Blogging from deep down beneath the Greater L. A. hipsterpolitan region….

I’m a writer, but there are zillions of writers, perhaps you’ve noticed. This here is a bunch of my stuff. I hope you dig it.

I try to blog at least once daily so there’s a lot of stuff here. You can browse by category or look at some selected essaysstories (non-fiction), neuroscience pieces, jazz writing or smartassery. Some flash nonfiction even.

My LA Weekly stuff can be found here.

My email is My phone is 323-420-7410. I do a lot of short writing on my Brick Wahl page on Facebook, and really short writing on Twitter. I get all professional on LinkedIn, all pensive on Pinterest, and all whatever the hell it’s for on Google Plus. You can even look through my library at Goodreads. I’m all over the goddamn internet and all over this goddamn town.

Korean War

“So why were you in Korea in the first place? Some 3000 miles away? EXACTLY.”

–some smartass on the Guardian site

We were there because Korea was occupied after WW2, much like Japan and Germany. Remember, Korea was actually part of Japan and had been since at least the Russo-Japanese War. While discussions were underway to unify the peninsula under one government–something that had rarely happened in Korean history, typically there have been two or three Korean states vying for the peninsula–Stalin helped to set up the North Korean government, complete with a very large Soviet supplied and advised army, while we put a very small (and seriously undergunned) US army in the south to help keep it independent as its government organized and we helped them to create South Korea’s own, much smaller army than in the north. The Korean War began as a surprise attack from the North. The US had no clue it was coming and our forces on the Peninsula were ridiculously unprepared. The communist assault was quite devastating and nearly swept both the US and the South Korean military off the peninsula, reducing them to a small area around the port city of Pusan, backs to the sea. It looked to be as humiliating as defeat as the fall of the Philippines in 1942.

Despite the common impression now, the Chinese were not in favor of the Korean War at all. They were still fighting the last of the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War and the country was a mess from nearly twenty years of incessant warfare. They dreaded conflict with the United States. The North Korean attack was a Stalin operation. The Chinese got dragged into it when the North Korean army was routed by MacArthur in the Inchon landing (one of the most daringly brilliant US military strategems of the 20th century) and MacArthur insisted on going all the way to the Chinese border as well as bombing inside China. That was probably the greatest military blunder by a US general in the entire 20th century. He managed both brilliant success and disastrous failure within a couple weeks. Still, the Chinese revolutionary government was not happy to be dragged into that war at all. It was completely MacArthur’s fault. Truman relieved him not only for insubordination but because his strategic sense seemed to have disappeared. He was a liability.

Incidentally, the opening Chinese surprise attack on MacArthur was itself brilliant, it really was. A masterpiece of maskirovka, the Soviets taught their craft well…as they did to the North Vietnamese Army in the following decade. We have long overstated the human wave attacks…the Chinese were very effective tactically, actually. Eventually they used human wave attacks–or what we call human wave attacks–when the war became a stalemate and those are one of the few tactics that can be used in a stalemate in the trenches. They were remarkably effective too, as they often are. When you have a lot of infantry and not to many scruples about individual rights–always a problem for American commanders, remember Patton being busted for slapping a couple sick GIs–you launch human wave attacks. It’s not just an Asian thing, that is just a bit of racism sneaking in. The Italians used them in WW1, as did the  French, the Russians, and the Brits at the Somme. The Russians used them against the Germans in WW2. the Iranians used them against the Iraqis. Grant used them at Cold Harbor, Lee at Pickett’s Charge. All had lots of infantry and no other options.

The North Koreans killed or kidnapped upwards of half a million South Koreans in their two offensives across the 42nd parallel. The South Koreans executed perhaps 200,000 suspected communists after the Chinese People’s Army and Korean People’s Army withdrew from South Korea. The Korean War was cruel and destructive even by the standards of the mid-20th century. And it wound up a draw. However, North Korean is still a nightmare and South Korean thrives. In the long run, then, the war was worth it. In the short run, though, it was a mess. The USAF leveled North Korea to a greater degree than we did Germany in WW2. The North Koreans left nothing standing in their wake.

But when people think the US (actually the UN) is somehow responsible or even partially responsible for the Korean War, we are not. All we were doing is trying to protect the people in the south who were desperately seeking our assistance from a terrifying regime, and to protect our own outmanned and outgunned army there. This was not the war in Iraq. We did not cause this. We were the good guys. It happens.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets

Check out this live Peggy Sue from Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the London Palladium, 3/2/58. Strange how under recognized this outfit is as a trio, for they had tight and organic sound that was light years ahead of most, if not all, other rock’n’roll bands of their time. When you see footage of them you can see that it’s not just instrumental backing for his vocal numbers, but three guys playing their asses off, driving each with genuine intensity. It was a tragic loss when Buddy’s plane went down, not only because he (and Richie Valens and the Big Bopper) were killed, but because it broke up one helluva band. Who knows, man, who knows.

Ruminations on why you would rather look at a funny cat video than read this.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.”

Language itself totally changed and shaped our perception of the world, what we see and what we say our two dramatically different things, with what we see being much more accurate than how we say it. In many ways, information brought to us visually on screen–movie, television, computer–is more accurate and unfiltered than what we read in books, newspapers or magazines. Widespread literacy dramatically changed human perception. But visual information on our screens subverts language…a reversal of a long time trend. Language began to supplant vision, at first at the origin of speech itself a quarter million years ago and then again, dramatically, with the invention of writing. The printing press and widespread literacy began to change how people viewed the world and processed information. Sight and language battle for control in getting us information. For a couple centuries there as reading became universal (first in the United States, we were the truly literate nation after mandatory education was introduced with the founding of the republic) the written word took precedence and people would almost always believe what they read over what they saw. Movies, television and the internet are allowing the ocular part of our brain to increase its control of our information process. People read less now and look at video more. So what the internet has done is to weaken the power of language in our perception by allowing us to watch video. It has also, first through email conversation and then through texting and finally Facebook, made writing more akin to speech. Writers like me are constantly struggling with ways to get people to trust language again. So what we are seeing now is the retreat of language in the brain as there are more ways now than ever before to watch instead of read things.

Another thing to consider is religion. Even in a world free from any sort of video or writing, as in the middle ages, when most people in Europe read not at all, their perception of reality was less accurate and direct than it is today because religion completely shaped the way people saw reality. You can see that just reading medieval and middle ages texts. Instead of seeing things directly as they were, everything was filtered though religious dogma and belief. So language had enabled religion and written language had enabled codified religious dogma which could be recited to people who couldn’t read, and which then severely limited people’s perception of reality even though few of them could read and there were almost no media at all. Free of ironclad and enforced dogma now (no one gets burned at the stake for blasphemy anymore in this country) we certainly have more appreciation of nature than they did then. People have been walking through the forests now for centuries. We preserve forests in national parks and lace them with hiking trails. But in the middle age and even into the Enlightenment Europeans were terrified of forests. Mountains were a source of evil. Deserts full of ghosts and djinn. Nature more scary than it was beautiful. Even rainbows had their dangerous wee people.

The written word changed all of that. The more we read, the less scared we are. Now, with visual information coming to the fore again, via television and the internet, people seem to be more scared, or at least more wary, scared of each other. Partly, I think, because the brain takes in anything visual as self-experienced, it does not distinguish between you being in a car accident and watching a car accident on TV. It feels it viscerally as if you were in the crashing car. And now, when it sees scary video on the news or YouTube or even scary crime stories and reality programs, it automatically sets off fear and concern, often absurdly out of proportion, because our brain cannot analyze it the way we can with language. It sees everything as reality. Language does not do that. Reality programs are not possible as literature.

So today it is not so much that people who watch the internet all day long are out of touch with real life, it’s that the brain sees everything on TV or the internet as real life, no matter how ridiculous that is, or how out of context that video was. Just shoot it with a hand held camera and it looks real. Language can add context. When we read our language based analytical skills give context, and when we even listen to spoken words–news, for instance–we automatically add context. We look for raw footage of disasters precisely because there is no narrator to ruin the you-are-there sensation. 

The problem now is not the current internet drive world’s lack of direct contact with other people and nature. It is the lack of analytical context, which, unfortunately, is entirely based on language, whether written or spoken (or even thought–we think in language, but we do not see pictures and film in language.) You cannot have, apparently, a world full of video and simultaneous logical explanations. The two literally do not go together, since the parts or our brains that take in visual information and the parts that logically analyzes it are two different things, indeed are in different lobes (back and front, respectively). We haven’t yet figured out a way to merge the two.

I’m working on it, though.

Elis Regina

I cannot believe I have never seen this before…Elis Regina in an extraordinary take on Águas de Março that I assume was cut during the Elis & Tom sessions in 1974. Crazy phrasing, daring rhythm, and listen to that band, simultaneously so loose and always there. I really dig those drums, I’m such a sucker for Brazilian drummers, and it must be Paulinho Braga, one of the very best. Check out that over the shoulder shot of his brushes dancing off the snare. Cool. I love snare drums. Looking at that but listening to her phrasing, damn, I could listen to this over and over just to hear her phrasing. The track’s ending is a little better realized on the LP, but the gorgeously lilting surdo which propels it on vinyl is here a tad madder, a tad more oblique, more accidental and inspired, pure Elis.

Know Nothings

Know Nothing flag, mid-1850's.

Know Nothing flag, mid-1850’s.

Native-American didn’t always mean American Indian. That definition took hold in the 1970’s*. Back in the 19th century, at least until the Civil War, it meant native-born American, and American meant White, English, Protestant and especially not Irish. In fact, many people in the 1850’s hated the Irish flooding into American ports after the Potato Famine of the 1840’s, hated them so much they formed a political party, the Native American Party. It was a secret, at first–secret societies were all the rage back then–and if asked a member was supposed to say I know nothing. Hence the common name. (Seriously, that explains the name, as stupid as that sounds.) Later it called itself the American Party, but it wasn’t around long enough for that name to stick. To this day we know them as Know Nothings. Only the Anti-Masonic Party of a generation earlier (they really hated Freemasons) had an odder appellation for a major American political party.

If the Know Nothing movement’s Native American Party had been a secret it was a badly kept one, because for a couple years their party made a meteoric impact. It went from nothing to the most dynamic new force in American politics, and then disappeared in a flash. The Know Nothings’ congressional delegation grew from zero seats in 1852 to 56 seats (out of 233) in the House in 1854**. They also landed 5 senators (out of 62) in 1856. The party was especially strong in areas with large Irish populations, particularly Massachusetts. Boston’s political battles were often pitched fights between Know-Nothings and Irish immigrants. There was worse violence elsewhere. On an election day in Louisville in 1855 a Know Nothing mob descended on polling stations in the Irish and German wards. Twenty-two died. In New Orleans vigilante groups occupied pollings station to repress (they called it monitoring) the Democratic immigrant vote and ensure a Know Nothing victory. Things grew even worse on election day in Baltimore where Know Nothings and Democrats fought with fists, guns, and then artillery. (How the sides got hold of cannon I have no idea.) The Know Nothing slate won in a landslide after massive voter fraud. Catholics were targeted as well. In Bath, Maine the Catholic church was burned to the ground by a Know Nothing mob, and in a nearby town Know Nothings tarred and feathered the parish priest. In a time when armed mobs were increasingly part of the national political culture, local Know Nothing leadership had no qualms about unleashing them on the Irish and Germans (but especially the Irish). It was a popular tactic. Party membership skyrocketed from 50K to one million members in a few months over the summer of 1854. As with the explosion in Ku Klux Klan membership in the 1920’s, the sudden nation-wide popularity of George Wallace in 1968 (and until he was shot, in 1972), and Donald Trump now, every once in a while millions of Americans decide that millions of other Americans aren’t American enough to be real Americans.

Of course, the Know Nothings certainly benefited in the mid-1850’s from the simultaneous implosion of the Whig Party. Forgotten now, the Whigs were the dominant American political party for a stretch there. Founded in 1833, four Whig presidents occupied the White House from 1841-1953 (two of their presidents died in office). Then, torn apart by the slavery issue, they suddenly dissolved in 1854, leaving a lot of politicians with no place to go. Many jumped to the Know Nothing party, now that it had adopted the more palatable name of American Party (though everyone still called them Know Nothings). Even one of the more nothing Whig presidents, Millard Fillmore, ran again as a Know Nothing. Oddly enough he was neither a nativist nor a Know Nothing, didn’t support any of the tenets of the Know Nothing platform, wasn’t even at the Know Nothing convention, and no one bothered to tell him he was being nominated. He ran anyway, though, coming in third with nearly 25% of the total votes, the highest percentage any third party candidate has ever received in an American presidential election. Thereafter the party faded as quickly as it arrived. It had only had the one issue, really: immigration. The Know Nothings didn’t like the Irish and they didn’t like Catholics. They didn’t like German Catholics either. In states chock full of Catholics, however, like Louisiana and Maryland, they recruited native born Catholics but didn’t like immigrant Catholics. (In fact, Maryland was the only state Millard Fillmore carried in 1856, presumably with a lot of native born Catholic votes.) In San Francisco they didn’t like Chinese. In Maine, where Know Nothings were very popular, they probably didn’t like the French Canadians. In Texas the local Know Nothings no doubt couldn’t stand Mexicans. If there were any immigrants from anywhere attending a Catholic church, the Know Nothings no doubt hated them. But by the end of the 1850’s more people hated slavery (or, in the South, they hated Abolitionists) than hated Irish or Catholics, and most of the party’s northern members defected to the new Republican Party which wasn’t nativist at all. Southern Know Nothings joined the fleeting Constitutional Union Party (which sought to preserve slavery without secession). The Know Nothings were back down to zero seats in the House by 1860, and none of its five senators remained in the Senate. It was a miserable end.

What had happened, of course, was that the Republican Party had filled that vacuum left by the sudden disintegration of the Whig Party. The impending crisis over slavery (especially free state outrage over the appalling Dred Scott decision in 1857) and the inevitability of the American Civil War had pushed nativism to the background again. The Know Nothing’s obsession over Catholics and immigrants seemed ridiculous in comparison. Slavery was overwhelmingly the pre-eminent issue of the day, indeed it split the Know Nothings themselves (as it has the Whigs) and once war broke out everyone was called to the colors, native born or not. 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union Army (along with several Irish born generals), and indeed the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac was one of the war’s most renowned units, always in the thick of combat, taking tremendous losses. (It included the Fighting 69th regiment***, who, come World War One, were for Irish Americans what the 369th–Harlem’s Hellfighters–were for African Americans.) You can’t tell an Irishman who’d lost and arm or a leg defending the Union that he should go back to Ireland. You couldn’t tell a German Catholic veteran to go back home either. Civil rights are often earned in combat, and the Civil War squelched nativism in the North for years. Later in the 19th century and into the 1920’s Republicans attracted the nativists (though the Democrats held onto them in the South where Republicans reached out to black voters). Irishmen again became targets****. Once southern Democrats turned Republican after 1980 the modern nativists are pretty much Republican (and Republican-voting independents) again, though we’ll see what Trump does this year. He’s the wild card. He could go independent and revive what had begun as the Know-Nothing party over a century and a half ago. He’s certainly riding that wave high. You could slip lines from a Know Nothing speech from 1854 into Trump’s teleprompter and you probably would never tell the difference, as long as you changed “Irishmen” to “Mexicans”. He probably couldn’t tell the difference, either.

It seems this Nativist (as they used to call it) streak explodes on the scene periodically and then disappears just as quickly. You could go back through American history and list the various movements and trends and politicians who took advantage of the opportunity presented by angry people, from the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 (which targeted French and Irish) to Donald Trump targeting Hispanics today. That anger really roils the waters for a while, though. We’re seeing them boil now. If history is any guide, it’ll pass.



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Pharaoh ants

Noticed some pharaoh ants, Monomorium pharaonis, crawling on me (and my desk) lately. Just a couple. I followed them across the desk with a magnifying glass. They are incredibly small (maybe a sixteenth of an inch long) and a nearly transparent yellowish-brown, with a darker abdomen. Unlike the colonies of the ubiquitous Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) that extend along nearly the entire coast of California, pharaoh ant colonies typically number a few hundred tiny individuals and just a couple queens, and basically you have to try hard to notice them. I have no idea how long they’ve been on or in or around my desk.

Of course I looked them up. I love ants and have a small library on myrmecology–the study of ants–among my other compendia of useless knowledge. This time I went tooling across Google to see what I could find and I found this incredibly fascinating article from a few years ago in Pacific Standard: Bedbugs Have Evolved to Live With Mankind. It’s about bed bugs–did you know there were originally bat bugs?–and not ants, but it mentions their natural enemies. And apparently their number one enemy is, of all things, these tiny little pharaoh ants. Pharaoh ant queens have a thing for bed bugs, and their subjects hunt the annoying little bloodsucking beasts down mercilessly. No matter how thin a hiding place the beg bugs cram themselves into, the tiny pharaoh ants can get in there and drag them out. They are so effective at this that a pharaoh ant infestation can quickly annihilate a population of bed bugs. Which is what they did for centuries for us. Until, that is, we began keeping cleaner households, and then spraying them with insecticide. Unfortunately for human beings, bed bugs are resistant to almost any bug spray. Pharaoh ants are not. As indoor pharaoh ant populations faded with the chemical assault–helped along by the rise of voracious and hugely numerous Argentine ants–beg bug populations rebounded. Nature is funny that way.

So I think I’ll let my pharaoh ants hang around. They’re almost impossible to see and just a minor annoyance at best. And who knows what critters might be hiding in or behind or under my desk, even–cringe–bed bugs. They are everywhere the bedbug experts tell us. You never know how bed bugs can get into your home, your bedroom, your office, and will never know where they came from. There seems to be no way of stopping them. But a colony of incredibly tiny ants might just do the trick. Nothing is biting me. Not in the house anyway. Maybe it because of these tiny ants. Outside I am at the mercy of nature. But inside, I am protected by the pharaohs.

“Monomorium pharaonis worker with single sugar crystal”–a beautiful photograph by Julian Szulc off of Wikipedia.

Grammar nazis

There’s another meme making its way though social media, a longish paragraph by the renowned linguist Steven Pinker on why he is a feminist. And I agree with his position, of course, but I am wondering why the only time people quote linguists is when they’re not talking about language? Because if people did actually heed linguists when they talk about language, then grammar nazis and their obsessive, reactionary ilk would be banished to some foul corner of the web to yell at one another and leave the rest of us alone.

God, how I loathe grammar nazis….I find you all personally offensive. Seriously, I do not like you. You have no idea how accurate that Nazi appellation truly is. A grammar nazi is a language racist, just as ignorant, just as mean, just as wrong.

There is no freedom without freedom of language. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of language. You can’t have the first two without the other. Otherwise all you are doing is defending the right of the ruling class elite to tell you how to talk and write and, by extension, to think. You do their bidding. They’ve been dead for generations, yet you venerate them every time you write according to their ancient, arbitrary rules.

And if you think English grammar nazis are reactionaries, consider the Spanish grammar nazis, enforcing obedience to the very tongue that annihilated the Aztec and Inca. They threw Aztec and Mayan writings atop great pyres and banned the native tongue under penalty of death. Half a millennium later the Latino educated class still carries out the Inquisition’s orders. You will be hard pressed to find a greater irony than that.

Don’t kowtow to long dead ruling classes and slave masters by insisting everyone talk the way the rich and powerful do. Recognize the power of your own natural language. Listen to it when you write, let it flow when you speak. That is the real you. That is your voice, your muse, your truth. Toss Elements of Style and Modern American Usage in the garbage can where they belong. Everything your English teacher taught you was wrong.