Home on the Range

I remember a cartoon character — probably in a printed cartoon, not a video cartoon — singing a parody version of “Home on the Range” that goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the butterflies roam
And the dear little cantaloupes play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging bird
And the flies are not crowded all day.

Searching the Web for the first and second lines, using two different search engines, resulted in nothing. Although I did find a video with Bugs Bunny singing a different parody:

Oh give me a home where the millionaires roam
And the oil and the cattlemen play
With their gushing oil wells and their super hotels,
And they count up their money all day.

I know I did not make up the first parody myself. Will I remember where it came from? Will it ever appear on the Web? (Do I really care?) Such is the peculiar anguish of this point of development of the Information Age, when we realize that not all knowledge is available on via the Internet.

Those kids and their phones

BBC reports on a social trend: little kids hate their parents’ use of smart phones. “I don’t like the phone because my parents are on their phone every day. A phone is sometimes a really bad habit” — this child’s comment was reported by a second-grade teacher in Louisiana. Another comment reported by the same teacher: “I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one.”

BBC also reports that one mother said “her teenagers were just as bad, often choosing their phone over family time.” But the teens are simply doing what they see adults do: giving lower priority to their face-to-face interactions than to their phone interactions. It’s just like that old song by Harry Chapin:

“And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
“He’d grown up just like me,
“My boy was just like me.”

I see this all the time as I walk around San Mateo, where we live, and Palo Alto, where I work: the two year old having to amuse itself in the stroller while the parent focuses solely on their smartphone; the elementary age child standing in front of the parent waiting to play catch while the parent texts someone far away; the parent brushing off the young adolescent who tries to get their attention while they’re looking at their phone….

Concord Hymn

Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, April 19, 1836

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
   We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
   To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the better poems Emerson wrote: simple and direct, and more complex than it seems at first; not unlike the five-minute battle which both the poem and the Battle Monument commemorate. The “votive stone” still stands in the same place that it stood when Emerson’s poem was sung to it back in 1836, 182 years ago today.

Above: The monument as it appeared at the 2009 re-enactment of the Battle of the North Bridge

Mindfulness and the elite

From my files: Three years ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Virginia Heffernan on the craze for mindfulness (“Mind the Gap,” 19 April 2015, pp. 13-15). Citing a Time magazine cover story that called the craze a “revolution,” Heffernan comments:

“If it’s a revolution, it’s not a grass-roots one. Although mindfulness teachers regularly offer the practice in disenfranchised communities in the United States and abroad, the powerful have really made mindfulness their own, exacting from the delicate idea concrete promises of longer lives and greater productivity. In January [2015], during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, [mindfulness popularizer Jon] Kabat-Zinn led executives and 1 percenters in a mindfulness meditation meant to promote general well-being.” But, notes Heffernan, “what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced.”

Three years on, mindfulness is even more firmly entrenched among the elites. I recognize that there are serious Buddhist practitioners out there who teach authentic Buddhist mindfulness practices, and I also recognize that there are those who use mindfulness-stripped-of-Buddhism for benign ends. But when I think about how the 1 percenters have adopted mindfulness, I am curious about how it became so widespread among the “cultured despisers of religion.” Is the ongoing craze for mindfulness an example of how consumer capitalism can strip all the authentic weirdness out of religion, turning authentic religious practices into “opiates for the masses”? Or is mindfulness similar to the Christian “Prosperity Gospel,” that is, authentic religious teachings co-opted to promote consumer capitalism? except where the Prosperity Gospel is used to control lower middle class suckers, Prosperity Mindfulness is to control professional class suckers.

I am also curious whether authentic Buddhist mindfulness will survive being co-opted by the 1 percenters and consumer capitalism. What Heffernan calls “commercial mindfulness” really is nothing but an opiate: a pill that numbs us to the stress and horror and absurdity of an increasingly unjust economic system, but doesn’t actually cure the underlying illness of injustice.

To paraphrase Morpheus in the movie The Matrix: “If you swallow the blue pill of mindfulness, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe; but if you take the red pill of skepticism, you can see the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth….”

Still more Old Time Religion

I’ve collected a few more parody verses of Old Time Religion, which might be of interest to religious liberals:

Flying spaghetti monster:

If we laugh ourselves unsteady
And keep criticism ready,
Flying monsters of spaghetti
Will be good enough for me!

Atheism:

I am quite sure there are good odds
All who see God are just drunk sods,
So I’d rather worship no gods,
Nothing’s good enough for me!

Science:

There are those who worship science
‘Cause they value our reliance
On electrical appliance-es
It’s good enough for me!

In a subsequent post, I’ll post a PDF including these and 27 other verses I’ve collected….

Even more Old Time Religion

Recently I came across a couple more parody verses for “Old Time Religion”:

We will pray to blue-skinned Rama,
After far too long a drama,
He at last killed old Ravana
And that’s good enough for me!

We will pray to Hanuman, a
Monkey whose strength is uncommon,
Cause he dines on curry ramen,
And that’s good enough for me!

Finally, here’s one I came up with for Unitarian Universalists — and as much as I dislike the abbreviation “UUs” (pronounced “you-youse,” which always sounds to me like someone from New York telling how to form the second person plural possessive), it’s fun to rhyme:

We will worship like the UUs
And believe whatever we choose
As through sermons gently we snooze,
And that’s good enough for me!

(And yes, this is my post for April Fool’s Day.)

Why my blog will leave Facebook

For several years now, I have linked my blog posts to Facebook. I’ve decided to end that arrangement.

I’m not doing this because Facebook helped Cambridge Analytica meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There is nothing new in that ongoing news story. We have long known that Facebook steals information about us and uses that information to make money. We have long known that as a corporation, Facebook has no moral scruples; if corporations were really persons, as the U.S. Supreme Court asserts, Facebook would be a psychopath. Psychologist Michael Tompkins of the Sacramento County Mental Treatment Center describes psychopaths as “skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain”; a phrase that accurately describes Facebook. Facebook lost 14% of its capital value in the last couple of weeks, astonishing that psychopathic corporate entity; and now that entity is trying to figure out how to pretend to be moral, thus allaying our fears so that it can continue to lie and cheat and steal even more from us. But this is a long-standing pattern of behavior; the Cambridge Analytica debacle is nothing new, and there’s nothing in that debacle to make my change my ideas about Facebook.

What has changed for me is I’m beginning to see clearly how Facebook makes its users mean-spirited, unreasonable, and rigid. Facebook reduces public discourse to meme graphics, rage porn, and incestuous conversations among people who already agree, worsening the political and social polarization of the United States. I’m particularly troubled by the effect Facebook has had on the thought processes of Unitarian Universalists.

In particular, I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post meme graphics that play fast and loose with facts; these are ministers who are careful to fact-check their sermons, and it troubles me that they won’t fact-check re-posted meme graphics. I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post rage porn — graphics, videos, or text designed to induce rage, rather than to promote dialogue — these are ministers who would actively resist inciting rage in committee meetings, or in sermons, or in pastoral counseling sessions, and again I am troubled that they feel it is acceptable to induce rage through a social media platform. And I have watched as Unitarian Universalist ministers expel from their Facebook “conversations” anyone who disagrees with whatever narrow conception of “truth” that prevails in that particular conversation; by so doing, they erase nuance, leaving behind only binary, either-or thinking.

It’s not just Unitarian Universalist ministers who do this. Unitarian Universalist lay people are just as bad. I don’t like what Facebook is doing to Unitarian Universalism. To me, one of the strengths of Unitarian Universalism is that it encourages tolerance of other people’s thoughts and feelings, even if I happen to disagree with them. Another strength of Unitarian Universalism is the insistence of the importance of reason, a human faculty that is disengaged by rage porn. Facebook is designed to get you to spend as much time as possible staring at it — that’s how they sell advertising — and to do that, Facebook disengages your reason and erases your sense of tolerance.

There are other horrible aspects of Facebook: it induces feelings of isolation; it is addictive, and interferes with other activities; it is destroying public discourse, and thus directly attacks democracy. These results are not side effects of Facebook; these are direct results of the way Facebook is designed. Obviously, other social media platforms, with socially-manipulative designs similar to Facebook, produce similar results. I abandoned Twitter some time ago. I stay away from Snapchat. And now it’s time to pull back from Facebook.

I’ll still use Facebook to find Sacred Harp singing events. But I no longer want to link my blog directly to what I can only describe as a psychopathic corporate “person” that turns otherwise reasonable people into mean-spirited, unreasonable, intolerant, ill-mannered destroyers of democracy. If you want to read my blog, from now on you’ll have to go directly to my blog.

(Something I should make clear: Amy, the Unitarian Universalist minister I work with, is a responsible user of Facebook.)

Don’t trust video any more

You’ve probably seen the news about “deepfake porn,” in which the face of a porn actor can be replaced by the face of anyone for which you have a photoset. You can now download software to create deepfake porn, and you can run the software at home. As this technology becomes more widespread — very soon, in other words; in a matter of months or weeks — you’re going to see its use spread well beyond porn:

— Faked video is going to make the 2018 election cycle very interesting. You can pretty much visualize what the candidates are going to do to each other, to say nothing of their partisan followers. Next, start thinking about what Russia is going to do with this technology. You thought fake news dominated the 2016 elections? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

— People are going to be framed for crimes using faked videos from surveillance cameras. The cops and the courts will catch on before long, and soon video from surveillance cameras will lose evidentiary value. Someone will try to create secure video technology; someone else will hack it.

— Imagine what the Church of Scientology will try to do to its enemies; imagine what fundamentalist atheists will be tempted to do to denigrate religious figures; and surely faked video will spread throughout religion. It’s enough to make you want to convert to Old Order Amish and renounce technology.

You can spin out your own scenarios….

Yammer yammer

As I walked over to the science fiction section in the library, I could hear a resonant baritone voice in a far corner. Some idiot on their cell phone, I muttered under my breath. Let’s see, McCaffrey, nope further back, LeGuin, getting closer.

Yammer, yammer, yammer, said the resonant baritone voice, distracting me. Yammer yammer yammer.

Laidlaw, Laidlaw, Laidlaw, I repeated to myself, looking through the Ls. What, no Marc Laidlaw? Rats. OK, let’s try S.

yammer yammer give me seed money yammer yammer I’d be CTO yammer

I tried to shut the phone conversation out of my mind, but it was so full of Silicon Valley cliches that it leaked past my defenses. And every other word seems to be “I” or “me,” I said under my breath. I walked around the corner to get to the Ss, and there he was: a young white male, schlubbily dressed. I ignored him as best I could and looked for Stross, but the book I was looking for wasn’t there. Let’s try Matthew Hughes.

yammer what I want yammer I told the VC yammer I said I don’t let people quit my company yammer

The Hs were just around the corner from where the young man was talking. It took some effort to shut the loud self-important voice out of my head. No Hughes on the shelf, but I got distracted by an old Harry Harrison novel. Though I studiously paid no attention, I could sense the young man’s back looking at me with annoyance; I had entered his private space. He walked away, still talking loudly, his self-important voice fading to a distant but resonant whine.

The Harrison novel was not nearly as good as I remembered, so I left it on the shelf and went to look for Pratchett. It occurred to me that the young man with the self-important loud voice was very much like a character from a Terry Pratchett novel: one of those self-involved narrow characters who is certain he is saving the world (from something it doesn’t need saving from) and who is bewildered when he makes a giant mess out of everything.

May the gods preserve us from such people, I muttered to myself as I checked out my books, and then realized I was talking to myself a bit too much. Not a good sign.

The singularity as atheist religion

In a talk titled “Dude You Broke the Future,” science fiction author and atheist Charlie Stross takes on Ray Kurzweil and other advocates of the “singularity,” the moment when all our problems will be solved with the emergence of transhuman artificial intelligence:

“I think transhumanism is a warmed-over Christian heresy. While its adherents tend to be vehement atheists, they can’t quite escape from the history that gave rise to our current western civilization. … If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And if it looks like a religion it’s probably a religion. I don’t see much evidence for human-like, self-directed artificial intelligences coming along any time now, and a fair bit of evidence that nobody except some freaks in university cognitive science departments even want it. What we’re getting, instead, is self-optimizing tools that defy human comprehension but are not, in fact, any more like our kind of intelligence than a Boeing 737 is like a seagull. So I’m going to wash my hands of the singularity as an explanatory model without further ado — I’m one of those vehement atheists too — and try and come up with a better model for what’s happening to us. …”

I find it delightful to see a self-proclaimed “vehement atheist” calling out other atheists for doing religion. This is especially admirable, since those other atheists would doubtless insist that they are not doing religion at all; they would claim that they are doing science. Not only that, those other atheists are doing bad religion — transhumanism is as bad as the Prosperity Gospel, insofar as both types of religion are barely believable, have no redeeming social worth, do not engage in worthwhile cultural production, assert that the vast majority of humanity will not be “saved,” spread fear, and are stupid and hard to believe.

This is just a parenthetical remark in a much longer talk — and the rest of the talk is definitely worth reading, particularly for Charlie Stross’ take on corporations as AIs that are making global climate change accelerate.