Extending yesterday's post about the national conversation about guns. Thanks to everyone for contributing (even the "f**k you" response shed some light on the discussion).

My related Facebook post generated some interesting discussion, as well, that combined with this discussion got me thinking.

  • It's vital that we shift our national focus from ridiculous, horrible, treasure-wasting, murderous, human-suffering-inducing military adventures like our wars on [insert item here: drugs, terror, etc.] and instead invest this wasted creative energy, power, money, resources, and so forth into things that make our nation and humankind better and stronger in the long term.

  • We need to invest in vastly improving our public schools, mental-health institutions, scientific research... you name it: all the things that make us grow healthier and stronger instead of weaker and sicker.

  • To do this, we need to get money and religion out of politics. When our political representatives must spend the majority of their creative, emotional, and intellectual energy on gathering support from big donors and financial interests as well as anti-intellectual powers, we the people are not represented or served. These are all forces of entropy.

  • We need to debunk the corporate fiction of logarithmically increasing profits. It's unsustainable and leads to financial collapse, as we've witnessed recently. It imbues people with starry-eyed notions that they, too, can become wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, which leads to all manner of sickness and moral decay.

  • We need to teach our children that money is an abstract tool, not a goal in life. At the same time, we need to teach them how to be a productive, contributing member of the world while earning a living, and that becoming wealthy for the sake of wealth is a goal unworthy of a good citizen.

  • We need to teach people - especially our children - that working to understand empathy for others is the answer to most of our problems.

  • Something we can all do: Love things deeply and share your love for those things, one classroom at a time, one room of gamers at a time, one dinner-party at a time, one person at a time. If someone wants to share their love with you, give them a chance. Open your mind. Don't exclude people, don't dismiss their love.


What would happen if, instead of wasting money and resources and mental energy and lives on war and destruction as a nation, we invested it?

What would happen if we made building a better future the goal instead of inducing and propagating fear? Would people feel the need to own guns if they didn't fear others? What would our culture look like if our greatest aspirations revolved around building a better world instead of protecting against threats and becoming rich?

Would people grow up emotionally healthier if they weren't bombarded with the messages of a culture of war and fear and rape and violence and profiteering?

Is it possible that being tacit supporters of such horrors as our nation commits in our name is a root cause of our national dysfunction?

If this is supposed to be a "Christian nation," as defined by so many of those who propagate these horrors, why do we value and act out the inverse? I believe we really could make this country a respectable place and become a beacon of hope for humankind if we actually followed the teachings of Jesus. But we don't, and organized religion always falls prey to the rot that destroys other human institutions, so the religionists need to either shut up about our "Christian nation" or else start acting in a way the historical Jesus taught. But they need to leave out the notion of gods and instead work on building an actual heaven on Earth.

Indeed, making this a truly secular nation would go a long way toward saving us. Heck, eliminating the notion of "nation" would help, too, as would eradicating all the other sub-tribal, exclusionary concepts with which we've enchained ourselves and dragged along through time like sledges since our earliest ages. Religions ruin civilizations, which I find to be a bitter irony, in that they were formed to organize and help people. Religious leaders destroy religions. Politicians ruin governments. Governments destroy nations. And so on.

Establishing anything leads to entropy, a crumbling and ruination and dying of everything that people build with their energy and enthusiasm. Whenever an institution settles, wherever bureaucracy forms, entropy sets in. So we must continually rebuild, reinvest, explore, discover. We must let go of what we cling to out of fear and comfort. We must always keep growing and learning, else we begin dying. This is the lesson all of history teaches us, as does physics, as does medicine....

Wanna save the world? Wanna make it a better place? I wanna hear your ideas.

Chris
mckitterick: aboard the New Orleans trolley (just Chris)
( Apr. 14th, 2012 07:15 pm)
Whether you're an inventor, writer, teacher, or any other kind of human being, you will find great enlightenment and hope in this talk by Jeremy Rifkin at the Ross Institute:


I first wrote about the core of Rifkin's talk months ago after having watched an abbreviated, illustrated version. But after watching his entire talk today, it's changed my life in a few ways:
  • I'm going to redesign all my courses to enable students to share in the teaching to help them learn better. This is part of Rifkin's urging, that teachers join the "distributed and collaborative communication and energy/mind revolution" that's happening right now. I already do a lot of this in my literature and advanced courses, but I'm also going to use this framework in my 300-level technical-writing course.

  • I'm going to re-roof the house with solar collectors to tranform my habitation from energy-consumer to energy-producer. Heck, I expect to sell power back to the utility most days!

  • I want to create a course centered around the concepts in Rifkin's talks and book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, or at the very minimum include the book in my spring "Science, Technology, and Society" course.

  • On a larger scale, I want to create a school - could be for young people, could simply be part of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction's mission - that is centered around this approach, is cross-curricular, and empowers students to be active participants in their education and the education of their fellow students. This is an idea I've been kicking around for years, outlining details, but Rifkin's talk finally crystallized the structures in my mind. SO EXCITED and movitvated!

Anyhow, go listen to the talk. It's about 1-1/2 hours long, so it might take a while. I'd love to hear what you think.

Chris
From The Great Dictator, overlaying a well-made video (though an odd choice of still image):



Everyone should listen to this! Not just watch the video, but listen to what he's saying. Still relevant after all these years... maybe even more so now.

Chris
I was just reading a friend's post about getting shot in the butt by a drive-by, and I burst into a big crying jag. At first I couldn't figure out why that would bother me so much; he was okay afterward, and it even inspired him to stop carrying a gun, himself.

I realize what whacked me was thinking of how people treat each other: a delayed response to what happened 10 years ago on Sunday and all the other ways that people hurt and destroy one another. Sometimes we can ignore the bad news on the radio, sometimes we can forget the inhumanity of humankind to others, but we don't really stop caring, the pain and disillusionment doesn't stop building. We hear stories about inhumanity like those assholes in the Republican debate audience who laughed at the death of the uninsured, or what the Palestinians and Israelis are doing to one another, or the Syrians, or the Afghans; we hear about violent robberies, we suffer our own small but devastating personal tragedies, we encounter any of a million other conflicts big and small that blaze around the world every single day. And, usually, we're able to distance ourselves from those things, resist getting too emotional about them.

But the pain is still there, bubbling under the surface, and once in a while one little thing is enough to open a crack, and the pressure is released in a great flood of tears.

I love this horrible and wonderful species, but sometimes it breaks my heart.

Chris
Here's a great video by Neil DeGrasse Tyson covering a couple of super-cool notions that combine what most excite me about astrophysics and life. This is the essence of science fiction for me!

First up, he talks about how we are starstuff, made of the most common elements in the universe. The first part of that statement is pretty basic to everyone who's ever taken a basic astronomy course: All the elements in our bodies were first manufactured in the heart of long-dead stars, starts that went supernova billions of years ago, casting their guts into space, where their matter coalesced into our Sun and the Earth and all the other matter in the Solar System. The notion I hadn't really considered before is that our form of life - carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen - is likely the most common form of life in the universe, because those are the most common elements (excepting helium, which is non-reactive, so useless to life except for using to float around). We're not likely to encounter much advanced life based on, say, lead or arsenic. Much useful idea-fodder there for SF writers.

The other cool SFnal material - perhaps even more relevant for writers thinking about aliens - is that we are only 1% or so different from chimpanzees, and that's what makes all the difference between maybe being able to do sign language and building the Hubble Space Telescope. If we encounter aliens who are only 1% different from us in intelligence, they might naturally intuit the greatest mysteries on the frontiers of science, their toddlers might be able to do astrophysics in their heads like Stephen Hawking, whom they might put in front of their anthropologists who'd say, "Aw, isn't that cute! My little BillyE59X just did that in school today and I put his homework on the fridge" - the way we do display our kids' pasta art.

If we meet superior aliens, would they stop to have a conversation with us? Well, do you stop to have a conversation with a worm? A bird? Well, maybe you do, but you don't expect the bird to hold up its side of the conversation.

Good stuff. Check it out:



I've been watching videos by him for the past couple of hours, since getting home from running errands after my Dad left to return to Minneapolis (great visit by the way! We went to see Cowboys and Aliens and the Douglas County Fair demolition derby, among other things). TONS of wonderfully insightful yet simple and accessible thoughts, much as Carl Sagan was the voice of reason and wonder from my youth. How did I miss knowing about Tyson for so long? I guess this is the sort of thing one gives up by not having cable.

In short: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is awesome. The universe is awesome. Everything is awesome!

Chris
According to this Japanese researcher, the amount of radioactive pollution from the Fukushima catastrophe is 30 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb, and even worse, the radioactivity is about 100 times longer-lingering than the fallout from that bomb. He estimates it'll cost many trillions of yen to clean up, and the efforts that organizations - including his - are making now to do so are illegal due to esoteric bureaucracy. But what really gets him furious is the Japanese government's apparent negligence in allowing children to go to school and play in severely contaminated areas.

Thanks, TEPCO, for making such reliable and safe reactors.


(Click the CC button to read an English translation.)

I can't even imagine what this is doing to the Japanese people, their culture and national identity.

Chris
By now, everyone in the world knows that the Obama administration - in a misguided attempt to appease the birther-loons - got Hawaii to release our Prez's full birth certificate this morning. The Trump has been trumpeting the trumped-up nonsense that the birther-loons have been quacking, in an effort to be in the spotlight. You win, Trumpenator! You've earned your full-monty Loon Medal! And Republican party? You asked for this.

Will this release stop the noise? Of course not. What the Obama administration did was nothing more than feed the trolls, and we all know where that gets us.

Let's take a look at these folks. They honestly believe that Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior is going to initiate the rapture of the chosen few on May 21, 2011, and that Almighty God His Father will destroy this world on October 21, 2011. If only, except for that pesky "destroying the world" part.

The world has been promised destruction pretty much as long as we've had religions. Remember that famous case when aliens were going to wipe us out on December 21, 1954? And of course Scientologists are pretty certain that the Alien Overlords are coming to destroy/free/probe us.

Despite facts to the contrary, people believe any number of insane things. The Roman Empire will last for all time! (Came close, relatively speaking.) The United States will always be a superpower full of rich folks! (Sorry, Americans.) Global warming is a myth! (Keep on believing that, Sparky.) You name it. I won't even get into religion, because, well, lots of folks get some kind of comfort from that, when they're not destroying infidels, "saving" people from their own culture's belief systems, or compelling people to behave strangely in nonsensical rituals.

What is wrong with people?

This article nails it on the head:

"A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.' So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger, in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial - the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s - and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens - including one, "Sananda," who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin's followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers - the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the "boys upstairs" (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?

At first, the group struggled for an explanation. But then rationalization set in. A new message arrived, announcing that they'd all been spared at the last minute. Festinger summarized the extraterrestrials' new pronouncement: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." Their willingness to believe in the prophecy had saved Earth from the prophecy!
(Click here to read the rest.)

Did you know that 25% of Americans still don't believe that Obama was born in the USA? Nothing will change their minds... in fact, trying to change their minds will only reinforce their beliefs. Last year, according to the Gallup Poll, 48% of Americans said that global warming's effects had been exaggerated. How about the whole "Aztec 2012 ZOMG!" craziness? And need I say more than the phrase, "Sarah Palin"?

I believe that humans are inherently good. I believe that seeking understanding, being open to change, and growing ourselves and our culture are our loftiest goals. I believe that, together, we can solve any problem, and that one day we will reach the stars.

Or is that only more proof of our infallibility regarding belief systems? Is it merely my own personal delusion?

Chris
In this wonderfully illustrated talk about "preparing the groundwork for an empathic civilization," Jeremy Rifkin discusses the evolution of empathy how it has shaped human development and how we interact. Check it out, then come back and we'll talk:



What he's saying here is that we need to broaden our sense of identity from selfish or tribal or religious or national identity to identifying as part of human civilization, as a fellow living being, as part of the Earth's biosphere - and I would add, as part of the Milky Way Galaxy, as part of the universe as a whole. He says that we are "soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship," and that our "first drive is to belong. It's an empathic drive."

He summarizes, "If we are truly Homo Empathicus, then we need to bring out that core nature. Because if it doesn't come and out it's repressed by our parenting, our educational system, our business practices, our government, the secondary drives take over: the narcissism, materialism, utilitarianism, violence, and aggression."

This is the primary theme in all I write. It's what Transcendence is about, what Empire Ship is about, and what my upcoming young-adult SF books will be about - that we must be empathic in all we do, because all we produce (our "fictions," technology and nationalism (in its broadest sense) and religion build barriers to understanding one another. Those walls we build rise so naturally when we don't exercise empathy - which is hard! It hurts to feel the suffering around us - and the wall-building grows as we stifle our empathic capacity, thereby limiting our ability to see others as like us in some way, even as human.

Lack of understanding leads to lack of empathy. Lack of empathy leads to easy dehumanization (or de-bunny-ization or so forth). Next, our identity shrinks until at some point it shrivels down to just Me. Then selfish drives take over, and it feels right and sensible that all I care about is what I want, because I can't imagine what others would think or feel. Now it's easy to hurt others; it's easy to disregard others, to lock them away in dungeons, to steal from them or take advantage of them, to rape or kill them.

It's only natural that prisoners and victims develop powerful empathy for their abusers, because the victim's world makes no sense: Why would someone do this to me? So they grope for understanding, exercising their empathic powers, delving into the minds of their abusers. This is why we have Stockholm Syndrome, why people stay with their abusive parents or partners.

It also explains why people who consistently behave in sociopathic ways - guards at secret prisons, habitual criminals, investment bankers - appear to lose their humanity. It's why military training works hard to erase the humanity of the target, and why soldiers make poor police. In fact, I would like to see a study that seeks to cure "sociopaths," because I hypothesize that such people might be curable over time if they exercise their atrophied empathy.

The dude who wandered around the Middle East a couple thousand years ago preached love and understanding and forgiveness: He preached that we must exercise our empathy or we will descend into Hell, which - In a literal sense - means that our world will become horrific if we are incapable of understanding and empathizing with one another.

Saving the world is simple: The sooner we start embracing the people and animals and natural wonders around us as part of us, as our identity, the sooner we will solve all the problems facing us.

This is also what I love about science fiction: It is the literature of the human species, not limited to the individual or nation or religion or even species or planet. Taken as a whole, SF says that we are all in this together, and when we're not - and when we lose our capacity to think of us as in it together - things go to hell in a hurry. As our technology grows more powerful, so too does our capacity to dehumanize and destroy others.

The Cold War was so horrible because it institutionalized anti-empathy. All wars are like this, including the current "war on terror" (and we all know that, right now, that means against Islamic fundamentalism), which is worse in many ways because it is not nation vs. nation or ideology vs. ideology: It's Us vs. Them. There's no reasoning with that, and the side-effects are pervasive and creeping. We all know The Terrorists are evil, right? And they all know that the West is evil. There's no room for understanding when our walls rise up and meet at the top.

When we cease empathizing, when we lose the capacity to imagine the other as our self, we build mausoleums around our cultures, nations, religions, and everything else that constitutes our identity - around our very selves! But empathizing is hard, I know. Listening to the news is painful, because it's all about suffering and loss. As the Dread Pirate said, "Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Heck, every week I see an animal on the side of road, needlessly killed by inattentive drivers, and that makes me suffer a little more. When I can, I stop and move the dead thing to the bushes and tell it that it's safe now, but at a deeper level that's just for me, to ease my empathic suffering.

One can argue that the most selfish thing you can do is to empathize. But as Rifkin says, "To empathize is to civilize," so this is one need we should satisfy whenever we can.

To be able to feel others in our heart: This is what it means to love. When people say that love is what life is all about, that there's nothing greater than to love and be loved in return, they don't mean some cheesy Hallmark version of love; they mean empathize with each other. This is all that matters in life. This is how we save the world.

Go out and empathize today!

Love,
Chris
I can't believe I didn't mention this in my original post: My publisher found the artist (Greg Martin) who provided the gorgeous art for the cover by seeing his work online - where, essentially, he gives it away via some lovely art galleries, much as I'm doing with the book. Because he lets the world share his art, he made a sale. Yet more evidence to support the hypothesis that giving away creative work can increase sales!

Oh, and if anyone doubts the honesty or integrity of human beings, consider this: Since I posted my book for free download (with Creative Commons license), I've received a number of donations via PayPal - including one for the full, hardcover price! I'm deeply touched and pleased to see that people really are honest and want to support artists - enough of them, anyway, to counter the ill-will of a few pirates. Thank you so much.

Chris
What, another post from McKitterick? Can you tell the CSSF Workshops and Intensive Institute are done, and that my Dad is on his way back to Minneapolis? Great visit, by the way.

Fred Pohl nails it in his most-recent blog post about US efforts to work with (read: "bribe") the Taliban in order to stop their attacks. Re: this month's cover of TIME about an "18-year-old Afghani woman whose husband’s family were so abusive that she ran away," Fred says, "the Taliban does not grant this kind of freedom of choice to any persons who are unfortunate enough to possess a vagina, so, to teach her a lesson, they ordered her ears and nose to be cut off. These people are pond scum. If not people like them, who are we fighting against?"


Unfortunately, fighting the Taliban doesn't stop atrocities like this, either. What's the answer? Unbearable pain and suffering are going on right now, somewhere in the world, all the time, and we are powerless to stop it. Perhaps because we occupy Afghanistan, we have a special responsibility there. I dunno. All I know is that the Taliban is pure evil, and good people are responsible for stopping evil. Isn't that why we have police and prisons? Can't we just arrest everyone who behaves like a psycho?

I hate feeling powerless. I'll just share one of my favorite quotes: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." - Philo

Chris
Just in case you haven't seen it yet, here's M.I.A.'s new music-video-slash-movie-short, "Born Free," an anthem for the modern world.


Warning: Contains graphic violence and nudity.


Jezebel writes a good analysis of the video and the changes sweeping through the modern music-video scene.

It's great to see someone making passionate music videos again. Wow.

Chris
mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Radiohead)
( Apr. 22nd, 2010 12:46 pm)
This just in: Anti-Cancer Agent Stops Metastasis In Its Tracks. "This suggests to us that an agent like macroketone could be used to both prevent cancer spread and to treat it as well," Dr. Huang says.

We are *this close* to a cancer cure. Ray Kurzweil is probably already using this stuff.

Chris
This is why we need a federal gay-marriage law. It's why we need to change our legal system so that people who are in long-term, committed relationships can enjoy all the same benefits that those who marry in a church enjoy.

Read this post by Nicola Griffith and you'll understand what I mean. Because she was a lesbian, Janice Langbehn was denied the right to visit her dying partner; it's why their children were denied the right to visit their dying mother. It gets worse:

"U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan dismissed a lawsuit yesterday, essentially finding that the Jackson Memorial Hospital was within its rights to leave a dying woman alone while denying her present and immediate family to visit her, be updated on her condition, or even to provide the hospital with medically necessary information."

I come back to the question whose answers I simply do not understand: Why do certain religious fundamentalists hate gay people? Why do they feel the need to deny them the right to form legal entanglements with others? It's not as if atheists are denied the right to marry. It's not as if getting a church wedding is any guarantee of long-term success, fidelity, or happiness. And one needn't even go to a church to get married. So why do the fundamentalists scream with foaming mouths about "protection of marriage" and fight with bloody fingernails against the right of human beings - citizens of a nation founded on the very notion of personal freedom - to declare to the world, "We choose each other! We wed our finances and property. We promise to chop everything we own into two equal parts and support the other and our offspring should our union fail." I mean, for those who have endured a divorce - especially one that spawned children - that's no huge honor.

So here we here a marriage (in every way except the legal protection) between two women. They raised four kids together. One of them is stricken with an aneurysm. Now the partner and children must sit terrified in the hospital waiting room. Now the stricken woman must die alone.

This is barbaric, people. Is this not the 21st Century? Is this not The Future as conceived by our SFnal forebears? Is this not the United States of America, land of the free and all that? If so, why must gay partners die alone? Why are those who enjoy rights of citizenship allowed to deny the same rights of others just because they disapprove of certain bedroom activities? Why is love, the most beautiful and perhaps sole redeeming feature of humanity, only valued when it occurs between a man and a woman?

It's time for change, people. Based on campaigns that fired us all up last fall - and whose top-dog speaker used to great effect - I'd say that the climate is right for this necessary change.

Chris
If you haven't yet watched Keith Olbermann's special comment on US Health Care Reform, you must watch this. He's a genius. He boils down the debate to the essentials. Anyone watching this cannot help but want "Medicare for everyone," as he defines it. It's a war against the insurance companies, and the battle is for everyone's health and life.

Watch:

Click the image to watch Keith Olbermann's special comment on US Health Care Reform.

Chris
I've been looking over the California Supreme Court's ruling on Proposition 8 (took me a while - it's over 125 pages long), approved by the majority of Cali voters last year, which added Section 7.5 to Article I of the California Constitution.

Okay, like many people, when I first heard about the decision, I was pissed off and started re-thinking the notion of California being a progressive state. But looking into the results a bit more got me thinking. Notes:
  1. At the time of the ruling, there were 18,000 same-sex marriages in California.

  2. This new article of the Cali constitution states that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

  3. The ruling also suggests that same-sex couples should be afforded all the same legal rights that male-female couples get to enjoy... but they can't call it "marriage."

  4. The ruling goes to great lengths to point out that Californians can change their constitution about as easily as most people change socks, noting how much more difficult it is to do so than it is to change the US Constitution.

  5. The ruling states that people in existing same-sex marriages that were legally performed (before Prop 8 was in force) get to stay married.

  6. That means 18,000 same-sex marriages in California are legal.

  7. Therefore, 6 invalidates 2.

  8. Therefore, this ruling says that - even though Prop 8 was legally pushed forward and Section 7.5 of article I of the California Constitution is legal and binding, it is meaningless and contradictory.
So my overall reading of the ruling is this: The California Supremes are giving the Prop-Eighters exactly what they asked for... whether it’s what they wanted or not.

And that's a good thing for human rights.

Now if only they could get as up-to-date as Iowa ;-)

Chris
mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (robot traveler)
( Nov. 15th, 2008 01:35 am)
Last night, I was talking with friends about things personal and things philosophical, likely kicked off by the Bill Brown talk. One topic that came up as it always seems to was, "What is the meaning of life?"

One friend said, "I don't know."

Another answered, "To spread our genes."

At first I dismissed the first answer. The second answer... well, it's absolutely true in a biological sense. When you get down to the root of everything, it's the real answer.

Earlier, I was walking home from work, passing under a leafless canopy. The bones of the trees were visible. Seeds everywhere. Students on the sidewalk, cell-phones in hand as they headed to their cars to drive off to play or study or build the future in which we will all live. And it struck me like lightning:

We are only hosts for our genetic material. Everything we do, everything we are, is dictated by the tiny machines that build us into thinking meat. We are products of our genes just as trees are the product of their seeds. Organisms - even thinking ones - are manufactured by the nano-factories called biology.

I envy the trees. They are not weighed down with responsibility or questions of right and wrong or considerations of the future. To them, "Why?" never crosses their minds. They do not need to worry about how to be the best tree they can be; they simply live. They are driven by the programming of the tiny machines within them, the machines that manufactured them and maintain them and dictate their future. Those machines help guide them as they encounter wind and drought; if they survive storms and Kansas summer, they produce new seeds. Those seeds grow into new trees that can survive what Kansas throws at them. They don't build civilizations or cities or universities; they don't engineer automobiles or cell phones. They simply live. And that is enough.

We, however - we humans - we are weighted with sentience. This mass of dendrites and other products of our machines make us worry about the future, about morality, about acquisitions. We form friendships and romantic entanglements; these endure or fade or explode in dramatic fashion, and then we write novels about our experiences or film movies or create other works of art. We talk about our victories and catastrophes with friends. With our friends and loved ones, we celebrate success and empathize with failure. We craft paintings, shoot photographs, post websites, write blogs, all in an effort to express ourselves. Our creative expressions consume years of our lives. We assemble bookshelves and paint the walls of our homes that others built and which we bought with money - a concept manufactured in the forebrains of economists - and call the people in our lives using electronics that are the product of centuries of industrial evolution. We talk and write and paint and run and climb and dance; we cry and laugh and drink ourselves into oblivion; we pour the years of our existence into making things, consuming things, building futures for others or destroying them. We believe we are good, or we are not evil, or we question what is good and evil. We describe what is right and moral, and then we question ourselves in the darkness of the night when we sit alone at our keyboards, wondering, wondering. We strive and we fail; we strive and we succeed.

But what does it all mean? Are we only acting out the over-complicated programming humming away within the hearts of our cells? We, products of the products of evolution; what are we? If we are only machines designed to produce more human machines of the type manufactured by the tiny machines that built us, then it is clear that our duty is to create more of those machines of our particular brand. We must prove the value of ourselves by making replicas of ourselves. The meaning of life is to pass our genes into the future. And to build a future best suited to protecting the new machines that we produce and which will carry our genes into that future. So we build civilizations and cell phones and put money in the bank. And when the banks fail or we lose our jobs or our houses are foreclosed upon, this quakes us to our cores, because the civilization we built is like the cradle for the future, the macro-machines that will provide for the human machines carrying "our" genes, and we have failed in our sole purpose.

An aside about owership: It is more true to say that we belong to our genes than that they are our genes. Does Chrysler Corporation belong to my 2004 Crossfire? Or my 1966 Newport? Absurd. Both were manufactured by the same machine (Chrysler Corporation), but in different generations. Yet they do not reproduce themselves, so this isn't a good comparison. Do the fruits on its branches belong to the persimmon tree in my back yard? Does the tree that dropped the fruit that grew this tree belong to it? Neither; it belongs to the genetic material that created the tree that dropped the fruit that contained the seed that grew my tree.

The tree's only reason for being is to survive the seasons, thrive through adversity, produce fruits, and - having survived and earned the right to do so - make more trees like it. It exists to perpetuate its genes. It is a framework and a resource for nothing more than supporting the gene factory that made it, the gene factory whose drive to thrive creates life itself.

This is God. God is within us all. God is the gene, the self-assembling matter of life. God is the biological nanofactory. There is no right and wrong beyond what allows the factory to thrive and continue to produce.

We live and laugh and cry, we build cities and laptops and torture ourselves with questions of right and wrong so that we may provide a lush cradle for the machines that made us in order to do nothing more than deliver those genes into the future.

Our sentience is a burden, something we must carry, something that gets in the way of itself. It is an unfortunate diversion along the road to our genes' future.

This is not a comfort.

This friend also said that the meaning of life is "to seek pleasure." Pleasure, I think, is merely our genes expressing to us that we're taking the right path to provide them with what they need. But sentience does not approve. We build ethical and moral frameworks that limit pleasure and define which pleasures are the correct ones, even when they feel uncomfortable; we define which pleasures are the incorrect ones, even when they feel best.

Either pleasure is not a good guide or sentience is a poor expression of our genes. Or both. And sentience doesn't feel comfortable with the idea that it exists only as part of the product of the machine to which we belong. Even that - the gene - is merely the product of its programming. It is the machine that operates on that programming, as we operate on the gene.


After slogging through all of this meaning and meaninglessness, the first seems the truest answer:

What is the meaning of life?

I don't know.

Chris

Also posted to my website.
Going from the ridiculous (my super-powers post) to the sublime.

A few days ago, I shared an essay that moved me to my core. Today I'm sharing a video by Keith Olbermann about Californians voting against human rights. This made me cry for the beauty of his words and the beauty of hope and love; it made me cry for the alone-ness we all feel in a universe where we all live in isolation from one another, misunderstanding and fearing and hating. The truth behind Olbermann's words is what drove me to write a novel, Transcendence (which I hope to see on the shelves next year - but I can't talk about that just yet!). What Olbermann talks about here is perhaps the central theme in my work. Hearing Olbermann express part of that truth about love and separation touched me to my core of my being.

Below I've transcribed a few lines from his special comment on love and marriage. Powerful stuff. To those who voted for California's Prop 8, which rescinded the right of gays to marry:

What is this to you? Nobody is asking you to embrace their expression of love. But don't you as human beings have to embrace that love? The world is barren enough. It is stacked against love, and against hope, and against those very few and very precious emotions that enable us - all of us - to go forward.

With so much hate in the world, with so much meaningless division, and people pitted against each other, for no good reason; this is what your religion tells you what to do? With your experience of life and this world, and all its sadnesses; this is what your conscience tells you to do? With your knowledge that life, with endless vigor, seems to tilt the playing field in which we all live in favor of unhappiness and hate, this is what your heart tells you to do?

You want to honor your God and the universal love you believe He represents, then spread happiness, this tiny, symbolic, symantical grain of happiness. Share it with all those who seek it.

All you need to do is stand and let the tiny ember of love meet its own fate. You don't have to help it, you don't have to applaud it, you don't have to fight for it. Just don't put it out, just don't extinguish it.


The video:

Chris
In this essay, Mike Selinker strikes a sad note in England's history, when they killed national hero and genius Alan Turing, thereby relegating themselves to the dustbin of history. It's a must-read.

One can see this tragedy as an opportunity for an alternate-history story. Has anyone written this: What if England hadn't forced Alan Turing into an intolerable situation? What if he had gone on to establish a British computer industry in the 1950s? What if computer science had flourished twenty years sooner than it did?

Questions that elicit answers that make Turing's death even more tragic.

Chris
God, this is beautiful. (And ugly. And heart-rending.)

I don't often have such a strong reaction to an essay. We read essays like this because they're emotionally true; we read this kind of writing and poetry and fiction, we listen to music that does this for us and watch movies that touch on truths we know inside because what the words express is so true for us. It's as if finally - at last! - someone understands well enough to speak for us honestly and with perfect clarity. It's as if our minds touch just for a moment. Being understood and hearing our inner truths expressed so well is cathartic. We are never the same again after veils of misunderstanding are pulled aside; when we look inside without filters or walls, we become someone different; after facing the truth about ourselves, ironically we are never the same.

This essay describes concisely and lucidly how it felt to grow up Gen X American. And this phrase nails exactly about how it felt to hear Obama accept the Presidency:

when we watched Barack Obama's victory speech on Tuesday night, we looked into the eyes of a real leader, and decades of cynicism about politics and grass-roots movements and community melted away in a single moment.

For my entire life, I've had to knuckle under to conservatives (yes, I count Bill Clinton as such); for the students I teach, it must have been so much worse to have mostly only known the fucking tragedy that was the Bush dynasty. Though I have vague memories of Jimmy Carter, I've never felt someone represented me in the White House. Seeing Obama accepting the Presidency... I just wept for joy. And now I'm wet-cheeked all over again. Here, read it:

Essay text archived behind the cut. )

Fucking brilliant.

With hope,
Chris

PS: I've deleted five LJ icons re: Bush and cynicism. It's time.
mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Bush dollar)
( Oct. 3rd, 2008 03:57 pm)
Oh my gosh, this is the best analysis of the Middle Class that I've read, by [livejournal.com profile] copperwise.

Thank you, Sarah Palin, for getting the liberals thinking and writing about the nonsense you spouted last night.

Best,
Chris
.

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mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Default)
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