The psychology behind UFOs: why do we believe?

UFO Skeptic Psychology article

In the era of the Simulacrum, no one can tell what’s true anymore. We couldn’t even tell what was true with our own eyes before with the faulty nature of memory and perception, but now with digital editing, computer simulation, and enhanced visual techniques, telling a genuine from a hoax even in terms of a picture of a mundane object is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

So picture yourself walking down a country road at night, and you see something that looks like a flying saucer in the air. Are you more likely to lose your sense of focus and believe it is the real deal, or pay close attention to the fact that it may be some lights strung to a weather balloon by some merry pranksters?

Many may find the argument in the skeptic article condescending. The argument that we can’t trust our own eyes implies that we are all crazy or that what we see on an everyday basis can’t be discerned properly. However, things are compounded when it comes to UFOs. They are almost universally seen at night when visibility is low. Secondly, there are things in the air, such as meteors, comets, planes, helicopters, and flares, not to mention more exotic things such as stealth bombers and weather balloons, which may appear for a moment to be like a UFO.

The article makes the argument that something like a UFO is too good to be true. It plays too deeply into what we want to be true. People who saw a purposeful hoax when told it was a haox refused to believe it and instead made up pseudoscientific explanations.

However, as I stated in my article Physics and New Age pseudoscience- so what if time is relative?, there are legitimate philosophical takeaways from the new developments in physics that are then used by quacks and New Age devotees to justify their ideologies (and sell books). Are there, despite all the New Age hype surrounding UFOs and aliens, despite all the hoaxes and abduction memories caused by hallucinations, any evidence for extraterrestrial visitation?

My hypothesis is that if we can, as the article suggests, eliminate certain lines of “evidence” for UFOs as being inherently suspect, then we can create a typology of lines of evidence that hierarchizes which types are greater than others.

Here is my hypothesis for a ranking of this kind:

  1. Undeniable visitation: This would be as if aliens landed on the White House lawn and made first contact. This kind would not need to be substantiated because presumably there is “nothing to hide”
  2. Mass sighting involving mass media: This would be as if a flying saucer was hovering clearly over Los Angeles and stayed there during the day, inviting world wide press coverage. Presumably, there would be “nothing left to hide” here as well

Because these two have never happened, the only way UFO believers can justify the idea that sightings are real is that UFOs visit us “in secret”. They do not want to be found.

Why is this suspect on face value? Because if they are truly “in secret”, and have the technology to fly millions of light years to Earth, then presumably they would have the technology to never be seen by us. However, let’s continue with the typology.

3. Mass sightings involving multiple videos and pictures: These actually exist, although what is seen is always unproven and could always be some kind of military craft. The famous Phoenix lights appear to be lights on a giant craft, but could be some kind of strangely aligned flares. These are especially interesting before the advent of digital editing software.

4. Video evidence from a singular person: This kind of evidence is becoming increasingly suspect in and of itself. If it cannot be substantiated by independent people (and things can be still be staged by hoaxers), then odds are it is an elaborate (or increasingly, with digital technology, simple) hoax.

The simple logic goes like this. What is easier to believe, a single vast government conspiracy surrounding extraterrestrials (implying the outlandish existence of these beings), or a bunch of mini-hoaxes perpetrated by self-motivating individuals? More than likely, people get creative in their spare time with digital software these days.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that I do not have a definitive answer about whether I “believe” in UFOs or not. Much of it is of course fun speculation and hype, much like ghosthunting and other paranormal hobbies. Sometimes, it is not easy to tell between those who hunt for ghosts as a hobby and true believers, who are often New Age spiritualists. However, the jury is still out for me. I find that the skeptic article above makes a bad argument for the nonexistence of a “UFO cover-up” purely in terms of their rationale (I still don’t believe in one). Their argument goes that Edward Snowden released a huge amount of CIA files, but none of them pertained to UFOs. However, that was not his line of work, and hypothetically, if they wanted to cover it up, it would “Super Top Secret”, not for lowly workers like Snowden to hack and find. This just goes to show you that even the reasoning of hardened skeptics are not infallible. However, I find their argument about the fallibility of our perception especially interesting from a philosophical perspective. Perhaps those who long for something in the sky just yearn for something more fulfilling spiritually. As Carl Jung stated many years ago, perhaps UFOs are our collective projection of a wish for psychic wholeness. Jung’s theory to date is the most insightful on how modern spirituality intersects with the phenomenon of science fiction and UFOs.

That all being said, you still have to wonder…are they out there?

 

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84000: A translation project for the entire Buddhist canon

 

84000 translation project

The largest collection of Buddhist scriptures exists in the Tibetan version of the canon, called the Kangyur and the Tengyur. The Kangyur contains not only texts recognized as texts that correspond with the Theravada tradition originally written in Pali, but also texts from Chinese translations, although most of the scriptures contained in the canon that are considered words of the Buddha are Mahayana texts made from translations of the Indian originals in Sanskrit. The reason why the Tibetan canon is the largest is that it also contains all of the commentaries from the Indian masters, which form the Tengyur section of the canon. The Tengyur itself is three times the size of the Kangyur, or the scriptures themselves. The Kangyur comprises around 1,000 texts while the Tengyur contains around 3,000. The Kangyur and Tengyur are also expanded by containing texts from the third major school of Buddhism, Tantrayana or Vajrayana, of which Tibetan Buddhism is the major form of practice. Therefore, of all the texts that exist in Buddhism, only texts from schools like Shingon and Zen are missing from the Kangyur and Tengyur.

Now, the Tengyur and Kangyur are in the process of being translated into English, a monumental task of translating all “84000” pages (actually closer to 200,000 when one includes the Tengyur) of the Buddha’s teachings from the classical Tibetan. This project was initiated by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, a very insightful, ambitious, and dedicated teacher. I believe this project will be immensely beneficial to anyone interested in learning from the Buddhist tradition and all Buddhists. The translation is still a work in progress: only around 90 texts have been translated so far. However, this will only grow with time and donations.

Erik Satie’s Nocturnes

 

It is said that Satie reached the heights of his compositional abilities late in life, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. While most people are only aware of the Gymnopedies and a few other compositions by Satie, the Nocturnes are by far my different. At only 13 minutes combined length, they represent a huge leap forward in tonal composition style, breaking away from Satie’s earlier light and meditational atmosphere and embrace the melancholic and heartbreakingly sad. It’s incredible to me how sad these pieces are, like recalling a memory of a bygone era. One is immediately transported into the quiet night streets of early 20th century France, snow falling on a hill…the mental image it conjures up may differ depending on the person, but one thing is for sure, the chord structure and harmony is definitely innovative. The blog post I have linked to below says this on the subject:

“It was not without good reason that the label ‘outsider’ stuck to Satie. As of his earliest compositions he was in search of alternatives to the tonal harmony that was still the unquestioned convention when he began his training at the Paris Conservatoire (1879–87). This search runs like a red thread through all of his works, and was certainly absolutely independent of the stylistic orientation of individual works, reaching indeed, as we know, from echoes of the medieval and exotic to the then popular cabaret music.”

This last comment is particularly intriguing to me. Without going too in-depth into the harmonic style and complexity of the Nocturnes (which I am definitely not able to do with justice), I find the connection between medieval harmony and Erik Satie to be accurate just from my musically trained ear. The style in the Nocturnes, for example, has a certain gravity about it that invokes a kind of sacred atmosphere. To be more musically specific, in almost all of Satie’s pieces, the left and right hand are given almost complete independence: either the left hand is playing chords and the melody floats on top, or often there are two independent melody lines played by the left and right hands. This latter technique occurs in the Nocturnes and evokes a medieval-style chorus with interweaving melodies. I am reminded of a particular piece (not available on Youtube) that also happens to be written by a Frenchman, called Veni Creator Spiritus by Perotin- one of the earliest known composers we have a name for! Perhaps the great Satie was influenced by the chanting that could still be heard in Notre Dame Cathedral where Satie was choir master. Who knows?

 

 

http://www.henle.de/blog/en/2014/09/29/composing-made-easy-on-erik-satie%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98nocturnes%E2%80%99/

The “mystery” of the infinite

As I have developed in other blog posts, the infinite is essentially boring so humanity invents ways to make it not boring. The debate of the universe being infinite vs. finite is interesting, but its probably infinite according to current cosmology. The nature in which its infinite is somewhat interesting, but to me, whether the universe is one universe in a nest of bubble universes or a infinite flat plane of universe is somewhat inconsequential. One has to be empirically correct, but philosophically it is essentially the same, but only at first glance.

The “bubble universe” or multiverse theory has one strength, as far as I can gleam- it introduces the cosmogony into the cosmology. In other words, it posits a way in which universes can be created and destroyed. Realizing that the known universe has a beginning, we can only speculate that it has an ending and is impermanent. The “bubble universe” theory has the advantage of postulating a dynamic system. The only downside I can think of is that it is almost too aesthetically pleasing and may amount to some form of anthropomorphism- in other words, its a pretty vision of what we would want Reality to look like. Can we see the beauty in an infinite expanse of nothingness or vacuum lying outside the observable universe? Its possible, but I personally would rather Reality to go on without me, for things to keep emerging and dying in an endless cycle.

The Bubble universe becomes even more probable if one consider that the Big Bang becomes not an “unexplainable event”, as Stephen Hawking was liable to believe at one point, but a causal event. Would I go so far as to “endorse” the Bubble universe/multiverse theory? I would say that it is the most attractive one currently available because it gives the universe a reason for being which is simply a matter of physics.

Let us imagine, however, a day millions of years in the future of humanity. We have discovered and proven the theory of the Bubble multiverse by seeing past the observable universe. Then we realize: what is one level above that multiverse? Is this series of bubbles in another bubble? 

You see the problem. An infinite nested series of bubbles. We are back at the same problem of infinity. The multiverse theory doesn’t solve the problem of the bubbles unless somehow that series of bubbles were finite or maybe countably infinite. What is more probable however is that this “bubbles within bubbles”, what classic Buddhist philosophy calls interpenetration and what can somewhat be mathematically described as having fractal geometry, is the nature of Reality. Reality simply goes on forever, but in a way in which patterns repeat over and over.

In my mind, we have yet to truly grasp the magnitude of infinity. By its very nature, what we are seeing as the entire observable universe is not only a tiny fraction of reality, it is an infinitesimal portion of it. No matter how big of a chunk you grab, whether it be half the universe, 6 universes, 100 billion universes, 100 billion multiverses…you get the picture.

That is why the ultimate explanation or causal picture of Reality as it is is by no means explained by the Big Bang. Am I positing a deity? No, there is no need to evoke omniscient beings and consciousnesses. Reality is as such, and its suchness is will always be tautological. It exists because it existed in the past…this created this, that created that. Try to “zoom out” and ask “well what created the whole thing?” and an answer will ultimately never be achieved. Or, by contrast, you could simply say “nothing created the whole thing, there never was nothing”. This latter answer leaves humans generally feeling like they are missing something, it feels emptywhich is why I believe its the right answer. Saying, “it just is” goes against the very metaphor of discovery which drives Western civilization and scientific knowledge. It implies that the only reason for new discoveries is utilitarian, and there is no grander teleological narrative, which is probably the case!

What is there left to discover? Everything and nothing, depending on your point of view. The multiverse leaves open some intriguing philosophical or existential possibilities. But by and large, we must recognize and confront the fact that the universe is the way it is, and our knowledge of it will not significantly change it in any way. In other words, we will be born, we will die, and the universe will continue to go. Thinking at these grand levels of cosmological scale is fun, but after awhile, you are forced epistemologically back down to earth.

 

The frightening, unacceptable nature of the infinite

https://www.universetoday.com/83167/universe-could-be-250-times-bigger-than-what-is-observable/

The article linked to above covers the most plausible science of what lies beyond the observable universe. The theory is that if the theory of the inflationary universe is correct (and all evidence points to the fact that it is correct) than the universe is at least 250 times larger than what is currently observable. To begin with, the size of the observable universe is around 90 billion light years wide. That means it would take light, which moves almost exactly 300,000 km/s (kilometers, not meters) 90 billion years to traverse the diameter of the universe. To quote the article:

“Since special relativity states that nothing can move faster than a photon, many people misinterpret this to mean that the observable Universe must be 13.75 billion light years across. In fact, it is much larger. Not only has space been expanding since the big bang, but the rate of expansion has been steadily increasing due to the influence of dark energy. Since special relativity doesn’t factor in the expansion of space itself, cosmologists estimate that the oldest photons have travelled a distance of 45 billion light years since the big bang. That means that our observable Universe is on the order of 90 billion light years wide.”

Therefore, the universe is expands even faster than the speed of light, and because of that certain parts of the universe are forever beyond our light cone. Because of this, they are even beyond the realm of causal interaction- everything beyond the 90 billion light year diameter of the universe cannot interact with the observable universe except perhaps through gravity.

Let’s expand further: if the theory of the inflationary universe correct, then the universe is at least 250x larger than what is currently observable (somewhere on the order of 100 sextillion light years across). But why, then, can the universe not be infinitely large?

It seems we are faced with a contradiction. It seems impossible to empirically prove that the universe goes on forever because of physical constraints and the sheer logical fact that it would not be possible to observe an infinite distance in the first place because conceivably, one could always say “perhaps the end is still beyond that”. If it can be a priori proven from mathematical principles seems dubious at best- the debate rages on between those who say the universe is flat or curved. However, most current data favors a flat and therefore spatially infinite universe.

This idea of measuring the spatial curvature of the universe however does not take into account the fact that at some point beyond the observable horizon of the universe the curvature suddenly increases or is so close to 0 but not being 0 that it is impossible to tell. Thus the problem of infinitesimals meets the infinite.

However, the article expresses a kind of reticence to pronounce that the universe is probably infinite. It is simply “too hard to accept”- they would rather go with the title “universe could be 250 times bigger than what we can see.” For some reason, it is more shocking to say that the universe is 250 times rather than infinitely larger than expected. Somehow, infinity gets reduced to 0. How is this possible? Because infinity, as an endless repetition, is essentially boring. I’ve written about this before, but strictly speaking, humans cannot truly comprehend the infinite, and so they collapse into concepts that are seemingly opposite to it, such as nothingness. Something that is infinitely larger than something is now beyond human comparison, and therefore cannot be gawked at. What is funny is that this is even done by cosmologists.

Take this Quora answer by a mathematics professor, repeating the standard line that the number of electrons in the universe is 10^80 and therefore it is countable and finite:

https://www.quora.com/Is-the-universe-countable

If all the evidence points to an infinite universe, even though it is essentially not possible to prove otherwise, it will never be proclaimed as a fact. Why? There is still more to explore! Infinity violates the boundaries of science- it introduces the metaphysical into the mathematical. If the universe is infinite, what type of infinity is it? Countably infinite? Uncountably infinite?

These are questions that will probably never be answered, but my money is on uncountably infinite. Why? Because the “boundary” of what consider the universe isn’t actually a boundary at all. I’ve pointed out the narrow-mindedness of physicists before when it comes to theories of the universe and the most abstruse theories out there (string theory, holographic theory). There are only boundaries it seems when it comes to the human imagination (of some humans). Even I don’t believe these are insurmountable barriers to human knowledge. I do not believe, as Leonard Susskind claims, it is simply impossible to understand things like quantum physics directly or intuitively. The human brain is a finite organ in space and time, but it has the astounding ability to conceptually grasp things even beyond what is considered “normal life”.

The fundamental Buddhist insight- that what we see is not how reality truly is- is absolutely fundamentally correct. Everything we know about reality points to this, because there are simply things we cannot see- atoms, worlds far beyond our own. The structure of things, their nature, is not possible to grasp with the five senses alone- Plato and the great thinkers of the past knew that very well just from their experience- they knew there was something more to what we see. However, the Platonic vision of reality is also fundamentally limited. Concepts like nirvana or even “the universe” are also only ultimately constructs. Reality as it is is beyond at least average conceptual understanding. Where the real conceptual leap must occur is into the realm of what Buddhist philosophy calls “non-conceptual thought”, which to the rationalist mind is simply an error. Such a thing is not possible. However, if we were to gain some sort of insight into the nature of things like “uncountably infinite” we would in fact have to go beyond our normal concepts for things which operate in terms of metaphors which only apply to the here and now.

To conclude, when thinking of the idea of the uncountable, the mind encounters accepting a limit. It tries to convert the idea of uncountable to something more mundane, like “countable if given an infinite amount of time”. But this is not a correct definition of uncountable. Therefore, if we were to truly accept something of the order of “the universe is uncountably infinite” we would have to accept things like “a theory of everything is not possible”. And yet, science continues to grasp for this theory. And the question is obviously- why? Because the search for truth seems to be something inherent to humanity. Perhaps this particular strain of searching is historically contingent, but modern physics and science now desperately wants this TOE.

My theory is that the TOE stands ultimately for the purpose of science itself, its floating signifier, a signifier which is beyond the bounds of all the other signifiers. The TOE, if thought to be obtained, would not be in fact the TOE. Instead, there would be an illusory nesting egg effect- “TOEs” inside of TOEs. Ultimately, paradoxes will always plague science, as long as it continues to exist.

 

Imee Ooi: Dharma artist

Imee Ooi is an artist who makes songs of Buddhist mantras, sutras, and dharanis. Her music has an amazingly peaceful and pure quality. Her version of the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and Mandarin have always meant a lot to me. Sometimes it is only through things like music that we can truly understand the meaning of things like emptiness or impermanence. That is really my only access to the transcendent, through these kind of crutches. I reach back to my experiences listening to the most beautiful music and how it made me feel to understand the nature of existence, its mystery and loveliness. It is through music and art that we can access these hidden depths of consciousness, much better than mind altering drugs for instance. Sometimes you will get that understanding by yourself, sitting on a mountain, sitting by the ocean. We live in a blessed era where we can access these feelings of bliss sometimes by clicking a button. But is this too much of a good thing? I believe if used in moderation, this kind of music can be used to pacify and subdue the minds of suffering beings.

Dharma Art, art deliberately made to benefit and subdue the suffering minds of beings, is the highest art form. The Medicine Buddha in particular is for those in deep suffering. May this song be for all those who need it the most, the poor, the hungry, the sick. May your suffering be released, and may you abide forever in bliss

Reform or Revolution: Do we need a Third Party?

According to Marxist-Leninists, only direct action and hostile revolution from below can accomplish the goals of socialism (defined according to orthodox ML terms). I disregard this tactical strategy as feasible in America. Anyone who wants real change should realize that electoral politics and seizing power this way is the main way to achieve change outside of real grassroots mobilization like strike action.

But the real “reformist” debate is whether America needs a third party or not. And there is a good case to be made that America, despite the upsurge of support for progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, needs long-term to completely reform the two party system. This is because it is simply too difficult to reform the Democratic Party, with its superdelegates and ties to corporate PACs, to be reformed in a meaningful way. I believe it can be done- the Progressive Caucus is already the largest caucus in the Democratic Party. But real meaningful change in policy can only occur by completely redefining the policies of the entire party, or by taking that momentum and forming a Third Party.

There will come a time in American electoral politics where the decision to support a progressive/socialist electoral party will come. It may be 10 years, it may be 20 years, but it will come. For now, I believe the right strategy is hostile takeover of the Democratic Party. Long-term, I believe it is third party formation, regardless of potential splits of the liberal vote. Sea changes are occurring in people’s viewpoints and demographics that I believe will eventually result in complete electoral reform and the transformation of America’s electoral politics into a true parliamentary democracy with well over 3 major parties. The sooner this starts to happen the better.

Too much attention I believe is given to the tactics debate on the Left. At the end of the day, whether you as a progressive voted for the “lesser of two evils” against Trump or voted third party in 2016, or even didn’t vote out of disgust, doesn’t mean much to me, but its important that the discourse started in the first place. Far from personalizing the politics of it, one should recognize that members of the Left of all stripes were divided on this difficult question. Now, our long-term horizon in the rapidly changing face of American politics post-Bernie Sanders and post-Trump should accommodate new developments, particularly when it comes to strategic support of democratic socialist candidates.

If you count yourself as a radical Leftist, let me address you as someone who shares your commitments theoretically and politically. One should realize the historical window of opportunity that is taking place politically and tactically support democratic socialist candidates even if you believe their politics are not radical enough. This is because I believe too many people in my generation have quickly become enamored with socialism through disillusion with our system and in haste have disregarded the real possibilities for bettering people’s lives through electoral politics. A true “revolution” is under way that can only be described as unprecedented in the US: our backwards and reactionary politics are finally being challenged in a genuine movement for change. From foreign policy to universal healthcare and education, these polices are desperately needed now, not in a hypothetical future under a revolutionary government.

However, to members of the DSA and progressive movement, I believe the radical Left needs to be given greater a voice in the movement when it comes to policy. It is true that historically the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. There is a reason to be skeptical of electoral politics when there is no public financing of elections. The policy platform of the DSA and other democratic socialist groups needs to be pushed even further left to accommodate policies such as complete redress of imperialism and the scaling back of America’s military by a huge margin. Part of the reason why no social programs like Medicare for All are able to be pursued right now is that the government’s finances are apportioned to extremely wasteful military spending.

https://www.dsausa.org/where_we_stand#global

The DSA, while it generally has a very progressive agenda, still uses vague language like “major cuts in military spending” along with rhetoric around imperialism, I have yet to find a policy document that gives a number. The fear is that using a number like this will either pidgeonhole the party into a definite number or expose them to attacks by members of the opposite side. Well, I for one, and many Americans, want a number. What about 50%? 60%? Any number you can possibly think of that is “too high” may surprise you given the exorbitant historical amount of waste in the DoD.

The domestic priorities of an organization like the DSA I believe are mostly right on the mark and have wide popular support. Things like Medicare for All are outlined in almost painstaking detail in terms of facts and figures. However, when it comes to how much we will shrink the military budget, this seems to be the “unconscious” of the democratic socialist movement. Addressing something that directly, as something that can actually be changed instead of theoretical terms like “imperialism” seem to be almost impossible. Using words like “climate change” and “transitioning to a green energy economy” seem to be equally likely nowadays, but using words like “getting rid of oil subsidies” seem to be too “wonky”. Follow the money, always follow the money.

I believe a broad combination of strategies will eventually transition the US into a modern welfare state that is on par with the rest of the developed world. We should realize the immense struggle that is ahead of us relative to much of Europe. We should also realize that there are challenges that have only just begun: the climate crisis being one of them. To those of you that currently reflexively vote Democrat, I challenge you to keep an open mind in the years ahead. “The times they are a changin’ “

The commodification of emotion and its paradoxical authenticity: An anime review

Music is the most dangerous thing on the planet. As Zizek has recognized, music can be a powerful ideological tool to mobilize armies, to inspire patriotism, but also to give hope to those who need it. It often helps people through horrible periods in their life.

This is the ending title song for the anime Attack on Titan, an “apocalyptic” show with genuine pathos and exciting plot and story development, one of the most popular anime television shows in the world that somewhat transcends the genre and approaches the level of, say, a Hiyao Miyazaki movie. And yet, it is vaguely reminiscent of corny monster movies. But there is something genuinely uncanny and unnerving about seeing building-sized cannibalistic humanoids devour the helpless population of a rural society armed only with cannons and primitive c. 18th century devices. Set it what looks like rural Bavaria or Germany, the show makes one wonder “what would I do in a situation where I fight or die? Would it take the easy path or fight for my life? Would I be strong enough?” There are some real dark turns in this show, its definitely for children.

http://www.wisecrack.co/shows/wisecrackedition/philosophy-of-attack-on-titan/

The link above explains how Attack on Titan may explore, directly or indirectly, philosophical themes from controversial Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, leading some to claim the show as veiled endorsement of Japanese nationalism. I believe this is a misinterpretation. What the authors of the show seeks to address are partly themes of totalitarianism and how in dire situations it may be necessary, or how a created common enemy can unite a people. I also believe the show is simply about war and death.

A world war, a war of truly total proportions, is an existential threat that requires one to choose sides, and ultimately fight for one’s life and those of others. It is through an analysis of how power intersects with ordinary people’s decisions where we realize that people who do things that are evil felt as if they had no choice, even if they had one.

This is where commodification and authenticity come into play. The primary reference here, aside from Adorno and Heidegger, is oddly The Banality of Evil. Capitalism, in all its insidious, spreads its tentacles over the globe and creates a consumer culture that is not only totalizing- it is addicting. Video game addiction. Netflix binging. Don’t tell me if you are a leftist you haven’t done it.

And why bother moralizing? It’s fun! Pieces of art that are genuinely moving, even if they are engineered by a group of smart producers and marketers, are still moving. And that’s the problem. The evils of the market are kept in place ideologically by things that make us feel good. Big Macs. Coca-Cola. Chips.

In moderation, these are things that make us feel good. And they remain problematic because, in my view, these things eventually can consume us. Consumption-based society creates a society of couch potatoes, endless consumption. It is essentially the problematic of Infinite Jest.

When we long for a simpler time, in movies, in music, we forget that elements of mass culture and consumer society improves living standards around the world. But a total takeover is ultimately catastrophic to the psychic well-being of humanity.

We need to find a balance. A Middle Way. In our own habits and collectively.

If you are a Marxist: its OK if Hollywood made you cry. It’s OK if you like Coca-Cola. But ultimately, we should embark on something that looks less like the Jetsons and looks more like…well, the way things already are (to a certain extent).

High speed rail isn’t the answer to all of our problems. But modern convenience is a luxury that many would kill for.

It’s scary to think about, but in 50 years we will look back nostalgically on the temperature. Conservation is fundamentally…conservative. We have a right to feel a sense of entitlement of preserving that forest by your house, even the air we breathe.

The heroic struggle that is before us is principally an transformative one: it is a battle against ourselves. Can we create a new way of life that saves us and the planet? Let us continue to be inspired by the art and fantasy of the age. We can continue to daydream about being our favorite heroes: perhaps that is how we will get through the coming years, and have the courage to make the tough decisions.

Difference and Repetition: John Coltrane, modal music, and the value of musical preservation

Skip in the video to 1:15, and a 40s-style big band instrumental instantly transforms into a recognizable melody you may know from “Impressions” by John Coltrane. What is most fascinating is that the lineage of this tune first passed from Miles Davis’ copying of the chord progression of the middle section of the song, and only later did Davis’ former saxophonist partially copy the melody of “Pavanne” and speed it up. In this way, one of the most recognizable standards in jazz is not only a poetic mimesis or “hard bop” version of a modal piece, but the entire basis for the modal genre is based on a simple unassuming big band tune. In this way, one realizes that, to use Deleuzian language, from an existing strata, there are deterritorializations that moves “forwards and backwards at once” as Coltrane famously said.

This is just more evidence that the cliche that “all good music is stolen” may in actuality have a huge amount of truth. There is no such thing as pure innovation, and things that ultimately seem like “gifts” from a divine or deep source, but a product simply of culture.

But what gives “Impressions” that special something, could that be the spark of something else? Maybe we will never know.

I seem to have a strange attraction to music that is lushly chordal, and sometimes the simpler and more melancholy the better. To me, the real pioneers of modal music were the ancient makers of polyphonic chant, Leonin and Perotin, in the late 1100’s!

 

 

Perhaps the most profound and numinous of all things in the world of music is the simple chord that resonates and echoes into an empty chamber. What jazz did was find the soul in the groove, in the rhythm, but perhaps modal jazz was not an innovation, but rather a reterritorialization or appropriation of the Western canon, or the harmonic tradition itself. And yes, this song by Perotin is in Dorian, just like Impressions. There is something about the Dorian mode itself, beyond what any frail human can do with it. What Coltrane did with impressions was a combination of speed, groove, and ambiance. But the essentials of beauty in music come from harmony, the realm of the sacred, while the realm of rhythm has always (in the Western tradition) been the realm of the secular. Renaissance music was essentially a combination of the bard’s dance and sacred themes, and the most ancient precursors to the jazz quartet was the roving band of minstrels (coupled with the Gospel choir, a fusion of the African dance and, again, the harmonic Western tradition).

Perhaps Miles Davis and Coltrane went back to the hymnals for inspiration? It is clear that Coltrane found new spiritual territory on A Love Supreme, with its repetitive meditative themes. But here Coltrane found an entirely new territory- the Orient, the East, which has its own sacred trance-like tradition. In jazz, inspired creativity of several disparate cultures became one. Music that touches the ineffable or sacred, despite its “all too human” origins, if it reaches excellence in the individual bodies of humans who must perform it, all of the sudden “transcends” its station. The voices of choir members suddenly are “transubstantiated”. The transcendental dimension, far from being a Platonic dimension that can be accessed by Reason, or a divine realm accessed by faith or divine providence, is simply immanently transformed into something beautiful, through the process of differentiating and being faithful to what can only be called tradition.

What is truly incredible is the remarkable human process of cultural capture and dissemination, of transmission itself. The music of the world, now that we are becoming globalized, is now being cataloged, preserved, and a new generation of musicologists born. It is our shared human heritage. Far from something that only makes culture into a museum, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, along with regular members of society, take this shared wealth and keep it for future generations to enjoy. If it is divorced from its original context, we cannot continue to daydream and wax nostalgically about a dying past: we must do the slow and steady work of salvaging, of bringing up diamonds from the rough. So when Sonny Rollins said, when the latest John Coltrane “Lost Album” was unearthed, “its like finding a new room in the Great Pyramids”, he is not far from the truth. Rollins understands that Coltrane is part of America’s musical heritage, part of us. Without our history, our all too human, but our fascinating, noble, and beautiful history, we are nothing, we sacrifice the future.

 

Tales from Iceland: the savageness of nature

Finally the blog will live up to its name!

In my travels I frequently end up talking to tour guides and paying very close attention to what they say. I had an excellent guide through the Golden Circle (a circle of three important stops outside Reykjavik- Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall) whom I had an excellent conversation with. The guy’s name is Elvar (sic) on the Grayline Iceland Golden Circle classic tour. Great guy- Elvar if you are out there, you’re a good bloke! He had an extensive knowledge of Icelandic folklore and we had a great conversation about Icelandic culture, history, and folklore. Elvar expertly woves tales of the Ejill saga with the history of the drowning pool at Thingvellir, the law rock of the Alþingi, the war of the bishops, and of course- elves! Tourists to Iceland get no shortage of stories of elves.

If you go to Iceland, you have to do the Golden Circle tour, its incredible. We got to pet Icelandic horses and everything- and it wasn’t that expensive at all! Iceland is a travel gem- just don’t eat very much in Reykjavik! The prices are as gargantuan as the snow capped peaks. Go to the Bonus grocery stores if you are on a budget.

But back to the real reason I’m writing about Iceland: it’s culture. My guide very adeptly identified that religion for Icelanders is a complicated matter because they became Christian very late- around 1000 AD, and even still they retained much of their folk belief. For instance, the bishops had regular discussions about what to do in case of encountered a giant or troll!

That’s Iceland for you, still a relatively remote region of the world, despite its connection to the larger Scandinavian area. The rural areas of Iceland are very cut off- there are many small towns of less than 1000 people. There are still a few houses I saw tucked away all by themselves on the mountainside amidst vast tundra plains of rock and moss.

In this way, Iceland reminded me very much incidentally of Bhutan, another mountainous country in which they have many stories of nature spirits who inhabit the waters and rocks. If there’s anything I learned, its that Icelandic folk belief is almost “indigenous”, and certainly animist. Their connection to the earth is strong, as well as the sea, a mountainous island that is unique among the world’s landscapes and unique in its culture.

Iceland retains much of its ruggedness well into the 21st century. They’ve experienced a lot of deforestation, but most of it occurred during the first years of colonization a millennium ago. Power lines cross the otherwise empty landscape, but otherwise it is still mostly unspoiled. In this way, Iceland is not very much different from some areas of the Himalayas I encountered- the powerlines mark both with the sign of modernity, but retain much of its natural brilliancy. Let’s hope the conservation of Iceland’s natural splendor is taken as seriously by its people as its 100% renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. And lets hope tourism to Iceland does not explode out of proportion with what it the land is willing to bear.

The raw power of nature in Iceland is something that is still unstoppable. The volcanic activity is substantial: the largest single eruption in modern times occurred here in the 1700s, purportedly shooting lava plumes 1 km in height into the sky! Incredible. Nature here is still something feared and respected, and not just considered pretty or even worshiped as “mother earth”. No- Mother Earth truly is a bitch here! She was the mother of Þórr after all! In Iceland, waterfalls still rage, volcanoes roar, and you truly do feel the power and glory of unspoiled nature. 

See those glaciers on top of the mountain up there in the picture? They may not be there for long. Icelanders- if you truly are as connected with nature as you say you are, you must protect these natural treasures for everyone to come, especially the rightful owners of this land- yourselves! If anything, do it for selfish reasons! Nature can be savage, but now humanity can even fell the mighty glaciers that once covered this great land.