14 Feb

The Adventures of Dr. Zen Buddha: A History

How does one summarize the history of a character who spans all of time and space, who embodies the very essence of essence, who fights to preserve everything cool, and looks good while doing it? How does one? Well, one doesn’t, so instead one will write a brief history of the seminal comic book documenting one little bit of the vast saga that is Dr. Zen Buddha.

It all began for me when I met a fellow named Ed during college. We had both gone on a Spring Break trip to a beach resort and were both bored and hanging out in the big main beach cabin. Someone had put out long rolls of paper on the tables and colored pens, to encourage the preschoolers, I mean college students, to exercise their creative urges. Ed was obviously a talented comic artist and began drawing some doodles. I couldn’t resist and started doodling back, letting loose a series of characters that he then drew responses to, and then I had to respond to his drawings. Somewhere in that long strip of paper with all our doodlings the first mention of Vartuk the Viscous and Dr. Zen Buddha were seen in this universe. Little did we know that we had unleashed something of vast import.

Later that school year I was on the editorial board of the college paper and had enough pull to get a comic strip published. I went to Ed with the idea and we put together a series of strips about Dr. Zen Buddha. I wrote them and he drew them. The strips were popular enough that Ed was able to get his own comic strip published called “Manfred McStoned”, a strip that was so popular it is what many people from college remember about him. Dr. Zen was well received, but most people found it a bit confusing.

A few years later both of us are out of college and at loose ends. Ed is on the East Coast and I am in Eugene. I start up a little zine (this is maybe 1989, 1990) and Ed contributes some of his artwork and comics to it. We collaborate on some fresh Dr. Zen strips to be included, as the concept of the zine is that Dr. Zen Buddha is the editor. The zine was called “Groink!”.

The zine project is a lot of fun, and after Ed moved back to Oregon we became excited to work on a dedicated comic book about the adventures of this character named Dr. Zen Buddha. I moved back to Portland where Ed and I worked at various part-time jobs while working together on the comic book. Eventually our baby was published and unleashed on the world. We put a lot of effort into getting the comic book out there, visiting stores, having booths at various venues selling T-shirts and stickers as well as the comic books, but it never really took off the way we had hoped.

Life moves on, and Dr. Zen went back into those other dimensions whence he came, but at least he left us with that one comic book.

17 Jun

Aaron Burr: Too Honorable, Too Honest?

Aaron Burr is the odd man out in the short list of founding fathers. He is variously portrayed as a sneaky villain, a snake charmer, a foppish dandy, an empty suit accidentally thrust into the spotlight, or some combination of all of these. For the most part what we hear of Aaron Burr has been assembled from the words of his enemies. Until recently most historians had simply been too lazy to revisit original sources to check the facts, as far as they can be found out.

Fallen Founder, the Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg

Finally a historian has put in the work required to investigate the actual story of one of the most interesting of our founding fathers. The most glaring difference between the Burr we have been told about and the Burr that Isenberg has uncovered is that the real man was an idealist, a feminist, and a very modern thinker. He was also very honorable, to a fault. It was Burr who refused to dignify the slanders and libels that Hamilton and Jefferson used to destroy him. Such a stand on principle hurt his career many times throughout his life. Burr just refused to play the game. Under Washington during the Revolutionary War he refused to lobby for promotion and was passed up by lesser men who were willing to play the game (like Hamilton and Monroe). During the crisis of 1800 when he and Jefferson were tied in the Electoral College he stated that he supported Jefferson and then refused to play backroom politics. To this day Burr is maligned for “trying to steal the presidency from Jefferson” when he most certainly did no such thing. Burr’s campaigning in New York and Pennsylvania helped get Jefferson elected.

The duel with Hamilton was certainly a mess, but the biggest surprise is not that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, but that he did not do it sooner. Hamilton had been slandering Burr for almost a decade at that point, and in the most outrageous terms. Killing Hamilton was certainly a big political mistake, the backlash was powerful, but once again Burr stood on principle come what may.

Jefferson decided to help destroy Burr in New York state so as to grease the skids for Madison to become president. Burr was trying to build a national Democratic Republican party, but Jefferson was more comfortable with a sectional party of only Southern states. Burr was simply to popular nationally, so he had to be destroyed.

And then Burr made his biggest mistake, he tried to organize a filibuster into Mexico, gambling that the US would be at war with Spain very soon. What Burr wanted to do was well within the mainstream at the time, but the way he went about it showed very little understanding of how he was viewed by his enemies at the time. Jefferson decided that Burr was trying to break off the western states and form his own country, and several farcical trials for treason were conducted against Burr.

When all the facts are put together, Aaron Burr is still as fascinating as he was as a super villain, but now his story is more tragic. He was a man of great talents, loyalty, honesty, and intelligence – but he refused to play politics as it was conducted in his day. The story of Aaron Burr is yet another proof of the old maxim that “history is written by the victors”. It may be a little late, but “Fallen Founder” is a good first step towards putting Aaron Burr back in his rightful place among the founding fathers of our country.

15 Jun

A Civil Discussion About Health Care Reform

As per my previous article about the people who can only access their “animal mind” I will pretend that only rational people will be participating in this discussion. I am in favor of the so-called “public option” for health care reform, so I would like to address the most common objections to it.

Objection #1: It will take away “choice”.

My answer is “compared to what?” If you have coverage through your employer your choice is limited to whatever they have put together for you. Most smaller companies negotiate a deal with a single provider. At most you may have a choice between two or three plans at a bigger company. If you are self-employed you can choose between a small number of local options that range from expensive to impossibly expensive, or you can try one of the national, very sketchy insurance plans, with really complicated rules and patchy coverage. No matter which plan you end up with your “choice of doctor” is limited by the plan. You usually can choose between “in plan” and “out of plan” doctors, paying a huge extra price for the “out of plan” doctors. When it comes to your treatment, your “choice” is completely and totally controlled by the administrators of the HMO, who’s job is to RATION health care. For everyone who does not have coverage through their employer, the final “choice” under the current system is between going broke paying $500 to $1500 a month for coverage that usually includes a hefty yearly uncovered portion (so your insurance doesn’t really do anything until you have a catastrophic event), or save that monthy amount and gamble that you won’t be in a car accident this year. In short I think it is a falsehood to portray the current situation as on of “open and free choice of plan and provider”. It just isn’t so.

Objection #2:  A government plan will destroy private insurance.

That is possible, but only if the government plan is set up to do exactly that, and all of the options that are being discussed seriously right now are NOT THAT PLAN. The most likely public option being considered will not be available to large businesses (so they won’t even have the option of jumping ship) and will probably pay market rates instead of medicare rates. Because it is a PLAN and not an individual it will be able to negotiate lower rates due to its large membership, but these will be in line with private rates. Because it will be nonprofit the final cost will probably be lower than a comperable plan, but it will also be no-frills basic coverage, so a large aftermarket in “upgrade” add-on plans should thrive.

Objection #3:  We can’t afford it.

This is a vague charge, which needs to be refined. What is it we can’t afford? If you are talking specifically about the “public option”, a publicly run health care insurance plan, then you are simply wrong. The proposals being tossed around right now all are based on minimal coverage paid for by monthly premiums, just like private insurance is right now. There are also proposals to help underwrite the cost for people who can’t afford coverage, but in most proposals this government subsidy is not tied to choosing the public plan (although it wouldn’t make much sense to choose a more expensive plan if you needed help in the first place). Subsidizing the poor is a separate issue from whether we have a “public option” for coverage. If we do subsidize health coverage, it certainly makes sense to get a public option out there to drive down the costs of a super basic individual type of coverage.

Objection #4:  This is just a trick to get us to single payer.

The slippery slope argument is always a possibility in every negotiation. The other party can be negotiating in bad faith, secretly planning to stab you in the back and just keep pushing farther and farther every time you give even the smallest concessions. So far, from what I have observed, that description is more apt of the ideological Republicans in congress than the Democrats. Probably hard to see through partisan lenses, but there always seems to be more talk of a “line in the sand” and “stand firm” and “any concessions will inevitably lead to the end of the world” on the Republican side. Sometimes you have to make concessions. You give a little to get a little. You play that game, or you get shut out.

That being said, the “public option” is not the “slippery slope”. If single payer was the goal, it would be what was on the table. What we get now is what we will be stuck with for a long time. This can of worms is not going to be opened up again for a very long time. You are either for the public option or you are against it, but you can’t be “for this limited proposal, but I think it will lead to something else I oppose, so I’ll oppose this.” That’s just not rational. If the Republicans were serious about this argument they could try to demand some built in language to the legislation that would prevent a single-payer system from happening. The Democrats would go for it, because the majority of Democratic politicians simply want the public option. The people want more, but politically this is the best they’ll get.

Anyway, here’s hoping reason will prevail!

31 May

I Heart Mary Hartman. Mary Hartman?

Sometimes the worst things are also the best. Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (MH2 to those in the know) is simultaneously one of the worst shows ever produced for mainstream network television, as well as one of the best parodies of mainstream network television that has ever slipped under the radar and into our homes. For those of you who know what the hell Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is, well, congratulations. For the rest of you you have probably already put on a face similar to the eponymous title character’s flat affect of befuddled confusion mixed with depression, ennui, and incipient psychosis. In other words: an explanation is in order.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a show produced by All In the Family creator Norman Lear, conceived as a parody of mid 1970s soap operas, and unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 1976. I first saw it in the early 1980s in sindication on a local TV station playing after the evening news, around 11:30pm every night. The show has no laugh track, has bizarre dead-pan acting, cheap production value, and the occasional boom mic and flubbed line. It also has mass murder, cheating, impotence, sexual perversion, anti-semitism, and every other taboo subject you can imagine a mid 1970s audience would find outrageous. I was flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. As a show MH2 is terrible. As an experience it is mind-blowing.

Lets back up a bit. The title character is played by Louise Lasser. Who? She was Woody Allen’s Muse/Girlfriend just before Diane Keaton, and can be seen as his movie girlfriend in his movie Bananas. She has always had an almost comatose, befuddled, drugged-out on-screen presence, which finds its true fruition in the character of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Is she a terrible actor? Or is she a genius of post-modern performance art? Or is she a terrible actor who has been used by other geniuses to appear as a genius/bad actor/performance artist? All I know is she would fit well into an Andy Warhol movie.

MH2 blew my mind as a 13 year-old. Then it disappeared. Was it all a dream? Did it really happen? There have been many soap opera parodies since then, and many avante guard performance artists, and many strange experiments in slipping underground concepts into seemingly acceptible mainstream TV hits. SOAP was a great primetime soap opera parody. Twin Peaks was penultimately subversive to mainstream television viewing. And the production values of both were light years beyond MH2. But MH2 was the first of its kind, the trail blazer, the conceptual ancestor to all of the TV parodies since, right up through the Colbert Show.

And then the DVDs for the first 20 or so episodes show up on Netflix. I couldn’t believe it. I have now started the investigation into what exactly was done to my 13 year-old self back in the 80s. What I have discovered is that it is every bit as weird and disturbing as I remembered. And it is just as bad. It is a terrible show, not to be reccomended to anyone expecting something entertaining. It is an “experience”, and a study in the history of television, and even the history of parody and subersive media. But it is not “good” per se. In fact part of the vision of MH2 is low quality production. It is intentionally bad!

I am not recommending Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I’m just saying you have to see it!

29 May

Fake arguments and the politics of pout.

It just seems to be a basic facet of human psychology that we naturally make up our opinions about things based on everything other than logic, reason, or facts. Our brains are mostly animal urges, drives, and socializing behaviors common to herd and pack animals. Slathered on top of this mixed-up mess of primitive drives is the neo-cortex, the one and only place that reason can take place. Parrots, dogs, monkeys, dolphins and several other animal species seem to have enough of this magical neo-cortex stuff to allow them to process some of the basic concepts such as empathy, counting, recognizing individuals, remembering where things are when placed out of sight, and learning from experience. Some animals have even been taught to use primitive sign language or communication via symbols. Even so, only humans have enough of the neo-cortex folded and refolded and suffed inside our craniums to allow for higher reasoning.

So we have the potential for logic and reason, but the switch for such machinery is not automatically turned on. To exercise our reason we actually need to be taught how to use it, and we need to practice it. The animal part of our brains just works, and is always there to take over. It gets us up and down the stairs without breaking our necks, it pours the coffee while we read the paper without spilling hot liquid on our laps, it even drives us to work while we pay attention to the radio. And if we don’t switch on the reasoning machinery, the animal brain is perfectly happy to give us our politics, philosophy, and any opinion that might be called for. In short, the natural state of the human is to think and behave like an animal. That thing that truly makes us different from the animals actually requires some effort on our part.

And here I come to my point. Our public discourse has been taking a long detour through the animal realms, with the majority of people letting their animal brains pick their opinions based on prejudices against other groups (very dog-like), based on an urge to satisfy some primitive desire regardless of the consequences (very pig-like), based on an urge for violent confrontation (very rooster-like), or simply based on the strong desire to belong to a social group (very bovine). Once the opinions have been formed by the animal brain, then facts can be chosen or invented to fit the opinion, those who disagree demonized in satisfyingly agressive ways, and those members of the self-chosen in-crowd can stroke each other’s egos and praise one another for standing strong against any opposing argument – much like chimpanzees picking lice out of each other’s hair.

Do I have a specific example? So many I cannot count them! I won’t recite any of them here, since the only result would be an avalanche of insulting invective from the very animals I am complaining about. The one thing I have learned from this analysis is that it is futile to engage the animal people in any kind of human level conversation. I find it’s just best to leave them in the corner chewing on their own behinds.

25 May

Breeding an Artificial Dog with Chromosomes.

Artificial life continues to evolve, now with artificial chromosomes. According to this article on Physorg.com:

The first artificial creature to receive the genomic personality is Rity, a dog-like software character that lives in a virtual 3D world in a PC. Rity’s genome is composed of 14 chromosomes, which together are composed of a total of 1,764 genes, each with its own value. Rather than manually assign the gene values, which would be difficult and time-consuming, the researchers proposed an evolutionary process that generates a genome with a specific personality desired by a user.

My name is Rity

My name is Rity

The scientists have named their artificial dog: “Rity”, and have bred him for his bright and cheerful personality. Using genetic algorithms running on a standard desktop computer they were able to run through 3000 generations of synthetic dogs overnight. The result is a lovable little play friend suitable for the whole family. Check out the scientists at http://rit.kaist.ac.kr/home/ArtificialCreatures, or just download their detailed research paper in PDF format.

09 Mar

Hobbit House Farmstead

I love the idea of the “Hobbit House”, which to me encompasses a whole bundle of different building techniques and aesthetic qualities. I like underground, earth bermed, or just green roofed – they all sound good to me.

I just ran across a new Hobbit House, called the Hobbit House Farmstead.

Another true Hobbit House

Another true Hobbit House

This is the house that Rod Rylander has built as a demonstration home on one acre where he is trying to live according to the principles of sustainable construction and living. And it has a round Hobbit Door. Someday my Hobbit House will come, until then I’ll just read everything on websites like Rod’s. -Blake

09 Mar

nanowrimo every day of the year!

nanowrimo = National Novel Writing Month, which has been declared to be November of every year. I took part for the first time in 2008 and wrote about 25,000 words out of the 50,000 word goal for the 30 days of November. The idea is that you start from scratch on Nov. 1, and then crank out a steady stream of words every day without going back and wasting time editing or agonizing over small discrepancies, or rewriting earlier parts to match some big change you make later on. That way it’s all about cranking out the bulk of your book, then you can perfect everything in the rewrite phase later on, but you will have a full manuscript to start with.

The project was great for me. I used that month to literally crank out multiple pages of useable text every day. Depending how it is formatted my 25,000 words are anywhere from 60 to 100 pages long. In the process of finally spitting out my many ideas onto paper (electronically at first, of course) I was able to identify many, many little details that just didn’t quite add up, that I can now go back and put in order. I also now have a feel for how the pacing and flow of my book, as originally planned, will or won’t work in places. Some sections are pretty much finished product, whereas other sections will need a complete rewrite. The process also helped me to figure out exactly how I wanted to bring the secondary tier of characters into the storyline in a more integral manner. The whole process was fantastic.

But then November was over. Have I written any more? Have I done a full rewrite, or even a basic edit? No. Without the pressure of the contest and the  bar graphs and the website and the flair, I just can’t seem to motivate myself to continue working on my book! I like looking at it, and I like reading it, and I like thinking about it, but writing has totally stopped.

I have decided that I need my own nanowrimo every day of the year, to keep me motivated. So I’m going to set myself up in OpenOffice with some spreadsheets that I can plug my daily word counts into and then generate charts and graphs and pie-charts and three D charts and a million ways to break down my book statistically so I can look at a graph and say to myself: “I just need 500 more words today to hit that next little point on the graph!” I don’t know why, but it really works.

Then, when I’m done with my materpiece, I’ll write a short story about a fellow who needs to trick himself into writing with little gimicks and pie-charts. Maybe he’ll then start doing that with every aspect of his life, maybe even found a church. Far in the future roving bands of monks in dark robes will wander the countryside chanting “na no wri mo na no wri mo” and then occasionally banging their heads with boards like in the Holy Grail. Write! -Blake

06 Mar

Tell the Global Warming “Skeptics” to Shut Up.

I have always been a strong believer in the First Amendment – every part of it. Free speech, freedom of the press, separation of Church and State – those are the very foundations of the American Experiment. But every right has its natural limit; as they say: “My right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.” For the First Amendment this limit has been summed up in the rule that you do not have the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Why? Because actual harm can be caused by such a false alarm when the people panic and are injured trying to run for the exits. I have begun to believe that the orchestrated campaign to confuse people about the quality of the science that explains the real and looming threat of global warming has reached the point where it constitutes dangerous speech not deserving of the protection of the First Amendment. They are yelling “sit down!” in a burning theater.

Climate Denier’s Meeting

Of course this is an extreme position, but hear me out. The first element of the equation that is important to understand is that the global warming “skeptics” are knowingly lying about the science specifically to confuse the public and prevent swift action. That has been proven again and again, and if you are not aware of it then you have been duped.

Which brings me to the second element: this speech is not an argument put forward by human beings, but by corporations using humans as a front. Huge industries who fear they will lose money when the world tries to reduce its carbon output are financing the “skeptics” in a direct attempt to stop us from doing anything. Does the First Amendment protect non-human profit machines using great wealth to promulgate lies in order to maximize future profits by distorting the public debate? I say no. (The Supreme Court has ruled otherwise.)

The third element, and the most important, is the harm that this disingenuous speech will cause. The eight years we have lost, as a planet, in taking action has pretty much doomed us to a future of dire consequences. This is the area where science does not yet know the specifics, but the generalities are now all but certain. The science cannot say exactly how much the world will warm in the next 100 years, but it is certain to be at least 4 degrees Celsius. Exactly which huge areas of the planet will be changed to desert we do not know, but we know that huge areas will be changed to desert. We do not know which countries will go to war fighting over fresh water, but we do know that without glaciers (definitely going away) much of the world will be without fresh water. There will be wars. There will be flooding. There will be mass migrations. There will be mass extinctions.

These are crimes on a scale beyond anything the human race has witnessed before. Philosophers of ethics can argue about the proper methodology of apportioning blame for the coming catastrophe, but I know of one group of people who are already responsible for a sizeable chunk: today’s global warming skeptics.

If these paid liars are only given one tenth of the blame for the deaths that are coming this century, that would make them responsible for millions, if not hundreds of millions of deaths. The smoking gun has already been fired, the damage has been done, the harm is already put in motion. The bullet will not start the killing for a few more decades, but its trajectory is sure.

So I say tell the Global Warming “Skeptics” to Shut Up. Really, it’s for their own good. Considering what they have already done, they should be thankful that their victims aren’t screaming for their blood.

Check out the current issue of the New Scientist. There is an article describing the hellscape that awaits us in 100 years.

04 Mar

The Hogblog is back, baby!

After a nightmare period with our previous webhost, we are now successfully transferred to a new host.

The Hogblog is back again, with all the old content, and new content on the way.

This also means that Slaphog.com is revamped, and now has the COMPLETE collection of mp3 files on board. As of right now only browsers with the right plugins will play the songs, but that will be fixed soon.

There are so many random things to write about, so many weird web pages to create, so much confusing content to add to Slaphog.com. Where to begin?

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