Book Review: The Human Swarm

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and FallThe Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An exhaustively researched analysis of human tribalism and the evolutionary underpinnings of in-group selection, cultural identifiers, and racism, for some reason put together by a tropical biologist who specializes in insects.

Humans are unique in that they can pass other, strange humans on the street without it becoming an ordeal. Very few social animals are capable of ignoring one another due to instinctual acknowledgement of potential competitors. We’ve adapted to being able to disregard strangers, but that’s not the same thing as acceptance, and our monkey-mind still has us giving preferential treatment to those we deem to belong to our group/tribe/band, which is usually divided along lines of nationality, religion, and ethnicity. You’re invited to feel guilty about it, but the full gauntlet of implicit bias psych tests demonstrate that shades of bigotry come standard with the human portfolio, and no amount of re-learning can shake the heuristic from its root.

Neither does this give us carte blanche, so to speak, to be 12-year-old Call of Duty gamers. This reflexive identification with others like us at the expense of others not like us only registers for a few milliseconds before our higher reasoning circuits kick in and we’re able to make up our own minds. That initial impression could color the rest of the interaction, but it’s up to us and our utilization of the orbitoprefrontals as to how. It’s like a balloon popping. There’s no getting around the startle reflex, but then it’s your choice to either laugh it off, or to curl up into a corner and shriek until sedated.

A lot of the book was about hunter-gatherer societies, which I consider to be my jam as I am a major proponent of being joined in the shrub by my brethren. They tend to exhibit the usual human level of xenophobia, scaling in severity dependent on how violent their societies are, but with the exception of cross-tribe exchanges, usually of women, as a means of avoiding the incest taboo. They are avoidant of leaders as we know them, suggesting that human rulership is a relatively recent development; the anthropologists all agree that in these close-knit tribal communities, humility is the coin of the realm, and braggarts are smacked right tf down by everyone else. It’s common for the tribe to heap praise on the hunter who bagged tonight’s dinner, while the hunter is apparently expected to say things like “No, this was the smallest one there!” and “I was just lucky”, stuff like that. Self-aggrandizement is viewed with either suspicion, best case, if not outright scorn.

We’ve come a long way.

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Holyhead: Me Spirit Never Failin’

September 27, 2019. Holyhead, Wales.
Soundtrack: Crypt Sermon – Key of Solomon

Since Holyhead was such a major historical port for trade between Dublin and the UK, I assumed it would have been metropolitanized. You know what happens when you assume.

I had a burger and a beer at the first place I saw, a roadside inn a few blocks from the combo dock/train station called “The Edinburgh Castle”. It should go without saying that it wasn’t, but the burger was pretty good. The tavern could sit about fifteen, but currently sat six. All were old and weathered, all were mean-mugging the handsome American interloper.

When in Yurp, I stay in hostels. This horrifies a lot of the casual globetrotters back in the real world because it’s supposed to be a vacation. Why go, if not to pampered?

Life is plenty pampered. The overwhelming majority of this country — certainly anyone financially blessed enough to be reading this — never misses a meal, sleeps in a soft bed every night, and almost never confronts their possible mortality. That’s amniotic. The meat husk is still running on paleolithic hardware, and if the mettle isn’t tested every so often, it recalibrates to a neurotic hypersensitivity that causes otherwise rational people to have real, physiologically demonstrable nervous conditions in response to poor voter turnout or twitter cyberbullying.

I’m abroad to see what abroad looks like. I know what Best Western looks like. If I wanted to be comfortable, I wouldn’t have left home. They named a whole zone after that.

Holyhead has one hostel, and it was booked solid. In fact, everything in town was booked up to accommodate the bustling weekend ferry business. On snatched handfuls of stolen WiFi, deep in the bowels of Edinburgh Castle, I booked my reservation at the only game in town.

It was about a mile walk to the Roadking Motel and Transport Cafe, and let me tell you: it’s a truck stop, if a surprisingly family oriented one. I tried to book a room in person and my cards were all declined. It took Wells Fargo 12 days to get wind of my overseas activity. I had been banking (#gottem) on them not noticing until after I was back.

The Welsh teenager at the desk gave me a temporary login that I used to download Skype onto my phone and WiFi call my bank. Fifteen minutes later, I had my very own private room at the Welsh truck stop. I decided to see the sights.

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It sure is – – #Wales #Holyhead #bastardtravel

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That was it. That was the sights.

Still, the Edinburger wouldn’t hold me the whole night. I made my way into town to forage.

I was squared away on pub grub. It had been most of my grub for the past few days, and the bars all seemed to have an elderly Innsmouth “no outsiders” kind of vibe.

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We carvin #carvery #Wales #bastardtravel

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Would’ve loved a carvery. That’s an event where they make a ton of meat and carve off chunks of it for you, all-you-can-eat style. Unfortunately, it was neither Sunday nor Wednesday, and I wouldn’t get to sample the local flavor. I defaulted to a kebab wrap.

I’d like to take a moment to praise the humble kebab. They’re ubiquitous and the closest you can get to real nourishment on the road, unless you’re one of those hardliners who makes your own pasta in the hostel. They’ve got all the food groups, weighted more heavily toward fat and protein. The carbs are incidental, even when they slip french fries in there (which is an affront). And your guaranteed 400% daily intake of Lebanese sodium will keep you from dehydrating on those long treks from centrum to some outlier train station.

There was nothing in Holyhead. It was like trying to tour some random frozen scrubgrass swamp in NEPA, but with a population of 11,000, I couldn’t hold it against them. Traditional Irish folk songs aren’t the ideal travel agents.

I searched up “Holyhead nightlife”, just in case.

It recommended the Edinburgh Castle.

I headed back to the truck stop.

Love,

B.

 

London: Fish and Chips

Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Primus – Fish On

I just finished re-reading a masterpiece of anti-agricultural thought called Against the Grain, and the sordid history of the potato? Absolutely bonkers.

Nothing is more British than fish and chips, except maybe atavistic royalty and losing control of colonies. The question is, why is fish and chips so British?

Potatoes are and always have been poor person food. That sounds classist, but it’s a fact. You can grow potatoes on a 5-foot square plot, they’re calorically dense, and you don’t even need an oven to cook them. You just throw them into a fire and then eat them after. Bone apple teeth.

England hated potatoes and loved bread. Their devotion to tradition ensured it was the mainstay of their meals for most of their history.

So Ireland would make the wheat, and the British would take the wheat, and kick Ireland in the ribs for good measure. Trendsetters as they were back in the 19th century, most of Europe considered the potato food fit only for livestock and the Irish. The French thought it was poisonous.

It got so bad that this zany reverse-correlation developed where it was popularly believed that eating potatoes made you poor, sick, and dirty. The people eating the potato were the ones who couldn’t afford anything else, so of course they were poor, sick, and dirty.

Another reason Ireland leaned so heavy on potatoes was England clear-cut all of Ireland’s forests, and they had no fuel left. To make bread, in addition to wheat, you need a place to mill it and a place to bake it. The Irish poor had neither. They didn’t even have coal; they were burning peat. That narrowed it down.

Here’s how narrow. The Irish had a saying: “The sauce of a poor man is a little potato eating with a big one.”

In the beginning of the 19th century, populations were booming everywhere and England had more poor to contend with than they ever had before. Not even just in Ireland, either! Domestic poor. There wasn’t enough bread to go around, so they gradually began adopting potatoes, though nobody was happy about it.

And now enters the colorful little edict of “enclosure”. In the early 1800s, subsistence farmers in Ireland and England were booted off of farmlands taken for the aristocracy. It bankrupted Ireland, inasmuch as Ireland could be more bankrupted, and almost certainly played a role in the potato famine.

So these peasants aren’t peasants any more, because they lost all their fields. They had become wage workers for the nobles who scooped up their farms. No place to grow your food, and not enough money to buy it… what’s a boy to do, Jean Valjean?

The English poor started growing potatoes in what was left of their backyards. The “lazy root” was back on the table.

In industrial English tenements, there were no cooking facilities whatsoever. Industrialization sucked up all the land, and a package of calories that could be speed-cooked on the literal street became very attractive.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Factories in England didn’t have anything resembling a concept of “worker’s rights”, and so paid their expendable machine fodder underclass in one lump sum. “Split it amongst yourselves. Shoo.”

The workers would take the wages down to the public house to split it up. The pubs did a decent business with drinks as it stood, and now everybody was coming in at least once a week with all of their money.

Well, all the people had was potatoes and occasional fish. So that’s what they cooked up and sold, on the spot, every payday and throughout the week.

And thus, fast food was born.

Appetizing, isn’t it?

I’m going to level with you; the fish was so greasy I barely made it through, and I am an insatiable human vortex. I didn’t eat any of the potatoes. They make you poor and dirty.

Another proud, closely held tradition.

Love,

B.

 

The Perfect Chimera

September 19, 2018. Bastard HQ.

There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that apparently reaches up the academic ladder to professional anatomists using research grants to stitch together ideal Frankensteins in their own image out of discarded Australian animal parts.

Evolution, beautiful readers, is not what Pokemon promised. It’s not an upward process culminating in an intelligently-designed paragon amalgam. It’s gradual adaptation to the present environment.

Here are the improvements presented by this stupid video, and brief yet tasteful rebuttals about why they’re wrong and I hate them.

1) Chimp Back

It was not a “flawed transition to standing upright”. We’re the best existing species for standing upright. Pursuit predation is how we became apex predators, and why we conquered the world despite our myriad physical failings.

“Pursuit predation”, for those who don’t follow the stuffy animal behavior jargon, is our ability to walk down any other animal due to the efficient design of our lungs. Most are faster than us, sure, but human beings were the Michael Meyers of the prehistoric savanna. A quadrupedal construction is clutch for bursts of speed, as in the majority of predators, and grazing animals benefit from always being about a foot from their food source, but a horse’s lungs will fill with blood if they try to outpace us for more than a couple hours.

Google it. Even the crazy horse girls say companion horses can’t go more than about 35 miles a day. An optimistic estimate would double that for unencumbered ancient horses, 70 miles, which is about how far the average Roman legionnaire would jog every day with a third of his body weight in supplies on his back.

That’s how we won.

A chimp was not designed for pursuit predation. Giving us a thick lower back would increase lower back pain. That’s it.

2) Emu legs

Emu legs are designed to move giant, heavy, stupid birds long distances quickly. Why would we need that? We don’t go quickly! We’re almost uniformly overweight and the fastest man on earth runs at about a quarter the speed of the average cheetah.

That’s evolutionary perfection, folks. We made it.

3) Thigh pumps

We already have that, it’s called the femural artery. They’re huge, man. They’re the main source of blood to the legs, and since we’ve already discussed that we have been shaped by circumstance to walk 50 miles a day waiting for a larger, more effectively defensible animal to doze off, our circulation is just fine.

4) Breastless chest

Breast size is probably a false indicator of fertility, sexually selected, sort of like a peacock’s tail. Breastlessness would require modification of the human mating that led to the runaway Fisherian miracle of prominent breasts. I wouldn’t presume to guess what that would do to us sexually, but it certainly wouldn’t maintain our present status quo. Maybe harems? Maybe serial polygyny? Any way you roll the dice, it’s hard to see how the shift would qualify as “perfect”.

5) Reliable heart of a dog

What? Why?

They’re the same hearts, aside from dog hearts beating faster (due to the size differential). Humans are more prone to heart disease because we won’t stop shoving Big Macs down our moist, fleshy gullets. Dogs are more prone to heartworms because they’re stupid and eat poop.

6) Graceful lungs of a swan

What

possible

reason

7) Marsupial pouch

Okay. All right. Our giant skulls, powerhouse brains, and rampant neotony did cause a big spike in death rate during childbirth, as compared to other species. A pouch might reduce that, and make the child more manageable during its lengthy and helpless childhood.

Except for the massive size and growth rate of human infants as compared to kangaroo joeys. Not to mention how utterly and thoroughly the construction clashes with the rest of the Greek myth monstrosity we’re building here.

8) Sensory transformation

Better hearing and vision could have helped us in prehistory, although light sensitivity would suggest that we’d be more nocturnal and there is absolutely no reason for that. We’re still small and weak. What rankles me is “this could be a human fit for the future”.

How? Justify your statement. We’re surrounded by light stimuli and noise pollution at all times, we spend our days looking at glowing screens, and we’re dying off at incredible rates from lack of exercise and inundation with calorically dense food-substitutes like sugared corn syrup that wreak absolute havoc on our suitably efficient organ systems.

How would increased  light sensitivity help a species that actively suffers from visual impairment and chronic migraines thrive in our burgeoning neon cyberpunk dystopia?

How would more efficient lungs and bony, shock-absorbing knees increase the survivability of animals that are rotting away from inactivity and overnutrition?

You funneled a bunch of grant money into designing a clickbait homunculus. It’s the academic equivalent of a selfie with one of those SnapChat dog filters that makes your eyes all freaky and big. The vanity of pushing your Catelyn Stark elf-fursona as though it were legitimate evolutionary science is misinforming the populace and cheapening the field.

And considering the present political climate, evolutionary biology can’t survive too much more cheapening. Although, it can be argued this, itself, is a form of evolution.

But I wouldn’t argue that because it’s a self-congratulatory intellectual exercise. Sort of like slapping your own face on a CGI BuzzFeed list of “Top 10 Animal Parts That Are Kind of Cool!”

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

 

Haunted Meatloaf

August 11, 2018. Nashua, New Hampshire.

The serrated jaws of madness snapped shut at our heels as we hauled ass from the cultist outpost of Portsmouth and shot down the length of the admittedly non-lengthy state, exhausting my little Korean engine in battle with New Hampshire’s rollicking hills, owing to my stubborn refusal to switch my car out of eco-mode. This is because I’m vegan.

ecofriendly

Wait, don’t stop reading yet. I’m vegan in the way that most people quit smoking. They say, “All right, that’s my last cigarette” and it continues to be true right up until their next cigarette, after which they quit again. Transpose that to ethically motivated dietary restrictions, and replace “cigarette” with “an entire chicken”. So far my record stands at 16 consecutive hours of high-octane additive-free veganism, thanks to intermittent fasting.

The rain had slowed when we arrived at the Country Tavern, alleged by Atlas Obscura to be a brazenly haunted farmhouse turned restaurant and devoting a full page of menu to the legend of the genius locii, Elizabeth Ford. I was hoping to burn enough time that night would have fallen. It was looking like I was going to have to settle for overcast, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the ghost.

There was a brewery across the street called White Birch. A shamanic state of consciousness enhancement could only help my chances of lifting the veil. It was one of the prettier breweries I’d run across on this trip, with an open floor plan, lacquered marble tabletops, and a huge plasma screen TV mounted behind the bar. It was also as cold as meat locker.

Everyone was dressed like they had been phase-shifted in from a ski lodge. I realized I was the only human on the premises in shorts and a t-shirt. It was 80 degrees outside.

The decor spoke to me. The walls were hung with slabs of wood with delightfully redundant carvings of birch trees and Hobbit quotes. Hobbit quotes were a popular ornamentation in New England breweries, for some reason. Between these plaques were $35 White Birch sweatshirts and hoodies. They did not sell t-shirts. That explained the temperature.

I grinned widely in appreciation of their aesthetic sense and their cunning, and ordered a flight of the most heavily liquored beers they had available.

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They just flung bourbon and tequila into all kinds of shit. The bartender was an obvious dad who looked like he played linebacker in college and kept in shape. He surreptitiously warned me that they have to put “4 oz” on the menu for legal reasons, but each flight cup was actually 5 oz. I told him the secret was safe with me.

The Girl returned from the bathroom and ordered a 16 oz draft, since it was “the same price as a flight anyway”. I clucked my tongue and did not call her a rube, but I felt quietly superior.

It would be revealed that we were both, in fact, rubes. The combination of an empty stomach and 20 oz of tequila-beer would result in both of us hurling vitriol at the television during a news story about some girl with terrible squat form. It turns out the point of the story was not that the girl’s squat form was terrible, but that she had survived some debilitating disease and now squatted (poorly). Oops.

Fortunately, I choose to believe our innate charisma helped us break even with the pleasant staff vis-a-vis this high-decibel faux pas. And if I was drunk enough to Bro Out at a quaint, frozen little Tolkeinesque brewery, I was drunk enough to eat with a ghost.

The Country Tavern was a cozy converted farmhouse with old-world sensibilities, decorated like your grandma’s house, if your grandma lived in a massive 3-story restaurant. It was full of Olds, none of whom seemed to mind the advertised aura of death. We sat at the table, demolishing haunted bread. The waitress was a perky blonde woman who became very excited when I asked about the spirit-in-residence, and gave us a punctuated Midnight Society retelling, then gave us a misspelled placemat that filled in the blanks.

Elizabeth Ford lived in the farmhouse in the 1700s. She was married to an alcoholic sea captain with poor impulse control. She had a baby while he was at sea, and when he returned he was… displeased. The jury is out as to whether he thought she cheated on him, or if he was mad she churned out his baby in his absence, or if he just wasn’t ready for fatherhood. What he was ready for was serial murder. He killed his wife and chucked her down a well, then killed the baby and buried it under a tree.

“Have you had any sightings?” the Girl asked. “Like, you personally?”

The waitress frowned, then nodded. “Well, nothing big. Sometimes the cups will fall for no reason, or there will be moving shadows where there shouldn’t be. One time, I was closing, and I almost walked away without taking my tips out of my envelope. I was just about to go out the door when all of a sudden I heard a noise, and I turned around and my envelope had fallen off the table for no reason. I was like, “Oh! Thanks, Elizabeth!””

I snuck off to the bathroom. While in there, I turned the lights off and said “Bloody Mary” into the mirror three times. No spookings occurred. I clicked the light switch back on. The lights didn’t work.

I stood alone in the dark, staring into the mirror and weighing the severity of my miscalculation for three beats. The lights flickered back on.

I wasn’t alone anymore.

Naw, just kidding, I was. That’d be wild though.

I returned to the table, only crying a little, and we put in our orders.

20180811_184138

The Girl put in an order for the ghost’s personal chicken. I strongly considered the haunted meatloaf, but eventually went in for the haunted prime rib. It had been years and I didn’t remember if I liked prime rib. (It turns out I do.)

reset the ol’ vegan counter

It was the first really substantial meal we had eaten all trip. I was rejuvenated. I finished the Girl’s ghost’s pasta and almost ate the decorative plastic flowers by accident.

Before we hit the road, I snuck off to the bathroom again.

“Hey, Elizabeth,” I said aloud. “Liz. Can I call you Liz? Listen, that Bloody Mary thing was in poor taste, and might have been racist, and I’m sorry for it. You’ve been hanging out here for a few hundred years, and I’m just worried you’re dwelling on the past. Why don’t you come with? I’m not tryna sound all psychopompous but my place back in Philly is pretty sick, it’s got all sorts of skulls and candles and witchy shit, good ghost ambiance. Plenty of room! Give city unlife a try. It’s got to beat watching these Olds eat for the rest of eternity.”

I turned off the lights, winked at the mirror, and went out to rejoin the Girl. She had cornered an elderly server, who was pointing out the window to where the baby was alleged to be buried.

“Used to be an old elm tree there,” he said in that distinctive elderly New England man way, with the gravitas that makes Stephen King’s tertiary characters so disturbing. “Tore it up, but they never moved the body. Still lyin’ under there. Ayuh.”

The Girl and I returned to my car. I opened the back door and made a demonstrative ushering gesture.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Getting the door for Liz.”

“You invited a ghost back to the hotel?”

“Her name is Liz. And I invited her back to the house. What, you’ve never thought about a third?”

The resultant skull eye undoubtedly made Liz feel more comfortable.

“Come on,” I said, closing the door and getting behind the wheel. “She’s in the prime of her afterlife.”

“Stoooooop,” the Girl said. It was more of a drawn-out groan. “Stop talking.”

I did.

The three of us headed back toward Manchester. We had one day left in New Hampshire, and while we had originally had grand designs about going to an art gallery, fate would intervene. We were not destined to look at art. We were destined to live it.

Or peer unblinking at it from the great beyond.

spookywoman

hey boo

Love,

The Bastard

 

Those Cheeky Devils

August 17, 2018. Bastard HQ.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled venomous travelogue to catch you up on recent events in Little Rock, Arkansas, where representatives of the Satanic Temple are presently boolin outta control.

Arkansas has been struggling with controversy surrounding the separation of church and state for a while now, if by “struggling with controversy surrounding” you mean “baffled by”. It came to a head in 2017 when they constructed a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Capitol Building in Little Rock. A gorgeous 6-foot marble dealie.

This didn’t sit too good with a dude named Michael Tate Reed, who drove his car into the monument that night.

That’s already funny enough, but it turns out Mikey wasn’t a radicalized atheist! You can tell because radicalized atheists do nothing but smoke pot and have lengthy debates in the comments on Chris Hitchens youtube videos. No, this is better; dude is a staunch Christian who believed that God called on him to destroy the monument.

The Little Rock gubmint decided this is the hill they’re gonna die on. Give up now and the devil wins, right? So they build another monument, another gorgeous 6-foot marble dealie. They’re getting criticism from all sides, but they remain strong in their conviction. This is rapidly become a crusade!

Well, you need the polarity for a good narrative conflict, especially on matters as grandiose as good versus evil. Enter the Satanic Temple, looking to be your heretic, yeaaaah.

These witchpunk son of a bitches load up their eight-and-a-half-foot Baphomet statue, ordinarily located in their cute little art gallery in Salem, Massachusetts, and cruise down to Little Rock to parade it around the Capitol and generally cause a fuss.

And what a fuss it has caused.

Here’s a couple tweets I stole:

twitter

boolin

Sure, there’s a legitimate realpolitik interplay at work here, but I’ve met the Satanic Temple. Two years ago, I took pictures at their podium (which was forbidden, but I figured if anyone would appreciate transgressing arbitrary demonstrative propriety rules, it would be the Satanic temple). I got pictures sitting on the Baphomet statue, which will show up one day in a #tbt post.

The political aspect is theater, because, in their devotion to discord, they see politics as  cheap theater. These kids are just out there having a good time.

baphomet

Baphy represents the dichotomous nature of everything. Animal and man, male and female, above and below, you get the picture. It’s almost too appropriate to wheel him out next to the 10 Commandments monument, especially since you know these obnoxious little neo-goths are telling the religious right counterprotesters, “our monolith is bigger than yours”.

The Satanic Temple gets a bad rap because of edgy teenagers in facepaint who kill sacrifice cats or whatever, but what you’re talking about there is a perversion of Christianity. See, acknowledging a “Mr. Satan” as a spiritual entity means you’re playing the God game. To have a real Satan means you have a real Sky Dad that he’s in rebellion against, and believing in one necessarily predicates believing in the other.

If your grandma believes in angels, she must also believe in demons, but it’s best not to mention that to her.

Satanists actually believe in a sequence of decidedly libertarian (or maybe libertine) anti-commandments called the Seven Tenets. They look a little something like this:

  1. “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.”
  2. “The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.”
  3. “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.”
  4. “The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.”
  5. “Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.”
  6. “People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and remediate any harm that may have been caused.”
  7. “Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.”

Pretty close to Buddhism, but with spookier statuary.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s kind of nice to see headlines about a “religious conflict” in the news without a bunch of explosions and corpses. And if nothing else, you got to give them points for the aesthetic.

podium

forbidden. what’re they gonna do, hex me?

All right, kids. Vaya con Dios, or Hail Satan, or Hail Eris, or namaste, or whatever the hell it is you do. Juju is juju. However you handle it, keep your mana bar full.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Hengin’ Out on Mystery Hill

 

August 11, 2018. Mystery Hill, New Hampshire.

The continental breakfast was your choice of limp Eggos, individual yogurt containers suspended in ice water, or off-brand chemical cake honey buns. I took a little of everything, variety being the spice of life, and topped it off with three cups of what the truly brazen might describe as coffee. Don’t mistake this for complaining. Continental breakfast is an integral part of the travel experience. If I’d wanted to work around it, I’d have booked a real B&B.

There’s a concept that always puzzled me. You leave home for a change of scenery, then get to a bed-and-breakfast, which is just someone else’s home where you hang out and a stranger takes care of you. I can take care for me. At my own home. The scenery has only technically changed.

First stop, America’s Stonehenge.

sunset

i’m sure you’ve heard this popular colloquialism before

America’s Stonehenge is an active archaeology site in the woods, doing its best to make archaeology an exciting, family-friendly event through the addition of indistinct New Age spirituality, snowshoeing, and an alpaca farm.

The site itself is of nebulous astronomical significance. Carbon dating indicates that the monoliths and cairns served as lines of demarcation for astronomical phenomena, and were probably used in rituals, possibly as far back as 4000 BC. Cosmic entropy has these configurations drifted out of alignment (sort of like how they tried to introduce Ophiuchus as a zodiac sign a few years back), so if these rocks were once for harnessing cosmic juju, they aren’t anymore. Still, pretty cool to see a living chunk of prehistory that may have dated back 6000 years. Some would argue that predates Creation.

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“this is a wigwam. it was probably constructed more recently than 4000 BC, and they usually have walls”

 

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ooo somebody up in that henge

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yall ever have cave anger

20180811_104005Girl: “what time is it?”
me: “time for you to get a sundial”

 

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Oracle Cave interior. i bet that’s what they called it in 4000 BC

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“an etching of an antelope running.” art has since evolved

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now we’re talkin

Nobody’s sure what belief structure dominated in New Hampshire millennia ago, but this table was constructed at the epicenter of this astronomically significant point with a discernible blood channel and a hidden “bed”, carved out way under the rock, so that sound would carry up from under the table while the source of the sound remained hidden.

Metal.

After that we went along the hiking trail and touched all the ominously named monoliths, like the “Eye Stone” and the “Solstice Stone” and for some reason the “Bert Stone”, assuming it would imbue us with stat bonuses like in Skyrim.

I have my suspicions that the last stone there, the thicc Venus of Haverhill, is a more recent addition.

We visited the alpacas on the way out.

It was starting to rain and we hadn’t eaten anything since the several honey buns which were, strictly speaking, not food. We bailed for the forgotten city of Portsmouth. It would be the most like a Lovecraft story I’ve ever lived in real life. The irony there is I didn’t feel particularly eldritch at Mystery Hill, and legend has it visiting the megalith site was big H.P.’s inspiration for The Dunwich Horror.

We didn’t get to stick around til dusk. A real bummer, since you know what they frequently and publicly say: there’s nothing like an America’s Stonehenge sunset.

Love,

The Bastard

Storming the Castle

August 10, 2018. Groton, Massachusetts. 

The itch was too much to resist. The Delf was getting claustrophobic. The skyscrapers were closing in, as were the perpetually growing mounds of garbage that have not once been collected from anywhere in the city since Ben Franklin invented both Philadelphia and garbage. I needed a breather.

The Girl and I opted for New Hampshire this time around. Our last few jaunts had been to the desert, and while they were about 50% fun, after a while you know what sand looks like. Colorado is on the agenda, but we needed something we could squeeze into three days, and I just did Maine and Massachusetts.

New Hampshire is laughably tiny. Once we set up base camp in Manchester, the suspiciously rustic “most populous city” in NH, we accidentally ranged out across state lines twice.

It was six hours from Philly. Toll roads remain arbitrary, but become much more considerate as you head north. It costs around $12 to get from the bottom of PA to the top. It’s $5 to escape from New Jersey, even if you just wandered in by accident. Passing through the godless snarl of NYC traffic is $15. After that, you plow up into New England and you can stay on the turnpike for hours, tolls will be like $1. One was actually 50 cents.

Really, guys? Like we don’t have it bad enough?

At some point in Massachusetts, we happened on an ambiguous temple “COMING SOON!” It didn’t claim a religion, but the only thing blocking the access road was a length of chain, and golden spires were visible in the trees. We parked and investigated.

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It was just rising up in the woods in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know any of the characters embossed on the spires. I concluded it had something to do with that black sarcophagus full of mummy juice.

I’ve since done a little more research and discovered that this is going to be a shared Muslim and Hindu temple, which I found bizarre. I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the specifics of Hindu scripture, but I’m fairly certain Islamic theology operates on that Judeo-Christian fan favorite about “No gods before me”, let alone a whole pantheon of them. I also seem to remember some strongly worded bits about “no idols nor graven image”.

(Leviticus 26:1-2 if you’re not a tahrif type, Quran 9.5 if you are.)

The shared temple cover story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. That was a spontaneously generating Nyaralthotemple. New England is filthy with Old Ones.

We bailed before we were descended upon by any unknowable horrors from the black spaces between the stars, stopping for the worst coffee in America on our way to Bancroft’s Castle.

Bancroft’s Castle is a deliciously American story. It starts in 1906 with a renaissance man named General William Bancroft, a soldier, politician, and businessman who decides he’s done enough for one lifetime and he’s going to settle down in the idyllic hills of the charmingly named Groton, Massachusetts. He looks at his 401k and says, “You know what? I’m gonna build a retirement castle.”

He badly underestimates how much it costs to build a castle, which makes you wonder how effective a businessman he was. Our man is over budget by the time he’s built the tower and the bungalow.

He lives in his little Iggy Koopa boss tower for 12 years, then sells it to Doctor Harold Ayers. Doc Ayers converts it into a sanatorium, raking in $20 a week per tuberculosis patient (that’s about $900 a month nowadays, adjusting for inflation), which must have pissed Bancroft off immensely.

He maintained that racket until the late 1920s, and when the sanatorium closed it was converted into a social center and lodge for the Groton Hunt Club. This continued until July 4, 1932, when the castle was burnt down by a firecracker. Must have been one hell of a siege.

Perhaps due to how badly and consistently it failed at being a castle, Bancroft Castle was abandoned. Since Groton Hill was used for hangings in the 1600s, and since it’s a ruin in New England, and since it was once a TB sanatorium, it is alleged to be chock full of ghosts.

 

Despite its inefficacy, I could understand the appeal.

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The bungalow had nothing on the tower proper.

 

In addition to all its other failings, it seemed like it would be pretty easy to scale.

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as seen with Adventure Hat, the stupidest functional headwear New Mexico had to offer

On the way back to the car, the Girl elbowed me in the ribs. Like I wasn’t already bleeding everywhere from my botched superhero landing getting down off the tower.

“Do you see that?”

“Ghosts? Or bears?”

My hands were up. Punching wouldn’t phase either of those things, but damn it, I had to try.

She pointed up into a tree.

 

our ornithologist friend confirmed it as a red-tailed hawk

I’d never seen a red-tailed hawk that close before. It wasn’t even a little frightened of us or the spectral bears. We gawped up at it for five minutes or so, watching it bop around and ruffle its huge clunky body, scoping for vermin, then the mosquitos got too bad and we got back on the road.

Next stop on our New Hampshire trip: actually New Hampshire.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: The Designpanoptikum

December 5, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

In the heart of Berlin, there’s a dungeon scrapyard exhibition overseen by a delightful and charismatic Russian who’s definitely a serial killer. Google assured me that it would be a “surreal museum”, but neglected to mention how similar it would be to that awful J.Lo movie The Cell. The similarities were only emphasized by the fact that I, too, am a thicc bilingual headshrinker, though she is admittedly a better dancer.

Panoptikum is a German word, meaning Panopticon. Helpful, right? Well, the Panopticon was a decidedly Lawful Evil brainchild of social theorist, philosopher, and institutional bastard Jeremy Bentham. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a big round building made of glass, with a spot for a guard in the middle, enclosed by one-way mirrors. The inhabitants of the glass cells have no privacy. They can see each other, but they can’t see the guard, who obviously can’t be watching all of them at once… but you never know where he is looking, behind that smoked glass.

Bentham, sweetheart that he is, suggested the Panopticon could work equally well for a prison or a school. He described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. As reasonable as it might be to want to flying dropkick the dude off a rope bridge, his figuring isn’t wrong. It’s been common knowledge that social expectation and the old “what will people think” instinct is a deep-rooted and effective behavioral modulator, but it’s on such a hair trigger that even the suggestion of being watched can promote a sort of bastardized honesty. A Newcastle study put coffee and tea out for their department with an honesty box next to it with a little note, “Please pay for what you take!”. On the rear wall behind the box was a poster, rotated weekly; either a bunch of flowers, or a pair of eyes. On the eye weeks, the researchers found a lot more honor-system money than on the flower weeks.

Of course, that might not generalize to all people, it might just be that college students are more inclined to feel anxious about being stared at, or eye contact in general. You ever met college students? They love to feel anxious.

When Bentham named the Panopticon, he was making an allusion to Argus Panoptes, a giant from Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Panoptes translates to “all-seeing”, and that he did, right up until Hera assigned him to guard Io to make sure Zeus didn’t knock her up while she was a cow. Long story. Ultimately ending with Hermes getting recruited by Zeus to sneak up on Panoptes (how that happened is unclear), cast a god-tier Sleep spell, then brain the poor doofus with a rock.

None of those things gave me any inkling of what Berlin’s Panoptikum was gonna be about, but I’m a sucker for anything surreal, probably as compensation for all the ADHD and disdain for sleep.

All alone, with nobody holding my hand through it, I figured out how buses worked. Turns out, they’ll take you in different directions depending on what side of the street you board. The bus numbers will be the same regardless! You just need to know the incredibly German name of an area near wherever you’re going.

Well, I didn’t, so I took the first bus a half mile in the wrong direction, then leaped off and grumbled my way back to the bus stop. It started to rain, because of course it did.

The correct bus eventually dropped me off in central Berlin, a little more than a block from the Panoptikum. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Russian in flawless, German-accented English, who then explained to me that a heavy Russian accent was part of his shtick until 6 pm. He lapsed into it and started giving an overview on the Panoptikum as I marveled at his terrifying sculptures.

25371171_1149915838478054_937305132_o “Form and function,” he said. “Once, they are the same thing. Once, form was secondary consideration. The product of the function. Now everything is so artistically designed and… and… ergonomic, so all of these things must be beautiful as well as functional, but they don’t look like anything. Certainly they don’t look like what they are for. But we have come so far from that, that we no longer recognize things by their functional form. Take this, for example.”

He held up an odd looking metal clamp, sort of like two L-shaped pieces of steel with a long bolt running between them. The steel slid freely, if noisily, along the threads.

“Do you know what this is?”

I shrugged. “Metal?”

“A good guess,” he said, “And technically correct. But this is something specific. This has a function. I ask everyone this question, no one has ever gotten it right. Take time, look around, think about it. I will ask again before you leave, after you see museum.”

I looked at it again. It wasn’t a clamp. There was no way to tighten it. Still looked like giant metal pincers, about a foot and a half long.

“You use it every day,” he assured me. “You have to. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

Then he set me loose in the grown up version of Sid’s room from Toy Story.

The basement had that cloying, stale grease smell of a disused garage.

“Do not go to the museums,” he warned me. “Not if you want to see art. You want art, go to the junkyard. Art everywhere. Costs much less.”

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“Form and function. Do you know what this is?”

I looked it over as he crouched down and slapped the thing. A low-pitched BONG sound echoed through the eerie silence of his subterranean trophy case.

“Well, I was gonna say a land mine, but I guess not.”

“Close!” he said, opening the hatch. “Washing machine. Back when they were first invented, only rich people had them. You put the clothes in, the motor shakes them up, cleans them. No motor now, of course, so now it’s just… this thing.”

He was insistent I take selfies with his zany assortment of hats from the dump. I didn’t want to wear the deflated punching bag on my head, although he was really pulling for it. 25383075_1149915881811383_2081062368_o

We compromised on the World War I helmet. I’ve since learned it’s called a Stahlhelm.

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“Do you know why the helmets had those little horns?”

I did not.

“It is not like a viking thing, and it is not like they came to terms with being the bad guys, dressing up like devils. It is an example of… German overengineering. Germans are a very efficient people, and sometimes they get too focused on it, and they lose sight of what’s practical.”

“I know,” I said. “I used to have a Jetta.”

“See, the steel helmets were good for protecting against shrapnel, but back in the trenches, you would just poke your head up and shoot. The metal was not thick enough to stop a direct hit from a bullet. But the scientists at the time, they thought, what if we installed a plate that was thick enough to stop a bullet? Their trench fighters would be almost impervious to gunfire, then! So they manufactured these heavy steel plates that click into the little buttons on the side of the helmet, protecting the head. This did not work for three reasons.

One, it was very, very expensive. That’s a lot of steel, and you need to give one to everyone in the army. Germany ran out of steel.

Two, it was too heavy. People running around with 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of steel on their head, it interfered with their balance. The helmets would also slip down over their eyes because it’s so much heavier in the front.

Three, in the instances when the plate did actually stop a direct hit of a bullet? The force of the impact would break the soldier’s neck in 80% of cases anyway. So for all that money, and all that effort, and all that steel, they’re only saving one out of five direct hits, which are rare enough to begin with.”

It hearkened back to something he’d said earlier when we were looking at an old iron lung.

“See, in America, life is precious. In Russia, Asia, the Middle East, life is cheap. I get Chinese tourists in here, I tell them this woman lived sixty years in this iron lung, and they are incredulous, they ask me ‘why not just die’? Well, because she was an American. They had the resources, so she lived in that iron lung, she did university from her hospital room, and she eventually became a depression counselor. Helped a lot of people. But not everyone could have done that, I don’t think. Most people would rather just die.”

I was reflecting on all this when I turned the corner, caught sight of this little number.

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“Don’t worry, it’s not a sex doll,” he assured me.

“That’s not what worried me.”

“That is part of typewriter,” he said. “Sort of a duality thing, you know? Because of the mouth, and the typewriter, and both of them use words, both of them are for words.”

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“That’s Yuri Gagarin,” he said. “You know who that is?”

I laughed. What a Russian thing! “Yeah,” I said.

“First man in space,” he told me, even though I just said yeah.

“So is that how they did it? Dr. Strangelove style?”

He grinned. “More or less.”

We made our way back to the front door and he picked up the weird metal clamp thing again.

“So! Any guesses?”

I squinted at it, then nodded.

“Is it a doorknob?”

“It is!” he said. “It is a doorknob! And hopefully, your time here at the Panoptikum opened some doors to some new ways of looking at things for you. Thank you much for coming.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This was incredible.”

“You got it right, here,” he said, “Take one of postcards, for free. Whichever one you want. Go ahead.”

I decided on the one that he had explained in the gallery as representing the German spirit.

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Refreshed and disturbed, I walked back out into Berlin’s perpetual rain to find the lauded East Side Gallery.

Next time.

(If you liked the crazy bullshit you saw here, there’s plenty more where that came from. If that site is too hard to navigate [and it fuckin’ is], there’s also a Facebook page. It’s in German, so if you like it, everyone will think you’re cultured.)

Above board, the guy who owns it and gave me the tour is an artist and photographer named Vladimir Korneev. I’d love to link to his gallery or something, but he shares a name with a Russian songwriter so there’s way too much foreign-language smokescreen for me to find anything.

I strongly encourage you to hit up this headtrip if you’re ever in Berlin. He’s probably not a serial killer. He didn’t serial kill me! But they never really seem to.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Berlin: German “Cuisine”

December 3, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

I arrived in the arctic Prussian wasteland of Berlin, mapless due to both the brutality and consistency of FlixBus’s cold-blooded infidelity.

Don’t just avoid them. That’s not enough. Molotov them in the streets. I will not rest until nothing remains of those lying transit bastards but twisted wreckage and burnt-out husks in lime green and, apparently, sometimes, unmarked red.

Berlin is mighty stingy with its free Wi-Fi too, and it was only by chance that I snatched a handful of internet from one of FlixBus’s competitors (yeah eat a dick bud Eurolines RULES) and discovered that there was, in fact, a difference between Berlin Central Station and Berlin Central Bus Station.

That distance is four miles. You know, for a people with such a reputation for linguistic and engineering precision, that’s a pretty loose definition of “central”.

Obviously, I couldn’t try to navigate across this new city in the sudden dead of winter without a Google map. First of all, it’s current year. Paper maps are relics for nerds and pirates. You hang them on the wall to look cultured, you don’t actually try to utilize them. What, you have a compass watch too? Keep your money in your sock? Shut up.

Secondly, I have no sense of direction, whatsoever. I rationalize it away with cute, pithy, middle-aged-woman yard sale sign aphorisms like “Wherever you go, there you are” and “Not all who wander are lost” but make no mistake, I’m always wandering and it’s always because I’m lost. If it weren’t for GPS, I definitely would have kept wandering south in Turkey and wound up on the other side of the country, dodging active gunfire. And even then, my doofy blithe ass would be like, “They shoot their guns in open fields all the time too! Just like home!”

I snarled a bunch, hissed swears in a colorful assortment of unrelated languages, then slipped into a skeevy American-style diner that had the worst pinup drawing I’d ever seen next to the second worst motorcycle drawing I’d ever seen. The menu was endless. I ordered a currywurst.

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a little intimidating

Take a good look, beautiful reader, because this is the last German food you’re going to see for the duration of the trip. Currywurst is a delightful little concoction accredited to the most German sounding woman I’ve ever heard of, Herta Heuwer, in 1949. Up until this point, I’m pretty sure Germany had been subsisting entirely on boiled sausage and fried potatoes. The British troops gave Herta ketchup, worchesterhsiehchihriehshcishire sauce, and curry powder, and she just kind of chucked them all on top of a bratwurst and changed the face of central European cuisine as we know it.

The Germans were flabbergasted. “Heinrich! Zis powder, it TASTES!”

“Was, like sausage?”

“Nein! Well, ja, but like other things as well!”

Heinrich furrows his brow in confusion.

“Was meanst du, ‘other things’? Like… weak beer?”

“Nein, Heinrich. Halt maul und smeckst das.”

Heinrich put the ketchup-sodden powdered hot dog in his maul and gesmeckt. His Augen bulged. Lars had been telling the truth. It tasted neither like sausage nor like weak beer, and he spent the next half hour in a fetal position, screaming, in a state of catatonic sensory overload.

When Heinrich calmed down, he and Lars immediately dialed India long-distance and demanded answers. India shrugged, explained that they’ve been doing this for as long as they can remember, my friend. Heinrich and Lars tapped the impressive German national coffers, presumably swollen as they are from how much Volkswagen parts cost from the manufacturer, and imported thousands of Indians.

And that, boys and girls, is why it’s a physical fucking impossibility to find any German food in Berlin. Every restaurant is an Indian restaurant, broken up with occasional Japanese, Vietnamese, and Shisha places. And kebab stands, of course, but you can’t get away from kebab stands in Europe, they’re like roaches in New York.

Listen to me. This isn’t comic exaggeration. I walked a total of fifteen miles over three days, all through different parts of town, looking for authentic German cuisine. It’s gone, man. They globalized it away. Alex Jones was right all along. The Germans realized cooking wasn’t their strong suit – DESPITE sauerkraut! – and handed the keys to India, then shifted their focus to more traditional pursuits, like talking quietly accented but grammatically perfect English in every hostel I’ve ever been in, or being tall.

I asked other travelers.

“Did you find any German places to eat?”

“Naw, dude!” the stoner kid said, throwing up his arms. “There weren’t any!”

“You either, huh?”

“I’ve been all over town! There are no German restaurants, unless you count the currywurst stands!”

“I don’t,” I said. Stands are not restaurants.

“Neither do I!” he continued yelling and flailing. He was a very excitable boy. “Yo, do you mind if I roll a spliff in here?”

“Follow your heart.”

I did find a bar/restaurant that alleged to serve traditional German food, but the dude running it was most assuredly Indian. Go figure. I still had the Leberkäse, which, as far as I could tell, was some sort of… bologna loaf. I know how that sounds. It was described as a meatloaf, but while you or I would imagine meatloaf to be hamburger with bread crumbs in it, the Bavarians conceptualized a ground pulp of pork, beef, and liver rendered into a pudding then poured into a loaf pan and baked. It tasted like what Spam aspires to be, but still good because it was served over (surprise!) fried potatoes.

In parting, let me show you what happens when you ask for the menu “dark beer” in Berlin.

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Love,

The Bastard