Thursday, September 22, 2022

Tampopo, The Passion of Eating

Having just watched the forty year old Japanese film Tampopo I recognize just how much the consumption of food is integral to being human. The innovative film explores many facets of food with zany humor and primal romance mixed in like a rousing stir-fry. The characters are both down-to-earth and stereotypical of people across the spectrum of society. At the heart of the plot the visceral passion of eating overlays numerous scenarios highlighting just how key to living eating is. 

Now, Tampopo is not easy to watch for a vegan (that would be me). Numerous animal products are consumed to accentuate the passion of sex, courtship, professional connections, and even death. The killing of a turtle on screen would never have passed even Hollywood's regulations 40 years ago. But Tampopo is honest and looks that killing of a wild animal in the eye and says this is what our ancestors did, they didn't buy saran-wrapped rectangles of flesh distanced from the act of taking a sentient animal's life to feed oneself and their family. It underscores just how very distanced we have come from our food supply's origin and circumstances.

The film also captures well the immersion in consuming food, again an atavistic honest look at the pleasure we receive while eating. Surely, an animal part of ourself still resides in each of us that savors flavors, textures and the very act of taking nutrients into our body. Yes one could say we have evolved to sense the spectrum of characteristics each food gives to us so that we can continue our mortal existence. 

One could say many of the world's cultures celebrate the human psychology of being dominant, of playing the role of apex predator in the world That celebration is primal and joyful, while also being based on a fabricated imagining of our ancestors. In fact, humans evolved to be foragers. The latest evidence indicates human digestive systems and dental layouts did not evolve to support a carnivorous diet. We probably scavenged from the kills of true carnivores and eventually when humans developed hunting tools adopted the bloodier behavior of killing other animals for food. 

As modern civilization transitions toward to eating ever more ethically and ever more sustainably we will need to confront our eating behavior's origins. Only by recognizing how our actions impact on the world can we make better choices. Tampopo is a hilarious, touching, and harrowing reminder of just how far we have come and how far we have to go.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Biggest Lie, Unveiled

Here we are in 2022 preparing for election midterms with candidates still claiming the Big Lie, that the 2020 election was rigged. Tens of thousands of people are still dying annually in our country from Covid and gunshots, yet vaccines and meaningful firearm legislation are shrugged off as dangerous options. Football coaches coerce students with prayer while subscribers to zygotes possessed by souls have pushed theocracy on the rest of us. Somehow we have raised the banner that "everyone has the right to their opinion" with the subtext being The Biggest Lie, that each opinion has equal merit. With this doctrine held high, tons of misinformation is sold to the public at large, often as youth indoctrination and part of an inhumane political power grab.

How have we arrived at this moment, where unsubstantiated claims receive so much attention? In short, we have been raised to believe lies without questioning them. Sure, your parents eventually came clean about Santa, the Big Bad Wolf and the Tooth Fairy, but God, Allah, Yahweh, Brahma, Vishnu, etc. continue to plague the minds of grown adults. I'm sorry, but there is NO GOOD EVIDENCE that any of these supernatural beings exist. The choice to continue believing in these fairy tales is at best child-like wishful thinking, but mostly is residual indoctrination of falsehoods meant to simplify a complicated world rather than attempt to understand it.

We lie to ourselves because we don't want to face the painful reality. In fact, so many humans subscribe to these crazy beliefs that we fail as a society to intelligently address the real challenges that exist in maintaining a healthy world. Only by living authentic and evidence based lives can we achieve our highest potential and improve cultural tolerance, environmental health, the quality of life for sentient creatures, and pursue ever better explanations of the world around us.

Sure, no one practicing nonsense religion should not be persecuted. Nevertheless, we should recognize supporting the unsubstantiated tenets of all these contradicting, supernatural-based religions hurts our society to the core. Religious belief peddles weak thinking and an emotional connection to the unreal. If we are to improve as a people (and we are, all too slowly) we need to look our beliefs, opinions, and emotions in the face and retire the ones that don't make sense. A world without gods may lose its imaginary safety net, but it also frees up resources and clears the global mind so we can come together and confront reality toward the most joyful of ends.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Free Speech as a Vehicle for Non-violent Action

There is no absolute free speech; as with anything abstract, it is either willfully regulated by the laws of humankind and of nature.

To the point of absurdity, the nature of reality limits the ability for a sentient being to voice an infinitely long word (infinite time and energy would be required) or to communicate backwards in time (adhering the the law of entropy, at least as currently understood) or to sentient beings outside of the observable universe (speed of light restrictions). I'm sure one could cherry pick other natural laws to highlight the physical limitation of free speech, but the point is that censorship of a sort is inherent in the real world around us.

And humankind is an incarnation of the known Universe, so it follows that within our own civilization, realistic censorship will occur. The idea that within those constraints that humans are permitted to voice their opinions can never be totally free, and when sensibly defended, regulation of speech can be crafted to improve the world we live in for all. To that end, language that threatens the safety of another being or some part of the world we live in, should be regulated. This might not require outright censorship, but may need to be judged on a spectrum and isolated in extreme situations.

Ultimately, ending all speech that mobilizes violence would be an interesting starting point. For if we could end the bullying, injury and death of all sentient beings, the world could evolve down a more peaceful path. That path could be toward a neartopia devoid of human created suffering. In such a world, all our actions could predominantly work toward building a healthier world for humanity, the environment, and all the living things in it.

The challenge is to institute laws that are enforced fairly among all. If only there were a god to assign this duty. Maybe one day an artificially intelligent agent will fill those heavenly imagined shoes. Until then our laws must serve as an agent to bridge the gap.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Twenty-first Century Priority Sorting

Having just watched the celebrated Indian film Pather Panchali, I am driven to contemplate what drives our choices when it comes to living. In the film a struggling family must use its talents to scrape by, and yet circumstances limit their success and in the end convinces them to journey down a challenging hopeful path that turns away from their heritage. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs provides a decent summary of what lies at the core when we as humans make hard choices. In short, we seek that which helps us survive and that which helps us thrive. The intermixing of these qualities into our daily decisions is rather complex, and in the end we consciously and unconsciously make trade off choices that benefit us as individuals, those in our sphere, and the world around us.

Critical to making these evaluation is the information that we integrate into these decisions. Too often we never include the impact of our choices on the world that is beyond our sphere. It is a very hard evolutionary trait to overcome. Our gut will tell us that our hunger, the emotions of our inner circle and only the immediate world we can see should be considered. Yet if we allowed only these local factors to influence us, humans would be a rather inconsequential species on our planet.

The fact is the human species has created clever tools that outperforms anything evolution has gifted to nature. Complex language lies at the core, wherein we can communicate ideas far and wide across time and culture to preserve lessons learned that aren't immediately obvious. Additionally, human institutions have risen that command attention and observance of information that we might otherwise discount. Finally, we have developed an abstract system of value exchange that permits these institutions and individuals to secure services that historically would only have been exchanged in direct barter.

One could point out that these tools also have corrupt applications, and part of civilization's responsibility is to keep these in check, to be sure. Still, the net positive permits humans and human groups to thrive in comparison to other species magnitudes upon magnitudes more successfully than other species. And yet, within our social microcosms we are still subject to entropic processes that challenge us.

And so the challenge of our times is to confront macroprocesses like climate change, biome fragility, and healthy planetary human carrying capacity. In many ways we are failing this challenge. The old ways of harvesting whatever one can, believing in ancient ideas, and prioritizing only what is immediate are a built in feature of our biology. Humans must fine tune our tools with rationality and compassion if we are to succeed in sustaining a healthy planet for generations to come.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Realistic Expectations in an Effed Up World

With the world population not expected to peak until 2100 CE at around 10 billion humans, there is continued pressure on the Earth to provide. Already our species has strained the planetary ecosystem to the extreme. Climate change, mass extinctions, resource scarcity, pollution and war between our tribes are all an indication things are out of balance. Civilization may be a boon for humans, in a bell curve advantage kind of way, but as a whole Earth's natural homeostasis is severely out of whack due to humanity's activity.

The optimistic view is that we can sustainably maintain that growing natural population mostly by transitioning to less impactive technology and more minimalist choices Unfortunately, pure optimism perpetuates a lie as big as any of the ancient religions that continue peddle their supernatural deities, "higher powers" that never show up to help except in delusional psychological form. Sciencism, the belief that improving technology will save us, is just as flawed a world view. The reality is unless humanity undergoes a cultural epiphany, our Earth will get ever sicker.

So what is a wishful pessimist to do? It certainly isn't helpful to curl up in a fetal position in fear of all the things we as individuals cannot change. One must build a thick skin to accept the inevitable reduction of planetary biodiversity and ongoing increase of human presence in the world, while doing what we can. Instead of having children of our own, adopt or participate as a next generation influencer to fulfill the evolutionary yearning to be a parent. Instead of striving to be a first world consumer, find a path of minimalism and veganism that reduces the impact on the planet's ecosystem. And, perhaps most tough of all, become an active persuader to win our culture over from those that worship a pyramid scheme economy. 

Everything a human can do to spread a culture of honest compassion that reaches outside of human selfishness will reduce the final toll of bleakness. Coupled with evidence-based policies that embrace accountability, the future can be manageable for all its inhabitants. The hardest part is realizing fictional dreams of utopia, whether supernatural or technological, are simply so unlikely that it's best to take a deep breath, center oneself, and take a brave step forward to pitch in to the effort at hand.

Peace out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Vlad's Therapist


"Hate is a fire that is best put out with kindness." - Anonymous

"...okay, Vlad, let's set aside your religious upbringing. I think we've established your deep connection with your mother and the Russian Orthodox Church and how your religious beliefs have driven your governing philosophy. Can you tell me more about your father and your feelings toward him?"

"Sure. He served in Russian Navy before the German aggression, and then fought as an infantry soldier involved in the defense of Stalingrad. He was severely wounded, but was very brave. Our relationship was never very close. He preferred spectator sports, but we played chess regularly."

"I like playing chess myself, Vlad. So, it sounds like you desired a closeness he never gave."

"It is not about closeness. He was pawn. A pawn for righteous cause, to be sure, but still pawn. I am grateful for his sacrifices, but I aspire to achieve more than he ever dreamed. This world is here to be taken or taken away, and I resolve to do the former."

"What I'm hearing is that your ambition is a priority for you. Have you made any lasting friendships along your ambitious journey?"

"Friendships are lie about joyful give and take for mutual benefit without external gain. In my life, I cultivated connections that would establish pyramid of power that would be unbreakable. Friendship plays no part in that accomplishment."

"What about your daughters? Do you have a good connection with them?"

"I am strong influence with them. They will receive good education and live productive lives."

"Do you tell them you love them?"

"My actions of giving them safe place to live and to thrive are the most loving gesture any father could make, no?"

"No, Vlad. Individuals are not purely utilitarian. Sharing hugs, playing games, singing songs together are the foundation upon which people build meaningful lives alongside friends, relatives and even strangers."

"There can be no hugs without safe place to live."

"True, Vlad, but a safe place to live can be a tomb if there is no love."

"I will think on this, doctor. Now I must go. Siege of Mariupol needs guidance that only I can provide."

"One last question. Do you find the deaths of others pleasant when you rationalize the need for expanding the so-called safe space you seek for your country?"

"Necessary. Yes. But pleasant? That is emotion for those without ambition."

"Thanks, Vlad. I agree. Sometimes a solution is painful. Sometimes a sacrifice needs to be made."

The office erupts in flame from a small thermobaric device hidden in the chess set the therapist had brought along. It was not closely examined upon entering the east wing of Vlad's palace. Hours later the charred remains of two bodies drenched in fire suppression gel are identified and eventually interred.

Over the following weeks and months, tears are shed for one of the two humans killed in the fire. The expansionist, Russian pyramid of power didn't topple immediately. Still, it no longer had such a pointy crown at its apex and the global and regional happiness index went through a notable inflection point upward.

"Kindness can be a breeze that goes unnoticed by some." - Anonymous

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

War and Faith

(contains violent imagery)

The past few weeks have been beyond crazy and exhausting. The Ukrainian morning ripens into day, decomposes into night and sprouts into morning once more. This morning's sky has a particularly dark eggplant hue. Can you tell I've been dreaming of fresh produce? The Russians have had the city under siege for seventeen days leaving us nothing to do but ration our supplies and wait. Now our backpacks are overflowing with whatever food we can pack in them. Even my daughter Maritza, a stalwart vegan, nods in stoic agreement as I hand her cheese and canned herring to stuff in her pack. Exiting our home of twenty-one years I see tank silhouettes on the ridge to the East.

We head up the block with the flow of disheveled refugees. The peace talks may have failed but it was finally agreed to this morning that civilians will have until 0700 to cross the west bridge, on foot only, to designated evacuation areas. My Fitbit reads 0620 so we still have forty minutes to cover the two kilometers to safety. The crowds are a tangle of dreary humanity bundled in multiple layers carrying and wheeling supplies, toddlers and oddly jutting heirloom items that might come in handy paying thier way through refugeedom.

I keep glancing at my Fitbit as time seems to be behaving strangely, ebbing and flowing in spurts. My fear and determination are ratcheted so high the surroundings are all ablur. I attempt to focus on Maritza leading Baba and Luka through the knotty mayhem as fast as they can manage while I carry up the rear playing sweep. But this is no recreational mountain hike; the mantra I repeat in my head is a dirge "no one will be left behind."

Fitbit glance five hundred shows 0627. It is then the first round of mortars launch. The shrieks of people saturate the air and the tanks behind us glow amber among smoky projectile streamers. Ignition flashes light up in sequence with the rapidity of popping popcorn. I can't help but think back to the New Year grand finale firework show which cause me to smile absurdly. Existential fear compels me to check myself; I take in a deep breath and cross my heart in slo-mo, sending my sincerest prayer to the holy Trinity to protect us. Perhaps it's the adrenaline, but my fifty years of contrite belief wells like a geyser. I am supremely confident we will receive holy protection as an epiphany fills me unlike I've ever felt before.

In that moment the violet sky shifts instantly from deep violet to a strange and translucent scarlet. I wait breathless but not a single explosion comes just as we are about to mount the bridge on-ramp. In fact the silence is, to be cliché, deafening. Startled at the soundless quality of I can't resist looking around to find the whole crowd perfectly still in evacuee mid-step. It appears only I am moving whatsoever and and then I spot mere meters above the crowd  dozens of mortar shells and a cruise missile frozen in midair pointing at us like the disembodied fingers of malevolent deities. Something supernatural is indeed underway.

As if to confirm my conclusion, a scene from a Marvel Universe movie unfolds. Giant, white flying behemoths flapping enormous wings glide down from the stratosphere. With six taloned feet each creature seizes half a dozen refugees as they glide through. I too am yanked from the surface by a claw and whisked away without explanation. The speedy, silent rescue has all the qualities of an angelic hallucination with Lovecraftian touches. Once airborne, the flock of feathered monsters take us on a swooping, rollercoaster flight that is more vivid than the highest resolution virtual reality experience imaginable.

We move so fast the wind makes it hard to breathe, but within a minute my family and hundreds of other Ukrainians are deposited in a distant field across the river. Somehow I know it is Poland or some ethereal place that serves as a neutral zone. My heart skips a beat and a lightness fills me telling me we will all be safe. The red-shift time freeze ends as quickly as it began. As the seconds float by the sun tops the mountains to the east. The six legged saviors vanish upward into the sky and people around me begin moving again. The shrieks that had been cut off continue for a split second until each of my fellow Ukrainians realizes we stand together in a safe place. I get on my knees and thank the Trinity profusely, perhaps being the only one who knew a heavenly intervention had just saved thousands.

Then I hear my Fitbit chiming. I resist looking, not wanting to end my prayerful incantation. It grows louder and insistent and so I give in. But, no matter how I strain the digits don't resolve; they are too tiny and gibberish. I close and reopen my eyes which does the trick and I see the dial reads 0601, which doesn't make sense. Had the angels taken us back in time? Wait, I tell myself, why am I lying down? The Fitbit alarm continues chiming and I look around seeing only darkness. And then the explosions erupt all from every direction. Mortars and glass and splinters and flashing light that deafen me as I roll tangled out of my bed onto the floor of a burning, collapsing house. 

A scream pierces the firelit tangle of ceiling fragments and furniture. It is I who is screaming with Baba beneath me. She is a barely recognizable bloody tangle of flesh and intestines. I listen for Luka or Maritza expecting cries so that I might home in on them and help, when an thermobaric weapon concusses demolishing wood and concrete and spreading a wave of flame that I inhale like a demon's holy communion. As I flail on the ragged floor, confusion and noise and heat register only as a hellish contemplation of existence imploding entirely out of my control. With the last beat of my heart I know now no higher power is coming to save us. I am alone and afraid and angry, when all goes dark.