Stephen Kahn

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Oh, no, no, no, no

In Bad news on October 21, 2011 at 3:25 pm

As we get older, both my wife and I anesthetize ourselves with soundtracks playing constantly in our ears. She listens to audio books. I listen to NPR. We both have portable players and headphones. The headphones wear out and have to be replaced frequently. Expensive ones wear out as quickly as cheap ones, so I buy cheap ones.

I stopped in at the local Radio Shack. The young man — who might have been 20 years in age or might have been 40 years old — now that I am 67 and now that people take care of themselves better — it’s hard for me to tell how old somebody is — helped me find the cheap headphones courteously and efficiently and didn’t try to up-sell me anything. I am not quite sure how the conversation turned to collapse of civilization, but I asked him, “How long do you think civilization will last? For example, do you think it will last to the end of this century?”

“Oh, no, no, no, no!” he answered emphatically but politely. “It will never last that long.”

He seemed intelligent and competent. Perhaps he has a doctorate in physics and is only working as a clerk at Radio Shack because he was laid off at the university. Perhaps that is why he is gloomy about civilization lasting. Perhaps he knows what he is talking about. As my friend Craig, the life-long Boy Scout, would say, and as my friends in the Islands Red Cross would also say, Be Prepared.


Parrot sings Motzart Opera

In Humor on October 21, 2011 at 3:06 pm

This post is especially for David, the music lover. I would like him to offer his opinion as to whether the parrot performing in this video is good enough to perform at the Met. However, if it is, don’t tell my Aunt Henriette, who dreamed of being an opera singer at the Met, but never made it. I am not sure she could stand being upstaged by a parrot.

Militaristic, free-loving, libertarian

In Books, Hard to tell on October 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Of the three great “transition to modern times” authors who moved science fiction beyond pioneers such as A. G. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein was the most characteristically American in his life and writing, embodying and promulgating many of the most powerful and persistent American memes of the 20th and 21st Centuries. He had a tremendous narrative gift, helping readers slide down stories and values that they might otherwise have found unpalatable.

Some of these memes involved the sexual revolution and a return to a kind of animist theology, most on vividly on display in Stranger in a Strange Land. Some of these memes involved militarism, vividly on display in Starship Troopers, where humans battle alien slugs (stand-ins for Nazis, and Communists). Beginning with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he began to develop many of the themes and slogans now prevalent in libertarianism, such as the acronym TANSTAAFL! ( There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!)

I Wonder as I Wander

In Hard to tell on October 19, 2011 at 3:53 am

As far as I can see, humans seek transcendence. We know that we will die, that all life involves suffering, and most of us know that life is not fair — the wicked sometimes prosper and the good are sometimes punished for no particularly good reason.

An early remedy for this painful realization is to imagine that there is a reason for we suffer and to imagine that there is a solution for our suffering. This solution is now called religious belief.

Over the course of human existence, and even now, there have been thousands of religious beliefs, but through a process of competition, we are refining our way down to five main ones (in two categories).

One category might be described as Genetic belief, in that it is transmitted mainly through clan and culture. Three of the “big five” religious beliefs seem to fall into this group, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. I would describe the other two as Viral beliefs as they are transmitted not only genetically but also by persuasive memes and active proselytizing (Islam and Christianity/Mormonism).

One can expand, revise, and quibble about my attempt to summarize all of religious belief in less than 150 words, which is why at least 572,153,789,999,444,420 words (which I think puts in the quintillions, but I could be wrong) have been written over the course of human history explaining, analyzing, revising, reforming, and dissecting religious belief.

Most people are religious believers, but gradually people are losing religious belief. Now religious belief is something like spiritual nutrition. We can limit how much we drink and eat (in fact it is a good idea in many respects), but we can not sustain ourselves on nothing. So just as we need SOMETHING for our physical survival, we need SOMETHING for our spiritual survival. For example, this blog post by Scott Erb provides an excellent discussion of this very issue.



For some people, the drive to find transcendence was expressed by science fiction.

Why did I not become a traditional religious believer? I remember, pretty clearly given that it is now 57 years later, reading much of the Bible at the age of 10 and thinking, “This was either written by human beings or it was written by some being called ‘God.’ Sure seems to have the fingerprints of human beings all over it.”

I read quite a bit of varied material as a child, and by the age of 10 I was already reading some science fiction.

One of the most popular phrases in science fiction is “Sense of wonder.” I’ve interpreted it as a kind of substitute for religious belief. The three most popular science fiction writers when I began reading science fiction were Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Issac Asimov, often called the “Big Three” science fiction writers of their time. Each dealt with religious belief, societal organization, in different ways that still resonate today. (Like a Soviet encyclopedia, this wikipedia entry may have changed from what I read by the time you get to it.)




Anne Elise Mourns Little Peep

In Hard to tell on October 19, 2011 at 2:13 am

My wife was saddened by the death of our chicken Little Peep. Our grandaughter, Anne Elise, a talented young artist, sent us a consolation card with a touching portrait of Little Peep.

The dangers of meeting famous writers

In Hard to tell on October 16, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Instead, I am going to talk about science fiction. I will start with my father and the once well-known science fiction writer, A. E. van Vogt.

First, a little background.

My father was very bright, very angry, very unhappy, and very confused.

I know he was very bright because he was a bit of a child prodigy (as a chess player) and as an adult he worked as a computer programmer in the earliest days of the computer industry (helping a defense contractor prepare to send bombers to blow up the Soviet Union in case of nuclear war). (See Dr. Strangelove to get an idea of the times and the terrifying mission my father was marginally engaged with.)

I know Michael (my father) was very angry and unhappy because he was a terrible, angry father, and because my parents had a terrible relationship. I also know he was angry and unhappy because my grandmother, Agnes, was a bitter feminist pacifistic narcissist, so I presume she was a terrible mother. Also, my father grew up during the height of the Great Depression which was a generally bad time.

I think my father was confused because his father, Harry, was a charming and feckless dentist/alternative health practitioner who studied with John Harvey Kellogg, the pioneering alternative health practitioner so well described in T. C. Boyle’s brilliant and hilarious work of historical fiction, The Road to Wellville. My grandfather, Harry Kahn, was not portrayed in that book (which is closely based on historical events and real people), but he would have fit right in.

Apparently the main thing that Harry decided from studying from Kellogg was that enemas would cure and prevent all illness, so he gave lots of enemas to people all over Chicago, staring with my father and his three sisters, Diana, Henriette, and Naomi. Later my parents imprinted on J. I. Rodale, who founded Organic Gardening and was one of the leading lights of the organic gardening movement. I got a few enemas as a child, but mostly I was preached at about the evils of white sugar and the benefits of organic food, fresh eggs, and raw milk. As a child, I helped my family make compost, grow organic food, care for chickens and ducks, and I milked a cow and a goat and drank raw milk. It amuses me that I now make compost, grow organic food, and care for chickens. I omit the ducks, the cow, and the goats. We live in degenerate times. On the other hand, my daughter and granddaughter can stand to be around me, so maybe we are living in improving times.

Anyway, van Vogt began writing science fiction around 1940 and became one of the earliest “big thinker” science fiction writers who dreamed big and thought that visionaries such as himself could change the world. The most spectacular (and nutty) of this crew was L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of a new psychology/religion known first as Dianetics and later as Scientology. Van Vogt for a while allied himself with Hubbard and helped with his efforts to get his cult goin

My impression is that my father read some of van Vogt’s early work and was quite taken with the writer’s imagination and vision. Michael’s family was quite active in Chicago’s bohemian society of the late 30s and early 40s. One of my aunts, Naomi, became a ballet dancer, and later ballet teacher; one of her sisters, Henriette (still alive) strove (without success) to become an opera singer. My mother’s sister was married to a publisher, and her brother became an obscurely famous composer (who had a brief, passionate, and unhappy affair with my father’s sister, Diana). Apparently, at one of these (wild?) bohemian parties my father met the science fiction writer van Vogt. Before the meeting, my father was excited at the prospect; I guess imagining some sort of dynamic, visionary, charismatic leader. In reality, van Vogt turned out to be rather prosaic and uninspiring. “Don’t meet writers you admire; they will disappoint you,” my father said to me.

Interestingly, about 30 years after my father met and was disillusioned by his meeting with van Vogt, a fairly well-known science fiction writer and critic, Damon Knight, invited me to lunch at the University of Oregon Faculty Club. Although Knight was quite elderly and not in great health at that time, I found his personality charming and interesting, and was not disappointed at all.

As I was just reading a bit about both writers to refresh my memory, I was interested to discover that when van Vogt’s reputation as a writer was at its zenith, Knight reviewed him rather acidly and dismissively. (Knight, based on my meeting with him, was a pleasant and gracious individual in person, but as a critic he was severe with the writers he reviewed.)

Best of intentions

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2011 at 4:06 am

I started with the intention of avoiding the topic of violence in my blog, but then I heard that President Obama is sending a few soldiers to Africa to help Uganda fight The Lord’s Resistance Army (a terrible group with a terrible leader right up there with Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, and the like in method and intent if not quite scope), I could not help thinking, I hope the take the bastard [Joseph Kony] out like they did bin Laden. My thoughts would not please my sweet, gentle pacifistic friends in Transition Whidbey.

Well, now having indulged my inner violent lynch mob member I will begin working on some thoughts about science fiction, starting with my father and A. E. van Vogt.

New horizons in chicken feed

In Humor on October 6, 2011 at 6:46 am

I am “batching it” this week, my wife having trained away via Amtrak to visit her best friend in Portland. As usual the train was stopped by landslides and the train passengers had to ride a bus. In the meantime, the chickens and I are on our own. To show off how little they need Grandma, for the first time Ethel put herself on the roost by herself like a proper hen instead of trying to sleep in the nesting box like a child refusing to get out of its nursery bed. She placed herself facing the opposite direction as her sisters, but hey, one thing at a time. Both pullets are laying eggs now, so like big teenagers off to college, they are now “all grown up.”

I am done with violence for a while (aside from a visit to the dentist tomorrow morning), and I am contemplating science fiction and “the singularity.” But that will have to wait for a bit. I can’t seem to escape chickens for very long. So tonight: chicken feed.

A couple of weeks ago my wife trotted down to the local “so organic and healthful we can hardly stand ourselves” feed store and brought a new brand of chicken feed. The previous feed had assembled a collection of healthful grains and compiled them into pellets so the chickens would eat a balanced diet in spite of themselves (in their spare time in between pecking at bugs, worms, small slugs, mice, and wild weeds).

The thinking among chicken feeding brain trusts had apparently changed. The chickens should no longer be fed custom pellets. The new bag of chicken feed provides raw ingredients. The bag carefully explained that our chickens, not used to chicken feed in the raw, would have to be carefully introduced to eating their new disassembled feed.

I have no connection with this company so I am not trying to promote or disparage them. Here is their main web page:

Here, from their FAQ, is some information on the new thinking:

  • Why is your feed whole grain and not in pellet form?

A: In order to make pellets the grain is exposed to a high heat, steam process which we believe can degrade the nutritional value of the ingredients. We endeavor to offer feeds that are as close to nature as possible.

We were also given instructions on how to get the chickens to eat ALL their food:

  • I’ve noticed some powder left over after my chickens eat the grains. What is this and how can I get my chickens to eat it?

A: The “powder” left behind is all the little bits of grain that gets crushed, limestone (calcium), and other nutrients like Camelina meal, vitamins and minerals. Because our feed is as unprocessed as possible we do not add unnecessary binders or heat-treat the feed to get the ingredients to stick together. This powder is all natural and great for your chickens. Help them finish it off by adding to a treat like oatmeal or rice or just add a bit of moisture to it so they can eat it.

The type of feeder you use is also very important. We suggest using a PVC Feeder design to help contain these fines. These types of feeders have proven very successful with our customers!

As we have participated in the long and difficult process of educating/conditioning our granddaughter to eat a healthful diet (as long time readers of my previous blog are aware), it was a piece of cake (so to speak) to get the chickens to eat the new and improved food. They are doing fine. Next, they will learn to cluck,”Please” and “Thank you.” If Anne Elise can say those words, the chickens can also.

Moral equivalent?

In Hard to tell on October 5, 2011 at 3:39 am

I mentioned my frustration with Bev’s pacifism to one of the sort of leaders of Transition Whidbey (a group which seems to strive to be a functioning anarchy). I said something along the lines of, “I don’t keep weapons in my house (like some 4th Amendment fanatic) except for the pellet rifle I use to pot the occasional rabbit, but I would not expect a sheriff’s deputy to have to carry out his job without a weapon.”

Her response was along the lines of, “Guns always create more problems than they solve.”

While this argument might have some merit as a general philosophical statement, I find its use as an unassailable law of social science frustrating and unpersuasive. There are indeed times when a bullet placed into a dangerous person (say a homicidal maniac) is the best response.

There is another difficult issue we need to consider, and that is the problem of motivation and inspiration. When I was a college English major, I read (with some weariness and lack of enthusiams) some of the writing of Henry James. It wasn’t until much later, when I got around to reading Varieties of Religious Belief by Henry’s brother, William James. The James gang were a couple of bright bulbs, and William pondered the issue of why young people (mostly young men) are so inspired by the prospect of fighting and dying in war. James argued that humans need something as thrilling and inspiring as fighting to exercise their spirit. Humans have wrestled with the problem of human violence for thousands of years, and I have no solution, so I will move my blog on to another topic and let James provide the last word on the subject (after a brief introduction).

In Hard to tell on October 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm

I started out with good intentions this week. I would be positive and peaceful. Here on Whidbey Island, people are sure we can live in peace and harmony and adore nature. Once a month I go to the Transition Whidbey potluck. TW in a way is a little grim because they think things are going to get dicey when we run out of oil, but their slant on preparing for surviving such events is to “re-skill” and grow and preserve food and all work together so the collapse of civilization if it comes will be green ad cheerful and we will all sit and stroke our friendly chickens as they cheerfully lay eggs in our laps.

Our twice-a-week local newspaper is mostly upbeat and positive, telling us about good local events and activities. However, for the last several months the front page of most issues have provided coverage of a scandalous murder story. In a convoluted and peripheral way the hair salon where I get my hair cut is involved, though I am not worried about my hair dresser being careless with scissors near my head

I subscribe to Harper’s Magazine. A few months ago it carried an article arguing for pacifism. For many people skeptical of pacifism, a common slogan is “What about Hitler and the Holocaust? It was necessary to take up arms to defeat the Axis powers during World War II.”

The author of the Harper’s article argued that the Jews could have been rescued without going to war. I am still skeptical, but the article was well written and well argued. I wasn’t really convinced, but it was the best argument for pacifism I remember coming across.

At the time I read it, I was involved with a Transition Whidbey project to start a local credit union. I was working with two people, Duke and Bev. (Duke has since died.) It was clear to me that both were quite opposed to war. Duke had served in the Korean War, and Bev (who like me has Jewish ancestry) had demonstrated against the Vietnam War.

I called attention to the article to Bev thinking she would be pleased to see a strong pro-pacifistic argument. Her response was something along the lines of I don’t need to read it. I am completely against war no matter what. I dropped the topic but I am not convinced by the I am against violence no matter what argument.