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24 May 2008

Living In a Material World


I am a materialist - I'm not ashamed of it. I love material things - the earth, the oceans, plants and animals. I think it's amazing how everything is connected through material processes, one thing feeding off another in a great interconnected system. I love things that are well made, designed to last, because those are quality goods. I love good food - the way it tastes, the way it feels on my tongue, the way it looks with all of those bright healthy colors. I love my friends. There's nothing better than going out on a nice sunny day and playing Frisbee or tag or climbing a tree with some good people, and there's nothing like building a community through face to face interactions - those kinds of relationships really mean something.

I look at most of the people around me, though, and get the feeling that they're way too abstract. I wish they were more materialistic. They're always buying things, not because they love them but because they love the idea of having them. They love the idea of power, or happiness, or sex, or love that is promised with those things, but never actually comes. They use those things to fill an empty space inside of them, but it never really fills it. So they buy more things! Most of those things just get thrown away and replaced with other things that aren't much better, but the people think they are. What's worse, other things like plastic bottles and plastic bags get thrown away and forgotten about. But they don't really go away, they just sit somewhere unused and wasted for the millions of years it takes for them to degrade. These people don't love material things, they love to consume!

You should see the food that they eat too. Have you ever seen a Twinkie? What the hell is that thing? It's not food, it's sugar filled, fortified foam! And fast food? There's no telling what that crap is made out of! It's not colorful, it's not tasty and it's certainly not healthy.
They don't even have real relationships. Their "Friends" are little images on the TV. They sit there watching this little glowing box pretending that they're part of that imaginary world in front of them instead of talking to real people building real communities. No wonder they have to take drugs to stay happy!

Then there's money. It's just paper and metal to me - maybe I could use it to buy some food or something. But the people around me love it; they work their asses off for it, then hoard it, fight over it and die for it. Most of the time it's not even paper and metal - a lot of it is just numbers in a computer or floating around on electromagnetic waves. What could be more spiritual than that?!

The worst part is that they are always complaining about how materialistic they all are and try even harder to separate themselves from the material world. Not me though, I don't go for all of that crap. I like the real world, the material world. Maybe someday those other people will figure out a way to transcend their physical forms. I don't know, maybe with drugs or machines or something. I don't care - that just means I won't have to deal with them anymore.

23 May 2008

What's to be Done? - A Post in Three Parts


Part I - The Parable of the Unsteady Building
Once upon a time...A long long time ago...actually, I think I read about it the other day...There was a great big building. Now the building wasn't always so big; it had grown over many thousands of years until it dominated the landscape and housed thousands of millions of people, and it continued to grow every day. The people inside were comfortable for the most part, but the building had grown so large that it was beginning to fall apart under its own weight.
The people at the bottom of the building saw that it was breaking down, and they tried over and over again to warn the people higher up. The people at the very top of the building, however, had an awful nice view which they didn't want to give up, so they didn't listen, and told the people in the middle floors not to worry - the building would be fine, and, in fact, it must continue to grow. Even when the whole building began swaying back and forth in the breeze, the people at the top continued to say that the building must grow, and that only by growing bigger could they ever hope to overcome the current instability.
The people on the bottom could see that the building was going to topple over any day now, so they gave up trying to convince the people up above. Instead they began taking apart the building so that when it did fall, it wouldn't hurt as many people on the way down. They also began to build smaller buildings right below the big one (because there was nowhere else to build unfortunately) so that they would have someplace to live when the big one fell.
Soon some of the people on the middle floors began to get worried. They felt the swaying all too much and saw the people on the lower floors taking the building apart and constructing new ones in its place, so they began to go down to live with the people on the lower floors in their new buildings. The people on the top saw this and, sensing that their beautiful view was threatened, sent armies to keep people from leaving and to stop the others from dismantling the building and constructing new ones. However, all of this running up and down the stairs only made the building sway even more.
Then one day, as everyone knew it would, the building fell, crumbling into a billion pieces destroying much of what was left beneath it. Most of the people who remained in the building didn't survive, unfortunately, but many of those who were living in the smaller buildings beneath it did and many of their buildings remained intact or were only slightly damaged. Now these buildings would never grow as high as the big building - in fact, many of them were designed not to - but they were strong, built on firm foundations, and would last for a very very long time. Soon the people were able to clean up the mess left by the fall of the big building and fix up their own buildings that were damaged in the wreckage. They even found new ways of constructing buildings that had never been thought of before or had been forgotten over the years. The people lived very happily for a very long time to come.
The End, for now anyway....

Part II - Dismantling
There are two general categories of action that I think need to be taken to preserve some portion of humanity and to limit the destruction caused by the fall of our civilization. The first is Dismantling and the second is Constructing. I'll talk about the Latter in a moment, but for now I want to discuss Dismantling.
Dismantling is mainly geared toward limiting the spacial and temporal scope of civilization's harmful tendencies. It asks the question, "How can we stop the violence and oppression caused by this destructive system?"
Large scale, abstract, and hierarchical power structures are inherently oppressive, violently destructive and fundamentally unsustainable. In order to create a freer, healthier social system these structures must be abandoned or destroyed through any means necessary. They are all around us, dominating our lives and dictating our actions. Fighting back might be as simple as refusing to carry out their demands, or it might involve taking up arms - it depends on the circumstances, of course - but we must fight back.
If we don't fight back, if we don't take down this system, then it will fall on its own. However, the larger we allow it to grow and the longer we allow it to exist, the harder it will fall and the more damage it will do - the more people it will hurt. Conceivably, if we work hard enough and fast enough we could dismantle the whole system with only minor damage done to those around it. In other words, the more we dismantle now, the easier the transition will be later and the less damage will be done all around.

Part III - Constructing
When the current system falls, people will need a lot of support. In fact, social support structures will be more important than ever. But they can't simply replicate the old structures or they will suffer from the same limitations. Instead we have to build new structures that will help people survive and persist, with built in mechanisms for preventing them from growing beyond a human scale. Most of this work can be done within the confines of the larger system so that when it does fall the new structures will already be in place.
Constructing involves finding out what people need or will need and figuring out how to provide those things without large scale power structures. Building a localized food system, decentralized energy, localized social networks, support groups, self-defense - all of these are good places to start. The important thing is to recognize that there is no one way to do any of these things and no one thing that needs to be done. We'll have to experiment with new ideas and be innovative.

Conclusion
In reality, the dichotomy I've created between constructing and dismantling is not so clear cut - it serves the purpose of explanation, but they can't really be separated. The fact is, any act of dismantling will require the construction of social networks that are small scale and localized, whose role could easily be expanded to include some of the support systems that will be needed. Also, constructing localized, community based organizations is itself a subversive act that threatens the prevailing power structure. So, as I've said many times before, do what you can, what you know how to do best. Don't let the burden of fixing everything fall on your shoulders alone - do your part and trust that others will do theirs. We're all in this together! :)

19 May 2008

The Political Economy Of A Rock Concert


Last week Allison and I went to see Wilco play outside in downtown Lawrence. We met her brother and sister in law there with a couple of their friends and spent the evening with them. It was a nice night and we had a good time, but I wasn't very engaged in the music. Instead I was looking around through my anthropological goggles, making some very interesting observations.
It seems obvious to us, I suppose, that the band should be raised up, bathed in light and projecting outward while the audience is lowered, immersed in darkness and focused inward toward the band. Ostensibly it's a matter of practicality - after all, the people came to see the band not the rest of the audience. But what is merely practical on the outside obscures a deeper relationship that is far more dynamic. The way I see it the physical structure of the concert belies the inequality that exists between the two groups - "the band" and "the audience."
The band is at the top of an hierarchical social system with proximity to the band determining an individual's status. That means that friends of the band members are given a high status while those who just heard of the group are given almost none. Also, the band, because of it's position is able to demand more from the audience than it is expected to give in return. But the question in my mind is, why do we want to see the band anyway? Why do we pay so much money? Why are they put above the rest of us? Why are they in the light while we remain anonymous in the dark?
Lewis Mumford, a brilliant historian, speculates, with a great deal of accuracy I believe, that in small scale cultures that have existed and continue to exist outside of civilization, everyone is called upon to participate in the various rituals and celebrations (like rock concerts). Somewhere along the way this changed so that the spectator and the spectacle became separated and the performers of the spectacle became more powerful than the spectators. Originally, Mumford speculates, this gave rise to organized religious rituals and the priestly class, but I'd suggest that it also gave rise to professional entertainers who have been granted varying levels of status in different periods. This relationship has been handed down to us in several forms, one of which is the rock concert as I described it above another is the spectator sport and yet another is politics.
However, the urge to take part in the rituals continues to persist. In the rock concert any audience demands some degree of participation or they won't find it entertaining. Also we see various other forms of participation springing up around any band including groupies, tapers, fans, etc. each doing different activities to feel as if they are part of the event.
It should be remembered that this rock concert culture is embedded within a larger cultural system. Importantly, this system involves a high degree of labor specialization. As a result, for its members the band is just another job, while the audience is made up of people who have their own jobs (though with significantly less power in many cases) during the day. This kind of specialization feeds the hierarchy and justifies the power of those on top.
I should say that I'm not saying anything against Wilco in particular or rock concerts in general. I like them both, and will continue to attend because they're fun and I don't really begrudge the musicians their influence. All I'm trying to do is offer a different perspective on the relationship. It also points to one tool that we have for bringing down the dominant power structure (not bands playing music at concerts, but the system of exploitation and destruction that currently controls the world) - that is, conviviality. More on this later perhaps, but for now... it's time for bed. Good Night!

16 May 2008

Time and Money


For several years now I've had this idea developing in the depths of my mind - periodically rising to the surface only to drift back down again as I become engaged in other things. You know how they say that time is money? Well, I have this sense that money, in one sense, is really time. Maybe that's not all it is, but I'm certain that it's part of it.
The way I first understood this concept was in terms of jobs. Looking back to when I was in high school I never liked the idea of jobs. There's something inhuman about them; the fact that you are compelled to do the same thing day after day for eight hours with a half-hour lunch break until you find something better, retire or die. It's almost impossible to escape too - even the people we think of as not having jobs (movie stars, athletes, musicians, etc.) have them too, only on different terms.
The way we're told to think about it is that we are selling our talents, abilities, or labor to a company for a certain period of time, but that's not how I see it anymore. Somehow that never truly made sense. Now, however, I understand that what we're actually selling is our lives. It seems so obvious when you think about it, but we're told not to think about it that way. We sell our lives away, hour by hour, to the highest bidder or for the most appealing form of work. Every hour that I spend at work is an hour that I could be reading a book, writing a book, listening to music, meditating, taking a class, swimming in a lake, watching a movie, eating cereal, making love to a woman, or just sitting on my ass. And I can't get that hour back! So how much is it worth? Is one hour of reading a book worth $10? $20? $10,000? Are all of my hours worth the same amount? Is 3:00 worth the same as 4:00? Is the morning worth the same as the evening or the afternoon? Is an hour of making love worth the same as an hour watching TV? Why should they all be counted equally? Then again, why is there so much difference between the value of one of my hours and the value of one of a CEO or a movie star? Is my life that much different than theirs? Hell, I bet they'd just waste their hours anyway, so aren't my hours actually worth more?!
But that's just the beginning. Money is time in so many other ways too. We sell our hours in which we could be doing so many other, more interesting, things, but then money can be used to buy those hours back too! Look, you can pay a little extra money for a meal that's already prepared, and there you have another hour back. You can buy clothes that are already made and there you have 4 hours. So many of our little transactions are merely buying back the time that we sold to somebody else. But at what cost? If I can buy back an hour in a meal, then who is selling that hour? Is it a fair trade (one hour for one hour) or am I buying somebody's three hours for the price of one? That girl in the sweatshop in Pakistan, how many hours did she sell to make my shirt?
Think about it. How do you sell your life? How do you buy it back? I promise, it will change the way you look at the world.

07 May 2008

Brewing Chicha - El Ultimo Día

This will be the final post on chicha for now. Yesterday I tasted the it and it was sort of sour with a little sweetness remaining, so I decided to let it go for another day and then I'd share it. Tonight after classes I tried it again - it has a slight wine-like aroma, but still tastes kind of watery. I think I just added too much water during the mash, so next time I'll try to keep a better ratio. After drinking a couple of cups I did notice some slight intoxication, similar in intensity to beer, but my mind was a bit clearer than it normally is when I drink alcohol. I don't know if there are different properties to this alcohol (it's just ethanol after all) or if there is something else going on in it that changes how it affects me. It's also possible that this was entirely psychosomatic.
I brought some over to Natalya Lowther who loaned me the grain mill, and Dianna Henry who does seed saving and has given me some advice on future possibilities for corn varieties (she also told me today that the sweet corn I used is referred to as the "mother of all sweet corns" implying that it's the original and all others are somehow descended from it - interesting, no?). Tomorrow I'll share it with a few other people, but it won't be drinkable for much longer.
In the future, my plan is to use locally grown corn and my own yeast culture to brew it. This should give some local flavor to the finished product. Also, I won't use quite as much water in the mash. Some things I'd like to fix, but I'm not quite sure how are the head and the flavor. I Don't know why, but this brew has no head - it started out frothy a few hours after I pitched the yeast, but then the froth dissipated and there's nothing but a few big bubbles now. For some reason, the spices that I added - cinnamon and nutmeg - didn't come through at all in the final product. It's possible that the flavor boiled out, and I should add them later in the boiling stage, or that I should add more, perhaps, but other than that I don't really know.
In any case, I'll keep experimenting, and I'll keep everyone who is interested informed of my progress.

05 May 2008

Brewing Chicha - El Día Decimo

I can't seem to get this picture to appear upright...you get the idea though.

Today I began the fermentation of the chicha. After class, I drove out to the invasive retail district of Lawrence and went around to Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, World Market, Pier One, and finally Target to find something to ferment it in. The best thing I found was this 2.5 gallon glass jar with a glass lid. It'll do, but for next time I'd like to try to find something better - what I need is a friend who throws clay who can make me a large jug, but I'll probably just buy a carboy.
When I got home, I cleaned it out thoroughly, borrowing some of my roommate's mouthwash to sterilize it a bit. With it all cleaned out I poured it in, sprinkled the yeast on the top and waited 10 minutes like the guy at the brewing supply store said. When I came back the yeast had dissolved on the top and begun to sink down into the chicha, so I gave it a little stir and then carried it into my room. As I write it's sitting in the corner by my bed with a towel over it (yeast likes the darkness) and it's bubbling away. When I put my ear to it, I can hear the bubbles forming and popping - really cool!
Thursday afternoon will be three days. I might see how it tastes tomorrow, but I'm thinking of getting some friends together for the final tasting on Friday (Stop Day...Wooohoo!). Happy cinco de mayo everyone!

04 May 2008

Brewing Chicha - El Día Noveno

Today's bustle of chicha related activity adequately made up for yesterday's lack. This morning I went to the house of Natalya Lowther, the owner of Pinwheel Farm out in north Lawrence, to grind my corn. First I had to work on the mill a bit to get it taken apart and cleaned, but it wasn't too much trouble. After that I ground the corn, starting with a coarse setting which Natalya sifted and then I ran the coarse flour through again on a finer setting. It went well, and we had a nice conversation while we worked. At the end of the milling we tasted a little of the resulting flour and were quite pleasantly surprised at how sweet it was! When civilization comes to an end and there is no more cheap sugar coming in this process will definitely be useful for supplying our desire for sweet stuff.
I helped clean up and then brought the corn flour back home for the rest of the process. I started the mash by pouring the flour into my big pot, and covering it with warm water. I then heated it up until it reached around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, took it off the stove and wrapped it in a towel to hold in the heat. I let it set for two hours while I worked on my ethnobotany paper and then strained it. I started out trying to strain it through the cloth, but that wasn't working so well because there was just too much stuff and it was going too slow. So instead I strained it through a regular strainer, dumped the remains (hanchi) back in the pot and mashed it again. When this was done I strained it again mixing the two batches together, and then I strained the liquid through the cloth.
When this was done it was ready for boiling. Here I added a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon for flavor and a glob of organic dark brown sugar (which smelled like rich molasses). With everything mixed in I began to boil - I let it boil for about 3 hours, replacing the water as it boiled down. Now it's sitting in the kitchen cooling off.
Tomorrow, after classes, I'm going to go searching for something to ferment the chicha in. When I get back I'll pour it in to whatever I find and let the yeast at it. The liquid I have right now is very sweet, so it should be a great substrate for the yeast. In a few days the whole process will be finished, and I'll have some homemade chicha to share with my friends.

03 May 2008

Brewing Chicha - El Día Octavo

The corn is all dried up. I had it in the machine for a while and the sprouts didn't really change - they're drier, but they didn't shrivel up or anything - but I stopped it anyway, hopefully it won't matter too much. Tomorrow I'd like to mill the corn; I don't know if I'll have time, though. That's it for today - sorry it's not very eventful, plus it's late and I'm ready for sleep. If all goes well, this should be an eventful weekend in chicha brewing, though, so stay tuned!

01 May 2008

Brewing Chicha - El Día Sexto


This evening, I came home from work and looked over my corn sprouts. They were still happy and healthy and the acrospires had grown to about the size of the kernels. I sat on my bed debating whether or not to start the drying phase - the article says th acrospires should be twice as long as the kernels, but it's been three days and I don't want them to start molding on me. So to see how things were going I popped one into my mouth and chewed. Almost instantly my mouth was flooded with sweet goodness that tasted remarkably similar to your average high fructose corn syrup drink. Taking this as a good sign I decided to go ahead with the dry.
We've had this dehydrator sitting around the house for a long time with no-one putting it to any use. I cleaned it off and plugged it in to see how it worked and low and behold we got air flow! I loaded the kernels onto a few layers of racks and set it going on the lowest temperature (I want to protect the fragile sugar molecules). Hopefully I'll have them dry this weekend and then it's time for the milling!
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