually describe ourselves as being ‘in the zone,’ with all the consummately apical athleticism that the phrase implies.  Cool.  Consider it done.

Second, we may have to accept –nay, revel in– the fact that (in actual practice) collective social perception may be highly fragmented and diffuse.  Very few –if any–  ‘others’ have access to the totality of the ‘zone.’  Instead, most people will have formed their perceptions of us on the basis of limited firsthand inter-personal interaction and/or secondhand information from sources they (provisionally) believe and accept.  This reality provides tremendous opportunities for leveraging/exploiting the inherent ambiguity that permeates any environment which is characterized by incomplete, conflicting information of unknown quality.  We may have greater scope for action than we imagine, rather than being inexorably confined by preexisting expectations.  By selectively behaving in ways that either reinforce certain regions of the ‘zone’ or contradict/conflict with other regions, we can restore some measure of control over our own zonal identities by keeping the shape and boundaries of the ‘zone’ in constant fluid motion.  Acting against type, so to speak, in order not only to define the character role we’re performing in the drama currently onstage, but also to expand the scope of roles that we can be called upon to play in future productions.

Third, there are some interesting implications in the notion that our very existence is defined by an ongoing, mutual, multilateral interaction with fellow beings.  If each of us is simultaneously source and sink, referent and referrer, perhaps humanity is actually functioning as a collective organism rather than as an aggregate set composed of discrete, differentiable entities.  (Aspen) forest, not individual trees. ‘I’ and ‘thou’ are actually ‘we.’  Suddenly, the Golden Rule has been transmuted into: “You are Them. They are You. Behave accordingly.”

And although the persistent illusion of the autonomous individual ‘self’ is so effectively hardwired into our neural architecture that even imagining another mode of existence is so difficult as to be practically impossible, it might be worth the effort to attempt exactly such a project.  What will you find when you dissolve/ obliterate/ detach from the ‘self’ illusion? The void? Or something else? Let me know when we find out.