Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Franklin Zimring

During my fourth year at Meadville/Lombard, 1981-82, I paid my room and board by transcribing at the U of Chicago Law School.  At the time professors dictated into tape recorders and then the typing pool put them onto computers which the professors hadn’t quite mastered.  These were work-station set-ups connected to a master main frame in some far away place like the basement, which was dumb since the school was built on a former swamp and buildings occasionally flooded.  Somehow computers seemed to require dark and sequestered places.  Or maybe people think in terms of bomb shelters.

The typing pool was a strange mix of educated older black women and free spirited unmarried white women.  The bulk of the professors themselves were notoriously conservative — Scalia, for instance, who was considered to be marked for the Supreme Court, which turned out to be true.  (Everyone was very nice to him.)  I was supposed to be assigned to type for a half-dozen young professors who were being groomed for the big time, and two of them were female which was considered very progressive.  

They were a nervous, intolerant bunch and would not stand for ANY mis-typings.  Letters were still done on typewriters with lift-off correction, and the guys would hold the sheets of paper up to the light to see whether they could tell what had been lifted off.  But they did like my vocabulary — I rarely misheard a word even if it were multi-syllabic and sometimes I caught mistakes.

Helen, who managed the pool with a motherly touch, wouldn’t let us sit idle and without work, so we typed for other profs as well.  The thought of two men appealed to me.  One was Norval Morris, a New Zealand-born, Australian-educated man who was interested in SE Asia and who concentrated on questions about legal insanity, which are heart-breaking and rarely resolvable.   He was a lively writer who wanted his coffee made in a Chemex, rather exotic at the time, which he wasn’t entirely confident I could manage.  This was partly because once when I was talking to him, I went to sit in a modern bat-winged chair, missed and ended on the floor.  I’m sure he thought I was a proper cow, but was too polite to say such a thing.  

I’ve blogged about his books, which included The Honest Politician's Guide To Crime Control (1970), his classic The Future Of Imprisonment (1974), Between Prison And Probation (1990), The Brothel Boy (1992), The Oxford History Of The Prison (1995), and Maconochie's Gentlemen (2001).

The other one was Franklin Zimring, who was from what we now recognize as the equivalent of an internal nation, Coastal California.  He was in transition between professorship at law school and a return to Berkeley where he properly belonged and it was not a comfortable time for him.  I felt a good deal of empathy for his predicament and he took it as personal affection for himself which he never abused.  He was only three years younger than me, but far more brilliant.  He and Morris worked closely together.

The Aussie and the Californian were exceptionally willing to suspend judgment, to look for the intricacies of interacting forces, to analyze and ponder before coming to conventional conclusions — if they ever did.  Morris died in 2004, aged eighty.  I’m honored to have known this man unafraid to think about criminals and madmen.  I feel sure that what I learned from both of these professors, even if it was only from typing their manuscripts and buying their books.

I’ve blogged about his books, which included He is best known for The Honest Politician's Guide To Crime Control (1970), his classic The Future Of Imprisonment (1974), Between Prison And Probation (1990), The Brothel Boy (1992), The Oxford History Of The Prison (1995), and Maconochie's Gentlemen (2001).

The other one was Franklin Zimring, who was from what we now recognize as the equivalent of an internal nation, Coastal California.  He was in transition between law school and a return to Berkeley where he properly belonged and it was not a comfortable time for him.  I felt a good deal of empathy for his predicament and he took it as personal affection for himself which he never abused.  He was only three years younger than me, but far more brilliant.  He and Morris worked closely together.

The Aussie and the Californian were exceptionally willing to suspend judgment, to look for the intricacies of interacting forces, to analyze and ponder before coming to conventional conclusions — if they ever did.  Morris died in 2004, aged eighty.  I’m honored to have known this influential man unafraid to think about criminals and madmen.  I feel sure that what I learned from both of these professors, even if it was only from typing their manuscripts and buying their books, has made me open to writing with Tim, risky as our subjects and styles could be, and giving the issues serious thought, not flipping them off or letting them be predictable.

Our present national agony over cops shooting citizens, too often white cops and black citizens or even children, has been addressed by Zimring in his newly released and much needed book entitled “When Police Kill”.  It is evidence-based, full of statistical examples of what works and what doesn’t.  There is nothing about evil racist police, but thoughtful identification of various forces that tip the scales towards shootings that equal death.  Below is a link to a video in which he vigorously makes his points.  His claim is that reducing the rate of death by cop shooting from 500 to 250 is possible by making sensible practical changes in procedure.  The hard part is to overcome cynicism and resistance to change.

Zimring has written several books about juvenile justice and I’ve ordered another one.  He generously sent me materials a few years ago when I was researching for what was not yet named “Smash Street Boys” or “Cinematheque”.  Essentially, he doesn’t believe in irredeemable kids and proved statistically that early offenders do not automatically turn out to be lifetime criminals as so many believe they will.  The thinking is produced by family law as much as criminal law.

There’s never been a time so in need of this kind of bulwark against injustice, overreaching law, and unwarranted force.  Zimring’s mother was also a lawyer who passed the bar in 1933, another time of hardship and destruction.  His father was a screenwriter whose writing name was Maurice Zimm.  You’d easily recognize the movies he helped develop in the LA collaborative way.  The one everyone likes to name is “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”  

Franklin Zimring grew up among brilliant achievers but attended public school.  After 1960 Maurice Zimring relocated to Hawaii and was involved in the Peace Corps.  His roots were Jewish Middle America in Iowa and his professor son did not rebel against that as far as I could see.  He never got the “big head” or forgot those who suffer.

Part of Tim’s radicalization came from working in an LA hospital doing emergency room triage in a time of heavy drug use among teens.  The cops brought in a young man out of his mind with belligerence.  When they tried to manage him through the doors of the clinic, he took offense and began to make judo moves.  A cop simply shot him dead.

When someone is shot, especially by authorities, the consequences are far more than just the loss of the victim’s life.  It is broken trust, bitterness and shock for witnesses, families, and citizens.  It destroys reputations for ourselves as individuals and as a nation and teaches us all to resist and evade laws.  But it is an act so easy, so vulnerable to misjudgement, so impossible to provide with justice and healing, and so constantly modeled on our news and dramas, that one can become hopeless about it, fatalistic, accepting.  A kind of second and multiple death, a spiritual creature from an intensely black lagoon.

Monday, February 27, 2017


Alison S. Brooks

I wake up at 4AM and write for an hour or so while I’m still in close contact with my under-consciousness, the things that are not quite in words yet, but forming into patterns.  When I first open catfood cans and start the computer, I’m always aware of little dots of light in the bottom of my field of vision.  I take them to be individual retina neurons flashing and worry that they are signs of trouble, though this has happened for years.  An eye researcher who dealt with such things came to visit and he thought it had something to do with calcium.  Finally I read a medical report that the tiny stars result from the blood supply at the back of the neck, the arteries going into the skull at the back where ocular information is processed.  Vertebrobasilar arteries get pinched and diminished if a person sleeps with a crooked neck or too deep under the covers.  I didn’t even know there was a separate set of arteries back there.  The ones in front get all the publicity.

So the subject this morning is not just that, but all the tiny syndromes that are being found by science, dot by dot, molecule by molecule, isotope by isotope, but almost always a matter of process.  Like the management of mucus in the head which also affects my sight through dry eye syndrome and Sjostrom syndrome, which I wrote about earlier.  I still don’t quite understand what produces the fluid that cascades down through the interior of the face, the sinuses, the eyes, the throat and so on — constantly washing beneath the skin and through the bone and down the throat, always moving.  Existence is process, always moving.

Information of this sort comes from our incredible (hardly believable) knowledge, only perceived by instruments and interpretation of results at the atomic level but nevertheless controlling crucial bodily assemblage and function as humans.  It gives us access, not only to our own health, but also to the evolution of hominins at the atomic level.  Evolution is not just opposable thumbs, binocular eyes, and upright posture, but also — perhaps most crucially of all — molecular adaptation to the ecologies we inhabit, much of it about food.  What we eat leaves a record in that tooth sludge called plaque.  This is far distant in the past from “paleo-diets.”

I hope we are ready to accept that major breakthroughs can happen because of grandmotherly ladies like Brooks and Schoeninger who got to thinking about what Neanderthals ate.  They were thinking it takes calories and specialized metabolisms to support a big brain.  They found clues in the isotopes of plaque scraped off of fossil teeth — especially useful when they matched that information with the environmental data that told them what the actual food sources might be.  Here’s the link to the talk:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXw5fJVBnHU

This is a more extended YouTube description.  The talk is part of a series to which one can subscribe, part of the great cyber-university available to all.
CARTA:The Evolution of Human Nutrition--Alison S. Brooks and Margaret Schoeninger:Neanderthal Diets  (Visit: http://www.uctv.tv/) Alison S. Brooks (George Washington Univ) and Margaret J. Schoeninger (UC San Diego) provide an overview of Neanderthal diets based on the physical evidence, archaeological data, and bone composition data. They conclude that Neanderthal subsistence strategies varied with their local environments and included various combinations of plant and animal foods throughout their range.

Margaret Schoeninger

The women figure that a Neanderthal provider had to bring home to the cave, where the nuclear family waited, a couple of antelope a week.  But then they think about what it meant that hominins were the only animals able to harvest just the high-nutrition SEEDS of plants, leaving behind the stems and leaves.  This wasn’t just about dexterity or eyesight: it showed that the creatures realized the high nutrition value of seeds, which is a matter of thinking.  Then, knowing that the starches would be even more nutritionally valuable if they were cooked, the scientists developed ways to understand whether the seeds were boiled in water or roasted.  They knew these people had fire, but the material culture that had been collected showed no traces of pots.  The most prevalent cooking strategy was boiling in water for a relatively long time, but how?

Blackfeet proceeded by heating rocks in a campfire which they then dropped into a pot-shaped hole in the ground lined with raw hide to make it waterproof.  A pot that is a hole is hard to collect or even detect.  I read about them being numerous around the base of a buffalo jump (piskun) where the carcasses were parted out and dried for preservation.  The boiling was to extract fat and marrow from bones.  (http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120137)

A good buffalo jump, like Head-Smashed-in, just north of here in Canada, needs not only a cliff to run the animals over, but also a good grazing valley at the top so animals would collect there, and then at the foot of the cliff enough space and possibly a source of water for a camp to stay for the days or weeks necessary for processing.  This technique, which requires exploration and planning as well as enough “theory of mind” to understand what a buffalo would do, goes back to “mastodon jumps,” maybe in the same places.  

The point is that to understand our past we need to know everything from dental hygiene to the weather report in order to really grasp what was creating us.  Evolution is simple: it requires variation in the “creature machine” and then new outside stressing forces plus thought from inside about how to cope.  That means some of the creatures are more vulnerable or unsuitable than the others, so they get winnowed out.  It might be hard to predict what will create “fitness”, but it will leave records right down to atomic isotopes when we look at the past.  It might not be a matter of robustness in the physical sense, but instead might be a subtle mutation of genes that produces enzymes capable of extracting/catalyzing the food value of milk and honey, so that the husbandry of goats and beehives can feed people wherever goats and bees thrive after all the mastodons are gone.

But then there is the dynamic catalyst of human behavior to consider, like brushing teeth.  Some hominins scraped at their tooth plaque with twigs, maybe chewed on the end to make a sort of brush, which meant their teeth were not so prone to rot, and that gave them a little edge, a behavior meme conveying fitness.

Other meme-involved activities were whole-tribe practices, like jumps, which required maximum effort coordinated by everyone, not just the dramatic moment of a living avalanche, but the hard work of butchery and drying thin-sliced meat on racks over smoky fires, while cracking bones enough to boil the fat out.  Hominins who did this evolved social skills. 

In the future we will not evolve wheels instead of having feet as some have joked.  We will evolve social skills.  Fitness will consist of things like not killing each other with famine, which it is happening right now.  I'm not talking about global climate change.  Much of the starvation is caused by war or excessive taxation or export for profit that prevents food crops.  In Bengal in 1770 the price of grain was so high that the governor general estimated that a third of the population died.  Much more recently Stalin did much the same thing to Ukraine. Those who get their heads on straight and out from under the covers are more likely to see what to do.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Raczka's book about Winold Reiss

The formal obituary of Paul Raczka is appended, but there are some other remarks to make beforehand.  One is that he wrote two published books that were well-received and are still available with high-value.  One is “Winter Count: A History of the Blackfoot People” and the other is about the artist Winold Reiss (above), whose portraits of the same tribe were made famous by the Great Northern Railroad. http://newsok.com/article/1963517

Paul was one of a half-dozen contemporary men who married women from the Blackfoot tribe and lived half-in/half-out of tribal life, while making a living in the ambiguous area between art about Native Americans and actual NA material culture, sometimes new and sometimes old.  This particular group, mostly based in Canada, included Adolf Hungry Wolf and John Hellson, who collected not just objects but also ceremonies, songs, and stories.  They learned the language and created unique archives within themselves that the actual enrolled tribal people didn’t have, but the men didn’t hoard the these traditional materials.  They taught them to others, particularly young tribesmen.  If they hadn’t done it, the materials would likely have been lost.  

Paul became the object of legal scrutiny over eagle feathers.  A man named Deming owned a 48 feather golden eagle headdress that had belonged to Geronimo and had been given to the Deming family, who simply kept it for decades.  Deming was a lawyer who realized late in life that the artifact must be valuable and tried to sell it --  until an FBI SWAT team invaded his hotel room in Philadelphia, brandishing assault weapons.  His first thought was that they were criminals who had come to steal Geronimo’s headdress and, in a way they had.  Their idea of what they were doing was enforcing the Migratory Bird and Eagle Protection Acthttp://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=95338  (There are a number of versions if you Google.)

It’s hard to understand why the FBI overreacts this way when they could just as well make an office appointment.  Partly they become inflamed about Indians because of Wounded Knee II.  Partly they identify with both the Indian warriors and the cavalry of the 19th century who tried to kill all Indians, which leads to very confused thinking.  Partly they buy into the symbolism of the feathers themselves while actually valorizing their value by making them illegal.  (Blackfeet on the US side gift an eagle feather to their youngsters who serve in the armed forces.  But if the young person is not formally enrolled, they might be subject to arrest.)  Deming was a lawyer so what was at stake was not just a fine or even jail time, but his practice of the law.  He negotiated a settlement that was low profile.

The actual case that endorsed the federal law was Andrus v. Allard, 1979.  Allard is an auction house based in Saint Ignatius, Montana, that funnels Native American materials.  Part of Bob Scriver’s estate was sent to Allard for dispersal.  (allardauctions.com)  The parallel law to the eagle feather act but about artifacts is called NAGPRA, meant to stop grave-robbing.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_Graves_Protection_and_Repatriation_Act  These are the US federal laws that caused Bob Scriver to sell his Blackfeet collection to the Royal Alberta Provincial Museum in Edmonton to escape US law, though he made a photographic record of it for a book before it was sent.  

This book records the Scriver artifact collection.

Paradoxically, when Raczka was prosecuted for having a headdress, a case that was finally dismissed on a technicality, he moved to Choteau, Montana, to escape the politics of Alberta.  I didn’t know him very well since Bob and I had divorced before Raczka moved. 

Now almost all these collectors/entrepreneurs who lived in shadow are gone. They were young in the Sixties and Seventies when the US and Canada were trying to reshape the world through enacting regulations and treaties, and instead created a no-man’s-land of contentious race relations mixed into history, criminality, secrecy, creativity and spirituality.  The mediating force, as always, was money.  But also identity pride that demanded control, either of private property or of public permission.

This might be the time to publish a little directory with some careful essays — certainly another post — about those times and those men who came through, dropping by Scriver Studio as though it were a stage stop.  Some were as patrician as Paul Dyck, whose collection was partly acquired by the European Van Dycks, his artist ancestors; and some were as low brow as John Flaherty, who died in jail in Great Falls.  Raczka was among the more honorable.

Paul M. Raczka Pii-takit-si-pimi (Spotted Eagle)

Paul M. Raczka, Pii takit si pimi (Spotted Eagle), also known as Api si pis to (White Owl), 74, passed away suddenly on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 in Choteau at the Medical Center, with his wife, Albertine Crow Shoe, at his side.

Services were held Thursday, Feb. 16. Visitation was at the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau. A burial is planned for a later date. Arrangements are in the care of O’Connor Funeral Home.

Paul was born on Dec. 29, 1942, to Eugene and Irene Raczka in Buffalo, N.Y. 

Paul was a known historian, a Blackfoot Piikani knowledge leader and ceremonialist. 

In 1963 Paul enlisted into the United States Army, joining the Special Forces 101st Airborne Unit and serving through 1966. He then went on to the University of New Mexico, where he started the “The Singing Wire” Ripples through Life on the KUMN radio station.

In 1972, he left New Mexico and moved to Alberta, Canada, with his previous wife Elaine and two young daughters, Jennifer and Denise.

He was adopted by Laura Crow Shoe Buffalo and Ed and Ruth Little Bear. Paul was one of the people instrumental in reviving the All Brave Dog Society, as well as the Blackfoot ceremonies on the Piikani Nation. In 1977, he was transferred into the All Brave Dog Society, where he was transferred the Bear Dog Bundle. Over the years Paul, held many bundles and obtained numerous transferred rites and he was a current Beaver Bundle owner. Paul was a Piikani at heart; his true passion was Niitsitapiipatapiisiin Blackfoot Ways of life from ceremony, song and spirituality.

Paul was committed to helping the younger generation in teaching them sacred cultural protocols. His heart has been with the Piikani Peoples, Elders, clans, sacred societies and his holy children. He was a keeper of sacred songs from past ceremonialists and received many cultural transfers over the decades. He was humble and would not boast about his achievements. He followed the ways of his traditional elders and teachers whose stories he shared kindly. 

Paul was closely connected to many clans throughout “Indian Country”, which he established life-long relationships. He adopted many children and grandchildren, establishing a large spiritual family of who attended Paul and Albertine’s Beaver Bundle ceremonies. 

Paul traveled to art shows throughout the western United States and Canada buying, selling and appraising art work. His friend David Levine said it best, “Paul was an example of how one can become what one embraces. He became what he willed himself to be.”

Paul is survived by his daughters Jennifer (Eric), and Denise (Jackie); his wife Albertine; sons Josh and JT; grandchildren Keon, Brittany, Karson and Kylee; brothers Ken (Mary) and Tom; and numerous nieces and nephews.

He was preceded in death by his parents Eugene and Irene Raczka.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


The most crucial element of any ecology inhabited by human beings is the OTHER human beings.  So the future of the hominins will depend on their ability to get along with each other, support and improve each other, survive each other.  They say wars are fought well not for the sake of the cause but for the person next to you.

The first impulse of most people looking for how to “be” is to try to imagine a perfect person.  Experience has taught me that what we need is an assortment of people, all kinds of people, some of them secret and even subversive.  The more kinds of people that exist, the more it is likely for hominins to persist, because it is more likely that someone will have the mutation needed to meet the threat.  Like the ability to digest milk.  Probably not war skills.

In the past half-century there has been a great jostling horde of people trying to figure out what we should do, not just in the great choices of political leaders or economic strategy, but also in terms of local, personal life.  Two guides much discussed in the past were the idea of “other-directed” people versus “inner-directed” people.

The Lonely Crowd is a 1950 sociological analysis by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. It is considered, along with White Collar: The American Middle Classes, written by Riesman's friend and colleague, C. Wright Mills, a landmark study of American character.”  

“Riesman et al. identify and analyze three main cultural types: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed. They trace the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, one that moved in a direction defined by preceding generations. Tradition-directed social types obeyed rules established a long time in the past and rarely succeeded in modern society, with its dynamic changes.  This earliest social type was succeeded by people who were inner-directed. They discovered the potential within themselves to live and act not according to established norms but based on what they discovered using their own inner gyroscope. Inner-directed people live as adults what they learned in childhood, and tend to be confident, sometimes rigid.”

There’s a fourth cultural type which came to prominence when everyone acquired television, which is “fantasy-directed.”  The middle-class in particular began trying to guide themselves according to what they saw on television while sitting in their own homes, which made it even more vivid.  When I was teaching on the Blackfeet rez in the Sixties, people were just beginning to see these images, these behaviors, and they were convinced that this was the American norm, which was nothing like the way they were living.

By now we sit staring at Caitlin Jenner and Bill Cosby (not to mention Trump) and feel pretty much the same way except that they have inexplicably become something we never expected and cannot approve.  Beyond that, in some places one can look out the window to see the neighbors killing, butchering and roasting a goat in their backyard.  Most people aren’t used to that.  Aaaauuuugh.  

It’s tough to figure out what is fantasy and what is reality.  Our visual stories on TV now mix flashbacks with plot progression in the fancied “now”.  The sound overlaps the images.  The plots themselves are fantastical, mixing the stuff we see on the news (which is unbelievable enough already) with sci-fi and paranoid conventions about politics that after a while seem real.  No wonder when it comes to politics, people vote but it seems to have no connection to the results.

Identity is anchored in daily life.  We try to appear pretty much like everyone else around us.  Mostly it’s pretty clear what the neighbors are doing, but not always.  The more difficult task is to be inner-directed, because what we learned as kids isn’t always much help.  

Previous generations had little moralizing stories to tell.  In the nursery story everyone was mad at Simple Simon, because he was always doing what worked last year instead of using his head to make his actions fit a new situation, but think of what a problem it was for poor Simon, doing his best but getting criticized for it.  Like holding doors for people who aren’t grateful because it implies they can’t do it for themselves.

The very rich, who may or may not be well-educated or experienced, have the privilege of being inner-directed and causing everyone around them to also be directed by their superior innards.  This might sound like a great idea, but it soon turns out to be a trap unless, like Buddha, one goes in disguise to find out what the world is really like.

In reality it’s pretty brutal.  But also full of joy.  Simon (and maybe Buddha) have a cousin named Jack who is “resilient” to use one of the buzz words of our day.  “Jack” stories are about a little guy, maybe a child, who is oppressed and damaged by a big guy, maybe even someone in his own family, but he saves himself by using his wits to look at the situation in a way that reveals more options than the “giant” knows about.  (McGyver is a Jack.)

Sometimes one can Jack the situation by moving the point of view, or by thinking about a foreign country where things are different, or by enlisting the help of other Jacks.  He is inner directed, but confident enough to interact with and learn from others without getting captured by them.  On the other hand, he’s not afraid to grow and change.

The Plains Indian cousin of Jack is Napi, who is distinguished by his tendency to make a fool of himself.  Jack fools others; Napi gets fooled.  But that never stops him for long. because he learns from his mistakes.

Jill Power tends to be grouped, and sometimes more symbolic than actual, like pink pussy hats.  But also sometimes Jill’s follow Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the resourceful screen writers, which means they end up shouting ineffectively.  For kid heroes, one generally has to go to cartoons, but I can imagine an absorbing series based on a remarkable boy, maybe dark in both senses, but never mean or vengeful.

Back to Jack.  Imagine this immigrant is like a Jack Russell terrier with a personality many of us have come to know: persistent, enthusiastic, energetic, and funny.  The problem the Jack dog has is that the others are humans who want to tell him, even FORCE him to do what they want.  So maybe where he has always lived, it was normal to kill, cut up and roast a goat in the backyard, but now that he has moved, everyone gets upset and points out laws against cruelty to animals, which he can’t understand because it’s not about cruelty — it’s about food.  Is this new country against food?  All sorts of semantical problems about when a living being enters a whole array of laws about how food must be handled for the sake of good health — when plainly the idea should just be to invite everyone over and eat it right away.  But the neighbors are convinced that’s barbaric.  He should buy a refrigerator and make that goat meat last all week.

This example is meant to show how inner and outer directed can smash into each other, creating bafflement and anger.  But taxation, health care, walls, and gimme-caps with mottoes on them are burned over territory.  There is no unified “other”, not even the fantasy scenarios of television which have made us think we understand other people like gays or trans or innocents with dread diseases.  

Now we all crowd onto one of the media platforms where algorithms hook us up, like with like.  What does it mean to be “algorithm directed”?  What class does that relate to?  The credit card class, I guess.  Advertising has grabbed us.

Friday, February 24, 2017


The boy found by Professor Lee Berger's son and his dog.

Chris Anderson’s question, “what are human beings for?” was almost unaddressed in his TED talk that I described in yesterday’s post.  So I spent some time thinking about it and then thought of looking at vids on the subject.  

If the ad I saw (Momondo) comes with this, it will feature our multitude of DNA connections by showing people discovering their own genomes.  But the vid itself is about a sculptor making a replication of a hominin from the deep past, like millions of years ago.

Migration patterns.  Another version of investigating the ancient ties between a person’s DNA and the regions from which they came, in the days when people stayed put and became unique because of the place and the ways of being in it.

Leakey Foundation explains that the ancestors of today’s humans are a great cloud of variations that finally acquire mind and emotion loops that we share — though we’re still quite different from each other.

This is a video for those who are interested and for kids, because it features a major discovery found by a 9-year-old boy: the bones of another boy from millions of years ago.  The dad of the living boy explains.

There are two forces that act deeply on human beings that are not explored in these videos, mostly because you can’t really see them on a vid.  They are molecules and microbes.  (I’ll come back to that.)  Also, in earlier times you couldn’t see the main force that varied all these ancient hominins in the past,  Now we can.  It was climate change.  Today we can see it in action: the droughts, the melting polar caps, the people forced out of their homes.

In the past those who opened their minds to evolution have seen hominins and hominids as a matter of linear progress, going along a time/path through the millennia as though they were one brave “Otzie” (the man found frozen from a mere few thousand years ago).  In fact, humans — like all other species — have been a wave, a herd, a hustling mass of refugees and explorers fanning out over the land masses and even the seas, sending long fingers of sojourners into all the possible places for humans to inhabit, inventing ways to survive as they went until they made homes in the caves along river valleys, along warm coasts where there were fish or frozen coasts where there were marine mammals, deep into forests and high along mountain shoulders, and even on camels in sand deserts.  As they went, the environments changed them.  Some whole groups died.  Others thrived.

Why would it be different now?

Estimated at the moment is that there were maybe 200 different versions of hominins until we settled into the last known final drafts, us and the Neanderthals we have now absorbed.  Africans have no Neanderthal DNA.  Eastern Asians and American Indians have Denisovian DNA and from another group that can’t be identified so far.  Some call it Melanesian and their descendants appear to have sailed to South America earlier than those on foot — maybe.  Remember Kon-Tiki?

Back to the microbes and molecules.  Besides hunting fossils with GPS and radioactive carbon dating, we have been ransacking our own bodies.  Forget the DNA body-plan that guides gestation — once born and adult how do bodies actually work?  What makes it veer off from good health?  How much can we control?

We’re told now that in the process of birth we acquire many one-celled beings.  By the time we die — we are told — we are carrying bacteria and so on that is half the bulk of our bodies made of the cells we generated according to DNA instructions.  In fact, some will say that we — like coral atolls — are actually colonies of one-celled animals that collaborate to provide oxygen, nutrition, and movement for the whole colony that is a human being.

So all individuals with so much family and ethnic pride, all that gilded nationalism and smiling identity — like the people shown getting their DNA analyzed — is probably valid for some purposes, mostly cultural — but totally submerged in the great waves of human and hominin beings over the million-year eons who have gone before, gone alongside, and are now just gone.

Quite aside from triggering climate change in a way we never have before, we are now able to construct molecules, the minute assemblages of atoms that are information-carriers, interactors, even creators of our flesh and the world around us.  We can make insulin.  We can make new molecules that aren’t quite like insulin but do the same thing.  Frankenstein doesn’t have to be a whole new human being — it can be a manmade Frankenfood or Frankenmed or just a plastic polymer chain that no mammalian system has ever encountered before.

The Frankenmolecules sink into the sea, collect at the bottom of abysses where creatures imbibe them, dying and rising to the top where the fish we eat eat them, until they saturate the world so that they get into polar bear mother’s milk and we inhale them — like it or not.

We worry about war and opiates (among the other brain-deranging chemicals we seek out) but fewer of us fear food additives or the out-gassing of new carpets.  Both make some of us sick.  This is not including the viruses that travel among us by various means and demand even more molecular inventions to correct the captured cell-components.  

Overpopulation of the planet has been a concern for a long time.  Some say this is the purpose of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that deal out death in the Bible:  war, famine, plague, and natural catastrophe.  This reframes mass death as a necessary editing, and sometimes claims are made that it gives renewed vigor to those left.  But only a few people are looking at modern subtle toxic edits: shortening life-spans, lowering birth rates, and causing simple “failure to thrive,” formally called “inanition.”  Also what I call “pencil deaths,” those caused by failure of governments to allot resources to anyone they don’t like, i.e. people not like them that they don’t understand, which is why we always want our representation to be at least proportional to the actual population.

Build all the walls you like — they mean nothing.  Become as enraged as you like.  It means nothing.  The problem and the solution are within us.  Where do we go from here?

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Chris Anderson, curator of TED talks

Social media is based on numbers of engaged people which means they must always expand, EXPAND, and the websites panic if the numbers go down.  The Trump win on election day gave them a jolt.  On the one hand, a lot of people are now looking for clues to the source of the unseen surprise.  On the other hand, it was advertising-based and the advertisers were all from one class, one opinion, one comfy set of assumptions, leaning hard on greed and fear.

In the meantime, some of us have been reading long-form explanations and analysis.  So suddenly every push for growth is asking us what we think.  How do we like the socks we just bought and what should we do about the end of the world when the sun burns up the solar system, less that eight billion years from now?

TED talks, which specializes in intensely enthusiastic people they consider interesting, had been leaning towards trivia, but now they’re going “deep.”  “How do we make sense of today's political divisions? In a wide-ranging conversation full of insight, historian Yuval Harari places our current turmoil in a broader context, against the ongoing disruption of our technology, climate, media -- even our notion of what humanity is for. This is the first of a series of TED Dialogues, seeking a thoughtful response to escalating political divisiveness. Make time (just over an hour) for this fascinating discussion between Harari and TED curator Chris Anderson.”

This thinking is surprising to find on TED talks, because they’ve been fooling around with liberal funny business, pep talks for do-gooders.  Partly, I think that’s due to being too busy with growing to see what was going on elsewhere.  Partly it was because Edge grabs all the high end thinking, some of it too high to understand.  Maybe it's partly because Chris Anderson’s real personality and interests have been restrained by business purposes.  I’d just as soon they weren’t.  Anderson was born to English missionaries in Pakistan and has a sturdy respect for the woo-woo, which he seems to see as something practical, not just a song to sing at camp.

To Chris, Yuval Noah Harari is not exotic.  They like sitting down together to search through the landslide of new ideas that is just outside the consciousness of most people.  The two men endorse the universal protection of the multiple and unique.  They call for people to reconnect with their bodies and senses.  They admit that the planet earth is always unfair in tragic dimensions. 

What are humans for? asks Chris.  And Harari is bold enough to say they aren’t for anything.  They just are.  Chris asks Christian questions, like where are humans going, and Harari gives Hindu answers like “nowhere.”  (Human continuous evolution is neglected, esp. the evolving abilities of the human brain.)

I was interested that when they got to the question of consciousness, which seems to torment the minds of male college sophomore trying to find the kernel of their own minds in hopes of reassurance that they are valuable, Harari related it to suffering.  What is a “sentient” being?  A being capable of suffering: not rocks but certainly even primitive animals and — well, we should think about plants.  

Likewise, when it comes to the problem of separating fiction from reality, suffering is the guide.  If it makes you suffer, it’s real. But suffering can create a uniting of people behind mythic understanding, mythic as in the powerful and meaningful stories of religion.  Harari is Jewish, a suffering people.

We are always busy trying to change the world into something that we want, but this interferes with our understanding of reality.  We should want to know what is actual and real, not just what suits us.  Our real task, the one we can actually pursue, is discovering the reality that is inside us as individuals, the truth we carry in our bodies.

But people have lost their connection to their bodies and senses, because they are always trying to overcome them.

In the beginning of this talk it was billed as an exploration of the difference between national governance and interests (often ethnic) and the global.  By the end it seemed rather to be saying that the way to achieve the global -- the planetary level of behavior -- was through the individuals finding peace.  This might not be quite what anyone else would hear, but it seems to me like a fair idea.  I just wish it were a little more cheerful.

One school of thought in the Bible is that the purpose of humans is to enjoy creation as a gift from the Theos.  Personally, I see it as more like the embodiment of whatever theos there is, which is a kind of immanent idea of merging and emerging, one thing transforming into something else while not losing relationship.  It’s close to being nature-based.

This transcript of a clear and graceful “Chris” talk, is a link to why he thinks the way he does.  The talk with Harari is really a way to convey this point of view.  I don’t think Harari minds — he’s in on it.

I ordered Harari’s books and will try to follow out his thoughts.  “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” are the titles, the latter being the newer one.  But I’d really rather follow Chris.  I’ve been zapping TED talks without reading them because they are such little liberal pep-talks from do-gooders.  I see now that this was a deliberate policy change to let ordinary people have their say instead of going off into the stratospheric high-tech theories of Edge and their tantrum-like insistence on atheism.  Chris is more of a Whole Earth kind of guy, which ironically was one of the roots of Edge.  TED leans towards AEON.

It’s that Brit thing.  They were such bullies, so ecocentric in their Empire days, but the colonies taught them even as the outsiders “organized” places they didn’t understand.  It was hard: eight-year-old Chris returning to England was constantly beat up simply for being born in Pakistan though he’s genetically English.  But as he proposes, one can use one’s biological possibilities for empathy and that will help very much to relieve our burden of suffering as sentient beings. 

This seems like more of a religious mission than a popular media goal, but good religion is where you find it, sometimes not in a box.