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Am rearranging my thoughts about our planet in light of some recent reading.

(New info: Change mind.)
For decades I have subscribed to the “Spaceship Earth” idea that we are all riding on a wonderfully equipped object that is our “lifeboat” in the cosmos. Therefore we have to protect it in some fashion.
But the truth is, that while we did evolve here, and so do better here than if we were dropped on the moon or Mars (absent life support) — earth is not friendly to us. Earth has been fatal to 99 percent of the species that ever evolved. The reason we do reasonably well is that we have learned to fend off many likely causes of death. Human intelligence makes Earth work for us. Sure, we make mistakes, but over time we have mostly been able to fix them. Others among our lineage failed (Neanderthal, for example).
During my lifetime we have faced a grave threat in the form of nuclear weapons, but in the first round of saber rattling rational thought prevailed and we began to dismantle the weapons. We’ve faced disease outbreaks that in past centuries might have become pandemics, but controlled them. We even now have the power and knowledge to avoid the worst case we might face—an asteroid collision such as wiped out the dinosaurs. (Though we won’t be certain until we have to try it. It’s a somewhat sobering thought that a child born today is more likely to die of an asteroid strike than an auto accident.)
Altogether I feel my pessimism morphing into optimism. Humans have always faced dire threats, problems that had to be solved in order to survive.
There will always be problems. We will always be able to find solutions. (Not that this is a guarantee that we will.)
Feeling pretty upbeat about the New Year (despite being down with the flu).
Happy New Year!


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Lame Duckdom

Haven’t posted anything since Feb. 2017. Been busy with lots of other things, most particularly the re-election campaign.
Having lost in the October primary I’ve been considering where to go at this hinge point in my life. Every other such hinge has led to something better, so I’m not concerned. Of course, leaving behind a part time job that was in many ways 24/7 leaves a lot of space to fill in.

Working on another collection of short stories now while I consider job options going forward. The tentative title story is “Fifty Wheys to Love your Liver.”  That, of course, could change, but that’s the leading candidate at the moment.

Perhaps I’ll manage to blog more often now, too.

Happy Thanksgiving week to anyone who stumbles in here in the next several days.

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This is the sermon I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin, NC, on Feb. 5

I settled down for a weekend last month just to try to recall the whole year

So many faces and so many places, I wondered where they all disappeared.

I didn’t ponder the question too long, I was hungry and went out for a bite,

Ran into a chum with a bottle of rum and we wound up drinking all night.”

(Jimmy Buffet, “Changes in Latitude”

I would guess that many of you are by now familiar with my approach to the making of a UU sermon. First come up with a title that is alliterative or perhaps clever, and then try to justify the title with the content. I learned that trick from Jimmy Buffet who once said that the most important element of songwriting was coming up with a clever title. Once you have “Margaritaville” or “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude’,” the rest is pretty simple.

So, butterflies in China. It’s kind of a standard example of unintended and magnified consequence that the flapping of a butterfly wing in China might create a tornado in Kansas or a hurricane in Florida. It might be a weary old saw, but it’s also kind of scary. Because it is entirely true that a tiny cause can have remarkable and profound effects. Think of the electrical short that killed three Apollo astronauts or the missed technical warning that resulted in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The tree branch on a wire that triggered the northeast power blackout in 2003. Or in an earlier time, “for want of a nail a shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost” and so on. And also from that heirloom past, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

We generally find some comfort in thinking we know what we are doing. Cake recipes and plane tickets mostly get the results we expect from them. But as I’ve mentioned in at least one previous talk here, the evidence is very strong that we don’t have a clue why we decide to bake a cake or take a trip and careful research has established that we make decisions before we find out about them. Our conscious awareness trails behind our decision making.

I first read about that research about 25 years ago. The author of the book I’d been reading challenged folks to try to determine when they decide to get out of bed. He didn’t ask what your alarm was set for, but when you decided to make the move. Try it. It is approximately impossible. Every time you think you are deciding you realize there is a previous decision point underlying it.

In my case I had been reading the book lying abed on a summer morning with one of my cats, Pomonella, asleep on my chest. A cardinal rule of we who keep companionable company with cats is that we do not unnecessarily rouse a comfortably sleeping cat. It is more than wrong. So as the scene played out I was reading the book, and pausing to contemplate the concept of decision making and getting out of bed, and whether I could determine when I made a decision.

Abruptly the necessity of writing a weekly opinion column with a looming deadline leapt into my head and without a moment’s hesitation I set Pomonella aside and headed for the coffee maker. Sorry Po.

I tried to discern the get out of bed decision point many times after that without success. If you try it I think you’ll find the same sort of infinite regression. When you decide that you have decided to get up you realize that there was a preceding decision to decide, and on and on until you arrive here listening to me suggest that you try the experiment. But did you decide just now? Or a couple of paragraphs ago when I first mentioned it? Or somewhere in between?

But speaking of cats, one of the best butterfly wing stories I’ve gathered in my butterfly collecting career, is the fact that when superstition swept Europe in the years we now call the Dark Ages, a fear of witchcraft was paramount. Cats, long rumored to be the familiars of witches, were exterminated in large numbers. Absent cats, rodent populations blossomed. Rodent fleas carried the Bubonic Plague and half the human population expired. Vikings were smarter and always had shipboard cats to control vermin, with the result that domestic cats were very likely the first permanent European settlers on this continent, left behind when the Vikings abandoned their villages.

That’s an excellent reason to keep cats around the house, but also a stellar example of the unintended consequence of our decisions. The choice to eliminate cats, made for what was then an arguably believable reason, given the paucity of scientific knowledge at the time, created or exacerbated a very real effect on human life.

Why Time Flies is a recently released book by Alan Burdick, which, by the way, I have decided to read, though I haven’t decided whether to buy it or wait for it to land in the library. Time will tell, I suppose. But I learned a fascinating nugget when I heard Burdick interviewed last week.

When you type on a computer keypad there is a tiny delay between the moment your finger touches a key and the letter’s appearance on the screen. That make’s sense because the software and hardware are processing your action. We tend to experience the appearance of the letter as simultaneous with the keystroke.

A researcher meddled with software and so that the time lag between action and appearance gradually increased by several milliseconds. Typists’ brains continued to interpret the appearance as instantaneous. I suppose there is some limit to how long the lag can be. As I said, I’ve yet to read the book. But here’s the really amazing bit. After typists became accustomed to the new, longer delay, and again I don’t know if it took an hour or a few days, but after their brains accepted the new normal, when the software was suddenly switched back, all of the people tested had the very unsettling but very real sensation that the letters were appearing on the screen before their fingers hit the keys.

It is a very clear demonstration of the subjectivity of time, as well as the fact that our brains always try to make sense of the world. A similar demonstration of that sense-making is the experiment in which subjects are given glasses whose lenses flip the world upside down. It doesn’t take long for the brain to adapt and see things right side up again, and then removing the glasses the world is upside down until the brain recalibrates.

So we are deeply wired to make sense of the world. And of course, that makes sense. Survival depends on having a pretty good idea of how things will work out. Baking a cake is not a life or death project, but eating is. Whether you go to a movie or go to a concert is not a life or death decision, but driving there involves a continuous stream of life or death decisions and actions. Or deciding to step up onto a bus rather than stepping out in front of one.

Decisions we make rely very heavily on past experience and on what we’ve been told, which hinges on other people’s experiences. When a parent tells a child not to eat toadstools it is pretty likely the parent has never eaten one either. But somebody’s parent or child did at some point, with dire consequences, and the information has been passed along for a thousand generations. When we experience something directly, or learn from someone we trust, it builds our expectations and reinforces our sense-making.

That’s why the unexpected can come as such a shock. Can a butterfly in China affect our weather here? Yes, but the chain of causation is so vast that no one can point at one butterfly and one tornado and make a rational connection. It’s hard enough to even detect the tiny bit of turbulence in the immediate vicinity of the butterfly, though we know it exists. So the butterfly story doesn’t have to be evaluated as truth or fiction and what we think of it doesn’t much matter. The unexpected can also be fun, even thrilling, and so figures prominently in fiction and film.

But back to driving. After some years behind the wheel, drivers accumulate a wealth of expectations, eye-hand-foot coordination, familiar routes, favorite short-cuts and so on. We have a fairly high expectation that oncoming drivers will stay in their lanes because they are likely to be as interested in survival as we are. One result of that familiarity which many of us have experienced is arriving home and not being much aware of how we got there.

On a personal level, my steep house lot fronts on two streets that wye a few hundred yards from my door. I generally park my pickup truck near the garden below my house and I generally park my car at the upper level near the front door. I use my car frequently and my truck infrequently. When I do use the truck I often make the habitual right turn that takes me uphill, without thinking, because my mind is on something else. That’s the reason when new stop signs are installed a traffic department also installs warning signs about the new stop sign, and many people still drive right through the intersection until conscious awareness catches up with the new reality.

Our expectations about driving can fool us into making very expensive decisions. It seems to make sense that the best way to reduce traffic congestion, for instance, is to install more lanes on a crowded road. Governments do traffic studies and calculate levels of service that lay out how many cars a given stretch of road can handle, and they calculate how many cars went by a certain point at rush hour in 1970 and 1980 and 2010 and draw a graph that tells them how many cars are going to zoom by in 2030 and insist that we pay for new lanes to handle all that new traffic. Otherwise we will have horrible traffic jams. But in case after case the new lanes end up just as crowded as the former lanes. The phenomenon is referred to as induced traffic, and it happens because drivers change their driving habits in response to the changed conditions. They change the time they leave for work, they change their route, and so forth.

A better plan might be to quit building more lanes and make rush hour driving as unpleasant as possible so people either change their schedules or car pool or take public transportation. A similar logic can apply to parking facilities. When a city builds new parking decks they quickly fill up and have the same parking problem they had at the outset. But raising the cost of parking actually does more to solve the problem than building more slots.

Another area where expectations backfire involves drug use. For over a century the United States has attempted to suppress the use of several substances that some people enjoy, with some becoming addicted. Making the use and sale of those drugs illegal and spending billions of dollars on enforcement efforts seems like it should make a dent in the trade. Most of us don’t want to get arrested, so it makes sense that with a big enough threat most people will comply. But of course most drug users don’t get arrested, and even if arrests were more common, we aren’t very good at personal risk assessment when we are after something we want or enjoy. So we have more kinds of drugs, more quantities of drugs, more potent drugs and lower prices than when the much vaunted War on Drugs began. That’s not to mention a violent shooting war south of the border.

On the other hand, Portugal dropped all criminal penalties for drug possession and use in 2001. Those found guilty are offered optional counseling, which is cheaper than incarceration. Drug use has fallen. Use of counseling and health services has doubled. HIV infections have dropped because addicts aren’t sharing needles. The country now has the lowest level of drug use of any western nation.

When I consider law enforcement, unintended consequences and our innate tendencies to underestimate risk and over rely on expectations, I recall the only really big story I covered in my years as an investigative reporter. I won’t reiterate a tale I’ve previously told here at length, about Buncombe County’s former sheriff who is spending 15 years with Bernie Madoff in Butner federal prison. He was convicted of extortion, running an illegal gambling operation, and mail fraud, but that wasn’t what undid him.

It was fairly common knowledge that the sheriff was crooked but no one seemed able to pin him down. But to use that heirloom aphorism: he missed a stitch and nine others unraveled. What happened was that his son tied his girlfriend to a bed and beat her for a week. When I got an anonymous tip and phoned the sheriff and identified myself, the first words out of his mouth were, “Now don’t go after my boy.” I hadn’t mentioned a boy. Had he enforced the law, charged his son with battery, kidnapping, whatever would apply, he might very well be a free man today. But he was so accustomed to getting away with crimes, so self-assured about his power, that he felt certain he could get away with a cover-up. He blamed her injuries on an auto accident, paid her to keep quiet, and threatened her life.

But the stitches had started popping. When my story about the cover-up appeared in the newspaper I suddenly heard from deputies who decided they could trust me to keep their names out of it … but did I know about the pay-offs? The sale of guns from the evidence room? The other deputy whose only job was collecting cash from the extorted shop owners?

It was a cover-up that undid Richard Nixon in much the same way and for exactly the same reasons. A few years after Nixon resigned he told interviewer David Frost, When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” When Sheriff Medford was on the witness stand and the federal judge said “Didn’t you know that was illegal?” he turned to the judge and said, “I was the Sheriff.”

The Nixon example is particularly germane this week, following the new president’s firing of an acting attorney general which put many people in mind of Nixon’s firing of his attorney general who was similarly uncooperative.

Taking a very different tack, I am reminded of the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. This is lately in the news because an interview has revealed that the woman who accused Till of sexual assault has finally recanted all these decades later. She lied to her family and community. She lied on the witness stand, claiming that a 14 year old boy had assaulted her, and it is hard to imagine how she lived with herself during the ensuing years. But the men who tortured and killed Emmett Till thought they were striking a blow for white supremacy.

Little did they know what would ensue. When Till’s body was exhibited in an open casket funeral in Chicago as many as 250,000 people attended the viewing. The murder created an international firestorm, it inflamed U.S./Soviet relations, and fueled the already potent Civil Rights movement. A generation of black Americans were enraged by the incident and determined to make change. They became the leaders who pushed for the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and spun off into the feminist and environmental movements. Emmett Till’s death struck a match that lit a fuse that resulted in an explosion of social justice work.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to give up her seat on a bus she said she was thinking of Emmett Till and decided she would not move. Julian Bond, John Lewis and their cohort even referred to themselves as the Emmett Till generation.

I believe we often fail to imagine or recognize the potential positive outcome of our current national malaise.

Government scientists stored terabits of data concerning the global climate on Canadian servers between election day and the inauguration. That data is safe from policy changes.

National Park employees have gone rogue, creating anonymous accounts on Twitter and other social media to release climate change data banned by the White House.

Over 1,000 State Department employees have signed a letter protesting the current president’s policy pronouncement on immigration.

There were 10,000 people marching in Asheville on Jan. 21, and 20 or 30,000 in Raleigh, and 500, 000 in Washington DC and 750,000 in Los Angeles, with other protests on every continent including Antarctica. Within hours of the president’s immigration ban there were thousands protesting around the world. Major cities across the country are declaring themselves as sanctuaries. Governments around the globe are reconsidering relations with the U.S. Major corporations are taking positions against the president’s plans and rethinking investment options, suddenly preferring foreign investment to expansion stateside.

Some fear that this new administration is headed down the same path as Germany in the 1920s, but there are significant differences. Perhaps the most critical is the nature of communication. In the 1920s the spread of information was relatively slow and control of the media was relatively easy. Writing and distributing newspapers and radio stories required news gathering, preparation and editing, typesetting and recording. Today a tweet from the White House first reaches tens of thousands and then reactions to the tweet quickly reach millions. There is no information wall.

In the week after the 2012 election, donations to the American Civil Liberties Union ran into the tens of thousands. In the week after the 2016 election donations to the ACLU ran above $7 million.

At the Center for Public Integrity in Washington and its international investigative arm, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, individual donations are up about 70 percent compared to the same period last year. Planned Parenthood received 40 times its usual number of donations after the election.

Our Revolution, the follow-up to the Bernie Sanders campaign has established hundreds of chapters across the country, all dedicated to moving the Democratic Party in a progressive direction.

And California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that if the new administration starts shutting down climate research satellites California would start its own space program. In addition he observed that some people won’t quit smoking until after they have a heart attack. Maybe, he suggested, we just had our national heart attack.

More ominously we learned this week that the new president takes a prescription drug that prevents male pattern baldness. Side effects of finasteride include sexual disfunction and shrinkage of male body parts, though the literature doesn’t mention tiny hands. But more seriously for the country – confusion is a frequent major side effect.

Aristotle famously suggested that with a sufficient lever and a fulcrum on which to rest it he could move the world. But little things can move the world as well, and these days it may be as tiny as a presidential tweet. Or a tiny … pill.

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(This is a talk delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Franklin, NC, July 5, 2015)

This story starts about 35 years ago, when I made my very first stop at an Ingle’s grocery store. I had visited these mountains in 1955, and camped in these mountains twenty years later, but this meeting happened when I moved here, and as I say, it was my first visit to an Ingle’s. This store happened to be in Black Mountain.

As I stepped out of my 1965 Volkswagen squareback I was hailed by a lanky old man who was leaning against a pickup truck about twenty feet away. He gestured at the canoe atop my car and said, “You oughta take that boat down to the Nantahalee Gorge!” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette.

I told him I’d not heard of that before. I introduced myself and he did the same. Luther Ownsby is what I think he said. Though it could have been Ownby, or Owenby, or Owensby. It wouldn’t be until sometime much later that I came to understand that in some of our hollers confusion about those names could get you punched or shot at or worse. So I’ll just call him Luther.

Luther nodded. “I died there, you know.”

As you might suppose, this was news to me. “Yes?” I asked rather than affirmed.

“Workin’ on the Fontannee Dam. I drownded. I fell in the water and sunk plumb to the bottom and I drownded.”

“Oh my.”

“I can’t swim, you know. So I sunk right to the bottom and drownded.”

I looked a little harder at him. He was wizened, and gaunt and had the grey pallor of a long-time smoker. But he seemed to be very much alive. “And you died?”

“I died. And I saw all my people on the other side of the river. Mamaw and Papaw and aunts and uncles and cousins. My dead brother too, and they was all in white and looked so peaceful. They was wavin’ at me and sayin ‘It’s not your time yet.’”

I didn’t say anything, only nodding to let him know I heard.

“Then I was up on the bank. Some fellas had fetched me up off the bottom and hauled me out.” He shook out another cigarette and before he lit up he looked hard at me and said, “Water is one of the powers, you know.” Before I could reply he added, “That was the second time I died.” Then he lit his smoke.

“What was the first?” was the obvious question.

“We was livin’ in cabins while we built the Fontanee Dam, you know. And they had screen windows. And one night when I was sleepin’ a terrible lightnin’ storm came around and the lightnin’ came in through that screen and set me on fire, and I died.”

“Oh, my!”

“Lightnin’s one of the powers, you know.”

I nodded again.

“But then an angel looked in at me, through a window in a wall where there wasn’t a window, and the angel said it wasn’t my time. And so I was still alive.” He paused and added, “Alive that is, you know, until I drownded.” He then lapsed into silence, smoking his cigarette while I tried to think of something to say.

Finally, I asked, “Did you say Nantahalee?” He simply nodded. So I thanked him for the advice and headed into the store.

What I later understood was that he was suggesting the Nantahala river and that he’d worked on the Fontana Dam which was built in the 1940s as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority effort to electrify much of the central south. You could say that before the TVA was established pretty much all of the technology in the region was wireless. Other than a telegraph wire along the railroad and barbed wire around the cattle, I suppose. Oh, and the Biltmore House which had electricity from the get-go. George Vanderbilt had money. You might say the Vanderbilts were one of the powers.

In the years since Luther made his suggestion I’ve rafted on the Nantahala, and at least in the gorge you really wouldn’t want to use a canoe. The white water is pretty fast and the drops pretty steep. Back when Luther worked on the dam I’m sure the gorge was a really remote location, but today it is easily accessible. Tourists by the raft-load run the river, dodging boulders and kayakers. Fontana Village is a well developed vacation resort.

But back before the TVA moved in, many sections of this region were extremely isolated. A native I met while I lived in Broad River Township, down south of Black Mountain, was named Luny Gilliam. Luny told me that growing up in the early 1950s there was no road to Black Mountain which is now the closest commercial center. Broad River even shares the Black Mountain ZIP code.

Luny told me, “You couldn’t buy a job here. And we’d load our apples on a wagon and take the dirt road to Hendersonville. That meant an overnight trip because you couldn’t make it there and back again in a day on a wagon.”

Another example of that isolation is a widow woman I worked for in Broad River from time to time. I put a new clutch in Pearlee Ledbetter’s pickup, and did repairs on her tractor, and even painted her barn. It had stood there unpainted for decades, perhaps a century or more, an unpainted, weathered gray. Pearlee told me she had always wanted it to be red, and it was one thing she wanted to see before she died. In exchange for my work, she let me farm an acre of bottom land for a couple of seasons. Pearlee was one of 13 children, and her dead husband was one of 13 children, and 12 of each set of siblings had married into the other. There weren’t other choices available. I think she had been an Owenby. Or an Owensby.

Luny told me once that he was more than a little upset when his son went all the way to Asheville to find a wife. Today that’s a half hour drive but in Luny’s youth Asheville might just as well have been Charlotte or Chicago or Shanghei – it was distant and foreign and strange.

Pearlee is long gone now, as is the barn. In its place is the fairly grand entrance to a gated community that replaced her farm, a place intentionally fenced off from the rest of the valley. Sixty years ago there was no paved road from Broad River to urban civilization and today there’s a gate on one of the recently paved roads to keep people out.

The railroad came to Western North Carolina in the late 19th century, reaching Asheville in 1880. Soon afterward George Vanderbilt began to make regular visits to the area, ended up buying everything he could see, and built an estate. Though we tend to focus on the immense wealth, architecture, landscaping and forestry practices he engendered, it’s worth noting that it was the railroad that brought Vanderbilt here and enabled the easy tourism of New Yorkers and others from eastern cities to these mountains. It ended the isolation of the towns and villages along the rails. Within 10 years of the train’s arrival, Asheville’s population swelled from 2,500 to more than 10,000.

Farmers had new markets and residents had more available commercial goods. Life was busier and arguably better, certainly for most people.

In the early 1900s, Edith Vanderbilt, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance teamed up to create a combination training and marketing effort, teaching various crafts and providing an outlet to the wider world. This became Biltmore Industries, heavily dependent on the railroad to market its wares. That business continues today.

A company called Manual Woodworkers and Weavers was founded in 1932 in the Hickory Nut Gorge – in Gerton. It appears in retrospect that it was modeled on the success of Biltmore Industries. They organized local weavers and crafters who worked at home and the company made the connection to the railroad and out-of-state markets.

Once electrification hit, everything speeded up. Electricity meant knitting mills and manufacturing plants and canneries. Stokely foods canned vegetables and Gerber arrived to bottle baby food, while Ball moved in to make canning jars. Growing industry meant there were road-building jobs as well. New and better roads improved the connectivity of all kinds of local producers to more distant markets.

Luny, the apple grower I mentioned earlier, told me a story that relates to the expanding market here. In the 1950s, as I noted, Luny’s family hauled their apples to Hendersonville, At least they hauled the apples that weren’t converted to apple jack right in the valley. From the time of Johnny Appleseed, and surely long before that, a major impetus for growing apples was alcohol production. The same was true for corn, and clandestine distilleries were soon using Ball jars to bottle their product.

As roads improved Luny’s clan used a truck instead of a wagon. When the market expanded they were able to sell their apples to produce distributors who shipped the fruit to a much wider area. The funny part of Luny’s story involved television. Gerber baby food was running TV ads that promised to reveal the entire recipe for Gerber’s apple sauce. The ad featured a slowly tumbling, perfectly formed, blemish-free, Red Delicious apple. As the perfect apple landed the announcer intoned, “Apples, just apples.”

Luny’s punch line was this: all the apple growers in the region knew that the local Gerber plant was the market of last resort. If your apples were so bad that no one else would even consider buying them, you always knew you could sell them for baby food.

By the time I moved here just more than 35 years after Luther drownded while building the Fontana Dam there were satellite dishes beside a whole lot of homes in Broad River and everywhere else in these mountains. That’s why Luny was seeing Gerber ads on TV. In half a lifetime this place had changed from insular and isolated to being literally and figuratively plugged into the world. A boy who had grown up in a remote backwater holler had become an adult cracking jokes about Madison Avenue advertising.

But that was only a beginning, as we’ve seen in the 35 years since.

It is entirely possible that the changes wrought by the railroad and or rural electrification were more significant than the ongoing communication revolution… but the jury is still out and we’ll presumably have a more definitive conclusion 35 years hence.

Electricity brought effective lighting and power tools into mountain communities, whether for residential or commercial use. It had a huge effect on reading habits, as kerosene lamps gave way to light bulbs. It brought radio and then TV communication, delivering cultural and political change in its wake. It enabled some local craftsmen and artisans to compete with others more northern and urban, though still in a relatively limited market. Producers in the hollers had access to middle-men in a chain of wholesalers and retailers that linked to an ultimate purchaser.

Telecommunications changed everything again. Early phone systems like the party lines I recall from my youth, made local connections easy and cheap, with long distance more or less complicated and expensive enough to inhibit many phone owners. The barriers gradually fell until today most of us experience no difference in cost or difficulty between local and long distance calls.

During and following that same period we saw the Arpanet – a university and military computer system – evolve into the Internet across a World Wide Web. Today, anywhere on earth, you can access the Web. It’s easiest if you have a very local connection like an ethernet or wifi system in your home, but it is publicly available in many places, commercially available in many restaurants and hotels, and technically available via satellite if you have the right equipment.

In some sense there are no more obligatory “hollers” – places where people are technologically cut off from the larger world. A dozen years after I met Luther, when I lived in Broad River, off the grid and up near a ridge, with a phone line that predictably went dead during every other winter ice storm, I could log onto AOL via a dial-up connection. It was like magic.

I died there, you know. I did.

I was responsible for maintaining a couple of miles of private dirt road that serviced a dozen or so homes. Over the years I’d call in a truck load, or a few, of road bond – that’s unwashed gravel – and patch up one stretch or another. On the occasion of my death the driver was making his third delivery of the day and I hopped into the cab to write him a check. He raised the bed and started forward on a fairly flat stretch of road. Suddenly something snapped, the lift piston or a steel rod in the pivot point, and we were rolling sideways down the mountain. We tumbled three-sixty and were gaining speed.

Everything in the cab was floating around, like when astronauts used to train in those padded airplanes, only the cab wasn’t padded. A thermos, a lunch box, a clip board, an empty potato chip bag, my ball point pen, and two men, because of course we weren’t wearing seat belts. Somehow I managed to hold onto the check book.

My life passed before my eyes. First I thought, wow! So this is how my life ends! Then it was scene after scene and face after face and a profound sorrow that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to the people I loved.

None of them were dressed in white, however, and nobody said it wasn’t my time yet.

I flashed on the garden that I hadn’t weeded in weeks. A book I hadn’t finished reading. Did I leave dishes in the sink? Trivia and treasures and regrets and joys speeding by for, what? Seconds? Surely not a full minute, but in dream-time an eternity. Then everything stopped.

A stand of massive chestnut oak trees had broken our fall. Trees are one of the powers, you know.

We were upside down with the cab nose up. When it seemed clear we had stopped moving I pushed open the door. It was more than a dozen feet to the ground. I jumped, he jumped and we scrambled out from under the looming wreck. I was badly bruised, he had a couple of broken ribs.

That was actually the third time I died. But I digress.

Today you can run an internet sales business from your home in Broad River, do university level research, join a global chess club, post kitten videos to Youtube, share recipes, watch Jon Stewart, or find your next spouse on Match.com. A weaver in Weaverville can sell her creations to a buyer in Britain via Etsy. The buyer in Britain can sell the weaving to another in Malaysia via eBay. The buyer in Malaysia can sell it to a collector in Franklin via Bonanza or YardSellr – two of the many up and coming competitors in the person-to-person online marketing business.

There are financial barriers but they are falling fast. A three hundred dollar cell phone has more computing power than the computers that landed astronauts on the moon and is arguably a more effective communication tool than the radio the astronauts used to announce “Houston, we have a problem.”

That smart phone can take pictures and videos, transmit selfies around the globe, browse Web sites, find parking places, tap into restaurant reviews and provide driving directions to addresses you’ve never visited before, tune in to music or news both audio and video, be swiped at a checkout like a credit card or accept credit card payments and check your status on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, do conference calls and watch cute kittens frolicking in kitchen sinks or dressed up as Santa Claus.

To give you some sense of the scale of this communications revolution – people upload 400,000 hours of video to YouTube and over 350 million photos to Facebook –EVERY DAY.

Amidst all those Gee-Whiz apps, it seems to me that the two game-changing functions are for commercial transactions and social networking.

Following World War II, television became a great divider in our country as people opted to stay at home on the sofa instead of getting out in the world. Club memberships dropped, church attendance fell, bowling leagues dissipated, and local sports teams lost audience to 24-7 coverage of professional games. That’s because it represented the high point of one-way communication. They talked. We listened.

Today there is a very real sense of global community emerging, most famously on Facebook, but in myriad other social sites. People are exposing and sharing emotions and ideas that are often buried in old-fashioned face-to-face interactions. It’s really no wonder that people are falling in love online, and breaking up as well. Honesty is a two edged sword. But it goes far beyond one-to-one connections. Interest groups are coalescing without regard to geography, and local groups are recruiting more effectively than they have for decades.

And meanwhile the internet has become an economic leveler, at least among the 99 percent. As I noted earlier, anyone, anywhere can compete in a global marketplace, a market of both goods and ideas.

A Luny Gilliam growing up in Broad River today could find work as a game programer in Chicago or do day-trading on the New York Stock Exchange without leaving home.

The only threat to this wide-open communications system is financial. Some companies would very much prefer to peddle different levels of service so that the high dollar players would get faster service and the low dollar players be relegated to the slow lane. In other words, poor folks would be isolated in the electronic hollers, the backwaters of commerce. This raises the issue known as net neutrality, and it involves the idea of a last mile.

The World Wide Web is an incredibly complex network of server farms, fiber-optic cable, switching devices, radio communication and much much more stuff that few, perhaps nobody, actually understands. But to tie into that Web I need to find a place to plug in either physically or via wi-fi, and the company which makes my connection possible owns the so-called “last mile.”

Advocates of net neutrality raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content, to offer premium speed, and even to block out competitors.

Opponents claimed net neutrality regulations would deter investment into improving broadband infrastructure and try to fix something that isn’t broken.

On February 26 of this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband access as a telecommunications service. By defining it as a common carrier, the FCC decreed that the playing field will be level. No company can relegate some customers to the hollers and elevate others to the Biltmore House.

Like water and lightning and the Vanderbilts and ancient oak trees, the FCC, it seems, is one of the powers.

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The Ten Non-Commandments

  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  1. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  1. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  1. Every person has the right to control of their body.
  1. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  1. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  1. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  1. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  1. There is no one right way to live.
  1. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

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Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mr. Rogers vs. Thomas Hobbes on the human inclination toward trust, empathy and friendship.

by Cecil Bothwell

(This is a talk delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Franklin, NC, Dec. 7, 2014)

(sung) It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Mr. Rogers became famous for his TV show that emphasized friendship, cooperation and neighborliness. Thomas Hobbes was famous for his pronouncements on the human condition. Probably Hobbes’ most famous elocution stated that absent civilization the life of man was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

That’s why I set the two against each other in the subtitle of my talk today.

Its not that Hobbes was principally a negative sort of fellow, and some call him a progenitor of modern liberalism. Yet, his characterization of pre-civilized humans has turned out to be wildly off the mark.

fred rogers copy

Actually, studies of Cro-Magnons or what modern scientists refer to as European early modern humans, show that they were quite healthy. Furthermore they lived in tribal groups, so they weren’t solitary; they had tools and clothing, so they weren’t necessarily poor; they invented separation of labor with men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering and child rearing, which doesn’t seem inherently nasty; they had enough leisure time to paint the amazing cave art in Altamira and elsewhere around the world, which doesn’t strike me as brutish; and almost certainly lived longer than most people in early cities.

Once we began to civilize ourselves, which really refers to the agricultural revolution that allowed towns and cities to grow, the human diet tended to get a lot worse before it got better. People became shorter due to nutritional deficiencies, they had more tooth problems due to the change in diet, and diseases got passed around much more efficiently due to crowding, lack of sanitation and the poor nutrition, so we were sicker, sicklier, and died earlier.

To digress from my main theme for a moment, the tooth problem was particularly an issue in Egypt, where the available rock for grinding grain was sandstone. In other places grinding tools were made with harder rock. Egyptian flour was consequently full of grit which eroded tooth enamel. A common cause of early death in Ancient Egypt was infection permitted by serious tooth decay caused by sand in the bread. So much for the bread of life.

The rise of agriculture meant that wealth could be accumulated since large harvests could be stored. In fact, harvests had to be stored, because instead of depending on a steady supply of foraged food, major crops were harvested seasonally. Whoever controlled that food storage suddenly controlled the lives of the people dependent on the food, and soon the fellow who might have been the head man in a tribe (which usually meant the best hunter) turned into a king or a priest, and huge disparities in wealth became common. Great wealth and piles of food were a fine target for barbarians who engaged in looting wars. And a collateral effect was that once large populations became dependent on farmed food, crop failure could easily cause local famine. Hunter/gatherers rarely starve to death because they follow their food supply.

So to correct Thomas Hobbes, once we began to become what he would have called civilized, life for most humans became much poorer, much nastier, much more brutish, and a lot shorter.

Civilization is not the cause of human success. It is actually one effect of the thing that made us successful, which I have decided to call the Mr. Rogers Syndrome.

The Mr. Rogers Syndrome precisely contradicts one of Thomas Hobbes’ most famous statements, “The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

To get a handle on Mr. Rogers’ profound insight it’s helpful to start with ants, bees, wasps and termites. Edward O. Wilson is easily the most famous ant lover on earth and he explains this idea in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson offers a particularly fascinating fact. Ants, bees, wasps and termites comprise about 20,000 species, a very small fraction of the million or more insect species on earth. That is, less than 2 percent. Yet those critters compose more than half the total body weight of insects on earth. They are very, very successful.

What makes these few types of insects different from all of the others is the Mr. Rogers Syndrome – or what scientists call eusociality.

Eusocial is spelled with “E-U” before the word “social” and it refers to animals that engage in cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups.

In all the long history of evolution on our planet, all the many multiple millions, perhaps it’s billions, of life forms that have blossomed and disappeared, or emerged and morphed into the creatures we know today, eusocial behavior has only emerged about 20 separate times, and most of it belongs to that group of insects. In addition there are three species of shrimp, two species of mole-rats, and homo sapiens.

The golden rule is pretty powerful, and pretty common in the animal world. A lot of animals share food and defense and treat each other fairly, but the big difference for ants and mole rats and human beings is the division of labor and a baby-sitting co-op.

For instance, one of the explanations offered for why we beat out the Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago is that they never figured out a division of labor. So everyone went hunting. Everyone picked berries. Everyone fought battles. Their culture was consequently less efficient in accumulating resources, and that contributed to their extinction. Also there’s strong evidence that we cross-bred with them, and some evidence that we ate them.

It’s the Mr. Rogers Syndrome that made the civilization that Hobbes loved possible. Despite the fact that early civilization was worse for many individuals, on the whole and over thousands of years it was better for most. Once wide scale trade emerged, local famine was less frequent. As we realized cleanliness mattered, disease abated, and so forth.

It is sometimes observed that a greedy, strong individual, or a greedy, powerful nation, can take advantage of their strength to steal things from their generous, sharing neighbors, but that tends to lead to short term gain because the neighbors react.

From an evolutionary standpoint, one major strength of a community is its ability to deal with adversity and to ward off attacks. If a group of animals or humans operates only on self-interest, what emerges is the condition Hobbes referred to as “a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man … wherein men live without other security.” Over time the cooperative community wins and reinforces the tendency of its members to cooperate.

The Mr. Rogers Syndrome is the reason we find we can and do trust other people most of the time. Except for the most paranoid among us, our default attitude is trust.

To take a particularly clear example, most modern American adults drive cars or trucks on two lane roads, often at fairly high speeds. We place enormous trust in the oncoming drivers to not be suicidal, drunk, asleep, texting, or reaching behind the seat for a thermos of coffee. Without that implicit trust, none of us would drive anywhere.

And the thing is, most people are trustworthy, though we know that some are not, and some can be trusted in certain circumstances but not in others.

Trusting has huge advantages, as does being trustworthy.

For example, if you are the person tending a home fire and cooking up a pot of stew, the returning hunter needs to trust that you didn’t decide to experiment with some new mushroom you found that might kill everyone who comes to dinner.

And if you are the hunter roaming long distances to bring home the bacon, the person at home needs to trust that you are good at hunting and will come home with the protein, or there won’t be any stew left when you get back to the cave. If the folks at home don’t trust you, they might not even be home when you get there.

This plays out in fascinating ways in our modern world.

Some researchers did an experiment in restaurants. If some items on a restaurant menu are marked with an asterisk, with a note at the bottom of the page that indicates that those are the most popular items, sales of those dishes always increases by 12-19 percent. We not only trust the opinion of other diners, but we trust the restaurateur to tell us the truth about the other diners’ opinions.

If the restaurateur cheats and simply puts asterisks beside items she wants to sell, either to get rid of an overstock, or because the items are more profitable, it doesn’t take long for diners to realize that the advice on the menu is flawed. Business slumps.

We depend on each others’ opinions all the time, and that saves time and money as well. The reason the cheating restaurant loses business is because we talk to each other and news of untrustiness travels fast. Before you spend $10 to see a movie or buy a book, you probably either hear a positive comment from a friend, or read a review from a trusted reviewer. We trust our bankers and lawyers and mechanics and carpenters and grocers and nurses and doctors and day care workers and teachers and utility companies and insurance companies, all in more or less degree – but we mostly trust them, or we simply couldn’t function.

Psychologists like to invent games to investigate how people interact and one variety of game is called a Trust Game. Here’s how one trust game works. It’s called the Lost Wallet. Players are anonymous, seated at computers in separate cubicles. Player One is told that he has found a wallet which contains $150 and a note. There is no I.D., no credit card, nothing but $150 and a note. The note says he is free to keep the money, and no one else will ever know, or he can send the wallet to Player Two who will receive $300. Player Two may or may not send some of the money back to Player One as a reward.

The logical, selfish response would be to keep the $150. No one will know. Player Two is a stranger, so benefiting her isn’t necessarily a good idea. And Player Two may not send any money back.

In repeated testing 90 percent of people in the Player One position send the money to Player Two, and 95 percent of the second players send some money back to Player One.

Different versions of this test have been done over and over and over again. We trust complete strangers and our trust is well-founded.

More broadly, this is the source of the social power of Facebook. We are more trusting of those we know well, say those in our families, or our immediate circle of friends. But we also trust Facebook “friends” – people we may never meet face-to-face – but with whom we share some level of commonality. It allows the formation of a meaningful sense of community in the social media world. We share news, stories, humor, tragedy, and lots of videos of kittens and puppies.

On the flip side, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other internet companies mine our data, looking for things we like and advertising them to our friends, knowing that we have shared tastes. And the very best advertising of all is if a company can tell you that your trusted friend liked something.

You may be familiar with the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. A Wiki is a project to which many people or everyone can contribute, and Wikipedia has become the go-to source for many of us who use the internet. At first many people scoffed at the idea that everyone could get together and create a meaningful encyclopedia, because it would be so prey to misinformation from the uninformed or the intentionally duplicitous. In fact it is so effectively self-correcting that within a few years of its startup, Microsoft quit trying to compete with its Encarta software. We can trust all of us most of the time.

To take another internet example, look at eBay. The principal reason the site became so successful is the system that permits buyers and sellers to rate each other. Trust is reinforced when strangers you will never meet have reported that other transactions with a seller you will never meet have been positive. Trust begets trust. This idea has spread and many retail companies provide a forum for consumer opinion on their product pages.

Religions offer an interesting take on trust.

To start with, some religions teach that human beings are born in sin and are basically bad unless they are saved by faith or by one or another god or sacrifices to those other gods. It’s interesting that such beliefs gain any following at all, since they so directly conflict with our everyday experience. Very few people see a newborn infant and think of it as evil incarnate. And most of us are able to trust our intimate circle of friends and family and are unlikely to think of them first as sinful or inherently bad. Yet many people trust what they are told by others or in books said to be divinely inspired.

Most wars involve people on both sides praying for success. The same is true of high school basketball games. But there are always winners and losers. Still, many people trust that prayers are answered.

It seems miracles usually happen to someone else, somewhere else, far removed in space or time, but still people believe, apparently because they trust the reporter or the shaman or the priest. Trust is often more powerful than our personal experience.

Why is that? Did we evolve with some basic propensity to trust? Is it hard-wired into our brains?

The answer seems to be “yes.”

Our bodies produce a couple of hormones that incline us to trust each other. One is oxytocin (ox-ee-toh-sin) which is sometimes called the “bonding hormone.” Production is particularly ramped up after childbirth and seems to play a part in cementing the mother/child bond. This is true of all mammals. According to researcher Larry Young at Emory University the hormone “is there to make the mother think that this baby is the most important thing in the world, and I’ll do whatever I need to take care of that child.”

But it isn’t just present in new mothers. All of us produce extra oxytocin when we are happy and it makes us feel calm and pleasant. Interestingly, oxytocin production has been shown to increase when we help other people. A feeling of empathy is particularly likely to trigger oxytocin release. Everything from a sappy movie to petting your dog can trigger it.

To circle back to Facebook, if you’ve used it or other social media you know how often people post pictures and videos of both happy puppies and kittens and stories of abused ones. You read of other people’s personal losses, illnesses, work-place problems and more. All of these tend to arouse empathy and therefore oxytocin release. It’s no wonder many Facebook users feel a strong sense of community there.

Oxytocin works in combination with other pleasure hormones such as dopamine. Dopamine is closely associated with pleasure and reward, and is released when we have rewarding experiences including food and sex. Both of these hormones operate on some of the oldest parts of our brains, that is to say, the parts we share with many so-called “lower animals.”

We also seem to have a built-in drive for reciprocity. The common saying is “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” If you’ve ever watched non-human primates grooming each other you know that this inclination long predates our descent from the trees.

Another psychology experiment reveals how innate that drive can be.

A waitress was recruited to perform the test. The experiment went this way: For some diners Nicole delivered just the check at the end of the meal. For other diners Nicole delivered the check and two pieces of chocolate for each diner at the table. For still other diners Nicole delivered the check and one piece of chocolate for each diner, stepped away from the table and then turned back and offered the diners a chance to take another piece of chocolate from the basket she was carrying.

The diners who were given two pieces of chocolate with their checks showed a slight increase in their tips over those who got no candy. But the diners who were given one piece and then offered another increased their tips by an average of 21 percent over the two chocolate diners. It seems that their sense that they were being treated a little differently, that the waitress was going out of her way for them, increased their sense of obligation to reciprocate.

The important thing about reciprocity is that we all know that we all tend to feel that way. So we aren’t simply guessing when we do something generous for someone else, we know that what goes around comes around.

What our trust, our sense of reciprocity, our oxytocin and dopamine levels do, working together, is to help create social norms. Those norms are very powerful.

Social norms keep us trustworthy. We don’t dig into the cash register even though the clerk has gone to the back room. We don’t park in front of fire hydrants even though we figure we could get away with it while we run a quick errand. We pay our tab in a crowded bar even though we could pretty easily slip away. We are trustworthy even when no one’s watching, because we have deeply shared standards for our conduct. And those standards are shared in large part because we want to feel good about ourselves. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and like what we see.

And recent psycho-social research has demonstrated that we feel best when we are part of a group. We actually feel more ourselves when we are part of something larger – whether it’s a congregation, a cult or a book club.

In Leviathan, Hobbes set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments and creating an objective science of morality.

Hobbes imagined what life would be like without government, a condition which he called the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all.”

But in fact, we were already good before we came up with civilization, with religion, with government. We are good because we evolved to be good. We evolved to cooperate. We evolved to trust.

(sung) It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please,

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

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Following Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, many observers deemed the guest list unfortunate, perhaps unrepresentative, of Graham’s career. Donald Trump? Sarah Palin?

Some blamed son Franklin for the rightwing/corporate tilt among invited guests, accusing the son of tainting Dad’s image.

Such criticism is unfounded. In Graham’s myriad authorized biographies, one can’t miss endless photo-ops with the rich and powerful. Graham was ever eager to shake hands of presidents and despots, movie stars and industrial kingpins, and to offer grandiose approval of their greatness.

To read more, click here.

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