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» PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW: Fake Identity & Cognitive Infiltration in Social Media and Beyond

by Brian Awehali

“A man is whatever room he is in.”
–Japanese proverb

Most people know a certain portion of people on the internet aren’t people at all, or aren’t the people they purport to be, especially on social networks like Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, where at least 5-6% of all profiles are fake. 97% of these imposters are estimated to identify as female, and apparently attractive college-aged bisexuals lead the field. Consider just Facebook’s roughly 1 billion users, then do the math. A conservative estimate is that 80 million of the profiles on the network are fictional. That’s roughly the population of Germany or Egypt, a quarter of the United States, fifteen Finlands. And yet most people don’t think such fakers are among the ranks of their own online “friends.”

“[Facebook is] the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented.” — Julian Assange, speaking to Russia Today.

* * *

ArmySocialMedia

If you have a blog with any overtly “political” agenda or content, chances are pretty good you have some fake followers, too, and that you’ve posted comments by them. You may have had multi-part email or comment board exchanges with them. They might even have names of people you recognize. If you’ve ever published/edited an independent magazine, or, say, co-moderated a politicized Facebook page, you definitely interacted with a fair amount of vitriolic cognitive absolutists and disruptive personalities, but you almost surely also interacted with dozens or hundreds of deliberate fakes, either bots engaged in large-scale data harvesting attacks, military or law enforcement personnel who are “doing” the internet in order to influence public opinion, or others intent on exploiting a fundamental weakness of social networks and the internet in general, humorously summed up in a 20-year-old New Yorker cartoon:

On the internet, no one knows you're a dog - New Yorker / Peter Steiner

“The analysis of the fake Facebook profile experiment showed that creating and maintaining a fake profile is an easy task.”

This was one of the main findings reported in a paper published in the Journal of Service Science Research last year. This is not a new story by any means, but it’s the first (and last) time I’m focusing on it here on LOUDCANARY. The paper is fairly detailed, but in March and April 2012, the authors created six “socially attractive fake Facebook profiles and integrat[ed] them into existing friendship networks to simulate a data harvesting attack.”

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» CONSIDER THE COMPLETE CHICKEN

by Brian Awehali

San Juan Chickens Before Harvest - photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

San Juan chickens before harvest – photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“I am largely worried about wingless chickens. I feel this is the time for me to fulfill myself by stepping in and saving the chicken but I don’t know how exactly since I am not bold. I only know I believe in the complete chicken. You think about the complete chicken for a while.”

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

I’d asked if I could come and see the chicken harvest. It was a sunny day in the San Juan Islands, and my acquaintance with two farmers had presented an opportunity to see a free-range, all organic culling, or harvest.

Chickens Clamoring for Feeding - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“Do you think they have any idea that today’s different from other days?” I asked one of the farmers as he beckoned the chickens.

He paused handsomely in his well-worn green t-shirt with a large peace sign on the chest and scratched an unruly sun-bleached beard.

San Juan Chicken Portrait - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“Nah. They have a simple life, and they’ve never known anything but this, so why would they?”

“And anyway, these are broiler chickens. They can’t live past about two years old, or their hearts give out.”

I watched the chickens, and the few dark ducks in the flock, who were eager to approach in hopes of being fed, and paid me no attention as I shot photos. A few had to be chased down and put into the enclosed truck bed, but most just filed in, clucking, in a way that made me think darkly of Black Friday.

About 9 billion chickens are harvested and eaten each year in the United States. Most are slaughtered in factory farms, where “cervical dislocation,” “asphyxiation by carbon dioxide,” and maceration (grinding) are considered the best “acceptable humane methods.” I was curious to see a smaller, sustainable family-run operation, where the farmers actually care about the quality of the chicken’s lives, care about what they eat, and where they participate directly in the harvest, rather than resorting to mass mechanical means.

Once all of the chickens were in the back of the truck, we rolled towards several white tents where the harvest would take place.

Chicken feet in a cone. - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

This type of chicken has been bred for early harvest, as well as for an easygoing temperament and generally pleasant appearance. They did not get too excited in the truck, nor did they put up much resistance before being placed headfirst into tapered metal bleeding cones, where their vivid yellow feet and bright red combs twitched as they bled out.

“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the news. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”

– Flannery O’Connor

[Warning: graphic material follows the jump]

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» CHINESE PIGEON RACING & CONFINEMENT IN CHENGDU

by Brian Awehali

Kitebird at People's Park, Chengdu, (c) 2012,  Brian Awehali

Kitebird flown at People’s Park, Chengdu in 2010. – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Seemingly querulous racing pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali“I’m very worried,” said Mr. C., our interpreter and guide, as our driver pulled into the courtyard. His eyes were wet. “Only two of my pigeons have returned from the race two days ago.”

Mr. C., a thin man with a sweet face, had arranged through a friend for us to make a weekend visit to a Chengdu suburb for a tour of a pigeon racing club and one racer’s private coop.

“How many pigeons did you release?” I asked.

“Ten,” he said mournfully. As we piled out of the sedan into a courtyard, he ran ahead.

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

The owner of this private coop, who was meeting us inside, was the editor of a newspaper, and also a prominent local member of the Communist Party. Most officials of any substantial-sized business in China probably are, and one might consider it an occupational hazard.

Ah, sweet release:

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengu pigeon racing club - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengdu pigeon racing club – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

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» EXPERIMENTS IN VEGANISM & ADVANCED BIPEDALISM

by Brian Awehali

http://www.builtlean.com/2011/11/17/barefoot-running-research/

On a long road trip several years ago, when I was still eating even very bad roadside food, I listened to the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, and I found myself delaying gas and bathroom breaks because I was too interested in what would happen next. McDougall told a wildly entertaining story about traditional and modern competitive “ultra”-runners that managed to also be a sort of ethnography and a treatise on a significant aspect of human evolution: our unequaled long-distance running ability and our related unique ability to sweat from every part of our body, instead of just from our tongues, as basically all other land mammals do.

Why is this significant? As an October 2012 article, “The Running Man Revisited,” from Seed magazine explains:

“…[R]oughly 2 million years ago, Australopithecus, with its tiny brain, hefty jaw and diet of rough, fibrous plants, evolved into Homo erectus, our slim, long-legged ancestor with a big brain and small teeth suited for tearing into animal and fruit flesh. Such a transformation almost certainly involved a reliable supply of calorie-laden meat, yet according to the fossil record, spear points have been in use for 200,000 years at most, and the bow and arrow for only 50,000 years, leaving an enormous stretch of time when early humans were consuming meat without the use of tools. [...] A deer and a decently fit man … trot at almost an identical pace, but in order to accelerate, a deer goes anaerobic, while the man remains in an oxygenated jogging zone. The same is true for horses, antelopes, and a slew of other four-legged creatures … and because quadrupeds can’t pant while they run, they also quickly overheat.”

Humans can’t outrun a cheetah or an antelope over short distances, but those animals can only run at their faster speeds for short distances compared to humans. Organized human “persistence” hunters can run an animal until it literally drops of heatstroke, as illustrated by the BBC documentary clip below (hard not to feel bad for the prey):

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» HERE COMES THE OCEAN (and the Triumph of Slime)

by Brian Awehali

Climate change is causing the sea to rise far faster than scientists once expected, a meter or more by 2100. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so dire to you. Perhaps you read that sentence and think: “Pity; there go some beaches and beach-front real estate.” Maybe you think: “You know, I’ve always liked the ocean more than New York City anyway…” If so, you may not be getting the picture, because a rise of just one meter will literally drown cities and towns across the globe, displacing millions of people, creating food shortages, epic political conflicts and disease epidemics.

It is not just the amount of overall rise that is of concern. That may well be the least concerning aspect. Storm surges will increase dramatically in strength if baseline sea level is higher. Hurricanes and typhoons have already increased significantly in strength and duration, an effect scientists attribute to climate change, and this is expected to continue. More than 10,000 people have been killed in storm surges in the Bay of Bengal alone in the last 300 years, and such surges could increase exponentially in the coming years. This means that the watery ends of Miami, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Dhaka are not just possible, but actually likely.

Their ends might come from the sea, something like this:

…or from the sky, like this:

(The already disappearing island of Kiribati is, of course, already f–ked.)

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» BIRDS ATTACK!: Navigation, Personality & Aggression in the Aviary Kingdom

by Brian Awehali

Dog and Crow Battle, Ocean Beach, San Francisco (c) Brian Awehali

Who’s attacking whom on Ocean Beach, SF? – photo (c) Brian Awehali

Birds, who once were dinosaurs, could take over the world (again) if they wanted to. And not just in the movies, a la Hitchcock’s 1963 terror, The Birds. (If you haven’t seen the movie, check out this well-edited one-and-a-half-minute version of it.) Not long ago, in Kagoshima, a city on the southern island of Kyushu, in Japan, a booming crow population went on the offensive: destroying power lines and fiber optic cable, being markedly more aggressive with people, and outwitting human “crow patrols” by building decoy nests. In recent years, crows have been filmed using tools in sequence and exhibiting complex reasoning as well.

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» LISTEN TO THE BIRDS: In Praise of Captain Beefheart & His Magics

by Brian Awehali


“Listen to the birds. That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.”
- Captain Beefheart, “10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

Music can do a lot of different things. There’s music to comfort you, music to make you dance, music to make the time pass easier.

And then there’s music that whacks you upside the head, assaults you, is radically unconcerned with your comfort, and comes to get inside and change you, forever. Continue reading

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» DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

Three months after this was written, Liao Yiwu escaped China and sought asylum in Germany. He has also since released a vivid memoir of his years in detention, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.

interview and photos by Brian Awehali

“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several friends at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a PRC official, speaking to a visiting US official sometime in 2010, says, in somewhat condescending fashion, “We are very impressed with the gains your country has made in its short 200-year history,” to which the US official replies,  “Yes, we are very impressed with the gains of your 60-year-old country as well.”

There are, after all, people, and then there are states. There’s the massive 5,000-year-old “culture” of China, made up of many different peoples, incorporated and renegade, spread over every conceivable terrain and holding as many or more distinct and idiosyncratic beliefs and practices as they hold in common, and then there’s the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its fractious apparatus.

Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the PRC, a roughly thirty year war was declared on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of China: temples, libraries, museums and universities were razed; millions of intellectuals, professors, specialized workers, landowners, landlords and other “liberal bourgeois elements” were imprisoned or murdered. Thirty million people—the number almost defies comprehension—starved to death after the government outlawed private farms and forced farmers in the country to send unreasonable quotas of their harvest to the cities to feed urban workers during the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly transform China into an industrial power. Compounding the stark material realities of life under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, family members and neighbors were turned murderously against each other in series of state-directed ideological campaigns and “purges,” and official records and memories not echoing the government’s line were destroyed.

Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was born in 1958, almost ten years after the founding of the PRC, and his often principally embattled life and many volumes of work both cast extraordinary light on the traumatic and complex collision between the Chinese people and their modern state. He’s been imprisoned and tortured for writing and distributing his poetry, and though his work has received significant international attention and acclaim, it’s also completely banned in China.

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» MADNESS & MASS SOCIETY: Pharmaceuticals, Psychiatry & the Rebellion of True Community

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" detail, raven vs. mob

Brian Awehali interviews Dr. Bruce Levine

Author and clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wants to tell you that many forms of depression, discontent, and a whole raft of diagnosed mental illness are nothing more than natural responses to the oppression of institutional society. In his book, Commonsense Rebellion, Levine contends that the vast majority of mental disorders are, to put it simply, profit-driven fabrications with no established biochemical or genetic causes. This interview with Dr. Levine was conducted several years ago for publication in LiP: Informed Revolt, but the growth of corporate pharmaceutical “solutions” to deviant behaviors has only grown since then. Dr. Levine’s newest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, (Chelsea Green, 2011) is an exploration of the political psychology of demoralization and the strategies and tactics used by oppressed peoples to gain power in the United States.

Awehali: Bruce, you’re a critic of both psychiatry—the medical science of identifying and treating mental illness with drugs—and psychology—the study of human behavior, thought, and development. Are there substantial differences between the two?

Bruce Levine: When I first started out as a psychologist in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was fairly commonplace to dissent from psychiatry—that’s why people became psychologists. They saw the pseudo-science of not only the treatments but of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) itself. Unfortunately, over the years, psychology itself has slowly aped psychiatry, and there isn’t that sharp a distinction between the two anymore. The American Psychological Association (APA)—the professional group for psychologists—now fights for prescription rights for psychologists. So I guess any psychologist who maintains a position that depression isn’t primarily an innate biochemical disease, and that the DSM is a nonscientific instrument of diagnosis, is a dissident!

I should say that back in the 1970s and 1980s, before psychiatrists had the backing of the drug companies, they had very little power. In fact, they were falling apart, as evidenced by so many movies that were making fun of them, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—which could never come out today. But back in those days, when [psychiatrists] weren’t in bed with the drug companies and didn’t have much political power, you saw movies like that come out. Now, psychiatrists have the media power; they’re able to describe the playing field of the controversy.

Let me ask you a blunt question, first: Do you think there’s ever any basis for diagnosing someone as mentally ill?

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» PLAY GO! (玩 围棋!)

by Brian Awehali

{It is} something unearthly . . . If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.” — Emanuel Lasker, international Chess Master

First things first: No, outside of there being white and black pieces placed in alternating turns on a grid, it’s nothing like Othello. And it was invented by the Chinese, but is most often referred to by its spiffy Japanese name: Go.

Go, or wéiqí, was created by Chinese emperor Yao about 4000 years ago and was allegedly invented to help a stupid son learn to think better. Or it was invented by Chinese tribal warlords as a strategy aid. Or it began as a fortune-telling medium.

The reality of the game is more interesting than the lore:  Go (碁 in Japanese), baduk (바둑 in Korean), and wéiqí (围棋 in the original Chinese), is a game with true majesty for those who devote themselves to it. For its devotees and for mathematicians in almost equal measure, the game inspires reverence and awe. Due to its extremely open-ended play and staggering mathematical possibilities for variation, the game is by far the hardest to teach computers. That fact, along with the clip below (after the break), from Darren Aronofsky’s film, π (or Pi) sealed it: Go was the game for me.

“Listen to me. The possibilities of game play are endless. They say that no two Go games have ever been alike. Just like snowflakes. So, the Go board actually represents an extremely complex and chaotic universe. That is the truth of our world…there is no simple pattern. — From π, or Pi

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» SPRING FESTIVAL IN ZHUSHAN, NANTOU, TAIWAN

by Brian Awehali

We arrived in Hong Kong early in the morning, en route to Taipei. Our landing was rough. Stomach-vanishing rough. During the worst of it, I looked over and saw a stone-faced woman next to me with a pendant necklace hovering straight out from her body instead of resting on her neck. I suppose flight is for the birds, and that most of us humans take it far too much for granted, rather than as the miraculous (if deeply ecologically problematic) thing it really is. [See for yourself] One of my favorite comedians, Louis CK, has a great bit about this, and about how privileged and spoiled most of us have become about the wonders of modern technology:

After touching down in Taipei, we took a bus and high speed bullet train to Zhushan, a farming town of about 30,000 in Nantou, central Taiwan. We’re staying at my partner F.’s family’s home, the center of what used to be a large farm. The grandfather and patriarch of the family is 8th-generation Taiwanese, but recent times have seen the decline of the farm that parallels the stories of much of the area, with sons and daughters alighting for potentially more exciting and presumably less laborious work in business. In F’s family, it’s mostly the shoe business. The family’s land has been sold off over time, and what remains is a courtyard with several homes arranged in a horseshoe around it.

I didn’t sleep on the flight, so when we finally arrived, I was dead on my feet, and went to bed almost immediately, smelling fire under simmering bamboo soup, and many other things I couldn’t identify.

It’s worth mentioning that since taking a perfuming workshop in San Francisco several weeks ago, my sense of smell has been in hyperdrive. On the plane, I smelled every foot, every lotion, and every other less-appetizing thing there was to smell. In the Zhushan countryside, the smells are better. From my bed, I smelled well-seasoned Taiwanese sausages (rice wine, garlic, Chinese cinnamon powder, and soy sauce paste) curing in the next room, along with glutinous rice and daikon cakes that are fried then fed to the gods at New Year’s, but then eaten by mortals once the gods have had their fill. It was explained to me that the gods eat only the cake’s essence, which works out well for everyone, I suppose.

After sleeping for 14 hours, I awoke to an eager rooster crowing well before dawn, and decided to walk into town, about 20 minutes away. I took a shoulder-less road flanked on one side by an open mountain spring-fed culvert.

As I walked, I saw several trucks with large water barrels and long-nosed suction pumps pull over along the road, drivers climbing directly from cab to bed to extract some of this water. They were taking it for watering, but I was told that people travel from other parts of Taiwan for this mountain spring water, because it makes the best tea. Lush vegetation grew happily in family gardens on all sides: banana trees, corn, plots of sweet potatoes, and lettuce.

Woman in countryside, washing radishes. Zhushan, Nantou, Taiwan. (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

I do not speak Taiwanese or Mandarin. F.’s grandmother and grandfather speak only Taiwanese, and everyone else in the family seems to speak both Mandarin and Taiwanese. I keep making small mistakes relating to my cultural ignorance, then struggle to understand what I’m being told. For example: my first meal with the family, I put my chopsticks down in my bowl to rest, so that they were pointing upward. This is a no-no; chopsticks are to lay flat when not in use, and are only placed downward in a bowl when offering food to the gods. I felt stupid and sad to have made a disrespectful blunder, but, of course, I had no way of knowing about this custom.

As an American, I marvel somewhat at the complexity and reverence displayed for the gods here. There are gods for everything, who must be respected and paid attention to. Offerings are made to the earth god, and it was explained to me that every region has its own earth god. The temple for the earth god of this area, who reports to the regional earth god, is just several hundred yards down the road. The patriarch of the family, now over 90 years old and mostly deaf, walks down to pay his respects every morning.

I was happy to see that animals are largely unaffected by linguistic or cultural barriers. I made fast friends with a still-nursing female dog raising her three pups in front of a house, and right by the busy road. After approaching shyly and seeing I was friendly, she became enthusiastically friendly herself, and has since come out to greet me and walk me down the road in either direction every time I’ve passed. In the picture to the left, she is approaching me from the direction of the temple of Zhushan’s earth god.

I passed a large, two-story roost for homing pigeons just before the foggy countryside gave way abruptly to cityscape. I bought two “tea eggs” from a 7-Eleven, the only recognizable western chain I’ve seen here so far. Tea eggs are hard boiled eggs that are then gently cracked and simmered in a broth of black tea, soy sauce, anise, cinnamon, sugar, peppercorn and mandarin peel. You get them from what looks like a crockpot filled with a dark brown broth, and the whites of the eggs are tan, with darker brown marbling. I found them delicious. At 7am, the streets of the city were an organized bedlam, with pedestrians and people on scooters navigating what seemed to me, especially at first, like impossibly limited space.

Since I couldn’t read any of the street signs or speak the language, I decided against a complex walk, made just one turn near the city center, and weaved the length of the street, before turning back and returning the way I came. Many, if not most people in Zhushan ride scooters — not just adults or boys. Grandmothers, fathers with daughters, mothers with three kids, mothers with two kids and large potentially explosive propane tanks nestled between their legs — everyone.

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» P.S.: SO LONG LOU, YOU GOT ME

by Brian Awehali

LouReedLou Reed came to my dreams last night, looking ashen and skeletal, propped up in bed like it was his last interview, only it was a monologue, and he had dark and glorious things to share. The air around him was grainy, like old newsprint, and it was getting darker fast. He was an asshole, but I loved him in dream-time with as much tenderness and ferocity as I loved him with in my waking hours.

Lou’s eyes were always exquisite: deep, dark and sad, with the intelligence, humor, love and yes, malicious intent, that he poured into decades of work, always visible around the edges. Lou often looked more bemused than amused in photos.

I never met him in the flesh. The closest I ever came to Lou was through my old friend Loretta Kazanecki, a one-time assistant at a Manhattan opthalmology office, who told me about the time Lou viciously berated her and her boss for not writing him a new contact lens prescription. Loretta said Lou was really bad about taking out his contacts at night, and that he’d leave them in for days on end, to the point where opthalmologist’s were afraid to sign off on any more of them. Nobody wanted to be the eye doctor that blinded Lou Reed. And I don’t think Loretta, scarred by the experience, could ever separate the man from his art.

That was never a problem for me. I don’t think one of the main purposes in life is to be nice, and I think Lou saved my life several times. He’s definitely the one who most convinced me to move to New York in my early 20s. As a misfit teenager stuck in Oklahoma in the late ’80s, it was Lou’s voice, his artful lyrics, and the motley universe of people he depicted in them that, more than any other, were the soundtrack to my excavation. I might have known, back then, what I didn’t want to be part of, but the universe of people and emotions Lou brought to life in my mind guided me towards what I did want to be part of. And it was a better way of being alive. It wasn’t nicer, but it was undeniably more valuable and more worthwhile.

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» RABBIT, NUN & POWERS IN TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Rabbit, Nun and Powers in Tibet

Tibetan nun and rabbit, alongside Han Chinese roadbloack heading into Tibet. Photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

There’s really only one highway going from southwest China to Tibet, and it’s long, uneven, often blocked or jammed by convoys of military vehicles or commercial trucks, and subject to periodic closures.

It’s a sparsely populated area, but you can tell that the Chinese have big plans for it. Enormous electrical power lines lope over the hills, and in spots unpaved road gives way incongruously to new four-lane highways.

TibetHighwaySignThe picture at the top was taken at a routine road block that’s set up en route to Lhagong, which the Han call Tagong. If you can read Mandarin, the sign to the right will tell you all about that roadblock. There’s just a gate they drop over the road at a standard time every day, and everyone piles out to stretch, mill around, or stare at a handful of the locals. This monk was just standing around, smiling like some obnoxiously enlightened* being, looking radiant alongside the martial roadblock, as this rabbit followed her around.

At the daily roadblock into Kham. (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

As counterintuitive as it might seem, I don’t think the Han Chinese stand a long-term chance against this kind of power (or altitude), though they’re probably more than willing to dispossess, torture and murder thousands of Tibetans in order to prove this kind of wishful or hopeful thinking wrong.

Horse at Golden Hour in Lhagong, Kham, Tibet ( ཁམས)

Horse and prayer flags at golden hour in Lhagong, Kham, Tibet ( ཁམས) – photo (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

* Is there a word for the complex of resentment/hatred/suspicion a person from an “inferior race” experiences when encountering people they see as better or purer? I feel this should have shown up, maybe somewhere in James Baldwin’s writing. I don’t actually believe in purity or race-based superiority, but I’m talking about what might have been at play, for example, when the mass of mostly poor and desperate Euroamerican settlers came to North America and encountered civilizations largely without body shame, economic poverty in any real sense, or all kinds of disease?

» FREEDOM FROM, FREEDOM TO: Austin’s Limits, “Legibility” and Some Merits of Nomadic Living

by Brian Awehali

Texas clay soil in drought conditions, cracking

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints [...] Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.

“Positive and Negative Liberty,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The more I examined [...] efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion [and] I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.

–Yale Professor of Agrarian Studies James C. Scott, on efforts by nation states to “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives

This past April, my partner and I moved out of a spacious house in former Tonkawa/Apache lands — Austin, Texas — and into a full-time 75-square-foot RV, which we promptly steered westward.

Part of the reason for this was climatological: 110-degree summers and long-term drought conditions just aren’t appealing to me. My first month in Austin, the worst wildfire in Texas history flanked three sides of the city. All summer long, people waiting at bus stops flattened themselves like bats against slivers of shade from fences.

Another climate-related reality of Austin they don’t trumpet in their relentless promotional branding of the city (“inventive, creative, wired, rockin’, educated, fit and loved!”) is that because of drought, a huge number of homes in the area are developing major foundation problems. The clay soil of Austin contracts in times of drought, causing concrete house foundations to settle unevenly, drywall to splinter, and once-rectangular doorframes to go trapezoid. In a place plagued with drought and water restrictions, the least costly remedy for this is watering your home, and some local news media still encourage the practice. The costlier remedy is to have a foundation repair company jack your house back up for several thousand dollars. Then you can pay some contractors to fix all your doorframes and cracked drywall. Repeat every few years as needed. The problem is so big — and growing — that foundation repair companies can’t keep up with the demand.

TexasDeathRowAnother part of my decision to leave the Lone Star state was political. I was well informed before I moved there, but Texas’s longstanding support for capital punishment and private, for-profit prisons – 1,254 executed and counting! Guaranteed occupancy rates! Overwhelmingly non-white! – is another, far more heinous reality that Austin’s creative, wild, fun-, beer-, music- and new-media-lovin’ denizens are tacitly supporting with their tax dollars and promotion of the state’s capital. SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell, to name but a few prominent Austin-based businesses, make a ton of money for, and help whitewash the image of, arguably the most vengeful, prison-profiteering state in the Union. And that doesn’t even touch on the state’s demented, religiously-driven campaign against Planned Parenthood.

But hey, quit thinking about climate change, human rights, or women — especially poor women; SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell are trying to make money and grow an economy and capital city here, and they get really good tax incentives in Texas. The business of America, especially in Texas, is business. And the soundtrack for the movie of Austin, Texas is awesome! (Texas Quaker Friends: Respect.)

In 2012, Texas ignored the Supreme Court and put a mentally retarded man, Marvin Wilson – I.Q. 61 — to death. The courts and people who most make this kind of atrocity possible are in Austin. They are considered respectable people.

Werner Herzog’s harrowing 2011 documentary, Into the Abyss, featuring conversations with since-executed Texas death row inmate Michael Perry, his co-conspirators, and those affected by his crimes, is a tough look at the state’s capital punishment practices, but I’m pretty sure the movie’s dark title is also referring to the state of Texas itself:

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» PLANTS, MAGIC & SPIRIT: Lit-Tripping in the Ethnobotanosphere

by Brian Awehali

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring”. – Carl Sagan

I’m always looking for examples of magic in the world that don’t require the willful suspension of disbelief, or the complete setting aside of critical thinking. Happily, the plant and animal kingdoms — not all that distinct or separate from us — provide almost limitless examples of interconnectedness, magic, and cosmic intelligence.

Consider highlights from Wikipedia’s, “Plant Intelligence” entry:

Plants are not passive entities… They signal and communicate within and among themselves, accurately compute their circumstances, use sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, and take tightly controlled actions to mitigate and control environmental stressors. Plants are capable of ‘learning’ from their past experiences, and of updating their behavior in order to survive present and future challenges of their environment. Plants are also capable of refined recognition of self and non-self, and are territorial in behavior.”

Ingredients for ayahuasca brewSo, keeping that complex and communicative intelligence in mind, are Columbian Amazonian shamans (or “medicine men” of many possible names) and their tribes able to communicate directly with animals and plants, and do they possess means of traveling to alternate psychic and physical realities? Can a combination of (animistic) belief, rhythm, color and strong plant medicine provide people with direct access and communication with what can be called a spirit realm? How is it that many Amazonian shamans possess understandings of the pharmacology and neurochemistry of plants that far exceeds that of Western scientists?

These are questions explored by Dr. Richard Evans Schultes’ landmark book, Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Columbian Amazon (1992), an extraordinary photo-centric collection of indigenous myths and narratives from travelers and scientists about the ayahuasca experience…

Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes and an Amazonian medicine man, snorting  curare powder through bones. Curare, a plant-derived poison most often used to lethal effect on hunting darts and arrows, is also capable of producing psychedelic states of consciousness.

Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes and an Amazonian medicine man, snorting curare powder through bones. Curare, a plant-derived poison most often used to lethal effect on hunting darts and arrows, is also capable of producing psychedelic states of consciousness.

Are the claims of medicine men — that they get their information directly from the plants, particularly under the influence of ayahuasca — to be taken literally, poetically, or both?

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» AND THE FUTURE IS…

The future is what you make of it” isn’t just some annoying optimists’ platitude, thanks to the ministrations of professional futurists. Ford, Kraft, Motorola, and a host of other companies employ people in their “internal futures” departments; the University of Houston now offers students a degree in futurology; and various think tanks, most of them conservative in orientation, act as factories for professional speculators and their ilk. Creating the future, it seems, is the best way to predict it.

Comparisons to the more fabulous and generally less professional wing of the futurist community—palm, tarot and crystal ball readers, millenarian apocalypticists, Miss Cleo—are tenuous at best. Frankly, most divinators aren’t terribly interested in manufacturing the future in ways broadly aligned with the interests of corporate and government elites. And no self- respecting divinator would be caught dead using “strategic foresight,” “competitive behavior anticipation,” or any other such tool of the more employed wing of the futurist camp. There’s just no life in it.

To combat the professionals, and after failing to generate any predictions of our own that weren’t predictably bleak (and not all that useful) we advertised online for someone with real divination skills, and sifted through about 200 responses before settling on Victor, who mostly makes his living now as an online gambler. The predictions Victor gave us certainly aren’t “professional” in any sense of the word, but we were somewhat surprised—and frequently dismayed—at his prognostications…

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» CAPITALISM MIDWIFED FEMINISM?

ImageSusan Faludi has a customarily trenchant piece in the current issue of The Baffler, “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” that explores feminism’s path, from the organizing efforts of “mill girls” in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to today’s popular brand/seminar/book phenomenon, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, where empowerment can take many ill-defined forms, including breathless paeans to guru/leader/author Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook:

“THANK YOU FOR LEADING THE REVOLUTION!!!!☺”; “sheryl is inspirational! I missed zumba for this and happy I did!”

“The scene at the Menlo Park auditorium, and its conflation of “believe in yourself” faith and material rewards, will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a Sunday inside a prosperity-gospel megachurch or watched Reverend Ike’s vintage “You Deserve the Best!” sermon on YouTube. But why is that same message now ascendant among the American feminists of the new millennium?

Sandberg’s admirers would say that Lean In is using free-market beliefs to advance the cause of women’s equality. Her detractors would say (and have) that her organization is using the desire for women’s equality to advance the cause of the free market. And they would both be right. In embodying that contradiction, Sheryl Sandberg would not be alone and isn’t so new. For the last two centuries, feminism, like evangelicalism, has been in a dance with capitalism.

YouGoGirlIt’s a fabulous and important read. Check it out, then poke around The Baffler site for more eviscerating gems. You might also check out “The Object of the Object,” an adaptation of a chapter from Faludi’s book, Stiffed, exploring changing gender roles in the porn industry, which appeared here on LOUDCANARY as part of the extended online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt, an anthology which also features Lisa Jervis’s excellent related piece about “femininism” and the politics of female self-aggrandizement, “If Women Ruled the World, Nothing Would Be Different.”