No Strings Attached

These days it feels like everything’s for sale and getting more expensive. Even as some things actually get cheaper financially, we’re all paying higher prices with the health and well-being of our shared life on this planet.

But that’s not entirely true. So much around us is just given, generously and constantly, day after day, night after night. No strings attached. And yet we would benefit by paying something for these gifts – attention.

This song (for week 29 of #songaweek2018) was partially inspired by my reading of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction, as well as Episode 313 (“Right to Roam”) of the podcast 99% Invisible.

The sky’s all yours for the looking
The birds all round you are singing for free
No strings attached
No strings attached

The ground’s all yours for the walking
and running and jumping and kicking up heels
No strings attached
No strings attached

Fly . . .
Fly . . .

The night’s all yours for the dreaming
The moon and stars keep shining for free
No strings attached
No strings attached

The rock’s all yours for the climbing
The trees and mountains and fences and walls
The world’s all yours for the wandering
Your life’s all yours for the living
No strings attached
No strings attached


We buried one of my best friends from college yesterday. Tomorrow my sister-in-law and her family bury her younger brother. My friend Troy lived with Parkinson’s disease for a decade. Jen’s brother Zach died suddenly in a plane crash.

“Angels” was the suggested theme for week 15 of #songaweek2018. I didn’t have much interest in using it. I’ve never been a big angels fan (baseball or otherwise). Too sentimental, too kitschy, too many ceramic travesties foisted on the world. I did briefly start a song tentatively called “Don’t Blink,” but couldn’t sustain an interest in it.

So I pulled up some old song ideas from my files and found a recording of a tune and some chords, no words. And then it all started coming together, a song woven from the threads of my life that week.

Zach’s sudden death. Troy weakly hanging on to the last moments of his life. Two men’s lives tragically and senselessly cut short.

Winter refusing to leave my neighborhood, breathing cold and snow over everything, week after wearying week. An insistent reflection of my own middle-aged angst.

The physics book I’ve been reading, Reality is Not What it Seems, and its discussion of a 3-sphere, a current understanding of the shape of the cosmos; and how Dante envisioned it long before Einstein did, possibly from looking up at mosaics of angels in the Florence Baptistery.

The visions of painter and poet William Blake, which thankfully are something else my mind calls up when I hear the word “angel.”

In writing this song, I more deeply felt why angels have been consistently present in stories and art. There are moments, especially the moments around death, in which we reach out for something like us but not. A being of great beauty, power, intelligence – but also one who brings deep comfort. Not a god, not a human, but someone who knows more than we do, who has seen further into the mysteries of existence and can still say to us, “fear not,” can guide us from what we know into what we don’t.

Hold me while I freefall
While the winds of death squall
Keep me in your vision
Carry me to paradise
Let me sing forever
Where the clouds can never
Take me from your vision
Carry me to paradise
Lead me from this dark cave
Sail me cross the light waves
Fill me with your vision
Carry me to paradise
Fly me through the shadows
Lift me from the cosmos
Add me to your vision
Carry me to paradise

Technocratic Wizards, Wishful Thinking, and Whatever

So while I was writing a song a week last year and devoting my blog pretty much exclusively to that effort, I was coming across an increasing pile of articles about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and why everyone should at least try to understand what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why did some pretty substantial summing up in two posts – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. This two-part series is a long read but worth it if you want to get some background and do some thinking on this topic.

Which might get you scared or excited at what could happen within your lifetime. I mean, immortality or extinction?! That’s kind of a big deal.

But then for some humanizing balance, I recommend Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. Its author, Maciej Cegłowski, points out that those espousing AI’s potential to immortalize or annihilate our species are making some pretty bold assumptions about what intelligence ultimately is, and that some of this smells a bit megalomaniacal.

A story about computers taking over the universe (and then either saving or destroying humanity as we know it) captures our imagination more than a story about technocrats gradually sucking the soul out of human society by pushing for increased levels of surveillance and invasive technologies in their quest to prepare for the anticipated AI revolution.

Ceglowski’s article includes a quote I fell in love with: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” A search for the author of the quote, John Rich, turns up that he’s a country music singer/songwriter.

Superintelligence, I would like to believe, if and when it does arise, will not be supercerebral. It won’t just encompass the intelligence of computer geeks, but also musicians and plumbers and the infinite depth and breadth of being – of which we humans have only a limited understanding and a small share.

Which spins everything back around for me. Religious and spiritual traditions tell us that a superintelligence like that has already arisen – in what we call God or whatever other name has been given to the supreme being – and that this God brought all we know into being.

So ultimate being, superintelligence – do we project this back to before life began, or forward in time? Do we give rise to it, or did it give rise to us?

Or is this all my less-than-superintelligence asking all the wrong questions, thinking in a linear timeframe, boxed in by the laws of whatever computer simulation or created universe this is?

Thinking is fun!



The Myth of the Present

“By the time you look at something it’s already history,” sings Bruce Cockburn in his song “Tie Me at the Crossroads.” I’ve been pondering this fact a lot lately. Every image, every event, must be perceived by the observer through senses that take time, however fractional, to perceive.

The eye takes in light (which even before it hits the eye has already traveled away from the initial event), then processes the light and sends that picture to the brain, which must itself process the picture to give the observer information about the event.

So too with the ears receiving sound waves, the nose taking in smells, the tongue reacting to tastes, and the skin registering the pressure of touch. Our senses give us their impressions of the past. We never truly experience the present in the present; we are constantly processing our sensory experience of history.

But what even is the past? Is it anything more than the collected observations of various people, ultimately the picture of events painted inside their minds based on their own limited processing capabilities?

Recently I finished reading Andrew Parker’s The Genesis Enigma, in which he notes this fact with the observations of a scientist. Parker has spent much of his career studying the inner workings of the eye and tracing its development throughout biological history, yet he says that only recently has it really sunk in for him that we truly live in a virtual reality world.

He is referring not to digitally-created realities – which in this understanding now become  secondary virtual reality – but to the world we all – and each – perceive. Parker reminds us that the “real world” actually does not contain colors, but only light waves of varying lengths. It is the apparatus of our eyes and brains that makes color a reality to us the observers.

Birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, so their eyes see markings on flowers and insects that humans’ can not. Dogs’ range of hearing and smell, most of us know, are greater than those of humans.

What if, Parker asks, there is all sorts of information around us that actually exists, which we simply cannot access with our range of senses or our current scientific instruments?

For thousands of years people have held that there are two modes of reality, two worlds, two tracks. The physical and the spiritual; the material and the mystic; the temporal and the eternal. But what if there has only ever been one reality, one unified system of everything?

What if those “spiritual” sensibilities we speak of having, impressions of truth, beauty, sadness, love, longing, and such things which cannot be scientifically explained, actually come from something as real, as material even? – as the light waves hitting our eyes, the sound waves received by our ears?

What if these impressions are just as measurable as cold or pain or depth or distance, but science has yet to fashion the instruments needed to detect them or explain how humans have the access we do to such things? What if they are just as real as anything else we observe, but at this point we can only dimly access them?

Would this prove or disprove anything about the existence of God?

This is me thinking out loud. I’ve got no hidden agenda or point to make, except for one brief observation that both atheists and science-denying religionists often begin from the same basic assumption – that “God” must be defined as a supernatural being responsible for all the things that science can’t explain. I’m going to leave it at that and ask readers to think out loud here along with me. What do you think?