Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ringworld, by Larry Niven, a book review

RingworldRingworld by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Larry Niven wrote Ringworld at a time (1970) when it was considered acceptable and even trendy for artists to disrespect their audience. Having lived through that era and having been battered by dissatisfying endings, by authors and movie directors playing mind games or treating me as if I was a toy for them to manipulate, I am ever-so-glad that fad disappeared quickly.

Ringworld isn't so bad as some.  It has a nicely satisfying ending and it presented a rich well-imagined world.  But the author's style suffered from a the 1970's-haute tendency to treat the reader as an outsider.  Perhaps it was just me.  Maybe hard-core fans of hard-core science fiction at the time had heard of all the myriad of imagined technologies that were mentioned--named--with the assumption that they needed no explanation, as if the reader was supposed to know as much about them as the characters living in that world.

The story is imaginative in the extreme. It throws together four characters - two humans and two aliens with cultural and physical differences designed to keep tension high - and sends them on a quest across the galaxy to a newly discovered artificial world built in the form of a ring that spins about its sun such that centrifugal force creates gravity and keeps its inhabitants pinned to the inner surface along with an atmosphere, oceans, soil, etc. Niven envisioned the ring as being 600 million miles in length (circumference) and a million miles wide. He barely bothers to explain how it might be built and maintained. Since it is always high noon at every point on the habitable inner surface of the ring he decides to suspend (using invisible wire of virtually infinite tensile strength) a series of sunlight-blocking 'shadow squares' between the sun and the ring in order to artificially create a day/night cycle. This is a peculiarly unnecessary complication (except for the fact that Niven's characters would eventually need some of that wire). People could shut their blinds. People live happily in Svalbard with no darkness for 4 months at a time.

The pace of the action is steady and gripping enough to have kept my interest. I enjoyed reading the book, but I did not enjoy the main character, 200 year old Louis Wu. The author uses him as an omniscient explainer of things that he could not possibly have figured out - including history and technology he had never seen, and even the behavior of the other characters. It was simply not believable even in this highly speculative sci-fi setting.

So lets talk about the setting - the technology. It bordered on pure fantasy and supernatural. Niven concocted a major catastrophe at the center of the galaxy which would destroy all life within a few tens of thousands of years. But he had a solution for it. And in fact he had a solution for virtually every physical limitation our real non-catastrophic universe presents us. He has immortality drugs, multiple kinds of stasis/suspended animation, psychic weapons, several technologies to travel and communicate faster than the speed of light, virtually indestructible materials suited to every imaginable need. And he didn't stop there. He assumes that genetic selection for god-like invulnerability (what he calls 'luck') could take place in six generations of breeding. He assumes microbes could evolve to feed on certain specific, plot-convenient, technology-critical materials but on few other easier-to-digest things -- e.g. he exposes his four heroes to all these evolved microbes and they don't get so much as a sniffle. It was all just a little much to take - I felt such a heavy burden of disbelief that in order to suspend it, I, too, needed some of his invisible 'shadow square wire'.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Morality in an uncaring universe

Rihanna.  She has cooperated with established celebrities such as Eminem

What if there is an inherent morality embedded in our reality?  What if it can be shown to appear spontaneously from the primordial Chaos/Paradox and thus provide another sense in which random indifferent Paradox emulates ‘God’?

Well, modern computer studies of some notable paradoxical situations have revealed that this may indeed be the case.  The studies suggest that an individual being’s or a species’ success in any uncontrolled, iterated, competitive evolutionary process is correlated with certain key behaviors and attributes.  The better a living thing performs in following these 'rules,' the more successful it will be (no consciousness required):

  • Be nice. Cooperate with others by default: freely offer trust and respect; never be the first to act selfishly.
  • Be provocable when wronged, but never hateful: react to a selfish act (a sin) with an assertive defense, in like measure but not beyond.  “Eye for an eye.”  A wrong must be made right, not rewarded, not ignored. Respond to the sin, respect the sinner (as per the first rule above and the next one below)
  • Be forgiving: cooperate with a ‘sinner’ who returns to cooperation. Do this generously and immediately.  Do not hold a grudge.
  • Be humble (don't be envious): be fair with those around you. Do not try to out-compete them.  Do not be resentful if they out-compete you.
  • Be honest (don't be too clever/intelligent): Don't try to be tricky, sneaky, scheming, or subtle.  Keep your approach transparent.
As I said, these intrinsic rules for navigating existence apply to all living things equally, and no consciousness is required to obey them.  Noting this provides us with some surprising guidance regarding our relationship with our natural world:
  • Enslave no living thing, animal or vegetable: Gather, hunt, trap, and eat only those things that live wild and free. Yes, gardening is a sin, as is keeping a pet. That cute little kitty sitting in your windowsill next to that potted plant? Bad ideas; both of them sit there yearning to be on the other side of that glass. Agriculture is a pursuit that will ultimately fail us, especially the breeding and keeping of animals in industrial factory farms.
  • We are stewards of our world, not owners:  It is incumbent upon us to manipulate our surroundings as little as possible, and to leave it in as good or better condition than we found it.  In all you do, keep in mind the Seven Generations to follow.
This, to me, is good news - the best I could hope for.  I'll discuss the details in a moment.  But first let me offer the bad news: why Homo sapiens is going to go extinct:

Our current human culture (the species pejoratively called ‘bowlheads’ in my seven-book novel series 'Eden's Womb') fails miserably on nearly every one of the above counts.  We are too selfish and greedy.  We sometimes act hatefully.  Burdened by our self-importance and parochialism we fail to forgive in too many instances — the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps the most important example of this in human history.  Too often we revert to covetousness and envy and seek ‘schadenfreude.’  And we are just too damn smart for our own good.  “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”  In Eden's Womb, which is set more than half a million years in the future, Homo sapiens had long ago gone extinct.  Replacing them is a species I name Homo phronensis, after the Aristotelian concept of mature, practical wisdom called Phronesis (see his Nicomachean Ethics).

Now, how do those five rules basic emerge from pure indifferent Chaos?  Let's get to the scientific studies - which I'll try to present in simple, easy to understand terms.

Many of you have probably heard of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”  It's a paradox in decision analysis, but ultimately it is a social interaction exercise.  Two 'players' face one another and have two choices: cooperate with the other player, or betray her/him.

As originally posed, the Prisoner's Dilemma is this: You and a criminal associate have been busted for a crime that you committed together.

Fortunately for you, most of the evidence was shredded, so you are facing only a year in prison on circumstantial evidence. But the prosecutor wants to nail someone.  To do so, he needs your testimony.  So he offers you a deal: if you squeal on your associate – which will result in her/him getting a five year sentence – the prosecutor will see that you go free. Which sounds good, until you learn your associate is being offered the same deal – which would get you five years.

So what do you do? The best that you and your associate can do together is to not squeal: that is, to cooperate (with each other, not the prosecutor!) in a mutual bond of silence, and do your year. But wait: if your associate cooperates (that sucker!), can you do better by squealing ("defecting") and get sprung from jail? It's tempting, but then he's also tempted. And if you both squeal, oh, no, it's five years for both of you. So perhaps you should cooperate – but wait, that's being a sucker yourself, as your associate will undoubtedly squeal, and you'll rot in prison for five years. So what is the best strategy to minimize your incarceration?

In the most generalized version of this game it is the story of real life.  Each 'play' represents a basic ‘unit’ of social interaction that confronts us innumerable times every day.  And with each unit we must choose from two simple alternatives: Act cooperatively/altruistically, or act selfishly.  Broken down to its most basic elements, every action we take becomes a series of binary choices, 'Black vs. White'.

And in countless contests conducted and monitored by experts this fundamental game of social interaction is invariably won by following the five rules listed above - a moral code that not so much emerges from nothing but comes pre-packaged the way mathematics itself does.

So ... the dry, indifferent realm of mathematics points the way to a moral code.  How does the Prisoner's Dilemma and the resulting five rules apply to us in our every day life?  In some surprising ways:

Whether we know it or not, we are constantly playing this game with every other person in the world, including people we've not only never met, but do not even know exist.

Consider this: Very few of us would go out of our way to ‘bad-mouth’ or ‘trash’ a complete stranger.  But most of us would treasure the chance to connect with people that we've never met in order to establish some mutually beneficial relationship.  And what better way to make an impression on them than to do something altruistic.

We all want our cup to 'runneth over' with adoring fans.  So there is an obvious bias toward cooperation.  But the cup can also be viewed as half empty: If we sit at home, in our own little cocoon and don't reach out to our potential fans, then this passive option - inaction - can be considered a negative choice: a selfish act.

Who hasn’t heard that venerable old saying: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  Even Jesus of Nazareth said that (Matthew 12:30).

Every one of the seven billion strangers that you've neglected to connect with is a failed social bond and a potential enemy left unconverted.  That's a harsh judgment, I know. But it makes a point:

The highest ‘score’ in the social interaction game goes to those who try the hardest.  Think of these examples:  Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Paul of Tarsus, and … yes … young 25-year-old Rihanna: the single most 'liked' individual on Facebook.

Your choice to engage the people around you positively is the winning strategy.  Your choice to remain aloof and not interact with them is the choice that fails.  When I look at things this way, it is utterly transformative!


Now to delve a little more deeply I'm going to get a bit more technical, let's take a look at the math of the Prisoner's Dilemma Game (don't be scared - this is not very complicated):

Let's assign symbols to the various outcomes of the game:

In every decision unit of the game, if you and your partner/opponent cooperate it produces a modest reward, "R", for both players.  If one of you chooses the selfish option but the other participant ‘turns the other cheek’, the immediate result is a large taking “T” for the selfish one and a large suffering “S” for the victim.  If both of you choose your own selfish interests, then both pay a certain Penalty, "P", in the resulting conflict.

In formal mathematical terms, for the individual participant in the Prisoner's Dilemma game, these four outcomes are arranged from largest reward to largest cost thusly:  T > R > P > S, where the symbol > means "greater than".  We'll call this relationship "Inequality (1)".  These relative sizes define the phenomenon, and so are fundamental to it.  Other arrangements don't work.  Some simple thought exercises can confirm this.  In the real-world context the relative 'size' of the four variables, as specified above, makes intuitive sense:

T: Mugging on the street/Warriors pillaging the innocent: "To the victor go the spoils.”  Big payoff for the winner.

R: Peace: "We get no spoils, neither do either of us suffer."  Biggest combined payoff, but never the maximum score.

P: War: "The battle between us will be bloody, so even the winner will suffer losses.”  Rarely as rewarding as Peace and co-operation.

S: Mugging on the street/Warriors pillaging the innocent: "The victim suffers exceedingly.”  The loser endures not just from the physical defeat, but also psychologically.

So Inequality (1) mirrors real life: The Temptation to act selfishly T offers a pay-off greater than the Reward for mutual cooperation, R.  But the Reward for cooperation is better than the Penalty P for always acting selfishly.  And the worst cost, S, is reserved for the "Sucker" who chooses to cooperate, faces a selfish ‘opponent’, and is robbed blind.

Now ... The Prisoner's Dilemma game is most relevant to our reality when it is played over and over among a large and diverse group of players.  This is called the "iterative" version.

In order to be a valid model of reality, the iterative version of the Prisoners Dilemma game also requires that 2R > T + S.  Let's call this Inequality (2).  It means that the combined reward to two players who cooperate must exceed the sum of the benefits achieved by one Sucker and one selfish player:

That might seem like stacking the deck - a rule that fixes the outcome.  But in the natural, very real world of human interactions this stipulation, in the long term, is naturally met without anybody forcing it to be so:

Think of it this way: A mugger on the street will sometimes come away with very little whereas her/his victim will always suffer in some way.  Both players have higher stress levels during and after the encounter than they would have if they agreed to cooperate.  The resulting sum is therefore almost always less than the alternative: ‘Both of us respect each other, keep what we have, and cooperate to get more.”

So in reality, since this inequality (2) does apply.  Nature itself stacks the deck.  Two heads are better than one.  You attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.

Do Nice guys finish last? Only if they ignore another old saying: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Be nice but not gullible, be humble, forgiving, and honest and you'll end up on top of the evolutionary mountain.

And if you find the 'pearly gates' up there ... if there's a caring God there waiting for you ... well, now you know why.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Game of Thrones - a medieval soap opera

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George R.R. Martin has a writing style that I crave: crisp, vivid, full of rich detail, evocative through all five senses. He's a master at his craft. When I write, I try to achieve this type of style, so in 'Game of Thrones' I have a wonderful 'textbook' full of top-notch examples. Yet as a model for story telling it's not to my taste. More on that later. First, more high praise:

If there was ever an author who deserves the accolades that he has received, Martin is it. He is literally a born writer and a natural story peddler. When he was a kid he gave dramatic readings and sold his monster stories for pennies to neighborhood children. He's been working at his craft ever since. Game of Thrones is no 'overnight success story.'

Yet the story of its beginning is a mercenary tale: Martin knew he wanted to write an epic fantasy, inspired by Tolkien in particular. Yet he had no concept of what he wanted to write. Finally the idea of a set of siblings adopting direwolf pups came to mind, and he was off and running. Still, he sold the story to a publisher with only a quarter of it written.

The result of that premature acceptance was a book without an ending. Game of Thrones is in no way a stand-alone tale. After 800 pages, Martin leaves all of the story lines hanging, largely unresolved ...

... much like a soap opera. Yes, this was my first impression and it persisted to the end. Game of Thrones is not so much a fantasy as it is an elaborate soap opera in a classic medieval setting. And soap operas aren't my cup-o-tea.

When I read a fantasy novel I'm looking for innovative and imaginative settings. What Martin gives me are text-book medieval settings. I want plots involving unusual creatures and metaphysical elements that have not been previously explored – things to send my imagination soaring in new directions. The characters in the story ought to find a significant part of their conflict coming through entanglement with these imaginative new elements - moreso than through getting in each others' faces. Martin seems to prefer the character interplay. He barely dabbles in anything metaphysical and only trots out a few zombies and baby dragons at the very fringes of the story. The rest of it is just historical-style fiction meticulously well researched and well written, but not what I’m after.

The story is written through the limited point of view of eight of the principal characters, all but two of which are members of the immediate family of Ned Stark. Ned is lord of Winterfell - a northern stronghold in an island nation modeled after Great Britain (geographically as well as ethnically). To his north is an ancient wall that is the frontier of civilization, modeled after China's Great Wall. To his south is Ned's good friend the King and an array of ambitious noble families with conflicting interests, full of grudges and entanglements with one another. The plot begins to thicken when the King's Hand (his chief executive) is murdered and Ned is called south to take his place.

And the plot just continues to thicken. As events unfold we are shown great castles of many descriptions, all beautifully realized, we experience jousts and sword-play, betrayals and executions, squalid brothels and grand state dinners, and ultimately war. And everywhere there is blood. Martin seems to find an interesting or unexpected way to make someone bleed profusely in every chapter. Did I mention that he was a Hollywood screen writer before he wrote Game of Thrones?

Okay, all in all a rousing good time if you like that sort of thing. I'm sure I'll be reading on through the rest of the 'Song of Ice and Fire' saga. I'm told there will be seven books in all, possibly even eight, two (or three) not yet finished as of the end of 2013. Martin is sixty-five, barely a month older than I am, and he's been writing one new book in the series about every five years. Let's hope his health and his enthusiasm hold.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Headed home for Thanksgiving - a cautionary tale

The long haul home.  What a drag.

Headed to the family stompin' grounds for a joyous Thanksgiving gathering, but it's been a tough slog.  Halfway home I got a flat tire on a screamin' interstate.  Started to change the tire and it started to rain -- a cold bitter rain, with the temperature barely above freezing.

My jack wouldn't work on the soft ground off the interstate shoulder and there was no way I was going to move the ol' van onto the concrete shoulder closer to the highway and do the work just inches from the drug-hazed text-messaging teeny-boppers, the 80mph semi-tractor-trailer drivers wired on meth, and the masses of jaded morning-rush-hour troglodytes.

So I called trusty old AAA for emergency road-side assistance.  Been a member with them for years.

Their response: "Sir, you are a non-entity - lower than the lowest scum."  Well, perhaps I exaggerate just slightly.

They had returned my renewal check a month ago.  They informed me that I was no longer a member of AAA because I had changed residence from their Mid-Atlantic club to their NC club and the two clubs are separate entities and had apparently failed to communicate.

Wow!  I'm proud to say that I kept my temper, even though I was white-hot with rage.  The grunts that work the phones aren't my enemy - the inept AAA bureaucracy is.  I told them I had not received a returned check, nor had I heard a 'peep' from the NC club.  So I had no idea that my membership had been terminated.

After an hour on the phone I reinstated my membership, paying an extra $40 because I requested emergency service the same day I 'joined' AAA. 

Can you hear my teeth grinding?

The fact that I had been a AAA member for years and years was irrelevant.  The fact that I had dutifully sent my renewal check on time was irrelevant.  I had no standing with AAA because I had failed to play by their rules.

They apologized for the inconvenience and said the service truck would be there by 7AM.

It arrived at 8.

Finally, after four hours on the shoulder of the screamin' interstate I was on the move again.

Did an officer-of-the-law stop to check on my welfare during those four hours that I sat there alone and desperate and grinding my teeth on the interstate shoulder with my emergency flashers blinking?  Nope.  But ten minutes down the road there was one of our finest gleefully ticketing a speeder.

Three and a half hours later I finally got home and picked up mail at my PO Box. Among the reams of junk mail I found two notices about a certified letter that had been sent from AAA to this old address, despite the fact that they knew my new address.  The Post office informed me that I had failed to pick up this certified letter in time, so they were forced to return it to the sender.  No doubt it was my dutifully offered and utterly rejected check.

I'm sure there is some beautiful tragic symmetry and poetic irony in this story, but at the moment it completely escapes me.

(Full disclosure: The photo is, of course, from a different road trip.  It was taken in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Maybe I'll relate that story another time.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Of Paradox - Huxley's Islet

Pencil drawing of T. H. Huxley done by his daughter Marian Collier

(last updated 28 May 2024)

Here is the place where I explore the big picture—the nature of reality itself—the soil in which the roots of human philosophy, science, and theology grow—the context that we live in and what it means.

What, in the final analysis, is it all really about?  What is at the root of our reality and existence?  I have a very simple answer. It’s not “42”, but it does boil down to one single word.

What word? Not some annoying philosophical jargon. Throughout human history the great thinkers in the tradition of Western Philosophy have coined ever-more-complicated words—and probably burned out millions of brain cells—trying to figure out what’s going on. Terms like ‘eschatology,’ ‘ontology,’ and ‘epistemology’ got invented and people agonized about ‘solipsism’ and ‘coherentism’ and ‘the anthropic principle.’ They endlessly agonize over the inherent conflict between any being or conception that is ‘necessary’ and our observed ‘contingent’ universe.

The simple answer is Paradox. Paradox with a capital “P”.

This is *not* a cop-out or a joke. I’m dead serious.

Paradox is what these deep thinkers incessantly bang their heads against in an effort to rationally explain our reality.  When will they finally realize that it is the answer to the problem, not the ‘devastating contradiction’ that prevents them from finding an answer?

Think of Paradox as a 'thing'—as a real physical object. As a place. Envision it as the ambience (the 'sanctuary') in which “the thing beyond which no greater thing can be conceived” is housed.

By its very nature, Paradox plays this role perfectly. It is the something that nothing begat. It is the ultimate uncaused cause.

Paradox is the venue where all things contradictory converge and unify; and it is all around us.  Physically, it is the unstructured Chaos that we call “the vacuum,” out of which the universe appeared, and in which everything we observe remains immersed today.  Philosophically it is the Omnipotent God, who can make a mountain ('Sacred' from the point-of-view of non-Western thinkers) that is so big that He cannot ('must not') move it.

Put simply, Paradox sits in the position of unassailable primacy.  It is THE essential attribute of reality. Note that any Sacred thing can be defiled.  Paradox is no exception to that; but what makes it exceptional is that the ways of Paradox (and by reference any of us who choose to 'believe' in its primacy) simply DO NOT CARE.  See further on.

Note well that reality can have no meaning without a mind, whatever that entails—i.e., a consciousness, a sensor, an observer, an entanglement. And therein lies the ultimate philosophical paradox. It is not possible to declare whether the mind creates reality or discovers it; and it is not possible to determine whether the mind emerges from a (subjective) reality or vice versa.'  All enquiry, all discourse boils down to one fundamental question: “How do you know?” (What, exactly, is 'knowing'?)

St. Anselm of Canterbury, in 1078 appears to have been the first Western thinker to write about that “greatest thing beyond which no greater thing can be conceived.”  He used the concept to argue for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. His faith made him insist that this biggest-picture thing should think the way humans think. The Reader’s Digest version of his argument is that if the big guy can be conceived in the mind, then there's an even bigger guy who takes on physical form too. Therefore, God exists.

Well, maybe the short version of St. Anselm’s ontological argument doesn’t do it justice. But I think my buddy Paradox can do him one better. Can Paradox be conceived as the 'creator/progenitor' of all reality?  The answer was given (somewhat inadvertently) by Thomas H. Huxley, who called himself "Darwin's Bulldog" when he wrote, in 1887:
“The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, …”

As the ambience in which all things are contained, Paradox must encompass both the unknown, inexplicable sea as well as our islet of well-ordered (or at least familiar) stuff.  But here's where Huxley provides the inspiration to this perspective.  It is the inexplicable realm that is fundamental, all-encompassing.  The explainable 'islet' is little more than an overblown random fluctuation therein.  Don't think of the islet as sitting on some kind of bedrock.  It's more like a grand 'Noah's Ark'.  That illimitable ocean has no bottom.

The essence of Paradox is unrestricted random Chaos.  Our connection to the Chaos is through the vacuum—a restless frothing 'field' of conflicting properties of practically infinite variety which constantly create and destroy themselves and each other.  As a simple example, it is the 'I am/I am not' declared by the pairs of virtual particles that zip in and out of being in the reference frame in which we exist.
Two electrons, both negatively charged, will repel each other.  They are depicted here, in what's called a Feynman diagram, by the two solid lines marked 'e(minus)' moving from the bottom of the picture toward the top.  From our macroscopic point of view, we might imagine two little balls that come together and don't quite hit each other before 'magically' changing course and bouncing away from each other.  Think of the way magnets can repel each other without touching. What's actually happening deep down at the finest scale is that the two electrons zap each other with light rays (the squiggly lines), and sometimes those light rays can actually create two more virtual charged particles, shown in the circle in the center. So, for a little while, we can have four particles and two light rays where only two simple electrons actually 'exist'.

Physics theory and experiment have shown that what we call a 'vacuum' is far from empty. It is actually a seething, restless, yet entirely random and indifferent field full of dynamic events and processes.  From what I understand, the energy density of the tiny bit of this Chaos that can be detected within our limited reference frame is only one part in 10 to the 120th power of all that's out there.  The Chaos is a potent force indeed.

A key property of this random indifferent Chaos is that localized, temporary self-organization can occur within it (such as the circle in the diagram above), and that self-organization is not prevented from becoming self-replicating and self-sustaining.

Paradox has no law but the law that there is no law.  Indifference has no reason or desire to prevent a self-organizing 'tumor' from forming, growing, and expanding within its belly.

As a simple example, let's go from 10 to the 120th possible entities to just ten.  Imagine a random number generator that is pumping out an endless string of Arabic numerals, 0 through 9. Somewhere in that field there exists an arbitrarily long string of nothing but the number 5, as far as the eye can see.  (It's very unlikely, but it is possible; and anything that is possible will eventually happen, if you wait long enough.)

If we lived in that particular patch of 'space' where, even with our best telescopes, we could see nothing but 5's around us, then we would have to believe that there is an exquisite, mysterious order to the universe—an inexplicable 'fine tuning'.  This patch of 'all fives' is Huxley's Islet.

I could elaborate, but I think you get the idea: We are dependent on the realm of 'all fives'—the Islet—within which the completely indifferent, UNCARING Chaos has allowed meaning (the perfect 'five-ness' of our world) to emerge for us.  Furthermore, since we cannot tolerate the encroachment or appearance of 'fours' or 'sixes', which would corrupt our reality, it is in our best interest to do anything in our power to preserve and propagate the 'all fives.'  Thus, not only does (localized, temporary) meaning emerge from nothing (the primordial vacuum made of pure Paradox), but so does purpose.

Here's where I suggest a few extensions to Huxley's statement, quoted above.  If our goal is just to survive, we need to build a bulkhead around our island to make sure it doesn't erode.  The battering waves on the ocean of Chaos are always trying to reclaim the land.  If our goal is to thrive and improve our life for ourselves and future generations, then it makes sense to follow Huxley's advice to try to claim new territory.

But here's something far more visionary: We ought to be learning to swim.

The ocean of inexplicability is the ultimate source of everything we know.  Logic isn't always the best tool to make progress there.  It's a place where open-hearted patience, humility, and, yes, possibly even rote faith in the experience of those who have swum before, can avail us.  Sacred traditions/knowledge may ultimately be decoded by reductionist Western thinking; but waiting for that 'aha' moment is like standing on the shoreline of the Islet studying the waves.  Do not be afraid of the water.  Embrace the 'fours' and 'sixes'.  As Bruce Lee once said, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water.  On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.

Why seek to swim this ocean of the unexplained?  The human psyche craves it.  Our restless curiosity drives us to endlessly probe such mysteries.  We do not exist on reason alone.  If we immerse ourselves in the Chaos and learn something of the ways of the battering waves, we may better preserve our shores.

"Paradox - The Essence of the Universe"
This is the first trucker cap I ever owned, embroidered by hand with my long-standing message back in the early 1970's.  This was a time when these caps were just beginning to get popular as every-day headwear (if those links go bad, I've saved screen shots and will post).


* * *

In a series of supplementary posts, I've taken some dives into the enigmatic waters.  Below are links to discussion of specific aspects of the philosophical and physical 'truths' that I perceive from my outpost on a wind-swept, rocky promontory that juts far out into the Sea of Paradox.

1.  Just as our coherent, seemingly rock-solid reality emerges naturally from the Chaos, so does the abstract concept of morality, and all its basic tenets, as espoused by the great messengers such as Jesus and Buddha.  I've devoted a separate exploration of this subject here—Morality, as it emerges even in an uncaring universe.

2.  For more discussion of the physical steps that led to our particular 'tumor in the belly of the Chaos'— 'Creation' as a physical process, which physicists now believe originated from the [spontaneous?] expansion of an unbelievably hot and absurdly tiny thing (the 'Big Bang')—see the Firestorm in the Wilderness post.

3.  For a speculative discussion of how our particular universe fits into a MUCH bigger and broader picture, including exploring humanity's potential active role in shaping the universe, see The Great Stream post.

4.  And for a better understanding of the deepest, most fundamental instruction book that we have available to us to guide us through life, see the Nature's Code post.

May we all ...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ten things you probably don't know about me

Ten things you probably don’t know about me:

1.  My most traumatic birthday was when I turned 41.  I had steeled myself and was fully prepared to accept 40.  But the following year I was floored by the realization that ‘the numbers just keep going relentlessly up.’

2.  The last time I used a vacuum cleaner was in 2007.

3.  My grandfather was a minor league baseball player.  I didn’t inherit those genes.  At age ten I was a pitcher for a ‘bad news bears’ minor league little league team.  We won only one game all season, and typically lost by scores like 105-3 with me pitching the whole game.  The only other pitcher in our rotation that year was my friend Larry Blackburn.  Remember, Larry?

4.  During the Viet-Nam war, with my hair grown down to my shoulders, and despite my anti-war rhetoric, I took a summer job working the midnight shift at Lasko Metal Products making bomb casings under a govt. contract.  Yep: “Hippie makes bombs for Viet-Nam.” But that’s not the end of the irony: It was the summer of 1970. I had just been spared in the 1969 draft lottery and was thus freed of further worry about being drafted.  Others I worked with weren’t.  I worked a million-pound, twenty foot high metal press that shaped the bomb casings.  My job was to put the flat sheet of metal in and push the buttons (both hands) that operated the press.  My partner on the other side took it out after it was pressed into the shape of a quarter of the bomb housing.  One day I pushed the buttons that cleanly severed the two middle fingers of his hand.  As he left for the hospital his last words to me were: “Now they can’t draft me!”

5.  The most famous person I personally know launched a spatula into orbit around the earth.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYS4HrMji8U

6.  My very first childhood memory is of sitting beside my Mom in the back seat of a ’35 Chevy with towels covering the windows as we drove through some town along the Ohio River and she breast-fed my 3-month old brother.

7.  I have never had a cup of coffee.

8.  My favorite piece of clothing is a pair of black Ralph Lauren polo sweat pants that I bought at the Goodwill store for $3.

9.  I can make the ‘Vulcan salute’ (live long and prosper) with my left hand but not with my right.

10.  (thanks to Stella G. Maddox for this) I’m far more socially awkward than I look.  I hate crowds, parties and meetings.  If I come across as aloof, standoffish, or even intimidating, it’s because I can’t think of anything coherent to say.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reading Piers Anthony's Xanth series - two reviews

Piers Anthony is a prolific author.  He often cranks out three books in a year.  Among his many products is a series of Young Adult fantasy novels set in the land of Xanth, where magic controls nearly everything.

Anthony published the first book in the series, 'A Spell for Chameleon,' in 1977 and he's still producing them.  He's currently writing the thirty-ninth book in the series.

I've read books one through five and book seven, and have been consistently entertained by each new installment.  You don't need to read them in sequence--each book stands alone--but it helps a little, since they are chronological, and later books do refer to elements of the plots of earlier ones.

In time I may get around to writing reviews of books one through four, but here I'm reviewing book five, 'Ogre, Ogre' and book seven, 'Dragon on a Pedestal':

Ogre, Ogre (Xanth, #5)Ogre, Ogre by Piers Anthony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fifth book in Piers Anthony's Xanth series and the best of those first five by a wide margin. Piers Anthony has a quirky, almost clunky way of unfolding a story, but the deeper structure--the skeleton of his tales--is always sound and well imagined. Some story ideas just naturally stand out or resonate more than others, and this one did. Surely that's why it was the only one of the 30+ Xanth books to get on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Ogre, Ogre is a classic 'beauty and the beast' love story. Smash is half human, half big ugly brutish Ogre. He entirely denies his human side. Tandy is half human, half nymph. Smash feels that something is missing from his life, but has no idea what. Tandy is desperately trying to escape the unwanted physical attentions of a demon who can pass through walls. Their very different quests find common ground when the Good Magician Humphrey sends them out into the wilds of Xanth together to seek their 'answers'.

Along the way Smash takes six more female creatures in tow, all of whom also have unfulfilled needs. He fights a dragon and encounters numerous other threats and obstacles, ultimately delivering all six females safely to their various resolutions, one at a time. In the end, it's just Smash and Tandy again, and Smash still hasn't figured out what he's looking for. Of course the reader well knows what's going to happen long before it does, and yet the plot isn't spoiled by the knowing. The reader still wants to find out how and where the 'light bulb' will finally come on.

As in all of the Xanth novels up to this point, the hurdles, obstacles, threats and conflicts that the protagonists encounter come thick and fast, one after another, almost always in series. That is, they come one at a time and are essentially dispatched or set aside before the next one arises. In that very general sense the story lines are predictable and simple--there's an over-riding quest and a lot of short-lived impediments to achieving the goal. In most cases there's absolutely no foreshadowing - the majority of the problems arise entirely unexpected, and more often than not they are forgotten just as quickly, unless some lesson has been imparted.

This simple writing style, I'd guess, can appeal to readers who are quite young, and not a lot of brain power is required to enjoy the tale. Yet I, as a mature adult didn't feel that my intelligence was insulted, nor was I ever bored. Anthony is good at what he does, and the quality is consistent. It's good light entertainment.

Dragon On A PedestalDragon On A Pedestal by Piers Anthony
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The introductory summary begins:

"There is trouble in Xanth again. The Gap Dragon had escaped and was ravaging across the land, the forget-spell was causing mass amnesia, three-year old Ivy was headed right for a hungry dragon. Could things get any worse? Probably...."

Yes, the forget-spell has also escaped and had dissipated into 'forget whorls.' It was these that were causing the random events of amnesia all over civilized Xanth.

Little Ivy is the daughter of Xanth's ruling King Dor and his wife Irene, and a forget whorl has passed through, causing Ivy to be separated from her parents.

This sets up the plot: Princess Irene is on a quest to rescue her 'helpless' daughter. But out in the deepest wilds of Xanth little Ivy is managing to take care of herself by innocently wielding her Magician-Grade magical talent. She's not nearly as helpless as her mother might believe.

Piers Anthony's seventh Xanth book, 'Dragon on a Pedestal,' follows the parallel adventures of both Ivy and her mother as they seek to reunite. The author alternates chapters from the point of view of mother and daughter. As the pages turn, Anthony unveils challenge after challenge for both protagonists, always unexpected, almost never foreshadowed, and usually quite imaginative. And as usual with the Xanth series, these challenges appear and are dispatched mostly in serial order.

As the book comes to its climax a deadly threat to all of Xanth, which has lain dormant for thirty years, provides the focus for a satisfying denouement.

As usual for the Xanth series, Anthony trots out a 'passel' of puns, reinforces his quaint and benignly sexist perspectives on the male/female divide, and builds his plot like a 'road-movie.' By this I mean that constant travel is involved from beginning to end, all the tension and conflict raised in the plot come from unexpected encounters along the way, and the denouement always involves (at least in part) reaching a destination.

And as always Anthony delivers an entertaining and imaginative story. These are no literary masterpieces. They're not far from the 'Harlequin Romances' in terms of the quality of the prose. They're 'light fantasy' targeted at young adults. And for me that's just fine: they offer me a chance to sit back, relax and enjoy a rollicking roller-coaster ride.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious TraditionsThe Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to be aware of this book through my research for my distant future fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb'. I wanted to understand the origin and evolution of mankind's religious journey in order to project a plausible future. That's a tall order, of course, but for me the study was a fascinating journey. I started by reading Huston Smith's iconic 'The World's Religions' and then began to delve deeper.

Along the way I had a little epiphany: It seemed that many major faith traditions/institutions were founded about the same time (800 to 200 BCE). I pursued this idea, wondering if the nascent trade routes that would become the Silk Road had begun a cultural exchange that early in human history.

Well, as I dug into it, I found out that my idea was far from original (few ever are). Karl Jaspers had the idea, and published it in `The Origin and the Goal of History' in 1953. Karen Armstrong seems to have latched onto Jaspers' grand theories as a way of hooking the reader (selling more books). But it remains unclear whether she actually believes them. Nowhere did she overtly refute Jasper's theories, but in the meat of the text she seems uninterested in reinforcing them. Sometimes it seems as if she finds his themes unsupportable but doesn't want to make an issue of it. That's not the kind of incisive scholarly analysis I would hope for from a book with such a grand title published by an expert. It's clear she's more interested in the detail. She shies away from big-picture analysis. Result: the title begins to come across as disingenuous--false advertising. And I begin to feel cheated.

From my point of view I wanted insight into the maturing of the human psyche, its causes and implications. Were there unifying factors that led to this period of unprecedented global advancement in and formalization of human thought?

Through my own independent research I found that this revolution or maturing of human consciousness seemed to be entirely global. Jaspers and Armstrong focus only on four major hubs of emergent civilization (Greece, Judea, India and China). What I found was that there were many more examples of emerging faith traditions and landmark human advancement that flowered during this period. Shinto religion began during this time frame as did the Norse theology--Odin first appears during this time. The first major cities of the Maya civilization arose during this period. The Polynesians were at the height of their seagoing prowess as they migrated across the south Pacific, and humans arrived in Madagascar for the first time. Clearly any unifying mechanism went far beyond cultural stimulation via the Silk Road trade routes.

To my disappointment Armstrong mentions none of these other cultures, and does not seem to be interested in the physical/environmental/external underpinnings of why this revolution happened. Rather she focuses on something she seems to implicitly assume is a 'universal' underpinning of human morality.

Fine. She's on a different wavelength. By now this has become abundantly clear. Okay, I'll sit back and let her elaborate before I pass judgment.

So now she proffers her primary theme: it's all about the `Golden Rule' -- "Do unto others as you (in your '*infinite wisdom and universal understanding*') would desire that others would do unto you."

For the obvious reasons (highlighted in the sarcastic parenthetical expression) this ancient and revered ethical directive is becoming one of the old clichés that can no longer be supported. It translates into: 'ignore cultural diversity, reject the opportunity to expand your personal horizons through deep listening and understanding of your neighbor's point-of-view, and just blindly assume that everyone wants to be treated the way you want to be treated'.

Surely (Armstrong implicitly assumes) the 'Golden Rule' is a universal sign of humanity's newly emerging (shallowly defined) 'compassion' to which all these nascent religious movements must have aspired, and thus to which they all gravitated.

To me this is not a satisfying explanation. I see no universality. I'll offer one benign example: In China you must burp to express your satisfaction for a meal. In western Europe the burp is a sign that you're uncultured. Okay, here are a few more examples: http://mrfarshtey.net/WorldCultures/2...

The closest Armstrong comes to addressing my 'big-picture' question is by regurgitating Jaspers' thesis that the Great Transformation was a result of an interregnum between eras of war and destruction and suppression of original thought by great empires. This seems insufficient, and again this is not my original thought--it is shared by other critics.

Having posited her theme for the 'Axial Age' (as Jaspers called it), Armstrong proceeds to delve into an historical survey, in chronological blocks, of the secular and spiritual events in the four cultures. It turns out that the Axial thinkers (by her definition) arose sporadically, not simultaneously in most cases. In fact she concludes that Axial thinking never really took hold in Greece as it spawned the Western philosophies.

No unifying motivation? Why publish it under such a lofty title: "The Great Transformation"? Why parrot Jaspers' themes if you don't even support them?

Here's why: your publisher wants to sell books.

Armstrong is a 'can't see the forest for the trees' thinker. Her book reads like a series of book reports (here is what I read and here's what I got out of it). Too often her work becomes a tedious recitation of factual historical events and summations of ancient writings without any raison d'être. Rather, it seems, she has an obsession for completeness (demonstrated in other works of hers such as `A History of God'.) Finally, a pet peeve: Armstrong has the annoying habit of using `chic' words drawn from the subject culture, such as nibbana (nirvana), ahimsa (harmlessness) and li (tradition). There are many of these. She defines them once and then expects the reader to remember them all.

As a research earth scientist I find myself wondering if human interactions with the changing global climate of the time may have contributed to this great global revolution. Psychologists may wonder if this was a result of the natural evolution of human self-awareness as we came to recognize our mind as a useful tool. Armstrong peripherally mentions (in barely a few lines) such revolutions as the smelting of iron and the domestication of the horse as contributing factors to destabilization during these times. She was silent on my Silk Road thesis and the others. In the end, this book was not what I was hoping for.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hiking/biking Jacksonville NC's Rails-to-Trails Greenway

Convo of MST mavens on Northeast Creek as viewed from Jacksonville's Rails-to-Trails Greenway

6.5 miles of hiker-biker-exclusive greenway through the bustling metropolis of Jacksonville, NC.  Kudos to this progressive city for making this happen.  Just look at the photos.  Much of this route is peaceful and serene, despite the urban setting.

After crossing the New River on a bridge with dedicated sidewalk,

the trail parallels Military Highway, passing plenty of hiker-friendly pit stops then turns right to parallel Bell Fork Road

in a peaceful and secluded right-of-way.

Then there's an elaborate and costly trail overpass of the major highway that is NC 24,

and the trail parallels that highway with Camp Lejeune Marine Core Military Base just across a chain link fence on the south side.

The publicly available trail ends at Camp Lejeune's main gate.

From there the MST uses the ultra-wide grassy shoulders of the divided highway NC 24 for just under a mile before plunging into a major shopping center and turning onto Piney Branch Road, then after another mile onto the relatively lightly traveled Rocky Run Rd.

Few cities of this size offer such a comprehensive through-trail.  It's an example of urban diversity that the MST thru-hiker is sure to appreciate.

Here's the map of the route, with link to all the photos worthy of a second look:

Biking Jacksonville's Rails-to-Trails Greenway at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hiking NC's Stones Creek Game Land - a seven lake tour

Located in Onslow County North Carolina near the beach and right across the road from the massive Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, Stones Creek Game Land is one of North Carolina's smaller state wildlife tracts.

But its 2978 acres are packed with natural beauty.

Today's tasks:

1.) Scout the best route for North Carolina's state-wide Mountains-to-Sea Trail which will pass through this Game Land.

2.) Circumnavigate all seven of the small picturesque lakes on the property.  Every one of the lakes has a trail or road that runs completely around it.

3.) Enjoy the peace and quiet - hunting season hasn't started yet - and bask in the beautiful fall weather.

4.) Accomplish all this in just over ten miles of hiking.

Now for a photo tour:  I've numbered the lakes in geographical order (south to north) rather than in the order I visited them.  Lakes four through seven are strung together like beads in a necklace with only narrow berms separating them.  Lakes one and seven are the largest, and also my favorites.

Lake One
Lake One beauty shot
More Lake One beauty
Lake Two
Lake Three
Lake Four
Lake Five
Lake Six
Lake Seven
Biggest web spinning  spider I've ever seen: three inches across
Tree and sky in the Longleaf Pine Savannah

Not exactly a 'best kept secret' - Stones Creek Game Land is well known by locals - this is nevertheless one of the more unexpected and underrated little gems of eastern North Carolina.  Below is a map of the GPS track for the hike:

Stones Crk Gameland - seven lake tour at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The 'Wild' effect - get out and Hike!

A recent New York Times article has highlighted a wonderful positive effect of the best selling book 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed: It's inspired people to get out there and hike! I reviewed the book here.

'Wild' was named as an Oprah book club selection, and that gave it the public exposure it needed to become a best seller--over a million copies sold to date. The result: it reached people far beyond the 'insider clique' of long distance hikers.  It opened the eyes of a new audience.

As a 'guide' for hikers Strayed's book is hopelessly flawed - exactly the way Bill Bryson's 'A Walk in the Woods' is.  (Here's my review of Bryson's book).  But in a peculiar way, that wanton imperfection is the whole point.  It gives the armchair dreamer permission to 'give it a shot' - to turn their dream into reality.

The statistics are in: Both of these best selling books have produced a 'hiking bubble' - a significant increase in the number of people hitting the trail.  People read the book and feel enabled, inspired to get out there and take a risk.

Cheryl Strayed was at wit's end.  She had little to lose and much to gain by leaping totally unprepared into a long distance hike.  It was a life changing decision.  She made rookie mistakes, put herself at risk, but persevered to hike more than 700  miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  She came away from the experience a much stronger person, more able to cope with her 'demons'.  (Oh ... and she wrote a book about it and got rich.)

And that's the lesson for all of us: stop thinking about what you've got to lose and take the leap.  Get out from in front of your computer screen and 'get physical'.   Experience the real world.  Take on the adventure that you've always dreamed of doing, or crash and burn in the attempt.

Whatever the outcome, the experience will feed your soul. I guarantee it. You'll create memories that you'll cherish for the rest of your life.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Happiness is a ... harder master ... than truth." I love Mustapha Mond. In giving him some of the best lines in 'Brave New World,' Aldous Huxley betrays his bias: He believes, perhaps even hopes, that his well-constructed vision of an orderly, happily infantile, benevolently controlled future society might some day come to pass.

Well, in many respects it has. (I speak largely of the United States here - the country that Huxley had in mind as he wrote.) Viral internet memes, if not the reality-numbing internet itself, replace his hypnopaedia. Take your pick of countless prescription and illicit psychoactive drugs, adding up to his 'soma'. The decline of the nuclear family and the proliferation of promiscuity and casual sex, though lately dampened somewhat by HIV/AIDS, came into full flower with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961. Despite an overtly democratic government, increasingly sophisticated Corporate tyranny and its relentless hypnopaedic political propaganda/lobbying have gradually built an economic caste system not unlike that of Huxley's Alpha-to-Epsilon structure. Consumerism is rampant. What sport/leisure activity these days does not adhere to Huxley's mandate that it require the purchase of vast amounts of ever-more-specialized and expensive equipment?

When a book proves to be this prescient over such a long time span, it deserves its status as one of the classics. I first read BNW as a high-school student, and thought myself a kindred spirit of Huxley. I tried to emulate his somewhat pretentious poetic style in my own poetry. But when I recently re-read the book, nearly fifty years on, I found myself sometimes getting annoyed at the 'full-of-himself' passages. His poetic excess sometimes gets in the way of his story telling. His worship of Shakespeare, though understandable, sometimes comes across as blatant evangelism. And sometimes he eschews interactive dialogue in favor of two-plus-page-long single-paragraph monologues.

What I love most about Brave New World is that Huxley manages, with such seeming ease and naturalness, to populate the pages with a whole slew (and slough) of diverse, richly painted characters. From the perpetually conflicted Bernard Marx to the intriguingly conformist Lenina Crowne, who manages to be subtly but pointedly shaken by the Savage's denial of her instant gratification, right down to the distinctive traits of minor characters like the overly hairy but ever pleasantly equanimous Benito Hoover, Huxley's skills at characterization shine. I have only one small quibble: where are the Alpha-plus females?

I have not bothered to present an outline of the story since there have already been thousands written. Instead, I'll finish with a quote spoken by the eminently capable Helmholtz Watson after being subverted by his contact with the Savage: "You've got to be hurt and upset; otherwise you can't think of the really good, penetrating, X-rayish phrases." Happiness - true, mature happiness - is indeed a complex nut to crack.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The myopia of today's American politicians - a sorry example

Congressman Mark Meadows speaks at the
Congressman Mark Meadows speaks at the "Exempt America from Obamacare" rally, on Capitol Hill, 10 September 2013. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
I very rarely talk politics. I abhor it. But this story is local for me, and it's a stunner: an amazing case study in likely political 'self immolation'.
North Carolina's 11th congressional district was gerrymandered in 2011 to create a heavily Republican, 99% white district. They elected French-born, Florida educated, Tea-Party-backed Republican Mark Meadows to the House seat, replacing a local boy, home-town hero, and ex-NFL quarterback, democrat Heath Shuler.
Meadows, in congress for just ten months has been credited with being one of the strongest behind-the-scenes advocates of the 'defund Obamacare at any cost' movement (see his Wikipedia profile for more detail). 
The irony: Meadows' district is heavily economically dependent on Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and on the Appalachian Trail - every mile of the AT in North Carolina falls within his district. Apparently he's just now realized that--in the past week and a half.  His constituents are revolting and Meadows has "fallen conspicuously silent since the shutdown started to bite" according to this recent Guardian article.
Amazing.  An example of how voters didn't do their homework and got the wool pulled over their eyes.  I'll be watching his 2014 campaign with great interest.

  • Now, adding further background info from Wikipedia
    Mark Meadows' Role in the 2013 federal government shutdown

    Meadows has been described as playing an important part of the United States federal government shutdown of 2013.[10][11][12] On August 21, 2013 Meadows wrote an open letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor encouraging them to "affirmatively de-fund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare in any relevant appropriations bills brought to the House floor in the 113th Congress, including any continuing appropriations bill."[13][14] The document was signed by 79 of Meadows' colleagues in the House.[10][14] Heritage Action (which opened operations in North Carolina in January 2011[15]), ran critical Internet advertisements in the districts of 100 Republican lawmakers who failed to sign the letter by Meadows.[16] The letter has been described as being controversial within the Republican Party.[10][17] Republican Richard Burr, the senior Senator from North Carolina, called threatening a government shutdown over defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as "ObamaCare", "the dumbest idea I've ever heard of."[18] In response to Burr's remark, the Senate Conservatives Fund bought a radio ad to attack him.[16]

    The New York Daily News said Meadows put the federal government on the road to shutdown, saying calls to defund "Obamacare" through spending bills languished until Meadows wrote his letter.[12] Meadows downplayed his influence, saying "I'm one of 435 members and a very small part of this."[12] CNN described Meadows as the "architect of the brink" for his letter suggesting that "Obamacare" be defunded in any continuing appropriations bill.[10] Meadows said that was sensationalizing his role.[11] The New York Times reported that plans to defund "ObamaCare" began soon after President Barack Obama started his second term as President, mentioning a "coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III",[16] who is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus in the The Heritage Foundation.[19] In February 2013, FreedomWorks signed onto a memo which said "Conservatives should not approve a CR unless it defunds Obamacare", and Edwin Meese III was among the signers.[20] The Asheville Citizen-Times said FreedomWorks is a well-funded national organization aligned with the Tea Party, and holds lawmakers accountable by keeping track of how they vote, which letters they sign, etc.[10]

    John Ostendorff of the Asheville Citizen-Times wrote Meadows "said it's best to close the government in the short term to win a delay on 'Obamacare', despite the potential negative impact on the economy."[11] Ostendorff wrote that Meadows said he was doing what Tea Party members in Western North Carolina wanted him to do.[11] Meadows said his constituents wanted him to fight against "Obamacare" "regardless of consequences."[10] Jane Bilello, head of the Asheville Tea Party and political action committee said Meadows "truly represents us" on the issue of "Obamacare".[10] Meadows reportedly holds conference calls with members of the Asheville Tea Party, telling them what's going on in Congress, and about challenges he faces promoting their agenda.[10]

    Patsy Keever, vice-chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said, "Here we are in October and it's tourism season and our economy depends on that. We are shutting down the reason people come here."[11] North Carolina's 11th congressional district includes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States with over 9 million visitors per year,[21] which is closed during the shutdown. And also parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a national parkway managed by the National Park Service and built to connect Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. The Blue Ridge Parkway is not closed to traffic during the shutdown, but 195 federal employees along the parkway were furloughed, and about 200 concession employees were forced off work.[22] Along the parkway, campgrounds, historic sites, picnic areas, restrooms, and visitor centers were closed, as well as the 51-room Pisgah Inn on the parkway with 100 employees located 25 miles from Asheville, North Carolina.[22] The federal government owns the inn and the land it's on, and owner Bruce O'Connell has leased it since 1978.[23] The Asheville Tea Party protested the closure of the inn.[24] O'Connell filed a legal complaint, and the U.S. Department of Interior allowed the lodge to reopen on October 9, 2013 in exchange for dropping the complaint.[23]

    National Park Service data indicated that North Carolina would be the 4th most economically harmed state by a shutdown of national parks, with a loss of $4.4 million per day, and affecting 11,915 jobs. The state also has the 3rd largest number of jobs that are dependent on spending in national parks, behind only California and Arizona.[21] In public comments, Meadows stated he was working on a compromise that involved passing appropriations bills that would fund only parts of the government, such as a bill to fund the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a bill to fund the National Institutes of Health. However, partial or "mini" funding bills were rejected by the Democratic majority in the United States Senate.[11]

  • And ... further background regarding the redistricting that enabled Meadows to be elected: the changed boundaries of NC congressional district 11.
    In 2011 the NC legislature was in the stranglehold of the Republicans, and the 2010 census mandated a redistricting. The result statewide was a shameless 'gerrymandering' of the districts. Prior to redistricting, District 11 had been a mildly Republican district (purple, lower panel). The Republicans railroaded through this new map (top panel) in which all the liberal precincts around Asheville were moved into District 10 (dark blue). Their strategy worked. District 11 had been represented by former NFL quarterback and democrat Heath Shuler. When the district was changed, Shuler saw the handwriting on the wall and announced his retirement from the house.