Inventing Religion   (2016Mar30)


Wednesday, March 30, 2016                                            7:36 PM

I’m sure some of you have older siblings and I don’t know, maybe yours was an angelic and helpful soul—but my older brothers enjoyed nothing better than to mess with me or my younger siblings. Every strange woman was a witch—every home with an overgrown lawn was haunted—every barking dog was a killer who had recently broken its chain and would probably do so again today.

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As children we find ourselves in a tight spot—we know that this information is almost certainly bogus—but we have no alternative sources of data. I knew my siblings were just trying to scare me—but maybe that lady really is a witch… Then we grow up and we look back on our surprising gullibility with amusement—as we listen to our older children tell our younger children the same spooky fairy tales and ghost stories.

Our parents might tell some whoppers too—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy come to mind—but they take them back once we get to a certain age. Then our teachers teach us ‘history’ that we are meant to unlearn in maturity—Washington chopping down a cherry tree, etc. These simple memes help us put pins in the timeline of history that will be replaced later by the dry facts—so to call them lies would be exaggerating things a bit. Still, by the time family, friends and teachers are done with our childhoods, we end up with a great many voided checks of education—and an awareness that communication isn’t always about fact.

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Having learned that people will tell us virtually anything in an attempt to manipulate us, we nevertheless spend the rest of our lives with an unquestioning belief in our religions. The fact that different styles of religion popped up in various regions of the world—just like languages—doesn’t dissuade us from holding firm to our faiths. The fact that religious authorities are famous for corruption and venality doesn’t dissuade us from respecting their ranks, as a group. Even having historical records showing that our religions have been modified over time by consensus of these authorities—even that does not shake our resolution to view these religions as solid and unchanging.

Then we hear of cults where people are deluded into self-destruction or slavery—and here we draw the line. Apparently, a religion that asks you to murder someone or to kill yourself is asking too much—yet all religions tell you how to live your life. The more pleasant the delusion, the more popular the faith. The difficulty we face now with Islamic extremists is that these people are simply hewing to the old, pre-industrial standards of religion—‘kill the infidel’ has been part of their faith for centuries—only the overpowering influence of Western science and technology has brought these places into acquaintance with pluralism and secular societies—and these memes, being imports, are sometimes resented rather than embraced.

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We think of the global community as having been enlightened because they have cell-phones and fast-food outlets. We think of the Amish and tell ourselves that anyone with real old-timey religion will steer clear of technology—but that isn’t the case. Even in America we have evangelists who believe in a literal translation of the Bible—even to the point of denying fossil records and carbon-fourteen dating—but who nonetheless are perfectly comfortable using Twitter, microwaves, and Siri. In such cases, selective ignorance is required—they can study medicine, but must keep their distance from biology where it enters the realm of evolution—such as the transformation of viruses into new forms over time, or the presence of Neanderthal genes in an individual’s DNA sequence.

Plainly, everyone is open to new information, new tech, new gadgets—but new ideas are frightening and unwelcome. Information is our friend—until it isn’t—then we have to decide whether the new info is worth the loss of old assumptions. When cars are invented, the idea that we can travel a mile a minute is very welcome—when cars are found to emit toxic gasses, the idea that we have to change our cars, or stop using them altogether, is proportionately unwelcome. When close study convinced me that religion was a sham, the freedom from that delusion was quite welcome—the idea that the afterlife was, at the very least, far different, if it existed at all, was less welcome. No one is unhappier at a funeral than an atheist—we can’t even say all the comforting things that religious people find so believable.

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But religion is like language in another way—we are raised on one of them and we aren’t inclined to switch to another, just for the sake of unity. Of the things that separate us, in truth, I’d place money and language ahead of religion—after all, while I don’t have a shred of belief, it is still a common feature of most people in most places—and religions, being invented, have certain common denominators. While this is sometimes used by the religious as ‘proof’ that God is everywhere, to me it seems more a connection to human nature—we invent the religions we most want to believe in.

But the older style of religion is unabashedly divisive—fear and hatred of the outsider is enthusiastically embraced—as is punishment for any show of aberration among the faithful. Power-players, especially in the Middle East, have long used this predilection as a way of exerting military and political power—and such people have little regard for the chaos they sow. Ironically, the people that ally themselves with such fundamentalism are a greater source for evil than any simple atheist like myself could ever be.

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What is even stranger is that religions have historically been just that—evil and divisive—until the combination of the Reformation and King Henry VIII’s split with the church in Rome began the erosion of clerical power that ended with the founding of a country based on a forced separation of church and state. After that, religions, especially Christianity, began to be more domesticated and civilized until we have the almost completely secular America and Europe of today. That is strange because, by making themselves less intrusive, religions have made themselves harder to criticize—while, to an atheist, the delusions of lightly-held faiths and the delusions of radical extremists differ only by degree. We atheists are grateful that most of you don’t feel obliged to murder us in our sleep—but we still don’t understand why you keep ingesting the opium of the masses.

Easter Sunday   (2016Mar27)


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Sunday, March 27, 2016                                          1:22 PM

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I was braver when I was younger—partly because I didn’t know any better, but partly because I didn’t have any choice. I saw life’s objectives passing me by and I felt compelled to throw myself into the fray, dangerous or otherwise. I think that’s where we get the idea we can take ethical short-cuts along the way to our supposed goals—we start by learning to accept suicidally prohibitive risks under a cloud of inexperience and ignorance.

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Like most people, I can look back in wonder that I survived my youth, that I actually found someone to share my life with, and that I truly lived to see my children grow up healthy and happy. What are the odds? Astronomical. And I know that, not only with hindsight, but with the experience of a parent who has imagined numberless worst-case scenarios every time one of my kids left my sight.

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It’s that whole Schrodinger’s Cat paradox—someone who hadn’t heard of me since the day of my birth would have to figure the probabilities of someone my age being born in my year surviving and thriving sixty years later. Until they heard otherwise, there remains a possibility that I failed in some way. My present existence is a matter of chance, to a large degree—as is everyone else’s. The sudden loss of someone we know always reminds us of this and the shock of that reality, brought home, is as much a blow as the loss we feel.

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Why this preoccupation with risk management? Well, I was just looking out the front screen door and I saw a robin sitting on the ground at the bottom of our front stoop. I spoke to it—that usually makes them fly off, if my appearance hasn’t already done so—but it ignored me. Kinda spooky. So I opened the door—a sure-fire bird-fleeing move if there ever was one. The darn thing turned its head upside-down, looked me in the eye, and didn’t budge an inch.

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I told it, “Look, the flanking shrubberies have been used to nest before, but you get a lot of foot-traffic past here—it is our front door, after all— location, location, location. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but you should think it over.” Then it flew away. Small animals often listen to me—I don’t know why. Maybe they like my piano-playing. I wish I could say the same for large animals.

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Spring is here, the cruelest month is almost upon us. New life begins its struggle and things get hectic, wild, and spontaneous. I think the worst thing Darwin and the biologists gave us is the knowledge that evolution is only concerned with reproduction. The drones all die after having serviced their queen. The male mantis loses its head as a post-coital snack for the mother-to-be. A sixty-year-old male has about as much purpose as a fish on a bicycle—his own life may be important to him personally but Mother Nature is done with him—and she makes no bones about it.

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The idea that people may live longer is hilarious to me—nothing but fear of death wrapped in science. Give me eternal youth and then maybe we can talk—although even being forever fruitful presents certain mathematical difficulties—they’re not making any more real estate, as the saying goes. Plus, parenthood, like puberty, is only glorious in retrospect—few of us would choose to repeat it. Perhaps that makes Christianity more attractive than Buddhism—with reincarnation, you do this all over again—with a Christian soul, you get to go somewhere new and different. But will they have Spring?

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Improv – Batty Batty Night (2016Mar26)


Saturday, March 26, 2016                                        8:16 PM

Wearing my new ‘Dark Knight a la Van Gogh’ tee-shirt and my ‘Starry Starry Night’ socks, I felt inspired to play an impromptu novelette, “Batty Batty Night”:

A lone figure strolls Gotham’s streets unmolested—is that a fleeting swirl of black cape atop that building?—is that the bat-signal on the belly of the night’s clouds? ….

Aside from the political and satirical cartoonists of newspapers and The New Yorker, cartooning is a group effort. I don’t know how they’ve computerized it nowadays, but it used to be the original artists drew in pencil, other artists did the inking, others the lettering, and one more for the coloring. Even the creation of a comic book super-hero was collaborative—Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created Superman. In 1989, Bob Kane conceded that Bill Finger was a co-creator of Batman—it was unfortunate that Finger had passed away in 1974. Wonder Woman was created by William M. Marston, his wife Elizabeth H. Marston, and Olive Byrne.

But comic books, like rock-and-roll or politics, deals in high-brow ideals, virtues, and courage—as subject matter—while the business itself is as seamy as any other—dealing in promotion, property rights, and profit. It’s as if they found a way to make a buck off of telling kids, ‘Yes, there is a Santa Claus.” But I like comics—I’m not knocking comics—they’re fun. It’s just that the comics biz is a business, like any other. People will argue over credit, prestige, and audience recognition—or simply over money.

I always had half a mind to be a comic book artist, but anatomy was never my strong suit. You have to admire the forced perspective in some of those frames—that’s tricky stuff to draw. I guess I was never happy about the tiny boxes—I preferred a bigger piece of paper—and one per drawing. They do that now, in the more modern graphic novels—full page pictures—oh well. Besides, commercial artists have to draw fast—they need to crank that stuff out—I was always slow as molasses.

Daily Doings   (2016Mar24)


Thursday, March 24, 2016                                                9:23 AM

Golly, what a week. You have no idea how busy I can be, doing nothing. In between manically surfing my cable-box’s channels, shuttling new-release movies in and out of my On-Demand cart, reading books on my Kindle, doing the daily NY Times crossword, setting up my camera to video my piano-playing, editing and posting piano videos, and writing blog-posts like this one—I’m also trading comments and thread-posts on Facebook, WordPress, YouTube, and Medium—sometimes for hours at a time.

There was an especially tricky crossword today—it involved a phrase being written in a circle—with no clues except that it was of a part with the theme of the puzzle. Once I finally completed the puzzle I felt a great wave of futility—and I realized why I only like the easy crosswords. A tough crossword is just as difficult as figuring out what I’m going to say when I write—but when I’m done, all I’ve done is figure out what someone else was saying—what a waste.

I feel a similar futility when I get drawn into protracted threads of debate—or even discussion—online. I’m typing messages to a stranger (or a group of strangers) then they type something in response—and what do you get out of it? Nothing. It’s pitiful what a person will do for distraction when there are no useful alternatives.

Most days are interrupted by pills, and again by a cigarette-rolling session (and maybe another rolling session, IYKWIM). And there are countless times in a day when I make myself a cup of tea. But that still leaves an entire day without responsibilities or tasks of any kind—hours that desperately need filling.

I remember a time when everything was the reverse—I once dreamed of the thousand and one things I would do if I wasn’t chained to a nine-to-five job that left me with barely enough energy to watch a little TV, go to bed, and do it all again the next day. That’s where most people live—so I don’t expect a lot of sympathy for having too much free time—I must sound like those people who try to explain how ‘hard’ it is being rich or famous or something.

Still, when I used to dream of free time, I assumed I’d be healthy and of sound mind—which is not entirely the case here in reality. Think of me as crippled, if that helps—I do—worse yet, I think of myself as someone who is invisibly crippled—I get to be disabled, but I have to explain that to anyone I meet (because it doesn’t show) and I don’t convince everyone—there are still plenty of people who think I’m just lazy and rude—a quitter. Some things just can’t be absorbed by people who haven’t experienced it themselves. And if I thought it was frustrating being kept from my dreams of accomplishment by a steady job, it was nothing compared to this maddening inability to do anything requiring stamina, deftness, focus, or memory.

That does bring a certain amount of variety to my blog-posts, though. Since I can’t work on anything for days on end, I start each day as a blank slate—this past week I’ve done posts about piano-playing, music, copyright disputes, banking, terrorism, politics, literature, poetry, autobiography, history, and science fiction. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was fascinating. But here I sit in an empty room (and on a beautiful day—really beautiful) just typing away whatever comes into my head—hardly fascinating.

My most continual ‘effort’ lately has been my CD-rippings to my new hard drive—I have a huge CD collection; my old hard drive died weeks ago; and I’m only about one hundred CDs in (about 5 Gbytes worth) right now. I forget that I’m doing it some days—but these last three days I’ve been going at it pretty steadily, and there’re still months of ripping ahead. Nowadays, with everything being downloaded, a shelf full of CDs just seems like a waste—no one will ever listen to any of it unless it’s stored digitally.

Conversely, when I’m done, I’ll be able to buy another $40 hard drive and copy the whole collection for a friend or relative—that’s the equivalent of thousands of dollars’ worth of music that I can just give somebody—that’ll be nice. It’s about half classical and half the popular music of my generation—it would take weeks of 24-7 playing to listen to all of it—so there’s bound to be one or two people that would enjoy that.

The thing that takes the most effort in ripping CDs is when you hit a CD that doesn’t load all the info automatically—you who don’t listen to classical music may have never experienced that—but there are many obscure and ancient recordings on CD, and typing in the track-title, artist, and composer for every track on the CD can be painfully tedious—especially wearing the hi-magnification specs I usually need to decipher most CD printing. Plus, Windows Media Player is ridiculously touchy—and if my palsied fingers brush against the wrong key before I hit ‘Rip CD’, all my typing may disappear and I’ll have to start all over—I’ve learned to be very careful when doing this.

Finally, when I just despair of being productive, I play Snood or Candy Crush or my favorite, Candy Crush Soda. I play way too much of this foolishness—not every day, but more days than I’m proud of. That’s when I realize that people don’t need to accomplish anything much more than keeping busy at something that amuses them. In “The Matrix” the ‘nightmare’ scenario was that everyone was plugged into a virtual reality that wasn’t real—but let’s face it—the only thing wrong with that world was that the virtual reality they were trapped in wasn’t any fun. If the evil aliens had created a seductive virtual reality, then the humans would have told their hero, Neo, to get lost.

Old Songs   (2016Mar23)


Wednesday, March 23, 2016                                            2:07 PM

A fresh day in early spring—this is what we’ve earned by our patience through the long, dreary winter. The daffodils have a white pallor that suits them and belies the bright yellow they will eventually achieve. Here in the foyer the front door is ajar. A light breeze is clearing out the tobacco smoke and mixing in heady earth-tones of life stirring in the mud.

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My head is clear and my mood is solid—something I’ve learned to appreciate for its increasing rarity. I’m also thankful about many other things I took for granted, back when they were so plentiful and constant I mistook them for permanent fixtures rather than the glory of youth.

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My daughter’s gift for my sixtieth birthday was socks—Superman socks, Spiderman socks—an embarrassment of super-hero socks. She knows me too well. Not every adult is comfortable sporting Superman socks—I have no problem with wearing anything silly—red plaid pants with green plaid shirt and argyle socks—I don’t care. I never leave the house—and when I do, I assume everyone’s staring at me anyway because I’m kinda neurotic—so if they really stare at my socks, I don’t think anything of it. Life can’t have too much color in it, if you ask me. I could never be cool because cool people only wear black. I’ll wait for the funeral, thanks.

Okay, so—why play these creaky old tunes? Is it ironic? Well, maybe a little—but not entirely—some of them are fun, some are funny, some are just a great tune. Take, for example, “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home”—now this song has got the silliest lyrics ever—and I’m not entirely sure the lyrics aren’t ingenuously sexual—they’re certainly suggestive. And “Yes! We Have No Bananas”—what kind of monster could fail to love that song? It makes no sense at all—I love things that make no sense at all. And I can’t sing “The Sheik of Araby” without picturing a mob of flappers swooning over Valentino wearing too much kohl around his eyes.

 

Old songs—the more I play them, the dearer they become to me. I think my favorite songs are still the ones I learned in grade-school assemblies and Boy Scout campfire sing-alongs. As a teen I was always eager for the latest hits—but I think people generally prefer songs they’ve heard over and over—it’s more fun when you don’t even have to think about it to sing along.

Today’s improv, “Extra-Sharp”, is passable–but you can skip the “Player Ade” improv from a few days ago–if it were anything special, I wouldn’t have waited so long to post it.

 

 

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All Men Are Brothers (2016Mar23)


Wednesday, March 23, 2016                                            6:29 PM

All Men Are Brothers

(or – It’s A Mistake To Be Afraid)

There’s a reason why Europe is more exposed to terrorist cells—in the US, we encourage integration of immigrants. Perhaps we have clumps of ethnicity or religion, particularly when the incoming culture is insular to begin with, but that is the exception rather than the rule. In Europe, from what I understand, Middle-Easterners have their own communities—and the Europeans prefer it that way. I heard that in Brussels recent reports about potential extremist suspects went unexamined partly due to their habit of letting that conclave ‘police itself’. That sounds suspiciously like they’re saying the immigrant community is officially invisible—the better to ignore and isolate them.

But we have such conclaves in the US, too—some of the blame falls on the immigrants for shunning the whole melting-pot experience and remaining purposely insular. But let’s face it—this behavior is easier to come by when the natives aren’t too fond of you to begin with. Britain had a fairly hands-off approach to their Middle-Eastern immigrant communities, just like Brussels—until the terror attacks there made that policy seem too lax.

But properly policing such areas is just a detail—these areas are obviously neglected by civic authority in many ways—and for the same reason they are so cohesive—the immigrants have not been made entirely welcome. They have not been absorbed by their new homelands, they have only been tolerated within them. Even some parts of the US have these hardened nodes of acculturation.

With the recent bombings in Brussels, I’ve seen two reactions—one is an obvious increase in police presence in Brussels’ immigrant community—and the other is candidate Ted Cruz’s call to restrain Muslim-Americans within their communities.

As for Europe, they, like us, will need the good graces of their Muslim nationals to combat terrorism. For Europeans to crack down on already-neglected communities within Europe—and to start shunning desperate refugees fleeing the violence in the Middle East—is exactly what they shouldn’t be doing. By lumping their potential allies in with their enemies, they are well on their way to making all Muslims their enemy.

America’s Cruz doubles down on his error—as usual. Not only does the same principal apply to the US as to Europe—but here in America, most Muslims don’t live in one lump community—most of them live next door to some other kind of American. The few ‘communities’ that Cruz’s plan could apply to, therefore, includes the merest fraction of all Muslim-Americans. But that’s Cruz—the flag-bearer of the party of stupid.

We have to act on intelligence related to a suspected terrorist. But we also have to give all Muslims the respect and due-process we owe to any citizen. The Brussels attack, like the Boston Marathon bombing, was executed by a pair of brothers. The fear and isolation of the West creates a simmering pot, reduced to a smaller and smaller, hotter and hotter core of frustration. We ostracize them into a small community, they often divide themselves by gender—so you get a bunch of young males sitting around—neglected, underserved, frustrated, feeling excluded from opportunity and equal rights—and eventually angry.

We must continue to hunt down terrorists. But isn’t it even more important that we avoid, as far as possible, manufacturing new ones? Set aside fairness or justice or even good manners—we still need Muslims to be our friends and allies in the fight against extremism.

That isn’t to say that we should stay as we are—part of the problem is we’ve been too insular already, too ready to neglect people we don’t know or understand. We should not be discussing stemming the flow of immigrant refugees—we should be planning how we can dazzle them with the peace, plenty, and security that all people deserve—and that we, with a lot of effort and a little courage, have the capacity to offer them.

Every refugee that we can comfortable ensconce in the lap of the West is not just subtracted from the ranks of potential terrorists—he or she will become one more champion of freedom and liberty, ready to defend it with their lives. If we fail to do this, our cowardice will doom them and us. When FDR said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, he wasn’t just saying that we should overcome fear—he was saying that fear is the enemy. Or, as may be the case in our current situation, fear creates the enemy.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (2016Mar21)


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Monday, March 21, 2016                                                  5:57 PM

That was snow—they weren’t wrong—but it came when we were sleeping and left before lunch, melting away in embarrassment from showing up on the first day of Spring. This weather is weird. But I’m not freaking out. Climate change is a disturbing vision, but I’ve been on worse planets than this.

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I read a lot of Dickens and other old classics way back when—those sorts of books really put you right in the picture—I could sense the streets, the parlors, the vernacular, the pace, the mores, the rhythm of the changing seasons as experienced in a prior century or two. It became clear to me that life was not always the way I was used to life being.

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I read science fiction, too—Verne and Huxley, Clarke and Asimov, and many others. These stories imagined a future time, with changed streets, different mores, and settings and devices that would seem strange if they appeared in our present. They sparked my imagination just as the classics had—but made me think of how the present might change over time and become something unimaginably different from what I was used to—just as my time was so very different from the days of Dickens.

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Now that reality has, in many ways, surpassed the wildest surmises of the sixties science fiction writers, I feel unusually well-prepared compared to the average person. While I was certainly surprised to see bookstores fade away overnight—along with stationary stores, tobacco shops, electronics stores—and sometimes whole small-town main streets full of stores and shops, replaced by a K-Mart or a Target—I was not shocked. When the state of Florida becomes a coral reef in ten years, I’ll just make sure I don’t buy property there—I’m not going to run around hysterical, like my hair was on fire. My childhood had prepared me for a changing future. I can’t help but wonder if some well-chosen science fiction reading might not be good insight for all schoolchildren.

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Then again, today’s kids would probably read e-books off an LCD screen—they are born into a ceaselessly changing culture and will live a ‘science fiction’ existence through their formative years—so perhaps my reading list would be unnecessary—it is certainly outdated.

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Alvin Toffler wrote his “Future Shock” in 1970—it warned of information overload and social isolation—and we are living his prophesy—though many techno-geeks in Silicon Valley would ‘sell’ that as miraculous progress, rather than a problem. It’s a tough call—but one thing that’s undeniable is that we are giving up something in exchange for our brave new world—and we don’t know ourselves well enough to judge right now whether we’ll come to regret some of those losses—we’re in a ‘new is better’ autopilot mode now.

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Early Europeans deforested their continent to the point where they saw the New World’s virgin forests’ lumber as a treasure trove. Early Native Americans of both continents hunted their large game animals to extinction—so they never saw a cow or a horse until the European invaders imported them. American cities nearly choked themselves to death before they recognized the smog situation and started limiting and filtering exhaust—and now the Chinese, having done the same damned thing fifty years afterward, are just starting to legislate emissions-controls. Anyone who thinks that humankind as a group will show some self-control in the face of dire consequences is no student of history.

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In the case of our new, digital culture, we don’t even know what sort of harm we’re inviting with all these changes—so we’re certainly going to keep right on merrily doing whatever we do—and even when the cracks start to show, we’ll just shrug it off and bull ahead. Sounds like a wild ride.

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