Turn it off, Part III

Whoa. The phone companies have been keeping records of all our calls! They have employees embedded with the Drug Enforcement Administration to comb information! And because it’s a company, not the government, that stores all these records, it’s legal!

May I be forgiven an “I told you so?” May I be forgiven for repeating, again, that we don’t know the half of it?

Think back to the beginning of our nation, when we learned hard lessons that economic power was as corrupting as political power. The East India Company was the target of the Tea Party, as much as the Crown. Railroads were broken up because they strangled the nation. Oil companies were broken up for the same.

A few decades ago, the phone company, Ma Bell, was dismantled. Wire taps had to be court approved. But we don’t use wires anymore! The Baby Bells have morphed into a technocorp, an oligarchy extending tentacles ever deeper into our lives. The lifeblood of our nation flows through portals of the internet, and they tap all communication with only a passing nod to courts protecting the Bill of Rights.

When oligarchs take control of vital services, corruption inevitably follows.

I was stupid when ranting on these “pages” about why there isn’t greater effort to promote competition in the telecomm industry. The government doesn’t want an effective “market!”  The oligopoly serves the government interest. It is easier to collude with four companies than a dozen.

A friend calls the government/corporate beast “Leviathan.”  2,000 years ago, Plato warned against the power of “Oligarchs.” The enemy is within the gates, and we have failed to defend ourselves.

We must not be stampeded into servitude by fears of terrorism or concerns about drug-fueled chaos. Privacy laws must be updated, and made ferociously effective.

Turn off the Security-Technology Complex

On January 17, 1961, when President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address, he warned the country about the “military-industrial complex.”

Acknowledging the need for a strong military during the Cold War (Eisenhower was a five-star general leading troops in World War II and Supreme Commander of allied forces in Europe), he cautioned against the loss of liberty if Congress, the military, and industry colluded to hijack the public interest (emphasis mine):

“Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

It’s been nearly three generations since that speech. During that time, we have unwittingly initiated the greatest experiments in the history of our species on what it means to be mankind, and society. Television. Cell phones. The internet.

But Eisenhower’s warning is not only relevant today, it is more important than ever before. The phrase “military-industrial complex” sounds nearly quaint. But its spawn, the “security-technology complex,” is not only alive but very active, very aware of itself, and very sophisticated in its manipulation of information and abuse of power.

It’s not just politics, or the illusions of freedom. Hiding behind false facades built of threats and promises, they analyze what you buy, what you read, what you drive, where you live and where you go. They use sophisticated tools to learn what you think, then tailor information you receive to create perceived threats and solutions that serve their interests, not yours.

They manage you. They herd you behind fences of fear, corral you with a tight focus on “message,” follow you and quickly respond if you get out of line. They feast on the heart of what our founding fathers worked so hard to achieve.

It may be too late, but there is one response they can’t control.

Turn it off.

Chalice is available

Late last night, I received notice that “Chalice” is now available on Amazon, Apple’s iBook store (go to iTunes and search on “Erik Dolson”), Barnes and Noble (not quite yet), and the Vook Store.

I should have a hard copy in my hands next Tuesday, with the first print run available soon after.

What an odd mix of emotions. Fear, elation, pride, anxiety. Chalice was close to two years in the writing, some of that the hardest work I have ever undertaken. After four or so hours, I would stagger from my table and run the river trail, lift weights, get the mail, or just vegetate away from where I work, unable to string two sentences together.

“Chalice” is not perfect. Every time I opened the file, I would find things that just had to be changed. So I finally “locked down” the file. After 20 or so readers reviewed writes and rewrites, after endless edits, after the second round of proofreading by a professional, I had to let it go and be what it is. And it is not perfect.

But it is the best I can do, at this moment, on this book. And I am proud of it. “Chalice” is an exploration of ideas that are significant to me and many of you. It is a sharing of my playground, an intersection of language, passion, and reflections on what’s real and what’s important.

“Chalice” is not for everyone. As an exchange of emails, “Chalice” is in a format that some  may find difficult to follow. The characters are flawed, and many might find their exchanges  unpleasant. There is a sex scene that was called gratuitous by one reader. It’s not, but it is graphic. If that’s going to disturb you, please don’t read. Another was put off by the fact that I dipped deeply into my personal experience to give the text “life.” Yes, I did, but “Chalice” is still a work of fiction.

But about a third of those who read early drafts found value in “Chalice.” Some said that value was significant for them. This validates the effort.

A word on pricing: I finally came to the conclusion that I had to be my own guide on this. I priced the ebook at $4.95 because I think “Chalice” is worth the price of two cups of coffee, even for readers who don’t like it.

I initially set the price of the paperback at $14.95, then learned I would receive 3¢ for each book sold. Three cents. At the print distributor’s suggestion, and his noting that the book would be discounted by book sellers anyway, I repriced at $19.95 and will receive about $2.30 of that.

If enough sell so we can go to offset printing, I hope the price will come down.

Thank you, friends, family, and readers I’ve never met but feel I know fairly well: You are the reason this book was written. I hope you think it was worth it.

~Erik

Anonymity

Okay, I drank way, way too much ice tea last night, and am cruising into this lovely Sunday morning on far too little sleep. But still…

Public garbage cans in London have screens that display advertisements.

Those same garbage cans can recognize smart phones of people walking by.

And if the garbage can sees you going into a different coffee shop than usual, it can flash a “loyalty” message as you walk by.

Who told Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam they were in charge?

In the past, I loved the future. My first favorite books were science fiction: Assimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, then on to Phillip K. Dick , William Gibson and Samuel R. Delany. There was something liberating about the future, not quite chaotic, not anarchistic, nor autarchistic, but a place… unbound, I guess.

Perhaps the only thing unbound was my imagination. I’ve heard that before. There was, of course, the threat of Orwell, but 1984 came and went and big brother had not arrived.

But now, maybe it has: The NSA. Black boxes under your dashboard record every stop and go, in your car or on your computer. Your cell phone broadcasts a constant stream of who you are, where you are, what you are doing and when. Drones. Verizon. Xfinity. CenturyLink. AT&T.

Yes, I fear corporate snooping more than government snooping, primarily because corporations are better at it and they own our lawmakers. But it doesn’t matter who is perched on my shoulder. Laws protecting privacy are in serious need of review. Because what we feel and what we do can be modified by those who anticipate our behavior through study of the habits of people just like us.

We are losing control not only of our freedom, but of what we think. And it may already be too late.

Dead or Alive

From my couch, I look out at mountains mottled green and gray. Over the years, fire has eaten into the smooth blanket of trees; from life to ash where it bit most deeply. For now, draw no lines and call each shade part of the forest.

Forest fires, from very close up, are terrifying. They howl as they run among the trees, pulling life from each branch, each blade of grass. The sizzling crackle and rushing inhalation as flames suck needles from an incandescent pine is with me still, years after I last heard it.

I can only imagine the final moments of 19 firefighters who died recently in Arizona, then even my imagination flees.

Fire and forest, firs in flames, made me curious about the line between what we think of as alive and what we believe is not. Blame Disney.

Life is “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants … including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change…”

From an embryonic smolder at the base of a ponderosa struck by lightning, the fire gestated in pine needle duff, creeping outward to find small nourishment in drops of sap and drying decay. Four days after conception, maybe a week, a hot brisk breeze found the nest, brought oxygen and an appetite.

The fire changed. First, it climbed the tree that brought life from the sky. Lower branches gave it a ladder, and it grew upward with each step. It didn’t take long in the heat of August, and while it licked its way to the top, it dropped flaming sticks and cones into the breeze to land in the bushes at the base of other trees. With that, what we think of as “the fire” climbed the ridge outside my window.

Was this reproduction? Was it still one fire, or many? Ants or colony, cells or man, genes or species? Where is that line?

Did the men on that mountain feel they’d been ambushed? They were at the edge of the fire, they had a plan. How did everything change so suddenly, flames coming for them so quickly and with such lethal intent?

In 1943, physicist Erwin Schrödinger gave a lecture on “What is Life?” From that grew the knowledge that, locked in our DNA, is information. A code about structure, about what has been successful, that can be modified as needed to fit new circumstances.

Fire may have no such code within. Perhaps that’s why we do not think of it as alive. But perhaps the DNA of fire lies outside its skin, its code an ability to respond to the code of the forest, it adapts as it needs to once it has been awakened.

Two trees outside my window, one living, one dead, one growing upward and one crumbling to fertilize the next. They are part of the same living forest, itself an organism that grows and adapts and is rejuvenated, often by fire. The words are easy, but it is hard, at times, to find the lines.

Timberline

Nearly every day, I look out windows of my treehouse at a rambling row of volcanos. Higher ones emerge from forests as rough crags of rock and ice. I’ve hiked the most gentle several times, to someplace above 10,000 feet, above the trees, where steep flanks of deep pumice and slag lead to ragged extrusions of stone.

That well-defined edge, where forests end and mountains declare indifference, is the timberline. There is life above the timberline, but life defined in different ways. Lichen rather than trees, or wheat. Beetles, rather than cattle. The timberline looks porous close up, but seems a sharp edge when seen from a distance.

Some places in the American Southwest hit 128 degrees the other day. Water freezes at 32 degrees, boils at 212. 122 degrees is halfway in between, but I would say that’s our “timberline” of temperature. I think life would be redefined on the other side.

Deserts have a “timberline” of sorts, where moisture to sustain species we relate to, or depend on, stops being available. Where hard oceans of crust, dust and rock butt up against the softness of river and pond, irrigated habitability.

I imagine there is a similar “timberline” of depth in the ocean, where pressures become so immense and blackness so deep that life, as we can relate to it, transitions from vibrant, lush, dart and dash,  swoop and swim, to a barren watery world of barely imaginable creatures.

Is there a “timberline” of health, too, an edge where the organization of organism breaks down? A line where suddenly, everything changes? Where broken hip or pneumonia are not just conditions but mark the boundary between life as we knew it and an afterlife unknowable, death all but certain?

Is there a “timberline” of society, where order and commerce, love and laughter, flirt and flamboyance, become chaos and violence, ugliness and horror, marking a place beyond which our species cannot survive? Is life as we know it possible in what we knew of as Syria, one of the oldest locales of civilization?

Is there a “timberline” of spirituality, where serenity ends at a rough jagged edge of chaos and madness, empty of all meaning or significance? Can that line be seen, or are the threats so subtle that the line is crossed without awareness, the bubble of spirit exhausted like altitude sickness on a mountain top, being too deep beneath the waves when the tank goes dry?

This week we plant trees and lavender around the treehouse. Maybe we’ll plant an apple tree, too, before the season turns. Go to a movie. Remember to meditate. Call my daughters. I need to plant myself, too, on this side of my timberlines.

Acquire and Defend

Squirrels and rabbits below my treehouse fill a stash and then guard it. Sparrows chase hawks lurking near their nest. Observng my own bio-psychology, I feel different emotions attached to “gathering” and “protecting.”

Gathering gives a rush of pleasure. Senses are heightened, the “looking for and finding” sends a little endorphin pulse. Future behavior wants to replicate that little stroke.

Protecting follows a pulse of fear. Potential loss flairs as a form of anger, behavior aggressive. Successful protecting  may not reenforce this behavior, the fear impulse seems more primal. It takes a while to get over loss of love, wealth, or right to bear arms.

Science indicates we value something we are trying to protect twice as much as we value the same thing if we are trying to gather it.  See Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Psychologists talk of “systems” of behavior.

These systems may originate in various regions of the brain, but are not like the pipes of a power plant. They are organizations of input and response, similar to what we used to consider “instinct,” though that implied not being changeable.

Though these systems seem to be inherited, so is our ability for language, and our ability to use words and images to trigger fear or pleasure nearly as real as the actual loss or gain.

Oligarchs own America

It’s too late. They won.

Revelations about the National Security Agency spying on citizens by collecting phone records and Facebook messages, snooping on us via the Internet, finally brought the issue to light.

But the real story is exposed by connecting the dots. Edward J. Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA spying, didn’t work for the NSA. He worked for a corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, whose vice-chairman was a former head of the NSA. Like using mercenaries in Iraq, our government has subcontracted security, and gives corporations powers greater than those of any individual citizen.

Corporations doing the work of government can be as pernicious as government trying to manage outcomes in the market place. Perhaps more so, because our government, at least in theory, serves at the will of its citizens.

Corporations have, and should have, as their primary obligation the maximisation of their own influence, power and profit. When corporations do the work of government, whether providing mercenaries or performing data collection, the lines of accountability become tangled.

Booz Allen wasn’t spying via telescopes or listening devices: They had other corporations hand over records of who we were calling, and when. They claim legitimacy, and deny they recorded our phone calls or messages, and that may be partially true. But we have very little privacy in this new digital world where the collection of data by government or corporations is of high interest and great value.

If you search for a car, for months you will see car ads online. Search for a vacuum in February, and you will see ads for those from March until May. This is no coincidence. They read what you are reading, they are looking over your shoulder and collecting this information. And they have the capacity to manipulate that information at will.

The biggest threat to democracy in America does not come directly from government. It comes from AT&T and Verizon. Not only do these behemoths increasingly control how we communicate with each other, they control the very information we depend on to make decisions. Yes, Google and Apple, too.

If one wants to research abuses by cell phone companies, it is increasingly likely the search results will contain pages of sponsored ads, or stories about cell phone contracts instead of real information. AT&T and Verizon, working alone or in collusion with other corporate partners such as Comcast,  have that capacity to manage what we see.

Given that these corporations now own the politicians of America, with congressmen like Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden doing their bidding, the game is essentially over.

Despite warnings from President Eisenhower about the “military-industrial complex,”  despite the 1960s, despite mountains of evidence of market manipulation and collusion and outright lies by these voracious corporate gluttons, despite the vast transfer of wealth from the middle class to the 1/10 of one percent, despite all that and because of all that, they won.

They won because there now is one primary vehicle of information and communication, the lifeblood of any democracy, and they own it. They listen to what we are saying, they let us see what they allow. With that, they stunt our ideas and muffle our speech.

Music and Blues

Scot Vine shared a Facebook Post: “Everytime Bohemian Rhapsody starts playing… I’m not satisfied by only singing the lyrics… I have to sing the opera voices. And also the guitar part.”

Yah, I get that.

Other songs that compel me to turn the volume way, way up and sing or dance alone in my loft: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, sung by Jeff Buckley or just about anybody else, is still at the top. Janis Joplin. Amos Lee. “One and Only” by Adele. “No Other Way” by Paolo Nutini. There are many, many other on the list that appears to have a thread of Blues running through it.

Odd, the Blues don’t make me feel blue. Is it a sense “sharing” that uplifts? That feels too near the surface. The Blues operate at a deeper level. What drives that wonderful emotional communication that functions below language, memory, or explanation? Like reaching for something stuck inside a pipe or behind the desk or under the bed, I can’t quite grasp it with my rational mind. I can brush it with my fingertips, but it won’t be dislodged.

The “Ray LaMontagne” station on Pandora is a current favorite on Sunday afternoons.

Next step

Chalice is finished. There are still a couple of important comments to come in, but rewriting the conclusion is finished. First responses have been very positive. Proofreader edits will be entered by the end of next week.

Finished… well, the work of the writer is finished. Work of the author continues: Legal considerations remain; the book needs to be formatted for Amazon and uploaded; I need to format for print then get it printed; and I need to hire a publicist. Actually, those are not the work of author, but part of my work as publisher.

I wish my squeamishness about the label “self-published”  would dissipate. Despite observations about the revolution in publishing, especially over the last two years, despite  exhortations by Steven Pressfield, despite my belief in the work itself, despite the existence of 110,000 words in the form of a story, despite my experience with  “professionals” who focus only on markets and not art, despite all these facets, the feeling “it’s not real” nags me.

But it is real, and it has real value. And soon, anyone who wants to discover that will be able to hold Chalice in their hand.

And I will move on to the next one.