Being the Peacock

It is the male peacock that wears the fancy dress and struts his finery to attract the less flashy lady peahens.  In the animal world it generally appears to be the male that gets all dolled up to catch the female, so why in our species are the females the disciples of Vogue?  With animal courtship the males do all kinds of crazy things to show off because it’s the females who get to make the final decision.  Human females also get to make our final decisions on mating, but it also appears they get to do all the gaudy displaying too?  Or is that true?

Males of our species do show off by making money, showing strength, doing dashing deeds, while only using a modest amount of flashy color and huge tail feathers.  Hell, suits are in by the young men again.  You can’t get less flashy than a suit.  Last night I saw a rock band all wearing black coats, white shirts and dark ties.  Their looks were dull but they were making a big noise to attract women.

In our species it appears that the males are still the ones that show off, but somehow the role of preening was giving to our ladies.  From fashion runways to Vegas shows to Miss America pageants you can see the extremes of female plumage.

I think this biological programming has had a tremendous impact on female behavior and psychology, making women very different from men.  Okay, I can hear all the protests now.  Yes, I know some men love to show off their costuming and some women don’t.  But I think this programming subroutine goes far deeper than outfits.  Women are a thousand times more concerned about their looks then men.  Why is that?

Let me give an example.  Among my lady friends, and I’m mostly talking about women in their fifties, I’m starting to hear the same story repeated independently from all of them that makes me worry.  They all hate to see themselves naked.  One friend said she holds her hand in front of her eyes when she gets out of the shower to shield her vision from the image of her naked body in the mirror.  When she says this I’m thinking I’d loved to see her step out of the shower and towel off, so it’s not that she’s bad looking.  But why has she become so hideous to herself that she won’t look at a mirror until she’s dressed and ready to hide her face in makeup?

If this was an isolated comment I wouldn’t have much evidence for my case, but I hear stories like this over and over again.  We’ve reached an age where my women friends are horrified by their bodies but I’m not, not by mine or theirs.  I still want to look up their dresses and down their blouses to catch whatever glimpses I can.  And another common thing I hear from these women are gripes about men wanting younger “firmer” women.

They seemed obsessed with the word “firmer” too, because they say it with such resentment.  And no matter how much I tell them I’m still physically attracted to women my age and even a bit older they don’t believe it.  They say I’m an oddball and 99% of normal men only want to look at twenty-something women.  Sure we like looking at younger women, but I’ve talked to my fellow boomers, and the consensus is older women can be just as hot.

Women may blame their resentment on men, but I’m starting to wonder if the problem isn’t theirs.  Sure there are men obsessed with sweet young things, but none of my pals are like that.  I think a lot of men have to chase younger women because as they get older the females of their generation stop wanting to be caught, forcing those guys to go further afield to hunt.  But this isn’t the point of my story.  I want to focus on the psychology of being the peacock.

I think both sexes are cursed by their biological programming.  Personally and culturally we’re possessed by the drive to reproduce.  This is understandable from a biological point of view, but why doesn’t the sex drive shut off when the baby making years are over?  When women go through menopause, why don’t they suddenly wake up and think, “Gee, I feel great.  I don’t have to preen anymore for those goddamn males always chasing after me.”  And then relax into a new lifestyle.  Why should women hate their bodies just because the sign “Great Babies Made Here!” gets turned off?

From the male side of things I wished my thoughts weren’t constantly befuddled by my cells urging me to go make babies.  Obviously, the reason why I still want to see fiftyish women get out of the shower is from residual programming to reproduce.  I’m already hearing all those people thinking, “Well men can make babies until they die.”  Just because we can, and just because we have the drive, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.  Evolution designed us to live long enough to reproduce and then die.  Our brains helped us beat those plans and  we live much longer than evolution planned.  At a certain point in both the lives of men and women we get to an age where babies aren’t wanted.  But the damn baby making programming inside of us doesn’t shut off.

Woman feel angst about losing their younger bodies and men feel angst about not getting laid as often.  It appears that the women who looked the best in youth hate themselves the most while aging.  Of course this is well illustrated by Hollywood starlets pursing plastic surgery till they have faces that look like rigor mortis of death.  The nature of women playing the peacock was well illustrated in an old movie I saw the other night, Mr. Skeffington, with Bette Davis as a beauty obsessed woman constantly courting marriage proposals even after she was married.

I feel sorry for my women friends.  Why can’t they accept wrinkles and sags?  Firm tits and ass are only signs that say, “I Make Babies.”  Why can’t old guys understand that the urge to chase young women is your cells tricking you into fatherhood?  In the end, I think the burden of the peacock syndrome on women is far harder than left-over horniness in men.  I don’t hate my body because I can’t get laid.  Being a peacock when the feathers fall out must be painful and pathetic.

I have a long running argument with one of my lady friends.  She says who we’re attracted to is mental, and I say it’s biological.  Well honey, I think if it’s mental you would be able to rationalize yourself out of the peacock syndrome.

Jim

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 56

If the golden age of science fiction is 12, what am I to read at 56?  I still yearn for the same sense of wonder thrills as I did as a kid, but they are much harder to find.  What if I reread the books I loved at 12 now at 56?  Are they the same books even though I’m not the same me?  No, of course not.  I reread one or two books a year, so I know.  I’m listening to City by Clifford Simak, a story I loved as a kid.  I barely remember the flavor of the story, and damn few details.  It’s almost like reading the book for the first time.

City

However, the sense of wonder I get from City in 1965 when I first read it, is much different from 2008, while listening to it now.  There are so many factors at play:

  • The world of 1952 when City was published
  • The knowledge of science fiction by Simak in 1952
  • The knowledge of the science by Simak in 1952
  • The state of the world in 1965
  • The state of science fiction in 1965
  • How many science fiction books I had read by 1965
  • The state of science in 1965
  • Who I was in 1965
  • The state of the world in 2008
  • The state of science fiction in 2008
  • How many science fiction books I had read by 2008
  • The state of science in 2008
  • Who I am in 2008

There are other factors, but these are enough to discuss for now.  In fact, it’s too broad for a blog essay, so I shall narrow it down.  One of City‘s sense of wonder aspects is robots, so let’s focus on how my perception of stories about robots changes over time.

In 1965 my knowledge of robots mainly came from SF movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Target Earth and The Jetsons, and the robot stories by Isaac Asimov.  It’s a rather limited view.  I don’t even know if there were any real robots in the world at that time, and if there were they were no more than toys.  And I certainly hadn’t read any histories of literature discussing the antecedents of robots like Frankenstein and The Golem.

When Clifford Simak was writing his robot stories in the 1940s, his only inspiration was probably other science fiction writers and their stories.  Robots were all speculation.  He had the play R.U.R. which coined the term robots, and Metropolis, the classic silent film from Germany, and he had Isaac Asimov, Eando Binder and Lester del Rey, and before the City stories were fixed up for hardback publication, he had the magnificent Jack Williamson story, “With Folded Hands.”  When City came out it won the third International Fantasy Award in 1953.  Other winners were Earth Abides (1951), More than Human (1954) and The Lord of the Rings (1957).  It was a well respected book.

In 2008, City is quaint and it would be very kind to just say the speculation is full of holes, but the story telling is still magical.  I look forward to every moment I can spend with it.  I like Jenkins like I like Godfrey and Charles, two butlers William Powell played in 1930s films.  If I could interview my 1965 self, even though he was a kid in junior high, he probably knew the speculation of the story was silly then.  The quality of the story telling held me then as it does today.  Simak if far from a great writer, and his prose is barely a step up from pulp fiction, but damn, he does have a lot of far out ideas in such a small book.

One of the reasons why The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12 is because at that age you don’t know much about the world and everything you discover has impact.  Just the concept of building artificial beings is mind blowing.  Of course it’s not much different than wishing I could fly like Superman in terms of reality.  One of the things that has tarnished old science fiction stories is real science.  Robots have a reality in 2008 – yet their reality is far from science fiction then and now, but strangely I think science fiction robots have a better chance of finding their place in the real world than interstellar space travel, aliens or time travel – the other major motifs of early SF.

Science fiction robots have evolved in the years since 1965.  You have the philosophical replicants of Blade Runner, the charm of Commander Data on Star Trek:TNG, the cyborg tenacity of The Terminator, the cuteness of Wall-E, the comic duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO, the threat of the Cylons, the wise robotic aliens of A.I. When I read City today I see Jenkins in relation to all the robots I’ve met since.  He is a simple faithful servant, intelligent, but hardly more than a mechanical Mr. Jeeves.  Of course, if I owned a robot, I’d want a Jenkins.  Owning a Commander Data or even a Rachael from Blade Runner would be a kind of slavery.  Jenkins’ mechanical servitude is acceptable, but that’s a whole other world of speculation.

In 1965 just the concept of an intelligent machine was cool.  The possibilities were endless.  Soon after Jenkins I encountered Mike, the intelligent computer in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and then HAL in 2001, and the concept of artificial intelligence grew in my mind.  There is a chance I even majored in computers in 1971 because of those stories.  They were a far cry from the IBM 1620 I was programming with punch cards at the time.  Working with real computers taught me the limitations of science fictional computers.

When I read City today, I analyze Simak’s speculation about the future from his vantage of 1952 and earlier.  He pictured atomic power, private planes, helicopters and hydroponic farming causing such a societal paradigm change that cities were dissolved and people chose to live far from one another independently.  While this was going on, Simak imagined the development of robots and the uplifting of dogs.  His speculation of de-urbanization, or re-ruralization seems silly today, but it is elegant speculation.  Simak’s whole imagined future where humans disappear and are forgotten, leaving the Earth to intelligent dogs and robots is quite beautiful.  That holds up.

What my 56-year-old self needs is a 2008 novel about robots that is as ground breaking as City was in 1952.  This wished for novel needs to have the story quality of City so it remains in print until 2060 and later.  And I need to live to be a 109 so I can reread it and evaluate my sense of wonder one last time before I pass into oblivion.

Jim

The Economics of Inefficiency

During bad economic times people seek ways to get more for their money – in other words they try to become efficient spenders.  The trouble with that thinking, it’s bad for the economy.  What we want is a thriving economy where there’s a chicken in every pot and the future is rosy.  Woefully, a thriving economy is highly inefficient.

Take saving money.  All money advisors advise people get out of debt, save a portion of their salary and only buy what they’ve saved up for – good Puritan ideals.  If everyone followed this advice we’d fall into a world-wide depression.  The economic success of all depends on everyone spending as much money as they can.  If we had a world where the only credit card spending was paid off at the end of the month, people wouldn’t buy nine-tenths of the crap that they do.  That’s a lot of people out of jobs.  And when those folks lose their jobs, even more bad things happen, and a recession becomes a growing snowball rolling down hill.

There’s always a silver economic lining, even to bad things.  If everyone was honest we wouldn’t need jails, police, lawyers, judges, counselors, bail bondsmen, mystery writers, cop show producers, and so on, as I’m sure you get the idea.  I hate the idea of crime.  Crime is the true terrorism in America.  But ending crime would be like one of those stories about a person finding a Genie in a bottle and getting a wish that turns out disturbingly screwed up.  If someone did get to make that wish and tomorrow all illegal activity stopped we’d have a whole lot of honest people out of work, and a lot of criminals previously not working, would be looking for jobs too.  Could the world’s economies handle the impact of so much ethical behavior?  I’d much prefer a crime-free efficient economy and the main way to reduce crime is for the economy to produce a lot of good jobs.  It’s a Catch-22.

The same reverse philosophy could be applied to the advice about eating right and pursuing healthy lifestyles.  If everyone ate healthy, how many people would be out of work when all the fast food restaurants went belly up?  Add in the junk food makers, their related industries, vending machines, packaging, salesmen, suppliers, warehouses, etc.  And then think about all the health care workers that clean up after we lead lives of poor healthy choices.  Sure, we’d produce a lot more sport fitness jobs, but would they make up for all the lost careers selling evil calories?

What if everyone bought the store brands instead of the big name brands?  What if everyone jettison their designer clothes and shopped at Target and Penney’s?  What if everyone wore sensible shoes and drove practical cars?  What if people gave up vanity, putting the make-up makers and cosmetic surgeons out of business?  What if everyone stole their MP3 songs and DVD movies?

Certain things in life are vital:  air, water, food, shelter and jobs.  And maybe jobs should be listed third because getting food and shelter without a job is very difficult.  Right now America is in a panic over an economic downturn and we see everything about the future through the spectacles of fear.  It doesn’t seem to matter that there’s more peace and prosperity now than at any time during all of history.

Everyone is wailing and gnashing their teeth that gasoline costs $4 a gallon.  Forecasters have been predicting that for forty damn years – so why all the tantrums?  Nor do people seem to notice that the high price of gasoline comes just at the perfect time when we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels because of war and global warming.  It’s a good thing.  It’s our second warning before economic hell comes to town.  We knew back in the 1970s that living off of cheap oil was like borrowing from the Mafia.  Is it so surprising they’re breaking our legs right now?  And we really haven’t had a true oil crisis, because no one is going without yet.  Wait until there are oil shortages.  That’s when they chain cement blocks to us and throw us in the ocean.  Are you ready for the day when there will be no gasoline for sale at the pumps?  Gas lines are just one terrorist act or hurricane away.

Cheap fossil fuels made for wonderful sensible things like wooden toys made on one side of the planet, practical to sell to people on the other side of the globe.  See where the economics of inefficiency come in?  We use cheap fossil fuels to move our fat asses, which desperately need exercise, around in 6000 pound vehicles, instead of vehicles, if they were efficiently designed, weighing in at 500-1000 pounds, and use renewable energy instead of molecules sequestered by the Earth millions of years ago to get carbon out of the atmosphere and allow life to blossom.

We may be the smartest creatures in creation, but heck, we ain’t smart enough not to poison our only habitat.  When you live in the basket with all your eggs, eating omelettes every day is dangerous.

To pull ourselves out of this economic mess we need to learn to consume more while using less, a Zen koan if there ever was one.  Moving music to MP3 files is a perfect example.  Distributing MP3 music requires an infinitely small fraction of the resources it took to make and sell CDs.  The demise of the CD puts a lot businesses and people out of work, but if the music industry worked it right they could eventually create a lot more jobs.  This economic theory fails if you steal the MP3s.

If everyone had solar panels on their roofs it would require the creation of whole new industries and millions of jobs.  To feed and educate all the needy people in the world would create more millions of jobs.  To build houses that withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires and severe weather of the changing climate will create more millions of jobs.  There is no end of jobs to be create because of need.  There is plenty of economic activity, both efficient and inefficient if you have the vision to see it.

I know a lot of Americans are suffering because of the current economic crisis, but I have to agree with Phil Gramm that part of our economic recession is a “mental recession” and we’re doing too much whining.  Hell, we’re not living in Afghanistan.  What happened to that American spirit of when the going gets tough, the tough get going?  I’m voting for Obama, but I didn’t like his quip about not needing another Dr. Phil.  We need all the positive thinkers we can get.  There’s lot about McCain that I like, and if he wins I won’t be too unhappy, but his spin-control pandered to voters rather than exploring the point I think Gramm was trying to make.

During election times all voters become beggars looking for handouts demanding that their politicians promise and promise and promise.  Politicians get nowhere if they aren’t leaders.  Of course sometimes they lead us off the cliff into places like Iraq, but didn’t George Bush take us there because he was playing off the country’s fear?  We’re living in the current economic chaos because of greed and the refusal to think and pay attention.  Do we really need brilliant hindsight to know that making house loans to people who can’t afford them is silly or owning SUVs are a bad idea when oil was predicted to run out forty years ago?

Our crazy economy reminds me of the classic science fiction story, “The Midas Plague” by Frederik Pohl, where consumerism drives the economy so much that the poor are forced to change clothes several times a day to keep up with production – because to make less would hurt the economy.  In this bizarro world, the rich get the freedom to live without being consumers, but the poor must consume like hamsters on a wheel to keep the economy going.

Who’s fault is it if we take the most powerful and prosperous country in the world and run into the economic ground because we all like to make bad choices?  For decades we have built an economy on inefficiency.  What happens to China when we stop buying all that crap we don’t need?  What happens to the U.S. if China suffers an economic chill?  It’s like “The Midas Plague,” we could stimulate the economy by forcing the poor to go into debt and buy a new HD TV every month.

Right now everyone is panicking and cutting back on their spending, but if you wanted to help the economy, you should be doing just the opposite.  Now, here’s the crucial part – your economic decision has impact.  You can make an efficient choice, or a wasteful choice.  If you buy a new HVAC that uses 1/3 the energy as your old one, then you have stimulated the economy and reduced the demand on fossil fuels, plus saved yourself some bucks.  If you fly to Paris for a vacation, you have helped the airlines, but hurt the rest of us by increasing the demand for oil.  You can’t win for losing sometimes.  But if you had the choice between flying on a plane fueled by green technology or old technology, your choice could build a new industry.

We need to cowboy up and channel our ancestor’s pioneering spirit.  We need to take responsibility for our actions.  Like the old Pogo cartoon said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Whether gasoline is $2 or $4 or $7 a gallon, the choice is made by us, we set the price.  If you want gasoline to go to $7 a gallon, keep burning oil like there’s no end of it, live like the oil companies will always find new resources, use it like we’ve been doing for the last thirty years.  Keep panicking over the economy and oil prices will rise.  Keep advocating going to war with Iran and oil prices will rise.

We need to get our heads together, overcome fear like FDR taught us, become frugal like our Puritan forefathers, develop green technologies, and oil prices will come down.  If gasoline went to $10 a gallon, but we had cars that got ten times the mileage, it would be like getting $1 a gallon gas.  When gasoline was $2 a gallon we could have been driving cars that made it equal to 50 cents a gallon, but we didn’t.  We collective decided to drive cars that would force gasoline to become $4 a gallon.  Our choice – so why bitch and moan now?

The other lesson of this current economic crisis is the world changes.  We built our current economy psychology, retirement system, investment system, and all our financial expectations around the idea that the world won’t change and growth would be predictable. How stupid is that?  Our current state of economic fear is because we’re having to deal with change.  Change is as constant as time.  People hate change, but we’re the dominant species on this planet because we’re adaptable.  Humans can handle habitat change that puts all other species into extinction, but that’s at the species level.  Cultures go in and out of existence like TV series.  Because the U.S. is a very diverse culture, we can take quite a beating and still keep on ticking.  Go study your Douglas Adams and Adam Smith, and don’t panic.

Jim