Monthly Archives: January 2015

What If?

EncounteringETIA game that parenting books used to recommend was called “What if?”. It was an imagination game played by parents with their children to teach them about “stranger danger” in a way that wasn’t too scary. We naturally, it seems, fear the other. “What if?” kept coming to me as I read John Hart’s book Encountering ETI. ETI is a bit more precise than the more familiar ET, whom everyone knows, is an extra-terrestrial. The I stands for intelligence. What happens, in order words, when we meet extra-terrestrial intelligence? I very much admire academics such as Hart who are willing to ask what is such a necessary question. The point of the book is much more an ethical than a speculative one since human history has pretty much documented what happens when the Discovery Doctrine is applied. Natives (or TI, terrestrial intelligence, if you will) at the hands of newcomers with the Discovery Doctrine, are soon wiped out. History has repeated the story far too many times. Scientists such as Stephen Hawking even apply that to us, saying that if ETI arrives we will be exterminated. Hart takes a much more balanced look at the question.

Part of the problem is that we, as a society, have been taught to laugh at those who’ve seen UFOs. UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object, and many people can’t identify what they see in the sky. But we all really know what I’m talking about. Those who’ve seen what may be non-terrestrial flying machines are automatically classed with the mentally unstable and ridiculed into silence. Thus it has been since the 1950s, despite foreign (!) governments and their militaries admitting that yes, we see things and we don’t know what they are. France, Argentina, and Russia, for example, have opened the files to some extent. The point that Hart makes is well taken—if we ridicule so automatically, will we be prepared when they arrive? Shouldn’t we be thinking about this now that scientists are discovering there are likely billions of planets in the Goldilocks Zone (capable of supporting life)? Ah, but it is so hard to let go of racial superiority! Homo sapiens sapiens are pretty impressed with themselves. As if nothing better could be conceived. Perhaps this is original sin.

Hart, whose book is subtitled Aliens in Avatar and the Americas, takes the possibility of visitation at face value. I’m sure it has impacted his career somewhat. The wise choice, it seems to me, is to take seriously what is almost a dead certainty—we are not the only life in the universe. Ironically, the idea that we are is largely based on the Bible. Genesis makes a pretty clear statement that we are God’s best idea. We’ve largely dropped God from the picture, so we, as humans, now occupy the top rung. And when we find humans different from ourselves we ask how we might exploit them to our advantage. (Here’s where Avatar comes in.) Hart’s book, as readable as it is affordable, is one that any thinker should take seriously. It is a book of ethics, writ large. Universal ethics, one might say. The aliens may not land in our lifetime, but chances are pretty good that they’re out there somewhere. It might be best to take some time to clean up the house before guests arrive.

Holy Trilogy

AtwoodAlumni magazines, thinly disguised appeals for money that they are, seldom merit much time. This doesn’t stop me, in any case, from sending notices of my new publications or blog, since I, like most fellow alumni, have never been cited as notable. One of the thousands who graduated and amounted to nothing. Once in a great while, however, I feel a slight twinge of pride when one of my three mothers does something of which I’m particularly proud. Most often this is Edinburgh University, although once in a while Boston University also catches my attention. A recent copy of Edit—an alumni mag that began some time after I graduated, American-style—has a familiar face on the cover. Well, not familiar in that I know her, but familiar in that I’ve read several of her books and feel like I know her. Margaret Atwood was given an honorary degree by my old school, and I am pleased to be a, albeit lesser, co-alum.

Over the holidays I picked up a copy of MaddAddam, the third and long-awaited conclusion of the trilogy of the same name. As my regular readers know, I have a soft spot for dystopias. In spite of attempts by many writers to paint a brighter future, it seems that given how far we’ve let things go, collapse before reform feels inevitable. The apathy I find when we read about the vastly disproportionate disparity between haves and have-nots, and the surging of deep, animalistic, primate, rage at injustice doesn’t seem to me a healthy mix. Atwood, although I can’t yet speak for MaddAddam, envisions collapse before florescence. The same may be declared about A Handmaid’s Tale. Complacency, it seems to me, is the real enemy.

And universities continue to send me alumni magazines that instead of inspiring me, rub my face in my own mediocrity. I spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on my education and I am paid less than most janitors at most colleges. Not that I was ever in it for the money. I did, however, envision a hopeful future where I’d be teaching, perhaps at a small college somewhere, writing my thoughts in books rather than blogs, and having a modest impact on the world for good. Instead, I have found myself living in a dystopia. As I roll over and see that 3 in first position on my bedside clock on a table with the legs broken off, I know it is time to face the cold of a drafty apartment so I can await the bus to pay for another day’s privilege. My comfort is that Margaret Atwood made an impression on Edinburgh University, and will soon be making another impression on me.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”

Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.


The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.



Of cultural innovations, none rivals the internet. Engulfing the world in its wide web, the constant availability of signal has changed everything. In the past five years, civilization has become something that it was not. Take today’s northeast blizzard, for example. Apocalyptic meteorologists (are there any other kind?) are sincerely telling the camera that nothing like this has been seen in recorded history. Meanwhile, my wife’s company sends a Honeywell alert to our phone saying the offices will likely be closed, and please make arrangements to work from home. The snow day is dead. One of the simple joys of life, that delightful naughtiness of playing hooky, is now extinct. Work knows where you are at all times. You are being watched. Sound paranoid? I have known people who had firsthand knowledge of employers following them on Facebook to make sure they didn’t say anything that might make the company look bad. The world is not the same one into which I was born.

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I happened upon a web page the other day advertising for an Advanced Assistant Professor in Digital Shakespeare Studies. A poem by any other name we would tweet. So we have become part of this collective mind known as www dot. The internet is aware that it is still snowing, but only in an academic sense, since it’s not going anywhere. The internet has never had a three-and-a-half hour commute home because of an accident on a single highway in New Jersey. Oh, and don’t forget to check your work email when you get home. We may have sometime more for you to do once you’ve clocked out. Maybe I should see what my social network is up to.

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LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google +—they all suggest people that I might know. Someone I might rate, or like. The internet, after all, knows which of its myriad sites I’ve viewed, whom I’ve emailed, and what I’ve purchased. The ads from those companies show up on every website I visit from now on, world without end. ThinkGeek emails me every day. My new best friend. Google + is the more intellectual Facebook, I’m told. Whenever I log on, it tells me with whom I might want to connect. Just now Newt Gingrich showed up in my list. Should I add him to my circles? Or should I just venture out into this blizzard and hope I make it to New York City alive? To me, it seems, the odds are equally good in either case.

Seeing I

One of my few Twitter followers (stawiggins) suggested that I watch Dr. Ken Hayworth on YouTube. Specifically, Part 3: If we can build a brain, what is the future of I?, hosted by Galactic Public Archives. It is well worth 9 minutes of your time. Trying to figure out consciousness has been a major preoccupation of mine for some years. I don’t have the tools of neuroscience, but I do have over half a century of coming to know this “I” that constantly seems to wake up in this same body and experience all its woes and occasional joys. Hayworth suggests that the self is a model projected by our brains to help us make decisions and to plan for the future. In a fascinating thought experiment, he notes that if a duplicate self were made, we (or I) should not object to being executed since there is an exact copy now. Hayworth notes, however, that any individual will object because we are “designed” to think this way about ourselves. Designed, I wonder, by whom? I suspect Hayworth means evolution designed us that way, but evolution is non-teleological, and, I suspect, not really reificatory. Evolution is merely a process.

Perhaps the horns here are only those of a semantic dilemma, but I feel not. Hayworth goes on to discuss how instinct works to continue this illusion of self. I’ve never found instinct a very believable concept. We use it when we want to deny consciousness to animals and very young children. Since they can’t have a concept of “I” they have to have “instinct” to preserve themselves. Logically, to me, this seems to be fudging. What is instinct? Is it really any different than admitting at some micro-level, animals have consciousness? To me it seems that consciousness is one of those “turtles all the way down” kinds of propositions. To be alive is to be conscious at some level. Be careful how far down you dig here.


Hayworth then goes on to what sounds like an almost biblical conclusion. Ethics insists that humans are part of a whole. (A very diseased whole, as the imbalance in society forces us to conclude, but a whole nevertheless.) To kill one is to violate the consciousness of the whole. This concept seems sound, and I would suggest that it might benefit from expansion. Why stop at the human level? We are animals. Animals are conscious. Here we are back at the turtles again. Perhaps we have expended too much energy trying to parse self from soul from mind from consciousness. Perhaps we are all part of a large collective consciousness. If so, we got some very sick units near the top. Any organic being that insists only one percent needs to be kept in perpetual plutocratic indigence while billions of others wonder how long they will survive at this payscale in this economy, or, more realistically, act as slaves to that one percent, is a sick beast indeed. If consciousness is collective, we could all use a massive shrink.


In a recent post on BBC Health, James Gallagher discusses ancient Assyria. What can ancient Assyria have to say about modern health, beyond the occasional liver model used in haruspicy? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course. As Gallagher notes in his article, PTSD was diagnosed after the Vietnam War. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t in existence long before then. In fact, it stands to reason that if people experience it now, they likely experienced it during traumatic events then. War is among the most horrific and tragic activities in which humanity engages. Men, in the days of Assyria, sent to kill other men in the hundreds, and thousands, could not have walked away from the battlefield unchanged. There are those who seem not to suffer, but the majority of us know that, no matter how just the cause, it is simply wrong to kill others. On a massive scale it can only be worse.



Multiple stresses, I would contend, go undiagnosed. I have known those who’ve experienced significant loss—a job, for example, in an economy that makes future prospects dim—who begin showing the same kinds of symptoms. They are, of course, not diagnosed with PTSD, but are simply told to either buck up or go see a shrink. “Pull up your socks,” as they say in the UK. I wonder, though, if it is that simple. People throughout history have been capable of inflicting great stress on one another. Sometimes it becomes so normal that we don’t even recognize it. The forcing of loss and resultant terror of future deprivation is a daily affair. The civilization we’ve been is so complex almost to demand this kind of horror. We may not be sent to the battlefield to kill others, but we are daily faced with situations that cause us great pain, often for prolonged periods. And we wonder why people aren’t satisfied.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no doubt that the level of stress faced by those who survive war is severe. I don’t make light of it. Being a pacifist, I do believe there is a solution to war that involves education instead of fighting, but I don’t in any way suggest that those who suffer aren’t suffering in reality. They are. Sometimes they can no longer function in society. We institutionalize, cut funds, then send them out on the streets. This is nothing new. As Gallagher points out, soldiers in antiquity weren’t professionals. All healthy men, apart from the one-percenters of the day, served in armies on a rotating basis. One thing, however, has not changed over the millennia. War today remains as unnecessary as it was then. If we could turn our attention to improving the lot of the 99 lost sheep, the one already found might, to its surprise, be much better off if all were accorded ample care.