Times We Had

I want to avoid commenting on the music I write as much as possible. Like talking about sex, it takes away the power of the unspoken gesture. However, in posting this link to a video of a song I wrote, I feel I must say something.

Times We Had” is a simple song – a meditation on the nostalgic emotion that accompanies the moment in a relationship where you look back at all the silly inconsequential landmarks. When I wrote the song, I had no intention of pairing it with film. Yet, I wanted to share my music in different ways and over time, the idea of creating a music video seemed viable. I am not a film maker. I can barely manage to take photos that are in focus even when using auto focus.

Somehow I came across the idea of editing public domain footage to create a music video and within these limits I decided I was capable of creating something interesting. I spent a long time looking through various websites to find any footage worth using. There are many public domain B-movies, but I didn’t have the patience to sift through an hour and a half of footage to find a useable four minutes. I eventually stumbled upon a film of an alleged Soviet reanimation experiment. The original film is about ten minutes long. It depicts the workings of some strange laboratory where scientists experiment on dogs with the intent to bring the dead back to life. The footage can be disturbing until you realize that it is utterly fake, at least I hope it is.

I initially thought the film was bizarre. I still do. But that is precisely why I decided to use it for a music video. The video was strange enough to capture my attention, but the theme of the film also overlaps with the message of my song. The scientists attempting to bring the dead back to life, like lovers looking back upon their relationship, are motivated by some sense of nostalgia – an unwillingness to let go.

I only hope that the eye poking, severed heads and what not don’t detract from the music.

“Times We Had” – Stephen Joseph


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Measuring National Success

While the U.S. economic system still struggles to survive, some wait for its eventual demise. Optimists say we are slowly turning around.

But how can we accurately assess the condition of our economy? We hear terms such as consumer spending, purchasing power and smart investing. And we look toward Gross Domestic Product as a guiding light. But GDP only allows us to see shadows on the walls of a cave.

GDP measures the monetary value of all goods and services produced in a nation within the year. However, it does not measure human indicators like happiness, satisfaction in the workplace, general health or environmental conditions. It fails to measure the health of the people participating within the economy.

Bhutan, inhabited by Buddhists and seated in the Himalayas, created a new way to measure success. As the country moved toward modernization in the 1960s and ‘70s, the idea of Gross National Happiness emerged.

Based on Buddhist cultural and spiritual values, GNH allows material and spiritual development to occur, benefitting industries and human interests simultaneously.

There are four basic pillars of GNH that promote these values. They encourage sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance.

When looking at GNH in such general terms it is clear that these ideas are cross-cultural. Any nation can embrace such universal values. It only makes sense to include human and environmental considerations into the measurement of any national economy.

There is no perfect way to measure the complexities of globalized markets. Neither GNH nor GDP are flawless. GNH considers the value of human life, while GDP values financial success. GDP measures end products sold in established markets while ignoring social, environmental and psychological elements.

What is frightening is that GDP cannot distinguish between positive and negative impacts within the living, breathing, feeling world. Costs such as security, war, police and pollution cleanup are marked as positive contributions to commerce. Such a dysfunctional system allows disaster to be seen in terms of profit.

Since the birth of GDP in the 1930s, the idea has been rapidly adopted as the best measure of economic performance in the world. But the challenges of the 21st century demand a better way to assess economic wealth. Climate change, poverty, resource depletion, human health and quality of life must be considered indicators of the well being of a nation.

Simon Kuznets, one of GDP’s originators once said, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” It is time to reinvent the way commerce is measured in a manner that includes environmental and social aspects of progress.

A 2007 European Union (EU) conference titled, “Beyond GDP,” was successful in generating awareness of a flawed system. It also encouraged ideas that could move the international community forward.

As a result of this conference, “Beyond GDP” has now become an initiative among members of political and environmental communities.

The U.S. economy is struggling for a number of reasons. It began when the housing bubble burst. Mortgages of over-priced homes were traded, and banks couldn’t take on the debts, especially when the value of homes had drastically declined. Free trade agreements have sent jobs south of the border and overseas. Jobs have been lost to the technological advancements as well.

The rich enjoy generous tax cuts, and multi-million dollar corporations receive welfare. Underlying it all, perhaps the U.S. economy is struggling because it is measured in a way that excludes important human and environmental elements. It is time to redefine progress.

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Irrational Reason

What is rationalized is not always reasonable. What is justifiable is not always just.

In the early 1950’s, a Chicago-area cult named the Seekers believed they were able to communicate with aliens. Dorothy Martin, the group leader, would transcribe the cosmic communications through automatic writing.

While communicating, the aliens informed her the world would end catastrophically on Dec. 21, 1954. Several of the Seekers quit their jobs and sold their homes, expecting salvation from a flying saucer.

Dec. 21, 1954 came and went without ruin. The Seekers, who were so emotionally invested in a belief system that proved to be unequivocally wrong, struggled at first for an explanation. But rationalization soon occurred.

A new transmission from the aliens arrived declaring that Earth had been saved at the last minute as a result of the Seekers’ meditations the night of supposed destruction.

The Seekers, who were previously indifferent towards the press, began to urgently express their beliefs in public. Despite heavy criticism and mockery, the Seekers continued to believe in their alien deities. Ironically, the decimation of everything they believed allowed them to become even more confident of their beliefs.

As it turns out, logical conclusions are often illogical and inconclusive. Although the Seekers’ astral cult is an extreme example of self-delusion, many of us are guilty of our own convictions in half-truths.

Our minds tend to gravitate towards facts that agree with our beliefs, while dismissing other facts that conflict with our worldview. This occurs because our ability to reason is actually connected to our emotions. Positive or negative thoughts are formed about people, things or ideas within a matter of milliseconds, before we are even aware of it happening.

As we evolved in a hostile environment, we were required to make rapid decisions in order to survive. We now apply these fight or flight reflexes not only to physical danger, but to information as well.

That doesn’t mean that reason is completely driven by emotion. Reasoning just occurs after emotional judgments are calculated, which can lead down a path of biased thinking. Reasoning through emotional responses is what cultivates our values.

As we mature and our sense of self becomes more solidified, so do our values. We are less likely to alter our well-established perception of the world, especially about ideas we care about greatly.

Several psychologists have conducted studies regarding bias and fact. One study gathered a group of Republicans that believed Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were both linked to the 9/11 attacks.

The researchers cited the 9/11 commission report as well as President Bush’s own words – that he denied his administration had “said the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.”

Only 1 of 49 participants changed their mind regarding the Iraq-Al Qaeda link. The others either created counter arguments or flat out refused to believe the facts the researchers had presented.

Similar tests conducted regarding President Obama’s birth origin, climate change and vaccines produced very similar results.

It turns out that people will seek out information that confirms what they already believe – not a terrifically new concept.

Yet, in a world where it is increasingly easier to consume information based on our own unique and specific interests, perhaps our fight or flight survival skills are not well suited for the information age.

On an issue as important as climate change, it is frightening that a major indicator of whether or not you accept the science depends on your political party. What is even more frightening, according to a 2008 Pew survey, is that college-educated Republicans are less likely to agree that the planet is warming due to human action than non-college educated Republicans.

This means that despite facts, the more educated a person is, the more they will stand by their own value-based convictions. And instead of simply refusing to believe in facts, they are able to form arguments based on educated reasoning – no matter that this educated reasoning is irrational.

To be fair, Democrats can be equally blinded by their own passions. Many liberal leaders hold the belief that childhood vaccines are the cause of autism despite the fact that the researcher whose work was responsible for this assertion, Andrew Wakefield, lost his license to practice medicine because his autism research was heavily fabricated.

We all carry some bias when interpreting new information. What can be done to overcome such shades of perception? It is not wrong to dwell in the abstract world of emotions. But it is wrong to allow emotionally charged rationalizations to substitute fact based reasoning. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to be proven wrong, should such proof be based on measurable fact.

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Forever Machine

Technology has advanced rapidly in the last 10 to 20 years. A phone is now more capable of computing complex tasks than a computer was 15 years ago. Technology is becoming smaller, more efficient and more innovative.

Yet we continue to struggle to define the human experience in relation to the constant adaptation to technological development.

Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, author and inventor believes technology will change so swiftly in the next 25 years that average humans won’t be able to follow it unless they enhance their own intelligence by merging with technology.

Artificial intelligence, or synthetic consciousness, has been restricted to the realm of science fiction in the past. However, according to the books Kurzweil has written and the documentary “Transcendental Man,” in which Kurzweil’s life and ideas are highlighted, the science of artificial intelligence will be non-fiction in the near future.

Kurzweil believes that technology is evolving so quickly that humans may even one day conquer death by transcending our biological limitations. He calls this phenomenon The Singularity.

Human intelligence will surpass our current imagination of what is even possible. There will be a dawning of a new civilization where there will be no clear distinction between human and machine. The line between actual reality and virtual reality will become obscure.

Admittedly, Kurzweil’s ideas are pretty far out. They almost don’t even seem worth considering, but his vision of the future is rather optimistic. He believes the merging of human and artificial intelligence will lead to solving global problems like pollution, hunger, poverty and illness.

Artificial intelligence has already proven to be superior in the realm of trivia and general knowledge as the world watched IBM’s artificial intelligence computer system “Watson” defeat Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. But will artificial intelligence ever be able to reason or be creative without human interference?

This is all very exciting and groundbreaking fodder for thought. But a big part of me worries that hoping technology will provide solutions to global problems is like hoping to regain vision by wearing glasses when you’re already blind.

Granted, technology could solve global problems. But currently, this idea is only a hopeful approximation. Global problems need solutions now. By looking so far into the future, we forget about the present.

Climate change is the most urgent problem this world faces. Science demonstrates that technology has done little to nothing to relieve the risks of global warming. Instead, technology has intensified the problem.

Carbon emissions have spiked dramatically since the industrial revolution. And now that other heavily populated countries like China and India are becoming increasingly more industrialized, driving more autos and utilizing higher rates of electricity, global carbon emissions will continue to climb.

To exaggerate the positive possibilities of technology is delusional when it is clear that technology as it exists today is detrimental to the Earth and convoluting the human experience.

Cell phones allow immediate communication with others all over the world, yet they are conversation blockers to those who are physically present.

Video games allow an escape into a fantasy world where virtually anything is possible, yet they simulate real life activities and render physical presence inconsequential.

Film and television are reality substitutes, numbing the public mind and manipulating public discourse.

The Internet has become a second brain, relieving the burden of remembering facts and events, making it all too feasible to rewrite history.

Of course, if we look at the other side of the coin, technology has provided numerous gifts and has greatly advanced the development of civilization. Without electricity, penicillin or wireless technology, the world would be a very different place. There are always positive sides to any negative side. It is important to always consider both.

One thing is clear – as a species we have lost our connection to the Earth. I am sure there are not many people that could walk outside and identify five edible plants. In the room you are sitting there may not even be one object that is completely natural.

We live in an increasingly synthetic world and Kurzweil believes, we will see rapid changes in the near future regarding our relationship with technology. But we must not let ourselves become completely detached from the Earth.

Perhaps humans will evolve and merge with technology to form a new consciousness, as Kurzweil contends. But it seems unimaginable to live forever as a synthetic being. I cannot even begin to perceive what that would be like. I think I would rather die on Earth than live forever as a ghost in the machine.

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This poem was inspired by Naomi Shihab Nye – thank you for your lyrical enthusiasm.

The white of the kitchen sink is stained

with blue splotches

from the berries we picked

as children

And we are old now

but those splotches still smile

with youthful exuberance

against the cold white porcelain

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Unused Candles

I once helped a hoarder clean her house. For the longest time afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about how disgustingly filthy she had let her house become. It took me a while before I could process the possibilities of why and how she let it get that way.

Hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive behavior in which someone cannot discard possessions they accumulate. For hoarders, it does not matter if the objects are worthless, unsanitary or hazardous.

It was clear to me that the woman whom I helped had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She considered the condition of her house a little messy – an understatement of great proportions.

Cat urine saturated the carpet. Moldy, expired food sat in the kitchen without refrigeration. Gnats flew about the pungent remains of Chinese takeout. Junk mail, boxes, and a mess of random items scattered the living room floor in stacks. The smell made it difficult to enter the house. The mounds of accumulated waste made it almost impossible to go further.

For anyone familiar with the various TV shows about hoarding it is not difficult to imagine the challenge I was faced with. I spent several months cleaning and helping her get the house in some sort of order. It felt good to have made a noticeable difference in the condition of the woman’s house and life, but I worried my efforts wouldn’t last long. I knew there was a lot more I could have done.

I later found out I was right. Any trace of the progress I made quickly vanished. The house has once again become a monument of the woman’s inability to part with any object.

I understand that hoarding is a mental disorder and it is, to a certain extent, beyond a person’s ability to control. But my experience cleaning the house of a hoarder made me think of other people I know who aren’t hoarders at all, but are hesitant to use ordinary things that are perceived to be superior to other ordinary things. Things like fancy candles, expensive soap, a prized sweater, a handmade coffee mug, fashionable sunglasses or specific dishes.

The lesson I learned from my experience with hoarding is to enjoy what you have. Use it or lose it. Why save “good” dishes to only use a few times a year? Why not use “good” dishes all year?

It is clear that as a capitalist society we have become obsessed with stuff. Material objects are held in such high regard that we are not even able to enjoy them anymore. So it has been said, the stuff we own ends up owning us.

The purpose of life is to live. The purpose of a candle is to provide light and to burn. Wouldn’t it be better to live life and to burn like a candle until the last flicker of illumination is gone rather than to sit unused on a bathroom sink, collecting dust without the satisfaction of fulfilling your purpose?

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Saturated Superstition

Many people have irrational superstitions, even if they don’t like to admit it. A broken mirror, a black cat, the number 13 and opening an umbrella indoors are all common signs of alleged imminent misfortune.

No matter how absurd some superstitions may seem, they are prevalent across world cultures. Even people who claim to be pure logical thinkers inevitably act in irrational ways according to some unexplainable superstition.

Ahchoo, “God bless you.” This custom comes from the idea that when you sneeze a part of your soul flies out. Assumedly, not many people hold on to this belief. Rather, most just practice it to be courteous.

Superstitions provide a window into the past where people struggled to find meaning in the world around them. Understanding how these superstitions reverberate today allows insight into what people of previous lifetimes were concerned about and valued.

Spilled salt is a symbol of bad luck because long ago salt was a precious commodity used to preserve and season food. Wasting something so valuable would have been regarded as a sin of carelessness. People thought the sin of spilled salt would attract the devil and so they would throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder into the devil’s eyes to neutralize bad luck.

A superstition still believed by some remote cultures of the world is that a photograph captures your soul, or part of it at least. In such a camera saturated world this idea is either absurd or frightening, depending on whichever you believe.

When the camera was first created this superstition was more widespread. Several Native American tribes refused to be photographed. Likewise in Africa and South America. The belief is based on the idea that a photograph is more than merely a representation of one’s own image. It is a part of oneself, linked to the soul. It is a moment in time, a subtle essence of oneself captured and then reproduced.

Of course, I do not believe in this superstition, but I do find it interesting to see how much attitudes toward the camera have evolved since its creation and how it has affected the world in the process.

Cameras were once extremely bulky, requiring tripods and needing considerable time to elapse before an image could be captured. It was once a status symbol to have your portrait taken and displayed in your home.

Toady, nearly every cell phone has a camera. Whereas film cameras are mainly used by hobbyists or artists — digital cameras allow pictures to be uploaded to the Internet and sent anywhere in the world instantaneously.

Beyond still photographs, video is easily accessible and producible as well. YouTube allows anyone and everyone to claim their 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol predicted.

When I go to check my email on Yahoo, I can’t help glancing across the page at the mish—mash of media and advertisements. In the bottom corner, there is always some inane video. I occasionally click on it out of curiosity or boredom.

It is typically some amateur video of a dog running into a wall or a celebrity saying something out of line, but recently it was a video of Good Morning America hosts talking about a YouTube video sensation that had spread rapidly across the web. I clicked on it hoping to be amused and saw a little baby shifting between terror and laughter at his mother blowing her nose.

Sure, it was cute, but it seemed strange for this video to have gained such prominence as to warrant a segment on Good Morning America.

It is great to share the joys of life. But is there a point where too much sharing is problematic? Do the joys of our own life diminish if we become so taken with the joys of other people’s lives we see on the Internet? Do amazing moments like a high school kid throwing a basketball at the buzzer across the full court and scoring the winning basket become less amazing if we see it happen more often through the Internet?

I do not adhere to the superstition that cameras capture our soul. But perhaps we are loosing something of ourselves by becoming so immersed in the lives of others, while neglecting our own potentials.

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