Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lama Foundation (book "Be Here Now") and many other sacred places discussed in big US News issue

In 1980, I visited the Lama Foundation over Labor Day weekend with a quick weekend fare from Dallas to Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines. I drove the rent car north through Santa Fe and Taos, up a dirt road onto the west side of Wheeler Mountain (essentially what becomes the Rocky Front Range farther north), and encountered the community at about 8600 feet, overlooking the Rio Grande valley. The first building visible was a two-story log cabin with the words “remember” and the first sound was women humming as they cooked organic food for the evening’s Succoth feast.

I was attending the weekend “writer’s conference”. We slept on sleeping bags in cabins, and sat around and wrote essays longhand and read them (they might be like today’s blog posts).

The Foundation had many other activities, such as “Purification by Fasting,” which I passed up. But in May 1984, I went back for part of the “Spring Work Camp” which attracted people from all over the western states. This time I had a week’s vacation and drove my Dodge Colt from Dallas. The access road could get muddy after any mountain thunderstorm, meaning a cleaning of the rotors when I got back to civilization at Espanola.

I heard that the colony was destroyed by a wildfire in 1996, but a recent issue of U.S. New and World Report, Nov. 26, 2007, in a special issue called “Sacred Places” discusses the rebuilding of Lama on p 40 (the essay by Jay Tolson in “A History of Belief: A journey through New Mexico offers glimpses of old creeds and insights into contemporary spiritual quests). There is a picture on p 38 of a meditation shrine, with the brush beginning to grow back below on the mountainside. Taylor discusses the book Remember: Be Here Now by Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert with the "Hunamun Foundation" -- curiously, it has no ISBN; many pages are in a graphic script), which dates back to about 1978, and describes life at the commune, along with various spiritual practices and rituals.

The magazine has a stunning array of photographs, including Tiahuanoco, Bolivia (the magazine spells it Tiwanacu), a place that the van Daniken crowd attributed to UFOs or aliens, a pre-Inca city near Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. There are some stunning pictures from Cordoba, Spain (the mezquita). I didn’t see any mention of the (AMORC) Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, CA.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Charles Karelis: The Persistence of Povery

Author: Charles Karelis., a Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Title: The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor.
Publication: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-12090-7. 190 pages, hardbound, with 16 roman numeral pages as Preface. Eight chapters, three of which have their own internal appendices.

I recall a coworker friend (he was that) at my civilian Navy Department job around 1971 who used to make up intellectual paradigms to explain how we all try to maximize our pleasure. He had been a schoolteacher in Florida, but had gone to work for the government (ironically) to make more money.

So it is with this brief but expensive book, which for most of its course uses econometric analysis to describe why the poor behave the way they do. Some of it would befit a pre-calculus course.

He does prefix his discussion with an analytic recognition of the fact that “poor” is a somewhat variable term. In many areas of the world, poverty is endemic and, with no middle class, most people live at a subsistence level or less. But every society, even when an advanced culture, has its poor, and every religion accepts variation in wealth as inevitable and not necessarily wrong if it is shared voluntarily by people.

The basic behavior patterns of the poor have to do with not working (or with lack of work ethic), not staying in school, abusing alcohol and drugs, having children too early, and shortcuts – that is, crime. The poor, he says, are rational, but in a more basic sense of reward and “punishment.” There is a discontinuity and asymmetry in all of this. He criticizes the “reciprocity” in the “Epicurean Fallacy” and shows that lack of pain is not always pleasure. The poor do not see any visible personal gain in staying in school because the time horizons are just too long and the potential rewards not visible,

Toward the end of the book, in the last chapter, he returns to morality, or economic justice. There are two opposing pillars in most theories of economic morality. One promotes individualism and personal sovereignty: that is, one is entitled to what can earn with work or purchase as property and earn a return on, and trade with others. That is essentially capitalism on a personal level. He points out that artists (he uses a novelist as an example) may believe in their work but still have the problem of convincing others to pay for what they have produced. (I know that well. Call it salesmanship if you like.) The polar opposite is the Marxist proverb that we had fun with in Army barracks during the Vietnam period: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Karelis comes to the conclusion that we would all be better off if there were some orderly transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, so that the poor (after having enough to "get into the game") would find improving their behavior of more continuous and visible benefit to them, so that there would be more wealth for everyone.

Karelis has relatively little interest in personal moral theory. His observations would suggest, however, that many people need a paradigm of moral teaching (that is, differentiating right from wrong to the extend that the concept ventures beyond libertarian harmlessness and non-aggression) that is simple and easy to understand. That is why religious faith and practice appeals, and why the idea of “moral absolutes” become attractive to some people.

Generally, religious morality is quite concerned with how wealth is shared. More liberal Protestant churches today sometimes talk about “Kingdom economics,” recalling a socialistic concept of life-sharing understood among the early Christians. In different ways, the sharing of burdens concern both the far Left and far Right. The Left tends to be very indignant about unearned or inherited wealth and privilege, and the conservative Right tends to believe that family values, marriage, and sexual morality relate to justifying what people “have”. Karelis is rather uninterested in all of this. Family values and domestic partnerships (in his world) are morally neutral and arise out of personal choices and perhaps immutable biological drives. Economic values, however, have moral meaning in how they affect people in practice, and that is why his own version of “trickle down” is interesting.

When I was substitute teaching, I sometimes found, with lower income kids, that their perception of family values, blood loyalty, and the idea that people put in front of them as authority figures or role models should pay their dues, all to be very real and important to them. This hardly comports with a view of poverty and educational and job performance that is explained just in terms of econometrics. It stresses that people should deserve their station in life, and that paying heed to family values can be very important in practice, something that conservatives constantly point out when they talk about marriage. Karelis does mention a little of this, that the kids of the wealthy are sometimes asked to pay their dues, and that senior citizens sometimes working in fast food places. But in general Karelis seems to look at procreation and family life as a given that most people gravitate to (with some wide personal variation, because of intellectual or artistic disposition, and, of course, sexual orientation), and sees wealth or content generating work as a real challenge for most people; to get them to do it requires a much more level playing field (with more visible time-related benefits) that our culture of extreme capitalism offers.

The perception of personal benefit, pleasure, relief or pain from any situation resulting from any behavior depends on the cultural values of the community in which the person is able to live, as well as access to wealth. Many people live in cultures that emphasize blood loyalty or family honor, or the ability of men to care for families, even before having their own children. Since this is not shared by everyone, it is a source of tension that is hard for policymakers to discuss openly. This situation may make "biological" rewards seem more urgent than other rewards more familiar in modern liberal culture.

Also, part of the "wealth sharing" to essentially give what Bill Clinton always calls "a hand up, not a hand out" comprises personal attention -- from teachers and mentors. This is not a responsibility that should be thrown at people (it sounds tempting as part of the "national service" debate) but it's something that high school and college students can work themselves into; it's much harder for retirees unless they have encountered this in a personal way (whether or not in raising families of their own).

Picture: The "new" Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA, Thanksgiving Day, 2007.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Matthew R. Simmons: "Twilight in the Desert"

Author: Matthew R. Simmons.
Title: Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy.
Publication: New York: Wiley, 2005 pbr 2006 ISBN 0-471-79018-1. 428 pages, paper with Preface and new Introduction, 35 Roman pages. Extensive bibliography. Four parts

In his paperback edition, Simmons provides a new Introduction and tells us that he was determined to self-publish the book, until Wiley contacted him. That’s interesting and perhaps a likely story. The book is somewhat a central focus of the Netflix “Red Envelope” film “A Crude Awakening” which warns us that we could be coming through a tipping on on world oil production and face catastrophic economic effects in the future.

Actually, the oil business passes through multiple tipping points: one in exploration (actually several, as technology makes new kinds of wells practical) and another in production.

Nevertheless, Simmons makes his point well in this encyclopediac book about Saudi oil production: there was a time when we assumed that oil was almost free. Around 1970 or so, oil men were beginning to realize that this was hardly true and that Saudi production could be by no means infinite.

The political history becomes compensated. I remember the first oil shock in 1973. I was away on a camping trip in northern new Jersey that Saturday in October and heard about the Yom Kippur war when I arrived at a social center in New York City Saturday night. I was living in New Jersey, struggling with personal mobility to get into the City enough to come out. Soon the gas prices rose steeply, and we heard about the embargo. By the beginning of 1974, the shortages appeared (Nixon had already imposed a national speed limit of 50 and closed gas stations on Sundays and told people to “stay home” more, something I didn’t need to hear). But the crisis ended quickly in April with diplomacy and with, of course, “getting the price up.” The 1979 crisis, related to events in Iran, was much more serious in principle, according to the author. (I had just moved to Dallas then, and was surprised when an old reliable independent station nestled on Cedar Springs among the condos and bars actually ran out of gas.)

Still, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries started manipulating oil production (with technological improvements) to gain competitive advantage. In the 1980s, they boosted production enough to cause sudden oil price drops and cause significant disruption to Texas and southwestern oil production and real estate markets. (Along about this time, the Reagan administration pushed the misguided Tax Reform Act of 1986, which did not help). The Persian Gulf War, because it came to a relatively quick and decisive end (compared to what might have been) gave the West the impression that oil would remain stable. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that the American public really began to take seriously how much oil prices can disrupt the economy as a whole, in either direction.

The author spends much of his book with technical discussions of the many oil fields (Ghawar, Abqaiq, etc), generally located near the Persian Gulf in the northeast. He provides lots of detailed black-and-white maps of the oil fields. But he also precedes this with a lot of discussion of the social and political history of the kingdom, and the variable results over time that the absolute monarchy (theocratic) has in taking care of its people. Now, he maintains, Saudi Arabia, like any country, needs much more economic diversification, whatever the religious (wahhabist) beliefs of its people. Most of the vulnerability (including the anger of Osama bin Laden over American troops being there) relates to this complacent dependency on oil. That helps explain why so many of the militants (including 9/11) have been Saudis.

On Saturday, Nov. 17, The Washington Post had a Business Section article, p D01, "Saudi Arabia Works the Vast Desert To Pump Out More High-Quality Oil", here. The specific expansion is near Shaybah, the Empty Quarter. The article acknowledges industry concerns about peaking in Saudi capacity, but suggests that there are many specific opportunities that still work in increasing production for relatively little cost.

I worked with someone from 1979-1981 in Dallas who had lived in an “American compound” while working as a systems analyst for Aramco in the 1970s. The religious police would actually come into the compound and look for alcohol. I know a gay Jewish man who actually says he bicycled alone in Saudi Arabia around 1980. I also met someone who worked in the oil business in Dallas and said (around 1980) then that there were already concerns that enough new oil just wasn't "out there."

When I substitute taught a high school world history class once, students were expected to write classwork reports on current events from that day's newspapers. There was a huge story on oil supplies in Saudi Arabia, and the concern of security from Al Qaeda. Yet, some students cut up the newspapers and made paper airplanes. They hadn't a clue. This is the world they will inherit to run.

The book narrative ends with an Aftermath in which Simmons gives a somewhat negative picture of what happens if oil production irreversibly slides. He believes that the world have to give up some of its globalization (the Thomas Friedman “Flat World” paradigm) and “just in time” business practices. This can affect ordinary citizens in many ways. There can and should be more telecommuting, and people without families especially should welcome high density living with little commutation. But food will have to be grown closer to home, and more manufacturing will have to be done locally. This could affect automotive and electronics industries, although (especially with the weaker dollar) it could add jobs at home. It could mean that people have to put more effort on practical adaptive skills, unless a technological revolution in renewable energy (with switchgrass ethanol – which takes energy to make --- and hybrid cars) with enough infrastructure replacement to support our current way of life.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Lance Bass: Out of Sync

Author: Lance Bass
Title: Out of Sync: A Memoir
Publication: Simon Spotlight Entertainment ISBN 1-4169-4788-2, 2007, 195 pages, hardcover, with Introduction by Marc Elliot, color illustrations included

Lance Bass appeared recently on ABC 20/20 and discussed his book and his “coming out” (coverage ), in a broad context. His book, while short and a bit minimalist (the pages are small) covers a lot of territory, not the least of which is his first film “On the Line” (Miramax, 2001), which had the misfortune of appearing right after the 9/11 tragedy.

Most people know Lance as one of the five ‘Nsync boy band members, the kid from Mississippi with the bass voice. Indeed, some of the narrative deals with how he became his own person after Justin Timberlake, having essentially started the group and indeed launching the concept of pop star and connecting that to “music,” decided to go alone, after which the group imploded. (The color photo of Timberlake is “before.”) The dust jacket describes Bass now as “actor, producer, writer, entertainer, philanthropist” – the Renaissance Man in every sense except perhaps that of Bill Gates. He is not a geek. And now, as we can guess from the dust jack pictures, he has become a grown man.

The most interesting part of the book is his narrative of his training and tryout to become a Russian cosmonaut, a capitalist venture (with MTV) that failed over money. (In the early days of ‘Nsync there were a lot of contractual disputes over money, as the promoters at first paid them only per diem and claimed they could not exist without investors “taking the risk.”_ But he did go through grueling medical evaluations (resulting in a by-groin non-invasive cardiac ablation procedure for a previously undetected congenital arrhythmia that could have proved suddenly fatal later in life), the taking of a body cast, his growing and shrinking because of zero gravity, and various survival exercises in the Siberian tundra. (When he first got invited, he thought he was being punked by Ashton Kutcher, just as Justin had been.)

In fact, when I saw the ‘Nsync Popodyssey show at the Metrodome on 2001, I was quite impressed with the military-like athleticism and “unit cohesion” required to perform in a boy band. The boy band presented a certain paradox: the songs were always clean cut and wholesome, but had this comic edge (“Bye Bye Bye”), and sometimes a bit of social satire (like the video where the boys are toy soldiers getting checked out of a Target store – maybe a bit of satire on DADT) that always made them attractive viewing in bars, including gay bars (they were shown a lot at The Saloon and The Boom in Minneapolis when I was there).

All of this would make for good documentary film now – it’s easy to imagine HBO perhaps wanting to do it – and one could make a film based on the idea of being a music prodigy (in either the popular field with people like Justin Timberlake or Zac Efron) or in the classical area, even composition. Or one could string it together with ideas like teamwork and link up to space and the military.

His coming out is covered rather briefly. Much of this has to do with his relationship with Air Force Academy graduate Reichen Lehmkuhl, who has his own book about his experience with “don’t ask don’t tell” (“Here’s What We’ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force”, Carroll & Graf, New York, 2006, ISBN: 0-7867-1782-3. Lehmkuhl, in fact, is one of the few “military gay ban survivors” not to be kicked out.

Bass’s mother, in fact, found out about his sexual orientation from the Internet. That possibility, as it has arisen in the past ten years or so, is becoming an increasingly important reason why the whole concept of “don’t ask don’t tell” is falling on its face.

Picture: Washington Caps banner, Ballston Mall, Arlington VA (for the skating rink upstairs), no relation to book.

Update: April 21, 2008

AP story in Washington Blade, Apr 18: "Lance Bass: 'It's time for me to stand up'
Former 'N Sync singer stars in public service announcement against gay bullying", link here.