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Allen Ginsberg’s Christmas Howl
I can’t think of a better seasonal greeting for everyone than this piece by George Simmers, who edits the monthly online poetry Snakeskin – http://www.simmers1.webspace.virginmedia.com/snake223.html.
Merry Whatever to everyone!
I have seen the best teeth of my generation broken upon the crust of a neighbour’s mince pie.
I have seen men struggling through aisles laden with tinsel, buying chocolates uglier than sphincters and enduring carols.
I have seen ecstatic visions of Noddy Holder and of King Wenceslas naked upon a reindeer.
For it is Christmas.
Therefore I rejoice.
I rejoice in the truths that will emerge in shallow Yuletide arguments.
I rejoice in television specials, for mindlessness opens gates into nirvana.
I rejoice in gifts of underwear.
I rejoice in the mother cooking resentfully, and in the drunken aunt.
And in the farting vegan who refuses turkey.
In these I rejoice.
The future of ISIS
It took the West how many centuries to resolve Catholicism vs Protestantism vs secularism? And it’s not entirely resolved yet. So the Muslim world may have a couple of centuries to go before it sorts itself out.
The more accurate guide to the future
I was going to write about the future of intelligence but I just saw a nice graphic by The Economist on the spread of ISIS:
so I’ll write about them instead.
The main Economist article is http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21656690-islamic-state-making-itself-felt-ever-more-countries-how-much-influence
I won’t summarize their article about the current state of affairs; read it yourself. I can add a few comments to highlight the future though.
Surveys on Muslim attitudes to violence consistently show that most Muslims reject violence done in the name of Islam: 65-75%. That is the numeric range that describes the reality of ‘the vast overwhelming majority of peace-loving Muslims’ we see emphasized by politicians and media whenever an Islamic terrorist act occurs, two thirds to three quarters according to when and where the surveys have been done. The last high quality survey in the UK arrived at the figure 68%, comfortably in that range. The other side of the same statistics is that 32% of British…
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Switching people off
Control of a consciousness on-off switch raises huge issues, including (but well beyond) the theological. It kind of obviates the idea of a soul, anyway!
The more accurate guide to the future
A very interesting development has been reported in the discovery of how consciousness works, where neuroscientists stimulating a particular brain region were able to switch a woman’s state of awareness on and off. They said: “We describe a region in the human brain where electrical stimulation reproducibly disrupted consciousness…”
The region of the brain concerned was the claustrum, and apparently nobody had tried stimulating it before, although Francis Crick and Christof Koch had suggested the region would likely be important in achieving consciousness. Apparently, the woman involved in this discovery was also missing some of her hippocampus, and that may be a key factor, but they don’t know for sure yet.
Mohamed Koubeissi and his the team at the George Washington university in Washington DC were investigating her epilepsy and stimulated her claustrum area with high frequency electrical impulses. When they did so, the woman lost consciousness, no longer responding to any audio or…
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It’s homeopathy awareness week. So be aware: it’s total nonsense
Jesus’ miraculous cures fall into this category. He wasn’t able to restore a missing limb… or to put John the Baptist’s head back on!
The more accurate guide to the future
Homeopathy amazes me by the number of otherwise intelligent people that believe in it. Some others do too, such as the UK’s Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt. How he keeps such a job while advocating such beliefs is a mystery.
Homeopathy is total nonsense. Proper scientists agree that it doesn’t work. There is no reliable scientific evidence for it, and no means by which it could possibly work other than invoking a placebo effect. It supposedly relies on dilution of some agent to such a point that not a single molecule of that agent remains.
If you believe in it, try this thought experiment, or do it for real if you prefer. Either way it will be at least as effective and much cheaper than paying for homeopathic treatment: collect a small bottle of seawater next time you go to a beach, preferably not at a sewage outfall (if you don’t live near the sea, best do the…
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Wishing for eternal life, then and now
Humans have always (as far as we can tell) resisted the idea of their mortality. Many people simply refuse to think about it, and others refuse to believe it. In the face of all the evidence of creatures that die and rot or get eaten, and don’t come back to life, humans will confidently state that we are different.
True, some groups have accepted that even if we have a “soul”, our body rots in the grave and our “soul” gradually fades away underground. This was one of differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the time of Jesus. The former believed in a resurrection of the body and a divine rebalancing to reward the virtuous and punish the evildoer. The latter felt that life ended at death, and there was no reckoning in an afterlife. Therefore the Pharisees tended to be morally upright and religious puritans, while the Sadducees were generally more venal and collaborated with the Roman Occupation. Fair enough.
Jesus surrounded himself with Jews of all types in his attempt to bring all of Israel to repentance and purity. Of the four philosophies of his time, he was close to the Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes, less close to the Sadducees.
The promise of a physical resurrection of the body, together with the promise of an eternity in paradise if you are a believer or an eternity in hell if you are an unbeliever, is basic to Christian and Muslim belief. It has been a very powerful meme for persuading people to donate their time and cash to the promulgators of the religion. The Mormons have upped the ante by promising their adherents that they can become gods of their own planets… at least, if they are men; the status of women in all these religions is less than equal.
The religious afterlife may be an increasingly laughable idea, but the desire to avoid death is as strong as ever. Last year Google launched a new company, Calico, to focus on health and aging in particular. It is run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of Genentech and currently Chairman of the Board of Directors at both Genentech and Apple. This is a serious attempt at life extension, backed by Google and its $54 billion in cash.
In Google, Larry Page and his cohorts Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and Astro Teller have created a company that is known for two things: crunching data phenomenally well, and going after data-heavy speculative ideas (officially identified as “Moonshots”) that – even if they work out – will take many years of development to pay off. The original Google search engine was the product of vision and a data-heavy opportunity. Currently under development are a raft of others, including Google Glass and self-driving cars. Looked at in this way, medicine is just another information science with vast amounts of data – seven billion case histories walking around on the planet… data to be assembled and crunched for a path to understanding everything about our life processes. Google’s Calico should then be able to cure disease – eliminate all cancer (which would add some three years to average life expectancy) – and presumably tinker with our cellular and genetic structures any way we can imagine. To me, that suggests an indefinite lifespan in a body that would gradually move away from current human norms.
Timeframe for this? The only hint is from Larry Page: “In some industries it takes 10 to 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”
Larry Page is only 40, but I’m 63. Let’s get a move on, guys!
And what will it cost? Google is “not a philanthropic organization. But,” says Astro Teller, “if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way.”
Or in other words, just like with the priests of old, the promise of eternal life will get you to give them a ton of money. The big difference is that this time around, it is grounded in scientific developments, not wishful thinking.
Making a secular holiday tree
For thousands of years, the winter solstice – the turning point of the year, with the end of increasing darkness and the beginning of the return of light – has been celebrated with feasts, log fires, and a tree decorated with shiny things and candles. It’s all about light.
If you want a holiday tree, but want to make it very clear what your religious or philosophic position is, then why not let 300 or so books return temporarily to their roots (so to speak), and be a tree for a couple of weeks!
There are several places on the web where you can find instructions for doing this in an organized way.
We started with a circle of seven outsized books, spines out, and built up from there. At about two feet we started to fill it with pillows and cushions, and at about four feet we put an oversized book across the shrinking hole to stabilize everything.
After we wrapped 80 feet of lights round it, we inserted a bunch of white lights into a convenient crystal cone to top it off.
Crows and ravens as an omen of death
Here is the story of a recent event, a mystical experience if you want to think of it that way.
Ten days ago I and my wife Eliza arrived in Nairobi, a city that is remarkably full of trees and birds, with hawks and storks and pied crows visible almost anywhere, including from our hotel balcony. The first morning (Monday, March 5th) we were walking back from the hotel office to our building when we saw a gardener with a BC Ferries baseball cap. Eliza and I had both lived in BC for 10-20 years, had met there, and Eliza had been the Project Manager of the BC Ferry Terminal expansion at Horseshoe Bay. (And I still kept contact there with my ex-wife, and two kids, and my ex-sister-in-law, and my ex-mother-in-law Molly, among others.) But the gardener didn’t have any connection to BC – he didn’t know where it was, or what his cap was about. Fun!
Back in our rooms I opened my email, and the first I read was from the friend I first went to BC to meet, almost 40 years ago. I had met him in Quebec the year before, and I hitchhiked over to BC to stay with him and his wife in Vancouver. I ended up staying in BC for 17 years. I haven’t seen him in decades, probably hadn’t heard from him in 10 years. Nice!
The next email I opened was from my son in Toronto – and he was writing to say that his Gran in BC (my ex-mother-in-law) was is her final days. At age 96 she had stopped eating and drinking, and the doctors gave her not more than a week to live. The four other family members previously mentioned were coming over from Vancouver Island on the BC Ferries to be with her in White Rock.
A couple of hours later Eliza and I walked out to get some food. As we went along one of the driveways of the hotel, a pied crow (a big raven-sized bird) flew down onto a tree branch just ahead of us: “Caw! Caw!” It was a very loud, somewhat rusty noise. Then as we came up it flapped a little further away onto a fence: “Caw! Caw! Caw!” And as we came up closer, it again flapped a little further away onto a tree branch: “Caw! Caw!” And then, communication complete, it flew completely away.
I have been around crows in many countries, many times, but this has never happened to me before. In Kenya there are, apparently, no superstitions regarding crows or ravens. But with my northern European background I know many stories of crows and ravens being messengers of death. The stories include Odin and his two ravens, Thought and Memory, who fly throughout the world and bring him news, and Odin is a god of death. Celtic beliefs included the crow as an omen of death and conflict. The English have superstitions about a crow cawing three times as it flies over a house as an omen of death. And so on.
We walked on and talked for a minute or so, and then checked the time: 1:07 pm. “So that was about five after two in the morning in BC,” we said.
Molly indeed died that night – very peacefully, not even waking her daughter who was sleeping in the same room. She was not found dead until 8 in the morning, and the reports give her death as either 1 or 2 in the morning.
“Magical Thinking” – I’m always railing against accepting it as a physical reality. So what happens when something woo-woo occurs? I accept it, I enjoy it, I delight in the Universe being such a rich and mysterious and poetic place… and I speculate about where a physical explanation may eventually be found.
There was a time when the idea that animals knew an earthquake “was going to happen” was one of those woo-woo ideas. People swore they had seen it – a dog snapping awake and running out of the house, or other creatures behaving in a panicky mode a few seconds before an earthquake struck. Eventually, once we had developed good seismic tracking devices, it was shown that animals are simply able to pick up on the earliest beginnings of an earthquake, while we humans aren’t aware until larger, slower and more powerful signals arrive a little later.
So… could a subconscious awareness of death generate a chemical reaction in the brain? Is it possible that a crow can smell that chemical reaction in a human, and respond that they want a taste of the carrion? Is it possible that there could be some quantum entanglement involved between people who have known each other for decades, such that a change of state in one will register in the subconscious of the other?
Or was it all nothing but statistically insignificant chance?
Regardless, the Universe is a rich and mysterious and poetic place! Goodbye, Molly, I am glad to have known you, and grateful for all you did.
God wants blood!
God wants blood. There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation. He demands sacrifices on His feast-days, sacrifices of birds and animals. He demands that people even sacrifice their own children, on occasion. He demands that when His Favorite People are moving into land He has promised them, that they will wipe out every man, woman, child and animal in the cities He is reallocating (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
And don’t piss Him off! He has been known to curse all humanity for all eternity for eating an apple. He once wiped out all of humanity – again, every man, woman and child – except for Noah and his immediate family. He has destroyed individual cities in a fit of anger.
He’s no different from any other nightmare monstrosity from humanity’s Stone Age past, a manifestation of all that is brutal and random in the Universe, a Universe that can send lightning and meteorites from the sky to devastate the earth.
And He must be appeased the only way that humans know to appease a violent bully who randomly inflicts torture – give Him anything He wants… and if you can’t find Him, give His friends whatever they tell you He demands.
Give, donate, tithe, sacrifice… because otherwise, He will take it in blood. And His friends tell you that then He will be happy.
No different from the pre-Biblical flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When Utnapishtim (the Noah figure) finally lands his boat on the mountain and lets all the animals out, the first thing he does is burn things in sacrifice.“The gods smelled the savour, The gods smelled the sweet savour,
The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer.”
Well, at least it’s only one God that monotheists have to appease these days… But on the other hand, there’s no longer anyone to keep Him in check.
The Transfiguration – just a bloody meeting
The Transfiguration is one of those classic iconic and apparently pointless events in the gospels. Jesus is up a mountain with a couple of the disciples, and Moses and Elijah show up to talk with him. Jesus’ clothes shine brightly (that’s the Transfiguration) and Peter in his spontaneous fashion suggests building tabernacles (tents or huts) for them. A voice from the clouds is interpreted as saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
Paintings have developed a tradition to show Jesus and the other two floating around in the air. Is there any textual justification for this? None. (Aside: This is exactly how myths develop: one person hears a story, wants it to be dramatic, fleshes the untold details out in their own mind, and then adds them as fact when they present the story – without even realizing they’re making changes.) Changes regarding a hero’s story tend to exaggerate and glorify, so you can discount some of the frills. But there’s probably a commonsense basis for the story.
Here’s how I tell it in “The Gospel According to the Romans”. First, it’s nighttime, full moon, but overcast. They go up into the mountain without Jesus telling them why. Then he tells them to hold back and goes alone into a clearing, where two Zealot leaders named (or code-named) Moses and Elijah come out and discuss their plans for the attempt to take over the Temple at Passover. (These disciples aren’t privy to this; they were the fishermen Simon Peter, James and John, not the Zealots Judas and Simon Zealotes.)
The full moon comes out from behind the clouds, and catches Jesus’ face and his white robes, making them shine dramatically. There is a roll of thunder. You can make thunder say whatever you want it to say – Eliot records it speaking Sanskrit in The Wasteland. Simon Peter babbles, not untypically.
Going back down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until they’ve seen a man raised from the dead. In other words, not until he has done his Lazarus trick (which they don’t know anything about) which will be right before Passover at Jerusalem. At that point it won’t matter if anything they’ve heard gets out, the uprising to take control of the Temple will be about to happen anyway, and it will be too late for the Roman Legion to stop it…
So, what do you think? Plausible? Or you prefer the floating-around-in-the-air version?