Tuesday, December 30, 2014

So long 2014

Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot
(Eugene O'Neil, playwright)

We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
(Alan Turing, mathematician)

We live in capitalism. It's power seems inescapable. So did the divine rights of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
(Ursula K. Guin, writer)

“With a little help from my friends”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A small Christmas present for non-humans

Considering how we humans in general treat each other, it's not surprising how we deal with non-humans. But now perhaps one small step in human behavior, but much more to be done.

Argentina: Court grants orangutan basic rights

Monday, December 15, 2014

White America's secret, part 3

“Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam...”
(poem and song published in 1870s)

Round em up, round them up

The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of the American Western. It was also one of our most popular exports. Television shows like Bonanza, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Have Gun, Will Travel and Maverick were among the most highly rated programs on television. I recently watched the 1959 TV pilot of Rawhide, where Clint Eastwood made his first appearance, about cowboys on a cattle drive.

It's quintessentially American … sort of. Stoic white men and go-it-alone kind of guys solve problems, protect children and the women folk and aren't afraid to use their guns, which of course are omnipresent. This view was in fact part of the West but only one small part, the part that has always been most comfortable to white people, who decided how the West “was won.”

The real story is of course much broader, much more ambiguous and oftentimes far darker, literally and figuratively, and the laconic lone cowboy was more often than not an unremarkable cog in a much bigger system. It is also about how large corporations and politicians first colluded on a large scale to plunder the resources of the West and where the ends justified the means.

The state of Idaho is sponsoring a Killing Competition on National Forest Lands. The contestants will be competing for cash prizes. The prizes go to those that kill the most wolves, coyotes and other wild life. To paraphrase Rap Brown, blood lust “is as American as cherry pie.”Yeah, it's about continued disrespect and disconnect but more important it's about mass delusion.

It's part of an old story about taming the frontier. Ranching interests today in the western states are the ones behind most of the shooting, trapping and poisoning of millions of animals. Ranchers drove the Mexican gray wolf to extinction and continually oppose any recovery efforts. Grazing on public lands has threatened or endangered hundreds of species, and thousands of miles of rivers have been polluted by livestock waste

Politicians in the western states love to talk about their Libertarian roots and how they are the “true” protectors of the environment and the authentic America. It's once again about white America making up stuff on a grand scale. No doubt many of these characters and their constituents actually believe the claptrap they utter—but why wouldn't they.

I hear the chickens are coming home

“You didn't hear about the terrorists planning to blow up the subway in Paris?” I had not. “Do you think it's safe to fly to New York”? I said I thought it was perfectly safe.

We had one of the lowest voter turnouts in years (36%) for our recent mid-term elections, terrible even by the dismal American standard, yet some $3.6 billion was spent to “buy the election.” The low voter turnout wasn't because of widespread contentment among the citizenry. But who did vote were the older, whiter, wealthier and more conservative voters. And who they voted into office at both the national and state level will guarantee all of us “interesting times” come January 2015.

I suspect the next two years will be unpleasant for a great many Americans, especially for those of us that don't want to revisit the 1950s let alone the nostalgic era of President William McKinley, 1897-1901.

“What do those people want?” “You ought to open an account in the Caymans, only the ignorant pay more taxes than they should.” “Stopping the system of dependency in this country is the most important thing we can do.” “We're the real victims.” “Next time we'll have a President who is, well, you know.”

I happened to run across a particular group of tennis players this past summer, who I ended up playing with periodically. They were white men, all over the age of 55, middle class, some of whom were retired … engineers, business types, one or two had worked in the public sector, with grown children and grandchildren. I listened to what they had to say.

They were a subset of white America but have always been an influential constituency and certain about their place in the order of things, until recently. It's about a world they know that seems to be now unraveling, difficult for many of them to comprehend. The television and radio info-entertainers tell them that, while they're in the right, they also ought to be afraid—of virtually everything. And they are resisting the inevitable changes, sometimes mindlessly.

Friday, December 12, 2014

White America's secret, part 2

Men, women and children were piled up on that little flat in one confused mass. Blood ran like water ...
Big Foot's band was converted into good Indians.
(A soldier who participated in The Wounded Knee Massacre, December 29, 1890)

A lust for conquest had already destroyed the Great Republic, because trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.
(Mark Twain, during U.S. conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1902 )

Verscharfte Vernehmung [Enhanced Interrogation]
(The Gestapo's Methods of Examination, from a directive by the Gestapo chief, Muller, 1937)

Mohammed was also subjected to rectal rehydration 'without a determination of medical need.' Mohammed's chief interrogator described use of the process as emblematic of their 'total control over the detainee.'
(excerpt from Senate report on CIA torture, December 2014)

Um-m, before post-racial America

Approximately 20 Africans arrived in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, but we think they were treated as indentured servants. Some supposedly achieved their freedom and became property owners. A lot of historians cite John Punch who, in July 1640, became the first official slave in the English colonies, supposedly because he decided to leave his employer before he'd finished his indentured servitude. The two white men that left with Punch had their servitude extended for a few years unlike Punch, who was placed in permanent bondage for the remainder of his life, with no rights. He became human property.

The “formal institution” of slavery was a gradual process and it took another 150 years or so before it was thoroughly and “legally” entrenched into the fabric of the entire country. Edward Baptist, professor of history at Cornell, has written an economic history of slavery, entitled The Half Has Never Been Told.

Many American history texts have portrayed slavery as a marginal system in the South, a relic of feudalism and perpetrated by a handful of landowners, with many slaves often becoming part of the slave owner’s family or variations of this relatively benign theme. I certainly have known a number of white southerners, who were far from being ignorant racist troglodytes or in any way thought slavery was “not all that bad,” but who still cling to some version of the Gone with the Wind nonsense.

The “war of northern aggression,” as some white southerners still today call the American Civil War, was not about slavery, but was about state's rights. This is a belief still offered by far too many. It is why Baptist's book is an important contribution in sweeping away the illusions of many white Americans and better understanding the very long legacy of slavery, that is far from being a relic of the past. Go to Hate Map to see where some of these groups reside at the present time.

According to Professor Baptist, America's rise to power ( and white privilege ) was very much connected to black slaves. It is a story about global capitalism and where “personal” property superseded all other rights. It most definitely was not a marginal system practiced by a few backwater southern plantation owners. In fact, Baptist doesn't speak of plantations but of slave labor camps. Think of Stalin's Gulags, North Korea's labor camps, and Nazi concentration camps. Work Sets You Free—Arbeit Macht Frei.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865 some 4 million former slaves were set free. Eight million whites in the South, overwhelmingly poor, landless and illiterate, thought of black people as competitors. White southerners were easily manipulated. By 1874 white power in the South had regained control, and the North had lost interest in Reconstruction. We had the West to now “civilize” and for some there was a lot of money to be made. Above all we now understood industrial warfare after the carnage of the Civil War..


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

White America's secret, part 1

We must delight in each other, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.
(“A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop, leading figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630)

No ancient empire has risen or mouldered away within these limits. Except the red man, of doubtful origin and melancholy fate, America has no “surviving memorials of the past.”
(History of New Hampshire, George Barstow, 1858)

It would soon become the greatest mass slaughter of warm-blooded animals in human history. In Kansas alone the bones of thirty-one million buffalo were sold for fertilizer between 1868 and 1881.
(from Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C.Gwynne)

A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.
W.E.B. DuBois

Violence is as American as cherry pie.
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin [H. Rap Brown], 1960s

All a man needed was a horse, a gun and the open land, and he could conquer the world.
(attributed to U.S. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, 2014)

Vacuum domicilium

My favorite time to visit Cape Cod, the section of Massachusetts that juts out into the ocean, had always been in the fall, when the tourists had long gone and the beaches were deserted. It was the emptiness that I liked, watching the Atlantic Ocean crash onto the shore. It was easier to imagine so much.

That same ocean crashed onto the beaches when my ancestors landed in November of 1620—cold, miserable, frightened yet believing fervently in their stern religion and that they were the chosen people of God, about to establish the New Jerusalem.

To these early Pilgrims and Puritans, this New Jerusalem was deserted! It was vacuum domicilium, meaning “vacant dwelling.” It didn't fit the traditional English characteristic.”Unimproved” lands without any clear title were simply available.

Right away the views of the Indians and the Europeans regarding “property” were ultimately irreconcilable. For the newcomers, title was available for the first occupant who would clear the land, build on it, garden, farm and permanently inhabit the property. Property for Europeans meant power and virtually no one in Europe had any in the seventeenth century. And there was so much land for the taking and so few white people to take it, arguably the most fertile region on the planet. We had to be the chosen people.

Back in 2005 I wrote an article entitled A Druid Nation. I asked the question whether or not it would have been different if someone other than the Puritans had established settlements in America.

A clear duality exists in this country. My Puritan relatives were not Libertarians, contrary to some of the more fanciful views of white conservatives today. In the beginning it was about shared responsibility and community norms. It was also about obeying God's laws … as interpreted by the leaders of the community. William Jenkyn the Puritan martyr, who died in Newgate Prison in London, said that, “As the wicked are hurt by the best things, so the godly are bettered by the worst.”

While the Puritan communitarian strain pretty much dominated the settling of the “new” world, the secular influence of the European Enlightenment dominated the founding of the United States.

On Thomas Jefferson's tomb nothing is written about being the third president of the United States. What we see is that he was the author of the Declaration of American Independence, the Father of the University of Virginia and, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. The state, in Jefferson's eyes, had no business in proselytizing religious views.

We white people have been mixing, matching, justifying and making stuff up from the very beginning.


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?

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The petabyte children

Chris Anderson the former editor of Wired Magazine, several years ago, published an article entitled The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. He believed that the age of “big” data would be “the end of science as we know it.”

We've had kilobytes, megabytes and terabytes, in other words, floppy disks, hard disks and disk arrays. In the Petabyte Age the “stuff” is stored in the cloud. Knowledge now begins with massive amounts of data. And can we deny in 2014 that those under thirty years of age are not constantly gazing into the virtual cloud?

Anderson said back in 2008 that data will be viewed mathematically first and a context for it established later. Correlations are the future young man. Causal analysis be damned! He ended his article by asking, “What can science learn from Google?”

Predicting the future

Regarding the future, I think a major challenge of the 21st century is acquiring a better understanding of the brain—and the mind, if any future is to become a reality. In the spirit of speculating I shall shamelessly promote my own ebook novel A Genetic Abnormality, which will be coming out on September 1, 2014. For more information go to

The modern scientific process began in the 17th century, and viewed against the thousands of years of human existence, science developed only yesterday. It's also “difficult” in that it goes against how we humans traditionally think.

If scientific thinking can be called analytic and objective, traditional thinking is more subjective and
associative, associative meaning we humans can see causal relationships between actions and events and sometimes indulge in quasi-magical thinking. Of course, at the same time, we appear to be the only species that can meditate on ourselves in ways other animals cannot.

The history of science has focused on ideas rather than methods. Theories are constructed based on observations and measurement of natural phenomena. It is a world of both inductive and deductive reasoning and creating hypotheses requiring testing, and in the best case can be repeated and replicated. Science likely has a lot more to teach all of us. The question still is what can Google learn from science?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A recent, personal history of capitalism and the global depression

While David Harvey is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he is relatively unknown in the United States. His fields are in the area of geography, social theory and political economy, yet, his views have had considerable influence on the study of capitalism, both positive and negative.

This video, created in 2010, offers a Marxist view of capitalism. Since the posting of this video, global capitalism has demonstrated even less reason to keep it around. Of course the question ultimately comes down to how we dismantle the current structure and begin to replace it with something that reflects a 21st century reality, a system that is capable of benefiting the vast majority of people on a changing planet.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Part 2: The consequences

No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country
(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933)

The story may be apocryphal but it caught my attention. A few nights ago in a television interview with Strobe Talbott, former U.S. diplomat and now president of the Brookings Institute, Talbott told a story about President Vladimir Putin of Russia when he was a young KGB officer in the 1980s. Seemingly Mr. Putin received a less than glowing performance review from his superiors because he was too much of a “risk taker.”

Take a psychopath to lunch

Well, but maybe you ought not to go to lunch with one, even though they can be charming and understanding, like Hannibal Lecter for instance. For that matter the person could be a relatively “normal” hedge fund manager or high government official. It's your decision. According to some scientists that study the “condition,” these folks may make up 2 to 5 percent of the human population.

For some experts the differentiation between psychopathy and sociopathy is important. Whereas the behavior of the psychopath may be more erratic and noticeable, the sociopath is more controlled. The psychopath may tend to act on impulse, while the sociopath usually wants to minimize exposure.

Psychopaths are oftentimes not able to maintain normal relationships, while sociopaths are generally well organized, normal in social relationships and are frequently quite successful in their profession. Risk taking may be a common characteristic, the psychopath being more impulsive and the sociopath more deliberate. As well, sociopaths can be very good at manipulating human emotions. At the extreme end of the spectrum, however, they are violent and dangerous. Probably best not to pursue a deep friendship with one.

Key components of what is referred to as Antisocial Personality Disorder might include a lack of guilt or remorse, a diminished capacity for empathy, abuse of others in various forms and “malignant narcissism.” These qualities are of course found throughout society today, in almost every profession, but it's likely that some professions are more attractive than others for those who have APD.

On the other hand, courageousness and the willingness to commit unremitting and continuous violence were valued qualities among our ancestors at one time, be they within the clan, the village or even the nation. These characteristics were likely important factors in the survival of our species, at least in our early days. Based on the number of television shows and movies we have about serial killers and assorted psychopaths, we clearly have a morbid curiosity about these people.

Speaking of Vladimir Putin, FP has a very interesting article entitled How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare. An entire region of Eastern Europe is a laboratory for Antisocial Personality Disorder, helped along by almost everyone including the U.S. 

What makes us human

While we know that our genes have been passed down through billions of years, from the very beginning of life, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and neuroscientists are now learning that some genes are much younger, in some cases only a few million years old. Some came from the common ancestor of both humans and apes and the very youngest emerged when we diverged from our cousins the apes some 6 to 7 million years ago. We're only just starting to understand genetic influences and the impact on humankind and what in fact shapes our behavior and makes us human.

What is referred to as the “big 5” classes of personality traits are (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. It is thought that approximately 50 % are related to genetics and 50 % related to environmental factors. For example, there are genes associated with impetuosity and risk taking,. which could lead in the right environmental circumstances to some form of addiction. Yes, who are you?

It's story time

They were women “operatives” for the Republican party in the United States. These women were sitting around a table on some news show discussing how they would get the female vote in the next election, considering how the Republican men have done a terrible job attracting women voters and have demonstrated that they have not left the 1950s … or they long to go back.

This discussion was largely about selling a better message and not about whether or not the message itself was any good. It seemed to me to be more about manipulation and a lack of empathy, at least for anyone but the comfortable. Above all, it appears to be, among these operatives, that it was self-evident that a large portion of the women voters could be manipulated by clever messaging.

Agnotology is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. The term was first coined by Robert N. Proctor, a professor specializing in the history of science and technology. The gold standard for many years was the tobacco industry, little more than a criminal enterprise selling poison, aided and abetted by politicians, the media and certainly the citizens themselves.

Agnotology is very much about the “publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” It's meant to confuse. The overriding goal of the tobacco industry for many years was to sow doubt between the connection of smoking to cancer, long after there was any scientific doubt. Today it's a full blown industry in America and across the globe. Climate denial, “trickle-down” economics, the “job creators,” weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq and hydraulic fracking are only a few examples. The idea is to confuse the public, protect the status quo and maintain the comforts of the comfortable.

Thomas Piketty, the enemy within

Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best seller and has moved beyond the academic community and Washington policy wonks. The book may actually stir some serious debate about global capitalism, which is way, way overdue. It has upset the privileged, not merely the usual collection of bottom feeders but those who have built their careers on praising and perpetuating the glorious myth of the “free” market.

Some articles to better understand Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in the Twenty First Century:

And from the critics:

Alfie, what's it all about

It's about Revolution, let's not pretend it isn't. Ideally, revolution of the mind and quite possibly a little of the “soul.” A lot of critics will say that humankind is not capable—they haven't evolved sufficiently. In that case revolution will come the old fashion way, through carnage and violence—war of the psychopaths, and we know that story line. But more and more likely it will come down finally to climate change and its enormous consequences and we'll end up with, if humanity is “lucky,” with maybe a billion humans reliving the 19th century, give or take.

At least for those of us in America, it's a matter of finally making the decision to get rid of the status quo. We're not going back to some fanciful, bucolic past no matter how desperately some of us want to, nor is it a matter of some weekend protest, sending a check to our favorite organization, tweaking the tax code or even building some silly little libertarian village in the middle of a dying ocean. We don't really need everyone in order to get this going. It's a matter of recognizing that there is no alternative.

Finally, some data

On the climate:

Good article on language and climate confusion:

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Where does your country stand:

Psychopathic behavior: A terrific interview with Dr. James Fallon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and what he learned about himself in the course of his research

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Part 1: Consequences of low information citizenry—most everywhere

Born fictioneers, all of us, we quest for causes and explanations, and if they don't come readily to hand, we make them up, because a wrong answer is better than no answer. Also, a fast good-enough answer is better than a slow perfect answer
(An Alchemy of Mind, by Diane Ackerman)

Global corporate enlightenment in the 21st century

Inequality is becoming a 'wicked' problem like climate change—one in which a solution must not only overcome powerful entrenched interests, in individual countries but must be global in scope to be effective
(Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson, American Prospect, commenting on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 3/10/14)

For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight renewable energy, which as been adopted by most states
(New York Times, 4/26/14)

The truth-quest is always the same; the unwavering search for signs to match reality

(Truth, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Emancipating the American serf

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
(from 'The Merry Minuet,' sung by Kingston Trio 1959)


Loosely translated, the word “maskirovka” means masked warfare. It could refer to Putin's use of local thugs, volunteers and disguised Russian Special Operations troops in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the region, thus avoiding the use of traditional forces crossing the border as an invading army.

Of course, we Americans know quite a bit about “special operations” across the globe; however, we know a good deal less about masked warfare inside our own country, partly because we're largely unaware of what is is but, more importantly, the idea is not to know it's actually happening. There are no men dressed in uniforms carrying automatic weapons and speaking in halting English. But our own unique masked warfare has been going on for a very long time, from the very beginning of the republic actually.

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth
(H.L. Mencken)

It's all mine

The confirmations continue to pile up on the expanding dung heap. Following rapidly on the heels of Thomas Piketty's “best seller” Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see previous article), detailing the level of American inequality, we now have Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (see Additional Reading below).

Getting beyond the political science jargon and supporting data, all of which is revealing, the report pretty much demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of the American public has very little influence regarding the policies our government adopts. The full report will be available in the Fall.

Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for slave owners
(Vladimir Lenin)

The sound of black helicopters

Special operations at its very best are good at deliberate misdirection, pitting various groups against one another, stirring up old fears and superstitions, manipulating ignorance, creating new historical “facts,” which oftentimes includes nostalgic myths about the "good old days." The final act of the very best special operations is instilling fear in the dominant culture, be it at the local level or even throughout a nation-state. “My god, 'they' might take it from us.”

Picking on white America

There's something to be said for a national upheaval, even revolution in some cases. It can clear out the accumulated rot and fanciful misconceptions, as well as rid the nation of a corrupt and useless status quo. But, there is also a downside. In the U.S. in the 1930s it took a worldwide economic Depression and an extraordinary political leader like Franklin D. Roosevelt to create serious political, economic and social change.

In Europe the same Depression led to Fascism and WWII.. The 1918 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, by the 1930s, had turned into a reign of terror and the leadership of the sociopath Joseph Stalin. The world is full of similar dismal examples.

White America has been fortunate, in that it has not had a foreign army in its country since the British invaded the U.S. in the War of 1812. The same certainly can not be said of the Indian nation occupying the same territory as European-Americans but for a longer period of time. As for African-Americans, well, they were considered property until the 1860s and were subjected to second class citizenship until well into the 20th century. No, the American Civil War was not about state rights.

Louis Hartz, in his classic The Liberal Tradition in America, said in the mid-1950s, “that instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it. As for a child leaving adolescence, there is no going home again for America.”

Your 'people', sir, is nothing but a great beast
(Alexander Hamilton, June 18, 1787, Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia)

Our Founding Fathers, while an extraordinary group of men, were not gods from Mount Olympus, and they certainly never put “democracy” on some elevated platform as we tend to do today. They were, understandably, fearful of excessive concentration of power. For our Founders, democracy meant preventing “mob rule and the triumph of passion over reason to serve the ambition of the demagogue.” They created a government which ended up over time serving the needs of the status quo. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a television interview during a visit to Egypt said, “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

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)

Had Lincoln not been assassinated, might the history of the United States been far different? Historians will likely be debating this question for years to come. Regardless, white America did not choose the high ground after Lincoln was killed. Four million former slaves were emancipated in 1865. At the same time some 8 million whites, largely illiterate, never owned slaves, but ended up regarding the freed African-Americans as competitors. The whites were easily manipulated, usually by the same people that were in control before the Civil War. By 1874 the white power structure had regained control and the former Confederacy descended into a “heart of darkness.”

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
(St. Louis Republic newspaper, December 17, 1890)

Abraham Lincoln wanted the West opened for all Americans after the Civil War ended and for the average American to own some land and be a citizen and a full participant in a democratic country. Well, once again white America did not choose the high ground. The opening of the West became the on-going story of genocide, violence, environmental destruction, class warfare and corporate predation and corruption. (For an excellent understanding of the role of the railroads in the West and the rise of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, read Railroaded by Richard White.)

Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power
(Adam Smith)

Cow billy liberty, freedom and farmer Bundy

Today, in 2014, mythical American exceptionalism is all pervasive, reinforced by info-entertainers on cable news, politicians, corporations and certainly the many oligarchs with their own anti-democratic agenda. We Americans are somehow special and different we are advised and, if truth be told, a little better than all the rest. The glow, however, is wearing off the glorious fable, rather quickly. But remember what masked warfare is all about.

Cliven Bundy, a millionaire cattle rancher in Nevada may be an apt metaphor for a certain delusional albeit influential segment of America, wallowing in white entitlement and demanding its proprietary welfare capitalism in perpetuity.

Farmer Bundy has been grazing his cattle on “public” lands and has not paid the range fee, hardly onerous by any rational standard, to the Bureau of Land Management in some twenty years, which clearly begs the question: What the hell has the BLM been doing all this time?

Part of the land that Bundy grazes his cattle on has been reserved for the endangered desert tortoise. The land does not belong to Cliven but is held in trust for all Americans, thanks to the intelligence and foresight of the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. Supposedly the fee Mr. Bundy now owes to the citizens of the United States is approximately a million dollars.

Recently, like a tired cowboy fable, when the BLM decided it was about time to enforce the law and round up Bundy's cattle, this odious freeloader claimed he didn't “recognize” the Federal government and started yapping on cue about his freedom and liberty, which naturally brought out the various “patriot” groups and the lunatic militia movement, who were armed to the teeth and threatened violence against BLM officials. This dreary “range war”story is not yet over.

A judicious hanging in Wall Street would be a good measure with which to begin the reformation
(Ignatius Donnelly, in The Representative, August 29, 1894)

No fairy tales to believe in anymore

The population of the United States is over 300 million people. The total number of eligible voters is approximately 206 million people. The number of registered voters in the U.S. are approximately 169 million, with some 86 million registered Democrats, 55 million registered Republicans and some 28 million falling into various categories. Now consider one to five percent of the population.

Oligarchy, for all practical purposes, is the government we now have in the United States. Masked warfare has been quite successful. The obvious question is what will be done about it? Who will do it?
How many people constitute a serious movement with the discipline, the knowledge and the ability to sweep out the accumulated rot and toss out a corrupt and useless status quo? There will be in the near future no national uprising, no college students successfully confronting para-military police forces on a part-time basis, and most definitely no “glorious” revolution. It will, however, not be pain free.

Five percent of 86 million registered Democrats is some 4 million people; three percent of 169 million registered voters is 5 million people; two percent of 300 million residents of the U.S. is 6 million people. The numbers are there.

Credit must be given where credit is due. The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, and his majority of reactionaries could be dressed in top hats and tails and sent back to the late 19th century. They'd fit right in. Antonin Scalia could ponder his doctrine of “original intent” until the cows come home.

From voting rights to unlimited money in politics, the Roberts court has done its duty well. It was a television comedian that said of the Chief Justice that he was either a liar or too naïve to be serving on the highest court in the land, if he believed that large sums of money did not corrupt the political system.

The U.S. Congress, a corrupt, pompous debating society for millionaires, is merely irrelevant. The Executive branch—who knows? Certainly having a political system allowing for a wider pool of talent to run for the presidency would be a good beginning.

Our 18th century Constitution, a remarkable document for its time, is now a relic of a distant past and needs to be rewritten for the 21st century.

Who will rid this country of the oligarchs?

Additional Reading: