28 April 2008

The Giza Power Plant: Perplexing puzzle of the pyramid power plant

The Giza Power Plant
Christopher Dunn
Bear & Co., 1998

I was reading something online about the Earth's "hum" when I came across this fascinating article by engineer and "pyramidiot" Robert Bauval . In it he explains that the Great Pyramid was constructed in such a way that it might have translated this frequency into something suitable for human listening; in other words, the pyramid may have been designed to "sing," making it the world's first multimedia monolith. I was so amazed at this revelation that I fired the e-mail off to my good friend, Rev. José M. Tirado, who shares my fascination for both ancient wonders and contrarians. Within minutes his reply indicated that I needed to read a book called The Giza Power Plant.

Although certain that the local library would not have a copy of this oddball book, I was taken aback when the online catalog pointed me right to it and indicated that it was available to request and check out locally. I placed my request, and once the book arrived at the library, I figured out why they were able to get a copy. It turns out that author Christopher Dunn lives in Danville, which is about 45 miles from here, and so the public library owned a copy. My attitude toward coincidences is that they all are meaningful, and so the proximity of the author cemented my desire to read this book.

Dunn begins with a pretty interesting question, one rooted in his decades of experience in manufacturing: why is the Great Pyramid of Cheops so precise in its construction? He explains at some length that the precision found in the measurements of the pyramid, including the surveying and alignment of the base, with variances of less than a hundredth of an inch over a length of hundreds of feet, is beyond the level of precision expected of contemporary construction. As an aerospace machinist with over 30 years of practical experience, Dunn cannot simply brush aside this question; he makes it clear that for the folks like him, those responsible for translating the ideas of engineers into physical artifacts, the standard theory about the purposes and construction of the Great Pyramid just don't hold water.

He also asserts that there is abundant evidence of the use of machine tools at Giza and he shows quite a few images that seem to support his contention. Thin parallel grooves in shaped stone look like the marks left by a power drill. Intersecting curved surfaces in stone bowls indicate the use of lathe-like machine tools, and not easily blunted copper implements and scouring compounds. Dunn marshals some pretty intriguing evidence in his chapter on the use of machine tools in ancient Egypt and discusses the positive responses he's gotten from machinists, engineers, and others involved in hands-on manufacturing. This chapter was probably the most compelling in the book, because it does seem to me, a total layman, that he's on to something.

However, while his ideas on machine tooling in ancient Egypt are pretty intriguing, I found his overall hypothesis--that the Great Pyramid was a vast machine intended to produce power through resonance with Earth's "hum"--a lot less convincing, though no less fascinating. In brief, he asserts that the pyramid was a power plant that converted the Earth's hum into a source of clean, renewable energy. He doesn't just make this up out of whole cloth either; on the contrary, he provides a lot of circumstantial evidence that does seem to indicate the inadequacy of the current explanation of the pyramid as a tomb. The granite-lined "King's Chamber" with its overlying vaults and entry-way is seen as a sort of "sound box" whose abundant quartz crystals resonate and amplify the humming earth below. The "Queen's Chamber" was a reaction chamber providing a source of hydrogen as a medium for the accumulated energy; Dunn notes the presence of various salt encrustations and a foul smell in this chamber that would be consistent with the presence of acid-base reactions. He even explains the mysterious shafts running up through the pyramid at an angle (a design feature inexplicable to modern manufacturers, since constructing the shafts on the horizontal would have been much, much easier); one shaft acted as wave guide to collect microwaves from space, focused them through granite lens that has been mistaken for a sarcophagus, and sent them out the other shaft as high-powered output.

It's a fascinating idea but it is not without its problems. Where are machine tools used in the construction, for example? I've seen museum cases filled top to bottom with Bronze Age implements but not one ancient Egyptian Black and Decker power drill. Where is evidence of the power usage (apart from the hypothetical power tools)? How was the power transmitted? (On one page, Dunn shows a bizarre "eye of Horus"-like satellite reflecting the beamed power back down to Earth, but thankfully doesn't really try to explain that.) Why did the human race completely lose its memory of this level of advancement?

This was a very interesting book which was incredibly well written (particularly since its writer is from Danville; in his defense, he is English by birth) and very fun to read. Dunn is an articulate voice for the seldom heard perspectives of those "on the ground" in the worlds of machining and manufacturing, and he raises some valuable and not easily dismissed questions about our knowledge of the ancient past.

25 April 2008

Blackberries in the Dream House: Living, loving poetically

Blackberries in the Dream House
Diane Frank
1st World Library, 2003

One of the contributors to my ever-growing "to read" list (ok... pile; ok, ok... piles) is author/astrologer/rock star/pronoiac Rob Brezsny. Every Wednesday, he sends out an e-mail with horoscopes, inspirational quotes, selections from his books, and recommended readings ("Other Pronoia Resources"). In early March, I received the latest weekly Free Will Astrology e-mail (the webpage version is here) in which he recommended this novel. The entire recommendation took the form of this question: "What would happen to us if we were to undertake the discipline of turning our life entirely and self-consciously, into a poem?"

Blackberries in the Dream House is the Pulitzer-nominated tale of Yukiko, a geisha in 19th century Kyoto, whose life is breathed into being in exquisite, epigram-like chapters whose poetry is tangible. Although this work is Frank's debut novel, its author has been a practicing poet for some time and her loving attention to language is evident in each page, paragraph, sentence, and word. This is not a novel that I would have picked up off the shelf and read on my own; in fact, I'm not even sure where in a library or bookstore this would be shelved. Accordingly I am so grateful that it was recommended in the e-mail, that I ordered it through the library, and that I actually checked it out when it arrived. (By the time I picked it up at the library, I had begun my PKD project, and so I didn't even remember having placed the order for the book. In fact, the cover image is so unlike that of any book I'd "normally" read that at first I thought the book held for me by mistake.)

I am no poet, and so any ham-fisted attempts on my part to encapsulate the novel in terms of the characters and plot will, almost by definition, fail miserably in conveying the beauty and power of this book---I'm reminded of Thelonius Monk's comment on how writing about music is like dancing about architecture. So it is with a sheet metal worker's son trying to capture hallelujah poetry in ho-hum prose.

In brief, this is a love story and a tale of spiritual transformation, although that says very little in our world of debased "love" and commodified "spirituality." As mentioned above, Yukiko is a geisha trained in the arts of entertainment, culture, companionship, and physical love. She has her heart broken by her first real lover, Eitaro, when he leaves her to marry a woman his parents have chosen for him. After this, she becomes involved with Kenji, a young monk from the nearby Zen monastery, and it is Kenji who sets her on the path to self-discovery. After she begins to retreat within herself, she is sent to work and meditate with the local Buddhist nuns, where she discovers a profound sense of freedom and joy within the silence; she also realizes that the nunnery is not her home and the monastic vocation is not her calling, and so after healing her broken heart, she returns to her life as a geisha, where she is very in-demand due to her singular wildness and creativity. The tale twists to a close as she and Kenji consummate their love for one another in the midst of a seismic upheaval.

This was a delightful read and one that somehow filled my spirit with a sense of awe and playfulness, responses to the world that truly belong together but that so rarely co-habitate successfully. Thanks to Rob for the recommendation.

Eye in the Sky: Mind manifested

Eye in the Sky
Philip K. Dick

In Dick's first three published novels he brings characters to life within alternate worlds of his imagining; in this, his fourth, he brings these worlds to life within his characters. This was also the first of his novels I have read in the course of my "PKD Project" that I would rate really highly in terms of how fun it was to read and how well it seemed to hang together. (The first three were all what I call "solid"--as opposed to "great" or even "good"--books. When I'm grading, saying your writing is "solid" is a tip-off that you're probably going to get a "B" on that particular essay.)

At 4:00 PM on October 2, 1959, a proton beam deflector at the Belmont Bevatron malfunctioned, releasing its charge---a six billion volt beam of energy---and incinerating an observation platform overlooking the giant device. The eight people who had been standing on the collapsed platform drop to the floor and into an alternate reality.

In a flashback, we are introduced to Mr. Jack Hamilton, the novel's primary protagonist and a senior research scientist working on the Belmont Bevatron. He is called into a meeting with Colonel T.E. Edwards, one of the top brass of the company, where he is given an ultimatum: leave his wife, who has been classified as a security risk due to her flirtations with left-liberal politics, or leave his position at the Bevatron. Wisely, he chooses the latter course of action. After breaking the news to his wife, the two of them make their way to the Bevatron for its inaugural test; there they encounter a motley group of visitors whose number includes an elderly soldier, a middle-aged mother and her son, a severe woman in a rough-woven suit, and their "Negro" guide.
The last member of the group is Charley McFeyffe, the company cop responsible for turning Mrs. Hamilton in as a Communist and who is, inexplicably, a friend of the Hamiltons. Of course, these eight are those caught in the path of the errant particle beam, which is when the fun starts...

Hamilton awakens to find himself in an alternate universe, one that he shares with the other seven "participants" in this accidental experiment. At first, though, no one knows that they are in an alternate reality. He and his wife suspect that something is amiss based on vague intuitions, but they discount these by ascribing them to shock resulting from the accident. Strange little details begin to appear---Jack swears and is then stung by a bee, a shower of locusts descends from nowhere to plague Hamilton, prayer is revealed to be immediately efficacious---and it dawns on the Hamiltons that something is indeed not right with the world in which they have found themselves.
Everyone around them is devoutly religious and almost single-mindedly focused on the Second Báb, "the One True Gate to blessed salvation," and the laws of physics operate on a medieval, geocentric basis.
The values that made up [Hamilton's] world, the moral veritites that had underlined his existence as long as he could remember, had passed away; in their place was a crude, tribal vengeange against the outsider, an archaic system that had come from--where? (p. 66)

As it turns out, the world has arisen from the mind of the old soldier, who was the first to awaken after the incident with the Bevatron. Somehow the accident has caused his solipsistic fantasies to become reality for himself and the other seven on the collapsed platform.
"All eight of us dropped into the proton beam of the Bevatron. During the interval there was only one consciousness, one frame of reference, for the eight of us. Silvester [the old soldier] never lost consciousness... Physically, we are stretched out on the floor of the Bevatron. But mentally, we're here. The free energy of the beam turned Silvester's personal world into a public universe. We're subject to the logic of a religious crank, an old man who picked up a screwball cult in Chicago in the 'thirties. We're in his universe, where all his ignorant and pious superstitions function. We're in the man's head." (p. 105)

Having discovered their predicament, they go from the frying pan into the fire when Silvester is knocked unconscious. As the geocentric cosmos fades, it is replaced not by reality but by the next delusional inner landscape, this time belonging to the prudish Mrs. Pritchet. Sexual organs disappear, leaving everyone with the smooth, neuter bodies of Barbie and Ken dolls. Hamilton's laboratory has changed its focus from scientific research to bringing culture to the masses, one of Pritchet's Victorian obsessions. Luckily, Mrs. Pritchet's prudishness is easily manipulated, so much so that the rest of the party manages to talk her into "abolishing" every single aspect of reality :
The world's layer of atmosphere swept out of existence. His lungs totally empty, Hamilton descended into a crashing blur of death. As the universe ebbed away, he saw the inert form of Edith Pritchet roll over in a reflexive spasm: her consciousness and personality had fled. (p. 172)

Only to be replaced, of course, by the next consciousness in line, that of paranoid psychotic Joan Reiss. Because of her delusions of conspiracy and persecution, every aspect of her reality is out to get everybody. The house they are in becomes a living thing intent on devouring them all; Hamilton's cat is turned inside out while still alive, because Ms. Reiss doesn't like cats; and, because she sees the rest of her party as aliens intent on claiming her life, that's what several of them become, sealing her fate and ending her reign of delusion.

The world that arises to fill the void is characterized by a definite "Communist sensibility" in which a shoddy parody of American life, complete with slogans and cutout soldiers, unfolds. Of course, Hamilton is faced with a big question: is this his wife's world? Does this mean that she really is a Communist and a threat to national security?

I won't tell you how the book ends, but suffice it to say that the final resolution is not a let-down.

This has been the best PKD novel I have read thus far in my project. The pacing, plot, and characters are all relatively well developed without sacrificing any of the ideas the Dick fan comes to expect. In fact, this novel is so packed with ideas---involving religion, politics, consciousness, and reality itself---that it demands re-reading just to begin to get them sorted out.

And since the book was such a fun read, that doesn't sound like a bad idea.

09 April 2008

The Man Who Japed: Humor as sedition

The Man Who Japed
Philip K. Dick

I had never encountered the word "jape" before reading Dick's third published novel, although I did use it once in a game of Scrabble. (Most likely I'd subconsciously picked it up during the many times I've scanned the PKD section in bookstores.) Turns out that it is an archaic English verb that is defined thusly:
  • v.intr., To joke or quip.
  • v.tr., To make sport of.
The title is an appropriate one, since this is the first of Dick's novels to highlight his puckish sense of humor. In typical Dick fashion, levity is put to the service of weightier matters; the prankish plot brilliantly establishes that having a sense of humor can be downright seditious.

Allen Purcell, the man from the title, is "the forward-looking young president of the newest and most creative of the Research Agencies," a man whose career trajectory as a Moral Reclamation (Morec) propagandist belies his deep-seated antipathy to the entire endeavor. So strong is this antipathy that he gets drunk one night with some friends in the sterile wasteland of Hokkaido and on the way home japes a statue of Major Streiter, the beloved founder of Morec---by removing its head. After which he blacks out.

The novel begins the morning after this episode with Purcell "losing" his bedroom, as the automated furnishings in his one-room apartment rearrange themselves like clockwork. As Purcell goes about his day, the reader gets glimpses of this brave new post-apocalyptic world. The apartment overlooks the -- blessed -- Morec spire and the surrounding Park environs, complete with the 124-year-old statue of Streiter. We learn about the Morec phenomenon of the weekly block meetings, "the interminable interchange, the stuffy presence of his neighbors packed together in one room. And the whir of the juveniles as they surrendered their tapes to the Committee representatives" (p. 9). These "juveniles" (presumably named after the propensity of prudes to blame "the children" for their attempts at censorship) are "earwig-like sleuths," small camera-enabled robots whose regular invasions of privacy form the backbone of the humorless, puritanical snitch-culture that is Moral Reclamation. Another central tenet is the notion of "the domino method," in which it is assumed that all residents of a given block automatically believe the same thing:
The domino method operates on the assumption that people believe what their group believesm no more and no less. One unique individual would foul it up. One man who originated his own idea, instead of getting it from his block domino. (p. 20)

This new world was obviously not engineered with the best interests of the individual in mind; once again we find an everyman protagonist, not a larger than life hero, but a regular guy who is fed up with the repressive culture in which he finds himself.

As Purcell vaguely recalls his japing of the statue, he dreads being found out; however, instead of being discovered and pilloried he is invited to become the director of Telemedia, the central organ of Morec propaganda. Meanwhile, his block community has called him before the weekly meeting, which he loathes. We get to see this vile operation in action, as anonymous members of the community publicly interrogate and humiliate various block members for their infractions: sexual intercourse, rudeness, uttering morally objectionable words, etc.

In a whirlwind of events, Purcell is effectively kidnapped and taken to Other World, an offworld colony for those who can't cope with the world of Morec. There it is discovered that Purcell has some sort of defect on his brain scans---a sense of humor.
And a sense of humor doesn't fit in with Morec. Or with us. You're not a 'mutant'; you're just a balanced human being...The japery, everything you've done. You're just trying to re-establish a balance in an unbalanced world. And it's something you can't even admit to yourself. On the top you believe in Morec. Underneath there's that blob, that irreducible core, that grins and laughs and plays pranks....

Yes, your ethics are very high. But they're not the ethics of this society. The block meetings--you loath them. The faceless accusers. The juveniles--the busybody prying. This senseless struggle for leases. The anxiety. The tension and strain... And the overtones of guilt and suspicion. Everything becomes--tainted. The fear of contamination; fear of committing an indecent act. Sex is morbid; people hounded for natural acts. This whole structure is like a giant torture chamber, with everybody staring at one another, trying to find fault, trying to break one another down. Witchhunts and star chambers. Dread and censorship, Mr. Bluenose banning books. Children kept from hearing evil. Morec was invented by sick minds, and it creates more sick minds. (pp. 119-120)

Eventually his business rivals and a disgruntled ex-employee conspire to bring Purcell down. This they do by tailing him with juveniles and accusing him of extra-marital relations with the woman responsible for his kidnapping. After being caught "in the act" of giving this woman a peck on the cheek, Purcell weathers the ensuing shitstorm in the only way a living, thinking human being can---by not taking it too seriously. With his job as Director of Telemedia facing immediate cancellation, Purcell uses his last remaining bits of influence to create a huge media event revolving around the mysterious postwar policy of "active assimilation." This policy, invented completely out of whole cloth by Purcell and his creative team, insinuates that Major Streiter and his other Moral Reclaimers actually ate those with whom they disagreed as a means of obtaining nutrients while also maintaining population and social controls. Though the powers that be pull the plug on the faux panel discussion of "active assimilation" in the middle of the broadcast, the damage is done. As we leave Purcell, he is standing with his wife waiting for the coming Cohorts of Major Streiter, the brownshirt enforcers of Morec, and proudly announcing to all passersby that he is the man who japed the statue. All in all a well told, inspiring story about the radical nature of laughter.

I couldn't help but notice lots of frightening similarities between the world of Morec and the righteous nonsense Americans accept as a substitute for culture in the early 21st century. The leering need on behalf of the assembled people at block meetings to hear all the titillating details of every infraction is all too familiar in this age of "Humiliation Television." Ubiquitous spying technology in the form of "juveniles" echoes the current brouhaha over the President's illegal wiretapping of US citizens and the increasing omnipresence of security cameras throughout the UK. And of course, the entire Morec media environment, with its emphasis on hyperconformity, is far too similar to the televisual hive-mind I encounter at every water cooler; it's almost as if Dick saw what the cultural straitjacket of 1950s America would evolve into, given enough time. Luckily his message about resistance to this repression rings equally true; an entire body of social criticism owes its existence to stand-up comics like Lenny Bruce and his heirs.

Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, right?

02 April 2008

The World Jones Made: The problems with precognition

The World Jones Made
Philip K. Dick

Our glimpse into the world Jones made begins in media res, as the reader enters the womblike Refuge, sees the little mutant people who live within, meets the novel's protagonist Cussick, and first hears about the titular Jones. Through a flashback, Cussick is introduced as a Fedgov agent; the world has apparently survived a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust and the surviving shards of various civilizations have come together under the aegis of a federal planetary government, with cultural relativism as its "non-ideology."

It is in this world, on April 4, 1995, that we meet Floyd Jones, a sad psychic working in a carnival with the gift of seeing how the world will be exactly one year ahead. After he makes his predictions to Cussick and they begin to come true, he is arrested and then released. Nothing comes of it for a few months until one day Cussick sees that Jones has become an ordained minister who is drawing large crowds, something that is immediately unsettling in the post-apocalyptic, post-ideological world of the late 20th century. Jones is a demagogue.

Dick gives us an eerie insight into the mind and life of Floyd Jones, who has been living every moment of his life twice, once in the "future" and then once again one year later in the "present." These moments include the very haunting images of Jones experiences in the womb and approaching the grave, having already experienced both thresholds.
For almost seventeen years his dual existence had been purposeless. It had been a burden, a great dead weight. Even the idea of utilizing it was lacking. He saw it as a cross, nothing more. Life was painful; his was twice painful. What good was it to know that the misery of next year was unavoidable? (p. 53)

This tortured existence is central to Dick's ambivalence about supposed "gifts" like precognition. As well, Jones' knack for seeing the future also presents a direct challenge to the probabilistic world of the Fedgov, because of its implications about free will and predestination, error and certitude:
For Jones, there was no guessing, no error, and no false knowledge. He knew; he had absolute certainty. (p. 57-8)

In typical PKD fashion (I don't know what it was with him, women, and betrayal) Cussick discovers that his new Danish wife, Nina, has secretly been involved with the Jones cult for several months, all while he himself has been a primary investigator of Jones and his people. Jones' people have begun to attack and burn the "drifters"--gigantic amoeboid alien creatures whose viscous (and apparently harmless) bodies have begun to drop occasionally into earth's atmosphere from space; his movement of Jones Boys agitated to end the tyrannical reign of relativism and its cadre of thought police (whose number, of course, included Cussick) and called for dedicated efforts toward making space migration a reality. After a universal referendum, Jones is appointed "Supreme Commander" to deal with the "crisis" of the alien blobs.
That was the chilling sight: the lines of tired people, worn out from a long hard day of work, willing to stand patiently in line. Not the enthusiastic faces of the dedicated followers, but the drab, ordinary citizens desiring to abolish their legal governments, wishing to end a government of law and to create in its place an authority of absolute will: the unqualified whim of an individual person. (104-5)

This is where the womblike Refuge and the miniature mutants enter the picture. Cussick learns that they are so helpless outside their sanctuary environment not through a defect but because they are perfectly built for Venus. The idea was that the project would go on for a while longer until the mutants were actually sent to Venus, but the "election" of Jones has forced Fedgov's hand and the mutants are sent to Venus. In a tender scene, the mutants first step out into the Venusian environment only to feel perfectly at home for the very first time.

Jones and his mobs continue to burn and destroy the drifters, until, too late it is discovered that they are gametes, one half of a reproductive structure that extends between planets. The parent creatures, "immensely complicated plant-like beings, so remote and advanced that we'll never have anything more than a dim picture of them" (p. 158), respond to this wanton destruction by quarantining the Earth and its immediate vicinity:

"They're going to seal us off. A ring will presently be set up around us. We'll have Earth, the Sol System, the stars we've already reached. And that's all. Beyond that--" Jones snapped his fingers. "The warships will simply disappear." (p. 159)

What had happened was that Jones in the future had died soon after all these events had transpired, and so his dual-vision was split between the present and absolute darkness. In other words, he had no idea what the human race had been up against, and so had bluffed. And lost.

He had no certain knowledge of what was to become of society because he would not be around to see it. Very shortly, he would die. He had been contemplating it for almost a year; it could be ignored temporarily, but always it returned, each time more terrible and imminent.

After death, his brain and body would erode. And that was the hideous part: not the sudden instant of torment that would come in the moment of execution. That, he could bear. But not the slow, gradual disintegration.

A spark of identity would linger in the brain for months. A dim flicker of consciousness would persist: that was his future memory; that as what the wave showed him. Darkness, the emptiness of death. And, hanging in the void, the still-living personality.

Deterioration would begin at the uppermost levels. First, the highest faculties, the most cognizant, the most alert processes, would fade. An hour after the death the personality would be animal. A week after, it would be stripped to a vegetable layer. The personality would devolve back the way it had come; as it has struggled up through the billions of years, so it would go back, step by step, from man to ape to early primate to lizard to frog to fish to crustacean to trilobite to protozoon. And after that: to mineral extinction, to merciful end. But it would take time.

(Philip Dick's speculation into the breakdown of consciousness here is just one of the sorts of gems that line his works.) Cussick comes to meet with Jones in response to this crisis, a gun battle ensues, and Jones steps into the fatal bullet like he knew it was coming. (Duh.)

So Jones dies, apparently along with humanity's dreams of conquering the known universe, yet he leaves behind him a new global legacy:
"He knew when to make his entrance and his exit. We thought we were going to be stuck with Jones for another six months...instead, we're stuck with Jones, the legend of Jones, forever."

He didn't need Jones' talent to see it. The new religion. The crucified god, slain for the glory of man. Certain to reappear, someday; a death not in vain.. Temples, myths, sacred texts. Relativism wasn't coming back in, not in this world. Not after this.

and Nina make their way to Venus, along with their new baby, to make a life with the Venusians until things back on the world Jones made return to a semblance of normality.

This was a fun read which raised quite a few interesting philosophical speculations and also provided some insight into the quasi-spiritual roots of demagoguery, a phenomenon discussed at some length elsewhere by Morris Berman.