The Ephemeral Nature of Knowledge   (2017Sep09)

GiaquintoWinter

Saturday, September 09, 2017                                          11:14 PM

The Ephemeral Nature of Knowledge   (2017Sep09)

In 1975, the two parts of the Apollo-Soyuz mission took off—Soyuz 19 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Apollo from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That’s how things were in my day—information was free, research was shared, all classes were open to audit. Oddly enough, science had to court interest back then.

Now that information has been commodified, the focus has turned to how the new data or discovery can be cashed in on for the highest price—even if it’s just a nuisance lawsuit against an actual inventor. If you want help with your computer, you have to pay for it. In the past, if something broke, you only payed for parts and labor—in our brave new world, we have to pay for explanations about products and services we bought in good faith. That may be the norm, but no way does that make it right and proper.

We see this info-hoarding effecting education, too, in scam seminar universities, scam online degrees, predatory school loans, and a general consensus among the business world that it is now okay for someone to be charged for information—and as always ‘caveat emptor’. Conversely, as Bill Maher addressed in his ‘New Rules’ last night, people can be charged for what they don’t know:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP13QTOI9z4&list=PLAF22812129BFCD50&index=1

 

There is another side of the information situation—YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, Gutenberg.org, et. al—the Net-Neutrality crowd, so to speak—which allows anyone with computer access to self-educate, up to and including PhD-level science lectures from Ivy League professors on YouTube. The only catch is that it is all public-access, public-domain. For example, let’s look at http://www.gutenberg.org (The Gutenberg Project)—their mission was to make the text of every book available, online, for free.

When I first found this site, I was blown away. Previously, I had spent childhood in the library and adulthood in the bookstores—and neither could ever offer ‘every’ book, much less without leaving home. Gutenberg allows free text downloads of every classic in English literature—the only catch is, they can only offer what is in the public domain. Amazon started selling the for-profit books, the latest, the bestsellers, anything really—it was a bibliophile’s dream, even before they started in with e-books.

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Today, when you go to Gutenberg’s site, it has been hybridized, offering the same free downloads, but with a Kindle e-book-file download-option—so users can keep their reading material all on one device. The oddest part is that some of Gutenberg’s offerings have been re-issued as e-book classics by the publishers of the hard copy—making it possible to buy a book (say Jane Austen’s Emma) on Amazon, that is available free on Gutenberg. I know because I have done it—and keep both editions on my Kindle out of sheer cussedness.

But my point is that if you read every book they have (I’m joking—an impossible task, in one lifetime) you still would not be acknowledged academically in any way. The same is true for whatever you learn online—even the degree-issuing online institutions are condescended to by the analog schools—as if being on-site really impacts most of today’s workplaces.

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However, you can do things with knowledge—that is its ultimate purpose—so even if education can’t get you a job, it can still help you invent your own. Nevertheless, the sheepskin (as a ticket into a well-paid position) is a commodity now—and must be paid for. But all these conditions are just the extremes of greed brought out by the commodification of knowledge.

The real danger is the stagnation of research and development. Not only are the greed for profits skewing the directions of researching, but the findings themselves are kept confidential.

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The boom days of Thinking are over. In Einstein’s time, German universities were hubs of intercourse between academics and scientists, as were the great schools of Britain and the rest of Europe—and American institutions as well. Traveling to mingle with others in one’s field, holding conventions and seminars on the challenges of the day—it was as free as a bird. Nobody knew what an NDA was—hell, scientists at NASA were challenging the government’s Security strictures (mid-Cold War) because they claimed that science could only exist as a global effort, with shared information. Imagine.

And it is worth mentioning that the guy who ran IBM, who put up signs around the offices with the one word ‘THINK’—was not being cute. After two world wars, people didn’t waste time sitting around thinking—no one had had that kind of leisure in living memory. But it was exactly what IBM needed its employees to do. He had to actually encourage them to remember that thinking was their job now.

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The reason for the change was that academics had entered the everyday—it had started with autos and radios and such—but now people had electrified homes, TVs, rocket ships—and as the IBM staff thunk, it only got more complicated and scientific. Now, I’d have to write several paragraphs to summarize all the modern stuff in our modern lives.

But the dichotomy is still there—we still believe that achievement should make you sweat. We still believe that just sitting and figuring something out is a waste of time—‘things are okay as they are’. We are wrong to believe that.

We have accepted all the gifts of technology, but pretended that it was all for free. We are close to recognizing that technology has a cost on our environment—several decades have been spent on that inconvenient truth—and there are still those who refuse to acknowledge the bill coming due.

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We haven’t even begun to address the cost to our society of technology. If we are going to have our children growing up around wireless electronic devices, we need to start calculating the parameters of how much their development will be influenced, or even damaged, by certain gadgets, apps, and games. We also need to address the asocializing effect which smartphones have on both children and adults.

Beyond that, it would be nice to have a grown-up discussion about the fact that half of society has integrated itself with the Internet, to the point of total dependency on its reliability—while the other half is finding ways to disrupt online systems for political or profitable gain, assuring us that the Internet can never be secure in the way we need it.

Yesterday’s announcement about the Equifax hack, exposing private info on millions of Americans and their finances, leaves all those people vulnerable to ID-theft and bank fraud. And this is the same system that runs our banks, our government, our phones, and damn near everything else—while totally unsecure. I’d like to talk about that—wouldn’t you?

Still, the ‘big boss’ paradigm persists—the idea that a strongman like Trump is America’s best choice for a leader, here in the twenty-first century—should be a joke. A man who can’t even use Twitter without typos is the wrong guy to be in charge of an online, subatomic, robotic world, okay? Bluster is still very effective—a lot can be done with bluster. But like many American workers today, having an old skill-set leaves one obsolete for the challenges of today.

And while all the fat cats are getting rich off of each new boner pill or wireless ear-pod, real forward movement in science is relatively crippled by the secrecy and the patent lawsuits and the proprietary research that’s kept hidden.

It’s time for one of my ‘true stories from history’. In ancient China, the emperor’s court was very exclusive—successive layers of the grounds were off-limits to the public and to lesser officials. One of the innermost places was the workshop of the Emperor’s scientists and engineers. When one emperor’s reign ended, the new emperor would appoint new scientists and engineers. In this way, many inventions and discoveries came and went.

In eighth century China, an artificer created the first escapement clockwork—but the usurping Emperor caused all record of the clock’s design (and the clock) to be destroyed. Clocks would disappear, until they were reinvented in Europe, in the fourteenth century.

People tend to focus on firsts—who gets credit for inventing a new thing—who gets credit for noticing some physical constant for the first time? But this story struck me not as a story of invention, but a cautionary tale about the ephemeral nature of knowledge. If the machines break, if the books get burnt (or locked away), if the kids don’t get educated—all technology, all knowledge—just disappears. And information is a lot easier to keep than it is to find.

The way to preserve information is to disseminate it, print it, teach it, put it online, make a movie about it. The way to lose information is to hoard it, to dole it out for a price—as we have seen, when information becomes a commodity, a lot of cheap knock-offs get sold—fake news, scam universities, corporate climate-change denial. The truth is precious is its own right—putting a price-tag on knowledge only corrupts it.

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In Response   (2017Jul29)

Friday, July 28, 2017                                                8:06 PM

In Response   (2017Jul29)

A friend told me I play piano better now than I did eight years ago—which is gratifying (even if talking ‘two levels of bad’, it’s good to be on the right side of it). It’s funny—I’m in worse shape, but I’ve become better adapted to it.

I lost some core muscles in the ’04 transplant op. Even five years later, in 2009, I was still struggling to do a single sit-up—and failing. Now, I’m better adjusted—I can do sit-ups now—but it’s dangerous to ask so much work from so few muscles, so if I overdo, I get spasms. I remember an early gym class, sixth grade, or junior high, maybe—where I did more sit-ups than anyone else. Time sure flies.

What is a laser, you ask? The term “laser” originated as an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. Invented in 1960, a laser sends a beam of light in a straight line (this is called coherent light)—unlike, say, lightbulbs, which send out light in all directions. This creates a very precise and powerful cutting tool, often replacing the scalpel in modern surgery. But lasers can be used for many other things besides burning—laser-calibrated ‘tape-measures’ allow contractors to measure a space’s dimensions without walking the length of the space—the list of uses is endless.

So—bacteria—lousy segue, I know—but today I’m thinking about bacteria—so, I did a quick Google-image search:

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As you can see from the chart, bacteria are useful because they operate on a molecular level—they can be tricked into modifying gene-sequences or fermenting India Pale Ale (IPA). Here are just three of the other fascinating things I found that deal with modern advances in bacteria-based technology:

 

Researchers generate clean energy using bacteria-powered solar panel

(Photosynthetic extracellular electron transfer processes using cyanobacteria—miniscule output compared to traditional solar panels, but still a step towards bio-solar energy cells.)

https://phys.org/news/2016-04-energy-bacteria-powered-solar-panel.html

 

Liquid-crystal and bacterial living materials self-organize and move in their own way

(Clothes that will breathe—for both of you.)

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170511165351.htm

 

From Antarctica: It’s Alive!

(Planet as Petri Dish.)

https://ultraphyte.com/2015/02/07/from-antarctica-its-alive/

 

So, my friend (and anyone else interested)–there’s a brief reply to your kind email. I hope I’ve answered your questions. Write again soon.

 

 

Science Fictions   (2017Jul05)

Wednesday, July 05, 2017                                                10:53 PM

Science Fictions   (2017Jul05)

Improv – Jeans Instability

Before I begin ranting, let me explain about today’s batch of baby videos—I decided to take all the titles from Astronomical Terminology, which I googled—if you want to know what a ‘Jeans Instability’ is, you can google it, too. (It’s the point at which a galactic dust cloud gets massive enough for gravity to start making it collapse into a baby star, though).

Improv – Galactic Tide

As usual, the titles, baby videos, and the piano music have nothing to do with each other—that’s just the way we do things here. Now, on with the lecture:

Improv – Critical Rotation

Greetings, People of Earth. Today’s message is: Things can only get better. I’m sure of it. Honest Abe said you can’t fool everybody all the time—and people are getting a nice, close look at the way things are. Politicians and business leaders can blue-sky all they want about tomorrow—seeing real-time performance on a daily basis, even with all the spin in the world, is harder to dismiss with words. In other words, I think it will be harder for Trump to run on his record than it was to run without one.

Improv – Celestial Sphere

Depending on how the Supreme Court sees ‘gerrymandering’, we might even see some Democrats win an election or two. There’s no limit to how much change for the better may be ahead. Heck, we could win it all—and we’d still have a couple of years of work on legislation and diplomacy before we could undo the damage the GOP has already done (and Donnie helped!), post-Obama.

Improv – Eccentricity

By now, whatever further extremes the Right goes to, those actions will only inflame the backlash of people who didn’t see this reactionary wave coming—and are watching government implode almost daily. Did you hear the departure of the last few people, last week, wiped out the larger White House Office of Science and Technology Policy? You can ignore Science, if it means so much to you—but turning our backs on Science is extremely dangerous—as dangerous as putting its detractors in charge (a pretty ignorant act in itself).

 

We know how scary technology can be—with serious people making the decisions. It gets a lot scarier when things like quality-control become a matter of alternative facts. Humanity has raised a mighty pyramid of technological connections—it is awesome in its complexity, its interdependence—every cog matching every tooth in in every gear, round and round, humming without a break—like a heartbeat from the world. We are letting childish people tear out pieces, clog up chain-links, and throw big, fat monkey-wrenches into this global clockwork.

Freedom of Speech may allow people to bad-mouth Science—and hard-case Ministers may encourage that—but anyone who wants to turn their back on our technology is threatening your life and everything in it. We take our developed-country lives for granted—they only exist courtesy of a gigantic legacy that started with Fulton and Edison—and continues with Jobs and Musk, etc. Trucks, Trains, Ships, Air Freight—spiderwebs of businesses—blizzards of paperwork—from international trade agreements to the economics of your corner deli—and that’s just for all the food and drink. Denying Science is the most retrograde opinion a person could hold—it’s like intellectual suicide.

Knowledge is Three-Dimensional   (2017Mar13)

rodinevilspirits

Monday, March 13, 2017                                        11:16 AM

Cheese und crackers, can I write a suicidally depressing blog-post. But never fear, dear reader, I wouldn’t ask you to read that last one—not everything I write deserves posting. Let me try again—let’s see if I can be a little less direct, a little less my quintessential self.

Weather? Well, it’s cold as a witch’s tit, and weather is the death of conversation, so no joy there. Politics? Please, don’t get me started—neither one of us will enjoy that. The day of the week? Do you really want another smug joke about the Monday blues, the Monday blahs, the…oh, forget it.

I put myself back on anti-depressants yesterday—but I messed up and just took a full dose—you’re supposed to ramp up slowly, but you know how my memory doesn’t work. I spent the whole night in the crapper and my tummy still hurts. But, rocky start notwithstanding, I’m now safely back inside the drug bubble—protected from the flashes of rage and frustration, the obsessive behavior, the sleepless nights.

It’s always struck me as funny that the one thing anti-depressants can’t cure is depression. I’ve never stopped being depressed on these things, have you? No, anti-depressants modify your chemical response to depression—they don’t change the thoughts in your head—just the way that your body reacts to them.

Young people don’t usually make much of the connection between their feelings and the effects of those feelings on the body—or the effect of the body’s health on their feelings. Maybe that’s because the hormonal turbulences of young people easily overshadow that resonance—maybe that’s why I’m just starting to notice it, now that my hormones have gone ‘deep background’. For all we know, young people feel the oncoming rainstorm in their joints, too—but their hormones are shouting so loudly they can’t hear it.

I’m reading a story that posits the existence of ancient civilizations with technologies we’ve never learned. I thought about it. When the discovery was made, about electro-magnetic inductance and about EM radiation having a spectrum, from microwaves to radio waves to visible light to infra-red heat, et al., we shouted ‘Eureka!’ and decided that we had plumbed the mysteries of electricity. But what if there’s more to it—what if we ran with EM radiation, and in doing so ignored another basic principle of electricity that goes unknown and unnoticed today?

It’s a valid question: how much of our science is the development of physical concepts we discovered, or figured out, and excited us enough to overlook some other basic concept? What if our standard idea of EM radiation, as perpendicular waves of electricity and magnetism, is actually missing another pair that fit in diagonally—say, unicorn power and ESP, or something? After all, dark matter and dark energy are references to things that we can’t see or sense, thing we can only deduce through corollaries—is it any less likely that there are a few phenomena in physics that we can see, but have not yet deduced the meaning of?

If you’d asked me about this question a few years ago, I’d have been dismissive—but my opinion of human intelligence has taken a nose-dive of late and now, if there’s a question of ‘can we be that blind?’, I’m leaning always towards ‘yes’.

And, really, could electricity be more mysterious? Even after we figured out the basics—the Edison stuff—we still had waiting to be discovered: resistors (materials which change in a current), super-conductors (materials which transfer current without any loss of strength due to resistance), and solar panels (materials which convert sunlight into current). Think about it—Edison invented the electric lightbulb prior to our discovery that light itself was electricity (well, electromagnetic radiation at a certain frequency, if you insist on being technical).

Some discoveries, in short, are brand new ideas no one ever conceived of or guessed at—but some discoveries are of a deeper understanding of the already known. Galileo built the first telescope—but Newton was the first to figure out the optics of it—to explain why a telescope works. In reaching that deeper understanding, Newton was also inspired to invent the reflecting telescope—a smaller but more efficient use of magnification optics than the straight spyglass type.

In summary, there is always more to learn, to discover—but there’s always more to learn about what we already know, as well. Knowledge is three-dimensional.

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Not Flat—But Maybe Our Brains Are   (2017Feb25)

 

Saturday, February 25, 2017                                             7:34 PM

20160107XD-NASA-MagneticReconnectionIt should be no surprise that the era of Trump has brought back a resurgence of Flat-Earthers—in the quest for distraction and chaos, no idea is too ludicrous. (And if Trump didn’t generate three scandals per day, our gaze might linger on one of his fouler failings.) Believing that the Earth is flat is kind of like a religious thing—it didn’t exist for the ancient Greeks, who knew better, and it doesn’t exist today, among most developed nations’ peoples.

The surface of the Earth is observably curved. If you watch a sailboat pass below the horizon, the boat disappears first—the masts remain visible for longer—this is not something that happens on a flat surface. If you send a perfectly horizontal laser-beam across the desert floor, someone a quarter of a mile away would have to hold a piece of paper ten feet over their heads to catch the beam’s reflection—that’s because the light is a straight line—the Earth’s surface is not.

The ancient Greeks did not need to see Earth from space to know that it was round—it is perfectly plain to see, from several simple exercises like those just described—not to mention the Moon—also visibly, patently spherical, is hanging in the sky half the nights.

But beyond this—we also have proof that Earth is not only round—but spinning like nobody’s business—the Coriolis force is what causes Foucault’s Pendulum to work the way it does (and why the water spins in a flushing toilet—clockwise here, and counter-clockwise in Australia. Without the Coriolis Effect, water would simply fall down a drain, not spin around it).

And there’s the question of why nights are longer at the poles—why we have seasons in the temperate zones—and why it’s so hot near the Equator. Ultimately, one has to stay indoors, both physically and mentally, to maintain a belief in anything so easily disproved as a flat Earth. I find that those who insist on a Flat Earth are not merely stating that single mis-fact—they are attempting to delegitimize Facts themselves.

In effect, it is a declaration that a person has the right to dismiss reality, for no reason at all—and that is the case—but the result, in a perfect world, would be a diagnosis of insanity, not a debate with serious people. In my youth, a person purporting the flat Earth theory would be told to sit down and shut up—we were busy going to the Moon back then, and had little patience with willful ignorance.

Now it is all the rage—getting someone to say something wildly stupid is irresistible click-bait to the so-called journalists of mass media—a Flat-Earther is money in the bank to them, regardless of how low it puts the bar of public discourse, or eats away at the fabric of modern society. And here is where we find the connection between the rise of Trump and the sudden resurgence of Flat-Earthers in the media. They both substitute attention-getting for intelligence-gathering. They are both subtle attacks on our way of life—perhaps too subtle for us to defend against. What do you think?

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Aspera Ad Astra   (2017Feb23)

Thursday, February 23, 2017                                           8:26 AM

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The discovery of seven earth-sized planets orbiting a dwarf star, Trappist-1, makes me wonder how big the ‘goldilocks’-zone is, when talking of a star that isn’t much bigger than Jupiter—and if the orbits of all seven planets could all fit in that little slice of space. Being the same size as Earth means the gravity would be the same—but without placement in the ‘goldilocks’-zone, a planet will be too cold or too hot to live on.

I’m so used to thinking in terms of science fiction that it’s hard for me to get excited about seven planets orbiting a dwarf star forty light-years from Earth. But even from a non-fiction point of view—forty light-years is a ‘fer piece’.

Do the math: one light-year equals 5.8 trillion miles (that’s 10 to the twelfth, for those of you playing at home). Here—we’ll do it the kids’ way: 5,800,000,000,000 miles. That is a very long walk. If we traveled at 1,000 mph, it would take about 6,600 years to travel one light-year. If we traveled at 10,000 mph, it would still take over 660 years to travel one light-year. Thus, in practical terms, a light-year is a distance that a person has never traveled—and has no way of traveling, at present, within a single lifetime. The new solar system that was just found—that’s forty-of-those-things distance from us—that’s just a ridiculous distance away.

Light-years, the unit of distance, was created by and for astronomers—it allows astronomers to discuss the relative distances of stars—but don’t let that fool you into thinking of light-years in terms of human travel—it’s not a human scale of distance.

Plus, if you want to fly through space at 10,000 mph for 660 years, you’re going to need a very big gas tank. Carl Sagan told us that we could avoid this problem by using a Bussard ramjet, a spaceship that collects hydrogen atoms as it moves forward—and uses fusion to propel itself. The Bussard ramjet would use the near-vacuum of space as its fuel—imagine!

But that still leaves you with the need for food, water, and breathable air for however many people for however many years—and even with great recycling tech, that’s a lot of supplies to push through space. And again—forty light-years—if we could travel one light-year, we’d still need to do it forty times to reach that dwarf star with its seven planets.

Also, once you arrive at the dwarf star, you are completely cut-off from Earth—and Earth from you. Forty light-years means that even a radio message would take forty years to go in one direction—which means, if you got on the phone, said ‘hi’, and waited for the other end to say ‘hi’ back—that’s eighty years.

If we ever send people out there, we won’t be ‘colonizing’, we’ll just be sending little samples of humanity out into the cosmos. Maybe their great-grandchildren will communicate with Earth, but never in a “Hi, How are ya” kind of way. Assuming they survived, they would become a totally separate civilization from our own.

And this is the sad truth—space exploration will not ‘save’ the Earth. Sending people to space, even into our local solar system, will help protect the human race from extinction—but it won’t do anything for the people that remain on Earth. And living in space will never be as safe and easy as living here, on the cradle of life.

There is enough raw material in the asteroid belts and the Oort cloud for us to build several ‘earths’—but we will never be able to move significant numbers of people up from Earth ‘s gravity well without a space elevator—and we still don’t have the technology to build one of those.

In summary, space exploration is not easy or simple. It will take more determination than the human race has shown itself capable of, to date, to get there in any meaningful way. People often theorize that an alien invasion would help to unify the human race—and, in the same vein, the destruction of our biosphere would help to motivate people into space. But why do we need a global disaster to get our asses in gear? Can’t we just be grown-ups? Let’s reach for the stars.

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Investing In Space   (2016Nov18)

20161118xd-astmining_04

Friday, November 18, 2016                                              1:46 PM

Analyze the situation mathematically—one planet, seven billion people. That’s not good—and there’s only one real solution. Before you get all contrary about that statement let me clarify that I am not suggesting moving ourselves and all our stuff up, out of the gravity well we all live at the bottom of. That’s impractical—and it’s not the argument I’m making.

The energy resources and the natural resources available to us at the bottom of our gravity well have been bounteous and convenient. They are far more convenient than the mechanics of humans in space—and we perceive that as a dividing line—but it is not. With robotics, we have explored much of the solar system—and robotic space exploration is still in its infancy, long-term—and robotic asteroid mining is still only in its planning stages.

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Robotic asteroid mining is therefore a volatile investment, to say the least. If we look at the beginnings of the electronic revolution, we see that many companies came and went—picking the right company would have been the wildest of crap-shoots. But investing in all of them would have meant having a stake in the beginnings of firms like Intel, Sun, IBM, Microsoft and Apple. And robotic asteroid mining will have the same volatility—but it will also end the same way—with a handful of those companies making the earlier investments in the old digital boom seem like small potatoes.

So nobody is getting rich on robotic asteroid mining today—but if you are looking for something that will allow your grandchildren to retire in luxury, one hundred years from now—that is where you put your money. There’s no question about it.

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Think of the vastness of space, of our solar system alone—instead of one planet, you have several. And you have those asteroid belts—basically planets’ worth of resources, pre-chewed for your convenience. They come in three popular flavors—mostly ice (meaning water), mostly metal, and the assortment-pack asteroids, which have a little bit of everything in them.

Transportation is the problem. It’s hard to bring anything up there—and it’s hard to bring anything back down. The mechanics of accessing things outside of our gravity well have been considered and summarized many times. It is often referred to as ‘bootstrapping’ humanity’s escape from Earth. It is a zero-sum game—if humanity establishes access to the resources of space, it will survive—if we use up the planet’s resources past the point where we can attempt this, we will be trapped on Earth forever.

20161118xd-astmining_03

Less visionary people will counter that we cannot waste so much of our resources on such an outlandish scheme. They ignore the fact that seven billion people will quickly become fourteen billion, and soon thereafter, twenty-eight billion. The math doesn’t work. The false economy of turning our backs on space merely extends humanity’s expiration by a few years—whereas access to the solar system extends it for the foreseeable far-future.

Notice that I’m not saying ‘the people of Earth’, I’m saying humanity. The people of Earth will over-populate it, they will make a desert of it, and they will die in droves, maybe even die out completely—that’s just math.

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I imagine you’re thinking of birth-control—why not have population control? Well, you can’t control population growth—ask the Chinese. Any void created by one group is filled by another—you may suppress foreign workers, or deny them human rights—but they are still mouths to feed and capable of breeding more of themselves. Only a global government could do the job—but an overcrowded planet with dwindling resources is not fertile ground for a global government, is it? Checkmate.

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I mean—you could destroy civilization, I guess. That would slaughter most of the people—especially in the developed countries. But people, like weeds, would just grow back—the harder those post-apocalyptic survivors worked to re-build society, the faster we would get right back to where we started. If it seems cold-blooded to destroy civilization, murdering billions—think how psychotic it would be to do all that, just for a ‘delay of game’.

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No, people can use tools and think critically—but in our biology we are still no different from fungus—if we run out of room to expand, we fill up the available space until we choke on our own waste. Yet, while the people of Earth face a dire future, humanity itself has an out.

First of all, we don’t need to send everything out of our gravity well—if we can establish a working asteroid-mining system, we can begin to process raw materials in space as well, and manufacture our needs without Earth. Bootstrapping would require a massive amount of Earth’s resources—but once a foot-hold has been established, space-dwellers will eventually free themselves from any needs formerly required from the surface-dwellers.

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The automation of factories and the use of robots create problems on Earth—they take jobs away from people. But in space, it is very convenient that we are just now beginning to produce robots with impressive ability. Anyone who goes to space will never do more than supervise the activities of the robots and automated facilities—and they don’t even need to be in space, necessarily, to do the supervising.

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The hardest thing about space is growing food there—but while that is difficult, it is not impossible. That too will have to be bootstrapped—biomes will have to be created using soil samples and such from Earth—but once begun, such biomes will be self-sustaining. And, while we could never send all the people into space—we don’t really need to. Just send a few—they’ll take it from there . (Just make sure you have a diverse genetic sampling.)

20161118xd-astmining_08

So, to re-cap, we can do little in space until we’ve developed a foothold, using robotics—and while we can’t send all the people to space, we can send their genome. Humanity saved. But we were speaking of investments in the future. What, you may ask, do I get out of saving humanity?

Here’s the part where luck has something to do with how this all plays out. I don’t know if you’ve heard—but scientists came up with a plan for free energy a long time ago. All you have to do is create solar panels in Earth orbit and transmit the energy to the surface as microwaves. No fuel required, no pollution emitted—unlimited free power. Why don’t we do that? We don’t do that because nobody wants a microwave-cannon with the power of the sun pointed at whatever part of Earth’s surface it happens to be pointed at.

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There are many things that science won’t do, or can’t do. If you remember, the space-shuttles always landed dead-stick (in the words of one of the pilots, ‘it flew like a brick’). If asteroid mining developed sufficiently, it could send raw materials back to earth—instead of mining for metal, we could have steel gliders in from space. Sounds crazy, I know—but it can be done.

One of the things science can’t do (right now, at least) is create a material strong enough to support Clarke’s space-elevator. But if we are lucky enough to find such materials and building techniques in the near future, we could create a conveyor belt capable of both sending things to space, and getting stuff back from space, without any great need for energy, or rockets, or rocket fuel.

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If we got lucky in that way, then the development of the solar system’s resources wouldn’t just save humanity, it would save the people of Earth as well. It would provide more resources than we could imagine, it would provide a cheap and easy way for people to leave Earth—or return. It would mean that the benefits of going to space would not be confined only to the people in space.

That would be great—a lucky break for everyone. But there is no guarantee that any of this will happen—there isn’t even any guarantee that we will begin to try to do any of this. The only guarantee is that, if we do it, it won’t be easy. My only purpose in writing this is to set the facts in evidence before you.

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Establishing a self-sustaining foothold in space is the big issue—everything else is a side-issue: wars, governments, even money are trivial things by comparison. It is human nature to expand—we can’t help ourselves. But we are trapped in a bottle right now, running out of room to grow—running out of materials, destroying environments. You may think of space exploration as childish—but I think of the short-sightedness of failing to go to space as even more childish. It is little different from hiding under the covers, hoping the boogeyman will go away.

In short, investing in space is a long shot, not to mention a really long-term investment that will require decades to make a return. But I believe that if we don’t develop space, no investment in anything has much of a future. So, in balance, it’s where the smart money will go. And remember—it’s not always necessary to be smart—sometimes you can simply listen to what the smart people say. And this is what they are saying, as far as I understand it.

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The Wizard   (2016Jun06)

Monday, June 06, 2016                                            6:13 PM

Walt Disney created the animated film “The Sword In The Stone”, based on part one of T. H. White’s classic, “The Once and Future King”—it is a well-known story of how young Arthur grew and learned from his tutor, Merlin. Aside from all the magic and wonder of the story, my young, book-worm self was jealous of the young king’s schooling. Not that I wished to study nature by being turned into a fish or a bird for an afternoon—though that was certainly cool—no, I wanted an old scholar to inundate me with arcane and disparate knowledge. I wanted to delve into gigantic, dusty tomes and perform burbling, sulfurous experiments with curlicued distillation-piping and whatnot. I wanted to learn the proverbial ‘everything’.

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There’s a reason why pre-digital civilization impressed on youth the value of a ‘liberal arts’ education. Metaphors, analogues, and cross-references form a large part of our intellectual development—learning about one thing teaches us about much more than that one thing. The reasoning went that a greatest possible multiplicity of things learned allowed the greatest possible number of avenues for reasoning and problem-solving. In modern terms, it created the most complex network within the brain.

Science of old, starting from way back, when it was still alchemy and ‘sorcery’, had an image problem—outright scientific study was a good way to get burnt at the stake or run out of town. Secrecy led to obscurity—and early scientists went to great lengths to complicate their elucidations, making them seem more impressive—and excluding those without the drive to wade through all the double-talk. You can still observe this behavior today, in the insider-speak of tech-geeks.

In addition, science could only cut across the Old World’s many cultural boundaries by using a lingua franca—or two, really—Latin and Ancient Greek. That is why the nomenclature for many scientific terms is derived from these dead languages—they were only ‘dead’ in the technical sense. The pope could issue a papal bull in Latin and send copies to every church in Western Europe and beyond.

Both the church and the early philosophers used these languages to provide a standard that crossed boundaries of local language—and originally, a Classical education was a literal term—students learned the classics, which meant learning the classic languages they were written in. You’ll tend to see a lot more Latin in the arts, and a lot more Greek in mathematics and the sciences—there are reasons for that which I won’t get into here.

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Digital enhancement of education techniques, job-market prep, and economic competition are all factors that tend to reduce the educational experience to a monaural playback, trimmed to its ‘essentials’. And that, of course, is when the educational system is functional to begin with. But education is the perfect example of something being more than the sum of its parts—and the more parts to an education, the greater the total sum.

Merlin wasn’t trying to teach Arthur to become a wizard—but he was trying his best to give the boy a wizard’s perspective—a knowledge of, if nothing else, the breadth of knowledge. He did this because he knew that a king could never be wise without some perspective. And if the history of technology has taught us anything, it is the importance of perspective—burning oil can be very useful, but burning too much oil is a problem; growing a lot of food can protect us from famine, but eating too much food can make us unhealthy.

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And now, as global warming re-shapes our coastlines and submerges islands, as low-earth orbit becomes a navigational hazard due to decades of space launches, and as YouTube makes it possible for terrorists to indoctrinate teens a half a world away, we need breadth of perspective like never before. STEM is a great initiative, but as our science progresses, we are more than ever dependent on our ability to extrapolate and explore the consequences of each new and changing aspect. Engineering new gadgets is just the starter pistol—what happens when the whole world gets a new ability, a new insight? Sometimes you get Angry Birds, sometimes you get ISIL online—sometimes both.

Narrowing our field of view to the mere engineering and manufacture of new tech, without the humanities, without history, without the insight of creative expression—that’s a recipe for disaster. Yes, keep STEM—it’s a great idea—but don’t stop there. The more advanced we get, the less we can afford the luxury of shortsightedness. People always want more tech, or more money, or more guns—but the smart people always want the same thing—we want more ‘More’ in our vision—because we know that that’s where all that other good stuff came from in the first place—and much more.

Balance is an unappreciated virtue—as an example, consider: we have made so much progress in digital programming that we are possibly on the cusp of creating a machine that can out-think us. Cool, right? But those with a broader perspective have pointed out that a machine that’s smarter than us just might be a risky proposition. Well, I don’t expect humanity will be overwhelmed with common sense overnight—so I guess we’re about to find out. Are you ready to meet the Wizard?

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The Weather—and Joseph Henry (2016May27)

Friday, May 27, 2016                                               9:21 AM

Yesterday was very warm—up in the eighties—and last night everyone turned on their air conditioning to go to bed (at least that’s how I figure it) and the power went out. Whatever the actual cause, though, we did have candles and cell phones from 9:30 PM until just before midnight. Once I got over being upset about it, I had a lovely time lying in the dark with the cross-breeze coming through the window—quiet, until the neighbors revved up their generators (I keep meaning to get us one).

There’s so little quiet in modern life—I miss it. That’s one of the great things about parks and trails and such—they don’t just preserve the wildlife, they preserve the quiet, too. Here on the Eastern Seaboard it’s become impossible to find total silence. My older brother moved to upstate New York for some years, back in the eighties—way out in the woods, far from any town—and a good ways from his nearest neighbors. But all he heard all summer long was chain-saws—and he was building a house himself, which was hardly silent. Even completely undeveloped places still have planes flying overhead or highways heard in the distance.

What is sometimes referred to as the Bos-Wash Megalopolis may not be the center of civilization, but it’s certainly in the top three concentrations of civilized development—and silence is not the only thing it has lost. It’s lost its darkness as well—New Yorkers who travel to the high desert out west, or down south to the Caribbean, will find themselves dazzled by the star-crowded sky enjoyed when the ambient city street-light isn’t washing out all but the brightest heavenly bodies.

Our water disappeared too—well, the clean water. It’s hard to imagine all the factory waste and sewage needed to make the Ohio River flammable—and even the mighty Hudson, despite Herculean efforts to clean it up, is hardly a crystal stream. Even the Great Lakes (and they don’t call them ‘great’ for nothing)—can you imagine how much crap we had to dump to pollute all five? It strains the imagination.

Diversity is another victim of civilization—this part of New York State once boasted bears, wolves, wildcats—and carrier pigeons so numerous as to block out the sun when a flock flew overhead. Not that I’d want to meet a bear or a pack of wolves in my front yard—but that’s what’s supposed to be here—that and so much more.

On the occasion of Joseph Henry’s death, he was memorialized at Princeton, where he had held a professorship prior to heading up the Smithsonian Institution in DC. I provide a link to the full article, but I wanted to show you some of my favorite quotes from this eulogy for my favorite historical figure:

https://books.google.com/books?id=Dk4tAAAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA139&num=19&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Volume 21

‘Memorial Discourse by Rev. Samuel B. Dod–delivered in the College Chapel, Princeton’

‘As a student of science he was ardent and enthusiastic in his love for the chosen pursuit of his life. He did not dally with it as a pastime, nor prosecute it with the greed of gain, nor pursue it with the ambition of making himself famous among men.’

‘He was characterized by great reverence in the pursuit of truth. Singularly modest as to his own powers and attainments, he never suffered the advancement of his own opinions to warp his judgment or govern his investigations; he held the progress of truth dearer than the success of a theory. And nothing moved his gentle nature to greater indignation than the pretensions of the charlatan or bigot in science.’

‘He says, when put on trial for his character as a man of science and a man of honor, “My life has been principally devoted to science and my investigations in different branches of physics have given me some reputation in the line of original discovery. I have sought however no patent for inventions and solicited no remuneration for my labors, but have freely given their results to the world; expecting only in return to enjoy the consciousness of having added by my investigations to the sum of human knowledge. The only reward I ever expected was the consciousness of advancing science, the pleasure of discovering new truths, and the scientfic reputation to which these labors would entitle me.” And verily I say unto you, he hath his reward.’

‘As an investigator, Professor Henry was characterized by great patience and thoroughness in his work of observation, and by broad, well-considered, and far-reaching generalizations. He distrusted the so-called “brilliant generalizations” with which those favor us who love speculation rather than study. He never took anything for granted, never despised the details of his work, but carefully established, step by step, those data on which he based his conclusions. In 1849 he says, “Since my removal to Princeton I have made several thousand original investigations on electricity, magnetism, and electro-magnetism, bearing on practical applications of electricity, brief minutes of which fill several hundred folio pages. They have cost me years of labor and much expense.”

A letter from Joseph Henry is appended by the Rev. Dod to this memorial discourse, in which Henry describes the outline of his work inventing the telegraph many years before Morse. Robert Morse, using tech developed for him by an associate of Henry’s, filed a patent for his ‘invention’, the telegraph—without having ever studied electricity. This is, to me, doubly devilish due to the prior instance, in which Michael Faraday and Henry discovered the principle of electro-magnetic induction almost simultaneously, with Henry, if anything, getting there first, but never given any share of credit.

Henry describes his legal fracas with Morse, explaining that he never wished to profit from his invention, and thus never applied for a patent, preferring to maintain the dignity of science. As he writes, “In this perhaps I was too fastidious.”—talk about an understatement. To end the discussion, he says, “To Mr. Morse however great credit is due for his alphabet, and for his great perseverance in bringing the telegraph into practical use.” To which we modern readers of this note may insert the implied ‘asshole’.

It is interesting to note in the story of early industrial-era science the concomitant birth of legal scrambles for credit which evolved into today’s battles over ownership of intellectual property. The Constitution mentions intellectual property in Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Then there was the Patent Act of 1790, followed by the Patent Act of 1793 (between which only 55 patents were granted). But by the Patent Act of 1836, 10,000 patents had been granted. The Patent Act of 1836 was remarkable in creating the first Patent Office. It is no accident that all this legal and legislative activity coincided with the development of steam power and electro-magnetic technology. New inventions have always been looked back upon fondly for their elevation of the human condition—but there wasn’t a one of them that wasn’t also an immediate cash cow—and thus a bone of contention as well.

That Henry failed to perceive this is an example of the old dichotomy—a man with exceptional scientific insight rarely displays the same insight into human nature. There can be little doubt that Henry was a good man—but he was at a loss in dealing with lesser men.

It always seemed to me that the human brain confronts each of its child owners at some point, asking them if they want to observe what’s really happen in the universe, or if they want to observe the ritualized dance of what society perceives as happening—you can’t have both. But maybe that’s just me.

When Asked About Quantum Mechanics (2016May16)

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May 16th, 2016

The simple answer is that quantum physics is newer, and therefore more advanced than what we call mechanical physics (or ‘regular’ physics). However, modern quantum mechanics, our present-day method of studying physics (nuclear, chemical, or astronomical) is so complex that its 1st quarter-century, from 1900-1925, is now referred to as ‘Old Quantum Theory’. In that first, primitive form, Niels Bohr and a bunch of other guys noticed that electrons orbit a nucleus at different levels—never in-between the levels. They called the ‘steps’ from one level to another ‘quanta’ (the plural of ‘quantum’, both from the Latin quantus ‎(“how much”).

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Actually, they used ‘quantum’ to refer to the miniscule amount of energy lost or gained when an electron moved from one orbit to another. They realized that quanta are limited—down at that level, energy doesn’t slide smoothly up and down a scale, but jumps from one quantum level to another. And this is just one of the ways in which very-small-scale (or nuclear) physics differ from what we call macroscopic physics (like throwing a baseball or flying a plane).

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Another example is indeterminacy—usually referred to as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. What Heisenberg said was: you can’t see a thing without bouncing something off of it—usually a photon of light. But when things get very, very tiny you can’t bounce something off of it without moving it, or changing it somehow. So he concluded that you can’t look at something without changing the thing you’re looking at. It’s a great principle because it’s true of sub-atomic particles, but it’s also true of people—even of groups of people—if you watch them, they notice you’re watching them—and they change their behavior. But that’s not physics—it’s more like a coincidence.

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The biggest obstacle to understanding quantum mechanics is that it’s based on the idea that there are more dimensions than we know of, or are aware of—the usual three dimensions of Space, and the fourth dimension of Time. They theorize that there are many more dimensions—maybe eleven or twelve, nobody really knows yet. The dimensions we know of seem so basic, so much a part of reality, that’s it’s nearly impossible to imagine what a fifth or sixth dimension would do, or where it would go. But mathematics can let theoretical physicists play around with the idea and try to get something out of it that humans can understand, at least partly. Still, you can see why there aren’t a lot of theoretical physicists—it’s kind of a headache.

Fermi's Motion Produces a Study in Spirograph

Also, Multiple Dimensions pose the same problem as Dark Matter or Dark Energy—we only have so much empirical evidence to work with—the rest is all theories—and those theories, being about things we don’t see, or can’t comprehend, make it hard to come up with real-world experiments that could prove the theories.

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To prove the existence of the Higgs boson (the ‘God’ particle) CERN had to build the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between Switzerland and France—it is a circular structure 17 miles in circumference. It took ten years to build it. Peter Higgs came up with the theory in 1964—but he didn’t win the Nobel Prize until 2013. There were several other scientists involved, but I don’t want to complicate this more than I have to. The famous Stephen Hawking experienced the same sort of thing—he theorized the Big Bang in his graduate thesis, and described theoretical properties of Black Holes—and had to wait many years before people stopped laughing at him and started respecting him for being right—just like Higgs.

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This is not the first time theory came long before experimental confirmation—when Einstein wanted to prove that gravity bent light, he devised an experiment that measured the apparent position of Mercury just before it passed behind the Sun. Because that light would have to pass by a big gravity-well like the Sun, the light gets bent and the apparent position of Mercury would differ from the known position of Mercury. The experiment had to be delayed because World War I U-boats made it impossible to go to the exact place on Earth where the observations had to be made—Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity wasn’t published until after the war, when the experiment could finally be done. And that was before Quantum Physics even came into the picture.

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So, if pressed, I would have to say that the main difference between Mechanical Physics and Quantum Physics is that Mechanical Physics is human-oriented—Newton based his Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation on careful observation—he described what he saw, and pointed out the mathematical relationships of physical phenomena, for instance, that gravity decreased in proportion to the square of the distance between two objects.

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Quantum Mechanics, on the other hand, is based on accepting that human limits are not the end of the story—that the universe is a strange place with more to it than we can see, or even imagine. It even opens up the possibility that a human brain may not ever be able to fully understand the universe—which makes Quantum Mechanics a glorious, even quixotic, quest for knowledge.

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Omniscience   (2016Jan07)

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Supermassive and Super-hungry Galactic Core Black Hole – NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

 

Thursday, January 07, 2016                                              10:49 AM

Think of existence as a river—think of the novas as upriver and the black holes as downstream—something explodes into our existence and, after a little while, something leaks back out of existence. We used to think of the cosmos as static—nowadays we think of the universe as a long, slow-motion explosion—but existence is neither so simple nor so unidirectional. We are told of matter and energy that are ‘black’, meaning that we can’t see anything there, but we know from its effect on what we can see that ‘something’ is there—albeit a something that can’t be seen or understood.

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Then there’s dimensionality—quantum physics indicates that there are as many as twelve different dimensions, give or take. We can see and understand the three dimensions of space—and if you add Time as the fourth, you get four easily understood dimensions to existence—so, in what direction do the other dimensions extend? Are we as ignorant of Nature’s true nature as a flatlander is of a sphere—but six or eight times more ignorant? This new Multiverse idea—is that like saying that our entire universe is like a point on a line—and that there are an infinite number of universes in both ‘directions’ along that dimensional line? Probability itself suggests that our universe is just a single roll of the dice—and that other universes exist where things went differently—a new universe for every atom that turns left instead of right, up instead of down.

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For all the incredible cleverness of advanced physics, all our scientific information seems to indicate that we don’t really know much—that we can’t really know much. Imagine that—science proving that science is virtually useless. Think of the technology—the smelting of alloys, the nuclear energy, electron microscopes, gene-splicing, robots on Mars, and laser spectrography—yet the ultimate message of all our research is that there is more to know than we could ever expect—that knowledge exceeds our senses, our intuition—even our imaginations.

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Strangely enough, this all still cuts both ways—we can view it as proof that there was never a God who created a flat Earth with a Sun and Moon moving across its sky—or we can view it as proof that only something unimaginably omniscient and omnipotent could create this puzzling universe. On the one hand, ‘excess’ dimensions are proof of the supernatural—there are things we can’t see. On the other hand, the ancient scriptures of the main religions show an ignorance that could only come from early humanity—with no sign of input from a creature that really knows the universe’s workings.

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Thus when evangelicals claim that the ways of God passeth all understanding—I can’t disagree—but when they claim that the Creator picked out individual humans to talk to, or had temper tantrums that resembled natural disasters—or my favorite—that humanity was created from whole cloth instead of evolving from bacteria along with the rest of biology—well, I see a lot more humanity in all of that than any hint of a Supreme Being. I find myself in the awkward position of finding the universe even more mysterious than the wildest zealot’s claims—but completely unable to accept the nonsense in our sacred texts dating from the pre-shoes era of human history. Show me a God who created the Higgs boson particle and I’ll go to church on Sundays—if you know what I mean.

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Children   (2015Dec28)

Monday, December 28, 2015                                           12:01 PM

I saw two thought-provoking items in the New York Times Art Section today. One was about laser-scanning ancient historical sites under threat from ISIL vandalizing—and the other was about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s return to movies after the birth of her son.

I love the laser-scanning—once completed, a good laser-scan allows us to buy up some real estate down in Anaheim (next door to you-know-who) and recreate an entire site—right down to the texture of the stones—suitable for family visits or archaeological study. Indeed, we live in a world where, before long, even the reconstruction will be unnecessary—virtual-reality headgear will allow us to visit the site without leaving our homes. Meanwhile, science-denying thugs wandering the deserts of the Middle East can crack all the stones they want—was there ever such a display of ignorance?—destroying the remains of our past out of fundamentalist superstition. What children. Our only remaining threat would be Chinese-ISIL—people who could hack our digital heritage sites.

It is fitting that the season of Santa Claus would be a time for Jennifer Jason Leigh to start wishing for a role in a film her five-year-old could see. We parents are careful to keep our children from growth-stunting stuff like caffeine, alcohol, or cigarettes—and we do the same with perceptions. We feel (correctly, I think) that children’s minds cannot mature properly if certain memes are presented too early—vice, violence, betrayal, and despair can overtax a growing mind, killing its spirit before it has a chance to grow strong enough to handle adult issues.

Thus we raise our children in a fantasy world of happy endings, magic, and limited evil—we lie to them about Santa Claus for their own good—even though we must be revealed as liars, in time. Movie stars like Jennifer Jason Leigh act in challenging roles that suit their young ambitions—but when they become parents, they invariably start to think about roles in family-friendly fare—they become Santa Claus actors. Are they surprised, I wonder, when they discover that it is just as difficult to act out fantasy as reality? Ask a children’s-book author—it is as hard to write an engaging children’s story with limited vocabulary, devoid of adult issues, as it is to write adult literature full of big words and complex problems.

And if it is truly necessary to raise our children in a bubble of innocence, why have we never addressed this scientifically? Scientists might be able to determine the exact age at which children are best told that Santa Claus is a fiction—instead of having those uncomfortable confrontations between kids whose parents let the cat out of the bag—and kids whose parents want to hang onto innocence awhile longer. It is one of those ‘givens’ that we recognize, but never study outright. Doctors and nutritionists give careful study to which foods are appropriate for growing infants—when to start on solid foods, etc.—but we leave the decision about emotional maturity to the MPAA, which determines how old you have to be to watch each film being released—and the MPAA, trust me, is not a scientific institution with our children’s mental health as their primary concern.

Of course, even if we studied this issue, there would be parents who would take exception for their kids—as some of them do now, with polio shots and other school-mandated vaccines. Ignorance is an important part of childhood—and we parents sometimes want to prolong their ignorance—yet no parent would admit that they want their children to grow up to be ignorant adults. Even though reproduction is the cardinal activity of living beings, we still have debates over whether we should enlighten our children with sex education classes. That attitude seems more for the parents than for the kids—wishful thinking that our kids won’t have sex. Some school systems even have so-called sex-ed classes that supply misinformation and focus on abstention, rather than giving kids the information they need to avoid early pregnancy or STDs.

We even lie to teenagers—take any class in business administration and show me the chapter that deals with bribes, protection, or corruption—unavoidable factors in real-world business that we nevertheless overlook when we study the subject. Criminality is like an unrecognized sovereignty—it doesn’t officially exist, but any real-world activity must take it into account. This accounts for the phenomenon of college-graduates who don’t know a damned thing about real life—for all the debt being incurred, that seems kind of wasteful.

Eventually, we must admit that the lying never ends—even adults can be grouped into levels of greater or lesser reality-facing. There’s a group that believes in the efficacy of group prayer. There’s a group that believes America is great because it is rich and powerful—and never asks how it got that way, or how it stays that way. People can be categorized by how much childhood innocence and ignorance they retain, and how much, and what kinds, of reality they embrace. We live in a world where, no matter how true something is, there’s a group of people that don’t believe it—and, conversely, no matter how silly something is, there’s a group of people that do believe it.

As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We have difficulty living in the present. We have difficulty accepting hard truths. Outside of the infinity of truths even a scientist cannot know, there is a further infinity of truths we refuse to acknowledge—it is troubling for me, a seeker of truths, to accept that for many people the avoidance of truth is a valid pursuit. Long ago, in my youth, I used to see religion as the prime avoidance technique—but now that mass media has come into its own, I see that misinformation has no limits. Some people are so insistent on falsehood that they can contradict themselves without embarrassment—or deny that they said something, moments after they said it.

It is fitting, I suppose, in this age when knowledge is exploding in every direction, that misinformation should explode as well—but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Time Passes Slowly   (2015Nov15)

Sunday, November 15, 2015                                            12:12 PM

“Time Passes Slowly” was one of my favorite Judy Collins songs when I was a teenager—I only wish I could still sense that stillness of time. Here in my aged future, time passes far too quickly—and with less happening in it, to boot. At the moment, it seems last spring was only a few weeks back, that last summer was yesterday, that Halloween came and went while I was glancing at something else—and Thanksgiving is only seconds away, to be followed an hour later by Christmas. That’s what being old feels like (in between the groans and the wheezing, of course) a maelstrom of time that gives not a moment’s rest.

As promised, I purchased Amazon’s only listed biography of Joseph Henry, the American discoverer of electromagnetic induction (Michael Faraday is given the historical credit, in the cliff-notes version). If you remember, I wanted to discover why his name is so unknown today, when he was so revered by scientists for over a century. While that project is still under weigh, I have come up with one thought to share.

Joseph Henry was born in 1797—George Washington was still alive. Henry lived in Albany, New York—recently made the new capital city of New York State. Sloops made regular trips up and down the Hudson River to New York City though by 1807, Fulton’s “Clermont” was steaming over the same route—to be followed by numerous other steam-powered vessels throughout Henry’s youth. As a young teacher-to-be, he made a trip down to West Point to attend a teacher’s conference and learned there of a new invention for the classroom—a black board, which could be written on with chalk, then wiped down and used again—it was a breakthrough in classroom demonstration—the i-pad of its day, if you will.

Henry would continue his experiments with magnetism while teaching Chemistry—Physics would not be recognized as a separate study for some time. And native Americans still lived in the Albany area when he was young—many pioneers passed through Albany on their way west—the North American interior was still very much a separate world. Both the United States and science would grow, slowly but surely, over the years.

It occurred to me that science progresses quite slowly. Euclid’s geometry was written down in the third century BC. Alchemists would work with metalworking, refining, colored dyes, pigments, and other useful materials for centuries, providing the foundation for the Chemistry to come, while being hunted as Satanists. Medical science and astronomy would work through similar resistance from religious institutions to reach understandings of basic human anatomy or the course of the planets through the heavens. Men like Ben Franklin, Alessandro Volta, and Luigi Galvani would spend lifetimes studying electricity without even connecting it with magnetism.

Likewise, it would be almost a century before Henry’s own discovery of induction would produce practical devices such as Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone, or Edison’s dynamo. All of science and technology would crawl along, taking years, or even centuries, to take a single step.

But here’s the thing—as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, I was taught all of these wonders in the space of a handful of semesters. They were not presented as a ‘story of us’—rather as a mere list of rules and functions. It would take me years more to discover the story of humankind implied behind the bare bones of chemistry, calculus, and physics as taught in school.

As I read history, I learned of the life stories of these men and women, of how they lived and died, of the cultures they inhabited while ferreting out these secrets of the universe. I saw the steps taken, one person standing on the shoulders of all who came before—and becoming a foundation for those who would come after. I imagined the changing lives of people who went from caves to indoor plumbing, from horses to steam engines, from papyrus to Gutenberg’s printing-press, from leeches to open-heart surgery.

But I also realized that these giants of human knowledge were all geniuses of some degree—that the principles, the formulas, the mathematics that make up the education of modern children take time to teach because they are all gems of perfect understanding, insights that only our greatest minds could reveal. Their greatness is obvious in the sheer effort required by mortal minds such as my own to grasp what they saw—what they had the genius to recognize and to communicate to the rest of the world (no small feat of its own).

So, yes, it takes time to acquire a good education—because we are climbing on the shoulders of a crowd of intellectual giants. Even so, we are only learning the barest highlights of what they did—without even the names of the people who mined this treasure, much less their stories, or the story of how this knowledge percolated through civilization to yield the wonders of our modern age—no wonder children ask why they need to know these things—they are never told of the richness of humanity’s struggle to wrest understanding from an opaque existence. It’s as if we are loading their knapsacks with gold bars—and never telling them of its value.

So, to begin with, the story of Joseph Henry’s invisibility is the same as the story of the death of a liberal arts education—many people don’t appreciate the context of information as being of equal value to the information itself. We used to teach scholars ancient Greek and Latin—dead languages with no apparent face-value—but when using these old terms, by knowing their origins, we are reminded that some things are as old as ancient Athens or Rome, and that the people of that time were no different from ourselves. Context is its own wisdom—its own information.

Now we are inclined to pare down education even further, by renouncing the creative arts—a sure sign that we don’t appreciate the connection between music and mathematics, painting and chemistry, or dance and physics. We are educating ourselves as if we are machines being prepared to be slotted into a job after our training is over—not as if we want to raise humans with hearts and minds that find fulfilment and wonder in the world around them. Context is everything. I will continue reading Joseph Henry’s biography and I’ll keep you all informed of what I find.

Had a windy day yesterday:

Stupid by Crazy (2015Aug08)

Friday, August 07, 2015                                           9:48 AM

An Off Day   (2015Aug07)

Yesterday, after I’d upgraded to Windows 10, I restarted my PC. Upon re-booting, it asked my for my MS account login. Had I not been able to, miraculously, dredge my password up from my foggy memory, my computer would have become a worthless chunk of chips and wires right then and there. Then the router started acting up—my son fixed it by plugging my PC directly into the cable modem, but now he and my wife have no WyFy access! Is it a coincidence that our router failed right when I upgraded to Windows 10? I’ll let you know after he’s bought and installed a new router. [Note from the following Saturday: Booboo installed the new router and all’s well.]

Operating System upgrades for Windows actually go back to DOS versions—before Windows, we had several versions of DOS. Sometimes a new OS would re-format the hard drive, erasing all the files. It always required changes to the software and the hardware-drivers—meaning that the new OS was useless until all the upgraded versions of the programs were installed. And OS upgrades had their share of bugs, too. After forty years of this, I am understandably leery of OS upgrades.

In the earlier days, a new OS would give noticeably faster response time, notably better user-friendliness, and noticeably more-reliable overall performance. As we’ve become more sophisticated, the changes are harder to pin down. And as OSes became more concerned with online connectivity, the changes have become blurred by differences in bandwidth, signal strength, and traffic density.

We see OS changes that benefit the computer industry more than the individual users—like adding the ‘Store’ option to our media-player apps. And we see an unhealthy focus on phones—as if having a desk to sit at is a bad idea—not that I’m against i-phones, PDAs, etc., but all that curries to the trend in making computing a superficial, convenience-based behavior, rather than an activity we use for specific purposes. It is glamour (and distraction) over substance.

But I’m mostly just grouchy because I’m having an off day—I suppose it’s to be expected after my recent run of very active, mostly successful days. Nothing is as reliable in life as ups and downs. I used to marvel at how the blackest prospects could turn around in a day, or how giddy climbing could suddenly come crashing down—now I just take it for granted. The miracle would be if change ceased and all days were uniform.

Today, I couldn’t play the piano worth a damn—relatively speaking. And I can’t get settled. And I can’t eat. And I went for my walk but I didn’t like it. Fuck this.

 

 

 

Saturday, August 08, 2015                                                11:53 AM

Stupid by Crazy   (2015Aug08)

Stupid by itself is not a problem. Ignorance is nothing but a blank space where information might be, but isn’t. Kitties are stupid—puppies are stupid—babies are stupid—ain’t nothing wrong with stupid. Crazy by itself I have no problem with. I’m a little crazy myself—there’s nothing wrong with a little crazy—sometimes it even helps. But when you take Stupid and lead it around by Crazy—then you’ve got trouble.

That’s why we need to get a handle on religion. That’s why we need to get together on the history of religion. Anyone can know about it—Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” gives a dense (and somewhat boring) outline of how beliefs and rituals evolved over time—how no religion sprang from nowhere, how they’re all related and they all evolved over the ages as a continuum of human nature.

Further, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the library at Nag Hammadi give us insight into the early days of Christianity—when many different people had many different ideas about who Christ was, how He lived and died (and lived?) and what His message was. We have the record of the four Councils of Nîmes from the early first millennium, delineating the church rules that men ultimately formed based on their understanding at the time. And we have the history of the Papal Wars, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment to further show that religion is not set in stone—and never has been.

Then there’s the cognitive dissonances of religion. Ancient texts show none of the  knowledge of astrophysics or astronomy that one would expect in a creator of the universe—they indicate only the ignorance of pre-science humans. Religions have differences based on geographical limits—where one might expect a supreme being to speak to all humans as one, all over the world. I could go on, but religion itself is a process of having faith without proof—it’s as hard to argue with that kind of idea as it is to argue with an idiot.

Yet I believe religion has a place in our lives. It enhances community, it provides purpose and meaning in a world that lacks both, and it is especially important for children to have some framework to overlay the cold-blooded chaos of the godless universe. But we must forever relegate religion to a ‘Santa Claus’-like status, wherein it is given no domain over the decisions of adults, particularly our leaders. It is used now to promote and perpetuate fear, conflict, and abnormal psychology—we must remove that absolutism from our society if we are ever to stop bigotry, misogyny, and charismatic megalomania.

We in America see the rise of wireless communication begin to transform our leaders into followers—the instantaneous response of large numbers of the electorate leads to knee-jerk reactions on the part of our politicians. They no longer sit and contemplate the future well-being of their constituencies—they’re too busy responding to tweets about what happened two minutes ago. I’d like to see a politician or two stand up to a podium and say that they are atheists—that they don’t represent modern mythology any more than they represent the ancient Greek pantheon of gods.

What I’d really like to see is all the big businesses lose the support of all that evangelical hogwash they use to befog issues that should be determined purely on human rights, without any hocus-pocus. I’d like to see leaders with the guts to stand up to the universe without imagining a ‘Blue Fairy’ god at their backs, protecting them with magic, promising them an afterlife in heaven (or hell) or giving them permission to judge harshly those who are different.

The Fundamental Truth   (2015Jul30)

Thursday, July 30, 2015                                           12:00 PM

I wasn’t always an atheist. I used to have the fervor of a potential priest—I’ve always taken life far more seriously than is good for me. I’m not very different—I get mad when I see bullying, I feel bad when someone else is hurting, I try not to be selfish—basic stuff.

Fundamentalists made me just as irritable then as they do now. Even as a child I could see the willfulness of it—trying to insist on certain magical things being literal without the need for any questions—or even the right to ask a question at all. That is so obviously the behavior of someone trying to be a bully—to strengthen their autocratic hand.

True religion is little different from true humanism—simplicity of purpose and purity of intention. If I were a religious leader today, I’d be declaring war on the fundamentalists, the creationists, the science-deniers, and the anti-evolutionists—these people seek to make a circus sideshow of a community’s core. Why does fundamentalism grow in a time of hyper-capitalism? Because they both work on the same properties—lust for personal power, increasing the client-base, and destroying the competition.

And fundamentalism suits the capitalist mind-set because they both pose a threat to humanism and true religion. The values of humans—security, safety, self-determination, and self-expression—have no place in either capitalism or fundamentalism. In fact, all those things (with the exception of self-determination) become marketable commodities under capitalism. Fundamentalism adds spice to self-expression by making parts of it ‘forbidden’ or immoral—making it more marketable—while offering imaginary safety and security that have nothing to do with the real thing.

Fundamentalism comes on strong right when capitalism needed it—until we began questioning simple statements of fact, business leaders were helpless in the face of scientific testimony. In the space age, only an idiot would question an accepted tenet of the scientific community—now, we do it all the time. And it’s no coincidence that petroleum magnates, like the Koch brothers, so willingly embrace the madness of fundamentalism—it is of a piece with their willingness to befoul the planet for profit. And they can only do this if they maintain that all the scientists are wrong.

Capitalism has jumped into the ‘fact’ fight with both feet. They regularly invest in laboratory studies that are intended to produce foregone conclusions to counter the real science being done elsewhere. How sick is that? And, of course, they have their legal cat-and-mouse game of hiding information under the guise of ‘intellectual property’—a very fancy way of saying ‘I ain’t tellin’. But the link to fundamentalism is the most cold-blooded aspect of modern capitalism—they are not satisfied with despoiling the planet and enslaving the 99%—they have to mess with our heads, too. Bastards.

In Geeks We Trust   (2015Jul19)

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Sunday, July 19, 2015                                              6:06 PM

Some people get whiny when their cell-phone service isn’t perfect. It’s a mistake to take instantaneous light-speed communication with anyone else on the face of the Earth for granted. For thousands of years of civilization, no one could speak to anyone who wasn’t within shouting distance. And that’s still true whenever there’s a power outage, a natural disaster, or if you travel too far from where people make money.

The electromagnetic umbrella of cell-phone coverage does not blanket the Earth. It doesn’t even blanket where all the people are. It only covers where there are people making and spending money. Some people purposely vacation where there is no cell-phone coverage, to hide from people who abuse the privilege—but those people are usually involved in over-intruding on others, when they’re not on vacation, so most of us aren’t driven to such an extreme.

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When we lose cell-phone service because of a storm, we don’t think of it as a deadly threat—we wait for someone to fix it. But if it didn’t get fixed, we’d be in a bit of a mess. The further we travel down the road to wireless everything, the more resounding the thud when Mother Nature or some other cause brings down the network. When we began using computers in our office, back in the seventies, we kept paper back-up records of everything. The computers broke down sometimes, and we had to be able to go back to the old paper records to continue doing business.

After a while, we stopped doing that. Not only were the records a huge storage problem, but the volume of transactions we were doing on a daily basis had grown far beyond what could be done by hand in the same amount of time. We were doing business faster using computers than we could have physically done by hand on paper. Suddenly, our digital back-ups became important—even vital. Hard drives can die—and without a digital back-up to restore from, an entire business can disappear—all the records of sales, bills, and payments gone—poof.

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Now we’ve invested in digital to the point where even an individual can find themselves in big trouble through the sudden loss of a cell-phone. To a large degree, they’ve replaced wallets, address books, calendars—they’re even starting to replace credit cards recently. We don’t just talk on them, we exchange memos, agenda, travel info, we have meetings with small groups, we get directions, we store passwords and account info. Pretty much anything that used to involve a piece of paper or the use of a reference book or map or required memorization—it’s all been digitized down into that one little gadget.

Back-ups became as important a part of our personal lives as our businesses—enter the ‘cloud’. A cloud is a place where you rely on someone else to make reliable back-ups of your stuff. If you lose your phone, you can get a new phone and replace everything from your cloud. Clouds are billed as ‘conveniences’, but this belies the enormous trust and reliability implicit in (1) trusting someone with all your personal info and (2) relying on them to do a better job of keeping your data safe than you could do yourself.

For most people this is natural—they don’t know from back-ups and would have, in the past, simply accepted the fact that they lost all their data whenever they lost their phone. But my background goes back far enough that I still talk about ‘computers’—I’m old school. I spent most of those old days worrying over my own back-ups, in the office and at home. My home PC is fully backed up, in duplicate, on CDs (for the older files) and external hard drives (a more recent, easier and cheaper alternative due to the plummeting cost of digital media storage).

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But even for me, the cloud offers something important. One rule of safe back-ups is to always have one copy off-site. A cloud allows me to have another copy of all my personal data files in a place other than my house—in case it burns down or something. For now, I’m not doing this—clouds are expensive and new, which makes them unreliable. And this idea that new technology guarantees trust is ridiculous—I’m never getting behind the wheel of a vehicle that can be hacked—that’s insane. And I’m never going to trust my data to a cloud until clouds have some kind of industry oversight or government regulation. If information is the new currency, then where’s the Federal Reserve Board for my personal data?

I don’t want to get all survivalist about it—but those people are correct when they point out the fragility of our existing infrastructure. The more complex the system, the more vulnerable it becomes. Our digital technology gives us great speed and convenience, but our trust and reliance on its uninterrupted, secure continuance is based on wishful thinking rather than any proof that the digital industry has the gravitas of a life-supporting industry. They are more like kittens, easily distracted with a laser-pointer.

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Hacking can come from friend and foe alike. Parents can hack their kids. Kids can hack their schools. Government can hack us all. And black hats can hack the government. Businesses, without any actual hacking, can take your life story and sell it as demographic research to marketers and retailers. Online services can take tacit ownership of your intellectual property through draconian EULAs that users never even read before clicking ‘I Accept’. Banks and phone companies and credit cards can stick little charges in your bills, hoping that you won’t look close enough, or care enough, to complain. Insurance companies routinely refuse claims, or make you jump through an exhausting number of hoops, knowing that a certain percentage of people will just throw up their hands and walk away. We’ve been ‘hacking’ each other for long before computers got involved—they’ve just added another layer to the conundrum.

Yet we willingly place our trust in anything that’s got silicon chips inside. I can see where it got started. People used to have to trust nerds—we were the only ones who could tell you how to work a computer. But it’s not like that anymore—except in the basement of development labs working on new tech. Everywhere else in business and consumer electronics, the nerds are no longer in charge—or they own the company, which amounts to the same thing—a billionaire becomes a businessperson, nerd or not. Just ask Bill. And there is one thing we know for sure about business—it can’t be trusted with the public welfare.

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As digital becomes more important in our lives, we see many bad side-effects. We see poor driving—make that dangerous driving. We see a lack of social interaction and a rise in online addiction. We see misuse of mega-data collected for one purpose and used for a hundred others. We see online stalking, online bullying, and online terrorism. We see ubiquitous surveillance. We see the markets being manipulated by micro-traders. Drones and hackers range from the harmless to the bloodthirsty. What we don’t see is regulation and oversight.

I want to keep the Internet free and open to equal access—but that’s the only thing I want to see remain in its wild state. Everything else should be managed and regulated with the same stringent requirements as money or medical records. I know that such an initiative would just draw all the lobbyists out of the woodwork, trying to tie us all into a tighter-still knot of commercial peonage, rather than acting as the civil service I’m suggesting. But there’s little enough accountability in business and government today—the digital industry should have at least a taste of it. After all, we aren’t that far from a day when we’ll all die without it—shouldn’t we take it a little seriously?

We can’t take a bottle of water onto a commercial airplane—but we can take a laptop, cell-phone, i-whatever—and we’re not all agreed yet on whether those things can crash the flight electronics of certain planes. Does that make any sense? Electromagnetism is invisible—we’re always tempted to think of it as harmless. We’re lucky there’s thunder—or we wouldn’t have the sense to fear the lightning.

CuriousOnes

The Singularity Series Does NOT Disappoint   (2015Jul05)

Sunday, July 05, 2015                  6:47 PM

[A review published yesterday on Amazon.com]

 “Avogadro Corp : The Singularity is Closer than it Appears version 2.0” (The Singularity Series: Book One)

“A. I. Apocalypse” (The Singularity Series: Book Two)

“The Last Firewall” (The Singularity Series: Book Three)

“The Turing Exception” (The Singularity Series: Book Four)

Publisher:         liquididea press, Portland, OR

Author:             William Hertling

Science fiction was once such a tiny pond compared with the oceans of it we have today. My favorite thing about that is finding a whole series by a new author—a good writer, and writing right down my demographic alley, as it were. Hard sci-fi, AI computers, space-flight, robots—I’m a sucker for all of it.

I enjoy how we can always have our eyes opened to something fantastic about our existing tech—some new bit of its history, some obscure phenomenon that we always noticed but never thought about—or just appreciating some small, cog-like component of the vast sprawl of global infrastructure that makes all the wheels go round. Then there’s an even greater enjoyment in the vicarious world of the future.

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The future gets closer all the time. People used to write sci-fi about a hundred years from now—now sci-fi writers can speculate about ten years from now—and come up with a lot more than ‘flying cars’. Which makes sense—we just had the centennial of powered flight, computers have turned fifty, wireless is still in its teens. Born in the 1950s, I just marvel constantly over the parabolic—no, logarithmic arc of tech development. One of my grandmas once reminisced to me about fetching water in a bucket. My son is an expert gamer of MMORPGs. It’s a strange world—and getting stranger, faster, all the time.

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I worked with programming and systems most of my career, so when sci-fi gained all of its ‘cyber’ themes, I was equally amazed by the good writers and amused by the genre-pulpers who were obviously better-versed in writing than in computer basics. Now that AI is getting its time to shine, as a fiction-writing premise, there’s a lot of lurid pulps out there, romanticizing the concept out of all believability. There are some who get it right and still tell a good story.

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But William Hertling has done something I like even better than that. He’s had fun with it—he’s brought humor to it—and that makes all the difference. Clearly, this is no comic romp—it’s a fast-paced action thriller from Book One right on through to the last chapter of Book Four. I just finished Book Four and I’m still high on Hertling. That was a great read.

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People talk about binge-watching TV—they don’t know. Bookworms have been shoving thousand-page gulps down their reddened eyeballs for a long time—there’s nothing like losing all the feeling in your extremities from standing still too long, almost passing out from the rush of finally standing up. I get so lost in the story that reality becomes annoying. Imagine the nerve—asking me to stop the universe so this stupid body can go relieve itself.

AI presents unmatched dramatic possibilities—the idea that we could make our machines so much smarter than ourselves that they would lose interest in us—or worse yet, seek to destroy us—is high drama already. Add to that the speed of microprocessors—the possibility that it could all happen in minutes or hours—and things get pretty tense.

So make sure you have nothing else planned before you dive into this wonderful series. Once you’ve finished (and caught your breath) head over to William Hertling’s website, where the links to articles pointing to the reality of much of his story will keep you sleepless for yet another night.

DARPA Robotics Challenge   (2015Jun05)

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Friday, June 05, 2015                                               3:20 PM

I’m watching large, humanoid robots walk up to doorways, use the door handle to open the door, and walk into the building. When one of the robots got the door open there was a camera shot from inside showing the robot framed in the doorway. I could imagine one at my door—it was a little intimidating.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge is an exciting event—robots are expected to drive cars (and get out of cars—a far greater challenge in some ways) then open doors, walk through rooms, turn a big cast-iron valve attached to a pipe, and other challenges. The teams are from all over—the USA, Germany, Japan, and others—mostly students, learning as they change the world as we know it.

In time, these robots may help disaster victims caught under rubble—or turn off reactors in radioactive rooms that no human could survive. Beyond these heroics, there are infinite possibilities. Robotic construction crews could potentially build an entire Martian base—ready for human occupation.

Robots for the rich could become ‘universal remotes’, capable of changing your channel, putting your feet up, and making you a snack in the kitchen. The most remarkable thing about today’s robots is that they have no wheels, no treads—no expectation of level or paved ground. They walk on four legs, on two legs, on little spikes that make them seem to be tiptoeing, and on cushioned pads that look suspiciously like a pair of sneaks.

The variety of approaches makes the DRC Finals a fascinating show—every teams’ robot has a different look—different armatures—different heads—it’s a circus freak show of mechanical geeks. That speaks to the pioneering aspect of robotics research—it’s still just getting started.

But that giant robot looming in the doorway brought a frightening thought to mind. We already have hackers who can wreak havoc on our on-line lives—what will we do when robo-hackers can send a pack of killer robots to any address? Gun control—phooey. A half-ton of robot can ruin your whole day—and who’s to say they can’t be fitted with their own armaments?

So, yes, be afraid—be very afraid. But the immense power and potential of robots will go forward—becoming faster, lighter, stronger, and more capable. The Internet has some unacknowledged problems with security—it’s so irresistibly useful we try very hard to ignore its vulnerabilities. Robotics will, I predict, go just as far before we start worrying about how much power it puts in the hands of not-nice people.

In a way, we have rid the world of dangerous, man-eating animals only to replace them with artificial creatures that could end up stalking us at the push of a button. But please note: I am filled with wonder by the dawning of the Internet—and I am no less excited about this new dawn of robotics. It’s people I’m afraid of.

Watch the DRC Finals LIVE at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv9Wm20UrcU&feature=youtu.be

Yesterday’s I-Phone   (2015May25)

Monday, May 25, 2015                                            2:56 PM

The rise of the digital age has many markers: the first PCs, the first off-the-shelf software suites, LANs, the Internet—but nothing singled out such a tectonic shift in society as the I-Phone. Hell, it even started a revolution in Egypt, not to mention the slew of new businesses, of whole new industries, it spawned.

In many ways, we can draw parallels in the rise of the Electric Age—it started with light-bulbs, phonographs, silent films, electromagnets, and dynamos—but nothing pulled the populace into the new age like the radio. Today, we view the radio as archaic and primitive. But it was really the first time that we used our burgeoning understanding of physics in a way which affected the whole population.

But what is radio? Pierre Gassendi proposed a theory of light as particles in the 1660s. Newton agreed with him. Robert Hooke proposed a “pulse theory” of light as waves in 1665. The argument over whether light was made of particles or waves would continue until the mid-19th century.

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In 1845, Michael Faraday discovered that light was related to electromagnetism. James Clerk Maxwell’s studies of electromagnetic radiation and light helped him conclude that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation and in 1873 he published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s theory by generating and detecting radio waves that behaved exactly like visible light, with properties like reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference. Maxwell’s theory and Hertz’s experiments led directly to the development of modern radio.

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Marconi

Marconi’s Law, concerning the relation between the transmission distance and the square of the height of an antenna, was tested in experiments made on Salisbury Plain in 1897. Guglielmo Marconi did pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission. His development of Marconi’s law and a radio telegraph system has him credited as the ‘inventor of radio’. He shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”. Braun also invented the first Cathode Ray Tube and the first Oscilloscope—but we are talking about the birth of radio, not television.

Einstein published his “Theory of General Relativity” in 1915, so we can see that ‘scientific’ progress has always been far ahead of commercial applications. But commercial applications are always the ‘stamp of approval’ that humanity gives to the occasional geek working in a back-room laboratory. For more than a century, great scientists had worked on these mysteries of physics while being dismissed as loonies by their more-practical peers. There’s a wonderful song by Gershwin, “They All Laughed”, which catalogs in its lyrics the many innovators who were laughed at until they literally changed the world. It includes the line: “They told Marconi wireless was a phony—it’s the same way now.” And boy, is that true.

Radio-telegraphy, i.e. early radio, had only maritime and military uses, the most notable being its use during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. But World War I ‘goosed’ the development of military-communications radio, and the first vacuum tubes were used in radio transmitters and receivers. Electronic amplification was key in changing radio from an experts-only practice into a home appliance.

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Commercial radio broadcasting began in the 1920s and exploded across American society, so that by the 1930s it had become ubiquitous–the first mass media, the first location-independent human interaction, and a characteristic that not only defined modern society, but had enormous power to change it.

Radio then spurred unstoppable growth in the new ‘broadcasting’ industry and the electric-manufacturing industry, which in turn gave rise to a variety of new entertainments—news broadcasts, radio serials, classical music for the masses—even an end-of-the-world, alien-invasion panic that swept the country on Halloween in 1938, following the infamous Orson Welles broadcast of a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. Seven years later, scientific research into the same physics of electromagnetism would lead to mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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It is strange beyond words how our understanding of electromagnetism has two lives—one of quiet, focused scientists working in anonymity, and the other a crazy story about what the mainstream of humanity does with specific applications that eventually catch our eye. And I think ‘crazy’ may be understating the case. Sometimes I think it might be better if we had mandatory inclusion in science—if the majority of humanity has no clue about the inner workings of our tools and machines, maybe we shouldn’t use them. Okay, idealism overload—never mind!

When television came along, in the 1950s, everyone imagined that it would supplant radio and the movies. Now, we can see that early TV, while wonderful, couldn’t quite replace the experience of a panoramic, full-color movie screen. Radio, too, had a quality that TV couldn’t quite replace—variety. The wealth of radio stations, and the diversity of radio programming, provided a wealth of audio-only entertainment that left radio in command of most of our attention, except for what came to be known as Prime Time, that work-is-done, after-dinner period when people naturally enjoyed a reason to sit around the family room and stare at the screen.

I can still remember when the time of day made a difference. At midnight, the TV stations would run the National Anthem and sign off “’til tomorrow” and if I woke up too early and switched on the TV, that test pattern would still be there, waiting for a decent hour before sending entertainment over the airwaves. Radio stations, too, designed their programming with the assumption that people slept at night—and that anyone in their broadcast range was in the same time zone. As the evening wore on, even in the 1960s, the number of entertainment options slowly dwindled down to zero.

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Also, radios had become a part of the automobile dashboard by the 1930s—something TV would never do, since driving requires one to look where they’re going. By the sixties, radio had been transistorized, as well, and tiny, hand-held radios were everywhere. I remember Jones Beach, on Long Island in summer, would be blanketed with sun-bathing families and friends—each with their own radio, but all tuned to Cousin Brucie—I could walk along the beach and hear “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…” from a hundred tiny speakers.

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By the 1970s, radio had matured from Amplitude Modulation (AM radio, with that annoying ‘carrier signal’ whine) to Frequency Modulation (FM radio, noiseless—and capable of stereo). Radio had finally equaled the sound fidelity of vinyl. TV wouldn’t match that sound quality until the 1980s, when retailers began to market ‘Entertainment Systems’ that re-routed the TV’s sound through multiple speakers using the Dolby system.

Even XM radio, which broadcasts not through the air, but over the Internet, has yet to overthrow broadcast radio, though it may be nearing that point, out of sheer market pressure—I don’t think anyone is building new radio transmitter stations anymore. But I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the original “Wireless”.

“Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair…”   (2015May17)

Sunday, May 17, 2015                                              12:19 PM

In the ancient long ago, the gods were a part of our confusion. Our behavior comprised of animalistic reactions to threat, urge, curiosity and temptation. Monotheism, by simplifying and idealizing godhood, helped to idealize humanity, in that one god forced the idea of one people, of humanity as a unit—rather than focusing on our pecking order, or who was friend or foe, we apprehended ourselves as humankind. Under self-absorbed, squabbling gods, Civilization was a disconnected collection of gadgets and power struggles. Only the dawn of Christianity made possible a vision of people as a collective, as an interdependent society.

As a longtime atheist, my focus has been on the history of religion and on the process of progressivism as it relates to freedom of religion. But as a lapsed Catholic I’ve always kept an eye out for any serious information about the supernatural—or anything that might replace the unifying validation of the human species which religion provides. Short of a religious experience, I hold little optimism for personal enlightenment. But I’ve never entirely surrendered the hope that rational analysis of the human condition may yield something of equal solace to religion.

I feel the same way about the supernatural that I feel about the creator—yes, they are undeniable—but, no, the things we think we know about them are old campfire stories, modified over the millennia. The truth of the supernatural or the creator is outside the ken of people. Let’s face it—people didn’t even realize the immense size of existence until ten or fifteen years ago, after they fixed the Hubble and started seeing the universe without an atmosphere in the way. We haven’t even learned the street names in our neighborhood yet—how can we be so smug as to think we understand the city planner?

But in the meantime, the problem for me has become: How do I rationalize my life—how do I explain why I care? To be crude about it: Why don’t I just kill myself? Up until recently, my only answer has been that life is a ride and there’s no sense in not enjoying it—there’s no guarantee that you’ll get anything more than the one. This is sufficient, but unsatisfying. It reduces life to a long, interactive action/comedy/romance/drama story with no real continuity or ultimate point, either to the story, or to participation in the first place.

Just now, however, it occurred to me that the core aspect of religion is the practical discovery of ourselves as a group. Animals act independently, individually, and their effects as a group are statistical, not intentional. Even herd animals act in concert through instinct—intention and awareness play no part in their tactics. People are no different—they act independently, randomly—until leadership enters the mind of one or more, and they begin to manipulate the group towards collective ends.

Ancient people could only form larger tribes and villages by using threats and rewards—leaders who found their practical control too limiting would add supernatural threats and rewards to enhance control. They would tie them in with campfire stories of creation, origins, ghosts and heroes—thus government-sanctioned religion was born.

Still, the individuals in these communities acted independently, taking into account the societal ‘sticks and carrots’, but leaving personal survival as the bottom line for individual behavior. Pharaoh Akhenaten took a stab at monotheism early on—after he died, not only was the old religion restored, but he was demonized in the recorded history of his successors. Jewish monotheism provides examples of both the enduring antipathy it generated in outsiders, and of the unshakeable strength of a community so tightly bound together by their beliefs.

Christianity is special because it was the first widely-popularized combination of the unifying strength of monotheism and the vision of the Golden Rule, or Love thy Neighbor, or whatever catch-phrase you were raised on. Unlike Judaism, early Christianity spread like wildfire—it was revolutionary in that it suggested a new perspective, a vision of humanity as a whole, bound together by love and caring. The interdependence and support of the old tribal ways were re-inserted into the modern, power-oriented outlook of a conquering empire’s people. Caring about one’s neighbor may have been thought country-bumpkin-ish by the citizens of the great Roman Empire—but Christianity revealed it to be Love, instead—an ancient wisdom to be reclaimed.

First, let me get the semantics of Love out of the way. Lovers who mate are a separate issue from the Golden Rule—passionate love has an element of possessiveness to it—that is part of the desire to protect and please one’s lover. But even in carnal love we must fight the natural impulse to confuse love with possession—people are not things, and to love someone is not to own them. Lust, jealousy, fidelity and infidelity confuse carnal affairs even further.

I’m talking about the other, more pedestrian, love that we have for others, be they family, friends, or strangers—we don’t want to bother them, we want to be friends, we want to help if we can. Conversely, we hope that they don’t want to bother us, that they want to be friends, that they’re willing to help us if they can. Whatever spirit it was that led us to invent politeness, before we learned to use politeness as a weapon—that’s the love I’m talking about.

Empathy is a tricky thing—like charity, it can be taken too far and thus rendered madness—but it is still a natural impulse. The question becomes whether empathy is an indulgence or an inspiration. While that question remains open, it should be noted that the Golden Rule does not endorse empathy any more than it endorses common sense.

On the other hand, the concept of unity should not be over-simplified into a goose-stepping regime, either. Early Communism saw the problem of a lack of human unity in the Capitalist paradigm, but it focused on the unity and overlooked the humanity. It’s not that simple—as was evident from the horrific regimes produced by those early efforts. The main problem is that the cohesion of society cannot stem from a government—it can only come from a society that has the will to be good to each other.

The phrase ‘do as you would be done by’ advocates unity, but not the military cohesiveness of a unity of power. The Golden Rule urges us to be a Family of Man, but to avoid using rationales to bar the pursuit of someone else’s happiness. We should be united, but still free to be ourselves. It’s complicated, which is one of the reasons why we aren’t even close to achieving it. Such an approach is also completely unrelated to the money-oriented outlook which blares from every media outlet and is sold from every political speaker’s dais.

Humanity, at the peak of its potential, has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and turned towards goals so trite and empty that it is shocking to think how fully we immerse ourselves in their fantasy. Add in their insistence that modern arms, pollution, and habitat destruction are all a normal part of modern civilization, and there seems little reason not to turn our backs on them and their agenda, as one person. But we are kept distracted and engaged in their diversions to the point where we don’t ever stop to question our baldly suicidal sprint towards toxifying the planet and enslaving the non-wealthy—sounds like a fun time to me. Just ‘cause it’s called civilization doesn’t mean it has to be civil—right?

But my point is this: we think of the Family of Man as a spiritual aspect, separate from the mundane aspects of food, shelter, money, etc. Yet the religions that reveal this unity are simply recognizing a truth that is not obvious—that we have two natures: one as individuals and one as members of a species. The whole idea of a society suggests a balancing act between these two—we must live our lives, but we must also be members of a society.

There was a recent debate over taxing small-business owners. The question was whether they had created their institutions in a vacuum, or whether they owed some thanks to the local roads they used, the local shops that fed them, and the local workers they employed—in short, the community that made their own achievements possible. Aside from the argument being semantic nonsense, it illustrates the problem with the wealthy—they prize ownership over reality.

Even when rejecting religion, we are still aware of this core vision—that humanity is a creature of its own, and each of us is a piece of it. In such a paradigm, personal survival becomes insignificant except in its effect on the whole. Thus altruism exists, even without traditional faith. We can each choose for ourselves how much we focus on ourselves and how much we focus on our involvement as part of the whole.

This idea is bedeviled by our divisions into seemingly discrete groups—nations, races, societies—which confuse our perception of ourselves as part of the species. But the global community being formed by the digital age makes such distinctions increasingly fatuous—revealed as the spurious, self-generated divisions of more narrow-minded times.

We don’t need to be a Family of Man—but there’s little point to civilization if our basic foundations remain strife and competition—and without that higher vision, we may as well have stayed animals. There’s no glory in a civilization whose ultimate goal is the despoiling of the planet and the subjugation of the masses. That’s pointless and stupid. Capitalism is a fever-dream that lives off our animal impulses, giving us flimsy rationales for ignoring its faults.

Automation and AI are well on their way to making human labor obsolete. What will Capitalism become in a world without jobs—slavery or ultimate freedom? What will money be worth in a world without salaries? And what will we do with our lives when we don’t have to do anything? Once the issue of personal survival is ‘solved’, what will we be left with, except our destiny as a species?

Top Security   (2015Apr20)

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Monday, April 20, 2015                                          11:06 AM

Yesterday couldn’t have been nicer—warm and sunny and green exploding as far as the eye can see. Now this chilly, damp mess—it’s April, alright. Everyone is getting restless and kind of wound-up. We’re all starting to look for places to go, instead of places to hole up and stay warm. The phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’ comes to mind, but I think it’s more a matter of ‘my youth was wasted on my past—I could use a little right now’. There’s really no need to bring young people into it.

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Recent media reports often tell us of risks to our privacy. We are told that the government is forcing companies with large consumer databases to share them with the NSA—particularly phone and messaging services, but retail purchases and travel records are also included. We are told that hackers can get into our Facebook profiles and get our personal history down to the smallest detail. We are told that our credit cards and bank accounts can be appropriated online at the drop of a hat.

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My first response is like what the mayonnaise said to the refrigerator—“Close the door—I’m dressing!” We are encouraged to feel as if we’re changing our clothes, unaware that we’re standing in Macy’s window. We often want to say something to one person that we don’t want another person to hear—not that we’re all in the cast of “Mean Girls”, it’s just that there’s often a greater latitude for honesty when speaking about someone than when speaking to someone.

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But there is another side to all this and that’s what I want to address. Security is nothing new. People had big mouths long before they could thumb-type whatever it is they’re saying. If one is indulging in criminal behavior or conspiracy, odds are one shouldn’t talk about it, online or otherwise. If the way one talks about others is revealing of oneself, i.e. if one is naturally bitchy and mean-spirited, that too is best left out of online communications. Government shadows and mentally-unbalanced stalkers have been tracking us, too, long before the digital age arrived—and discretion was a valuable watchword then as now.

An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius 1839 by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield 1793-1867

There are two schools of thought about computer information. The ignorant assume that something so complicated as a computer is safe as houses. The informed are well-aware that putting anything on a computer is not too different from putting it on a billboard. The confusion comes from the fact that, yes, if you type something into your computer, it will lie there, still, silent, and unseen—but, if someone comes specifically looking for your information, it’s not very hard for them to find. Putting things on your computer is like hiding things under your pillow—it’s fine for keeping things out of plain sight, but it won’t do any good if someone is actually searching for your stuff.

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Outside of such basic considerations, there can still be danger online. But I, like many people, have a very effective defense—we are not interesting, or rich. I suppose my bank account could be hacked as easily as anyone’s—but the amount of money to be gained wouldn’t pay for the equipment a hacker would need. Hackers could, likewise, embarrass me by publicizing my personal life and quirks—but first they’d need to find someone who gave a damn.

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This is especially odd due to the equally popular debate over how to ‘build an audience’. One the one hand, we receive warnings about giving away too much online, and on the other hand, we are given advice as to how we can increase interest in ourselves within the online community. I tried to forestall this paradox by having two online identities—I use the ID ‘Xper Dunn’ for public consumption-type online activity, and ‘Chris Dunn’ for my personal, private activity. In my case this proved unnecessary, since interest in Xper Dunn hasn’t risen above the visibility of my private Chris Dunn persona, anyway.

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So we see that disinterest is the greatest of all security measures—if I have no money, and I don’t interest people’s prurient curiosity, there’s little reason for anyone to hack me. And with proper backups, I can always recover from a cyber-attack—at worst, I have to buy new hardware. In other words, “Don’t start none, won’t be none”. If, like me, you have had difficulty attracting attention online, remember, that’s not altogether a bad thing.

rm317

 

 

Now, here are two videos from yesterday:

 

 

False Principles   (2015Apr04)

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Saturday, April 04, 2015                                            11:15 AM

The Copernican ‘Principle’ is the latest catchphrase for bifurcating religious belief and scientific inquiry, interpreting Copernicus’s astronomical observations as a ‘non-geocentric’ view. And a new movie being released, “The Principle”, presents the modern-day argument against Copernicus, based on a book entitled “Copernicus Was Wrong”. It may feel exhausting to learn that there are people here, now, in the twenty-first century claiming that the Earth is the stationary center of the universe, but it is my sad duty to inform you that such is, in fact, the case.

In the usual way, controversy over this film has centered on the very public disavowal by scientists filmed for this documentary of the edited comments they make in the course of their interviews. God forbid the media focus on the actual point of the controversy—the cosmology itself. It is far easier to have a grand ‘he said-she said’-type of verbal rumble than to examine the science and/or theology of the filmmaker’s representations—and more entertaining, as well, since actual thought is not necessary when discussing the ins and outs of a gossip-war.

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These days I’m often tempted to become paranoid. I’m tempted to entertain the possibility that the powers-that-be are subsidizing the public discourse on anything that is so outrageous that sensible folks are taken aback at the mere mention of the premise. Denying evolution fits into this category, to my mind, as does climate-change denial. But geocentricism is just one step up from a belief in a flat Earth—surely no serious grown-up would argue that we should revisit the idea that our little planet is the very center of all creation—not just our own galaxy (in which our entire solar system is demonstrably placed far out on one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms) but of all the galaxies.

The fact that our discovery of other galaxies in the universe is fairly recent, and the product of modern science-based cosmology, doesn’t seem to faze the geocentrists. Neither do the geocentrists consider, as most scientific-minded folks might, the newness of our knowledge about other galaxies to be a warning sign against making premature judgements about their nature—like many apologists, they rather consider such ‘early returns’ an opening for wild theories about how we can return ancient myths to the realm of factual data.

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This never fails to frustrate me. I can accept all kinds of argument about what this means, or what that means—I can accept that there may be many things that we, as humans, misunderstand. But I will never see the connection between that mystery and any sort of confirmation of ancient scriptures that describe ancient man’s encounters with ‘The Creator’. To me, that’s a pretty big hole in an argument—that its only backing comes from people who were basically fresh from inventing the wheel.

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The problem, for me, is that we are not comparing the science of ancient times to the science of today—we are contesting the primacy of ancient myth versus modern science. When we make statements today, they are based on observations and calculations. When we choose the religions of millennia gone by, we are working exclusively by hearsay, without any information. And believers will make a point of this, insisting that ‘faith’ must operate outside of the scientific method. For them to turn it around and use their faith as an alternative to science, to attack science as an enemy of faith, seems like an argument against itself.

One thing that struck me was the filmmaker’s comment, during an interview with Church Militant (!), that cosmologists have been forced to go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain the creation of the universe without starting from the assumption of a Creator. Well, yes, Mr. Smarty-Pants, science without the benefit of Magical Thinking does get a little complicated. Everything gets complicated when we don’t allow ourselves the luxury of saying, ‘just because’. Apologies if that makes your poor little brain hurt.

Also, these Christian pseudo-intellectuals always gloss over a very important point—who says that humans are capable of knowing how or why the universe was created? If scientists can’t figure it out before lunch, does that mean that our only fallback position is to return to the crumbling scrolls of ancient civilization? Only if that’s where you meant to end up in the first place. Science is very useful stuff, but no one ever claimed it would replace all the ‘knowledge’ and ‘explanations’ provided by superstition. Science is handicapped by its insistence on being transferable to any culture or society. As Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to say, “The great thing about Science is that it’s true, whether you believe in it or not.” But no one claims that science is a complete answer—only religion offers that brand of snake-oil.

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And in the context of this film, “The Principle” we aren’t even addressing the truth of science—we find ourselves in a discussion over the correctness of certain interpretations of scientific truth. After all, the question is easily decided—Einstein tells us that everything is relative to ‘an observer’. If we wish, we can interpret the rotation of the Earth as the rest of the universe spinning in the opposite direction while the Earth remains still. By the same token, we can consider ourselves stationary when walking—that the ground beneath our feet is moving backward as we float in a set point. Relativity allows us these mental games—and they are true in the technical sense. But they are no more true than the standard interpretations—that the Earth does spin, that we move while we walk.

Recent archeological research has determined that the ‘history’ in the Bible may not be entirely accurate. For instance, the movement of the Jews from Egypt into Canaan is represented in the Bible as a military campaign led by Joshua, who conquered city after city. Recent evidence indicates that the Jewish culture infiltrated the region in a less obvious way, and on an entirely different time-line than that given in the Old Testament. The show’s narrator speculates that the biblical account may have been a form of propaganda, written long after the actual events took place. Thus the Bible, which long ago lost its claim to scientific fact, is losing its last claim to relevance—as the only source of ‘historical’ documentation of biblical times.

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But this very questionable bit of literature remains, amazingly, our fallback position whenever we are stymied by the stubborn nature of scientific truth. Even more hilarious, to me, is the Christians’ easy assumption that if religion is legitimized that Christianity will, of course, be the most legitimate of all the religions—a double-whammy of wishful thinking!

I don’t know about most other atheists, but I am constantly deluded by the fantasy that I can one day say, “Alright, you guys—that’s enough childishness. It’s time we started facing things like grown-ups. The fairy tales are nice, but we’ve got some real issues we need to deal with, and religion ain’t helping.” It is nearly impossible for me to accept that most people would hear such a simple statement as ‘crazy talk’. This is the greatest challenge for atheists, particularly lapsed Catholics like myself—the longer we live without religion, the sillier other people’s faith becomes. Eventually, it becomes very difficult to believe that they really are serious about their fantasies. We forget what it was like to simply accept magic in our lives without question.

They say that Love is the only socially acceptable form of insanity—but in my opinion, Religion takes the cake in that contest—Love doesn’t even come close. When Love creates difficulties in our lives we agonize over it—“Is this really Love?”; “Is this love worth that sacrifice?”, etc. But when difficulties arise over Religious beliefs, we refuse to even discuss the issue—talk about crazy. I’m not even going to get into the whole ‘beheadings’ business—jeez!

The filmmaker complains that his movie should win an award for “movie most reviewed by people who’ve never seen the film”. I’m afraid he’s right about that—but I don’t need to watch a whole film to understand what he’s trying to do by making it. I can just look out my window at dawn and ask myself whether the sun is rising or the Earth is turning towards it—and whether the astronauts looking out the ports of the International Space Station would agree with my answer.

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Happy Birthday, Emmy Noether!   (2015Mar23)

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Monday, March 23, 2015                                          11:39 AM

Emmy Noether was a major mathematician and physicist of the era of Hilbert, Gödel, and Einstein. She spent most of her life being an un-matriculated, unwelcome university student—and then an unpaid, untitled university professor. Having broken past most of the boundaries met by female scholars, she found herself being ostracized anew by the Nazis, because of her being a Jew. She left for the USA before the Nazis progressed beyond merely firing Jews to murdering them. She spent two years at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania before dying, at age 53, due to complications after surgery to remove a cyst. Einstein wrote a valedictory letter in her honor which was subsequently published in the Times [click here for article].

Her astonishing achievements in math and physics would have stood on their own, but her struggles to get clear of the close-minded sexism of her day were just as heroic, just as epic. It’s hard to think of these two battles as unrelated. Noether’s innovative mind pushed back humanity’s ignorance of science just as her day-to-day life pushed back against humanity’s ignorance about women, and Jews.

Clear, incisive thought will often overrule conventions without being conscious of it—ignoring some unimportant, nonsensical convention to arrive at the correct solution, unaware of how much importance society-at-large puts upon those unimportant, nonsensical conventions. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for suggesting the existence of other solar systems among the countless stars in the sky—where a less intelligent person would have scrupled at going against convention, willing to live in continued ignorance rather than die for the sake of correctitude.

Scholars and scientists appear to regard Ignorance as the greater death, the real torture. Such heroism has always been admired in explorers, but less obvious explorers, explorers of the mind and of truth, are rarely given the adulation offered up to Columbus, Admiral Perry, or Charles Lindberg. However, pure science has a way of finding an outlet into reality: Bernoulli’s principle becomes the Wright brothers’ first Flyer, Einstein’s relativity becomes Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb, Turing’s number theory becomes the first computer, et. al.

Thus admiration for scientific exploration often lags behind, waiting for society as a whole to recognize its ‘practical’ value. The preponderance of such evolutions of ‘thought into things’, by the dawn of the twentieth century, had gained some grudging respect for pure scientific exploration—we had finally caught on that these people, these squirrelly, often unkempt oddballs, were a potential source of speed and convenience, money and power.

Long before the modern age, as far back as the Enlightenment, we began to see science overrule convention. Authority, whether of the religious or the noble persuasion, had, until then, been protected from dissent by the simple expedient of executing the dissenter(s). Might was, demonstrably, right. Afterwards, new discoveries and inventions began to impact our lives. Gunpowder, cannon, and muskets rendered old defenses, such as castle walls and armor, obsolete. Sextants, chronometers, and maps removed the boundary of the open sea, reliable navigation making possible the Age of Discovery.

Thus the right of might became a fluid thing—solid stone and steel become vulnerable, the limits of the known world fall away with the discovery of a New World. Worse yet, in conservative terms, science in the hands of Galileo and Copernicus presents us with a spherical Earth orbiting the Sun—which, while interesting in itself, is disastrous in that it seems to put the lie to scripture—how can the God of Joshua ‘stop the sun in the sky’ if the sun doesn’t actually move across the sky?

This creates a dichotomy in society—what we call conservatives and progressives. Those who are delighted by the new and different tend towards progressivism. Those who fear change tend towards conservatism. And those with wealth or power are rarely progressive—no one has more to fear from change than those who are already on the top of the heap. For them, change can only be a disaster.

And so it went, for centuries—it was as much a matter of personal choice as anything practical that people chose to be either conservative or progressive, with the exception of those in power, who were invariably conservative for the reasons mentioned above. Then came the Digital Age, with its profusion of new gadgets, new techniques, and, most importantly, new changes to society and commerce. We are flummoxed both by the amount of change and the speed with which that change occurs.

Today, it would appear that conservatism is a dangerous choice. Science has made of society a shifting, nebulous mystery, a complex patchwork that demands our adaptability, both mental and emotional. ‘Being conservative’ goes from being a choice to being a mistake. And those in power, those with the greatest investment in conservatism, find themselves laid bare to the winds of change.

Now, when scientists determine that burning petroleum damages our air and water, we are tempted to act on that important information. But those who are rich and powerful because they do business in petroleum are not happy. The only answer for them is to counter science with an alternative. But what is the alternative to science? So far, the answers have been denial, ignorance and extreme fundamentalism. Conservativism goes from being a choice to being a bunker. Shorn of its connection to science, or even common sense, conservatism becomes an artificial position, jiggered to defend the rich and powerful, regardless of how far it wanders from sanity.

We see the Republican party, once known as the party of conservatives, become known as the party of the rich. Some effete intellectual has pointed out that we now have the ability to house, feed, and cloth every person on earth—that Capitalism, the system by which we reached this pinnacle, is now the only thing preventing us from going over the top, into a world of peace and prosperity. Capitalism morphs from the mechanism by which we all progressed into a mechanism for conserving the paradigm of rich and poor, the entitled and the deprived.

Today’s conservative is either forced into conservatism by their fear of change, or they are deluded into conservatism by the propaganda of those in power. Progressives, when they are not railing against the entropy of modern conservatives, are hard-pressed to deal with a rate of progress and of change that exceeds the capacity of an individual mind to absorb, before it changes yet again. We have enough trouble dealing with that excess of fulfillment of our hopes, without having to defend ourselves against reactionary revisionists.

Science struggled in the middle ages—chemistry was witchcraft, astronomy was heresy, electricity was the devil. It slowly made a place for itself by producing irresistible tools of power, convenience and freedom. By the twentieth century, science had begun to advance by leaps and bounds, hence the deification of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and others. But here in the twenty-first century, our digital technology runs amok—no one person can comprehend it, no one person can keep up with it. Science has revealed itself to be innately progressive—an enemy of conservatism and, thus, an enemy to those in power.

Today, conservatism has become an enemy of science—just as it has always favored might over right. Recently, the famous conservative, Rick Santorum, was quoted as saying “The smart people will never be on our side”. It isn’t easy to maintain popular support while advocating ignorance, but they are feeling their way, through various memes, to cast suspicion on intellectualism, i.e. the scientific method. They play on the resentment of those with below-average scholarship. They attempt to conflate the complexity of science with the confusion of double-talk. And they point to heaven, calling on their invisible authority to smite the smarty-pantses, oblivious to the scientists that float above, in the Space where dogma insists Paradise must be.

This is not new. Hitler famously used science to great effect during the Second World War—rockets, jets, coding machines, missile guidance systems, radar—but he didn’t believe in it, he just used it. That wealth of German technology would never have been his, had his regime not followed hard on the heels of a very liberal, open-minded university culture—a culture he destroyed while he looted the wealth of power it produced.

Before the Internet, Science was the first global community. And German universities were hubs of this international mingling of the great minds of their time. It is ironic, and fitting, that the scientists and thinkers driven from Germany by Hitler’s hate were instrumental in the eventual defeat of the Axis powers. But even as Hitler stomped on the sand castles of early twentieth century science, he gladly used any of its powers and insights that adapted themselves to world conquest.

Likewise, we see today many conservatives, including Rick Santorum, who gladly make use of science’s bountiful gifts while still denying its basic premise—rational thought and open-minded consideration of observed reality. They are bizarro, negative-image copies of our Founding Fathers, who invented the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, but insisted on the right to own slaves. The difference is that our Founding Fathers continued an old ignorance while creating a new enlightenment. Modern conservatives seek to create a new ignorance while resting on the laurels of the old enlightenment.

Conservatives want to undo religious freedom by abrogating the separation of church and state. They want to undo Roosevelt’s New Deal, destroying our society’s stability in favor of classist profiteering, making an elite of the greedy. They want to undo voting rights, making a plutocracy out of our democracy. They want to undo feminism most of all, because they know in their hearts that women have a dangerous propensity towards humane ideals and common sense, not to mention the female urge to care for the young and helpless. The conservatives have become such blatant cheerleaders for prejudice, poverty, and prison that it always leaves me dumbstruck—not only that they do this, but that they find so many followers to buy into their evil agenda.

Money may not deserve to be considered free speech, but it has certainly become a political party—the Republicans. And please note that I feel it has become redundant to speak of money and power—they are so close nowadays as to be synonyms. Sadly, many Democrats and Independents are also Republicans in sheep’s clothing. The infiltration of money despoils all parties—it merely finds a champion in the Republicans. And that champion is fighting with all its might—against we the people, against scientific truth, against fairness and democracy. Such total evil, to my incessant surprise, retains a wide following among people who are some of its most pitiable victims. They’ve managed to indoctrinate African-Americans, even misguided women, into their fold. They may not have a taste for rigorous scientific thought, but no one can deny that they are extremely clever bastards. Just like old Adolf.

But today we celebrate the birthday of Emmy Noether, the Jewish lady he so foolishly discarded—and his birthday? No one knows or cares. Likewise, Santorum has felt the weight of Science’s power—his name is now used across the Internet to mean “a frothy mixture of lubricant and fecal matter as an occasional byproduct of anal sex”. Deny that science, Ricky. And happy birthday, Emmy!

As Stupid Does   (2015Mar02)

Monday, March 02, 2015                                 4:36 PM

I showed my twenty-six-year-old son something I wrote yesterday—he told me he’s tired of reading criticisms of the GOP. Then it struck me—what a perfect tactic. Do something unbelievably stupid or say something unbelievably harsh every single day, and people will get tired of hearing all the outrage it engenders. It’s foolproof—which is lucky, since we’re talking about conservatives. The only problem I see is that they’re destroying the world and everyone in it. I don’t understand—why is that their goal? Are all their prejudices and fears really so valuable that the end of the world is their preferred alternative?

Oh, they’ll tell you that’s ridiculous, that they’re just trying to defend American values—but what right do they have to use words they clearly do not understand? Plus, they’re lying. How do I know? You know the answer—their lips are moving. Part of the new Stupid craze is believing you can lie your ass off—blatant, incredible, dangerous lies—and no one will notice. Plus, we can now pretend that science is a matter of opinion. Darwin, Einstein, Hawkings—all pretty smart people—where does a high-school drop-out get the cojones to stand up on his or her hind legs and howl their ignorance in the face of true intelligence? Sheer stupidity, that’s where.

We live in an age of wonders. Idiots have stumbled on a way to discredit intelligence and deny knowledge. What a through-the-looking-glass concept! And I think I know the reason for its sudden appearance in society—computers. Before computers, pencil-necked geeks were just pencil-necked geeks. The stupid jocks who beat them up got little satisfaction from it—they remained stupid and the geeks were still getting straight A’s. But once digital tech began to make geeks into super-stars and millionaires, the stupid majority had to put its foot down—intelligence has no value—it can’t and it never will, they cried. Thus, climate-change-deniers, evolution-deniers, holocaust-deniers—people by the thousands with their heads neatly tucked up their asses—but happy that way.

And we see a resurgence of fundamentalism—the world champion of stupidity. We see it in Europe, with the return of anti-Semitism. (How many times do we have to go over this, Europe? Any vague memories of last time? What the hell?) We see it in the third world, with the rise of Derf, or IS, or “book-no” haram. (It’s just my opinion, but I think you’d all prefer food, schools, and medicine—and think of all the fatigue of sledge-hammering our ancient history into oblivion. Is that really helpful?) And we see it here at home, where we’d rather have our kids mown down by lawfully-purchased firearms than let them catch a glimpse of two men kissing on TV. Men kissing? What a nightmare! “Get yer guns, boys—these sickos need to be dead.

My current theory is that money makes people stupid—and guess which political party is preferred by the rich? We all know how many people are super wealthy in the USA—one percent of us. So how does the party of the rich get support from fifty percent of the population? Masochism? Self-loathing? Or is it sheer stupidity? In the majority of cases, these people don’t have two dimes, but they American Dream that someday, they will—which makes them just as stupid and selfish as actual rich people. Or more so, if you consider how willfully and willingly deluded they are.

Part of the problem is that people are too sensitive about their smarts—someone posted something incredibly stupid on Facebook the other day, and even though she’s a friend of mine, I called it by its true name. She was incensed that I called her stupid. She missed the point—I was calling her post stupid. But she didn’t even consider the pros and cons of her narrow-minded meme; she just got pissed off because someone called her stupid. I would have been more diplomatic about it, but stupid ideas, like her meme that day, are destructive and dangerous. To me, it was as if she shot someone and got mad for being called a murderer—it’s not the insult that takes priority. Or is it? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t get it. But at least I don’t post racist, exclusionary, misogynistic, fundamentalist bullshit on Facebook.

And, more importantly, I will never post or say or rant about anything in a way that encourages other people to do violence or practice hate—and that doesn’t mean I’m against freedom of speech—I’m just against misuse of freedom of speech. ‘Freedom’ implies that the choice is left to the individual—it doesn’t mean that you should abandon your own good judgment and say whatever the hell springs to mind.

Speaking of Freedom of Speech, let’s talk the Koch boys—they’re so crazy about it they want to extend it to money as well as words. Fine—I’ll tell you what the Koch boys’ money is saying. It’s no complex frigging mystery. It’s saying they are greedy and selfish—just the same as anyone else who has a ridiculous amount of money and doesn’t feel any obligation to spread it around. Sure, they’re probably ‘philanthropists’, but that just means they’re spending their money to influence others and to take tax breaks in April—it’s not the same as giving it away, free and clear. To them, that would be madness. That’s how greedy and selfish they are.

So, should you vote for a Koch boys candidate? Not unless you’re greedy and selfish enough to have a few billion dollars in your own bank account. See? Their money doesn’t have to say a word—we can take it as read. And how should we interpret the Koch boys’ support of the GOP? Well, birds of a feather, of course.

The way I see it, money talks plenty loud enough as it is. Try dissing your boss—what? No freedom of Speech all of a sudden? How’d that happen? Is your paycheck talking to you? Well, we have to be practical—food on the table first, freedom second. But should we actively support politicians who champion the rich and powerful? Should we purposely go out and vote for more restrictions, even more influence than the rich already have? I can’t imagine why. Maybe I’m too stupid. Uh-oh, guess I got to join the Republicans.

The Republicans, however, are running into a little trouble with the Stupid Stratagem. It seems that stupidity can be obstructive to more than ones enemies. John Boehner, whom no one could accuse of being a nerd, is apparently not stupid enough to lead his party—they demand someone even more idiotic, like Scott Walker. I wonder if they can achieve a stupidity-singularity, wherein intelligence or information once again become relevant? Maybe that’s their plan. Genius!

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It’s As Much About What One Becomes (2015Feb27)

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VIDEO: Tyler Sid reads his poem, “Open Culture”, beginning at time-mark 00:20 secs in. (He reads my poem, “Humility Is Fatal”, beginning at time-mark 24:20.)

 

Friday, February 27, 2015                                10:30 AM

First, a few admissions about my ‘poetry’—I have two gears, as it were, one of which is to get all technical and use a rigid meter and rhyme scheme (in this first gear, I can use the confinements of format to excuse any stiffness or awkward phrasing). My ‘second gear’ can be seen above—I basically write what I’m thinking, but I don’t allow myself any of the run-on sentences that are too much a feature of my prose. I chop off all my lines before they reach the right-hand side of the page and I capitalize every first letter of every line. However, I also allow myself to go from one thought or idea to another without any ‘connective tissue’, much less a segue—and I allow myself encapsulated symbolisms, used as shorthand, without being too judgmental about their aptness or comprehensiveness (i.e. describing all of modern, first-world technology as “addiction to the washing machine”).

But my poetry is also a great time-saver, for me and my readers. Take this line: “The more special we believe we are, the worse we behave.” Now, this thought, ordinarily, would come to my mind as an inspiration for a lengthy blog-post on human nature and the problem of modern humanity—and I do so love stringing those words together into a cohesive argument or illustration about truth and reality. But poetry is a beautiful thing—in poetry, I can just write down that ‘kernel-ized’ concept as a single line and, by the ‘rules’ of poetry, it is now left to the readers to read that line and write their own blogposts in their own heads. I trade the pleasure of spelling things out to a ‘T’ for the ease of simply saying the germ of the idea.

All you serious poets out there will have recognized by now that I am describing ‘writing prose in a poetic format’ more than ‘writing poetry’. I know when I’m reading ‘real’ poetry, because it leaves sense impressions in my head and evokes ephemeral feelings, without ever displaying any coherent thoughts or unmitigated images—and I respect that. Also, I truly hope that something like that effect is achieved by my less-nuanced writings–it isn’t as though I’m trying to do it wrong.  I know that if I tried to write that ‘real’ kind of poetry, I might succeed—but I’d be more than likely to get lost down the rabbit-hole of thinking poetically, un-sequentially, unconnectedly. And, if you’re not involved in creative pursuits, let me tell you—it’s as much about what one becomes, through pursuing the creative, as it is about what one achieves as a creative person. Madness is catching—and I prefer to cherry-pick my madnesses.

All that being said, poetry is undefinable—so if I write anything at all, as long as it has Caps at the beginning of each line, regardless of grammar, it’s my poem. And fortunately there are others who agree with me. Tyler Syd, a poet friend of mine, has chosen to include the above poem in his upcoming public reading (something which I’m very proud and flattered to know). I appreciate that because, while I may not consider myself a traditional poetaster, I do feel that I have something to say—and poetry, by virtue of requiring the readers to engage their own thought-processes and imaginations, is far better suited to communicating my somewhat ‘intellectual’ musings on society and the nature of reality.

While blog-posts are more straight-forward and specific, most readers will read a blog-post with half a mind towards what their comments or complaints or disagreements might be—with poetry, my readers do not approach the piece from that point of view. They put more focus on what is being said rather than their own responses. They maximize my images through their own imaginations rather than confine them to the limits of reflexive debate and objections. Not that I’m hiding from argument—just from ‘argument for argument’s sake’.

Have you ever had that experience where you’re in the middle of an argument and suddenly realized that you are wrong and the other person has a point? I used to hate, hate, hate that feeling! But now, in my dotage, I’ve learned to enjoy it, to embrace the revelation of something I hadn’t previously seen. And I learned, in the process, that a lot of argument is nothing more than momentum—the desire to keep on fighting, right or wrong—which is admirable in its way, but perhaps not entirely suitable to logical argument. And in such a complex world, I feel that reducing unnecessary argument is vital to positive progress. Thus my hearty disapproval of modern news media—we are in vital need of information, but we are force-fed controversy instead, because of its greater ‘entertainment value’—what a load.

It also fuels my resentment towards fundamentalists—the world is such a messy tangle of ideas, the last thing we need is a bunch of people re-raising questions that educated, thoughtful people have long since put to bed. To look upon all the amazing discoveries made by geologists, biologists, and astronomers—and dismiss it all in favor of one’s own ignorance—I can’t see that as anything other than madness—willful, egotistical blindness to the obvious. These same people will use jet airliners to travel and computers to communicate their ‘ideas’ about the falsity of science—I don’t know, I guess logic just doesn’t appeal to them.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame them—after all, logic isn’t the bottom line, survival is. We don’t need to make sense as much as we need to keep breathing. And if they want to trade logic for the chance to keep breathing even after they stop breathing, well, they’re certainly making a good start on it—an afterlife makes about as much sense as a fish on a bicycle. Now, go away, before I decide to capitalize all my first letters and turn this into a poem….

One last thing–here’s the drawing used to make the poetry-graphic, and an alternate version of the completed graphic:

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Oh, Grow Up   (2015Feb21)

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Saturday, February 21, 2015                                     11:54 AM

This messing around with science, these subtle digs at advanced degrees and laboratory exactitude—its roots can be found in our refusal to accept that our world is truly as complicated as it is. When we hear of atrocities being committed, we want to avenge the victims—we want blood, and no effing around about it. When we hear of injustice, we want the laws changed, repealed, or made anew—and we want it yesterday, no matter how old the injustice, no matter how tricky the wording of new law may be, and regardless of all the hinky details that get in the way of simple ‘solutions’.

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We prefer public protest to private voting even though a well-planned campaign, successfully voted in, is a guarantee of change, whereas a protest movement is all sound, fury, and public opinion. We prefer to ‘kill our way out’ of violent foreign controversies (as the assistant secretary of state put it recently) rather than defer the satisfaction of our bloodlust long enough to implement real change, especially changes in attitude. The mob effect, that tendency we have to behave like children when we clump together, causes immense confusion in the heat of public debate, but it is our hatred of complexity that draws the lines of that debate before it even begins.

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If we look closely at most of the controversies in politics today, we see that opposing ideologies can almost always be described as one group, which wants to overlook one or more bothersome details, opposing another group that feels those details do have relevance. Not that such distinctions are unimportant—even in mathematics we recognize the concept of the last significant decimal point, that point of precision beneath which any variation becomes moot.

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Mathematically, if you have a million dollars, say, it doesn’t really matter if you have exactly one million and one dollars, or only $999,999.00—it’s still basically one million dollars. When we are talking about millions, we usually consider change significant when the difference is in the thousands of dollars—individual dollar bills are insignificant in such a context. Yet even in mathematics there is room for debate—some people are so tight-fisted that they care about spending a single dollar more or less, even when their wealth is excessive.

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Considering that even the simplicity and straightforwardness of math is open to controversy, it is no surprise that we differ on the significance of details when discussing more esoteric subjects, like the war on extremist violence. When the Dash, or IS, or Boko Haram torture and execute their captives, we want to respond so bad we can taste it—we’re even open to drone strikes on their leadership, in spite of the danger of collateral damage. But the Middle East is now populated by those who see nothing but our collateral damage—we aren’t exactly winning hearts and minds there.

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The abortion debate hinges on the same judgment over exactly how many days, or even hours, of gestation manifest a human life. The immigration debate hinges on exactly how long one must live and work in the USA before being considered a citizen of the USA. And these debates’ strengths differ based on who we are—a pregnant woman sees abortion differently than a senator, a migrant worker sees immigration differently than a governor or a judge.

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We once looked upon these arguments over details and their relative importance as mere by-products of human nature, which they are and have always been. It is our approach that has changed—we once sought out candidates who were known for their ability to forge compromises—now we are more inclined to seek representatives that draw a line in the sand over our preferred details, or ignore the details we wish to ignore. We have forgotten that compromise is the only way forward.

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Our News Media thrive on this stultified outlook—and encourage it every day with sensationalism that distracts, rather than informs. The Doubt Factory’s very existence is predicated on our willingness to niggle over details—using petty factoids and legal cheat-codes to protect corporate profits and obstruct the public welfare. And our politics have become indistinguishable from our pro sports—we pick a side and root our hearts out, the hell with compromise.

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Well, here’s an exercise in being a grown-up—pick an issue, any issue—then pick an acquaintance with opposing political leanings. Tell them you’re trying an experiment and you want to try to work out a compromise on a certain issue. While doing this experiment, try to tell yourself that not every single detail of your policy is essential. Try to tell yourself that not every aspect of your opponent’s policy would be the end of the world. Try to keep in mind that the point of the exercise is not to get everything you want, but to get just some of what you want—that you don’t need to exclude all of your opponent’s ideas, just the ones you find most objectionable. Try to imagine that achieving the compromise itself is more important than achieving your personal beliefs.

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Do you want to know something funny? In the past, when compromise was a major tool in the political toolbox, the two sides would sometimes reach a compromise, enact a solution, and learn, to their amazement, that both sides had it wrong—that a third possibility had presented itself through the effort to reach a compromise! This could happen to us, too. But first, we have to unlock ourselves from this childish battle of wills and return politics to the province of grown-ups. Modern life, though it may not seem it, is based on the assumption of cooperation, of checks and balances, and worst of all, on our assumption of mature judgment in our leadership—nothing could be more dangerous than for us to continue this immature stonewalling and willful blindness.

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But the super-wealthy only see dangers that don’t impinge on their profits. That’s why they fund these worse-than-useless news outlets and doubt factories; that’s why they encourage partisanship. To them, the only real danger is a danger to their big pile of money—let the rest burn, as far as they’re concerned. But we are the ‘rest’, we are the burning, overlooked details in their jaundiced outlook—and, strange as it may seem, the only way to fight them is to stop all this fighting amongst ourselves.

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Re-Thinking   (2015Feb18)

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015                                11:36 AM

Okay, now I’m well and truly confused. You may remember I wrote a little post the other day, bitching about how no one gave my blog any ‘likes’ for a few days. But I looked at my ‘stats’ page and guess what? Over 10,000 people have viewed one or more of my blogposts. 29 people ‘follow’ my blog—which only means that my posts show up in their ‘readers’ (no guarantee they actually read the posts). Nonetheless, I get an average of 15 to 25 views a day—even today, before noon, when I haven’t posted anything for two days, I’ve gotten six views so far.

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Ordinarily, I have to assume, several people a day are looking at my blog posts, but no one is being impressed enough to click that ‘like’ button. It would seem that when I do get a handful of likes for a particular post, it is not a sign that a handful of people have read the post, but that the post in question was impressive enough to entail a response.

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In a way, it’s kind of creepy to imagine those 15 to 25 people lurking in silence, reading my thoughts without giving back squat. Even creepier is the question of ‘How did I trigger likes with one certain post and not the others?’ Am I resonating with their own thoughts on things? Or do people enjoy my posts more when I’m in obvious emotional distress? What is it?! And do I want to follow that ‘likeable’ thread, or avoid it? It would be so much easier for me if the likes corresponded to my own feelings about my posts—but many of what I consider good posts get zero likes, while some surprise me with the strength of their response. It’s confusing.

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Meanwhile, I’m getting tired of ‘the big picture’. The power of money has more influence than any other force, particularly any force for good. People such as myself can rant and rail until the cows come home—without money to force it down people’s throats, my opinions don’t mean squat. And the moneyed interests have lost any sense of shame or decency. A recent satirical piece by John Oliver on the shameless behavior of Philip Morris Inc. prompted that corporation to attack Oliver’s research as ‘misleading’—and they don’t see any irony in a tobacco company accusing someone else of being misleading or unfair. But what can you expect from a company that profits from killing its customers? With that as a starting point, the rest of their hi-jinks shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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The GOP, worthy of being renamed the Party of the Wealthy, has recently urged a cancellation of ACA (which would reverse our great increase in those covered) cancellation of history courses in high school (which would help keep us all in the dark about how un-American they are) and cancellation of the Dodd Frank bill (which would allow them to rip us all off in as unfettered a fashion as they did to bring about the Great Recession). Everything they do, everything the Republicans support, is unequivocally in favor of the rich over the rest of us. And how did they get elected? By spending so much money spreading lies and half-truths that they scare the less-educated into thinking they’re needed. Oh, we need them, all right—to screw us in the ass.

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The Koch boys have declared war on science ever since science found out that Koch oil profits are based on our suicidal addiction to petroleum energy. Even stupid, rich people like them have a sense of self-preservation, right? Wrong. These bitches have some kind of fundamentalism that tells them they’re supposed to end the world. Isn’t that special? (As Dana Carvey would say.)

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But what bothers me more than most things is the tendency of rich people to blather on about ‘hard work’. Yesterday I watched “Better Angels”, a beautifully-filmed re-enactment of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. Talk about ‘hard work’. Pre-industrial people had a job—staying alive—and that was hard work, morning ‘til night. To pretend that such conditions still obtain, now that we have remote controls, heavy machinery, appliances, and robots, is a convenient pretext for the rich. If there were any mathematical fairness in labor, we’d all be getting paid top dollar for working about three hours a week. But no, say the rich, good people work hard—only lazy people want money without slavery.

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Let me tell you what ‘hard’ is. Being a good parent—that’s hard. Being a good citizen—that’s hard as hell. Thinking things through, even when we don’t like the results—that’s hard work. Slaving through unpaid overtime, without benefits, for minimum wage—that’s not ‘hard’, that’s unjust—and it benefits only one group. Guess how hard they work.

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Will people ever be fair to each other? Will people ever stand up on their hind legs and say ‘enough’ to their bloated overseers? No, it’s not in our nature to be fair. We prefer to compete, to win. That’s some win. Our society has become a suicidal enslavement-scam run by capitalists—and, bottom line, when money can’t buy enough influence, it just buys guns instead. It’s exhausting to have our every inkling towards freedom and fairness trampled by these sons-of-bitches. I’m sick of it. I’ve gotten past the fact that we can’t beat these bastards—nowadays, I focus on my outrage that everyone around me accepts the status quo, which is understandable, but nonetheless insane.

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My disability allows me to stand outside of the rat-race and view it objectively as the farce it has become—but am I being more objective or more over-simplified? Ask yourself this—how many people work hard every day at a job that means something to them other than a paycheck? In America, I’d guess that lucky few comprise maybe five percent of all full-time employees. The rest are just doing whatever they’re told, to keep from starving in the street. Is that a job, or slavery?

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Read Somebody Else’s Blog (2015Feb15)

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Sunday, February 15, 2015                              4:53 PM

I’ve had no likes on my blog for a few days—in contrast to a less-recent spate of interest and a slight up-tick in numbers. My first thought was ‘What did I say to turn people against me?’ But then I realized that my problem was not what I’d said—it was that I’d stopped saying it. My recent posts have been music videos, poems and such—my favorite things to do, but not a favorite of whatever blog-readers I may have. I get bigger responses from my tirades against the powers that be—against corruption, ignorance, and apathy.

I don’t like those posts. They are a relief valve for my mind at its most frustrated and enraged. I’ve been enjoying my release from that compulsion over the past few days—and now I realize that I had the beginnings of net popularity at my finger-tips. Well, you can keep it. If, to have a successful blog, I have to whip myself into a curmudgeonly frenzy every day, I’m likely to end up being the left’s answer to that tea-party king-of-talk-radio—that overweight drug-addict guy with all the thoughtless opinions—I can never remember his name.

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I’m a delicate flower. You want a diatribe, go read somebody else—I’ve pretty much said what there is for me to say, generally. I’ll post more, though—it’s inevitable that I’ll get into another funk sooner or later—hopefully later—but don’t hold your breath. My blog went un-liked before—it can go back to that and I’ll be okay.

I’ve always been easily bruised. As a child, I watched TV coverage of the racial violence in the deep South—I was horrified. What horrified me the most was that I had the same skin color as the bad guys—I’ve been ashamed of being Caucasian-American ever since. When I saw the final scene in “The Butler”, where the old White House butler watches Obama’s first election results on TV, it brought tears to my eyes—the election of a black man to the presidency was as important to me as it was to African-Americans. Racism cuts both ways—it may have caused untold suffering among black people, but it also caused untold assholery among whites. Not that racism is over, more’s the pity.

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My own anger, justified though it may be by the likes of the Kochs, Cruz, Palin, Paul, and Scalia, is the greatest threat to my health and well-being. Railing against these stains on humanity is bad for me—something I’d overlook if I had an audience of more than a handful—but as it stands, I’m just giving a tiny number of people “The Autobiography Of A Stroke Victim”, and I ain’t going out like that.

The majority of people just want to live their lives. Only the rich and powerful have a reason to nudge us towards ever-greater impositions on our peace and freedom. While it is healthier for us to ignore these dirt-bags, it is also the best way to help them screw us over—resistance, despite Star Trek, is not futile. Take as an example the recent talk of a Pacific Trade agreement that will tie up the developed world in a bow and deliver it, forever enslaved, to the one percent. How any politician can support this with a straight face is completely beyond my comprehension. Why don’t we resurrect Hitler while we’re at it?

But what can I do to stop it? Devote my life to anti-Trade-Pact protests? If I thought the filthy rich would stop there, I’d be happy to take my place on the wall. But their money allows them to attack from a hundred different directions—state legislation action groups, corporate lobbyists, fundamentalist-backed obstructionism, Fox news, anti-women’s-rights skeezes who make excuses for rapists and blame victims, and the Doubt Factory—that now-famous collection of lawyers, publicists, and ‘scientists’ who obscure any issue of health, safety, or personal freedom—ostensibly for justice, but practically for a paycheck from whatever corporation can then continue to profit—even after proof of danger or wrong-doing comes to light.

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These are first-world criminals—people who commit atrocities secure in the knowledge that their society is too benign to shoot them in the head, as they deserve. And America is the worst—with our proud tradition of rugged individualism, these money-barons can even make the case that they are guaranteed the freedom to commit their crimes. Thus our highest ideal, freedom, when applied to money, becomes the greatest threat to our civilization. It’s complicated—no wonder it’s so easy for them to confuse us.

Making our education system a profit center fits very neatly into all of this—educated, informed voters are their only threat and restricting education to only their own offspring suits their purpose beautifully—plus they make a few bucks. Meanwhile, the old stand-by, voter restriction, is making a comeback. Civilization is the story of freedom and humanity—we are obviously at that part of the story where the hero is in a deadly spot—gee, I hope there’s a happy ending.

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I’m sure of only one thing. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to give the money to charity fast enough. I’d rather tell people I was a convict or a sex-offender than to tell them I was wealthy. Wealthy people disgust me and I wouldn’t want anyone to think of me or my family as part of that group. And it’s a good thing they prefer to live behind walls—if people start to wise up, these tics on society will be spending all their time there, afraid to walk the streets in daylight.

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Have a Koch and Be Beguiled (2015Feb08)

Sunday, February 08, 2015                              6:37 PM

Koch Industries I could care less about. Considering the enormity of the Koch boys’ fortune, I’m sure there are many important gee-gaws that spill from their factory floors. I’ll bet they have lots of happy, willing workers, too—I wouldn’t be surprised if they even got decent wages. Like all business owners, while relying on their ‘labor pool’ (we might think of it as a population) they have nightmares about ever taking responsibility for the labor pool—they just pick and choose from it, as needed. The rest is not their business, or so they are desperate to believe. But let’s leave that alone, and just agree that we have little to complain about so far as the industrial entities themselves are concerned.

Neither will we explore the question of Capitalism, possession, and whether or not there is any decency in two geezers having so impossibly much while so many have so few. Capitalism is the American way, isn’t it? So let’s just further agree that the Koch boys have every right to lord it over the rest of us. I’m sure the people who meet them socially find them to be lovely folks—almost impossible to imagine spitting in their faces, regardless of how much indication there may be that they deserve such treatment. In person, in a social setting, I imagine they strongly resemble real people.

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No, there’s just one thing to which I take exception, one thing which I can’t overlook, and that is their inability to understand how treasonous their behavior is. They want their pile of money to represent ‘free speech’—fine, as long as they’ve brought enough to share with the whole class. When the Koch boys are ready to sponsor both sides of a debate, great—but money spent on only one side is influence, not speech. And they know this, or they wouldn’t be so clever about circumventing the old rules. They can’t be cunning and dumb at the same time, though they and their ilk make a grand show of just that paradox, and quite often.

There is an ongoing outcry among champions like Liz Warren, bemoaning the intractable nature of such corruption—but there is a simple solution, and it should have occurred to us a long time ago. Do not vote for anyone who takes Koch money—simple. And if the Koch boys manage to buy all the candidates in a particular race, vote for whoever you want—it won’t make a difference. There ought to be a mob of people running for office, local, state, and national, whose only campaign pledge is that they won’t be bought. At this point I don’t care about political platforms—I’d vote for anybody else, if it meant defeating the Koch boys’ attempted purchase of our heritage.

I shouldn’t have to add the following, but in the interests of clarity let me point out that changing to some other big backer is not an option. Politics is dirty enough without the addition of big bankrolls—it’s been a dirty business long before it was acceptable to campaign for office. Did you know that it was once considered so grasping to actively campaign for an office that to do so was considered good reason not to vote for such a candidate? It’s true. We once had sense enough to avoid office-holders who actively sought the power of their office. Ah, the halcyon days of America…

But the Koch boys aren’t running for office—so why am I so angry with them? Can’t I be reasonable? They’re just trying to support the ideas they agree with—just like anyone else with billions of dollars and no clue about democracy. We are Americans—we all admire wealthy people—we all aspire to become wealthy people. But if we had great wealth, how many of us would decide that the best use of it would be to destroy our country? Who among us dreams of becoming rich solely for the purpose of making a mockery of our elections?

But more importantly, why do we vote for these paid mouthpieces? People joke that politicians should wear patches to declare their various sponsors, like NASCAR drivers—but we don’t need the stickers, we know that all these people are bought and paid for. So why do we vote for them? Democrats ran from photo-ops with the President during the last election because being aligned with him was considered bad politics. How then is it possible that endorsement by the Koch boys isn’t the kiss of death for any candidate? What kind of half-assed thinking is that? We’re acting like a bunch of morons, and we’ll end up with the government we deserve—I’m warning you.

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Popular Science Sucks—I Have a Pie-Chart to Prove It (2015Feb07)

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Saturday, February 07, 2015                            12:37 PM

The world was once a garden. Before the industrial age, everything was organic—the houses, the roads, the toilets, the farms, the furniture. We were once all-natural. When I say ‘garden’, I’m not implying any Garden of Eden—like all gardens, there was plenty of manure and rotting organic matter. If you caught that old garden in the wrong breeze, it stunk to high heaven—but it was a non-toxic stink.

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Then the steam engine led to the combustion engine, which led to the jet engine, then the rocket engine. Edison had his time in the sun, as did Ford, Einstein, Turing, Gates, and Jobs. Now the garden is gone and what’s left is not so pretty.

To sustain our first-world population requires mining, cutting, energy production, chemical processing, and manufacturing—all in mind-blowing, humongous quantities. (Did you know the world uses billions of tons of steel, every day?) We know that Earths’ infinite abundance is an illusion—that its amazing powers of recuperation can only be pushed so far. But we ignore that. And we keep ourselves so very, very busy trying to scam each other and distract each other that it is easy to ignore even such obvious facts.

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Between our old people, who are too ignorant to turn on a computer, and our young people, who are too ignorant to understand how unimportant computers are to the big picture, it’s obvious that our world is changing too fast for our society to keep up with. Meanwhile computers become ever more ingrained in our everyday lives, while computer experts baldly admit (as they always have) that the Internet can never be totally secure from malware. It’s kind of like accepting Politics, even while knowing that a bad politician can be humanity’s greatest threat—oh, wait—we do that, too.

There was no nerd happier than I when the Digital Era elevated ‘smarts’ to a sexy asset. But just as Star Wars popularized science fiction, and ended up diluting it into something sub-intellectual, so now science, math, and logic have been popularized, with the attendant dilution of these virtues into weapons of commerce and gamesmanship.

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There is no more popular meme than a pie-chart—but how many of today’s pie-charts illustrate hard data, and how many are printed in USA Today in an attempt to manipulate the un-informed? Back when they were too boring for anyone but us nerds, no one would have bothered to make a pie-chart of bad data—what would be the point, miscommunication? Yes, as it turns out, that’s a very good use for a mathematical tool. Because people love, love, love the appearance of reason—it’s the methodical application of reason that leaves us cold.

And words. Aren’t we all a little bit tired of words? If words had true meanings, arguments would end. If words had justice, they’d refuse to issue themselves from the mouths of many of the people on the TV news. Every word is a two-bladed sword—without good intentions, words are nothing but cudgels and self-appointed crowns. I’m so sick of the neat little bundles of words that spew from the faces of cold-blooded opportunists and greedy bastards—pretending that a logical algorithm of honest-sounding terms can erase horrible injustices that even three-year-olds would know in their hearts. A good argument is no substitute for a good person—and you can talk all day without changing that.

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But let’s return for a moment to pie-charts. I witnessed the early days of computing and I can attest to the fact that spreadsheet software was a big player. Descartes’ invention of a chart using an x-axis and a y-axis proved so useful that it pervaded mathematics and remains a part of it today. Just so did business leaders find in the mighty spreadsheet a powerful tool for business analysis, sales, and forecasting. Breaking down business activity into rows and columns of numbers gives people great clarity—if you’re into that sort of thing. But we’re not all math geeks—some of us prefer a simpler challenge to the mind. Presto, bar-graphs, pie-charts, etc.—graphic representations of numerical values—so simple even a child could use (or misuse) it.

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And way back then, I had a problem with the whole GUI, WYSWIG, object-oriented, ‘visual’ dumbing down of computer science. It seemed to me that if you couldn’t understand computer code, it wouldn’t help having everything be point-and-click. But the world has long over-ruled me on this point, and it’s only getting worse. What is the point of having scientists conduct a study—and then have a government official decide whether the study should be released? What is the point of a laboratory that conducts studies at the behest of large industrial sponsors—don’t they know that such circumstances taint the report before it’s even issued? Who do they expect to believe them? What is the point of classifying proprietary data from pharmaceutical studies—are they afraid the competition will steal their dangerous, toxic drug ideas while they’re being sued by their ‘patients’?

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We like that the world is getting more confusing—or, at least, some of us do—it makes it easier to lie and cheat and steal. And just to super-charge the confusion, we have a mass-media machine that craves excitement and ignores substance, like a spoiled child. Somewhere between the ‘yellow journalism’ at the break of the last century, and this century’s Fox News, we used to enjoy a historical ‘sweet-spot’, where Journalism was respected and professional—they even got to the point where it was available as a major in college study. TV news started out as a mandatory, public-service requirement for public broadcasters! They still have Journalism majors in colleges—but the classes are usually titled something like “Communicating In Media”, or some other name that lets you know you’re not dealing with ‘reporting’ anymore, you’re ‘communicating’. More dilution of something great into something ‘meh’.

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And that’s where the whole world is heading. Where once was sweet air and crystal-clear water, flush with fish and game, free of toxins—we will now enjoy ‘meh’. Where once dumb people could remain comfortably dumb, and scientists were trusted to think, we will now enjoy a free-for-all of debate points and well-turned phrases made out of pure bullshit—until reality pulls the plug. I once had hope that we would control ourselves in some way—I was so stupid. I guess I was misled by my intense desire for us to survive as a species, maybe even live as good people. Ha. We all have to grow up sometime.

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I See What You Did There (2015Jan24)

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When I was young, I was one of those lucky people who saw their own capabilities as homogenous powers—I could see; I could hear; I could think; I could run and jump. What’s more, I had better-than-average capabilities in many of those categories—this was what seemed most important to me—at least, the better-than-average thinking part of it. What escaped my then-inexperienced awareness was what we all learn as we age—that our abilities have a spectrum.

I used to think I was lucky that I had sight where a blind person did not, or had hearing where the deaf have none. What I should have been thinking was I was lucky to be young and have youthful powers of sight and hearing.

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Eventually came the day I noticed that if I turned up the volume of my radio enough to hear the rhythm, I still couldn’t hear the bass; if I turned up the volume enough to hear the bass I still couldn’t hear all the individual notes; if I turned it up enough to hear all the individual notes I still couldn’t hear the timbres; and if I turned it up enough to hear the instruments’ timbres, I’d still need a touch more to hear the ambient sound of the recording. My hearing had levels. Who knew? Worse yet, once I’d reached that ‘complete’ volume, it was too loud for prolonged comfort, and I could only listen for so long before the violence of the volume outshone the beauty of the music. So at my age, hearing has become a choice of balance between audibility and endurance.

Vision, also, has revealed levels. I can clearly see the horizon at sundown, but if I look down I can’t see my hand in front of my face. (I was surprised to learn, long ago, that color drains with the light. As lighting becomes dimmer, our eyes perceive less of the information they use to process colors. This seemed unnatural to me on first hearing. But now it seems normal, with the understanding that ‘color’ is simply an overlay, of sorts, that our eyes and brains use to process color’s wavelengths. As the information supplied by dimmer lighting gives less data, the eyes revert to their most basic function—determining shapes and outlines.)

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Normally I walk around without any glasses. I have a different magnification for the glasses I use to read a book, to read sheet music at the piano, and to read and write on the screen of my PC—that’s three different pairs and they are not interchangeable. I also require a fourth, very hi-magnification pair that I go and find whenever I have to look at the fine print on a pill bottle or the like. This took some getting used to–I used to do all that with just my eyeballs. My night vision is kaput for driving. I’ve become an aficionado of good lighting—it’s amazing how much a bright light can enhance vision. On the other hand, I’ve lost the trick of walking outside on a sunny day without some sunglasses, and a visor on my hat. (The hat is just to protect my balding dome from UV-rays.) Extremes of any sensory input are as bad, or worse, than paucity—I’m more easily disoriented, and I lose what sense of balance I still have at the drop of a hat (or, more likely, the picking of it back up).

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No one tells kids this stuff. Maybe they do, and kids are simply incapable of hearing the truth in it—and they may need to be. Our brains don’t attain their mature form until well into young adulthood. The child-like brain-format, more open to risk-taking, less empathetic, and less sensitive to consequences, may be a requirement for the rigors of entering adulthood and for carving out a new niche for a self-sufficient member of society to live in. Once a toe-hold has been established, we old farts can settle for steadier brains that focus on stability, with half-an-eye out for potential growth.

But that’s Darwin’s bottom line talking—species continuity is best assured—oh yeah, that’s fine, species-wise. But that requires that a great scientist or artist do their best work before they turn twenty-four years of age. What, you thought it was just athletes? Sorry, pal. Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Gödel—you name the scientist—they all flared out with tremendous achievements in their youth. In their later years, at best, they brought mature consideration to the breadth of their initial breakthroughs—at worst, they flounder about with little or no results or, sadly, devolve into head cases.

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Artists and musicians experience the same game clock—create a great work with what remains of your child-like brain-form, and its attendant more-prolix imagination, or turn into an old fuddy-duddy, incapable of re-attaining the Olympian heights (and the fresher, more energetic yearnings and frustrations) of your more youthful brain-power. But don’t misunderstand me—age does not bring stupidity—it brings change. The brain needed by a child is different than the one that ensures a successful adult.

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That our younger brain-formats are better suited to making advancements in the arts and sciences—that, further, our adolescent brains, changing from the old format to the new, in a relatively chaotic brain-format, are at the optimum opportunity to think new thoughts and create new imaginings—is something we may well consider. Here we live in the chaos of exploding science and technological change, incessant media communication and information input, in a constant struggle over socialization, rules and boundaries (not to mention the rat-race for sheer survival). And our society, oddly enough, has begun to prize that same, golden age-demographic that enables such cursed-blessing chaos—where, once, it seemed obvious that our elders were the ones to whom we should turn for leadership.

Perhaps our least-mature adults are now best-suited to deal with the immaturity of the civilization we’ve built up. But, if we reject the present model due to its probably-suicidal short-sightedness, we see that maturity may be important to our long-term point-of-view. Imagine mature behavior in politicians. Imagine mature judgment being exercised in the running of multi-national corporations. Imagine if all the scientists in all the corporate research and development labs gave mature consideration to what they are doing, how they are doing it, and whether they should do what they’re thinking of doing. Imagine, if your head doesn’t explode, world leaders whose decisions were unfailingly, objectively humanitarian. Would they still make mistakes? Yes, they’d still be humans. The difference would be in the lag time between recognition of a problem and the implementation of a corrective policy.

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As things stand now, we could (and when I say we, I mean the human race in general) destroy the entire planet—by accident. Well, without meaning to, at least—and in several different ways. And that’s just the planet. We also have in the works several ways in which we make ourselves miserable, unnecessarily—and many of the worst examples are currently experiencing tremendous growth. Our social institutions have never been about what common sense tells us they should be about—everyone’s peaceful pursuit of freedom and happiness. They began as draconian systems of repression and inhumanity—and our history is a story of how we have tried to improve upon tyranny. Tyranny is, however, a tough nut to crack. Our social institutions still battle on many levels against partisanship, influence, theocracy, capitalism, xenophobia, and bullying in all its forms—and forward motion is by no means a given.

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Even a slight up-tick in manifest maturity amongst all the adults in the world would be a really good idea right about now. Yet I would be loath to start crowd-funding a World Maturity Drive just yet—the word ‘Maturity’ is as vulnerable to mangling as the words “Christianity’ or ‘Communism’ and there seems little point to adding another body to the mosh pit. O well. At least when the end finally comes, I won’t see or hear it nearly as clearly as those young bastards that brought it on….

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Still A Student (2015Jan24)

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Saturday, January 24, 2015                    11:07 AM

My experience of learning has taught me the futility of goal-seeking. When we learn mathematics in school, we do not come to a conclusion—we simply learn it well enough to move on to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Just as basic math teaches us how to ‘make change’, algebra and the rest teach us how to draw circles and measure for carpentry—but those subjects, like math, are not the end of the trail. They lead to calculus, set theory, analytical geometry, topology, etc. And these subjects, also, will yield immediate skills and insights (usually the reason for their creation—as when Newton invented The Calculus to work on the ‘per second per second’ aspect of Gravitational attraction) but they too are not the end of the trail.

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In fact, as mathematical skill reaches higher and higher levels, it also bifurcates into multiple new trails to be blazed—the trail never ends, it only broadens into the infinite, beckoning us to discover new topics and techniques in Mathematics. Paradoxically, to penetrate further into this infinite mathematical unknown, one must choose a specific aspect of the mathematical unknown and work upon only those specific complexities to make any headway into the sum total of human mathematical knowledge.

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Thus, we never ‘learn math’—we only learn a little more math. Math makes a clear example of this point, but it is true of all subjects. History can be learned in broad strokes, i.e. mankind had a prehistory, a stone age, an iron age, a bronze age, an industrial revolution, and a digital revolution—the end. Scholars can go into further detail, i.e. 15th century Europe had a feudal society, used gothic architecture, and played renaissance music, etc. Beyond that, we can study history by subject, i.e. the history of religion, the history of women, the history of science, etc.—we can even study it individually, through biographies and autobiographies—or more subtly, as in the daily life of people during the Reformation, or the history of minority religious groups and the extent of their persecution by the majority.

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Still, in history as in math (or any other subject) we can never ‘learn history’; we can only learn a little more history. If we had a video history of every individual who ever lived, we still wouldn’t know it all—we might need two-camera coverage, or three or more camera angles to get the full story—and that’s ignoring the impossibility of any one person having the time to watch the billions of video biographies of everyone who ever lived.

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That’s why I have trouble with quotes like the following: “Only when we love ourselves fully and forgive all the people and experiences that have caused us pain….can we truly heal and find inner peace.” – from “Walking Home” by Sonia Choquet. Such sentiments intimate that there is, in fact, an end to all our studies; that we do have the capacity to come to a full understanding of something, of anything. Forgiveness is a fine idea, but it is difficult, to say the least, when we remember that forgiveness rarely comes without understanding, and full understanding of other people is just as messy a proposition as full understanding of say, Mathematics—it ain’t happening.

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Likewise, we cannot love ourselves fully without curtailing our curiosity about who we really are. To accept something as it is, even ourselves, requires us to put an end to our efforts to analyze ourselves—could we love ourselves fully without overlooking any potential failings or corruptions that we are not yet aware of? No. If we are to accept ourselves, we must cease to study ourselves—enforced ignorance in the name of inner peace.

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Don’t get me wrong. This is not a bad thing. I have experienced brief moments of inner peace myself—it does come with acceptance of what is, without full understanding of what that is is. But that doesn’t make ‘inner peace’ an end-point—it makes it a respite from reality. I can experience inner peace for as long as I’m able to maintain a stillness of mind that accepts what is, without understanding. But no one walks through life with their brain turned off—eventually, we find ourselves with the brain turned back on, curious, unsatisfied, mystified—and the game resumes. Goodbye inner peace—you were just a time-out, after all.

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Can inner peace be an end-point for some people? Yes—if that’s all they want from life, then by all means—but not for me. I prefer the peace-less-ness of constant inquiry. To me, a mind that ceases to explore the unknown is a mind that has ceased to function—and while mine will certainly do so, one day, it will never be because I have chosen to turn it off.

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State Of What Union? (2015Jan21)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015                        5:25 PM

20140205XD-Men__botm_left_detail_(smallversnOf_SK-C-402)Last night President Obama made his annual State of the Union address—I enjoyed it, especially when he talked about us still being the United States of America (i.e. capable of working towards good things for all citizens) and when he described our present-day politics, rife with obstructionist posturings, and pointed out that it doesn’t have to be that way. I also agreed with most of his other talking points—but that’s not what I want to talk about.

After the speech, every Republican supporter had the same thing to say. (When is that not the case?) They all said that ‘Obama’s initiatives’ were impossible pipe-dreams; that he was simply trying to antagonize the GOP by ignoring their agenda. They may be right—I’m not omniscient. But right or wrong, it certainly is convenient for the GOP that Obama made these proposals. It afforded them the ‘out’ of being anti-Obama, without all the fuss of having to explain why they oppose the specifics of Obama’s proposals.

With his accrued layers (visible only to Tea-Party eyes) of demonic filth, Obama makes a handy punching bag—it’s certainly easier to explain opposing Obama than it is to explain their opposition to closing tax loop-holes for the super-wealthy, making community college tuition-free, or guaranteeing women equal pay. The few Republicans with still-functioning consciences squirmed in their seats, knowing they should join the Democrats in applauding Obama’s most humane, populist proposals—but they were all wearing invisible shields made of anti-Obama and all pleas for desirable legislation just bounced right off.

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But Obama isn’t the Second Coming, at least not entirely—he also lowered himself to threats of vetoes and bragging about what his administration has accomplished—O, feet of clay! But I forgave him the boasting because it was, by and large, factual—and we don’t elect our Presidents based on modesty. In fact, I thought it was a shameful display of sour grapes that the GOP couldn’t join in celebration of our resurrection from Recession and War, just because it would in some small way legitimize Obama’s presidency.

Now, about the vetoes. The Tea Party, for all their air-time and extremism, represent a tiny fraction of backward-thinking, fundamentalist-leaning business-leaders, and the hoi polloi who have need of the delusional matrix broadcast through Fox News and other media outlets (i.e., rednecks sober enough to make it to the polls once a year). The vast majority of adult Americans don’t want the XL pipeline, they want overall enhanced infrastructure and carbon-emissions reduction. The vast majority do not want to pay women less than men or ban gay marriage or ban abortion, they want to provide child-care to working families and defend the freedoms of every sex or sexual orientation. The vast majority of us do not care about protecting billionaires from paying their fair share of taxes, we want to narrow the income-inequality gap and protect the poor from living in fear and suffering, especially children being raised in poverty.

How does the GOP get away with championing big businesses to the detriment of working citizens? They call potentially helpful laws “Obama boondoggles” (which is far more personal and effective than the old scarecrow ‘socialism’). They characterize any effort to hold the super-wealthy, and corporations, to the same responsibilities (and taxes) as the middle class as ‘class-warfare’ or as an attack on ‘job creators’.

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Then they describe Obama’s veto threats as antagonistic—as if their agenda, to undo the last fifty years of progressivism, isn’t a direct attack on genuine American values. They focus their ire on Obama’s newest victories, especially the Affordable Care Act—but they are also trying to undo Roe v. Wade (from 1973), the Voting Rights Act (from 1965), and Social Security for seniors (from FDR’s New Deal). At their farthest extreme, they even seek to undo the separation of church and state, as they have succeeded in undoing any financial limits placed on campaign contributions. Shouldn’t the Republicans now more aptly be called the Regressionists? Has what once was a mere political party become a force, like Westernized ISIS, for returning us to the Dark Ages?

One might even make a connection to these threads of ‘Business Uber Alles’, ‘America as Iron Fist’, misogyny, and racism—and the proliferation of global terrorism. Muslims, as a group, are as diverse in their beliefs and lifestyles as Christians, or any other group—it is clear that the truly common denominator of all global terrorism is poverty, ignorance, and bad government.

The main difference is one of enlightenment. The GOP sees global terrorism as a welcome enemy, something on which the world’s most powerful military might sharpen its claws and test its new tech—whereas Obama, and other thinking people, see terrorism as a problem that needs to be solved—even if the solution doesn’t involve a glorious, bloody field of battle. The GOP tell themselves that ISIS just appeared out of thin air—that our focus should be on their extermination. Obama, and others, accept that ISIS was created by the global situation, that it may be impossible to ‘exterminate’ the problem without changing our own behavior.

But why do I waste my time? Those who agree with me already know all this—and those who disagree have long since disappeared up their own asses.

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Aliens In Winter (2015Jan19)

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-Thus endeth the lesson.

So, now I have my video of Joni-Mitchell-song piano-covers, my poem about my winter walk, and here I am, being greedy, trying for an essay to top it all off…

Well, the odds of my getting a good essay, when I haven’t actually been driven to the keyboard by frustration and a head full of roiling thoughts—when I’ve just ‘decided’ to try and squeeze one out of myself—are lower than dirt. So I might as well choose an equally off-the-grid subject, like Ancient Aliens. Nobody takes ancient aliens seriously, so they make a perfect subject for me—although, I should admit, being taken seriously is the last thing I need. I have a hard enough time being taken for a light-headed jester.

Nevertheless, there are many ancient ruins whose construction is ‘unexplainable’. It’s hard for me to accept that word, ‘unexplainable’. ‘Very difficult’ I could manage—even ‘mysterious’ I can handle—but for something to be entirely unexplainable (in my experience) is a poor use of words. In science, there were (and are) many unanswered questions—but we don’t just throw up that word, ‘unexplainable’, and move on—we find explanations. That’s what science is—the refusal to accept ‘unexplainable’ as an answer.

Now, ‘unexplainable’ does have a temporal meaning—even in science, there are many things which are not yet explainable. And if Ancient Alien proponents wish to replace ‘unexplainable’ with ‘not yet explained’, then I’m ready to listen to the rest of what they have to say. Until then, I have to place them in the set of all people who are willing to accept ignorance as an answer, rather than a challenge—and members of that set do not intersect with the set of all people who are rigorously scientific.

And scale, in and of itself, does not constitute any great mystery, to my mind. Huge blocks of stone may seem immovable, laser-guided precision of ancient carvings may seem impossible—lots of things appear at first glance to be outside of our capabilities—or the capacity of our ancestors. But give thousands of people hundreds of years to think and experiment and work things out, and there is very little that we can pronounce to be impossible. Large objects can be floated upon waterways, rolled on wheels or cylinders, or undermined in sand. These and other techniques can also be combined in various ways to enhance their power. In short, to pronounce something to be too big to move is actually just a way of saying that our imaginations have limits—a statement with which I could never agree.

Others questions, such as the visibility of the Nazca Lines diagrams only from the air, seem to me equally judgmental about the cleverness of people. There’s a tremendous gap, to my mind, between something that is very, very hard to do—and something that is impossible to do. Nor do I give credence to the issue of why ancient monuments were built. Without context, even our more modern structures, like cathedrals, have no obvious, practical use. In the particular case of the Ancient Alien question, we see many ruins of structures that have an astronomical connection—but the stars are as important to a farmer, or a sheepherder, as they are to an alien. The circuitous seasons have, for mankind, both a life-or-death meaning for agriculture and a more mystical attraction as a source of contemplation and dreaming—the addition of aliens is superfluous to their import.

Thus, while I’m open to the idea of Ancient Aliens, I’m less than satisfied with the current archive of ‘proof’ that we see on TV. Also, I’m not too crazy about the idea that humanity is nothing more than an experiment in some galactic laboratory run by alien overlords. I’d rather believe in God, if I could.

O–and two more videos:

 

Do Your Worst (2015Jan14)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015                        10:42 AM

In Politics, the news is full of stories about how the Dems did this, the GOPs did that, big business is lobbying and buying elections, legislation concerning health care, banking regulation, gay marriage, minimum wage, social security, ad infinitum—is being debated, blocked, criticized, snuck through, fought over, and stalemating the legislative process. Then elections happen, where all that stuff is ignored and the same old pols get re-elected. Occasionally (and this is new) the government shuts down in a fit of pique—politics as scorched-earth warfare—with the odd caveat that all that needs to happen to end the shut-down is for our elected officials to say so. This is what we call ‘representation’.

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In Money, the news is full of stories about how unemployment is slowly improving, but wages are not—even while big business seems to think that it’s in the middle of a burgeoning recovery. Energy and mining industries continue to destroy the environment in the name of the almighty dollar—and its latest poster-boy is Fracking—a method that permits America to supply its own petroleum, as long as we accept living with earthquakes and flammable tap-water. The overall thrust is that corporations are attacking mankind on two fronts—they attempt to enslave us all in various forms of draconian ‘employment’ while simultaneously buying government influence to pass laws that enforce their kill-or-be-killed economic paradigm. Meanwhile, ‘austerity’ programs ensure that none of the damage caused by all the unethical, inhumane corporate gamesmanship is balanced out by any government support of the disenfranchised.

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War and starvation are everywhere. The governments in such places are either unable or unwilling to end the suffering—and the larger, more powerful, neighboring countries pretend that their sovereign borders absolve them of any responsibility to help. That doesn’t stop them when it’s a matter of exerting their economic influence on trade partners—but when it concerns ‘just people’, the line is magically un-crossable.

Then there’s the arms industry. These folks are supplying the wherewithal for all war, terrorism, hand-gun deaths, and basically any violence more lethal than fisticuffs—yet they are never burdened with the responsibility, or the ethical onus, for any of this violence and suffering. Their profits are as ‘clean’ as a farmer’s, while their output continues to make a hell on earth. They are almost as repugnant as bankers.

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I won’t even get into the details of global terrorism, race-hatred, and misogyny—that’s just the icing on the shit sandwich that our civilization has become. Our ever-more-complex technology seems to spur chaos, rather than purposeful growth, organization, or cooperation between people, groups, states, or countries. And this is not happening on its own—it is being nurtured by a media industry that is controlled by psychopathic owners and aimed at sensationalism rather than elucidation. The crazier and more horrible a situation gets, the better they like it, and the louder and longer they shout about it. The more mature and civil an issue, the more they ignore it.

And these politicians, corporations, media outlets, and arms manufacturers do not operate in a vacuum. They’ve grown out of our responses—we watch their TV shows, buy their guns, vote for the pols, and go to work every day for these fat-cats. I won’t waste my breath suggesting that we stop watching TV, owning guns, voting for Republicans, or quit our jobs—but I have an idea.

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Corporate America, around the time of the great Japanese economic surge, got very frightened (or pretended to) and began adopting many Japanese business practices. Not the good ones, like guaranteed job security, but the ugly ones, like longer, unpaid hours, lower wages, and curtailed benefits. They sought not just to destroy the power of unions, but to deprive labor of any pride or self-worth—and they have succeeded.

Americans now consider themselves lucky to have a job, even a job with long hours, unlivable wages, and zero benefits—they just kill themselves holding two or three such jobs. So here’s my idea. We’ve all been treated like shit, so let’s all start doing a shitty job at work. Let’s do things wrong at work, like they do in life. Let’s lie about everything at work, like they do in life. Let’s make their profits evaporate, like they did ours. Let’s show them that, while they may at some future date replace us all with machines, that we are still human beings—and while we are, we are going to kick back when someone kicks us in the teeth. If they want to ignore our humanity, let’s rub it in their faces.

Do your worst at work. The people in charge have gotten used to taking advantage of their positions—let’s all start doing the same.

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Brrr! (2015Jan09)

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Friday, January 09, 2015                        1:42 PM

So ends the first work-week of 2015. Not that I’m employed, but I follow along. It’s cold—everywhere. Whatever happened to Florida or California (or Syria, for that matter) being warm in winter? It’s even colder, psychologically speaking, in Paris right now—attacks on freedom of speech and violent anti-Semitism makes it hard to feel the warmth of humanity.

An Islamic apologist makes the point that Muslims act differently in different countries, that, for instance, female genital mutilation is practiced in Christian countries, too, and that it is a characteristic of African countries, not Muslim ones. And it occurs to me that Islam predominates in the under-developed world, where ‘Christianity-lite’ or outright Agnosticism predominates in the developed world. A case could be made for poverty, ignorance, and lack of good government being the true source of most terrorism—but that only means the Muslims should be the most pro-active in distancing Islam from these bad actors.

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However, the unhappy truth is that large numbers of Muslims applaud the attacks on modern civilization, i.e. the Great Satan, America, and its allies, and like-minded countries. And is America innocent?—of course not. Some of the activities of our government make me ashamed to call myself an American—but no country is perfect, and America has a great deal to be proud of. More importantly, America has the ability to recognize its own mistakes, and to change. Considering our place in the world, I think it’s obvious that working out our problems is preferable to burning the place down and beheading everybody.

But my personal problem is that I’m against religion of any kind. How tempting it is to hold up these terrorists as an example of how dangerous and ignorant religion is. The suppression of women, the persecution of gays, and other religion-based ignorance, is nearly as common in the developed world as it is in the rest of the planet. But violence is common to fundamentalists and atheists alike—and the raising of children to be adults capable of cold-blooded murder is the real problem. Religion is just the nail some of us hang it on.

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Ending poverty and illiteracy would do more to eliminate violence than any other action we could take. Warring against religions because of their specific violence can only make more violence. I saw a hopeful slogan today on a Humanists Facebook post, “Humanity before Creed”. I like it, but in our present environment, I anticipate that theists will take exception.

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Super Hero? I’d Settle For An Average One. (2015Jan03)

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I saw a discussion of “The Secret History Of Wonder Woman” on some book-talk of CSPAN’s just the other day—and just now, before being interrupted, I was watching a PBS documentary about Comic Book Super Heroes. I love to see this celebration of my boyhood head-space, just as I enjoyed the explosion of Sci-Fi obsession that came with “Star Wars” and the invention of CGI-FX. Unlike the occasional, and temporary, popularization of classical music, or poetry, caused by a temporal confluence with a trending meme or personality, the popularization of Sci-Fi, and of Super-Heroes, is permanent, due to hyper-commercialization of these genres.

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Everyone recognizes that commercializing classical music or poetry is just another way of saying ‘ruin’ classical music or poetry. The genesis of our iconic hero-images, and our dreams of space exploration and new sciences, was equally, delicately human—but their beginnings as ‘pulps’, unchallenging works aimed at an audience of children and the simple-minded, caused them to be born with an ingrained ‘wow’ factor. So we learn that Superman was the brain-child of Jewish sons of immigrants during Hitler’s rise to power—but we also learn that they were paid something like $5 a page for their work, with the copyright for one of the most popular and enduring (and profitable) trademarks in history going to the owners of the comic franchise.

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While they dreamed of a Superman to arise and smite down Hitler’s Fascism and Anti-Semitism, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were ensconced in the comfortable slavery we call ‘employment’. The idea that one person can pay another to do work is fairly simple and straightforward—and I have no beef with that concept. The idea that such a relationship entitles the employer to ownership of a worker’s ideas, or creativity—someone is going to have to explain that one to me. Some people get confused about employment—an employer is buying the work, not the person—but not everyone is comfortable with that distinction—especially people that leech off of the brilliant and creative.

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Such abuse of ownership and employment has been popularized as a feature of the music and movie industries, but it is a standard feature of American Capitalism. First-time artists in publishing, games, theater, music, movies, and television are never allowed to retain the rights to their earliest (and sometimes greatest) creations—the owners claim it as a right due to a first-time investor in an unproven product. It is remarkable that only the truly successful artists get a say in the ownership and use of their productions—and in the movie business, where billions can rest on a single picture, even a mega-star will find himself or herself still subject to the whims of the ‘money people’.

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But Capitalism resists even so basic a human right for their employees as collective bargaining—so it is not surprising that it tramples on the rights of the lone, creative employee. Capitalism has, as one of its givens, a rule—that an employer is not responsible for paying employees what they need, only for the value of their work. This and many other sensible-seeming axioms are the rationales that Capitalism uses to explain away the suffering it causes and the unfairness it perpetuates. But in the case of an employee not being paid what is needed to survive, who is responsible? FDR, who was loathe to criticize Capitalism, felt that the government should step in, should help the underpaid and unemployed keep from starving or freezing to death. Truman went further, and determined that the government should see that poor people don’t die from treatable illnesses.

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All this time, as Capitalism grows stronger from paying people whatever pittance they deem them worthy of, Capitalism’s top players start to kick against the taxes they have to pay the government—apparently, they heard the government was keeping their employees from starving, like the little people are supposed to. Now, since 2008, things are back the way they should be, with austerity programs preventing even a little of the filthy rich’s money from going to the dirty wretches who work for them (or aren’t being hired by them).

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But let’s change the subject. One of America’s biggest problems today is obesity, particularly childhood obesity. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, runs a special program to fight this scourge that attacks our nation’s children. Now turn on the TV and watch during primetime—you’ll see a parade of commercials that are practically pornographic in their depiction of fast foods, tasty beverages, and sweet snacks lacking any known nutritional value, but containing the latest mystery chemical additive from their laboratory. How much harder this must make the fight for all those of us trying to control our diets. But we can’t interfere with the rights of Capitalism, can we? Those companies have a right to sell their product—they even have the right to schedule seductive, high-production-value food commercials for when people are at their weakest and most easily-influenced.

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This is no different than the petroleum industry’s penchant for destroying thousands of miles of beach habitat because they’re too cheap to build non-leaking tankers. These companies have a right to do business. But who are these people? Who makes the decision that it’s okay to dump poisonous industrial waste into the Hudson River, of all places? Who decides that employees, by virtue of being paid, lose their right to a safe and healthy work environment? What kind of person does that?

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When did it become the government’s problem to pick up the slack where Capitalism turns a blind eye to humanity? People will tell you that Money and Survival are the same thing—that no one can survive without money. But this is only true in the immediate sense. In the long term, with proper planning, we can easily transform the world into a place where money is not the only means of survival. It is only true now because Capitalism says it’s so. Capitalism insists that Commerce is a blood sport. However, the true roots of Commerce lie in exchange and cooperation—Capitalism has deformed that into a competition. And since Capitalism makes the rules, it’s winning the game. Unfortunately, it is no longer just Communism, but all of Humanity, that is losing.

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Do you remember being in high school, thinking about how you were just a few years from adulthood but were trapped in an environment that more closely resembled a Kindergarten? I always felt that, yes, we students were young, irresponsible, and unruly—but the faculty and administration were equally at fault for focusing on our failings and immaturity, instead of trying to bring out the burgeoning maturity of our years. And now, as my fifty-ninth birthday approaches, I find myself feeling a similar dissatisfaction with the global community. When will we stop running the world like a Kindergarten? Where can we find leadership that brings out our best and moves us forward? When will business leaders stop clowning around like children and adopt the responsible attitudes of adulthood?

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Seasonal Withdrawal (2014Dec29)

Well, it’s still a couple of days ’til New Year’s, but excuse me if felt the need to crawl back into my shell, post-xmas. Today you have a choice again, between a very introspective essay and an even more introspective piano improv. The roller-coaster moods of the Holidays may be wearing me out, but they certainly give my muse a kick in the ass, so I can’t complain. Hope you like’em!

 

ESSAY:

Monday, December 29, 2014                          2:13 AM

 

Before The Beginning And After The End

 

Well, problem-solving is in our nature. We often try to solve the problem of the human race. But humans are animals—we can accept our animal nature or we can change. If we change, how far do we change, and to what end? And if we change, will we still be human?

Born in 1956 and raised first on Long Island (next to the Grumman plant where the LEM was developed for Apollo’s Moon landings) I took to reading the Tom Swift, Jr. Series of science-fiction adventure books—I assumed that mankind’s future lay in its spread throughout the solar system and, eventually, the galaxy. I assumed that we would continue to discover scientific principles that would benefit mankind, and use them to perpetuate our destiny among the stars.

But now all electronic developments are geared towards the social interaction of young people and the entertainment of the masses. All microbiological advances are turned toward the making of profits for the pharmaceutical companies. Advances in mathematics are turned into new financial market products, such as derivatives—or used to protect and/or hack computers. Science marches on, but it has found a way to cater to the most mundane impulses of the human animal. Where we could once point to scientific research as a sacred crusade against the darkness of ignorance, we now see it put on a par with evangelical, tent-revival-type preaching and political maneuvering.

The flooding into our lives of technology has cheapened the once-pure luster of scientific clarity—clever apologists for Faith attempt to ‘turn the tables’, saying that if Science can destroy our beliefs, then our beliefs can destroy Science. Politics and Commerce do equal damage to Science, editing PR-negative sections from research reports, declining to release such reports when their contents are unabridgedly un-spinnable, and even hiding public-health related research data under the mantle of corporate proprietary-data protection laws. Between the zealots’ attempts to parse the mechanics of the universe into a theist-friendly syntax and the filthy rich attempting to commodify knowledge and probability, we are less concerned today with the challenges that confront current science and more concerned with turning Science to our own advantage, individually and in groups.

Forgetting that Science is just a fancy word for Reality, zealots impugn the Scientific Method for its lack of ultimate answers. Science gives many answers, such as how to make a multi-tonned, steel machine fly through the air faster than the speed of sound, but it has no answers (yet) for many other questions. It has no ultimate answers—and the faithful should keep in mind that their own ultimate answers were made up out of thin air and wishful thinking—and that was a thousand years ago. Confusing control of Technology with control of Reality, the filthy rich hid the science of tobacco-related health risks—and they’re still hiding the science behind climate change, particularly as it relates to vastly profitable fossil-fuel industries.

Simplicity is a desirable quality in life, but having set our steps on the path of Science, we must say goodbye to simplicity. “Occam’s Razor” is the shorthand term used for a principle that says, given more than one possible explanation of a thing, the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true. But there is what we refer to as ‘elegant’ simplicity, such as the Pythagorean Theorem, and there is seeming simplicity, the desire for things to be simpler and easier than they really are. In addition, Occam’s Razor only suggests that the simplest explanation is most likely—sometimes a thing requires a more complicated explanation. As a rule of thumb, Occam’s Razor can be useful—but as a scientific principle, it lacks the reproducible results found in all good science.

Simplicity thus becomes a matter of personal opinion. When Newton invented Calculus, he created one of the most complicated procedures ever conceived—but it allowed us, for the first time, to solve problems that were too complicated to be solved with any existing mathematics. Newton found a complex solution to a complex problem—and we could easily describe that as ‘simplifying’ the problem. So what is simplicity? The idyllic life of the hunter-gatherer age was simple in many respects. But many activities, such as obtaining clean drinking water from a sink faucet, are far simpler procedures today than they were then. So simplicity is not exactly simple.

And this is hard luck for us all, because Science can simplify many things, but it can’t simplify our reasons, our wants, or our ambitions. These aspects of human nature can never be simplified without making humanity less diverse, less chaotic. And if we change humanity, we become inhuman. Fascism was a stark example of this problem—their ‘solutions’ hinged on unexamined fears and hatreds. We cannot ‘perfect’ humanity unless we are first perfect—and who among us is without sin? I am no more capable of ‘improving’ humanity than Hitler was—my only advantage is that I’m smart enough not to try.

Yet, if we cannot improve humanity, what is the point of progress? Progress grants us the strength to build mighty structures: ships, rockets, skyscrapers. Progress let’s more of us stay alive for more years. Progress gives us power—power to transport, communicate, grow food, manufacture, refine, and destroy. But progress never changes who we are—it only changes what we can do.

That is the traditional view of progress. But modern progress goes beyond mere shipbuilding and high-yield crops. Sequencing the human genome is more than medical research—it is the beginning of our transforming ourselves into purposefully-designed creatures. Far beyond the choice of gender, or even the choice of eye color, IQ, and body-type, the deeper understanding of our own blueprint will allow us to design and create humans to specific standards.

But this does not necessarily mean that we are acquiring the means for self-improvement. We are reaching the point where we can change ourselves, but we have not done anything to prepare ourselves to determine what ‘improvement’ would consist of. Just as computerization transformed the developed world into a target for hackers, gene-sequencing may tempt us to manipulate our DNA before we fully understand the risks of eliminating the element of chance that made all of natural evolution come up with the human race. In our quest for progress, we might remove the possibility of our greatest progress so far—the natural selection that brought us from amoeba to homo sapiens.

If something as profound as Consciousness can be brought about by random selection, who can say what other wonders lay ahead? Shouldn’t we have a firmer grasp on the machinations of Mother Nature, before we try to wrest the wheel from her hands? Or is humanity’s progress too complex to leave to the random mutations of natural life? I’m tempted to answer that humanity’s progress is too complex, in general, relative to our development of our understanding of where humanity is headed, and wherefore.

I was directed to a fascinating online article today (http://www.common-place.org/vol-04/no-02/semonin/) “Peale’s Mastodon: The Skeleton in our Closet.” by Paul Semonin. Semonin tells of the famous portraitist, Peale, who dug up a Mastodon skeleton in the late 18th Century—and how this discovery of an extinct species set minds to work—including those of our founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, who tried to purchase the remains. Semonin says that the Europeans teased the new American republic, claiming that America was a land of small creatures and small men. The Americans were quick to seize on the image of a native-American animal that outsized all others, even the mighty elephant. Plus, they convinced themselves that the Mastodon was a carnivore and dubbed it the Ruler of the American Wilderness.

Semonin speaks of this idea of an alpha-predator, the anthropomorphizing of the mightiest and most terrible beasts in a given ‘wilderness’ into not just the most dangerous beings but, somehow, also in charge of the place. He points out that we speak similarly of the dinosaurs ‘ruling’ the earth of pre-humanity. I agree that he seems to have found a piece of pure human nature that has injected itself into our critical thinking, even unto the present.

Back in the bad old days, whoever was the ruler, the chief, king, emperor, head man—those guys had the power of life and death over those under their thrall. That makes a sort of sense when you figure that, prior to our reaching the apex of the food chain, something else was ‘taking out’ the occasional weakling or non-team player—and once a mighty leader puts an end to that culling of the tribe, that power transfers to the leader. The logic may seem specious, but you know how it is with ‘mighty leaders’ and ‘rules’.

It got me thinking about the whole ‘getting eaten’ thing. We started out as mere players in the great circle of the food chain, and as we attained the ability to fend off even the most dangerous predators, we retained the risk of being made a meal whenever we strayed from the group. There are still parts of the world where people can find themselves, if unarmed or unprepared, at the mercy of a large, hungry predator—but such locations are few and the predators sparse. I understand that there are villages in India that can still experience tiger incursions—once they become man-eaters, they are hunted mercilessly. And there continue to be plenty of bugs, snakes and what-not, which can kill with venom—not to mention the many deadly germs and viruses. We are not entirely safe from nature, but we are pretty safe from being eaten.

And I guess that presents a problem. A major consideration for all of our forebears, up until a handful of generations ago, was avoiding being eaten by a predator. Our instincts still stand up the hairs on our necks when we hear the howls of a wolf-pack, but outside of a camping trip in the mountains, we rarely have such reminders to think about. Modern people are far too concerned with the lack of money to waste any time thinking about lions, tigers, or bears. We used to respect the hell out of those creatures—and why not? They had the power of life and death—they were life or death.

It’s possible that our difficulty with choosing cooperation over competition is partly due to the fact that we evolved as creatures that were always under threat. We perceived ourselves, on some level, as prey—and still do. Our obsession with the totemic possession of power, if based on our instinctual expectations of predation, will always favor ‘controlling the fate of others’ over ‘responsible acts of leadership’. When we think of power, we think of using it to control others as much as we think of using it for betterment of the group. This makes it virtually impossible to wield power impersonally and rationally—thus, power corrupts.

But the problem is deeper than certain individuals being consumed by their imagining of whatever power or authority they control. The more basic problem is that we all place survival on an equal, perhaps even higher, priority with justice. When my young boy’s head was being filled with space-age daydreams of a Star Trek future, it included a world without commerce or poverty—a world where one could focus on competing with oneself, instead of scrambling to snatch necessities from the wanting mob. It foretold a world where everything was being done for the right reasons—and what could be more different from the ‘future’ we now find ourselves arrived in?

Of course, Roddenberry was a dreamer—Clarke was a real scientist—his science fiction included the twisted motives of civilization’s less-dreamy players. But even Arthur C. Clarke dreamed of a race of aliens that would come down and save us from destroying our own children when they began to mutate into the next phase of humanity, the phase that would become worthy of joining the interstellar civilization the aliens represented. The Aliens of “Childhood’s End” were there to protect us from our own atavistic fear, borne of our animal past, of the unknown—the urge to kill anything that may threaten us—even if we’re not sure how—even if the threat is our own offspring.

Science fiction does a strange job of showing us two mirrors—one reflects what we become if we act like angels, the other shows us what we become if we do not change. The latter, showing straightforward extrapolations from where we are to where we may end up, can be truly horrifying. But the Star Trek-types can be horrible in their own way—I never saw anyone on Star-Trek eating potato chips while watching TV, or bitching about their lousy love-life—the nearest thing they had to a cat-lady was the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode—and the tribbles didn’t even pee all over the ship.

That may all seem very Buck Rodgers and all that, but the question is—is the lacking laziness, loneliness, and personal hygiene issues something that ceased to exist—or is it something that is outlawed? If all the good behavior on Star Trek is mandatory, then the series would properly belong on the same shelf as Leni Riefenstahl’s opus. If it isn’t mandatory, then what happened between now and the future to transform these people into almost-saints who explore the universe, without pay, smiling in the face of danger, and all getting along famously without a cop in sight? Those people are not the same as us. If we want to see the Star Trek version of the future, we have to do more than invent a warp-drive.

As always, the main difficulty is our fear of death, of non-existence. We don’t like to think of our own death, and we aren’t much interested in the death of our species, either. But I think that we can only begin to make plans for our ‘Star Trek’ future after we have faced the truth that humanity wasn’t always there—and it won’t last forever. Civilization is not an inert object—it is an event. Granted, it’s timeline is huge, but we can never really exceed our natural selves and become something ‘better’ unless we can stand back far enough to get a perspective on all of us, everywhere, over all the centuries, and where we are going—and maybe even where we may ultimately decide to go.

Intellectual courage is one of the rarest of human characteristics, but as our intellectual strength so swiftly increases through science and technology, we are in great need of such courage. We can map the countless stars in the sky, but it won’t mean a thing if we don’t start surveying our interior wilderness, and confronting some of our inner predators.

Your Choice (2014Dec14)

Well, I wish I’d posted this yesterday (It was Sequential Day, that is, the date was 12-13-14) But, I can only play when my aching back lets me, so today was the best I could do.

You have a choice with this post:  you can read my boring-ass essay -or- you can listen to my silly-ass music–either way, please don’t forget to ‘like’ and ‘share’ or whatever.

 

 

 

 

“Baby Steps Among The Stars” – Part Two (Chap7)

Chapter Seven

Sounds easy—just place limits on money’s influence; allow it, where necessary, to be over-ruled by ecological or ethical considerations. But how? Much is made of the ‘revolving door’ of big-business executives and government regulators—doesn’t it invite corruption to have the same people flit between the leadership of these dangerous industries and the guardianship of the peoples’ interests, rights, and well-being vis-à-vis these industries? Certainly a conflict of interests is almost guaranteed by such intermingling. But what is the alternative? It doesn’t make much more sense to have all our potential regulatory chiefs be confined to those with no knowledge of the industry they monitor. Neither does it seem fair to ask a retiring federal regulator to find a job elsewhere than the industry in which he or she is a recognized expert.

And the power of Capitalism is likewise inherently bound up with the efficiency of our commerce—we can’t declare money invalid for one use and not another. If money has any purchasing power at all, it can ‘buy’ a person—or at least, their effort or their influence—which means that money can ‘buy’ exceptions to rules. The very versatility and anonymity that makes cash so useful also makes it impossible to confine to specific uses.

Worse yet, people are as much a part of the problem of Capitalism as its mechanisms. People, as has been mentioned above, are changed by both authority and submission to it—to be a boss affects one’s mind, as does being an employee. The office politics, the competition to climb the corporate ladder, the stress—all the unnecessary dramas produced by people under workplace conditions—are unavoidably caused by the nature of labor in business. This almost-biologically-mandated perversion of people in positions of authority has gotten much notice recently with regard to the police and their relationship to the communities they protect and serve. It would appear that any person given a gun to wear, and told to enforce the law, is in danger of becoming authoritarian, even violent towards those they ostensibly serve. But the same dynamics that obtain in that example are also true, to a certain extent, in any workplace where a manager is led astray by the urgings of power.

Because of this, it is safe to assume that, regardless of how many laws and regulations govern the workplace, it will always be an inherently unfair environment. Worse yet, this is only a statement of the influence of authority—it doesn’t even touch on the fact that people don’t necessarily arrive at a job with an intact, healthy psyche. People go through lots of stuff before they reach the legal age to get a job—and whatever traumas have formed their personalities are only exacerbated by ‘gainful employment’.

Indeed, this is true of people in general. Many are raised by less-than-perfect parents. Many are raised in religious fundamentalism, giving them a skewed perspective on reality. Many are raised in poverty, causing permanent fear and resentment towards those who live in comfort—and, conversely, being raised in wealth can lead many to become overbearing and dismissive towards the majority of the human race, particularly the poor.

The way we are raised, the conditions of our family and community life, the teachings of our spiritual leaders—all these things create a humanity that is far more disposed towards conflict than cooperation. The formation of an individual is so haphazard that a certain percentage of people can be expected to end up as murderers, rapists, thieves, and con-artists—and the rest of us are only relatively well-balanced. We are not perfect—we’re just good enough to stay out of prison, is all.

So when we speak of Civilization, of the Family of Man—or any such grand generalization—we are speaking in the aggregate of people who, as individuals, must each be considered potential time-bombs of anti-social behavior. And that behavior can take an infinite number of forms, from being crabby towards one’s own children, to being a cold-blooded dictator of an undeveloped nation. This clarifies the issue of ‘how can we be so self-destructive?” We can observe Humanity as a single entity, we can discuss Civilization as an overview of ourselves—but we have zero control over ourselves as a group.

Even when rules are so clear and exact as to describe a perfect situation, the troubles that live within each individual will eventually lead us to find ways to circumvent the spirit of the rules, to manipulate the letter of the rules, for selfish reasons. We have been in this race since Hammurabi’s Pillar, and even the lawyers find themselves working half the time in good faith with the law, and half the time working against it. When the rules get in the way of our dreams, we search for ways around the rules—it’s in our nature.

That’s us—nothing to be done about that. That was fine, back when the world was too enormous ever to be used up, back when God was in his Heaven, back before the Internet, when we weren’t on the cusp of quasi-AI and nanotech-enhanced, remote-presence medicine and self-contained, robotic Mars explorers. Now we don’t know whether to ban paraplegics from the Olympics because their hi-tech prostheses give an unfair advantage, or to baby-proof munitions factories so that single mothers can bring their kids to work.

In a recent broadcast, the discussion over e-share commerce brought out the point that Uber’s car service, while superior to existing urban transport, also circumvents a century’s worth of safety and regulatory legislation. This makes Uber both modern and primeval—they create a paradox by using modernity to circumvent civilization. (As of this writing, there is a news report that India has banned Uber due to a rape that occurred during a ride-share—an excellent example of the conflict between progress and human nature.)

Hacking has always been synonymous with coding—its only difference is in the suggestion of a rebel outlaw doing the coding. The term is important because software, like any tech, is open to both good and bad aims—but a hacker isn’t just a bad person who codes. Hacking can mean being a rebel, or a Robin Hood, who codes—possibly even a champion of human rights. Beyond that, the subject becomes one of syntax. But Hacking, as an activity, has also come to be synonymous with finding an easy way to solve or circumvent problems. So-called ‘life-hacks’ can be anything from the best way to refrigerate pineapple slices to the safest way to invest towards retirement. Hardly the acts of a criminal.

But Uber, and other e-share-oriented businesses, are busily pioneering the ‘corporate hack’, a digital backdoor that allows new forms of trade, free from the boundaries of written communication, brick-and-mortar competition, and civil oversight. These clever, new uses of the digital universe, however, create legislative loopholes faster than they generate new business models. The fly-by-night business, once confined to the mails, has now blanketed the globe via WyFy. A person without a physical location is not held back by the same constraints as a person who can be found behind the same counter on the day after you buy something unsatisfying from their shop. And when combined with computerized phone-answering, these businesses can even offer ‘customer service’ while still leaving the customer with no solid target for retaliation, or even complaint. Hence Yelp reviews, I guess.

So, complexity takes a quantum leap forward. Personal responsibility virtually evaporates. Global climate-change edges ever closer to global disaster. Population growth towers dizzyingly. Suddenly, our civilization is faced with an ultimatum—confine the term ‘civilization’ to mean only the one percent and consign the rest of us to savagery among ourselves -or- take a pick-axe to the existing paradigm through collective action. The first option is the most likely because it counts on the disorganized lack of action we can expect from ourselves as a group. The second option is far less likely, as it would require people, as a community, to act in their own best interest—something history tells us we have never, ever done before.

On the contrary, it seems that small, well-led groups of people are the only paradigm within which humanity can exert its greatest power. A team of dedicated people can be found at many of the central pivot-points of civilization’s history. Now, small groups empowered by technology, can accomplish incredible things—good and bad. Thus we witness the rise of SpaceX, a relatively new and tiny company that accomplishes things it once took a federal institution like NASA to orchestrate. And we see the birth of terrorist groups, without massive armies or host nations, capable of attacks on the world’s mightiest superpower. Even individuals have greater power than we ever dreamed—Snowden’s release of classified documents surprised us, in part, because it involved more pages of information than Edward, in an earlier age, could ever have moved without several large trucks—and he did it with a few clicks of a mouse, sending it all not just to one location, but virtually everywhere. That’s power—we all now have that power—any of us can send a mountain of information from one place to another, instantly.

Those of us old enough to appreciate the difference between then and now are hard pressed to encompass the meaning of such power as the digital age has conferred on us. Those young enough to take digital communication for granted have no idea how much the world will be changed by the growing inclusion of all seven billion of us into this information-empowerment. We tend to look at ‘progress’ as an ennobling evolution—that with great enough knowledge, surely wisdom must follow. But progress enables our fears as well, our greed and our bitterness—these things are provided with the same wings as our dreams.

So, at the end of all this trouble and woe, we find that improving ourselves and making things better for others is the most important progress of all.

But if truth is anything, it’s inconvenient. Take the Earth, for instance—looks flat, feels flat—and for hundreds of years, most people thought it was flat. Ancient Greeks who studied Philosophy (Science, before we called it that) knew that the world was round—some even calculated brilliant measurements that gave them a close approximation of the Earth’s diameter. Perhaps the Mayans, or the Chinese, maybe even the Atlanteans—knew similar stuff, but none of it mattered to Western Civilization during the Dark Ages. Most of ancient math and science would return to Europe during the Enlightenment via East, the caretakers of ancient knowledge during the chaos of post-Roman-Empire Europe—and, indeed, without that returning influx of science, Columbus may never have sailed.

These exceptions notwithstanding, the popular view was that the Earth was flat and arguing about it seemed a moot point. It was only after Columbus’s well-publicized return from the ‘New World’ that people began to see the globe, not as an intellectual exercise, but as a limitless expanse of unclaimed assets and resources. Now that there was land to be grabbed and money to be made, the world could be in the shape of a dodecahedron for all anyone cared. The truth of the world being round had ceased to be inconvenient.

But others remained. Now that we couldn’t avoid the image of all of us standing upright on the outside of a globe, gravitational force became another inconvenience. ‘Things fall down’ was no longer sufficient—because we now knew ‘down’ to be several different directions, and all of them inward, towards the center of the globe. Without Columbus’s voyages, there may not have been any cause for Newton to ponder the invisible force we call Gravity. But once his calculations produced the Laws of Motion, and the Calculus, it became possible to send a cannon-ball exactly where it would do the most damage. The truth of Gravity then went from inconvenient to useful—and physics was ‘born’. Between the chemists cooking up gunpowder and the mathematicians calculating parabolic arcs, the militant-minded leaders of early European states would forever-after find it convenient to shield the scientists from the witch-hunters and the clergy.

Science, however, would not confine itself to military uses. By the dawn of the twentieth century, we had begun to study ourselves. Archaeologists had studied our prehistoric past—and found it contained evidence of religion having evolved from primitive atavism to the modern churches. We discovered that God was a part of human lore, not of divine revelation—that God didn’t exist. This is the most inconvenient truth of all—and it has spawned a culture of debate, diversion, propaganda, indoctrination, and fundamentalist extremism. Half the world pines for the loss of innocence and simplicity—the other half is busy trying to undo science with suicide vests and beheadings.

I’ll always remain puzzled by this aversion to observable facts. We’ll trust science enough to take a ride across the globe in a multi-tonned, metal jet-airliner—but still hold it lightly enough that we pick and choose which science is convenient and which isn’t. Observable fact gets a bad rep—‘there’s more than meets the eye’; ‘all is not what it seems’; ‘the hand is quicker than the eye’—yes, observed fact can be misleading, but only because we feeble humans are doing the observing. Still, I consider the incompleteness of science to be a necessary characteristic of good science—observable fact may not be written in stone, but reproducible results are still of greater value than any other perspective has yet to offer mankind.

And the worst part is that we who believe in science are often so hard-pressed by theists that we shy away from the vital humanism that science lacks. It is, rather, all the more important to embrace what it means to be human in a world with no one to worship but ourselves. But we are too busy defending ourselves from people who would kill us in the name of their fairy tales.

“Baby Steps Among The Stars” – Part Two – Chapter Six (2014Nov30)

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We have created a force, Capitalism, which deforms, by its nature, the culture that embraces it too closely. Where public education was once approved as a public good, it is now a profit-center—its students have become its customers. Where incarceration was once a sad necessity, it is now a profit-center—its prisoners have become its employees. Where political office was once a empowering of one citizen to oversee the public welfare, it is now a self-perpetuating fund-raising organization. Its office-holders have stopped formulating the greatest good for the greatest number and now calculate merely the best way to increase campaign revenue.

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What went wrong? Let’s step back a bit, and look at ourselves in the past. In the past we struggled against nature and against ourselves. In the past, being strong, even violent, often meant winning the day. But now we have technology that must be restrained, weaponry that ought never to be used, unspoiled habitats that still provide clean air, clean water, and biodiversity—which must be protected, now that their numbers are grown so few. It has become so easy to hurt and kill each other that to continue the violent ways of the past means certain slaughter—and we have ample evidence of this, and will continue to have more such.

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In the past, there was no mechanism for international coordination or compromise. The United Nations and the World Court have virtually no power in their present states, but their very creations were indicative of our awareness that both war and crime are evils without borders, and that the best way to combat them is to organize forces of good that recognize no borders. The fact that these institutions remain little more than place-keepers, bookmarks on good ideas, is due largely to our focus on Capitalism. Ceding sovereign power is too close to ceding ownership to sit well in the minds of the rich and powerful—not to mention the benefits that multinationals obtain from the ‘chinese walls’ between the laws of taxation and regulation in separate nations.

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In the past, we could rely on the large-ness of the globe and the chaotic nature of global humanity—secrets were easily kept and keeping the masses uninformed was child’s play. In large part, we colluded in our own ignorance by hewing to the concept that some things were too distasteful to discuss publicly. And we colluded in our tacit agreement that women and girls were somehow less than men and boys, that dark skins were somehow less than pale skins, that the rich were more worthy than the poor, etc. But these obsolete attitudes have given way to the clarity of holding our leaders accountable. They may still get away with corruption, collusion, obfuscation, and obstructionism—but they may no longer pull the strings of our traditional hatreds without a good-sized minority calling them out in the media for this kind of manipulation.

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America is particularly vulnerable to modern changes. We have, historically speaking, just reached the end of our growth as a country—we didn’t add our last two states until 1958. The ‘becoming’ of the fifty states was still alive with changes, construction, development, and growth until very recently. But now we have the many small towns being strangled out of existence by malls and superstores, which have themselves begun to see oblivion in the face of online shopping. We have fishing villages on every coastline that have withered under the onslaught of commercial fisheries. We have industry after industry disappearing behind the waves of robotics, computers, and the internet—millions of human jobs that need never be done again. Good news for the business owner, bad news for the worker—and the culture.

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We seem to have fully blossomed—the ripeness of American life during the last half of the last century appears to have been a peak—and we see signs everywhere that America is beginning to de-stabilize. Opportunity has always been the main engine behind American ascendance. The growing income-inequality, the stranglehold of big business lobbies on legislation, and many other post-modern symptoms of Capitalist excesses which encroach on the weaknesses in Democracy—these things bring the notion of one person striking out into business for themselves further and further from reality and closer to a nostalgic fantasy akin to the horse-drawn buggy.

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There is also an apparent willfulness to our current stagnation. In the past quarter century we’ve gone from first among nations in college graduates, to twelfth—yet we have no national (or state or local) race to renew and improve our public education system. We have not only ceased to expand our infrastructure with new roads, bridges, and power-grids, we’ve lost the will to maintain the infrastructure we had.

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We have always deluded ourselves into having faith in Capitalism, as if it were some branch of physics—a mathematical purity, self-correcting, self-policing, compelled by its nature to be of benefit to all mankind. Even today there are those who will enthusiastically explain how all our difficulties are caused by our refusal to let Capitalism have its head, so to speak. But economics has never been merely a branch of mathematics—it contains within it (recognized or not) the history of humankind’s struggle over ownership and possession.

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When we talk about double-entry accounting, computerized inventory databases, and how to calculate the 8.25% sales tax on your department store purchase—it’s easy to think of Capitalism as having the precision of a gram scale and the inherent fairness of a court of law. But consider, dear reader, the familiar figure of the business-owner—an entrepreneur starts up a business and hires employees to do the work. The business-owner pays the employees a salary. The business makes a profit (one hopes). The business-owner pays the salaries and keeps all the rest of the profit. This is normal.

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But does that paradigm have the elegance and inherent fairness of a mathematical equation? Is it right? What if the company makes millions of dollars for the business-owner, and the employees’ salaries are a tiny fraction of that? Capitalism states that a business-owner, by virtue of owning the business, is perfectly right to retain all the profits to him-or-herself. Further, it is perfectly right to pay employees’ salaries based on the cost of labor, not on the value of the product of the labor. I suspect, without having lived a lifetime of Capitalist culture, I might see something unjust in that set-up.

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If we look at the history of the popular music industry, we see examples of musical artists whose greatness resulted in mass sales of recordings and licenses—all profits of which went to business-owners whose only justification for this was a legal agreement of ownership of the musician’s creations as terms of employment. And we also see court cases where this glaring injustice has, more recently, resulted in rulings that award greater protection to the creators of original content. In spite of that, popular music (and the entertainment industry in general) is still rife with business practices that reward those with ownership over those that produce what is owned.

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Back when employees in many industries could plan on starting a business of their own, this inherently unfair system had a silver lining. The idea was you were a virtual slave of someone else until you could manage to own your own place—at which point you would become one of the slave-owners, and could forget about that whole mess. In many ways, it mimicked the old concept of parenting. But with giant corporations filling virtually every marketing and service niche available, even the new businesses that appear out of thin air (like programming ‘apps’) are ephemeral things, quickly consolidated into the workings of some electronics giant’s new division.

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The current reality for the 99% is employment—and even that modern enslavement is considered dream-worthy to the substantial percentage of chronically unemployed. The average law-abiding citizen is given working hours, corporate policies to adhere to, bosses they must obey—and as little as possible in the way of compensation or benefits. In the old days, some business-owners believed that profit-sharing programs would increase productivity and loyalty among workers—this old applesauce is roundly laughed at today, in spite of its still being true, even without it being practiced.

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And that is one example of what has changed about Capitalism—business-owners once looked for ‘win-win’-type solutions—our new killer-Capitalism insists that only the ‘Win’, singular, is of any relevance. Worse was the Dilbert-ification of the office environment. Cubicles introduced a blatant ‘cattle’ aspect to office work—the sameness, the lack of elbow room, the almost purposeful de-humanization of the work area. But to me the greatest over-reach was the appearance in employee-policy handbooks of the banning of personal items at workstations—suddenly, no one could put up a picture of their children, keep a potted plant, indulge in a tchotchke (or ten). While there was truth to the claim that some abused the privilege and created cluttered, unprofessional work areas—it still seemed an opportunity for guidelines and limits, rather than a total ban on personalization.

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But banning something humane fits right in with the mind-set of business-owners and their managerial goons. Give any human being the slightest whiff of authority and suddenly they’re not happy unless they’re telling everyone else what to do—it’s human nature.

While the dehumanizing of employees is certainly nothing new, it becomes an issue when civilization seems to measure progress by Capitalist sign-posts rather than the causes of humanity and justice. The arrow of human rights followed a seemingly direct course, right from the Enlightenment, through the American Revolution, right up to the defeats of Fascism and Communism. We continue to win victories in this battle with the legal end of segregation, the fights for feminism, rights for the disabled, and gay rights. But we also see Capitalism taking some of our self-evident human rights away from humanity as a whole (whether in their roles as employees or consumers) and for reasons that many deem justified (such is their submergence in the logic of money).

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Consider the air, dear reader. Is there any significance to the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, or the right to free speech—if we are denied the right to breathe—or to drink clean water? Much wailing has gone up, since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and for all the decades after—and even now—over the fact that we can’t stop destroying the environment without destroying civilization. But I don’t see it that simply. We could curtail our destruction of the environment and still maintain the bulk of civilization—but we would have to destroy Capitalism to do it. We would have to end the primacy of ownership over justice and place humanity’s welfare above the posturings of nations and stockholders and financiers. Civilization could easily come out of it better off—but certain very powerful individuals would not. And that would mean war. And war always has the truth as its first casualty—so that’s not going to work.

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And don’t get me wrong—I’m well aware that people will always find some other way to use each other, and hurt each other, even without money as the nail to hang it all on. But Capitalism has grown into a globally-interlocking behemoth with a momentum even its One-Percenters can no longer control. It forces all of us, nay, hurries all of us towards the cliff of profit-without-consequence. It destroys ways-of-life for whole communities, corrupts the governance both local and national, and dehumanizes everything that can be turned to profit—which, in today’s Capitalism, means everything and everyone.

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While we continue to fight for human rights in our laws and in our government, we lose more ground than we gain due to the encroachments of business practices. Business leaders and their pawns (including many a congressperson and senator) will explain that homelessness, lack of health care, indecent wages, and the loss of clean air and water—are all things that must be looked at in terms of profit and loss. We must begin to ask, “Whose profit? Whose loss?” Is one person’s right of ownership greater than another’s right to survive? And if it is, why do we bother to talk about human rights? If the world’s economy can be held over our heads while plutocrats lord it over the needy millions, and trash the planet, and dissolve our way of life, is Capitalism our guiding light—or is it the train entering the far end of the tunnel?

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Like all evils, Capitalism is deceptively simple—with darkly complex underpinnings. Ideas of charity and sacrifice are excluded from the logic of business—but not from the business of being a human being. Ideas of conservation and renewable resources, that were so idealist-seeming, have become matters of species survival—and money-lovers are still trying to argue that fact away, because ownership and responsibility don’t align very well. The wealthy try to build high-rise apartments that overshadow Central Park—as if the substantiality of the building overrules the existence of the mere shadow. And this is the problem with Capitalism—it deals in the immediate and substantial and discounts the ephemeral, where true meaning is often found.

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Once, Americans could turn away from the harsh world of money, industry, and big cities—and find a haven in the more natural corners of the earth. Capitalism was a mosh-pit in which we could choose to participate or walk away. Civilization was once so small that this could be accomplished simply by climbing up into the mountains that surrounded a populous valley. But then it became a matter of going where people could barely survive, like the arctic circle, or the deserts. Now, of course, the world is full. We may not bother to grace the inhabitants with infrastructure, education, or even sufficient food and water—but we nevertheless ‘do business’ there, wherever ‘there’ is. We drill for oil, mine for diamonds or coal, chop down the forests and poach the wildlife (what’s left of it).

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We destroy, in the process, the old ways of life, the flora and fauna that once supported undeveloped cultures, we net all the fish, kill all the whales—we might as well shoot each and every one of those people in the head. And all because some multinational has so much money that they can pay the tin-pot dictators that have ‘sovereign rule’ over these victims. It was bad enough when we thought that only the third world was vulnerable to the moneyed interests—now we have the same kinds of people paying off our own politicians, running oil pipelines from one end of America to the other, spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing off all the bees with pesticides, and using untested GMO crops in place of healthy foods. We’re all going to die—and we are all unified in our support of our killer, Capitalism.

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Capitalism was a means to an end—prosperity. Now that prosperity for all mankind is a possibility, Capitalism has become the only thing keeping us from it. We crossed the finish line, but business-owners want us all to keep running our rat race, keep up productivity, keep those profits rolling in—it’s insane. But I don’t want to get rid of money—that’s just as crazy. No, we need something more nuanced—limits on money. We need limits on what money can buy, and limits on which places and things are considered outside of the rule of Capitalism, by virtue of their ethical or ecological qualities. And to start out with the most important change, we need separation of cash and state.

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The pilgrims, having left Europe because of religious persecution, found that they had brought religious strife with them—and saw separation of church and state as the only solution to their looming self-destruction. They did not think their religion was unimportant—quite the contrary. But they could see that religion empowered by law was a weapon that could cut everyone. Neither is Capitalism unimportant, but Money as the only Law is an equally dangerous blade, or more so—as it is poised to cut the entire world open.

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My Turn To Talk (2014Oct24)

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Friday, October 24, 2014                     4:50 PM

I want to talk to these people. For starters, it isn’t fair that their personal stupidity gets so much exposure while the rest of us are stuck talking only to our small circle of friends and neighbors. I want to talk to Don Young, Chris Christie, Nan Hayworth, that bubble-brain on FOX news (Yeah, which one? I know.) and that 17-year-old walking pimple from Australia who likes ISIS, and killing people. I want to tell you all something.

You’re all assholes—stupid, sick, selfish, stuck-up, stupid assholes. Did you notice I used ‘Stupid’ twice? Yeah, that was on purpose. But don’t worry—you five are certainly not alone. There’s Rick Perry—Texas asshole. There’s Rand Paul—Kentucky asshole. There’s Vlad Putin—Russian asshole (bonus points—it’s not easy to make your ignorance stand out in Russia!) There’s Republicans as a whole—what a bunch of eyes-tight-shut assholes you people are. Nothing personal—you’re all just as stupid as mud, that’s all.

And a lot of you are evil motherfuckers, as well. Don’t get me wrong—you’re still unbelievably stupid—but evil, too. And in such a dazzling variety of ways—you’re selfish, you’re greedy, you’re xenophobic, you’re homophobic, you’re afraid of girls, you’re afraid of educated people—you’re even afraid of the thoughts in your own damn heads. How’s that for cowardice? What makes these lily-livered, piss-yellow cry-babies think that their fear-mongering is something the rest of us in the world have the slightest use for? Too scared to think straight, I guess.

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Koch brothers? Are you listening? Your mother should have strangled the both of you with your own umbilicals—you think being rich makes you right? Sorry—being rich just makes you bigger assholes. But stay rich, please—if that’s what it’s like, heaven protect the rest of us—you two are already beyond all hope—a  pair of scumbags with enough money to spread the fame of your idiocy far and wide. I guess I’m lucky—when I have something idiotic to say, at least I can’t afford a billboard to plaster it on.

So which makes me the most angry—you pack of morons, or the morons that feature you in the media, to the point of obscuring anything that really matters? It’s a tough call. Stupidity is generous to you all. But, no—it’s still you idiots. The people that have to make a living have at least some sort of excuse to do the stupid things they do—they’re not in charge of Stupid—that’s all on you, you self-important bags of excrement, you.

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All that being said, here’s a piano improvisation in the same, damn-the-torpedoes vein:

 

 

And just to keep everything civil, here’re some pleasanter words from far pleasanter people…

 

Worlds of Dark and Light (2014Oct16)

FP411T19570501Thursday, October 16, 2014                  8:50 AM

We grew up in Bethpage, Long Island, absorbing the conventions of the times. Our dad (well, everyone’s dad) went to work every day and our mom stayed home and did homely stuff. We siblings lived in well-justified fear of their anger, drunkenness, or just lousy moods. No one mentioned sex (I heard about it later on, from other people). Authority was absolute—and punishment knew no limits. Homosexuality, women’s reproductive health, domestic abuse, incest, rape, bigotry and anti-Semitism didn’t exist—in spite of the mystifying glimmers of such things all around us.

Women simply weren’t the equal of men. Ethnic humor was a riot—we could just ask Jose Jimenez. Drinking and smoking were what grown-ups did—and there was nothing wrong with that. Driving a car as fast as possible was a God-given right (our major highways had no speed limits until the seventies)—and driving safety was the other guy’s problem.

It was a machine of a world—one knew that standing in the road meant being run down, and that it would be one’s own fault for getting in the way of the car. ‘Family values’ were survival tools—if dad got mad enough to put us out on the highway and keep driving, we would surely be devoured by the cold world lurking outside the family circle.

If we got in trouble Christmas morning, if they raged and screamed at us—we’d better shake it off and get back into Christmas-cheer mode when we arrived at Gramma’s house, or we’d be in even deeper trouble. “If you don’t cheer up and have fun, I’m gonna beat the living hell out of you.”—that sort of ‘reasoning’.

Actually, ‘reason’ was the most dangerous material a person could handle back then, especially a kid. Being the logical winner of a debate with an angry father makes a child anything but the ‘winner’. “Don’t get smart with me.” “Don’t be a wise-ass.” “Because I’m your father and I said so, godammit.” “Just shut up and do what you’re told.” These were but a few of the idiomatic gems we lived with.

We lived insular lives—no history beyond our own lifetimes, no society outside our own neighborhoods. We felt perfectly right to classify anyone with unusual interests as an oddball—even reading a book made someone a target of ridicule (Who the hell’d they think they were—Einstein?)

You, dear reader, may have lived a better version of this in your childhood, or perhaps an even worse version—or you may not even be old enough to know what I’m talking about. The fact remains—the developed world (and not so very long ago) was not a civilization, it was a Neanderthal’s fantasy of civilization.

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Any real question of ethics was put off to the priests—and the priests were put off till Sunday. Any real appreciation of the arts was the domain of homosexuals (or, in the parlance of the times, ‘sexual deviants’—or just plain ‘perverts’). Any issue of philosophy, not to mention hard fact, was left to college professors—funny little men (like Einstein) who may know book-learning but who had no practical knowledge of any worth and were, therefore, idiots.

In the 1960s, thoughts and ideas and ethics and personal expression became subjects of news reporting. They didn’t know that, of course—they thought they were reporting on men growing long hair, boys burning draft cards, and girls burning bras—but they were unknowingly publicizing the value of individual thought as equal to the value of convention. The underdeveloped world continued with their focus on who was stronger, who could kill who—but we had finally begun to talk about who was ‘righter’. And through the practice of civil disobedience, we often proved that right had its own kind of might.

Intellectual awareness made a few gains, but pencil-necked geeks were still targets of society’s abiding heroes—the fit, the rich, the unremarkably normal. Then electronics stepped in and by the 1980s, being ‘smart’ had the potential to become ‘rich and powerful’—and the era of the mind had begun.

The context of our lives is now moot. What once was common sense is now the height of ignorance. What was propriety is now bigotry. What was manly is now sexist. What was feminine is now self-loathing. Trust in authority became paranoia. Progress became pollution. And capitalism has become slavery (or rather, it has finally been recognized for what it always was). These are good changes—this is progress—but that doesn’t ease our confusion.

Now we must second-guess every thought, every word, and every assumption. We live with dual minds, judging our surroundings by two conflicting perspectives, repressing most of what we ‘knew’ in favor of what we now ‘understand’. Life is complicated—and not everyone is comfortable with that.

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Prior to this, the physically weak were the losers—we pitied them (or ourselves, depending on genes and physique) but otherwise relegated them to the ‘unimportant’. Nowadays, the intellectually weak are the losers—but for some reason, they have retained importance. An ignoramus like Sarah Palin can become a public figure. Idiocy like Creationism can be taught in public schools. Neo-Jim-Crow local law-enforcers feel empowered to gun down young, African American men at the slightest whim. Politicians even celebrate reactionary ignorance, as evidenced by the Tea Party.

So it isn’t confusing enough to come from institutionalized repression into a society just beginning to embrace reason—we have to deal with the sore-losers who want to move back into the cave, as well. God forbid we ever do things the easy way.

Reason is dangerous. Being a billionaire while millions starve is unreasonable—if we embrace reason, what horrible fate befalls the poor billionaire? Manufacturing weapons in a violent world is unreasonable—but that is not a problem so long as we are willing to put all the reasonable people in front of a firing squad. Reason precludes religion—but what good is reason if life isn’t a prelude to ‘an eternal afterlife in paradise’? Who wants to see the world as it is when, if we shout loud and long enough, we can insist the world is what we choose to believe?

Okay, all that aside–here’s my latest improv:

Do Your Parents Need Regulation? (2014Sep09)

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Sunday, September 07, 2014                 9:17 PM

Some people seem to think that plain speaking is a sign of anger. This is incorrect—speaking plainly is a product of fatigue. Fatigue is far more accessible to us now that the Inter-Web has given us Social Media (in some digital environs, it could just as well be called Sociopathic Media). Once a Thread begins, particularly a cultural-socio-economic-politicized-cause-type thread, I see both the hard-minded-ness of their side and my own. I argue for the right and just, not because I want to prove myself right. And the casual, very personal vitriol is totally outside of whatever point is at hand, if there is one.

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There are a crowd of possible responses to any statement—the less concern for the point of a discussion, the wider the crowd. If I seek to understand the speaker, and to give a considered, reasonable response, my possible actions are at their least prolific, i.e. listening carefully, with an open mind, and thinking hard about what I’ve heard—being on the lookout for distractions such as my desire to win the argument or simple impatience masquerading as righteousness—and forming a response that respects the other person’s ideas while forwarding my own as clearly as possible.

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But if trolling threads is my favorite past-time because I get to cuss and dismiss and insult without consequence (or without the courage to look a person in the face and say such things) then I can say what I want. I don’t have to pay attention to other posters in any way other than to find key-words to hang my taunts on. ‘Kill yourself’ is a favorite among the trolls—and that outlines their thought process to a ‘T’. Only children (many of them overgrown) have the urge to titillate themselves by trolling the internet—grown-ups are far too busy with more real pursuits, online and off. Part of the thrill, I suppose, is the ability to jump into any formerly rational discussion thread and mess it up for everyone else—and no one knows who to blame. What finer mischief could be imagined?

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My favorite are the ‘parental’ trolls—they adopt a knowing and dismissive tone, usually managing to drop mention of their advanced degree in whatever the discussion is about, then spout off ‘correct solutions’ that only reveal that, yes, they have probably spent their lives in a classroom, and not out where reality has a nasty habit of intervening. We cannot write about anything without revealing our personality—indeed, those in the arts and in entertainment are well aware that we can’t create anything without imbuing it with our personality. Trolls, like all children who act out, and most of all, like bullies, only reveal through their derogations that they are mentally broken and emotionally hurt.

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But the world is full of people who are mentally broken and emotionally hurt. The young who suffer from poor self-approval are the trollers’ most vulnerable prey—they have neither the self-confidence nor the experience to understand all the hatred being fired at them online, just as they make easy prey for the bullies in school hallways.

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Before caller ID, the anonymous phone-call was the weapon of choice for those who had the same twisted drives as the trollers of our times. The same anonymity cloaked their ludicrously evil whispers through the phone-receiver and the same anger and frustration drove them to it. Technology changes our life-styles, but never our natures. The first time I asked a girl for a date was, like millions of others, on the telephone. Such sweet conversations people can have on the phone. Yet ways were found to use it to defraud, to threaten, and to hurt. When we make our lives easier, we make all of it easier, even the bad stuff.

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So every time we invent something that gives us greater ease and power, we inevitably follow up with regulations against using the new thing for bad purposes. But now we have the Internet—and regulating it will remove its chiefest good. Plus, we have seen regulation go from a public service to a protection for the big corporations against limitations on their profit-making activity, and against potential competition or lawsuits.

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Regulating the Internet goes without saying, to some people—to others, the idea of regulating it seems a defeat of its potential. I suggest that these two ideologies have non-internet related origins. The simple truth of computing is that any security protocols must be coded and implemented by people, imperfect people. Further, computer-systems security is based on mathematics—more specifically, cryptography—and will always be vulnerable to superior mathematicians. The fact that such people are rare as hens’ teeth doesn’t decrease my sense of insecurity one bit—especially with American education in such a pitiful state, compared to other countries.

 

Spencer  -born 1988

Spencer -born 1988

Articles were written as far back as the 1980s delineating the impossibility of total digital security on an open network. Having worked with computers, I was aware of their physical fragility and their reliance on disinterest as their chief deterrent to hacking. I doubt I was alone in my surprise at the willingness of security-sensitive industries like banking, air-traffic-control, and government agencies to convert themselves into digital entities so early on. Even when they found themselves looking down the barrel of the Y2K crisis, there was no thought of retreat. I guess there’s another simple truth—computerized organizations function exponentially better than a pure-paper office ever could.

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We regulate everything but what matters—people. It would be unthinkable to pass laws forcing expectant mothers to refrain from drugs and alcohol, or mandating that parents read to their children for at least one hour every day. Such regulations would violate our civil rights. And what is the punishment for bad parenting? Domestic child protection agencies already face this dilemma with regards to parents who commit felonies—separating a child from his or her parents is much more a punishment of the child than of the bad parent.

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We could try the crèche approach—take children away from parents and raise them using an institution with a professional staff. But negligent crèche-workers are no less likely than poor parents—and children still lose something without the focused love of the ‘traditional’ family. We could try monitoring—but that would be the biggest civil-rights infringement of all. We need our kids to be raised right—rich or poor, smart or dumb parents notwithstanding—but that need finds little support in a country that prides itself on personal freedom. Let’s face it—parenthood is the opposite of personal freedom, at least in terms of daily behavior. Good parenting is downright un-American.

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It’s Hard Out Here For An Atheist (2014Aug31)

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Sunday, August 31, 2014              3:28 AM

Being an atheist is not easy, especially if you’ve been raised in a religious family. First of all you have to deal with this sense of lurking, just outside of your vision—that’s religion, waiting to enfold you back into its welcoming arms. Make no mistake, opting for faith is far more comforting than anything atheism has to offer. For some folks, that may even be the rational for faith—but I’m too stubborn to settle for that. I’m not going to believe in a religion as a form of intentional escapism—even if I did, the back of my mind would always be heckling me for sticking my head in the sand.

So, I began by facing the obvious—without religion, there are no rules. God is not in his heaven and all is not right with the world. If I do something wrong, no one will bother me about it, ever (unless I get arrested). But being arrested is beside the point—there’s plenty of wrong being done without breaking any laws—just as there are people being arrested, at times, who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s an unfair, tough old world—but it comes with civilization.

Civilization makes stability possible. Without our societal norms, the streets become a free-for-all. We prove this every time there’s a disaster—suddenly, a part of the people feel free to steal and fight and who knows what-all. Civilization is my friend—I depend on it to walk down the street in my town and not be afraid I’ll be attacked by a random gang of outlaws, or be afraid of getting shot in the head by one of my neighbors, just ‘cause they felt like it.

This is one of the very rare places on Earth where a self-declared atheist can do that—walk down the street free from fear—and that’s just one of the many things I love about America. Atheists are a bug in the system—if you don’t believe in one religion, you at least belong to some other faith—good people can disagree, so that’s alright. But opting out of the whole concept is a direct criticism, whether it’s meant to be or not.

I cannot disbelieve in traditional faiths, particularly Christianity, without implicitly insulting everyone I know. I accept that—it can’t be helped—truly, if I was capable of traditional faith, I’d be practicing it with gusto. I can’t do it. There’re all kinds of debating points this could lead to, but I’ve already written them all down and posted them, and they simply incite a post-modern, unfriendly debate with high emotions on both sides. The faithful have faith and I haven’t—that’s all I got.

But beyond that, I have no wish to insult the faithful. These New Atheists, with their angry, anti-Theism attitudes, are obviously suffering from a sense of betrayal—they often come from strictly religious families that have repressed their spirit—perhaps even physically harmed them. Their reaction to religion is not to simply turn away from it, as I did, but to turn on it and attack it for the remembered inflictions. Some of them are even activists because they sympathize for their siblings, still caught in what the New Atheist sees as a sort of mental prison.

I don’t know what to tell someone in that position. For me, it’s a matter of letting go of things, out of deference to peoples’ feelings. But a real dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist is more than a match for the New Atheist—neither of them care to look at the other side of the issue. This is a futile activity and I avoid it. I might get curt once in a while with an annoying bible-thumper—but that’s because of their personality, not their faith.

The biggest problem with the New Atheists is that they bring threats and hate to the party, not realizing how badly that can backfire. They may be just talking tough, but their targets, those with strictly-held beliefs, have gone to war throughout history at the slightest provocation. And no river of blood is deep enough for a man on a mission from god. So I see little good in taunting them, even if I was inclined that way.

I’ve been through some stuff, though. Back in the seventies, with the Born Again revivalists, there was one group from Maine that had snagged some friends I’d known for years. I went to a meeting on Holly Hill Lane once. I came into a room full of people, many of them my friends—they told me they loved me and would pray for me; they started praying in unison. I was very uncomfortable but I managed to say, over the noise, “Don’t pray for me. I don’t believe in God.” There was some back and forth, but once I’d managed to spit it out, the rest was easy. They told me they were sorry, but they couldn’t associate with me, or even talk with me, any more. Two of my brothers would join the same group and neither of them spoke to me for over a year.

But it was a passing fad for many of the young people who had been swept up in the first excitement of it—the daily reality was far less glamorous and most of them were soon back hanging out, their faith still intact, but their fervor substantially cooled. People deigned to speak with me once again, but no apologies were offered. I’m still nervous about public speaking, but not so much, since I can’t imagine a tougher room than those Born Agains.

Besides the adversarial aspects of atheism, there’s also the question of creation. The universe is too big for us to comprehend, too complex for us to decode, and had to come from somewhere. I accept this—it’s common sense. But I don’t look at it as proof of any institutional religion, just proof that there’s a lot we don’t know—and may never know—and may not even be capable of knowing. We are tiny specks on a huge planet, and the planet is just the beginning of all the hugeness.

I find it amusing that some hierophants will claim they know what it’s all about. The world around us is full of secrets. The universe beyond our world is full of mysteries. We’ve discovered some basics, but they are just a handful of tricks called science—science is far from finished, if it ever can be. I believe that theorizing is beneficial and that reproducible results are worthy of note and study. But I don’t believe science has all the answers—no one who truly understands science believes that—the whole point of science is to keep going, to keep trying to learn a new handful of tricks from the universe.

Kurt Vonnegut had some very funny theories about the purpose of humanity—one possibility was that we were meant to rise up to a technological height that would allow us to manufacture a special wrench that some stranded alien needed—to fix his spaceship. It’s as hard a theory to disprove as any other, and it’s funny—that’s why I like Vonnegut. ‘So it goes’, as he used to say. He also theorized that all language boiled down to one message: “I’m here. Hello. Look at me.” That’s it. As the years go by, I understand him better and better. We don’t want to merely exist; we want to be seen to exist. We want to be noticed—otherwise, we don’t fully exist.

One way to fix that is to have an imaginary someone watching all of us, all the time. But I will settle for other people, whom I see exist, as they see me exist. It’s enough. I learned there’s a name for people like me—apparently, I’m an ‘ethical humanist’, but I was what I was before I’d ever heard of them, so it’s mostly a coincidence (although, I must say, it’s nice to know I’m not completely on my own out here). Besides, they’re city folks and, while I once lived there, I learned that I can’t take the roaches—so they’re too far away for me to participate.

There is one thing atheism doesn’t change—Sundays are still boring. If only I was a football fan.

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Wailing and Weeping (2014Aug26)

20140824XD-SkyPix (5)Tuesday, August 26, 2014            2:52 PM

 

Stardate 09 point ho-ho-dee-ho-dee-ho

Status renewal:

Pill count: 12 (morning) 2 (evening)

Sleep Cycle: way off of ‘daytime’ norm

Lungs in terrible pain: taking the cigarettes easy today—no weed!

Fatigue: still hovering at max.

Loneliness: very high

Frustration: barely under control

Drinking: None

Projects: None

Value: None

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Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s try something more coherent. Last week of August—my melancholy usually waits till the leaves start to turn, but this has been a very un-hot summer and it seems to be leaving without ever really arriving (Not one heat wave this year—where’s global warming when you need it?).

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I’ve been promised a full cure of my HCV—it won’t happen—I’ve been so sick for so long, I’d have to marinate my entire anatomy in ‘cure juice’ to get it all out. HepC will even leave outposts in my bone marrow to repopulate the blood stream and liver after they’ve been ‘completely cleared’. In my bone marrow! Jeez.

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I am on my own. That is to say, I’m not alone—there’s Spence here all the time, in his own building, but there—and Claire takes care of me in the morning and at night with meals and pills and hundreds of other things—and my friend, Sherryl, stops by nearly every day and we have a chat or a cuppa. But that gives me only the barest minimum of contact to humans—no hanging around or long talks or collaborations on interesting ideas, no physical contact to speak of, no intense interest in me or my doings—just maintenance of my continued breathing, really.

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I try to fill the emptiness I feel by playing the piano or Facebooking or writing (like this)—none of it works completely; it just provides a framework for me to thrash about within. Until my illness, I was unaware of the very real, physical stamina that thought requires. Now it is plain as the nose, as they say, and it has become my nemesis—I can still think, but not very deeply or very long—and that’s where intelligence lies. My former intelligence lies afar. My superpower is gone and I’m helpless in the grip of the Red Sun.

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See the good? Find that silver lining? Yeah, sorry—I can’t seem to oblige. Truth is, I’m barely alive. I’m a burden on my family. I’m a lousy role-model for my son. I don’t leave the house. I’m sitting on a pile of atrophied muscles and forgotten skills. I’m not involved—I’m missing the party. I want so much—I’m still wanting a few things I’ve become too old to ever achieve. I’ve been dying, literally, for nearly two decades—it’s been a parade of horror and pain and isolation and heartbreak and helplessness.

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Have I become wiser? Has the refining fire burnt away impurities and left me with the pure gold of reason and mercy? There’s some truth to that—I am wiser than I was—but to what purpose? My lack of people skills is not at all helped by being wiser—wise is no party-trick, it’s more like x-ray vision. It takes the false front away, but it takes all the fun with it. X-rays of beautiful bodies are just x-rays. X-rays of a celebration show the noise but fail to capture the mirth. I was much happier being intelligent, but foolish.

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Music is all I have now—I listen to it constantly. I pay more attention to soundtracks than to special effects. But I’ve built my own tragedy into music, as well—by trying the impossible, trying to make my own music. I should have stuck with just listening. I have no natural talent, and all my hard work is towards fighting fatigue, not finding beauty in what I do. It’s Sisyphean, and what’s worse, self-imposed. What was I thinking?

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My greatest fear is to find myself perfectly healthy and alive again. I’m fast approaching sixty years old—how the hell do I start over at sixty? How do I recreate a social life at sixty? How do I re-enter the workforce at sixty? It will be hard enough to reconcile myself to the erasure of my forties and fifties, how am I supposed to just pick up where I left off? If this medicine really works, I will find out just where I ‘pick up’.

Truly, I can’t simply start off where I left off. One of the hardest things about my illness was how long it took to be diagnosed. I spent many years being unfairly accused of alcoholism and drug abuse—just at the point where I had stopped my wild ways for some time—and both things, the accusing and the reining in of my lifestyle, were (unbeknownst to anyone, including me) the effects of my increasing liver failure and the blood toxicity it causes.

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Everyone, including my wife, my kids, and myself, resented my ‘laziness’ and my ‘lack of willpower’. I thought being forced out of management and getting fired was what I deserved. I assumed that I had no one to blame but myself—I laid such a heavy guilt trip on myself that, when I finally found out the truth, I was glad to learn I had a fatal disease—it was a far better reality than the self-hatred I was immersed in.

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Thus, I must pick up where I left off my health, not my life. I remember a nervous, overly serious guy in his thirties who had a head full of plans and dreams and more. I remember working hard, sometimes through the night—it didn’t faze me, I was always obsessive about projects. This was before the internet and I spent a great deal of time answering questions—I was a walking Wiki, calculator, copyeditor, proofreader, and history timeline. I loved being over-educated. One of my long-term goals was a PhD—I had planned to take school courses forever. Now I can hardly remember my name.

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No, I fear that health may prove a harder life than my mostly bed-ridden, everyday usual. We all fear change, even beneficial change. Plus, my memories betray me—the agony of getting out of bed and getting to work (during those years when I didn’t realize I belonged in a hospital) was a daily hell. The frustration of staring at the computer screen and not knowing what to do, when I was used to programing without flow-charts, the entire structure always firm in my mind, was unbearably humiliating. The heartbreak at not having the strength to spend time with my kids, to take them places, or do school projects together—I hated myself worst of all for that.

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Those are some of the reasons I don’t look back on my active past with longing—I fear the return of an active life because my last one ended in torture and near-madness. But I will try. I’m hoping to find myself capable enough to build a happy lifeand find some worthwhile work (I’m damned if I’ve gone through all this so I can work at Burger King in my sixties!). If my hands stop shaking, at least somewhat, I may just go back to drawing full-time—the internet provides a variety of ways to sell original artwork. If I get some concentration back, I’ll try writing fiction. I will definitely get in shape, no matter how much it hurts—I’m most tired of all of ‘being tired’.

 

Well, that’s my wailing and weeping for today.

The Specialization of People (2014Jul03)

20140630XD-JuneDrowsesAway 019 The feudal system of the Middle Ages was a fairly simple system—there was little confusion. There may have been great wrong done, great good done, but it was not confusing. When one person makes all the rules, one person decides on the dreams, the goals, and the right and wrong of things—decisions become straightforward. I’m simplifying, certainly—the Middle Ages saw antagonism between the church and the monarchy, between the monarchy and the nobility, and between high-born and low-born. But the patriarchal, top-down pyramid of authority overlay all of those differences. Racism was total—but made little difference in a world where strangers from the neighboring town were remarkable—and the rare Moor or Oriental was more a novelty than a cultural concern. Feminism was non-existent—as were Gay Rights—and Liberty, for that matter. The Middle Ages were so authoritarian that no chorus of voices was ever raised in favor of changes of any kind. Indeed, keeping one’s mouth shut was a survival skill.

With the coming of the United States, democratic republics began to supplant the absolute rule of royalty—and this complicated matters greatly relative to the Middle Ages. Suddenly, different needs and goals became cause for debate—more than one man could have a say in the direction of our efforts and the following of our dreams. The Dutch had set an example for the American Colonies by foregoing their monarchy in exchange for a Republic—but the representatives in their ruling body were so numerous and contentious that their government was virtually paralyzed.

The newly-born USA had a more well-thought-out constitution, so we didn’t have that specific first-step problem. What we did have were separate states that were nominally willing to subsume their sovereignty under a united federation—what we now think of as the federal government. These thirteen states (and those to follow) all had different cultures, with different interests—and their struggle to compromise all these differences into a federal whole consisted mostly of issues concerning borders, trade, and transportation.

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But before the Civil War, the overlaying pattern remained that of Men having authority, whether over an entire state or a single family. Women had no legal claim to any rights or property outside those their husbands or their fathers chose to grant them. Africans were imported as slaves. Natives were dismissed as wild savages without any civil claim to their homelands. In this way, America became even more specific—White Men now had all authority—everyone else was considered subject to them, in one way or another. So, despite the growing number of states, each with their own character, one truth held sway over all—white men determined the goals and dreams of their cultures—and those needs had uniformity.

But now we have an American society which must address many different goals and needs. Women, minorities, children, the disabled, the mentally-challenged, the non-Christians, religious fundamentalists, the LGBT population, undocumented migrants, the poor, and the gifted—all these special groups of needs and dreams require different things, different laws—even different ideas.

That’s where the confusion comes in. The one thing human civilization never developed was a system that served multiple interests—monolithic authoritarianism has always protected us from this complexity—but no more. The plethora of problems we now face are in large part due to the plethora of freedoms we have been evolving. Authority, to some extent, is gone—and the complex culture its demise has engendered contains a tangle of many threads, many needs, many goals—and those threads are easily snarled.

 

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Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that these special ‘groups’ are not discrete groups—their members live next door to each other, even in the same family’s home—and every adjustment made for the benefit of one group impacts the adjustments required for all the other groups. This condition reminds me of Newton’s research—at one point, Newton wanted to know not only the rate-of-change in velocity, but the rate-of-change of the rate-of-change in acceleration, and so he invented a new mathematics called Calculus. What we need to do is to invent a ‘calculus’ of social justice—a process so complicated that we have never needed it before, and so never realized it’s importance.

People are well aware that our modern times are almost chaotically complex—and they’re aware of the need to change to meet these new challenges. But I suspect people are not aware of how deeply that change must cut into our usual expectations. For example, we mostly agree that habitat destruction, climate change, and toxic waste will render our home planet uninhabitable—yet we hardly know what to do beyond wringing our hands—the problem seems unsolvable. That may be because all of our previous problem-solving paradigms are too simple to tackle such an intricate dilemma.

And the one thing that retains authority, Money, makes a vice of change—we’ll never be able to start working on our ‘social calculus’ until the voices of money and power cease to manufacture the seeming paradoxes they throw at us, using over-simplified examinations of overly-complicated issues.

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If we don’t overcome their ‘enforced stupidity’, the job of analyzing ourselves as a ‘multi-body problem’ will only become more intransigent. I’m reminded of an Asimov essay about scientific specialization—he pointed out that at the beginning of the university system, being a ‘renaissance man’, i.e having an education in everything, was still possible—there were a limited number of books and a relatively small amount of written knowledge. But once the ball got rolling, mathematics (as an example) grew to contain the mathematics of astronomy, chemistry, engineering, etc.—and that these sub groups developed sub-sub groups and so on, until today we have to pick a small pocket of a sub-sub-sub specialization, if we want to really ‘know it all’.

The specialization of people is progressing in the same way—we once thought of the ‘women’ issue as ‘feminism’—a single topic. But now we have reproductive rights, sex slavery, genital mutilation, gender-role indoctrination, equal pay and opportunity, lesbian rights, et. al. Feminism is now a ‘group heading’. And these sub-issues are themselves potential ‘group headings’, as each issue reveals differences of culture or commerce or religion. To include ‘feminism’ in our new paradigm of societal calculus becomes a more complex question with every passing day—and this is true for all our new ‘components’ of ‘the will of the people’.

‘The will of the people’ once had a monochromatic undertone, as if the people all wanted one thing, or at most, one group of things. Now that we recognize that ‘the people’ represent a diversity of ‘will’s, we must recognize that our methods of obtaining that ‘will’ must have a matching complexity. And as complexity begets complexity, we need to have an ‘open architecture’ to our system that will allow for the inevitably greater specialization of people (and their will).

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So my heart rests easy, for the moment—I had despaired of a society with so infinite a number of problems—but now I recognize that our old ways of understanding the will of the governed need a quantum-leap of enhancement to match the explosion of authority into true individuality.

At first look, it seems impossible that there should ever come a day when we shake loose the shroud of pettifogging confusion that besets us through the courtesy of the mass media—and the super-rich cronies that manipulate it to our unending turmoil of talk, debate, and misrepresentation blaring from every LCD screen. The practice of displaying arguments between the ignorant and the learned as ‘controversy’, rather than the celebration of stupidity it truly is—this ‘teaching the controversy’ way of questioning that which is beyond the point of reasonable question—is a sad and twisted sophistry of education itself. Only those with the insight of higher education (but lacking the integrity of what we may call ‘wisdom’) could have conceived of this childish stratagem. Its internal logic holds steady, but its deepest predicates are flawed—and its results are specious rather than meticulous. Once having strayed into it, like barbed-wire, we seem to be quite stuck.

The idea that big money will loosen its control of the populace to the point of unfettered, ground-breaking social experimentation seems even more impossible than our extrication from mass media’s zombie-light. But the world was a very different place not so long ago—and there is no reason to think that we won’t see even greater change to come. There are some changes that I would personally love to witness.

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Salwa Bugaighis, prominent Libyan activist, was assassinated nine days ago—she was a selfless promoter of a better, more democratic Libya and so, of course, she was shot dead. Politicians rarely get assassinated—great people, great leaders, who may or may not be politicians, are the ones who get assassinated. I was traumatized somewhat, in my childhood, by the assassination of JFK. He was my hero, he was the President of the United States, and he was gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of the street. Boom. That sudden knowledge rearranged my perception of the world I lived in—it put a dark filter on what was until then a thoughtless, hazy assumption of ‘right in the world’.

Then my growing up was peppered by repeated examples: MLK, RFK, Malcolm X… and I learned that Gandhi had also died by an assassin’s gun. The women of the Middle East (and specifically of the Arab Spring) are continuing this proud (for them) but shameful (for us) tradition—the more humanitarian their goals, the faster they are gunned down– Salwa Bugaighis is the latest in such a long line that her death barely made the news.

My greatest living hero is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who champions education, particularly for girls—she was shot in the face (and neck) by would-be assassins, but she was too tough for them, and survived. She continues her work today and is, IMHO, the brightest light on the face of the Earth today.

 

our Bee-Balms...

our Bee-Balms…

 

The sad truth, however, is that she was lucky—and that those animals will probably try again. Thus, I would like to see a world where our best and truest leaders are not gunned down the minute they show their heads. How we get there I couldn’t say—but I would like that very much.

Another change I’d like to see in the world is a new attitude towards money. I’d like to see people who have too much of it feel ashamed of themselves—and I’d like to see the rest of us treating them like the sociopaths they truly are. I’d like to see a proportional increase in our respect for those in want—and an embarrassment with ourselves whenever we fail to do all we can to make their lives as safe and comfortable as our own.

We can appreciate when a football star takes a big hit—we say, “Wow! Did you see that? What a guy!” We should be able to apply the same values to the needy. I mean, wow!, here are people sleeping outdoors in winter, going a whole day without food, having to walk wherever they need to go. Such people! I’m impressed—partly with their strength and courage, but partly because, as with watching the football star, we are much happier being impressed with their struggle than having to actually live through it ourselves, out on that field, taking those hits.

I’d like ‘world peace’ too—but that’s just silly.

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To close, I want to state that I am an atheist on permanent disability—there is no question that my needs and goals are specialized, differing greatly from the norm, as well as from the many other non-norms. I don’t wish to be granted anything at the expense of someone else’s need—I want to be counted as a part of a great whole, and given my portion. And I believe most people would not begrudge me my existence, so long as it doesn’t place an unfair disadvantage on their specialty-group. But such a desire is a question of epic complexity—well beyond the two-dimensional capabilities of our current system—and will require something that doesn’t presently exist—a science of balanced compromise within a diverse citizenry.

We come from competition—we evolved from a place in the food chain, after all—our legal process is adversarial, our political process is adversarial, our sports are adversarial—even our educational institutions are competitive in nature. This simple one-on-one process is an excellent way to settle simple yes/no types of questions. But the more complex social constructions we must develop will only seize up in the face of such simple-minded algorithms. We will have to become a ‘family of man’. We will have to change from competitors to cooperators, if only to allow for complexity.

But competitiveness is innate—many groups will continue to find that depriving another group of its rights is a victory for ‘their’ side. The competitive paradigm will beat back any attempts at cooperation—I can even now hear my more conservative acquaintances shouting, “Communism!” at any thought of a government system that allows for anything to trump personal freedom or economic might. And while I don’t advocate what has historically been named ‘communism’, I must insist that we do live in common with each other—we are a community. Just as we do, indeed, care about our society, in spite of our horror of becoming ‘socialists’. Cooperation, too, is a dirty word, when shortened to co-op. But the villainous character we ascribe to community action, social engineering, and cooperation in good will, is insane without the presumption that the people who live this way are the enemies of freedom.

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Thus, while I optimistically look forward to the betterment of our global condition, there is no guarantee that social calculus and community spirit will manifest itself out of thin air. It will have to straggle through the many attempts to use our present complexity as a rallying-cry for those who would solve the problem by reneging on the social progress we have so recently made. Our present society makes a tempting Gordian Knot—while we may wish to patiently tease out the many twists, more bellicose thinkers will do their damnedest to just slice the thing apart. Complexity may be solved with calculus, but it can just as easily be solved by simplifying things, i.e. ceasing to care about the rights and needs of some of us for the convenience of others.

But like Hitler’s ‘final solution’, that is a primitive urge masquerading as a modern concept—we must go forward with humanitarian aims, or there will be no point in going forward—except for the lucky(?) few.

 

Our little baby watermelon--coming along...

Our little baby watermelon–coming along…

 

The War for Heaven on Earth (2014Jul03)

Hi everyone! I wrote a poem today, then a drew an illustration for it, then I recorded a music background for it.

Click here to hear the poem:

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Click here to listen to my piano soundtrack:

 

Click here to see the Graphic Print Version of the Poem.

 

And here are the drawing and photos used for the artwork:

Original Sketch
Original Sketch
Photo-shopped
Photo-shopped
our Bee-Balms...
our Bee-Balms…

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Catnip
Catnip
Blueberries ripening...
Blueberries ripening…
Our little baby watermelon--coming along...
Our little baby watermelon–coming along…

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Hope You Enjoyed…

O—and, since this is the next day—Happy 4th of July!

Paradox for June 13th, 2014

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Happy Friday the Thirteenth everyone.

What am I going to do about this fungal infection behind my ear? Now that I can afford three meals a day, why does my stomach hurt so much? If my electricity is off how will I take a shower? If I leave my top pants-button unbuttoned behind my belt buckle, I don’t have to spend money on new clothes that fit.

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So there’s no great mystery to my affection for “The Princess Diaries”, or even “The Princess Diaries II: Royal Wedding”—nothing is more comforting than the problems of young, wealthy royalty when trying to escape from the problems of being less-than-young and less-then-wealthy. And I might as well face it—the only person more adorable than the young Anne Hathaway is the grande dame herself, Julie Andrews—and the pair of maids does the cutest step-n-fetchit two white girls ever managed.

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Does this mean my insides are just a big stew of hogs-wallow? Well, I suppose so—I’ve always been soft-centered—there’s nothing but goo in there, really. If I was a tough guy, I would have been built of sterner stuff. But I’m not, never have been, and the world has been going my way on many fronts since my earliest childhood—that was when the pressure against corporal punishment in schools led to arrests and firings of the worst offenders. My older brothers spoke of kids being jacked up against the wall, punched, slapped—but it was all a memory by the time I began to haunt the halls of academia.

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Tolerance grew in northeast America almost side-by-side with me—and my failings (as they would have been seen a few years earlier) became virtues as each year slipped by—my respect for women became acceptable, then somewhat mandatory. My inability to understand prejudice, instead of putting me on the wrong side of my culture, became more and more the public norm. The sixties and the seventies were a unique time when the good-hearted people became activists—ever since, and virtually ever before, the political activists have been the angry fringe. But the inertia of those days still creates a higher ground for those advocating increased inclusion and equality.

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LGBT activism has yielded a whole new world of secularists versus fundamentalists—the legislation and the courts favor inclusion of gays, but the fundamentalists can still be very damning of this segment of our population—one I know of even calls publicly for their execution! But the main effect is to push religion firmly into the camp of conservatives. Secularists get along fine with the more reform-oriented faiths—but even now it is difficult to say, “Well, the religious right will just have to suck it up.” Fundamentalists are a fiery lot, by and large, and they could easily become our own domestic ‘Al-Qaeda’, if they’re not handled delicately.

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Religious freedom suddenly becomes a contentious concept—a fundamentalist sees no problem with advocating that their religious beliefs be made into laws—which is the opposite of traditional religious freedom (and of literal religious freedom). They seem to think that being denied the freedom to remake our laws in the name of the Bible is a denial of their religious freedom—but religious freedom, while guaranteeing our freedom to worship as we please, also guarantees that no one can impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us.

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Outside of the bastions of fundamentalism—or, I should say, pockets of it—there is a large population of nominal Christians who ‘believe in God’ and even believe in the teachings of Christ (in that he taught us to love and forgive each other) but never go to church, or only go to church on Easter and Christmas. They are amenable to the LGBT community, to equality for women, and even to the use of Marijuana as medicine—they take the ‘love’ part seriously, but they don’t care much for millennia-old rules about diet and lovemaking.

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I won’t complicate the issue by trying to prove these people are non-religious, or even anti-religious. But these quasi-Christians are undeniably in favor of expanding our inclusion of all people, all genders—even all religions—and in that sense, they are anti-fundamentalists. Their love for their fellow person is so strong that they cannot deny the religion that legitimizes it—but it also forces them to deny the stringent judgments of fundamentalists.

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And as this social progress makes the world a friendlier place, there is an ironic counter-progress that empowers corporations and constrains individuals more and more each day. We will finally have a free-and-equal-spirited society—and it will arrive on the same day that our government has been manipulated into canceling freedom in the name of capitalism. If there were any hint of the liberality in most American’s hearts evident in the lobby-controlled, fundamentalist-friendly government’s workings, we would have a lot more alternative-energy and infrastructure-repair on the agenda—with its attendant jobs, not to mention a tax on the rich and the big companies—and a lowering of taxes for the less fortunate.

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So many economic clamps placed on the government’s efforts to help its citizens—such furious uproar when we talk about taxing the corporations and the rich—as if to say, “How dare you? We’re in charge here and you’re lucky to have what little you have now.” Democracy sounds like ‘majority rule’, but it has somehow eluded that and transformed into some kind of casino—run by shady owners who kowtow to the whales and bilk the rest. Yet people continue to strive towards their better selves—it’s a paradox, if you ask me.

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Thoughts On Print’s Twilight (2014May23)

Friday, May 23, 2014                  1:58 PM

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My friend, Chris K., has brought up the grinding of gears that ensue when retail leviathan Amazon’s standards-and-future-goals butt heads with the last, great publishing houses’ standards-and-traditions. There’s a temptation to mention ‘buggy-whips’ and move on—but literacy is still a goal more than a condition in many parts of the world—and the question of how digital texts will impact that is only one of the many things that are being politely ignored by a First World culture that doesn’t dare appear as anti-progress, particularly against digital innovation.

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Reference books once wore a solemnity that stemmed from their careful accrual of methods, measurements, calculations, and organization of information that reaches back to Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Euclid. The precise science of modern astronomy still owes its huge record of observations of the night sky mostly to centuries and millennia of serious observation and record-keeping.

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The supertanker that chugs along mid-Pacific without any qualms over its exact location and bearing—these are supplied digitally, i.e. magically. What few people realize is that large reference-tables of important navigational values are built in to the ultra-post-modern instruments on the bridge. Without those tables of constant-values, a computer would have no better idea of its position than a human navigator without charts and table-books and chronometers.

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Having lost our hero-worship of literal ‘history’, we now have historians who look at certain people, places, and events from different points of perspective. We now recognize that history is as much a matter of missing documents and contradictory documents and accounts, as it is a matter of what we actually have on paper. Nonetheless, we treasure our Founding Documents, creating a whole sub-topic of document preservation and examination, within the library sciences (or is it archaeology?) Now that we are apparently just going to watch as printed matter becomes obsolete, without any battle-cry to preserve any real value in books, one wonders whether this makes our archival treasures more valuable or more trivial.

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Yes, we are losing something great by doing something new—but I still listen to broadcast radio, so what do I know? I was just yesterday bemoaning the disappearance of that great stationers shop in Brewster—it was a palace of office supplies.

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But my old industry, direct mail marketing , and the shopping-catalog boom were already threatening their existence before e-commerce really started. I remember it was newsworthy and remarkable when Sharper Image debuted the first store without a building—making big bucks in retail without paying rent—well, for the storefront, at least.

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Catalogs and third-party deliverers, like FedEx and UPS, created the ‘virtual mall’ before cyberspace opened its ‘e-doors’, if you will. Now that newspapers are passé (excepting The Gray Lady, of course) and e-books have a strong beachhead—now that education is focused as much on using digital tools as on using one’s mind (perhaps more so) we must let the grand tradition of bibliophilia sink or swim on its own virtue.

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Remember, there was once a paradigm wherein only the nobility were offered literacy, when artisan monks illuminated home-cured vellum with sometimes crushed-gem-based pigments, gold-leaf, and the great wellspring of imagination such labors bestowed upon them. Such treasures were one of a kind—Bibles might be copied, and perhaps a few other books, but many books of that era were unique treasures—as indicated by the practice of chaining them to the wall.

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That grandeur was lost when Gutenberg, et. al. began printing with movable type—mass-publication, relative to the copyists it replaced. Aside from ‘Domesday Books’ and other governmental and commercial records-keeping, there was really only one book—the Bible. The sudden ability to hand out copies to every churchgoer denied the priests, etc. of the power of interpretation—prior to Gutenberg, the Bible was what your Priest told you it was, it said what he said it said—case closed. On top of which, the Latin Scriptures were being made accessible by translations into common speech—which many church leaders felt was a sacrilegious degradation of the Word of God. That is why printing presses were illegal for about a hundred years after they were brought into common use. And printing is still a bone of contention between the authorities and the public, in some cases, even in America.

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The latest instance of this friction is, oddly enough, a digital publication by one Robert Snowden—and it must be noted that the sheer weight of his information, printed on paper, would have circumscribed it’s distribution without the existence of the Internet. So the benefits of digital text do exist—and they are tremendous. But it is hard for me to accept that something I have loved so faithfully all of my life, books, may become obsolete. As is usually the case, we will find out what we really lost, and how much, only after we’ve reached a point of no return.

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In the meantime, it should be remembered that self-publishing is a wonderful thing for a writer—it remains to be seen if its value holds true for the reader.

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Easter Thoughts (2014Apr20)

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Sunday, April 20, 2014               5:54 PM

Well, I’m well satisfied with my essay—and Mike Cook liked it a lot, so there I am. He says it will be included in his July newsletter. While that is happy news, I feel tremendously let down. ‘Post-partum’ depression is part of a creative person’s life—the thrill of writing, drawing, or performing something new, something all one’s own—it can’t just Stop. The aftermath is a frustrating combination of wanting to wave it in front of the whole world saying, ‘Look what I did!’ and of having nothing to turn to where that project once was. Starting a new thing is the only cure but that can’t happen until the reverberations of the finished project have died down inside my head.

My family's first home in Bethpage, LI, NY

My family’s first home in Bethpage, LI, NY

So I’m familiar. Been there, always do that. My self-image is a constantly shifting mass of shards—one piece glinting here, another flashing there. I have been an artist my whole life—but I have never been an artist. I have never tied myself and my creations to any money-making venture. Conversely, I only work for the audience in my bathroom mirror—so I can’t complain that I have no artistic career. But I’m proud—I think some of my stuff is fantastic, and I know that I need courage to do what I do and to live my life the way I do.

My Family's 2nd home in Katonah, NY

My Family’s 2nd home in Katonah, NY

I don’t look down my nose at successful artists—if anything, I envy them. Nothing suggests substantial worth like a high price tag—making money would be a great help in shoring up my self-image. But that, I see now, will never happen. I’ve done some copywriting and some illustration in my day, in passing, and I can attest to the fact that there is a world of difference between being an artist (a spiritual, or at least innate, condition) and being commercially artistic. The cardinal difference is in who says the work is done and satisfactory. If I say it, I’m being an artist. If my ‘boss’ has the last say, that’s commercial art.

Central Blvd. Elementary School, Bethpage, LI, NY (My grades 1-5)

Central Blvd. Elementary School, Bethpage, LI, NY (My grades 1-5)

I remember graduating from high school a year early, going to college for maybe a month, quitting and coming home—somehow, I was standing in the back of my high school’s auditorium during the graduation awards ceremony—students were being given prizes for excellence in Art, Writing, Math, etc. In my former life, such a ceremony would have included me in some category. But then and there I was visiting a school, not being a student—and none of the prizes were for me. I understood it, but I still had trouble dealing with it. Everyone has told me (now that it’s too late) “O! You should’ve never skipped your senior year of high school—that’s the best part.”

John Jay Jr High School (Now Middle School) in Cross River, NY

John Jay Jr High School (Now Middle School) in Cross River, NY

So I’ve always had a sense of where things matter socially and where things matter personally. Public notice is something I wouldn’t like—some financial success would have been nice, don’t get me wrong—and the critic in my head is far harsher than anyone else has ever been. Also, I’m 58 now—misconceptions about honor, glory, power, and riches are long behind me already—as I’ve grown older, my focus gets tighter and tighter on the question of ethics. I’ve left behind all my generalizations and objectifications—I see people as people now. I see them as myself now. I hurt when they hurt—I smile when they are happy.

Katonah Elementary School, Katonah, NY (My grade 6)

Katonah Elementary School, Katonah, NY (My grade 6)

That isn’t so much—everyone has that feeling about their family—but I am learning to extend it to every person, even people I don’t like, people who do wrong. I don’t behave this way because of a religion—although the idea may have come from any of the major faiths—I live this way because it is sensible. Humankind is a family—and the less we recognize that, the more we fail. We are failing now, right now, and we have been for a long time. Yes we have wonderful things, great tech, delicious foods, fast cars—but we have decided to ignore the warnings of scientists about how our ways are killing the planet that gives us food, water, air, and so much more. That’s a fail.

JJHS, Cross River, NY

JJHS, Cross River, NY

Say what you want in defense of high-tech capitalism—speak any doubts you have over the truth of global climate change—none of that will matter when the Mighty Quinn arrives. Sane people like myself feel the giddy spin of madness, calmly watching as A-type personalities muddy the waters of common sense, while the pens of CPAs are destroying all the best that our world has to offer. I could join a group and fight the power—but that’s thinking too small. We would need a sweeping gestalt-change no less overpowering than the beginning of the Christian Era. But Christs are in short supply—and even he couldn’t stretch a few loaves and fishes enough to feed seven billion people.

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Reed College, Portland, OR

I see most of the obvious actions in that context—if it isn’t a sweeping, overall revision of the human vision, it isn’t enough—and, worse yet, it simply adds to the turmoil and confusion. So I do nothing, in the public sense. I do not act. It’s just as well—if I succeeded in improving mankind’s fate, I’d get a big head about it and I wouldn’t be fit to live with. My mission, as I see it, is to post a lot of nonsense like this on the Internet, to help other people whenever I have the opportunity, and to make my own life, as far as possible, an example to my children. And even on that point I’d prefer they copy their mother’s example of steadfast strength and unceasing love and happiness.

SUNY at Oswego, NY

SUNY at Oswego, NY

I say I am proud; I say I want to set an example for my kids; I consider myself unique and special—but that’s not the end of it. I also doubt myself; I feel a touch of fear about what I may be doing wrong; I look around at everyone else’s priorities and valuations—and even my outsized self-confidence quails at the thought of so many people valuing what I ignore, and ignoring what I value. Still, my long adherence to atheism is an even bigger disagreement between me and the majority—and if I’m going to trust in my own judgment on something so vital, it’s not much to tack on my little perceptions as to aesthetics, or ethics.

Castleton State College, Castleton, VT

Castleton State College, Castleton, VT

Although I have been getting used to disagreeing with an entire classroom full of my peers from a very early age, I still feel an atavistic cringing at the thought of facing one way while everyone around me faces the other. It is a natural impulse to get along and go along—we are a social species and I have as much desire to fit in as the next person. My parents were wrong to ask me, ‘Would I jump off a bridge if all my friends were doing it’—the answer is, of course, no—but then if I take that and apply it to my whole life, I’m likely to find almost everything in our crazy, modern society to be in the category of ‘jumping off a bridge’. And that’s exactly what happened.

SUNY at Stony Brook, LI, NY

SUNY at Stony Brook, LI, NY

Thus I’m left in a social vacuum of my own making—I like to read books, I listen to classical music, and I play the piano. That is probably true of many people—but even ‘many’ people can come to a per capita of 0.0005%. So, in a small community like Somers, that would only be three or four of that ‘many’, at best, and even then, I like certain books and dislike others; I like instrumental classical music but I don’t care for opera; and I play the piano, but not very well. Now most people that play the piano are pretty good at it, otherwise they usually give it up—the number of people like me—people that persist in struggling with our limitations, is vanishingly small.

SUNY at Purchase, NY

SUNY at Purchase, NY

Other people, perhaps more emotionally stable people, would concede to popular acclaim and start watching sports on TV, or join a group of online gamers, or join a book club. But I have to work with what I have. I’m a pretty bad liar, I think. And I have no patience—none—especially in conversation. When I hear someone say something stupid or hurtful I turn and walk away—unless the stupid one is picking on someone younger or smaller—then I find myself saying stupid, hurtful things right back at them. I have no self-control to speak of.

Pace University

Pace University

But I spent most of my life being right when everyone else was wrong—in school, in business, in computers—and that’s a hard attitude to change. Even in my reduced mental capacity, there are many people on TV who are demonstrably stupider than I am now. That seems to me like an overabundance of stupid, being not very pleased with my own stupidity. And being half-a-shut-in doesn’t help expand my social circle, either. But I have good friends, nice people, even good neighbors (except for this one guy who just moved in behind us!) and my family, and that’s more than enough people for me to interact with—any busier and I’d be exhausted—I get very tense around other people nowadays, just trying not to say anything that might hurt their feelings, and not to say anything when I disagree with what they’re saying.

Married 1980

Married 1980

I’m big on argument—always have been—but in my ‘second’ life I’ve started to trust humanity to be self-adjusting. If I think someone is wrong, they’ll find out if I was right or not, whether I tell them or not—and nowadays I can’t always be sure that I’m right about anything. Most people misunderstand anyway—I’ve never corrected anyone in any spirit other than a desire to be helpful—but for many, any argument is an attack, so I just upset them instead of helping them.

Jessica Duffy  born 1982

Jessica Duffy born 1982

There’s more I should say, I suppose, but I am just exhausted with trying to talk honestly about myself. I’m actually seven feet tall, a Nobel prize-winner, and a legendary Latin lover—I am ‘the Most Interesting Man in the World’ (but I don’t drink Dos Equis, because of my liver transplant). I’m Superman; I can fly; I’m just incredible…

Spencer  -born 1988

Spencer Thomas -born 1988

I am here

I am here