Saturday, December 28, 2013

Imagine No Possessions

Recently I was at a friend’s house for dinner and she was cooking fish on the grill outside. She came in the house looking for a flashlight, and when she asked her husband where it was, he said, “Use my phone.” He clicked on the flashlight app and a strong beam of light came out of the camera flash.
In this season of consumerism, I like to focus on the fact that we are living in an age of dematerialization. Computers, the Internet, and smartphones are eliminating the need for countless products.
When I was growing up, my family had a multi-volume encyclopedia taking up lots of room on a shelf. Who needs that, or a dictionary any more? Think of the forests of trees no longer being consumed for reference books.
Many of us have (or had) shelves and racks full of books, CDs, and DVDs. But who needs those anymore with ebooks, iTunes, and streaming video services? Think of the manufacturing plants, distribution centers, trucks, and retail stores that are no longer needed, not to mention space in our homes.
How many of us have shelves full of photo albums gathering dust? Now our cameras don’t have film, and we view our photos on screen. Think of the millions of gallons of developing chemicals, miles of film, all the ink and paper no longer needed—and that’s just for the countless bad snapshots that we tossed out right away.
Linked to dematerialization is a change in attitude towards possessions. When John Lennon wrote the song “Imagine,” the line about no possessions seemed hopelessly idealistic, or a paean to some kind of soft-headed communism.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
But now it’s coming true.
Recently Thomas Friedman wrote about the new “sharing economy,” and a website called Tradesy where people can buy and sell used high-fashion garments and accessories, including wedding dresses. The website was started by a woman named Tracy DiNunzio who needed a way to get rid of her wedding dress after a short marriage.
The sharing economy is producing both new entrepreneurs and a new concept of ownership. “With improved peer-to-peer commerce platforms that remove the friction and risk from multiparty transactions, consumers are being empowered to value and sell their space, their belongings and their time in ways that weren’t previously possible,” said DiNunzio. “For those at the cutting edge of this trend, durable goods are viewed as temporal objects to enjoy and pass on rather than ‘belongings.’ Personally, I no longer feel like I ‘own’ anything. I enjoy my consumer goods for a day, a week or a year, take good care of them because I assume they’ll go on to have another life with someone else, then share or sell whatever I’m tired of. I get access to goods and services that would typically be beyond my means, without accumulating a ton of stuff.” 
This “lightweight living,” she added, “goes hand in hand with a reimagined concept of ownership that’s focused on utility rather than possession, and can ultimately result in consumers enjoying more variety for their dollar.” [my bold]

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Spiraling Through the Stages of Psychological Development

Recently I borrowed a book from a friend called Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self, by Anodea Judith, a psychotherapist. In the introduction she lays out the major theories of psychological development, and then shows how the chakra system matches that.
The various theories of psychological development divide the maturation process in different ways; some have four stages (Piaget), some eight (Erikson). Judith’s book provides an outline of psychological development in seven stages (matching the seven chakras):
  1. Learn you are a separate person, it’s ok to be here and be taken care of physically
  2. Learn that you have feelings and needs, and that when you express them you get an appropriate response; this communicates to you that it’s ok to have needs and to have them met
  3. Learn to express your will in the world without being demeaned or shamed for what you express
  4. Learn to have relationships with others; learn to reach out rather than just pull towards self
  5. Learn to communicate your needs, feelings, and will
  6. Learn to visualize, have intuition, and be inspired
  7. Learn to be conscious and aware, to integrate knowledge and experience

What I really liked about her approach is that it emphasizes a balance of all the levels, not a progression from the lower to the higher. When I’ve read psychology books I always got the impression the developmental process was a straight line. You couldn’t go back; you were stuck with your issues and had to deal with them the best way you could. Other writers who have tried to integrate western and eastern thought, such as Ken Wilber, have given me the impression that the later stages are better and development means leaving the lower levels behind. If you get spiritual enough you don’t need to worry about the problems you have with, say, asserting your self in the world.
Judith, on the other hand, gave me the idea of development as a spiral; we initially go through the stages in a linear fashion but as an adult we can cycle back through and heal the traumas that were inevitable as we grew up (no matter how wonderful our childhood might have been, there will still be issues). This is important, she shows, because if there are gaps and problems in earlier psychological stages, that will affect our ability to successfully navigate the later stages.
By cycling back through these stages of development, and healing the problems we have at each level, we can then become a balanced person, with an integrated life.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Guaranteed Annual Income

I have been thinking and reading about the implications of the coming robot revolution ever since I wrote my first post about it. The essence of that post is that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots have been steadily increasing in computational ability and they are about to put almost everyone out of work. In fact, some observers suggest that this is already happening: this is why the unemployment rate has stayed so stubbornly high in the last few years. There are economists who forecast 50 to 75 percent unemployment twenty years from now. What would this mean? How would people live without jobs?
Economist Paul Krugman wrote a column last summer called “Sympathy for the Luddites,” in which he suggests a basic income for everyone is the only solution.
This fall, activists in Switzerland collected enough signatures to bring a referendum to the ballot that calls for a minimum income for every citizen in the country. When the group brought the petitions to Parliament, they also brought a truck filled with 8 million coins, one for every Swiss citizen. If enacted, the measure would guarantee an income of about $2800 per month per citizen, regardless of any other income.

Business Insider published an interview with Daniel Straub, one of the people who initiated the Swiss referendum, and Straub linked the concept of a minimum income to the future of robots:
BI: Why choose a minimum income rather than, say, a higher minimum wage?
DS: A minimum wage reduces freedom — because it is an additional rule. It tries to fix a system that has been outdated for a while. It is time to partly disconnect human labor and income. We are living in a time where machines do a lot of the manual labor — that is great — we should be celebrating.
I agree with Straub that we should celebrate this—I imagine our robot future in a very positive way—but of course there are many dystopian views. I guess that’s not surprising in our culture, where the movie industry constantly pumps out films portraying a bleak future where the machines rule, the earth is devastated, and humankind fights for survival.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Classless No More

One of the things I loved about the USA when I was young was that we were a classless society. As I got older I was more realistic; I celebrated that we were much less of a class-based society than others around the world.
But in our new Gilded Age we are losing even the appearance of classlessness.
Today I saw a cartoon by one of my favorite cartoonists, Jen Sorenson, that illustrates the new class-stratification. Not long ago Thanksgiving was an almost universal holiday. Only those who filled the essential jobs in our society—police, nurse, firemen—worked on that day. Now of course, with Black Friday starting ever earlier, more and more of the working class are being required to work as if this holiday were just another day of the week. Sorensen writes, “Like so many aspects of American life, holidays have become two-tiered.” 

Lots of people will be flying this Thanksgiving weekend and have a front-row seat, if you will, to the increasingly class-tiered airlines. I don’t fly often, but last summer I went to see family. I bought my ticket four months in advance and was surprised at how limited the seat choices were. When I was waiting to board my first flight I learned the reason: the airlines are now selling access to aisle seats, selling the right to board early to get first-crack at the overhead bins, etc. As the gate attendant called off the boarding zones I realized I was in the “brown” group, one of the pitiful povs who boarded last (nod to SouthPark).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Seven Deadly Sins are Now Virtues

Recently Matthew Fox spoke at Jubilee, in Asheville. He spoke of an affliction of our time: “Couchpotatoitis.” He also used an old word for this condition, “sloth,” and it reminded me of an article I had written years ago:
When I read Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy a passage jumped out at me: A research firm called SRI International had written that the Catholic Church’s “seven deadly sins”—pride, gluttony, envy, sloth, greed, lust, and wrath—are capitalism’s virtues.
I think this is a profound observation. For a long time I have felt there is a flaw in capitalism but struggled to find a way to express it, and this may be it.
Early in its history the Catholic Church developed a classification system for sins: some were minor and could be forgiven easily but others were “mortal”; these carried the threat of eternal punishment. These mortal sins are the seven deadly sins and were obviously extremely serious transgressions. 

In the Medieval era artists helped to warn Christians of the peril of committing one of these sins, for an example see “Seven Deadly Sins,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1480, above). In Inferno (written around 1315), Dante Alighieri envisioned nine circles of Hell. Sinners condemned for the relatively less serious sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, and avarice) were in the upper circles, while those condemned for sins of the spirit (sloth, anger, envy, and pride) were placed in the deepest circles of Hell.
Why did the Church consider these feelings so deadly? By looking at them in terms of relationship to God we can discover some answers. Three can be seen as choosing the material world over the spiritual: greed, gluttony, and lust all imply an unhealthy desire for more money or food or sex than the body needs.
The other four can be seen as sinning in thought against God. Envy means you desire something someone else has and you don’t—in other words you are saying God made a mistake in your creation. Wrath likewise implies a judgment that something is wrong with God’s creation. In medieval times sloth didn’t mean general laziness like we think today, it meant laziness towards the things of the spirit. Thus it was a rejection of God. Pride has been called the “deadliest sin.” Pride means wanting to set yourself above everyone, including God.
What do we think of these “sins” today?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Low Minimum Wage Means Taxpayers Are Subsidizing Corporations

In the news this week is a story about an Ohio Wal-Mart that has set up bins in its employee-only section asking for food donations for needy fellow workers.
This story reminded me of a “New Rules” segment on Bill Maher’s show a few months ago when fast food workers were striking. Maher pointed out that a high number of minimum-wage workers have to use federal programs like food stamps and Medicaid to survive, and that this means the American taxpayer is subsidizing these large corporations. In other words, part of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s profit comes straight out of your tax payment.
Maher said,
If Colonel Sanders isn’t going to pay the lady behind the counter enough to live on, then Uncle Sam has to. And I for one am getting a little tired of helping highly profitable companies pay their workers.
A site called “Good Jobs First” has a report on use of Medicaid by employees of various corporations, divided by state. Wal-Mart stands out, frequently with the most employees on Medicaid in a particular state, followed by fast food companies and grocery stores. (Here’s another article with lots of links.)
The cost of low wages at Wal-Mart are at the center of a new report released last week by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The report details assistance that includes not only Medicaid and food stamps, but subsidized housing, reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches, subsidies for home heating, the earned income tax credit, and child care subsidies.
Factoring in what taxpayers contribute for public programs, the report estimated that one Wal-Mart supercenter employing 300 workers could cost taxpayers at least $904,000 annually.
That comes to $3000 a person per year. If each employee works 40 hours per week for 50 weeks, that’s 2000 hours (of course part of the problem is that Wal-Mart doesn’t allow employees to work full-time to evade federal regulations), means a pay increase of $1.50 an hour would cover this cost.
A DailyKos story from last year on this issue reported:
At over $446 billion per year, Wal-Mart is the third highest revenue-grossing corporation in the world. Wal-Mart earns over $15 billion per year in pure profit and pays its executives handsomely. In 2011, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke – already a millionaire a dozen times over – received an $18.1 million compensation package. The Walton family controlling over 48 percent of the corporation through stock ownership does even better. Together, members of the Walton family are worth in excess of $102 billion – which makes them one of the richest families in the world.
Our American system of capitalism is deeply flawed. Proponents of the “free market” claim that Wal-Mart is just paying its employees what the market demands. This is completely false; there is nothing “free” about this taxpayer-subsidized system of low-wage employment.
Can you feel the resentment rising? How long can the American people bear this injustice? Maybe as we learn that this is hurting all of us, we will stand up together and demand change.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Masters of Sex

I was intrigued when I heard Showtime was going to do a series on Masters and Johnson, the sex researchers, so even though I almost never watch modern soap operas, I made an exception and have watched all of the episodes so far.
After a couple of episodes I got impatient to learn what was true and what was invented, so I got the book that inspired the series, Masters of Sex, by Thomas Maier. I was glad to see that much of the television material is true to what is presented in the book.
From my point of view Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were heroic people, willing to make sacrifices to study an incredibly central part of human life that had been ignored because of puritanical fears. Masters had an extremely successful ob-gyn practice and was a respected member of the Washington University medical school, and studying sex put all of that on the line. In fact, because of the small-mindedness of many of the doctors at Washington University, he ended up walking away from it so he could continue the research. Johnson was a single mother and she spent very little time with her children because she was so devoted to the work.
As a female, I was fascinated by Virginia Johnson. She didn’t ever get a college degree, yet through her intelligence, talent, and hard work she became Dr. Masters’ equal in the research. And this makes Masters equally fascinating: he was capable of letting go of the arrogance so many doctors take as their right.
Another thing that made Johnson unusual and the perfect partner for this research was her attitude towards sex. She was a free-spirit born before her time, a woman who somehow escaped the indoctrination that sex had to be linked to love and relationship. Her enthusiasm and openness drew volunteers to participate in the study, and the volunteers included doctors and doctor’s wives! Because she was comfortable with her own sexuality, she was able to create an atmosphere that allowed volunteers to feel at ease having sex in a clinical setting. When they switched from research to creating therapies, Johnson actually took the lead, and once again I think it was because of her understanding of the fundamental importance of sex in our lives.
This attitude is clear in the (following) comment Johnson made about the therapy, called “sensate focus,” which was a series of touching exercises, without intercourse, to restore/establish intimacy. Maier writes:
So many patients had been taught that sex was wrong that it rendered them unable to make love in a mature or even adequate way. “What is totally foreign to effective sexual development, in spite of centuries of practice, is the notion that sex is dirty, supplemented by various controls exercised through fear, rejection, ignorance, and misconception,” Johnson later said.
It’s easy to watch the TV show and assume a sense of cultural superiority—our 21st century sexuality is so much freer than that of the repressed 1950’s. But is it really? I was an adolescent during the height of the Sixties free-love and women’s liberation movements and I took them to heart. I thought women would/could escape the cultural demands to look a certain way—makeup, high heels, bras, etc.—and we could just love the one we’re with without it meaning anything other than mutual pleasure.
Carina Chocano eloquently expressed the way I perceive modern female presentation in a recent article in the New York Times:
[The Showtime series] prods us to look at sex not as entertainment (even, of course, as it provides that) but as both basic animal behavior and a societal construct...
Sex may be completely out in the open now, but for all its prevalence…it still feels schematic and hidebound. In the past 30 years, ideas about what makes women “sexy” have become narrower, more rigid and more pornographic in their focus on display and performance. The pervasiveness of the porn aesthetic is especially insidious for young girls’ self-perception, as they constantly absorb the message that the modern choice comes down to either abject invisibility or duck-faced selfies across a portfolio of social-media accounts. I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking at when I see Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, or their millions of adolescent imitators. But I’m pretty sure it’s not liberation.
The idea that frank presentations of sex are somehow daring or iconoclastic is an enduring idea whose time has, perhaps, come and gone. As symbols of a repressive norm, we may have simply replaced “’50s housewife” with “porn star.”
I liked her phrase, “societal construct.” Most of us don’t think of sex that way, but our attitudes towards it are heavily influenced by our society’s belief systems. It was foolish of course to think in the 1970s that we could overthrow thousands of years of social rules overnight, but still, I’d love to live to see the day when the norm about sex wasn’t “repressive.”
One of the fascinating aspects of Masters and Johnson is that they started having sex during the research project. Unfortunately some things never get explained in Maier’s book, and chief among them (in my mind) is Masters and Johnson’s attitude about their sexual relationship. Clearly it happened, but neither of them ever spoke or wrote about it in detail (at least according to Maier’s research), so we can only speculate. There is talk that Masters demanded sex early in their work as a condition of Johnson’s continued employment, and Johnson did give some support for that having happened in an interview with Maier. The TV show portrays their sex as part of a long-standing scientific tradition of scientists experimenting on themselves. I imagine, given both of their dedication, that this was at least partially true. Their lives also demonstrated how difficult it is to separate sex from emotional attachment: they did eventually marry.
One huge disappointment: Virginia Johnson destroyed all the audiotapes of interviews and films that had been created during their research. These could and should have been donated to a university, and it’s a great loss to our culture. It’s kind of inexplicable considering her devotion to the studies, other than an expression of spite towards Masters (who had divorced her to marry his first love) or towards the society that had rendered Masters and Johnson somewhat irrelevant after a decade or so of being on the cutting edge.
A bit of trivia: I was raised in St. Louis, where Masters and Johnson did all of their research. I lived there from 1961 until I graduated from high school in 1976 and I was completely unaware that they were based in my hometown. This was the height of their fame, and when I asked my mother about it she professed ignorance also, even though my father was associated with the medical school of Washington University at the time this research was taking place.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Promise of the Internet

For many years I have been excited about what the Internet will bring via the interconnection of the planet. YouTube alone is an amazing force for world peace, I think (see this blog post). With the seemingly universal love of cute cat videos, people all around the world find themselves watching a video and realizing an unknown language is being spoken in the background. This cat lives in another country, maybe even a country that is perceived as an enemy, and the owner plays with the cat in the exact same way the viewer does. Or they love their baby the same way the foreigner in the cute baby video does. By watching ordinary people do ordinary things we learn that all human beings are more alike than different.

Today I read about something extraordinary that will help save countless mothers and babies during childbirth, and it was inspired by a YouTube video.

Jorge Odón, an auto mechanic in Argentina, watched a video about extracting a "lost" cork from a wine bottle with some friends. That night he had a dream that this same principle could work extracting a baby from a mother's vagina during difficult births. 
The next morning he rigged up a crude prototype using a large glass bottle and one of his daughter's dolls. He showed it to an obstetrician, who helped him obtain more realistic materials for future prototypes, and the World Health Organization is now conducting a test in a few countries around the world. 
A medical devices company has signed on to make the devices and they should cost less than $50 to make, meaning the life-saving device will be available in poor countries.
“This is very exciting,” said Dr. Mario Merialdi, the W.H.O.’s chief coordinator for improving maternal and perinatal health and an early champion of the Odón Device. “This critical moment of life is one in which there’s been very little advancement for years.”
In wealthy countries, fetal distress results in a rush to the operating room. In poor, rural clinics, Dr. Merialdi said, “if the baby doesn’t come out, the woman is on her own." The current options in those cases are forceps — large, rounded pliers — or suction cups attached to the baby’s scalp. In untrained hands, either can cause hemorrhages, crush the baby’s head or twist its spine. 
"This problem needed someone like Jorge,” Dr. Merialdi said. “An obstetrician would have tried to improve the forceps or the vacuum extractor, but obstructed labor needed a mechanic. And 10 years ago, this would not have been possible. Without YouTube, he never would have seen the video.”
This is just the beginning...

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Objective Morality

I’ve been involved in a couple of forums where the subject of morality has come up. In one, the members are interested in spirituality. Some of these people seem to think that non-dualist spirituality means there is no such thing as bad or good. Everything’s perfect so morality is basically meaningless.
On the other forum, most of the members are atheists, and they’re trying to understand how an objective morality could exist. The question is, without a God imposing morality on humanity, how can a human system be anything but relative?
I’m not an atheist, but I don’t think God intervenes in the evolution of the universe. In other words, I think the unfolding of evolution proceeds in an inevitable fashion. So I like to find ways to explain phenomena like “morality” and “love” without recourse to metaphysics (although I think there can be an explanation from an underlying ground of consciousness, see note at end).
This question of the objectivity of morality is important. By objective I mean something that can be agreed upon by other people. If morality is subjective, that means you can just do what you like; there would be no difference between saving someone from drowning and cheating that person out of their life’s savings. Any society that adopted that ethos would quickly descend into chaos. 
Last year I read philosopher Alexander Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality and enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. I think part of the reason is that Rosenberg attempts to understand concepts such as morality as evolved behaviors.
Evolutionary biologists propose that a special dynamic of evolution called “group selection” has brought about altruism in humans: groups in which the members cooperated and could trust each other did better than groups in which there was a lot of infighting and deceit (see this blog post). This process led to the development of moral attributes.
Rosenberg asserts that there is a core morality that all human societies share, and the most basic components of that morality are: reciprocity, fairness/equality, trustworthiness/honesty, and caring for your children. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (you can read chapter 9 free online which discusses morality) has identified six candidates: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Other possibilities, he says, are property, honesty, and a dislike of wastefulness.
Rosenberg writes, “All societies and cultures have words for anger, disdain, shame, and guilt, and in each, they name roughly the same set of bodily feelings.” Shame is the feeling we get when we go against core moral principles, and blushing is a signal to the others in the group that we realized we made an error.
When it appears that other cultures don’t share this core morality, Rosenberg says it is because of the interference of beliefs (see this post for more on beliefs):
The next step in understanding moral disagreement involves recognizing that such disagreements always result from the combination of core morality with different factual beliefs. When you combine the uncontroversial norms of the moral core with some of the wild and crazy beliefs people have about nature, human nature, and especially the supernatural, you get the ethical disagreements that are so familiar to cultural anthropology.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cornel West: Be Ready to Die

Dr. Cornel West came to Asheville last night and spoke at UNCA. His talk was an inspiring mix of philosophy, spirituality, and political activism.
He started with the admonition he gives his students at the beginning of every school year at Union Theological Seminary: be ready to die. What he means by this is be willing to question your beliefs. When we swallow the beliefs and preconceptions of our family and culture we are nothing more than sleepwalkers. Instead, Dr. West told us, we should be critical thinkers and question everything. He approvingly quoted a black woman at the 1964 Democratic National Convention saying, “I question America.”
This resonated deeply with Arthur and me, because survival is at the foundation of our philosophy (see this blog post by Arthur). When you look at what’s going on in the physical world all around us, it’s clear that all physical form attempts to survive unchanged from one moment to the next. Everything tries to maintain its existent structural identity through time. But the forces of change work on everything, from a bacterium that lives and dies in 20 minutes to a star that is born and goes supernova in 100 million years. Nothing physical stays the same.
But thoughts and beliefs are non-physical forms. Because they’re forms they’re bound to attempt to survive, but because they are non-physical, they’re immune from the physical forces of change. A belief, like “America is the best country on earth—love it or leave it” can survive unchanged across generations of believers. Unless it’s questioned. The only thing that can kill a belief is questioning by the believer.
In addition, we identify with our beliefs. They define who we are. The belief “I’m an American and that makes me superior to other people around the globe” becomes part of my identity. So if that belief is threatened, it feels like I’m being threatened. When that belief is “killed,” that is, when I no longer believe it, it feels like part of me has been killed.
Dr. West asserted in his speech that this willingness to question and die is absolutely essential to a democracy. Slavery is an example: our country was founded with the belief that it was acceptable to own human beings. This meant that for seventy-five years a significant percentage of the population of the country were not citizens and could not participate in civic society and in government. This meant we were not fully a democracy. Through the questioning and killing of the belief “slavery is acceptable,” which took a Civil War and the Civil Rights movement to fully accomplish, our democracy has gotten stronger.
Bringing this principle into the modern day, Dr. West questioned the priorities of not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party as well (which clearly stunned many in the crowd, there wasn’t much applause for that line). He questioned the cupidity of our culture, the greed and grasping, the elevation of the financial sector over all others, the increasing income divide between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us. He questioned President Obama’s priorities, which, he said, has brought him a lot of criticism as a black man.
Unfortunately, Dr. West said, our present culture feeds the tendency to sleepwalk with somnolence-inducing television, movies, and the Internet.
Get out of your comfort zone. Take risks. Challenge your holy cows. Question everything. Think for yourself. This, Dr. West says, is the only hope for the future of democracy. Without the willingness of each individual to die, our fragile, precious democracy will die.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Dental Cyst

Last week I learned I had what’s called a “lateral periodontal cyst” between two of my front teeth that required surgery to remove. I’ve decided to do a blog post because when I googled the condition almost nothing comes up. I guess it must be fairly rare.
Symptoms: One of the problems with this condition is there aren’t symptoms. My periodontist told me that the vast majority are discovered only when they have broken through the bone structure between the teeth and created horrible gum pockets. They can be detected with X-rays, but from the little information I have gleaned, the cysts are most often found between the front teeth, which are not usually X-rayed. My cyst is between tooth 9 (which is the left front tooth) and 10.
However, in retrospect I can report two symptoms: first was the feeling of having something stuck between these two teeth, like a piece of straw, but nothing would be there. I have felt this intermittently for a couple of years, but I really didn’t give it much thought.
Second, about eight months ago it felt as if someone had socked me in the mouth. This has never happened to me, but the feeling was that all my teeth, particularly the top front teeth, were aching. This lasted for a few days. I had a regular dental cleaning not long after this happened so I remembered to mention it to the hygienist. She said that this could be caused by grinding your jaw or a sinus infection. I do tend to clench my jaw so it made sense that this was the cause.
Three weeks ago the aching started again, and this time it didn’t go away. After about a week I got a sharp pain centered on one of my front teeth (#9) and the gum above it. It felt like a gum infection, so I waited a couple of days because I had just been to my dentist for another regular visit and I was a little irritated about having to go back. The gum pain eased over the next couple of days, but the funny feeling in my tooth didn’t. It was very sensitive when I bit into something. There were also a couple of small bumps on the ridge above the front tooth and the one to the side. So I called my dentist.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Exposing Myself

My husband, Arthur Hancock, has just published his memoir, entitled Exposing Myself: A Life of Sex and Truth. Arthur has had an amazing life, filled with unusual adventures. It's available in both print and Kindle versions. The book chronicles his two main obsessions, sex and the pursuit of meaning:

What happens when a twenty-eight year old man, whose primary interests are sex, nonconformity, and playing music, stumbles upon the meaning of life? On a rainy day in northern California, he abruptly discovers just how superficial his perception of the world really is. His subsequent quest to understand this life-changing experience, to seek truth over lies and love over lust, is reported here in uninhibited detail. Graphic sex, a plausible metaphysics, and a 21st Century psychology that spells the end of shame, blame and arrogance.
From chapter one:
I was like my namesake, Arthur the King, staggering back from the great stone with Excalibur freed in his hand and a look of complete astonishment on his face. All I’d been expecting was cosmic sex with my young goddess. Instead, completely unprepared, I had broken through an unseen barrier that imprisoned me in a painfully limited reality, entered an undeniably superior realm of consciousness, and walked around in it for several hours. This new reality was no hallucination; it was more detailed, beautiful, and logical than anything I’d ever experienced in my ordinary state of awareness.
You can read the first two chapters at the Kindle store.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Embracing Failure

I watched some of the World Series this weekend. I like baseball because of the interesting mix of team and individual effort. Every single player has to go to the plate and be the focus of the game, usually multiple times in a game; many plays are handled by a single player on the field; and the pitcher is alone on the mound, hurling pitch after pitch.
What is particularly interesting to me about baseball is the high level of failure that each player must be able to endure. Even a great hitter will fail to get a hit two out of three times at bat. When I watch a man who is famous for slugging balls out of the park swing powerfully and miss, striking out, I wonder, “How can he endure failing so spectacularly and publicly? How does he manage to come to the plate his next at-bat and not have that strike-out affect his mind?”
The pitcher is even more amazing. The spotlight is on him every pitch, and after you’ve walked a runner, how do you come back from that public failure and get the next batter out?
Science is another field that also must embrace failure. Thomas Edison once famously said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 1,000 ways that don’t work.” In one of my classes in molecular biology I remember the professor discussing an experiment in which an assistant looked through hundreds of petri dishes before she found the one that had the particular mutation the researcher was looking for (one of the reasons I didn’t go into research, I didn’t like the idea of being that young assistant!).

This weekend I also watched the film “Young Frankenstein,” the 1970’s Mel Brooks spoof of the Frankenstein genre. Gene Wilder, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, has attempted to bring his creature to life, and it appears he has failed. Wilder calmly says to his assistants that failure is part of science. Then he starts beating on the creature’s chest bemoaning his fate. From an online transcript:
Frankenstein: No, no. Be of good cheer. If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace. [Beginning to beat on the chest] Son of a bitch bastard, I'll get you for this. What did you do to me? What did you do to me?  
Inga: Doctor. Doctor, stop. You'll kill him. 
Frankenstein: I don't want to live. I do not want to live.  
Igor: Quiet dignity and grace.
This is closer to the way I often deal with failure: a temper tantrum. “It’s the end of the world, this means I’m a failure, useless, not good for anything,” etc. I eventually pick myself up, but it affects my future actions; I either give up on the idea or it takes awhile before I’m back in there slugging. Edison also said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
A great movie example of failure is "Apollo 13." This is one of my favorite films, and part of the reason is because it portrays people overcoming failure. After some panic and displays of anger, the people on the ground and in space start "working the problem." At one point, Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, overheard two men behind him worrying about this being NASA's greatest disaster. Harris turns and says, "With all due respect, sir, I think this will be NASA'a finest hour." And it was certainly one of the finest, because no one ran from the failure. They embraced it and went forward.
I think this explains why I like baseball. I like watching people not allowing failure to influence their next moment.

Update: Recently I heard Dr. Cornel West speak in Asheville, and he ended his talk with a quote from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Quote: "Failure is the key to the kingdom within." Rumi
Footnote about the individual in sports: In other popular team sports the individual counts of course, but from my perspective the focus isn’t so intense on individual effort. In football the quarterback throws to a receiver who catches the ball and runs, but there is an enormous amount of action all around—tackling, faking—that distracts from the main action. That’s why slow-motion replay is such a big part of televised football, it’s important for understanding what just happened on the field. Basketball is very team-oriented; an individual is the one who makes the basket of course but much of a game involves the passing of the ball between players. Same with soccer.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Government Slimdown

I wrote a blog post last spring asking liberals why they were so self-congratulatory after Obama won re-election (for example, they couldn’t even get gun control legislation passed after a mass shooting at an elementary school). At that time there was widespread speculation that the Republican Party was weak and doomed. Six months later I’m hearing the same sort of predictions that the Republican Party is self-destructing with their hostage-taking tactics in both the government shutdown and the threat not to raise the debt ceiling.
But Republicans are geniuses at turning a defeat into a victory. Listen to FOX News; they’re not calling this a shutdown; they’re calling it a slimdown. Look at the polls that put almost as much blame for the shutdown on the Democrats and Obama as the Republicans. Last night I talked to someone who is, for me, a representative of the average person who doesn’t pay much attention to the news. She asked, “Why won’t Obama talk to the Republicans?”
Last spring’s sequester was a big win for the Republicans; it was supposed to be a worst-case scenario—a line no one would cross—that would force the two parties to a compromise; instead the Republicans chose to cross it and got what they wanted: smaller government.
What people don’t seem to realize is that the conservatives in the Republican Party hate government. They think there are only a few things the government should do, mostly provide for a military and service the national debt. Everything else should be eliminated. Remember Rick Perry’s meltdown in the debates last year when he couldn’t think of all the government departments he wanted to eliminate (he remembered Education and Commerce, Romney helpfully suggested EPA, later Perry remembered the third was Energy)? Liberals laughed at him instead of paying attention to what he was saying.
Now six months after the sequester the “self-destructing” conservatives are once again getting what they want: an even smaller government. The insanity in the Republican Party has spread so far that there is a growing number of congressmen willing to risk a default on U.S. Treasury responsibilities. What they are arguing is that there is enough tax revenue coming in to pay the interest on the U.S. debt that will come due. The New York Times had an article today quoting some of these Republicans: 
Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, a reliable friend of business on Capitol Hill and no one’s idea of a bomb thrower, isn’t buying the apocalyptic warnings that a default on United States government debt would lead to a global economic cataclysm.
“We always have enough money to pay our debt service,” said Mr. Burr, who pointed to a stream of tax revenue flowing into the Treasury as he shrugged off fears of a cascading financial crisis. “You’ve had the federal government out of work for close to two weeks; that’s about $24 billion a month. Every month, you have enough saved in salaries alone that you’re covering three-fifths, four-fifths of the total debt service, about $35 billion a month. That’s manageable for some time.”
… “It really is irresponsible of the president to try to scare the markets,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. “If you don’t raise your debt ceiling, all you’re saying is, ‘We’re going to be balancing our budget.’ So if you put it in those terms, all these scary terms of, ‘Oh my goodness, the world’s going to end’ — if we balance the budget, the world’s going to end? Why don’t we spend what comes in?”

Once again, my argument is that liberals need to do a much better job educating the public about what government does. The government shutdown is providing some education; every day it seems another agency is recalling workers to deal with a crisis: FEMA brought back workers when Tropical Storm Sandy threatened the Gulf coast, FDA is bringing back some workers to deal with an outbreak of salmonella. Other closings, like the national parks and monuments, are affecting the lives of tourists and those whose income depends on those tourists.
But these individual examples can get lost in the whirlwind of daily news. Liberals need to keep hammering on this point: government is good. Yes it can always be improved, but the basic system is sound.
Elizabeth Warren is one of the few prominent liberals trying to educate the average American about the value of government. In this video about the government shutdown she calls the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party “anarchists.” She defines government as a system where we work together to solve problems; we have decided that there are some things we do much better together. This is what government is. It’s not some scary boogeyman.
Update: Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, published an op-ed in the New York Times on Oct. 15 that says some similar things as this post:
Even if the immediate crises — the partial shutdown and the looming debt default — are resolved, we will still be living in a dangerous political moment. The danger in question is because of the recent emergence of a political philosophy — and I mean that in the loosest sense — which threatens to unravel our joint commitment to a common democratic enterprise.
What is the “political philosophy” I have in mind? The conservative writer John Tamny at puts it this way: “It quite simply must be asked,” he writes, “what the point of the Republican Party is if it’s not regularly shutting down the federal government?” No point at all, Tamny seems to think, suggesting that “shutdown should be a part of the G.O.P.’s readily unsheathed arsenal of weapons meant to always be shrinking the size and scope of our economy-asphyxiating federal government.”
This, Lynch argues, has two dangers. First, it weakens the commitment to the social contract, that sense that we work together within our democratic institutions to govern ourselves. The second danger in this strategy is to democracy itself:
Should shutdowns, debt-ceiling fights and the radical political legislative gridlock they represent really become a fixture of American political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that someone should  “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the Congress — will only increase. If you are on the left, and Obama is still in power, you may even tell yourself that is a good thing. But it is a bad precedent, the type of precedent that causes democracies to erode.
Social contracts don’t have to be made for democratic intentions...
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.