Tuesday, June 02, 2015


[En français]

A long time ago—almost a quarter of a century—I worked in a research lab, designing measurement and data acquisition electronics for high energy physics experiments. In the interest of providing motivation for what follows, I will say a few words about the job. It was interesting work, and it gave me a chance to rub shoulders (and drink beer) with some of the most intelligent people on the planet (though far too fixated on subatomic particles).

The work itself was interesting too: it required a great deal of creativity because the cutting edge in electronics was nowhere near sharp enough for our purposes, and we spent our time coming up with strange new ways of combining commercially available components that made them perform better than one had the right to expect. But most of my time went into the care and feeding of an arcane and temperamental Computer Aided Design system that had been donated to the university, and, for all I know, is probably still there, bedeviling generations of graduate students. With grad students just about our only visitors, the atmosphere of the lab was rather monastic, with the days spent twiddling knobs, pushing buttons and scribbling in lab notebooks.

And so I was quite pleased when one day an unexpected visitor showed up. I was busy doing something quite tedious: looking up integrated circuit pin-outs in semiconductor manufacturer's databooks and manually keying them into the CAD system—a task that no longer exists, thanks to the internet. The visitor was a young man, earnest, well-spoken and nervous. He was carrying something wrapped in a black trash bag, which turned out to be a boombox. These portable stereos that incorporated an AM/FM radio and a cassette tape player were all the rage in those days. He proceeded to tell me that he strongly suspected that the CIA was eavesdropping on his conversations by means of a bug placed inside this unit, and he wanted me to see if it was broadcasting on any frequency and to take it apart and inspect it for any suspicious-looking hardware.

He also told me that he was regularly picking up transmissions from what could only be visiting flying saucers, which showed up in the static between AM stations, and he was wondering if it would be possible to modify his unit so that he could transmit messages back to them, because, you see, he wanted to hitch a ride.

I told him that this is all quite possible; putting a radio transmitter “bug” inside his boombox is something that could have been done, and while I wasn't aware of anything in peer-reviewed scientific journals concerning visiting flying saucers, absence of evidence should never be accepted as evidence of absence. As far as converting a receiver into a transciever—we'd have to think about it. But in order to get any work authorized, he'd have to talk to my boss, who was sitting right over there, doing something equally tedious, and could probably use a distraction and some amusing company right about then.

The young man thanked me, walked over and sat down next to my boss. I went back to looking up and keying in pin-outs, but looked over at them periodically, and after a while I noticed that their conversation was really dragging on. My boss, somewhat exasperatedly, was trying to explain to him that building an AM transmitter into his boombox for the purpose of communicating with flying saucers is not something our lab could do for him because we worked on government research grants and he didn't have one. Eventually the young man left, rather frustrated, and my boss came over to me, looking uncharacteristically furious, and said: “You owe me, buddy!”

All of this happened around the time when Ronald Reagan's administration decided to improve the country's finances by closing mental hospitals and sending the inmates out into the world to stumble about the streets and stand ranting and raving on street-corners. Our young man was perhaps one such administrative casualty. Back then, such “crazy people” (pardon the non-PC term, but that's what we all called them then) were easy to spot. They were disorganized, defocused, addled by some drug, and, in all, behaving strangely. Often they could be overheard talking to themselves, or ranting at no-one in particular, or be seen looking intently at objects that were not there.

These days, of course, such behavior is considered perfectly normal, and the streets are full of people who appear to be talking to themselves (they might be talking on their cell phone, or not; it is hard to tell). A lot of them look defocused or addled by some drug, and that's probably because they are on some psychoactive medication—legal or illegal—this being one of the most highly medicated countries on earth, and also the one with the largest, best-developed illegal drug market. Although the prevalence of public ranting doesn't seem to have gone up appreciably, perhaps it only appears so due to a shift of venue: plenty of internet forums and social media sites are full of mad rants on any number of subjects.

One may surmise that, beyond providing the mentally ill with a safe and supportive environment, mental hospitals previously served an important additional function: they helped define what's normal. When, thanks to Ronald Reagan's cost-cutting initiative, it became normal for the mentally ill to walk the streets and mingle with the rest of the people, this eroded the entire concept of normality.

If our encounter were to happen today, the young man probably wouldn't have been able to penetrate the lab, which is now behind doors that only open for those with a key fob and under the gaze of security cameras. You see, if your streets are awash with “crazy people,” you need to take security much more seriously. But let's suppose that he did somehow manage to breach the perimeter. To be sure, he would be bringing us something other than an old-fashioned boombox. Most likely, it would be the gadget du jour: a smartphone, with a 50% chance of it running Google's Android and a 40% chance of it running Apple's iOS.

The young man would voice his suspicion that the CIA is using his phone to eavesdrop on his conversations. I would patiently explain to him that the organization in question is the NSA (National Security Agency), not the CIA and that, yes, the NSA is recording the metadata from every single phone call he makes (source number, destination number, time and duration). They can also record his actual conversations, and if they did there wouldn't be any telltale clicks, buzzes, echos or static on the line, because it would all be done digitally.

Also, I would helpfully point out that the NSA can use his phone to record his location and track his movements. “But I keep GPS turned off!” the young man would protest, and I would respond that if he has a SIM card in his phone, then the phone emits roaming signals which allow its position to be determined with surprisingly good accuracy by using multilateralization—measuring its relative signal strength at several of the surrounding cell phone towers. To hide his position, he would have to turn the phone off.

As far as communicating with visiting flying saucers, I would simply tell him that “There's probably an app for that.”

Do you see the curious role reversal that has occurred in the intervening years? Whereas previously it was “crazy people” who wondered if the CIA was spying on their conversations using their boomboxes, now it is the rest of the country that is crazy: the NSA is indeed spying on all of them, but they consider this to be perfectly normal, and continue to walk into voting booths and, like well-trained lab animals, repeatedly pull the lever for the same people who had instituted this insane, purposeless, yet very expensive surveillance regime. Whereas before such people were locked up in mental hospitals while the rest of us walked around freely, now it is the few remaining relatively sane people who are locked up inside security perimeters and behind locked doors, with entry granted only to the select few and always under the ever-watchful all-seeing eye of the security camera, while the “crazy people”—the population at large, that is—is kept outside.

Uncontrolled ranting—previously suppressed through confinement in mental institutions and medication—is now encouraged via social media, with an ever-expanding menu of rantworthy topics just a click away:

• 9/11 inside job
• global warming a government conspiracy
• contrails
• peak oil
• MMR vaccine causing autism
• rising ocean levels
• Obama being a space lizard
• the Federal Reserve undermining the country's financial system
• the plastics plague
• Putin taking over the USSR
• near-term human extinction due to Arctic methane release

Pick and choose, mix and match—it doesn't matter which of these have a basis in consensual reality, and which don't, because, you see, you are all “crazy people” now, and everything you say (on social media, because unmediated face-to-face access to other humans is now a rarity) is automatically a mad rant.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this progression ends in the gadgetization of the human brain itself—through neural implants. Then the choice of rantworthy topics, such as the ones listed above, would be controllable through a centralized administrative interface. So, for instance, if it turned out that Obama were indeed a space lizard (how embarrassing!) the administrator would simply click on “conspiracy theories,” click on the checkbox next to “Obama is a space lizard,” and click “uninstall.” Suddenly, Obama would no longer be a space lizard, or so the “crazy people” (the population at large) would be forced to immediately admit.

One problem is that “crazy people” tend to be rather unpredictable, but here too we should expect technological improvements. They would be transported in driverless cars which would tell them where they want to go rather than allow them to make potentially incorrect decisions, and, pièce de résistance, when traveling on foot, there would be a way of putting your entire body in “slave mode”: instead of your brain potentially disobeying commands from your integral GPS unit's voice inside your head (“at the next corner turn right, etc.”) it would be your legs that would be doing the obeying. Your brain could be otherwise engaged: watching porn, listening to hip-hop or simply vegetating in a state of chemically induced rapture. This feature would be particularly useful on election day: voters would automatically march to poling stations and always be sure to pull the correct lever, improving voter turn-out and making the country more democratic than ever.

And if a young man were to breach the security perimeter and sneak into the lab to tell me that his cat is feeding him coded messages in Swahili, I'd just connect wirelessly to his neural implant, bring up his page in the admin interface, say something like “Wow, that's a weird bug!” and a few clicks later the faulty app would be uninstalled, and he would no longer have a cat, or even remember that he ever had one.

And that, my crazy friends, is how better living through technology will be achieved in our country-sized open-air insane asylum.


sykes.1 said...

A minor historical quibble:

Emptying the mental hospitals was one of the main projects of the Liberal Intelligentsia of the day. Reagan had nothing to do with it and likely opposed it. However, everyone had read Lacan and knew that mental patients were being tortured and that insanity didn't exist anyway. "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" and all that.

AlaBikeDr said...

When I am waking from a dream I often resist the return to reality and try to stay embedded in the dream. That the whole country seems to be trying that as a solution to the problems of Reality does make me feel like I am living in Crazyland. Is it normal I ask to be concerned about iphone 6 when all 3 units of Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant are running wide open and the storage pools are almost full of 3,000 tons of toxic waste? Where do you suppose the people are that would like to actually address problems rather than continue the dream?

Jim R said...

Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos!

Unknown said...

Best blogpost on the site so far, very Zamjatin like in his "My". That is of course if we consider the US to be the one and only country worth observing. But even here, in the "civilized" world, a simple solution would be for everybody to have a choice to vote for themselves on every single issue in congress. And if they chose to do so, delegate that voting to whomever they want, without being constrained to delegate their vote to different front men of the same behind the scenes operators. That would be the logical next step in the Internet evolution: creation of a smart human system that can self-manage. We do it in commerce with goods and services, why not push the internet market to the world of ideas, concepts, management and eventually spirituality (not religion).

Just a "crazy" thought form a "crazy" zombie..

Unknown said...

Dmitri, I was going to comment in a previous column how the alternative to die-off is probably something along the lines of "circuits in the brain." The signs are all there: How many parents willingly allowed the authorities to drug their children for the sake of better grades? And how many vaccines are children now required to take in order to attend a school that has a local sheriff stationed outside? The health/safety of children would be the cause the authorities would likely exploit to get us to that point.

Of course that sounds like the rant of a crazy person. However a recent news story states that mock attempts to smuggle bombs thru TSA security were successful 95% of the time. So the "rational" public at large basicly allows themselves to be routinely molested by the authorities in order to feel safe.

pyrrhus said...

Jim R--One of the best Simpsons ever: "go ahead, throw away your vote!"

k-dog said...

Ever notice how many 'crazies' complain about being bombarded with microwaves? As you say “crazy people” tend to be rather unpredictable. Yet the number who have this particular 'bug' is rather high. Considering the myriad of possibilities it is a remarkable coincidence that so much crazy creativity should flow in that particular direction so frequently.

Someday someone is going to study the power of suggestion that when combined with covert surveillance will demonstrate that average normal people can be pushed in the direction of bat-shit crazy very easily once a surveilling agency decides to have some fun with a dissident/security risk/victim they find irritating.

By only listening over the phone a few minutes a day intelligence on trivial facts about a persons life can be gleaned and a few sentences can be taken down verbatim. Getting sentences verbatim is important so it won't look like random chance. Then when our dissident/security risk/victim sees their sentences appearing in a comment section of a particular blog somewhere word for word he/she will get a big push towards crazyland and think they are being surveilled 24-7. Our dissident will become highly agitated and anybody they run into will actually think they are crazy.

Not that it can happen easily here. You screen your comments and that is a huge help. Not all blogs are so well controlled.

From the surveilling agencies point of view it could be called 'Mission Accomplished' and combined with using the phone as a bug to follow people around a little bit so a victim thinks they are being watched and trailed all the time a lot of otherwise normal people would find themselves in a slow dance with their mental health. That is what such a 'study' would show.

Of course if dissidents are considered crazy to begin with their rights are not being violated by driving them crazy because they already are crazy anyway. With no oversight a surveilling agency might just start thinking this way and messing with peoples mental health could be seen as just another day at the office of the propaganda machine.

And who would ever know? Victims can't talk about their experience directly less they be seen as crazy and who wants that? Victims would be stuck with a story and nobody to tell it to.

Jon Rudd said...

@Sykes: The original plan for deinstitutionalizing loonie-tunes also called for establishing some 1200 community mental health centers around the nation. Needless to say, that never happened.

Anonymous said...

Cory Doctorow has written about how this spying eventually morphs society into Feudalism (though the conduit of state neoliberalism)

Zoltar said...

Point taken, Dmitry. To be sure, entire sectors of our society, like healthcare, education and, increasingly, law enforcement, can reasonably be regarded today as psychotic, or moving purposefully in that direction.
To take what one does and does not believe as a measure of sanity is an interesting exercise these days, when much of what the government and the media tell us are patent nonsense and unconventional sources of “information” can be difficult for an individual to evaluate. Once untethered from believing the State Department and the New York Times it’s easy to drift pretty far from shore.
Considering your list of “rantworthy topics,” I completely believe several of them, believe some others have an element of truth in them, am inclined to disbelieve one or two, and am still undecided on Obama being a space lizard.
Most of my sane friends will tell you that I am delusional, because I do not share their complete confidence in the eternal soundness of the U.S. economy, the environment, and the world climate.
In 1974 the satirists known as the Firesign Theatre released an album called Everything You Know is Wrong. As best as I can recall, there’s a high ranking military officer who has gone off the deep end and is trying to decide what should be done. His inner voice says “They think you’re crazy, but you outrank them. What should you do? One: Cordon off the area. Two…”

Jim R said...

Excellent essay as usual, D.O. I just had to respond to the space lizard thing.

You know, about half of that rantworthy stuff is true?

As for Putin taking over the USSR, that's a funny one! And he's invaded the Ukraine every other Tuesday since last year, too! If not for the angry newspaper articles, he would probably take over that place as well! (where is it, again?)

Was discussing peak oil with someone years ago (wow, about ten years now that I think about it) ... we got into some of this conspiracy stuff, and I mentioned fluoride. That used to be a big issue with a, um, a person, who was on the radio when I was a kid (in the '50s). I think he was with the Birch John Society or something, anyway, he'd go on and on about how fluoride is a communist conspiracy. Well, in 2005, this acquaintance actually *disagreed* when I said it was silly.

I had no idea that particular myth was still alive. Since then, I have seen/heard it in several places. WTF. I still brush my teeth with the stuff, BTW ;-)

Robertlowrey.blogspot.com said...

Maintenant, vous êtes "Le Roi du Coeur".

Marcel said...

Our only hope to retutn us to sanity is in the works.
Highly informed sources inside the beltway tell us
that Iran has been perfecting an EMP for the sickly
patient. By the time the stone age arrives ,the few survivors
will be too busy with more pressing issues than worrying
about how the NSA and the other idiots we elected failed us.
All good things must come to an end, THANK GOD!

beetleswamp said...

George Soros leaked Ukraine emails. Delete.

Unknown said...

We know the days of the web going dark approacheth (any kind of acceptably surveilled web anyway)..... when it's who we know within 30 miles. Or, with sailors, maybe, if we're lucky and China doesn't get super proactive about enforcing their own nationalistic brand of the law of the sea, maybe 3000 miles. The time when web image/neo-fame, persona, and associated survival bucks become a non issue. Crazylandia becomes what we make it within traveling distance. And I don't figure it to be that crazy!! Kinda look forward to the simplicity even as it will be more difficult.

Bukko Boomeranger said...

I had a patient on the psych ward this week who was CONVINCED that he had a chip implanted in his head that was causing all the voices he heard there. He already knew he had auditory hallucinations, because he's been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia for years. But the voices had gotten louder and more disturbing recently. When we suggested that going off his meds, along with smoking marijuana and "ice" (Australia's word for methamphetamine) was the reason, he would have none of it. It was a tiny chip, invisible to the naked eye, made of copper, implanted by the Israelis, that was put into him when he was semi-conscious during a colonoscopy. He KNEW this because when he was half-awake, he briefly felt something go into his eye.

The fellow was adamant that he needed a brain scan that would show the chip. He doesn't have enough medical knowledge to know what KIND of a brain scan, CT, MRI, PET or whatever. Just a brain scan. In addition to badgering doctors and nurses both angrily and tearfully with his demand, he was also threatening to commit suicide if this chip was not removed, because he could not bear living with the voices any longer. In fairness, it's not easy to have cacophonic argy-bargy between your ears all the time. Imagine someone twirling a radio tuner up and down the dial between stations, sometimes pausing on a fragment of conversation, but most often a jumble of incoherence and static. It's in their brain, it's almost impossible to function with all the noise and it never goes away. Being schizo is hell.

"Reality feedback" about how no such thing exists, and how implanting a device in someone's brain would require surgery to open the skull, had no effect. "But what if it DID exist?" was his response. The chief psychiatrist on his case asked "If we did a CT scan and it showed nothing, would that convince you?" The patient's answer was no, that would just mean the chip was too small for them to see. The doc got him in for an MRI anyway, because they're thinking about doing ECT, electro-convulsive therapy, "electroshock" for you "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" fans. Nothing else has worked, and unlike America's uncaring society, Australia's system doesn't want the unfortunate bloke to neck himself.

When the results came, and there was no chip visible, a female psychiatrist had the guy in an interview room where she was explaining this. She even had printouts of the scan to demonstrate. That made the patient more agitated, to the point where he barricaded the doctor in the room by blocking the door, demanding that she FIND THE CHIP! and remove it. This is why we all wear "duress alarms" that we can press, and why male nurses like me are on the wards for the occasional hand-to-hand. When he stepped toward the doctor, we poured through the door, extracted him and he got a jab with a syringe of sedatives. Kollapsnik, you're lucky that your looney was more easily mollified. You might have been forced to brain him with a mass spectrometer or something.

I often tell paranoid patients "You should be concerned about what's real, not what's not. You ARE being tracked, but it's not by microchips, satellites or bikie gangs. That mobile phone you carry everywhere is beaming your location to phone towers, and the phone companies are recording and storing info about all your calls and data usage." But people today are so dependent on their phones, and they like them so much, that they do not incorporate that into their delusions. They don't want to fear something they have chosen to love.

Marcel said...

[America] Babylon has been a golden cup in the hand of the Lord,
intoxicating all the earth. The nations have drunk of her wine; therefore
the nations are going mad.
Suddenly America-Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail over her!
...We applied healing to America/Babylon, but she was not healed;
Forsake her and let us each go to his oen country, for her judgment has
reached to heaven...

Coilin MacLochlainn said...

Well certainly ClubOrlov is one media site full of mad rants. Glad you've stopped speechifying on street corners, Dmitry, and moved your ranting online where we can all have a good laugh.

Auriel Ragmon said...

One of your best, Dmitri! As a former mental illness professional, I can resonate with what you say. A nice psychiatrist of my acquaintance once told me that what we needed was to bring back the asylum, this whilst former'patients were wheeling their shopping carts full of their belongings near the 'Community Mental Health Centers' that wouldn't cater to them because they didn't like their 'meds'. And Regan the Saint was largely to blame for that, in California at least.
Jim of Olym

Marc L Bernstein said...

Every week I pick up an old friend who has become an alcoholic and together we drive over to the local food bank, which is right next to the main homeless shelter. The homeless are permitted to take food from the food bank once per day whereas other local residents can only pick up food there once per week per household.

Hence I see homeless people there every week. Many are disheveled, wearing tattered unwashed clothing, some don't smell very good and others speak loudly typically in a raspy voice. Sometimes they don't seem to be talking to anyone in particular. Some of them have odd mannerisms, such as repeatedly rolling their head around in a circle. Most of them are not violent, and many are actually friendly if you speak unpretentiously with them. Some are just down on their luck and have just recently become homeless, others have abused alcohol and other drugs, and some presumably have mental or emotional disorders. Some ask for money. Some of them smoke cigarettes and others lie around on the ground with only cardboard between their clothing and the cement. Some of them even lie in the middle of parking spaces, but they are usually good-natured when they are asked to lie down somewhere else.

This is a part of society that is unknown to most citizens, and it seems to be growing in number. It's likely to get a lot worse in the next several years.

Unknown said...

I would not describe it as Crazyland - it is just plain and simple Paranoialand. If you tell a story at the end of the village, by time it reaches the other end it is twisted inside out and reversed. Same on the internet. With the attention span of most people, like 5 seconds, thinking about anything is impossible and they just consume what is offered. What is true, the medicated general population of the west have serious issues with reality, psychodrugs have almost the same impact as marihuana, they cannot think straight and level. And thats why it IS crazyland out there in the west. Even doctors sometimes say, they cannot be responsible if the patient takes large doses of "happy pills" over a long time and suddenly does something drastic? Like sitting on the interstate or the railway tracks? The chinese have a most suitable proverb (a curse)"may you live in interesting times!"

Unknown said...

1 0 / 1 0

• 9/11 inside job
• contrails
• MMR vaccine causing autism
• the Federal Reserve undermining the country's financial system
• the plastics plague
• global warming (or cooling, used as) a government conspiracy

5 / 1 0 (more research, please)

• peak oil
• rising ocean levels
• near-term human extinction due to Arctic methane release

0 / 1 0 (haha)

• Obama being a space lizard
• Putin taking over the USSR


Dammerung said...

@Jim R

I wouldn't so readily dismiss the suspicions about fluoride if I were you. It's well documented that ingestion of fluoride causes the formation of calcium deposits in, wouldn't you know it, the pineal gland. That very same organ that numerous ancient cultures considered the physical transducer between the brain and the human soul. Even the Catholic Church is decked out with pineal symbolism, most specifically in the form of otherwise completely inexplicable pinecones.

Now if I were a paranoid man, I might wonder if there were anybody out there who might have a vested interest in muddying the integrity of the link between the human body and the human soul...

jo6pac said...

sykes.1 said...

Jon Rudd said...

I live in Calli and watch this happen in San Jose, Calif. when the closed Agnew Hospital.


Thanks for writing this it's so true and with the right amount of humor to keep it from being truly sad;)

thecrowandsheep said...

When your cat ends up sending coded messages to you in Swahili, it is important not to panic. Remember, Swahili has no dipthongs. So if your cat says "meow", be sure to point out that particular linguistic blunder. I have included a few translations below just in case:
* Ni kuwa kulisha wakati kumdanganya! = It be feeding time you fool!
* Hey Orlov, wakati sisi kwenda kununua catamaran? = Hey Orlov, when are we going to purchase a catamaran?
* Kuwekeza katika dhahabu = Invest in gold.

As always, just because you are paranoid, that does not mean your cat is not out to get you.

Saint Howard (a.k.a. Howard the Great) said...

This blog post has persuaded me to stop reading your blog.

Of course, that might mean I'm crazy.