Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interspecies Love

Recently I saw a video on YouTube that shows kittens and dogs meeting for the first time.

The video is incredibly sweet, and watching these natural enemies play together made me think that humans are bringing about an incredible new thing on this planet: interspecies love and affection. Without the influence of humans, these cats and dogs would never be snuggling together for naps or playing games.
Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows that animals are loving, caring, loyal, trusting, and forgiving. But in the wild, animals can usually only share this love with members of their own species. There are the rare examples of animals caring for members of another species in the wild, but from what I can find these are usually cases where a mother has adopted an infant.
But when animals get domesticated, because they no longer have to worry about survival, particularly obtaining food, they are freed up to express empathy and take care of other animals. This article gives examples of some unlikely pairings, including an orangutan caring for tiger cubs, a male pig with a lamb, and a chihuahua with a marmoset (great pictures at the website). The book Unlikely Friendships, by National Geographic magazine writer Jennifer Holland, documents 47 stories of interspecies relationship, including the Biblical lion lying down with the lamb: a female lion adopted a baby antelope at a nature reserve in Kenya.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Capital, by Thomas Piketty, review

I have heard it said this is a difficult book, and I disagree—I found it a pleasure to read. Piketty is a good writer and explains economic terms and concepts very clearly. The only thing required of a reader is the patience to read page after page of descriptions of wealth in various times. I have no training in economics, so if you want an economist’s review of this book, check out Paul Krugman’s review in the New York Review of Books. However, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of economics in politics and history, so I have attempted to educate myself. This then is the impression of Capital by a semi-educated layperson.
Piketty has analyzed an unprecedented amount of data on wealth and has come to the conclusion that there is a fundamental mathematical equation that not only explains income and wealth inequality, but also explains why it will always tend to increase and concentrate over time.
This equation is r > g, where r stands for rate of return on capital and g stands for growth of the overall economy. For most of the period for which there are statistics (beginning about 1800), r has been greater than g, and this means capital increases seemingly without limit during these periods.
Much of the 20th century was an anomaly because of the two world wars and the Great Depression. First, these events destroyed vast amounts of wealth, particularly in Europe. Second, they also impacted the values of r and g. The US and Britain pioneered the concept of confiscatory taxes at the highest income levels—up to 90%, which reduced r, the rate of return on capital. In addition, there was a great deal of rebuilding to be done in Europe, an arms race in the US to finance, and an explosion of consumer products for the new middle-class to purchase (telephone, radio, washing machine, refrigerator, car, television, computer), which greatly inflated g, the growth rate. For a few decades after 1950 the basic equation of capitalism was reversed—g was greater than r. This automatically lowered income inequality, and created the false impression that capitalism had been tamed and wealth inequality was a relic of the past.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Flower Clock

On this first day of the year that is longer (the day after the winter solstice), I’m thinking of time. Recently I heard of an idea for a living clock. Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the biologist who developed the two-word naming system for biology, noticed that plants opened and closed their flowers at predictable times during the day and night. In other words, plants, like animals, have internal biological clocks.

For example, Goat’s Beard (Tragopogon pratensis) flowers open at 3 am, while Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) flowers open at 5 am. Linnaeus realized that you could tell time by looking at which plants’ flowers were open. After researching and planting a wide variety of plants, he was able to tell time to within a half hour, just by observing his flowers. Linnaeus drew a diagram of a plant clock, but it appears he never actually planted one.

I think this would be a lot of fun to try. This article has a diagram with plants that grow here in North America, like morning glories (open at 10 am) and California poppy (open at 1 pm). This article has information about making your own garden, as does this, and both have a list of many plants and their flowering time.

I haven’t been able to find photos of anyone who has successfully planted a living clock, so if you know of any please let me know! Supposedly there is one at the University of Uppsala, in Sweden, where Linnaeus lived, but I haven’t been able to find photos of it. They do have a “Linnaeus garden” in their botanical gardens.

Monday, December 15, 2014


What is reality? Is the physical reality we see around us all there is?
Most scientists insist that there is nothing but the physical, material universe. They reject any talk of a reality that can’t be measured empirically with scientific instruments. If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.
Lately it has become popular in science to talk of a multi-dimensional reality beyond the four-dimensional universe (space plus time) we’re all familiar with. For example, string theory, a branch of physics, posits ten or eleven dimensions of spacetime (or twenty-six or…). The books I’ve read about string theory (The Hidden Reality and Hyperspace) explain that the reason we can’t perceive these other dimensions of reality is because they are really really small—the theory says these other dimensions must be “curled up” into some tiny space smaller than our measuring devices can detect. (See this Nova article or this short essay by the author of Hyperspace, Dr. Michio Kaku)
People who are spiritually inclined talk about angels or higher beings that exist on another plane of existence. Others talk about higher levels or dimensions of consciousness. There seems to be a common attitude among spiritual seekers that the physical reality we live in is an illusion or dream, and that the spiritual realm or higher dimensions are reality.
I think these views about reality are mistaken, and there’s a fabulous allegory called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions that explains why I believe this. Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, is a short novel published in 1884. Mr. Abbott provides a very useful way to imagine how other dimensions can exist by creating a two-dimensional society called “Flatland.” [Read the full book online, see Carl Sagan discuss it.]

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Life: A God-class Roller Coaster

I love roller coasters. When I go to an amusement park the roller coaster is usually the only ride that interests me. Many years ago, I went with my stepdaughter to Opryland, a park near Nashville, and a big thunderstorm came through. We decided to stay at the park and wait out the storm. Almost everyone else left so, once the storm was over, we had the unusual experience of having an amusement park to ourselves. My stepdaughter liked a ride with twirling swings that wasn’t too far from the roller coaster, so I left her there—she never even had to get off the swing between rides—and headed over to my favorite. This was a corkscrew coaster, meaning you spent time upside down. I rode it six times in a row with no waiting; what a fabulous experience!
Why are roller coasters and other extreme rides at amusement parks and fairs so popular? Why do we pay to be scared? Clearly many of us like to experience the simulation of approaching death. Why is this, when our whole animal nature is programmed to survive at all costs?
The message of my husband and my book, The Game of God, (newly revised), is that one reason the universe exists is to allow unlimited God to experience the roller coaster of life, the ups and downs of limited existence, which eminently includes life and death. In the first chapter (read it here, complete with cartoons) Arthur and I imagine someone who “has it all,” who is rich, beautiful, and powerful beyond measure, who has no problems, who is perfectly healthy, and best of all is immortal. That is, someone who is as close to being unlimited as possible.  We ask, “Would there be any experiences this person would miss?”
We conclude there would be plenty of missed experiences: from adventure to learning, from falling in love to anticipation of something new, from struggle to triumph, from fear of dying to the joy of aliveness. Even riding a roller coaster would lose its excitement if there were no possibility of risk:

Cartoon by Arthur Hancock, from The Game of God

Recently I saw an old Twilight Zone episode called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This is from a short story by Ambrose Pierce set during the U.S. Civil War. The TV episode begins with a group of soldiers preparing to hang a man from a bridge. The soldiers pull the board that is holding him up out from under his feet, but the rope around his neck breaks and he is free! He stays under water as the current of the creek carries him away out of range of the soldiers’ rifles. Once he’s out of sight he climbs up onto the bank and you can see he feels profoundly alive; he appreciates the simplest things: breathing, smelling flowers, and the song of birds. Only at the end do you realize that the rope didn’t break; he did die. The “escape” was a fantasy that happened in the few seconds between the platform being removed and his death. But in those seconds he lived.
Somewhere I heard a story about Civil War veterans that also illustrates this idea that the edge of death brings about a passionate experience of life (maybe it was from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”?). These veterans were imagining heaven, and this was their conception: every day they would fight a battle, then every evening every soldier—including those who had “died”—would gather and tell stories around the campfire. On the surface this seems completely bizarre—who would want to recreate brutal, bloody battles in heaven? But once you see the link between risk-of-death and the buzzing energy of aliveness, their fantasy makes sense. For these men, the most alive they ever felt was on the battlefield.
This wisdom is embedded in many spiritual traditions. For example, the Tao te Ching teaches that we live in a dualistic universe of opposites, and that pairs of opposites arise together, they are linked. We begin the first chapter of The Game of God with a quote from the Tao:
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty
only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy compliment each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Cartoon by Arthur Hancock, from The Game of God
There is a Zen story that answers the question “What is Zen?” (see below): A man is in a jungle. A tiger spots him and chases him to a cliff. The man lowers himself down on a vine until he hears another tiger below. As he’s hanging there, with death above and below, two mice, a black one and a white one, start chewing on his vine. Facing certain death, he notices a wild strawberry plant near him and, plucking a berry and eating it, says, “How sweet.” In other words, the message of Zen is: experience every moment fully because death is always lurking. 
Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui Indian shaman in the Carlos Castaneda series, taught Carlos that he should make friends with his death.
When we deny death, ironically we deny life. We end up taking life for granted. We don’t see the perfection in every moment. We think of death as the worst thing that can happen to us, yet it makes life meaningful.
The Game of God presents the theory that the first purpose of the universe is to allow unlimited God the experience of limitation—life and death, beginning and end, fear and hate, happiness and sorrow, ignorance and learning.
In order to have a realistic experience of limitation, God must forget that She-He-It is God. In other words, the universe is God…in a state of amnesia.
The universe is a game in which God forgets His-Her-Its identity and, in the process of playing, remembers who She-He-It is.
Evolution is the process of God awakening from amnesia into the remembrance of His-Her-Its true identity.
The universe is literally An Expression Of God In Amnesia (AEOGIA). And God likes roller coasters!

Zen, by Arthur Hancock:

Monday, December 1, 2014

Following Point of View to Understanding

In 2007 my family gathered to celebrate my 50th birthday. My nieces were aged 4 and 5. I bought them some inexpensive digital cameras thinking it would be fun to see what kind of images they would create.

Unfortunately the cameras didn’t take very good photos and it looks like we deleted most of them. But it was really interesting looking at their photos at the time, and I did save a couple:  

I was reminded of these photos by an article in The New Yorker about the GoPro camera, “We Are a Camera,” by Nick Paumgarten. The GoPro is a small HD video camera with different mounts that can be affixed to all kinds of sporting equipment. Mr. Paumgarten says an interesting feature of this camera is that
because it primarily points outward it’s a record of what an experience looks like…The result is not so much a selfie as a worldie. It’s more like the story you’d tell about an adventure than the photo that would accompany it.
The author’s son won a GoPro in a school raffle, and
On a ski vacation that spring, he affixed it to the top of his helmet…Even though the camera was turned outward, filled mainly by the sight of the terrain sliding past, it provided, more than anything, a glimpse into the mind of a dreamy and quiet boy…I didn’t need a camera to show me what he looked like to the world, but was delighted to find one that could show me what the world looked like to him. It captured him better than any camera pointed at him could. This was a proxy, of sorts.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Suffering as The Guru

Most people see suffering in a completely negative light. And this is not just on the physical level, but the spiritual level also. For example, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are usually interpreted as a way to end suffering. In other words, there are no positive aspects to suffering.

I have a different take: I think suffering is one of the best impetuses for growth and learning. Here's a song my husband Arthur wrote about the value of suffering—he calls suffering "the guru."

Stop signs and stoplights are red because human perception is keenly attuned to the color red; our blood is colored red and our physical survival depends upon us being aware when we've hurt ourselves. Physical pain exists, at least in part, to draw our attention to the fact that we are ill or injured. Most of us resist physical pain; we reach for pills to make it go away; we see pain as an enemy. But when you look at it from the perspective of “suffering is the guru” you see that pain is our ally, it draws our attention to a problem that needs fixing. The pain is the motivator for us to stop a behavior that's hurting us, to go to the doctor, etc.

Problems of the mind don't have an obvious physical symptom like a bleeding wound or the pain of a burn. But the sufferings of ego-identity—pride, embarrassment, anxiety, regret, remorse, depression—are the analogues of physical pain. The suffering is pointing towards the problem, in the same way a pain in my mouth points to a problem with my gums/teeth and sends me to the dentist. The depression or anxiety is our ally, our teacher, our guru, pointing our attention to a sore in our mind that is in need of healing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Cure the Neurosis, Find the Right Job For It

I’m a weaver, and I belong to a weaver’s group that meets monthly. We regularly joke about how weaving is a good occupation for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder because it requires attention to detail and the ability to spend hours at a stretch doing repetitive tasks. For example, I’ve just finished a piece that had 1296 threads: first I had to measure out 9-yard lengths of yarn 1296 times, then each of those threads had to be threaded through the loom twice. And this was before I could start to weave! Often people ask me how I have the patience to do this—for pleasure—and I reply that I love to weave and this is just part of the process. But I can also see how I have the kind of personality that permits this type of detail work.
At our last meeting one of the weavers said, “Don’t cure the neurosis, find the right job for it!” This struck me as a profound insight, particularly for our society that is anxious to cure every slight deviation from some concept of “normal” that we’ve established. I’d just amend it to say, “or the right lifestyle.”
Twenty-five years ago I taught art at a private grade school. There was a boy with ADHD in first grade. This was the first time I had encountered someone with the diagnosis. His teacher was very wise; she let the boy sit on the floor and play with blocks during lessons while all the other students had to sit at their desks. By doing this, he could listen and attend to what she was saying, but if he’d been forced to sit at his desk he’d have been incapable of paying attention. What impressed me most of all was that she’d managed to explain it to the other kids so they were all okay with the setup. I loved this boy and had a great relationship with him; he was quite perceptive and intelligent.
What I learned from this experience was that maybe it’s incorrect to say there is something wrong with many of the children with ADHD. Maybe there’s something wrong with our cultural norms. Maybe the way school is structured is just not right for some children, for example. This perception has just been strengthened as ADHD has become an epidemic. How could there be something wrong with that many of our children?
Last week the New York Times published an article by Richard A. Friedman, “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.” Dr. Friedman is professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. His article suggests that my perception may be true.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The United States Needs a New Story

This morning, as the Republicans are celebrating nationwide victories, taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House, plus winning governor’s races in supposedly liberal states, I’m reminded of the widespread liberal delusion last year that the Republican Party was an almost-extinct dinosaur (see this blog post).
My impression is that the American people are deeply confused. They say they’re angry about a do-nothing Congress and then vote for the obstructionists. They say they hate government yet demand services when it’s in their interest—when a natural disaster hits a conservative part of the country there’s never a mention of refusing federal aid because it’s from that loathsome government.
The reason we’re confused is because we’ve lost any compelling story about who we are as a people. We used to have a thrilling story, one that made me proud to be an American when I was a child. We had thrown off a king and instituted a republic where we governed ourselves. We were the vanguard of human progress.
Of course there were plenty of issues with the original constitution: slavery and a limited electorate are the obvious examples. But as time went on and we continued on the path of democratization, we fixed those errors. We first expanded the electorate to all white men in the 1820s, ended slavery in 1865, women finally got the vote in 1920, and over the last fifty years we’ve been expanding civil rights.

But today we seem to be missing the awesomeness of what we have accomplished. We don’t understand the amazing advance in human social organization that democracy represents.  We are so spoiled by the relative ease of living and our deplorable lack of historical knowledge that we are unaware of not only the preciousness—and precariousness—of our democracy but the great struggles that were required to wrest control from tyrants. We take our democratic republic for granted. And that’s why we are in danger of losing it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

From Whining to Gratitude

This month I had a colonoscopy for the first time. I’d heard people talk about the pre-procedure cleaning, and how that was the hardest part. I read online about the drink that you take to empty your bowels, and how awful it tasted.

So I approached the cleansing day with some trepidation. My experience? It was easy. The drink tastes a little salty, that’s all, and if you’re prepared and spend the evening near a bathroom, the cleansing is a minor inconvenience, even funny if you take the right attitude.

The next day, while we were waiting for the doctor to come into the room, I told the nurse-anesthesiologist that, in my opinion, the cleansing experience was minor and that people were whiners. She replied “YES!!”

Afterwards I thought about it this way: modern science has developed a technology that can reduce the incidence of colon cancer (a very nasty and painful disease) to almost zero, and our part in the equation is to spend a few hours going to the toilet every fifteen minutes. But what part do most of us put our attention on? The small amount of discomfort. We whine about how much we suffered.

Because of my GLACHH (gratitude, love, acceptance, compassion, humility, honesty--see blog post) work, I was instead capable of putting my attention on the amazing gift to my health the colonoscopy represented. I could feel gratitude.

Everything is a mix of good and bad. In this dualistic world there is no free lunch, there is nothing that is all positive. In this country we have become so spoiled by the good life that we seem to be expecting life to have no down sides.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Genre-less Music

There’s something new happening in the world of acoustic music. Last weekend I went to see Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan—a duo of banjo and fiddle. When I first heard about the concert, I wondered how those two instruments could possibly make for an interesting evening of music. But recently I’ve been listening to a lot of music on YouTube with Chris Thile, Michael Daves, Brian Sutton, Noam Pikelny, and others, and these musicians are playing together in all sorts of combinations.
Chris Thile has been pushing the boundaries of musical categories for some years now, ever since he left Nickel Creek. You never know where he’ll turn up and what kind of music he’ll be playing; right now he’s touring with Edgar Meyer—that’s a duo of mandolin and acoustic bass. Their song, “Big Top” doesn’t fit any music genre I know—jazz bluegrass would be about the closest you could come to a category.  He’s also playing Bach sonatas on his mandolin. Maybe we’re almost to the point where we can throw the concept of genre out the window: it doesn’t matter any more what instrument you play, you can create music in any style you like or create a new one of your own. It feels so free and fresh. 

In the concert I heard, Mr. Pikelny and Mr. Duncan played bluegrass, but they also played a Scottish reel, Django Reinhardt-style swing, and some haunting waltzes of Mr. Pikelny's composition. The instrumentation was sensational; they are both masters on their instruments (Mr. Pikelny just won banjo player of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Association). Sometimes I shook my head in wonder at the amazing runs Mr. Pikelny did on his banjo. And there was something wonderful in just having the two instruments; instead of a band passing the solo lead from instrument to instrument while everyone else plays rhythm, there were a lot of times when both men were playing lead at the same time and it was marvelous.

Do yourself a favor and click on some of these links and start exploring this new world of music!

Update: Thanks to my friend Arthur for reminding me to say that both these men are also in bands: Mr. Pikelny is in the Punch Brothers and Mr. Duncan is in the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

Also, I did not watch the tour video I linked to above until after I wrote this post. When I did watch it (linked again here), it was interesting that the men brought up two points I’d mentioned.
  1. could these two instruments fill an evening?
  2. with only two instruments there’s “no place to hide.” No playing background rhythm.

Another feature of this music is that the musicians often share a single microphone, creating an acoustic, “living room” feel. Instead of having separate microphones and listening to a tailored mix through earbuds (each person has a mix with their instrument/voice a little higher), these musicians are listening to each other acoustically. This creates a realness that is lost in all the electronics. Mr. Pikelny and Duncan had individual mics, but there were no floor monitors or earpieces.

Another group that plays this way sometimes is the Milkcarton Kids. When I saw them earlier this year they used only one microphone, and faced each other. It was as if we in the audience were sharing an intimate musical experience that the two men were creating together. Exquisite. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ebola Demonstrates the Need for a World Government

Last week Ebola made it to the United States. It was only a matter of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts a “worst-case scenario” of 1.4 million cases (worldwide total) by early 2015.

Other Ebola outbreaks have happened in rural villages and were relatively easy to contain. But this day was inexorably coming when an outbreak would spread into urban areas, making it much more difficult to contain. So why wasn’t there a UN plan in place for exactly this kind of situation, with mobile hospitals and protective suits ready to deploy? There doesn’t seem to have been any contingency plans ready to handle a health emergency of this scope. So far most of the foreign aid workers are nonprofit groups like Doctors without Borders, and these people must be getting exhausted. The U.S. is deploying 3000 troops to Liberia, but this effort will take weeks or months before making any difference.

In my mind this event has exposed the fundamental weakness of our current global governing systems. The world is interconnected now. More and more problems are global. We can’t say any longer that, for example, this Ebola outbreak is just West Africa’s problem. It’s our problem too. One person gets on a plane and the virus is here.

And Ebola is just one example. Climate change is another. Syria is another. Allowing the Syrian civil war to fester allowed ISIS to gain power.

My husband tells a great fable: Imagine a rubber lifeboat, afloat in the middle of a vast ocean. The boat is filled with passengers, each one representing a nation of Earth. The boat’s rule is that each passenger has the sovereign right to do whatever he/she likes in his/her seat. If a passenger wants to take out an ice pick and start poking holes in the boat, that’s her right. But everyone in the boat—that’s all of us—will go down together.

 We live on a small planet in a sea of darkness. We better learn to start thinking of ourselves as the same people, as citizens not of the United States or of Liberia but as citizens of Earth, recognizing that my interests are yours and vice versa. If I hurt you I hurt myself. We’re that connected now.

It’s time we developed a global governing system with true power. The UN was a good beginning, but it was deliberately made weak so it couldn’t interfere with the business of most nation-states. We need a real world government.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ignorance of Income Inequality is Damaging to our Society

Three years ago the Occupy Wall Street movement got America’s attention with the cry of “We are the 99%.” Income inequality was put under a spotlight for a time. But how far did the understanding penetrate? Unfortunately, not very far.  

First, in a recent poll the average American thought CEOs made 30 times the wage of their employees, which hasn’t been true for 50 years. Today the figure is ten times as much—over 300 times.

Second, most people are completely unaware of the extent of wealth inequality, which is much worse than income inequality.  The wealthiest 20% in the U.S. own about 84% of the wealth. Think about that for a moment: only 16% of wealth is left for over three-quarters of the population. When you get to the bottom half of the population, those 155 million people own only about 2% of the total wealth.

To see an illustration of the income and wealth inequality in the United States, watch this episode of a TV show I did with Arthur Hancock in 2010.

The chart above, created by Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College, vividly shows one of the contributors to the rise of income inequality in the last few decades. The graph portrays the distribution of national income growth during economic expansions since WWII. The blue represents the bottom 90%, the red the top 10%. In the last thirty years all the gains have gone to the wealthy, in fact, in the latest expansion most Americans have been losers—the truth is most of us don’t even realize we’re in an expansion, the Great Recession hasn’t ended for us yet.

In a recent column, “Invisible Rich,” Paul Krugman asks:

So how can people be unaware of this development [massive income inequality], or at least unaware of its scale? The main answer, I’d suggest, is that the truly rich are so removed from ordinary people’s lives that we never see what they have. We may notice, and feel aggrieved about, college kids driving luxury cars; but we don’t see private equity managers commuting by helicopter to their immense mansions in the Hamptons. The commanding heights of our economy are invisible because they’re lost in the clouds…
Does the invisibility of the very rich matter? Politically, it matters a lot. Pundits sometimes wonder why American voters don’t care more about inequality; part of the answer is that they don’t realize how extreme it is. And defenders of the superrich take advantage of that ignorance. When the Heritage Foundation tells us that the top 10 percent of filers are cruelly burdened, because they pay 68 percent of income taxes, it’s hoping that you won’t notice that word “income” — other taxes, such as the payroll tax, are far less progressive. But it’s also hoping you don’t know that the top 10 percent receive almost half of all income and own 75 percent of the nation’s wealth, which makes their burden seem a lot less disproportionate…
Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.
And the wealthy, in control of the media and the government, have a vested interest in keeping us ignorant.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Greed is a Killer

Recently I watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a story of three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico. It’s a tale of greed; how the lust for money corrupts the human heart. All of the men are affected to some degree, and the character played by Humphrey Bogart is driven insane by the power of his greed. In the end it kills him.
I related this to a friend of mine who is a devotee of a guru in India. She said, “My guru tells a story of greed too!”
A yogi went into the woods to find a cave to live in. At the same time, a group of four thieves were walking through the woods on their way to find something to rob. The yogi went into a cave, and just as the thieves passed by came running out, yelling “There’s a killer in there!” The thieves were intrigued and entered the cave. There they found a pile of treasure. Each of the four immediately started plotting how to get all the treasure for himself. The two senior members sent the younger ones off for a cart to haul the loot, and then lay in ambush and killed them on their return…
My friend couldn’t remember all the details, but the end result was all four of the thieves lay dead. The treasure was indeed a killer.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Importance of Hard Copies

Recently I watched the film “V for Vendetta.” The movie is set in an authoritarian future, and dangerous books and artwork have long ago been eliminated from people’s lives. But V, the hero who is resisting the authoritarians, has an underground home filled with books and art that he has “rescued” from the censors’ vaults. Seeing the books piled high in one of the rooms, I was reminded of the importance of hard copies.
When information is digital, access to it can be taken away very easily. For example, if you own an e-reader, you don’t really own the books on it. The Kindle Store user agreement makes that very clear: “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” Amazon can remove a book from your device at any time.
Ironically, the premier example of this so far are some George Orwell books. The person who uploaded them for sale on Amazon did not own the copyright. When Amazon realized the error in 2009, those books just disappeared from the Kindles of the people who thought they’d purchased the books. And there was no notice or explanation from Amazon.
Maybe this seems insignificant now, but if at some future point we have an authoritarian government, any books that that government disliked could be disappeared at the stroke of a button. It’s not so easy to collect and burn every book.
I like reading on my Kindle; I like the convenience of looking up words and making notes onscreen. It’s nice being able to pack just one small device that holds multiple books when I travel. It’s nice not having to dust more books on my bookshelves. Yet understanding the importance of hard copies makes me resolve to keep buying physical books.
This Mark Fiore cartoon illustrates the importance of another object that is being made obsolete by our new devices: printed maps. Who needs to worry about carrying maps when you can just use your GPS or pull up the map on your phone? But devices and Internet connections fail, and if you’re out in the wilderness that failure can be fatal. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Nickel and Dimed - On Not Getting By in America

Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This cartoon really impacted me because I saw it just after finishing Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.
This book was inspired by the welfare-to-work reform of the 1990s; it attempts to answer the question: can a person live on minimum wage? Ms. Ehrenreich courageously endeavored to find out by actually living the life of a low-wage worker (she was in her 50s which makes her willingness to undergo the humiliations and physical strain even more admirable). She spent a month in three different cities, working as a chain restaurant waitress, maid, and Wal-Mart associate. She lived in housing and ate the food that was affordable at her wages. She lived in horrible places—a tiny trailer, a squalid motel, and ate fast food because of a lack of kitchen facilities. Working one job full-time, she could barely afford to cover her most basic expenses, and she had a lot of advantages: no children, and because this was a short-term experiment, she didn’t have to worry about medical expenses or things like clothing (other than what she had to purchase for the job).
This experiment was done in 1999 and 2000, before the bursting of the dot-com bubble, when the country was experiencing prosperity and jobs were easy to get. This was also before corporations learned that they could save money by not hiring people as full-time workers. Ms. Ehrenreich tried to work two jobs so she could afford a better apartment; she just didn’t have the stamina required to pull off cleaning hotel rooms in the morning and waiting tables in the evening.
She also discusses the psychological effect of low-income work, that it encourages submissiveness and lack of initiative. At the same time, she makes clear that these are hard-working people, doing their best with the pitiful resources at their disposal.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, things are much worse, which after reading her account, is hard to imagine. Certainly, jobs are much harder to get. Ms. Ehrenreich was able to get a job almost instantly in 1999; today she might have spent her entire 30-day allotment just finding a job (if she was lucky).

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The U.S.: A Split-Personality Superpower

Mark Fiore is one of my favorite editorial cartoonists, creating short animated videos every week. This week's cartoon suggests the US is "a split-personality superpower, condemned to wander the earth for all eternity fighting our other selves."

A couple of Fiore’s examples: When ISIS overran the Iraqi military positions a month or so ago, the Iraq soldiers ran away and abandoned their equipment, including tanks. You can see the ISIS militants having some fun with their new toys in the VICE documentary on ISIS. Now when we bomb ISIS we're bombing our own military equipment.

In the last couple of weeks Egypt and the UAE have bombed Libya a few times, and even though they're our "allies" and their troops were trained by the U.S. and use our military equipment, they denied to the Obama Administration that they'd done it.

A lot of good money to be made by supplying the armies of the world with the tools of their trade...

The split personality metaphor works in another way: most Americans believe our country is a positive force for good in the world. We vastly overestimate the amount of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid. We complain about having to be the world's policeman. Yet we're blind to the fact that we are the world's biggest exporter of weapons which means a substantial portion of our economy depends upon continuing war and violence in the world. The U.S. is badly in need of therapy to face some hard truths about its personality.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Animals Conscious?

Are animals conscious? Consciousness has been called the “hard problem” of philosophy; scientists still don’t have any idea what human consciousness is. But it seems that for most people, consciousness is still on that ever-shrinking list of things that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom; only humans have consciousness. But is that true, or is it just more evidence of human arrogance?
Lately I have seen a number of things that have made me question the presumption that animals aren’t conscious. The first is my sweet cat, KittyCat. Sometime about six months ago she and I got in the habit of brushing her every evening about 7:00. I am regularly amazed at how she turns up in the living room every day about that hour. It’s usually the time we are finishing dinner, so you could say she’s using the clue of the sounds of dishes being washed, but there are many times when we haven’t eaten and she still shows up. We joke about her Mickey-Mouse wristwatch, but truly it amazes me how she is so aware.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Three Meanings of Present

Many Eastern spiritual traditions teach the wisdom of being present in every moment of now. This principle was brought to the attention of Westerners in the 1960s through Ram Dass’s classic Be Here Now, and more recently with Eckhart Tolle’s bestseller The Power of Now.
Recently I was contemplating the meaning of "present," and I realized it has three meanings: "here" (when the teacher calls your name you reply, "present!"), "now" (an event occurs in the present), and "gift" (“here’s your birthday present!”).
What I like about this trinity of meanings is that being present means more than “being here now”; being present also means embracing what is as a gift.
When I was in high school I used to make a calendar in the last few months of school and took delight in crossing off every day until the last day of school. One day I realized how crazy this attitude was—I’m celebrating getting a day over with? As if a day is something to endure? What is life except the collection of innumerable days just like this one, filled with a mixture of positives and negatives?
A beloved cat, Fluffles, helped me learn this lesson. At one point in my life she and I would wake up every morning in bed together. Every day the first thing I would become aware of was the sound of her purring, and it communicated to me, “I’m happy that we have another day to live and to love each other.” Yes I finally realized, that’s the way to live. Not seeing life as an endurance test but as a gift!
The gift of presence has another meaning also. Werner Erhard (founder of est) once said, "The greatest gift you can give another is just to be with them."
As I have learned to be more present, I have seen how true Mr. Erhard’s insight is: when you are present with another, they often open up like a flower. Presence is like a calming wave flowing through you, and other people can relax in its wake.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Living with a Wild God

Review of Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

In a nutshell: Living With a Wild God is the story of a rational, scientific-minded atheist wrestling with the meaning of a personal mystical experience.

Ms. Ehrenreich is an atheist, has been all of her life. And she is from a lineage of atheists that goes back to her great-grandmother (the great-grandma was Catholic and the priest wouldn’t show up when her father was dying unless they paid him $25; a few years later she was dying in childbirth, when the priest showed up, put a crucifix on her chest and started administering the last rites she hurled the crucifix against the wall.) 

But as a young teen-ager Ms. Ehrenreich was obsessed with the quest to find the “Truth”; in other words to find answers to such questions as why are we here, what is the point of life? At the same time she started having experiences where her perception would dissolve, like all the boundaries around separate objects disappeared. She had trouble putting the experiences into words in the journal she kept at the time, and the best word she could come up for it was “disassociation.”

Then one day when she was 17 she had a profound experience, which, again, she struggles to express. Her best metaphor is of fire: 
the world flamed into life…There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.
Because she had no framework for this experience, in the ensuing months she struggled to keep her equanimity. She worried she was mentally ill. Soon she left for college and the existential crisis passed.
Her father was a scientist, and she assumed from an early age she would become a scientist. She ended up getting a PhD in biochemistry, although she has never worked in the field. Instead she became a political activist and social scientist, writing such books as Nickel and Dimed about her attempts to live on minimum wage (imagine, a social scientist who experiments on herself).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Radical Equality

I became a fan of Sharon Draper when I read her book Out of My Mind earlier this year, but I didn’t know anything about her as a person (the copy of the book didn’t have an author photo).  Recently I wanted to refer to the book in a forum post and googled her to check a fact. I went first to an interview where someone asked why race hadn’t come up in the book. I thought that was an odd question, but it made me realize that race had never been mentioned. Then I clicked on another link and saw a photo of Ms. Draper and realized she is black. Then the question made sense.
But why should the book have to revolve around race just because she’s black? Ms. Draper was addressing an issue that confronts people of all races—the prejudice faced by a young girl with cerebral palsy—and giving the girl a racial identity would just have clouded that message.
Knowing this about her has made me even more of a fan. She is an example of the radical equality I dream of, where we don’t have to pay attention anymore to details like race, gender, or sexual orientation. Those things are immaterial; what matters is what kind of person you are.
American culture has made great strides in the last decade in recognizing the rights of LGBT people. But I dream of a day when no one has to “declare” their sexual orientation. In other words there is no “normal” sexuality that requires you to say “I’m not that, I’m this.”
Years ago SouthPark had an excellent episode about the end of racism. Chef, who is black, was angry about the town’s flag, which depicted a black man being lynched and white people dancing around the tree. The adults were confused about why Chef was angry—“this is our tradition,” they said—and the children were too…for a different reason. Chef realized that the kids didn’t see color—when one of them described the flag he said, “it’s a person hung from a tree and other people are standing around.” Chef realized his response had racism in it—it was all about color. The resolution was the flag basically stayed the same—a black person hanging from a tree and people all around—with one significant difference: the crowd is now multicolored and includes a black person.
One day we will all realize that everyone is radically equally human.

Update: my niece and I just read To Kill a Mockingbird, set in segregated Georgia in the 1930s. My niece thought that Calpurnia, the black cook/housekeeper, and Atticus were probably going to get married. By way of explanation she said, "The kids loved her!" I could see her struggling to understand as I explained why that marriage would have been unthinkable at the time. It was great seeing that the explanation made no sense to her.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Potato Salad and the Future of Work

At the beginning of July a man posted a project on Kickstarter: Making Potato Salad. He asked for $10 for supplies, and since this was his first potato salad, he said it might not be any good, but he’d send samples to anyone who funded him for $3. This is what he’d do if you pledged $20:
Receive a potato-salad themed haiku written by me, your name carved into a potato that will be used in the potato salad, a signed jar of mayonnaise, the potato salad recipe, hang out in the kitchen with me while I make the potato salad, choose a potato-salad-appropriate ingredient to add to the potato salad, receive a bite of the potato salad, a photo of me making the potato salad, a 'thank you' posted to our website and I will say your name out loud while making the potato salad.
Within a week he had over $40,000 pledged.
I first heard about this from uber-liberal cartoonist Ted Rall, who found it outrageous that such a frivolous “project” could generate so much in donations. His cartoon, “Potato Salad Society,” includes these comments:
Meanwhile, worthier Kickstarter projects—and charities—go unfunded. It’s safe to assume that few of the potato salad supporters would give anything to save refugees in South Sudan…Finding donors online requires the deadpan, mildly amusing tone that has become the official vibe of the Web.” Rall’s conclusion: “We.Are.Doomed (Internet-friendly neo-Bob Newhart tone).
First off that is quite condescending and presumptuous to assume these people wouldn’t give to refugees, but this is in-your-face Ted Rall; he loves being confrontational.
But more importantly, I think Rall and other critics are missing something important here. I think this potato salad project could signal the future of how many of us earn a living.
I envision a future where some people make their living online, with sponsors contributing small amounts a month or year to support their creative output —a crowdsourced version of the wealthy patronage system that supported great Renaissance artists like Michelangelo. Instead of depending on one wealthy person, these people could live off thousands or millions of tiny contributions.
It’s becoming common today to see paypal “donate” buttons on websites. Ted Rall has one on his website, and I have contributed as a way of showing my support for his work (perhaps he’s bitter because he’s not generated the same level of support as the potato salad maker).
We could support people because we think his or her work is important, or because we want to be part of it. We could show our appreciation for something that makes us laugh, or think, or cry, by contributing a small sum. The Huffington Post interviewed 18 of the potato salad donors, and they said they had contributed because they thought it was “funny,” “charming,” and “genuine.”
Through the wonder of the worldwide reach of the Internet, those small sums could potentially add up to a decent living.
There are predictions that we are not far from a revolution in work, due to the roboticization of the workplace. This will throw a large percentage of people out of work, and we’re not talking about factory workers only, this includes doctors and lawyers (see my blog post). If this is true we’re going to need to find entirely new ways to earn a living. Supporting each other’s creative endeavors seems to me a very positive solution.