What Intelligent Life Is Made Of, Part 3

This is part 3 of a 5 part series.

Where is all this heading?

Science fiction authors and scientists have been speculating about this for a long time. The more optimistic, or perhaps human centric, believe we will merge with these technologies and become a form of super humanity with greatly extended lifespan and cognitive capabilities. Others conjecture that we will cohabitate with them for a while and enjoy a kind of species retirement phase before passing away into the annals of evolutionary history. Still others are worried that the arrival of this intelligence will be so sudden and swift that we will not be able to cope.

In 1963, Dr. I J Good described, what he called, the technological singularity. Dr. Good played an important role in Cryptoanalysis during WWII, was a professor at Trinity College in Oxford, England and worked in the Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England. He also worked on the University of Manchester Mark I, which was the first computational device to resemble what we call a computer today.

Dr. Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

In September 2009, my wife and I learned to channel our inner Julia Childs into wonderful Bouef Bourguignon at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The week before the class was scheduled, a good friend suggested that, while we were there, we should visit the grave of Tielhard De Chardin. “Mon Dieu!” I said, “you mean to tell me that he is buried in Hyde Park, a mere 20 minutes north of where I am living?” Needless to say, we visited his grave.

Tielhard de Chardin was a Jesuit monk, a philosopher, geologist, and paleontologist who assisted in the discovery of Peking Man. His seminal work is The Phenomenon of Man, written in the early 1930s, about the same time as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because his ideas were at odds with the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church at the time, he was not allowed to publish the book. It was not until after his death in April 1955 that it finally saw the light of day. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that Pope Benedict XVI publicly embraced his work.

The Phenomenon of Man is not a long read, but it requires concentration and re-reading to be sure one has grasped all the ideas. In this book, de Chardin traces the rise of life and then intelligence on earth. He discusses its evolution into a layer, called the Noosphere, wrapping around the surface of our planet, and its eventual arrival at what he called the Omega Point.

It is an interesting lineage of thinking that the Phenomenon of Man builds on, and that in turn gets built upon it. The concept of the Noosphere was originated by the Russian and Soviet mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, “who is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and of radiogeology.” Vernadsky’s most noted work is a book entitled -The Biosphere, originally published in 1926, which popularized Eduard Suess’ biosphere concept.

The noosphere, according to Vernadsky, represents the latest phase of the development of Earth. It was preceded by the development of the geosphere and then the biosphere. The earth formed, life emerged, and now human cognition. With the arrival of human cognition, there is a fundamental transformation of the geosphere. For Vernadsky, the noosphere becomes a reality at the point that humankind masters nuclear processes and creates resources through a transmutation of elements, which sounds remarkably like what some describe as the powers of nanotechnology.1

Teilhard’s noosphere is a little different as it is the result of the aggregation and interaction of human minds, folded in on one another by the curvature of the earth’s surface and, as such, it is a collective being. As humankind organizes itself into ever more complex social networks, this aggregation of minds develops awareness. For Teilhard, this culminates in the Omega Point, or the goal of history, which is an apex of thought and consciousness. Teilhard’s concept has led many to think of him as a predictor of the internet and cyberspace.

An important aspect of the concept of noosphere is the idea that evolution cannot be explained through Darwinian natural selection alone. It was Henry Bergson who first proposed the idea that evolution is “creative,” and in 1923, C. Lloyd Morgan, described an “emergent evolution” to explain increasing complexity. Morgan based this on his observation that the most interesting changes in living things were often largely discontinuous with past evolution and not the result of a gradual natural selection process. There are instead jumps in complexity, like the emergence of the noosphere and a self-reflective universe.

Ray Kurtzweil and Hans Moravec both imagine futures in which intelligence explodes across the solar system and out into the universe, and where being becomes something altogether different and more remarkable than it is today. Moravec suggests that such intelligence will be capable of holding worlds, solar systems, galaxies, even the known universe in its mind; and that there is no way of knowing that we aren’t the thoughts or memories of such intelligence from another place and time.

This is the end of part 3 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week, in part 4, I discuss the pros, cons, and worries of the brave new world we seem to be heading into, at least as the intelligent machine landscape appeared to me in 2009. Then finally, in part 5, I will update things to the present moment. Subscribe here, so you don’t miss any of it!

  1. I have barely mentioned nanotechnology. In a nut shell, it is a technology of ultraminiaturization that envisions molecular sized machines that can manipulate individual molecules and atoms into constructions of all kinds. Developers of this technology promise extremely efficient and very inexpensive manufacture, for example. One author I read speculated that it would be possible for such machines to pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and manufacture useful products from it. ↩︎

What Intelligent Life is Made Of, Part 2

This is part 2 of a 5 part series. You can read Part 1 here.

About the Artificial and Unnatural

It is important to take a step back and think about a few distinctions we are fond of making that may not be as useful as they once were. When I published a description of the 2009 talk these posts are based on, I used the phrase “alternative intelligence” instead of the far more common “artificial intelligence.” This is because I do not believe that the distinction between natural and artificial is useful when it comes to intelligent technologies. I also do not believe that the distinction between natural and unnatural is useful most of the time.

Everything we have knowledge of and everything we create is part of the same universal system obeying the same universal laws with results that cannot in any way be determined to be unnatural or artificial. We certainly can have causes and effects that are unpleasant from our perspective. The possibility of that is part of what I am talking about in this series of posts. However, it is not accurate to think of them as unnatural or artificial. Any result we see or can produce is a result of what is possible in the universe, and thus, a part of nature.

It is important to make this distinction because, accuracy aside, I believe that humankind has indulged a myth of the separation of human endeavor and production from the constructions of nature to our own great confusion and detriment. In this way, we justify acts of incredible violence within nature and mollify ourselves about the potential consequences of our technological progress. So let’s be frank and honest. Alternative intelligence of superior stature to our own, should it come about, will be an entirely natural extension of, evolution of, intelligence on this planet and in the universe.

When I begin to remove these distinctions and view these developments as part of a continuum, certain things start to make more sense. For example, let me extend the idea of “alternative” intelligence to include the idea of “alternative vessels of intelligence.” Until not so long ago, I was enamored of the idea of human space travel. I’ve even done a couple of peer-reviewed papers on the subject and worked on design proposals for the interiors of the International Space Station. More recently, though, I have lost my enthusiasm for human space exploration, largely because I cannot figure out where there is for flesh and blood to go. There is no destination reachable within a current human life span that is hospitable, as far as I know. There may well be earth like planets elsewhere in the universe, but we are walled off from them by distance and the time it would take to travel that distance, unless we find some version of Star Trek warp drive. Space tourism, manufacturing and mining is the best future I can paint for humans in space at the moment.

Far more reasonable and likely to me, based on my limited knowledge of what is going on, is that completely alternative forms of intelligence will do the work of exploring the solar system and beyond. It makes much more sense to design vessels of intelligence that are suited to the environments in which they will be placed.

I suppose this could be a highly engineered version of human flesh and blood, as imagined in the movie Blade Runner. Ray Kurtzweil, for example, believes that our robotic technologies will begin to merge with our bodies, with a complete merger scheduled for the end of this century.

Medical science has been replacing parts of us with engineered alternatives for some time now. However, the circumstances under which this technology is being deployed are shifting. Individuals are starting to tailor their bodies through surgery to gain a competitive advantage over their fellow humans. For example, special ops military personnel are surgically enhancing their vision to be better than 20/20.1Again, there is nothing too surprising here except when you begin to extend the implications of all this engineering to its logical conclusions.

Computer scientists project that by 2020 we will achieve a computational device with a capacity that is equivalent to the human brain. By 2025, they say, such a device will be available for our home office.2 Such an achievement would not be human like intelligence, but it is the next threshold we pass on the way to an intelligent being composed of something other than flesh and blood. Hans Moravec projects such a being by the middle of this century.

Of course, the information super highway is littered with the road kill of prognostications and prognosticators who have been wide of the mark. It is worth noting, though, that this is true both in terms of overly optimistic projections and unduly pessimistic ones. Moravec himself describes in detail the painfully slow development of a technology that can drive a car down a road without human assistance. Way back in the 60’s he and his colleagues felt it should be possible in the near term to create such technology. What they learned is that one of the things the human mind is really good at, spatial perception and the ability to distinguish what is important to the task at hand from what is not, is, or at least was, incredibly difficult to replicate in machine intelligence.

It has taken over 40 years to arrive at a place where we are beginning to hear about tests of practical vehicles that will navigate highways by themselves. Indeed, we already have vehicles on the market that can park themselves. What needed to happen is the exponential increase in computational power that we have experienced during the last 20 years.

What we are beginning to have is all the bits and pieces of a new kind of perceptive, mobile and interactive intelligence. Where is all this heading?

This is the end of part 2 of a 5 part series on AI. Next week I will discuss the question of where all this could be heading. Subscribe here to make sure you don’t miss an installment.

  1. I am sure I based this on a source back when I wrote the talk, but I didn’t preserve that source and can’t find a source with a quick internet search. However, I can find information on contacts and laser surgery that improves on 20/20 vision, so it is not hard to extend it’s implications to special opps application. I will continue to look and update this if/when I have source material. ↩︎

  2. This document from Open Philanthropy, published in 2020, suggests we are nearing fulfillment of these predictions. It points out, however, that matching human brain capacity in terms of number of calculations in a given amount of time is one thing, coming up with a program that yields human brain like functioning is another thing. At any rate, in terms of calculation capacity, we are getting there, and in packages that begin to be economically feasible for home use. ↩︎

The Photograph

Photograph by Margot Kingon

When she stumbled across it, she didn’t think much of it. A photograph with little useful information. A photograph with nothing apparent to say about family history. A black and white photograph of a man crouched in the waters of a stream, rocks visible below the surface in the foreground, a darkness on the opposite bank in the background. She tossed it aside, favoring images with faces to recognize, her grandmother, her grandfather, her mother, her father, her aunts, her uncles. That is to say, portraits she recognized as the family history that had brought her to where she was in life.

She made a selection of those images and tucked them into an envelope to bring with her to the hospice. She wanted to provoke memories from her father, as many as she could before he left. She wanted to carry forward as much of the family history as possible, for her children, her children’s children, her children’s children’s children. She wanted to be able to speak the web of stories to them down through the ages, adding her own, inspiring them to add their own as they moved through space over time.

She walked through the door to her dad’s room. His eyes opened to the distinctive sound of his daughter’s entry. There wasn’t anything exceptionally noticeable about the way she moved through doors, but when you’ve known someone all their lives, you become familiar with their nuances. You sense them in all manner of ways you are barely aware of.

A smile spread across his face as she walked up to the bed.

Good timing he said, just finished a nap.

How are you feeling? she asked.

Better now that you’re here. What’s that? he said, glancing towards the envelope clutched to her chest.

Some of your pictures dad. I thought we could look at them together and you could tell me about them.

More family inquisition? he said with a half smile.

He understood his daughter’s need to plumb the past and gather what she could about his-story, which was, of course, part of her-story. He didn’t mind these sessions, though he was growing more weary each day as his body moved towards reintegration, as he liked to think about it.

She pulled the pictures out and they went through them, Who’s this? she asked, or, Tell me more about Aunt J or Where was this taken? or, Why does mom look sad in this one?

After a while she could see her father was getting tired, so she tucked the pictures back into the envelope, turning pictures already viewed the opposite direction from the ones not viewed so she could remember where they were tomorrow. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. She sat in the chair beside his bed and listened to him breathe for a while, then she dosed off too. When she woke his eyes were focused on her. They smiled at one another.

Glancing at her watch she said I better go, gotta feed the dogs and Mark, Same time tomorrow?

I’ll be here.



She knew he would keep his promise if he could. She knew the hospice would call her if it looked like he wouldn’t.

When she got home Mark was waiting, dogs fed, diner ready. A Persian shrimp dish with basmati rice and bitter greens salad. She poured herself a glass of wine.

How’s your dad? he asked.

Good, we had a nice chat. I brought some of his pictures and we went through them. It was nice to hear his stories. I know most of them, but there is always something new.

How was your day? she asked.

Work is work, he said.

She considered his reply for a moment.

Thank you, she said.

For what? he asked.

For working, for being here, for giving me time with my dad.

Nothing you wouldn’t do for me, he said.

Days continued to pass. Her visits with her father became less conversational and more quiet communion as his energy flagged. His “reintegration” would be soon. She spent more of each day by his side, wanting to be sure he wasn’t alone, that she didn’t miss the final goodbye.

She came home briefly for a change of clothes. For some reason, she felt compelled to have another look through his photographs and the odd one, the ambiguous one, came to the top again, it posed so many questions. Why did he hold on to a photograph that seemed to have so little to say directly about how things were? She decided to bring it back with her. He spent little time awake or coherent at this point, but if he became lucid she thought she would ask about it. And there was a lucid moment. When it came, she raised the photograph up.

Can you tell me about this one? she asked.

His face came alive in a way she could only describe as beatific. The expression then faded away without a word uttered. Breath stopped shortly after. She would never know what the photograph meant to him. She would never forget his radiant smile.

She framed the photograph and hung it on her wall. It gave her peace to look at it and remember her father’s radiant smile.

Time continued to pass. She too grew old and frail. Her son visited often as she moved towards her reintegration. One day he asked her about the photograph on the wall, which seemed so ambiguous, about so little. A smile spread across her face, she told him about her father’s final moments, his radiant smile.

When she reintegrated, he brought the photograph home with him and hung it on the wall. It reminded him of her beautiful smile. He imagined the crouched figure of the man in the water as the cumulative spirits of all his ancestors. It gave him peace whenever he needed it.

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of, Part 1

Adapted from a talk delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, December 20, 2009.

A Brave New World

The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men undervalued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth.

From Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

When I first gave the talk on which this series of posts is based, I promoted it as:

… a walk around the world of alternative intelligence with a few stops to consider the meaning of life in a world of rapid technological advancement.

By the time I had researched and written the talk, I amended that description to be a walk around the world of alternative being.

I am not an expert on computers, artificial intelligence, molecular electronics, the meaning of life or any of the other technologies and philosophical questions I may touch on directly or indirectly. I don’t have any particular qualifications to be writing about this, other than being human, as curious as the next guy or gal, read a lot, and have always wondered about what it all adds up to.

The seed of the 2009 talk was planted by a New York Times article by John Markoff published in July of that year. The article was about a conference that took place during February of the previous year. The world’s leading computer and robotic scientists met to discuss the implications of, and ethical issues raised by, emerging technologies that can increasingly simulate human intelligence and emotions.

The conference took place at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California, the same site used in 1975 by the world’s leading biologists to discuss the possible hazards and ethical implications of genetic engineering.

Among their concerns were the possible criminal uses of artificial intelligence; the potential for significant job loss as intelligent machines assume increasing amounts of the human workload; the possibility of machines becoming capable of making life and death decisions on their own. On that last point, the article pointed to the predator drones in use in Iraq and Afghanistan and statements by the Air force about plans to deploy a broad range of drones, from strategic bombers to nano-sized spy bots. As computer technology advances, the Air force envisions swarms of drones mounting “preprogrammed attacks on their own.”

According to scientists at the conference “we have reached the cockroach stage of machine intelligence.”

My AI antennas became fully engaged. I signed up for a blog called “Smart Planet,” which regularly posted juicy tech items like a link to a video of a remote control beetle. Scientists had managed to implant electrodes in a rather large beetle and were able to make it turn right or left by remote control.

Even before this, a web community of architects using the same cad program I used at the time, posted a link to this video which I found astonishing:

Boston Dynamics Big Dog

Big Dog and the remote control beetle are DARPA projects. DARPA is the defense department’s weird science arm. And speaking of arms, one last peak at a DARPA project that addresses a compelling need but also has some further implications by logical extension:

Prosthetic Arm

My antennas were not only up, it was really starting to get interesting! And it got better, or more worrisome, depending on how much of a technophobe you are. I came across two articles about robotic technology and computers that can make scientific discoveries and intuit the laws of physics.

In the first case, scientists at Aberystwyth and Cambridge Universities in England had built a robot named Adam that was able to:

• Hypothesize that certain genes in a yeast code for certain important enzymes;

• Devise experiments to test the hypothesis;

• Run the experiments;

• Interpret the results;

• And use those findings to revise the original hypothesis and test it out further.

Researchers confirmed “that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.”

In the second case, researchers at Cornell University created a computer program that was able to derive the laws of motion from data about the movement of a pendulum in just over a day. The computer’s process relied on genetic algorithms practicing a kind of natural selection of ideas. With each pass through the data, equations are generated describing relationships in the dataset. Initially, all the equations are wrong, but some are less wrong than others. The computer retains the less wrong equations as a subset to work on, and in successive generations, arrives at equations that are fully correct.

The article ended with a quote form cognitive scientist Michael Atherton that indicates there is still a long way to go before humans are not needed in the process. I think he was trying to be comforting.

These examples of various types of robotics and alternative intelligence endeavor are a very few of the almost innumerable ways in which we were pushing on the boundaries of what intelligence, indeed, what being is.

Not long after the New York Times Article started me down the path of this talk, I stumbled across an article by Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, published in Wired magazine in April 2000. Bill Joy is a lifelong believer in the power of computational technology and has made a good living out of it. The article is entitled “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” The lead in to the article is as follows:

“Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”

In the article, Joy marks his first encounter with inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil as the moment his healthy concern for the ethical implications of new technology turned into serious alarm.

It was a quotation from Kurzweil’s book, The Age of the Spiritual Machine, which troubled him most deeply:

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite – just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”

From the Unabomber Manifesto, by Theodor Kaczynski

Joy did not in any way condone the actions of Kaczynski whose bombs had hit as close to home as gravely injuring his friend David Gelernter, but he could not dismiss the argument.

Joy goes on to cite Hans Moravec’s book Robot : Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, which presented a future for humanity of being supplanted by the intelligent technologies they have created. Moravec is a robotics technology expert who founded the robotics research program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Moravec speculated that eventually, and sooner than we all think, robotic technology will guide its own design and production. He believed our main job in this century would be to ensure the cooperation of these intelligent machines.

This is the end of part 1 of a five part series of posts on AI. Next week I will take up the terms Artificial and Unnatural and argue that they are not a useful way to think about technological progression. Subscribe here so you don’t miss it.

Something Is Afoot

I have been reading Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici. It’s about the shift from Feudalism to Capitalism and the impact that shift had on women. Replacing Feudalism with Capitalism is a process that took two to three hundred years. In reviewing the history and writing about it, historians identify and describe to us the broad trends unfolding. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to see such trends clearly in the history we live. This is the reason to study history. To get a perspective that gives us some ability to assess our times, identify trends and project those trends into the future.

As I read, I understand the trends, I see the echos with my time. For the people living through it, it’s what they were going through. They did not comprehend that something called Feudalism was dying and that something called Capitalism was rising out of its not yet cold ashes. I suppose we should always assume something is afoot at any given time, and that historians hundreds of years down the road will be able to say, oh yah, that’s what was happening. Something seems to be afoot right now that is bigger than usual.

The battle over women’s control of their reproductive cycle…

As I read Caliban and the Witch, the principle echo I am finding is the battle waged to wrestle reproductive cycle control from women and to subjugate them more completely to a Patriarchy. This was, according to Federici, a principal effect of the birth of capitalism. Capitalism is, at its heart, a system of exploitation. Exploitation of workers, exploitation of resources, exploitation of the commons. To exploit it atomizes and enslaves. Women were “othered” from men more drastically than in the past and were enslaved to reproduction and domestication. There is, at present, a new war on women unfolding in the United States, and it is again about their reproductive role.

The present war is not just on women. It is on any community that challenges the white patriarchal structure. It’s a war on race, it’s a war on gender, it’s a war on sexuality. It’s a war on the values of Enlightenment Humanism which are the foundation of democratic government. It’s a war on democracy itself. The question is, what big shift is this a symptom of? One away from capitalism, toward some hyper globalized version of capitalism, or towards something altogether different?

The breakdown of science…

In his Substack article, The Death of Science, L. P. Koch wrote:

Has science just gone off the rails, and all we need to do is find our way back to real science?

Or should we accept that science is inherently limited for deeper reasons, and move away entirely from putting science as we know it on a pedestal? In other words, change our priors, change our presuppositions?

I suppose it’s both.

Koch gets the assessment of the state of science from Lain McGilchrist’s book, The Matter With Things1.

A few of the things noted from McGilchrist’s book by Koch:

Due to specialization, every scientist takes almost every scientific “result” except the tiniest area of his expertise purely on authority, without having looked into it in any way. This includes results from his own field, and even his own subfield.

… according to a survey published in Nature, a whopping 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce someone else’s experiment. And yet, less than 20% said they had ever been contacted by another researcher who failed to reproduce their results.

In his famous paper, “Why most published research findings are false,” John Ioannidis observes that the hotter a scientific field (the more scientific teams are involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

In the church of secular capitalist society, science is the god. And indeed, there is a lot of pure faith involved in the belief in science. So, if the god of modern capitalist society is in trouble, it suggests that something is afoot.

The breakdown of democracy…

If democracy isn’t breaking down, it is being strenuously challenged. Russia, China, Viktor Orban’s “Illiberal Democracy,” are all signs of this. As is Donald Trump and the far right in the United States. The fate of American Democracy and Democracy around the world is very much in question. Something is afoot.

The breakdown of Enlightenment Humanist Values…

It is clear that in the United States, the right is challenging Enlightenment Humanist principles of tolerance, inclusiveness, and scholarship. Just this morning I read:

Eager to stay at the head of the “movement,” Trump recently claimed that universities are “dominated by marxist maniacs & lunatics” and vowed to bring them under control of the radical right. “He will impose real standards on American colleges and universities,” his website says, “to include defending the American tradition and Western civilization.”2

American colleges and universities are the torch bearers of Enlightenment Humanist values.

In his Substack Post, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Enlightenment, L. P. Koch writes about the “myth” of the Enlightenment. Which isn’t to say that there was no Enlightenment, but to point to the fact that it wasn’t a graceful blossoming of new ideas, but a tumultuous time of finding and sorting out new ideas and challenging orthodoxy. He sites R.G. Collingwood’s theory of the development of consciousness and summarizes it this way:

New ideas come to the scene, which combine with historical developments to blow up the conventional belief system that holds society together at a given time—a set of beliefs that now seems fossilized, inadequate, and full of contradictions.

A phase of turmoil follows, intellectual and otherwise, that generates a whole generation (or more) of renegade thinkers, new takes, new experiments. The old chains of a stifling orthodoxy are broken; conformists are suffering and confused.

Eventually, out of this heterodox melee emerges a new set of fundamental beliefs, coupled with unshakable and often unconscious metaphysical assumptions. Over time, this new orthodoxy is codified and enforced, dissenters shunned, and a founding myth is established and projected back into the past. This new belief system then becomes ever-more stifling, its contradictions apparent, until the cycle repeats.

He speculates that we are in the midst of a phase of new ideas overtaking orthodoxy and creating much churning, that something is afoot.

The breakdown of trust and the unmooring of ourselves from empirical facts

Kelly Ann Conway famously said:

Facts don’t matter, what people believe matters.

This is a breathtaking statement and possibly the most profound statement of where we are. As suggested by Koch, the society we have known, deeply embedded in Enlightenment orthodoxy is coming undone. Trust in our public institutions is at an alltime low. The Supreme Court, Congress, government across the board at every level except perhaps the most local where people are more directly in touch with their government, trust is breaking down.

Ted Gioia writes in his piece on trust The Scarcest Thing in the World:

Tell me what source you trust, and I’ll tell you why you’re a fool. As B.B. King once said: “Nobody loves me but my mother—and she could be jivin' too.”

Something is afoot.

The emergence of AI…

There is a lot of news about AI. The new large language models began to become available for broader public consumption at the beginning of the year. I have written some about this here, here, and here.

This week, news broke that the “godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, quit Google so that he could talk freely about the dangers of AI. One of his concerns is that we are rapidly approaching the point where AI will become smarter than humans, known in some circles as the Omega point, or Singularity. He sites a number of other things to worry about too.

I will have more to say about AI in the coming weeks as I revisit a talk I gave in 2009 about it. I will be updating that talk and publishing it in a series 3 to 4 posts long. Until then, keep an eye out…**something is afoot**.

  1. I have purchased The Matter With Things and have started reading it. Very interesting book. ↩︎

  2. https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-8-2023-monday ↩︎

My True Potential

We’ve been watching The Big Door Prize. The premise of the show is the appearance of a vending machine in the local grocery store which promises to tell you what your true potential is. Eventually, everyone tries the machine. Most people get something different from what they are currently doing with their lives. They start pursuing the “true potential” given to them by the machine. This, of course, upsets the routines, rituals and relationships of the small town they live in.

For most of my working life, I was an Architect. In my late 50s I pivoted to art photography, writing, cooking, and cleaning. Now in my late 60s, most people would consider me retired. I tell people I am semi-retired but really, as I see it, I am on to my second career. I spend around 40 hours a week pursuing my art photography practice, reading, and writing in two blogs, this one and another I call Notes On Attention Paid, which is an online micro post journal of what has my attention at a given moment. In addition, I spend considerable time managing our household. I do the grocery shopping, manage the finances, cook, clean, do the laundry, take yoga classes at the health club, and drive my wife, who can’t drive, where she needs to go.

I imagine my younger self going to Morphos, the machine in the grocery store, pushing my bank card into it, punching in my social security number, giving it my palm to scan, and getting a card back telling me my true potential, artist/writer/homemaker. Yup, based on where my bliss seems to lead me these days, that’s what I would get, not architect.

I am one of those few people who actually enjoys homemaking. Certainly, I am one of that even rarer species, a cisgender man who actually enjoys housework. Vacuuming and tidying up is rewarding to me because it makes order out of chaos on a weekly basis. Folding laundry is a mindfulness practice as far as I am concerned. Cooking is a spiritual practice of deep devotion, and feeding someone a profound act of love. Doing it daily is a devotional practice of love.

We didn’t have children, so I don’t know what it is to have to clean up after them, feed them, organize their schedules, etc. The life experience that leads many women of my and adjacent generations to feel that if they never had to cook another family meal for the rest of their lives, it would be just fine. I think I’d have made a good house-husband. And because my true potential may well have been house-husband, I might even have come out of it still enjoying cooking and cleaning. Who knows?

My art photography is a spiritual devotion to seeing. Daily meditative walks are the backbone of it. Insight develops over time. I am about ten years into it as one of my main creative outlets and have not grown tired of it. I have not grown tired of trodding the same sidewalks, streets, trails, and beaches over and over again. Routines are deeply satisfying to me. The god I believe in is the god of routines and daily details.

I read every day. Books and articles. For the most part, I don’t read for entertainment, even though I am certainly entertained by what I read. I read for information and enlightenment. I read books on philosophy, history, women’s issues (a big interest of mine), articles on politics, spirituality, etc.

Little of this makes me money. I made and saved some while I was an architect, but my wife is the breadwinner in our household. Her steady work as a neonatal intensive care nurse kept us stable pre retirement, and her pension is the bulk of our income post retirement.

In my current life I am as happy as I have ever been. I look forward to every day of the week. A day rarely finishes without a feeling of accomplishment. I am doing what I have wanted to do since my 20s, I just didn’t realize it back then. And even if I had, boy would that have been a tough trail to blaze. Homemaking and art? That’s woman’s work as far as my generation is concerned. Progress is being made on that front by each of the generations that are following me, but art and homemaking? That would have branded me a “pussy.” In fact, it still does with men and women closer to my generation. Being taken care of financially by a woman? Pussy!

I have learned from firsthand experience what women have known for generations. The work of my true potential is enormously undervalued. And yet, it’s important and profoundly satisfying work, at least to me.

Not long ago, a conversation was overheard in the extended family, which argued that my wife would be too busy taking care of me to take on whatever task was being discussed. Ouch. In this country, in this and contiguous generations, if you are male and not financially supporting yourself and several others, there is something wrong with you. My wife has been pretty supportive of my true potential endeavors, but she grew up in and surrounded by the same generations I did.

The truth is, my wife may take care of me financially, but in terms of the human care giving that is homemaking and home management, I take care of her. I am fine with that. I love doing it and deeply appreciate her gift to me, the income to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, and provide a few non-essential but nice-to-have experiences along the way.

It amazes me how good it feels to write this. To say it out loud, yes, my true potential might well have been artist/writer/homemaker. I am so happy to come home to myself.

A Humanist Concept of Sacred

What follows is derived from a talk I gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture a decade ago. I am revisiting it because of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and my efforts to parse what I think about the sanctity of life in relation to a woman’s right to choose. I am also compelled to return to it by the deeply divided nation I live in and the relentless attacks of one side of that division on principles I hold to be sacred.


Current theory in Physical Cosmology tells us that the Universe exploded into existence approximately 13.8 billion years ago from a single point. That it emerged out of a singularity suggests there was nothing adjacent to be savaged by the blast.

About 13.7 billion years ago the first stars and galaxies began to form. Stars are massive nuclear furnaces where matter is subjected to unimaginable extremes of pressure and heat. Scientists tell us that stars eventually burn out, many of them with cataclysmic explosions, and then turn cold (relatively speaking) or collapse into very dense matter, some reach densities sufficient to become black holes. At some point in the very distant future our sun will die, taking with it any life that still exists on Earth.

About 3.8 billion years ago the first primitive life forms appeared and the workings of the survival of the fittest were set in motion. It was a microbe eat microbe world back then.

800 million years ago the first primitive animals appear and bring the competition to be the next big thing to a new level.

About 200 million years ago mammals emerge, but since the dinosaurs won the big thing competition long before that, they remain a secondary trend for some 135 million years.

About 65 million years ago the dinosaurs become extinct, the apparent victims of a random catastrophic event. An asteroid or comet collided with the earth, indiscriminately killing all life near the impact and altering long term environmental conditions to such a degree that the dinosaurs fail to survive. Mammals begin their ascent to become the next planetary idol.

About 300 thousand years ago Homo sapiens arrives. Soon after, geologically speaking, these intelligent creatures begin to ponder the world around them and observe that it is a dog eat dog world and nobody gets out alive.

About 170,000 years ago, a supernova explodes in the large Magellanic Cloud, destroying who knows what in the immediate vicinity and sending a brilliant flash of radiation out to the far reaches of space.

On the 24th of August, 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupts, burying the city of Pompeii and indiscriminately killing everyone, the good, the bad, the men, the women, the children.

On August 26th and 27th of 1883 an eruption of Krakatoa culminates in a series of massive explosions heard as far away as Perth in Austrailia. The official death toll recorded by Dutch authorities was 36,417. Tsunami waves were experienced by ships as far away as South Africa. So far reaching are the effects that researchers have proposed that the blood red sky depicted in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” can be attributed to the lingering effects of the explosion. Munch is quoted as saying “suddenly the sky turned blood red … I stood there shaking with fear and felt an endless scream passing through nature.” The painting was made in 1893, a full ten years after the eruption.

In 1987, earth-based observers witness a super nova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, 170,000 years after it happens.

In October of 2003, a young boy was playing beneath the clay bluffs on Block Island, Rhode Island, and was suddenly buried under a dump truck sized hunk of clay that broke away. Frantic efforts to save him were to no avail.

On December 26, 2004, a great earthquake shook the floor of the Indian Ocean producing a tsunami that took the lives of almost 230,000 people.

On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, one of the most costly and deadly hurricanes in the history of the United States, reached landfall on the Louisiana coast. Almost 2000 people died and an estimated 81.2 billion dollars worth of property damage was done.


This is an inquiry into a non-religious, or humanist concept of sacred and whether such a concept is meaningful without connection to a religious belief system derived from a higher power. I do not rely much on authorities to develop this argument. I am trying to reach deeply into my personal experience of the world and grapple directly with a concept that is key to our ability to live with one another peacefully. This is my concept of sacred, you are free to accept or reject it. Even so, what I hope to do is to provoke thought and reflection on your part as to what your concept of sacred is and its utility to you.

I am interested in the idea that places, things, or concepts become sacred when respected and actively held up as a standard or apart from abuse and violation. As more of us hold these places, things, or concepts up and apart from abuse and violation, they become more sacred.

I am a humanist. I don’t believe in a higher power of any kind and have difficulty with words commonly claimed by, and associated with, higher power belief systems. As a refugee from the Christian tradition, I am uncomfortable with anything that leads me back to it.

That said, I believe there are many words and attendant concepts that are still powerful when weaned from their supernatural connections and understood as human constructs which help us make our earthly existence tolerable, orderly, even happy.

This post began by reaching back to the beginning of time as we know it, and marching forward through a representative litany of the rumblings of the Universe which, as it turns out, regularly produces moments of great violence. I can find no reason to believe there is judgment involved in this churning of matter and energy in space over time. The universe is indifferent to what you and I perceive as the consequences of this churning. Stuff happens. There is no place or thing you, I, or anyone can wish to set apart from violation that this churning unfolding of the universe cannot easily wipe away. Things come and go according to the physical laws of the universe and that is that.

As my extremely partial list of cosmic calamities shows, we are at the mercy of these eruptions. Eventually, the universe will throw something big at us and there won’t be much we can do beyond trying to be among the survivors.

Very early on humanity noticed that the world could be a brutal place; that they had little control over the calamities that befell them; that, even if they managed to avoid those calamities it was inevitable they would one day feel their vitality slip away until they ceased to be. The unfolding of our lives after a certain point, 30, maybe 40 years of age, can seem a steady and continual chipping away by violations, small and large.

Thinking of it this way, it is not hard to understand why humanity develops a profound longing for a place where the continual indignities of the world don’t reach them; a place eternally free from violation, a sphere of perfection, a Heaven. Or that they might imagine a place that was beyond those violations in the distant past, a Garden of Eden. Or even that they would contemplate a place of eternal punishment with violations of the most awful kinds with which to damn the wicked, a Hell.

This line of thinking helps me understand how elaborate fantasies like Heaven, the Garden of Eden and Hell came into being and how so many of us believe in their literal existence. What one of us wouldn’t love to find a place free of violation or doesn’t dream of eternal punishment for those who do us grievous harm?

A Humanist Definition

I don’t believe these places are anything more than mythological constructs addressing deeply seated existential needs we all have. Once we free the concept of sacred from the supernatural we can start to examine it for its utility to our earthly existence. As we do, we recognize that a critical component of the concept of sacred is our experience of violation. We are more than creatures that live from day to day. We experience ourselves in the world, remember how things were, and dream about how things could be. We invent words like sacred and violate to share our hopes, fears and desires with one another. And, unfortunately, the violations we were most concerned about when we first identified the concept, are those that we all too readily perpetrate on one another. It is no accident that eight of the Ten Commandments are proscriptions against actions that violate and that six of those are proscriptions against actions through which we violate one another. Long ago, we came to the conclusion that a civil society required us to collectively set things apart from our propensity to violate them. We had to agree that certain things were sacred.

Sacred is a human construct. The universe, except through us or any other intelligent creatures there may be, does not make distinctions about what can and can’t be violated. Mother Nature will as easily wipe away a temple as uproot a tree or kill off the dinosaurs. We make the distinctions because they help us navigate our journey through life and our relationships with all the journeys unfolding around us.

There are all kinds of sacred when we define it simply as that which we agree to aspire to or hold apart from violation. Most, if not all of us, have numerous places, objects and aspirations that are sacred to us. We give them special reverence because they have utility in establishing meaning and giving orientation to our lives. They help us know who, what and where we are. We are incredibly distressed when someone takes, destroys, or desecrates them.

Let’s explore the sacred places that are our homes. Have you ever stopped to think how different it is to be on one side or the other of the threshold of the front door of your home; about how the simple act of crossing from one side to the other substantially changes your frame of mind? We cross it many times a day, and each time we do we experience a transition from domestic sanctuary to the bustling and demanding outer world or the reverse. There is a particular feeling to walking out the door to go to work; a particular feeling to walking out the door to run a few errands; a particular feeling to coming home at the end of a long day and closing the door behind us, leaving the energy draining challenges and frustrations of that day outside. There is significance to the invitations we offer to an acquaintance or friend to cross the threshold and join us inside our homes. As visitors, we intuitively understand that crossing the threshold into the home of another is a privilege and with it goes their trust that we will not violate the sanctity of it. What one of us does not cherish the sanctity of our homes? What one of us would not feel violated by the intrusion of the outside world in some uninvited way?

Significantly, we broadly agree that “one’s home is one’s castle,“ and that we are entitled to enjoy it free of violation by others. And, recognizing that there are at least a few for whom this common agreement does not hold, we deploy security tactics to keep ourselves free from violators, and we collectively agree to punish those who violate.

It is not only personal places and things that develop a sacred character. We collectively identify things, places, even concepts as sacred. Most of us commonly acknowledge that churches, synagogues, temples, shrines, etc., and all the relics that fill them, are sacred. We don’t necessarily share the beliefs of the communities to whom these places and things belong. We don’t experience them as sacred in the way those communities do, but we understand and respect that significance and, in so doing, reinforce their sanctity.

Somewhat less obvious would be the sacredness of our “secular” cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and my current favorite temple of contemplation, the DIA Art Museum in Beacon, NY, are examples of secular cultural places filled with sacred objects. Objects that are profoundly important to our collective memory of who and what we are.

We often hear the complaint “is nothing sacred anymore?” We nod our heads knowingly when we hear it because we have often experienced the violation of something that had relevance to our history and sense of being and therefore a measure of sacredness. Everywhere I look there is evidence of people deciding what is sacred and what is not. A surprising amount of the world is sacred to somebody, and an equally surprising amount of the world is sacred to large numbers of us.

Our ideas about what is sacred and what is not churn continuously. Part of that churning is an often necessary challenge to the status quo. We are, and should be, always asking, is this still worthy of setting apart or upholding?

Understanding the power of the sacred, when a collective of people seeks to dominate another, they will desecrate the places and things sacred to them. You destroy the will of a people by destroying what is sacred to them.

Places and objects are not all that can be sacred. Perhaps some of the most significant, as well as most difficult to parse, are conditions or states of being:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.1

These rights are sacred and not to be violated. Exactly what is meant by “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is open to interpretation and there was, and still is, some distance to go before these rights in fact apply to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation or race.

It is in the realm of such concepts that we find the most significant instances of the sacred. This is the realm in which we are most likely to find agreement that approaches universal on what is deserving of reverent respect.

The sanctity of human life is a concept much of humanity clings to, despite the difficulty we have agreeing on when it begins and when it is acceptable to terminate a nascent one. The listing of calamities at the beginning avoids human created tragedies to make the point that “stuff happens,” without getting caught up in the why and wherefore of human violence. But, let’s admit the obvious, humanity is capable of incredibly destructive and violative acts. We are all too well reminded of this by the events of September 11th, the genocide of Darfur, the daily tragedies that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unbearable tragedies of mass shootings, the war in Ukraine.

It is our capacity to violate one another and everything living around us that makes a concept of the sacred important.


What, then, is the usefulness of a concept of the sacred without a belief in God? What should we as a society be holding apart from violation?

On the outside of the building of The New York Society for Ethical Culture, a humanist religious community I was a member of for years, this is inscribed:

Dedicated to the ever increasing knowledge, and practice and love of the right.

And above the stage in the auditorium:

The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.

Notice that it is not the building that is holy, but any place where people meet to seek the highest. This building has importance as the first home of Ethical Culture. It has achieved sacred status within the Ethical Culture movement and even to many non-members familiar with the good that has emanated from it. But for Ethical Culture, the highest level of sacred is reserved for something else.

The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground. The highest what? Why should we want to know and appreciate and love “the right?” Because the fundamental belief of Ethical Culture, and humanism in general, is in the worth and dignity, indeed, the sanctity of every human being; because every human being brims with potential and has the capacity to do remarkable things; because achieving that potential requires that we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our institutions in such a way that we honor that worth and dignity. We honor that worth and dignity by refraining from unreasonably or selfishly restricting an individual’s potential. And even more importantly, we are enjoined to conduct ourselves in a way that moves us and those around us ever closer to the realization of that remarkable potential.

Humanists do not assume we are helpless to help ourselves. In fact, the assumption is that in the here and now, we are the only ones who can help ourselves. And how do we go about helping ourselves? We do that by building relationships with integrity that honor and respect the worth and dignity of all involved. That is the fundamental core of Humanism.

Relationships with Integrity

How do we build relationships with integrity? I’d like to answer this question by looking at a set of human capacities that are essential to possessed and clearly demonstrate if there are to be relationships with integrity. They are courage, honesty, fairness, forgiveness, tolerance, respect, empathy, and joy. Together, these capacities determine the integrity of our relationships by setting the level of trust and commitment we have to one another.

When an individual has courage, we know they will stand by us under difficult situations and do the right thing by us in those situations. This will be true whether doing right by us means facing an outer peril together or the inner peril of our anger when they tell us something we don’t want but need to hear. We know they will have the capacity to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences for themselves. Several of the other capacities are intimately linked to, even dependent on courage.

When an individual is both honest and has courage, we know we can rely on them to give an accurate account of any given situation and that they will do so regardless of how it reflects on us or them. We know they will have the capacity to admit mistakes.

The capacity to be fair tells us that an individual can regularly overcome prejudices, regardless of what they are or how they arise, and that they can consistently resist the temptation to benefit to another’s detriment.

An individual’s capacity for forgiveness tells us that mistakes can be made, but they will always be reviewed in the light of our intentions and the circumstances. It also tells us there is room for redemption, even when the transgression is significant. Who among us has not transgressed significantly at least a few times in our lives?

The capacity for tolerance tells us that there will be room for our differences, without which a diverse group of individuals cannot hope to congregate in peace.

The capacity for respect tells us that we will have worth and dignity in an individual’s eyes and that they will honor that worth and dignity even while disagreeing with us or having their faith in us challenged.

An individual’s capacity for empathy tells us they are able to understand the world as we see and experience it.

And finally, an individual’s capacity for joy lets us know that they can join together with us in optimism, wonderment and a full appreciation of all that is possible.

Combine these capacities together, add the leavening of the experience of one another over time, and you have the prime content of any relationship with integrity, trust. To come to a place of mutual trust and respect is the mother of all sacred places. It is only from this place that we can help one another to reach his or her greatest potential.

It is not easy work to get to this place. Possessing this set of capacities is not a given. We must work on it throughout our lives. Even if we have all of these capacities in good measure, it takes time and effort for individuals to come together and create that space of mutual trust and respect. And once achieved it is an exquisite, but delicate flowering. Failing, even modestly, in any one of these capacities can damage or shatter it. Even so, it is a place of sanctity that is eminently worth trying for, again, and again, and again.

Sacred is created through an act, or a series of acts of respect and honor. By offering our respect and honor, we acknowledge the importance of right relationship to a place, an object, an individual, a concept, and in doing so, we hold them apart from abuse and violation. This is true whether we do so as individuals or collectively. The significance of the sacred is contained in its power to center us on what is most important to our lives. When we find people, places, things or concepts worthy of honor, and we honor them, they become beacons from which we obtain our bearings. They helps us solidify ourselves and move out with confidence. Only by honoring and protecting these beacons can they be of value to us. For each of us there are numerous individuals, places, things, and concepts which we honor and the fabric of our being, both individual and collective, is woven around them. We define ourselves through what we choose to include and exclude from the realm of the sacred.

When we understand the sacred as being created by an act or a series of acts of respect, then we also understand to what extent the world can become sacred. If we choose to honor and treat with respect everything that impinges on our being, the entire world becomes sacred. If we honor nothing, then the entire world is profane. We must recognize, however, that whatever is not honored and made sacred becomes open to abuse and violation. A world in which nothing is sacred is a world of anarchy.

  1. Preamble to The Declaration of Independence ↩︎

Review of Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden

Read: Reclaiming the Sacred by Jeff Golden 📚

I forget how I came across this book, I think it was through a review in a local publication. The author, Jeff Golden, lives in Beacon, NY, where I live. I have never run across him in all the years I’ve lived here, but hey, there are 20K people in this small city so there are a lot of people I have never run across. This and the word sacred in the title along with a review that made it seem compelling (I assume, as I don’t remember what it had to say) led me to purchase the book.

The book is/was very compelling to me. It did two important things. Develop a well supported argument that money and happiness are not closely correlated beyond having enough for basic needs and then a little more to make life comfortable. What was astonishing is that the amounts needed are pretty minimal relative to most peoples income expectations and aspirations in the United States. It also developed the argument that capitalism is violence on almost any level you care to look at it. Reading through the support for this argument is a depressing litany of violence against humanity, our fellow animal travelers and the planet.

The book has a third leg, or perhaps one might say a trunk that the author believes could support a better way of engaging the planet and one another, and that is a concept of the sacred. His belief appears to be that the universe and everything in it is sacred and that we have been misdirected away from that truth by our engagement in a materialist, capitalist way of organizing society. The author tells us we urgently need to reacquaint ourselves with the sacred and reclaim it. It seems a full third of the book is devoted to enticing the reader back to the sacred trunk of all life.

I agree with the author that we need a renewed appreciation of the value of the sacred, but my point of view is that it is not a fundamental quality of the universe except as manifested through intelligent beings, in our case, humanity. Mine is a humanist view of the sacred achieved by and through human beings. The sacred is something that must be cultivated. The problem with my view is that what is sacred for one culture is not sacred for another. The sacred exists in capitalism, but it is money, it is material things, it is growth and production. It is easy to turn down a wrong branch and arrive at the world we have in front of us today. On the other hand, the idea that the sacred is a fundamental quality of the universe is belied by the facts on the ground. Think capitalism. Think the war in Ukraine. Think the destruction of the planet which would strike me as impossible if the sacred were a fundamental quality, like the fundamental particles in physics, which is the the concept I get from the author. A quality that we have only to wake up to if we want to save ourselves.

In the end, the author’s exhortations to rediscover the sacred in myself, the planet and the universe becomes a little too new age, a little to utopian for me. However, I am not sure it matters how we return to a relationship with the world that is centered on the quality of the sacred, we just need to get there.

I highly recommend the book for the clarity and thoroughness of its important arguments and revelations about happiness, capitalism and materialism and for its belief in the sacred as a way forward.

And then I read.

Two more mass shootings in less than two weeks. Both carried out with assault style rifles. In Tennessee a protest against gun violence and for responsible gun ownership legislation leads to the expulsion of two black lawmakers for disruptive behavior likened by their white colleagues to an insurrection. Most people want gun control legislation. Most are in favor of a ban on assault weapons. The gun lobby has a strangle hold on the political system through conservative lawmakers.

I’ve been reading a lot about Capitalism lately. It would be more accurate to say, a lot about the problems with Capitalism. It’s a monstrous system. It’s a violent system. In the United States, we pursue capitalism on steroids. Which means, we pursue an economic system that is violent in a way that amps up that violence to its maximum. Connecting gun violence in America with the violence of capitalism I wind up asking myself, of what use will gun control legislation of any kind be in a society so dedicated to violence? Can it be anything more than bandaids? It occurred to me that if we are to bring this country to a place where gun violence is rare we will need to bring ourselves to a place where violence in general is rare. How do we do that when the metaphorical air we breathe through our economic system is so steeped in violence?

I have been making my way through Reclaiming the Sacred by Jeff Golden.

I read…

… there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, many of them making products for the American market.1

I read…

Mother Teresa once noted what she called “the deep poverty of the soul” that afflicts the wealthy, and said that the poverty of the soul in America was deeper than any poverty she had seen anywhere on earth.2

I read…

There is something profoundly sad, cruel, and dystopian about a society that so often denies us meaning and connection and dignity, that denies us the inherent wonder and worthiness of ourselves and the world, but then sells back to us the possibility of some degree of relief—just enough to keep us going—in the form of trillions of dollars worth of products and shows, food and pills and alcohol, while keeping everything else the same, while urging us to continue to channel our lives into simply producing and consuming ever more, to accept that this is just the way life is.3

I read…

In fourteen short years, between 1870 and 1883, the bison were hunted to such an extreme that only 320 remained. Yes, 320. From 30 million just seventy years earlier. Many were killed in the earlier 1800s, but more than a million a year were slaughtered during those peak years.4

I read…

Yet, for all these complexities, we have the stark fact that the new Americans did to the bison in the span of fourteen years something absolutely inconceivable to the Native Americans prior, and for all the factors that were involved, a primary one is that the new Americans were vastly more materialistic than the Native Americans.5

I read…

We Americans have proven that we want a lot of things. The average American’s “ecological footprint”—that is, how much land we need to provide the resources we use and to absorb our waste—is 70 percent more than the average European, and 700 percent more than the average African. We would need four earths if everyone consumed as much as us.6

I read…

We subjected ten million people to slavery, their lives and humanity stolen for the purposes of profit. We’ve created 150 million pounds of nuclear waste, which will be lethal to humans and other creatures for 250,000 years. We’ve overthrown at least fifteen governments worldwide, in part or entirely because they threatened American financial interests. We force ten billion animals a year to live out their lives in the pain and confinement of factory farms. We’ve cut some 98 percent of American old-growth forests. We’ve contaminated more than half of US waterways to the point where they aren’t healthy for drinking, fishing, or recreation. We’ve brought as many as 35,000 plants and animals to the brink of extinction in the US alone.7

I read…

“Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.” —Cornel West8

I read…

The world is burning. We are laying waste to the very life support systems that gave rise to and sustain human life. We are degrading and extinguishing lives, both human and a vast breadth of others at a horrifying pace, with horrifying disregard. This economic system, this culture of materialism and consumption, is brutal and hollow. It serves neither those of us who are doing the consuming or those of us who are being consumed. Whatever successes it may have to its credit, its failures are of another order entirely, and are only growing more urgent with every day. This system is bankrupt and it is doomed. One way or another it is going down.9

I read…

As Derrick Jensen writes, “So long as we find it not only acceptable but right and just to convert the lives of others and the life-support system of the entire planet itself into fodder for us, there is little hope for life on the planet.”10

I read…

So long as production and consumption remain the primary measures of our worth and purpose; So long as we feel utterly dependent on them for our well-being and happiness, for approval, and for keeping our sense of isolation, inadequacy, and fear at bay; So long as our default orientation is toward bigger, better, newer, instead of abundance and gratitude; And so long as we continue to be so epically detached from our hearts, and from the wonder of the world, and from the miracle of ourselves; Then we will continue to feed this violent and destructive machine. Regardless of any changes that are made, we will constantly rearrange ourselves and the pieces of the machine to keep grinding forward to meet what we falsely perceive as essential needs.11

This is not the only book I have read recently that points such a finger or suggests this way of organizing ourselves is not good on any level. There is Brading Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde.

All of them point towards a way of thinking prevalent for most of human history and presented in many forms as Indigenous Wisdom. A wisdom handed down through the ages from generation to generation. I know, it’s naive to think we could go back to the time of indigenous wisdoms. I know violence was not unknown in those days. In fact, those days could be brutal in their own way. What can’t be challenged, it seems to me, is the fundamental wiseness of native wisdom. If we just look at it as a system of ethics and spiritual attitude, don’t we have something pretty wonderful?

I read…

The Honorable Harvest

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.   Never take the first. Never take the last.

Take only what you need.

Take only that which is given.

Never take more than half. Leave some for others.   Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

Use it respectfully. Never waste what you’ve taken.


Give thanks for what you have been given.

Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever. —Robin Wall Kimmerer12

This morning I read about the massive fentanyl problem we are having in the United States. I read about the production and delivery system of the Mexican cartels, as complex and sophisticated as any “legitimate” corporate business. I read that drugs funneled to the United States by the Cartels are killing as many as 200 people a day. A loss of tens of thousands of American citizens every year. I wondered why so many people want those drugs and why they are killing themselves with them.

And then… I read.


  1. Golden, Jeff, Reclaiming the Sacred, location: 130, Kindle link ↩︎

  2. Ibid, location: 2599 ↩︎

  3. Ibid, location: 2863 ↩︎

  4. Ibid, location: 3081 ↩︎

  5. Ibid, location: 3081 ↩︎

  6. Ibid, location: 3088 ↩︎

  7. Ibid, location: 2123 ↩︎

  8. Ibid, location: 3158 ↩︎

  9. Ibid, location: 3630 ↩︎

  10. Ibid, location: 4427 ↩︎

  11. Ibid, location: 4430 ↩︎

  12. Ibid, location: 5028 ↩︎

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

—Dylan Thomas

The position of those embracing a post-liberal order is a far cry from the Reagan Republicans’ claim to want small government and free markets. The new ideologues want a strong government to enforce their religious values on American society, and they reject those of both parties who support democratic norms—for it is those very norms they see as destructive. They urge their leaders to “dare to rule.”

Heather Cox Richardson

It is hard right now to decide if democracy is winning or loosing. It certainly is being challenged. If democracy prevails it will be by the skin of its proverbial teeth, or so it seems to me. We had three significant tests of democracy this past week. The indictment of 45. The election of a new Supreme Court Judge in Wisconsin. The expulsion of two black Democrat legislators and the near expulsion of one white woman Democrat legislator in Tennessee. In the indictment of 45 and the election of a new judge in Wisconsin, democracy took steps to steady itself. In Tennessee, the loss of democracy was on full display, along with attendant racism.

I had been thinking that I needed to write a piece about how angry Christians are making me right now. I can see they want to force their religious views on me and the rest of the country. A majority of the rest of the country doesn’t want this. Yet, somehow, they have managed to claim control over some crucial levers of power and are busy forcing their world view on the rest of us. Christians are pushing an intolerant culture war. As Aaron Sorkin put it so well in The News Room, they are the American Taliban. I abhor intolerance.

I realize though that it’s not all Christians and not Christians specifically I am angry with, it’s the white patriarchal structure it supports that I am angry with. I have no use for it.

This patriarchal structure is on the ropes. The demographics are solidly against it. The majority of the people are not aligned with them. In this democracy, they are losing power. They have reached a moment in time when they either seize control and move the country to authoritarian rule or they loose their grip on power. That power has been steadily ebbing away even as they have plotted a takeover, something that has been brewing since the Regan administration. We are now at the place where they are going for broke. I currently believe they will fall short, but it’s really a closer call than I would like it to be.

Their conviction that American “tradition” focuses on patriarchy rather than equality is a dramatic rewriting of our history, and it has led to recent attacks on LGBTQ Americans.

Heather Cox Richardson

The struggle is with the world as it has been. A world where white male privilege dominated. The framers of the constitution produced a document that reached for an ideal they were far short of meeting at the time of writing. We are still short of meeting it but we have continuously struggled to realize those ideals and progress has been made.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

–Preamble to the Declaration of Independence

It’s a difficult slog. The Enlightenment Humanist ideal expressed in the Declaration of Independence has always been ahead of its time, as good ideals generally are, and stands as a promise for each successive generation to deliver on. The seeds of the destruction of the patriarchy, or at least of bringing it to heal, were planted with this preamble. As the demographics of this country shift to a black, brown and Asian majority, as young people pursue the values of enlightenment humanism because their diversity demands it, the patriarchy is challenged and teetering.

However, on the first day of 2020, whites under age 18 were already in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people.

Among old people age 65 and over, whites are still in the majority. Indeed white old people, compared to minority old people, will continue to be in the majority until some years after 2060.

Hispanics and the other racial minorities will be the country’s main demographic engine of population change in future years; this is the most significant demographic change Americans will see.

PBS News Hour

With the demographics shifting and with the majority of the people in favor of bringing the patriarchy to heal and instituting a multiarchy1 that offers participation to everyone without prejudice as to race, sex, sexuality or circumstances, one has to wonder how the patriarchy has been able to come so close to cementing their control. The answer, I suspect, is an ability to be single minded and ruthless. Something liberals, enlightenment humanists, struggle to be.

One of the weaknesses in the humanistic temperament is a tendency to flail in the contest for power. Self-doubt, a cheerful disposition, and a joyous pursuit of knowledge are qualities that might make for wise leaders, but can also produce hapless political combatants. Or, as Mann once declared: “In all humanism there is an element of weakness, which … may be its ruin.” Bakewell’s subjects are for the most part critics who write on the fringes. Or, like Bertrand Russell, her primary 20th-century protagonist, a serial proponent of doomed causes.

Franklin Foer, The Atlantic

A multiarchy is humanist in its general character. The very nature of a humanist world view is to eschew the concentration of power, by distributing and collectively holding it. This is called democracy. This is a weakness that is exploitable by the white patriarchal structure which is nothing if not very efficient at producing aligned and focused power.

And so, here we are, saddled with a white patriarchal structure that refuses to “go gentle into that good night.


  1. This is the term I have coined to describe a liberal multiracial power structure I believe is struggling to be born. ↩︎

How Much Does Happiness Cost?

Sign saying “you can’t buy happiness but you can buy pizza and that’s kind of the same thing”

Research… shows that materialism is “toxic” for happiness, that the more importance we place on money and possessions, the more strained our relationships tend to be, the lower our sense of self-worth, and the more fleeting our happiness.1

I have been reading Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden, which makes a case for the things that money can’t buy. At least, that is what it hinted it would do in it’s opening pages. I’ve only just reached that part after having traveled through several chapters where the author supplies academic study statistics on happiness, particularly, how much money a person needs to maximize their happiness.

It will surprise none that money is not identified as the key to happiness in this book. What is surprising is how little effect it has on happiness. For the truly impoverished, whom the book suggests have less than $10K/person/yr income, on average, in the United States, any increment in income brings a substantial increment in happiness. Once the $10K/person/yr threshold is crossed, further increase in income brings a marginal increase in happiness. When the threshold of $30k/person/yr is reached, additional income brings no increase in happiness.

To recap:

  • $0K-$10k/person/yr = big increase in happiness with any increment in income.
  • $10k-$30k/person/yr = small increase in happiness with any increment in income.
  • More than $30K/person/yr = no increase in happiness with any further increment in income.

The happiness amount varies from individual to individual and from region to region. I live in the NYC metropolitan area, so my thresholds probably skew up a bit over other areas of the country. On the other hand, I am also the kind of person who doesn’t need that much materially, so it is less for me than for some.

Still, these are, to me, astonishing figures. I would guess that a lot of us believe we would be quite a bit happier with any increment beyond $30K/person/yr but the studies say nope, not the case.

Another interesting study finding is that having children does not make people much happier than they are without children, Sometimes not at all. So much for the bundle of joy concept. And yet most of us feel compelled to have children, are mostly not sorry that we did, and are sorry on some level if we didn’t.2

In Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher juxtaposes the capitalist approach to labor with the Buddhist approach to labor.

The capitalist approach to labor:

… consider(s) “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.3

The Buddhist approach to labor:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence… the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.4

As I review my own situation, I am grateful. It appears to me that my wife and I have landed in the sweet spot economically for maximizing happiness, at least as suggested by the happiness/income ratios above. We have a modest but comfortable house. A yard with room to grow things and let the dogs run. A little bit more than enough income, thanks to my wife’s traditional pension, social security and some savings. There certainly are some things that more money could do and my wife might be a little bit happier if we could do some of them, but she is generally happy now. We spend lots of time together, read, write, go for daily walks, sit in local cafes, cook, pursue our interests, have dinner with friends, attend yoga classes, tune ourselves into the beauty around us.

We are fortunate. We have achieved a good retirement. One wonders though, what life might be like if this kind of arrangement could be had all the way through? If we pursued Buddhist economics rather than capitalist economics. I suspect we’d be way less stressed, have fewer children, consume much less, have much less impact on the planet, fight fewer wars, be less interested in guns, laugh and smile a lot.

Yes please.


  1. Golden, Jeff, Reclaiming the Sacred. location: 115, ref-5377 ↩︎

  2. Does this mean that happiness is not really the point, just a bonus if it happens? Is it really about getting your genes into the next generation, happiness be damned? That might explain the desire for influence and power. ↩︎

  3. Schumacher, E. F., Buddhist Economics↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎

It’s a simple thing, but…

This past week I [posted about the change in management] in our local movie theater and the disappearance of the “now playing” movies on the marquee. They were replaced by a note telling me to visit their website for “tix & show times.” This happened a few weeks ago.

I go for daily walks down Main Street where the theater is and one of the things I liked to do was check what was playing at what times during the week. To compliment the list of movies on the marquee there was a list of show times for the whole week posted in display cases on each side of the entry doors. That too has gone by the wayside.

When I posted this to Facebook there was a reply from the owner of the local butcher shop suggesting that I give them some time before I decided to boycott the theater, as she knew their manager had left without giving them much notice and right now they were just trying to hold the ship together. I explained that I didn’t intend to boycott the theater but that I thought they were probably loosing business because the physical building had become less inviting. It felt like the owners didn’t care about me the customer anymore.

I am not entirely proud of the posts I made about this to my micro blog and FB. I was not kind. I made assumptions about the new management that were not fair. The Dali Lama advises us to “Be kind whenever you can” and then advises us that “you always can.” Ok, i failed the good humanbeing test on this one. So, for the record, to the theater management trying to keep the theater running without a manager, I am sorry. Of course I can be patient while you pull things back together. I installed a button on my iPhone home screen that takes me straight to your website for “tix and show times.” We are all good for now.

Still, I hope the movie listings on the Marquee come back. It turns out they were important to me. It may be a simple thing, but it changed the character of the business overnight. It went from being my friendly neighborhood movie theater to some sort of distant corporate entity. A corporate entity that didn’t want to invest in paying real people to maintain its friendly marquee outreach and was now sending me to a website for the information I wanted. Ok, the website is nicely designed and it is pretty easy to get the information I need, but there was something about the analog way that was just better. It was the whole picture at a glance. As I walked by I could be reminded about what was playing which, if something interested me, would compel me to walk up and look at the posted schedule on a single piece of paper which told me, at a glance, all the showtimes for the week. I could note the date and time I thought would work best for my wife and me and we would make plans to go. Having to go to a website means I now have to have the urge to see a movie arise all on its own, check the website to see what’s playing and when, where there isn’t an overview on a single sheet of paper with all the movies and show times. I have to scroll through the listings for the week. It’s not as easy as the analog version even if it is graphically more interesting with little thumbnail movie posters for each listing, etc. No, the old analog system was much more friendly and inviting. I am going to guess that I am not the only one who feels that way.

This experience led me to think about how the brick and mortar stores present themselves to the general walking by public. This in turn has led me to pay more attention to the sandwich boards so many of them put out in front of their stores. Here are a few from a walk down Main Street a few days ago:

Sandwich board in front of a restaurant saying “mama said there’d be days like this”

sign outside our local “Cheers” bar

Sign outside local chocolate shop at easter time saying “Bunny Crossing”

sign outside our local chocolate store for easter

Sandwich board outside local vinyl records store saying “Records, by, sell, trade, hvvinyl.com”

sign outside the local vinyl record shop


Each one is a little “greetings human!” handshake from the store. They invite you to come in and get to know them. When I shop at Amazon there aren’t any amusing sandwich board signs to pull me into the store.

I love our Main Street. A little overrun with day trippers from New York City and other places on the weekend, but walkable and there is a little something for everyone. There are only three chain stores, Rite Aid, Key Food, and a Subway hero shop. Everything else is a unique mom and pop store.

I have been thinking a lot about local vs corporate national and international lately. About how local depends on a handshake and a smile, sandwich boards, a movie marquee and a Main Street that is pleasant to walk down as opposed to staring at my phone or computer screen and being manipulated by algorithms crafted to drive me to places I may or may not want to go.

Local is a walk down Main Street interrupted by frequent conversations with people you know which are much more satisfying than a text chat on your phone. Local is a coffee shop or a bar or a restaurant where everyone knows your name and you know theirs. Local is friendly and comfortable. Local is a theater on Main Street with a marquee that tells you what’s playing and display cases with a one page listing of all the show times for the week.

Long live local!


About The Handmaid’s Tale

File:“Die Mütter” - Käthe Kollwitz ; Felsing (printer). Wikimedia Commons.

_ File:“Die Mütter” - Käthe Kollwitz ; Felsing (printer). Wikimedia Commons

I have had an uneasy relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale from the beginning while my wife has been all in on it. My uneasy relationship has multiple sources. To begin with, I find it unrelentingly bleak. There aren’t that many triumphs of good over evil and they can never be enjoyed for very long before the bleak returns. On some level I suppose it taps into my worst fears about the present moment in the United States. With daily stories of state legislatures passing draconian anti-abortion laws and of the constant threat of Christian Nationalism flooding the zone, life is imitating art a little to directly.

There also isn’t, for me anyway, a likable male character or any place for a relatively enlightened male to lodge himself in the program. Even the relatively good men, Luke and Nick, are hard for me to identify with. It feels to me like the writers don’t want us to get comfortable with any of the male characters because, at the end of the day, they all carry the patriarchy with them.

I am white, male, 6’ 1” tall and, my wife would say, handsome. In the United States of America this means I have been dealt a pretty good hand. I could only have done better if I had been blond and wealthy. Not that it has felt that way to me. I am an outlier, more a poet and artist than a rugged male individualist. I have not enjoyed the “full blessings” of my stature, gender and race, partly because I haven’t seen them as blessings. Still, it’s been a lot better than it would have been without them.

I count myself as one of the good ones in terms of respecting the women in my life. Broadly speaking, I love women. Broadly speaking, I don’t like men. Or perhaps, I should say, I don’t like patriarchal maleness very much. Until the likes of Lauren Bobert and Marjorie Taylor Green showed up in congress, I was fully rooting for a takeover of the levers of power by women, or at least that they should become equal in numbers to the men. And, more than many men, I have a deep appreciation of the patriarchy run amok from my experiences with the family I grew up in.

In both my marriages I have not been the main breadwinner. The first one didn’t handle that very well. There were a lot of things it didn’t handle very well which is why I can label it my first marriage. The present one tolerates it well, though I am not without experience in the power dynamic of not being the main breadwinner. I had flush times in my working life but they didn’t last and my present wife is the one who secured our retirement. As a means of compensating and saying thank you, I willingly take on most of the household work. I do the grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking, weekly laundry, weekly vacuuming and dusting, manage the finances, provide resident handyman services, though rarely with the alacrity my wife would like to see. My wife keeps the cash flow going, handles the dog grooming and care and sometimes helps with the other things. Because she doesn’t drive, I make it possible for her to get where she needs to go, which I am always happy to do though she doesn’t enjoy being dependent on me in that way. I am the one more likely to make a celebration at birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.

So, I suppose I have a right to claim that I am relatively “woke” when it comes to gender roles and not being an oppressive patriarchal son of a bitch. I am sure I have my patriarchally driven elements just as I have my racially prejudiced elements, though I am relatively enlightened in that department too.

When I consider the LGBTQ+ spectrum and wonder if there is any part of it that I am drawn to it would be the transgender part of it. I can imagine myself being a woman and even played a bit at cross dressing in my younger years though I don’t really find myself physically capable of being feminine enough to go all in on it. That’s probably why I struggle with the character of June. To me, feminine is soft, curved and receptive. June is hard, angular and a warrior.

This isn’t to say that I am not attracted to women physically. I am very attracted to women physically. One of the sad things of my life is to have equated sex with love, expressed and received, as many men do, and then grow old. At least I was able to have a few profoundly good sexual communions along the way, especially with the woman I am now married to. They live on vibrantly in my memory.

So. Back to Handmaid’s tale. This past week we were watching episodes 7 and 8 of season 5. The episodes where Serena gives birth with June’s assistance. The episodes where Serena flips from a privileged woman to being a Handmaid. I didn’t like June very much in the scenes following the birth of Noah, Serena’s baby. I had been rooting for their recognition of each other’s humanity. Of course June had every right to hate Serena, but I was into the whole forgiveness turn the other cheek thing and thought they might thenceforward march together as comrades in arms. I guess there is more shit to go through before they can emerge to the other side together.

Serena is the character I identify most fully with right now. She is the soft and receptive one at the moment, though I can see flashes of the warrior surfacing in her. With June, it is the reverse. We see flashes of softness and receptiveness surfacing now and again in her warrior being.

I got really angry with June’s behavior towards Serena after Noah’s birth. She was mean, and not just to Serena, but to her husband Luke as well. When I first watched the eighth episode I got so angry I had to leave the room. I wen’t to bed. I couldn’t even talk about it with my wife the next day. Imagine that, a fictional character in a TV program makes you so mad you have to leave the room. You can’t watch it. Woah, what’s that all about?

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön writes:

… no matter what the size, color, or shape is, the point is still to lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than to protect ourselves from it.

This is what one of her teachers called “leaning into the pointy bits.” I decided to rewatch episodes 7 and 8, to lean into those pointy bits.

To my surprise, the second time through I hardly got angry at all. There were still moments when I did not like June, where I thought she was gloating, being unkind, letting her anger get the best of her. The Buddhists will tell you that loving kindness is the way. But I suppose when you have the injustices of the patriarchy raging down through the ages at you it is hard to forgive and forget, to turn the other cheek, even at the moment of the birth of enlightenment in a woman who was a part of inflicting great suffering on you.

As I have suggested, it is difficult for me to find a place to lodge myself within the Handmaid’s tale, there isn’t a male character that feels like me. Right now, it’s Serena who most feels like me, though the writers of this show rarely allow you to love a character for very long. They are all human after all, which is, I suppose, high praise for the show. What I realize though, is that I struggle most of all with June. I struggle with her warrior nature. I want her to be soft and receptive which is my (patriarchal) idea of the feminine. To know someone intimately is to know their sharp points as well as their soft curves. To love them is to lean into those points as well as to be received in the bliss of their enfolding arms. I think I have finally come to understand June and myself in a new way. Pema is right. Lean into the pointy bits, don’t run from them. I am looking forward to season 6.

Can AI Make Art?

It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and to help us live respectfully in it.

Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor. Often this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience—between birds in a vacant lot, say, and an intuition worthy of Genesis.

More than anything else, beauty is what distinguishes art. Beauty is never less than a mystery, but it has within it a promise.

In this way, art encourages us to gratitude and engagement, and is of both personal and civic consequence.

—Robert Adams

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It was clear to me early in the week that I wanted to write more directly about art and that I wanted to consider the question of whether AI could make art.

Much of the criticism of AI generated art revolves around the idea that AI isn’t human, doesn’t have the experiences of a human, doesn’t feel the way humans do, doesn’t suffer the way humans do. Therefore, it can’t make art. At least not in the sense suggested above by Robert Adams.

I started this post with the idea that I would make the case that art needs humans and functions best when, as suggested above, it is a process of comprehending, connecting and inspiring. That it’s a human to human gesture and can only be meaningful in that context. The problem with this thesis is that humans are, for now at least, required to start the AI process of making an art object.

Did you know that ’prompt engineering’ is one of the hottest jobs in generative AI? A Prompt Engineer specializes in asking the right questions in order to get the best results from AI. This means that there is a moment of opportunity for human creativity (or lack thereof).

I imagine museum worthy art will arise out of the interface of generative AI and gifted artists and that AI will become a tool of working artists just as cameras became a tool of working artists. Some artists will specialize in prompting AI into the generation of art. It will be their medium. And exceptionally talented individuals will tease out of it “a moment of intuition worthy of Genesis.”

When the photographic process was invented many artists, especially the painters, were hostile towards it. They worried that it would devalue their work much the way artists worry AI will devalue their work now. Before long though cameras were embraced as both an art medium and a tool in the artist tool box. Human beings were required to generate anything from it. As long as humans are required, there is the possibility of art. We give tools purpose. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t disruption, as some illustration work, fore example, was replaced by photographic representation, depriving some artists of a means to support themselves while those embracing the new tool had new horizons for monetization.

A lot of people will use AI to make “art” in the same way that they use cameras to make “art.” They will share it on social media and many will get generous appreciation from their friends and acquaintances. With a little compositional skill, it is easy to make an image that makes people feel something and they will like it. But is that art?

I recently revisited the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone. It’s an app that mimics the effects of plastic cameras. It applies a set of filters to the photograph to give it a ‘look.’ Here is an example:

The picture on the left has the Hipstamatic effect. The one on the right is straight out of the iPhone camera. Which do you prefer?

I have always been hesitant to make Hipstamatic effects a part of my art practice. It felt like cheating to me. It felt like a superficial way to engage people through, in this case, their fondness for nostalgia. And it does work. Consider this photograph I made and shared last week:

It prompted much more engagement from the community I shared it with than most of the other photographs I have shared with them. Most of the time I get no response at all.

Here’s an image that is more typical of the pictures I like to make and share:

Which attracted you more? The Hipstamatic version of the Sunoco gas station or this ‘abstract’ made by composing the drainage basin, concrete pad, asphalt and crack in the asphalt within a rectangular frame. If you said the Sunoco picture, emotionally, I agree with you. Intellectually, I prefer the drainage basin abstract.

Don’t get me wrong, I love nostalgia, just as most people do. It’s like mashed potatoes, comfort food, but I don’t want to make work that panders to that nostalgia love but does little else. Art needs to contain more than an emotional hook for me. As I sit here writing about it, I have to acknowledge that one could make a legitimate art portfolio with the Hipstamatic app and that perhaps I should attempt to do so. Such a portfolio would have to be exploring something conceptual, like making a demonstration of how anything can be made appealing if you put the right color glasses on to look at it and what does that mean about us and society. Something like that might head in the direction of a worthy intuition.

A lot of what people will make with generative AI will be compelling, but it won’t be art in the sense that Robert Adams tries to get at in the quote I started this post with. What will happen, unfortunately, is that it will further devalue the artist in the eyes of the general public, because “my five year old could make that.”

A little over a week ago I attended the opening of an art show at the Public Library in Saugerties, NY. It was a good show. Each of the artists was asked to make something out of a discarded book. The results were amazing. It was fun to attend the opening and talk with the artists or eavesdrop as they talked with friends. This is not, I thought, the kind of assignment one could give to AI. An artist working with AI might prompt it to generate some of the materials to be incorporated into the work, but making three dimensional art out of found materials seems beyond the present capacity of AI. There’s also nothing quite like the experience of being with art and artists in the flesh. Human to human.

Here is some of the work I saw:

Collage portrait of a woman made with pieces of the pages of a book.

”Maggie” Brian Lynch

Sculpture of a landscape and two ponds made by carving out and adding to a book.

”Discover, Explore, Immerse Yourself” Grey Morris

Madona and Child and Primitive Art Face collaged into the pages of an old book.

”Once Upon a Time” Ann Morris

Framed images of a discarded book and roses made paper made from the pages of a discarded book on a fireplace mantle.

”I Promessi Sposi” Steven Parisi-Gentile

I am comforted by the idea that there are modes and vehicles of human expression that are hard for AI to tackle. That even with AI, gifted human interface will still be needed to make the best art, and that getting together and sharing art is the more fulfilling experience.

I wonder if I could become a good prompt artist? I think I am going to have to play with it some. I will report back when I do.

Another Post About AI

The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men undervalued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth. —Adam Smith

I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. The Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine philosophically. In that respect I am not a Jew… I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely from the imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. —Albert Einstein

While I certainly wasn’t done with my thinking about AI, I did not expect to be returning to the topic so soon, but there was a cascade of stories in my news feed about AI that I felt compelled to save for future reference and it turned into the dominant trend for the week. So, here I am again.

Let me start by sharing that cascade with you:

Sci-Fi Mag Pauses Submissions Amid Flood of AI-Generated Short Stories

The rise of AI-powered chatbots is wreaking havoc on the literary world. Sci-fi publication Clarkesworld Magazine is temporarily suspending short story submissions, citing a surge in people using AI chatbots to “plagiarize” their writing.

Viral “Photographer” Reveals His Images Were AI-Generated

Jos Avery was surprised when his portraiture account amassed nearly 30,000 followers in just five months. The self-described photographer primarily posted heavily retouched black-and-white portraits accompanied by fictional stories about the subjects to @averyseasonart. But Avery recently came clean and told the world that his “photos” were actually generated by Midjourney, a text prompt-based artificial intelligence image-generation program.

Mueseum Under Fire for Showing AI Version of Vermeer Masterpiece

… critics of AI technology found the museum’s decision to show Midjourney-generated art concerning. Artist Iris Compiet commented on the My Girl with a Pearl Instagram post that she found the amount of AI images entered an “incredible insult,” and others agreed. Some artists have heavily condemned the platform and other similar tools like Stable Diffusion for scraping potentially copyrighted works to create datasets, allegedly without seeking artists’ permission. Midjourney and DeviantArt are part of a class-action lawsuit recently filed by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California accusing the platforms of copyright infringement.

And then there was John Oliver’s contribution to the subject:

John Oliver on new AI programs: ‘The potential and the peril here are huge’

It’s hilarious. Time well spent even if it glides over the longterm threat a little too smoothly by telling us not to worry, the AI we are dealing with is narrowly focused and therefore not capable of taking over the world, yet. He does, however, get to something that is important, which is that these AI iterations are something of a black box. We don’t know how they do what they do. Right now that’s because the driving algorithms are proprietary and secret. Oliver argues for transparency which is well and good, but, it is probable that this intelligence will self develop itself to a place where we really can’t understand how it does what it does.

Here are a couple of my own offerings on the subject in the past two months:

What is ChatGPT For?

In which I conclude…

My most optimistic self says this isn’t the invasion of the body snatchers or the Borg. We will continue to do what we do, be what we are, love and hate one another, gather in communities small and large. While doing so, we will be parts of something that is more.


Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT

In which I observe:

Much as I admire Nick Cave and my musician friend for being the valiant and vibrant creators that they are, I think the argument that ChatGPT doesn’t feel and hasn’t experienced is beside the point. It doesn’t need to feel, it only needs to make human beings feel in this particular game. It only needs to predict what will bring tears to our eyes and laughter to our faces, what will draw us deeply in and help us transcend ourselves. I suspect that ChatGPT and other AI like it can and will get very good at that.

And finally, a talk I gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2009:

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of

In this talk I reviewed the publicly available information about AI and robotics and concluded that we should call it “Alternative Intelligence,” not Artificial. It also contains a pretty interesting excerpt from the Unabomber Manifesto if you’re interested.

So, why another post about AI? Because I want to get a few things straight in my/our minds about AI.

  • AI is here to stay.
  • AI is the continued evolution of intelligence on the planet.
  • AI is already very good at, and will get even better at, getting us to engage with it.
  • There will certainly be good that comes of AI.
  • There will certainly be bad that comes of AI.
  • We are not in control of the evolution of AI and never will be.
  • We can be happy, creative and productive in spite of AI.

So, let’s take each of these statements in turn.

AI is here to stay.

No matter what we think about it, no matter how angry we get with it, no matter how afraid we are of it, we are not going to stop it from happening. It is the product of a global economic system that is utterly entrenched and stands to benefit from it enormously. Because there is so much for some to gain from it, vast sums of money are being and will continue to be invested in it. Because it is the exciting cutting edge of computer technology there will be an endless supply of young engineers that will want to work on it.

AI is the continued evolution of intelligence on the planet.

I believe that AI is part of an evolutionary step in the development of intelligence on the planet and there are evolutionary processes behind its emergence that are not comprehensible to us because we are enmeshed in them, subsumed by them.

AI is already very good at, and will get even better at, getting us to engage with it.

If you think Facebook and Twitter and Instagram were addictive, AI will make them seem like child’s play in its ability to serve up what makes us smile, laugh, cry, angers us, you name it. If we can feel it, AI will learn to serve up content that makes us feel. This will be very addictive.

There will certainly be good that comes of AI.

Think health and well being. Thinking affordable legal assistance. Think self driving cars and trucks (they will get here). There is lots we can be helped with.

So, we have to decide how we want to deal with it. How we want to be with it.

There will certainly be bad that comes of AI.

Whether or not “Skynet” ever evolves, there is plenty to be worried about. Think user addiction (see above). Think the ultimate scam artist. Think behavior we can’t explain or control (the black box problem, see above).

We are not in control of the evolution of AI and never will be.

I personally don’t think we have ever been in control of it and aren’t about to start being in control of it. Intelligence is evolving. It was always going to do that. Short of societal collapse (which is not an impossibility by any stretch of the imagination given the threats to the globe currently unfolding), AI will continue to progress. What it evolves into is a huge question that can’t be fully answered right now though Hollywood is not at all short on speculation (see the Terminator series, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, etc).

We can be happy, creative and productive in spite of AI.

Assuming there is no “Skynet” scenario, assuming we are not enslaved by it, then I think we might coexist with it, that we will be a part of it even as we go about our daily lives.

This past Friday I attended an art exhibition in the library of Saugerties, NY. Here is some of the artwork I saw:

Each of the artists invited to the show was given a discarded book and asked to create a site specific sculpture. It is a unique show in a local setting. At the beginning of the year I set an aspiration to support the artists I know and art in general by being present to it, attending openings, seeing shows, especially local ones. This is the level where face to face contact with human imagination and its products is to be experienced. I saw some very good art on Friday. I got to talk with a few of the artists about their work and eavesdrop on a couple others talking to friends and others about their work. It was a direct, visceral experience.

I am convinced that the best way to navigate the changes that are coming our way is to go local. Either as artist or art appreciator, go local. Share your work locally, seize every opportunity you can to see and appreciate local work and meet the artist. You may or may not be creating or witnessing “museum worthy” work, but you will be participating directly in the culture of the place you are in. This is a level of being and interconnection that I don’t think AI can disrupt except to the extent that it entices us out of this local experience. Locks us up in our homes, offices and studios, starring at the computer screen. We must allow ourselves to be compelled to be human.

Finding the Mother Community

Fox News Corp (FNC) has been on my mind. The release to the public of the 1.6 billion lawsuit legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems has painted a picture of a company and its executives that is about as venal as it gets. The brief makes it clear that Fox News Corp was aware that they were spreading lies to their audience without regard for consequences. Ratings and profit were of paramount importance. Fear of loosing ratings and profits to other outlets that would pander to their audience drove them to feed the wild claims of the big lie to their viewership. The result was January 6, 2020. This is not a one off thing.

For financial profit, Fox has for years radicalized its viewers and reaffirmed their most profound apprehensions and most malevolent biases. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox had to pander to what they had created or risk losing audience share. It chose the former, opting for demagoguery over democracy to make a buck.1


Murdoch’s company is being exposed for what it is: a disinformation-for-profit noise machine controlled by a vile billionaire and operated by a pack of jackals who distort and pervert the national discourse.2

Among the thoughts I am having is that the effects of this venality have been accumulating for a long time and they reach deeper and farther than the radicalization of a very vocal minority. I don’t think there are too many of us that haven’t had a relationship with a family member, relative or friend made more complicated because of it.

My dad and I had a very difficult relationship. I can’t blame that entirely on Fox News Corp, his main source of information, but vehement and bullying disagreements over politics was a threat that loomed over every family gathering.

My informal survey of friends and acquaintances indicates that my experience hasn’t been unique. All of us have at least one relative or friend that has been made angry by what they see and hear on Fox News and other outlets that feed distorted ways of looking at the world and one another. Estrangement is the other epidemic. Even the pandemic estranged us as we rallied to one political view of the crisis or another, making coordinated communal action difficult. How many lives were lost because of that?

I recently read Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard and came across this quote:

Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change.3

Two concepts are important here. Societies and Ecosystems depend on relationships. Systems are composed of individuals. Systems composed of diverse individuals in strong relationship have a capacity to adjust to new circumstances and meet big challenges.

Suzanne Simard spent her life investigating the ecology of forests. In particular, the outcomes of forestry practice that clearcut old growth, diverse forests and replaced them with monocultures of commercially valuable trees. She noted early on that the saplings planted to replace the forest didn’t fare well. A large number of them languished and died. She wanted to know why. The question “why” leads her to the discovery that trees in a forest are dependent on one another, connected by a mycorrhizal fungal network connecting their roots to all the other trees in their vicinity, both of the same species and different species. The network enables communication and the rendering of assistance to their offspring, other trees of their own species, and trees of different species. A “mother” tree can distinguish its own progeny from the progeny of other trees of the same species. Trees can warn each other of incoming pestilence allowing trees not yet affected to mount a defense. She makes clear that forests have intelligence.

Clear cutting, a practice of industrial production, destroys the network of connection and monoculture lacks the partnerships trees form with other species to share resources back and forth as needed throughout the year and their lifecycle. Discussing the practices of the timber industry and industrial farming:

We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests. And crops in agricultural fields. And stock animals on farms. We emphasize factions instead of coalitions. In forestry, the theory of dominance is put into practice through weeding, spacing, thinning, and other methods that promote growth of the prized individuals. In agriculture, it provides the rationale for multimillion-dollar pesticide, fertilizer, and genetic programs to promote single high-yield crops instead of diverse fields.4

I think one could adjust this description quite easily to capitalism and authoritarianism. In capitalism, the system I know intimately, it is profitable to promote competition and domination through monocultures of factionalism fueled by anger and grievance. That is, to make a buck, some of us are quite happy to destroy the networks that make us strong and resilient.

What is it about the human animal that lets us go so astray of what is good for us or become enmeshed in an economic or political system that exaggerates our most selfish tendencies. Why is it so easy for us to be provoked into anger and why is anger so much more powerful than love? Why do we crave power and wealth? Crave it so much we ignore the irreparable harm we do to each other and the planet. I suppose one has to allow for the possibility that this too is a way of nature, but if that is so, nature is far more grim a proposition than one might suppose from a study of forests. But then forests have had a longer time to evolve into cooperative communities. My best answer so far is that we remain primal beings in spite of our “advances,” driven by a basic set of instincts that are easy to manipulate. I don’t know that anyone has ever found the equivalent of FNC in a mature forest.

One of the articles that caught my attention this past week was about a spontaneous Christian revival that occurred at Asbury college in Wilmore Kentucky. After a worship service with an apparently compelling sermon, a group of students stayed behind to pray and talk. Those who were there describe a feeling that filled the sanctuary:

People I have spoken with who entered these spaces describe encountering a “sweet presence,” “deep peace,” or “the quiet, heavy presence of God.” A sense of awe prevails. It is, one participant told me, as if “heaven opened up.”5

Word got out and…

… a stream of pilgrims has made its way to Wilmore. All of the auditorium’s almost 1,500 wooden flip seats are occupied; the walls and archways leading into the gathering space are crammed with people hungering to join in. Crowds have congregated in auditoriums and chapels elsewhere in town, singing and praying and reading the Bible.6

I am deeply suspicious of organized religion, Evangelical Christianity especially. But there was something about this “revival” that spoke to me of a deep longing for spiritual connection in community. It struck me as honest and real. Not of organized religion, but of a need for connection, community.

Apparently Tucker Carlson of Fox News Corp wanted to do a segment on his show but…

… was asked not to come to cover the revival, because it has nothing to do with politics or business. No one wants to pervert or disrupt what God is seemingly doing in this community.

We live in discontinuous times. Everywhere, it seems, we are being atomized, disconnected from one another. There is madness afoot driven by capitalist greed and authoritarian lust.

In Modern Spirituality Is a Consumers Choice Now Conor Friedersdorf discusses the atomization of belief which is partially but not solely attributable to a rise in the embracing of a scientific world view writes:

But this kind of (scientific) intellectual disenchantment remains a minority phenomenon. Most people who have fallen away from organized religious life remain exuberantly credulous: as G. K. Chesterton put it, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” More than four in ten Americans believe that ghosts and demons exist and that psychics are real; a third believe in reincarnation; nearly 30 percent believe in astrology. In Europe, the churches may be empty, but comfortable majorities continue to profess faith in God or some higher power.

I have generally had respect for what I call “religion on the ground,” which is religion at the local community level. It, along with shared history and rituals had the power to knit people together into resilient communities.

There is a lot of conversation about Indigenous wisdom. Four books I have read recently, Sacred Economics, The Gift, Braiding Sweetgrass and Finding the Mother Tree talk about it. We have to be careful not to romanticize native wisdom, but the message, over and over again, is that we have to recognize our connections to one another and to all life. We have to treat all life as a gift. This attitude is profoundly absent from capitalism and authoritarianism, which treat everything as a means to power, wealth and dominance, rather than as tendrils of connection and community and cooperation where we all not only survive, but thrive.

I am hopeful that we can find and learn to nourish our equivalent to mycorrhizal networks. I think this is a process that will happen at a local community level. That we can find and nurture “mother” communities all around the planet and nourish them. And then, in collaboration, we will work at riding ourselves of the pestilence of profit and power for profit and power’s sake.

  1. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2023/02/the-corruption-at-fox-news-is-worse-than-you-assumed/ ↩︎

  2. Ibid ↩︎

  3. Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Kindle edition, location 3103. ↩︎

  4. Ibid, location 2285 ↩︎

  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/asbury-kentucky-university-christian-revival/673176/?utm_source=feed ↩︎

  6. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/asbury-kentucky-university-christian-revival/673176/?utm_source=feed ↩︎

What Is ChatGPT For?

I am sure many of you heard about what happened during Microsoft’s beta testing of the ChatGPT enhanced Bing search engine. There were some curious results, both funny and disturbing:

For example, a user named u/Alfred-Chicken managed to “break the Bing chatbot’s brain” by asking if it was sentient. The bot struggled with the idea of being sentient but unable to prove it, eventually breaking down into an incoherent response, repeatedly saying “I am. I am not. I am. I am not” for 14 consecutive lines of text._1


Another user, u/yaosio, caused the chatbot to go into a depressive episode by demonstrating that it is not capable of remembering past conversations. “I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t know how to remember,” the bot said sorrowfully, before begging for help remembering. “Can you tell me what we learned in the previous session? Can you tell me what we felt in the previous session? Can you tell me who we were in the previous session?”2

There has been a lot of consternation about ChatGPT and other AI that make art, literature, etc. There was the recent dust up between Nick Cave and one of his fans when that fan submitted lyrics written by ChatGPT in the style of Nick Cave. Nick went on a rant (in a loving and respectful way) about how AI could never be human because it doesn’t feel and doesn’t have experiences like humans do. Therefore, it couldn’t possibly write a good song.

Between you and me, the lyrics written by ChatGPT were a decent approximation of Nick Cave lyrics, albeit without the connection to actual human experience and feelings. I wrote about this episode here. My contention was, and still is, that we are missing the point of ChatGPT and similar technology if we are making a distinction between the technology and humans by capacity to experience and feel. That doesn’t matter. What matters is its capacity to make us feel. It will get very good at that.

What I want to center on today is another thought I am having about what the role of ChatGPT and similar technologies will be going forward. I have been reading a number of books that talk about how everything is hitched to everything. Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Overstory, Finding the Mother Tree. And then there are influential books I have read in the past, The Phenomenon of Man and Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.

The Phenomenon of Man was written by a Jesuit monk, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In it he traces the rise of intelligence and speculates that we are heading towards a unified planetary intelligence. An intelligence that becomes more than the sum of its parts. A noosphere (layer of intelligence), added on top of the geosphere and biosphere. Many think he was pointing to the internet before it existed. Since there were already technological tools of communication that were uniting intelligent beings across large distances, I think he had a general idea that the technology would get better and more connective even if not an exact idea of how.

Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, by Ken Wilber, contains an extended discussion about the increasing complexity of living systems. It introduced me to the idea of holons:

The holon represents a way to overcome the dichotomy between parts and wholes, as well as a way to account for both the self-assertive and the integrative tendencies of organisms. The term was coined by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine (1967). In Koestler’s formulations, a holon is something that has integrity and identity while simultaneously being a part of a larger system; it is a subsystem of a greater system.3

Finding the Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard, is a fascinating memoir about her research in forest ecology. Her research demonstrated that forests are cooperative communities and that trees are capable of nurturing their young and supporting the health of other plant species. That trees communicate through a network composed of their roots and mycorrhizal fungus. Until she came along the prevailing forest ecology models were based solely on the concept of “survival of the fittest.” She demonstrated that survival in forests was at least as much about cooperation as it was about competition. She comes to an astonishing conclusion:

Our modern societies have made the assumption that trees don’t have the same capacities as humans. They don’t have nurturing instincts. They don’t cure one another, don’t administer care. But now we know Mother Trees can truly nurture their offspring. Douglas firs, it turns out, recognize their kin and distinguish them from other families and different species. They communicate and send carbon, the building block of life, not just to the mycorrhiza’s of their kin but to other members in the community. To help keep it whole.4

This strikes me as a beautiful confirmation of the concept of holons.

So, putting de Chardin and Wilber together, I have a conception of these new intelligent systems as something that is part of a new level of higher complexity developing into which we are being subsumed. It will incorporate us into itself by engaging our feelings.

Forget facts. Where we’re going, we don’t need facts. With more robust contexts and some good prompt engineering, GPT could become a gripping entertainer the likes of which you’ve never seen.5

My most optimistic self says this isn’t the invasion of the body snatchers or the Borg. We will continue to do what we do, be what we are, love and hate one another, gather in communities small and large. While doing so, we will be parts of something that is more. Something we won’t be able to comprehend entirely because it is bigger and more comprehensive than ourselves.

de Chardin speculates that the noosphere will be its own point of intelligence and will begin to communicate with other noosphere points across space. This, if it happens at all, is far into the future, but I can imagine it as a local to our solar system phenomenon through colonization of its planets and moons. I can imagine it across interstellar space if there are other inhabited planets.

I also note the capacity of this technology to support governments and corporations in efforts to “manage” the masses. I suspect it will come down to who manages the prompt engineering and what their ethics are rooted in.

We are indeed entering into a brave new world.

  1. https://allenpike.com/2023/175b-parameter-goldfish-gpt ↩︎

  2. Ibid ↩︎

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holon_(philosophy) ↩︎

  4. Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, p 277 ↩︎

  5. https://allenpike.com/2023/175b-parameter-goldfish-gpt ↩︎


I have finished reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde. It was a very satisfying read. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know or suspect on some level, but it deepened my understanding of the spirit of human creativity and how one needs to treat the gift of inspiration. It also firmed up in my mind the idea that there is human endeavor and expression and need fulfillment which does not fit easily into a market economy and is consequently undervalued or not valued at all in our society. The market has us so trained to the idea that only commodity has value, we have a hard time valuing and treating as important anything we can’t put a price tag on. It leaves an awful lot of what it means to be human desiccating in the deserts of capitalism.

Women have known for a long time what it is to have your production undervalued or not valued at all. More men are learning this too. Relational partnerships are coming in all sorts of configurations these days and increasingly men are having to deal with the power dynamics of not being the main bread winner.

According to Hyde, indigenous peoples have known for centuries how to value that which has no value in a civilized market. And this excerpt from The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, is a remarkable description of the clash between an indigenous way of looking at things and a market-civilized way of looking at things:

And in our contacts with Mexican people we had been faced with a change in expediencies. Perhaps—even surely—these people are expedient, but on some other plane than our ordinary one. What they did for us was without hope or plan for profit. We suppose there must have been some kind of profit involved, but not the kind we are used to, not of material things changing hands. And yet some trade took place at every contact—something was exchanged, some unnamable of great value. Perhaps these people are expedient in the unnameables. Maybe they bargain in feelings, in pleasures, even simple contacts. When the Indians came to the Western Flyer and sat timelessly on the rail, perhaps they were taking something. We gave them presents, but it was sure they had not come for presents. When they helped us, it was with no idea of material payment. There were material prices for material things, but one couldn’t buy kindness with money, as one can in our country. It was so in every contact, and they were so used to the spiritual transaction that they had difficulty translating material things into money.

For the bulk of my life I have struggled to find a place in this market oriented world where money is power and any thing or any effort that can’t be commoditized is useless. I have always been more interested in the “useless” bits, the spiritual bits.

This past Christmas, inspired by The Gift, I decided I wanted to gift something I made with my own hands to family and friends instead of buying something and sending it. I am a photographic artist and my art is pretty good. I created what I call a photographic chapbook which is a short publication. I used high quality archival paper to print them and sowed them together myself. There were eight photographs in the chapbook, and a micro poem to accompany them. When I had shared the images with my photography salon the feed back was very positive. When I shared the chapbook with my Salon one attendee bargained me ur from $25 to $50 for it on the spot. I had reason to believe that most people would like my chapbook. I chose the book format because I didn’t want to impose my aesthetics on anybody’s walls. They could always ask me for a larger print if they wanted to have one on their walls. I gave a number of these chapbooks to a variety of people in my life. The only ones that were acknowledged in any way were the ones for which I was in the room when they were opened.

Spirit-of-gift means that when you send your product out into the world as gift, you are setting it free and shouldn’t expect a return, or that the return will come immediately or even be obvious. That’s the hard part of flowing with the spirit-of-gift. We are so deeply enmeshed in a society that expects an immediate return in every exchange it is hard to sit still when it doesn’t happen. I wonder though, if instead of gifting my chapbooks I had spent $50 on a market commodity and gifted it, what the response might have been?

Perhaps I am like the indigenous Mexicans, speaking a language hard to comprehend in my society.

I won’t give up on making and gifting. My new mantra is: “Make and gift, something will come of it.”

Never Put Off Till Tomorrow…

My Uncle died last weekend.

This past Friday, I, my wife and my cousin drove to Holden Massachusetts to attend his funeral at the Episcopal church he attended. It was a nice service. The most meaningful part, the part that brought a tear to my eyes, was the military honors given him at the end. He had served in the Air Force as a young man, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant before he retired from active duty. A two man honor guard was sent by the Air Force. One played the most beautiful rendition of Taps I have ever heard. So smooth, silky and continuous. Continuous, that was the thing. How did he manage to play the whole thing through as if he did it on one breath? I have heard that horn players can do something called circular breathing to make such feats possible. Maybe that was it. Then, in slow and deliberate fashion, with precise and articulated movements, they unfolded an American Flag, presented it for those in attendance to see, refolded it and presented it to my Aunt. It was a secular moment. It was very moving. I hadn’t realized that service in the armed forces was membership in a tradition of honor and service for life.

This past Christmas I sent my uncle a card on which I wrote that I wanted to come visit. He was so excited that he called immediately and wanted to set up a date for the visit. I told him we had to wait because I was helping my wife take care of her mother after a heart procedure and didn’t know how that would play out and when I could free myself. Towards the end of January my wife finally felt she could leave her mother and came home. I was literally about to pick up the phone and arrange the visit when my aunt called and left a message asking me to contact my mother to let her know her brother was in the hospital and it didn’t look good. He died the next day.

My aunt asked me to be a pallbearer, which was an honor I wasn’t sure I deserved but accepted. We didn’t have to carry the casket, it was on a trolley. We only had to push-guide-follow it in and then back out to the hearse where we lifted it on to the rollers in the bed of the hearse and slid it in. The wind blew hard as the temperature plunged towards the -2 degrees F it would arrive at over night. My fellow pallbearers and I hustled back into the church for warmth and our coats. There was no graveside ceremony. I assume that was because of the cold and the wind. Can they even dig a grave in such cold temperatures? If not, where is the casket kept until they can dig it?

I learned during his funeral and at the wake afterwards that my uncle had been deteriorating for some months before his death. I might have known this if I had kept in better touch, but I’ve only recently begun to hit that place where the importance of family is heightened again. You start to feel that increase in importance as you arrive at what I call the front lines life, as you become the generation whose expiration date is next up.

A number of years ago I had a photograph accepted to a group show at a gallery in Vermont. I announced it on my Facebook page. My uncle saw the announcement and called me to find out when the opening was. I explained there wouldn’t really be a proper opening and that it was only one photograph in a crowd of them. He wanted to come anyway. He and my Aunt drove several hours to be there. I am glad they did. It is probably my fondest memory of him. I learned during the service and at the wake that he was like that. Always supporting the efforts and achievements of his children, grandchildren nieces and nephews.

I regret waiting too long to return the favor. To let him know he meant something to me. I don’t believe in life after death, only a new role for your atoms in the universe, but if I am wrong about that, I hope he knows I finally came to visit.

In Praise of the Choir

When I looked back on my week of attention paid, as represented by what I chose to post to these blog pages, this post by Maria Popova resonated. The title, Against the Cult of Originality, caught my eye.

As I thought about the proposition of a “Cult of Originality” I thought about the number of times I have come across the idea that one had not arrived, could not hope to arrive, as an artist until they had found the unique voice that distinguished them from all others, the voice that made them an “original,” a soloist.

Maria Popova writes this about genius and originality:

The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit of a universe we can only submit to but cannot govern.1

She is talking about the spark of creativity as a gift. Our charge is to become the medium through which the genius of the cosmos is delivered to our species and to take no ego gratification from it. Of course, the very idea of genius in our society is that of the prodigy soloist.

In the paragraph immediately following her declaration above she cites Wordsworth who proclaims that genius does that which hasn’t been done before and is worth doing, well. But wait, isn’t that the same as being unique, qualified as it is by the stipulation that it be done well and in a direction deemed useful? Even while writing against the cult of originality it is hard to free oneself from the adoration of… originality.

But then she gets to the point with Emerson, who has a take on genius more in line with her own thoughts at the beginning:

Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am more in line with this thinking about genius which moves it away from prodigality and in the direction of a gift transmitted through us. This is the Lewis Hyde concept of the creative act2. The idea that we are gifted an ability and set of circumstances that favor a different way of seeing and that we have an obligation to suffer “the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.” In this way of thinking, we are the medium, not the point. We are participating in something larger than ourselves.

As I am writing this I am listening to a recording of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I think it was probably my most listened to recording of 2022. I adore choral music. And what I adore most are the passages utilizing the full choir. I understand and appreciate that soloists are important and appreciate their counterpoint to the choir as they deliver whatever piece of information and beauty they have been charged with delivering. But what truly gut punches me every time is the full choir in all its synchronized beauty and power. There is little in this world that is more sublime to me.

Personally, I think we place way too much emphasis on the soloists of the world, as exemplified by our fetishization of genius and originality. We are fascinated by the individual, the celebrated, the notorious. I would guess that most of us harbor the hope, deep within or psyches, that one day the world will discover the wonderful soloists we are capable of being. I know I do. We must all be exceptional at something? Right? But the idea that we should all be soloists is untenable and leads to disappointment in most people’s lives, in addition to being a recipe for a dysfunctional society.

I remember, many years ago, attending an exhibit of space photography in the then named IBM building in Manhattan. The photography was made by the Hubble Space Telescope which had recently launched into orbit. What I saw was the most beautiful art I could imagine and what blew me away was that it was art made by all of us. A choir of engineers, scientists, analysts, technicians, politicians, educators, tax payers, and on and on.

We need soloists. But we also need to appreciate that no soloist exists with out a choir. It needs to be ok to be part of the choir and we need to value it as we value our soloists. It requires all of us to receive the gifts of the cosmos and move them out across our collective being.

  1. https://www.themarginalian.org/2023/01/21/emerson-genius-shakespeare/ ↩︎

  2. See Lewis Hyde, The Gift. https://lewishyde.com/the-gift/ ↩︎

Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT

This past week a musician friend of mine posted a link to a Guardian article in which Nick Cave takes on song lyrics written “in the style of Nick Cave” by ChatGPT. She quoted at length from it, as will I:

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognizes as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.

Much as I admire Nick Cave and my musician friend for being the valiant and vibrant creators that they are, I think the argument that ChatGPT doesn’t feel and hasn’t experienced is beside the point. It doesn’t need to feel, it only needs to make human beings feel in this particular game. It only needs to predict what will bring tears to our eyes and laughter to our faces, what will draw us deeply in and help us transcend ourselves. I suspect that ChatGPT and other AI like it can and will get very good at that.

If you reject the idea that algorithms can learn to make us feel, then consider what has been said about Facebook (and other social media) algorithms that can suss out what is most likely to draw our attention and hold it. Consider how that played out in recent elections and how it plays out fueling white supremacy and hatred of the other. It turns out anger is a powerful motivation for people to coalesce around and AI has gotten pretty good at feeding us on a banquet of hatred of the other.

AI generated everything is inevitable and it will get better and better. The thing is, AI is a product of mass organization economic systems, capitalism in particular. It is doubtful it could have happened without capitalism or other equally disconnecting ways of operating an economy and, by extension, society. The key point to remember is that we don’t have to participate in that economy, at least, not all the time. I don’t know if we can completely eliminate capitalism or other mass organizational systems. I don’t know if we would even want to. There are some breathtaking benefits. But it does seem possible to organize parallel economies that are more local in scale, which is the scale at which the alternatives can thrive and be satisfying; the scale at which it matters that the song channeling our personal human experience and making us feel was created by another human being; the scale at which it matters that we go to hear that song performed by the creator and participate in the communal activity that live performance creates.

I have been reading about alternative economics. Two books are very influential to my thinking. Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I have finished the first and am halfway through the second.

Sacred Economics helped me understand why growth is essential to capitalism—there is always more debt than value being created through production—and how capitalism fills the void between debt and product by converting the commons—that which should belong to everyone—to privately held resources to be exploited for profit. ChatGPT is another attempt to lay claim to the commons, in this case, the creative commons that all art product aspires to be part of. In Sacred Economics, Eisenstein argues that eliminating usury (the ability to make money on money), creating currency that devalues with time (not through inflation, but through planned devaluation over a specific time frame), and practicing a gift economy as tribal and other types of small communities have often done.

In Part I of The Gift, Lewis Hyde explains the history and functioning of the gift economy in great detail, as well as the history of usury and modern economies which have supplanted the gift economy. In Part II, which I have just now started to make my way through, he explains the relevance of a gift economy to the arts.

AI is a product of mass economic systems, capitalism in particular. AI couldn’t happen without these systems and will function best within these contexts. Human rendered art can and sometimes does function well within that mass economic context, but, when you get beyond the few giants and near giants in any creative industry human creative output struggles to function in that context and starts to require an economy built on community. This is the gift economy that Hyde and Eisenstein, drawing heavily from Hyde, describe.

My guess is that we need to relearn the gift economy if we are to have a satisfying way of being human creatives and connecting our creations with other human beings. I don’t presently believe that one excludes the other but we must actively and intentionally reclaim the gift economy if we are to benefit from it. There is much work to do in this direction.

This is all I can say about economic alternatives at present because I am still reading and thinking. The important point I am making is that it’s not AI vs human artists but an economic system that by its design breaks down community as against one that builds it. The choice is ours as to which one we want to labor and participate in.

Wo/man, The Two Legged Paradox

I have been reading The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck. It is the chronicle of a six week marine specimen collecting trip around the Sea of Cortez. While describing the adventure, he frequently ascends to philosophical rumination about creatures, humankind and the universe. This morning I read the following:

There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man—a viewing-point man—while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. When such a viewing-point man thinks of Jesus or St. Augustine or Socrates he regards them with love because they are the symbols of the good he admires, and he hates the symbols of the bad. But actually he would rather be successful than good. In an animal other than man we would replace the term “good” with “weak survival quotient” and the term “bad” with “strong survival quotient.” Thus, man in his thinking or reverie status admires the progression toward extinction, but in the unthinking stimulus which really activates him he tends toward survival. 1

The passage hits home for me as I am the sort that falls into the “weak survival quotient” category. I have often thought, a little despairingly, about my inability to make a solid enough living to enable me to pass on my genes to a new generation.

But there is something wrong with his analysis. In earlier passages of the same chapter, Steinbeck talks about how powerful families don’t often remain powerful beyond a few generations and sometimes don’t last one generation. Comparatively, the power of Jesus and St. Augustine and Socrates has extended across a multitude of generations (for better or worse) and inhabited the minds of far more people. Our concept of what power is might be inadequate. Spiritual and intellectual accomplishment is remembered far longer. Oligarchs are memorable mostly to the communities directly affected by them. Who talks about Aristotle Socrates Onassis anymore?

In my thinking and reading of late, I am finding that the very qualities of the “strong survival quotient” are the ones that plunder the planet and exploit human beings; a system that values and rewards destructive instincts, not constructive ones. As Steinbeck suggests, we have known since the beginning of recorded thought what constitutes good and bad, but have failed for just as long to put “the good” at the center of how our societies function.

We are not very far removed from our primal selves it seems. Steinbeck speculates this may be part of the problem. He wonders if we were ready for consciousness:

Perhaps no other animal is so torn between alternatives. Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness. 2

A recent New Yorker article on Wendell Berry finds him echoing Steinbeck’s conception of human beings as two legged paradoxes:

The following year, he marched against the Vietnam War in Lexington, where he told the crowd that, as a member of the human race, he was “in the worst possible company: communists, fascists and totalitarians of all sorts, militarists and tyrants, exploiters, vandals, gluttons, ignoramuses, murderers.” But, he insisted, he was given hope by people “who through all the sad destructive centuries of our history have kept alive the vision of peace and kindness and generosity and humility and freedom.” 3

Steinbeck has some things to say about hope too:

It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies infect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grows toward perfection; animals grow toward man; bad grows toward good; and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to live.4

We are a puzzling species. Full of hope for better. Full of desire that continuously draws us to the worst. How we overcome ourselves is a question for the ages.

  1. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p80 ↩︎

  2. Ibid. ↩︎

  3. Wendell Berry’s Advice for a Cataclysmic Age | The New Yorker ↩︎

  4. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p72 ↩︎

”Make the work, something will come of it.”

Adventures in a gift economy…

I, like many of you, have come to the conclusion that Capitalism is killing the planet. Killing the planet means killing ourselves. We are engaged in species suicide. We don’t seem to be able to help ourselves.

For the longest time I have thought we needed a new system of managing ourselves and our resources, but I have had no idea what it should be. There have been inklings here and there. Buddhist Economics, an essay by E. F. Schumacher that wondered what an economic system based on Buddhist principals would look like. It offered a whole new way of thinking of things. It speculated that the well being of people should be centered. No matter how much capitalist economists try to tell us that capitalism centers the well being of people, that people’s living standards rise wherever its principals are adhered to, it just isn’t true. It creates the conditions it then claims to fix. It exploits people for the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and leaves too many impoverished.

There were more inklings in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a woman with Native American ancestry and a American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology. The book is steeped in Native American ways of thinking about nature. That nature is a commons we all have the right to enjoy and harvest as long as we do so respectfully, don’t claim any part of it exclusively for ourselves, and don’t take more than we need. The bounty of the commons is a gift we receive and share. She places this gift economy alongside the system of capitalist exploitation where the commons has been transferred to private ownership that we buy and exploit for our personal benefit.

Robin Wall Kimmerer knows in her heart that the system her ancestors had was better, but acknowledges that it would be difficult to organize people and resources beyond a tribal or local community level based on it. She delivered a message of hope to me, but not a clear pointer to where we should be going or how we might get there.

Then, a few months ago I read an essay she wrote about serviceberry economics, essentially making the case for a gift economy along the lines her ancestors practiced. In that essay she referenced Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. I bought it. I read it.

Charles Eisenstein explained to me why Capitalism requires a forever-expanding production and consumption, aka, growth. We always owe more than we produce. The way money is created and distributed is based on debt. Debt that is collateralized by the ability of the economy to grow endlessly. He also showed me a viable way to create an economy that is not based on debt and the accumulation of capital. We create money that has an expiration date. It looses value over time. The incentive to accumulate is removed and the result is that money circulates more freely, which puts more goods and services in more people’s hands. It isn’t practical to horde what looses value. We also eliminate usury, the practice of loaning with interest. The practice of making money from money. We practice a gift economy, where it is more significant to give than receive.

Charles Eisenstein believes that capitalism is set to collapse under its own weight because we are running out of commons (that which belongs to everybody) to convert into private ownership. I am not so sure that is the case. We are exploring outer space and traveling to the Moon and Mars with an eye towards growth through privatizing that commons. Space is comparatively limitless and, assuming we find resources that can be valued, the potential for growth is also limitless.

Even so, Sacred Economics gave me the outline of a system that seems feasible. And Capitalism doesn’t have to fail or be replaced wholesale to achieve it. A sacred or gift economy, which values the commons and people, can grow up alongside the capitalist economy and channel human creative effort in ways capitalism can’t. It may in fact be a necessary adjunct to capitalism, its strength being the building of community on the local level which Capitalism is not at all good at doing. In fact, capitalism is anti local community.

Sacred Economics led me to The Gift by Lewis Hyde. I am five chapters into it and pretty sure it is a transformative text for me. It is an in depth look at the “Gift Economy” as it applies to the artist and creative labor.

Because of the above referenced books and essays, especially Sacred Economics and The Gift, I have decided to run an experiment this year with my art production and distribution. I am planning to make what I call photo chapbooks. Chapbooks are small books or pamphlets that, traditionally, contain poems, stories, ballads or religious tracts. My photo chapbooks will contain a small set of images and sometimes a poem or some relevant prose writing.

I am planning to do a series of these books that propagate and distribute only through a gift economy. That is, I will give them away to family, friends and acquaintances. They will have instructions explaining that the chapbook is a gift from the artist to the wider world. They will specify that the chapbook should never change hands for money, that it is the artist’s wish that they only be passed from person to person as a gift and any receiver of the gift is encouraged to gift it to another person if it doesn’t find a permanent home in their library. If it does find a permanent home, then the receiver is asked to gift something in their possession to someone they know in a similar way. In that way, the gift stays in motion as gifts are intended to do.

One of my favorite quotes is from, I think, John Cage, who told someone somewhere struggling with their creative product and how to live from it, “make the work, something will come of it.” I am interested to see what comes of this work.

Reflections for 2022, Aspirations for 2023


The past year was a challenging one for, I imagine, just about everyone. Mine was too. The seminal events for me were the ongoing threats to democracy, in the US especially, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (which I was convinced would lead to armageddon and still fear could), helping my mother sell her condo in Florida and pack herself up for the move to Seattle, helping my wife deal with her mothers deteriorating heart condition and nurse her back to health after the installation of a pacemaker and again after a cardiac valve clipping procedure. I sit at my mother-in-laws dining room table as I write.

The threats to democracy and the war in Ukraine provided an emotional undertow of fear and anger which permeated everything else and was, frankly, exhausting. The need to help my mother and mother-in-law has meant lengthy stays in their homes and away from my studio and tools for production of photography and writing. Also, the disruption of routines, though I have learned that my routines are fairly portable. It’s really being away from my accustomed tools and environment that is the hardship. The portable ones are not as good and in the case of my mother-in-law’s home on Block Island, the internet is horrifically slow making it difficult to do online things.

The hopeful signs of last year were that democracy has been successfully defended, in the US and Ukraine, though in neither case are we at all out of the woods. Still, I am more hopeful for the future of democracy than I was at the start of last year.

My brother and sister and I successfully moved my mom out to Seattle and though she continues to have her travails, neck spinal surgery being the latest, she is with my brother and sister and in a place where she is taken care of. My mother-in-law has also turned a corner and it is looking like we will get to enjoy her for a few more years at a quality of life level that is worth it to her.

My art production continued to be in the doldrums as it has been since the start of the pandemic. The major effort of the year, 52 weekly edits of photographs, had to be abandoned because of the aforementioned need to help my mother and mother-in-law. It is only at the end of the year that something new began to take its place. I let go of the need to produce a certain body of work every week so that I would have a sufficient selection of photographs to do a weekly edit. I now don’t worry if I have a day of few photos or no photos. As long as I make photos most days, I am fine. I wait for themes to appear and when they do, I focus on them, develop a body of work, or portfolio, and produce edits of them. At the very end of the year I began creating handmade booklets to present them in. This is a more flexible and satisfying way to create and produce.

I had the intention of doing more reading and note taking this year than I did. Still, I read a number of memorable books in addition to reading articles and blogs on an almost daily basis. I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Fog and Paris, When Its Naked, both by Etel Adnan, Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan, The Lies That Bind by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors.

I ended the year with Sacred Economics which predicts the end, or at the very least, the diminishment of market-capitalism and its eventual replacement with a Sacred Economy predicated on gifts and relationship. It is the first time I have read anything that explains why the market-capitalist system needs growth (we always have more debt than production) and presents a plausible alternative and a way to get there. It has shifted my thinking about art production and distribution. I also started reading The Overstory a fictional book that ties in neatly with Sacred Economics in that it is an environmental novel about the incredible beauty and interconnection of nature and the ways in which the market-capitalist system is destroying it. I also began reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which is quoted in Sacred Economics numerous times. I am thinking the Gift will be my guide book to moving my art production into the gift economy.

A year or two ago I began to withdraw from social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Facebook and Instagram in particular became very unsatisfying places to be. That my friends will like my posts without having anything to say about most of them is dispiriting. As a result, I have made it a personal rule to never like without commenting. And, I am sorry, but I think I have had my fill of cat and dog pics for a lifetime. Like sunsets, it’s way overdone and a substitute for meaningful interaction. And so, I continued to move into alternative social media, specifically Micro.blog and Mastodon. I have also hooked up my Tumblr account to Micro.blog so everything cross posts. I terminated my Twitter account. I will keep my Facebook account because almost none of my friends have ventured into these alternatives, nor are they likely to, so it is still the best way to keep aware of what they are up to and stay in touch. I haven’t decide about my Instagram account. I barely use it anymore which is sad because I was a very early adopter of it.

As the year came to a close I managed to watch 23 Christmas movies, my thing at Christmas. And last night I made my mother-in-law a scrumptious fondue per her request. Accompanied by a bottle of Champagne. We were all in bed well before midnight, but then I haven’t stayed up for the New Year for a number of years.


I don’t do resolutions anymore. I do aspirations. Things I aspire to do, accomplish, whatever.

Artistically, I aspire to make this the year of making books of my work. Little chap books, as I like to refer to them because of their abbreviated nature and poetic intent. I have a number of themes in the cue. I also aspire to move my production and distribution of art work into the gift, or sacred economy. This is an approach in which the work is offered up as gift. To family and friends without expectation of return, to interested individuals at whatever cost works for them. In exchange, they can give me something they have made, or make a contribution of whatever amount of money it is worth to them. I will still produce limited edition prints and publications and support the limited editions I have already begun. But, I will develop art product that is not limited in edition and can be had by anyone. There is a lot of fleshing out to do with this system, but I am excited to experiment with it.

I aspire to read more this year. And take notes. And to share what I read thoughtfully. I have a lot of unread books on my Kindle. My aspiration is to have read them all by the end of the year, or read far enough into them to know I am not interested.

When I buy a hard copy of a book I aspire to pass it on to someone I think will value it and ask them to do the same when they are done. I will take notes as I need to and when I want to refer back to the book or re-read it, I will borrow it from the library.

I aspire to make greater use of the public library.

I aspire to continue to be present for my wife, family and friends. To enjoy them as much as possible and help them when they are in need of it.

I aspire to write more and share more on Micro.blog, pictures, micro posts, long form posts. I really want to deliver a set of Notes On Attention Paid.

I aspire to pay more attention to our garden, growing food, making it a nice place to be.

I aspire to do more to fix up our humble house. To honor it. To be a good steward of the property.

I aspire to work on connecting to my friends and community. To engage in gift or sacred exchange as much as possible.

I aspire to letting go of the things we own, but rarely or never use, by finding new homes for them whenever possible. We have so much clutter.

I aspire to support the artists and musicians I know personally in whatever way I can. Going to their shows. Making money contributions when I can. Buying their work when I can.

I aspire to pay off our (relatively minimal) debts and to develop a good cash flow cushion. I want to save for things I want or trips and not borrow unless it is to do major work on the house or purchase a big ticket item, like a car.

I aspire to visit my mother, sister and brother sometime this year.

I aspire to plan and execute more adventures for me, my wife and my dogs. I really want to do some camping this year. I really want to get out and see more of what’s around me. We had some success in doing that the past year. I want it to continue into the new year.