Joshua Parkinson http://www.joshuaparkinson.com Fate Hacker Mon, 28 Jul 2014 13:56:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Poise is treating unforeseen circumstances as crucial parts of the plan. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/poise-treating-unforeseen-circumstances-crucial-parts-plan/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/poise-treating-unforeseen-circumstances-crucial-parts-plan/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 13:56:05 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=294 The post Poise is treating unforeseen circumstances as crucial parts of the plan. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Man is a genetic mutant on a polluted dirtclod floating through the nether regions of oblivion. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/man-is-a-genetic-mutant-on-a-polluted-dirtclod/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/man-is-a-genetic-mutant-on-a-polluted-dirtclod/#comments Thu, 31 Oct 2013 01:25:05 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=243 The post Man is a genetic mutant on a polluted dirtclod floating through the nether regions of oblivion. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Ideas bubble up and then they drift. Insight resists the flow. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/ideas-bubble-up-and-then-they-drift/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/ideas-bubble-up-and-then-they-drift/#comments Mon, 28 Feb 2011 02:00:54 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=240 The post Ideas bubble up and then they drift. Insight resists the flow. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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People who know exactly what they’re going to say rarely say a thing. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/people-who-know-exactly-what-theyre-going-to-say/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/people-who-know-exactly-what-theyre-going-to-say/#comments Thu, 13 Jan 2011 01:50:48 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=237 The post People who know exactly what they’re going to say rarely say a thing. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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When choice and chance make love, both get pregnant. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/choice-chance-make-love-get-pregnant/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/choice-chance-make-love-get-pregnant/#comments Sun, 28 Nov 2010 11:38:17 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=234 The post When choice and chance make love, both get pregnant. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Those who crave knowledge are often more interesting than those who have it. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/those-who-crave-knowledge/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/those-who-crave-knowledge/#comments Thu, 01 Jul 2010 02:34:08 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=212 The post Those who crave knowledge are often more interesting than those who have it. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Compromise is the grease of influence. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/compromise-grease-influence/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/compromise-grease-influence/#comments Thu, 08 Apr 2010 18:29:39 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=209 The post Compromise is the grease of influence. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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There’s nothing you can do that won’t be abetted by one more slow, deep breath. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/one-more-slow-deep-breath/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/one-more-slow-deep-breath/#comments Sat, 06 Mar 2010 04:23:49 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=206 The post There’s nothing you can do that won’t be abetted by one more slow, deep breath. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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One’s weaknesses become most apparent when witnessed in the acts of others. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/ones-weaknesses-become-apparent-witnessed-acts-others/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/ones-weaknesses-become-apparent-witnessed-acts-others/#comments Thu, 28 Jan 2010 19:13:02 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=203 The post One’s weaknesses become most apparent when witnessed in the acts of others. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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An argument becomes more suspect with every addendum. Proof can be so annoying. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/proof-can-be-so-annoying/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/proof-can-be-so-annoying/#comments Thu, 10 Dec 2009 20:09:29 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=218 The post An argument becomes more suspect with every addendum. Proof can be so annoying. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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The people who say more than they know usually work for the people who know more than they say. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/people-who-say-more-than-they-know/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/people-who-say-more-than-they-know/#comments Wed, 14 Oct 2009 22:34:04 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=194 The post The people who say more than they know usually work for the people who know more than they say. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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The Demise of Chewing: Review of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-of-catching-fire-how-cooking-made-us-human/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-of-catching-fire-how-cooking-made-us-human/#comments Tue, 18 Aug 2009 01:39:18 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=246 We were once apes with big lips, mouths, teeth and guts. Then we learned how to cook our food. Now we’re apes with small lips, mouths, teeth and guts… and big brains. Coincidence? Dick thinks not. According to him, we learned how to cook by first learning how to control fire. This allowed us to […]

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We were once apes with big lips, mouths, teeth and guts. Then we learned how to cook our food. Now we’re apes with small lips, mouths, teeth and guts… and big brains. Coincidence? Dick thinks not.

According to him, we learned how to cook by first learning how to control fire. This allowed us to sleep on the ground at night (instead of in trees) and turned us from Homo habilus (tree-climbing, raw-food-eating dimwits) into Homo erectus (ground-dwelling, cooked-food-eating troglodytes).

Controlling fire and cooking also engendered the division of labor between the sexes and accelerated our penchant for complex cooperation. Once we learned to cook our food, men could spend their days hunting and not have to worry about lost chewing time [raw-food-eating modern apes (chimps and gorillas) have to spend most their days chewing and thus can't hunt much-- and because every ape must chew for himself, no division of labor is possible:]. With cooking, women didn’t have to worry about lost chewing time either and could thus spend their days gathering and cooking.

In the end, cooking gave us several more free hours per day to do other things, which led us to socialize more, think more and, with the help of easily digestable, energy-abundant cooked food, grow our brains.

This is a great book. I recommend it to all apes who eat cooked food.

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Variation is the salt and uncertainty the pepper at the table of life’s great dinner. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/the-salt-and-pepper-at-the-table-of-lifes-great-dinner/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/the-salt-and-pepper-at-the-table-of-lifes-great-dinner/#comments Mon, 27 Jul 2009 00:01:59 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=187 The post Variation is the salt and uncertainty the pepper at the table of life’s great dinner. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Up the Energy Escalator: Review of “The Machinery of Nature” by Paul Ehrlich http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-of-the-machinery-of-nature-paul-ehrlich/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-of-the-machinery-of-nature-paul-ehrlich/#comments Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:02:49 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=249 This book is out of print, so you can only find it in libraries. If you can get your hands on it, it’s a great read. Ehrlich defines and describes the most fundamental cogs in nature’s machinery, and the relationships between those cogs. The final chapter on ecosystems is the creme of the book, and […]

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This book is out of print, so you can only find it in libraries. If you can get your hands on it, it’s a great read. Ehrlich defines and describes the most fundamental cogs in nature’s machinery, and the relationships between those cogs. The final chapter on ecosystems is the creme of the book, and the creme of that creme is his discussion of how food chains are ruled by entropy (the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

Why is the total mass of top level predators a mere fraction of the total mass of lower level vegetation? Because as energy moves up the food chain, at each stop on the “energy escalator,” a portion of the available energy is (in practical terms) lost. Ehrlich writes:

Organisms at each [food chain] level do work in the course of maintaining their structure and metabolism, growing, and reproducing. The energy so used [at that level] is thus subject to the inexorable tax of the second law, and the portion taxed away is not available to the next trophic level. The significance of the second law here is that, in any ecosystem, the amount of energy available to each successive trophic level declines. Thus more energy is available to support plants than herbivores, more to support herbivores than carnivores, and so on.

In other words, were it not for entropy, our planet would have a total mass of lions and tigers equal to its total mass of trees and grasses. That would be a lot of cats. We don’t have them because, as Ehrlich makes clear, only 10% of the energy that flows into one level of a food chain is available to the next level. So if the grass on an African plain manages to capture 1000 calories of energy from the sun, only 100 of those calories will be available to support the zebras and wildebeest, and only 10 of the those 100 will be available to support the lions.

The corollary to this fact is that we humans would have far more calories available for chewing and swallowing if we decided to only chew and swallow plants. The further up the food chain we dine, the less food is available to us, all other things being equal. So…. vegetarians of the world unite! (I’m actually not one… and never will be.)

My favorite part of the book is Ehrlich’s discussion of how ecosystems become disturbed, and how seemingly tiny organisms can cause extreme changes in landscapes. For example, in the 1880s, the viral disease “rinderpest” was accidentally introduced into Africa’s Serengeti region by cattle imported from Russia. The pest quickly decimated the cattle of the local Masai and then began knocking off herds of native buffalo, wildebeest and giraffe. With less “natural” food, the lions of the region began dining on local humans instead (these were the famed Tsavo man-eaters made famous in the Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas flick “The Ghost and the Darkness”). Not wanting to end their lives as lion fodder, local farmers abandoned their fields, which soon overgrew with brush and woodland. It wasn’t until 50 years later, in the 1930s, that these woodlands were regained as plains and farmland again.

So in roughly a decade, a tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, transformed a vast swathe of African landscape from a herbivore-filled plain and farmland into a brushy woodland forest replete with man-eating beasts. Amazing.

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The most formidable conceptual battleships float on an ocean of frothing doubt. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/ocean-of-frothing-doubt/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/ocean-of-frothing-doubt/#comments Wed, 03 Jun 2009 02:11:15 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=183 The post The most formidable conceptual battleships float on an ocean of frothing doubt. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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It’s the things we do when we have “nothing to do” that separate the masters from the masses. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/the-things-we-do-when-we-have-nothing-to-do/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/the-things-we-do-when-we-have-nothing-to-do/#comments Fri, 10 Apr 2009 15:06:52 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=161 The post It’s the things we do when we have “nothing to do” that separate the masters from the masses. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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The thoughts that make up our knowledge are like paths through thick forests. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/the-thoughts-that-make-up-our-knowledge/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/the-thoughts-that-make-up-our-knowledge/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2009 05:48:53 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=147 When someone leads us along such a path, we experience the way briefly and then forget it quickly.  When we lead ourselves along it, we learn the way personally and remember it more distinctly.  But if we don't continually walk the path, treading its rut deeper and solidifying the connections between its landmarks, hollows and bends, we eventually lose the way, and are only able to regain it through pure luck-- or a machete.

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When someone leads us along such a path, we experience the way briefly and then forget it quickly.  When we lead ourselves along it, we learn the way personally and remember it more distinctly.  But if we don’t continually walk the path, treading its rut deeper and solidifying the connections between its landmarks, hollows and bends, we eventually lose the way, and are only able to regain it through pure luck– or a machete.

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Man is a machine made to prove things false and to wonder when things will prove true. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/man-machine-made-prove-things-false-wonder-things-will-prove-true/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/man-machine-made-prove-things-false-wonder-things-will-prove-true/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2009 17:00:59 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=179 The post Man is a machine made to prove things false and to wonder when things will prove true. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Television is like a railing in the subway. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/television-like-railing-subway/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/television-like-railing-subway/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2009 04:19:16 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=164 It collects society's grime and disseminates it to users. Too much contact with it can lay you up for days.

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It collects society’s grime and disseminates it to users. Too much contact with it can lay you up for days.

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Recipe for disaster http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/recipe-disaster/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/recipe-disaster/#comments Sun, 15 Feb 2009 18:47:30 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=167 For recession, combine cheap money and desirable assets in free market economy. Bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to prevent foresight. Once tender, reveal reality and then smother with fear. For depression, add politicians.

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For recession, combine cheap money and desirable assets in free market economy. Bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to prevent foresight. Once tender, reveal reality and then smother with fear. For depression, add politicians.

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If you find yourself punctuating a conversation with “I’m just telling you how I feel” then you’ve already said too much. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/im-just-telling-you-how-i-feel/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/im-just-telling-you-how-i-feel/#comments Thu, 08 Jan 2009 21:16:29 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=190 The post If you find yourself punctuating a conversation with “I’m just telling you how I feel” then you’ve already said too much. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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The bottleneck of conception is articulation. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/bottleneck-conception-articulation/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/bottleneck-conception-articulation/#comments Mon, 15 Dec 2008 22:34:52 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=158 The post The bottleneck of conception is articulation. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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The cost of excessive experience is often the willingness to relate what’s been learned. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/cost-excessive-experience-often-willingness-relate-whats-learned/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/cost-excessive-experience-often-willingness-relate-whats-learned/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2008 20:49:50 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=144 The post The cost of excessive experience is often the willingness to relate what’s been learned. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Write as if you’re throwing a surprise party for Truth. Your readers are the guests. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/surprise-party-for-truth/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/surprise-party-for-truth/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2008 18:47:12 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=155 The post Write as if you’re throwing a surprise party for Truth. Your readers are the guests. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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In politics, people move to the right in accordance with their fear and to the left in accordance with their spite. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/politics-right-fear-left-spite/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/politics-right-fear-left-spite/#comments Thu, 16 Oct 2008 18:00:14 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=200 The post In politics, people move to the right in accordance with their fear and to the left in accordance with their spite. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Just as Nature adorns itself with the attributes of creatures, Truth adorns itself with the ideas of men. http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/truth-adorns-itself-with-the-ideas-of-men/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/truth-adorns-itself-with-the-ideas-of-men/#comments Thu, 04 Sep 2008 19:47:28 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=197 The post Just as Nature adorns itself with the attributes of creatures, Truth adorns itself with the ideas of men. appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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Zane’s Pain http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/zanes-pain/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/zanes-pain/#comments Thu, 26 Jun 2008 12:26:36 +0000 http://joshuaparkinson.com/?p=53 Here in the borderlands, here in the spaces between rock and sky, here on my island of liberalism — my lonely cay assailed by the fanaticism of bearded bigots — here I teach American soldiers how to write. Every day at the beginning of Writing 101 class, I pose a question to which the students […]

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Here in the borderlands, here in the spaces between rock and sky, here on my island of liberalism — my lonely cay assailed by the fanaticism of bearded bigots — here I teach American soldiers how to write. Every day at the beginning of Writing 101 class, I pose a question to which the students must respond with impromptu paragraphs. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “What is the worst physical pain you’ve ever felt?”

The students have to write a story in response. They have to narrate the events leading up to their most painful moment and then describe the pain precisely enough to make the reader yelp. As you can imagine, I get a lot of good stories. I’ve heard everything from stubbed toes to racked nuts to childbirths to busted bones in high school football games. I also get a lot of war stories. Iraq comes up a lot. On Monday I heard a harrowing tale that’s sure to become classic.

Zane, the storyteller, is an NCO on his fifth deployment to the Middle East since 9/11. He’s a survivor. He has sneaked his way in and out of Iraq three times now. His response when I first asked him the pain question was that he couldn’t pick just one incident. He had too many.

“I’m from southern Alabama,” he said, as if that explained everything.

Back home, Zane lives on an island off the coast of Alabama where the deer and the moccasins play. He spends his free time running barefoot through snake-filled creeks and drowning bullsharks.

“You just throw a loop around the shark’s tail” he said. “Then drag it behind the boat till it’s dead. Water goes up gills and drowns it.”

When he’s not slaying sea monsters, Zane collects poisonous serpents. He told the class about an incident a few years back when he and his brother came across a five-foot water moccasin slithering through the brush. Without thinking, Zane swiped up the tail of the creature, expecting his brother to distract it from the front. But his brother was behind him. The snake recoiled toward Zane like a giant slinky and sunk two dripping fangs into his bare foot.

“It was like a dream,” he said. “There I was, holding this snake’s tail with two fists, yanking on it with all my might, and the damn thing wouldn’t let go of my foot…”

It sounded like something out of a Greek myth.

“But that didn’t hurt as bad as getting tangled in a swarm of jellyfish tentacles!” he added.

By the time Zane got around to reading his Iraq story, he had the whole class teetering on seat-edge. The story would have to be pretty good to outdo his tales of snake-wrestling and jellyfish-tangling. Zane didn’t disappoint.

One evening about halfway through his second tour in Iraq— his second “Babylonian captivity,” as he put it— Zane and his soldiers decided a celebration was in order. They’d lasted six months in the red zone and were halfway home. In their time outside the wire, they’d established contacts with all the important locals in the nearby communities— the ones who could supply them with life’s amenities, like imported beer. That night they aimed to make use of these contacts.

Zane made the arrangements. Before night patrol he filled a huge cooler with ice, crammed it into the back of the Humvee, and he and his soldiers set off into the dusty deathscape. The evening went by smoothly— as smoothly as evenings go when every inch of road can kill. Around sunset, the gunner let out a short spray of fire, but nothing came of it. Darkness approached.

With the beige air fading to gray, Zane checked his watch and saw that everything was on schedule. The beer-suppliers would meet them on route so there’d be no need to go out of the way. They were traveling east into the darkness, headlights on, rumbling along a dirt road next to a canal when… BOOM!!

IED.

The explosion lifted up the Humvee’s passenger side where Zane sat and sent it rolling over the driver’s side toward the canal. As the vehicle rolled, shrapnel shot up through the floor pan and zinged between the feet of the passengers. Zane felt a crunch as the Humvee landed on its roof and began scraping down the embankment toward the canal. Then he blacked out.

He was awoken by a chill on the back of his neck. Water! Ice cold water! It soaked his hair and numbed his neck. By the time he figured out where he was and what had happened, the water was rushing into his ears. His body was hanging upside down from his seatbelt, his head and neck pressed into the roof of the Humvee. Worse, the cabin seemed to be filling with water. The canal! he thought. They had slid into the canal!

Ever since he was a kid, Zane had been afraid of drowning. “Being buried alive and drowning,” he said, “those were my two biggest fears.”

Drowning seemed imminent inside the rolled Humvee. Frigid canal water seemed to be leaking in through the cracks in the doors and slowly filling the cabin. When the men inside realized they were about to die, they began screaming in panic and terror. They tugged at their seat belts and pushed up on their seats from below. They punched at the doors and elbowed the windows. It was no use. They were trapped.

The gunner was the only passenger who hadn’t been trapped in the rollover. Zane ordered him to get out. As the young man pried himself from under his seat and crawled through the crushed cabin, Zane made a promise to himself: when the time came, he’d take a deep breath of water and end it instantly. He wouldn’t suffer, he told himself. He’d end it all in one deep, liquid breath.

The frigid water crawled up his temples and toward his eyes, slowly, inexorably. It reached the corners of his eyes and then a voice called from outside. It was the soldier who’d escaped:

“It’s the cooler!” he said. “It’s the fucking cooler!”

The cooler? Zane thought. What cooler? Then it donned on him. Yes! The cooler! It was the cooler! The freezing water soaking his hair and creeping up his face was the melted ice from the cooler in the trunk. It had spilt when the Humvee flipped. He wasn’t going to drown! It was the cooler!

The students laughed as Zane finished reading. It was a good story. But there was one problem: I hadn’t asked for stories about near-death experiences. I wanted stories about pain. I wanted to know the worst physical pain Zane had felt.

“What about the pain?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said, remembering the question. “Well, the shrapnel from the IED blew through my foot and carved a big ole’ groove up my leg bone. I was bleeding all over. But I didn’t even notice. I was giddy. I was happy I wasn’t gonna drown!”

“But if you didn’t even notice,” I asked, “then how was it the worst pain you ever felt?”

“Well sir, I noticed pretty quick after I saw the blood. The pain set in heavy after that. It hurt like hell. And they still had to pry me from the vehicle!”

“Fair enough,” I said.

It was quite a tale. The class was impressed. I thanked him for sharing it and just as I was about to move on to the next soldier, another student chimed in with something we’d forgotten, something that was apparently on the mind of every sober soldier in the classroom.

“What about the beer?”

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The most motivating thing a teacher can say to a student: “Wow, I never thought of that.” http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/most-motivating-thing-a-teacher-can-say-to-a-student/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/most-motivating-thing-a-teacher-can-say-to-a-student/#comments Tue, 03 Jun 2008 21:00:06 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=215 The post The most motivating thing a teacher can say to a student: “Wow, I never thought of that.” appeared first on Joshua Parkinson.

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The Philosophy of Hail http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/philosophy-of-hail/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/philosophy-of-hail/#comments Thu, 29 May 2008 03:18:16 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=120 I went out walking the FOB again last night. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been carving a rut in the gravel road that circles the perimeter of our base. I tread the path after dark, sharing the moonlight with the jackals and toads. They howl, they hop, and I wander among them, lost in […]

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I went out walking the FOB again last night. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been carving a rut in the gravel road that circles the perimeter of our base. I tread the path after dark, sharing the moonlight with the jackals and toads. They howl, they hop, and I wander among them, lost in my thoughts. I imagine the bearded warriors lurking in distant hills, and then I wait for their hell to fall from the sky. Last night, a different kind of hell fell— hell in the form of ice— hell in the form of hail.

I come from the mountains: the Rockies— so I’ve seen many a blizzard and witnessed snow banks so high they turn streets into hallways. But until last night, I’d never seen hailstones the size of golf balls.

Some say the hailstones were meteorological mortars sent by Allah to shatter the pride and windshields of the infidels. If that’s the case, then Allah certainly has better aim than the Taliban. He took out a whole base (communications, power, and internet) with a single 10-minute cloudburst. The beard-growers are lucky if they cause a couple craters in a nearby dirt field. That’s the beauty of omnipotence, I guess. When you’re almighty, you have complete control over hail.

Anyway, back to my walk. I’m walking. Suddenly a blast of thunder shatters the clouds and ice cubes start pouring from the sky. I run for cover. I get pelted. It hurts. I jump into the nearest bunker. Inside sits a lonely soldier, flashlight in hand. I recognize him immediately— it’s Gabriel, a student of mine. I say hi and comment on the weather, and then tell him he’s found the perfect spot to hide out.

“Thanks,” he says.

Gabe is always quick to thank people. He has impeccable southern manners and can’t wait to get back to his plump new wife in Kentucky. After exchanging hellos, we sat there silent for a while and listened to the clamor outside. I reached out of the bunker and grabbed one of the ping-pong-ball hailstones, holding it up between us. “Look at the size of that!” I said, shouting over the storm.

“That’s big,” Gabe shouted back.

We got to talking and Gabe told me he’d rather receive hailstones from the sky than enemy rockets. I agreed, but then added that the hailstones were probably more effective at disrupting base operations.

“Probably,” Gabe said. “But it don’t matter anyway, right? We can’t control it.” He half-winked at me. He was obviously referring to Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher we’d just read in our philosophy class. “We might as well just accept it, right?”

Excellent, I thought. Gabe was thinking like a Stoic.

“That Epictetus guy had so much discipline,” Gabe said, “I was impressed. In my opinion that’s the most important characteristic of a person.”

“Discipline?” I asked.

“Yeah, self-discipline,” he said. “It’s what gets people to work on time. It’s what makes them stay there. It’s the reason we’re not all alcoholics.”

A couple hailstones bounced into the bunker and I kicked them back out into the storm. Then I asked Gabe if he thought Epictetus’s philosophy could help soldiers like himself.

“Personally, I like how he says not to blame people,” Gabe said, “and how it’s not their fault. It’s just how you feel. Like I was on guard duty yesterday and I gave this Afghan kid a buck to go buy me some cigarettes. Once he got it, he ran off and gave me the bird. Some guys in my unit gave me shit and told me I should have shot the kid. But I didn’t blame him. I said I figured it was just a dollar and I could get another one.”

“Yeah, and you woulda got court marshaled and thrown into prison,” I added.

“That too,” he said.

The storm raged on and the hail slowly turned to rain. The puddles inside the bunker grew deeper and it wasn’t long before Gabe and I found ourselves boot-deep in frigid water. A layer of ice cubes floated on the surface, mixing with the debris and dreck.

“I like how Epictetus says no one can force you to do something if you’re not worried about it… if you can see the bigger picture, I mean.”

He paused for a moment to reflect, and then said, “It’s like in the army. If you think about it, my NCO really has no control over me as long as I just do what I’m told.”

I’d never thought of it that way.

“See,” he added “a soldier’s life, it ain’t really up to the soldier at all. It’s like a card in a deck. It’s nothing special. Alls we can do is either obey orders or not obey. If we obey, we’re pretty much free, and then we can do what we want.”

Just then, Gabe’s insight was interrupted by a flashlight shining into the bunker. A man in civilian clothes rushed in, drenched from head to toe. He cursed the weather and wiped his face without acknowledging us.

“Well lookie here!” Gabe bellowed, “look what the cat dragged in!”

The man let out a flurry of expletives and didn’t look at either of us. Gabe’s eyes turned back to me and we grinned.

“If this goddamn base had some goddamn lights,” said the man, shivering and upset, “then these (expletive) bunkers would be a lot easier to find!”

“Yeah well, we can’t turn on the lights at night on account of the rockets coming in,” explained Gabe.

“I KNOW!” snapped the man, wiping his glasses on his soaked shirt. “And it’s ridiculous. Those (expletive) rockets never come close to this base”

“Yes sir. That’s on account of the lights being off,” Gabe replied innocently. “You see, they can’t see us when the lights are off.”

“Ahhhh,” grumbled the man, cursing under his breath. He dismissed us with a wave of his hand and was gone again, back into the storm.

“Must have been in a hurry, that one,” Gabe said.

He stood up from his haunches and watched as the man’s flashlight faded into the darkness.

“He needs to read him some Epictetus.”

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Bunkers, Bombs and Billion-to-One Odds http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/bunkers-bombs-and-billion-to-one-odds/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/bunkers-bombs-and-billion-to-one-odds/#comments Sun, 11 May 2008 16:46:19 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=116 FOB life always gets more exciting once the light thickens. Darkness brings the crickets and the rockets and the percussion of outgoing artillery. The big guns fungulate fire and punctuate the night with full stops. Pakistan-bound rounds rumble the ground and find their turban’d targets in distant hills. “We owe them violence,” the guns seem […]

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FOB life always gets more exciting once the light thickens. Darkness brings the crickets and the rockets and the percussion of outgoing artillery. The big guns fungulate fire and punctuate the night with full stops. Pakistan-bound rounds rumble the ground and find their turban’d targets in distant hills. “We owe them violence,” the guns seem to say, “We owe them because they’ve loaned us death and we must re-pay. Two IEDs, five KIAs, four legs severed, liters of blood lost: this week’s compensation. So we shoot back. We light up the night with murder and rain brutality down. We are politics by other means— lunatic scenes our specialty. You prick us and we will bleed, and then we will aim, and then we will force-feed you flames.”

I am no trigger puller myself. I am my brother’s keeper’s teacher. In the sentences of service between periods of pounding, I spread the word. This week in “Intro to Shakespeare” it was Macbeth who carved his passage into our understanding. A bloody play for a bloody week. Till this week, I’d never thought to find out my blood type. But then sirens sounded during “Intro to Writing” and the blood drive for O+ was on. A couple students leapt from their desks and rushed their blood-filled bodies to the bank. The next day I got tested: O+. Now I know.

I teach humanities to humans in a concrete building. That building just happens to sit next to a gravel run-way. That run-way just happens to supply the 101st Airborne in their fight against the Taliban— a fight that just happens to be happening tonight. Outside my concrete classroom, across a pebbled yard some twenty feet away sits my own personal bunker. When the gods are gambling and rolling dice at night, I hide in my bunker and hope for the best. I hope that in the Kush foothills ten miles distant, a hardy mujahadeen aims his rusty mortar with too much care, giving his weapon one nudge too many. One less caress by his dusty thumb and I’m on target. Then the bunkers and the blood banks and the billion-to-one odds are made redundant by physical laws, and my only hope becomes a microbreeze swirling in the sky.

But anticipating such misfortune only suits me in spurts. Most of the time I spend touching new thoughts on my keyboard and ignoring the helicopters and gunfire outside. It’s amazing the sense of security 18″ concrete walls give a man. Several times a night, I forget that whole “grand struggle between good and evil” thing and instead disappear into the mundaneness of probability equations and skeptical philosophies. I picture the woman I love and, thanks to Skype and satellite internet, I talk to her and lose myself in her voice. By 3am I’m ready to bathe my sore labors in sleep: that “balm of hurt minds, chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

So I exit into night and traverse the starlit gravel between class and bedroom. The lack of artificial light at night (for security reasons) allows the cream of the Milky Way to spill across the sky and split the heavens in two. I pause to behold the twinkling, and then continue toward my good night’s rest.

On one such dark commute last week, I had my first “incoming” experience. As mentioned above, our big “freedom” guns make regular targets of Pakistani crags, where medieval bearded men hide in cracks. These outgoing artillery rounds make a wholly different noise than the incoming rockets. The outgoing rounds let out a singular boom while the incoming ones preface their boom with a whistle. I hadn’t heard any whistles yet, only booms.

Picture it: a starry night, a crescent moon, random bird chirps, the sound of my footsteps. Then…..

“Whiiiiiiiiiistle…..”

Time stopped. It was an orgiastic moment— like the moment you step off a cliff to jump into water. You pass a distinct point-of-no-return and must endure what comes next, come what may. A soldier had told me earlier that night that if you actually hear the whistle, “you’re probably fucked.” Hearing it means the rocket’s about to greet you with all its percussive force. With this in mind, I heard the whistle and stopped. Then…..

( ( ( ( ( CRACK!!! ) ) ) ) )

A massive explosion!! I flinched. Then paused. Then broke into a full sprint for my concrete bedroom. Fifteen seconds later the base-wide intercom was blaring sirens and “THIS IS NOT A DRILL…. THIS IS NOT A DRILL….. ALL PERSONNEL TO BUNKERS…. ALL PERSONNEL TO BUNKERS….”

It was my first real experience with Talibani rockets, and it just happened to occur during my nightly commute. The next day I heard tales of twenty-foot craters and just-missed buildings. I was happy to have finally learned the difference between artillery and rocket sounds. The rocket’s “CRACK!” was completely different from the artillery’s “BOOM!”…. and the sound of the whistle was chilling to the core— different from what you hear in the movies— deeper, slower, off-key…. like a wheezing death knell.

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Born to Compete: Review of “Religion and Science” by Bertrand Russell http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-religion-and-science-bertrand-russell/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-religion-and-science-bertrand-russell/#comments Sun, 20 Apr 2008 17:12:20 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=107 Imagine two brothers born to compete, the elder dominating the younger. The elder brother is arrogant and manipulative, but also sincere and well-intentioned. When people ask him questions about the world, he answers quickly and often flippantly, as if he knows all. When he doesn’t know, he answers anyway, gleaning his answers from within. He […]

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Imagine two brothers born to compete, the elder dominating the younger. The elder brother is arrogant and manipulative, but also sincere and well-intentioned. When people ask him questions about the world, he answers quickly and often flippantly, as if he knows all. When he doesn’t know, he answers anyway, gleaning his answers from within. He never thinks to look into the world for his answers, because he’s certain he already knows everything. His younger brother agrees and admires him, repeating his answers when people ask him the same questions.

One day late in life, the younger brother decides on a whim to compare his wise old brother’s answers about the world to the world. He quickly notices discrepancies and points them out. The elder is horrified by his young brother’s disrespect and orders him to apologize and forgo any further comparisons. But the younger continues his comparisons and in short time proves most of his elder brother’s claims about the world to be grotesque, deleterious superstitions. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the elder can do nothing but retreat from his prior claims and assert that their truthfulness is insignificant when compared to the “feeling” he has in believing them. The younger brother can make no real world comparison to his elder brother’s “feeling,” and thus the fraternal competition ends, the elder left grinning in self-righteous impotence while the younger busies himself with the salvation of mankind.

For Bertrand Russell the elder brother is religion and the younger science. His book about the two makes for a great read and a devastating critique of religion. For Russell, religious creeds are little more than residue of a former age’s prejudices clung to by fearmongers and fools. Cloaking themselves in “goodness” and “righteousness,” the followers of these creeds invariably enact the most depraved barbarities upon their fellow man, and never come close to conferring upon humanity the kinds of benefits science offers.

Russell’s book has teeth. He sets forth his arguments with immaculate reasoning, plentiful examples, and centuries of history conveyed in lucid and witty prose. If you’re like me, you’ll be fascinated to learn, for example, that Darwin (the “apostle of dirt-worship,” in Carlyle’s words) was very much standing on the shoulders of geologists when he transgressed orthodoxy and declared evolution.

It was geologists of the 18th century who first proffered a theory of development in nature, speculating that mountains, seabeds, and coastlines actually change with time, and that the changes they’ve endured over millennia can be attributed to causes observable now. This was a revolutionary idea. Orthodoxy had hitherto claimed that the world and everything in it had, Venus-like, sprung to life in full form and, barring a few miracles, not changed since. Thus when French geologist Buffon claimed in 1749 that the hills one sees may not have always been there, the pathway to Darwin was sure as set.

The two most interesting chapters in Russell’s book are those on Determinism and Cosmic Purpose. In the former Russell has the audacity (and wisdom) to disavow both determinism and free will. He does so by relegating both theories to the dustbin of “absolute metaphysical theories”—theories that remain beyond what’s provable in the real world. For Russell, claiming that our lives are completely determined or that they are freely willed is something akin to claiming that life is just a dream— a point that can neither be proved nor disproved and is, in the end, moot.

Referring to the “modern doctrine of atomic caprice” (quantum physics), Russell maintains that even if a law were discovered that could determine with certainty the behavior of atoms, their subatomic parts, and everything composed of atoms and subatomic parts (in a word, everything) — something that still hasn’t happened as of 2008, by the way — that discovery would add no consequence to the claim that our lives are determined. On the other hand, Russell urges us to reject “uncaused volitions” (truly “freely” willed choices) as impossible occurrences, and to avoid lamenting this fact or feeling any less potent because of it. Power, Russell rightly claims, “consists in being able to have intended effects,” and that ability is neither increased nor diminished by discovering what causes our intentions.

Regarding the purpose of our cosmos, Russell rejects all doctrines that assert as much. To claim the cosmos has a purpose intended by God or by some creative or blind impulse in matter is to be guilty of logical fallacy. We sense order within us and we see it around us, and then we assume someone or something has intended that order. But we could just as well assume that no one intended it. And we could just as well assume that someone intended disorder, of which we’ll find an equal amount within and around us if we so choose to look for it. What we choose to look for and assume, however, will always depend upon our values, which stem from our desires. Science, as it were, has nothing to say about our values—it cannot tell us what is good or bad or right or wrong— and thus science has nothing to say about cosmic purpose.

Sir James Jeans, whom Russell quotes at length in his chapter on Cosmic Purpose, claims that life could just as well be regarded as “something of the nature of a disease, which infects matter in its old age when it has lost the high temperature and the capacity for generating high-frequency radiation with which younger and more vigorous matter would at once destroy life.” Another conception devoutly to be wished, perhaps.

For his part, Russell wonders if there isn’t something in mankind that could be described in terms worse than Jeans’ “disease.” Writing the book in 1935 at the height of the world’s most dangerous new religious creeds, those of Hitler and Stalin, Russell muses about mankind’s seemingly infinite capacity to inflict suffering upon the world. He ends the book warning of a new Dark Age that will descend on civilization if either of the murderous new creeds succeeds and prevents scientists from doing their work. “New truth,” he writes, “is often uncomfortable, especially to the holders of power; nevertheless, amid the long record of cruelty and bigotry, it is the most important achievement of our intelligent but wayward species.”

My recommendation: read this book. It cannot lead our species any further wayward and will only make you more intelligent.

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Born in the Right Place: Review of “Guns, Germs & Steel” by Jared Diamond http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-guns-germs-and-steal-jared-diamond/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/review-guns-germs-and-steal-jared-diamond/#comments Sat, 05 Apr 2008 22:51:28 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=103 In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn’t the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles […]

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In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn’t the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles and cathedrals? Jared Diamond attempts to answer this question in Guns, Germs & Steel.

Why have Europeans tended to dominate other peoples on other continents? Does it have something to do with race? Were Europeans more clever than other races? Diamond says no. It wasn’t racial characteristics that tipped the scales of fortune for the Europeans — it was their geography. Their geography gave them access to the best domestic grains and animals, which led to specialization and advanced technologies like steel and guns. Their domestic animals also helped them develop potent germs — and the antibodies for those germs.

The importance Diamond lays at the hoofs and paws of domesticated animals is actually one of the more fascinating themes of the book. According to Diamond, our animals have played an uncanny role in our cultural and economic development, both in a negative sense (human contact with farm animals facilitated the germ-exchange that produced man’s deadliest diseases) and in a positive sense (men from the Russian steppes, riding their newly domesticated horses, spread the Indo-European language both westward into Europe and southeastward into Persia and India). Diamond’s point is that people living in areas with more domesticable animals (sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, etc.) gained an important advantage over people without them.

For example, Native Americans had only three domesticated animals before 1492: llamas, turkeys, and dogs. Why only three? Weren’t there wild horses and cattle in America too? Actually, fossil records show huge populations of horses, oxen, and millions of other large mammals in the Americas until about 11,000 BC. What happened around 11,000 BC? You guessed it: man showed up via the Bering Strait. The American horses, oxen and other large mammals, having never experienced a human predator, approached the new arrivals like slobbering puppy dogs, and were consequently turned into steaks. In fact, it was steaks every night for a couple thousand years for the new immigrants, until most of the continents’ large mammals— and all but one suitable candidate for domestication— were wiped out.

Now this is fascinating enough, but then consider that because the Native Americans didn’t have any horses, oxen, pigs, etc. left to exploit as beasts of burden and domesticated food sources, they also lost the civilizational benefits those animals would have brought (and did bring to Eurasians), not the least of which is germs. Yes, germs. Because the Native Americans didn’t live in close proximity to a plethora of “farm animals” like their counterparts in Eurasia, they lacked the “petri dish” wherein deadly germs could grow and proliferate. They thus failed to develop the infectious diseases and (more importantly) the antibodies to those diseases that might have protected them from the germs of invading Europeans when Señor Columbus and his crew showed up.

It was for this reason that when the Conquistadores did finally show up, they were able to wipe out 80% of the indigenous population before ever unsheathing their swords— with germs— with small pox and influenza, both diseases generated by the passing back and forth of germs between domesticated animals and their human caretakers (small pox between cattle and humans, and influenza between pigs and ducks and humans). If that doesn’t blow your mind, your mind is blowproof.

Then again, you may well ask: “What about moose and bison? Why didn’t Cortés and his boys float up to the Mexican shoreline and find a bloodthirsty cavalry of Aztecs on mooseback, energized by the milk and meat of their plentiful herds of bison?” Diamond surmises that by the time most the large mammals in America had been digested into extinction by their hungry human friends, there was only one suitable candidate left for domestication: the llama/alpaca. Every other large mammal that remained (including moose and bison) lacked the qualities that allow for domestication.

In all of human history only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans. Outside of these, no other large mammals have been transformed from wild animals into something useful to humans. Why? Why were Eurasia’s horses domesticated and not Africa’s zebras? Why were Eurasia’s wild boar domesticated and not America’s peccaries or Africa’s wild pigs? Why were Eurasia’s five species of wild cattle (aurochs, water buffalo, yaks, bantengs, and gaurs) domesticated and not Africa’s water buffalo or America’s bison? Why the Asian mouflon sheep (the ancestor of our sheep) and not the American bighorn sheep?

The answer is simple: we tried and it didn’t work. Since 2500 BC not one new large mammal (out of the 148 worldwide candidates) has been domesticated — and not for lack of trying. In fact, in the last 200 years, at least six large mammals have been subject to well-organized domestication projects: the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison. All six failed. Why? Because of one or more of the following problems: diet, slow growth rate, nasty disposition, tendency to panic, captive breeding problems, and/or social structure.

  • Diet — Why don’t we eat lion burgers? Because raising lions, or any other carnivore, is uneconomical. You need 10,000 lbs of feed to grow a 1,000 lb cow. You would likewise need 10,000 lbs of cow to grow 1,000 pounds of lion. That means you’d need 100,000 lbs of feed to produce 1,000 pounds of lion. Hence the lack of lion burgers on the Wendy’s drive-thru menu.
  • Growth rate – Why don’t we eat rhino burgers? Simple, it takes 15-20 years for a rhino to reach adult size while it only takes cows a couple.
  • Nasty disposition — Here’s where we eliminate zebra burgers, hippo burgers, grizzly burgers and bison burgers. These animals retain their nasty and dangerous tempers even after several generations of captive breeding. Did you know zebras injure more zookeepers per year than do lions and tigers?
  • Tendency to panic — No deer or gazelle burgers either. Why? Because they take flight at the first sign of danger and will literally kill themselves running into a fence over and over to escape the threat.
  • Captive breeding problems — Many animals have elaborate breeding rituals that can’t happen in captivity.
  • Social structure — This may be the most important requirement for domesticates. The best candidates for domestication live in herds, maintain a clear herd hierarchy, and overlap ranges with other herds rather than having exclusive ranges. Here humans just take over the top of the hierarchy. They literally become the herd leader (think “Dog Whisperer”).

So the reason European explorers didn’t find Native American ranchers with herds of bison and bighorn sheep is because these animals can’t be domesticated. Diamond contends that if there had been any horses left in the Americas, or any of the other 13 candidates for domestication, the Native Americans surely would have domesticated them, and reaped all the attendant benefits. But alas, their great-great-grandpas had already killed, grilled and digested them all.

Diamond’s book is a great read. If you’re a student of history, it’s a must read. The way I see it, the story of man (and the story of all things, for that matter) is the story of varied states of disequilibrium moving violently and inexorably toward equilibrium. What was Pizarro’s vanquishing of Atahualpa’s empire if not an example of such violent re-balancing? The beauty of Diamond’s book is that it seems to pinpoint, with surprising simplicity, the original source of disequilibrium among men: geography. Roughly put, some got born in the right place and some didn’t. Skin color had nothing to do with it. Race has always been nothing more than an arbitrary mark to show the geographical birthplace of one’s ancestors’.

By the way, if you do read this book, take note of the way we humans first discovered agriculture. According to Diamond, it happened at the latrine. We’d go out gathering seeds, eating some along the way, and then come back to camp and defecate, all in the same spot. Guess what started growing in that spot? Yes, my friends, as crude as it may sound, we humans shat are way to civilization. Thank your ass when you get a chance.

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Distant World a Couple Miles Away http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/distant-world-couple-miles-away-fob-salerno/ http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/distant-world-couple-miles-away-fob-salerno/#comments Thu, 27 Mar 2008 07:03:26 +0000 http://www.joshuaparkinson.com/?p=98 Last night at 10pm I found myself walking by starlight down a deserted gravel road in eastern Afghanistan. There was no noise, no disturbance, no lights. Only silence and stars. My thoughts wandered. I thought of masked marauders and bogeymen carrying AK-47s. But they didn’t show. It was just me, the stars, and the jagged […]

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Last night at 10pm I found myself walking by starlight down a deserted gravel road in eastern Afghanistan. There was no noise, no disturbance, no lights. Only silence and stars. My thoughts wandered. I thought of masked marauders and bogeymen carrying AK-47s. But they didn’t show. It was just me, the stars, and the jagged hills on the horizon.

Then…. distant gunfire and the sounds of celebration. Snap, crackle, pop! The distance made it sound like fire crackers. I stopped in my tracks and listened for something more distinct. The muffled sounds of distant cheers suddenly gave way to something much louder….

“Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah akbar…………….. Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah akbar……………..”

The after-dark call to prayer from a distant mosque, amplified and off-key. I stayed where I was, closed my eyes, and let the sound ease into my ears. When I opened my eyes again, I noticed Orion disappearing over the horizon and felt the moonlight on the back of my neck. The air was still. ‘How can life feel so peaceful in the midst of a war?’ I thought.

Welcome to nightlife on Salerno FOB (Forward Operational Base), next to the city of Khost, about 20 miles from the Pakistani border. No hustle, no bustle, no lights— they’d make an easy target for nighttime mortar fire. At Salerno, we enjoy the stars and the moon and the sounds of a distant world a couple miles away.

I arrived here last week after an epic journey through Europe and Asia. I caught up with my past in London and Hamburg, and then embraced the present in Istanbul and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. From Kyrgyzstan I flew by C-17 to Bagram Airbase and then by C-130 to Salerno FOB. Here at Salerno I’ll be teaching college classes to US soldiers for the next 4 months.

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