Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deliver Me, Spaceman

If I were David Bowie, I would understand everything.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Fun Tax Talk

Sam Harris talks about why taxation is necessary:

"Why do we have laws in the first place? To prevent adults from behaving like dangerous children. All laws are coercive and take the following form: do this, and don’t do that, or else. Or else what? Or else men with guns will arrive at your door and take you away to prison. Yes, it would be wonderful if we did not need to be corralled and threatened in this way. And many uses of State power are both silly and harmful (the “war on drugs” being, perhaps, the ultimate instance). But the moment certain strictures are relaxed, people reliably go berserk. And we seem unable to motivate ourselves to make the kinds of investments we should make to create a future worth living in. Even the best of us tend to ignore some of the more obvious threats to our long term security.

For instance, Graham Alison, author of Nuclear Terrorism, thinks there is a greater than 50 percent chance that a nuclear bomb will go off in an American city sometime in the next ten years. (A poll of national security experts commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005 put the risk at 29 percent.) The amount of money required to secure the stockpiles of weapons and nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union is a pittance compared to the private holdings of the richest Americans. And should even a single incident of nuclear terrorism occur, the rich would likely lose more money in the resulting economic collapse than would have been required to secure the offending materials in the first place.

If private citizens cannot be motivated to allocate the necessary funds to mitigate such problems—as it seems we cannot—the State must do it. The State, however, is broke."

I thought this might be appropriate to share after our conversation in July about the necessity of supporting a robin hood government. What do you guys think? Does Sam nail it, or does he just hate America?

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Sorry for not being around for awhile. I have a pretty nasty virus that developed into an upper respiratory infection, and I've been spending all of my downtime in bed sweating my ass off. I'm on my second Z-pack, so hopefully things will clear up soon. I'm bummed because I was hoping to spend the last few weekends I had with the kids before their school starts again exploring local trails and parks, and doing lots of fun stuff, but instead I've been laid up the whole time, and they've been stuck watching movies all day (probably not as much of a downer for them as I imagine).

I have gotten a little reading done, though. I read What Do You Care What Other People Think, by Richard Feynmann, and finished reading Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Both books were good, although I liked Feynmann's more in the final estimation. Aurelius has some good stuff to say every now and then, but he loses me whenever he gets too whimsical about the Logos. You can also tell he was used to having people listen to him without question, because all of his advice is given in an almost barking tone. Unlike other wisdom writers, he doesn't feel the need to seduce you. He's the emperor, goddammit! You will listen to him. Feynmann was more enjoyable because he just comes off as a real guy. I don't understand physics very well, but the little anecdotes about his experiences are really charming. Feynmann seems like the kind of guy you'd like to hang out with.

I've also slept a lot. That's been nice. Another bummer: yesterday was my 11th wedding anniversary. Our anniversary date consisted of me laying in bed and drinking 7 up while my sainted wife cleaned up the house and took care of me and the kids.

So that's it. Woe is me! If I survive this plague I'll write something for you real soon. If I die, feel free to make use of the archives.

Monday, August 22, 2011

When These Mountains Were The Seashore

by Hawksley Workman.

It's okay if I just use this blog to post awesome songs from now on, right?

This is one of those songs--and albums--that is great to listen to as Autumn approaches; It's got this great, crunchy-leaf feel to it. I'll be listening to it tonight as I work in the backyard.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Resurrection Fern

I used to work at a bookstore, and we would bring CDs from home to listen to on the store speaker system while we unloaded and stocked new books. One day I brought in an Iron & Wine CD and put it on, and this girl that I worked with said, 'oh, you're one of those guys'. She wouldn't explain any further than that what she meant, but apparently knowing that I was a fan of Iron & Wine told her all she needed to know about me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Stay Crazy, Rick Perry

That’s just a sensational title. I don’t really think Rick Perry is crazy. I have a thing for the swaggering cowboy persona, actually; maybe because it’s very much not my style.

Whatever the case, he’s my favorite personality in the republican presidential sweepstakes right now. You can just imagine him challenging Newt Gingrich to a duel. That‘s amusing. Not right for president, but fun to watch.

I’m glad he’s in the race now. Partially for the personality, but also for the fire he clearly has in his belly. He wants to be president, and so far, he’s been something of a firebrand. I don’t want him to win the presidency, but I kind of think it might be good if he won the republican nomination. It would create a stark contrast, both personality and policy wise; Cool, moderate, compromising President Obama versus right-wing, secessionist-baiting Governor Perry. Plus, President Obama basically ran against George Bush last time; running against Rick Perry is as close to running against George Bush as he’s going to get.

I would also hope that going up against someone who breaths fire like Perry does might bring out more of the fighter in our generally sober and reasonable commander-in-chief. A plague of liberalism is the tendency to want to sit back and thoughtfully stroke your beard while the world around you is all dried wood, ready to burn. In a climate like this, nothing is more impressive than a liberal leader willing to take it to the street. Maybe Perry can help us bring the fighter in Obama out.

So, I hope Perry wins the nomination (because I know John Huntsman doesn’t have a chance), and I hope he doesn’t work too hard to moderate his tone (like the president recently suggested he do, and the media has suggested he might need to as well, to widen his appeal).

Diplomacy and even-handed analysis didn’t get you where you are, Governor Perry. Don’t take the bait. Stay crazy*! It’s what your supporters want, and it might be just what my candidate needs to secure another 4 years in office.

*I know you're not really crazy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This Song Puts Goosebumps On My Soul

especially when they get to this part:

"Love it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be.

I am grateful for music that makes me want to live up to my human potential.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

'Unless Experience Lasts Forever, It Is Meaningless'

~Sam Harris, paraphrasing the complaint of religious folk who say 'if there is no heaven and hell, there's no point to life'(in a way that the weirdness of their claim becomes apparent) , from his Ask Anything part 2.

The answer to that first question alone was worth the time it took to watch this video. Harris basically highlights the fact that knowing our life has a definite endpoint makes it so much more important to savor the brief moment that we have, and suggests that believing we will live forever dilutes the attention we pay to our life. He brings the absurdity of this position to the surface by comparing life to other things that end; meals. movies. relationships. Are none of these things important since they have an ending? No. They're even more important because of that. An illustration that was particularly resonant with me is where he reminds us that there will be a last time we pick up our children. Not something I think about all the time (ever, actually), but it's true; I haven't carried my 10 year old in awhile. Pretty soon, I won't be able to carry my 6 year old. It will only be a matter of years before I can no longer carry my 7 month old. Harris suggests that by remembering every activity (and even life itself) has a 'last ticket', we are more likely to savor these things, and treat them with adequate respect.

I agree with all of this, and am grateful that Harris put it the way he did. But--from experience--I can add that trading a worldview that has a person living forever and ever for one that only gives us 80 or so years if we're lucky, is not as clear of a trade-off as Dr. Harris depicts. At least it wasn't for me.

I am definitely a better person as an atheist. Living under the illusion that someday we would all be in the kingdom of god together, and all of life's many mysteries would be made clear, allowed me to behave somewhat indulgently towards the people I loved. It was easier to brush off making apologies or explanations, because I could just explain myself to God, and work things out with him knowing that in the end, the other person would come to understand what I understood too. It was also easier to justify inaction in certain instances, for similar reasons. Religious belief comes with it's own struggles (the self loathing of 'if it's good it came from god, and if it's bad it came from me', as well as the insecurity that comes with always straining to make yourself as open and subservient to god as possible), but overall, it's a matter of 'everything will come out in the wash'.

When I was religious, I was living under a general anesthesia of sorts. I would compare it to the person who needs a beer or two to get through the day. I was a little more comfortable, but I was also a little crazier*, and definitely more disconnected.

As I said earlier,I believe I am a better person as an atheist; and a more honest one.

But the price of being free from religious delusion is an occasional increase in anxiety: When you realize that this is the only shot you get, you really want to make sure you do it right. When you realize that it's virtually impossible to always do it right, or to even know if you're doing it close to right half of the time, things can get a little overwhelming.

So I get what Harris's religious questioner was insinuating; freedom is daunting. There is no referee, and there is no after-party. This is fucking it. That's a big pill to swallow.

But, in the end, Harris is right: sobriety can be hard, but the beautiful moments--and knowing that you did your best (at least) most of the time--is worth it. Even if I only live 80 years (or 70 years, or 60 years), at least now I'll be able to say at the end that I was actually there. 60 years of real living beats 100 living under a fog of delusion.

worth watching:

*it's crazy to communicate with invisible people and try to divine their will for your life by reading goose bumps and random turns of events as signs.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Open Letter To Penn Jillette: Ask What Your Country Can Do For You (But Also Ask What You Can Do For Your Country)

Dear Penn,

I enjoy your persona. I like the work you do. I think you played a part in softening my hard Christian heart to the beauty of atheism.

I also used to be a libertarian, but I question some of that stuff these days. I’m still a civil libertarian, but I think—economically—it makes an increasing amount of sense to share our resources, you know, for the common good (which ultimately is for our own good).

I watched this Penn Says video awhile ago, and appreciated hearing one of our culturally approved faith statements (…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.) put under the microscope.

I left that video with a vague sense that I generally agreed with you, although suspected you might have gone off the rails a couple of times.

Recently, a facebook friend of mine posted that famous Kennedy speech as a piece of inspiration on his facebook page, and I thought it would be fun to post your rebuttal beneath his post, partially because I like to agitate people, and partially because I think culturally approved faith statements need to be questioned even more than religion-specific faith statements*.

I watched it again after I posted it, and this time I had some objections.

At one point you say,

‘I don’t think we owe jack shit to our fucking country. I think we owe our time our time our hearts our love our creativity to ourselves, the people we love, and the people of the human race.’

This—like the ‘ask not’ line—sounds good, but what does it mean? Why do you draw a line at helping out your country? Don’t you, the people we love, and a sizable population of ‘the people of the human race’ live in our country? When you help make our country a better place, you are helping to make the world a better place.

You are also creating a safe spot for you and the people you love to grow and be healthy. In essence, what JFK is saying on one level is to take care of all of those things you say you want to take care of. Don’t just sit on the sidelines, don’t just suck up resources and not put anything back into the system, contribute!

If that’s not a libertarian-friendly message, I don’t know what is.

You also boil government down to sheer force. You can think of it that way, sure. Sometimes it is that. Sometimes it has to be that. Oftentimes, government as sheer force is an ugly and evil thing. But it’s not always that.

Government (that works) can also be a tool for its citizens to use to create infrastructure to provide the kind of programs and ready-response to catastrophe that makes it easier for us citizens to do the things we need to do. It’s not here to tell us what to do (although certain representatives of government love to tell people what to do), but to allow us to do what we need to do in a better and more efficient way.

I detail why I think a working welfare state is worth investing in here and here.

So those are the major points of contention. A lot of life boils down to our perspective. I think the best way to look at government is not as some frightful, oppressive machine, but as a tool that we can climb into (we have to be careful), and use to build and sustain things.

Keep being awesome, Penn, and keep challenging our culturally approved faith objects. We could all probably benefit from doing a lot more of that.


Spencer Troxell

*Why? Because culturally approved faith statements cross the boundaries of nearly all religion-specific faith statements, and are generally totally unopposed in the public sphere. They are assumed to be true by everyone; that makes them more dangerous if they’re false.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Life Is Shorter Than You Think It Is

“Not just that every day more of our life is used up and less and less of it is left, but this too: if we live longer, can we be sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world--to the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge? If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits--all things you need a healthy mind for...those are gone.
So we need to hurry.
Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding--our grasp of the world--may be gone before we get there” ~ Marcus Aurelius

In a way, it’s worse than I expected; yes, my life is short (the food is terrible, and there are such small portions), but also,  I may not make it from one end to the other with my essential self intact.

Not only that, I am constantly distracted. I am only rarely fully present in any given moment. My mind is lost in future schemes and fantasies, or dwelling on past injustices and glories.  Or sometimes my mind is nowhere. Is this meditation?

I don’t have any special regard for folks who pursue monastic vocations. Anything that takes a person out of the battlefield of life and into the commentary booth is fine and understandable as a lifestyle choice, but not especially noble. What I’m doing this moment isn’t especially noble. It’s necessary for me--because my brain gets clogged up if I don’t vent my thoughts from time to time--but it’s not special.  I’m just wading out of the current to sit on the river bank for a minute. I’m getting perspective.

It’s better to be in the stream though. That’s where the action is, and that’s where things matter most. But it’s very hard to remain in the current for long periods of time without getting caught up in it. It can be strong and surprising, and it’s easy to lose track of meta-goals. It’s easy to get lost in simply trying not to fall down on all the slippery rocks. Maybe that’s meditation.

Whatever the case, Marcus Aurelius caught me by surprise with this one. What’s the point in prolonging my life if it’s going to be a wasteland of distractions? I need to be as conscious and as aware of each moment as I can be, and when I do need to take a breather on the shore, I need to make it as purposeful as possible.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Early Sobriety

"The clearer my thinking became the crazier people appeared. That wasn't what I'd bargained for  when I decided to give up champagne. I figured I would stop drinking and everyone would automatically be great to me. Boy, was I wrong. On top of that, I still wasn't so great to them, either.

I was a sober mess. Instead of waking up the next morning in the same clothes I'd had on the day before, I woke up with no desire to put on any clothes, or get out of bed, see anyone, do anything, or even express myself creatively anymore. I didn't want to talk to anybody or, God forbid, listen to my own rationalizations anymore. I knew I was back from the grave but I had no place to go. Even my own shadow seemed embarrassed to hang around.

Early sobriety is hell. "
 ~Richard Lewis, from The Other Great Depression

If you're interested in recovery literature, honest memoirs, or good stand up comedy , I recommend this book highly. It's currently in the remainder bin at Amazon:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Jack just came to me with a real sense of urgency in his voice and said, 'by the way, I just poured hot sauce into my ear and it burns! What do you do when that happens?

There are several amusing things here. First, I've never heard someone start a crisis conversation with the phrase, 'by the way'. Second, why would you pour hot sauce in your ear? If I was experimenting with hot sauce, my ear would be the last place I would put it. Third, 'what do you do when this happens' presumes there is a precedent for handling situations like this.