Tuesday, April 28, 2015

14 books aware

When i left the home of my youth, a single shelf for my books would have extended seventy feet. My busiest year was the age of fourteen, when i read some 115 books (not including my oft-ignored schoolwork). The author who turned me into a reader was edgar rice burroughs - at thirteen, my first burroughs made it imperative that i read everything he wrote. I stopped when i came to the final tarzan novel, saving it for my deathbed. A handful of others (shaw, o'neill, chekov, stoppard, vonnegut) have triggered the same consuming desire.
Here are the books i know, that every human ought read. The final version of this list will no doubt have more titles - a book on genetics, one about touch (a primer for which is chapters 4-8 of morris' "Intimate Behavior"), something on mythology and archetypes, perhaps several on sociology and psychology, and some i probably can't even begin to conceive. These books may turn your perceptions inside out, and put you back on the path of humanity.
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THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE, by larry gonick
A brilliant book, and precisely what it claims to be. Gonick is a cartoonist with Harvard degrees who injects huge helpings of humor and science into his books (all of which should be required school reading). He self-deprecatingly declares that he's only trying to save the world. My kinda homo sapiens.
THE NAKED APE, by desmond morris
There are one or two sections desmond might update, but the single hardest thing for any person to do is to step outside oneself. No book ever achieved that so brilliantly, in terms of the entire human species, as this.
SEX AT DAWN, by christopher ryan and cacilda jetha'
A deconstruction and negation of the competition-based narrative of human sexuality (women selling their sexual exclusivity to one male in exchange for resources and security, with men driven by the need to insure the paternity of their offspring). Replacing that is the mode that was likely humanity's state for at least 98% of our history, that of multiple partners and radical sharing in all elements of society. It corrects the one gaping flaw in the works of morris.
http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2012/02/sex-at-dawn.html
ANIMAL RIGHTS, HUMAN RIGHTS, by david nibert
If you and a child about to be marooned on a desert isle could grab only two books, take this and "Sex at Dawn". No others pull the veil off humanity so precisely and concisely. This one tackles the past ten thousand years, and how our species has gone so incomprehensibly astray since the advent of agriculture and private property. See http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2013/10/animal-rights-human-rights.html, and also his follow-up, "Animal Oppression & Human Violence" (http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2016/06/animal-oppression-human-violence.html), which fleshes out his points in terms of the apocalyptic, holocaustic disaster that is global corporate capitalism.
THE WATCHMAN'S RATTLE, by rebecca d. costa
An investigation into why every advanced human society in recorded history has collapsed, and how we're on the same path. Costa addresses the stages of collapse, and the five supermemes (ways of thinking or being) which are killing this world. She shows how, for the first time ever, humans are capable of avoiding that fate. In general and specific ways, she shows how it will happen.
http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-watchmans-rattle.html
THE SECOND SEX, by simone de beauvoir
As lucretia mott said, "The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source". Jean-paul and albert may have had richer imaginations, but neither came close to writing anything so towering.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X, by alex haley
The understanding of racism starts here.
A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, by howard zinn
The history of the world's preeminent military superpower told not from the standpoint of rich white men, but that of women/native indians/poor white men/blacks/chicanos. Zinn challenges you to wonder what might happen if the U.S.A. became the world's first humanitarian superpower.
JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, by daulton trumbo
Strictly an appeal to anti-war emotion, but few books may ever lacerate your spirit so unshakably.
gOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING, by christopher hitchens
This book makes me cry...that i didn't write it first.
THE WAR AGAINST WOMEN, by marilyn french
A deconstruction of how the establishment reacted to women's liberation in the second half of the twentieth century. Less sweeping than simone, but more analytical.
http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2012/03/the-war-against-women.html
EATING ANIMALS, by jonathan saffran foer
One of the more compelling arguments against eating other animals, written by a meat-eater facing parenthood. There's not much on health risks or historical perspective, but the cruelty that makes the Holocaust look like Club Med, plus the ecological apocalypse of factory farms, are well-covered.
http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2014/08/eating-animals.html
HARMFUL TO MINORS: THE PERILS OF PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM SEX, by judith levine
Stunningly brilliant and nearly-suppressed.
http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2008/09/harmful-to-minors.html
AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS IF YOU DO: THE ABSURDITY OF CONSENSUAL CRIMES IN OUR FREE COUNTRY, by peter mcwilliams
A towering achievement, and possibly the most laterally exhaustingly-researched book i've ever read. Not just staggeringly important, but brilliantly written.
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Also considered: WALDEN, LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, BRAVE NEW WORLD REVISITED, THE MISMEASURE OF WOMAN, LETTERS FROM THE EARTH, THE LORAX

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"The Watchman's Rattle"

(Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction)
-by rebecca d. costa
2010
This clarion call from sociobiologist costa investigates why every advanced civilization in recorded history has collapsed, and discovers that whenever humans experience exponential growth, there comes a point called the cognitive threshold, when the complexity of problems becomes too great for our minds to wrap around. After that, the balance between knowledge and belief tips in favor of belief, and the end is on its way. By that metric, our tipping point has already passed. Am i happy she goes along with the assumptions underpinning the word "civilization"? No - the implication that ANY human society of the past ten thousand years ought be called "civilized", is a thought that could stand greater scrutiny. But her point is that the mayans, for example, didn't get into wholesale sacrifice of their own populace on bloody altars until problems (in their case, water shortage) had grown beyond their ability to cope. How equipped are we to manage pandemic viruses, depleted resources, climate change, planetary pollution, dying oceans, terrorism, or nuclear proliferation? But unlike most doomsayers, rebecca firmly believes that humans are, for the first time ever, knowledgeable enough to overcome our cognitive thresholds.
And she tells us how we're going to do it.
She examines how evolution has left us trying to cope with 21st century problems, with a brain that's suited for the low-stress life of a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural gatherer. Our brains are constructed to deal with problems of immediacy, not things a day or month (or generation) down the road.
So it turns out my youthful procrastination proclivities were not, as it turns out, laziness. I knew it, i just knew it!
She outlines the stages of collapse: gridlock, the substitution of belief for fact, and the embrace of short-term mitigations over long-term solutions. She shows how the biggest obstacle facing humanity is our own attitudes. She discusses memes, ways of thinking or being, and how they can grow into supermemes (like the flat Earth, an eye for an eye, monogamy, heaven or hell, and blondes have more fun), which can contaminate or suppress all other beliefs and behaviors. Memes (like not swimming after you eat, which it turns out is fine) tap into our need for belief. Even if it's only believing that the door will open when you turn the handle, humans need the comfort of belief to function. The greater the variety of memes, the more likely a culture will survive sudden or dramatic changes. Another meme? We only use 10% of our brains. Nonsense! Can we still enjoy the wonderful movie based on that lie, "Defending Your Life"? Of course.
Supermemes are culture-killers. The five supermemes pushing us toward extinction? Irrational opposition (the tendency to be AGAINST something rather than for, which stymies creative thinking), the personalization of blame (finding scapegoats instead of addressing the systemic causes of a problem), counterfeit correlation (complexity causing us to lower our standard of proof), silo thinking (compartmentalization which inhibits cooperation...think of the lack of communication between the CIA, FBI, and Homeland Security), and extreme economics (basing every decision on profit/loss projections).
Costa shows how the technology to fix our problems is already available, waiting for us to get past our entrenched attitudes. There are abundant solutions, like the "cool roof" strategy - if we paint every roof and road on the planet white, it would be the equivalent of taking eleven billion cars off the road for eleven years. The reflection/absorption ratio of the sun's rays would change immediately, resulting in global temperature reduction. Cooler cars would use less energy, and the demand for air conditioning would drop 20%. You want more long-term? Fine. NASA has known for decades that the only sensible way to get solar energy is to put the collectors in space. The world's energy needs would be met, with plenty to spare. What's keeping us from doing it? The gridlock of capitalism. Still not good enough? You want global warming fixed? Science knows how previous ice ages were triggered - the introduction of huge amounts of volcanic sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. We could "shade the Earth" as little or much as we need, to stimulate such cooling. The price? $250 million the first year, $100 million each year after. That's "million", with an "M". And water? Iconoclast inventor dean kamen has followed up the Segway with the Slingshot, a low-energy purifying system that could solve the world's water problems within two years. The challenge? Getting it into everyone's hands. The obstacle? Capitalism! Perhaps we should rethink capitalism's most basic tenets. No wait, it's already being done...see muhammed yunus' 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for showing that collateral-free loans to the poor are stunningly successful, as long as you make the loans to groups of 5-8, not individuals. It turns out that our culture of individualism flies in the face of human nature.
Costa excoriates the idiocy of the self-help era, which encourages everyone to think that our happiness is in our own hands. There are a million shows and books and gurus making fortunes off this idea, happily ignoring the truth...that current human misery is systemic. Black incarceration is a societal problem, not personal. Epidemic obesity is societal, not personal. Drug addiction is societal, not personal. A weak (but irresistibly resonant) example is oprah's weight. As a black woman who created a billion dollar empire in a white man's world, is there anyone who would contend that she lacks willpower? In addition, she has a full-time staff of chefs, trainers, nutritionists, and life coaches. She makes staying thin her very public personal agenda. Yet she keeps getting fat! If oprah can't do it, how can anyone?? The "personal empowerment/accountability" meme is also fool's gold in terms of global problems. For example, less than 3% of the garbage generated by America is municipal waste. Ergo, domestic recycling is nothing but a cosmetic gesture. I'll add my own example of our misguided obsession with personal accountability - the michael jackson song "Man in the Mirror". It's wonderful and moving...how many millions and millions (including myself) have sung it in uncounted showers around the globe? Yet the message of the song is utter nonsense, in terms of effecting any real change in this world.
Costa tosses out salient examples of how extreme economics affects us on every level - for example, everyone knows what a prenuptial contract is...but what does it say about our priorities that there is no such thing as a precustody contract? And she may make you re-think the notion of the West having ANY association with fundamentalist nations - leaders like bush and blair and obama may invoke god, but the driving supermeme of the West is finance...and that's a pill which will never be swallowed by a fundamentalist state. But fundamentalist states, with their paltry variety of memes, aren't built to survive.
Humans are also easy prey for the notion of putting all our eggs into one ovary...but research shows that a barrage of concurrent solutions (many of which won't work) is the soundest way to address civilization-imperiling complexity.
Is costa a brilliant writer? Well, no. She's satisfyingly competent, and peppers her prose with enough humanity and personal experience to instill faith (ha - belief!) in her as a person. But her writing is only as interesting as her subject matter. In this case? Fascinating. The fact that she doesn't mention any possible solutions to the apocalyptic problem of global pollution is neither here nor there (well okay, it's certainly here, and no doubt there too).
She ends the book with an investigation of insight...the ability of the human brain to synthesize a solution (often counter-intuitive) that transcends our knowledge. Insight is a relatively new feature of our physiology, but if humanity is to avoid extinction, this is where the evolutionary path leads. Costa offers the newest research on brain fitness, which i'll cryptically encapsulate by saying that i intend to make quick travel over uneven, irregular ground a regular part of my life.
I've got a planet to save, after all.
And so does rebecca.
You too?

("The Watchman's Rattle" is now on this writer's list of thirteen books every human should read: http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2015/04/13-books-aware.html)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"If the World was You"

If the World was You
2008
-by j.d. souther

As the songs on this album rolled past my ears for the first time, i felt a growing sense of disappointment. That impression was completely wrong, but back to that in a minute. Over the course of one day, i listened to a few tracks at a time. When i came to the last, the day was late and i was content to put off the final letdown until the morrow. I had recently heard j.d.'s ON THE BORDER anthology, and 2011's acoustic retrospective NATURAL HISTORY - these brilliant albums had primed me for a sweeping late-career artistic resurgence. J.d. had been a beloved figure on pop music's fringes...one of the creators of the california country rock sound, a contributing writer for some of the Eagles best songs, the sublime "Her Town Too" duet with james taylor...but what little i'd heard of his solo career (or Souther/Hillman/Furay) had been underwhelming.
When i hit the play button the following day on that final track, "The Secret Handshake of Fate", i was pretty sure i'd pass the disc on to my brother without another listen.
A month later, i still can't stop playing that song...and indeed the entire album. I'm sure most of us can relate to music we don't much care for upon first listen, but grow to love - which is what happened with the other cuts. But the final track is so off-the-charts brilliant, it evokes a small handful of songs that make such an instant impression, you forever remember exactly where you were the first time you heard them. You're wide-eyed with the instant recognition of sublimest brilliance. Is it on the short list of my desert island songs? Assuredly. At thirteen minutes, the only way you'll ever hear it on the radio is when i get my own show. It contentedly meanders its jazzy way around and around, which is a fitting reflection of the lyrics - salient, slyly salacious, and offbeat observations of human foibles. So startlingly perfect it's almost hysterical. The trumpet work by rod mcgaha takes some getting used to, because he doesn't sound the way trumpets are "supposed" to sound. This is a conceit and pitfall of popular music - certain styles of playing become accepted and expected. Mcgaha sounds so rough it's almost amateurish...but you finally realize he's simply doing it his way instead of aping armstrong or botti.
The other musicians (jeff coffin, chris walters, dan immel, jim white) play like they were plucked out of a jazz club you wish were in your neighborhood. Maybe your own ear won't need repeated listenings to realize that the other songs are brilliant, too. J.d. has never before been recorded this simply and beautifully.