Monday, April 18, 2016

Standards for Civilization

No supernatural beings decreed the rules of human conduct; the evolutionary survivors learned them from their survival experiences and passed them on through social encoding and likely via genetics as well. The shaman recovering from starvation hallucinations may have proclaimed that the tribal gods decreed that murder was wrong long before any scribe chiseled “Thou Shall Not Murder” onto any tablets. Losing a productive member of your extended family meant that there was less labor available for hunting or digging up roots or fighting off competing tribes. Likewise, killing angered the relatives of the deceased, which often lead to more killing. Even if fratricide was contained, it would negatively impact the cohesion and cooperation necessary for the survival of the group and, by extension, endangered every individual. Social behavior requires regulation in order for extended groups to survive. Human regulation requires agreement on social principles even if there is no one immediately available and strong enough to enforce them.

The popular stereotype for these rules is of course “The Ten Commandments” of Abrahamic lore, although the historically inclined may reference the Code of Hammurabi from around 1754 BC. Different societies have different formats and rules (in fact, there are several variations in statement of the Ten Commandments among the Abrahamics), often including local prejudices presented as “universal,” i.e., “deity-ordained” rules. Regardless, most of them contain some common elements regarding murder, familial roles, and property. (The religious edicts of course include how people are expected to demonstrate their fealty to the preferred supernatural personality who is presented as the Ultimate Enforcer.)

Secular society does not (officially) worship at the altar of any specific god and develops its own laws through debate, negotiation, and legislation addressing social needs – and preferred prejudices. History tells us that societies with their rules and prejudices all too often come into conflict with the agendas of other groups, and then there is conflict until there is a winner or a compromise. Too often that involves significant suffering, and this appears to clash with what appears to be another innate trait called “the Theory of Mind,”  the supposition that ‘another person who looks similar to me may feel and act as I do.’ If I can feel hunger, so can they. If this would cause me pain, it may cause them pain. Therefrom arises the philosophical admonition of The Golden Rule, “Do not do to another that which you would not have done to you.”

Societies who violate these precepts are often considered Primitive or Barbaric. Certainly the terrorism arising from the current actions of militant Jihad is identified as such, but it should be noted that even “civilized societies” behave contrary to their purported ideals in both aggressive ways (the firebombing of Dresden) as well as in a more “passive” manner (disposing of toxic First-world waste in powerless Third-world countries).

If we wish to be critical about the failures of societies – and I think that we should -- and attempt to advance civilization (which is not synonymous with “technology”), we need to examine what standards we do so by. Many people have tried to re-write the Ten Commandments, but I think that is a stifling effort. “Commandment” also suggests Imposition From Above, and is contrary to the idea that we need entirely human internalized rules of behavioral conduct that we can apply on a variety of human levels, from an interpersonal exchange, in one’s community and institutional relationships, and on to International concerns. I think the term “Standard” is more appropriate as a measure of how successfully or not these concepts are met. Following are my personal meditations on what are at least the minimal standards that result in healthy and productive societies that endure beyond the edge of mere survival if not advancing toward higher concepts that benefit not only the societies as a whole, but the maximum number of individuals that comprise them. I have tried to write them down as general principles instead of agonizing over minutia noting “except in this case, or under those particular circumstances.” That, I think, is the role of legislative law.

Your thoughts regarding additions and revisions are welcome.

- No person or group of people may own another person or group of people and force them into involuntary servitude

-All reasonable efforts will be made to avoid killing other people except in actual self-defense.

-No one should be subject to abuse, mistreatment, or unnecessary pain for the satisfaction of another, and lessening pain and injustice serves to advance a healthy society.

-No one may be denied access to the basic resources necessary to sustain their lives.

-Religious or philosophical beliefs will not be imposed on people of other beliefs in a civilized society.

-The local and planetary environments will be maintained in a manner that will insure the
maximal health of all life and to provide sufficient resources for successive generations.

-All children are entitled to education and training to enable them to accurately record events and experiences, effectively communicate them, and develop the skills that will give them the opportunity to sustain and reasonably advance themselves, their families, and their societies.

-All capable individuals and their congregate enterprises must contribute a negotiated portion of their productivity toward the development, maintenance, and expansion of civilization's infrastructure.

- Mutually agreed-upon rules of conduct will serve as the formal basis of dispute resolution.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Truth in Advertising


The Eyes Have It

Last November 5th I made the most  harrowing drive of my life, three hours to and then back from Hartford at night after a light rain on a four-lane highway heavily utilized by tractor trailers. It was then that I fully realized just how bad my vision had become as I drove through a visual chaos worthy of the “trip” sequence in “2001: a Space Odyssey.” My hands were more than just a little sweaty and I had cramps in them the next day from my death-grip on the steering wheel.

As do so many people of Age, I had developed cataracts. The biojelly lenses in my eyes had accumulated pigmentation and biological junk that reduced the light trying to reach my retina. The world had become darker, light sources generated distracting halos, and the minor details of everyday life such as facial features and printed text were becoming indistinct even with my “Coke-bottle” glasses. It was time to turn to the miracles of biotechnology.

Uncomfortably, this involves cutting opening your eye with sharp pointy instruments. However, I had numerous testimonies from family and friends as to how miraculous the procedure was and how significantly it had benefited their sensory lives. My ophthalmological surgeon told me that she could not promise that I would not need glasses other than reading lenses, but if I did it would be a light prescription. She also said that while I could be rendered unconscious for the procedure, anything other than local numbing of the eye was not really necessary for the operation which would only take about twenty minutes. The risks were described as extremely low.

As a curious fellow, I watched a video of the operation on Youtube that was vaguely disturbing but then all surgery is a nasty business from a non-technical perspective. The procedure shown did last for twenty minutes. Time to bite the bullet.

Typically when bilateral ocular surgery is to be performed each eye is done several weeks apart, but the surgeon wanted to do my procedures one week apart to avoid perceptual/cognitive conflict. I went under the knife for the first one yesterday. In truth, it was no worse than sitting for a dental extraction except for the incessant eye drops for several days before, a dozen in the hours just prior, and on-going for several weeks following the operation. I am no damn good putting drops into my own eyes! Plus, the drops just before the surgery to numb my eyes and dilate the pupils stung. Following is the sequence in the cataract-removal procedure:
  • Anaesthetic - The eye is numbed with either a subtenon injection around the eye or using simple eye drops.
  • Corneal incision - Two cuts are made through the clear cornea to allow insertion of instruments into the eye.
  • Capsulorhexis - A needle or small pair of forceps is used to create a circular hole in the capsule in which the lens sits.
  • Phacoemulsification - A handheld probe is used to break up and emulsify the lens into liquid using the energy of ultrasound waves. The resulting 'emulsion' is sucked away.
  • Irrigation and aspiration - The cortex, which is the soft outer layer of the cataract, is aspirated or sucked away. Fluid removed is continually replaced with a saline solution to prevent collapse of the structure of the anterior chamber (the front part of the eye).
  • Lens insertion - A plastic, foldable lens is inserted into the capsular bag that formerly contained the natural lens. Some surgeons also inject an antibiotic into the eye to reduce the risk of infection. The final step is to inject salt water into the corneal wounds to cause the area to swell and seal the incision.
A shield that looked like part of the costume of a Bug-Eyed Monster was placed over my eye for the ride home. I could then take it off then wear it again for my first night’s sleep. The nurse said that I would probably notice a general increase in brightness and enhancement of colors. Oh, how I do love truth in advertising! Although my vision will be blurry for several days, the ambient light is brighter, and I realize that I’d gradually forgotten just how brilliantly colorful our world is! And, oh frabjous day, I can see text on prints, posters, and street signs beginning to come into focus! I am actually eager to get my second eye done so that my stereoscopic vision can synchronize.

I look forward to walking the dog in the rain without my glasses being spattered by droplets; to going swimming and not losing sight of the shore. I may need lenses for my most distant vision (and as noted, for reading), but I won’t need them for preparing a meal or finding my way around the house. I am pleased.

Now if only my hips weren’t aching so that I wonder if they’re the next replacement to be needed…

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


While watching the State of the Union Address the other night I was struck by the fact that all of the color one could see on the Congressional floor was clothing worn by the women. Male Senators and Congressmen all wore sensible, sober, and dull uniforms, garb that I was all too aware of throughout my childhood upbringing

My father was a businessman and wore this drab “professional’ clothing with short, matching haircuts. Although he was a wonderful provider, the term “prostitution” occurred to me on occasion, and business suits, white shirt and necktie, remain the uniform of the enemy in my perspective.

This attitude began early. I was raised in a conservative immigrant Catholic tradition, and obedience was a prime virtue. I learned to read early and was given a Golden Book called “Tootle” about a baby train who discovered the joy of prancing in the fields among the woodland animals and flowers. The townfolk and Tootle’s conductor rectified this by confronting him with red “Stop!” flags wherever he went, reducing him to tears, except for one single green “Go!” pennant on the sole path on which he was meant to roll. As a grown-up Flyer Tootle counseled the little trains “Stay on the tracks no matter what!” This mistreatment disturbed me.

My formative years were during the rebellious ‘60’s and I grew up on the outskirts of Woodstock, N.Y. to boot. Although I can’t say that I really understood many of the details of the Great Issues at the time it was clear that “The Establishment” intended the common people to obey orders and let the Important People decide how we would live our lives and sometime, how we would die. This did not sit well for a young person who only recently recognized the full implications of mortality as family friends and relatives died in auto wrecks, of heart attacks, and of old age. Tedium, suffering, and death were not the goals I aspired to.

In 1969 a short-lived series, “The New People” debuted on ABC television trying to profit from the youth market. It was a hip version of “The Lord of the Flies” with a planeload of teenagers crash-landing on an island on which an unused nuclear-testing town lay fallow. All of the adults were killed in the wreck and the kids decide to “rebuild” civilization without the mistakes of the previous generations. More than simply naive, all the episodes I remember came to the concluding moral that the Established Ways were the Only practical ways by which to live one’s life. Give up your childhood dreams. Stay on the tracks. Obey.

I admire iconoclasts and my rebellious streak has continued through six decades. I despise the cynicism of Winston Churchill’s aphorism “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” The Powers That Be want you to obediently surrender – for your own good, of course! Yes, one must accommodate one’s self to harsh Reality and the powerful inertia of history if one wants to get by in the world with a modicum of comfort and success. Maintaining Hopes and Dreams is frequently a route to frustration and bouts of despair as well. Perhaps, in the greater scheme of things, I’m not much more significant than an ant since I don’t believe in supernatural personalities and their plans. Be that as it may, among the various grains of sand I must move to earn my daily bread I would like to move several of my own individual volition, perhaps a few colorful and glistening ones.

I take inspiration from a saying attributed to two different poets, Juan Ramón Jiménez and William Carlos Williams: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” Deliberately break the rules in small but pointed ways. Take a small satisfaction when they criticize your childish ways. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” advised Pablo Picasso. Maybe we can have some influence and Change the World. But let’s try to have some fun while we so endeavor.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys :
Bringing the Conflict Home

Suppose, in a major American metropolis in the 1960’s, the City government decided that it would try to improve its run-down black neighborhoods by utilizing eminent domain, evicting the residents who had lived there for decades, razing their homes, and offering the property to developers from out of State. Modern homes are built and bought by people from around the Country who had always wanted to live in this city because of its long and rich heritage. Perhaps some of their grandparents had even lived there!

Those evicted are not happy about their involuntary removal, and black rights groups from around the Country took up their cause, urging them to ‘fight back!’ Initially, the resistance involves spray-painting graffiti in the new neighborhood, yelling insults at the new residents, and throwing stones at their cars. The police naturally get involved and set up sub-stations on the avenues between the old residents and the new. They stop and frisk the black youth for minor infractions, arresting some, trying to “send a message.” Black families are incensed by this presumption of guilt and set up community action groups to protest. Some out-of-state black activists come in to participate, and during a series of demonstrations, they attack the police, burn down a number of the new homes, and there are deaths on both sides before the rioters are repulsed.

Bad blood has now developed between the old residents and the new and their police protectors. After several years of sporadic fighting that periodically claims innocent lives, the Mayor decides that there needs to be more strict regulation of the contact between the old and new residents. Playgrounds are fenced off; police are stationed at bus stops to monitor the movements of the black youth, licenses for black businesses are delayed, infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate in the black neighborhoods. A succession of Governors tries to resolve the tensions, but a succession of Mayors, dealing with budgetary issues, decide to condemn more old-neighborhood buildings, selling the property off to new developers to raise revenue. The Governors, while urging a peaceful resolution, are also seeking re-election and provide State funding and training to the City police so that they can expand their peace-keeping presence.

In the deteriorating neighborhoods embittered black youths form gangs and ally themselves with gangsters from around the State. They arm themselves and decide to ‘teach Whitey a lesson.’ They engage in random drive-by shootings, uncaring whether politicians, police, little old ladies, or school kids are the victims: White is White. The City sends SWAT teams into the neighborhoods. Doors are kicked down, innocent families are terrorized, some are killed when they resist. Homes are bulldozed to create a firebreak between the neighborhoods. The Mayor decides that water and electrical service will only be provided during certain hours of the day, and black workers trying to get to their jobs in other parts of the city must endure long queues and humiliating searches before they are allowed to proceed.

Some black neighbors try to organize alternative civic groups to the gangsters and militant activists, but they are marginalized. The State and City government demand that they “rein in” the gangsters before they will work with them. Nothing less than zero violence will be accepted before they will talk. Militant groups from outside the State mock them as “Uncle Toms” and raise funds and provide gang propaganda, urging them to strike back against the people who have stolen their neighborhoods. Moderates are openly mocked; their stores are boycotted and firebombed, some are abducted and executed by thugs as a warning to the others. White Supremacy groups have gotten involved in the controversy, urging citizens to take up arms against the Darkies – it’s simple self-defense! - and even getting members elected to the City Council. A hundred black barbarians are not worth one civilized White man, they declare!

The gangs have established networks of gun runners with gang-bangers in other cities; the City police have munitions supplied by the State under the authority of the Governor. Gangs unify and escalate attacks on any whites they can strike at, in cafes or on buses; the police begin to bombard the black neighborhoods with military-grade weaponry including artillery and air-support. The police chief prevents the press from getting near the conflict, citing prejudicial reporting.

The question is: is it Moral and Just for the City government to carpet-bomb the black neighborhoods into submission regardless of casualties to get the gangs?

Of course I am talking about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. And no, this is not a completely exact analogy.

I have no answers. All I know is that a lot of innocent people are getting killed by uncaring and manipulative governments and gangs, and everybody is declaring that ONLY one side or the other bears ALL of the guilt for the tragedy.

I call bullshit on that position.