Sex, Drugs, And Particle Physics

No, I'm Not
No, I'm Not

I finished “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” yesterday, much to my own delight. (I discovered that the complete text is available online, and the public library has a wonderful, 10-disc audio version as well.) The book is edited from a series of interviews and conversations conducted with Feynman, and explore the more unusual aspects of his life. (Playing in a Samba band in Brazil, his short-lived career in art, his experiences learning to pick locks, etc.) The majority of the book tries to mine “funny” out of the life of a noble prize winning physicist who helped build the bomb used on Japan.

Feynman’s dedication to solving puzzles, playing games, and generally being the smartest guy in the room is pretty incredible. I’m particularly impressed with his attitude toward the bullshit we deal with on a daily basis: royalty, celebrity, wealth, etc., are to be mocked, derided, and insulted, but being clever, earnestness, and intellect should admired. His public defense of a local strip bar (where, he claims, he would work on some of his theories on the paper plates) sits next to his mocking the US governments handling of patents as a testament to where his values lie. Not only practical and intelligent, he seems like exactly the kind of guy that sees the world for what it is, and not for how it is often presented.

One thing that did bother me about the book, though, is that his attitudes and intellect do conspire to create a certain kind of smugness and pretension that, ironically, works against his own feelings and attitudes about smugness and pretension. This is something I’ve struggled with in my own life; usually, the people who are against the bullshit in this world often take things so far in their own presentation that they become purveyors of their own pretension and bullshit. (Case in point: most subcultures.) Yes, I love it when the Country Mouse gets the better of the City Mouse, and I am naturally attracted to those kinds of stories anyway. But when the Country Mouse is singing his own praises as being better than the City Mouse, I start to get a little frustrated.

I also find his extreme preoccupation with sex to be a little ho-hum. This is obviously cultural, in our case; Americans are so completely uptight about sex, and at the time this book came out Revenge of the Nerds hadn’t yet changed the cultural perception of what the geeky guy in glasses was thinking about. So I can see why Feynman wanted to drop these stories about his adventures in bars, with girls, even if his advice is somewhat contemptible (if you treat girls really badly, they will sleep with you every single time). In the end, the So What factor starts to take over. Yes, you like pretty girls. Who doesn’t? Yes, it’s unexpected that a Professor would be chasing skirts and getting into fights in bars. Can we get back to the lock-picking stories? Everything relating to being interested in sex was sort of boring, and instead of being revealing and shocking, it read more like, “Yeah, who isn’t like that? Next.” Humans, Feynman included, love to think that they are skirting the edges of acceptability when they are in polite society, not realizing that most other people feel this same way about themselves, too.

One persistent element of this book that I loved, though, is the reflections on alienation. Again, there is nothing new or unheard of in this, but his befuddlement and confusion about the human race struck a chord that rang very true for me, too. Specifically, his realization that the majority of people learn through memorization, rather than understanding. I’ve come up against that hundreds of times in my life. I feel like an absolute moron when I can’t understand something, even if I could give you the right answer because I memorized it. Not understanding something is a terrible state to be in, and I am constantly living in terror of the things I can’t parse or rationalize. A large portion of the world around me seems content with not knowing, and I feel as if this simple schism marks the divide between myself and the rest of the world.

But more general than that, Feynman outlines his struggles to incorporate himself into a world that doesn’t make sense to him. He is baffled by arbitrary custom or inane social practice, and yet wants so badly to find a way to navigate them successfully, as if he’s trying to solve the puzzle that is humanity. Our entire culture is based on establishing rules and scenarios that alienate some while including only select others. Feynman is horrified by this, and yet so desperately wants to be a part of the world that he can’t entirely reject it. He jokes, kids, and does everything he can to avoid playing by the rules, but at the end of the day he can’t entirely remove himself from society just because it is confusing.

That, more than anything, seems to be what he was driving at in this collection of strange anecdotes and bizarre reflections. Yes, this world is stupid, horrible, full of mean spirited people, and on the whole not the place you would choose to live if you could make that choice. But at the end of the day, we all have to live in the world. You might as well make a game of it to help pass the time.

Good advice? That’s not my place to say. But there were times I laughed out loud, and others where I cried. What more could you ask for in a book by someone who made the bombing of Japan possible?

Self Deception

Lying To Ourselves.

According to this segment (and the research supporting it), people who are better at self deception, can modify the way they see the world (and themselves), and are generally more successful, richer, and happier in their own lives. Those who have difficulty in lying to themselves, and thus see the world as it really is, tend to have trouble being happy, and find it difficult to be successful in the same ways that liars are.

I find it interesting that there is evidence that supports something that anyone suffering from depression could have told you ages ago: the balance between being disingenuous and being honest is the surface tension that binds humanity.

My Hero

According to Wikipedia:

Due to the top secret nature of the work [on the Manhattan Project], Los Alamos was isolated. In Feynman’s own words, “There wasn’t anything to do there”. Bored, he indulged his curiosity by learning to pick the combination locks on cabinets and desks used to secure papers. In one case he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use (27-18-28 after the base of natural logarithms), and found that the three filing cabinets where a colleague kept a set of research notes all had the same combination. He left a series of notes as a prank, which initially spooked his colleague into thinking a spy or saboteur had gained access to atomic bomb secrets.

That is definitely one way to relieve boredom. What a fucking stud.

I Want Some Cockaigne

Land Of Bliss
Land Of Bliss

My new favorite Wikipedia article:

Cockaigne

According to Herman Pleij, Cockaigne is a place where:

roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy, where grilled geese fly directly into one’s mouth, where all the restrictions of society are defied, where cooked fish jump out of the water and land at one’s feet. The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available (nuns flipped over to show their bottoms), and all people enjoy eternal youth.

Cockaigne was a, “medieval peasant’s dream, offering relief from backbreaking labor and the daily struggle for meager food.”

Hell yeah.

I Wish

One evening as the sun went down
and the jungle fires were burning,
down the track came a hobo hiking,
and he said, “Boys I’m not turning.
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
besides the crystal fountains.
So come with me, we’ll go and see
the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
there’s a land that’s fair and bright.
Where the handouts grow on bushes
and you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
and the sun shines every day
and the birds and bees
and the cigarette trees
the lemonade springs
where the bluebird sings
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
all the cops have wooden legs
and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
and the barns are full of hay.
Oh I’m bound to go
where there ain’t no snow
where the rain don’t fall
the winds don’t blow
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
you never change your socks
and the little streams of alcohol
come trickling down the rocks.
The brakemen have to tip their hats
and the railway bulls are blind.
There’s a lake of stew
and of whiskey too
you can paddle all around
in a big canoe
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
the jails are made of tin
and you can walk right out again
as soon as you are in.
There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
no axes, saws nor picks
I’m bound to stay
where you sleep all day
where they hung they jerk
that invented work
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

I’ll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

L & R Evening

Best Comic Ever
Best Comic Ever

Not that this is news to anyone, but I am a Love & Rockets fan. (Not the band.) Encouraged by my friend Lyra, I picked up a copy of Music For Mechanics in the early ’90’s, and over the years would pick up an issue or collection here and there, totally impressed and in love with almost every aspect of the book.

Within L&R there are two main narratives that have been running through the series since the beginning: Locas, written by Jamie Hernandez, which focuses on a group of Latina punk-rock girls from a neighborhood called Hoppers 13 in Southern California, and Palomar, written by Gilbert Hernandez, which focuses on the residents of the eponymously named, magical-realist village somewhere “south of the US border.” While a number of other, unrelated stories and characters crop up regularly, including stories by their brother Mario, these are the primary works in the series.

In the monthly comics, the stories within were presented in a piecemeal fashion: there would be a little from Locas, and little from Palomar, a little of this, and little of that, and in the really early issues, a Mario story. Recently, a series of excellent reprints were put together that collected the stories in a way that separated the flotsam and jetsam from each other. Now, you can get a four volume series that covers the entire Locas storyline up to the present (in order), and a three volume series that covers the entire Palomar series. (There’s yet another collection that contains all the Mario stories, and everything else that isn’t part of the two other storylines… though in many cases, there are crossovers.)

Having (finally) read through nearly everything by all three of these artists, I have become quite torn in terms of how to divide my fan worship. Critically, the Palomar stories are highly respected, and there is something very astute and literary about the Gilbert stories. And while I really do like his work quite a bit, there is a part of me that is drawn to Jamie’s work more often. (To be perfectly honest, I really love the Mario stories best, but in terms of output vs. enjoyment, Jamie wins.) I can’t exactly stress this enough without using an equally geeky analogy: admitting this is the Comics equivalent of saying you are a Beach Boys fan, but you just aren’t that into Pet Sounds.

Even worse than this, I find myself drawn mostly to the Sci-Fi / Latina Wrestling stories, more than the soap opera that is the majority of the Locas stories. When Maggie is flying around the world, repairing robots and spaceships and meeting dinosaurs, I just find myself enjoying the stories more than when Maggie and Hopey are fighting over their “relationships problems.” When Hopey’s band goes on tour, I’m much more excited than when they show Maggie struggling with her new job as Apartment Manager. When Vicki is in mourning because her old wrestling enemy, Rena, might be dead, and thus Vicki declares that she will only wrestle fair and square for the rest of her career, it feels like a more momentous occasion than when Penny attempts to squeeze more money out of her rich sugar Daddy. To make this point abundantly clear, this is the Comics equivalent of saying, “After Brian Wilson left the group, the Beach Boys REALLY started to cook!”

It is often said of me that I like to take nerdiness to hitherto unknown heights (as recently as yesterday afternoon, by one of my co-workers after I complimented his daughters Avengers t-shirt), and when I started to think about it, this schism in the things I enjoy about L&R seemed to cut right to the heart of that comment. Rather than the artistic and acclaimed work of one person, I like the cheesy soap opera of his brother. Rather than the sharp and sophisticated relationship analysis that happens in later stories, I like the corny Sci-Fi / Wrestling stories. Rather than the (yawn) boring observations on sexual relationships that are bubbling beneath the surface of all the later stories, I seem to get much more excited about spaceships, robots, and dinosaurs.

I’m not exactly sure what that says about me, but if taking nerdiness to the extreme means that I am in love with Latina-Wrestler, Punk-Rock, Sci-Fi comics, then I will make no apologies for my nerdiness. But, to win back at least some of the cred I’ve lost, I’m starting on reading two imported volumes of Corto Malteseto make up for it.