November 12, 2008

Income Inequality And The Economic Crisis Economy  Musings

There's an important lesson in the current economic crisis that hardly anyone's talking about: income inequality as a cause.

There have been two periods of extreme income inequality in the US: 1) just before the Great Depression, and 2) right now. People acknowledge that, but almost nobody draws the obvious conclusion.

How would extreme income inequality have fed the current crisis and soon-to-be depression?

Most Americans have seen their inflation-adjusted incomes stagnate or fall over the last couple of decades. What has been the result? Consumption by average Americans is the engine that drives the American — and much of the world — economy. It accounts for 70% of US GDP. Falling income ordinarily means falling consumption, which means a slowing economy. To forestall that outcome, Americans were deluged with easy credit. They made up for the shrinkage in their incomes by borrowing, largely in the form of home equity loans and credit card debt. But now that's over. Falling home prices have taken home equity loans off the table. And I don't know about you, but I used to get a pre-approved credit card offer in the mail just about every day. No more. Easy credit is gone, so now the economy's being hit all at once, rather than gradually, with the consequences of the reduction in the average person's income. Nobody's shopping. The result will be a self-reinforcing spiral that's really only just getting underway. Less consumption will lead to layoffs, bankruptcies, etc., which will lead to even less consumption, and so on.

Meanwhile, incomes soared for the people at the top. Since there's a limit to how much stuff people can buy, all that concentrated wealth went looking for places to invest. Interest rates were low (feeding the rest of us with easy credit) so it didn't pay to stick one's money in things like Treasury bills. And with their incomes growing at a giddy pace, people at the top felt impervious to risk. Enter the mortgage-backed securities, CDOs, CDSs, etc., etc.

In a more equitable society, the average person's income would have been growing all along and there wouldn't be such a giant pool of money at the top. Average people wouldn't have needed to take on enormous amounts of debt to see an improvement in their standard of living. The well-to-do wouldn't be drowning in cash and feeling like risk couldn't touch them. No bubble, no bubble bursting.

The irony is that American capitalism has cut its own throat. By hogging the spoils, the rich created a situation where the very system that supports them is in jeopardy. A more equitable society is a more sustainable society.

Small wonder that we're not hearing much about that.

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November 03, 2008

Why I'm Voting For Obama Musings  Politics

I'm going to vote for Barack Obama. But you probably guessed that.

A few readers have, from time to time, chastised me for my enthusiasm for Obama, so I'd like to explain.

First off, I'm not someone who believes that a vote for a third party candidate is a wasted vote. On the contrary. No national election is ever going to be decided by a single vote, so I think you should vote for the candidate you believe in. People say that's wasting your vote, but you can just as well argue it's the other way around. When your vote is one of a hundred million, it counts for a lot less than when it's one of a million or two. In that sense, a vote for a third party candidate counts more, not less. But, people always say, what if everyone thought that way? Well, then we'd elect the candidate we really want, not the lesser of two evils.

So that's how I've voted most of my adult life. Usually, but not always. Sometimes the choice is so stark that I have to go with the lesser of two evils, quite deliberately. So I voted for Nader in 2000, but in 2004 I felt I had to vote for Kerry. I had no illusions about Kerry, but the evil of the Bush presidency was just too great. I knew the effect of my vote would be infinitesimal, but it was at least something.

I understand that the Democrats and Republicans are in many ways two wings of one Corporate Party, and I realize full well that most of today's Democratic politicians are basically what Republicans used to be before the Republicans swung so hard to the right. That said, I don't buy that there's no difference between the parties. If Gore had become president in 2000, for example, he never would have invaded Iraq. It never would have even occurred to him. The Democrats aren't progressives (there are a few exceptions), but they are better than the Republicans on most of the issues I care about. Of course that's faint praise indeed.

So a Democratic president is preferable to a Republican president, but that still doesn't explain my vote. After all, as I said, my one vote won't affect the outcome. So why vote for Obama? And why enthusiastically?

At bottom, I think it's not so much the laundry list of Obama's positions, it's more a question of who Obama is and what an Obama presidency will mean for this country.

First, as to who Obama is. I think he is self-evidently a man of rare gifts, with a level of emotional intelligence and maturity that is unequaled in American public life. He is a true grown-up, in the finest sense of the word. He embodies grace. It may sound like I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but that's what I sense in the man. And I am obviously not alone.

Second, as to what an Obama presidency will mean for the country. Think of where we've come as a nation. American politics has become so cheapened, so coarsened, so brutalized and corrupted and dumbed down that I think it will take a leader with Obama's gifts to pull us back from the brink. Think what it will mean to have a leader who appeals to what is best in us and not what is worst, who talks to us like fellow citizens of a great democracy, not like members of Jerry Springer's studio audience, and who genuinely wants government to succeed.

There are lots of other reasons why an Obama presidency will be good for America — Obama's standing in the eyes of the world; the transformative effect his presidency will have on American attitudes about race; Supreme Court nominations — but for me it's really more personal. It's the reasons I gave above. And it's this: I want to live in a country where Barack Obama is president.

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January 26, 2007

"Like A Business In Liquidation" Environment  Musings

Just came across a great phrase from Al Gore: we're "operating the planet like a business in liquidation". Liquidating everything, using it up as fast as we can, last one out lock the door. Except there is no "out".

The bottom line on sustainability: unsustainable = stupid. Fatally stupid. Suicidally stupid. Pretty much by definition, when you stop and think about it. Sustainability is the fundamental requirement for long-term survival. Anything else is sawing off the limb we're sitting on — and there ain't no net.

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December 27, 2006

Impedance Mismatch Corporations, Globalization  Environment  Musings

The really big problems facing humanity are, for the most part, problems resulting from the dominant culture's abuse of the natural world. Global warming, deforestation, the collapse of the world's fisheries — these are problems requiring determined action over the long haul. But nothing much gets done. Why?

There are many factors, but one, in particular, strikes me as cause for real pessimism. A sustainable relationship with the natural world requires us to think and act in time frames of many decades, centuries, millenia and more. But our decision-making institutions operate at drastically shorter time scales. That mismatch in time scales is a killer. In the political sphere, decision-makers seldom look past the next election cycle or two. In the corporate realm, where most of the important decisions now get made, perspectives are even shorter, with emphasis on the next quarter or fiscal year. A five-year plan is considered really long-range, blue sky stuff.

Everybody optimizes for the short run. People who don't find themselves out of office or out of a job. And so, by a series of "rational" decisions — rational from a perspective that ignores the long term — we march steadily towards the abyss.

The trend toward increasing corporate power and decreasing political power (with the political process increasingly a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporate sphere) may, in the end, seal our fate. Just when we desperately need a decision-making institution that can forego short-run profit and convenience for long-term sustainability, we are vesting societal decision-making in the institution least capable of taking that perspective.

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May 23, 2006

Justice As Fairness Essays  Ethics  Musings

At the time of the first Gulf War, I called into a local left-wing radio show to voice my oppostion to the impending war, and I was taken by surprise when the host asked me if war is ever morally justified. I didn't have a satisfactory answer at the time, but it's a question that has stayed with me ever since.

The standard I've come to is the following. It is (barely) possible to imagine a war fought to advance a cause so overwhelmingly important, so critically urgent, that I would support it even knowing that one of my own daughters might be killed — indeed, that I would still support it even if I knew one of my own daughters would be killed. Then, and only then, I think, could I say the war is justified. After all, every war means the death of someone's children. If I am not willing to accept that the child might be my own, I don't see any possible moral basis for supporting a war.

That's what makes the following story so distasteful (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of last August):

Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, 26, a Marine recruiter in Pittsburgh, went to the home of a high school student who had expressed interest in joining the Marine Reserve to talk to his parents.

It was a large home in a well-to-do suburb north of the city. Two American flags adorned the yard. The prospect's mom greeted him wearing an American flag T-shirt.

"I want you to know we support you," she gushed.

Rivera soon reached the limits of her support.

"Military service isn't for our son. It isn't for our kind of people," she told him. [Emphasis added]

We recoil instinctively at the hypocrisy of the mother in the story. It is all too clear that the mother is able to "support" the war because she knows up front that no child of hers is at risk. It is that knowledge that makes her stance an empty one. Put her son at risk and watch how quickly her "support" will evaporate.

Some time after arriving at my standard for a just war, I happened across the work of American philosopher John Rawls, who worked out a beautiful generalization of what is at bottom the same idea, except that Rawls extended it to cover issues of justice generally, not only the issue of just war.

Rawls asks the question, what constitutes a just set of relationships in society? To answer, he suggests the following thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical situation in which no one knows where he/she fits in the overall pecking order in terms of class or social status. No one knows whether he/she is more or less intelligent, talented, attractive, or capable than anyone else. No one knows if he/she is better educated or better connected than anyone else. No one even knows his/her conceptions of what is good and fair. Everyone is, as Rawls puts it, situated behind a "veil of ignorance". Under those (hypothetical) conditions, the relationships and rules that one would accept as fair are those that are truly fair.

For if there is anything human beings are good at, it's rationalizing their own self-interest. Wealthy people support tax cuts for the rich. Poor people favor welfare. Smart, well-educated people say let's abolish the social safety net and have a straight meritocracy. Healthy people see no reason why they should have to contribute to universal health care. Well-off people have no problem supporting a war poor people are going to have to fight.

Ah, but suppose for all you knew you were one of the poor, one of the infirm, one of the untalented. Surely, then, you would insist on a conception of justice as fairness, where society cares for all its members, rich or poor, healthy or sick, talented or not, equitably balancing their interests.

Rawls' standard is a hypothetical one, but I think it's an excellent yardstick to use when mentally evaluating the morality of a social arrangement: is it an arrangement you'd agree to even if you didn't know up front whether you were one of the lucky ones. Which is another way of asking, is it fair.

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May 20, 2006

Bonds And The Babe Musings

Barry Bonds tied Babe Ruth's career home run total today. A remarkable achievement, but people forget what a giant Ruth was in his day. Home runs were nowhere near as common when Ruth played as they are now.

In 1927, the year Ruth hit 60 home runs, 60 home runs was more home runs than any other team in the American League hit that season. The Red Sox, for example, as a team, combined for only 28 homers. To put it another way, Ruth single-handedly hit 14% of all the home runs in the American League in 1927. After correcting for the fact that the league has more teams and they play more games now than then, 14% of the league total works out to about 182 home runs in today's terms. That's how Ruth's 60 home run season looked to his contemporaries: like one of today's players hitting 182 home runs in a season. Unimaginable.

Bonds is a great player, and he dominates his era. But I doubt if any player in any sport has so dominated his era the way Ruth did.

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March 11, 2006

Artists All Musings

Sitting in the bookstore this afternoon, flipping through Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, I came across an arresting anecdote.

Gordon MacKenzie, who has spent most of his adult life thinking about creativity, tells the story. When he goes to speak, as he often does, to a classroom full of kids, he'll pause to admire aloud the original artwork adorning the classroom walls, and then he'll ask, "How many of you are artists?" If it's a kindergarten or first grade class, all the hands shoot up. Second grade, three quarters of the hands, more tentatively. Third grade, just a few hands. Sixth grade, none.

Appalling, when you stop and consider it. We start out bursting with creativity, free of self-consciousness and shame, curious, inquisitive, and interested. Then in a few short years we're taught to be narrow, tentative, and dull. It's what we're used to, so we never really stop to see it for what it is: a colossal societal failure. Self-defeating beyond measure.

At this stage of human development and knowledge, there is no excuse for not doing better. And we really need to do better. As educators, as parents, as citizens. Given the challenges facing us and the ever-accelerating pace of change, we need people who are creative, people who are open to new ideas and experiences, people who can adapt readily and integrate the big picture, people for whom beauty is not an adornment or afterthought but an intrinsic measure of the goodness of a thing. In other words, we need artists — in all walks of life.

This calls for a Gumpagraph.

 
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

So ends today's sermon.

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July 13, 2005

Flat Earth Myth Musings

This is pretty interesting: a historian writes that it's a myth that people used to think the earth was flat and that if you sailed far enough in one direction you'd fall off.

When I was in school, the textbooks said that part of the greatness of Columbus and the other sea explorers was that they dared to believe the earth is round, but the authors of those textbooks must never have done any ocean sailing. The curvature of the earth is obvious to sailors, or indeed to anyone living on the shore: when you watch a sailboat go over the horizon, its hull disappears first; the tip of the tallest mast disappears last. In fact, one thing sailors do to help them estimate the distance to another sailboat is to note whether it's "hull up" or "hull down", as readers of Patrick O'Brian can attest.

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April 13, 2005

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom Musings

Oh, to be wise...

From Information as a Resource, by Harlan Cleveland.

[Thanks, Kent]

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March 11, 2005

A Parable Musings  Religion

Kent sent me a link to this page of 101 Zen stories. Here's one I especially like:

Buddha told a parable in a sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

Go explore.

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March 05, 2005

Ideology Versus Empathy Musings  Politics  Social Security

A conservative reader sent me a WSJ op-ed (Socialism's Last Redoubt) by former Delaware Governor Pete duPont, in which DuPont argues that the reason people on the left oppose wrecking Social Security is that we're socialists. I.e., it's really the ideology of socialism that we're defending; that's what motivates us. There's much in the piece that's wrong on factual grounds (he argues for a plan that exists only in his imagination; it's not the White House plan at all), but here's the portion I want to comment on:

Ultimately the argument isn't about investment accounts, or stocks or bonds or "gambling" or "insecurity." It is about socialism versus individualism, about Attlee's social justice and Hillary's common good and Chomsky's economic solidarity. [...]

When you increase an individual's wealth, he becomes less dependent on government, and his attitude towards government changes. Socialists can't allow that, for it erodes their fundamental principle that social justice can only be achieved when important segments of the economy are under government control.

And that is why today's very liberal Democratic Party is so vehemently arguing against personal ownership of Social Security market accounts. The government's Social Security system is socialism's last redoubt, and must be preserved at all costs. [My emphasis]

DuPont, of course, was born a multimillionaire, so worrying about retirement is not exactly his area of expertise. That aside, his claim that opponents of Social Security rollbacks are motivated by ideology — that it's not Social Security they're defending, but the larger, abstract idea of socialism itself — struck me at first as sophistry: just a way to make the argument. After all, I oppose wrecking Social Security, and it has never crossed my mind that what was at stake was some ideological conception of socialism in the large. I just don't want to see a lot of poor and middle class people get screwed.

But maybe duPont really believes ideology motivates the left. Why? Because ideology is what motivates him and many of his fellows on the right. Mostly, they want to destroy Social Security for ideological reasons, not out of a sincere concern for the welfare of the many people down here in the real world who depend on Social Security to make the difference between an old age spent eating cat food and one where they're at least getting by. If you see the world in ideological terms, you assume other people do, too. But those other people may actually be looking at the world through a different lens altogether: a lens of empathy, not ideology.

It's empathy that leads us to the conclusion that there are certain things that need to get done, things that government can do but capitalism will never do. So it's not that we love government. It's that government is the means to an end — an end motivated by empathy. Digby:

Capitalism cannot substitute for a democratic government that answers to all the people. The invisible hand doesn’t give a shit if children starve or old people have to work until they are eighty or if half the country has to work at slave wages to support the other half. Only government can guarantee its citizens the equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We believe that progress toward that end requires that the government be active and engaged in delivering those things.

The reason we support Social Security is that it performs a necessary function for which there is no substitute, and it works. And because we care what happens to our fellow citizens. For us, it's not a question of ideology. It's a question of empathy.

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Today's Bush Joke Musings

President Bush has started to make plans for what he is going to do after he leaves the White House. He better hurry up because under his plan he sure won't be able to live on Social Security. — Jay Leno

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February 21, 2005

Not-So-Intelligent Design Culture  Musings  Science/Technology

The other day, Air America's Marc Maron, talking about opponents of the theory of evolution in general, and "intelligent design" proponents in particular, said that the essence of their analysis could be stated thus:

It's all so complicated.

I don't understand it.

Therefore, it has to be... magic.

Perfect! Had me laughing out loud in my car.

But for a more, shall we say, reasoned critique of "intelligent design," consult yesterday's NYT Magazine. Excerpt [link via The Talent Show]:

What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural order. Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their environments that they were doomed to extinction?

The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases — cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis — the signal comes too late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely useless.

As the article notes, "intelligent design" is not a scientific theory at all, since it cannot be tested or refuted. Its proponents can simply assert that whatever exists exists because the Designer designed it that way. At the very least, though, the design cannot be said to be unfailingly intelligent.

These days, ID proponents tend to avoid identifying the Designer as God, because they want to sneak the "theory" into school curricula, but we all know who they have in mind. But:

It is hard to avoid the inference that a designer responsible for such imperfections must have been lacking some divine trait — benevolence or omnipotence or omniscience, or perhaps all three.

Evolution, of course, has no problem explaining the various biological inefficiencies and blind alleys. So, in an ID world, why does all the evidence fit an evolutionary explanation so much better than an explanation by divine design?

If you tell me that God rigged the evidence to support evolution because He/She wants to test our faith, then I'll give you the same reply the late Bill Hicks used to give: "I think God put you here to test my faith, dude!"

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February 20, 2005

The Amazing Daniel Tammet Musings  Science/Technology

From the Guardian, a remarkable account of autistic savant Daniel Tammet. Excerpt:

Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can't drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability.

Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn't "calculating": there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think." [...]

Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship. [...]

Last year Tammet broke the European record for recalling pi, the mathematical constant, to the furthest decimal point. He found it easy, he says, because he didn't even have to "think". To him, pi isn't an abstract set of digits; it's a visual story, a film projected in front of his eyes. He learnt the number forwards and backwards and, last year, spent five hours recalling it in front of an adjudicator. He wanted to prove a point. "I memorised pi to 22,514 decimal places, and I am technically disabled. I just wanted to show people that disability needn't get in the way." [My emphasis]

Tammet's abilities point to the extraordinary untapped potential of the human brain. Perhaps someday we will learn to unlock that potential through means other than brain injury or epileptic seizure.

Tammet's description of the way he visually experiences mathematical computation is particularly fascinating. It certainly seems to suggest that elements of mathematics are hard-wired in the brain. Either that, or mathematics can be learned by the brain in some direct, unconscious, non-algorithmic fashion — by osmosis, so to speak. Or, as seems likely, some combination of the two.

The "hard-wired" explanation raises all sorts of questions. For example, Tammet, like the rest of us, expresses numerical values in base-10 notation. He sees a computational result as an image, but somehow he knows the numerical value, in base-10 notation, corresponding to that image. No one taught him the base-10 "names" for the infinite variety of images he sees; somehow, he just knows them. Why should the brain have any hard-wired capability for expressing numbers in any particular notational form? For that matter, why should algorithms for multiplication or extraction of cube roots be hard-wired in the brain at all? What evolutionary pressure could conceivably result in a cube root capability?

The learned explanation also seems, at least, incomplete. Assuming that Tammet demonstrated an ability to extract cube roots, for example, without anyone's having taught him a cube root algorithm, it's hard to see how the cube root ability could be described as learned. Yes, someone may have told Tammet what a cube root is and asked him to calculate one, but that's a far cry from supplying him with the algorithm, the method. Somehow, his brain just knew the answer.

One is tempted to conclude that the connection between mathematics and the brain is deeper and more fundamental than just a collection of algorithms: that mathematics is itself a direct expression of the logic and form of the universe — the "music of the spheres", so to speak — and the brain is somehow tuned to that "frequency," metaphorically speaking. I.e., that from the brain's perspective, it's not a question of implementing a collection of individual algorithms, it's some kind of deeper and more wholistic connection to mathematics — or what mathematics expresses — as a whole that the brain groks. A vague notion, admittedly, but interesting to contemplate. And if there is such a connection, just imagine if we could make it conscious.

[Thanks, Kent]

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December 11, 2004

Six Months Gumpagraphs  Musings

PastPeak is celebrating its six month anniversary. In that time, the site's had 35,000 visits, 230,000 "hits". Some blogs get that kind of traffic in an hour or two, but it's gratifying just to know there are loyal readers out there who keep coming back. Thanks everyone for your support, and if you've got friends or family who might enjoy the site, please pass the word.

 
© Kent Tenney 

Visitors have come from almost 70 different countries (that I know of — most hits don't carry information identifying the country of origin). Given that PastPeak's just a little out-of-the-way corner of the Internet, English-only, I find it remarkable that people from a large fraction of the world's countries have found their way here at one time or another. It's a measure of how interconnected the world's becoming. A decade ago, there was no World Wide Web. Now, people from around the world may read these words. Far out, as we used to say.

Here's the country list, in decreasing order of the number of visitors:

United States, Canada, Japan, European Union, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Great Britain, France, New Zealand, Israel, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Brazil, Spain, Taiwan, China, Finland, United Arab Emirates, Austria, Sweden, Hong Kong, Norway, Czech Republic, Jordan, Bahrain, Italy, Thailand, Denmark, Switzerland, Oman, Mexico, Singapore, Turkey, India, Kuwait, Ireland, Russian Federation, South Africa, Egypt, Colombia, Lithuania, Estonia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Portugal, Malaysia, Hungary, Nepal, Slovenia, Poland, Sudan, Indonesia, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Iran, Greece, Mautitius, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, Philippines, Venezuela, Romania, Senegal, Vietnam, Bolivia, Morocco, Dominican Republic.

Greetings, Earth.

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November 28, 2004

Ripples Gumpagraphs  Musings
 
© Kent Tenney 

Joy, hope, and the renewal of generations.

Did Che imagine that all these decades later his likeness would grace a favorite t-shirt of an idealistic young Anglo woman in Ashland, Wisconsin, USA? Che's life, his influence, and, more pointedly, the influence of the idea of him (ideas of liberation, economic justice, and steadfast resistance to oppression, which I'm taking the liberty of imagining are what he symbolizes to the woman in the photo more than he does armed revolution) continue to ripple down the years.

And yet it didn't start with Che. If you've seen (or read) The Motorcycle Diaries, you know that various people who entered young Che's life, some quite by chance, influenced him and set him on his path. So it is their influence as well that continues to reverberate. And who influenced them?

And now my friend sends me this photo, which touches me and moves me to write these words, and so I show it to you, and perhaps it touches you as well. Ripples through time.

Someone I was reading recently — Scott Adams, I think — suggested that we might define the immortal soul as the memory and influence that live on after we're gone, as do Che's, and those of Che's influencers, and of their influencers. In India, Gandhi was known as Mahatma — Great Soul. When we consider how great are his influence and memory, the name seems apt indeed.

The people who touched the young Che were, most likely, quite unaware of the impact they would have down the years. Each of us sets in motion his or her own ripples of influence. Look to your immortal soul, the religionists say. Make a place for it in Heaven, lest it be condemned to Hell.

Let your example, your memory and influence, inspire, instruct, and uplift those who come after you. That will be your Heaven.

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November 16, 2004

On Apples, Abstractions, Counting, And Seeing The World Essays  Musings

Let's take a little break from politics.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a George Monbiot fan. A couple of weeks ago, Monbiot wrote a long piece about apples and the effect on growers of new EU subsidy regulations. I'd like to quote a bit of what he has to say about apples, then take the discussion in a different direction:

It takes a while to work out what it is about Hogg and Bull’s Herefordshire Pomona. What it is that, two or three minutes after you’ve started lifting the heavy pages, makes you, quite unexpectedly, want to cry. It’s not, or not only, the pictures. The apples and pears painted by a Miss Alice Ellis can almost be rolled off the page and bitten. She added nothing, took nothing away. Where she saw warts, she painted warts, where scabs, scabs. And yet they glow. They are more real than — than any real apple you’ll find in the shops today.

It’s not, or not only, the text. It’s a classic of late Victorian natural history, pedantic and passionate. Here, among quotes from Shakespeare and Homer and Clare, are recipes for orchard manure, dissertations on specific gravity, the cordon-system of growing pears, Roman cooking, the "laws of Vegetable Physiology", pests, fermentation, soil, grafting. There are chapters on the lives and times of the great fruit growers, transcripts of folk songs and poems, no end of nonsense about the druids and the ancient Britons, unlikely claims about the longevity of habitual cider drinkers.

Then you see it. It’s the names. The names of the fallen. Foxwhelp, Sheep’s Snout, Hogshead, Duck’s Bill, Black Wilding, Brown Cockle, Ramping Taurus, Monstrous Pippin, Burr Knot, Broadtail, Carrion, Hagloe Crab, Eggleton Styre, Norfolk Beefing, Cornish Aromatic, Skyrme’s Kernel, Peasgood’s Nonesuch, Tom Putt, Bitter-scale, Slack-my-girdle, Bastard Rough Coat, Bloody Turk. The list runs into thousands. It is a history of rural England, a poem in pomology, rough and bitter and sad.

 
© Kent Tenney 

Sprouting from every name is a tree of knowledge. Before I read this book, I am ashamed to say, I thought that an apple was something you picked and ate, sometime around October. Now I know that the best dessert apples are those which must be stored for a month or more. There are some which aren’t ready to come off the tree until December; others which are unfit to eat unless they’ve been in the cellar from October till March. There is one variety, the Winter Greening (Shakespeare’s Apple John), which can be kept for two years. There are apples which taste of aniseed, banana, pineapple, nutmeg and carraway. There are apples grown for roasting over the fire, so that they burst and turn into "lamb’s wool", the flavouring for a winter drink. There are others bred to be broiled in a pan. There are hundreds which cannot be eaten in any state, but are grown for making cider. Some are the size of walnuts: the smaller they are, Hogg and Bull contend, the better the cider.

One is struck, reading this, how very much we've lost — and we don't even know we've lost it. Here is an entire world of forgotten lore, hard-won by our forebears and now largely squandered. In place of this extraordinarily varied, fine-grained sensory world what do we now have? Apples as abstractions. (Of course it’s not just apples. The same thing has happened across the board in our relationship with Nature.) We walk into the abstract microcosm of the supermarket and encounter a very few standard varieties — Macintosh, Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, maybe a half dozen others — all bred now to present a uniform, blemish-free appearance. All individuality abstracted away. That is what most of us now know as an "apple".

 
© Kent Tenney 

When I was a boy, I remember reading in several books — school textbooks and others — condescending accounts of so-called "primitive" peoples who had only a limited concept of number. In their languages, we were told, the only number words were "one", "two", "three", and "many". The smugness of these accounts always bothered me, but it wasn't until years later that I understood what lesson to draw from them. People gain something when they learn to number the world, but they lose much as well. And if you know your world well enough, if you see your world well enough, you don't need numbers.

To illustrate, let me ask a question: How many Presidents have there been since FDR? I don’t know the number (unless I stop to count), but I know their faces, I can list their names. So I do know how many there have been, I just know it in a concrete way, not in the abstract form of a number. How many people work in my office? Same thing. I don’t know the number off the top of my head, but I know all of the people as individuals. And I'm sure you'll agree that by knowing them as individuals I know a lot more than if I just knew their number. So-called "primitive" people, who are intimately aware of and knowledgeable about their natural surroundings, see a tree or a stone or an animal as an individual, not as an instance of the abstract class of Trees, Stones, or Animals. They really see them. They don't need to count them. And since they don't have a lot of private property, they don't need numbers to count all their stuff.

In the world we've created, numbers and other abstractions are useful and necessary. But we are fools if we imagine that people who don't live in a numbered, abstract world are somehow dull and deserving of our condescension. Human beings who survive on their wits and powers of observation in a relatively untamed natural world possess a degree of awareness, concentration, and sensory acuteness — and a wealth of minutely detailed knowledge — that most of us can scarcely imagine. We, in contrast, find food and shelter by driving along a flat paved street lined with logos and brand names.


(For more on the brain-power and sensory acuteness needed to survive in the natural world, I invite you also to read this post.)

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September 25, 2004

Thinking About Stem Cells Ethics  Musings  Science/Technology

Last night, I heard part of a radio interview with Dr. Steven Clark, an immunologist and medical ethicist on the University of Wisconsin faculty of Human Oncology. The topic was embryonic stem cell research. Clark’s in favor of it, including the cloning of human embryos that enables the process.

What made the interview especially interesting was the fact that Clark is a political conservative and evangelical Christian. Yet he had that wonderfully refreshing attitude shared by all good scientists: you don’t fudge the data, and you think things through for yourself — logically, not dogmatically.

On the question of whether human life begins at conception, he had this to say: Ultimately, the question isn’t when does life begin. The question is when does one have a moral obligation toward that life. Embryonic stem cell research involves taking cells from a five-day-old embryo, which, as he said, is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and has no brain, no life history, no identity.

But, opponents of stem cell research would say, that five-day-old embryo has the potential to become a fully-developed human being. Don’t we then have a responsibility to accord it the same moral status as a fully-developed human being?

Clark offered a down-to-earth thought experiment that cuts right through the dogma. Imagine, he said, you are walking by a stem cell laboratory and you see that a fire is raging inside. You see a person lying unconscious on the floor inside and, nearby, a tank containing some number of five-day-old embryos. Which do you save, the person or the embryos?

Let’s make the scenario even more clear-cut. Suppose what you see are a dozen trapped children and a petri dish containing 13 five-day-old embryos. There are more embryos than children. Which do you save, the children or the embryos? Faced with this choice, not even the staunchest fertilized-egg-equals-human-being dogmatist would hesitate to save the children.

This thought experiment illustrates exactly the choice that faces us. I.e., there are living human beings with a variety of maladies who could be saved by research and therapy utilizing stem cells. Do we save them, or do we save the five-day-old embryos?

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September 09, 2004

Corporate Globalization Corporations, Globalization  Musings

Reading Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, I had a tiny epiphany occasioned by her use of the phrase "corporate globalization." It struck me, reading that, that it might be well to make a practice of always using that phrase, "corporate globalization", in preference to just the "globalization" we're always hearing about.

"Globalization" sounds like something we are all participating in, like a process of which we are all the beneficiaries. "Corporate globalization" reminds us that the "globalization" project now underway is something being done by corporations, for corporations. It's their thing, not ours.

Someday soon, one hopes, we'll have global movements and global institutions created by people, for people. Then let us speak of "globalization."

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August 24, 2004

Exponential Growth Cannot Last Energy  Environment  Essays  Musings  Peak Oil

[This is the first article in a series on the fundamentals of Peak Oil. I'd like to start with some important ideas of a general nature. We’ll get to the specifics of oil soon enough.] [Next]

I’ve written about exponential growth before, but the concept is so essential to understanding the future that awaits us that I want to revisit it.

To say something grows exponentially is to say it grows at a constant percentage rate — for example, 3% per year. Anything that grows in this way doubles at a constant rate. You can estimate how long it takes to double by dividing the percentage growth rate into 72. So, for example, something that grows at a rate of 3% per year doubles every 24 years (72/3 = 24).

So, you can think of exponential growth as growth by doubling at a constant rate.

Doubling is an extraordinarily powerful process. Some examples (from M. King Hubbert):

1. If you start with a single pair, say Adam and Eve, in just 32 doublings you’d have a population greater than the total population of Earth today. Just 14 doublings later you’d have one person per square yard over the entire land surface of the planet.

2. If someone gives you a single grain of wheat for the first square of a chessboard, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, doubling at each square, by the time you finish the 64 squares of the chessboard you’d have more than a thousand times the total annual wheat production of Earth.

3. If you play the chessboard game with automobiles instead of wheat, by the time you finish the 64 squares you’d have so many automobiles that if you stacked them uniformly over the entire land surface of the earth, you’d have a layer 1,200 miles deep. (Think of that the next time some economist says world GNP can grow at 3% per year forever.)

What these examples show is that doubling (or exponential growth) is such a powerful process, that it takes only tens of “generations” of doubling — not hundreds, or thousands, or millions — to completely exhaust the physical environment of the planet. Put another way, in the physical world (as opposed to an idealized mathematical world) exponential growth cannot last for long.

When any living species is placed in a favorable environment — meaning an environment that doesn’t limit growth because of the lack of some necessity (e.g. food), the presence of a predator, or for some other reason — its population grows exponentially. In Nature, over the long run, limitations in their environments prevent species from multiplying exponentially. Otherwise, the world would long ago have been engulfed.

Why is all this important?

Early in a doubling sequence, the numbers grow slowly. Likewise, until recently in human history, human population grew slowly. Use of energy and material resources by humans also grew slowly, and the resources used were entirely of the renewable variety, except for tiny amounts of coal and metals. Everything else (food, energy, shelter, clothing, etc.) came from animals and plants (renewable), plus a small amount of energy from wind and water (renewable). If humans had continued to rely on renewable resources, that fact would have put a ceiling on population size.

Starting about two centuries ago, however, a revolution occurred in human life: people starting using non-renewable resources — hydrocarbon fuels and a variety of minerals — in a big way. This use of non-renewables removed the constraints on human population and activity, and exponential growth really kicked in. Not only has population grown exponentially, but human use of coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, tin, lead, zinc, etc. have grown exponentially as well, as has human damage to the environment. It’s the use of non-renewables — hydrocarbon fuels, especially — that has made this growth possible.

But, inevitably, we’re going to hit the wall, and sooner than we think. Even if we had infinite resources to draw on, exponential growth would soon fill up a finite environment, as we've seen. But that hardly matters, since we do not have infinite resources to draw on. Non-renewables are a one-time gift to humanity. They are finite. We’re burning through them at an exponential pace, and when they’re gone they’re gone forever.

Now, one of the really startling characteristics of growth by doubling is the following fact: if you consider the sequence of doubled numbers — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. — each number in the sequence is greater (by one) than the sum of all the numbers that precede it.

Why do I call this startling? Consider oil. World oil consumption is now growing at a rate that will double it every 15-20 years. This means, as long as exponential growth continues, in the next 15-20 years the world will consume more oil than was used in all of human history up to this point. More than in the entire 19th and 20th centuries combined — in just 15-20 years — assuming exponential growth continues. I don't know about you, but I find that startling.

I want to finish with a riddle I posed in the earlier post on exponential growth. I repeat it here because I’d really like this riddle to stay with you. If it does, you’ll understand exponential growth better than 99.9% of your fellow citizens.

Suppose you put a small amount of bacteria in a Petri dish. Suppose further that the bacteria population grows exponentially (i.e., by doubling) at a pace that causes it to double each hour. Suppose finally that it takes 100 hours for the bacteria to completely fill the dish, thereby exhausting their supply of nutrients. (It's a large Petri dish.)

Question: When is the dish half full?

After 50 hours (half of 100)?

No. Because the population doubles each hour (including the final hour), the dish is half full just one hour before it’s full. For the first 99 hours the bacteria have got it made. Then wham!

To make this more vivid and memorable, imagine the following as an animated cartoon. For the first 99 hours the bacteria are just partying and congratulating themselves on how smart and successful they are. It’s party hats and noisemakers, Conga lines and champagne, the bacterial Dow Jones going through the roof. Woo hoo! No limits! After 99 hours, some of the bacteria start to worry, but the rest party on — after all, the dish is only half full. Plenty of room left, plenty of nutrients. The first half lasted 99 hours, and there's another whole half to go! Sure, somebody’s gonna have to figure something out eventually, but meanwhile life is good, and nonstop growth will only make it better! An hour later — the world ends.

When growth is exponential, limits are sudden.

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August 18, 2004

God Save Us From Religion Musings  Religion

I've heard Bill Maher call religion a "neurological disorder." Stuff like this (the "Rapture Index") makes me inclined to agree with him.

I guess some people find it exciting to live in a universe that's unfolding according to the ultimate lurid nightmare, where empirical reality and scientific understanding count for absolutely nothing, where you get to be an actor in the supreme cosmic drama of all time, and where you basically get to just make shit up, but the only thing that distinguishes this kind of thing from the hallucinations of a psychotic is the fact that it's a shared hallucination.

The problem is that people insist on taking everything literally. As Joseph Campbell said, religious stories — virgin birth, water into wine, crucifixion and resurrection, etc., etc. — are metaphors. As metaphors, they have great value. As literal truths, well, they'll have you believing for example that anything that hastens the literal end of the world is a good thing. Crazy stuff — and increasingly dangerous.

[Thanks, Dave]

Update: More literal-minded idiocy here. So dumb it's funny. Is this what Jesus had in mind?

Update 2: And more here. Alan Keyes thinks God caused 9/11 because of abortions.

Update 3: And still more.

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August 06, 2004

Feedback Loops and Exponential Growth Environment  Musings  Science/Technology

There's an old story you've probably heard. Unless you understand this story, you won't understand many of the problems that face us in the coming century.

In an ancient kingdom, a clever man saves the life of the king's daughter. The grateful king, wishing to reward the man, offers to grant him whatever he asks for, within reason. The man, being clever, says give me one grain of rice for the first square of a chess board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, etc., doubling the number of grains of rice for each of the 64 squares on the board. The king, who's not so clever, thinks he's gotten off easy and readily agrees.

How much rice has the king just agreed to give the man? If a sack of rice holds 18 million grains, the king has agreed to fork over more than one trillion sacks. The king is ruined. End of story.

The king did not understand exponential growth, which is growth by a constant percentage (100% in our story) at each step. The number of grains starts small and grows slowly at first, but soon you're doubling larger and larger numbers:

1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, etc.

20 squares yield about a million grains, 30 squares yield a billion, 40 squares a trillion, 50 a thousand trillion, 60 a million trillion.

What makes the growth so explosive is the fact that the output of each step is fed back in as the input to the next step. This is what's known as a positive feedback loop. ("Positive" not in the sense of "good", but rather in the sense of "leading to increase".) Population growth is an example. Each generation's children (the output) become the next generation's parents (the input to the next step). In the absence of outside constraints, positive feedback loops give results like in the story of the rice.

The idea of a positive feedback loop — and the kind of ever-accelerating growth that can result — can be applied in a variety of settings, from population growth, to global warming mechanisms, to the way the situation in Iraq is spinning out of control, with chaos leading to greater resistance leading to more chaos, etc. Positive feedback also explains the exponential growth of technical and scientific knowledge, since each new technical effort builds on what has been discovered or invented in the past.

Unfortunately, we seem to have a built-in bias, either neurological or learned, that makes us extrapolate linearly into the future. I.e., we tend, instinctively, to estimate future change as involving the same size steps in absolute terms — not percentage terms — as in the past, so exponential growth always seems to take us by surprise. That's why, when the king saw that in the first several steps the change was just a few grains of rice, he unconsciously assumed that at every step the change would be just a few grains of rice. We all make this mistake. And it's a very dangerous mistake to make at this point in human history.

Here's a riddle.

Suppose someone puts a few bacteria in a petri dish at noon on Monday. Suppose further that the bacteria grow at a rate that causes their population to double every hour. Suppose finally that the growth is such that the petri dish is completely full of bacteria at noon on Wednesday.

Question: When is the petri dish half full?

Click the link below for the answer.

Many people say Tuesday at noon — halfway between noon Monday and noon Wednesday. That's linear thinking, and it's incorrect. Since the population doubles each hour, the dish is half full just one hour before it's full, i.e., at 11 AM on Wednesday. From noon Monday to 11 AM Wednesday, the bacteria have plenty of room to spare. No worries. Then wham!

What's the point? When growth is exponential, or when powerful feedback loops are present, we can think everything's going along fine until just before we hit the wall. Many of the problems that face us — problems of population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation, political instability — involve exactly this kind of exponential growth caused by powerful feedback loops. If we don't have an appropriate mental model of what that means, we'll be complacent right up to the moment when we hit the wall — hard — and, like the king, lose everything.

It's crucial that we overcome our linear bias. We're living in a world of exponential growth, and our petri dish is filling rapidly.

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August 01, 2004

Sun and Moon Musings

And now for something completely different, I call your attention to a fact that strikes me as, well, remarkable.

Consider this. There are two heavenly bodies that dominate our skies: the sun and moon. One rules the day, the other the night. One is unchanging, abstract, hot, dry, hard, and blindingly bright; the other is cyclical, tidal, cool, moist, soft, and ghostly. One is associated with the masculine, the other with the feminine. The perfect pair of complementary opposites, the perfect realization of the duality of existence in general and of the sexes in particular. The perfect realization.

Too perfect, you might say, since what is true, but has no reason to be true, is that these two complementary opposites appear to be the exact same size when viewed from Earth. In case we fail to take notice of that fact, every few years the moon crosses in front of the sun, covering it up perfectly in a solar eclipse. It’s as if the whole thing were rigged to give us, every so often, this breathtaking demonstration, this big signpost in the sky.

There is no reason in physics or astronomy why the sun and moon should have the exact same apparent size in the sky. It’s a complete fluke. The mass of a planet, moon, or sun determines its orbit; its actual size (i.e., its diameter) doesn’t enter into it, nor of course does its apparent size when viewed from any given vantage point.

Now, a scientist would look at this and pronounce it a coincidence, albeit a rather suggestive one. A religious person might judge it a sign of God’s handiwork or cosmic harmony.

A reader of science fiction, though, might imagine that some unimaginably advanced race of beings, billions of years ago, seeded the Earth with DNA and then put the moon into just the right orbit — knowing it was inevitable that intelligent beings would eventually arise from that seedling DNA, intelligent beings who one day would look up at a solar eclipse and say, "Ah ha! This was made to happen!" and in that moment they would know from whence they came. Or — maybe those alien beings just had a slightly alien sense of humor.

In any case, next time there’s a full moon, go out and look at the sunset. On one side of the sky you’ll see the sun setting, and on the opposite side of the sky you’ll see the moon rising. Complementary twins. It’s just perfect.

(Am I serious? Hmmm — maybe — just a little. I do think it’s an astonishingly improbable just-so state of affairs, and I have long considered it remarkable that no one gives it a second thought. It surely does seem rigged!)

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July 28, 2004

Satyagraha Activism  Essays  Musings

Reading, in Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, a wonderful chapter on Gandhi's militant nonviolence — satygraha, often translated as "soul force", but meaning also "being steadfast in the truth" — I've learned some surprising and inspiring new truths about Gandhi's principles that I'd like to share with you.

Gandhi chose nonviolence as a tactic and as a way of life not out of any passivity or meekness. He was as fierce an activist as any who who has ever lived. "Non-cooperation is not a passive state," Gandhi said, "it is an intensely active state — more active than physical resistance or violence." As Schell says, "Satyagraha was soul force, equally it was soul force."

In fact, says Schell:

Asked to choose between violence and passivity, Gandhi always chose violence. "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our breasts," he said, "than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence. Violence is any day prefereable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent." "Activist" is a word that fits Gandhi through and through. "I am not built for academic writings," he said. "Action is my domain." Indeed, if he was a genius in any field, that field was action. "Never has anything been done on this earth without direct action."

He chose nonviolence not just because it's a morally superior path, but because it works, because is the most powerful — albeit the most difficult — way of effecting real change — and it is the most powerful because it is morally superior. Gandhi said, "Nonviolence is without exception superior to violence, i.e., the power at the disposal of a nonviolent person is always greater than he would have if he was violent." And, "The practice of ahimsa [doing no harm] calls forth the greatest courage. It is the most soldierly of a soldier's virtues.... He is the true soldier who knows how to die and stand his ground in the midst of a hail of bullets."

Gandhi knew that the people of India were no match for modern British armaments in a violent revolution. But he also knew, with absolute, steadfast certainty, that British rule would end if Indians withheld their cooperation.

His understanding of this principle — that rulers can rule only so long as the people consent to be ruled — went very deep indeed. To Gandhi, because rulers rule by the consent of the people, the people are responsible for the rulers they get.

"The English have not taken India," he wrote, "we have given it to them."

Later, he said this:

It is because the rulers, if they are bad, are so not necessarily or wholly by reason of birth, but largely because of their environment, that I have hopes of their altering their course. It is perfectly true...that the rulers cannot alter their course themselves. If they are dominated by their environment, they do not surely deserve to be killed, but should be changed by a change of environment. But the environment are we — the people who make the rulers what they are. They are thus an exaggerated edition of what we are in the aggregate. If my argument is sound, any violence done to the rulers would be violence done to ourselves. It would be suicide. And since I do not want to commit suicide, nor encourage my neighbors to do so, I become nonviolent myself and invite my neighbors to do likewise.

Schell continues as follows:

Liberal-minded people have often held that society's victims are corrupted by a bad "environment" created by their privileged masters. Gandhi was surely the first to suggest that the victims were creating a bad moral environment for their masters — and to preach reform to the victims. Even allowing for a certain raillery and sardonicism in these passaqes, there can be no doubt that Gandhi is in earnest. Here we touch bedrock in Gandhi's political thinking. All government, he steadily believed, depends for its existence on the cooperation of the governed. If that cooperation is withdrawn, the government will be helpless.

Reading this, it struck me for the first time that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a profoundly subversive political fable.

Even more, it struck me what a powerfully and profoundly mature person Gandhi was. How extraordinary — and how challenging — to take responsibility for one's leaders. To take responsibility for one's oppressors. To take onto oneself so profoundly the truth that one must begin with changing oneself, and that by changing oneself one finds the true path of change. Not in some vague, mystical way — Gandhi was nothing if not concrete, specific, and fiercely activist. Gandhi would have us take responsibility for ourselves first — but never to stop there. He would have us go forth and help others — by example, word, or deed — find that there is another way. And going forth is part of what changes us. Not acting is another form of consent, and that consent must be withdrawn.

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July 24, 2004

Relativity Musings

[ As an antidote to the previous post, here's a random thought with no connection to politics whatsoever. ]

When we look up at the night sky — assuming we still do — we see the stars as if they were attached to the inverted bowl of the heavens — i.e., without much perception of depth — and the stars are very definitely up.

For an interesting experience, try this: on a clear, preferably moonless night, go outdoors, lie on your back — somewhere away from city lights if possible, where you can see thousands of stars in all their varied brightness and — in some cases — color. Concentrate on seeing the depth of this sea of stars, bright stars near, faint stars far, stars behind stars, and behind them more uncounted stars too faint to see, stretching away to infinity.

After a while, when you’re really seeing the depth, realize that there is no up or down in the universe. You’re not looking up, you’re looking out. Feel that.

And now — here's the kicker — imagine you’re looking down. You’re above the stars, suspended over them, looking down into their depths. This is just as true as saying you’re lying under them, looking up.

Now give yourself to that perception, really feel yourself hanging there, looking down into bottomless depths. You’ll have a thrilling sense of vertigo, but more importantly you may suddenly experience the infinity of space without end — and the reality that you yourself are in the universe, among the stars — in a way you never have before.

Posted by Jonathan at 12:22 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

July 08, 2004

The Desert of the Real Essays  Musings

Slavoj Zizek starts his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real with the following passage:

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: "Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false." After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: "Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing you can’t get is red ink."

A wonderful joke, on a number of levels. It’s a witty riff on classic self-referential paradoxes like the Liar’s Paradox. And it’s a parable on the plight of the ostensibly free person in a modern, media-drenched society.

Attempt to express a non-mainstream opinion in such a setting (especially via a short sound bite — or blog post), and you find yourself in the position of the letter writer. The shared conceptual vocabulary of mainstream discourse (‘war on terror’, ‘democracy’, ‘free trade’) is our collective blue ink. You’re ‘free’ to write what you like — but in blue ink, which necessarily limits and distorts the message. Sometimes, the best one can do is to do what the letter writer did — signal the unavailability of the needed red ink and hope readers or listeners work out the implications for themselves.

All of which is reminiscent of The Matrix, where instead of blue and red ink there are the blue pill and red pill that Morpheus offers to Neo. Take the blue pill and continue on in blissful ignorance of the ocean of assumptions that engulf you; take the red pill and step out onto dry land. When Neo chooses the red pill, Morpheus congratulates him, saying:

Welcome to the desert of the real.

That’s our struggle, politically, emotionally, spiritually — to find our way out of the matrix of our unexamined assumptions, prejudices, and illusions, to arrive at last at the desert of the real. And to help each other get there. Freedom is impossible without truth.

Posted by Jonathan at 06:37 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

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