Links of the Quarter: March 2018

image via Ulf Parczyk on Jim Newman’s Facebook Page

Sometimes I feel as if I’m in possession of a great and important secret, but I live in a world where (almost) everyone else speaks a strange foreign language, so no one can understand me. “Hey!”, I call out, “Our civilization is on the verge of collapse, and there’s nothing we can do about it! It’s an extraordinarily complex, self-sustaining system, and it’s way out of our control. You can see that, right? And it’s all fine, right? And there’s no one to blame for that; we’re all doing our best — yes, even him! And in any case it doesn’t matter, because there is no civilization, no separation of anything from anything else, and no ‘us’ — those are all illusions, figments of our imagination. No, wait, not our imagination, since there is no ‘us’, they are just figments, appearances of, uh, ‘all that is’. That’s obvious, no? No? How can you not get that? Well at least you know that the problem behind almost all human illness is poor nutrition, but that, as we have no free will, and don’t want to eat what’s good for us, we won’t, so we’re not going to get better. You get that at least, right? What do you mean I’m crazy, there is evidence for all this. I’m not making this up. You’re the one that’s crazy, and sick too, you fool! Why do I even bother? No I won’t shut up. If you don’t like the truth, you leave! So there!” Hah! I sure told them…

Postscript on Links: Some of the links below contain qualifiers as to their source (usually referring to Pocket, a free news article digest service). I’ve started using these because they can penetrate annoying paywalls like those of the NYT. If they’re not working for you, or if you’re still hitting paywalls with these links, please let me know.


cartoon by David Sipress in The New Yorker

A Plea to Millennials: Tim Kreider pleads with America’s young people to fix everything that previous generations broke. It’s just a hopeless wishful rant, but its tone of exhaustion and bewilderment is telling:

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.

No One Is To Blame: RSA animation of an excerpt of philosopher Raoul Martinez’s explanation of the significance of discovering no one has free will, choice or responsibility for their apparent ‘decisions’ and actions, and hence no one is to blame; we’re all doing the only thing we can possibly do in the immediate circumstances we face each moment.

Rotten: Td0s writes about our culture’s unwillingness to do things well, and to pay to maintain the infrastructure we build and depend on:

Doing something well, making something that will last, is not prized in this culture. All that matters is completing the transaction. Once the purchase is made, the relationship is over and the poor sucker holding the bag can deal with the fall out. Empty and depressing malls ring towns of financially strapped families living in factory framed houses. Adults work wherever there is work for however long they have to while children are shuffled through overcrowded and underfunded schools until the bell rings and they are sent out into the meaningless wastes of suburbia. By some miracle a few of them turn out exemplary, while others muddle through it towards a life of alcohol and anxiety medication…

How do we tend to needs that have gone unmet for decades? How do we do social upkeep in a culture that wants us to believe that there is no society, only hard working winners, lazy losers, and a stop at Chick-Fil-A in between? How do we build places worth living in, and how do we make lives worth living? While trillions are spent on militaristically enforcing empire around the globe, our bridges and water mains crumble, and our population has sunk into such a deep pit of despair that it spends almost every non-working hour escaping into a drug or a fictional landscape.

Civilization’s Final Form: Brutus suggests we might be witnessing the end of our civilization culture precisely because as it crumbles it’s starting to look less and less like a culture at all:

We operate under a sloppy assumption that, much like Francis Fukuyama’s much ballyhooed pronouncement of the end of history, society has reached its final form, or at least something approximating it. Or maybe we simply expect that its current form will survive into the foreseeable future, which is tantamount to the same. That form features cheap, easy energy and information resources available at our fingertips; local, regional, and international transportation and travel at our service; consumable goods only a phone call or a few website clicks away; and human habitation concentrated in cities and suburbs connected by paved roads suitable for happy motoring. Free public education, such as it is, can be enjoyed until one is presumably old enough to discard it entirely. Political entities from nations to states/provinces to municipalities will remain stable or roughly as they have been for the last 70 years or so, as will governments. Suffice it to say, I don’t believe any of these things are capable of lasting much longer. Ironically, it’s probably true that what is described above is, in fact, society’s final form precisely because what follows won’t qualify anymore as a society.

Why a Renewable Energy Society is a Pipedream: Despite technophiles’ dream of a world of clean abundant energy, the evidence clearly shows that our civilization will continue to rely mainly on hydrocarbons long past the point that hydrocarbon energy ceases to be affordable, precipitating a collapse of our economy and our industrial culture. Thanks to Sam Rose for the link.

Was Jared Diamond Wrong?: Recently a consensus has been achieved that the ‘scale problems’ of ‘civilized’ culture (lack of direct representation, inequality, hierarchy etc.) emerged with the development of ‘catastrophic’ agriculture (intensive, high-maintenance, large-scale monoculture). Now David Graeber argues that this wasn’t the case: all human societies, he argues, have employed a mix of egalitarian and hierarchical social structures, even the earliest tribal societies.

Is Civilization a Wetiko Culture?: Many ancient cultures have a concept called wetiko, a disease that induces cannibalism or vampirism (thanks to Philip Kippenberger for pointing me to this). Stories about it are cautionary tales against excessive acquisitiveness and disconnection from community. A new study suggests our culture is what they were warning about (but falls short of asking the more intriguing question whether, because of our large brains’ propensity for abstraction and seeing ourselves as apart from the rest of life, human cultures will inevitably succumb to the disease):

When Western anthropologists first started to study wetiko, they [identified] two traits that are relevant for thinking about cultures: (1) the initial act, even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural desire for more; and (2) the host carrier, which they called the ‘victim,’ ended up with an ‘icy heart’— i.e., their ability for empathy and compassion was amputated.

The reader can probably already sense from the two traits mentioned above the wetiko nature of modern capitalism. Its insatiable hunger for finite resources; its disregard for the pain of groups and cultures it consumes; its belief in consumption as savior; its overriding obsession with its own material growth; and its viral spread across the surface of the planet. It is wholly accurate to describe neoliberal capitalism as cannibalizing life on this planet. It is not the only truth—capitalism has also facilitated an explosion of human life and ingenuity—but when taken as a whole, capitalism is certainly eating through the life-force of this planet in service of its own growth.


cartoon by Will McPhail in The New Yorker

Food as Medicine:’s Michael Greger’s TEDx talk about why almost all the major causes of death in western society are attributable to poor nutrition and the industrial food system.

Howe Sound Ballet: My friend Bob Turner captures astonishing footage of seals, sea lions and massive schools of anchovies right in Snug Cove, Bowen Island.

Music As Life and Death: His friend James Stewart writes a brilliant biography of Eric Sun, violin virtuoso and Facebook genius, an exemplar of how to live with purpose and how to die with dignity.

Rent Now, Buy Never: Vancouver is using modified shipping containers to create a network of neighbourhood lending libraries for tools and recreational gear that people only use occasionally, each run by a neighbourhood co-op.

Re-Thinking Our Reading Problem: Perhaps the problem with our high rates of functional illiteracy, and poor skills at reading and understanding complex material, are due less to lack of literacy teaching in schools, and more to a lack of breadth and depth of knowledge about a wide range of subject matter. If we learned more about subjects (from oral discussions, demonstrations, visits etc) before we tried to read up about them, in other words, our reading might go a lot further than it does without that context.

Why Capitalism, Modern Management and Bonuses Lead to Poor Work Performance: What apparently motivates us to do our best work, says Dan Pink, is not monetary rewards (beyond a comfortable salary); it is autonomy (degree of control over what we do), mastery (the desire to achieve a high level of competence at what we do), and purpose (a shared sense that what we do is important in the world, and why). Capitalism, in contrast, rewards obedience, cost reduction, and coercive marketing.

In the Market for a Laptop, Phone or Camera?: Take a look at ProductChart, which allows you to select all the criteria you care about and then shows a chart comparing benefits vs cost, with links for more information. Seems to be free of hidden sponsorships and biases. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

The Unknown Language of the Jedek: A new language has been discovered, almost by accident, in Malaysia, and neither the language nor the culture of its people seem to support or encourage misogyny, violence, private ownership, punishment of criminals, or specialized professions or jobs.

The Secret of a Great Email Message: A message from Steve Jobs about whether HarperCollins should publish e-books through Apple rather than Amazon, serves to point out the essential elements of a short, persuasive, articulate message.


cartoon by Mick Stevens in The New Yorker

What Money Can’t Buy, and What It Shouldn’t: Professor Michael Sandel explains the corrupting influence of untrammelled ‘market’ capitalism, where everything has a price and the ‘market’ (ie who has wealth and power) entirely determines what gets done and made, and what doesn’t.

Corporations Loathing Customers: Corporations have done their damnedest to automate and outsource the annoying nuisance of employees. Now they are turning their loathing to that other class of people, their customers. It started with forcing you to deal with call centres (whose staff are paid to prevent customers from any access to management and any facility to improve processes or obtain satisfaction), and online ‘community FAQs’ that essentially outsource customer service to — other customers! They also use ‘community engagement’ and ‘focus groups’ as fraudulent means to pretend to actually listen to customers, when all they really want is for the customers to shut up and buy.

Our Broken Democracies: The smug reaction of the Democrats waiting for Trump to implode so they can resume their rightful place in power (in bed with Wall Street), is reflected in equally egregious actions (and inaction) almost every democracy in the world, as the incapacity of centralized governments to address the challenges of our time becomes more obvious. In Canada, the once-left NDP party’s provincial governments are threatening each other and showing their true anti-environmental colours, as the Alberta NDP touts tar sands energy and the BC NDP goes ahead with the abominable and unnecessary Site C hydro dam (with the complicity of the Greens), to placate labour and defend its base. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the governing so-called Liberals are reneging on both their environmental and proportionate representation promises.

Blowing the Whistle on the Times: James Risen explains why he quit working as an investigative reporter for the NYT when he learned how complicit they were in working with the federal government’s propaganda and war machine, and why the NYT signed up for this devil’s bargain to access and release information that would otherwise never see the light of day.

The Stock Market Has Nothing to Do With the Economy: Almost all investments (and savings of any kind for that matter) are owned by a tiny proportion of the populace. I could add that the “official” unemployment rate and inflation rate and the number of people in (mostly lousy underpaid) jobs and the GDP have nothing to do with the economy either.

And the Housing Crisis is All About Globalization: The unavailability of affordable housing in the world’s desirable cities has little to do with local or even national politics, or with immigration — it’s all about global money from the world’s rich elite seeking safe places to park the staggering wealth they have accumulated. And it’s not just housing they’re gobbling up — it’s arable and resource-rich land as well.

Why Blacks Live in Mostly-Black Neighbourhoods: It is because they aren’t safe living in white neighbourhoods. Not safe from violent whites. Not safe from police. It’s not because they want to live in segregated neighbourhoods. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

The End of the Job and the Age of Drudgery…: As the obsession with profits and competition leads to endless outsourcing, corner-cutting, quality-reduction and benefits-reduction, we have witnessed in a generation the end of the ‘job’, a bargain in which you once got security and the guarantee of a decent living wage, in return for promising to offer one master your skills and experience for a lifetime. Everyone is now a freelancer, but in a world where the rules are fixed in favour of the rich and powerful oligarchs, for most this is no improvement, just a life-sentence to long hours of drudgery in multiple work environments with no opportunity for promotion and no security whatsoever.

…and Why That Drudgery Arose: Umair Haque describes the brutal world that leads to this drudgery as a predator society, in which the only ‘successful’ young workers are those who emulate the brutal predation of corporate oligopolies on people, resources and nations. This predation has evolved because of what Umair calls a broad social pathology with these qualities (Thanks to Antonio Dias and PS Pirro for the links):

Americans appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways above. They just don’t appear to be too disturbed, moved, or even affected by [pathologies like] their kids killing each other, their social bonds collapsing, being powerless to live with dignity, or having to numb the pain of it all away. If these pathologies happened in any other rich country — even in most poor ones — people would be aghast, shocked, and stunned, and certainly moved to make them not happen. But in America, they are, well, not even resigned. They are indifferent, mostly…

A predatory society doesn’t just mean oligarchs ripping people off financially. In a truer way, it means people nodding and smiling and going about their everyday business as their neighbours, friends, and colleagues die early deaths in shallow graves. The predator in American society isn’t just its super-rich — but an invisible and insatiable force: the normalization of what in the rest of the world would be seen as shameful, historic, generational moral failures, if not crimes, becoming mere mundane everyday affairs not to be too worried by or troubled about.


from the comic xkcd, “Research Risks”

The Annals of Pard: Brilliant, observant, compassionate, imaginative writing from the late incomparable Ursula Le Guin, about her cat, Pard.

Show Them the Way That You Feel: Choir! Choir! Choir! sings James Taylor’s Shower the People, hundreds strong.

Boys Will Be Boys: As mothers take over from fathers tending adjacent nests of baby albatrosses on the island of Kaua’i (just a few miles up the road from where I’m staying), one of the males moves too close to the other and a brief scuffle ensues. Their mates are not impressed.

Never Gonna Dance Again: Young virtuoso guitarist Alexandr Misko does a stunning version of George Michael’s Careless Whisper.

Life on Earth 3.5B Years Old?: Scientists, in disarray over discoveries all over the planet that indicate global human presence more than 100,000 years ago, are now struggling to make sense of fossils that indicate primitive life all over the planet as long as 3.5 billion years ago, a billion years before it was previously thought possible.

Hard to Know When to Give Up the Fight: Lovely animation of the moving Patti Griffin song Rain.

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”: The answer to this question, says Peter Thiel, probably indicates the work you’re meant to do, the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity waiting for you to jump on it.

March 31st is International Quit Your Crappy Job Day: Discover if it’s the right time for you to find more meaningful work. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Whoever is There Come on Through: Wonderful writing about friendship and loneliness by Irish writer Colin Barrett. If you want to learn how to write dialogue that brings out a character’s personality and passions, study this. And read this interview with Colin too.

What Music Videos Could Be: Stunning, carefully-composed ultra-HD videography combine with gentle music in a series of shorts about food and life in (a bygone era in?) remote parts of China. This one is about matsutake mushrooms. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link, and the one that follows.

Mutant Marbled Crayfish Charm the World: A new species of crayfish that clones itself, is astonishingly prolific, and produces only females, has been found in the wild (its origin is unknown, though some speculate it came from a German laboratory, though its biological predecessors live only in the southern US), and is now a thriving import business. The fact that it’s a clone, however, means limited resistance to disease (no variability in genetics) so it’s not sure how long its population explosion will last.


From PS Pirro, from Listen: “Words are my hammer. I pound and I pound on what is not and never will be a nail.”

From the late Ursula Le Guin, from Steering the Craft:

Recognition of syntactical constructions used to be taught by the method of diagramming, a useful skill for any writer. If you can find an old grammar book that shows you how to diagram a sentence, have a look; it’s enlightening. It may make you realize that a sentence has a skeleton, just as a horse does, and the sentence, or the horse, moves the way it does because of the way its bones are put together. A keen feeling for that arrangement and connection and relation of words is essential equipment for a writer of narrative prose. You don’t need to know all the rules of syntax, but you have to train yourself to hear it or feel it, so that you’ll know when a sentence is so tangled up it’s about to fall onto its nose and when it’s running clear and free.

From Anna Tivel, Illinois:

Underneath the heavy sky, the highway shines
A razor blade cutting down to bone
Nothing left to do but hold the wheel and drive
The dark of night, the dim light on the road
All the way from Illinois, a thousand miles of waiting for
A gentle touch, a kind, believing word
All the way from Illinois, and not one to be heard

Tell me all the ways to make a day go by
In an aeroplane high above the earth
Or standing in the kitchen in an awful fight
The brightly colored blood of ugly words
All the way from Illinois, a box of clothes, a can of oil
The promise of a place to settle down
All the way from Illinois, and not one to be found

And nothing hurts like crying on a long drive home
Nothing worse than hiding in the dark alone
From the beautiful lights of a dangerous love

Shattered glass, a photograph of a broken heart
A crack along the windshield of the world
The shape of something running in the untamed dark
The howling out of freedom and of hurt
All the way from Illinois, the radio, the rain, the road
The dream of finding out just what is love
All the way from Illinois, and turns out nothing was

From Peter Everwine: The Day:

We walked at the edge of the sea, the dog,
still young then, running ahead of us.

Few people. Gulls. A flock of pelicans
circled beyond the swells, then closed
their wings and dropped head-long
into the dazzle of light and sea. You clapped
your hands; the day grew brilliant.

Later we sat at a small table
with wine and food that tasted of the sea.

A perfect day, we said to one another,
so that even when the day ended
and the lights of houses among the hills
came on like a scattering of embers,
we watched it leave without regret.

That night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly—Ah, Happiness!
then we turn and go on our way again.

But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns—
that day by the sea, that happiness,

though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

What Happens in Vagus…

Evolution is a precarious process. Within every species, minor variations are constantly introduced and tested for ‘fitness’: If they help the creature survive, they are passed on to the next generation, and if they hamper survival, they will not be passed on. Many attributes won’t apparently affect survival one way or the other, so it’s a toss-up whether they’ll be passed on or not. Gaia keeps rolling the dice and trying new things.

Accidents happen in this process. Feathers apparently evolved in birds as a means of low-weight heat management; it turned out that they also enabled flight, which wasn’t necessary (the first birds and their feathered dinosaur forebears were ground-nesters with few natural predators) but which turned out to be a great evolutionary success.

Another early evolutionary trick was the emergence in the mammalian autonomous nervous system of neuroception, the autonomic fight/flight/freeze response when danger is sensed by the nervous system. This response is (for evolutionary reasons) vastly faster than the brain’s complex thought processing system. It’s regulated in part by a piece of the vagus nerve, which constantly assesses sensory data and helps ‘decide’ whether any given situation is (a) safe, (b) dangerous (and hence whether to fight or flight), or (c) inescapable (in which case the creature shuts down, plays dead and ‘hides’ in the hopes the predator won’t notice it).

I’ve seen this neuroception response change instantly — I watched three dogs playing together when suddenly one of them noticed a squirrel and barked. The three dogs (brilliantly, using body language signals that no human language could ever match) chased and cornered the squirrel, which at first fled, and then, knowing it was lost, lay down and played dead. The dogs lost interest, and soon after, the squirrel slowly arose, shook itself furiously, and scampered away.

The process in humans isn’t all that different (our form of playing dead is called fainting). The problem is that, for us, potentially dangerous situations aren’t as simple as predators, status challenges and falling objects. We are constantly facing worrisome situations, many of them chronic, and our autonomous nervous system is in a state of constant stimulation and overwork (ie chronic stress). And because fight, flight and freeze are rarely optimal solutions to the situations we now face, we’ve had to evolve a coping mechanism to deal with the disconnect between what the ‘hardware’ of our bodies and the ‘software’ of our enculturated brains thinks is good for us.

One of the leading theories is that, in social creatures (those, like humans, whose evolutionary fitness depends on group cooperation), the chronic stress response can be mediated by “safety cues”, starting with the mother’s soothing voice and touch, and including laughter, high-pitched songs and expressions of joy (as opposed to threatening low-pitched growls), sympathetic attention, reassuring facial expressions, tones of voice and postures, and (in bonobos at least) brief pleasurable sexual stimulation.

So now, each time a stressful occurrence happens, we first look for social reassurances from our tribe-mates, and if we receive (and reciprocate) such safety cues, our vagal nerve sends a ‘stand down’ notice to our autonomic nervous system (and the various body organs like lungs, heart and digestive organs that are involved in stress response), appropriate hormones kick in or cease, and we return to a peaceful state (what some call a ‘now time‘ state). In the absence of these safety cues, the body next goes into fight-or-flight mode. This is an autonomic ‘decision’ based on the body’s subconscious assessment of which strategy has the greater chance of success (for its own survival and that of the tribe and the balance of life in the community as a whole). We will probably never understand how that decision is ‘made’, but it is consistent with Gaia theory. However, if the assessment is that neither fight nor flight is a successful strategy, then the neuroceptors send out shut-down signals, for us, just as they do for a cornered squirrel.

When that happens, both the body and the mind shut down. The problem is that, in today’s complex modern civilized society, ‘freezing’ is almost never an effective strategy. Meanwhile we have lost the sense of community in which there is enough cohesion and trust to enable the clear, consistent, broadly-shared communication of safety cues (largely because this doesn’t scale beyond groups of 50-150 individuals). And very few of the things that cause modern humans stress are amenable to either fight or flight responses. So we’re chronically dealing with our body’s propensity to shut down, at the same time we’re told, and believe intellectually, we need to “buck up”.

The chart at the top of this article (using the methodology in Joe Shirley’s book The Feeling Path) shows my personal triggers and the underlying anxieties and fears behind them. I ‘know’ (from experience and enculturation) that both my body’s and my mind’s reactions to these triggers are exaggerated, unwarranted and unhelpful. But tell that to my autonomous nervous system! And to my imaginative “worst-case-scenario” mind! Our response is based on a million years of genetic programming and we cannot help responding the way we do. It is how the body, and the mind, evolved to deal with stressful situations. This is why the idea that using cognitive processes like CBT and ‘flooding’ and ‘mindfulness’ we can somehow ‘reprogram’ ourselves to respond differently is simply ludicrous.

Although we may seem to modify our reactions over time, I would argue that there is something else at work. Here’s an example: I used to suffer (and make others travelling with me suffer) from what is called road rage. Reckless and careless driving in my immediate vicinity would produce almost hysterical fury in me, to the point I was tempted to confront the ‘guilty’ driver and was quite possibly only held back by fear that they would hurt me in a confrontation more than I would hurt them.

These days I still get that brief visceral reaction to dangerous, aggressive and incompetent drivers, but it passes much more quickly and doesn’t get reinforced by the stories in my head about what horrors it might have led to (such stories can in turn incite more anger, producing what Eckhart Tolle calls the self-reinforcing “pain-body/egoic-mind” cycle).

Does that mean that ‘I’ have changed, and that ‘reprogramming’ oneself is possible? I don’t think so. Three things have contributed, I think, to this apparent behaviour change, none of which ‘I’ had or have any control over:

  1. Enculturation: The people in my life who have witnessed road rage in me (and other fortunately rare displays of excessive and useless anger) have told me they find it frightening and inappropriate, and made me feel shameful about it. Hence I have gradually become enculturated by the relatively sensitive people around me to sublimate my anger.
  2. New safety cues: When these situations have arisen lately, the people in the car with me have given me verbal and body-language “it’s OK” safety cues that, over time, have dampened the ‘fight’ response. Now, even when driving alone, the memory of receiving these cues in similar situations calms my response.
  3. Shifting worldview: I have learned that we have no free will, and that everyone is struggling, so the stories I tell myself about dangerous driving behaviour are more sympathetic and less likely to fuel and sustain the anger.

My reaction in these situations continues to be subconscious, unaffected by any rational thought processes I may use or any practices I may follow. I had no choice over the people I hang out with, or our collective enculturation of each other, or over what I’ve learned. I’m blessed to have been attracted to sensitive people and to have had the time and curiosity to learn more about inherent human nature. These are all in increasingly short supply as our modern stress-riven culture is making us more and more dissociated (just look at our ‘leaders’), and leaving us with less and less time to learn and explore what’s important.

My example above was about the ‘fight’ response, and how it has been dampened through no control of my own in recent years. How about the ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ responses?

Anger is most often a mask for fear (my road rage was mostly about fear of their poor driving getting me and my loved ones hurt). That’s a typical ‘fight’ response. A typical ‘flight’ response for me occurred this winter when my house was overrun with mice. I think mice are cute and don’t want to hurt them, but I mean overrun. They were everywhere. Life for a while involved hourly checking of the humane traps, and releasing them was complicated by a second consecutive near-record cold, icy, snowy winter that made my driveway impassable, and psychologically trapped me in the house. And finding all their entrance-points seemed endless and impossible.

For months, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I became hyper-vigilant, seeing and hearing things constantly everywhere I went. I became obsessed with bad weather reports and the risk of storms (which often also bring power failures where I live, leaving me without heat or light). I lost 15 pounds and had my first colitis attack in 10 years.

The fear, the anxiety, the shame, the grief of having ‘lost’ my safe home — all my reactions were ridiculous, wildly excessive, and seriously unhealthy. But all I could think about was getting away from this months-long nightmare. I live alone, so the sense of isolation (and the absence of regular safety clues from others) exacerbated my reaction. Actually ‘facing the fear’ (the individual mice) wasn’t an answer — it wasn’t the cute, scared mice I was afraid of. What was it?

It was the feeling of being trapped and being out of control (of myself and the situation), and the suffering that goes along with that. This is a primeval, ancient fear. I have witnesses animals in pain, and animals trapped or caged, and the latter are obviously far more stressed and suffering than the former. This is the reason, I am told, many indigenous people sleep in the open, not under trees that could fall and trap or seriously injure them. It’s the reason prisons are inherently inhumane and solitary confinement even more so. It’s the reason caged, factory farmed chickens peck themselves and others to death. From an evolutionary perspective, fear of being trapped is very sensible.

The fact that I wasn’t really trapped is irrelevant — my autonomous nervous system, without any safety cues to dampen it, was firing the ‘flight’ response as surely as if I were locked in a burning building or cornered by a tiger. And as soon as it became apparent there was no ready ‘flight’ path — boom — the ‘freeze’ response kicked in. My brain became mush and gave up its valiant arguments that “it’s really not that bad”. I felt paralyzed. My body, tired of the chronic stress without action to relieve it, said no. I started losing weight, and my colitis flared.

It had been 10 years since my previous colitis attack, and 10 1/2 since my severest, and first, attack. That one was triggered by horrible financial news that resulted in me having to pay a six-figure amount in taxes because of a management accounting error — with one month’s notice. I had saved up just enough money to allow me to write my book, and this news was devastating. I was outraged, grief-stricken. I felt victimized, and helpless. But mostly I was terrified. What suffering would this loss inflict on me and on my loved ones? What would this mean for my suddenly-unknown future, a future that I had planned out so carefully? The world suddenly felt unsafe, insecure, and I was filled with dread, and my mind filled with stories of deprivation, failure and struggle. That first colitis attack was severe — almost life-threatening — and for weeks I was so exhausted, terrified and in such agonizing pain I just wanted to die.

All because an autonomous nervous system reaction that had long outlived its evolutionary value led my body to say no, to say “enough, I give up”. (Paradoxically, my previous life-long coping-by-shutting-down mechanism in the face of chronic anxiety — depression — didn’t happen, and hasn’t really been a factor in my life since.)

The ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ vagus nerve reactions don’t seem to lend themselves to the three factors that have helped mitigate my ‘fight response’ feelings of anger. Gabor Maté has written about how many human diseases (including colitis, addiction and depression) are the body’s way of saying no to our culture’s maladaptive ways of coping with chronic mental stresses. In his early work he prescribes seven recommended coping mechanisms, including self-acceptance, self-awareness, healthy forms of anger, healthy social attachments (so you get the social cues and support) and setting appropriate boundaries (learning to say no so your body doesn’t have to). But these mechanisms presume a degree of free will that even Gabor’s later books suggest we might not have (he has recently asserted that by far the best way to address the many diseases rooted in childhood trauma and neglect is to prevent such trauma and neglect from happening in the first place).

So what are those who struggle with chronic fears and anxieties to do? The Feeling Path approach that the chart above used, suggests that we can be sufficiently self-aware to recognize where we are on the ‘feeling path’ between the anxious/fearful state and the equanimous/empowered/self-accepting peaceful state, and therefore see the autonomous nervous system’s overreaction for what it is.

I’m not so sure. Recently, I checked into a hotel room and found the internet unplugged. Not a big deal; I’m sure it would have been fixed within 24 hours. But something in me was triggered (same thing that gets triggered when any of the hundreds of bugs in MS Office programs turn up). For an hour I tried to fix it, fussing and fuming. Insane behaviour. I just don’t like unpleasant surprises. But I couldn’t help myself. The feelings of loss of control and agency trumped my self-awareness that this was an overreaction. In the moment, I couldn’t even get myself to acknowledge that. I didn’t even get to the worst-case story-telling that might have ramped up and sustained my anxiety — this was just pure emotion. I could probably find some seminal event in my past in which some technology failure or other implicit promise let-down had caused great suffering, but I’m not sure what good that would do. Apparently, this character, hapless as it is with technologies, just can’t handle things that don’t work reliably (especially when it can’t easily ‘fix’ them so they do).

Stephen Porges, who is probably the leading theorist about the vagus nerve, recently recommended “becoming aware of what our autonomic nervous system is doing, picking up on the cues and honouring them, and seeking safety with those who care”, a process he calls “feeling oneself”. But that presumes we have the agency and ‘peace of mind’ to do so, and I’m not at all sure we do. Singing, breathing and meditation practices are recommended to mimic aspects of the safety cues we get from others which calm the autonomous nervous system by stimulating the vagal nerve. I do all of these, but I don’t have the sense that they’ve helped my reactivity, comforting as they can be for a while in the right circumstances.

Of course others recommend telling ourselves a different story from the ‘should’ stories (which are all about expectation and moral judgement) and the ‘could’ and ‘could have been’ stories (which are all about the past that never was and the future that never will be). Tell a different story, we’re told, and it will change the trajectory of your life. But what about the stories that some of us must carry all our lives of horrors that were absolutely true? The body remembers, and reminds us.

While stories are fiction, it may be helpful to tell our ‘true’ story for a different reason — to recognize that it, the story, while true, is a story, something separate from us, and perhaps then to be able to put some distance between us and it, and not identify with it as much.

So, no simple answers here. My thesis on dealing with the consequences of our autonomous nervous system’s maladaptation to modern civilized life, for now, is:

  1. We can’t be, think or feel other than as we are and do. We have no agency or free will over what and how we think or feel, or over how our body will react accordingly, including reacting in ways that seem illogical, unhealthy, and exaggerated.
  2. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a healthy cohesive community, we will probably receive and reciprocate safety cues and enculturation that will mitigate some of the damage our reactivity inflicts on our bodies, our psyches, and others.
  3. Singing, meditation, and breathing practices may make us feel better about all of this, but won’t change it. Getting lots of exercise and eating well (neither of which is easy to do any more) will likely increase our resilience to the effects of our reactivity, but won’t change our reactivity.
  4. Telling ourselves a different story from the one that is triggered by, and further triggers, an autonomic emotional/physiological reaction, won’t change anything, since all stories are fiction. But understanding our own apparently ‘true’ story could help us see it for what it is — that it is a story, and that it is not us.
  5. If the apparent self that underlies our triggers and the stories they reciprocally reinforce, falls away, and is seen to be illusory, then it’s likely the triggers, which are embodied, not just in our minds, will continue for a while. But with no ‘self’ to validate them and identify with them, they will eventually dissipate. Unfortunately, there is no path to rid ourselves of our ‘selves’; it’s a “useless piece of software” that co-evolved with big brains, and as maladaptive in the complex modern world as many of the autonomous nervous system’s responses.

This assessment may be unduly pessimistic. I’m going to try some unusual exercises, and a unique (non-CBT) form of therapy, to see if they can at least curtail some of the nastier effects of my autonomous nervous system’s excessive reactivity. Stay tuned.

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How to Ask Strangers What They Care About (Without Scaring Them Off)

Why is it when we meet new people, our way of self-identifying, and our first question to them, is so often about what we do “for a living”? I suppose this is because it’s safe — most of us don’t see such questions as highly personal or invasive. But it also pretty much reduces the short-term likelihood of getting to know this new person well, or even at all in any meaningful way. Which in formal or obligatory settings is probably just what we often want. For those that enjoy it, small talk has its place.

Recently, there have been attempts by meeting and event organizers to craft some questions that are more informative, meaningful, and auspicious for establishing close and valuable relationships. They have to walk a line between being too innocuous to be engaging, and crossing personal boundaries too quickly and non-consensually. Unlike wild creatures, we can’t just sniff out someone we’ve just met and from that know, sensuously and intuitively, whether we want to hang around them or not. While it is to the point, my recent habit of asking new acquaintances “What are you doing that you really care about these days?” is too abrupt and awkward for most. And it often points out that many of us are living automatic lives, on hold for times that offer us the luxury of doing what we really (think we) want to do, and that there is little or no intersection between what we’re doing and what we really care about.

Event organizers call not-too-personal but relationship-opening questions “ice-breakers”. Many of them IMO are just as awkward as my “what do you care about” question — they inquire about personal preferences, happy memories, and to some extent aspirations. The answerer generally struggles with coming up with a response that’s not too personal, but doesn’t sound superficial or trite. As with most questions with people we’re not yet sure we want to associate with (or are pretty sure we don’t want to associate with), there is an enculturated tendency to provide an answer that is palatable to the questioner, whether or not it is true. This makes the whole process annoying, and less than transparent.

So I’ve been looking for some questions I could ask that avoid these problems. The criteria for these questions are, I think:

  1. They elicit honest answers rather than clever, safe or socially acceptable ones.
  2. They are not so personal that they make you hesitant to answer, but are personal enough they tell others something interesting and possibly ‘useful’ (to you both) about you.
  3. They are interesting (and perhaps even self-revelatory) to think about, but don’t (for most people) require an enormous amount of time and energy to ponder to come up with an answer.
  4. They encourage follow-up questions and deeper explorations into the answers and reasons for them.

Here are a few questions that, in the right circumstances, might meet these criteria:

  1. What do you wish you’d learned earlier in your life. Probably best to take turns describing one thing at a time you wish you’d learned, since most of us probably have multiple answers. In my experience this question almost always leads to a discussion of how you came to learn this (a brief story) and why you wish you’d learned it earlier. It’s fine if you never get past the first learning. You might introduce this question gently by saying something like “I’ve just been thinking about how I wish I’d learned earlier in life (eg ‘not to blame or judge people, since I think we’re all struggling to do our best’); ever wished you’d learned something earlier in your life?” It may help to provide your own answer first, to indicate a willingness to move beyond small talk.
  2. Of the people you’ve known in your life but fallen out of touch with, who would you most like to reconnect with, and why? This may require more thought, but again it will inevitably provoke a story and some understanding of what’s important to the answerer. An alternative for those who have no answer to this one might be: Of the people in your community, who would you most like to get to know better, and why?
  3. If you had to choose one written passage of no more than 500 words (a couple of pages) to read out loud that summarizes your worldview or philosophy of life, what would it be? Even better if it’s at hand and can be read our loud — it should only take 3-4 minutes. Now that’s a conversation starter!

If you’ve found other questions that meet the above criteria, I’d love to hear them, especially if you now use them when you meet and engage with new people.

There are probably more suitable questions to use in paid work settings, but since I’m retired (and use questions like those above in settings when those present are all volunteers) I’m not the best one to come up with them.

What I like about these questions, and these criteria, is that they can apply even when the people involved are poles apart socially, culturally or politically. Depending on the circumstances, I wouldn’t be averse to answering the above questions with reference to my current positions on complexity, civilizational collapse, nonduality, and/or whole plant food diets: I think it’s possible (though not easy) to broach these subjects in a non-confrontational, non-preachy way. And since I care so much about these subjects, I suspect that many others, though they may not share my particular views, also care about understanding how the world works, our future, the essence of human nature, and how to live well. The less time we take getting to talk about what we care about, and what we’ve learned, the better.

Image CC0 from the good folks at pixabay.

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Separation Anxiety

Scientists of all stripes are beginning to discover that the primary tool of science — analysis, the separation of things into ‘discrete’ parts and the modeling of their ‘separate’ behaviour to try to explain cause and effect (and everything else) — is pretty seriously flawed. As a result, their models of reality are beginning to converge with those of some modern philosophers.

Gould and Lewontin have written that the attempt to study genes, organisms and their environments as if they were separate entities is a largely hopeless process, because these elements of life co-evolve in such an intricately intertwined and complex way that teasing them apart is impossible. We are, they explain, pluralities, and inextricable parts of everything-that-is.

Cohen and Stewart have written that our sense of being separate ‘selves’ is a mental construct, an unreal ‘figment of reality’, and that this sense was an exaptation — an accidental consequence — of our brains’ “feature detection system” (the centralized capacity to recognize qualities outside the ‘complicity’ of the body’s constituent organs and environments that evolved for their collective benefit), when that system turned inward and began to explore and try to make sense of ‘itself’.

Radical non-duality asserts that this illusory sense of separation is unnecessary and even deleterious to our bodies’ functioning, causing needless anxiety and suffering that accompanies the delusion of personal agency, responsibility, control, choice and free will.

Cognitive scientists are now confirming that this separate ‘self’ can indeed not be located, and that the brain’s apparent ‘decisions’ are actually after-the-fact rationalizations for what the embodied and enculturated complicity we think of as ‘us’ has already begun to do. The only way the brain can ‘make sense’ of actions, once it tries to factor a separate self with agency into its equations, is to incorrectly attribute decisions to its ‘self’ — and then second-guess, regret, blame or congratulate its ‘self’ for them.

Some physicists are now doubting the existence of time as anything more than a mental construct. Just as the brain (the feature detection system) assigns colours and other qualities to what it ‘sees’, when those colours aren’t real, just a coding system, it assigns times to what it ‘recalls’, when there is actually no past or future. It’s a convenient way for the brain to categorize, but it seemingly does not represent anything real. Everything-that-is is timeless. Eliminating time from what is allegedly real vastly improves and simplifies many scientific models, from quantum theory to astrophysics.

None of this is currently helpful, or even especially useful, which is undoubtedly why neither scientists nor philosophers coming to this realization (often reluctantly) are talking about it very openly. Science, and the brain, hate anything too complex to be known and understood and acted upon — it prevents them from doing their work, and casts profound doubt on their hard-won models of what is. Even some radical nonduality proponents worry aloud (needlessly IMO) that most people (or at least their brains) can’t handle the truth that the self, and free will, don’t exist (and that life, therefore, has no meaning, and that nothing matters).

It would profoundly change the nature of both science and philosophy to acknowledge that reality is not knowable, not explainable, that nothing is separate, and that everything-that-is is a mystery. The word mystery has the same root as the word mute, and neither scientists nor philosophers like to be rendered mute.

Nevertheless, I believe it will come to that. Scientists can only ignore the facts for so long before reluctantly relenting. And we are such curious creatures that we would prefer accepting mystery to being lied to. And if we in fact have no real selves and no free will, that acceptance won’t change our behaviours, and might relieve some of the guilt, fear and other stressful feelings that stem from a belief in our agency over our actions. That might in turn begin to modify our enculturation of our children and each other. I have a fanciful idea that, in time (our species are after all newcomers to life) this might lead to us doing much less, and just being more — and ultimately ceasing our incessant chatter about what to do and what we think we know, and becoming, once again, mostly mute, simply enjoying the wonder of all-that-is.

In the meantime, while it can’t be helped, we have no choice but to suffer with the illusion of our separation, our self-hood, and our supposed agency. It gives the term ‘separation anxiety’ a whole new spin. It’s an affliction, as real to ‘us’ as a lifelong hallucination, and it’s highly contagious. Collectively, it’s what I have called ‘civilization disease’ — the mental and often physical illness that accompanies the stress of believing what seems obvious (and what we’re told) but which is in fact completely fabricated by the brain in its obsession to try to make sense of everything, including its apparent self.

It seems to be in the nature of the self to try (hopelessly unfortunately, since it has no agency) to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Modern humans have found many ways (drugs, amusements, comforts and distractions) to escape the pain of civilization disease. No blame in that — we have no choice after all, and our embodied and enculturated conditioning naturally tends us towards such preferences. This is what radical nonduality refers to as “making the prison of the self more comfortable”.

The creature apparently writing this seems to have an innate preference for comforts over other forms of escape. I like to read and learn new things, to lie on a warm beach, to surround myself with beauty. I like tart flavours, moody lights, well-crafted music, writing, art, and other gentle sensory pleasures.

I have lost much of my interest in conversation and in story (whether written or in audiovisual formats); these are too personal, now, too close to the bone of self, too much a reminder of the disease. Even my short stories, now, are about rejection of the old stories, and about imagining what might be possible if we can move past them.

I know that in writing all this I am running the risk of annoying readers who find this message disturbing, or even see it as evidence of mental illness or indoctrination. I ran the same risk when ten years ago I began conveying my then-new belief that our civilization is inevitably in its final decades, and could not and should not be ‘saved’. This blog has always chronicled my evolving sense of what’s possible and what’s true, and I’m not about to self-censor now. I’m not looking for anything from readers; if you find this interesting or even comforting, that’s great, but if you don’t please just stop reading and go read something elsewhere that resonates more for you.

Coming up, some new poetry and music I’ve been working on.

Image by the author.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

On the Shoulders of Giants

This is the third and final story in a trilogy about a father and daughter. The first two were The Project, and Calling the Cage Freedom

Image: Stepping Stones, by Paul Stevenson, CC BY 2.0

“OK, so I’ve been reading that book Figments of Reality“, Seve said to me, coming out onto the deck with lemonade for the two of us. “The biologist and the mathematician seem to be very smart, and they use this running story about creatures from Zarathustra to help the reader imagine how we humans might appear to an alien race and hence what we might actually be. I like the bit about us being emergent properties of the creatures that make us up, and about the brain being a feature-detection system that evolved for their benefit, not ‘ours’. But the ending makes no sense at all.”

“Quite a bit of it makes no sense, like their insistence that time is real, for example. They’re science fiction writers. They make up stories and posit that they might be true. You have to cherry-pick.”

“They talk about qualia — characteristics of things — and they write this”, she said, reading from her notebook:

On the ‘figment’ level our brains do not perceive the universe in a passive manner; instead, they project the inner world of figments [artificial but useful representations of reality] back on to (our conception of) the outer world of reality, so that our private inner world appears to us – but not to anybody else – to be ‘out there’. Our brains, in this sense, create their own realities – and this enables them to attach vivid labels to prosaic reality, labels that are vivid because they are inside our minds where our personal identities also [seem to] reside; but also labels that have evolved to be vivid because we survive much better if they are….

This leads to a delightful paradox. Perceived reality (as opposed to real reality) seems vivid to our perceptions, not because it is real, but because it is virtual. ‘Red’ is a vivid construct of our minds, which we plaster over our perceptions by projecting them back into the outside world. There is an objective sense in which the outside world is red too – it reflects light of an appropriate wavelength. But that is a different kind of ‘redness’ altogether, with none of the vividness that our minds use for ‘red’ decoration of London buses and blood… If you don’t like this line of thought, bear in mind that many animals – bees in particular – see light at ultra-violet wavelengths, and hence pick up vivid ‘colours’ that we do not see at all. The bee’s virtual world is different from our virtual world, and while they both are rooted in the same objective reality, they are [utterly] different interpretations of it… 

[We share Daniel Dennett’s] view of the mind as a conglomerate of loosely knit processes, each semi-independent of the others, which he refers to as ‘pandemonium’… Today’s computer operating systems involve large numbers of semi-autonomous subprograms known as ‘demons’, which wait until they are called on, do their thing, report their results, and shut up shop again… The apparently organised behaviour of the computer emerges from the interactions between demons… Dennett tells us that the human mind is somewhat like that. You – with your strong, overriding sense of ‘you-ness’, the feeling that what you experience is experienced by a single entity, and that this entity is very much in charge – may well feel that the idea that ‘you’ are an emergent feature of pandemonium is ludicrous. However, there is a great deal of evidence that the brain/mind is organised in just that manner.

Seve looked up at me to make sure I was listening, and following her. She’s considerate that way, waiting for my slower mind to catch up with hers. She continued reading: “Then they relate some of this evidence to support this argument and go on to say:

We find Dennett’s story the most convincing among those currently on offer. However, we wish to add a final gloss, the idea that the brain’s independent units are brought together by a general feature-detecting system, which does not organise them, but instead rationalises their independent decisions. We call this unit the ‘ringmaster’, by analogy with circus usage… [The circus ringmaster’s] job is not to control the events: it is to give the impression that they are under control by interpreting them to the audience. If a clown accidentally falls off the shetland pony, the ringmaster’s job is to pretend that it was a deliberate part of the act. The clowns, indeed, are the bane of the ringmaster’s life, so he spends a lot of time looking as if he’s in control of them, when in fact they are largely in control of him. Like the ringmaster in a circus, the ringmaster in our heads gives the impression of being in charge when in fact it is not.

We emphasise that the ringmaster is not a homunculus sitting in a Cartesian Theatre, observing the play of sensory impressions on a screen… The ringmaster is just another demon in the pandemonium, and its role is to appear to the emergent phenomenon that is ‘me’ to be making sense of everything else that is going on

Seve raised her eyebrows and glanced at me again. She seemed annoyed at my smile — we had talked a lot about the failure of scientists to ‘find’ a “homunculus” (aka a soul, centre, self or controlling ‘entity’) somewhere in the brain-body fabric. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t fazed by the idea of ‘selves’ as ’emergent phenomena’, as processes rather than ‘things’. I’d thought about it a lot and still found it bewildering; I had to keep cycling back and clarifying for myself what that actually meant. She continued reading her notes from the book: “Then they explain why they believe this is true. Their conclusion is:

The ringmaster is a master-rationaliser. So what happens if (when!) it directs its rationalising propensities at itself? It becomes aware of an apparent ‘I’ inside. This is where self-awareness comes from: it is what you get when a generalised feature-detector makes a recursive attempt to detect itself.

In short: the problem of self-awareness is a special case of awareness – feature-detection – in general. As soon as such a system recognises some aspect of ‘self’ as a feature, hence the kind of thing that it can detect, the recursive loop is closed. We repeat, yet again: the ringmaster is not the ‘self’ itself. It is a mental demon involved in creating the illusion of there being a self… ‘Self’ is not a thing, but a process, which preserves an apparent sense of identity even as it changes complicitly with everything around it, both inside and outside the mind… Environment and culture maintain the [appearance of] continuity of the human sense of self, and that, repeated across many individuals, in turn maintains the [appearance of] continuity of environment and culture. That is what it is like to be a human,

Seve looked at me. “So far, so good”, she said.

I laughed. “At your age I wouldn’t have even been able to fathom what you just read, let alone care to discuss or debate it. What have you done with my daughter?”

“I don’t actually have a problem with any of this”, she replied, ignoring my silly question. “It makes sense that the ‘self’, or at least ‘self-awareness’, awareness of the ‘self-process’, evolved, and it makes sense that it seems real — in fact to ‘us’ it can’t be seen as anything other than real, because ‘real’ to ‘us’ is whatever is detected as a feature. Even though it’s an illusion. And I even agree with you that, while its emergence was an evolutionary advantage for a while, it is no longer — it is the source of all enduring, vivid, negative feelings and suffering, and “a useless bit of software” as Tony puts it, and we’d be better without it. I wish my self was gone, but I know I can’t do anything about that.” She looked at me sadly, and somewhat sympathetically. The self, she knew as well as I, was the real ‘demon’, and I’d suffered with one much longer than she had.

“So then”, she went on, “they go on to talk about the issue of free will, and, like we were discussing the other day, conclude that it really doesn’t exist — it’s just a rationalization of the mind-process. The chapter is called, hilariously, ‘We Wanted to Have a Chapter on Free Will, but We Decided not to, so Here It Is.’ So they say ‘How on Earth can pandemonium make a choice’ and after discussing what that means they say [and here she continued reading]:

The argument seems to be heading inexorably towards the conclusion that free will is ‘just’ an illusion… If Dennett is right, consciousness is ‘just’ an illusion too, the upshot of mindless pandemonium. Consciousness and qualia are complicit, and it is qualia that give an animal an [evolutionary] edge; so the illusion of having a conscious mind is a figment of reality. The rules for the interaction of mental ‘demons’ have been refined over millions of years to produce the emergent phenomenon of [apparent] consciousness,… ‘Just’ an illusion? Oh no. A carefully crafted illusion, only one without a craftsman. An illusion that appears vividly real to the ‘I’ inside.

It is the same, we suspect, with free will… We get such a vivid feeling that we have free will, because that feeling is the quale [singular of qualia] of pandemonic decision-making – what it feels like, not what it ‘really’ is.

She gave me her are you following me? look, and went on: “They acknowledge that what seems to be free will is simply the result of our biological and enculturated nature — that what we do in the moment is not a matter of choice, but, given the apparent situation of the moment, and how we’ve been biologically and culturally entrained, the only thing we could possibly have done. If they left it at that, at least you’d have to say — I’d have to say — their argument is at least coherent and consistent. I wouldn’t especially like it — as you know I’m not persuaded that there is no free will. But then they totally destroy their credibility by arguing that the culture is ‘right’ to lock up misbehavers, despite their total lack of control over what they do, for the sake of their own and others’ safety! And then predict the future will see the emergence of a ‘multicultural extelligence’ of humans collectively and successfully stewarding the planet and the stars for everyone’s mutual benefit! Why would they ruin such a brilliant argument with such an illogical and preposterous happy-sci-fi-movie conclusion?”

“I don’t suppose they had any choice”, I replied, smiling.

Seve threw a pillow at me.

“I’m serious”, I said. “It’s enculturated in us to give people hope, and to be hopeful ourselves. I’m guessing they knew they’d pushed their readers to their limits, and they wanted to hold on to what they’d conveyed, radical as it was 20 years ago when they wrote it. Others, including our friend Robert Sapolsky, have pushed this further by arguing that holding people responsible for their uncontrollable behaviour is unreasonable, and others have countered that we can’t (now that our culture is globalized) change the whole culture to prevent behaviours that most find intolerable, so we have to limit those behaviours any way we can. Messrs Stewart and Cohen, and Daniel Dennett, just sowed the seeds of doubt about what most people still consider incontrovertible truths. It’s up to people like you, and maybe me, if you think I can help, to carry the argument to its next steps, or its logical conclusion, and forgive them the faulty conclusions and starry-eyed prognostications that they had no alternative but to come to at that time. You, my dear, have to stand on the shoulders of giants.”

“What if I don’t want the responsibility?”, she said to me, with a sly smile.

“You have no choice in the matter”, I replied.

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

The Price of Oil

The clueless gamblers that speculate on stock and commodity prices have been having a field day recently. Desperately chasing profits, like high-rollers who keep increasing their casino bets every time they lose, they have wiped billions out of share and pension values in a lemming-like panic about whether and when the colossally overpriced stock market is going to crash. And they have also pushed the price of oil up to near $70/bbl for the first time in several years. These speculators, who contribute nothing of any value to our economy, are some of the most destructive individuals on the planet, destabilizing markets on which many depend for their lives and livelihoods. (They also wreak havoc on land, real estate, food, and currency prices.) And many of them make millions in commissions and bonuses just rolling the dice for their employers and clients and praying that their lucky bets (mostly on prices rising perpetually) will continue.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the price of oil, explaining that the issue we’re going to face in the 21st century isn’t one of energy running out, but of affordable energy running out. Just as, during great depressions and famines, masses of food is left rotting in the ground because no one can afford to buy it (or even retrieve it and give it away), having oil in the ground that costs $80/bbl to get to market (especially if governments run out of money for subsidies, or, god forbid, decide that oil companies should start to pay the huge external costs of their activities) is not especially useful when you can only afford, in an economy ruined by overexploitation, environmental degradation, excessive debt, inequality and waste, $30/bbl for it.

Before I go further, if you’re one of the many who have been persuaded that “peak oil is over” and that renewables and new technology will soon save us from energy collapse, you might as well not read this article. Instead, I’d suggest you read this, or this, or this, or any of the many other articles written by people who understand the laws of thermodynamics and how the economy actually works.

This time I thought I’d start with a review of oil prices in the past. The chart above plots the course of oil prices (in inflation-adjusted dollars) back to 1946. Green lines show supply curves; red lines demand curves, and the dots at intersections are annual average oil prices for those years. Follow the dots:

  1. 1946-72. Oil prices were remarkably stable at about $25/bbl (in current dollars) during this entire period. The world became dependent on OPEC. Virtually all global growth in real terms since 1946 is attributable to increasing use of oil. Almost none of it is ascribable to new technology (other than energy extraction technology) or “efficiencies” or “innovation” or “economies of scale”. That’s it. If you’re a believer in GDP or that growth is essential to the economy you might want to keep that in mind (and if you are invested in stocks or land or any other industrial resource, you’d better believe, because their “value” is all computed in terms of future growth in exchange value, production and profits). Between 1946 and 1972 the OPEC nations were in bed with the western corporatists (as they still are today, supporting them politically and militarily), fixing the price of oil at that price to ensure the economy could continue to grow, as required, endlessly.
  2. 1973-80. OPEC fights back, realizing that although they can make money at $25/bbl because of the size and ease of tapping their reserves, they have already pumped out more than half of it, and they have only a few decades’ worth left and nothing to support their economy when it runs out. So they constrain production, driving the price up to $60/bbl (1975) and then $110/bbl (1980). At that price they can set money aside for when their oil runs out, and avoid the massive humanitarian crises that the end of oil spells for them. But for the western corporatists, this is disastrous: their economies are in a shambles, with double-digit inflation ruining profits, and line-ups at the pumps.
  3. 1981-85. The western corporatists “convince” OPEC to turn the pumps back on, persuading them that there is a happy medium price for oil (more than the $25-30/bbl that makes exploration for new sources uneconomic, but less than the $75/bbl threshold beyond which the global economy cannot pay for it and hence cannot survive. By 1985, OPEC has increased supply so that, despite the new demand from expanding Asian countries, the price has settled back in the perfect $50-60/bbl range. Remember here that the amount of production and consumption of oil is so close (there’s no place to put much excess once it’s pumped, and there’s no margin for error if there’s a serious shortage) that any changes in production, intentional or not, have a huge impact on price.
  4. 1986-2002. At $60/bbl, there’s an incentive to put more into the market than you can sustainably continue to produce, and also an incentive to find new sources — and remember, a small increase in supply has a big impact on lowering price. From the late 1980s to 2002, the lingering effects of the early-1980s crash kept demand from increasing as it had been, and a number of (heavily subsidized, environmentally catastrophically damaging) new sources of “dirty” and “tight” (harder to extract) oil were found. As a consequence, prices tumbled back to the $30/bbl level. OPEC was not happy, but some of their own short-term-thinking members were opening the taps to try to bolster their struggling economies, and the new sources meant OPEC as a whole had less oligopoly power over supplies and hence prices.
  5. 2003-08. The low prices were unsustainable to many producers, especially those with higher production costs that ceased or curtailed exploring, and that, combined with increasing demand from third-world countries, began pushing prices up again, to $60/bbl in 2005 and $90/bbl in 2008. You remember 2008, the bubble year, right? Over-exuberance had enabled speculators to push the price of everything up to ridiculous levels, and oil was not spared. The crash of 2008 also weakened demand, as many people could not afford to pay for anything, including fuel. But everyone knew the $90/bbl couldn’t last, just as they knew it in 1980.
  6. 2009-17. Banking on continuing high oil prices, speculators jumped into fracking and other high-risk, costly (and heavily-subsidized) smaller-scale oil ventures. For the first time, people who can’t think further ahead than the next quarter’s profit report were saying that there was more than enough oil, and that peak oil was dead. More reasoned experts argued that the danger to our planet from climate change caused by burning oil now exceeded the danger of running out of it (we may well experience both in the years to come). But many of the new ventures depended on sustained high oil prices, and as supply rose, price inevitably dropped. This was exacerbated by a chronic global recession that (despite what you might read in the Wall Street press) has left 90% of the population with massively higher debts and less disposable income than they had back in the 1980s. That recession curtailed demand and added to the price slump that saw oil drop from $90/bbl in 2008 to $60/bbl in 2015 and then back to a near-ruinous (for producers) $40/bbl in 2016-17. Many of the new operators declared bankruptcy, but in the mean-time they (and the ongoing recession for all but the super-rich) had created a short-term oil glut. More people came to believe that oil would be abundant forever, at reasonable prices. Many OPEC countries’ governments, already struggling with unruly political movements, and a permanently unemployed youth workforce, were getting antsy.
  7. 2018. Surprise, surprise, the oil price has risen again, to as high as $70/bbl, though it seems to be hovering mostly around the ‘ideal’ (for producers and consumers) $60/bbl level. The problem is, that’s not quite as ideal as it used to be. The cost of bringing new oil to market has risen from very low-levels (near $15/bbl in the mid-20th-century OPEC countries, to $45/bbl for much “tight” oil extraction). So a very volatile $50-60/bbl price doesn’t provide much margin for producers in an economy that demands significantly increasing profits every year. And it’s expensive for consumers, who start to reduce consumption and turn to alternative sources of energy (where available) when prices move into that $50-60/bbl range.

So what does this mean for the future? The second chart, below, describes what I think we’ll see by the middle of this century. Here we go:

  1. 2018-2025: Just a guess, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling short-term trend in supply or demand one way or another, so I’m guessing that we’ll have a few years of relative stability, with prices ranging from $40-80/bbl depending on producer actions, politics, climate change proclivities, carbon taxes and regulations, and the strange whims and misconceptions of speculators (damn I’d like to see a huge speculation tax on every do-nothing transaction gamblers put through).
  2. 2025-2050: In the medium term, all bets are off. I can see, as conventional sources of oil get depleted and new ones cost more and more, the cost of getting oil to market rising enough that any price under $70/bbl won’t be worth the risk. And I can see, as the real economy (not the economy-of-the-elite the NYT and WSJ reports on) continues to struggle and inequality widens to become a political and even military issue in many parts of the world, the affordable ceiling price for oil dropping to $40/bbl. So that means there is no “happy medium” that works for both producers and consumers — any price is either too low for producers (keeping/driving them out of the market) or too high for consumers (leading to hoarding, involuntary reductions in use (ie repo’d cars and foreclosed homes) — or both. So I see prices whipsawing between $30/bbl or less (when the economy is in especially bad shape) and $100/bbl or more during speculative frenzies, rationing (in black markets), severe shortages and short-lived “is the long depression over yet?” economic recoveries.
  3. 2050-2100: This is the period in which I’ve forecast economic and/or energy collapse and the onset of chronic serious climate change trends and events. I don’t think the US dollar will survive this, so it’s hard to set a price on anything in that currency. I do see it as a long era of scavenging, re-use, rationing, nationalization (until national governments collapse and leave energy management to struggling local communities), hoarding, black markets, and yes, even conservation at last.

Not a very rosy picture, but those who’ve studied the economy and have been following oil prices for a while tend to support much of this hypothesis. Ultimately, it’s the economy, (not so) stupid. The economy is the tail that wags the energy dog, but ultimately the global industrial economy is founded entirely on the preposterous and untenable requirement that growth must continue forever, and the only thing that has provided sustained growth for the past couple of centuries has been cheap hydrocarbons.

And I understand oil doesn’t keep very well.


You may have noticed that there is a second Y-axis on the charts above, showing the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar. Endless studies have shown that the Canadian economy is more robust, and its workers are healthier and more productive, than those in the US. The only reason the Canadian dollar doesn’t trade at a premium to the US dollar is speculative ignorance (and, unfortunately, the degree of ownership and control American corporations have been allowed to acquire over Canadian businesses and resources).

Many if not most speculators are Americans, and many of them insist their currency is a safe haven in bad times (they are in for a surprise, but it may take a while). They also believe Canadian production is tied to oil prices, which is why these idiots, who manipulate currency values with their flights of fancy, have essentially priced the Canadian dollar as if it were a petrocurrency. So the Y-axis at right shows, with a remarkably high degree of correlation, the relationship between the price of oil and the value of the Canadian dollar in US dollars (currently almost exactly $.80) dating all the way back to the 1960s.

So if you’re a Canadian who spends a significant part of your income in the US or on $US investments, keep an eye on the volatility of the oil market. You can use the Canadian dollar to judge where speculators think the price of oil is going in the near term, or, alternatively, you can use the trends in oil prices to determine when to spend, and not spend, your money on $US purchases.

As for me, who loves to winter in warm places that generally use US dollars, I’m at the mercy of the speculators. But if the price of oil goes up, my cost of travel will decline. And if the price of oil goes down, well, I’ll save money in other ways.

The ultimate “price” of oil, of course, is the desolation of the planet. I’ve written a lot about that in the past, and until I have something useful to add, I think I’ll leave it at that.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Risky Business

UPDATED: Jan 26, 2018 1pm replacing last year’s ‘maps’ with this year’s, just released.

This year’s Davos Global Risk Forum “landscape”. Last year’s for comparison purposes, with legend here

Every year, an organization called the Global Risk Forum presents the corporate and political elite attending the Davos World Economic Forum conference with a snapshot of their assessment of the greatest risks this elite and its vested interests should be aware of. This is all about risk mitigation (ie avoiding anything that would dampen profits or impede re-election). But they pretend they also care about the welfare of the world’s people, and spend millions of dollars (kindly provided by you in the form of customer profits and taxes) preparing this report.

The full report (PDF) is here, and it’s worth a look. It tells you some things about the thinking and the (arrogant, naive, ignorant, mistaken) beliefs of the rich and powerful: notably that ‘they’ the leaders can control these risks, and that there are relatively simple ‘solutions’ to these (and other, unmentioned) complex predicaments facing our crumbling industrial civilization culture and our ravaged and desolated planet. They demonstrate that they are utterly short-term focused (their assessment of risks’ likelihood and impact varies enormously from year to year, largely based on the past year’s headlines).

Nevertheless, though the list of risks is far from complete, it is worth considering from a local community preparedness and adaptation perspective. We know we can’t control or prevent these crises, but it’s helpful to know what we might be facing, when, and to what degree.

It is interesting to note what has appeared on the list of risks in past, but has dropped off the radar in these ‘experts’ minds more recently.

At one point, the explosion in the incidence of chronic diseases (as distinct from infectious diseases, which are still on the list) was high on the chart, mainly because it was realized that this is leading to the inevitable bankruptcy of public health systems worldwide — if the cost of medical care, pharmaceuticals, and end of life care continue to skyrocket, and the incidence of chronic illness also continues to soar (and there is no evidence to indicate these trends won’t continue), there will soon be insufficient money, no matter how much premiums increase, to pay for the staggering costs of our increasingly global Civilization Diseases.

So why aren’t chronic diseases on the list anymore? My guess would be that leaders, such as the attendees at Davos, have been sufficiently successful in their PR propaganda campaign to convince the rest of the population that their illness, and their poverty (and hence inability to pay for even minimal chronic health care) is somehow their own fault. If the population doesn’t expect the powers that be to address the problem or pay for chronic disease related health care, and if, soon, only the elite will be able to afford it, then the elite can wash their hands of it. If fixing it isn’t profitable or essential to political success, then, to the Davos gnomes, it simply isn’t a problem.

Marine disasters are also notably absent from the list. It will take another Shell or Exxon disaster to get this, and the larger issue of the utter befouling of marine systems worldwide and its effect on marine life (including seafood we eat), back on the list. But it won’t stay on there long. There is no money to be made in saving our oceans (except for the ironic spike in GDP when massive cleanups are needed after major corporate disasters), and the peasants can always be told to eat farmed fish.

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are on the map, but they’re only in the middle of the chart, despite the obvious fact that human survival is utterly dependent on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. Why is the impact of this ongoing disaster not at the very top of the map? Because there’s no human solution to it, and no profits to be made fixing it. So, psychologically, it’s better to downplay its likelihood (which is already occurring, ie 100%) and its impact (catastrophic, even just considering the effects of the destruction of forests, oceans, soils and permafrost, which are already well-advanced and accelerating).

The “spread of infectious diseases”, in the middle left of the map, would seem to be the newest toned-down euphemism for pandemics, which were also once higher on the list, in the years after SARS. Absolutely nothing has changed since SARS, other than slightly better monitoring. A pandemic caused by either wilful weaponizing of diseases (so-called bioterrorism), or more likely the mutation of a potent disease like the influenza virus to become airborne and immune to known antivirals and antibiotics, would be far more catastrophic than anything else on the map, and it could happen very quickly. Why isn’t it rated higher? Again, because there are no answers and no profits to be made, so better to deny it’s a serious risk.

Nuclear reactor accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are now presumably relabeled and included in the term “man-made environmental disasters”. It is hard to know what all is encompassed in that enigmatic title, but to say that the potential combined impact of all such disasters is only average, as the map suggests, is a statement of utter denial. Why isn’t this ranked higher? Because a more precise term for “man-made environmental disasters” is “corporate-caused environmental disasters”. The egomaniacs at Davos don’t want too much attention drawn to their complicity in these problems. It would be unfortunate if the population were to discover, from a Davos report to the global business/political corpocracy, that one of the greatest risks to our planet is… the global business/political corpocracy. Wouldn’t want that. Let’s move this risk down lower on the chart and deflect responsibility by calling it “man-made environmental disasters”.

Our colossally bone-headed short-term thinking is also revealed in the demotion of peak oil (“energy price shock”) to a low-likelihood, low-impact risk. As I have explained often on these pages, the issue isn’t the availability of oil, or its (hugely fluctuating and artificially suppressed) price, it’s the availability of affordable oil (and other hydrocarbons). And many others have repeatedly smashed the myth that (even massively subsidized) renewable energy can replace more than a small percentage of hydrocarbon energy. But we’re desperate to believe that cheap oil won’t run out until we have “environmentally friendly” renewable energy available in abundance. So since the Davos gnomes have largely created our dependence on cheap hydrocarbons, who are they to tell us otherwise?

Apparently in Davos, technology is still our friend. Despite the lessons of history, risks related to technology, other than cyberattacks and data theft, are rated low. The innocuously named “adverse consequences of technological advances” barely makes the map at all. Really?

I could say much more about the weaselly logic and political expediency evident in the map, but enough ranting. The report, flawed as it is, makes fascinating reading, and is almost as educational and thought-provoking (eg some of the new risks) as it is infuriating. We could do worse than borrow the methodology and create our own maps of the real risks we need to be monitoring and preparing for.

The report has a second interesting map, reproduced below, which attempts to show the major interconnections between the various risks.

This year’s Davos Global Risks Interconnections map. Last year’s version for comparison purposes here.

Intriguingly, “rising chronic diseases” (faintly) make this second chart, though the associated risks identified with this trend are inexplicable. The main risks that are associated with this crisis are poor nutrition (ie our toxic, perfidious industrial food system) and stressful, low-exercise lifestyle (ie people having to work too long and hard in horrific, exhausting, soul-destroying jobs). But you’re not going to see these risks on the Davos map. Don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us.

You know what I’m getting at, of course. There is one underlying cause/risk for just about every dot on the Davos risk map: Untrammelled industrial capitalism. It is the very system that the business and political elite gathered in Davos have so carefully built up and defended, that is the ultimate risk to all of us. Will we ever see an admission of that, from these supposedly brilliant intellectual minds?

Don’t count on it.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Networking to Find Better Work

I’m retired, and hoping I won’t ever have to return to the work world, but I know most of the world doesn’t have that luxury, and many aren’t happy with the work they are doing as employees, freelancers or contractors (or they are unemployed, or unhappily self-employed).

I recently had the occasion to read Orville Pierson’s book Highly Effective Networking: Meet the Right People and Get a Good Job, written in 2009 but pretty savvy about the use of current technology, which explains how much more effective a particular kind of networking (not social networking, not sales networking — work-search networking) is in finding better work than what you’re doing (or not doing) right now.

Orville knows his stuff, and the book is full of sound ideas, some pretty obvious but often not followed in the struggle to land a better position. We’ve been indoctrinated to think of the process as entailing usually-humiliating rounds of want-ad/job board reading, applications, cover letters with résumés, phone calls, rejection letters, and interviews. Orville explains that the easiest (at least psychologically) and most effective way to find work with a desired employer is through networking. The objective, he says is to get the position through having met the Decision Maker, via the “strength of weak links” and a series of conversations with their contacts, before the job is even posted or perhaps before it is even considered.

Networking as a job search technique, he says, is not about aggressively searching or selling yourself or asking for jobs; it’s about getting your name, reputation and credentials in front of potential Decision Makers through having low-stress, authentic, comfortable conversations about common interests that have reciprocal information exchange value to each person you speak with.

Your search will be more effective if the large majority of your time is spent planning and in direct conversations, rather than doing secondary research in front of a computer screen. It will also help if you have a few ‘personal coaches/confidantes’ (can be anyone you trust who knows you) to use as sounding boards in each of the following steps, and to talk with about anything negative you encounter or feel (keep the negatives out of your search conversations).

The book is IMO a bit wordy and cute (in the sense of superficially clever), and the process is described three times in increasing order of detail, which I found confusing. Here’s a summary that I think captures the essential steps in the process, dense but delayered.

Step 1: Decide to find your next job via networking rather than other methods (replying to ads, using recruiters, walk-ins, direct mail, applications, cold calling etc). This means most of your energies will be spent on networking activities often with no immediate obvious payback, rather than those other methods.

Step 2: Map your Personal Contacts network (basically everyone you know that you have a significant current or past relationship and/or known shared interests with, “anyone who would readily take your phone call”). Think about all your possible networks — organizations, interests, educational institutions, clients, employers, vendors, political, community, charity, sports, hobbies, professional associations, friends, family, neighbours etc. Identify those who are Active (regularly meet or talk with), Dormant (once close but not in a while), and Passive (distant connection enough to know your name or at least probably be able to recall you if you tell them what your connection is). Think about how you might start each call, to quickly help them place you if necessary when you call them. On that basis assess the strength of each Personal Contact in your total contact, and start your calls (step 6) with the strongest (easiest). Call Passive contacts only if there are continuing shared interests/relationships or if you think these “weak links” may have strong connections of their own relevant to your search.

Step 3: Plan your search and network activities. Identify your Professional Objectives (what kind of work do you want to do), your Target Market (what kind of organization do you want to work with) and your Core Message (why you are so well qualified for work that meets your Professional Objectives in organizations in your Target Market, put in words your Target Market can relate to).

Step 4: Begin to identify your Target Organizations (those in your Target Market), and gather information on what their culture and values and challenges and needs and prevailing trends are, and who’s who in them.

Step 5: Identify possible Decision Makers in your Target Organizations. If possible (using online research or asking people) identify who might be in their networks, to see if you have any in common. In large organizations the Decision Makers are usually not C-suite people; they are the people with the strongest voice in who gets hired at your level.

Step 6: Get the word out to your Personal Contacts. Let everyone (identified in Step 2) know that you’re available and looking, and what you have to offer. Make them comfortable* with an amiable and authentic introduction and update — don’t rush into your request or “ask for 20 minutes of their time”. Once you’ve established or re-established rapport, ask if they have ideas about your search, and show them your Target Organizations list. Ask if they know others who might help refine your list or your search (Secondary Contacts), or if they know other potential Target Organizations to consider for your list, and if they have comments about or know anything about your Target Organizations, and most importantly (and when appropriate) if they know anyone in your Target Organizations (Professional Contacts), and if they’d be comfortable introducing those people to you (not just giving you or emailing you the person’s name), and if they say Yes to both questions, add those others to your network. You should plan to get at least one introduction to a new relevant contact for every two calls (and talk with your coach/confidantes if you’re not meeting this target).

Step 7: Meet and exchange information with Secondary and Professional Contacts (people you already know in Target Organizations, plus “weak links” — people who have been recommended to you for help or information about your search, and people in your Target Organizations you have been offered an introduction to in Step 6). Ideally, the first Professional Contacts you meet in one of your Target Organizations will be insiders at or below your own level, working in areas that interest you or where you have strong competencies applicable to that organization. Inquire about the organization’s priorities, skill prerequisites and challenges. Keep it businesslike — avoid too much personal stuff, without being dishonest, and focus on your process and specifically your Professional Objectives and Core Message (don’t mention your Target Organizations list to Professional Contacts inside one of them). Learn from them what is going on in the organization, clarify who the Decision Makers might be and as much about them as you can. You should be able to talk with them as professional peers and offer information in return to reciprocate their time and energy. Give/send your resume, if appropriate, only at the end of your meeting or phone call.

Step 8: Get in touch with Decision Makers and Influencers before the job opening happens. These will almost always come from introductions in the earlier steps. You are more likely to meet Influencers before Decision Makers, but both are important. Some of them might be Sponsors — people you get to know who will be actively helping you find a way to join the organization. Let them know you have useful qualifications for them, that you’re available and that you’re very interested in working with/for them. Drawing on information from other Insiders and your own research, convey your knowledge about the organization. You want to come across as interesting to Influencers and other Professional Contacts, and interested and competent to Decision Makers. For this level at least, have a script. Decision Makers want to know: “What’s in it for me? What do you want from me? Is this going to be awkward or difficult? How long will it take and will it be worth that amount of time?”

Step 9: Keep everyone informed about your progress. “Loop ahead” (re-contact past networking calls and bring them up to speed on how you’re doing, and see if they have more info or additional referrals). Contact any Decision Makers you’ve met every 2-3 weeks until they hire you; mention new information about the organization or people you’ve recently met in the organization. [More info in the book about managing your way through actual job interviews if they’re needed] And when you get the job, tell everyone and thank them.

Step 10: Ancillary use of a website and social media. Use your website and professional sites like LinkedIn to articulate your credentials, character and reputation — and in your case to subtly clarify that you’re gainfully self-employed and hence looking for a job as a choice rather than out of desperation. Use social media and blogs sparingly and avoid online squabbles or arrogance. Have a Facebook page but it’s fine if it’s innocuous and just about your work. Use LinkedIn and other social media to identify people in Target Organizations but don’t contact them cold — gather information and use it in your networking conversations. Identify “friends of friends” who might be worthwhile adding to your networks, and identify who in your existing networks might introduce you.

*Making your networking contact comfortable entails the following (1) “Manage their expectations. Tell them at the very outset what you have in mind and what your goals are in the conversation. Explain how you’re doing job hunting, and which steps you’re working on right now.” That will relieve concerns they may have that you’re looking for job openings or other guidance they may not feel qualified to give (and that they’ll be letting you down if they don’t), or that you’re going to press them for referrals or otherwise “put the squeeze” on them. It might help to have a short script to accomplish this upfront. (2) Always be honest and authentic. (3) Only accept an introduction to a new contact if you are convinced they are completely comfortable making the introduction. (4) Express gratitude for whatever they offer.          The book contains several ‘scripts’ for making networking conversations with various types of contacts ‘comfortable’ — some are a bit unnatural but they do provide some good ideas on how to do this, more than I can capture in a summary.

The process is somewhat iterative as your contacts and knowledge grow. As a former employer charged with interviewing and hiring professionals, it makes sense to me. No guarantee — I’ve known people who’ve used a process like this who I’ve bent over backwards to hire, and others who’ve used the same process that I wouldn’t hire (because I didn’t think they had the right skills for the job) despite their work-search savvy and perseverance.

In short, this is a book worth reading if you’re at that point in your life, and I know a lot of people are. If you find the book, and/or the summary above, useful, let me know.

Posted in Working Smarter | 3 Comments

Letter of Termination

image from Fill at Pixabay CC0

Dear Powers That Be Consortium:

This is to inform you that the services your organizations have been providing to us, as our agents, no longer meet our needs, and we are terminating our agreement (the Industrial Civilization Management Agreement) with you and will in future provide the needed services directly ourselves.

Following is a partial listing of some of the ways in which your consortium member organizations have abrogated the spirit and substance of our long-standing agreement with you, leaving us no alternative but to take this step:

Representative Democracy LLC: Your “representatives” have not represented us at all. They have lied to us. They have taken bribes, and in return lavished gifts, from money we entrusted to them, on rich and powerful interests, to our overwhelming detriment. They have not upheld the laws designed to protect us or our environment, and have instituted laws that do the opposite. They have incompetently managed our services and our resources. They are all herewith fired; we will henceforth manage our common resources and public services locally and directly. The experiment with their service delivery model of “representative democracy” has been an abject failure. We will try an “uncivilized” approach — community-based direct democracy — instead.

Industrial Growth Economics LLC: The “executive officers” you assigned to our account are utterly incompetent, narcissistic, and hopelessly corrupted. They seem utterly incapable of taking any action in the public interest. The model you instituted on our behalf ironically called the “free market economy” is the precise opposite: it is an oligarchy of obscenely rich and powerful overlords sucking up the commons — our resources — for their own personal enrichment, impoverishing us in the process. Their gargantuan fees for worthless and destructive “services” are unwarranted and must be returned to us. They too are all fired, and ordered to immediately return everything they have taken from us, including all assets they have purchased with the proceeds of their unconscionable “salaries”, bonuses, dividends and capital gains, and we ask that they leave our premises immediately. Their ruinous economy will be dismantled and replaced, gradually, with a non-hierarchical, egalitarian, locally-based gift economy.

Neo-Liberal Education Services LLC: The officers and “ministers” of this organization have created a massive and dysfunctional centralized system that has neglected our young people and forced many of them into indentured servitude to your other member organizations. We are abolishing the entire system. Some of the prison-like buildings they have constructed for so-called education will be converted into housing for those they have impoverished and for entrepreneurial offices to support the new gift economy. Over the coming years a system of locally-mentored, self-directed learning (deschooling and unschooling) will be introduced to teach our young people, finally, how to learn and how to discover what they are meant to do with their precious lives.

Public Private Health Services LLC: The “privatization” of public health by the czars of this organization is terminated immediately. Health services will hereinafter be a right of all people, and will be offered free of charge. The patients they have made dependent on the medical and pharmaceutical “industry” with its exorbitantly-priced products and specialist services catering mainly to elites with diseases of affluence, will soon learn how to self-manage their health through sound nutrition and exercise, simple self-diagnosis and holistic self-treatment, guided by local medical generalists. Our research indicates that this will increase the healthy life-span of our citizens by several years, at a fraction the cost the “industry”, and its parasitic insurance companies and lawyers, have been charging.

Monoculture Industrial Foods LLC: The titans in charge of this organization have perpetrated cruelty and caused illness far beyond anything in the history of our planet. They have addicted us to overpriced junk, monopolized and privatized on a massive scale a resource that truly belongs to all of us. They have confined and tortured billions of living creatures. They have poisoned our food, our water, and our land. They have replaced the nutritious staples of millennia of human adaptation and cultivation with over-packaged, over-processed, unhealthy, toxic foods that are responsible for the soaring rates of chronic diseases afflicting nearly all of us. They have ruined our soil, desolated our forests and exhausted and befouled our seas. We are taking it all back, and beginning the long road back to healthy, organic, diverse, locally-produced food using permaculture principles.

Centralized Utilities LLC: Along with good food, good health and a safe and healthy planet, our birthright includes the rights to light, warmth, clean water, and accurate information. The executives of this organization have stolen that birthright, charging us for modest use of what should be free, and using those charges to subsidize destructive and monopolistic corporations that have fouled the planet and its atmosphere with hydrocarbon wastes, production by-products and pollution, and exhausted these precious resources to the point our dependence on them now imperils our very existence. We are halting all utilities’ and other energy extraction activities that produce greenhouse gases immediately, and phasing out all non-essential and centralize utility operations as quickly as the shift to renewable, community-owned utilities can be put in place. We are immediately halting the production of bottled water, incandescent lightbulbs, and other inexcusably wasteful products using our precious resources. And we are dismantling the oligopolies of mainstream media, social media, and telecommunications.

Defence & Security Partners LLC: Your generals and chiefs and head wardens, and their business friends who manufacture weapons, have made our planet and people much less safe —unsafe in fact, squandered trillions of dollars needlessly, encouraged and armed wars between our people, militarized law enforcement, and made imprisonment into a cruel, profiteering enterprise. This is the opposite of what they were hired to do for us. With them gone, we will begin the hard, generations-long task of re-enabling local communities to look after their own security with minimal incarceration, and working with fellow citizens everywhere to demilitarize our world and destroy the massive arsenals of weaponry they created. We will do this work with the understanding that the best way to avoid conflict is through eliminating inequality and hardship.

You, the Powers That Be, have worked complicitly with each other and with the aforementioned consortium members to steal from, betray, defraud and intimidate us. You have clearly been counting on our unwillingness to terminate this agreement because of its centuries-long history and the massive task that will be entailed in untangling it and restoring the horrific damage you have done to us, our social fabric and our planet. We have finally come to realize just how much damage has been done, and that it must no longer continue.

What surprises us most is that we believe that your consortium and its members were, at least initially, doing what they thought was in all our best interests. As tempting as it is for many of us to find you to blame for your actions and the damage they have done, we have concluded that you were actually doing your best, based on what you have been taught, and in some cases brainwashed, to believe. So we don’t want punishment, just a return to us of the resources we mistakenly entrusted to you, so that we can begin to undo the damage. And for you to get out of the way so that we can do that work.


The People of Earth

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 8 Comments


my life is a play and my role, apparently
is as part of an musical octet
which sings three songs
as interludes in a vast improv performance, and
after each, acts out a short improv scene of our own,
a midsummer night’s subplot of sorts.

our songs are rehearsed,
sent to us weeks before the performance,
but for our short scenes
we are given only two lines each, per scene,
just before we go on stage,
which we are told should be spoken
at an appropriate moment during our scene.

we are not limited to these lines,
but are requested to be brief and thoughtful with any other words.

now, it would appear, our performance is nearing its end —
we have completed the third song,
a moving yet somewhat eager four-part harmony,
and we have started our third scene.

already I have delivered my penultimate line,
“but of course nothing matters”,
with what I thought appropriate Beckettian expression,
on the heels of my lovely colleague’s utterance of her line,
“it’s a shame that nothing can be done”.

since our previous scene, there has been a major shift
in the larger play — the principal characters seem to have lost their way,
and the tension has risen, a sense of anticipation, or dread,
and the orchestra’s been playing a more ominous accompaniment.

the final words of our third song seem designed to reflect this. they are:
“the time has ended now for play,
we walk along this dim-lit track;
the others have all gone away,
we sense there’ll be no journey back.”

the song ends on a sad and indecisive Fmaj7.

but while my colleagues are out-doing themselves
with their meagre final lines and fill-ins,
our last moments in the spotlights,
I have no sense of when to deliver my last line,
which is, ironically, “how will I know?”

this line does not seem to belong with my colleagues’ lines.

and so I wait, attentive to the words, the motions,
the language of faces and bodies and eyes,
and say nothing.

of course it isn’t important whether I say it at all —
only my seven fellow players will be aware of the omission,
and the audience and the major cast are all, I would expect,
anxious in their anticipation of the closing scene to come
when our small troupe has left the stage.

still, I wait; the words hang on my tongue.

and then, at last, as if perfectly planned,
our elder colleague steps to the front of the stage, breathes deeply,
and says a phrase, clearly not in our script at all,
addressed it seems to the audience,
to the well-made-up major characters waiting in the wings,
to our little troupe, and to me in particular:
“there is much to be done, and, my friends,
we must each do the right thing at the right moment.”

and with a look of relief and dismay I deliver my line:
“how will I know?”

and my dear colleague,
(the one for whom “nothing can be done”), walks across to me,
puts her hand on my shoulder,
and replies: “you will not — this is not about knowing”,
and whisks me, our troupe now moving as one,
gracefully off the stage.

image from the Pen Tarot

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on Improv