Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Days of Our Lives

If you were to find out that you have a terminal illness and would die in 2 year’s time, what would you do differently?
And... if that's the best use of your time, then why aren’t you doing that already?

Ever wonder how many days you are going to live? It's not in the millions, or even the hundreds of thousands. The average person lives to age 74. That calculates out to only about 27,000 days. That's what we start out with. Seems small doesn't it? If you take off the first 10 years, because you're too young to know what's going on, and take off the years in your 60's and 70's when you are in declining health and spending time going from doctor to doctor, that leaves about 18,000 “good” days. And most of those are spent working. In fact, if you take out work days, you get about 100 days per year, or about 5,000 days to call your own in the average lifetime – assuming there is no early demise. And of those, some will be sick days, and a lot you will be doing things you don't want to do. Yardwork, housework, shopping, social obligations, etc. It really narrows down pretty quickly to a frighteningly small number.

If you’re living an average life, you probably have bills to pay and those bills are going to continue coming in for at least the rest of the healthy years of your life (and probably beyond that). This means that you should probably count on working the days it takes to earn the money to pay them. So, for each year, there are about 260 work days, leaving 100 days per year in weekends, holidays, vacation, etc.

So this means that if you are 40 right now, you have about 2,000 non-work days left to enjoy your life in. If you look at your weekends over the past few years, how many of them were all spent doing things other than work around the house, or paying bills, mowing the yard, or spent with social obligations, etc. In the last month, how many whole days did you have to yourself? 4? 2? Let’s be generous and say it was 4. That would be half of every weekend dedicated to just doing whatever YOU wanted to do. That’s probably more than most people get, but let’s say you had that. In this case, you’ve got about 1,000 days left. If you’re 50, then cut that in half. This means you’re down to about 500 days left that aren’t going to get sucked away into the abyss of housework and other tasks to support everyday life. 500 days.

I don’t want to spend any of those precious days being angry, or sad, or full of regret over mistakes, or second-guessing past decisions. I will learn from the past, but not dwell on it. I just want to keep moving forward. But I also want to more forward carefully, and not waste time.

How many of those days will be good weather days for golfing? Or fishing? Or hiking, kite-flying, photography, boating, ballooning, whatever you like to do. Or what about travelling? There are a number of places I'd love to see before my "days account" is empty. Have you been thinking you were going to do something great and important with your life? Like hold a political office? cure a major disease? Solve a major social problem? Become a famous actor, comedian or renowned rock star?

In my case, the time is probably past for doing anything really important or grand such as that, so I will have to pursue more moderate goals. Beside writing new tunes, and going back to doing some artwork, I was thinking of writing a technical book. This one would be related to the area I’m working in these days, and would help with getting teaching gigs for teaching classes in the subject area. It’s part of a career back-up plan for coming into an age range (50’s) where companies don’t want to keep you as a full-time staff anymore.

But now I have to seriously think about the investment of days. It’s not something I can work on during normal work hours, so like my previous books, it would have to be done in my personal hours. How many of my precious 500 days would that take, exactly? If it’s going to be say, 40 chapters, and if I spend say, 10 days researching, writing and illustrating each chapter, that would mean it would burn up about 400 days. That’s almost all I have left! So maybe, I make it 25 chapters, and try to cut corners to do it quicker? Or do I forget the project altogether and spend the time out watching movies or walking or travelling? It comes down to the very pragmatic question of, “How much of my precious present time should I sacrifice to try to make my future time easier?”.

It’s interesting the kinds of questions you ask yourself when you really start to think about how much unencumbered time you truly have left. Do we create a budget of days left? Like money in the bank that you can spend. Once. Invest x days into this project or that one. Spend this much with family, this much with friends, this much alone, this much on hobbies, this much on self-improvement, this much on career development, this much on travelling,….etc.

These kinds of questions make a lot of other questions we think about seem small and trivial by comparison, don't they?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Racism is alive and well in America

Have a look at this short video: http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/mccainpalin-supporters-let-their-rac

Obviously racism is a big issue especially in the South (which is famous around the world for it), but that video was done in Ohio. That shows that racism is pretty common all over the country, it thrives in pockets wherever you have general ignorance and lower overall education levels. My worry is that some racist is going to pop out from behind a bush somewhere and assassinate Obama during that period after the election but before he officially takes office and has the full protection that a president gets. He will be exposed to higher risk during those 2 months.

Here's what I think about racism in general:
Racism is seductive to people for a couple of reasons. First of all, because it gives a person a certain sense of advantage without doing anything to deserve it. If you can push down all other groups and elevate your own, then it's an easy win for you. Preference in jobs, in getting loans, in politics, in finding a place to live, places to eat - all of life becomes easier if your group is privileged above other groups. This is especially appealing to those who cannot achieve much through their own efforts. (in other words, if they didn't go to college, and so don't have the advantages in life that that gives. This is why it is more common among less educated people)

The second reason is because to some degree, there are some facets of it that are actually true. For example, we are told it is wrong to think that black men are more likely to commit crimes more than white men, because all men are individuals and capable of individual thought and free will. But the fact is that statistically, a much higher percentage of blacks DO commit crime and end up in prison. As of 2005, blacks are responsible for 7 times as much crime as whites (see here for supporting facts)

Some would say that's because they are forced to it by economic circumstances, and then also they are targeted more by police. Those things are also true. But for whatever reasons, the fact remains that a higher percentage of blacks commit a higher percentage of the crimes to the point where it has become endemic to that sub-culture. Of course, if you starve a man, you can't really blame him if he then steals food to survive, however, the fact that it is unfair and explainable is one thing, but the fact that it is still statistically true, is another. Areas that are predominantly black have more crime than areas that are predominantly white. It's simply undeniable.

And so racists have fuel for their argument. It benefits them personally, and it is supported by statistics.

Of course whites are not the only racists. There are black racists as well. But blacks are only 12% of the population, so the whites win that one. And it is not just an American phenomenon. Germans were famous for racism. To this day, that is what the Nazi movement is most famous for. (well that, and that whole global domination thing) The Japanese, despite their polite demeanor and highly evolved society, are well known to be racist. I have read that it is even taught in Japanese schools as a simple fact of biology. (HomoSapiens is broken down into races and ranked, with Japanese on the top, and blacks on the bottom of the list). Japan is xenophobic to the extent that they do not allow immigration of anyone. They wish to keep the Japanese race 'pure'. South Africa is also famous for it as well, of course. It's everywhere.

Although there are US statistics to show that, as a group, black society has higher crime levels and lower education levels, that does NOT mean that an individual person who is black will have poor education or commit crimes merely because he is black. It has nothing to do with the color of his skin. It has to do with who he hangs out with, and the culture he is enmeshed with. A person is not primed to do crime by his skin color. Rather, he is prepared by the values, perspectives and worldview that he shares with his peers and kin. Crime is not a race issue, it's a class issue. If you grow up surrounded by criminals, then chances are you will be a criminal, regardless of what race you happen to belong to, or what color your skin, or hair, or eyes are. Race is irrelevent. But the culture - THAT'S the part that influences behavior and so becomes a predictor of future behavior.

Barack Obama is half black. But he is also a Harvard graduate, a published author, a state Senator, a US Senator, an agent for positive change in society, and his resume is full of amazing things. He is very intelligent, and has done spectacularly well, and that is why he has risen to the candidacy of the job of president of the US. Will he boost blacks over whites? well, I doubt it. But I'm sure he won't do anything that allows further denigration of blacks. I imagine he would dismantle any systemic barriers that prevent blacks from bettering themselves. But he certainly would not harm whites. Don't forget, it is mostly whites who are voting for him. Blacks are only 12% of the population. There aren't nearly enough blacks alone to elect him Senator, let alone President.

Culturally, he has far more in common with educated whites than he does with ghetto blacks. There are not a lot of wealthy, Harvard-educated, published, US Senators who are in the ghetto, and these things are far more at the core of who he is than just the pigmentation color of his epidermis.

So don't be surprised by the fact that racism is out there and still common. It will disappear only when everyone is educated past it. And, given that the quality of our education is going down, and that more than 50% of high school students are dropping out in many major American cities, that doesn't seem likely anytime soon. Rather, it seems that we are spiralling down into a society and a culture where racism and other ignorances and boorish thoughts, feelings, and actions are enshrined.

Education is far more important than just a way to get a better job. It raises you up out of the stink and mess of ignorance that otherwise sticks to you and holds you down.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Presidents

I have always wondered why abortion became a political issue, rather than a personal issue. It seems to me that politicians should be defined by their policies regarding national and international issues. Not so much these types of things.

To my mind, it's like defining all politicians according to who is favorable toward sex before marriage and who is not, and then fighting huge political battles over that for decades. I mean sure, there may be moral implications there, and so it has more of a sense of what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' to it than say a preference for certain musical choices, but it just doesn't seem to me like it ought to be the kind of issue that defines a major political battleground for election platforms for presidential candidates.

In the media, they seem to be using it to actually DEFINE who the candidates ARE. They are often defined as a "Pro-Life President" or a "Pro-Choice President". As if this is THE most important policy of a president for example. I have to say, the most important policies of a president probably should be things like economic policies and defense policies, and healthcare policies, and education, and immigration, etc.. Things that affect the fundamental health and survival of our country in the world. But Presidents should not be defined or decided on by this. I'm not saying it's completely trivial, but it just shouldn't be as relevent as those other issues as far as the president's role goes. He might be better defined as a "Pro-Free-Trade President", or as a "Pro-Immigration President", or possibly a "Pro-Military President", or "Pro-Diplomacy President", "Pro-Alternative Energy", "Pro Labor", "Pro Business", "Pro Healthcare", etc.. Aren't these things a little more relevent?

As far as the issue itself goes, somehow it seems bizarre to let one religious group define the national policies on this aspect of healthcare, and make the decision for the entire population of women, as if they cannot be trusted to have the morals or common sense to make the right decision themselves.

We also have Muslims here in America. Should we let them decide the alcohol policy for the entire country? No one can drink any kind of alcohol anymore? Or maybe they should set our national dress code policy and force all women to wear veils and headscarves and cover their entire body head to toe? They also feel that these issues are too important to be left to individual choice. And what about Jews? There are lots of Jewish people in this country. Should they get to decide the national policy on food, and take away all pork products from the national marketplace? Or what about Jehova's Witnesss? If I recall correctly, they don't allow blood transfusions. Should we allow that group to dictate THAT aspect of our national healthcare policy? Or maybe we should allow the Church of Scientology people to dismantle and outlaw our mental health professionals and facilities. They don't believe in that branch of medicine, so perhaps it should be taken away from the rest of the people in the country. Or, for that matter, why not respect the Amish doctrines and simply dismantle and remove all technologies and inventions that have been created since the discovery of electricity? We could all just go back to living the way people did in the 1700's.

Where does it end? Do we set our national policies of governance respecting all religions equally? Or do we set national policies based on religious doctrine according to the number of people in that religion within the country? Or do we set the laws depending on the regions of the country based on the percentage of people in each religion within that region? So we would allow legal polygamy in Utah where we have a higher percentage of Mormons, but it's illegal and immoral everywhere else? And we make all pork products illegal in the northeast corner of the country where there are more Jews, but make it perfectly legal in the rest of the country?

The U.S. constitution allows for religious freedom in this country and that is a good and noble thing. Everyone gets to decide whether or not they want to belong to a religion, and which one they choose, if they do. It's a personal choice. But if we are going to allow religious freedom, then we have to ensure a complete separation of church and state. This is exactly WHY that aspect of the constitution is so important! These religions all have different laws and beliefs, and some of them might be contradictory. We simply cannot allow the various religions to dictate the national policies that EVERYONE has to live by.

But hey - that's just my opinion. It's good that this country allows us to have one.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Certainty and Strength

In a conversation a few days ago about right and wrong and morality, someone asked me if I only see shades of grey. I've been thinking about that for the last few days.

The answer is yes.

I keep assuming there is always a completely pure black and a pure white somewhere, but I've never actually seen it. Absolute black and white / absolute good and evil are concepts we believe in when we are either young, or under the influence of religious teachings.

But in the real world, the more we learn, the more everything in the universe related to right and wrong is revealed as various shades of grey.

For example, most men are taught and brought up to believe that a man must never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, hit a woman. And you believe that is an absolute. An inviolate evil thing. Until one day you see a woman beating up an innocent little child and the only way to stop her is to be physical with her. Restraining, or if that doesn't work, then possibly hitting her to save the child. You think that we must not kill a person. Then you come across a situation where that person wants to kill you or your family or many others, and killing them is the only way to stop them.

All I am saying is that the longer you live, the more exceptional situations you see where you have to adjust your ideas of right and wrong. It's a lot less clear when you understand more about the bigger picture. It's all so simple when you're a kid. Good guys, bad guys, right and wrong. It's as simple as the old western movies - the white hats vs the black hats.

Another aspect of this I find is that when you believe in absolutes, you have strength. You can act with full force. You don't hold back anything, because you feel you are acting in the "right" in order to defeat "evil".

Imagine for just a moment that you are an American soldier in World War II. You come across a German camp and you can rush in and just start shooting to kill as many Germans as possible. They are the enemy. They are evil. They are dangerous and MUST be destroyed and you are justified and right in killing as many of them as possible. In fact, you are considered very brave and a hero for doing just that. This is because they are all nameless, faceless, soulless, demons to you. They are not people. They are cardboard cutouts of people. Unreal paintings of evil. Silouettes.

But then, lets say you go to live in Germany for a time and you get to know some German people. Let's say you become close friends and begin to see them as warm, friendly folks. Full of their own self-doubts about what their country's leaders are doing. Let's say they take you in and treat you like family. You see their humanity. You see their dignity and their brilliance, their beauty and their self discipline, you learn their history. You learn about their challenges and how they overcame them, and you begin to understand their world view. You see and understand the truth of their value as human beings.

Can you still rush at them and start shooting and killing them indiscriminately? Now that they are no longer just silouettes of evil, but are fully-formed humans? Now you know them to be warm, sensitive, honest, and just trying to survive against what they see as an implacable enemy. Now that you understand more, you cannot fight with the same strength, can you?

So it is with much of life. Greater understanding brings a more balanced view, and suddenly, the former ideas of absolute right and absolute wrong begin to look like shadows on the wall. Thin. Meaningless. Superficial. These shadows disappear with the slightest light.

Understanding takes away our strength to act with violence. It adds to our desire to simply understand, appreciate and help everyone. For as much as some things seem like unforgiveable sins, there is usually always another story to make you see a different side. Everybody has a story that could break your heart.

It seems that those who act with the most strength do so because they act with a sense of certainty that can only be based in ignorance.

But then, upon further reflection..... even THAT is not really wrong after all. Strength without reason becomes a force of nature. And as such, an agent of change. The more we see, the less we are able to effect change, I guess. When you understand everything about the forest, you hesitate even to just walk through it and disturb its balance, and the perfection of its silence.

In the end, there is no black and no white. But there are thousands of shades of grey and millions of colors.

The irony behind this is that we are taught to believe that knowledge is power. That understanding is strength. But it turns out that only a LITTLE knowledge and understanding gives you strength. Once you have more, then you begin to lack the certainty to act without fear or appreciation of consequence. There are always ripples of consequence to every action. To understand this is to question every move. We become paralyzed with thought and understanding. We become observers rather than participants in the events of the world. And thus, the greater understanding undermines its own value.

Once, long ago, Gandi was asked how he knew what was the 'right' thing to do, and what was the 'wrong' thing to do when the decision was not always so clear. He said something along these lines, "Think about the poorest, most helpless person you can imagine. Now think about how it might affect him. Whether it would help him or hurt him. Decide based upon that." That is wise, to be sure. But my follow up question would be, "In order to judge how it would affect the least powerful of us, How do we see all the consequences of our actions before acting?"

So the paradox here is a question about leadership. To be a leader, you must have strength in order to pursuade others to follow your plan. To have strength, you must draw that from your sense of certainty. To have the sense of certainty, you must have ignorance - either deliberate or through naivete. That is, you must pick a side and then ignore all the facts that support the opposite side. That is ignorance by definition. Because to fully understand the arguments that support the opposite side, erodes your sense of certainty about your side of the issue at hand. You begin to appear indecisive, and unsure, and therefore weak, and therefore unable to provide leadership.

So, do we draw the obvious logical conclusion to this simple equation? Becoming an effective leader requires ignorance? Ignorance of the opposite arguments? Ignorance of the entire set of consequences of your decisions and actions? So what is the motivation then if not truth and true justice? Is it merely power to act in self interest? Is THAT leadership?

In the slipperiness of language, I am trying to keep my footing and yet hold out a heavy truth to show you here.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Left vs. The Right

In a recent conversation with my daughter she had some questions about politics and needed some answers. The following is essentially what I told her.

Q: Dad, this is an election year, and we're supposed to vote between the Republicans and the Democrats. What's the difference between the two parties?

A: Well, some of it is more historical than current. It's changed over the years. Originally, the Republicans used to be more toward the Right, which means they were Conservative, and the Democrats would lean more toward the Left, which meant they were more Liberal. But these days, it's more like just two competing teams trying to win power for their side. The ideological differences are less important to them now, because both are just trying to appeal to everyone to get power. So they just both say what they think the majorityof voters want to hear. The historical ideological differences of Left vs Right have given way to in-fighting and negative campaigns where they try to accuse each other of all sorts of things, in order to damage each other's electibility. Now, election campaigns seem to be more like Demolition derby or Roller Derby. They try to wreck each other and the last one standing at the end is the winner.

Q: What is "The Left" and "The Right", anyway? And which is better?

A: Well, the scale is basically about the size and power of the government. Traditionally speaking, to the right, you have less government, and to the left you have more government. Neither one is "better" than the other necessarily. Some people prefer it more right and some prefer it more left, but there are always trade-offs with both. Your preference depends upon which trade-offs you prefer.

Q: What does that mean - to have "more" or "less" government? Does it mean more employees working in the government?

A: To some degree, yes, but really it's not specifically about the number of government employees, but it's more about how much the government does vs. how much is done by companies in the private sector. The best way to illustrate the point is to look at the extremes of each side. In the most extreme "Left" model, you have a government which controls everything. Like a communist government, where everybody works for the government, the government owns everything, and provides everything. There is very high degree of control, and they control every aspect of the lives of the citizens. They decide what you will do a living, where and how you will live , whether or not you deserve a car, and what kind of car you deserve, the kind of furniture you are allowed to have, where you can go on vacation, etc. In that world you have a lot fewer decisions to make. You have very little freedom. China is an example of a country that is closer to the left end of the scale than most.

On the other hand, in the extreme "Right" model, you have the ultimate freedom, but you also have complete anarchy. There is no government to speak of. No central power that sets the laws or has the power to enforce them, it's basically the Old West all over again. Lawlessness. Criminals everywhere. Organized crime typically takes over in these cases, or nowadays, you get terrorists running the place - which is just another form of organized crime. But they have better weapons, and a religious angle added in. A good example of an extreme Right country is present-day Iraq. They have a small government that is not yet fully functional, so people are running amok and there is war and crime everywhere. Terrorists are everywhere because the government is not strong enough to control them.

Q: Why does freedom have to include anarchy? Isn't freedom a good thing?

A: Freedom is a complex thing. For instance, you think it's great if you have the freedom to do as you like. To go where you want and live as you want and don't have any rules or controls limits placed upon you. That sounds like fun, doesn't it? But if YOU have those freedoms, then the guy next door to you ALSO has those same freedoms. What if he is free to have an arsenal of machine guns and rocket launchers, and bombs, and missiles, and grenades at his house, and has the freedom to shoot them in any direction and any time in any way he wants. Freedom means having choices. Without controls, he can do things which threaten or endanger you and the other people around him. It works like this for business, too.
In a completely free society, you might have the freedom to open up a store that sells the things you love - say, a tack shop selling horseriding equipment like saddles, etc. Well, criminals could use the lack of controls to rob you and take your money, or even take your store away. In a completely free society where there is only a small government, they cannot control that kind of thing because they simply don't have the strength or size to fight all the injustices that people can inflict upon each other. It's like the Old West all over again. The frontier mentality. When people explore new frontiers, they go into new situations where there is no government, no control, and they have the ultimate freedom, for a while, but that carries with it a lot of risk, and crime is rampant. Things are completely unfair in that kind of a society.

Q: So freedom is a bad thing then?

A: No, of course not. But, like everything else, it's a question of degree. Too much freedom is bad. And too little freedom is bad, too. You want there to be laws. You want a safe and fair society. You want a government to create laws that support that vision, and then have the power to enforce those laws. But you don't want them to have too much power and too much control because that then restricts the things you can do by too much. It's a question of where the best balance point is between too much freedom but anarchy on one side vs. too little freedom but safety on the other side.

Q: So it's about controlling violence then, mostly?

A: No, it's about a lot of things. Essentially it's about fairness. It's about what different people think is fair. For example, some people think that if they buy a parcel of land then they should be able to do anything they want on that land - almost as if it's their own little country. But what if the owner of the land is a company that runs a factory and they pollute the water in the river that runs through it, and they pollute the air over it. That pollution then affects all the neighboring properties. So it's completely unfair for them to have to deal with the pollution that this company produces. So we need rules and controls over how much a company can pollute, and we need to have the power to enforce it, or else the company will ignore those rules. Also, we need common infrastructure for things like roads and bridges, etc. and we need someone to maintain them.

Q: Okay, I can see why we need controls and laws, but why does it have to be the government? Why can't it be companies in the private sector that do these things?

A: Well, for one thing, if we cut back on the taxes to the point where the government was much smaller than it is right now, then in the absence of a government with the resources to take care of the infrastructure, companies certainly would not step in and bear the burden. When that bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, you wouldn't see 3M or Sony, or IBM rushing out there to fix it. They would just let the infrastructure rot. When Katrina hit the gulf coast, if there was no government assistance, then there certainly would not be companies rushing to the rescue. Wal-Mart sent a truckload of waterbottles as a PR gesture, to get some good press to counteract all the bad press they get all the time, but they weren't about to buy families thousands of trailers, and pay them compensation for their lost homes, etc. They do not have the common good or common public interest as part of their mandate or mission.
Companies don't serve the public. They exist to make money for their owners. Period. That is the purpose and function of any company. Anything else they do, such as making products, providing services, or hiring employees, is just a by-product of that primary function. So when they operate, they are always looking for ways to cut costs and increase revenues and profits. If the police department were a private security company, they would not be so interested in catching the bad guys and keeping the streets safe, but rather they would be trying to cut back on officers as much as possible, and charge large tickets to get more revenue coming in. There can't be two competing police departments in the same town, so there is no competition to control them and keep them honest. Companies are essentially driven by profit. A single company with no controlling mechanism would take advantage of the people, until they finally lost their contract when the expiry date came up. Then they would be replaced by another company who would just do the same things all over again because they also want to maximize their profits, and there is no one to control THEM either.

Q: But governments always have more bureaucracy. Aren't companies more efficient?

A: Companies ARE more efficient usually, (but not always), but this is because competition in an open market forces them to be efficient. They are forced to cut costs to keep prices down, and they are forced to provide better quality products because that is what will sell better in the marketplace, and if they can't sell their products they go out of business. Competition keeps them honest. But the government provides services in areas where there cannot be any competition. You can't really have four fire departments, and twelve police departments, and seven federal immigration services, and nineteen central tax authorities, and twenty three armies, and a bunch of airforces, and a dozen navys, and eight national park services all trying to manage the same resources, etc. It just doesn't work that way. So, since there is no competition to keep them honest, we have to have rules and laws to keep them honest. We have checks and balances, and oversight committees, etc. So there are forms to fill out so that senior people can approve actions, etc. If this control layer gets to be too much, it is considered bureaucracy. We have to have the right balance of this too. The goal is to make sure that people in the government do not abuse their power or authority since they have singular control over things in their purview.

Q: Why doesn't everyone agree which things should be run by the government and which things should be handled by companies? Isn't it obvious?

A: No. Not always. The army, and the police and fire departments, and immigration, and the mint, and several other things are obvious perhaps but there are some things, like healthcare, that are not so obvious. Most countries in the world have decided that the government should provide healthcare for their citizens, but the US is one of 3 or 4 countries that don't agree. Here we have a private company-driven healthcare system run for profit. South Africa and Argentina are the only other countries I know of with a similar sort of system.

Q: So, if companies are more efficient than government because they have competition to keep them honest, then why is our healthcare more expensive per person than any other country in the world? And why does it suck? Why can't I get the kinds of treatment I need when I need it?

A: Good questions. I don't know for sure. Some say it's because the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies have joined together to create powerful industry lobbyists in Washington to get legislation that favors them and allows them to keep doing business like this with virtually no controls for quality of service or affordable rates, etc. But other people are afraid that if we let the government run it, like in England and France, and other countries, etc. then it will get even worse than it is now. It's one thing to decide which system is best. It's another thing entirely to be able to switch from one to the other. We already have a lot of huge companies making billions of dollars as health insurance companies. If we switch to the other kind of system, then those companies would go out of business and lots of employees would lose their jobs. It would shut down that whole industry. But that industry is almost shutting down all the other industries as things are right now, and it's forcing millions of people into bankruptcy every year, so we have to do something.

Q: Dad, my head hurts. Can we go home now?

A: Yup. Let's go.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Prophesies and Predictions - the End of the World

Have you ever been to visit a psychic? A spiritualist? Have you ever had a "reading"? If so, did the predictions come true? If you've never been, then why not? Is it because you don't believe that it could be true? Couldn't it still be fun though? If you don't feel threatened by it, then why couldn't you try it just for fun? Or is there some fear about what you might find out?

I know friends of my mother who, when they have a party, will occasionally have a spiritualist come over and set up a private reading space in one of the rooms, and then the ladies take turns going in to get their readings. When they come out, they all compare results and talk about how close they were, or what the spiritualist got wrong. You have people trying to trick the spiritualist, but it rarely works - it sounds like great fun. It always makes for an exciting and interesting party that people will be talking about for months - sometimes years afterwards.

That's fun for parties and personal interest, but what about those people who, over the centuries, have made predictions about world events, that seem to have come true? Naturally, we've all heard of Nostradamus, and we all know about the predictions of the end of the world in the Revelations section of the Bible, but have been others, as well. Merlin, a Welsh druid from the 5th century was one who was later made famous in stories about Legendary King Arthur.

In the western hemisphere, there were the Mayans who built an advanced civilization in Central America beginning in around 3000 BC. The Mayans were fanatical about timekeeping. They had a very complex, but incredible accurate clock that allowed them to predict not only things like solstices, and equinoxes, but solar eclipses thousands of years into the future. It is a truly remarkable mystery of our time to guess how they could have devised such an accurate mechanism for predicting future events.

The Mayans long calendar shows that we are in a Galactic Day which is 25,625 years long, and is divided into 5 cycles of 5,125 years each. We are now very near the end of the 5th and last cycle of the entire current Galactic Day. The calendar says that this era will end on the winter solstice, December 21st, 2012. That is just under 5 years from now.

Many people interpret this as meaning the end of the world. But the Mayans see the ends as also beginnings. The New Age begins that day. Scientists have confirmed that a very unusual event DOES happen on that day. That is the day when the Earth is directly between the Sun and the central core of our Milky Way galaxy. They are not sure what will happen, but it seems that many things are possible (all of them bad). By the way, these scientists have done the math - this event happens every 25,625 years. Just as the Mayan Calendar predicted. How could they have known this?

In a recent special on the History Channel, they showed the Mayan Calendar, and explained how so many other predictions from different ages and different people and different places around the world have also pointed to December 21, 2012 as being the end of the world.

The Mayans described a special 'spark' that is pulled out from the sun far into space, by the black hole at the center of the galaxy, on this date. Well, a massive solar flare can certainly do a lot of damage, there's no question there. There is also a description of how this could possibly switch our poles around and the Earth suddenly shifts orientation. The massive weather changes, freezing, thawing, tidal waves, tsunamis, earthquakes that can result from this would certainly qualify as a major change.

Here is an interesting article on the Mayan view of what happens in the 'end-times': http://www.adishakti.org/mayan_end_times_prophecy_12-21-2012.htm

Here is a website dedicated to the whole concept of that date being the end of times, and the beginning of a new era. http://www.december212012.com/

Some people look at the date as the day they will die and so it is horrible and frightening. Others look at the day with anticipation as the beginning of a new golden age of higher purpose and understanding. Edgar Cayce said that we are currently living out a karmic debt for out selfishness in the past cycle, and when 1221 2012 comes, we will be given another chance to regain what we lost. Still others think that it's all nonsense and that people are fooling themselves and reading too much into the meaning of the fact that the Mayan calendar ends on that day. These people refuse to believe that the world will end on that day or any other day, and everything will just continue along the next day just as it did before.

What are your thoughts on this?

High School Dropouts

The newest rates for dropouts from high school are out and the news is not pretty. In the nations largest cities there are lot of entire school districts that have a graduation rate of less than 60%. Many are even well below 50% Here are some of the worst:

Austin: 55.1% students graduated high school
New Orleans: 51.3%
Chicago: 52.2%
Albuquerque: 52.0%
Nashville: 50.4%
Houston: 48.9%
Ft. Worth: 48.9%
Memphis: 48.5%
Denver: 46.8%
Dallas: 46.3%
Miami: 45.3%
Los Angeles: 44.2%
Cleveland: 43.8%
Milwaukee: 43.1%
New York City: 38.9%
Baltimore: 38.5%
Detroit: 21.7% (almost an 80% drop out rate! )

Remember, these are not just a few bad schools singled out. These are the overall average ratings for the entire school districts in all the largest cities in this country. There were a lot more, but I just pulled out a few examples that were typical. Here is an article with more cities and more details: http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2006-06-20-dropout-rates_x.htm#grad

What is happening here? How are we ever going to survive in this ever more competitive world with all the new up and coming sharp kids learning all the new technologies from the best schools in all these other countries around the world, if more than half of our kids can't even finish high school? What's worse is that by all accounts, our high schools are teaching material at a much lower level than all other modern industrialized countries. In maths and sciences among high school graduates, we are now ranked 30th in the world. Well below average for the world.

In some recent examples where high school students in Brussels were given an American 10th grade test, they thought it was some kind of a joke. For them, it seemed to be a middle school test. So even though our hoops are closer to the ground and larger than everybody else's, our kids STILL can't sink the basket. And now, more than half of them won't even bother to suit up to play in the game at all.

If you are an average person shopping for a car, are you excited about buying a car that is manufactured in a city where almost 80% of the people couldn't even finish high school? And it's an EASY high school compared to all the other countries....

What do you think is causing this? Is it the schools themselves? Or is it some other factor? And how can we fix it? We know it's not that schools are underfunded because we spend more than any other country on the planet in education. It's just that other countries are getting much better results with their students for much lower budgets.

So far, immigration is filling in the gap. We are importing the product of the better education systems elsewhere, so those people can work for American companies and continue to produce competitive products. But is that the best long-term solution? Frankly, although we still have backlogs in immigration, the US is losing it's attractiveness to foreign workers. The backlogs are more due to inefficient processing rather than large numbers of applicants. Less people are interested in coming here now. Many feel that southeast Asia, and Dubai, and Europe are the places to be now. If the trend continues, we will lose our ability to function as equals in the world. We need to find a way to fix this.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Who are Canadians?

A friend of mine just forwarded the following note to me. Recently, I wrote about what 'they' are saying about Canada. But I was talking about what the American Neocons, and also what an American military man were saying. This time it's Australia's turn.

An Australian's Definition of a Canadian - written by an Australian Dentist:

You probably missed it in the local news, but there was a report that someone in Pakistan had advertised in a newspaper an offer of a reward to anyone who killed a Canadian – any Canadian. An Australian dentist wrote the following editorial to help define what a Canadian is, so they would know one when they found one. A Canadian can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan. A Canadian may also be a Cree, Métis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux, or one of the many other tribes known as native Canadians. A Canadian's religious beliefs range from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or none. In fact, there are more Muslims in Canada than in Afghanistan.

The key difference is that in Canada they are free to worship as each of them chooses. Whether they have a religion or no religion, each Canadian ultimately answers only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God.

A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous lands in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognize the right of each person to the pursuit of happiness. A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking a thing in return.

Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds. But they also welcome the least - the oppressed, the outcast and the rejected. These are the people who built Canada. You can try to kill a Canadian if you must as other blood-thirsty tyrants in the world have tried but in doing so you could just be killing a relative or a neighbour. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, can be a Canadian.


Noble words, well said. I am grateful and thank this man for his very nice comments.

First, it strikes me that this is the kind of thing they used to say about Americans and the USA. It wasn't that long ago, either. But now, this is not at all how the world sees Americans. I wonder what happened.

As for the complete truth of what is said above, well, yes, I'd say that these things are true, but there is also another side to it.

This does mention that Canada is a collection of all kinds of people from all kinds of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. That's true. But that's both good and bad. For example, here in the US, immigrants are encouraged to join the so-called 'melting pot'. This is the approach where people are supposed to surrender their original ethnic languages, culture, customs, etc. and become an American and adopt the American language, culture, etc.. They should 'blend in', in other words.

But Canada does not have the 'melting pot' approach. It has the so-called "cultural mosaic" approach where immigrants are encouraged to retain their original culture, language, etc.. It is somehow felt that the country is stronger because it is a mix of so many things. Theoretically, like the whole of biological life on the planet, its diversity is its strength.

Also, Canada historically has always had a small population despite the large geography because it's so cold there compared to other countries. Fewer people leaving other, warmer countries, wanted to go where is was so cold for 4 months of the year. But more people were needed in order to boost the economy and build the economies of scale needed to compete with other countries. So immigration was encouraged broadly, and the cultural mosaic approach was a way to encourage people to come there. The message going out to the world was "Keep your language. Keep your religion. Keep all your traditions, just change your geography. Work over here in Canada instead of there where you are. Enjoy our wealth of natural resources and modern lifestyle."

But no plan is perfect. What I've found living there most of my life, was that having so many people speaking so many different languages and maintaining so many cultures makes for cool and interesting restaurants, but it makes some other things difficult. Often, when I would sit in a restaurant, all the conversations at all the tables around me were in some other language I didn't understand. Chinese here, Italian there, Greek over there, Russian over here. It was the same thing standing in line to see a movie. It tends to make you feel isolated and detached from the humanity around you. You feel like you are are not in Canada, but that you are just in "the world" somewhere.

Without a common language and common cultural touchpoints, shared rules, shared understandings and values, it's difficult to get together with people and to know what they are thinking and to know how they will respond in a given situation.

For example, let's say you are eating your dinner in a restaurant and while your mouth is full, the waiter comes to ask how your meal is. You can't speak, but you don't want to be rude and make him wait, so you give him the "ok" symbol with your fingers. Well, depending on what nationality and culture he is from, he might interpret that as an "ok", or he might see it as you calling him an 'anal orifice'. The same finger gesture/symbol is used for different things by different groups. You have to know what neighborhood you're in, and you need to be aware of their cultural idiosyncrasies (Let's see now, I'm at Pape and Danforth and so this is a Greek area here. What does this gesture mean to Greeks again....?) It leads to many unfortunate misunderstandings.

Also, when people retain their original culture, they also retain their original prejudices and hatreds brought along with them from 'the old country'. So when the Serbs come and settle in a neighborhood, and the Croatians come and settle in another neighborhood nearby, they still dislike each other, and their kids fight each other, and the parents aren't always so well-behaved either. So you can picture this with Arabs and Jews, and with different African tribes. Long-seated cultural hatreds are part of what is preserved when you preserve the cultures.

Imagine if 200 countries were to send colonists to a brand new planet and each group from each country made their own little settlement right next to each other. Each one was a perfect replica of their home country, but it was only 1 street away from the next perfect replica of some other country. THAT is what Toronto has become(and many other places in Canada now. The Toronto effect of immigration has spread to many other cities by this time.)

But of course they DIDN'T just land on another planet. They landed in a country that already HAD a culture of it's own. It wasn't vacant. So, of course, we have to look at the issue of the Canadians who were there before the others came, and how it has affected them. The First Nations people (natives) were more or less pushed onto reserves by the English and French that settled Canada. (Mostly English.) Then, the white, English-speaking mild-mannered Canadians (like me and my ilk) that were Canada for the past 300 years, are now being overrun and pushed out by all the people coming from China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and other places, especially in the last 25 years or so as immigration has accelerated. So the Canada that was, is being lost in the cultural shift. Now, tellingly, people want to join the Mounties but they demand that they be allowed to wear a turban instead of a traditional RCMP hat. So Canadian culture suffers and loses out and becomes diluted with this form of immigration.

Frankly, one of the reasons I moved from Canada to the U.S. was because I wanted to be around people who spoke English again. It's not a prejudice or anti-immigrant sentiment. It's just that I wanted to be able to understand and join in conversations with the people around me again. I didn't want to always feel like I was walking along a corridor in the UN building. I didn't want to feel so isolated and disenfranchised anymore. Especially in my own country. I wanted to fit in somewhere, and yet somewhere along the way, I lost my sense of "Home" where I was. So I moved. My home country is not just another place - it's now another place at another time in the past. That place, the Canada that I knew growing up, is now gone.

Of course, I am not criticizing any one group or anything. It's just that there are positives and negatives to the Canadian approach of respecting all the different source cultures, but maintaining them. I hope I was fair here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Planning Ahead

Hidden away from the world, there is a massive, highly secure, impenetrable vault, 425 feet deep in a frozen mountain on a distant remote island in the Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard close to the north pole. Few people have even heard of these islands. Almost no one ever ventures there.
This hidden vault is impervious to terrorist attack, to earthquakes, to blizzards, to storms, fire, flood, global warming, or nuclear holocaust. Even a direct hit by a medium sized meteor would not penetrate it. Nothing can touch it. It is hidden by its obscurity almost as much as it is hidden by its remoteness, or by its depth inside the mountain. It is so far from the rest of the world of human life, that it might as well be a vault on the moon, or maybe another planet.

What is kept here in this vault so deep under a mountain near the north pole? A very special treasure. something worth more than gold, silver, platinum or diamonds. One that may one day be called upon to save all of mankind.

Seeds. That's right, seeds. It is the Svalbard Global Seed vault. There is room in its massive secure chambers for 4.5 million vacuum-sealed samples of different kinds of grains, and beans, and all manor of plants and crops. Stored for posterity against a potential biological catastrophe.

It turns out that over the 6,000 years of our civilization, we have been growing crops and trying to genetically tune the food crops to the specific types that we eat, but in the process of excluding the ones that don't suit our tastes or our growing season or the wetness or dryness or acidity levels of our soil in any particular region, we have inadvertently eliminated a lot of the biological diversity in the plants that grow on the Earth. And since humanity now inhabits almost every corner of the globe, there are few untouched non-agriculturally tended areas that grow free and wild as nature intended.

For example, potatoes, like many plants now, have become specialized. Ireland is famous for it's potato crops, but soon they will have eliminated all but one type of potato growing there. So it has now become genetically fragile. If any disease or infestation should affect it, it lacks the natural resiliency of genetic diversity to defend against it. In other words, nature normally takes care of these things by simply having a lot of different species of potato, and so if one dies out because some new potato disease wipes them out, there are others that will survive because they were just different enough to out-maneuver that problem.

But, in developing agriculture over the centuries, we have changed the equation that life has been using to survive for millions of years. We have been methodically eliminating all the other types of genetic examples of potato in favor of the ones that produce the most money for crop owners. The largest, fastest-growing, longest growing season, most insect repellent, etc. The cheapest to grow. In our CURRENT environment.

However, species of bugs and diseases are always evolving, and because they are simple organisms, they evolve quicker. If a disease or a bug variation comes up that feeds on the one type of potato we have left, it could potentially wipe that species off the map, and we would lose an important staple of our diet. This risk is there for all crops in the world. Also, there could be major disasters such as floods, fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc. that could wipe out entire regions of the Earth taking important crops with them.

Potatoes originated in the Andes. So that is where we need to go to collect the widest variations of potatoes for preservation since they have been there the longest, and therefore have had the most opportunity to develop genetic diversity. That way, if future scientists need to create a new hardier strain of potato that can overcome some new biological problem, they will have a large sample of genetic diversity to work with to develop the new strain. Think of it as a palette of colors for an artist to paint with. The range of colors you can create are extremely limited if you are missing the basic colors like yellow or red to mix in.

Planning ahead for disaster on a global scale is what these biologists are doing. They have been quietly going around the world collecting samples of every possible kind of grain in Ethiopia, or bean in South America, etc. and processing them and storing them for posterity in that huge vault near the north pole. They are selfless, unsung heroes doing a valuable essential job. There would normally be a temptation in many governments to cut a program like this to cut taxes and win votes. But thankfully, more visionary, long-term thinkers are at work here.

But I think we should expand the vision further. I think we should be doing the same thing with animals and all species of life, not just plants. Maybe we could freeze the embryos of everything from chickens to elephants. From dogs to dragonflys. Even people. We have sperm and embryo banks for people. Why not expand that concept to include all species and store them in a similar vault. But maybe at the other pole this time. Bury it in a vault deep under Antarctica. That way, it is not on property owned by any one country. It's probably unwise to let one country have exclusive care of the future of all life on the planet. A vault like that is probably impervious to any force in the world except the force of politics.

There are roughly 30 million species of animal life on Earth. It will take some time and some effort. We should probably get started. If we could cut the war in Iraq short by just one week, that would probably pay for the whole project. Think of it as a kind of Noah's Ark.

It occurs to me that we should also have a similar vault for our collective knowledge just in case something happens. For one thing, in the event of a major catastrophe where we might have to begin again, we'll need instructions on how to use the stored cells to regenerate the various species and re-grow the plants to repopulate and restore the Earth again.

There is so much of math and science, and geology, and biology, and medicine, and technology, and literature and art and music and poetry even - to be saved for posterity. From architecture, to bridge-building, to space science, to MRIs, to History, to languages, to Zoology. There are millions of books about millions of topics, in hundreds of languages, that are worthy of saving. I think we should have it in magnetic (disk) as well as optical (CD's) as well as microfiche (film) as well as printed forms. So that if the technology exists to read it, it is all accessible and convenient, but if the technology does not exist, then as least a printed version is available. Obviously, the paper/books would have to be stored at temperature and humidity levels that allow it to be preserved indefinitely.

Also, "Rosetta Stone" translations would be necessary too. Tables that translate an identical message into as many different languages so that all the materials are readable and so that all the languages are preserved as well.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we never have to use these treasure troves of our life and civilization on planet Earth? And wouldn't it be a horrible thing if we DID have to use it, but it didn't exist?

If I had the means, I would start this great project myself. Some things are just necessary.

At some point in the future, it might make sense to create these repositories of our plants, our animals, and our knowledge off-planet. Say on the moon, or Mars. or on Ceres (a large asteroid relatively nearby) It might make sense as a way to ensure the survival of what is on Earth, and also help stage the outward expansion of our life and culture and species into the galaxy.

There are other places on other planets. Perhaps there are some places that have nothing there now but that we could bring life. Who knows? Maybe that's what happened here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What They're Saying About Canada

Here is what some right-wing pundits are saying about Canada:

ANNE COULTER: They better hope the United States doesn't roll over one night and crush them. They are lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent. We could have taken them [Canada] over so easily.

[ALAN] COLMES: We could have taken them over? Is that what you want?

COULTER: Yes, but no. All I want is the western portion, the ski areas, the cowboys, and the right-wingers.

COULTER: They don't even need to have an army, because they are protected, because they're on the same continent with the United States of America. If we were not the United States of America, Canada -- I mean, we're their trading partner. We keep their economy afloat.

ELLIS HENICAN [Newsday columnist]: We share a lot of culture and a lot of interests. Why do we want to have to ridicule them and be deeply offended if they disagree with us?

COULTER: Because they speak French.

CARLSON: Without the U.S., Canada is essentially Honduras, but colder and much less interesting.

CARLSON: We exploit your [addressing Canadian Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish] natural resources, that's true. But in the end, Canadians with ambition move to the United States. That has been sort of the trend for decades. It says something not very good about Canada. And I think it makes Canadians feel bad about themselves and I understand that.

CARLSON: Canada needs the United States. The United States does not need Canada.

CARLSON: I think if Canada were responsible for its own security -- you would be invaded by Norway if it weren't for the United States.


Now here, on the other hand, is a word from a US Naval officer fighting alongside Canadians in Afghanistan:
From: Mike Jansen (Maysonet) Subject:: US Naval Officer speaks up Date: 13 Dec. 2007 Oh Canada !
Subject: FW: US Naval Officer speaks up One American's View -

David Meadows is a retired US Navy Captain and the author of numerous books and articles on military subjects.This message was on the U.S. Military.Com website.

David Meadows ~ April 27, 2006 On April 22, 2006 four Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb. Respects and heartfelt sadness go to the families of those heroes who stand alongside the U.S. In the Long War half a world away. While we focus on the war in Iraq, the fighting continues in Afghanistan where side-by-side the U.S. And one of its most loyal allies, Canada, engage the re-emergence of the Taliban.

Canada is like a close uncle who constantly argues, badgers, and complains about what you are doing, but when help is truly needed, you can't keep him away: he's right there alongside you. We have a unique relationship with Canada. We have different political positions on many issues, but our unique friendship has weathered world wars, global crises, and the ever-so-often neighborhood disagreement.

Canada has been with us since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism. In February 2006, without fanfare Canada, leading a multinational force combating growing Taliban insurgency, increased troop strength in Afghanistan to 2,300. With the American military stretched thin against rising instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, an ally that increases its troop strength is inspiring and deserves our respect.

Katrina was another example of our close family-like relationship. Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Two days later, the Vancouver Urban Search and Rescue Team rushed from British Columbia, Canada to Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana. In this Parish of 68,000 Americans, the first responders were Canadians. Overall, within the devastated Gulf Coast area, it appears Canada was the first responder outside of local efforts. They worked 18-hour days, going door-to-door alongside Louisiana State Troopers, rescuing 119-Americans.

While FEMA ramped up to surge into the catastrophe; while the administration and Louisiana fought for the politically correct way to respond; Canadian aid was already at work. The Canadian Forces Joint Task Group 306 consisting of the warships HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS Toronto, NSMC Ville de Quebec, and CCGC William Alexander sailed to the Gulf Coast to deliver humanitarian supplies. They stayed, working alongside U.S. Navy and Mexican warships, to provide aid to Katrina victims.

Katrina was not an anomaly of our close relationship. When Hurricane Ivan devastated Pensacola, Florida in October 2004, Canadian humanitarian help was there also. Canadian power trucks roamed the streets and countryside helping restore electricity where Americans had a unique experience of running into workmen who only spoke French.

Canada took a lot of undeserved flak for failing to leap into Operation Iraqi Freedom when our administration sent us galloping across the desert. But Canada remains one of our staunchest allies in the war. When United States military forces were fighting up the highways in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Canada quietly increased troop numbers in Afghanistan and continued Naval operations with U.S. Warships in the Persian Gulf. I was at the Pentagon on 9/11, stationed on the Joint Staff. During the early hours after the attack, the United States closed its air space and ordered every aircraft within our borders to land immediately at the nearest airfield.

Canada immediately stood up an Operations Support Post. With civil aviation grounded, aircraft destined for the United States were forced elsewhere. Most landed in Canada. Re-routed travelers and flight crews were hosted at Canadian Forces facilities in Goose Bay, Gander, and Stephenville, Newfoundland; Halifax, Shearwater, and Aldershot, Nova Scotia; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Canada rapidly mobilized its forces. Within hours, the Canadian Navy was on alert with ships preparing to cast off immediatelyfor any U.S. Port to help victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team prepared to deploy from Trenton, Ontario. Canada dispersed CF-18 fighter aircraft to strategic locations throughout Canada. No politics. No negotiating. No questions. They were just there. Canada would have fought any adversary that approached the United States that day.

Canada has been such an integral partner with the United States in the Global War on Terrorism that on December 7, 2004 when President Bush awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to Commander Joint Force South for combat success in Afghanistan, he was also recognizing the secretive Canadian Joint Task Force 2 commando counter-terrorism unit. The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded 30 Bronze Star medalsfor heroism in combat to Canadian Forces personnel. Some of those 30 died in action. Many of the others were wounded. These Canadians earned this American medal for heroism fighting alongside Americans.

When we recall our own dead heroes, we must remember that these warriors gave their lives not only for Canada, but also for the United States. Canada is more than a neighbor. It is a close family member with the gumption to disagree with its brother to the south but always be there when disaster strikes and America needs help. For that, I salute you, Canada, and extend my respect for the sacrifices given by members of the Canadian Forces.


I remember a few years ago when Bush said that Britain was America's greatest ally and it's best friend. I remember how hurt and insulted Canadians felt. I thought at the time that if I were the president, I would get on the plane and go straight to Canada and get in front of a large crowd of Canadians and I'd say this,

"I said in a speech recently that Britain is America's greatest friend. And I meant it. Do you want to know why? "
"Because Canada is not a friend."

"Because Canada is MORE than that. Canada is FAMILY!"

That's what I would have said. But hey, that's just me.


First, let's have a definition. According to the dictionary, the philosophical and theological meanings of the term are that it covers the concepts of mind vs body, or spiritual vs material, or good vs bad. Let's set aside the good vs bad definition for the moment and focus on the other two.

From a mind vs body perspective, I think there has been a great deal of twisting of faces and wringing of hands over the years about whether the mind can conquer the body. The general underlying and commonly understood concept is that there is a constant struggle between the body and the mind, in that the body wants to do evil and that the mind is the higher level being that must override the base impulses of the body.

There is a powerful scene in Frank Herbert's book, "Dune", where the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit is testing young Paul Atriedes' humanity by holding a poisoned dart at his throat while he holds his hand in a box under great pain. He can feel that the flesh is being burned off his hand, and he is in great agony, but yet he knows that if he withdraws his hand, then he will feel the sting of the Gom Jabbar at his thoat and he will die instantly from the poison. So this is a test of his mental willpower to control his body's natural urge to pluck the hand from pain and damage in order to avoid certain death. To withstand damage and pain for a higher purpose.

Her assumption is that to withdraw his hand despite the immediate consequences would mean he is given over to animal impulses, but to keep it in the box despite the pain indicates a higher mind function, and that the mind truly controls the body even in situations of great stress, and that therefore indicates that he is truly human. It is a painful and horrible test, but there is no actual damage to the hand, it is pain by nerve induction, but the illusion is what is important. After it is over, Paul says "I see the truth of it". Indeed.

But is this truth? Is the body evil, and the mind good? Is the mind's conquest over the body the ultimate expression of virtue?

Religions teach us that yes, this is true. The body has base appetites, to over-indulge in food, sex, pleasure, comfort, etc., and the mind is a higher-level form of the person, and it must conquer the body's tendency to sin, by strict adherence to a higher set of standards. It is the mind's job to resist temptations and not eat when hungry. To not pursue sex when it feels the urge. To resist drink when thirsty. To force the body to exercise hard and to work when it feels lazy and tired. A person of character and substance has complete control of their appetities and their urges.

I suggest that it is a little more complex than that. It occurs to me that the mind certainly has base urges itself as well as higher motives. And that the body also may possess some higher yearnings and might not only always seek the most primal pleasures. For the mind, there are lofty urges such as sacrifice, patience, generosity, courage, compassion, kindness, responsibility, and a sense of fairness, and many others. But there are also more base urges such as greed, selfishness, jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, snobbery, ignorance, cruelty, etc. So the mind has both types of urges as well as some in the middle like curiosity, playfulness, humor, etc. And there are also special abilities such as art, music, mathematics, creativity, leadership, etc. There is, in fact, a full spectrum of good to bad to exceptional within the mind alone before ever going to the body.

And so it is with the body as well. The body may feel tired and hungry and thirsty and lazy, but it also has its higher moments when it wants to run and jump and climb and to be strong and to resist fatigue, overcome pain and disease, and perform despite the physical difficulties it faces. It is far more than the embodiment of base appetites.

Materialism vs Spiritualism
Materialism is not merely about the accumulation of possessions as many people think. It is much broader than that. It is about believing only in the concrete. The here and now. It is about resisting anything that is not irrefutably logical and instrinsically substantive and undeniably proven through empirical evidence. Materialism varyingly allows that there is a mind somewhere within the body although it exists at some higher aggregate meta-level than cellular or molecular. But it shuns the whole idea and concept of a spiritual world.

In other words a materialist may accept that some intangible things exist but that they exist as illusions, concepts, and affectations of the mind and imagination - but they steadfastly resist the notion that anything intangible exists on it's own - outside the mind. Like supernatural beings or powers. God, the devil, angels, demons, ghosts, miracles and magic, etc. These types of things are all unprovable, and utter nonsense to a materialist.

To this mindset, I would have to agree with Shakespeare when he said in Hamlet, "There is far more in heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in your philosophies."

First, let's look at what the "mind" is. A spiritual person might suggest that this surely indicates that there is a soul at work. A separate being, independent of the body that merely inhabits the body for a time and then moves on to its rewards in the afterlife.

However, a materialist view would see it as simply a higher-level functional layer of the body itself. In other words, when the brain has evolved to a point where it is complex enough, and there are enough synapses firing, then there is a phenomenon that manifests itself as consciousness. A certain self awareness. It is the result of a complex network of intersections of knowledge and decision-making abilities that behaves in ways that we interpret as intelligence. Creatures of less intelligence, less complex brain function, may act instinctively, and may act in self preservation, and they may have some tricks or tactics for hunting, etc., but they are limited in their development.

However, once there is sufficient levels of brain activity and complexity, then another level of ability emerges where the animal is now capable of developing speech, and becomes capable of abstract thought and can participate in conversations with others and useful interaction and eventually even creative endeavors such as art and music. But the assumption is that these higher level functions are entirely based upon the sophistication of the brain activity, and have nothing to do with a spirit or soul "inhabiting" or animating a body.

On some levels, the materialist view is seductive because it is solid. It is the limit of that which is logical and reliably provable. The spiritual argument seems fanciful and unsubstantiated. So why is there support for it, at all then? Is it merely wishful thinking? Is it delusion? Is it fantasy? Is it a hope that there is some meaning and purpose to life so that the struggle for good acts in life are rewarded in the afterlife?, or on the negative side, a hope that all this just cannot be for nothing?

I would point out that there are some times where an event happens that suggests the presence of spirit, and the event is witness by multiple people or has some other empirical level of manifestation that convinces people that it is real although not solid, substantial, or reproducible. In my own experience there have been a couple of examples of this in my life. One happened in Delphi, Greece in August 1989. I stepped off the tour bus amidst the ruins of the ancient city of Delphi which I had never visited nor read about, but somehow, I knew every road, and most of the buildings. I knew where the bathrooms were, and the city treasuries, and the temple of Apollo, and the building that used to be the main marketplace - despite the fact that there was no evidence to suggest that today. Well, not without doing a lot of research. I knew everything about the place as if I had once lived there. I did have the feeling that I did live there at some point long long ago - very much like going back to visit a neighborhood you lived in when you were a child. And I certainly had the feeling that I had taught every day in the amphitheater there. The people I was travelling with were amazed at how much I knew about the place without having any maps or other sources of information. I had no idea this was going to happen. It was just as much a surprise to me.

Another event happened a few years later, which really gave me pause. I was taking a meditation class where we were encouraged to relax and open up our minds to any 'messages' or visions, or images that might come. I did have some thoughts about a surgical procedure that did seem to be highly relevant to the woman sitting to my immediate right. But the most surprising thing happened at the end of the session when everyone was leaving and as I was saying my thank you to the instructor, he told me that while we were in our session he had a vision and saw a man come into the room from behind me and walk up to me and stand directly behind me with his hands on my shoulders in a 'sponsoring' or protective way. He spoke to this apparition, and the apparition said that he was my older brother and his name was John. I told him that this could not be true because I have no older brothers. I am the oldest of three brothers. The instructor also told me about a ring he noticed on his finger. It was a gold ring with a square red gem with a small diamond chip and an initial "V" in it. That caught my attention. I have a ring exactly like that at home. It was a gift from my father when I was very young.

When I returned home, I called my mother to tell her about this apparent vision of a spirit claiming to me my older brother and about the weird coincidence with the ring. Instead of laughing it off as I expected, my mother suggested that I should ask my father about it. So I talked to my father and he reluctantly admitted that there WAS in fact another brother born two years before me, and that they had named him Johnny, but that he had died of a heart malfunction after about 6 months.

So, aside from shock of finding out about a brother I had who had died and I had never heard about before, here we have a case where there is externally corroborated evidence of things, or people even, that exist on some other level beyond either our own imagination or the physical corporeal level. Then add to these personal exeriences of mine, the cases cited in books like "The Case for Reincarnation" and "Life Between Life", which describes a case where a man under hypnosis regression therapy goes back to a previous lifetime and begins speaking in a language that a great deal of research discovered only existed between 200AD and 800AD. This is a rare viking dialect that died out completely over a thousand years ago, and is only know to a handful of advanced linguistics scholars in the world today, and the man did not have any access to such information.

Similarly, there was a woman who, while under regression, began speaking and writing in an ancient language that was only ever known to about 50 people in history. It was a special language developed and spoken by just the members of the royal family in Persia about 800 years ago and then disappeared after about 60 years. It was used as a way for the members of the royal family to send letters to each other and discuss affairs of state without being overheard or have their messages sabotaged by their political rivals and the military people whom they distrusted.

A spiritual level of existence seems the only logical explanation that fits all these observables. To deny that, despite the empirical evidence is to be just as blind and intransigent as the religious people who refuse to acknowledge things outside their philosophies.

So I would say that there is more than just the material world of everyday life out there. There are the mental realms of thought, and discovery, and creativity, and art and science, and there is apparently also some spiritual level where our existence persists beyond the physical body.

That does suggest we have a spiritual being or existance, but still does not guarantee that there is an anthropic God. An all-powerful, all-knowing human-like, but super-human super-natural being who watches our every move and judges our worth based on our actions in this life. But it does at least suggest that a spiritual level of reality exists, and so there is at least a 'place' or a level, or a 'realm' for a being such as God to exist in.

In the interest of intellectual honesty we would have to at least acknowledge that much. So, for me, the concept of Dualism, is insufficient. There are more than two levels, for us to exist on. We exist physically, we exist mentally (that aggregate meta-life abstract reality level), and evidently, we exist spiritually as well. I have read that we are not physical beings that occasionally have a spiritual experience, but rather, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. But I remain open to new information and ideas.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Questionable Future of the Music Industry

Have you ever seen the Tom Hank's movie, "That Thing You Do"? It was about a 1960's pop band of teenagers that came up with a song by that name, and it told about their rise to fame as they were discovered by the major record label, turned into overnight stars, and toured around the country.

In those days a band could be 'discovered' like that and then they would sign up with a record company and suddenly the record label could turn them into stars by arranging promotions, concert tours, advertising, billboards, radio airplay, television spots on the Ed Sullivan show, radio interviews, etc.. They would saturate the advertising channels, send the records out to all the record stores, the artist would become famous, and the record company becomes rich, and in the process the artist would eventually become wealthy. This is how people like Michael Jackson could amass their fortunes of hundreds of millions of dollars. That was how it used to work in those days, and many people who are not involved in the industry might even think it still works that way.

But that was then and this is now. Those days are over.

Those big record companies became increasingly greedy and began writing contracts that completely cheated the artists. They knew that the artists mostly wanted the fame more than the money, and so the record companies essentially took most of the money. They took all the rights to all the music and then paid the artists a pittance and controlled everything. There was an ever-increasing list of things that the artist would have to pay for out of their advance. Promotional copies sent to radio stations, returns, even advertising - which was the whole point of going to a record company in the first place. But because the record companies had a stranglehold on the distribution of CDs to the retailers, they were in a position to leverage that for an ever increasing share of the revenues. Often the artists reached the point where having a hit album might even mean going into debt because of the associated costs - even as the record company was raking in the profits. I did see one accounting sheet for a band based in Seattle which had a complete breakdown of revenues and costs, and the bottom line was that after selling $3 million dollars worth of CDs, the record company was ahead by over $900,000, but the band was $14,000 in debt. They ended up having to work off the debt by touring for the next 4 months. In the end, the bandmembers would up making less than minimum wage for their highly successful album.

The major change element could be summed up as being digital media, the internet, Napster and CD burners. Once music left the analog world and became digitized in handy mp3 format, then the internet connected everybody to everybody else, then Napster and other sites came along to provide a mechanism to share all this music for free, suddenly the fancy restaurant food was free out the kitchen back door, so no one was paying to go in the front door anymore.

Success is defined differently now. In the 70's and 80's, a hit record was one that sold a million copies. Sales of two to five million was quite common. But now, it's been more than a decade of people downloading for free and sharing and burning CD copies for friends, not to mention the iPod (which means they don't even have to burn the copy anymore. The friend just borrows it and loads it into their iPOD and then hands it back.) Buying a CD seems so last century to the kids today. In this current distribution model, 75,000 units actually being sold at retail is considered a success.

Therefore, the profits for record companies have shrivelled to a fraction of what they once were, and with fewer dollars to spend, predictably, the record companies became more and more selective about who they would promote. They have now reached the point where you already have to have become regionally famous on your own with your own recordings, and selling them yourself to a significant volume before they will risk a dime on you. They won't even bother to come see you play unless you already have a following and CD's that are selling well.

Now, for the latest generations of young people, they have come to assume that music is free, like a nursery rhyme, or the Happy Birthday song, or a math equation. "Hey I get the Pythagorean Theorum for free, why shouldn't I get the new Yellowcard CD for free, too?". There is little appreciation for intellectual property of copyrights. There has been lots of resistance to this from the record labels, obviously, because they don't want to see their industry collapse. But they are unable to turn back the hands of time. Time has moved on, and their old business model has been rendered obsolete. And so every month for the past 12 years there have been new horror stories about how profits are crashing in the record industry. Therefore artists have switched over to making their money from touring instead of selling CD's.

Various people have tried different ideas to try and find a way for people to survive and make a living from making music. Apple has come up with iTunes and changed everything. Now they sell songs one at a time for 99 cents each, and this allows people to download them quickly and legally and cheaply. Rather than forcing people to get in their cars, go out to music stores and hunt dow the CD they want and maybe not find it available, AND also have to pay $20 for 12 songs when there is only one on the album that really interests them, iTunes allows them to just buy that one song they like, and they never have to leave their house.

This has sucked the remaining life out of the record companies. They no longer have the money to promote the artists properly anymore, and then they have no means to really make profits from them even if they do. As a result, record labels now demand a percentage of the concert tour revenues as well as 99% of the CD sales. They are struggling to survive.
Everyone is looking for new ways to sell music and keep the industry alive, and keep musicians going.

One idea is to have all the songs sold separately like iTunes, however they are sold for a penny at first, and then as they become popular, the price starts to go up, based on the volume of of sales, until it eventually reaches 99 cents then stays there. So if something is not as popular, it's not as expensive to buy. Since it doesn't cost anything to distribute, this is a possible working model.

Some prople are talking about other schemes and plans. Some think all music should just be free. There are some people who think that you should pay for the service of accessing music, rather than buying a copy. So you pay $xx per month to belong to a service like Rhapsody for example, but then you can download all the music you want as much as you want. The idea here being that they pay the musicians out of the service subscription fees. Some see huge profits for the music industry that way.

But I can see certain problems with that too. How do they decide how much to pay the musicians then? How much do they pay beginners? Who decides who to admit into the paying scheme? Who gets rejected and based on what criteria? Which ones earn more and which ones earn less? Do some artists earn a higher percentage than others, or is it the same percentage, but their income varies based upon volume of downloads? As an artist, how do you promote yourself to get people to download your music? Advertising is extraordinarily expensive. With such minimal returns, where does that invenstment come from? Also, with the barriers to entry lowered as they are today, there are now millions and millions of new recording artists. How many millions of hopeful young budding musicians are out there on Myspace and facebook with websites full of new music? How do you rise above the general noise level of all that is now out there in order to be seen and noticed? How do you become well-known in that kind of industry?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Power of the Press

I think the media in this country is it's own force. I don't think they are "controlled" by either political party, but both parties do try to manipulate the media to their advantage. Having said that, I really believe that fair, impartial journalism is "dead and gone" as Don Henley sings on the new Eagles tune, "Frail Grasp of the Big Picture". (excellent album, by the way. Their first real studio album with new tunes since The Long Run came out in 1979. And it's a double CD and only $11.99. Best 12 bucks I ever spent.)

I have to say that it does bother me that every news show I hear on the radio or watch on TV seems to be pursuing some sort of agenda. Except for NPR, perhaps.

My friend's wife used to run the TV news for CBS in St. Louis. She hated the fact that they always told her what news to put on and what she couldn't put on. They have a formula for packaging the news. It has to entertain. It has to scare people. It has to sell advertising. And it has to do this while staying consistent with the political goals and ideology of their owners. And they have a precise formulaic way of doing all these things. Also, they have a demographic profile they target.

These days, women buy almost all the consumer goods in our economy. They do the grocery shopping, they buy the clothes for themselves and the kids, and half the clothes for their husbands as well, they buy the furniture, and decorations, and things for the house. They are the ones spending most of the money in the stores and shopping malls. Men may watch a lot of TV as well, but it's the women that make most of the buying decisions for most of the households in America, and this is a consumer-driven economy.

Therefore, that is who the advertisers target with their ads. And those advertisers want the shows they sponsor to attract their target audience. Their demographic. Their potential customers. Therefore, the news is packaged for college educated females between the ages of 20 to 42. That is their core demographic. Anything that doesn't appeal to that group is considered 'risky' in the news business. They've got news to sell.

But statistically, when it comes to politics, women do not necessarily vote overwhelmingly Republican OR Democrat, so the news organizations are free to back one party or the other. Since it doesn't affect their target demographic, and hence their advertisers, when it comes to skewing the news to fit a political agenda or ideology, they will usually back the politics of whichever corporation owns them. So let's take a look at who owns the news in this country.

Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdock, the famously right-wing ultra-conservative media magnate that owns News Corp. He owns countless newspapers including, now, the Wall Street Journal. He makes it very clear what stories to put on the air and what not to. He is known to apply pressure to his executives to skew the news to support his personal views. He donated $2.9 M to George Bush in 2000 through his tobacco company, Phillip Morris.

NBC network is owned over 80% by GE. So GE gets to say what agenda is played out on NBC and CNBC news. And they donated 1.1 million dollars to George Bush's campaign in 2000.

CBS is owned by Westinghouse, whose Chairman of the Board, Frank Carlucci, is an owner and executive of the Carlyle Group - George Bush's family company.

ABC is owned by Disney, who also donated heavily to Bush's 2000 campaign. Robert Iger is the current CEO there and he used to run ABC. Michael Eisner was the former CEO of Disney, is one of the wealthiest men in the world today, and has been very active in politics.

CNN is owned by Time-Warner. In fact they own a mega empire of news and entertainment. The largest subscription in the entire cable industry in this country. Over 13 million households. They donated 1.6m to Bush in 2000.

The fact is that the news media can make or break a candidate. If they say, even in passing, that a given candidate "has no chance of winning the election", then suddenly all the voters that would have voted for that candidate drop him because they don't want to waste their vote. So they choose someone else. They will choose someone their favorite news media told them DOES have a good chance to win.

And the media chooses which stories to air, and how to skew them and how to cast a light on each one. If they like a candidate, then when the person gets into trouble, (as they all seem to at some point), they make him look like the underdog trying to survive against all the cruel and unfounded accusations of the other party. When they want to crucify him, they show every detail that supports the accusations, and show how the evidence is overwhelmingly clear, or else bring up enough veiled accusations, that even if they don't directly accuse him of something, we somehow become convinced that he must be guilty of at least SOME of the things linked to him. And aren't we glad we found out this guy was a homosexual pedophile taking bribes, cheating little old ladies out of their savings, and funneling money and weapons to terrorists - before we made the mistake of voting him into power?.....

The process of getting elected to office in this country has become a process not of promoting a candidate's plans, or even empty promisses for the future - but rather it is simply a take-down of his opponents. The goal is to make yourself look good simply by making everybody else look bad. One political expert pundit that was debating on the radio last year during the election campaign for the Senate said, "The Democrats are too disorganized - they need a plan. They need to show that they have a detailed plan for what they will do if they succeed in getting elected....... no wait a minute... what am I saying? That's not how it works. If they put forward a plan, then all they will be doing is giving the Republicans a clear target to shoot at. No, nevermind what I said. They don't need a plan. They just need to criticize the Republicans and do what their opponents are doing. If they can do enough damage to knock the other guy out of the race, and they get into office, THEN they can bring out their plan. That's how the game is played these days." Very true words, unfortunately.

There is now an entire industry that does nothing but dig up dirt on political opponents. These are teams of researchers that will look into the past of a candidate and they will find SOME sort of dirt somewhere. If they say in their campaign that they are against abortion, then these people will find out that when he was 16 years old he got his girlfriend pregnant and she had an abortion. If he says he is against communism, they will find some comment somewhere attributed to him when he was 12 years old saying that he thought that socialized systems make sense for some countries. They will dredge the lake looking for dead bodies. They will search every closet of every person that ever talked to him looking for skeletons. No one is completely clean. Everyone has dirt somewhere. And if they don't, then these people will find people who will make things up, and then without attributing any direct authority or credibility to them, they will put them on the air anyway - just to raise doubts about the candidate. It's an evil business.

And the whole battle is carried out on the battlefield of the media. They set the rules and they play favorites. The days of the fair, impartial journalist are long gone. These days everyone has an axe to grind. Everyone has an agenda to push, and journalists have even come to think that it's a GOOD thing for them to have an opinion and to promote it at every opportunity. Apparently, the audience is not to be trusted to form their own opinion when presented with the facts. Hey, we can't have that! people making up their own minds?! What if they get it wrong?

The media have the biggest real power here in this country, but the ones who pull their strings are not the politicians, but rather the corporate parents noted above. And there is nobody higher up to pull their strings. They are not accountable to anybody. They are the top of the food chain in this world at this point. That is who really runs this country, because they determine who gets elected, and then once elected, they can influence policies and decisions at any level because they have the power to make that person look stupid, lame, evil, or a hero.

The president, (whomever it is), serves at the pleasure of a handful of powerful elite. Namely, these are people like Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Frank Carlucci, Michael Eisner, Robert Iger, etc. It is they who will decide who you vote for president next year. They tell you who to vote for as congressmen and senators. You have no real choice. You THINK you have a choice, but you don't, really.

Why? Because YOU are not on-site in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, or on Wall Street, or in North Korea, or inside the beltway in D.C. You cannot be in all the places where things are happening. And even if you were onsite in Iraq as a soldier on the ground, for instance, you could only physically be in one place at one time. You could not be in every battle in every town and in every riot, and in the political meetings all at the same time. But a few thousand reporters can be in all those places at once. So you rely upon them to tell you what is happening. and they will tell you what they want you to hear to twist your opinions to their purposes. You think whatever you are told to think. You might judge things completely differently if you knew different facts. But you don't because they didn't tell you different facts.

It's alarming to think that everything you think you know right now about what is going on across the country and around the world is all based on information you got from them. But that is the uncomfortable truth of it. They have fed you most of your strongly held beliefs on these kinds of subjects.

The one thing that seems to get around this virtual monopoly on information and agenda-driven propaganda is the web. It is our way to connect to hundreds of millions of other people at all levels in all countries around the world. It is a way to gain information and perspective that is not engineered by these organizations and the handful of people that really run them all. Pragmatically speaking, the other content you read on the web may not all be real, or true and factual. It may be incomplete and unsupported. It may be personal opinion, and hearsay, and it may serve the agendas of THOSE people writing in their blogs, etc. But it is the bigger picture. it is a light in the dark. It is another voice in the din of media voices telling you THEIR stories. Somewhere in the mix of all these versions and stories and agendas is the truth. It gives me hope.