My Article in 48 Degrees North
Here is a link to an article published in the October 2012 edition of 48 Degrees North, a popular monthly Northwest sailing publication, available online and in paper. The article is on page 34. I cannot publish it here without their permission, apparently.

Biographers of the future
This seems like the appropriate place to post these thoughts. The irony does not escape me.

I have been reading biographies lately, including one of Patricia Highsmith and the classic "To The Finland Station" by Edmond Wilson. In these works the authors had access to the copious letters of the subjects in addition to their more public writings. These days far fewer letters are written. I know this in part because my wife works for the post office, and letter deliveries are down - way down - enough so that the post office relies on advertising fliers and bulk mail for much of its income. This trend of course started back in the 90s with the popularization of email applications, and now it has gotten to the point that the only time most people send "snail mail" letters is perhaps a holiday letter or special occasion card. Even then many people just email a greeting. I must confess that I rely totally on email these days, and have for nearly a decade.

So it seems to me the job of the biographer will be if not more difficult, at least different in the future. When most folks, even writers, communicate through email or networking sites, the job of the historian or biographer will entail gathering perhaps critical insights and personal information from the internet. Much of this is fleeting. How many times have we changed our email providers only to loose all of our email exchanges - sometimes years worth. Whether this will make the biographer's job more difficult or easier is hard to say. In many ways much of what used to be private correspondence between two people is now much more public. In the past one might have written to a close friend or trusted relative. Now the similar personal information is given to all friends (and even strangers) on facebook or other networking sites, but those revelations may be more censored or deliberately dissembling then the contents of a personal letter. The word "friend" itself has changed its meaning in the context of the internet.

This does not negate the need for the well written and insightful biography. In spite of the proliferation of personal information on the internet, there will still be the desire and need for distilled and cogent appraisals of the lives of certain individuals, and it will still take a sensitive and skilled writer to pull all of the scattered threads together to create a narrative from the parts and pieces. This narrative is what we crave. The idea that a life is in some sense a story, and story is life. We will still need talented and perceptive writers to create this narrative from the cacophony of voices which now seem (at least tenuously) available, but those writers will find the internet to be a problematic, albeit necessary resource.

Giordano Bruno and Shakespeare
After reading a recent post at John Crowley's blog I was mesmerized by the essay Julia Jones wrote elucidating the profound connections between Bruno's writings and ideas and Shakespeare's works, especially Hamlet. For anyone remotely interested in the subject I highly recommend this link:

Lowering the drinking age
With respect to the recent letter in the Bellingham Herald advocating lowering the drinking age to 18.
It seems self-apparent that a young man (or woman) about to go to war in Iraq should be able to have a beer with dad and grandpa at a local bar. What the writer and so many others are missing is that freedom must be worked and fought for. Decades ago American citizens took to the streets in large numbers to protest the Viet Nam war, racial inequality, and other issues. Millions challenged prohibition with civil disobedience as well as legal efforts to change the law. Change came because folks were willing to do more than write letters or grouse among themselves. Without this "push back" by citizens the tendency is for government to impose more and more regulations. My advice to the young: if you want change you've got to organize!
As the song so aptly puts it .."you've got to fight for your right to party!" I don't think the founding fathers put it any more succinctly.

Stop The Drug War - a cause to support in 2009
I doubt there is a family in the country that has not been affected by this nation's fanatical obsession with trying to control a person's right to alter their state of consciousness. There are several good organizations fighting the good fight with respect to this issue, and one I would like to recommend as we enter into a new year with a new, hopefully more reasonable executive branch of government, is DRCNet. Their very informative site is here:

I was a Peace Corps trainee in Kabul, Afghanistan in the summer of 1973, a epochal season in the history of that sad country. Much of the Kabul I remember has been blown to bits. Much of the reconstruction is being done by greedy corporations with an eye to profiteering from the abundant natural gas reserves in that area of the globe. Into that same mix add the ongoing historical forces of jihad, the Pushtun border issues with Pakistan, the remnants of the "great game" politics, opium wars, Christian proselytizers, the millions of mines littering the countryside - a bleak prognostication seems unavoidable...

I recently had some of my old faded slides scanned. I have posted a few here and will add more in days to come:

The links page on the site below has a wealth of information on both the current situation there, as well as descriptions of the state of Kabul before the wave of chaos and destruction which began in 1978.

I am always interested in communicating with anyone who might have been there in the 70s, especially ex Peace Corps personnel.

Responses to my recent post
"I enjoyed reading your essay, and have great regard for diverse viewpoints. Why do you address this essay "to those with less culteral filtering" while the words are painted with dogmatic rationalist, Western, homeocentric ideology? By culteral filtering, what exactly do you mean?
Just as the masses used revelation as means for knowing truth, rational methods of thinking are the prevailing methods of knowing in Western societies today. That which cannot be proven by Science's laws is not considered real. The idea of an individual ego that exists alone, seperated from its surroundings by skin from air is central to the widely held fear of death. And where would our prized branch of science, psychology, be without belief in the psyche? no ego= no fear of death of something that never existed in the first place.
Science itself used to be called Natural Philosophy, a set of ideas of how reality might be. Now it is taken as absoulute, the limitless range for human knowledge is shortened to fit within its laws. What cannot be rationally explained is devalued and eventually becomes obsolete. Living breathing humans are reduced to objects, commodities, or consuming receptacles. People leave their traditions, severing primary relationships to the land by accepting shoes and teeshirts to join the Coca-Cola tribe, because there are no other tribes allowed. All variety is destroyed in the name of bullshit."

I would like to respond more specifically to the above quoted comment from anonymous to my recent post.
There has been a tendency recently to classify science itself as another sort of "mythology", but I am referring to the ancient tradition of human rationality and skepticism (as old as the species itself) that has culminated in what we now call science, natural philosophy, or any of a number of labels. Part of my argument in the essay is that many traditional societies were more rational in the way they adapted to their environments. As I stated in my original post, much of our cultural invention makes it unnecessary for the average person to interact with the environment in an inquiring or rational manner. This ability to think rationally is not something new, but in fact has been the basis of our survival for thousands of years. I am most certainly not referring to science in any narrow sense, as a reasonably close reading of my essay reveals.
By rational thought I mean all sorts of inquiry that is falsifiable and verifiable by experiment and research and practice, not something "revealed" or handed down from some authoritative religious or charismatic leader. The insights of various traditions of mystics, drug researchers, and the like are all equally valid where they help to describe the human psyche. Someone once said ..."to have an ecstatic vision is no more or less important than getting drunk." I agree. Different states of human consciousness are important, and some researchers have argued our species is defined by its relentless urge to experience altered states of consciousness. In short, we are the ape that likes to get high. We start out getting high as children by spinning ourselves dizzy; as young adults we experiment with available drugs legal and not; we fast, do yoga, or meditate to alter our mental state. My argument, with other rationalists, is that all methods that lead to altered states are capable of leading to insights (though some are much safer than others).
So where is the disagreement? Certainly the recent experimental and theoretical work in physics (string theory and the like), and cosmology is as profound as anything the mystics have come up with.
I do not believe a society where rational thought dominates necessarily has to become a "coca cola tribe". The predominance of corporation dominated culture in much of the world is, in fact, an example of a non-rational
approach to living. A person becomes a victim of the advertising clout of the super-rich and works at a corporation job which requires merely rote repetition to procure the essentials of survival. Many other economic systems could be devised that would be more humane, desirable, and rational.
It is reasonable to experience ones connection to the earth/universe in an intense emotional manner. It is no accident that many of the great scientists are also musicians, artists, and such. The discoveries of science show us we are a constantly evolving organization of information and matter made up mostly of - nothing - light reflects off of us while other particles go zipping through. I must confess that all of my most profound insights as to the nature of my existence have come not from religion or mysticism, but from the discoveries of science, or through the revelations of art. "Imagination constrained by physics", to quote another writer, is what we are.
It does not follow that I value the ravings of religious or mystical leaders. Their kind, not the inventors and researchers, are responsible for the current state of the world. (Unfortunately, it is almost always the more irrational who gain the power to wield the technologies that scientific discovery makes possible.) Whether or not such religious systems were adaptive in the past is a separate subject, but it is obvious now that such non-rational thinking is leading mankind to the brink of extinction (perhaps a good thing for the Earth after all?) at present. When presidents base important decisions on horoscopes or the advise of preachers, and nations with nuclear capability are controlled by the ravings of Mullahs, humanity must suffer. What cannot at present be rationally explained should be set aside as unexplained for now (in a rational manner) - not to be explained by some mystical or religious mumbo-jumbo. Most of reality in fact will not ever be "explained" scientifically, but that is no excuse for accepting the authority of priests and the like. Let it be unexplained. Epistemology is best left to those with skeptical mind-sets, as the "spiritual" leaders will always try to restrict freedom of inquiry in order to increase their own power. Ecstatic vision and similar type of illumination belong to the individual, not the priest or politician. Rationally and ethically, if you have a vision of the Truth or some such blinding insight, your obligation to man is to tell how you arrived at the insight. Did you fast, starve yourself, pray for days, eat mushrooms? To tell how is your duty to mankind, not to posit your personal view of reality, or worse yet, force it upon the rest of humanity!
In any case, as I said in my essay, I would never assert that most humans are mainly or mostly rational, or even capable of applying rational and skeptical methods in a sustained and consistent manner to the problems of political, economic, or social organization. That is our great tragedy and will be our downfall as a species.

Don't Expect Much Progress From Our Species
Only a small fraction of humanity is capable of rational thought, let alone rational behavior, in any given historical era. This must have been true for the precivilized era as well as now, or humanity would be much more advanced than it is today. But, you say, we live in a scientific age. Men have walked on the moon, explored the ocean depths, built skyscrapers, and deciphered the human genome. However, it does not follow that a larger percentage of human kind is now capable of consistent rational thought, let alone creative application of scientific thinking to the problems of human existence.
For the time being let us just consider the so called “First World”; that is, those countries where the economies are information and/or manufacturing based, and most people have easy access to the various media and standardized education. (There is in fact, good evidence so called “primitive” peoples exhibit greater ability to think rationally than their civilized cousins, and non-culturally biased tests reveal a higher average IQ in many primitive societies, where the daily struggle to subsist involves more interaction with both the natural world and society, and less repetitive or rote behavior. In short, we create civilization to make it easier both physically and mentally for individuals to survive).
Take, for example, that universal sign of a truly advanced society, the computer. A large percentage, certainly a majority of the population, can fairly competently operate a computer to complete assigned tasks at work, or for recreation or managing the check book and so on at home. This, for the most part, does not take any application of scientific methodology or much creative effort. For the most part we memorize the key stroke patterns that manipulate the software to accomplish the task at hand. One simply is taught or teaches oneself to operate the computer in the same fashion one learns any other existing body of knowledge. More mental effort is required to actually create new software or to program computers to execute tasks they have never done before, and far fewer have these skills. Those researchers who invented the underlying operating systems are an order of magnitude rarer yet. The same progression is similar for the actual hardware of the computer. Many thousands of persons are employed manufacturing the machines who know nothing other than their own small part in the activity - perhaps soldering on a component, or operating a machine which manufactures a particular chip. Far fewer are the engineers who design the components themselves, or the manufacturing processes which are necessary to create the computer. Only a handful of researchers understand the electrical complexities and theory that make this whole technology possible.
The above example could be applied to virtually any technology currently in use in the advanced nations. In the beginning of any new technology a few researchers using rational thought and scientific methods are able to observe and describe mathematically a phenomenon, while other small groups of researchers and inventors are able to apply the new knowledge to creating the new basic technology. These rational methods work whether one is describing advances in metallurgy, chemistry, biology, the organization of electronic circuits, or most any other human endeavour. By the time the technology is in general use by the society the vast majority of people utilizing it have no knowledge and no need for the knowledge of the principles or details behind the useful new tool. Even in demanding fields, such as medicine, this applies. In the medical field the great majority of doctors practice according to knowledge gained from their experiences and apprenticeship in hospitals, universities and medical centers. A much smaller percentage of medical researchers invent new procedures or expand our knowledge of the functioning or healing of the body.
This must also have been the case in pre-history. Archeological investigations show primitive cultures made and utilized the same tools and sets of tools for thousands of years with very few changes. We can identify different cultures by their tool kits. It must have been rare for a stone chipper to have departed from the time honored traditions of his predecessors, just as it is uncommon today for a technician to redesign a tool that seems adequate. But an even greater force acting on the individual is the relative conservatism of human societies. Although it has been shown numerous times the QWERTY letter arrangement on most keyboards is not the most efficient, people still use it as it is about the only keyboard style offered. Attempts over the years to launch more ergonomically elegant keyboards have not had much success.
We suspect the relative percentage of humans capable of sustaining rational inquiry must be relatively constant over the ages. Even so, only with sufficient leisure and the will to persist (many times in the face of violent opposition) will such an individual discover a new principle, law of nature, or make discoveries leading to important technological advances.
If technological progress is more rapid and we are making more new discoveries in scientific fields these days than in previous years it is only because of the increase in population, not the increase in the percentage of humans predisposed to rational methods of inquiry.
Given the above what then can we - must we do as a society to encourage those among us with such abilities, and to allow a larger percentage of border line personalities to develop into critical, skeptical, and rational citizens? People in all societies are always quick to adopt and adapt foreign or new technologies with obvious immediate benefit. A primitive tribesman will not hesitate to exchange his bare feet for tennis shoes or manufactured sandals, or slip on a T-shirt. A more “advanced” society may reject both in favor of traditional dress but still adopt the use of the automobile and electricity, which will then force the group to learn the skills needed to maintain and eventually produce the new technology, eventually changing the society in profound, often unpredictable ways. Generally, humans are much less willing to change their beliefs, customs, and world views.
Because of the inherent dominance of irrationality in human thought processes and behavior we believe it is unrealistic to expect large numbers of people in any society to adopt points of view or habits of thinking similar to history’s great progressive philosophers, scientists, and humanists. After all, in spite of the general improvement of the human condition the last few hundred years in some geographical areas (as a result of progressive measures adopted because of the influence of Renaissance and Enlightenment era thinkers, and the decline of the church’s influence), recent polls still indicate people overwhelmingly still subscribe to supernatural beliefs. Indeed most modern peoples still profess a strong belief in an afterlife, various gods, ghosts, djinns, and other assorted supernatural phenomena. When a huge proportion of educated Americans profess to see a significance in the miraculous appearance of the face of Jesus or Mary in a pattern of tree bark or firmly believe gods impregnate Earthly women in order to produce a half-man half-god to save the world, it is hard to see how we will ever convince a majority of mankind to live with the uncertainty necessary for a rational world view. Some recent insightful thinkers such as Jung and Campbell have argued such beliefs are a result of the actual structure of human consciousness and therefore of the human brain. In an effort to make sense of reality the human mind naturally organizes perceived phenomena into certain repeating patterns. Whatever the reason, strong irrational belief systems have hitherto been the most dependable way to organize and control the masses.
In any case a few people in any age seem to have the unique ability to observe with less cultural filtering, and it is to these we address our thoughts. It remains to be seen whether Homo sapiens will soon become extinct or evolve into a less violent, superstitious, and self-destructive species, but the secular humanist takes the positive view that humans at least have a potential, as evidenced by the continual production of a few rational individuals in each generation. If we can inspire even one young person to question, think more rationally, and challenge the forces of superstitious belief and dogma which surround us, it is worth the effort!

Olympia Religious Displays
How ironic this whole issue is being debated in Olympia - the old Greek gods must be laughing at us now...
I sent the following letter to the governor:

Dear Governor Gregoire:
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for supporting the rights of non-Christians, agnostics, and atheists in this state. The holiday displays in Olympia have gotten way more publicity than they should thanks mostly to the flogging of this issue by the religious right. I suppose soon we will have to put up with an entire menagerie of displays, symbols, and signs by the thousands of religious organizations, cults, or covens that also have an interest in such public exposure.

My advice would be to kick them all out!

Separation of church and state should mean just that. As an atheist I am tired of the religious right having their way on these issues. If they have the right to promote the mythic belief of virgin birth and resurrection as fact (rather than metaphor as the original mythology was intended), then surely we freethinkers (the direct intellectual descendants of the founders of this country) have the right to display a simple and direct rebuttal. Enlightened and progressive thinkers founded our democracy, but each new generation must fight the reactionary forces of superstition and intolerance. But you know all that. Atheists are a minority, but so are
the bible-thumpers. Most folks just want to live and let live, and are far more concerned with other matters. It continually amazes me how much energy some people exert over such issues.
In any case, I wish you and your family a very happy solstice holiday!

The Election
I am very happy with the outcome of the election, and optimistic that our new president and congress will take a more reasoned look at what the role of our government should be, especially in health care and regulating the excesses which inevitably will arise from pursuit of profit. Since at least the Reagan years we have heard the same tired argument that private business can always do the job better than the government, and the idea of any socialized services seems anathema to many Americans. But Marx and others got it right. We have more in common with a fellow worker from (name any country or culture) than with the wealthy CEOs of our own country. The lessons of history show the rich are better off if they don't let the masses suffer too much, or rub their good fortune too obviously in the faces of the common folk. And of course poverty is now more than ever relative. Compared to the unfortunates of Ethiopia or Somalia even our poorest are well off, but that comparison gives little comfort to the single mother making minimum wage and trying to find dental care for her children.

Although I voted for Obama what I really wish for is a Thomas Paine for the new century. Someone to mobilize the working classes, and to force the wealthy by whatever means necessary to share in what is earned by the efforts of their employees. It's not as if the working/middle classes are even asking for much of a share of the pie. Decent health and dental care, a share in company profits when times are good, and some hope for a reasonably secure retirement. Not much to ask when we see how much of our nation's wealth is squandered on military adventures, or pissed away on private jets and multiple homes that the super wealthy don't even have time to utilize.

Just exactly what am I suggesting here? Not an exact division of resources among all citizens. Some disparity of wealth based on ability, focus, interest in the process of gaining wealth, inheritance, or just plain luck is inevitable and will always be part of the human condition; but periodically a society needs to take a a very close look at the disparity to see if it is within acceptable limits (however that is defined) and if that disparity is growing, (as it has been for many a year), to take steps to ensure a more equitable distribution of available wealth. Surely the government must be the agency to do this, as most for-profit companies will not willingly curb their excesses, as the recent history of oil company profits has shown. It is in the best interests of the wealthy in the long run for the government to regulate these excesses, as history has shown time and time again that the masses, if sufficiently provoked, will resort to far more destructive means, resulting in disruptions to businesses, or outright attacks on the upper class.


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