Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dr. Albert Hofmann (1906-2008)

Dr. Albert Hofmann died yesterday in Switzerland, at the age of 102. According to the article in the Times:

Dr. Hofmann first synthesized the compound lysergic acid diethylamide in 1938 but did not discover its psychopharmacological effects until five years later, when he accidentally ingested the substance that became known to the 1960s counterculture as acid.
I have a couple of questions. First, would you say that Hofmann "invented" acid, or "discovered" it? Based on the use of the word "synthesized" up there, I'm betting that its more accurate to say that he invented or, perhaps, created it. But I think I can see how someone could look at this situation and conclude that the compound LSD was "out there", waiting for us to "discover" it, and thus begin constructing a kind of Platonic theory of knowledge, that everything that we can know exists already, and that what we call learning is more a process of recognizing what already is and incorporating that knowledge into ourselves. But I think its clear that LSD was not discovered - it didn't exist absent human manipulation, unlike, say, plutonium. (Or most other elements.)

But later in the article, the author gives us a different perspective on how acid came to be:

It was during his work on the ergot fungus, which grows in rye kernels, that he stumbled on LSD, accidentally ingesting a trace of the compound one Friday afternoon in April 1943. Soon he experienced an altered state of consciousness similar to the one he had experienced as a child.
It seems a stretch to claim that Hofmann "invented" LSD if he did so by stumbling upon it. To me, when you "stumble upon something" that means that you found it, even though you weren't in particular looking for it. This is definitely not an act of creation or invention. But on the other hand, I feel like, historically, a lot of what we consider to be inventions are "stumbled upon" by their inventors. Contrast this with penicillin, which was discovered, but a use for it was invented. (In other words, it had "standing reserve potential.")

So did Hofmann invent LSD, or did he discover it, or both, or neither? And, likewise, did he invent a use for it, or did he discover one? Again, the fact that he "accidentally ingested" acid suggests that he probably discovered a use for it. But if we want to maintain that we can only discover what already is "out there", then it seems that we should say that he invented or created a use for acid. Maybe this is a false premise - maybe we should say that it is appropriate to label some act a "discovery" even if what is being discovered in no way existed prior to discovery. But this seems to jive against the etymology of discovery: to "dis-cover", to reveal, to make known.

OK, now for what I "find" to be the ridiculous part:

On the following Monday, he deliberately swallowed a dose of LSD and rode his bicycle home as the effects of the drug overwhelmed him. That day, April 19, later became memorialized by LSD enthusiasts as “bicycle day.”

He took acid and then rode his bicycle home? Granted, I'm sure that there were a lot less police and cars (two things everyone should be naturally afraid of) in Switzerland in the 1940s than there are now, but still - riding your bike while being "overwhelmed" by acid seems like a very bad idea. What if he hit someone? What if you got run over by someone on a bike on acid? I imagine that the ensuing conversation would go something like:

You: Hey man! You just hit me with your (expletive) bicycle!
Albert Hofmann: The owls are not what they seem.
You: What? Hey - are you paying attention to me, man?!
Albert Hofmann: I am now paying attention to you, man.
You: Good! I think you broke my arm.
Albert Hofmann: Can I put it back together again?
You: No! Ow! Stop grabbing my arm! Are you on LSD or something?!

At this point, Albert Hofmann would get a horrified expression on his face, and then run into the woods, leaving you with a broken arm and no one to sue. On the plus side, you would have a new bicycle.

Of course - being that Hofmann was the first person ever to take acid - your average pedestrian in 1943 Switzerland would probably not make the assumption that he was on drugs. Instead the conversation would probably include the line:

Sie: Haben Sie die Syphilis oder wass, mein Herr?

And then Albert Hofmann gets to come down from his trip to discover himself in a straightjacket in an insane asylum, having been successfully diagnosed with, and "treated" for, syphilis.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

5 Thoughts on a Thursday

1) The cat is skeptical of my dancing abilities.

2) Just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean that you, member of the Oregon diaspora, can't get your absentee ballot in time to vote in the state's May 20 primary! Go to or to download an absentee ballot request form and then mail or fax it back to them! You can get registration forms at these websites also, but if you haven't registered yet, do that quick! The deadline is April 29!!!

By the way - Does anyone else get the feeling that Clinton is planning to drop out of the race right before the Oregon primary, just to spite us? "Count the votes of every state but one!" I hear her saying. "Let South Dakota and Puerto Rico and Guam have their say, but not Oregon! Those people are a bunch of loons, what their medicinal marijuana and doctor-assisted suicide and no sales tax or self-serve gasoline!"

3) Speaking of Oregon...

In general, I wouldn't trade the weather in Bend for the world. Compared to pretty much the rest of the world (or at least the parts of the world that I have visited or lived in) the winters and the summers in Bend are the best. They're dry and mild, which is great for someone like me who tends to sweat like a cold pint left in the sun whenever the weather gets close to seventy. But I feel like the inhabitants of Central Oregon miss out on April and October. Of course Bend doesn't have the kind of foliage that signifies that the season's are changing, but that's not all. There's also the smell that is everywhere here, that pungent smell of urgency and sex. It's really overstimulating in the best of ways.

But that might be because Bend doesn't die in the winter in the way that things do in Chicago or upstate New York. If anything, that's when all the deer and raccoons and rabid cougars come down from the mountains and rummage through your garbage at night. So that's fun, too.

4) I'm giving a 5 minute presentation on my Master's thesis, "Authority, Justification, and Intelligibility in Fear and Trembling" at the Works in Progress Workshop tomorrow at 3 pm in Classics 110. They are 22 of us presenting, and I am presenting third, at approximately 3:23 pm. So if you're in Hyde Park at the time, stop on by!

5) I went to the Yankees-White Sox game on Tuesday... sadly, the Sox lost 9-5. Apparently I am a jinx to all Chicagoland teams. To add insult to injury, I also left my wallet at the stadium. D'oh!

But what really struck me about this game was how different the atmosphere was there than at the Cubs game. At Wrigley Field, I barely noticed when the game started or ended. But at U.S. Cellular Field they made sure I paid attention. All of the White Sox players were introduced not once, but twice, and the second time it was to that music that Pirates of the Caribbean stole from Gladiator - you know the one, du-du-du-duuh du-du-du-duuh du-du-du-du-duddut. Also, they lit off fireworks whenever a White Sox batter hit a home run, even in junk time in the eighth inning when it was obvious they were going to lose. But on the plus side, the seats were comfier, the beer was cheaper, and I got to boo Jason Giambi. God, I hate that man.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Drinking, Smoking, and Bumping into People

A general update as to my comings and goings as of the last several days:

Saturday - Went to a Cubs game in the afternoon. The weather called for rain, so I planned ahead and brought my umbrella, complete with precautionary rape whistle. Of course, this meant that it was hot and sunny for the entire game, and I was thoroughly mocked. Whatever - I know that the only reason that it didn't rain was because I had my umbrella, so all of those jerks in the bleachers should have been thanking me.

Sadly, the Cubs lost. And they didn't just lose - they got crushed. By the Reds. On the plus side, this meant that by about the seventh inning the scene in the bleachers had degenerated to the point where men were taking off their shirts, women were pulling down their pants, and everyone else was doing whatever they could to distract security. Never underestimate the power of drunks in large groups. As Homer says, "Alcohol - the cause of and solution to all of life's problems."

Also, I got to see Ken Griffey, Jr. hit a home run.

P.S. - I have not yet decided to be a Cubs fan. On the plus side, they're in the NL, so I could root for them without angering any of my Red Sox or Indians friends. Plus, they're cursed, which is always a good reason to root for a team. On the down side, they've lost 100% of the time I've gone to see them. We'll see. I'm going to a White Sox-Yankees game later this week. Let's see how that goes before we pass anymore judgments.

Tuesday - Like I said, my "Negative Certitudes" class is awesome, but it is also very long. Because it's a three hour seminar class, we get a ten minute break at the midway point. So I went outside to have a cigarette. While I was smoking, I didn't see my professor sneak up behind me. "I am glad to zee zat you are a smoker," he said. I turned around, and probably gave out a little gasp. The guy was right behind me, and by right behind me I mean that our noses were virtually touching. (He's pretty short.) It was lucky that I didn't accidentally burn out one of his retinas with the end of my cigarette.

Bryson says in his book that people from the Continent (and there may be seven continents, but there's only one Continent) tend to need less personal space between them and their conversation partner. So when a Frenchman is speaking with an American, the talk usually follows the pattern of the former inching closer and closer while the latter tries politely yet desperately to back away. In my situation, this problem was compounded by the fact that (a) there was a wall behind me, and (b) he was my professor. So I couldn't really tell him to go away and let me finish my cigarette in peace. So we chatted rather awkwardly about the weather and how he still smokes even though he has pretty serious health issues. So that was neat. Plus, he knew Derrida. Also neat.

Sunday - A guy I almost bumped into at the grocery store said, "Excuse me, governor." It made my day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Stupid President, ooh! I Hate Him So Much!

Most of the time, I try to approach our president with a kind of zen attitude. Sure, he's horrible and hateful and has ushered in a disastrous age for America, but after seven and a half years of anger and bitterness, I decided that it was best to just try and relax and not get so worked up over the things that he says and does. After all, all that being mad does is raise my blood pressure and increase the odds of me meeting an early death.

But then he goes and gives a speech so dripping in utter hypocrisy and deceit that I can't help but shake my tiny fists in rage and then go on a very long drinking binge until I drown out all of the stupidity and inanity that pervades our nation and makes myself want to bathe in, as Chaucer said, sweet liquor.

The source of my anguish this time was Bush's speech welcoming ex-HJ member Pope Benedict XVI to the White House. If you're a masochist like me, you can find the text of the speech here, but if you really want the full effect, you should watch the video here. But if you absolutely have no time to spare, which is unlikely since you're reading this (GET BACK TO WORK!) let me give you the proverbial highlight reel:

BUSH: Here in America you'll find a nation of compassion. Americans believe that the measure of a free society is how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. So each day citizens across America answer the universal call to feed the hungry and comfort the sick and care for the infirm. Each day across the world the United States is working to eradicate disease, alleviate poverty, promote peace and bring the light of hope to places still mired in the darkness of tyranny and despair.

This isn't so bad, except for the fact that it isn't true. This administration has probably done more than any other administration in our history to ensure that the weakest and most vulnerable among us are forgotten and that the hungry, sick, and infirmed stay that way. But this is just par for the course for Bush. In the "How Audacious is He?" this rates a mere 3 out of 10. But it gets better.

Here in America you'll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square. When our Founders declared our nation's independence, they rested their case on an appeal to the "laws of nature, and of nature's God." We believe in religious liberty. We also believe that a love for freedom and a common moral law are written into every human heart, and that these constitute the firm foundation on which any successful free society must be built.

This passage doesn't get my blood worked up as much on the moral audacity level (although I feel that Bush's concept of "religious liberty" is just a little, um, anti-liberty) as it is philosophically bizarre. Do we welcome the role of faith in the public square? Is our nation rested on natural laws? You can't really blame Bush here for asserting controversial arguments as if they were universally held beliefs. After all, logically speaking, the proposition that "All men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." is a self-evident truth is well, wrong. Very wrong. "All triangles have three sides," now THERE'S a self-evident truth! Also, while I'm here, I want point out that the last sentence from this quote might as well come right out of The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. I didn't know that Bush was a Kantian - oh, wait, we're all Kantians. But I digress.

In our nation, faith and reason coexist in harmony.

No they don't!

In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that "God is love." And embracing this love is the surest way to save men from "falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism."

Okay, so this is where the Audacity Level kicks it up a notch. Who do I know who invokes the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate? I mean, no Christian could ever do that. And he's saying that the surest way to save men from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism is to embrace the message of the Pope? Next thing you know, the White House will be releasing those photos they obtained of Osama bin Laden playing bocce ball with Satan himself. In the streets of Tehran. With Ahmadinejad serving them tea and crumpets. And Nancy Pelosi was invited, but she was too busy trying to turn America's youth gay. (Sure as Hell that never happened to Germany's youth!)

Does Bush realize that no matter how much he kisses the Pope's... ring, Catholic dogma still says that he is Hellbound? And, by Dante's count, that he technically has qualified for circles six, seven, and eight already? That's like, the triple crown of damnation. But again, I digress.

In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred, and that "each of us is willed, each of us is loved" -- (applause) -- and your message that "each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary."

Yeah, yeah, Blah, blah, blah. Life begins with conception and ends by lethal injection. I also like how the people at made sure to include the spontaneous applause in their official transcript of the speech.

So Bush has covered all of his bases so far - God = good, terrorism = bad, America = good, abortion = bad, and thereby, through his expert use of logical syllogisms, concludes that abortion=terrorism. His usual schtick. But then he goes into his grand finale, and even I have to admit that I didn't see this coming:

In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this "dictatorship of relativism," and embrace a culture of justice and truth. (Applause.)

"Dictatorship of Relativism"? "Dictatorship of Relativism" DICT-ator-SHIP of RELATIV-ism
Really, Mr. President? Really? That's what I need to fear and loathe today? Not Islamic Fundamentalism or Terrorism but Moral Relativism? Granted, Bush is borrowing this phrase from the Pope - whose fatherland, I might add, has always been on the frontlines of resistance against the Dictatorship of Relativism - but it seems to me that the belief that we cannot distinguish between SIMPLE right and wrong has not caused most of today's problems in the world.

In the grand scheme of things, I feel that Moral Relativists aren't amongst the movers and shakers of world affairs. That is to say, they're not in the powerful positions to make the crucial decisions for America or the world. They're not, shall we say, "the deciders". And even suggesting that there could be such a "Dictatorship of Relativism" is absurd, like saying there's a Church of Atheists, or the Anarchist Party.

Etymologically, a dictator is someone who dictates, who speaks. It's his job (sorry feminists, no lady dictators) to say what is right and wrong, what is true and false, to give laws, and to generally tell people what to do. But Moral Relativism (at least the kind I am acquainted with) holds that no one can ever know right from wrong. So what on earth would a relativist dictator say? "What is your bidding, oh benevolent leader?" "I don't know." "Oh, ok... I'm going to get a snack pack, then." "Cool." It would be a very inefficient way to govern.

A better way to govern - or at least, more efficient way - would be to tell everyone that there IS a moral right and wrong, that you know it and have special access to it (say, like, a voice in your head tells it to you) and that there are bad and dangerous people out there who are to trying to convince the people that there isn't such a moral authority and want the people to think that you (benevolent leader and conduit for the higher moral Truth) are full of shit. And that these people are only out for power and don't actually care about the people the way that you and your magic friend do. Oh, and your magic friend sometimes gets cranky and starts smiting people because it is all powerful and all-knowing. So watch out. Stop masturbating.

I guess that I just want to know more about this Dictatorship of Relativism. Who are its citizens? Intellectuals, I bet. And atheists. And Jews, too, although only the bad Jews from Hollywood and Manhattan. Not the good Jews in Jerusalem. And homosexuals. And the Communists were invited, but they wouldn't shut up about some other Dictatorship they were working on. And those filthy Papis....oh, nevermind. And who is the Stalin-esque dictator of this dictatorship? Zizek? I bet it's Zizek. If nobody has any objections, I am hereby nominating Zizek to be the dictator of the Dictatorship of Relativism.

Our next meeting will be Thursday at 5 in the Old Grange Hall.

Punch and pie will be served.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

5 Thoughts on a Thursday

1) It's finally springtime in Chicago. How do I know that? Well, yesterday it was almost sixty degrees out and sunny. Today? Lower forties and raining. Saturday's forecast? Snow. It almost reminds me of springtime back home in Oregon.

2) Another sign of Spring is that there are men outside of our bedroom window every morning, fixing up the outside of the building. We have to be very careful when we wake up, especially on Saturdays, in case there is a construction worker or two outside, looking into our 12th floor apartment. The strangest part of it is that apparently our building is hiring scabs. Because whenever I walk to the bus in the mornings, there is almost always someone from the Caulker's Union picketing outside. But there has never been more than two guys. Can you have a union with only two members? Isn't that just normally called "being friends," or if you're seven years old, "a secret club"? They must have plenty of funding, though. The other day they set up a giant, inflatable rat on the corner, like something you might see used to advertise a sale at a used car dealership, except this rat definitely has rabies and may or may not be Mexican. It also has blood-shot eyes, which suggests to me that all non-union workers are pot-smoking immigrants badly in need of vaccinations.

3) We have a cat! Her named is Coraline, after the Neil Gaiman character, and she is 2 years old. (Sorry, no pics.) My favorite thing about her so far is that she likes to play fetch. We've made a couple of aluminum foil balls for her, and if you crinkle one in your hands to make that lovely crinkle-crinkle sound, and then throw it for her, she will almost always run after it, pick it up in her mouth, and bring it right back to you for you to throw it again. I am a little concerned about her fondness for trash, however. Right after we got her, R.A. went out and bought her a whole bunch of toys; several fuzzy balls, some mice-shaped toys, a stick with a feather on the end. But, of course, she prefers the tin-foil balls, loose pieces of paper, and those twisties that you use to tie up the bag for your loaf of bread.

4) One of the books that I'm reading right now is The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson, which i have been meaning/intending to read for a while. At one point, he's talking about how English speakers tend to pronounce the verb form of a word differently than the noun form, such as "We convict the convict," or "I decree such a decree." The tendency is for us to emphasize the first syllable in the noun form, but the second syllable in the verb form.

One of the words that Bryson cites as an example of this is mistake. This word definitely exists in both a noun and a verb form in English [I am assuming for now that we can treat the noun and the verb as the same word, although this may be a mistake.] But then I tried out the following sentence: "I mistake a mistake," and it didn't make no sense! When, I ask, do we or can we use the verb-form of the word "mistake" in the first-person present indicative? The situations that R.A. and I came up with were very particular. One was when one recounts a dream, especially a recurring one. "Next, I mistake my hamster for Jesus and build it a little shrine made out of human teeth..." The other was when one gives some kind of stage directions for a play, but this requires one to be speaking of one's self as a kind of a character: "I mistake the vodka for water, and drink the whole glass..." The problem with these cases is that the tense is still not clear; I bet that French has one that distinguish between an action taking place in the past but being related as if it were occurring in the present, and an action being actually present indicative. Also, both of these examples require a kind of distance between the speaker and the actor - I am not right now making the mistake, it was my dream-self or my character. It is a very different kettle of fish to say "I mistake the Chevy for a Ford," as if I am saying, "I prefer the Chevy over the Ford," or "I exchange the Chevy for a Ford." It's not that we can't use "mistake" in this way, it just sounds weird.

It is akin to what's called Moore's Paradox, named after the early 20th Century philosopher G.E. Moore, which says that there is something funny about someone saying, "It's raining outside right now, but I don't believe that it is." This isn't strictly speaking a paradox, but it is an observation about how our language works. Grammatically speaking, we should be able to say sentences like, "I mistake the bidet for a toilet," or "I believe that the Patriots won the Super Bowl, but they didn't." But we don't, or at least, we usually don't. Instead, we say sentences that have the grammatical structure, but have a different kind of content. We say, "I mistook the bidet for a toilet," or, "I tend to mistake bidets for toilets." Or, "He believes that the Patriots won the Super Bowl, but they didn't." But if I try to use the word "mistake" in the first person present indicative, it entails my being in the (psychological) state of "being mistaken" while at the same time being able to realize my mistake enough to remark about it. And we can't do this (usually, or without lying.) Instead, we say "Oh! I must have been mistaken," or "I'm sorry, I mistook you for someone else," or even, "I made a mistake."

(5) Phew. Sorry about that. But if you're still reading at this point, I have a job for you: I need a baseball team. I feel like an orphan, or a loose piece of seaweed adrift in the Atlantic current. There is no team that I can find a reason and a desire to root for. Geographically, I should root for the White Sox, but I don't really feel a connection there. And Cubs fans are always drunk and rowdy on the El, so I don't really want to be like them. Most of my friends are Red Sox fans, but everyone is a Red Sox fan. That's too easy. I could root for Seattle, but they're team never seems to really care, and I don't like their logo. I like the Padre's logo, but could I really root for a team from California? Help me out here. Maybe Kansas City? They're scrappy. Or Cleveland? Everyone from R.A.'s family are Indian fans. Blue Jays? Mets? Twins? Anyone?

Monday, April 7, 2008

I'm Sorry That Your Country Is Falling Apart, But That's Really No Reason to Shout

So I was getting on the bus this morning to go to work, and as I'm getting on, there's this young man at the back of the bus being very agitated and upset. While I'm looking for a seat, he shouts out, "Anyone who knows anything about the Argentine national crisis, raise your hands!" Nobody raises their hands, and so the guy turns to his buddy and says, "See! I told you so!" They then re-commence their heated and animated discussion in very loud Spanish, fulfilling every "passionate latino" stereotype there is.

I assumed that the guy was trying to make a point about either the general ignorance of Americans or the general cultural bias of the American media. Both of which are pretty valid points to make. But I was still a little offended by the fact that he chose to shame everyone else on the bus by using them as his example of either American ignorance or American cultural bias. Plus, I know a little bit about the Argentine national crisis. It's got something to do with soybean farmers, right? And, um, they're pissed at the super-hot lady president of Argentina, cause she thinks they're getting too much money and power and influence over the government? And so the whole nation's economy has stalled because the farmers have been on strike? So I would say that this counts as knowing something. But I was too busy looking for a seat and thinking about Nietzsche and about maybe buying a tuna fish sandwich after work to raise my hand.

So I was stewing on this for most of the rest of the bus ride to work. The guy was still going on in Spanish at the back of the bus. I wanted to show to him that I wasn't ignorant, but I felt that that would be a little gauche. I mean, I couldn't raise my hand now; the moment had passed. I would just be causing unnecessary chaos and confusion if I said, "Um, excuse me sir, I actually do something about the Argentine crisis.."

Then, I realized that the guy sitting across from me was from Zimbabwe, who, as I also knew, is currently going through something of a national crisis. he was quietly chatting to the Indian lady next to him about how we worried he was about his family, and about how the media is always making Mugabe out to be a monster, but he's not, etc. (He also kept giving me funny looks, as if to say, "Stop eavesdropping on my conversation!") But listening to this guy made me realize several things.

First, the bus that I was on was not exactly a representation of American culture. I was probably in the minority on the bus as being an American citizen. Also, most everyone on that bus was enrolled at the University of Chicago, and so were most likely grossly overeducated. So probably someone other than me knew about the current crisis in Argentina. So really, the lesson isn't that our culture is horridly unaware of current events. As long as we keep importing the best and the brightest from other nations, we should be fine. The lesson is that nobody - no matter your culture or race or gender or age or education - likes to be bothered by jerks on the bus. Most people will be more than willing to talk about the important issues with you in a civilized manner, but don't shout at them, or ask them to raise their hand to prove what they know.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Joel's First Day of Class, or, The Brilliant Comedic Timing of My Butt

On Tuesday, I was sitting in my new philosophy/ theology class entitled "Negative Certitudes: The Phenomenology of Impossibility," which I hope is going to be as mind-blowing as the name suggests. It's a seminar course, which means it's three hours long, and when the topic is "Negative Certitudes: The Phenomenology of Impossibility," well, it's hard to stay focused for the entire time. So it was near the end of the class, and the professor - who fulfills every stereotype of the French philosopher - was going on and on about God and about what we can really know about God. He was really getting into it, too. I was kind of listening with one ear, kind of staring out the window with... um, my other ear? He's building to a crescendo: "And does dis knowledge of God, dis knowledge dat we cannot have any knowledge whatzoever of God, really count as knowledge of God, or... " And then he pauses for dramatic effect. But he pauses just a little too long.


I let out a little bugle call of a fart, right into the dead silence of the lecture hall.

The professor got a weird, kind of cross-eyed look on his face for a moment, like he was thinking very, very hard. The silence stretched on. I suddenly became very, very interested in my notes. But then he launched back into his spiel, as if nothing had happened. "... or does dis count az a veree deeferent kind of knowledge..."

I mean, he's French. The French love a good fart joke, right?