» 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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» NEW MEXICO NOTES #1: Santa Fe Differs

by Brian Awehali

On by far my most memorable winter stroll around the then-deserted College of Santa Fe, on visits to the Santa Fe Art Institute, I peered around a corner into a courtyard, looking for some mundane scene to exoticize with my camera when I heard what sounded like a theremin being played. Perhaps some artist was noodling around with one? Then a low-pitched thrum and bright light settled overhead and seemed to move closer.

Just prior to the unfortunate alien incident while visiting SFAI. - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

Just prior to the unfortunate incident in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI). – (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

When the hatch opened, I heard music that sounded a lot like the cantina music from the first “Star Wars” movie. Despite associations with the needless bloodshed of that scene, where Han Solo kills a business associate with his blaster, I was excited. Stories of alien visitation are common in New Mexico, especially around Roswell, but I didn’t take them very seriously, and I definitely didn’t imagine I’d be having any such experiences first-hand. I imagined, mostly because of the music, that there was a grand party going on inside, and that I’d soon be dancing, knocking back shots of oddly-colored liqueurs, or smoking alien herbs through exotic pipes with new friends.

Unfortunately, the visitors had traveled all these light years merely for the purpose of collecting stool samples.

* * *

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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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» LONG LIVE THE OUTLAWS: The Great Art and Forgery of Elmyr de Hory

by Brian Awehali

Most petty crime is dull, in both motivation and execution. But I have always wished I could be a great outlaw. Consider the outlaw, and the merits of his or her avocation: the perpetration of grand, spectacular, and/or marvelous crime. A widespread and enduring fascination with outlaws, hucksters, escapists, charlatans, and rogues of various ilk has always harkened to embrace the heroic combination of focus, ingenuity, bravery, determination, and intelligence needed to rise to a level of criminal infamy.

“I love the trite mythos of the outlaw,” wrote Tom Robbins, in his comic novel, Still Life with Woodpecker. “I love the self-conscious romanticism of the outlaw. I love the black wardrobe of the outlaw…The outlaw boat sails against the flow, and I love it. Outlaws toilet where badgers toilet, and I love it. All outlaws are photogenic, and I love that…There are outlaw maps that lead to outlaw treasures, and I love those maps especially. Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here, and I love that most of all.

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» HUMANS ARE A VIRUS WITH SHOES

by Brian Awehali

People suck, and that’s my contention.
We’re a virus with shoes.

Bill Hicks

I quite like a lot of people, but there’s much to recommend Hicks’ notion that we are viruses with shoes. It’s a fact that well over 40% of the human DNA chain is viral in origin, as Michael Specter writes in a fascinating New Yorker article, “Darwin’s Surprise”:

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone…

Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

One scientist interviewed for the New Yorker article, Thierry Hiedmann, contends that the mapping of the human genome project and recent findings about “endogenous retroviruses” show that genes and viruses are not, in fact, distinct entities, and that the concept of virus and humanity as enemies or combatants, rather than as co-evolutionary forces, is in error. Heidmann and others have even suggested that without viral influence, mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature and led to live birth. “These viruses made those changes possible, [and] It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”

So the stuff of us, the meat of our matter, is partially viral in origin. What of our language, and our culture?

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» THE CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

by Brian Awehali

The first time you kiss somebody, you may well be caught up in romance and various libidinal tides, but your brain and olfactory system are hard at work, gathering information to decide whether to take it to the “next level.” At least that’s how the assembled panelists and journalists at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago saw the process.

“You’re not just kissing,” said one scientist suggestively, “you are likely absorbing information about your partner’s immune system, looking for a good match should you two procreate.”

Other scientists in attendance copiously supported their colleague’s assertion by noting findings in related studies. “A similar tendency has also been found,” asserted one postdoctoral researcher in the Berkeley Olfactory Research Program, “in some rather interesting tests where women sniffing male armpit sweat chose those indicating immune systems complementary–not similar–to their own.”

Certainly there exist women for whom the idea of a long session of male armpit huffing evokes an unseemly dark thrill. You might hope that one or more such women were among those who signed up for this study. But when pondering this pit-sweat-sniffing story, one must consider the long tour of ignominies visited upon countless women that led up to this particular moment in scientific history, and the moment in which each woman in the study was bade: Choose the best armpit.

(Alternately, the study may not have involved live male armpits at all, but rather the sniffing of previously collected male armpit sweat. Either way, it’s an odd study. It also provides me a rare opportunity to link to an only slightly related Old Spice commercial about armpits, men, manliness, and frenching):

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» CUSTER’S LAST STAND: Where Fools Rush In

by Brian Awehali

(originally published by Britannica.com as part of a regular history feature called “Yesterday’s News”)

July 25, 1876 — The U.S. Army today suffered its worst defeat ever in Plains Indian warfare, as more than 260 soldiers in the 7th Cavalry were killed along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in the disputed Montana Territory. The bloodbath ensued after an evidently ill-conceived charge under the command of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. There appear to be no human survivors from the 7th Cavalry and only one equine survivor, a cavalry horse (ironically named “Comanche”). Because of the Indians’ custom of immediately removing their dead from the battlefield, it is difficult to ascertain how heavy their losses were, though estimates place the total at around 140.

Sources report that Custer may have disregarded the orders of Brigadier Gen. Alfred H. Terry—as well as the dictates of sound judgment—when he rushed ahead of reinforcements and led between 260 and 270 cavalrymen against a force of approximately 2,500 Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians, a war party believed to have been the largest that the Plains Indians have ever arrayed against U.S. forces.

According to one eyewitness, during the battle “Indians took clothing from dead [U.S.] soldiers and dressed themselves in it to confuse the soldiers,” a ruse which appears to have been successful. Further eyewitness reports indicate that many of the U.S. troops, confronted with certain defeat, attempted to surrender, but that the Indians “did not take a single soldier prisoner, [killing] all of them.”

Custer apparently decided not to wait for reinforcements from Terry, who was to bring a larger body of troops up the Yellowstone River in an attempt to trap the Indians between the two forces. It is unknown why Custer chose this course of action, but his tactic appears to have been undermined in no small part by the failure of at least one officer under his command. Maj. Marcus Reno, after assuming command of one of two flanking forces, retreated prematurely and with apparent cowardice, leaving Custer’s main force fatally exposed.

Following so soon after last week’s defeat of Gen. George Crook at Rosebud Creek by Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse and his warriors, this newest setback underscores the poor planning and lack of resolve that have come to characterize the U.S. military’s inglorious campaign against the Plains Indians. Although the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 guarantees Indians the exclusive and permanent possession of the Dakota Territory west of the Missouri River, the U.S. government has consistently failed to take measures against illegal pioneer settlements in the region. In fact, several Indian raids on such settlements have been taken as a pretext for release from the terms of the treaty. The recent discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory—recognized as a sacred hunting ground for the Sioux and Cheyenne—has only worsened matters.

The death of Custer, who takes two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew with him to a High Plains grave, brings to an end one of the more colorful military careers in recent history. Despite graduating last in his class at West Point in 1861 and, in the words of one commentator, “utterly fail[ing] to distinguish himself,” Custer achieved surprising success during the Civil War, as the Michigan cavalry brigade he commanded doggedly pursued Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and led in no small part to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Custer personally received the flag of truce that brought the war to a close.

Although Custer was court-martialed two years later for abandoning his post to visit his wife, his suspension from military service was short-lived. The decline in military enlistment and the demand for leadership in the intensifying campaign against the Plains Indians soon led to Custer’s reinstatement.

He wasted no time in stirring controversy when, under the orders of Major Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, troops under his command ambushed a Cheyenne encampment along the Washita River. Custer reported that he had killed about 100 warriors, women, and children and that he had destroyed all livestock and winter supplies. Public outcry about these events led to the creation of the federal Peace Commission, which was charged with converting the Plains Indians from their nomadic life to reservation settlement; faced with exposure and probable starvation, many of the Cheyenne at Washita accepted resettlement. Custer’s reputation as “the Army’s premier Indian fighter” is based upon such actions.

The bloody end that has befallen Custer and his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn will surely resonate in the public mind for many years and is all but certain to intensify U.S. governmental action against the Plains Indians.

Sources:

  • Encyclopædia Britannica: “George Armstrong Custer and Battle of the Little Bighorn”
  • Larry Sklenar, To Hell with Honor: Custer and the Little Bighorn (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000)
  • The West, PBS
  • Interview with Louise Barnett, author of Touched by Fire, on C-SPAN’s Booknotes