The Quest for Truth

My spirit is unsettled.

Today’s unease came from reading about ISIS in Iraq, laying down an ultimatum to the few remaining Christians there (about 200 estimated, down from 100,000 a few years ago) — convert to Islam, pay a tax, or die. I expect a few obstinate martyrdoms in the next few days or weeks, and a firestorm of anti-Muslim outrage around the planet accompanied by violence, followed by an Islamic backlash. It seems insane. It is insane.

But that was merely today’s unease. I’ve been uneasy for some time. Art Linkletter used to have a television show with a segment named, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” The Internet now has a permanent segment we might call, “People Believe the Darnedest Things.” You don’t need to go far to find overt insanity of all colors and consistencies dribbling past the lips of one popular talking head or another, if not a Senator, a Supreme Justice, or a Presidential hopeful.

In the midst of all this, I find myself asking, “Where is Truth?”

Humans seem to have a need to find Truth, and some of the most bizarre ways of seeking it. A very long time ago, people would cut open animals and watch their entrails writhe as they died to try to determine Truth. The Bible records the Israelites throwing the Holy Dice, Urim and Thummin, to find Truth. After writing was developed, people began to pore over the Sacred Texts of Long Ago, trying to scratch Truth out of ancestral words they did not fully understand, given the realities of language drift: this probably reached its highest expression in the Scholastic tradition of twelfth-century Roman Catholicism, which is perhaps the tallest ziggurat of pure reason ever erected, built upon the least reasonable of all possible foundations.

Today, we perform small experiments on ever smaller bits and pieces of nature in the laboratory, and run computer simulations based on mathematical models, to search for Truth.

On days like today, I wonder — I truly wonder — if a civilization five thousand years from now will look at our grand pronouncements about Scientific Truth, and lump it all together with urticariaomancy.

How can you speak this way? you say. Science is science. Facts are facts. You are a scientist — you know this as well as anyone.

Yes, I do. Science is science, and facts are facts. But are either of these Truth? Are either of them the thing that people keep searching for, the thing that I refer to in the midst of growing global madness when I ask, “Where is Truth?”

Not really.

Truth refers to insight: it is the blinding flash of inspiration that reveals the hidden order of the universe. It is the revelation that everything, together, makes some kind of sense — it isn’t all just random crap thrown at us from a giant pinball machine. It’s the head-oriented way — Aeolean, or Air-based — of intuiting the divine.

Studying the motions of the stars, or the appearance-change of cancer cells under controlled conditions, or the way silt has layered itself on former sea-beds, can give rise to this insight: or at least, so some people say. Studying the presumed-random deal of a deck of cards, or the thrown I Ching coins, can also give rise to this insight: or so some people say. Still other people say that this insight comes from ingesting psilocybin, or ayahuasca, or iboga root, or LSD.

Frankly, I don’t see a lot of Truth coming from any of our systems of divination, including science.

When I hear the evolutionists and the creationists screaming at each other with bared teeth while pounding their chests, I find myself wondering how much difference it really makes if people believe that some caveman named Alley Oop rode a brontosaurus near the Garden of Eden five thousand years ago, shortly after the world was created. It’s hardly the strangest or most destructive belief people have these days.

Consider some US Americans’ earnestly-held belief that it’s nearly time to pick up their second-amendment-protected hollow-point automatic assault weapons, march on DC while triumphantly mowing down SWAT teams dropped from black helicopters sent by the UN, and yank that evil Black Man out of the White House and hang him from a lamp post, because he’s a non-American Muslim Communist Imperialist presiding personally over death panels in Benghazi.

Or consider the true American patriots who believe that those desperate children ghettoed in federal holding pens in Arizona and Texas should be simply sent back to the hell-hole they came from. Because we all know that people in the US don’t have enough to eat, or enough square footage to live in, and we just can’t take in any more of the worthless little hooligans. The inns are all full. Except for the Wedding Suite, and not one of those kids is carrying a Platinum credit card. What were those parents in El Salvador thinking?

Or we could talk about people’s belief in the salesmen’s promise of another fifty years of natural gas in exchange for potentially despoiling every bit of arable land and fresh water in the US. So that we can free ourselves of dependence on oil.

I’d really much rather that people believed in Alley Oop and his brontosaurus. For all his low hairline and jaggy chin, Alley Oop was always a pretty decent, sensible fellow, and a much better role model than any modern figure I can think of.

Truth isn’t to be found in any of our institutions. Not in science, which buries us in facts and occasional technological marvels, but increasingly drifts away in its own little bubble that leaves disingenuous politicians able to say, “I’m not a scientist” as an acceptable excuse for being an ignorant fool. Not in religion, which is now baring the fangs of its most vicious forms in Iraq, Israel, and the US, to which I can only say, look to the fruit your branch is bearing, and stop wasting your breath and my time trying to tell me your religion is anything but a poisonous weed infested with scorpions. Not in politics, which is slowly asphyxiating itself in the grip of sectarian deadlock and bribery.

Where is Truth?

I don’t know. But I do know how to recognize it.

When you encounter Truth, your spirit soars.

The one place I still consistently find that is in writing beautiful music. I remember lying in bed during hot summer nights in 2003, exhausted from chemotherapy but unable to sleep. It wasn’t at all clear to me that I’d live to see my youngest son graduate high school, and I knew how hard that would be for him. I mused over all the things I’d done, and that I’d half-done, and that I’d never done, over my successes and failures as a parent, over the work of my short career — I wasn’t yet fifty – and I wondered if the sum of it amounted to anything at all.

Then I would put a flawed recording of my Piano Concerto on my cheap bedside CD player to lull myself to sleep, and listen with composer’s ears through the recording flaws and the cheap speakers, and I would think – If nothing else, I have written that.

It isn’t the grandest piano concerto ever written, nor the most fiendishly difficult, nor world-shattering in its originality, nor even the most beautiful — but it is beautiful, and it makes my spirit soar. Perhaps bringing a single thing of beauty into the world — allowing the Muses to speak through you even once — is sufficient.

So it occurs to me that perhaps the only real Truth I have to offer is through music.

I’m certainly coming up short on words of reason: as the world and the nation fragments into madness, I’m not sure there’s much point in saying anything.

Though I doubt I will be able to remain quiet.

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If you are planning to buy a house, be aware that it’s a money pit.

Yes, in the end — fifteen or thirty years from now — you’ll have an “asset” you can sell, bought with money you’d otherwise have thrown away on rent, and all of the income you spend on interest will be flagged as tax-free. Also, your monthly payment will probably be less than renting, simply because the landlord very likely doesn’t own the place: he’s paying off exactly the same mortgage you would have gotten on the house, if you’d had the down payment and credit score you needed. So he’s charging you mortgage-plus.

But there’s a reason the landlord is gouging you for that plus, because he’s also paying for the money pit expenses. Exploding hot water heaters. New roofing. Clogged toilets.

Which brings me to today’s subject.

Our sewer backed up. No, it’s not the city’s fault. It was apparently a thirty-year accumulation of unmentionable stuff that, for whatever reason, never quite made it to the city’s dark domain. The plumber tried to snake it, but that didn’t work — too old, too thick, too much. They ran the camera. Then they told us they weren’t sure they could pull all the muck back into the house, which no one really wanted to happen anyway, so they needed to go in from the other end.

The sewer lines for this house run directly under the driveway. There are no access-points. So the solution was for them to remove the driveway, dig a coffin-sized pit to get to the sewer line, do some plumber magic that I don’t fully grasp (it involves two lengths of plastic pipe lying in our flowerbed at the moment), then fill in the hole and re-pour the driveway. It isn’t their first such job, and they seem to know what needs to happen.

We’ve needed to do something about the driveway, anyway: one slab had settled and created an ankle-wrenching lip, and the surface was spalling badly in places. I don’t think it needed replacement, but at this point I’m into any cheap thrills I can get, with an emphasis on cheap.

Yesterday, a driver arrived at about 1:00 in the afternoon in an enormous truck pulling an enormous flatbed trailer, with an enormous backhoe on the trailer; the plumber came in another large truck containing a concrete saw and other hardware. They sliced a coffin-shaped opening in the driveway, but the saw was too heavy for the operator to fully control on the slope, and the cross-cuts were angled. They could not pry the resulting wedge-shaped end piece out of the driveway, so the plumber grabbed a sledgehammer and broke up the wedge so they could pull it out by hand and make room to get the backhoe claw under the remaining slab.

Then they started to dig. Unfortunately, there is both electricity and gas in the same area, and the plumber grinned at the driver and said, “You want to know what’s a long day? Try cutting a gas line.” So they alternated between removing dirt with the backhoe, and jumping into the hole to dig around with a shovel to find the gas line, which a city engineer had marked and told them was about thirty-six inches down.

By 5:00, they were down to twelve feet or so and had hit groundwater without having found either the gas line or the sewer line. The plumber was not happy. He came back into the house to re-inspect the pipes, and tested again with their pipe-finding instruments, and concluded that they needed to keep digging. But they’d reached the limits of the backhoe. So they had to call in a bigger backhoe, which should arrive tomorrow, presumably on an even bigger flatbed trailer, pulled by a bigger truck, lumbering in on a road never intended for such beasts.

While I was watching all of this, it occurred to me that ten unskilled laborers, equipped with sledgehammers, picks, shovels, and buckets (perhaps technologically enhanced with a rope and some pulleys) could have made very short work of the driveway and that fifteen-foot-deep grave. Based on what I saw the plumber do with the sledge and the shovel, I can’t imagine it would take an hour for ten guys to turn the entire driveway to baseball-sized chunks, and maybe another hour for two of the guys at a time, in rotation, to get down to the sewer-line without posing any serious risk to the gas or electric lines. But what do I know about that kind of work? Let’s double my ignorant estimate. Four hours for ten guys to break up some concrete and dig a deep grave. Let’s pay them well (for unskilled labor) at $20/hour. Ten guys, for four hours, at $20/hour comes to $800.

I seriously doubt that the amortized cost of the truck, flatbed, and backhoe for four hours was anywhere near as low as $800, much less the cost of bringing in a second backhoe tomorrow to finish the job. I definitely know that I’m not paying anything nearly as low as $800 for that hole in the ground.

The false economies in this entire scenario multiply to absurdity and beyond. Yet this is how we live and do business, and we call it “efficient.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about “appropriate technology” for the last few years, given that I’m pretty sure that we’re all going to be facing a lower-energy future and fairly soon. In particular, harnessing the deceased spirits of dinosaurs to our machines, as we do, is definitely coming to an end, and there is no obvious contender to replace those dinosaur ghosts – a few solar panels slapped on that backhoe aren’t going to do much more than run the radio.

However, there’s a lot of what I’m going to come right out and call “preachiness” in the appropriate tech world on the Internet: the self-sufficient vegan gardens and composting toilets and anyone-who-owns-a-gasoline-powered-vehicle-is-a-monster sort of thing. It does serve to make me feel badly about myself.

I look at a situation like this, and wonder what might have been more appropriate for me to have done.

An outhouse occurred to me when I saw the bid for this job. I even asked: $700 for two guys to dig the thing; $40 extra to carve the moon in the door. Of course, there’s the hair-shirt discomfort of using an outdoor toilet in the dead of winter when you’re running a fever. But suffering builds character, right? The real problem would be that, if my neighbors didn’t file an injunction against me for putting an outhouse in my backyard, the homeowners’ association would, unless it’s actually illegal within city limits, in which case the city would shut it down and fine the crap right out of me. A permanent porta-potty contract wouldn’t fare any better. That whole approach is just begging for legal trouble.

We could switch to composting toilets and keep them hidden inside the house. But it isn’t just about the toilets. It’s all the water outflow from the house, including dishwater and effluent from the shower or tub. A sewage connection, so far as I know, is not legally optional within city limits. Nor should it be. I know plenty of people who would “purify” their dishwater with moonbeam-charged crystals and then dump it on their lawn or into the street rainwater gutter. I don’t want to live in a city where that’s legal.

This legal requirement remains a burden even if we decided it was time to walk away from the house and live in a yurt in the mountains. Unless we wanted to run from bounty-hunters and process-servers for the rest of our lives, we’d have to sell the house to pay off the mortgage, and I’m not sure I could live with passing off the bad plumbing to the next owner without disclosing the problem. Assuming we could even get away with that.

One way or another, the sewer line needs to be fixed.

So let’s look at options there.

I don’t have the knowledge or sufficient hair on my dangly-parts to try to tell a master plumber and his crew that they have no idea what they’re doing, and that they should be hiring ten unskilled diggers at $20/hour instead of renting a backhoe, or that there’s some more appropriate (and cheaper) way to fix the problem. I think the only result of that discussion would be to find myself needing to call another plumber.

I could go through every plumbing company in town until I find someone who doesn’t use machines and is willing to do the work for a fraction of the price. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to work out well — my experience leads me to suspect that whoever I find will not be especially interested in warranting the work, nor in repeat business, and I anticipate great distress in the future when sewage starts bubbling up in my wife’s flowerbeds.

I could contract the digging myself. Not that I have any general contracting skills or contacts, mind you. Nor do I know where (or if) I could round up ten unskilled laborers who would work for $20/hour. Since general contracting is not my business, I’d need to develop those skills, which will be useful maybe a dozen times in my whole life. Which means I’d never become any better than absolutely terrible at the job. I anticipate great distress following from that approach, too.

Of course, I could dig the hole myself, as a testament to manly self-sufficiency. It’s just about the right size and shape for me to lie down at the bottom when I’m done, and have someone else fill it in. I’m not John Henry, and have never pretended I was. Yes, my ancestors would have been ashamed of me: they’d have picked me up and broken me in two like a stick. A sad truth, but not one that is going to change in this lifetime unless I quit my sedentary job and start doing hard manual labor at $8/hour, which is the actual minimum wage in Colorado (which means my ten-guy job should only cost $320, and I know the backhoe rental was more than that).

Besides, my ancestors are all safely dead, so they can suck it.

Have I missed any options? Nothing comes to mind.

We live in a world where vast amounts of money flow around in a big circle. My employers pay me too much, but they have to, so that I can live in this complex world where the plumber charges me too much, because he’s supporting a backhoe company, which is paying its employees far too much so that they can hire plumbers who charge too much. Our human dependencies have stretched into such invisible distances that the whole human enterprise has become subject to the butterfly effect, where a child’s cold in China can bring down a corporation in New York City.

I think appropriate technology has its time, and that time is coming — but it isn’t here yet. Until it comes, we’ll continue to use a machine to do a job that people can do better, faster, and cheaper, and we’ll continue to believe it’s more efficient, more advanced, and more “civilized.”

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The Promise of Staying Home

I fell into a conversation recently with a writer, who is of the firm opinion that everything changed forever in 1945 with the spectacular unveiling of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was the mad hope of the bomb’s inventor, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, and of many futurists and international diplomats since, that the nuclear bomb and the US/USSR policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) would mark the end of international warfare. So far, it has worked, more or less. At any rate, the US and the USSR never paved the world in radioactive glass, and if anyone has ever used a tactical nuke in battle, they’ve covered it up pretty well.

Many futurists seem to feel, then, that we’re almost home-free: if we just lick this global warming and environmental devastation thing we’re facing now, we’re set for a long, peaceful future where we can all settle down and live happily ever after, or at least until homo superior comes along and gently leads us off to our species’ retirement home.

Futurists seem to have a rather blind faith in progress as a one-way arrow. Once we have nukes, we will always have nukes, and can therefore talk about a future without war. Once we have computers, we will always have computers, and can talk about robots and artificial intelligence and cybernetic immortality. Once we have the Internet, we will always have the Internet, and it will change our politics and social interactions forever. It’s all about knowledge, and presumably once we have knowledge, we can make an interstellar communication “phone home” device out of an old umbrella and a record-player.

It works in the movies. Although there’s always that moment of unbearable tension when the “scientist” needs an integrating goniometer, and gosh darn it, all she’s got is a credit card and a screwdriver…. “But wait,” she says, “if I just reverse the polarity of the flux capacitor…!” [Sorry, but I've been watching the old SG-1 series on Amazon, and something like this happens every few episodes. She also manages to do this just before they run out of air, or the bad guys show up, or the episode runs out of time.]

This doesn’t work in real life.

It’s true that our real-life modern technological society is based on a certain kind of knowledge, but that merely supplies the floor-plan — the real foundation that holds up the piano and the couch is cheap energy. The cheap energy technological boom started with coal and the steam engine. It shifted from there to oil and the internal combustion engine. The real future hinges upon the question of: “What replaces oil?”

There are huge and vituperative arguments on the web about oil reserves, coal reserves, and natural gas reserves. Many of these arguments are from paid fossil-fuel-industry public relations flaks. Some are from argumentative people who like to quibble over definitions and decimal points.

What matters is that coal, oil, and natural gas are all stored sunlight created long ago, and Mother Nature is not making any more of this stored sunlight — not right now, and not under conditions we humans could, or would want to, live through: no one but the Creationists claim otherwise. As a result, each of these sources of stored sunlight has a well-established, very predictable “production curve” that looks like an anthill — it goes up on one side, peaks in the middle, and then goes down on the other side. The curves tend to be fairly symmetric — usually a little steeper on the downslope — so to first approximation, if you know how long it took to get from zero to peak, you know roughly how long you have to go from peak to zero.

For our current workhorse, petroleum, it took about 150 years to go from zero to peak, which we hit in the first decade of this century. So by the late 2100′s, we won’t be burning oil any more — we’ll either have replaced it with something else, or we’ll be making do without.

I haven’t paid as much attention to NG or coal, but they follow exactly the same pattern. Within 200 years — let’s be generous and say 300 years – our fossil-fuel phase as a species will be over and done with.

So we have three distinct and mutually exclusive energy futures in the year 2300. They are basically: a lot less energy, about the same amount of energy, or a lot more energy. Let me spell these out in a little more detail.

Future 1: We don’t find any workable replacements for fossil fuels, or don’t deploy them in time to prevent a catastrophic decline in the technological level of our civilization. Maybe this is because of politics, or war, or because we never figure out how to improve them enough to make them useful on a large scale. Furthermore, no magic bullet technologies show up. After 2300 our energy technology drops to what we had in, say, 1700, or below. Wind, water, and muscle.

Future 2: We manage to scale up existing solar, wind, and other renewables, using our fossil fuel technology to leapfrog into these rapidly, make some lifestyle adaptations to a slightly lower energy budget, and keep a reasonably high level of technology going on a sustainable basis. The year 2300 then provides us with kind of a steampunk or alternate-universe energy technology at, say, the level we had in 1900.

Future 3: We see one or more technological breakthroughs in energy production, and our energy foundation expands, just as it did when we developed petroleum over coal.

Let’s analyze these futures.

Future 2 — steady as she goes

I’d like to start with Future 2, which doesn’t require a lot of wishful thinking, but does require hope and some hard work. It’s where I think we’ll try to go, or at least where we’ll wish we had gone if we don’t try.

Two things have to happen for this to come about: we have to improve renewable energy technology by a fair bit, particularly reducing the energy cost of the technology — that is, how much energy it costs to make and sustain the tools that produce the energy – and we have to scale back our energy wastage.

It’s worth looking at how energy use has grown:


If we roll back to the energy requirements of 1900, or even 1935, existing renewables would probably suffice if deployed on a large enough scale. But that means we’ll see our lifestyle return to that of 1900 or 1935. Here are some examples of what this means:

Passenger jet travel will go away — nothing in Future 2 replaces jet fuel. Military jets will probably be around for a while, though flying them will be ruinously expensive. Zeppelins could come back, and passenger rail almost certainly will. US Americans have such a deep and irrational love-affair with their cars that they’d probably starve rather than give them up: so electric cars are likely, even if uneconomical. But the four-hour daily commute from suburbs to workplace will end, because of the cost.

That means suburbs and bedroom communities will either convert into legitimate towns with a real local economy, or they’ll die out as people move back to the cities to be closer to work. The urban decay that arose in the shadow of the family car will be turned backward as burned out city cores are “gentrified” and revitalized. Cities and towns that haven’t already done so will be slowly rebuilt to be more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Food will become more local and more seasonal.

Our global carbon footprint will shrink and eventually almost vanish, and while we’ll live through the consequences of the global warming we’ve already locked in, we might escape some of the worst problems.

That brings us to nuclear weapons. I have no idea how long they will stick around in Future 2. One of the big changes in any lower-energy future is that the world — which has been effectively shrinking since 1500 due to increased energy use in transportation technologies — will grow larger once more. That will have profound effects on the geopolitics of war. While it will still be possible to synthesize various rocket propellants for the ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) that form the heart of Mutual Assured Destruction, it will be hugely more expensive, as will all the tool chains involved in making and maintaining the nuclear warheads. If we ever drop the full technological infrastructure to make and maintain nukes, deliberately or because of economic troubles, it will be very difficult and very expensive to restart that industry in Future 2.

My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that nuclear weapons will go away, along with the capacity to fight world wars. There will not be enough cheap energy to throw around that way. There will still be plenty of war and bloodshed, which seems to be a human need, but it will not be able to ignite on the scale of World War II or the dreaded World War III.

Future 2 is a tenuous future: we still have to deal with global warming, freshwater depletion, soil degradation, deforestation, overfishing, nuclear and chemical cleanup, GMOs, and all the other environmentally suicidal things we’ve already done as a species.

Future 2 is particularly tenuous in the US, because the nation grew up in a world awash in coal and oil. Every aspect of our society, from the architecture of skyscraper-dominated cities, to the existence of bedroom communities, to supermarkets, is based upon fossil fuel energy and the technology that profligate energy wastage allows. It’s going to be a major technological challenge to scale back and convert our energy usage without causing our entire industrial and civic infrastructure to collapse. But that’s the easiest part, and lots of smart people will be working on it full-time.

A far more difficult part is that investment capitalism will go away. You cannot maintain continuous economic growth in a sustainable economy. Simply put, capital investment will no longer yield profits, because capital investment won’t yield any value. There’s no point in doubling the capacity of a plant when there are no new customers. Not all investment will go away, and industries will still rise and fall, but every industry that rises will depend on some other industry falling: every person who starts drinking Coke will stop drinking Pepsi; someone who buys the latest iGadget will stop buying the old iGadget. Our economy will shudder and probably collapse numerous times before people figure out that what we call capitalism doesn’t work in a world without a constantly increasing energy budget. But people will eventually figure it out, and muddle through into whatever replaces our current economic scheme.

The real challenge is the political challenge. There is, of course, a lot of fingers-in-the-ears, la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you denial going on throughout our US society regarding both fossil fuel peaks and homogenic climate change, including a large segment of the population that thinks that the world was created six thousand years ago and that none of this matters because Jesus will come back and fix everything. Apart from this overt lunacy, most of the money in the nation is invested in the status quo, which means fossil fuels and the industries that depend upon them. Since our form of government is a de facto representative oligarchy that represents and defends the monied status quo, any appropriate and timely movement toward Future 2 is and will continue to be fought, tooth and nail, by everyone with even a spit of political power.

This means that any attempt to move into Future 2 will be actively sabotaged by the most powerful people in the country, including through massive marketing campaigns to keep the voters confused. We see a perfect example of this in the fracking bubble.

I don’t personally think the US is up to the task of building Future 2. I’d love to be wrong.

If we don’t move to Future 2, then we end up in:

Future 1 – full stop

This is what we get if we shoot for Future 2 and miss. It’s also what we get if we’re stupid. Some writers, like J.M. Greer, believe that we missed the window for Future 2 back in the 1970′s, and at this point we’re stuck with Future 1. He could be right.

While this future ends up at a peak energy technology equivalent to the year 1700, it’s anything but a smooth ride, and 1700′s technology will likely be something we climb back to many centuries from now.

We get to Future 1 by not moving aggressively (and successfully) into renewable energy, meaning that we’ll most likely have adopted the Sarah Palin plan of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” followed by “Burn, Baby, Burn,” followed by “Good Lord, Pa, turn up the air conditioner!” What that means in practice is that the government continues to offer increasing subsidies and privileged business status to the oil industry to keep energy prices low. Note that I say increasing subsidies, because oil extraction is only going to get more expensive. This policy of appeasement is going to strain the federal coffers as time passes.

Low oil prices mean that renewables can’t get an economic foothold. So they’ll never get developed and deployed on the necessary scale to reach Future 2.

We’ve already locked in a certain amount of sea-level rise with our current carbon emissions, and the Palin strategy is going to lock in even more. I’ve read that anything up to a five foot rise is not a problem. I don’t know if we’ve already blown that limit, but the Palin strategy guarantees that we will.

We could cope with the predicted slow rise of the sea, except that climate change deniers will also put off upgrading the dikes, and moving the docks and city boundaries, as long as possible, claiming that we can’t afford it, or that the government shouldn’t be involved in such things, or that taxes are too high, or that there is no global warming, yada, yada. Which means that somewhere down the road, probably about the point that oil subsidies are starting to really hurt, we’re going to see recurring coastal storms with Katrina-scale consequences in New York City, Charleston, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Galveston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and dozens of other smaller port cities. All of them will call for national disaster relief: more strain on federal coffers.

At the same time, the heat in the Midwest and the California valleys will get high enough to kill crops. Rising food prices and even shortages will follow. Wildfires will continue to rip through the Mountain States and California. Drought in Texas will deepen. The aquifers in Texas and the Midwest will run dry, if they aren’t poisoned first by fracking. More strain on the federal coffers.

At some point, the feds are going to do triage on these multiplying disasters. They’ll have no choice.

From there, everything gets chaotic, and my crystal ball is clouded. It’s a rich field for writing dystopian fiction. However, in the end — very likely after a civil bloodbath, possibly preceded by an attempt to hold everything together under military rule — I see a Disunited States of America.

This is the dystopia I have been exploring in some of my stories, here, herehere, and here.

Like the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the collapse will likely be uneven, with some states and communities remaining peaceful and perhaps even willfully unaware of what is happening around them, while others will descend into lawlessness, where — as it was put in the film Cloud Atlas — “the strong do eat, the weak are meat.” Over time, probably a few centuries from now, even the wealthiest and most privileged communities will decline into some form of feudalism, where local security or military forces keep the peace and protect the citizens, who will mostly be concerned with keeping the military in check and food on the table. We’ll all be herding goats, harvesting squash, and working a village forge. Think Western Europe in the Low Middle Ages.

Though in theory we still have all the knowledge of the past, we won’t have the cheap energy foundation to make use of it. In particular, there will be no coal, oil, or natural gas within reach: during the last phases of the Palin strategy, our hyperextended extraction technology will have scraped the bottom of the barrel multiple times. Once even barrel-scraping (e.g. fracking) becomes unprofitable, the machinery will be sold for scrap, or abandoned and allowed to rust, and since all of it runs on cheap fossil fuels which can no longer be reached, the human race will never again be in a position to restart the machinery. We won’t hang onto the technological knowledge for long if it’s useless.

There is zero nuclear threat from the Former United States in Future 1, once we disunite. My rough understanding is that an unmaintained nuclear weapon becomes non-functional after about ten years, give or take. No one will be able to find a century-old missile silo and make use of the “Old World” magic to threaten their neighbors: the missile silos that dot Kansas and Wyoming will simply be holes in the ground filled with a mysterious sickness that falls on anyone who ventures inside. If there are persistent nuclear threats out there, it will be from other nations that didn’t fall into a Future 1.

I haven’t thought much about what might happen in a world where some other nations crafted a Future 2 while the US fell into a Future 1, particularly after a confused churn of chaos here, though it’s the most likely possibility. I’ll have to think about that a bit, but my first guess is that the US would be exploited for resources and labor, just like any third-world country today.

Future 3 — full speed ahead

I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking through this scenario, either. It disturbs me more than even Future 1, because I suspect this could be a human extinction scenario.

There are a number of potential paths into this future. I’m going to use cold fusion as the imagined foundation for Future 3, because it is an extreme case. The fuel, nickel, is plentiful and cheap to extract, the fusion process produces only gamma rays and heat with no radioactive waste left over, the Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) is at least 1000:1 (at its highest, oil was 100:1), and the total energy content is orders of magnitude larger than all the fossil fuels ever burned to date. It’s the Holy Grail of energy.

It’s also very possibly a pipe dream, or a hoax. But let’s ignore that, and say that it works. What does Future 3 look like?

The current energy problems are solved — we won’t need oil, coal, or natural gas; if we do need them for specific purposes, such as jet fuel, we can afford to synthesize them. Global warming is resolved, because we’ll stop burning fossil fuels very quickly. The freshwater problem is solved, because we’ll have the energy to desalinate seawater, and to transport it where it’s needed: we could probably even profitably recover gold and other precious metals from seawater. Soil degradation will not be a problem, because we can continue to manufacture ammonia and artificially recharge dead soil, as we are doing now.

A rapidly-growing energy economy means rapid economic growth, which means investment capitalism as we know it will continue to work its magic of maximally efficient extraction to exhaustion. The stock market will rise and rise and rise.

In the process, as with oil, we’ll certainly figure out ways to use energy faster and more frivolously. I suspect human ingenuity knows no bounds there, and we’ll devise a way to use up all of the nickel deposits near the surface of the earth within a century or two, and will perhaps develop ways of digging down into the earth’s core, or of mining asteroids, to get more.

We’ll certainly be able to maintain our nuclear arsenal during this entire period.

In short, Future 3 looks exactly like what we’ve spent the last five centuries doing, only louder. Which means we’ll continue making exactly the same kinds of mistakes we’ve been making for the last five centuries, only louder.

There’s no incentive in Future 3 to change our ways. None.

So the first round of threats to our continued survival as a species will give way to the second and more serious round of threats, such as biodiversity degradation, farming monoculture, industrial toxicity, genetic tampering, and all the other consequences of thoughtless short-term self-interest for profit. We will have learned nothing about how to live sustainably: we’ll just shoot up like a drug addict, on nickel instead of crude oil, and deal with the consequences tomorrow.

We are close enough to catastrophes in the second round of threats that I think the odds are on losing. The two that concern me the most are species extinction and genetic tampering. People aren’t nearly as smart or careful as they seem to think they are, and politicians, in particular, are (as Mark Twain suggested) not quite as bright as fleas. I see no reason to believe that we won’t render the Earth uninhabitable, to the tune of “Oops.”

Of course, if we somehow work our way around these and all the new problems that arise from living unsustainably, the nickel will run out. Right now, that seems impossible, but in 1900, it seemed impossible that oil would ever run out, based on the way energy was used. But we scaled up our energy usage quickly, and now the oil is past peak. The same will happen with nickel, if we survive long enough.

Is there something even more energy-dense than fusion reactions? I don’t know. What I do know is that the nickel-mining industry will be dead-set against it.

One interesting twist is that the expansion of empires in the past has always been stopped by the linear-square law and technological limits. Fossil fuels almost put a one-world empire within reach, but not quite. Cold fusion could afford the possibility of a strong global empire, and human monoculture, though it seems to me that this will not be a US-based, English-speaking monoculture, because the US peaked on fossil fuels, and will – as described above — fight the transition to Future 3 just as hard as it fights Future 2. It will be the next imperial contender that will take over the world, or maybe the contender after that. Brazil. Iran. North Korea. New Zealand. Someone else.

Unlike most of the Rabid Right in the US, I don’t have a fundamental problem with the US not being the King Snipe. I do have a fundamental problem with human monoculture, because of a basic rule of nature:

Efficiency is the enemy of robustness.

We find this in computer systems — my day job — all the time, and it’s a constant fight to get customers to buy enough redundant (therefore unnecessary and inefficient) hardware to keep them running through a hardware failure. Investment capitalism demands maximum efficiency, which means minimum robustness. Most companies cannot actually live with minimum robustness, but they bicker and fume over every dollar spent on it.

Investors scream about the fact that their “diversified” stock portfolio does not do as well as the very best stocks in the market. The reason you diversify, of course, is that you can’t know in advance which stocks are going to do well, and which are going to tank, and if you put all your money into a stock that tanks, you lose everything.

That’s the consequence of insufficient robustness: you stand to lose everything.

The same thing happens, but on a grander scale, in ecological systems. The potato famine of Ireland is one of the classic examples: reduced by politics and relocation to farming a single subsistence crop — potatoes — the Irish were nearly wiped out by the potato blight. If you look at the vast fields of corn (maize) grown on industrialized farms throughout the US Midwest, you are looking at a potential economic disaster in the making. These monocultures are efficient, particularly since fossil fuels are cheap and a monoculture can be planted, grown, and harvested with the aid of machines. But one insect pest, one plant virus, one loss of a crucial pollinator species, one small shift in weather patterns, and the entire crop can be lost, perhaps for generations.

This is why biodiversity is so important. Every lost species makes the entire world of the living more fragile.

A human monoculture has exactly the same problem. We’re living this right now: if the US economy dips, the whole world economy shudders. If the US economy collapsed, it would take down the world economy with it. The world economy is efficient — but it is not robust. It has no Plan B.

If Future 3 does put the whole world firmly within the grasp of a single empire, with one economy, one food distribution network, one model of human behavior, the human race becomes very fragile indeed.

So to sum up this rather long essay:

I grew up on Star Trek and Isaac Asimov and E.E. Smith and H.G. Wells, and I still watch things like SG-1 as escapist fantasy. But it is escapist fantasy, not a plan for the future. Believing that a “warp drive” or “quantum teleportation” is going to get us to the year 2300 without a collapse into dark age, is not really all that different from believing that Jesus will return in glory just in time to save The Faithful from losing their houses to foreclosure.

But, that leads to yet another law of human nature: there is no persuading the believer, and no convincing the unbeliever.

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This is actually about a new piece of music I’ve just put up on my site. I’m going to talk about the music, starting with a peek into the crystal ball of past and future, so if you are amused by that sort of thing, read on — otherwise, tab over to the music page and listen to the Sextet, and ignore my rant.


Several weeks ago, a friend sent me a note, indicating that the Fort Collins Chamber Music Society was looking for local composers. The friend gave me a name and a phone number, and after several missed calls and texts, Liz Telling and I finally met for lunch this last week. It was a great conversation, and it was fascinating to me to see how musicians, particularly in the classical scene, have been trying to adapt to the changing economic landscape.

Let’s take a little walk down some historical byways.

The peak of Western “classical” music in Europe occurred during the two centuries from 1700 to 1900 — this period spans roughly from Bach to Brahms.

The economic foundation for music during this period seems likely to have developed from the “court musicians” at the very end of the Age of Knighthood, the late 14th century, during which the ideals of noblesse oblige — the obligations of nobility — reached absurd heights that tended to impoverish all but the wealthiest of the landed gentry. As part of this obligation, the nobles were expected to act the part of nobility, meaning in practice that they had vast numbers of hangers-on in their courts: chefs, scholars, entertainers, theologians, artists, composers, musicians, astrologers, and the like, all of whom needed food, shelter, gambling money, and whores — that is to say, they were expensive. But if you were a noble, you needed to support them so they would speak well of you, or … well, you got the Medieval equivalent of a low Rotten Tomatoes score. And that was a Very Bad Thing for a long list of reasons I won’t go into.

Much of a musician’s success up until the late 19th century thus revolved around the idea of patronage. A musician who courted and continued to please a wealthy patron, generally did well. Franz Joseph Haydn, for instance, was court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family, and lived very comfortably throughout his life. Mozart was originally employed in the court of the Archibishop of Salzburg, and fell on much harder times after being dismissed, before finding his feet (and new patrons) in Vienna. Beethoven subsisted on income from a number of wealthy patrons. Supporting musicians was simply something the wealthy did, and that musicians counted on — it was part of the old tradition of noblesse oblige.

Sometime in the 1700′s or 1800′s, this began to change. The idea of the concert-hall had become established, and existed in its own right as a paying proposition, serving up musical entertainment to the wealthy and the bourgeoise alike. While still underwritten and patronized by the wealthy, the concert-hall was a kind of corporation into which many patrons contributed, and the composers and performers were no longer bound to any single patron, though they were now at the mercy of the theater owners and directors.

Then in 1877, Thomas Alva Edison was granted a patent for the phonograph, and started a true economic revolution that broke the back of the concert-hall system.

At any time prior to this, music was ephemeral. We know, for instance, that the ancient Celts, the Greeks, and the Romans valued music and had an extensive repertoire — what we do not know is what any of it sounded like. Sound, by its nature, dissipates into silence immediately after it is produced, and a lot of it is never written down, or is written in notation that is never explained (in writing) and is thus lost when a culture falls.

Prior to 1877, to enjoy music, you had to be there. That meant you could be charged for the privilege of listening to the music, by the simple expedient of closing the doors to the concert hall until you paid for a ticket, or showed your invitation. After 1877, you could — in principle — buy the recording. And while making the recording was a bit tricky, reproducing the recording was and is incredibly cheap.

Consider that a training period for a mature concert violinist is twenty years, and that there are at least fifty members in a symphony orchestra. This means that the very first performance of a new symphony orchestra has already involved well over one thousand man-years of effort, before the first note sounds.

Nearly twenty years ago, I was chatting with a professional pianist, and he commented that anyone could hire a symphony orchestra — if they were willing to spend something like $10,000/hour. That was in the mid-1990′s, and inflation will have driven that figure much higher.

That cost has to be met by the ticket prices for a concert, and only so many bodies will fit into the performance hall. Any deficit has to be made up by wealthy patrons, be they individuals or foundations.

By contrast, the number of recordings you can sell is limited only by the number of people interested in hearing that performance, and the reproduction cost has always been negligible, compared to the cost of the performance itself. This completely changed the economic foundation of music, in a way that had never before been seen.

At about the same time, the nature of musical composition took a bizarre turn. I don’t know if that came about in response to the phonograph, or to changes in society brought about by the First World War, or some other reason. Historians will debate that for the next thousand years. But the turn itself is easy to see.

People talk about the “Romantic Revolution” that began with Beethoven, or the “Impressionist Revolution” that began with Debussy — or even the “Polyphonic Revolution” that reached a brilliant peak in the masses of Palestrina or Tallis. But you can listen to Beethoven, or Debussy, or Tallis, and there is always a continuity with what had come before. Sometime in the early 20th century, the so-called “classical” music thread snapped, and a great deal of the “classical” music of that time and since has been simply cacophonous, or self-mocking (such as John Cage’s famous 4’33).

I walked into a violin lesson once in 1977 or 1978, and my teacher was sitting on a chair, fiddle in hand, glaring at the sheet music on the stand in front of him. While I was getting my own instrument out of the case, he burst out, bitterly, “You spend your whole life learning to play in tune, and then they throw these fucking quarter-tones at you.” I may not have that quote exactly right, but the F-bomb was his, and it shocked me — mostly to find that he, an academic musician, hated quarter-tones even more than I did.

Or take the case of a friend who subs on cello for the Boston Symphony, who was handed a composition once that consisted of a measure of 1 beat, followed by a measure of 2 beats, followed by a measure of 3 beats, and so forth, up to a measure of 7 beats, which then repeated, over and over throughout the work. They wrestled with it for a long time, and finally figured out that (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7) = 28 = 4 x 7. So they broke it up into four measures of seven beats, rewrote the bar lines, and managed to struggle through it. When he later asked the composer why on earth he had done such an idiotic thing, the composer replied, “Because it looks cool on the page.”

Chaos and cacophony. Stupid ideas promoted as “art.” I could go on at considerable length, but suffice it to say that this has really, truly, totally alienated both the musicians and the paying customers in the “classical” music tradition.

At the same time, “popular music” took over, for no reason other than that more people were willing to buy recordings of popular music than of classical music, particularly of the “modern” cacophonous variety. This was a very simple business decision by the recording industry, and became quickly self-reinforcing.

Now, there has always been, and will always be, “popular music.” That’s just something people do, whether in the streets of Vienna, or the jungles of the Amazon. Before recordings came along, ordinary people sang popular music: lullabies, drinking songs, marching songs, sea chanties, harvest songs, folk tunes, chants…. After recordings began, at least here in Western civilization, performers started singing popular music, and ordinary people mostly stopped singing altogether.

Instead, they listened to other people singing their favorite tunes. In time, their “favorite tunes” were no longer theirs at all — they were instead new “favorite tunes” of the hour, propagated through top-40 lists on the radio, intense advertising, and a constantly-shifting tapestry of the same-thing-all-over-again done by different artists in different ways, designed — like “new and improved” toothpaste — to spur sales for the next quarter, and little else.

Where the theater director had reigned in the 1800′s, the recording studio agent reigned in the 1900′s. In the process, I would argue, the music was left further and further behind, and the money — the pure, mercantile profit — moved entirely to the forefront. The result was much like commercial television: a race to the bottom. It’s why people poke such fun at the music of the 1980′s. Or the 1990′s. It’s all Wonder Bread plumped out with sawdust.

We are currently in the middle of yet another economic revolution in music.

The “recording industry” has effectively collapsed in the last decade. Once sound went digital, in the age of the Internet, there was no way for the recording industry to continue to protect its profits. In the 1960′s, if you had a record label contract, you had access to the marketplace — if you didn’t, you had no access, other than playing live gigs in smoky bars and hoping that some agent might “hear your sound” and scoop you up. Today, a record-label contract isn’t worth much to the recording studios, nor to the performers.

The money — according to what I’ve been reading recently — is moving back toward live performance, where it lay for all those long centuries before Thomas Edison came along. Many or most performers still record, but they are starting to give away the recordings as promotional material. They purchase the recording themselves, just like they’d purchase business cards, and give them out — or charge some nominal fee to cover costs plus a little — at live concerts.

The classical music scene is starting to adapt to this new economic situation: what they seem to be doing at the moment is to concentrate on the issue of access.

As I see it, there are two unnecessary access barriers to classical music.

The first unnecessary barrier, which Liz had a lot to say about during our conversation, is the venue. How many ordinary people want to buy an expensive ticket, then get dressed up to sit perfectly still for two hours in a dark auditorium listening to music, with no idea of when they should clap, when they should not, where they look around and see nothing but old people who seem to be asleep or perhaps already embalmed? Ewww.

When I used to go to the symphony in Fort Collins (note the past tense) I would move in my seat with the music. I’d conduct, if I knew the piece (and I usually did, which was ultimately the problem for me — do I really want to hear the 1812 Overture again?) I’d close my eyes and smile beatifically — or scowl and shudder if the horns flubbed their passage. I’d often get strange looks from nearby members of the audience. I didn’t give a rat’s fart after a bean-dip gorge-fest. But I’m funny that way.

I would always cringe when people would half-heartedly clap between movements and then fade away in embarrassment. Not because of the applause — in Beethoven’s day, if the audience liked the movement, there was some danger the balcony would collapse from the stomping of feet — but because of the way I knew those poor music-lovers felt as the stony silence engulfed them.

Those rules are all stupid, entirely unnecessary, and they drive away music-lovers. Talking during a movement — yes, that’s a bloody capital offense, and merits dragging the offender into the lobby to be hanged as a warning. However, talking, clapping, cheering, whistling, and howling between movements is something that the director should court, like an actor pausing after a laugh-line.

An article in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine writes of director Ivan Fischer of the Budapest Festival Orchestra trying to break up this access barrier in Hungary. Liz says there are numerous national programs in the US beginning to approach this issue of concert accessibility.

The Fort Collins Chamber Music Society is trying to speak to this by creating new venues for classical music in Fort Collins. One approach involves placing classical musicians in brewpubs and coffee shops, just like that guy on the stool in the corner with the guitar and the microphone, only in this case it’s a string quartet, or maybe a couple of violins and a harp.

I think it’s very much the right idea. If Leo Kottke showed up in a brewpub with his 12-string guitar, I’d damn well shut up and listen. I first heard him as a warm-up for a Seals and Crofts concert in the 70′s, and while I don’t remember a bit of the main act, Leo was … amazing. I think exactly the same potential exists for classical musicians, most of whom are trained to within an inch of Death on their instruments. They aren’t strumming a few chords and wailing in a gravelly voice about a lost love. They are — or could be — kicking musical ass. And they should be.

The second unnecessary barrier is the music itself.

I have a dear friend who took me to a performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the New York Met, and he was thrilled. I was appalled. I’m perfectly willing to admit I may not have the refinement of musical taste, or perhaps the depth of philosophical background to properly appreciate such a work: perhaps the fact that this opera is about a German existentialist take on two opposed theological outlooks really does deserve music that makes no musical sense. Nevertheless, I was appalled by the interminable tone-row shouting (in German, of course, which is always somewhat frightening, especially when one’s German is as poor as mine), and if I wasn’t appreciating it, I’m willing to bet a few hours time with the London Philharmonic that 90% of that New York audience was faking their orgasm of applause after the performance. But the point here is that eventually, even those New Yorkers faking their appreciation are going to skip the opera and take in a Dodgers’ game instead.

Just last weekend, I listened to a work I’d not heard before by Eugene Ysaÿe, performed by two student violinists from CSU (whose combined artistry was admirable). I found myself listening with a composer’s ears, not for the music being played, but for the music not being played, and for the first time, this sort of music started to make some sort of sense to me. But if that’s actually the point, and not just a bit too much coffee in my bloodstream that morning, this concept is a self-destructive step — nay, a running leap — into musical and financial suicide.

There is no reason for music to be this difficult to listen to. It’s not like we composers have run out of notes. All this serves to do is drive audiences away.

That’s where feel that I have something to offer. I’m writing music that I would like to hear. I have every suspicion it would be dismissed by most academics, and eviscerated by most critics: and for all that, I don’t give the aforementioned rat’s fart. What I do care about is the fact that I’ve seen wonder-filled tears in the eyes of listeners at the closing of the fourth movement of the Missa Druidica. That is the point of music — to caress the soul. And I have at least once, in some small way, achieved that.

What I’d really love to see is other — and more capable — composers, particularly young composers, take the hint. Or more accurately, take heart, and courage, and perhaps inspiration, from my blundering forward with my rusty plow to raise a new crop of music from old and well-tilled earth, inexplicably abandoned. I’d love to see them kick my ass at the accessibility and soul-caressing game. I’d love to have them say, “Dang. I can do better than that.” And then, do so.

There is so much stunning music out there, and so much to be written. It would be a shame to see our civilization move back to kazoos and banging rocks together for no better reason than that our music-listening experience has been made artificially and unnecessarily unpleasant.


On to the Sextet.

This is actually the third movement of the symphony I’m currently working on. I’ve simply thinned it out so that it can be played with only six instruments, harp, flute, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. It turned out pretty well, though I’m not completely happy with the instrument sounds in my box (the viola is buzzy), and I should probably spend another week on the mix.

But then, maybe it will see a live performance this summer, which will be far better than trying to work the buzz out of the viola. We’ll see….

Beyond that — well, I could talk about the music forever, but you should just go listen to it. It’s on the music page.


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Eidetic Imagination

UnknownI just returned from a week in a farmhouse in Texas near San Antonio, visiting relatives (and a grandchild), where we got to see lightning and rain and an armadillo and a scorpion and a newborn calf. I also caught up on some good reading as well as some bad.

One of the less-good reads was Goddess Murder: A Tale of Love, Witches, and Gnostics, by Aidan Kelly: a somewhat perfunctory reprise of the basic plot from Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, not particularly well-written, but there were some interesting concepts in the middle of it.

Many of you may have heard of “eidetic memory,” sometimes called “photographic memory.” It’s a kind of remembering in which you don’t merely recall the story about an experience — instead, you remember the experience itself in full detail, just as if you had taken a photograph. People with eidetic memory can replay the experience, and pick out details they hadn’t consciously noticed before.

One of the classic parlor tricks of eidetic memory is scanning rapidly through a book, merely glancing at each page, and then actually reading it later, from memory. You can ask someone with this kind of recall to name the fifth word from the end of the last full paragraph on page two hundred thirteen, and they can flip back through the pages in their mind and tell you the exact word. It’s as if they had the book in front of them.

“Eidetic imagination” carries the same sort of sensory photorealism, but it applies to the imagination rather than memory: that is, it doesn’t require any original sensory input to provide a full sensory experience.

A common term for this is “hallucination.”

To the best of my knowledge, I have outright hallucinated only once. It was in the winter of 1980-1981, around Christmas, when I was in graduate school and my wife was working in the dental school to pay the rent. That winter I contracted an adult case of chicken pox — at least, that’s what we believe it was, based on symptoms. My medical insurance at that time was through an HMO on Long Island, which — to put it very mildly — sucked down raw sewage and purred with pleasure at the flavor: the HMO doctors told my wife to NOT bring me in, since I was only going to infect other patients. They said to keep my fever down and wait it out. Or in other words, take aspirin, and call in two weeks. If I was still alive.

I had a recurring fever that went up to 105 degrees several times, perhaps even higher during some of the multi-hour spans when my wife couldn’t keep the aspirin flowing and the damp cloths cool because she was busy at work trying to hang onto the job that gave us the “benefits package” that might have paid for my burial in a mass grave if I didn’t survive.

It was during one of those fever-spikes that I hallucinated: I saw purple and green vines growing up the walls of the room. The fascinating part of that is that I knew I was hallucinating, not because I saw purple and green vines visibly climbing the walls of my bedroom — that part seemed perfectly reasonable in the hot, damp environment inside my skin – but because I knew that the room was too dark to see colors.

You see, the human eye has two different sets of light receptors in the retina, the receptors that see light intensity (rods) — but only see in shades of gray — and the receptors that distinguish colors (cones). The cones need a lot more light before they start working than the rods do. That’s why “twilight” fades into colorless shades of gray: the light becomes too dim for the cones, so the cones stop working and color disappears.

This bit of science trivia is what tipped me off that I was hallucinating.

That’s a cute story. But here’s where things start to get interesting.

All of us are hallucinating continually during every waking moment.

We don’t perceive reality. We receive sensory input through organs that collect various kinds of information, and we use this information to construct an elaborate model in our heads that we call reality, but is actually an imaginary model: a virtual reality that has been constructed by our brains. What we perceive is this virtual reality.

0101Children’s activity books are full of little tricks and traps and puzzles to mislead the senses into seeing, or hearing, or touching things that aren’t there, such as the elusive black dots in the figure to the right. Conversely, the senses can be tricked into not seeing, not hearing, and not feeling things that are there: the entire art of stage and close-up magic is based on this principle. The appearance of movement in television and film is based on an illusion produced by our brains. Storytelling allows us to experience and share events that have never occurred, and will never occur: for many of us, Frodo’s final ascent of Mount Doom is more real and present than most of third grade.

The “reality” that we each experience is not reality: it is a mental model that exists only in our imagination. What we call “reality” is in fact an exercise of eidetic imagination: a full-sensory hallucination.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that this hallucination is not useful. It’s extremely useful. Catching a baseball is fairly easy, based on the illusion that the ball is a solid object that obeys Newtonian physics, and is “out there” in the world exactly as we perceive it. Intercepting a cluster of Heisenberg probability waves propagating through the curved space-time surrounding the Earth is not nearly as easy – or worse, charting resonating strings in a ten-dimensional manifold that some physicists believe is the true nature of reality. Our simplistic model of reality lets us catch the ball, harvest a crop, shelter from cold rain, and get on with life.

Where we go wrong is in thinking that our eidetic hallucination is reality. That kind of thinking is simply hubris, one of the things that humans truly excel at.

Our vision of reality is a limited vision of reality, limited by our senses and by the way our brains are wired to interpret those senses and build our eidetic imagery.

I recently saw video footage which claimed to be made with a special camera that can see a short distance into the ultraviolet spectrum, which the human eye cannot register, though some bird and insect eyes do. The footage shows high-tension power lines, surrounded by a fireworks display of bright flashes, presumably in the ultraviolet spectrum. We scoff at suggestions by “oversensitive” people who say that high-tension power lines bother them, or that they might be disturbing or harmful to birds and insects. People say that “seeing is believing,” but many turn that around into “believing requires seeing.” For them, ultraviolet flashes around power lines are impossible, because they can’t be seen.

This was exactly the kind of resistance Galileo faced with his telescope. The telescope extends human eyesight to allow us to look at things further away than the unaided human eye can resolve. When turned on the planet Jupiter, it revealed things that were not already part of the mental model of reality that some church leaders held, and was roundly condemned.

There are vast tracts of unwritten natural history all around us of which we are utterly unaware, because we do not have the senses to perceive, nor the wit to infer.

If these vast tracts of unwritten natural history remained permanently invisible and impalpable, with no consequences for human life, we could argue that they have no practical reality, even if they do — in some abstract sense — exist. But, you see, they often do have effects that have a lot of direct impact on our lives.

Germs come to mind. Too small to be seen with any of our natural senses, yet they wipe out families, tribes, and empires. We don’t need to invoke high technology to make use of information about germs: simply washing our hands before eating can have a huge impact on our collective quality of life. Because we have extended our senses with the microscope, and have learned to observe cause-and-effect patterns in a systematic way, we have added germs to our model of reality, though they are invisible to us, and thus we understand the value of washing our hands.

But without the idea of germs and the invisible, impalpable reality they represent, our compulsive hand-washing before eating looks suspiciously like a superstition. After all, what are you washing off? Invisible evil spirits? Bad energy? Tiny demons?

This last is the closest to what we think about germs. Because we’ve extended our senses with the microscope, we can see the little buggers, and some of them actually look a lot like tiny demons. So imagine time-travelling back to the year 1 in Rome, and trying to explain germs to your average Roman scholar. Or time-travel into the year 4000, after modern civilization has largely turned to dust, and try to explain germs to whatever kind of learned man exists in that era:

As Professor Wizzletop has noted in his monograph on compulsive superstitious practices of the late 20th century, we have hand-washing before meals as one of the plainest examples. People of the 20th century believed in tiny demons that would accumulate on the hands and cause illness if ingested. A superstitious fetish developed, that progressed from washing the hands with plain water before every meal, to using various kinds of magical ointments crafted from a mythical substance they called “petroleum,” which they allegedly drew from the ground with magical tubes. Although we possess no evidence of either this mythic “petroleum” or its various decoctions, some writers from the late 21st century seem to believe that the “antimicrobial detergent,” used as part of the hand washing ritual was toxic. Perhaps this explains the rapid decline in population in the early 22nd century.

Trying to describe the nature and classification of germs to Professor Wizzletop would be a lot like a Medieval scholar trying to describe the hierarchies of demons in Hell to a modern microbiologist.

“But our model of reality works,” the skeptic would say. “That’s what science is all about. Superstition by definition doesn’t work.”

That’s much less true than most people think.

In the first place, our abstract models of reality aren’t nearly as sure-fire workable as people think. Drug trials, for instance, often require massive randomized double-blind studies to confirm the efficacy of a new drug, and most of them fall well into the thin fringes of “statistical significance.” You’ll often read that, of a sample of 100 people given the drug, and 100 people given placebos, 60 got better using the drug, and 50 got better without using the drug. Most researchers would be ecstatic over such a clear indication that the drug “works,” especially if a second trial showed 55 got better with the drug, and 49 better without. More typically, the second trial will show that 50 got better with the drug, and 52 better without. Our modern scientific pharmacopeia abounds with such marginal drugs.

In the second place, superstition is often based on an observed regularity in nature, combined with some convenient but non-essential explanation that fits the common abstract reality of a culture. For instance, “That water well is haunted by a malignant spirit, and if you drink from it, you will die.” We moderns might call the malignant spirit “lead oxide,” and would agree that if you drink very much of the water, you will die. If we can’t get to the source of the lead to exorcise it, our learned advice would be exactly the same as the superstitious advice of the primitive witch-doctor: don’t drink the water.

Human life is less centered on the mundane than upon the spiritual, however, even when times are hard. In fact, especially when times are hard: we are the least spiritual when our material needs are most sated, and the most spiritual in the face of hardship.

I find that peculiar: our standard rational model of self-interested survival behavior would tend to predict the other way around. I recognize it’s an anecdotal observation: I can’t tell you for certain that there are no atheists in foxholes. But it’s a common enough observation that when people are badly stressed by life-threatening events or illnesses, or by widespread social disorder, they pretty reliably turn to the spirit world. Why?

I’ll offer my own personal speculation. I think we have spiritual senses, and they sense a spiritual reality.

We downplay these senses in our culture, to the point of (officially) laughing off the spirit world, and discounting it as superstition. But I think our spiritual senses pick up aspects of reality that our more culturally accepted senses cannot, aspects as invisible and intangible to us as germs or ultraviolet light, aspects which are equally invisible and intangible to our instruments made of wire and glass and plastic.

When we’re out of practical solutions, these spiritual senses may offer us the best options we’ve got.

Like any senses, there are those who are gifted with great acuity, and those who are not. Young people use the “mosquito ring” on their cell phones precisely because their old-guy teacher, who goes ballistic when a cell phone rings in class, can’t hear the mosquito ring. The faint notes of Andalusian soil that a master sommelier can taste in a glass of Spanish grenache are simply not accessible to most people. So it isn’t surprising that not everyone sees auras, or ghosts, or angels.

Like any senses, we also have to learn to interpret them within a consensual social framework. Think how often you teach a child to associate a particular color sensation with the word “blue” or “red.” Think of how often an infant hears certain phonemes, and not others, in the language of his society, and then goes through life either able or unable to roll an “R”, or produce the “!” pop of the !Kung language.

What would happen if children were raised by aura-aware parents, who had a long cultural tradition of interpreting aura appearance? “I spy with my little eye … a man with a purple aura!”

These are the kinds of practice-games we play with our children and their developing senses to bring them into our culture and language, so that they see what we see, hear what we hear.  We teach them to distinguish primary colors because primary colors are important to our social structure, but we don’t make a big deal about azure versus cerulean. Without these games, without this kind of training in a communal setting, there is no consensus on the senses. What is the difference between music and noise? What is the difference between beauty and ugliness? What is the difference between an “arousing” touch and an “aggressive” touch? Which smells are interesting, which are boring, which are attractive, which are disgusting? What should we pay attention to, what should we block out as a distraction?

Most people have at least once stepped into a particular place and sensed some sort of frisson. A chill, a vibration, a flow, an ineffable sound. We are taught to ignore such things as a “bit of undigested beef.” But in the past, when a lot of people felt the same sort of thing in the same place, they built a shrine, or posted warning signs: holy ground, or cursed ground.

I would speculate that our spiritual senses tell us about aspects of our reality that are entirely natural, but are unknown to and actively suppressed by our current culture. I would also speculate that these aspects of our reality, though as invisible as germs, have a lot to do with our survival, good health, and happiness.

When fully developed, I see no reason our spiritual senses could not feed into our eidetic imagination the same way our other senses do, and become just as “real” to us as a sunset, or a sip of cool water.

As it turns out, some people claim that this is exactly how they experience the spirit world: as a full-scale eidetic hallucination, just as real to them as the sensory eidetic hallucination that all the rest of us experience all day, every day, and call “reality.”

I’m not one of those people. I don’t know if that’s fortunate or unfortunate. But then, I’ve never had good eyesight, and as I get older, my hearing closes in, bit by bit. I don’t expect to have the best spiritual senses in the world, either.

I’m also no stranger to the fact that people can be insane, and a lot of people lie. People who say they see dead people may just be nuts. Everything the hardcore skeptics say about the spiritual world may be completely accurate.

On the other hand, I take a very pragmatic attitude toward this, which I will illustrate with a true story.

The first house I owned had a haunt. There was no poltergeist activity, no spectral apparitions, no oozing ectoplasm from the walls. But there was a “presence” in the basement, and it was unpleasant. Every time I went to the basement — it was a small house, and that’s where my piano ended up — I had to fight my instinct to run back up the stairs as I approached the bottom, and I could not stay down there for long. Obedience-trained dogs would stay at the top of the stairs and whine, rather than go down as commanded. My wife didn’t like doing laundry down there.

At that time, we attended the Episcopal Church, and about three months after we moved into the new house, we decided to have a multi-purpose party: a first-birthday party for my son, a summer barbecue, a house warming party, and a house blessing. Episcopalians have a Book of Common Prayer blessing for everything (except garden zucchini, which I think may actually be in there, but our priest explicitly refused to bless zucchini under any circumstances).

So there I was, a newly-minted physicist just out of graduate school, having my newly-purchased house blessed in a quaint traditional custom in (truth told) my wife’s religious tradition, and I was dying to ask the priest, whom I did not yet know well, to drive an evil spirit out of the basement. The embarrassment was … exquisitely uncomfortable.

I finally just blurted it out, about halfway through the blessing of the basement. He didn’t even blink. “Oh,” he said, “yes, we can certainly take care of that.” He flipped over to the general exorcism in the Book of Common Prayer. An instant after he finished, the basement was clear. It was suddenly just a basement.

Now, any number of things could have happened. The professional skeptic will chalk it up to pure psychological drama going on in my head (and through me and my subliminal physical cues, my wife and the priest and maybe even the dogs). I don’t disagree at all — it might very well have been exactly that. The religious person would say that an unclean spirit was in fact driven out of the house by the Episcopal Rite of General Exorcism. I don’t disagree with that, either.

But the pragmatic point is that this simple religious rite recovered the use of 1500 square feet of my property. Before that, I could not go downstairs to play the piano. After that, I could. The third movement of my piano concerto was composed in that very room.

The professional skeptic’s theory would have recommended twenty years of intensive psychotherapy for me, maybe drugs, to the tune of $100k and ruined health from long term prescription drug use. It would not have given me back my basement for years, if (indeed) at all. Instead, I got away with a practical working solution that same day for the cost of a plate of ribs and a couple of beers, and made a lifelong friend into the bargain.

I see no contest here. The skeptic’s “solution” is a load of crap. The superstitious solution was the practical one.

I don’t really know what the “spirit world” is, and I doubt that I ever will. It may be a parallel dimension with its own space and time. It may be some kind of mystical self-organizing energy in this universe. It may be patterns that exist in the way people interact with their physical environment, including other people. It may be something else, entirely.

Whatever it is, I think we do have senses that perceive it, and as my story indicates, certain superstitious actions — whether it is washing our hands before eating, or sprinkling holy water around a basement, leaving out a plate of milk for the wee folk, or practicing gratitude on a daily basis — interact with the spirit world, whatever it is, and bring about beneficial effects.

So if some people claim to have an eidetic imagination that can accurately represent their spiritual senses – if they can see and talk to the dead, speak with angels, talk to God or the gods — I’m not going to scoff.

I would consider that an act of hubris. To say nothing of being just plain rude.

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