Saturday, February 27, 2016

Monkey's Uncle

Religion, Politics, love and the Origin of Species.

 Many Americans are convinced that human beings came into existence in a flash and appeared as they do today, except perhaps for dark-skinned people, who in a Biblical tale that might have come from Aesop, became black after Ham, was cursed for some vague reason that's been the subject of rabbinical debate for a very long time.  Those of us not cursed with a religious brain blockage might speculate that some advantageous mutation allowed some ape to pass on his genes as our hairyness declined millions of years ago in sunny Africa: as we began to separate from furry arboreal apes and walked away on two legs.

The same sort of  religious fugue that makes people deny our evolutionary origins as one of many sorts of apes which no longer exist makes them deny all sorts of things and like someone who is losing parts of their memory, make things up to fill in the gaps.

some of our fundamentalist presidential candidates who balk at admitting the evolutionary origin of our species  might explode to find out just how much of our genetic makeup is shared with some deep sea Acorn Worms because we both descend from a common ancestor a billion or more years ago. Some 70% of our genes are shared it seems. Of course many things now alive share a large part of this wormy genetic makeup which evolved during the Cambrian period and subsequently proliferated through the many periods of extinction  These worms' genes are shared with many current species from all vertebrates to octopuses.  You may in fact be more than a monkey's uncle -- you're also the umpteenth cousin of a banana if the idea of common ancestry of life is correct. The Popol Vuh says we're all children of the corn.  It's sort of true.

I'll delay rhapsodizing about our common heritage  and the reverence for all life one might therefore feel, and get to the point: which is to say that what we are and what we look like is the product of certain building blocks and how they interact to produce an organism.  Obviously the genes that many creatures of today have inherited are turned on and off  differently and expressed differently and by more than one process.  The ancient genetic patterns that form the legs of a lobster may form the ribs of a vertebrate.  The similar structures that appear in flowers and mammalian reproductive organs aren't accidental.   That's why the argument for the genetic identity of humans across gene pools falls apart.  We all share the genes for melanin, but some have a mutation that limits the expression of those genes and others do not. All those with blue eyes probably descend from one person, That holds true for other features one finds in long separated gene pools. That mutation, recessive as most mutations are, will not likely appear in a population not descended from the original blue-eyed gal. You may remember reading about Gregor Mendel and the distribution of recessive characteristics,  If God turned Ham black, he couldn't pass that on any more than Aesop's leopard could pass on his spots.

Such mutations may be so small: one out of billions of base pairs, that the practice of  saying we are all genetically identical based on percentages of genes is one of those stories we make up to prop up a political or religious prejudice.  I'm not really 98 percent Chimpanzee or only 30% different from an Acorn worm, gene percentages notwithstanding.  I don't know about you and I don't know about Donald Trump, but I do know that Lamarck was wrong as was Aesop, the science of epigenetics notwithstanding.

But the entire science of genetics as it appears in our culture has been warped by normative beliefs. Opening a box of crackers yesterday I was assured by the box that no genetically modified grains were used in making them.  OK, so my mother warned me if I ate any more chocolate I'd turn into a coco bean, but she was wrong.  You are not what you eat and genes are not transferred from flour to the eater thereof. Relax, there is no DNA in your toast and  We won't turn into a chicken if its genes have been tampered with.  We already have most of its genes anyway and all the chemical components thereof.

Yes the rapidly advancing science of genetics Is transforming everything and yes, the inevitable reaction to having to change our  views because of it is creating the same sort of  disturbances in the farce we call culture as other new avenues in science have done, from telescope to telegraph. If we're confused and afraid of the new it's because we all have it in common, my dog and I and you. We may look radically different, dogs and cats and Canadians, but we still can feel love for each other and when we don't it's because we're a monkey's uncle and the scion of a tube worm and the love child of a lobster. I have so much in common with my dog that I love him like a child. He likes me too.  How much more do we have in common with all mankind?   Are we so afraid that that's still not enough that we have to hide behind mythology?  Is the difference between male and female greater than between a black man and a Chinese man?  The Y Chromosome that makes me a man constitutes 2% of my DNA - a greater percentage than the difference between species, yet men and women are more alike than either is with a Chimp.  There is much more to what we are than gene percentages and  admit that our genetic differences don't make us different enough to matter. Our true differences are manufactured, taught and learned and very often they are wrong.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The eye of the cynic

“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”

I never thought I'd be saying this, but it just may be that America needs to be more cynical.  Our time is a time of crisis to crisis, calamity to calamity and outrage to outrage  with no intervals in between when  things aren't quite so bad and aren't getting worse. All in all, things may be better than they were for most people on most days, but how often are we prompted to contemplate it?

I wake up on a sunny morning in paradise and tuning in to get a weather report, the first thing I hear is MURDER! RAPE! ARSON!  Is it real or is it manufactured?  Nearly all the other 11 million people in Sunny Florida are having an ordinary morning hearing about little else but car crashes, electrocutions, inexplicable shootings and "isn't it getting worse? "  Did that "double dip" recession ever happen?  Did Obama take away a single gun from a single law-abiding citizen?  Did the markets recover?  Did that horrible scandal that would soon drive him from office materialize?  Who wastes a second talking about that. Who bothers to compare racism 50, 75 years ago to what we're anguishing about today? I keep seeing figures from reliable sources telling us of a downtrend in shootings. Is that a motivation for those who need to distract us from it to keep the spotlight on some subset and make a case for its increase?  Where there's motivation there's a manifestation.  Sometimes only a cynic will notice.

        "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact" 
-Sherlock Holmes-

Our opinions, our fears and our serial episodes of righteous indignation may just be manufactured, cultivated and fed because it's not only big business, but it's an instrument of control and power. One after the other we hear clusters of stories that seem alike:  Pederast priests, brutal, racist cops, shooting sprees,  Innocent Black "children" being senselessly murdered.  It's normal to ask whether the scenario is being arranged, tuned up, framed to fit the model. Is someone arranging or even fabricating anecdotes because he wants some law changed that really has no bearing on events?   It's not completely out of the question that incidents are being assembled and connected to make the latest campaign of some group newsworthy.  It's not to say there are no trends, no clusters no increases of this or that -- it's to say that it's very difficult to tell when there are serial obsessions caused by regular and sequential news blitzes where on story is told over and over for weeks and connections are made to similar stories or stories made to seem similar because if America isn't glued to the tube, revenue at Fox or CNN is going to fall short of projections and hell will have to be paid.

How long have young women and boys been abused by the Roman Catholic Church?  Hard to say, but you only hear about it in outrage clusters even though it's probably been a steady thing for centuries.  Is violence on the increase in America?  It certainly seems so if you don't look back to those "better times" and read papers full of  riots, shootings and rampant violence. It's hard to tell if someone is trying hard to generate a sense of crisis.  It's hard to tell when these little campaigns, crusades and jihads are professionally stage managed and you can be swatted like a fly if you buzz too much about it. Say that human life matters and you're a racist, not that it doesn't or that you are, but for interfering with some organization's agenda of making racism seem on the increase.

"When it is not immediately apparent which political or social groups, forces or alignments advocate certain proposals, measures, etc., one should always ask: Who stands to gain?”
-Vladimir Lenin-

I can only speculate, it's an experiment that would be very hard to carry out, but airing a cluster of completely fake stories - about young people jumping off bridges, for instance, might just cause young people to jump off bridges.  Certainly I've read about how how some young rampage shooters have studied and taken notes about others so as to exceed their "scores."  But such things are difficult to arrange although we can do research, we can talk about it.  We can look a bit harder for invisible hands pulling invisible strings. Cynicism!  We can peek behind the curtain and pay attention to the little man. We can ask Cui bono? -- who benefits from our outrage and is motivated to make the level of crisis high enough to meet his political purposes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Me, Myself and Guns

A year or so ago, I was talking to someone about a fellow in a popular reality show about alligator hunters in Louisiana.  We share the same name, but  he lives in a homemade shack in the Bayou and lives by hunting and fishing.  Someone chimed in with "isn't it great that we live in a country where you have the freedom to live that way?"   In fact I think it is.  Looking at the success of the dozens of "off the grid" shows and books and movies, Others probably do too. Looking at the number of "survival" shows, I think many of us wish we had the skills and the opportunity -- and the nerve.

"I love the power of guns and the elegance and precision of the engineering, especially in the revolvers and side-by-side shotguns. The machining is so fine, the fit of the parts so precise, the movement of the parts so smooth. The gun itself can be a work of art, whatever you might think about its purpose, usefulness or danger. For an admirer of the mechanical craft, a well-made gun is a thing of beauty."
Juan F. Thompson: Stories I tell Myself

I really have no recollection of it as I was less than a year old in 1945 after the War ended,  but my Father, still a naval officer, and my young, city girl mother would take target pistols and go out to a creek and shoot at bottles in the water.  There apparently was little  else to do in that  remote area of Northern California and since my dad grew up in Wyoming, that's the sort of thing a boy and his girl did on a sunny weekend. If you've never done it, you'd be surprised at how relaxing it is.  But I was exposed to the sound of gunfire early in life and like an old  gun dog.  I've never been gun shy.

The quote is from Juan Thompson, the son of the famous and notorious Hunter S. Thompson; Gonzo journalist, Colorado ranch owner, Liberal Activist and aficionado of recreational shooting.  One of the few ways they could endure each other's presence was while shooting or cleaning firearms.

My dad collected antiques and antique firearms for many years.  He still has some of them, hanging on the wall of his den.  Few if any, are operable and those which are,  haven't been fired since he acquired them 50 years ago. They accompany an interest in 18th and 19th century American history which we have shared, but I'm interested in fine mechanisms in general, tools, cameras, knives. Vintage motor vehicles:  I have and have had a whole lot of those things as well as some firearms, most of which are historical items.

When I dare to mention that I have  perhaps 75 vintage cameras: finely made and finished metal objects by Leica, Minox, Hasselblad, Linhof, Nikon, Rollei, etc. most people think it's odd to cherish those obsolete things.  My hundred or so pocket knives make me only a little bit more so, but guns?  Face it, after years of demonization, after a long, steady and often virulent association with madmen and especially rampage shooters there's a stigma, attached not only to me, but to the objects themselves. I'm not a guy nostalgic about things, I'm a menace, a potential murderer and madman. It was not always so.

When I went off to summer camp and when I became a Boy Scout in the mid 1950's one of the primary lessons one was expected to learn was  how to shoot safely. It was one of those "pioneer skills" one was urged to acquire. Like making fires or shelters, it was a useful survival skill and a discipline akin to archery or fly fishing.  When I visited Colonial Williamsburg in those years I fell in love with the handmade flintlocks being made with antique tools and I never lost my affection.  I still have a couple which have,not been fired since we sold the farm 35 years ago.  It would be tough to part with them.

But the focus of life in this not-so-brave new world is Not the world where people live off the land and with nature, it's urban.  Our paradigm, our standard American is urban, works in an office. Perhaps he commutes, but he's far more Bourgeois than Bayou in fact if not in appearance.  He's more likely to be surrounded by huge numbers of people all the time.  When he thinks of something that shoots lead and goes bang, he thinks of bloody crime and wanton destruction.  He's been taught that association all his life despite endless TV and movies where guns are universally there. He has fear and all out of proportion to the risks, yet there's a titillating fascination. He's no longer the man of open spaces or endless forests and mountains for whom living as he pleases is a matter of pride and joy.  We're suspicious of such men these days. Suspicious and contemptuous of his unfamiliarity with the urban slang, the street culture, the popular fears and obsessions.  In the city, guns are sinister things.

Are we in greater danger of being shot in our daily lives than we once were?  Probably not.  But fear is in the air. Fear is in the marketing of everything from food to constitutional law.  It's not the Daniel Boons, the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark we Liberals admire, it's the deliberately helpless passive vegan gluten avoider who won't own a car, is terrified of "preservatives and cooked food and is made nervous by a Swiss Army knife..  It's the guy who thinks of cars not as liberators but polluters, it's the mother who thinks of cars only in terms of crashes and their survival and safety above liberty..

How much of our changing perception of safety and civilization are really changes in us, not in circumstances?   Is the fear that someone will shoot us today really on the same rational level as the fear that headache is brain cancer or that pain a heart attack or that we're likely to get diabetes or any of the things that are certain to kill us?  How more likely is it that Mom in her SUV will kill me than some crazed movie theater shootist?  A lot. Are we after Detroit to stop selling these things?   How much gun violence is alcohol violence?   I could go on, but not one person anywhere will consider his founding rears or attitudes and no one wants to leave the safety of his opinions and certainties and so we have more anger, more shouting, more malediction and denunciation  and more fear. Fear that makes us line up to buy more guns and fear that makes us terrified about other people who own them. Fear that makes us dress up the story, makes us frame, makes us present things tactically rather than objectively. It's fear that will end our idealism and our love of democracy and our passion for freedom and the ability to live the way we want rather than the way some corporation wants.

I have a dream.  No really I have it often and usually I'm walking on  a dirt path in what looks like my old farm or crossing that ruined stone bridge .  I'm always carrying a rifle, like the "boys" rifle I had a lifetime ago, or that 1873 Remington I never actually fired and I'm at peace with the world as I never am in reality.   I don't have the farm or those rifles any more or the dog who sometimes appears.  I'm afraid I don't have the country where those things still happen, but the dream never dies..

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Brilliant! Just Brilliant.

I wonder what the world "Brilliant" means in our time. Lately I've heard it applied to people who insist we drill enthusiastically for oil in the midst of a glut which has disrupted the world economy. I've heard it applied to a mind convinced the Great Pyramid is full of wheat, to a candidate who thinks  that the Constitution allows us to outlaw a religion and round up its adherents. I heard another talk about winning "for the greater glory of God."  I've heard all sorts of puzzling words and I might speculate that things have become identified with their opposites, not only in our popular usage but in matters of law.
Not only does shall not mean must, but the strict interpretation of the Constitution's intent according to a prominent legal mind is to praise God and  it never was intended to protect the citizen from the requirements of a religion not of his own choosing.  Nor should the government grant as much freedom to those of non-established beliefs as it does to the favored faiths. I'm talking here about the brilliant legal mind of Antonin Scalia.
"I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non-religion… We do Him [God] honor in our pledge of allegiance, in all our public ceremonies. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists On this day, when we’re celebrating our constitutional heritage, I urge you to be faithful to that heritage – to impose on our fellow citizens only the restrictions that are there in the Constitution, not invent new ones, not to invent the right because it’s a good idea.o impose it on all of us through the Constitution."
He's concerned here with the argument that having an official US religious oath is legal because of a tradition from the 1950's and that those who object to acknowledging someone elses god as America's official god need to be "fought." We need, says he, to persuade people that the prohibition against the government taking a position on one religion or another, is something else -- something that favors one religion or category of religions over another according to the acceptability of its beliefs. If you have a god, you're OK, if you have something else; a philosopher, a hero, a stone tablet an idol or an ethical principle. If you have faith in the teachings of the Dharma and the Buddha to lead you to the extinction of your ego -- if you have the body of science and the blood of mathematics within you, that doesn't count. Secular views are not protected because it's not a religion unless we officially establish it.  Establishment clause?  Maybe you're not Brilliant!
So OK, we can't establish a religion, but we can establish its tenets, myths and superstitions because, well, it's traditional and it's all our responsibility to honor a God we may not believe in -- and honoring God is a good thing because the Constitution says so, doesn't it?  So making my kids bow to your god and have an allegiance to it and perform public ceremonies honoring it is within the government's power and not within my power to prevent. Yes, indeed, the government may function as an instrument of worship, and of course that's the original intent of the Constitution, never mind what its creators said. A fine legal mind indeed. This is the incisive, sharp-edged razor that tells us so often that the United States is based on Christianity and therefore its laws must be interpreted, not by the firmly secular writers' intentions but by some ecclesiastical kind of ventriloquism where Tony's God speaks through the law. A brilliant mind indeed,  if dishonest and a bit stupid.
Its a word game. It's equivocation, it's a trick. It's flim-flam.  It's taking a theistic belief to be a religion and another belief to be the antithesis instead of an equal alternative. It's a deceptive way to call one belief legitimate and another not. Neither is actually constitutional. It's our right to have a government with no religious affiliation. Preaching from the bench is Judicial affiliation with a religion. It's unconstitutional.
"On this day, when we’re celebrating our constitutional heritage, I urge you to be faithful to that heritage – to impose on our fellow citizens only the restrictions that are there in the Constitution, not invent new ones, not to invent the right because it’s a good idea."
Apparently some of us - people like Jefferson and Madison have invented a provision that forbids the government to say one belief, one idea, understanding or philosophical orientation is the official government one and informs our laws. No, don't look at that piece of parchment, you're not qualified to understand it because you're not an official State priest like Scalia. The government never guaranteed you freedom of anything. This is not the Bill of Rights you're looking for.
"God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools…and He has not been disappointed. Devout Christians are destined to be regarded as fools in modern society. We are fools for Christ’s sake. We must pray for courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world. If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world."
So let's simply ignore the "sophisticated" world - God loves a foolish judge. God smiles when the Judge lies. Let's tell ourselves that error is virtue, that blindness to the truth and to the law is blessed. But sorry, God may give free passes to the fool, but the law does not. The law requires that justice be unbiased, disinterested, that Judges know the law and precedent and not be carrying a cross or a Crescent or a Torah or a book of any other laws than those of the United States of America. And how would any know what God assumes but from some other foreign code of law? In what part of our body of laws is God's law found?  In what part of our law is it said that arguments need make no sense because God said Christians look like fools?  And where most of all, I ask, is the job description of a Federal Judge that he in fact be a fool?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Surfing the Universe

Well, it seems that we have experimental confirmation that cataclysmic changes in gravity ripple across space at the speed of light, just as Einstein predicted. This will cause many to feel elated but to most, it's meaningless, their universes being more circumscribed than the one cosmologists and physicists live in. Everyman's concerns for the way science can confirm or deny opinion and common sense don't run deep..

Our four  dimensions  are expanded or shrunk a very tiny bit as a gravitational wave passes through.  A very tiny bit, a fraction of the width of a proton, which is far too small for the average person to get involved it, or to attach any importance to.  But it's just one small step away from the kind of consciousness Americans want to retreat into, and I'm not only talking only about the Evangelicals with their young and small universe run by miracle and designed by a consciousness.  Americans are searching for, longing for a world without harsh and rigorous scrutiny -- a world trending back to "nature" and away from technology which is somehow safer and healthier, and where  things have meaning on a human scale.

The parts of our brain that run on superstition, snap judgement and frighteningly huge oversimplifications really are in charge and nearly all the time.  Like "outer space"  the views of reality put together piece by piece by scientific method is far away, and abstract and a little silly to most people.  If the LIGO experimental confirmation of the spreading ripples in space-time from a collision between black holes billions of light years away and billions of years ago ever makes it into the public consciousness it will be to sell us gravitational wave receivers, tuned to natural frequencies which will improve your sex life and help you shed unwanted pounds.  People will claim to be getting signals from the universe through gravitational waves and will help you do the same for a fee.

It's certainly been several lifetimes since we proved that Tetanus is not caused by rust and rhinoviruses not caused by drafts of air. It's been enough time for the proof that milk doesn't promote phlegm or that gluten has no negative effects on 95% of the population or that Dr. Oz's weekly miracle discoveries are worthless.  But we know our inherited weaknesses never completely go away. Prayers and curses, personal rituals and lucky socks still matter to us. We still talk of mysterious toxins and desire to have our intestines flushed and something or other done with our Chi or our Chakras. Hardly one in a million will bother to question that the culture of marketing and entertainment is anything but an exploitation, using lies and deception and distraction.

So gravity is associated with a particle and particles have a wavelength and propagate at a finite speed across an infinite void and so we don't care, except possibly to cause us to ask the universe to help us with our love life and to choose a more ritually pure, vegan, paleo, gluten free diet free of "chemicals.".  Science doesn't really mean shit to us and as the men who wrote Ecclesiastes told us, our entire culture and view of ourselves and the universe are just vanity.

Friday, February 05, 2016

It's Always High Noon in Tallahassee

The Florida House has now passed a bill allowing Floridians with concealed carry permits to openly carry firearms, even on college campuses.  Good guys with guns, doncha know. It's what made Deadwood such a peaceful place in the 1870's and Gene Autry rich in the 1950's.  Hey come on, didn't you dream about being a Wild West cowboy when you were a kid?

Many people will of course react in horror and fear and panic and they, like most Americans, don't know that 45 states already allow it and many without any kind of permit needed. 13 states at least require some sort of license and at least Floridians who want to flaunt firearms would  need to be fingerprinted and investigated and to have passed a course of instruction.  Even Hoppalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger didn't have to do that back when America was great, but  I can't wait for Governor Scott to sign this one.  Hi Ho Silver!

Is it going to cause a bloodbath?  I certainly doubt it, and in my 70 odd years I have only seen anyone carry openly while hunting or walking about their farms or in very remote areas -- except for cops, of course. That still makes me nervous.  It feels a bit odd, I admit, but those who do carry concealed weapons legally can stop worrying that if the wind blows their shirt open and reveals a gun or knife they won't go to jail as the law now provides. It's not all bad.

It certainly provides a further degree of polarization however and reduces the likelihood of the vociferous phobics ever agreeing on anything, and that's not a good thing, but what after all is getting better in our culture of fear and outrage? I'm to the point where I really accept the madness and embrace the horror - or the humor - as an outside observer.

Any mention of the American Gun Problem simply accelerates gun sales. Every rampage shooting lengthens lines at the gun store and every proposal or suggestion or casual mention that something might be done does the same thing. I might do well to sell guns and buy Stock in Smith and Wesson.

No, I don't think much will actually change, except perhaps in the Florida Legislature where another bill passed will allow Florida's Senators and Representatives to bring their guns to work.  As long as we can watch it on TV, I'm all for it.   Legislative showdown?  You ain't seen nothin' yet!