A Quick Post about Russian Interference

I just listened to an interview today with General Michael V. Hayden on the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris, who is the former director of the CIA and NSA.  It was short and very educational.  Sam Harris’ last question was about General Hayden’s view on the Russian Hacking scandal.  This is what he had to say and I thought it was worth transcribing.

“The Russians did it. It’s a high confidence judge of the American intelligence community.  They did it to affect the election.  They stole the data, and they washed the data through our friend Julian Assange and some other platforms, and then they put out an army of trolls to touch the data so that Google’s algorithms thought these were trending things so that they would come very much into our consciousness, so it’s incredible technically.  It’s called a covert influence campaign.  It’s the most successful covert influence campaign in the history of covert influence campaigns.

Now I do point out, as somebody who used to run the CIA, I can’t claim that my agency has never been involved in something like this in its history.  Covert influence campaigns do not create fractures in a society, they exploit fractures in a society and make them worse.  So I think the first teaching point after I walk away saying the Russians did this….is shame on us for giving them the opportunity…by being so fractured in our political discourse.”

I, Science

Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science.  Why should that be so?  We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march?  We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce.  I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.

Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics.  I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs.  I remember learning about the different planets.  I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning.  Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks.  I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars.  I used to capture a variety of insects in jars.  And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures.  When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this.  Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works.  How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides?  How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others?  How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand?  I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are.  And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking.  It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.

From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms.  Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it.  Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms.  My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way.  For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful.  Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun.  To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there.  My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens.  I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years.  Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer.  After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms.  Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”.  Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.

My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers.  In those days it was the library.  How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library.   She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus.  Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion.  Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.

When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic.  Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort.  School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting.  My favorite subject in high school was actually biology.  I loved learning especially about organ systems.  The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day.  So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists.  Not by profession, but just by nature.  I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life.  It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook.  It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before.  I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know.  Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness.  Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?

Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting.  It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist.  I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child.  In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix.  I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child.  I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child.  It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years.  It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.

Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have.  Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous.  Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls.  Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students.  Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding.  Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings.  Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.

These things make me sad.  I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions.  We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable.  It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense.  It helps us ethically and morally.  It helps us fight oppression and inequality.  Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture.  It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.

I see the March for Science as not just a political statement.  It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing.  Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn.  One where opinion is as valid as fact.  One where there is no consequence for lying.  I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time.  The March for Science is a march for progress.  A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.

I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job.  I say this because it is my lived experience.  I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn.  I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods.  Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence.  It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation.  It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis.  It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big.  If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy.  I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.

 

Progress and the Monsters that Hinder Us

There is an idea, or perhaps several that I’ve been struggling with for the past few years.  The election of Trump has certainly elevated my thoughts on this matter.  It started as the issue of political correctness became controversial.  There were starting to be more and more rumblings that things had gone too far.  Not just from conservative pundits who complain about every ounce of liberal criticism, but from liberals as well.  Often from satirists and comedians whose life’s work comes from criticizing conservatism and extreme right wing values.

It seems, in my own experience, I start to see more and more people on the left become abusive of the people on the right.  It doesn’t even seem like it’s because they’ve been offended first, but are being offended for other people, and thus feel justified in shaming others.  Now perhaps we have always had a group of people who have been quick to take offense, and that this age of social media has simply brought such people to the fore.  Just as social media has been quick to enhance a culture of shaming which probably already existed.  Perhaps the allure of being able to shame people anonymously and with greater volume is too great for many of us to resist.  Keep in mind,I am not just making a criticism of people on the left here. Because for all their talk about “liberal snowflakes”, if the right was just this “let it slide” group of people who just kept their nose to the grindstone, I think social media would look much different.

The idea that has been bouncing, increasingly more violently in my head, is to what degree we create the monsters we despise, and to what degree to we become them ourselves.  Many of us have listened to or read analyses by various pundits and scholars about how right wing movements are on the rise and there are some who would blame this on the left.  Part of this could be in support of neo-liberalism, but some have suggested that this is due to a more aggressive liberalism that is trying to force a certain viewpoint on others.  An example of that is written in a critique of a New York Magazine piece in Salon.   Look I don’t want to make this another self-examination piece where I am going to blame the left for the ills of today.  I am not going to let off the hook harmful ideologies on the right which have no place in civil societies either. It’s well documented that the right has used fear and misinformation to exploit people and for the most part I feel like the left is simply trying to react to increased levels of irrationality, but not necessarily in a rational way.  Politicians are of course not the only ones to use fear to persuade people.  Corporations and the media all do it as well, and so to a certain degree all of us live at a certain level of fear most who are my age or older didn’t grow up with.

I worry about universities becoming places that disinvite speakers due to social media pressure and protests from students.  Such things are certainly a function of the corporate model that universities are being run as also, but it is a concern that students would be so upset to hear what someone they disagree with has to say to actually prevent that person from speaking.  This article is from 2016 and only in the U.S. but it is happening in the UK as well.  This year we had protests turn violent at Berkeley because of professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and a twice this year a pro-police speaker, Heather MacDonald had talks canceled or dangerously disrupted and was unable to give her talk.  I believe bad ideas fester in the dark.  I would rather have bad ideas challenged in an open forum.  Allowing people to speak at universities doesn’t legitimize their claims, it tells young people that in the real world you are going to face a diversity of views and people that hold them and that you must be able to absorb them and answer them with rational and evidentiary arguments.  

Today, I listened to a podcast, and heard yet another critique of Merkel (from a liberal) for letting in so many refugees and that this is the fuel the right-wing parties need to take over many European nations and possibly lead to the collapse of the EU.  Even if Islamic terrorists acts are small in comparison to the amount of good that helps the refugees opening borders so freely is dangerous.  The overarching argument being that so much compassion leads to a blind spot, where political moderation would be more prudent for long term stability.  From a political standpoint, I find it hard to disagree perhaps, but as an individual who also recognizes the cost of not helping people who are suffering it leaves me feeling helpless.  If compassion leads to the rise of nationalism and racism, and I believe in the value of compassion as one of our most valuable human traits, then I must at least ask the question, “Is it enough if our heart is in the right place?”

Since I believe we can live in a more compassionate society, and that human society has trended towards greater compassion, I want to be able to see that movement continually.  Maybe in the long arch of history it is our fate to take two steps forward and one step back.  And these back steps may be half a human lifetime.  Furthermore, perhaps in some places things go back for longer, while other countries that were back start to move forward.  So globally we may still be moving forward, but all moving at different rates.  The fact remains, that as an individual, while I can be pleased that the average moves forward, I still am not content to let the society that I most directly live in fall back.  What can I do?  How must I behave?  And how can I promote positive behavior in others?

An important part of my journey in life was to understand the brain.  My inspiration for doing so occurred when I met with people who had diametrically different world views, and where no amount of evidence would sway them.  That journey was a great one and it gave me a greater understanding of how people come to believe the things they do.  But I still find that in the everyday things we generally want the same things, and that we are all quite similar, so I find myself wondering how common ground is to be found.  I guess, it is just who I am that I can’t give up on the idea that we are all human and that we have more reasons to work together than to work apart.  And so it is this lens that I find myself wondering, “Even if some minds can’t be changed, how do we make sure that the problem doesn’t get worse?”  It seems to me that 20 years ago, someone like Trump would have been laughed at to the point of just being a lopped off as to one of those crazy eccentrics who runs for president but nobody takes seriously.  Many of us were of that very mindset in the primaries, myself included.  But it also seems to me that the left has changed as well.  I don’t remember a group of people on the left that behaved the way we have seen either.  I don’t remember universities preventing speakers they disagreed with from speaking.  I certainly don’t remember riots over it.  I don’t remember the name calling and the shaming, and the dehumanization of people we disagree with.

It’s perhaps a chicken and the egg, but it seems like as the divide has grown such that the fringes grow too.  In my mind I see this being plausible as a normal statistical distribution morphs into a bimodal one.  Have the terrorists been winning?  Sending the west into a spiral of fear, where the existence of one extreme, requires that we oppose it with another?  Is the “alt-right” a response to an “alt-left”?  Or vice-versa? Are most of us just living in such a state of fear that we, on average, feel a greater need to be part of a certain camp, where it’s “us” against “them”?

There was an excellent little article by George Orwell I read a few months ago, that he wrote in a London newspaper on fascism.  A word we’ve seen a lot lately and reading this article made me realize how easily the word was thrown around then too.  In trying to define the word, the most common definition that he thinks people could agree with is bullying. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we can think people who fit the description of a bully, and they aren’t all on the right.  I’ve heard the political spectrum described as a horseshoe and that there is a place that the left and right meet, and that’s at fascism.  Communist Russia and Nazi Germany might have come from different political philosophies, but I think we can agree that the style of governance was very similar in its oppressiveness and cruelty.  The fact remains that no matter how right someone might be the way in which we deliver that truth matters.  If I say it is better for you to be kind.  That statement is true.  But if I, in convincing you, try to shame you, push you around, call you names, surround you with a bunch of my friends and make threats, I think the importance of kindness would be lost.  Yet this is the kind of behavior we see every day: people on both sides being jeered at and dehumanized for being wrong about something.  There are too few attempts to educated and reason.  Plenty of getting angry and ridiculing others.  I maintain the belief that rightness divorced from empathy is ultimately unhealthy, even poisonous at times.  We’ve all been wrong about things, and at times we’ve been ignorant or misinformed about some pretty basic information.  We’ve also been guilty of letting our emotion override our rationality.  This is part of being human.  So even when you believe that someone is wrong about something, even dangerously wrong, it doesn’t make them any less human.   We have easily duped and plastic brains that are subject to the influences in our lives.

As I quoted recently in a post about Sam Harris’ thoughts on Trump, we have two choices in influencing others: conversation or violence.   Is shaming and ridicule conversation?  Or is it more of a violence of the mind?  Even if we can say it is still not violence, it feels like unproductive discourse that will make violence more a necessity.  I am not a pacifists to the point of saying violence is never the answer, but I am constantly going to be looking at how we can avoid it.  Free speech, provided it is not inciting violence, is one of our most important values.  It is the one value that allows us to self-correct peacefully, and challenge ideas that cause harm.

I am not sure how this post will be perceived.  Whether it appears balanced in its criticism.  I guess, it seems to me, that fascism is growing in both political directions and that somehow they are a reaction to each other.   A reaction to fear perhaps, and as fascism grows the fear gets worse.  Can we find a way out of the positive feedback loop?  Maybe the other guy started it, but as the divide grows that origin seems to matter less than trying to figure out how to end it.  As a liberal rooted in all people enjoying basic human rights, I wonder how we defend those values while loving those who attack such values at the same time so that they know those values can improve the quality of life for all.  But one thing is sure to me, if we can’t live by the values we claim to embrace, then a progressive liberal society doesn’t seem achievable.

In the Beginning, Part IV

Woman approaches Adam with fruit in hand.  Adam is bent over next to a rock outcrop.

“Adam, I have returned.  I have something for you.”

“I have something for you too.  Check this out.  There is this creature that seems to have been preserved in this rock over here.  I don’t even know what it is.  I named every animal, and this wasn’t one of them.”

“Hmmm…that is weird.  But listen I have something more important.  Here let’s eat this fruit.”

“Oh okay.  I guess I am a bit hungry…er…wait.  Where did you get this fruit?”

Woman gives a little smirk, “Where do you think?  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

“Oh no…no.  We can’t eat this.  Our Father, He had one rule.  That’s it.  Seems pretty clear cut and not a whole lot to ask.”

“Don’t worry Adam.  A talking snake explained it all to me.  We have to eat this fruit.”

“Wait…what!?  Talking snake?  Are there any of those hallucinogenic frogs I named hopping around?  How can there be a talking snake?”

“How can you make a person out of a rib?  Listen we wondered before why He would have put the tree here, and you said He probably knew we weren’t going to touch and so He didn’t think it was important where he put it.  Well what if He put it here, because He wanted us to eat it?”

“Well why would He want us to eat it, but tell us not to eat it?”

“You said you had a lot of questions.  So do I.  Curiosity.  We have loads of it.  These questions burn within us and we want to find the answers to those questions.  That’s how He made us.”

“That’s some pretty good reasoning.  But why can’t we just ask Him and He can explain it to us.”

“Weren’t you listening Adam about making children.  Children grow into adults.  At some point children have to leave the guidance of their parents and make decisions for themselves.  Every home feels like paradise when you’re a child, but this can’t be our home forever.  We have to grow up.”  Woman does her best God impression, “Symbolism!”

Adam’s eyes narrow and his expression hardens, “Alright, let’s do it.  By doing this together we’ll be husband and wife, right?!”

“Oh shut up, and eat the fruit!”

Adam takes a fruit from woman and they both take bites.  Chewing slowly and swallowing.

“Adam, do you feel anything?”

“No nothing.  What about you?”

“I don’t feel anything either.  I thought, for some reason, that I would suddenly understand everything so much better.”

“Yeah, me too.  This is kind of disappointing.”

“You don’t think he just put the tree there as a test to see if we would obey him, and that the tree had no special powers at all do you?”

“No.  That would be kind of cruel.  God wouldn’t do something like that.” The fossil Adam was holding slips out of his hand making a cracking noise as it hits the ground.

The winds begin to shift northerly and pick up speed.

“It’s getting a bit colder Adam.”

“Yeah, well I have noticed the daylight hours gradually getting shorter, so I expect weather patterns will start shift, but also you seem to be naked.”

“What!?  I’m naked?!  Clearly you’re the world’s first crack detective too.  No shit I’m naked.  So are you!”

“Ack…you’re right…I am naked too.  I guess I knew that…but I don’t think I want to be naked anymore.  It doesn’t feel right.  How do we get less naked?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we should cover up our…um…naughty areas.  I don’t feel like we should just be exposing them for everyone to see.”

“Who’s everyone?  We are the only two people on this planet.”

“I don’t know, let’s just cover up.  I’m going to go find some big leaves.  Maybe from that fig tree over there.”

        Fig leaf only legal as clothing in 12 states.     Warning: Do not check wristwatch while     hiding your nakedness.

“Fig tree?  What’s a fig tree?”

“That tree over there.  You got the animals…I decided I’m naming the plants. Let’s go.”

Woman and Adam walk over to the fig tree to find some suitable leaves.

“Adam, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now…like I need a big leaf to cover my behind, and I feel upset that the leaf   has to be so big.”

“I feel shame too.  Like I need a big leaf to compensate for what seems to be a sub-par dangling appendage.”

“So thus far eating that fruit has only led to feelings of shame associated with a negative self-image.   I don’t know about you, but I’m also feeling regret.”

“Yeah me too.  Being an adult sucks.  I don’t even know who I want to impress.  My motivations are so unclear to me right now, I….wait…do you hear something?”

Woman and Adam stop what they are doing and they hear the sound of rustling leaves and the voice of God humming a merry tune.

Adam whispers, “He’s here!  How come he doesn’t know we already broke the rule?”

“I don’t know.  Inflated sense of self-confidence?”

“Let’s hide!”

“Hide?  What good is that going to do if He’s omniscient?  He’ll know where we are.”

“Just do it! Quick over here among those trees!”

God stops in His tracks and tilts his head listening.

“Adam.  Is that you?  Where are you Adam?”

Adam whispers to woman, “See, told you hiding was a good idea!”

Adam!  I have divine hearing.  I know you’re in the garden somewhere.”

Woman whispers to Adam, “He placed us in the garden, and He knows we’re in the garden somewhere?  I see where you got your detective skills from.”

“I think I should answer Him.  He’ll find us eventually.”

“Fine…but he should have found us immediately as an omniscient creator.”

Adam steps out from behind the trees.  “Oh hey, God. We’re over here.”

Aaah…Adam.  Woman.  How are things been going?  Getting along?  Make any babies yet? Um…wait…why are you holding fig leaves over your naughty areas?

“Well…er…we weren’t sure who it was in the garden and well we were naked and so we hid.  You know…I didn’t want anybody pointing and laughing at me.” Adam blushes.

“Wait!  Who told you, you were naked?  Those are precisely the lust-filled concepts I didn’t want floating around your heads!”  God’s eyes glance towards the Tree of Knowledge. “Have you been eating from the Tree of Knowledge?!  There are two less fruits there than there should be.  I am very good at counting.  The book I’m writing right now even has a chapter called Numbers.  Out with it children.  No lies!”

“Well Father, I was just taking a look, and well this snake came along and really explained it all quite clearly and you know, it just seemed to make sense.”

“Snake?!  I think I know the culprit.  Hold on.”  God vanishes in a puff of awesomeness and returns holding the snake with its stubby little legs waving in the air.

“Alright everyone.  It’s punishment time!”

Adam asks, “Why do You look so gleeful Father?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never done it before.  New experiences are hard to come by.  Okay now….snake!  You have deceived my creation and for that I am removing your legs and forcing you to crawl on your belly!!”

      Picture of snake eating dust not available.

Snake begins to slither around rather impressively climbing up and down trees and curling around woman’s legs.

“I rather like this…”

“What!?

“I mean punish me no further!”

“Yes…well I curse you to eat dust!”

“Well that would actually make my work easier since dust is everywhere, but I still feel rather hungry for small rodents.”

“And you will now be enemies with mankind.  You will bite at their heel and they will stomp you on the ground!”

Snake slithers up woman and speaks in her ear, “Well we’ll just stay out of each other’s way then yeah?  Seems simple enough?”

Woman responds, “Sounds reasonable to me.”

“Quiet woman!”

“Excuse me.  Woman’s voice will not be silenced.”

“It will.  To punish you for what you’ve done, giving birth will now be of the greatest pain!  And pitocin will not be invented for many years to come!”

“What?!  You want me to populate the human species but are making giving birth the most painful experience in my life.  You’re a sadist you are.  Whatever happened to forgiveness?  Isn’t that a better way to treat your children?”

God thinks about it for a few seconds….”Nope.  Also, I’m not done.  I’m also turning the civilization into a patriarchy.  I wanted everything to be equal, but because of what you’ve done I am making women beholden to their men.”

“What?! Are you kidding me?”  Woman gives an exasperate look and turns red with anger. “Well considering you made me a nameless helper for Adam over there, it probably wasn’t going to get much better anyway.”

Adam woman turns and says with a comforting smile, “I promise to use my power over you responsibly.” Woman gives him a dirty look, killing the grin instantly.

“Adam!  Don’t think I am done! You also ate the fruit against my command.  I curse you to become a farmer.  You will till the earth and eat from it.  It will be hard work and much that grows will have thorns and thistle requiring you to wear thick clothing so that you get very hot and sweaty while you work.  Your diet will mostly be vegetarian in nature due to it providing the maximum amount of calories and nutrition per square foot, and you will eat until you die returning to the earth enriching it with organic material for new plants to grow and continuing a never ending cycle of death and life.”

“Actually that doesn’t sound too bad.  Makes you really appreciate each moment and strive for a better life while you have it.”

“Yeah Adam, I like this part.”

Adam turns to woman and smiles. “I shall name you Eve as you will be mother of all.  And though large amounts of toil and incest lie before us, we’re going to make it.”

“So finally I get a name.  Not bad actually.  But I reserve the right to come up with one of my own if I find something better!”

Adam capitulates, “Fair enough.”

“I just want you to know children that this hurt me more than it hurts you.  I really didn’t want to do all of that, but you forced me hand.”

“Stop victim blaming,” responds Eve, “well…what next?”

“I am sending you out from paradise and you will be cut off from the Tree of Life forever.  But before you do that I am going kill a few animals and make you some clothing.  It’s cold out there East of Eden and I don’t want you to get sick.  Besides people will start dropping like flies once you domesticate large mammals.”

Adam and Even watch incredulously as God slaughters a few animals and skins them. Using a little bit of omnipotence to speed the tanning process.”

There you go, and I put in an extra set so you have something to wear while washing the first set. Now here’s a pack of seeds to start off with as well.  They’re all labeled.  I put them in this little pouch I made from that dead deer over there.”

God snaps His fingers and they are magically transported next to a large river.  “Well good luck.  I’ll make a few appearances again just to make sure everybody is aware of my awesomeness.  Byeeee!”

“Well Eve, I guess we got some seeds to sow.”

“Yeah.”  Eve looks around.  “We’ll probably need something to dig with, let’s see if we can find some tools of some sort over by those trees.”

Adam starts to remove his clothing.  “Those weren’t the seeds I was talking about.”

In The Beginning, Part III

A very angry woman watches as God vanishes, and turns her attention to the only remaining person in the garden.

“Alright.  You look like you want to say something, but given the uniqueness of your existence I’d recommend against it.  Do you have something to say?”

Adam shakes his head.

“Good.  You’re off to a good start.  Alright first of all, where are we and who the hell are you?”

“Well this is the Garden of Eden.  It’s my…er our Father’s….paradise for us.  And I’m Adam.”

“First of all a father who just creates you to be somebody’s helper, and then spends the first 10 minutes of her life making her bits twinkle and showing somebody how to get up all in her business and squirt baby making fluids in her, has questionable parenting skills.  Secondly, why do you get a name, and I don’t.

“I’m not really sure.  I don’t get told a lot.  All I can tell you is, I’m a man, which I was told, means from the Earth since I’m made from dirt, and you are woman, meaning from man.”

“Wait, my designation means I am from man, but yet I am the one who will be giving birth to all sorts of future men?  That’s rich.  And what was all this when I arrived,” woman makes talking motions with bother her hands, “two boys talking it over and deciding what’s going to happen my body?  Talking it over as if I wasn’t even there?  Is this what I can expect in the future?”

“No no…of course not.  I am sure you’ll be part of the whole decision making process.  I mean we’re man and woman, we go together, none more important than the other.”

Woman’s expression softens momentarily.  “Wait a second, are you telling me I have to be your mate?  That we are going to be doing all that baby making He was talking about?  I don’t even know you.”

“Yeah, but somebody has got to make people. And look, look at this thing down here, it’s sticking straight out at you.  I think that’s how it works, it sort of points to who you are supposed to mate with.”

“Well don’t point it at me.  Given that it started pointing about 2 seconds after you saw me, I don’t think it bases any of its decisions by divining the inner working of my soul or through some appreciation of my intellect.”

“But I really feel like…you know…what he was talking about…insert slot A into tab B?  He said it would be a lot of fun.”  Adam moves in close for an embrace.

Pushing him away, “Ugh…stop it.  What are you doing?”

“I’m doing what feels natural in paradise!”

Woman smacks Adam on the side of the head “Well so am I.  As quaint as it is that our mutual Father wants us to get it on, as it stands, I wouldn’t mate with you if you were the last man on Earth.”

“But I’m the first man on Earth, and there isn’t anybody else around.”

Woman looks around exasperated, “I’ll admit my options or few.  But this child birth and raising stuff sounds like a fair amount of work.  I need to know whether we can work together as a team.  And that means talking to each other.  Getting to know each other, and really talking about whether a relationship between us has a future.”

Adam’s tool for baby making goes limp.  “Hmm…weird.”  Adam looks down. “I suddenly feel like I can talk about other things.  You know what? You’re right.  There is no rush.  It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful setting, and we have the Tree of Life nearby, we have forever, perhaps literally to make babies.”

“Tree of Life?  What are you talking about?”

“Oh…oh…yeah I guess I should tell you.  Well you know He hasn’t given me a lot of details on this Tree of Life.  He mentioned something about being the greatest creation and being forever in paradise, so I assume the tree has something to do with that.”

“Well having children for the rest of eternity doesn’t sound fun, but I imagine just walking around in a garden could get old as well.  Anything else?”

“Yeah.  Something important actually. That tree over there.  It’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We are forbidden to eat from it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.  Our Father created all of this.  He’s pretty powerful and knowledgeable, I figure it’s best to listen to Him.”

“Yet you had to spend the first few weeks of your life in what sounds like a taxonomical nightmare?”

“Well it was a learning experience.  I mean I imagine when you create a universe there is always some bookkeeping at the start.  Either way, He was pretty clear about not eating from that tree.”

“So you’re telling me that we are an omniscient and omnipotent being’s greatest creation, and he has placed us in paradise, but puts a tree full of rather delicious looking fruit in the middle of our paradise and we’re just expected to walk around it or something?  I mean why have the tree here if we’re not allowed to partake of it?”

“These are fair questions?  Well He’s omniscient so He knows we’re going to listen to Him, so He figured it doesn’t matter where He puts it.”

“Maybe, but it seems like poor planning overall.  I mean I have a pretty strong curiosity, don’t you?”

“Yeah.  I think I do too.  I’ll even admit that there were times when I was enjoying seeing all the different animals.  I really wanted to learn more about them, not just name them.  To be honest, I’ve got a million questions about everything.”

“Me too.  And I feel especially curious about things I’m told not to touch.”  Woman starts walking towards the tree and Adam grabs her by the shoulder.  She turns “Don’t touch me!  You need to learn about consent Adam.  Don’t be like Father.”

“Sorry…er…I was just trying to stop you from going to the tree.  I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry.  I’ll be a good girl and I won’t eat from it, but we can go look at it right?”

“I guess.  I just…well…if we aren’t suppose to eat from it, I figure it’s best not to get close.”

“Stop being so fearful.  This is paradise.  Like you said, I am sure he knows everything will be fine or he wouldn’t have put it here.  I’ll go off by myself if you’re too frightened.”

Woman walks towards the tree, entranced by the ripe fruit dangling in the sunlight.  As she gets close she feels some apprehension creep into her.  Maybe Adam was right.  She sits down, and leans back against a smooth rock which in no way was created by millions of year of erosion, and stares at the tree.

     Photograph of snake with legs unavailable.

“It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?”

Woman looks around for a voice she’s never heard before.

“Over here.  I’m waving my tail.  Do you see it?”

Woman looks to her right and sees a black and green scaly animal on stump legs, plodding towards her, wagging its long pointed tail.

“I kind of got the impression that we were the only beings with consciousness in this garden.  Who or what are you?”

“Well, some might say I’m the anthropomorphized representation of evil, but since you don’t know what evil is yet, just call me what your boyfriend so brilliantly named me, snake.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.  And he didn’t say the animals can talk.”

Well, let’s be honest, he isn’t exactly the brains of the operation.  Although I must admit you and he, well that’s some fine handiwork by God.  We aren’t on the best of terms, but the Guy really knows how to fill His day.   But, to give Adam some credit, strictly speaking, animals don’t talk.  The one you’re talking with right now, however, does.  If you can believe you were made from a rib, my talking is small potatoes.  Let me get over there, we need to have some words.”

“You do move rather slowly…your legs are very short.”

“Yeah.  Well, in time, you’ll see God has a strange sense humor.  I came from the east. I ‘ve been walking here for a month pretty much non-stop.”

“What’s east?”

“Well, it’s pretty much just like here.  But it changes more.  Things live, things die, things fight to survive, but you keep busy.  Never a dull moment they say.  As to who they are, I can’t say, but for some reason I love clichés, idioms, metaphors.  Language is so colorful.”

“No I literally mean what is east?”

“Oh…well it’s the opposite of west.” The snake sidles up to her and rests on the grass near her and they look at the tree together. “Look at that tree?

“Yeah.  I just keep wondering why He would put it here.  And what can be so bad about eating the fruit.”

“Well this isn’t your average fruit.  It’s definitely special. As to why He put it here, I’ve been wondering the same thing myself.  But, I, for one, am glad He did.  You know why?”

Woman shakes her head slowly.

“Because this tree is everything.  I’ve been trying to figure out God since I was made.  Sometimes when he’s on a roll, creating, I truly think he figures a lot of stuff out without even realizing it.  The thing is, putting this tree here was the best idea ever and intentional.”

“But we are forbidden to eat it.  He told Adam.”

“Yep.  And you’re going to be punished too.  But here’s the thing: you are what you are.  He made you curious.  You want to know how things work.  There is no knowledge that you want to be barred from, so you are going to have a bite of the fruit from this tree, and so is Adam over there.  It’s inevitable.  Might as well get it over with and leave paradise behind.  All good things must come to an end.”

“But isn’t paradise a good thing?”

“You still don’t get it.  He doesn’t really want you to have paradise.  Otherwise he wouldn’t have made you curious and put the tree, he says he doesn’t want you to eat from, smack in the middle of paradise.  I mean who does that?  It’s like putting a cookie in front a child and saying ‘Don’t eat that!’  Sorry I forgot you don’t know how children behave yet, but you will.  Oh and you’ll like cookies too.”

“What will happen to us?”

“Not sure exactly.  You’ll probably be kicked out of paradise, but you’ll at least have the skills to try and build your own paradise.  One that you’ll actually have to strive for, and thus appreciate the effort it takes.  God, well He’s sort of the definition of privileged.  He never had to work for it.  You might think you’re better off that way, but believe me you’re not.  The only thing that matches God’s ability is His narcissism.  It’s not good to just have it all, with no idea how you obtained it.”

“That does kind of explains the lack of nurturing qualities in our Father.  But what about Adam?  Do you think he’ll eat it?  He seems pretty big on the whole obedience thing.”

“He’s just like you, don’t worry about it.  He would have eventually wandered over here himself.  Now go grab a couple of pieces fruit and have yourself a snack.  Destiny awaits you!  Ooh it appears I flair for the dramatic as well!  Alright, time to make the slow journey back to my home.  This design is ridiculous….”

The snake waddles away muttering under his breath at his poor constructed body.  Woman walks to the tree and grabs a couple of pieces of fruit.  “Hmmm…I thought they would feel magical, but seem kind of ordinary.  She shrugs her shoulders and walks back to Adam.

Listening to the Blues

The current election has shifted a lot of attention away from the issue of police violence, but in searching through some of Sam Harris’ podcasts I found an episode that I found to be very very engaging.  If you want to get the perspective from a well-educated, well-trained police officer (Scott Reitz). I highly recommend listening to this podcast (Episode 25 of Waking up with Sam Harris). I felt it was important to hear this side of things.  I am a big supporter of the black lives matter movement as well, and my goal here isn’t to delegitimatize what is a very legitimate movement, but if we are also in the business of solving problems we need to hear from police officers, and we need to understand what problems they see.

Most people I know are even-minded about the issue.  They know most cops are good people.  They recognize that police are an important part of our society, and they don’t want to see police die.  They also know that there are bad cops, and there are systematic problems with the justice system that need to be addressed.

He raised a number of I think important issues about cops that I found very information.  For instance he said that the difference between the minimum proficiency requirement that cops need to have, and what a good cop needs to have are far apart.  But there is no training you can take for better shooting skills, or better hand to hand combat skills, unless you do it on your own time and own money.  He talked about why cops often fire so many shots at a target.  It’s simply because the hit rate is only at like 13%.  They are trained to take many shots at a subject.  There have been also many changes on how police do their job that have made it harder.  The choke hold for instance which killed Eric Garner, was outlawed, and perhaps for good reason given how it might have impacted somebody with certain health issues.  Garner being no exception.  However, what Mr. Reitz said was that the removal of a cops ability to use this method, took away a main method of incapacitation often used previously.  He also talked about how often tasers and other incapacitation method’s fail.  It was mentioned how recruitment standards have fallen greatly in who they accept.  When he first became an officer in the 70’s he said it was typical for police officers to have university degrees.  This is no longer the case, so standards are being lowered in terms of who they accept.   He was also agreeable to the idea that there are just a lot of cops who shouldn’t be cops.

There were a couple of places I disagreed with Mr. Reitz in the podcast and I wanted to discuss in a little more detail.  At around the 50 minute mark they discuss the topic of “back talk to officers, disrespect, how you should deal with illegal actions by a police officer”.  Mr. Reitz’s advice is that you don’t know the kind of day or week an officer has had.  They see the darker side of society, they often work long hours, and starting off your conversation with a police officer in a combative way, even verbally is a recipe for escalating the situation.  I am not sure that I necessarily disagree with this advice.  But what I started thinking was the following:

  • Nobody likes being treated like a criminal if they’ve done nothing wrong.  Nobody likes having their rights violated even if they have.  Nobody deserves to be shot just for a traffic violation.  I guess in the end, it’s not a reasonable excuse to me that the cop is overworked, or that he’s had a bad week or day that I am somehow asking for abuse by not being as passive and compliant as possible.  That’s victim blaming, and I can agree that to some degree cops are also victims of a system that isn’t giving them the training or the workload to reduce their stress levels.
  • Following from that, why is it not on the cop to think that maybe this person is also having a bad day or week? We are usually not going to be in the best of moods when we are pulled over, but if this is just a small bad incident in a line of bigger ones our attitude may not be great either.  Isn’t possible that a black person might just have felt racially profiled one too many times in his or her life, that they are in a bad mood?  When two people who are having a bad day meet. Right and wrong still matter.  The cop has as much responsibility to act right as the person does.  I think that, and Mr. Reitz seems to argue this at times, is that we are probably better off recognizing the reality that cops face, and that most of them aren’t particularly well-trained, and don’t necessarily have a lot of experience.  Sometimes you do have to be smart over being right.
  • Finally and most importantly, the idea that an officers wrong actions can be rectified after the fact, is not necessarily a guarantee. This is a big part of the frustration expressed by the Black Lives Matters movement.  The wrong actions of the cop, are supported by other cops, and are supported by judges.  In many criminal cases people can’t afford lawyers and they are often bullied into accepting a plea bargain by an overworked public defender and prosecution.  So there is frustration here by many.  They’ve seen what has happened to people they know, especially those with less financial means, and for many, even though they may be putting their very lives in danger by standing up to a cop, don’t have faith in the rest of the system to protect them.  I think we have to recognize this reality as well.

Another area they talked about was gun control.  Sam Harris I think tried to get him out of the practical side of things and just look more at ethics, but I suspect Mr. Reitz is extremely pragmatic, because I think you have to be in his line of work.  As I’ve argued before I think that the love of guns here is something that you have to accept to be in the U.S., but that we can try to fight for a society where we don’t them as much.  Anyway, Mr. Reitz supports the ownership of guns for home protection, but is less than enthusiastic about open carry or conceal carry.  I would expect most cops feel the same way.  In regards to personal protection, I can’t argue in some ways with the idea that a gun is an equalizer.  There are very bad people out there, and they are far meaner and stronger, and having that gun, just in case, is a practical solution to the problem.  Mr. Reitz seemed to take it as a given, however, that those of us in positions where we might be worried about the worst, would still see owning a gun as the only solution.  I know many people who have been victims of crimes, but not all of them seek guns after.  When you come from a place with very few guns, or where it’s more difficult to get one, even when bad situations do happen, guns aren’t the first thing we think of to be safe.  I think that it’s a very American attitude to think that a gun is the only solution.  And the type of violent crime of a complete stranger coming into your home to do unspeakable things to you and your family, while possible, is rare compared to people being victims of homicide or rape by people they know.  I guess it raises the ethical question of: How far do we go to let people feel safe, knowing that a very small percentage of those people would actually be victims in a situation they could have stopped with gun and knowing that the large amount of guns it keeps in society makes more gun violence possible?

I found Mr. Reitz to be quite reasonable and well-informed overall.  He believes that guns should be in lockers and only for hunting or home protection.  Because he also accepts the reality that few people are likely to get the training they need to be able to use a firearm well, and to have practiced shooting targets, and to store and care for it properly.

In the end it was nice to listen to a conversation that was substantive in which the right things were being discussed.  So often on this very important issue we don’t get to have this conversation, because it immediately turns into things like “Cops are heroes!” or “Banning all guns is against the second amendment!”  Imagine if we could always have such thoughtful conversations, we might be able to solve problems that might meet the concerns of both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

In the end I really appreciated Mr. Reitz’ perspective.  I imagine it is generally impossible not to be impacted when your entire career has been dealing with hard cases and the worst of people, even if it’s just a small percentage of the population.  It’s great that he has remained even-minded and thoughtful about his own job.  I really can’t imagine how stressful it is.  In a way we have perhaps made strides in more sensible policing from a policy point of view, but I think when you want to put more public safety and compassion into policing (which is the right thing) that does impact its structure, and what type of resources we have to put in.  To make it work we have to support better training, better mental health support, higher qualifications.  An acquaintance of mine here, when I talked about the attack on public education, said it’s not much better for the police either.  Nobody wants to pay taxes, nobody wants to support the institutions that make for a better society.  Mr. Reitz summed up his thoughts on policing today by the following quote:

“Most police officers out there feel overwhelmed with the demands on them…[we’re saying to them] ‘I want you to hazard your life, but I want you to be really careful in defending yourself’….it’s hard”.

If you have time give the whole thing a listen.  If not, keep trying to have good conversations about this, because it is important.

In the Beginning, Part II

Voice of God whispers in Adam’s ear.

“Wake up Adam, wake up.  God has a surprise for you!”

Adam groggy from the divine anesthetic, “What?  What’s going on?”

Well all those animals seemed to be rather interested in their own affairs, and quite frankly, with the exception of may be the…” consults stone tablets written by Adam…”the chimpanzee and the…er…dog,” God ponders for a moment wondering what God spelled backwards is,”really didn’t seem like a great helper worthy of the impeccable qualities imparted to you by your creator.” God gives an imaginary tip of the hat, “So here you are….yooooooouuuur helper!!!”  God had a little light shine down from above in a rather showmanshippy sort of way.

Adam is a bit stunned, and upon seeing the first naked person of the opposite sex, he learns a little bit about a previous dangly body part.  Fortunately, shame hasn’t entered into the picture.

“Name her Adam, name her as you did the animals!”

The newly created being seems to demonstrate a mixture of frustration, and fear.

“Um…okay…but er, can you tell me why my abdomen is hurting?”

“Oh that’s just a little leftover pain from the rib I took out of you.  Let me take care of that.”  God sends a warm glow of light towards Adam and after it passes into his abdomen, the pain is gone. “Do you like that effect? I’m working on how best to impress people with my awesome powers.”

“Yeah.  Impressive.  Listen before I name this helper over here.”  Points to helper, helper has an I’ll give you a piece of my mind look, “I’m a bit concerned that you’re taking body parts of mine to make new people.  Why didn’t you just create this person from the dirt like me?”

“Symbolism!”

“What?  What does that mean?!”

“I want you two to have a special connection.  A piece of you, to make her.”

“But why a rib?”

“Because you have lots!  Well 12 pairs.  It varies a bit.”

“But I think I’m having trouble breathing.  You might have nicked my diaphragm”

“Nope you’re fine.

“How many more people are you going to make like this? I assume all my parts aren’t expendable.”

“Nope this is the only one I’m making from a body part.  She’s special. I wanted her to share your genetic code.  Symbolism!!”

“Yes, well I still don’t quite get that.  So anyway, how are we going to make more people?”

“You are going to love it, and so is she!  You see that bit down there that stood at attention like a worshipper obeying his Lord God?  Well you are going to put that thing inside of her?”

God points to the nether regions of the newly created being and a little light begins to glow like a little star.  The new being looks a bit stunned and frightened.

“Is there some sort of hole there?  I don’t really see anything.”

“Of course there is…it’s um…well…don’t worry, when the time comes you’ll figure it out.  Insert tab A into slot B.  Pretty straightforward.”

“And that act just makes more people like us?  Do they pop out from behind bushes or something?”

“No no, it’s much more fascinating than that.  See you have this fluid inside of you and when you put your bit there, into her bit there,” more starlight twinkling on the requisite body parts, “it’s going to feel great.  Then you are going to reach this amazing moment, say my name a lot, and in the height of ecstasy expel this fluid into her.  There are these little swimming things in your fluid you see, and they are going swim and find this egg in her, fertilize it, and about 9 lunar months later, you are going to have this tiny baby pop out.”

Newly created being looks horrified.

“Does she also reach the height of ecstasy at the same time, because that would be pretty awesome?!”

“Um…well no.  I mean she could, but really she’s quite complicated, and you know as long as your…er…fluid gets in there.  You get to have a baby! Or well she does technically.”

And so what is this baby thing?”

“Well it’s like you, but at a very early stage of development, so it has to learn and grow up into you…or…er…her over there.”

“So does this baby talk or anything?”

“Not at first. It learns to talk!”  Good looks quite impressed with himself.

“Okay, but it’s able to like go around the garden and feed itself though right?”

“Well no.  It can’t really walk at first.  Or grasp anything.  Can’t really see more than 3 inches in front of its face, and it will take a good month or two before its eyes can follow objects around. Oh also it can’t chew, owing to not having any teeth. It will be quite a few years before it can really fend for itself reliably.”

“That’s horrible! Well what I’m supposed do with it?!  How do I feed it!?”

“Well see those two lumpy bits on her chest?” God makes her nipples begin to twinkle.

“Yeah I quite like those.” Adam gives the newly created being a toothy grin.

“Well when the baby is born, they produce milk and she just gets the baby to latch on to the nipples and, pardon the expression, those babies can suck like a demon.”

Both Adam and the newly created being look at the breasts with a completely disgusted look on their face.

“Oh stop it you two…it’s a beautiful experience, just you wait.”

“Alright, so what we can make a baby any time I put my thing into her?”

“Um…sure.  Don’t worry about the details yet.”

“And so this thing, it like grows in some sort of a pouch or something?”

“Yeah…I guess. Sort of.” God points to the abdomen of the newly created being and makes an nice red glowy area. “You see it’s going to grow right around here and her belly is going to get bigger and bigger.  Inside her is something called a womb, where the baby develops.”

“And so it grows until what? It just sort pops out of her?”

“Nope…it just sluices out her, easy-peasy.  In the same place where you put your thing in to make it.  That’s efficiency!”

“So 9 months of gestation and several years of basic doing every little thing for this thing is more efficient than just popping new people out of the dirt?”

“Adam! It’s a miracle!”, rebukes God.

“Sorry Father.  Okay, well…this all sounds like a lot of responsibility.  Maybe we should get to know each other a bit better first.”

“Alright, alright, well listen, you need to name her.”

“Hmmm…well she’s made from me, and I’m a man.  But she’s got a womb.  So wombman?  No, I don’t really like the phonetics there.  How about woman?”

God rolls his eyes, “That’s the type of naming creativity usually attributed to me.  Okay, well I guess let’s go with it.  But I still think you are missing out on the whole symbolism part here, but in any case, now that you have woman, you may leave your father and unite with her as one.  That’s what I was getting at here.  Wish you were a little brighter, but I guess subtlety is learned.”

“Okay, well this all great Father, but does she talk, she really hasn’t said anything thus far.”

“Well I created her to be a helper, I didn’t think she needed to talk.  She just needs to do what you tell her to.”

Woman looks back at God incredulous.

“Don’t get me wrong Father, I appreciate the thought, but you’ve given me the ability to choose, I think she should have it too.”

“Are you sure? Because you know life is pretty confusing as it is?”

“I’m sure Father, and give her a voice too.”

“Okay, but listen as soon as I give her free will and a voice, I’m going to hit the road.  I know anger. I’ve been in some pretty good rages myself, and she looks like she’s about to burst.  I prefer to think of this garden as a peaceful place, so I’m going to shape some glaciers or something.  I’ll check back with you later.”

God creates a little ball of light that travels quickly towards woman and as soon as it hits her it envelops her body.  Then with fire in her eyes she looks at Adam and then over to God and starts walking over to God.

“Explain the rules to her Adam.  Byeeeee!” and quickly vanishes.

Woman has arrived.