Saturday, November 01, 2008

new poem - On Death

On Death

I never did grasp the vision of a body interred in ground,
the fabulous box, chrome handles, velvet interior,
all to encapsulate the rotting corpse of who I used to be

why not flame, the elixir of all things passed,
why not a funeral pyre around which dancing
might occur, a celebration rather than a mourning?

but then I do not believe in rebirth, the body risen
in new form with the same soul, same karma,
unfinished business of an unknown stranger

I see more a return to the depths, an oceanic
forgiveness of non-identity, merging with all
that has been, and ever will be, forever, forgotten

New Poem - Desert Night

Desert Night

smiling wind
in my face
as sky darkens
to a violet glow
on the horizon

so little time
between sun's fall
and darkness settling
quiet as snow
over the desert

bats dart overhead
and I swear
the coyotes
are only steps
behind us

for these brief
moments, my hand
in hers, everything
makes sense
and I am home

Rogue Brewery's Dead Guy Ale

One of my all-time favorite beers!

Shared Items - 11/1/08

Some things I found interesting today and bookmarked.
"Edited reproduction of an article by Franz Schäfer which appeared in the Keimform blog. 1.) Unequal Distribution of Income Excluding other people form access to immaterial goods does not create any wealth. What it does is it allows the people who create and those distribute these goods to demand some compensation for it. So the system of IPR is essentially a system for distributing income amongst people."

"As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels."

"So there wasn't a World Series in Chicago, and Studs missed the 2008 Presidential election. Other than that, Louis (Studs) Terkel did everything possible in 96 years. Was he the greatest Chicagoan? I cannot think of another. For me, he represented the joyous, scrappy, liberal, generous, wise-cracking heart of this city."

"Next time you are tempted to pick your own chamomile or echinacea, give a thought to sustainable plant populations. Many medicines and herbal remedies are based on traditional approaches. But as the human population continues to grow, demand for plant products intensifies. And that means a lot of pressure on sometimes fragile plants and ecosystems."

"October 31 marked the second year since the founding of Worldchanging Canada! This excellent blog has flourished under the direction of editor Mark Tovey, and has set the bar high for our other local iterations. Even non-Canadians would do well to learn from the leading innovators in the world's second-largest country. In honor of the blog's second anniversary, we're offering you a handpicked sampling of some of their best, and most uniquely Canadian, work to date. Enjoy!"

Wildlife photographer of the year: The winners
"No lion in its right mind would dare to attack a grown giraffe: a well-placed kick from one of those long legs could be fatal. Yet as Catriona and assembled gemsbok watched one evening near a waterhole at Hobatere Lodge in Damaraland, Namibia, this young male lion repeatedly harassed the thirsty giraffe."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel Dead, Age 96

Wow, long life! May he rest in humor.

Studs Terkel dies

The author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol has died. "My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" he once said.

Birthday broadcast 2007

Terkel is honored on his 95th birthday at the Chicago History Museum during a broadcast on WFMT. He was on the station for 45 years and the program rebroadcasted a number of his interviews. (Tribune photo by Charles Osgood / May 16, 2007)

Louis Terkel arrived here as a child from New York City and in Chicago found not only a new name but a place that perfectly matched--in its energy, its swagger, its charms, its heart--his own personality. They made a perfect and enduring pair.

Author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol Louis "Studs" Terkel died Friday afternoon in his home on the North Side. At his bedside was a copy of his latest book, "P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening," scheduled for release this month. He was 96 years old.

"Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko," Mayor Richard M. Daley said Friday. "In his many books, Studs captured the eloquence of the common men and women whose hard work and strong values built the America we enjoy today. He was also an excellent interviewer, and his WFMT radio show was an important part of Chicago's cultural landscape for more than 40 years."

Beset in recent years by a variety of ailments and the woes of age, which included being virtually deaf, Terkel's health took a turn for the worse when he suffered a fall in his home a few weeks ago.
Read the rest.

How McCain's and Obama's Closing Speeches Reflect their Campaigns

An interesting article from Slate.

I'm Your Answer

How McCain's and Obama's closing speeches reflect their campaigns.

Here's the key passage:

As both candidates make their final pitches to voters, the connection between ego and abnegation has reached its most intense level. McCain and Obama are each saying, "Hook your dreams to me, and we'll go to a better place." That is the final message of their speeches, and the very last sentiment they offer voters before leaving the stage. And their pitches, especially in these closing days of the campaign, reflect the races they've run and the visions they're offering.

For the last two weeks, McCain has ended his campaign speeches with a call to fight. It's a passage that first appeared at the end of his acceptance speech in Minneapolis. After describing the country's troubles, McCain pledges to solve them, saying, "I am an American, and I choose to fight." This line sparks his crowds into roars of approval. McCain then implores people to join with him in the fight for justice, our children, and to fix the economy.

Like his campaign, McCain's message is personal. His presidency will succeed, he says, because it will flow from him—his biography, his sturdy constitution, his sense of honor. "I have fought for you most of my life, and in places where defeat meant more than returning to the Senate," he says before the crescendo oration. The speech ends with a list of all that "we" will do together.

Obama takes voters to the same place but by a different route. As he concludes his stump speech, he describes a note he received from a woman named Robyn, whose son suffered from a heart condition and whose insurance company refused to pay for it. "I ask only this of you," Obama says, reading from her letter. "On the days when you feel so tired you can't think of uttering another word to the people, think of us. When those who oppose you have you down, reach deep and fight back harder." Obama concludes his speech with an even longer litany than McCain of what "we" will do together.

The message has always opened Obama to the charge that his campaign is a personality cult. When Obama said, "We are the change we believe in," he was quoting a Native American expression that means we must all join together to effect change. Yet when Obama said it in a political context, many people heard it as: "I am the change you need to believe in."

A good defense against the egoism charge, of course, is that people do believe in you. Throughout Obama's campaign, he has presented himself as a vessel to carry out the will of the collective behind him. This was the message of one of the best-known passages of his old stump speech, the "Fired up, ready to go" story he told during the Democratic primaries. Obama described being in a funk and how he was shaken out of it by a local South Carolina politician who inspired her constituents by saying "Fired up!" to which the crowd responded, "Ready to go."

In their closing remarks, McCain and Obama are offering different versions of leadership. McCain wants audiences to join together and fight with their vote, but his vision of leadership is a solitary one. In the end, he will do what he thinks is best. Obama presents himself as the candidate carried and sustained by the support of a movement that will continue to exert itself if he wins the White House.

Call me a socialist, too, I prefer the Obama message.

Some Google Reader Shared Items

As appears at my Friendfeed page, a new form of speedlinking.
Shared four items on Google Reader

1 hour ago - Comment - More
"A Pennsylvania man wolfed down a 15-pound burger in less than five hours, becoming the first person ever to win the Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser challenge at Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in central PA. His family must be incredibly proud. At 5'11 and 180 pounds, Brad Sciullo added 10 percent more to his frame in a single afternoon -- with toppings and bun, the monstrosity weighed 20 pounds. Gross. How do you cook a burger that big?"

1 hour ago - Comment - More
"Goodall, who will receive the Leakey Prize on Saturday, is focusing on humanitarian efforts. She says chimps in Africa can't be protected unless people's living conditions are improved."

1 hour ago - Comment - More
A good idea shot down - "New York City's plan to turn its entire fleet of yellow cabs green by 2012 was halted on Friday by a federal judge who ruled that regulation of fuel emissions standards falls under federal, not city, authority."

1 hour ago - Comment - More
"Vigorous activity can reduce the risk of breast cancer by about 30 percent in normal-weight women, according to an 11-year US study of 32269 postmenopausal women." Probably true for men and prostate cancer as well.

It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!

Happy Halloween! This is my favorite Halloween cartoon, which I post each year.

Bill Kristol on The Daily Show

Always interesting when Bill the Editor stops by to talk with Jon -- can't say that Bill has EVER said anything I agree with, but that's because I'm a liberal fascist.

Oh, and does Kristol live in an alternate reality? His views on McCain positions seem to have no connection to what McCain actually says in his stump speeches.

Shiba Inu Puppy Cam

Because they're cute . . .

Newsweek - Why We Believe

Bigfoot, Nessie, ghosts, angels, God, whatever - the human propensity to believe in that which cannot be seen or proven is mind boggling to some people. But there are those who have studied why we believe, and it seems we are hard-wired for belief.

Today being Halloween and all, seems like a good day to post this.

Why We Believe

Belief in the paranormal reflects normal brain activity carried to an extreme.

It wasn't immediately obvious to Walter Semkiw that he was the reincarnation of John Adams. Adams was a lawyer and rabble-rouser who helped overthrow a government; Semkiw is a doctor who has never so much as challenged a parking ticket. The second president was balding and wore a powdered wig; Semkiw has a full head of hair. But in 1984, a psychic told the then medical resident and psychiatrist-in-training that he is the reincarnation of a major figure of the Revolution, possibly Adams. Once Semkiw got over his skepticism—as a student of the human mind, he was of course familiar with "how people get misled and believe something that might not be true," he recalls—he wasn't going to let superficial dissimilarities dissuade him so easily. As he researched Adams's life, Semkiw began finding many tantalizing details. For instance, Adams described his handwriting as "tight-fisted and concise"—"just like mine," Semkiw realized. He also saw an echo of himself in Adams's dedication to the cause of independence from England. "I can be very passionate," Semkiw says. The details accumulated and, after much deliberation, Semkiw went with his scientific side, dismissing the reincarnation idea.

But one day in 1995, when Semkiw was the medical director for Unocal 76, the oil company, he heard a voice in his head intoning, "Study the life of Adams!" Now he found details much more telling than those silly coincidences he had learned a dozen years earlier. He looked quite a bit like the second president, Semkiw realized. Adams's description of parishioners in church pews as resembling rows of cabbages was "something I would have said," Semkiw realized. "We are both very visual." And surely it was telling that Unocal's slogan was "the spirit of '76." It was all so persuasive, thought Semkiw, who is now a doctor at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in California, that as a man of science and reason whose work requires him to critically evaluate empirical evidence, he had to accept that he was Adams reincarnated.

Perhaps you don't believe that Semkiw is the reincarnation of John Adams. Or that playwright August Wilson is the reincarnation of Shakespeare, or George W. Bush the reincarnation of Daniel Morgan, a colonel in the American Revolution who was known for his "awkward speech" and "coarse manners," as Semkiw chronicles on his Web site But if you don't believe in reincarnation, then the odds are that you have at least felt a ghostly presence behind you in an "empty" house. Or that you have heard loved ones speak to you after they passed away. Or that you have a lucky shirt. Or that you can tell when a certain person is about to text you, or when someone unseen is looking at you. For if you have never had a paranormal experience such as these, and believe in none of the things that science says do not exist except as tricks played on the gullible or—as neuroscientists are now beginning to see—by the normal workings of the mind carried to an extreme, well, then you are in a lonely minority. According to periodic surveys by Gallup and other pollsters, fully 90 percent of Americans say they have experienced such things or believe they exist.

If you take the word "normal" as characteristic of the norm or majority, then it is the superstitious and those who believe in ESP, ghosts and psychic phenomena who are normal. Most scientists and skeptics roll their eyes at such sleight of word, asserting that belief in anything for which there is no empirical evidence is a sign of mental pathology and not normalcy. But a growing number of researchers, in fields such as evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, are taking such beliefs seriously in one important sense: as a window into the workings of the human mind. The studies are an outgrowth of research on religious faith, a (nearly) human universal, and are turning out to be useful for explaining fringe beliefs, too. The emerging consensus is that belief in the supernatural seems to arise from the same mental processes that underlie everyday reasoning and perception. But while the belief in ghosts, past lives, the ability of the mind to move matter and the like originate in normal mental processes, those processes become hijacked and exaggerated, so that the result is, well, Walter Semkiw.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Semkiw is driven by a what-if optimism. If only people could accept reincarnation, he believes, Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites might stop fighting (since they might be killing someone who was once one of them). He is dismissive of the idea that reincarnation has not been empirically proved. That was the status of everything science has since proved, be it the ability of atoms to vibrate in synchrony (the basis of the laser) or of mold to cure once-lethal infections (penicillin). Dedicated to the empirical method, Semkiw believes the world is on the brink of "a science of spirituality," he says. "I don't know how you can't believe in reincarnation. All it takes is an open mind."

On that, he is in agreement with researchers who study the processes of mind and brain that underlie belief. As scientists began studying belief in the paranormal, it quickly became clear that belief requires an open mind—one not bound by the evidence of the senses, but in which emotions such as hope and despair can trump that evidence. Consider the Tichborne affair. In 1854, Sir Roger Tichborne, age 25, was reported lost at sea off the coast of Brazil. His inconsolable mother refused to accept that her son was dead. Twelve years later a man from Wagga Wagga, in New South Wales, Australia, got in touch with her. He claimed to be Sir Roger, so Lady Tichborne immediately sent him money to sail to England. When the claimant arrived, he turned out to be grossly obese, E.J. Wagner recounts in her 2006 book "The Science of Sherlock Holmes." Sir Roger had been very thin. Sir Roger had had tattoos on his arm. The claimant had none. He did, however, have a birthmark on his torso; Sir Roger had not. Although Sir Roger's eyes had been blue, the claimant's were brown. Lady Tichborne nevertheless joyfully proclaimed the claimant her son and granted him £1,000 per annum. Lawsuits eventually established that the claimant was an impostor.

Letting hope run roughshod over the evidence of your eyes, as Lady Tichborne did, is surprisingly easy to do: the idea that the brain constructs reality from the bottom up, starting with perceptions, is woefully wrong, new research shows. The reason the grieving mother did not "see" the claimant as others did is that the brain's sensory regions, including vision, are at the mercy of higher-order systems, such as those that run attention and emotions. If attention is not engaged, images that land on the retina and zip back to the visual cortex never make it to the next stop in the brain, where they would be processed and identified and examined critically. If Lady Tichborne chose not to focus too much on the claimant's appearance, she effectively blinded herself. Also, there is a constant back-and-forth between cognitive and emotion regions of the brain, neuroimaging studies have shown. That can heighten perception, as when fear sharpens hearing. But it can also override the senses. No wonder the poor woman didn't notice those missing tattoos on the man from Wagga Wagga.

Read the rest of the article.

William Grassie - The New Sciences of Religion

Another great, if older, article from The Global Spiral (Metanexus Institute), this time on the study of religion as a science. This article borders on an integral approach to the study of religion, which is sorely needed. All the scientists who pretend to explain away religion really have done nothing to aid in our understanding of why religions exist, how they perpetuate themselves, the roles they play in people's live, and the cultures that are shaped by them.

The New Sciences of Religion

The last few years have witnessed a torrent of new books by noted scientists purporting to scientifically explain religion, mostly with the intentions of explaining religion away (Stenger 2007), (Dawkins 2006), (Dennett 2006), (Harris 2006), (Hamer 2005), (Harris 2004), (Wilson 2002), (Boyer 2001). What is religion? What is spirituality? How does one study it? How does one teach it? What does it mean to take a scientific approach to the study of religion? Are religions healthy and functional for individuals and societies, or are they unhealthy and dysfunctional? These are difficult questions at the center of some of the most challenging controversies of the 21st century.

In this essay, I employ the metaphor of inside and outside to characterize different ways of studying religion (McCutcheon 1999). In studying religion from the outside through science, I will survey different theories advocated and the limitations of those theories. I will argue for pluralistic methodologies in the scientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena. I will also argue that religious persons and institutions should welcome scientific investigation, because science impacts only interpretative strategies and does not present a fundamental challenge to core religious commitments. In the end, I will deconstruct the circle and challenge the boundaries that place religion on the inside as the subject and science on the outside as the objective on-looker. I begin and end with the problem of definitions.

The Problem of Definitions

The words themselves – religion and spirituality – beg for rigorous definitions, but this will prove elusive. The term “religion” is derived from the Latin verb religare, which means “to tie together, to bind fast”. In the original understanding, “religion” was about expressing proper piety, i.e., binding oneself to God. Later the term would also be used to designate a bounded belief systems and set of practices, as in the religions of the Greeks, Romans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, and others.

Today, in the United States, it is quite common for people to say that they are “spiritual, not religious”. The definition of “spiritual” is also elusive. The term derives from the Latin spiritus. The Latin verb root is spirare, literally, “to breathe or blow”. The connotation is that we are surrounded by a divine reality as pervasive, intimate, necessary, and invisible as the air we breathe. Similar concepts can be found in the Hindu word prana. The Chinese concept of chi energy may be analogous. Jewish mystics noted that the sacred name of God in Hebrew, Yhwh, a name written in the Bible but never pronounced aloud by pious Jews, might itself be understood as the sound of human breath – an inhalation Yh and an exhalation wh. Thus, every time a person breathes, she is actually saying the name of God. Muslim mystics made similar claims about the aspiration of the name Allah. To talk of spirituality then is to affirm that there is an all-encompassing realm, an invisible reality that somehow transcends and sustains human life, consciousness, and values.

In the contemporary context, the use of the phrase “spiritual, not religious” is to disassociate oneself from the institutional and historical manifestations of religions. One wants the “goods” without the long histories of failures and hypocrisy. Religions are organized groups. Spirituality is something an individual can have without being implicated in the ambivalent complexity of human societies and institutions. In this sense, “spiritual, not religious” can be seen as a modern manifestation of a historical, sociological cycle of trying to recapture the imagined authentic origins of religion. Humans, of course, are a social and political species, so it is only a matter of time before “spirituality” also gets messy. Indeed, the notion “spiritual, not religious” is itself the product of a culture that emphasizes individualism and consumerism. It is also the product of a religious history of recurrent reformations that seek to return to an original, unmediated, pure connection with a foundational moment, a mystical experience, or the teachings of a charismatic leader.

I prefer the term “religion” precisely because it invites us to look at, and more importantly take responsibility for, the entire complexity of the phenomena – the good, the bad, and the ambivalent – which is not to say that I do not also seek to breathe and take direct personal inspiration from an invisible spiritual reality which is all around me, everywhere, all of the time. I just do not trust myself or anyone else to be an unbiased and uncorrupted pure vessel for that everywhere-present Presence, whatever it might be.

The term “religion” does not simply translate into other cultures and languages. In Sanskrit, the Hindu term used to indicate “religion” is dharma, which means the teaching or practice, but this is hardly a parallel concept, and much that is not dharma would count as religion in Hinduism. In Chinese, the term Zongjiao was coined in the modern era to mean “religion”. The etymology of the term reflects a Confucian understanding of the teaching of lineage. In Judaism, the Hebrew word dat, meaning law, is used to indicate “religion,” reflecting a Jewish religious pre-occupation with religious laws and justice. In Arabic, the term “religion” is translated as din, meaning simply the path or the way. Regardless of how it is translated, the modern European concept of religion has now traveled the world and humans everywhere in our global civilization struggle to understand how religions stand apart from and perhaps transcend other dimensions of human culture.

Religion from the Inside

Most people in the past and even today study religion from the inside, as a believer and a practicioner of a particular tradition. A Jew studies Judaism; a Buddhist studies Buddhism; a Muslim studies Islam. Later we will consider what it means to study religion from the outside, as a non-believer and non-practitioner, but for now it is important to note that a serious study of a religion from the inside is complicated and engaging work. The subject matter – “my religion” – deals with Self, Society, and Cosmos. Religion from the inside has a lot to say about what it means to be a fully realized individual human, living in a social context with other humans in a universe imbued with power, purpose, and significance.

The subject matter – my religion – is Diverse, Particular, and Universal. Any serious study of one’s own religion from the inside will show that there is heterogeneity within any major tradition. The tradition as a whole and in its diversity relates to particular histories, languages, and cultures. In spite of this diversity and particularism, every religion is also making universal truth claims that apply to all humans everywhere at all times, indeed truth claims about the fundamental character of the universe as a whole. One of the major preoccupations of the study of religion from the inside is this diversity and arguing for normative views of one’s particular understanding of a tradition in opposition to what would be seen as heretical understandings of that same tradition – liberal interpretations versus conservative interpretations, charismatic mystical approaches versus rational textual approaches, Sunni Muslims versus Shiite Muslims, Theravada Buddhists versus Mahayana Buddhists, Protestant Christians versus Catholic Christians, Evangelical Protestants versus other Protestants, and so forth.

For instance, there are hundreds of different sects within Christianity. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with Maronite Christians in Lebanon. They speak Arabic in their homes and use the ancient language of Syriac-Aramaic in their liturgies. Their priests marry, but the Maronite Church is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church that forbids priest to marry. It would take a lot of history to explain this interesting situation. In spite of this particularism, their understanding of Christianity - of sin, sacrifice, sanctification, and salvation - is taken to be universally true for all people, not just Lebanese Maronites. We could fill this article and indeed many libraries with other examples around the world of a tradition’s diversity, particularity, and universality.

It turns out that a serious study of religion from the inside requires a lot of work. One needs to study the tradition, its sacred scriptures, the original languages in which scriptures were written, the translations and interpretations of those scriptures, the histories of the tradition, the legal codes and case law within that tradition, the liturgical practices, the saints and sages, the tradition’s teachings about the everyday mundane life, and all of this while paying attention to one’s own personal experiences as a believer and practitioner within the tradition. Of course, studying the tradition – my religion – is supremely about some concept of the Sacred, the Divine, a notion of Transcendence, God-by-whatever-name (see Diagram 1).

Diagram 1

Diagram 1

We will come back to the Divine Mystery, the God-by-whatever-name question, at the center of all religious phenomena again and again in this discussion. We will never be done with it. Note, however, how intimidating a serious study of religion from the inside would be. A scholar of Christianity, for instance, would need to know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, just to begin with Biblical interpretation. If he is a serious scholar, he is also going to study Aramaic and Syriac, because these were the languages actually spoken in First Century Palestine by Jesus and the Apostles. Then he is certainly going to need to know French, German, and English, because so much of Christian history and thought was shaped inside of these European languages and cultures. And that is just the language study part of the curriculum.

Believers and practitioners of a religion are always looking for a short cut to the Sacred that will by-pass all of this hard work - and understandably so. It is just too much homework and life is short. Hence, the contemporary phenomenon of “spiritual, not religious” is indeed a recurrent phenomenon as old as humanity. Religion would be pretty useless if one were required to do all of this hard work. Hence, the hope and the promise of having “authentic” experience and “unmediated” inspiration of the spiritual origins that motivates the religious quest. In the Christian idiom, we might call such an experience being “born again”, but who would not prefer the ecstasy of Saint Paul at the crossroads instead of the agony of Jesus on the Cross. Spiritual inspiration is just so much easier than strenuous scholarship or sacrificial service. Of course, a lifetime devoted to the serious study of religion from the inside, particularly in the contemporary world, is not likely to be a very remunerative career choice.

Read the whole, long, and interesting article.

Making a Difference

A cool collection of articles from The Smithsonian Magazine.

Inspiring individuals in the fields of science, arts, culture and human behavior are regular subjects of Smithsonian magazine and Around the world, these men and women are making a difference in the ways we think and live.

From ideas for greener living to the preservation of storied neighborhoods, their ideas and accomplishments challenge all of us look at the world around us and imagine what change can accomplish.

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Escaping Poverty

The social entrepreneur advocates helping the world's poorest people, one tool at a time.

Wallace Broecker

Wallace Broecker

A Fix for Climate Change

The geochemist proposes a solution to global warming: CO2 "scrubbers"

Termite digestion of wood pulp

Falk Warnecke

Termite Bellies and Biofuels

Research into termite digestion may hold solutions to our energy crisis

Dean and Jim Thomas at the Gettysburg Battlefield

Dean Thomas

To Catch a Thief

A Civil War buff's chance discovery leads to a sting, a raid and a victory against traffickers in stolen historical documents

Nazis swept across Europe scooping up paintings and other booty, which they shipped to Germany. (An American soldier guards looted goods in 1945 in an Ellingen, Germany, church.)

Col. Matthew Bodanos

Recovering a Nation's Treasures

The fast-thinking Marine officer improvised an investigation of the pillaging of Baghdad's Iraq Museum—and helped recover thousands of stolen antiquities

Laurie Marker

Laurie Marker

Rare Breed

Can the director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund help the world's fastest mammal outrun its fate?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

In The Know: Has Halloween Become Overcommercialized?

The Onion News Network's panelists discuss whether Halloween candy and costumes have distracted us from placating demons to ensure a bountiful harvest.

In The Know: Has Halloween Become Overcommercialized?

Obama Talks Hannity, McCain's Attacks, and More with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show

Observes AlterNet:
Barack Obama was all over the media last night, doing an interview on the ever popular Daily Show soon after his half an hour prime time television segment. Stewart and Obama discussed everything from Sean Hannity to the Bradley effect. Check it out:

American Stories, American Solutions

Obama's TV spot from last night, in case you (like me) missed it.

Arthur Schopenhauer's Concept of Art as Revelation

A cool article from Ovi Magazine.
Arthur Schopenhauer's Concept of Art as Revelation
by Emanuel L. Paparella

“The Platonic Ideas are the adequate objectification of the will”

--Arthur Schopenhauer (from The World of as Will and Representation)

Schopenhauer's (1788-1860) conception of art has this in common with Aristotle and Kant’s conception of art: all three philosophers endow art with the greatest significance. Schopenhauer accepts Aristotle’s understanding of art as cognition but goes beyond Aristotle in considering art a revelation of the very nature of reality giving us access to metaphysical truths.

Like Plato and Kant before him Schopenhauer distinguishes appearance from reality-in-itself. The world revealed to us in our everyday experience is a mere representation, governed by the principles of sufficient reason—that everything that happens does so for some reason—and of individuation—that each person or object is a being distinct from every other.

The world revealed by science is simply a more abstract and systematic version of the world of experience. But where Kant claims that reality in itself is unknowable to being such as ourselves, Schopenhauer believes that we have access to it through our own wills. The truth revealed by a contemplation of willing is that reality consists of nothing but endless striving, and the world as it appears is mere illusion. Life is a pointless game in which desire demands satisfaction but in which satisfaction is fleeting and evanescent. Even our precious individuality is illusory, for beneath the appearance of distinctness the will unites all. Pessimism and resignation are the appropriate philosophic attitudes to take to this revelation.

Schopenhauer arrives at these claims by injecting themes from Indian thought into Kant’s philosophy. We would not be too far off target in claiming that Schopenhauer is the first Western philosopher to greatly value non-Western philosophy as a source of important insight. For him the Platonic-Kantian distinction between appearance and reality is just another version of the ancient Hindu doctrine that the world of the senses and desire is mere illusion.

Given this rather pessimistic view of the reality of things, it may be rather surprising that he waxes so lyrical about the power of art. This is so because for Schopenhauer, whereas science is necessarily limited to the realm of appearance, art can reveal metaphysical truth. Like Kant, Schopenhauer places genius at the center of art, but now it is necessary, not just for artistic creation, but also for appreciation. Through art the genius is able to rise above the stream of quotidian entanglements to disinterested contemplation of the world as it really is.

Just as the subject must be in a special state in order to appreciate art, the art object cannot represent things in their usual mode of existence. All art, with the exception of music, presents ideas rather than things. Here, Schopenhauer incorporates a Platonic element into his philosophy of art. Once again the Forms resurface, to the dismay of those who make a false dichotomy between the ancients and the moderns. As for Plato, the Forms are ideas or archetypes of which empirical things merely partake. The implication is clear: the world of spirit is antecedent to that of matter.

For Schopenhauer, art does not represent the merely material and empirical but rather the Ideas that lie behind it. A significant work of art, then, is not concerned with the particular, but rather with the universal Idea that stands behind it as its reality. Schopenhauer speaks of the will as possessing different levels of objectivity—from the lowly plant to the higher animals—and of the Ideas representing these different levels to us.

As mentioned above, music for Schopenhauer is the exception. Rather than representing Ideas (that is, levels of the will’s objectification), music brings us into direct contact with the will itself. Music and the will are two intertranslatable languages in which everything said in one can be said in the other. This is why, for Schopenhauer music is the highest form of art, permitting direct experience of the will both as the substance of ultimate reality and as insatiable. This explains much of the emphasis placed on music by the 19th century Romantic movement whose greatest icon is Beethoven.

If Schopenhauer thinks that the highest calling is in complete detachment, in disinterested contemplation of the spectacle of universal striving, then the artist operates in the space between these realms, depicting the vanity of willing but not yet seized with the futility of all undertaking. As a result, the artist is, for Schopenhauer a tragic figure, condemned to tell the truth about the world, yet doomed to fail.

Biocultural Evolution in the 21st Century: The Evolutionary Role of Religion

Another good article from The Global Spiral (Metanexus Institute).

This long article looks at the role of religion in biocultural evolution -- the idea that "human evolution bypasses genetics and allows for intentional culturally-acquired adaptations and their cultural transmission between generations in a Lamarckian evolutionary pattern."

The notion of heritability of acquired characteristics -- or "soft inheritance" -- was out of favor for many years, but recent research into the ways that culture and environment can shape and modulate gene expression (which then can be passed on to offspring) have brought the idea back into vogue.
Biocultural Evolution in the 21st Century: The Evolutionary Role of Religion

In a world which has become conscious of its own self
And provides its own motive force,
What is most vitally necessary to the thinking earth is a faith—
And a great faith-- and ever more faith.
To know that we are not prisoners.
To know that there is a way out,
That there is air, and light, and love,
Somewhere, beyond the reach of all death.
To know this, to know that it is neither an illusion nor a fairy story. –
That, if we are not to perish smothered in the very stuff of our being,
That is what we must at all costs secure.
And it is there that we find what I may well be so bold as to call the evolutionary role of religions.

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit paleontologist, (1881-1955) (Chardin 1970, 9).


We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of the planet and the cultural evolution of our species. From a geological or paleontological perspective, humanity’s brief sojourn on this planet is as dramatic and significant as the invention of photosynthesis some two billion years ago. This is because human evolution bypasses genetics and allows for intentional culturally-acquired adaptations and their cultural transmission between generations in a Lamarckian evolutionary pattern. As humans are about to embark upon large-scale genetic engineering of other species and ourselves, even as we have already engaged in large-scale environmental engineering, our biocultural evolution becomes literal and directed Lamarckism. This new pattern of evolution now dominates all life on Earth and places the values and intentions of humans as the driving force in the future evolution of the planet. Thus religion, broadly conceived of as the DNA of cultural replication, will take center stage in biocultural evolution in the 21st century.

My outline introduces the concept of biocultural evolution, particularly with reference to the Twentieth Century and the prospects for the Twenty-First Century. I then explore the concept of complex distributed systems to characterize all highly creative processes in both culture and nature. Subsequently, I turn to the problem of complexity horizons and the challenge that these present for traditional moral reflections. Humans are then characterized as a Lamarckian wild card in epic of evolution. I close by discussing the evolutionary role of religion.

Biocultural Evolution

Humans exist and evolve in a dynamic relationship with the rest of nature. In spite of our impressive cognitive and technological abilities, we remain after all fundamentally biological creatures. As evolved mammals, we are dependent on biological processes to sustain our individual and collective lives. To some extent all species both adapt into an environment as well as change that environment by their very presence, but with humans the capacity to change the environment increases dramatically. We see this certainly in the history of agriculture over the last 10,000 years, which has re-sculpted ecologies and supported a growing human population. Indeed, physical anthropologists discover, agriculture also changes our genetic make-up. There is a dynamic relationship between our biology and our culture, encoded in our genetic and neural evolution, but increasingly also projected outwards onto the environment, which we harness and transform to our perceived benefit.

In the twentieth century, there was a dramatic intensification of human editing of natural environments, which we see also in the realms of mining, construction, energy consumption, forestry, trade, travel, communications, and agriculture. J.R. McNeill provides a non-polemical overview of these changes in his book, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, bringing together diverse data-sources to tell the history of the lithosphere, the pedosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere, all increasing and profoundly transformed by the spheres of human activity on the planet (McNeill 2000).

It is worth reviewing some of these statistics, though they will be known to many already. Most dramatically, human population has increased four fold between 1890 and 1990. The total urban population of the world increased thirteen fold in the same time period. Today, there are over six billion humans on the planet and while birth rates are declining in most regions, we can still expect growth over the next few decades (McNeill 2000, 360-361).

Sustenance for this growth in human population required increased food production and energy consumption, as well as new systems for distributing clean water, sanitation, and the containment and cure of diseases. McNeill calculates that the world economy grew fourteen-fold in the period of 1890 to 1990, while industrial output grew forty-fold, all of this fueled by a sixteen-fold increase in energy use and a nine-fold increase in water consumption. The domestic cattle population grew four-fold in this period. The domestic pig population grew nine-fold. Land under cultivation doubled in this time frame, while forest area decreased by twenty percent. Marine fish catch increased thirty-five-fold in the last century and is now in radical decline save for a dramatic increase in “fish farming” (McNeill 2000, 360-361).

Demographers cited by McNeill estimate that about 80 billion hominids have lived in the past 4 million years for a total of 2.16 trillion years of human life lived on the planet. So while the twentieth century represents only 100 out of the 4 million years, it has hosted 20 percent of all human-years lived. Certainly this was a prodigious century by any measure.(McNeill 2000, 9)

[I often tell my students that given some kind of time machine, Pharaoh or Caesar would gladly change places with them to enjoy the opportunities for education, health care, travel, entertainment, consumption, construction, business, and “empire-building” that they have today. Of course, implied is also a plea to stop whining and try to leverage your good fortune through hard work.]

Many consider these dramatic changes with utopic hopes, others with apocalyptic fears. I will return to these considerations later, but it seems more productive initially to reflect more philosophically upon the nature of these highly creative processes. In order to do so I now introduce the concept of complex distributed systems.

Read the whole article.

A Bit of Fry and Laurie - Genital Amputation


Meditation for Life: The Spirit of Grieving

A good "review of literature" article from Reality Sandwich on meditation and grieving. I think the author makes some faulty jumps in his logic on the nature of relationships, but the idea that meditation can help alleviate the risk and/or symptoms of "complicated grief" is spot on.

Meditation for Life: The Spirit of Grieving

Adam Elenbaas

In a recent scientific study conducted at the University of California Los Angeles, researchers examined the neurological processes surrounding short and long term grieving. The results, although partially speculative, provide an excellent backdrop for a conversation regarding meditation and its age old role in coping with sadness, depression and personal loss.

The study at UCLA examined 23 women who had lost a loved one within five years, eleven of whom still suffered from what psychologists call "CG" or "complicated grief": prolonged grieving resulting in depression, stress, fatigue, and lowered immune efficiency. While monitoring brain activity, researchers showed each woman pictures of her deceased loved one or words and phrases strongly associated with her deceased loved one. The results, as expected, showed that each woman in the study had social pain and grieving effects related to the images and words. But the interesting result was the commonality that all of the "complicated grievers" showed during the brain monitoring.

Each of the complicated grievers demonstrated high reward, pleasure, and addiction activity responses in the brain, in addition to the social grieving response. This finding suggests that brain interference could be responsible for "complicated grieving," and its fallout symptoms: fatigue, depression, stress, lowered immune efficiency and an inability to let go of the past. Some puzzling results, right?

Well, science is a funny thing. After all, it was the human mind that created the scientific method and rationalism, not the scientific method that created the rational mind. In other words, it's important to remember that human experience, in its full palette, inspired this kind of study in the first place. Therefore, interpreting the results of scientific data in a healthy conversation is the fertile ground where we might determine which seeds of cultural evolution are worth planting next. So what might this study imply about depression and how might it relate to meditation?

Let's make a few assumptions. Let's assume that being healthy and strong and "selfcentered" means that you are independently happy. In other words, you have established a healthy balance between the outside world (food, shelter, nature, clothing, jobs, people) and your inside world (emotions, thoughts, words, and actions). Now let's assume that people are thrown out of balance when they place too much emphasis on their internal world or the external world to create that sense of harmony and well being. In the case of the UCLA study, how would these assumptions about health filter out?

Let's say that your internal world feels terrible. You don't like who you are. You don't like your emotions, or they are too much to handle. Your mind moves too fast. You don't enjoy life. And you're always questioning what you say or why you said it. The immediate answer is often to look for another human or something outside to fix what is going on inside. It's not a terrible impulse. Sometimes it works. Sometimes when I'm feeling sad inside I will call a friend for a reminder that I am strong and special. Then something inside of me clicks over and I say, "Oh yeah, that's right. I am doing just fine." And in most of my friendships there is an equal balance of giving and taking from one another. We call each other for help about the same amount, or else we would start resenting each other.

But sometimes we get into relationships that are based around a constant and habitual need for something that we simply do not know how to do inside yet. It's as if we each have a muscle inside of us that must learn, as we grow up, to lift ourselves up when we need help and happiness. When this muscle has atrophied (because our parents didn't do a good job or because we got into a bad habit, or you believe in Karma, or sin, etc,) we often look for all of our strength in someone else, a relationship of some kind. It's human to need love, right?

Read more.