Saturday, November 22, 2014

Entering injun country and fighting hostiles

It's a fascinating photographic collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. In 1867 photographer Alexander Gardner became part of the survey team for the Union Pacific Railway. Gardner had once worked in New York for Mathew Brady, who had produced so many iconic pictures of the Civil War.

While part of the exhibit contains photographs of Kansas City in 1867-68, Lawrence, Kansas and other areas, other photographs depict the myriad relations between the U.S. military, white settlers and the Indians that lived in the region. These are powerful images, both poignant and hypnotic. See “images.”

In 1868 Gardner went with the Indian Peace Commission held in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The Commission was made up of people sympathetic to Indian culture and their way of life and those that wanted a “final” solution. It was, however, the beginning of the end for the Plains Indians.

The American Civil War was over and the “frontier” was about to be opened up to European-Americans on a vast scale. We were headed for the Pacific coast. (Still one of the best accounts on how the railroad opened the West and its consequences read Richard White's book Railroaded.)

A story for all of us in injun country

This is not an American story or just another sad tale about indigenous people worldwide, although it has directly affected native populations for a long time. It's really about values, economic systems and what we're willing to consider as alternatives in the 21st century. See 'tar sands' and accompanying video.

The U.S. military has used the expression “going into injun country” for a long time when embarking on our numerous military campaigns or entering an especially dangerous area within a country where we're usually not wanted. The problem is that more and more of us will likely be considered “hostiles” living in injun country by those few seeking some type of “final solution.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Economic America: A delusion wrapped in an illusion

We are the rich. We own America. We got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it.
(Frederick Townsend Martin, a member of New York's late 19th century upper class)

Listen to your betters

I have learned how to cultivate my karma for success; a wealthy businessman told me. I've lost track of all the articles I have read on numerous sites, including Linkedin, about “making it.” Now I know how to write a resume so as to avoid age discrimination and what clothes to wear for all occasions.

So many articles on how to get rich, including pictures of beautiful people, beautiful mansions and beautiful yachts and so little time. Mark Cuban told me he gets his inspiration from reading Ayn Rand novels. There's hope. I read Ayn Rand novels when I was in college.

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country.... Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow....
(Abraham Lincoln, 1864)

Mirrors and smoke

My libertarian friends are fond of reminding me that America is a republic not a democracy. I usually thank them and only occasionally ask them if a republic can be democratic. Certainly, our 18th century Founding Fathers, a remarkable collection of human beings, were no democrats as we understand the term in the 21st century.

For the creators of the Constitution, they did not place “democracy” on a marble stand. When they spoke of democracy they meant preventing”mob rule” and the “triumph” of passion. Alexander Hamilton once remarked during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that, “Your 'people,' sir, is nothing but a great beast.”

In the 21st century one of our favorite Horatio Alger stories is the self-made billionaire tale. It was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda muse, that said, “You tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Our billionaires in the U.S., overwhelmingly, receive their education from elite or elitist institutions, depending on your point of view, and a large percentage have advanced degrees. (See Wealth-X and UBS Billionaire Census2014). It's actually a perpetuation of a class and most definitely not the enlargement of an opportunity.

It's like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
(Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, a private equity firm, in response to the Obama administration proposal to close the 'carried interest loophole' benefiting the very rich, 2011)

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.”

Yes, we are living in a “wonder-land.” The information is readily available. For some it might begin with Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. But there are many other sources less abstruse.

Corporate profits have risen five times faster than wages, while the middle class has not seen its wages rise in 15 years. College costs have risen 500 percent since 1985 while the consumer price index rose only 115 percent during the same period. At Harvard 11 % of the students receive Pell grants, while at the University of Texas 59% receive Pell grants.

Even with a less than perfect Affordable Care Act (hardly a radical idea in the developed world), health costs are going up, while family income is going down. The rich, well, they are “different” from you and me. They have their subsidies, which of course is a tax for everyone else.

Who loves you baby

I have seen examples of “capitalism” in a small rum shop in Barbados, in an Indian market outside of Quito, Ecuador and at a small hotel on the coast of Venezuela. In my own family there are small business owners, who employ people, pay taxes and who really do believe in responsibility beyond themselves.

With the “millennials” well on their way of becoming the new American serfs because of college debt and a broken economic system, I have wondered even more if we actually do believe in an educated citizenry, because freedom, liberty and opportunity for all is supposedly, at the very least, in our national interest.

Leaving aside for the moment secondary and primary school education, why is college tuition not paid for by its citizens? After all, we are seemingly happy to pay for the education of a professional military officer class. I suppose the question is mostly rhetorical.

Our republic is broken and nonsense about Ayn Rand and “dressing” for success are the distracting tales told by idiots and sociopaths.

The death of Sitting Bull removes one of the obstacles to civilization. He was a greasy savage, who rarely bathed and was liable at anytime to become infected with vermin. During the whole of his life he entertained the remarkable delusion that he was a free-born American with some rights in the country of his ancestors.
(The St. Louis Republic , St. Louis, Missouri, December 17, 1890)

Additional reading:

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Extinction for fun and profit

The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man's
(Mark Twain)

The approaching silence

It's a remarkable picture making the rounds on the internet: More than 30,000 walruses have come ashore in Alaska because of disappearing sea ice in the Chukchi Sea, an area where the oil and gas industry want to drill. This is the feeding area for the walruses and where the females give birth. A similar phenomenon is occurring along the Russian coast as well. Climate change is so inconvenient.

The depressing numbers

The World Wildlife Fund recently updated its Living Planet Report. In just two human generations half the animals are gone (10,000 representative population sampling of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish), which represents a 50 percent decline over the past 40 years.

The major causes are familiar. In addition to climate change, there is habitat destruction and loss, devastation caused by unsustainable levels of hunting and fishing—for whatever reasons—and exploitation in general. Right now between 23 percent and 36 percent of all birds mammals, and amphibians used for food or medicine are now threatened with extinction.

A house of death eaters

While the industrial slaughter of iconic animals like the elephant and the rhino is frequently in the news, less well known creature have many scientists far more worried and could have a direct and disastrous impact on Homo sapiens.

Some of us, for example, may know that the world's food production (possibly more than 60 percent) is dependent on bees and other pollinators, but how many know about the importance of the lowly worm, which turns waste into soil nutrients or that bats keep malaria rates down. It is the small, not so cuddly creatures, that may ultimately change everything for humankind, possibly much sooner than we might imagine.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bring me the storyteller

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
(Tertullian, 2nd century Christian author and zealot from Carthage)

Those who tell the story rule the world.
(Hopi Indian proverb)

The times, they are so interesting

The speaker was Shane Snow, CEO of Contently, a media/branding company. By chance I happened to see him on one of the familiar TED presentations. Snow's talk centered on telling stories that make us care. His presentation is at the end of this article.

I suspect part of the reason I viewed this particular presentation is because we've had unceasing news coverage regarding the Islamic State terrorizing the Middle East. As well, at the same time, we have all seen the pictures from West Africa and the global community's inability, to date, to contain the Ebola outbreak—and finally, the climate summit, which began with the march in New York this past Sunday. What will we do this time? What is the story and who is telling it? It actually does matter to all of us across the globe, whether we understand it or not.

Recently, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham hysterically proclaimed that we'll all (“all,” meaning Americans) be murdered in our beds if President Obama doesn't destroy the Islamic State. Graham is one of the more contemptible bottom feeders in a corrupt and essentially useless United States Congress. He can best be thought of as Senator John McCain's pet rock, another confused American politician that needs to retire to one of his six or seven homes.

Flickering shadows around the camp fire

Some twenty-five years ago Joseph Campbell, the author of The Power of Myth, brought to public television his remarkable series about mythology and storytelling throughout human history. We Homo sapiens have been telling tales from the very beginning. It's a central part of what makes us human.

Anthropologists have discovered human grave sites more than 100,000 years old, which clearly indicate rituals for the dead, with the bodies oftentimes laid out in particular positions and jewelry and various belongings placed in the graves. The sky gods, the dragons and the demons have always been with us whispering in our ears, soothing us one moment and terrifying us the next.

The secret of the process by which consciousness invests history with meaning resides in the 'content of the form,' in the way our narrative capacities transform the present into a fulfillment of a past from which we would wish to have descended.
(Hayden White, historian)

Believing what I say

While the Islamic State and its numerous fellow-travelers may be the latest example of how monstrous humankind can be, and who deserve no tolerance whatsoever, they are not Hitler's Wehrmacht, except perhaps in the minds of the usual political suspects and of course those who have a vested interest in embarking on another military crusade.

The retired general and admirals with their war maps and lucrative consulting fees are being wheeled out to advise us, in somber voices, that we must confront this global evil to preserve civilization or some variation of the story.

The American kleptocracy can sit back in their chairs for the moment, knowing that the public is frightened once again, easily manipulated and distracted and remains as uninformed as ever. Now how many citizens were murdered by guns on American streets this past week? Does anyone actually care?

The spreading Ebola epidemic in West Africa has many fathers, from illiteracy and cultural practices to civil war, poverty and indifference. Some health organizations have estimated that some 1.4 million people could be infected with the Ebola virus by this winter. See Ebola Virus Cases May Hit 1.4Million. If ever a compelling story was needed, it is now.

Several days ago Senator James Inhoff of Oklahoma stumbled out onto the stage to advise reporters that IS terrorists were already in the U.S. ready to strike. Inhoff’s claim to fame is that he said a number of years ago that global warming was a “hoax.” It was all those scientists seeking grants from the public trough that created the global warming fairy tale. For an interesting piece on “creating” the story and climate change see Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change and what to doabout it.

The ultimate story for all of us is yet to be written. Now would be a good time to gather together the genuine storytellers.

Reading about terrorism and the middle east:

The Ebola virus:

Climate change:

Depressing comic relief:

Thursday, September 04, 2014

History vs truth: Unrequited love

To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.
(Federico Garcia Lorca)

Syria is not for the Syrians and Iraq is not for the Iraquis. The Earth is Allah's.
(Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of IS, the Islamic State )

We like our history as is

Here in the United States another battle is taking place in the ever hardening cultural divide. This time it's over the College Board's revised “curriculum framework” for the Advanced Placement test in U.S. History. The New HistoryWars.

Most of us over a certain age remember high school history courses as little more than memorizing names, dates and facts, all in all pretty boring. In reality, we American know virtually nothing about our own history let alone the history of the world.

Now, it's not that the U.S. is unique in creating historical fairy tales or slanting the truth. We are pretty much amateurs compared with the dismal police states and theocracies dotting the planet. What is different is that our American “exceptionalism”has never been really challenged or forced to confront the reality, and ignorance is most certainly harmful to our health and well being

Afraid and fearful and so fearfully afraid.

Observing humankind across the planet at the present brings to mind the lines from Yeats' The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Human evolution lurches and weaves along in some indeterminate direction, while our technological prowess disappears over some unknown horizon.

Meanwhile, the small collection of monsters that make up IS may be the latest example of human malevolence but it will likely not be the last. Monsters have certainly crossed the land called Iraq and Syria in the past.

The Mongol invasions from Central and North Asia in the 12th and 13th century may have been one of the most destructive in human history, and terror was certainly used as an effective weapon. The Mongol armies conquered China, the Turkic tribes and attacked Russia and Eastern Europe. In the mid-13th century they destroyed Baghdad, which in the 9th century was the greatest center of learning in the world. The monsters have always been with us; the goal is to keep them in the caves as long as possible.

Sand beneath our shifting feet

Why should we be so surprised today that cave dwellers like the Islamic State have suddenly appeared in the light of day? Again from William Butler Yeats: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Yes, things do fall apart. Excluding for the time being such issues as a global population of more than 7 billion people, climate change that can be denied only by the delusional and a global economic system dressed in a top hat and tails, we simply have to look around us, especially at some of the major nation-states:

For example, China, a police state fearful of its own people, seems to have as a guiding star a determination to turn the planet into its own plantation, regardless of the destruction it will likely cause along the way; Russia, an environmental disaster in the making, with President Putin apparently imagining himself a 21st century czar; America, an increasingly dysfunctional society with a decaying 18th century Constitution, and who single-handedly destabilized a significant part of the Middle East. And the rest? Pick a continent. For an interesting article on ad hoc violence at the local level read In times of regional violence, local rules apply. (See below.)

It doesn't seemed far fetched to envision more regional and local conflicts with nation-states exerting increasing repression against its own citizens as well as nearby smaller states, until the more powerful state itself begins to implode. Loyalty to what and to whom may become the overarching question. No, the Earth doesn't belong to Allah but to all the visible—and not so visible—life inhabiting the planet--equally. Will the “best” regain conviction?

Additional Reading

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Extinction: A terrible inconvenience

Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.
(Carl Sagan)

Worth reading. Supertelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.
(Tweet by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla)

The ultimate risk

The Atlantic several months ago published an interview with Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institution. Bostrom's contention is that human extinction risks are not well understood. (You can click onto the complete article We're Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction below.)

While Bostrom talks about present threats to humanity, he is clearly more concerned with longer-term potential existential threats, which he thinks is where our focus ought to be. Among those at the top of his list would be artificial intelligence, while in the nearer term it could be what we might do in the areas of biotechnology and synthetic biology.

As well, it's Bostrom's contention that one of the very worst things humanity could do is to slow down or halt technological evolution because that in and of itself would “constitute an existential risk.”

In short, according to Bostrom, our “avoidable” misery will only get much worse if we can't improve the quality of life, and for him technology is the key, or at least, a central priority we can't afford to reduce. Bostrom, however, goes on to say that it would be difficult to slow down technology very much, let alone bring it to a halt because of the constituencies pushing scientific and technological priorities, along with economic interests and assorted individual and institutional priorities. Well possibly, yet....

Considering the finite then and now

In Thomas Cahill's wonderful book How the Irish Saved Civilization, he recounts a winter day in 406 A.D. Roman soldiers stood on one side of the frozen river Rhine, while on the other side were the barbari, thousands upon thousands of hungry and determined barbarians from assorted Germanic tribes determined to cross over to where the Roman legions now stood, the defenders of the “civilized” world.

Let it be said that virtually no one on the side of the Rhine where Roman soldiers now guarded the culture and the glory of antiquity and possessed the most advanced technology in the world—even at this late date—would you find people able to imagine that the Eternal City of Rome and its legacy would crumble and vanish. It would have been incomprehensible.

The late Kenneth Clark in his book Civilization asks the question, why did the Greek and Roman civilization collapse. His answer is that it was exhausted. Antiquity had run out of steam. It had become a static world as Cahill points out.

Doing the expected had become the highest value. Fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague—fear of everything was the norm. Why bother to do anything? Late antiquity had become a world of empty rituals, obscure religions and the wholesale disappearance of self-confidence.

The barbarians? The disappearance of self-confidence? The Islamic State currently ravaging parts of Iraq and Syria, a determined collection of murderers and psychopaths, with their longing for the Middle Ages, would have been a familiar sight to the citizens of the Roman Empire by the second decade of the fifth century.

The latest discoveries regarding our cousins the Neandertals, no longer thought to be ignorant brutes, suggest that the interactions between them and humans may have lasted considerably longer than we once thought. There is also speculation now that the Neandertals may have gone extinct because, unlike Homo sapiens, they were unable to adapt quickly enough to climate change. But of course we can't draw exact comparisons and we don't know what the future will be.

Will technology be our salvation as some believe or is there something else required? Will the elephant and the rhino survive the slaughter caused by China? Will humankind somehow stop doing the expected and rediscover a new self-confidence?