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Shocked. Shocked! Who Knew? Well, Practically Everyone.

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It's beginning to emerge that old wars don't end; they just kind of spread out until they fade into the background. As Kaitlyn Greenidge makes so elegantly plain in Harper's Bazaar ("They Say This Isn't America. For Most Of Us, It Is.").

Ms. Greenidge places our present crises in context with one of those childhood memories that didn't quite register at the time, but gradually, as other seemingly inconsequential events begin to fill in, and tendrils of insight interconnect, a coherent image emerges from the background. Sometimes it's a shock, like realizing the truck ahead has no brake lights, and suddenly everything's happening much too fast.

As a young child I remember playing on the floor as my dad was carrying some stuff up to the attic, making several trips. He bumped into a bedspring leaning on the wall along the passageway to the dusty attic stairs. This set up quite a racket in the intricate framework of wire coils and linkages that went on and on. It had stopped by the time he brought the next load. But a few minutes later we heard it rattling and shaking again. This continued as the afternoon faded into dusk.

A Dad knows everything there is to know! A Professor of Electrical Engineering knows all about oscillation, and signal-to-noise ratios. He set his graduate students to work on the math. The idea was that the initial disturbance spread out over the entire system (a rusty old bedspring) until it seemed to disappear. But energy is not created or destroyed, it just goes somewhere else, the motion concentrates again at some opposite point of focus. Putting it in terms little me could understand, the whole process repeats like water sloshing back and forth in the bathtub. There's a moment when it's level, and other moments when it's spilling on the floor, as if you had lifted it up at one end: is it the water, or the world that's tipping? Until the water's cold and your lips turn blue, and it's time for beddie-bye. And all of the energy radiates off into the greater bedspring of our universe as heat. Something like that. When he bumped that bedspring, that was "signal.' When the vibrations spread out evenly, that was "noise." White noise.

I woke up in the middle of the night with the sound of that rattling bedspring echoing in the hallway.


According to the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), I'd say we're just about in the "bargaining" phase of grief. Pretty quick, except that the denial phase is hard to measure, being, well, denial and all. It's starting to look like that took a little longer than it took me to be old enough to qualify for the next round of vaccinations. About a hundred and forty years before the last presidential election, when America made a deal with itself, to pretend the Civil War was over, and the Union won, but those rebels were heroes, too. That was called Crow. Jim Crow. As in, somebody had to eat crow, and it wasn't going to be white people on either side.

So we all got to live in this Narrative. And it's a strange narrative. Strange like a Strange Attractor. Things kind of swirl around, with no apparent pattern. That is, until you slice through it sideways, and look into the grain, the annular rings, the marbling in the cake, and see that all this random noise is not random at all. Then you start to see that the story you thought was the Real Deal had exactly the same words and music as the story other people lived in. But mirror-imaged, involuted, strangely bent. So a word like "lunch-counter" to one person meant a pleasant interlude, maybe with pie for desert, while to the next it meant you used up all your meal-tickets before you were born. White noise in this context means you don't hear any signal, if you're White.

When scientists discovered Chaos, which itself has become so ordinary it has a different name now, they were trying to figure out stuff like the weather, or cotton prices, these random events that must be logical processes somehow, if we could only see the logic. But we were totally blind to where to even look for it. Stephen Wolfram points out that if you knew the simple equation that produces the Universe, you could solve it, but it's much quicker to wait while the Universe operates it. Anyway, all kinds of scientists in seemingly unrelated disciplines started looking for where to look. This led to a wild blooming riot of new, not so much ways to look, but places to look from.

Strange Attractors attracted mathematicians, revealing behaviors that had been unpredictably random before. Benoit Mandelbrot, looking for some pattern in cotton prices, discovered an equation that produced the answer to the famous question, "How long is the coast of England?" (really, really long!). This also produced the astounding paisley-like infinitely scalable images that bear his name. The practical applications are still being discovered. The math behind river deltas, the veins in a leaf or an insect's wing, the shapes of trees, clouds, ocean waves, tidal currents, the bifurcating branches of our own lungs, nerves and blood vessels, almost anything we had once thought impossibly, randomly complicated, opened to Science's unblinking eye. And these newly-discerned systems were not laid out, pinned to a board: they were in constant motion. The parameters change with every iteration. Talk about synergy; you can't add up the parts, much less see the whole thing, before it's a completely different whole thing.

No doubt war has been scrutinized in this way. But so many branches of human knowledge have arisen in emergencies. "When a weapon becomes possible, it becomes necessary" (Barus, c. 1990). So the analysis of war through the lens of what are now called "dynamical systems" has been the exclusive province of strategists, who are also scientists, but with deadly focus. They aren't trying to end war, they are trying to do it better. The March of Technology is strewn with the bodies of Luddites and late-comers, and populations called "collateral damage." If one of those young buckaroos in the brief period known as the "Wild West" did not acquire a Colt double-action revolver, it was Boot Hill for The Kid. Our ability to avoid repeating the Lessons of History has been severely constrained. We might say that war itself has its own survival strategy, which keeps us from seeing how perpetual and self-propagating it really is. Instead we crow about "Lessons Learned." Poppycock.

Today's rising violence is but the refocusing of an old, old pattern, in some cosmic bedspring when some god or other stubbed a toe. We have not, humanity has not, gotten beyond the depression phase of grief at this horrible aberration, much less an undistorted perception of the whole pattern. And "aberration" it is, not "normalcy" or anything like it. It's now generally accepted that for ninety-nine percent of our existence as Homo Sapiens, there was no war as we know it now, enemies committed to absolute destruction of the Other. It is a cultural disease, and very close to terminal. The patterns of cultural conflict, and the greater, deeper patterns of compassion and generosity, should be obvious by now. But these are patterns of fractal complexity, with attractor-basins and changing signal-to-noise ratios, much like the patterns of firing neurons in the brain. Thoughts and sensations arising in the noise. White noise.

Comprehension comes late in life to almost all of us. There are notable exceptions, and they are precious treasures. Greta Thunberg. Emma Gonzales. Ms. Greenidge may be another. Every gender (seven, last count?), every age, every cultural variety of human being produces these extraordinary people, to light the way. We are all born with this capacity, whatever toxic waste-dump we happen to be born in.

It's too late for some grand mobilization, to avert extinction. It's not too late for a cultural evolution, and if that's happening now, I doubt if we would be able to see it without a Fractal-O-Scope or something. If it's not happening, it's pretty much too late now. But we do have influence in this. It's in the basics. Dialing back the stress-levels. Learning about the impacts of trauma in childhood. Just remembering our own parents were pimply-faced teenagers when they had us, helps more than we might imagine.

In our brains, whatever we're thinking about is signal, and the other stuff is still vibrating in the background, with the rest of the noise. That's how we store memories. Neural tissue contains an incomprehensibly large number of special cells that sustain electrochemical pulses and waves, that form patterns, and patterns of patterns, of patterns. That's where the future and the past and the present all live right now, in our brains. Right here, right now. Patterns of firing neurons. As long as blood sugar and oxygen are available to the brain, we have a lot to say about how life is. Or how it seems to be.

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I'm an old Pogo fan. For some unknown reason I persist in outrage at Feudalism, as if human beings can do much better than this. Our old ways of life are obsolete and are killing us. Will the human race wake up in time? Stay (more...)

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