Speaking up

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57 days ago

Note: I thought long and hard about what to do about Trump, and decided that personally reaching out to my family, many of whom are Trump supporters, was the best thing I could do. I wrote the email below and sent it. I thought it might be important or useful for other people, too, so I’m sharing it here. Feel free to do with it as you like.


This email is about Trump. I know email isn’t the best way to publish political thought, but I’m trying to do what I can about a terrible situation, and this is the most valuable thing I can figure out to do (that I’m not otherwise already doing). I’m writing this to save myself, my family, and all of you – so I’m willing to break a norm.

Please read this. Do it as a personal favor to me, even if you think I’m being dramatic, or wasting your time. I’ll owe you. Do it as a personal favor to yourself, so that when you look back on this moment, you don’t feel ashamed.

Trump is headed for a coup. Either an explicit, overt one, or a fumbling, oh-we-didn’t-really-notice-until-it-was-too-late-that-he’s-unstoppable one. He’s moving very, very fast – it will be over within a few weeks. It doesn’t matter if you agree with his stated goals and plans; converting our country into an autocracy will not be good for any of us. Think about what it would mean to have a president who was accountable to nobody, and nothing – not to his prior statements, not to his political party, not to any court.

If this idea is at all surprising to you, that’s why I’m writing this email. It’s going to be over before you’re even ready for it.

If you’re angry at the “idiots” who created this situation, that’s why I’m writing this email. You’re part of the problem. I’ve been part of the problem, too. I’m trying to dig my way out from under that mistake.

Even if you totally disagree with all of this, I’m desperately asking you to pause now for a minute and think about what things would be “over the line” for you – what things could Trump (or any president) do, that would be clearly wrong and irreparable? What things are so far out of “normal” that they’d clearly indicate that something is very broken, and that he’s uncontrollable? Write those things down. If he hasn’t already crossed that line for you, look back at that list periodically. It will help you realize when “the next little thing” or “the next thing that’s too heavy to face” is actually across that line.

Now ask yourself – is banning a group of people, based purely (and overtly) on their religion, or country of origin, over the line? What if that group of people has exactly zero history of ever killing us in terrorist attacks? What if none of the countries-of-origin of the 9/11 attackers were on the list? What if all these immigrants already have to go through an 18-to-24-month vetting process across multiple federal agencies before they are allowed in, so all the statements about needing “more vetting” or “they’ll sneak in” are just outright lies? Would those things be over the line? Would causing all this pain and suffering, just for personal political gain, be over the line? What about all these other worse things, that are going to happen?

Please realize that at some point in the near future, any rights you have – yes you, a middle-class white person – will cease to become “rights” and will only be “by Trump’s benevolence”. As interpreted by his cronies. And driven by their personal motivations. Without consequences for their terrible actions.

Whatever he can do to any marginalized group (e.g. Muslims, Mexicans, blacks, gays, etc.), he can do to any group (i.e. you). He will be able to grab any one of you/us and make us homeless, helpless, powerless – without recourse.

His regime is doing exactly that with Muslims, right now, via DHS and the 100-mile border. (The 100-mile border was the thing that was over the line for me, years ago – well before Trump.) And DHS is clearly supporting him. But for middle-class white Americans in general, he doesn’t quite yet have the political foundations yet to get away with it en-masse. But that’s coming.

Note that I don’t care whose fault this is, and I don’t think “Democrats” are somehow better, and I’m not at all concerned about what we should have done before now. I don’t care about Trump’s stated goals for the country and whether they are good or bad. I don’t care whether each individual executive order is a good or bad idea. I care about what they all mean, collectively. I care about the complete destruction of our democracy, our safety, and our freedom.

The whole system is fucked, and it has been for a long time, and this is just the consequences playing out. But now that we’re here, we have to survive it, and ideally we do so with some semblance of honor and dignity.

If you want my advice on what to do about it, here it is: think of every “enemy” you can think of – Muslims, Republicans, Democrats, rich people, poor people, “terrorists,” whoever – and just… let go. Stop imagining them as enemies. Remember that they are people, and they have jobs and kids and backyards and games… and the only reason they have different values and viewpoints than you is that they have different experiences and history than you. Neither side is right. There aren’t even sides. There are just people, and all people are just trying to get through life. Take some time and try to understand why they would think the way they do. Assume that they all started as good actors, and imagine the circumstances that would have had to exist to make them the way they are. Imagine if you’d have turned out differently, in those same circumstances.

(Note that this viewpoint isn’t incompatible with needing to kill people, sometimes. But it is incompatible with doing it out of hatred.)

Imagine what your life would be like if you suddenly found yourself in a group that most people saw as “the enemy”. Imagine if you had to live through that. The only reason that isn’t your life, is the luck of your particular circumstances.

Go back up and read that article I linked above under ‘You’re part of the problem’. It’s advice from someone who has been through this before, and failed. He says that we need to make more bridges, not fight more enemies. Making enemies is what Trump wants us to do.

That article says we have to work together to limit this president to only those powers that we want every president – even ones we vehemently disagree with – to have. We don’t have to stop them (Trump and all future presidents) from doing all the stupid things they’re going to do. We just have to work together to ensure that no president – now or in the future – has more power than it is safe to let him (or her) have. Even if you agree with Trump’s current goals and actions, ask yourself – do you want a future president, that you disagree with, to have this much power? This is the foundation of our democracy – that we limit the power we grant to our government – and we’ve been failing to do so.

Then do the most important thing you can do: reach out to the people around you – especially the people you usually think of as “enemies” – and get them to see that we’re all in danger. We’ve all been played for fools. We’re all being tricked. We’re all in this together.

Maybe getting more of us onto the same page, will be enough.

With love and concern,
Nathan

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Technology and Lent

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1462 days ago

This website

The plugin that provided the email notification feature for this website broke with a recent update to my blog software, and it’s not going to be easy to fix. So I’m not going to fix it.

Of course, that means that the affected people aren’t going to hear that they’re affected. Sorry about that! (I’ll tell personally the few I know.)

In fact, I’m likely to switch to ikiwiki …eventually. Textpattern seems to have lost its mojo, and there have been some long-standing issues with it (like no native tagging support!) that seem unlikely to ever get fixed. And I’m hip to the cool technologies now, so a more infrastructure-like framework (i.e. ikiwiki, with git) for my blog feels like a better answer. And schmonz volunteered to do most of the work :)

That also means I’ll probably abandon tru_tags …more than I already have. There hasn’t been anything to do with it in a long while, at least not that I felt was worthwhile to be done. Most of the features that remain to be implemented require a major refactoring of the core Textpattern code, and that just seems very unlikely to happen (by me or anybody else) any time soon. So hopefully it will remain useful to the people who still use it.

This year’s Lent

I have utterly failed at this year’s Lent give-up. I have been better at going to bed at a reasonable hour, sometimes for days at a time. But I simply can’t do everything I need/want to do in my life with the few hours that leaves me between work, kids, and chores. So sleep will continue to lose to projects – although less-so than it used to. There are some nice perks to getting more sleep – I’m much more on-the-ball and willing to take on mental tasks that otherwise seem hard. But that extra value doesn’t offset the lost value from just not being able to do all the things I need to do.

Vegetarianism

Speaking of Lent, I also broke a 5-year streak of vegetarianism a week or so ago. Benjamin, Liam, and I had some extremely delicious tilapia, also breaking both boys’ life-long vegetarian streaks. Kristina chose not to participate.

We had a bunch of reasons for deciding to do it. And a bunch of reasons to not do it (i.e. to stay vegetarian). I may blog about all the tradeoffs some day soon, but for now, suffice it to say that it was a very close decision, and I’m not sure what’s next.

I made a web app!

If you recall, I started using SmugMug for my online gallery a few years ago. But when I made the switch, I left behind an old gallery site (on Menalto Gallery 1) that I’ve been meaning to clean up for a long time. It broke a while ago, motivating me to finally migrate off that old software – to ZenPhoto, which had been my long-standing plan. It took a few days getting ZenPhoto to work (when it should have been easy!), but I got it there, and I shut off the old site.

I also started this exchange with the ZenPhoto dev in which I start by being too grumpy and then he finished by insisting that his software simply must be unsupportable for him to support it. Net effect: I had to get off ZenPhoto.

But I had no alternate destination for self-hosting my images. My long-term goal is to migrate the images to SmugMug, but I want to filter them down from “every picture I took during that time period” to “just the best ones, tagged and rated” (like all the other pictures I post to SmugMug). And it will take Nathan-weeks of work to get that done, so it keeps getting put off. So in the short term I just needed a new self-hosting product, and there just aren’t any good alternatives. They’re all either old or ugly or badly designed or some combination of those three.

So I made one myself. I’ve never made a web app from scratch before, but I am quite comfortable in perl, had used Catalyst from a prior job, and I’d heard then that Mojolicious is better. So I tried it.

And wow, was it easy. Probably 8 hours total from “install mojolicious” to “the gallery is up and running on the new software”. That’s only just a little more than I spent trying to get ZenPhoto to work. Many kudos to Mojolicious, perl, and pkgsrc.

Now… ZenPhoto does way more stuff. (TONS more… too much, actually.) And this new software isn’t really ready for someone else to use it. And it has no tests. And it only does one extremely simple thing (i.e. serve nested directories of images, in name-sorted order, with no metadata).

But the code is small, easy to read, and easy to modify. (Roughly 300 lines of code, 115 lines of CSS, and 80 lines of HTML template.) The site looks really good (in my opinion). And it doesn’t require a database – just a directory full of images. And with some app-level caching and the help of Mojolicious’s preforking web server and great documentation for setting it up under apache mod_proxy, it’s about as fast is it could possibly be on my old host and slow network connection.

So ZenPhoto is out and my home-grown software is in. Here’s hoping it doesn’t need maintenance!

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10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate Is Never Asked by the Media

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1615 days ago

My friend has again posted a link to an article about abortion. I find myself unable to avoid addressing it.

The article poses 10 questions. Theoretically the article is complaining about how the media doesn’t ever ask pro-choice candidates about those questions, but other than the paragraph at the top mentioning that complaint, the rest is just the list of 10 questions. I don’t much care whether the media asks those questions (see: some future blog post), so I’m not going to worry about addressing that issue. Instead, I’ll just reply with my own opinions about the 10 questions.

You’ll need to have read my previous post giving an overview of my opinions if you want to understand my answers. I’m not going to restate those opinions here.

1. You say you support a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices in regards to abortion and contraception. Are there any restrictions you would approve of?

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On abortion

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2096 days ago

Hello, internets. I’ve come to offer myself as a sacrifice at the alter of people-who-can-never-be-politicians-because-of-things-they-said-on-the-internet.

Why? A friend of mine recently created a tumblr account as an alternative to his regular blog. He’s posted on a few topics, but most of his posts have been about abortion.

It turns out that he and I disagree, and none of my normal avenues of replying are available to me. Tumblr doesn’t have a comment feature, so I can’t just add a comment to his post. And Tumblr isn’t Twitter, so I can’t just tweet back. And his Tumblr account isn’t feeding his Facebook account, so I can’t reply there (not that I would have, anyway). Tumblr wants me to open an account with them, to reply, but “truist.tumblr.com” is taken (but not used) by the new owners of truist.com, so I’d have to choose a new moniker, and I’m not really up to doing that just yet.

So I’m left with finally getting around to codifying my opinions on my own blog. (Or staying silent, but I find that I can’t, on this topic.) In a way, that’s long overdue, so thanks for the motivation to do it!

Here goes:

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More about religion

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2740 days ago

Preface

My good friend Matt recently started a blog, and has been writing very regularly and often. Much more than I do, in fact :) And it’s been great for me, because he often posts things that make me think, or that I disagree with, and I become motivated to reply. That, in turn, forces me to think through my ideas, and to finally publish them online – which was really the original point of this blog, even though I mostly haven’t done that.

One of his recent posts was about humanity, arguing that “…left to its natural state, [it] will break a little bit each day…” and that “…we need to do something proactive each day to alter that trend.” I agree with the latter idea, but disagree with the former, and Matt and I are currently debating the topic in the comments on that post.

As I was drafting one of my replies, I finished making my point, and then just kept typing, because this topic is the perfect lead-in for another topic that I have always wanted to blog about: my views about the value, and the problem, with organized religion. But that topic doesn’t really have anything to do with Matt’s original topic, so I have chosen to post the second half of my comment here on my blog. My hope is that this post can stand on its own, but it will probably help if you go read through the thread on Matt’s blog first.

As always, I welcome comments, so please feel free to reply.

The actual topic

As mentioned in my first comment to Matt’s post, I often think about whether humanity is naturally positive (or not). Those thoughts arise because I regularly encounter situations where someone or something is implying that humans are inherently bad, and need to be fixed, or saved. I reject, and loathe, that idea.

Yes, we all have feelings that lead us to do things that are bad, or that we have been taught are bad. And those feelings must be controlled. I believe that. We are biological creatures, with a sloppy evolutionary history, and we have vestigial feelings and impulses that can be harmful.

But we aren’t going to change our biological natures (except maybe through physical or chemical or biological means) so we just need to learn the best way to live with them. And when a person is faced with a problem or weakness that can’t be changed, then their only (and best!) option is simply to accept the weakness and learn to mitigate it. And as a society, we have learned to mitigate many of our weaknesses: we teach our children good manners, and we have laws and punishments designed to deter crime, and we try to provide for all people so they don’t end up feeling like they have to do bad things, and so on. If you look at history, I think we have gotten much better at mitigating human weaknesses, both as individuals and as a society.

This idea ties directly to religion. I believe that most religions “get” this, and are actually structured to naturally help people do what I described – mitigate their weaknesses, and move on to better things. And in playing that role, I am in favor of religion. The part I don’t like are all the guilty feelings associated with the process. People shouldn’t feel guilty about the way they are; imagine telling a retarded child that they are bad (and should feel guilty) for not being smarter. And yet that is often what religion teaches us – that we are “bad” and that we have to use religion to “be saved.” I disagree. We have “impulses that can lead us to do bad things” and we have to “mitigate those impulses in order to not actually do bad things” – and we don’t have to have religion to do that. As humans, we just are what we are, and debating whether that is right or wrong is pointless.

It’s a subtle difference, but it is one that drives me crazy. I hate the notion that religion has absolute truths, and that people have to have religion in order to become better. It’s misleading. Religion has good advice about how to behave, and people should follow that advice in order to be the best they can be. But religion is a framework that helps us learn to do that, not an end in itself that we have to participate in if we want to be “good.” I really like the framework, and the lessons – I just hate that they are wrapped in dogma that makes it seem like each particular religion is the only one with the right answers, and that you have to join in if you want to be a good person.

It would be much better if we just learned that we have to accept our weaknesses and move on to do more important things like helping others, teaching, building new things, or raising a child. Again, those are things that religions typically teach us, but still shrouded in the notion that we need to be “fixed” either before, during, or after we do those things, and that just pulls us away from the truly valuable lessons.

And now, having thought through all that, I realize why I am so intrigued by Buddhism: because it doesn’t suggest that there is only one source of truth, or that we are naturally bad; it just says “people should always strive to get better, and here are some ways to do so.” That’s exactly what I think a religion should be.

On a related note: my notions of God also tie in fairly well with the Buddhist understanding of Karma, so maybe I really should take Matt’s advice and get up off my butt and learn more about Buddhism :)

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Lent, 2009

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2953 days ago

Happy Lent! (It started today.)

As I mentioned last year, I give up something for Lent each year. It’s not for religious reasons; the purpose is really just to strengthen my self-discipline, and Lent happens to be a convenient reminder to do it each year.

Two years ago I gave up beef. Last year I became vegetarian, and somehow I’ve managed to stick with it. (Almost a whole year, now!) So this year I’m giving up food entirely.

Er, no. Not really.

But it has been a little tough to figure out what to give up – there isn’t really anything in my life that I feel is excessive right now (except maybe work). But my goal isn’t really “give something up” – it is “improve self discipline,” so that leaves other options. The two that seem most needed, in fact, are “take vitamins” and “exercise.” Both are things I’ve wanted to do but haven’t had the discipline to actually carry out.

But I’m not going to do both, and “exercise” scares me, without at least a little forethought. (I only realized yesterday that Lent starts today.) So, vitamins for me! Thankfully, I had a bottle of good vitamins already sitting around, so Day 1 was easy. I’ll need a little more planning ahead as I travel for work, but this one should be relatively easy. Hopefully, though, by the end of it vitamins will just be a valuable habit, and I’ll keep it up.

And next year’s Lent starts on February 17th, so I’ve marked that day on my calendar, and my plan is to use exercise as my discipline-improving technique next year :)

So, wish me luck. Hopefully, I’ll be a healthier, more energetic person come Easter. And if not, well, maybe my pharmacist friend is right that vitamins as just a good way to pee money down the drain ;)

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YesWeCanSong

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3334 days ago

Obama

This is pretty amazing. Click through and watch it. Now! Really, I’ll wait. And you don’t want to miss it.

As I have mentioned before, my feelings about how we should hire a president don’t exactly match those of the rest of the country. To summarize: we should think of the election as hiring the president, and we should hire him or her on the basis of his ability to lead, not based on the issues he believes in. The president’s job isn’t (supposed to be) to set policy – it’s to execute it. As such, I want to vote for the candidate who will be the best leader, regardless of what their policy opinions are.

That makes my decision very difficult, because the campaigns focus mostly on issues, so it’s very hard for me to tell who the best leader is. This song may have introduced me to a side of Obama that shows the leadership. I’m going to have to chase it down.

A relevant side note: I’ve tried a number of those “which candidate should I vote for?” tools, and each one as focused on how well my beliefs match up to the candidates. They make me sad, for two reasons. First, they’re a sign that we’re doomed to always elect a president for the wrong reasons, which makes it a toss of the coin whether they’ll actually be a good leader. Second, when I use those tools, the strongest match is usually around 45%. So even if I wanted to vote by the issues, I’d have nobody to vote for.

I thought it was obvious in the last election that Kerry could be a good leader, and Bush could not. We elected Bush anyway, which is what made me realize how badly-skewed our presidential elections really are. I like to think that I’ve been proven right about Bush over the last four years, so maybe all of you who voted for him last time can take a long hard look at why you made that mistake, and try to learn from it? All the signs were there during the election season, so please don’t think that you couldn’t have figured it out.

And by the way, I’m probably slightly more a republican than a democrat, so I’m not necessarily urging you to vote for a democrat. I’m urging you to vote for the best leader, whomever that may be. If they’re a democrat, that scares me somewhat, because they’ll probably try to restrict my gun rights. But if they’re the better leader, I’d still prefer to have them in office.

Updated: Matt sent me a link to a (40-minute) speech by Obama about politics and religion. It is a strong clue that Obama is a reasoning, thoughtful leader. I am starting to have hope :)

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The meaning of Christmas

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3762 days ago

I occasionally ask myself why I celebrate Christmas, because I don’t really focus on it as a celebration of the birth of Christ. The general answer that I give myself is “Christmas is about people,” and I’m very happy with that idea. But I’ve never thought it out, or written it down.

My mother, on the other hand, has. She apparently got into an email conversation with someone who isn’t giving gifts for Christmas because they feel that it is too commercial / expected / etc. (I don’t know the details.) Mom replied with a detailed writeup of how she felt about Christmas, and then forwarded bits of it on to me.

It’s quite impressive, so (with her permission) I’m quoting it here, for anyone who needs it. (She’s a teacher, so she mentions the school(s) that she teaches at occasionally.)

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My belief in God

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3999 days ago

Ray Kurzweil and I share the same belief about “God1.”

This is surprising to me because I’ve had a pretty firm idea of what I believe about God for eight years or so, but I’ve never seemed to be able to explain it to anybody, and I’ve never found anyone else who seems to believe the same thing.

For those of you who haven’t talked directly to me about it, my basic summation is: “God is all life, made up of life, the same thing as life. He/She/It is not a separate entity, and is not consciously directing things, but does influence things on a bigger-than-individual level.”

I found Ray’s belief in a made-up dialog in The Singularity is Near, his book about the future of humanity2. I’m going to quote Ray’s dialog here, even though it’s going to seem a little strange out of context3. The dialog is floating way up in abstract-thought space, so you may want to prepare yourself for it by reading one of Amitai’s extraordinarily dense compositions – it will get your mind into the appropriate state.

Molly: So, do you believe in God?
Ray: Well, it’s a three-letter word – and a powerful meme.
Molly 2004: I realize the word and the idea exist. But does it refer to anything that you believe in?
Ray: People mean lots of things by it.
Molly: Do you believe in those things?
Ray: It’s not possible to believe all these things: God is an all-powerful conscious person looking over us, making deals, and getting angry quite a bit. Or He – It – is a pervasive life force underlying all beauty and creativity. Or God created everything and then stepped back…
Molly: I understand, but do you believe in any of them?
Ray: I believe that the universe exists.
Molly: Now wait a minute, that’s not a belief, that’s a scientific fact.
Ray: Actually, I don’t know for sure that anything exists other than my own thoughts.
Molly: Okay, I understand that this is the philosophy chapter, but you can read scientific papers – thousands of them – that corroborate the existence of stars and galaxies. So, all those galaxies – we call that the universe.
Ray: Yes, I’ve heard of that, and I do recall reading some of these papers, but I don’t know that those papers really exist, or that the things they refer to really exist, other than in my thoughts.
Molly: So you don’t acknowledge the existence of the universe?
Ray: No, I just said that I do believe that it exists, but I’m pointing out that it’s a belief. That’s my personal leap of faith.
Molly 2004: All right, but I asked whether you believed in God.
Ray: Again, “God” is a word by which people mean different things. For the sake of your question, we can consider God to be the universe, and I said that I believe in the existence of the universe.
Molly: God is just the universe?
Ray: Just? It’s a pretty big thing to apply the word “just” to. If we are to believe what science tells us – and I said that I do – it’s about as big a phenomenon as we could imagine.
Molly: Actually, many physicists now consider our universe to be just one bubble among a vast number of other universes. But I meant that people usually mean something more by the word “God” than “just” the material world. Some people do associate God with everything that exists, but they still consider God to be conscious. So you believe in a God that’s not conscious?
Ray: The universe is not conscious – yet. But it will be. Strictly speaking, we should say that very little of it is conscious today. But that will change and soon. I expect that the universe will become sublimely intelligent and will wake up in Epoch Six4. The only belief I am positing here is that the universe exists. If we make that leap of faith, the expectation that it will wake up is not so much a belief as an informed understanding, based on the same science that says there is a universe.
Molly: Interesting. You know, that’s essentially the opposite of the view that there was a conscious creator who got everything started and then kind of bowed out. You’re basically saying that a conscious universe will “bow in” during Epoch Six.
Ray: Yes, that’s the essence of Epoch Six.

Ray and I are saying the same thing: God is the universe, and He/She/It is only in control of the universe in so much as He/She/It is conscious – and He/She/It is only just starting to wake up into that consciousness. Ray and I both think that humanity will evolve to become that God. Ray thinks it will happen in our lifetimes. Before his book, I didn’t agree – I figured it would be our descendants.

Amusingly, you’ll find echoes of this same idea in a few quotes on this website, from a book that took a far more psychological/spiritual/sociological approach than Ray takes, but reached essentially the same conclusion.

There are echoes of this belief in major religious beliefs… I think. I know that a certain male member of my extended family has a belief in reincarnation, and that each go-around we come progressively closer to becoming one with God. I see that as essentially the same concept. I also think that this is a Buddhist teaching, but I’m not sure.

Finally, I find that this philosophy is very much in line with most major religions. I believe that I am some small part of a much larger God, composed of all life, and therefore my actions influence the lives of other people. We’re all part of the same being, and in order to survive, we all need to work together. That idea leads directly to the golden rule, rough versions of the ten commandments, and many of the behaviorial doctrines of major religions. I find that if I substitute “life” for “God,” I mostly agree with religious teachings. And I find that my beliefs enable me to live a satisfactory life, comfortable with myself and my understanding of the world around me.

P.S. – after a night’s reflection, I want to clarify one point. My belief that God is not yet conscious does not preclude the idea that there are transcendental behavioral/social/(spiritual) patterns that are beyond the control or understanding of any one person. The appropriate analogy might be the perspective of an individual cell or organ in a newborn’s body – even though the cell/organ doesn’t understand why, there is something directing all the activity around it… even if that something isn’t fully self-conscious.

1 This is the third time I find myself describing my opinion in the words of someone else. I’m going to have to think about that.

2 The book, by the way, is amazing… and it’s going to have to be the subject of another post. For now, you should read it. And thanks, Steve, for setting me onto it.

3 If you really must have it, the context is essentially that humanity is going to gradually (but quickly) convert itself into a machine/computer-based civilization, and spread intelligence throughout the universe.

4 Epoch Six, by the way, is a part of this sequence:

  1. Physics and Chemistry
  2. Biology and DNA
  3. Brains
  4. Technology
  5. Ther merger of human technology with human intelligence
  6. The universe wakes up

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