Category Archives: Society

Sense of Wonder

13062223_673625313510_708827011624143409_n“Stop and smell the roses.”  It’s cliche for a reason.  Human nature being what it is, we adapt to things, we take things for granted.  What seemed wonderful and amazing only yesterday quickly becomes mundane and common.  The fantastic gets ground down in the daily grind, as we focus on doing the things we need to do to survive.

Along the way, I think we lose a vital part of ourselves.  We live in an age of wonders.  Running water, central heating, clothing, food, these are all things that we take for granted every day.  Internet, entertainment, and all the rest, these are elevated into the realms of magic and myth compared to the lives of people even a hundred years ago.

Having endured some hardship, I’d like to say that I have the ability to value these things more.  The truth, though, is that you have to take the time every day to remind yourself of the importance and value of the little things.

Take the time today.  Tell the people you care about how much they mean to you.  Take the time to appreciate the sunset or the snow on the mountains.  Feed your sense of wonder and fight some of the cynicism.  Stop and smell the roses

Skidding Sideways on the Ice

Now on my Wednesday morning commute, we had what they call a “blizzard”.  You know, whiteout conditions and lots of this fluffy white stuff everywhere. (25 inches of it at my place, with drifts over four feet in height)

More or less in the middle of this commute, I watched several vehicles driving sideways down an off-ramp, tires spinning as they fought for traction… and oddly enough I had something of an epiphany.

As I read the news and watch television, I realize that we are all doing the same thing.  As a society, as a nation, we realize that we’ve lost control and that something is wrong.  Watching the faces of the drivers, I saw anger, fear, panic, and even some people having fun as they careened down to the highway.  As our world spirals out of control around us, people, in turn, are reacting in similar fashions.  Some are angry, some afraid, and some people are completely panicked.

Just like those people (who thankfully made it onto the freeway without collision), we all react to the situation in different ways, but we all have that sick, sliding feeling as we know that something is going horribly wrong.

It is human nature to want someone to blame for the situation.  So that fear and anger gets turned to whoever we decide must be to blame.  After all, this has to be someone’s fault… right?  The people who are willing to place all that blame on one cause, one set of policies or one method of behavior scare me.  The unstable conditions we face can be traced back to a number of causes… many of them to our own action or inaction, rather than those of others.

Then there’s the people who enjoyed the loss of control, the same people who are gleefully saying “burn it all.”  In some ways, these are the most terrifying people.  These are those who have either given up hope or never had it in the first place… or else they don’t understand the consequences of their actions.  Seeking to pull down entire nations in the hopes that what will rise from the ashes will be better (or at least different), is much like sliding down a hill in a multi-ton vehicle with only a modicum of control.  At the end of it, everything might come out alright… or you might end up with a pile of shredded wreckage.  Worse, even, are the people who want to throw out all the controls or to hit the gas in the hopes that more of the same will pull us through.  (Don’t even get me started on the people who want to light the car on fire because it’s their passenger’s fault they’re in this mess)

What stuck with me, though, was the calm determination on the faces of some of the drivers.  They weren’t professional drivers, they didn’t know exactly what to do, but they knew they were in trouble.  They fought for control the whole way down… and when they got to the bottom, they had to fight their way through traffic to get to work.  They might have felt some or all of the emotions that the other people did… but they focused on doing what they could to make a crappy situation better, and they weren’t crying for attention while they did it.

Those people.  We need more of them.


Are You Human?

LItany-Against-Fear1I remember reading Frank Herbert’s Dune as a child and being at once excited and awed by some of the concepts.  One of the big ones, one of the ones that stuck with me, was what I remember as the “Human” test.  Basically, you stick your hand in the box and the box gives you excruciating pain… while someone has a poison needle against your neck.  The test was simple: pull your hand out of the box because of fear and pain and you get a needle in the neck and die.

The whole point of this test was to find who could overcome fear and pain, to rise above their animal natures.   It sort of fit with a lot of the metaphysical ideas that went around during the time, the mind over matter mentality.  What bothers me, I suppose, is the underlying assumption that you have to prove yourself to be human.

It is an uncomfortable thought,  when you dig into it.  How does one prove something like that, after all?  Even in Dune,  the test is shown to be subjective as the Bene Gesserit who gives it to Paul Atreides admits to herself that she tested him far more harshly than she planned.

The worst part, I think, is that if you accept this test in concept, you then create people who, strictly speaking, aren’t “people.”  If you have some arbitrary test that separates them, then you dehumanize everyone who doesn’t pass your test.  They become human-shaped animals… and whenever someone does that in history, bad things tend to happen.

When you draw lines in the sand, when you go beyond separation of “us” and “them” and into “human” and “subhuman” you start creating some very dangerous circumstances.  Humanity, as a survival mechanism, tends to think in social groups as “us” and “them.”  It is a mechanic of social trust and community.  To an extent, you can’t break us of our tribalism, we all feel the need to identify with something.  We all feel the need to fit in, to conform (even if you identify with the ‘counter culture’ you’re still conforming, just with a different social group).

This, by nature, causes rivalries.  These rivalries can be as healthy as athletic competition or as unhealthy as genocide.  They are driven as much by a need to conform as they are to succeed.  The darker side of this success and conformity is, as I said, when “they” cease to be considered human by “us.”

In these circumstances, any method of success is considered justifiable.  Normal people don’t consider a mouse as “owning” land or property, nor, when they have allowed themselves to consider “them” as human-shaped animals, do they bother to value “them” as having a claim on life, liberty, or property.

So why the lengthy explanation and what does this mean?  I look out on the interwebz, and I see a lot of fear.  I see a lot of anger.  I see people in their social groups rationalizing why their opponents aren’t logical, because they disagree.  This is, I’m afraid, human nature.  We’ll continue to argue and disagree as long as we exist.

What I also see, however, is the denigration of “them.”  It comes from that anger and fear, the uncertainty over the times.  When people begin to tell themselves that they know better, that they know what is right, their next step is to believe they are right because they are superior… because those who disagree with them are less than human.  The ugliest part of this is that it robs us of our humanity on both sides of these kinds of divides.  To treat our opponents as human-shaped animals is to open a door to unspeakable horror.

What’s the solution?  I can’t say.  I’m almost afraid that we are past the point of a solution.  Anger, fear, and divisiveness are the tools of those who already think themselves “superior.”  They’ll cheerfully put us at one another’s throats, because in their minds, they already know that we’re all just human-shaped animals who can be pitted against each other for their own benefit.

Take some time, talk, listen.  Put down the cell phone and get out from behind your computer.  Talk to people.  That’s the big thing, people don’t talk, they’re afraid to be grouped as “them” and cast out of their social group.  Tear down the walls, discuss the things that you’ve been afraid to talk about and don’t be afraid to argue your point.  Above all, treat everyone with dignity and respect, even if they don’t agree with you.

Most of all: don’t be afraid.  Fear is the mindkiller.

War Never Changes

“Although a soldier by profession, I have never advocated war except as a means of peace. So seek peace, but prepare for war, because war, war never changes. War is like winter, and winter is coming.”

–Ulysses S. Grant

This quote is one I’ve seen chopped, abused, misused, and misquoted quite a few times.  Most often, of late, I’ve seen the first sentence used in relation to current events… missing entirely the meaning of the full statement.  I’ve seen it in video games, heard it in speeches, read it in books.  It is a quote that speaks to anyone who has ever served in combat, because we understand it at our souls.

Why does this come up now, of all times?  Because in times like these, when terrorists attack innocent people and we, in turn, bomb the places where they have support, it is something to remember.  Humanity will never truly be without war, because we will always have differences and disagreements.

Conflict is wired into us, just as firmly as the tribalism that causes us to identify into groups of “us” and “them.”  While diplomacy and discussion are methods to bring peace, they rarely bring any satisfaction or long-term resolution when between social groups.  The human brain is wired for conflict, to settle issues in the most basic fashion: I win, you lose.

What happens in war, at least modern war, is that the conflict is such that neither side wishes to surrender until defeat is proven, until a side is forced to admit their defeat.  This was the paradigm for World War II.  The Allies continued the war until the Germans and Japanese forces were defeated, until they surrendered and afterwards their nations were occupied and restructured by the victors.

Yet the price of such a war is catastrophically high.  Millions die.  Not just soldiers, but civilians.  Cities were bombed, civilian populations were targeted, and the societies that suffered such casualties rejected war, empirically, in order to prevent its future outbreak.

What they did, what they hoped to do, was to contain human nature, to tame it, to pacify the beast with law and diplomacy.  Yet this can only work until some people feel that their grievances are such that the law and diplomacy will not suffice.  When the animal parts of their brain tells them that they are right and everyone else is wrong… and the best way to prove that is to do violence on them until they surrender.

When individuals do this, it is murder or assault.  When a society, or even just a  large minority of a society does this, it is war.  Make no mistake, we are at war.  When a societal band declares that they will harm you until you do what they want, they have declared war in the most basic way possible.  This conflict is one based upon economic, societal, and lastly religious reasons.  This is not the time for diplomacy, for discussion.  Logic and empathy both have their places, but only when it comes to moderating our response.

When someone attacks you, you don’t make apologies for them, you don’t discuss why they are called to violence or what harms you have done them.  You hurt them back.  You hurt them until they stop hurting you.  The same goes for nations and societies.

The people who attacked in Paris are the same people who have attacked in Bengazi, they are the same people who have attacked on 9/11/2001.  They are the same people who bombed the USS Cole and the Marine Barracks in Beirut.  They are the products of a radicalized version of their religion, one which promotes violence, victim-hood, and which feeds off of provocations.  Their stated intent is to draw the West into returning their attacks, to then mobilize more of their society to support them.

We have tried for years to prevent a full-scale war.  We have targeted terrorists, we have moderated our responses.  As a result, we have emboldened those who think such restraint is a sign of weakness.  They don’t understand our desire to hold back the full strength of our response.  In our position, they would wipe us out (or try, because in truth extermination of a people is far harder than they realize).

We have come to the point where these two world-views can no longer coexist.  When a society does not restrain its members, when a people encourage their children to kill ours, then we have come to a point where we are left with no recourse.  Conflict must have resolution.  Restraint, taken too far, is just a suicide pact.  Diplomacy will falter when one side does not bargain in good faith.

“Although a soldier by profession, I have never advocated war except as a means of peace. So seek peace, but prepare for war, because war, war never changes. War is like winter, and winter is coming.”

Read it again: War’s purpose is to settle a conflict.  To end a difference, to use force upon those who will accept no other bargaining point.  Because there will always be those to whom violence is the first choice.  There will always be those who must be stopped, despite the costs.  Seek peace, seek diplomacy, but never forget that war will come and we must always be prepared.  Prepared to fight for what we believe in, to protect our families and our way of life.

War has come.  Winter is upon us.

Who Are You?

Whenever I look at the visits to the blog, I’m always a bit curious about who visits.   Some days I’ll have ten hits from Poland, other days fifteen or twenty from Germany, or Romania, or the Ukraine.  Every day I have visits from Australia, the UK, the US and others.  So I’m curious to see… who are you?  If you have the time, post your name, where you are from, and maybe a little about yourself in the comments.

Happy Holidays 2014

Happy holidays to all my readers.  Hopefully you can spend them with friends and family.  If you can’t get that, hopefully you at least get some time to yourself.  If you are enjoying the holidays at home with your family, take a moment to think about those who cannot, both those serving in the military at home and abroad and those who have gone to their final rest.    Best wishes to all and a Happy New Year.

Orion and Getting Back into the Space Race

Orion Space Capsule Concept Image
Orion Space Capsule

The Orion spacecapsule has returned successfully after it’s first real test… and I’m excited.  Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel it’s a hand-wave.  The Orion is incredible… yet it is still feels like too little, too late.

Paul Bertorelli wrote an excellent article (below) that matches a lot of my feelings on the subject.

The private industry is trying, too, but as seen by the recent setback with Virgin Galactic, they are not quite where we might hope they could be.  The problem, quite simply is money.  Space expansion and exploration requires a lot of money, and even with very wealthy private investors, such as Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, they have far lower budgets than NASA could have, in theory.  But NASA doesn’t have the money, or focus, to make manned exploration (much less expansion/colonization) a priority.  Part of that is politics.  Space isn’t a priority to the average US citizen, because the media (movies, news, etc) focus on the expense, the danger, and the cost.  The recent movie, Interstellar, garnered a lot of criticism, not because of its plot, but because the theme was stay and die or get out into space and propagate.  A note of how much certain people hate our own race where a message of expand our horizons or die was criticized in that survival was seen as the wrong choice.

Against that measure, Orion is a step in the right direction… a very slow step, but still a step.  But what can you and I do to improve this?  Talk to your friends, your family, have the discussions about the potential and importance of space travel.  Fight the dialogue that says that space is a waste.  Fight the people who think that ‘we need to stay here and not ruin the stars’ and rubbish like that.  Make it a topic of conversation, make it important to other people, light that spark… or else we may never take that next step, we may never go back to the moon, much less to other worlds.  That, I think, would be a great tragedy.