Like an Opera

February 26th, 2015

I didn’t realize that John Milius was personal friends with Basil Poledouris when he hired him to score Conan The Barbarian:

The two had worked together earlier on Big Wednesday. Milius brought Poledouris on before filming had even begun, giving them time to discuss the emotional overtones that were right for the score. He asked Poledouris to begin work based on the storyboards and to anticipate recording the music once production was winding down.

The composer wrote “two hours of music for Conan,” he told Starlog in 1982. “It was always in John’s mind that Conan would be solid music — much like an opera…. From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence, somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break. I was terrified when I first realized that.”

Once filming was completed, Milius gave Poledouris two tapes of the finished film, one without music and the other with excerpts from the work of Wagner, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Poledouris was intimidated by the prospect of having to compare favorably to these legendary composers, but soon found his groove once he realized that their work was just intended by Milius as an aesthetic starting point.

Conan’s personal theme — “The Riddle of Steel” — began as a basic melodic line set to a poem, written as if the composer was Conan’s bard. The underlying melody was later filled out with an epic dose of brass, strings and percussion. The main musical theme, the “Anvil of Crom,” is just as muscular, described by film music historian Laurence MacDonald as “the brassy sound of twenty-four French horns in a dramatic intonation of the melody, while pounding drums add an incessantly driven rhythmic propulsion.”

For the music that was to accompany Thulsa Doom’s opening attack on Conan’s village, Milius wanted a chorus based on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. However, after discovering that Excalibur (1981) had already used Orff’s work, he asked Poledouris for original material. The result consists of choral passages chanted by Doom’s cohort as a tribute to his name. Poledouris wrote the lyrics in English and had them crudely translated into Latin, as he was “more concerned about the way the Latin words sounded than with the sense they actually made.” The lyrics were subsequently set to a melody adapted from the 13th-century Gregorian hymn, Dies Irae, chosen to “communicate the tragic aspects of the cruelty wrought by Thulsa Doom.”

The Woman Who Invented Iraq

February 26th, 2015

Britain’s Orientalists saw an opportunity to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of their own devising:

Into this coterie of schemers came two mavericks, both scholars, both fluent Arab speakers, both small in stature and psychologically fragile, both capable of extraordinary feats of desert exploration—a young man called T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, a more seasoned connoisseur of the desert life.

Both had been recruited before World War I to gather intelligence on the Ottomans. Both were hard to accommodate within a normal military and diplomatic machine and so ended up working for a clandestine outfit in Cairo called the Arab Bureau, which was more aware of their singular gifts and more tolerant of their habits.

Bell’s epic desert trek in 1913-14 was already legendary. Her objective had been a city called Hail that no European had reached since 1893. Under the cover of archaeological research, her real purpose was to assess the strength of a murderous family called the al Rashids, whose capital Hail was.

[...]

But as a woman, Bell enjoyed an advantage over male colleagues that she was to deploy on many missions: molesting or harming women was contrary to the desert code of conduct, even in a family as homicidal as the Rashids. For a week or so, Bell was warmly entertained by the women of this polygamous society, and the women’s gossip provided a rich source of intelligence on palace intrigues, of which there were many. From this she was able to see what her British minders valued: That the Rashids were yesterday’s men and the Saudis would likely be a formidable and independent power in Arabia. The Rashids released her, and she went on to Baghdad, Damascus, and home to London.

[...]

While Lawrence left the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 stricken by the guilt for a British betrayal of his Arabs to which he had not been a party, Bell was sent to Baghdad, where Feisal was to be given his consolation prize: the throne of a new Iraq.

As well as the prospect of huge oil reserves, this new Iraq was crucial to the lines of communication to the great jewel of the British Empire, India. And, ostensibly, it was the diplomats and generals of the Indian administration who ran the show in Baghdad. But they depended on Bell as an expert and a negotiator, fluent in Arabic and used to the schisms and vendettas of the region. In fact, many of the decisive meetings as the British struggled to create a provisional government took place in Bell’s own house.

On August 23, 1921, at a ceremony in central Baghdad, Feisal was installed as the monarch of Iraq, even though he had no tribal roots in the country to assist his legitimacy. “We’ve got our king crowned,” wrote Bell with relief. And she made a claim about this election that would be echoed decades later by Saddam Hussein, that Feisal had been endorsed by 96 percent of the people, even though he was the only candidate and the majority of the population was illiterate.

Indeed, Bell was so carried away with her confidence in the nation she had helped to create that she crowed: “Before I die I look to see Feisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean.”

Bold

February 25th, 2015

Just when you think Silicon Valley is like the rest of us, you read a book like Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World and are reminded that, no, these people are different, Philip Delves Broughton says:

Not just superficially different, but profoundly so. As different as the silent Maine lobsterman from the loquacious Californian Reiki healer. A favorable spin is that, if you view the world as a technologist, its potential seems boundless. Science advances quickly; technology is fundamentally benign. No problems seem insuperable, and you don’t hear voices in your head yelling “Whoa!” in response to all your helter-skelter techno-optimism.

[...]

It starts out by contrasting “exponential entrepreneurs” against the “linear-thinking executives” who work in major corporations. The exponential entrepreneurs are “paving the way for a new world of abundance” by finding big problems and exploiting the “Six D’s”: digitalization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, democratization.

Peter H. Diamandis recently spoke with Tim Ferriss.

We don’t die well in America

February 25th, 2015

We don’t die well in America:

Ask people where they want to die, and they will tell you at home, with their loved ones. But most of us die in an I.C.U. The biggest taboo in American medicine is the conversation about death. To a doctor, it’s a defeat to let a patient go.” Bossis and several of his colleagues described the considerable difficulty they had recruiting patients from N.Y.U. ’s cancer center for the psilocybin trials. “I’m busy trying to keep my patients alive,” one oncologist told Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, the trial’s project manager. Only when reports of positive experiences began to filter back to the cancer center did nurses there — not doctors — begin to tell patients about the trial.

Digital Dark Age

February 24th, 2015

We have been setting ourselves up for a digital Dark Age:

“I worry a great deal about that,” Mr Cerf told me. “You and I are experiencing things like this. Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed.

“And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

The solution? Digital vellum:

“The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.”

Shaking the Snow Globe

February 24th, 2015

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley concludes that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a reducing valve:

The mind is a “reducing valve,” he wrote, eliminating far more reality than it admits to our conscious awareness, lest we be overwhelmed. “What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” Psychedelics open the valve wide, removing the filter that hides much of reality, as well as dimensions of our own minds, from ordinary consciousness. Carhart-Harris has cited Huxley’s metaphor in some of his papers, likening the default-mode network to the reducing valve, but he does not agree that everything that comes through the opened doors of perception is necessarily real. The psychedelic experience, he suggests, can yield a lot of “fool’s gold.”

Nevertheless, Carhart-Harris believes that the psychedelic experience can help people by relaxing the grip of an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces. The human brain is perhaps the most complex system there is, and the emergence of a conscious self is its highest achievement. By adulthood, the mind has become very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience (“That fractal pattern of little green bits in my visual field must be a tree”), and this kind of conventional thinking serves us well.

But only up to a point. In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network. The lab recently received government funding to conduct a clinical study using psychedelics to treat depression.

Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.

Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the psychological hallmarks of a hyperactive default-mode network, including excessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thought. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own dissolution, becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. It is striking that a single psychedelic experience — an intervention that Carhart-Harris calls “shaking the snow globe” — should have the power to alter these patterns in a lasting way.

Japan’s Oldest Businesses Have Survived for More Than 1,000 Years

February 23rd, 2015

Japan’s oldest businesses have survived for more than 1,000 years:

Century-old American companies like General Electric and Ford appear ancient when viewed alongside modern upstarts like Google and Facebook. But there are a number of Japanese firms — some of which have been around for more than a millennium — that exist on another scale of time entirely. Japan is home to some of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the world, among them a 1,300-year-old inn and a 900-year-old sake brewer.

While this longevity is not confined to East Asia — the Italian gun manufacturer Beretta has operated since at least 1526 and the cymbal maker Zildjian was founded in 1623 in Turkey — these Sequoia-like firms are relatively common in Japan. The country is currently home to more than 50,000 businesses that are over 100 years old. Of those, 3,886 have been around for more than 200 years. As a point of comparison, only one in every four U.S. companies founded in 1994 was still operating in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But in the past decade, some of Japan’s oldest businesses have finally shut their doors. Last month, the roughly 465-year-old seafood seller Minoya Kichibee filed for bankruptcy, which came after the news last year that the 533-year-old confectioner Surugaya met a similar fate. In 2007 — after 1,429 years in business — the temple-construction company Kongo Gumi ran out of money and was absorbed by a larger company. Three companies going bust doesn’t quite make a trend, but it seems like there has to be something larger going on if a company that’s been around for more than a millennium suddenly blinks out of existence.

The first question to ask about a company like Kongo Gumi is why it stuck around so long in the first place. For one thing, these companies tend to be clustered in industries that never really go out of style. Kongo Gumi specialized in building Buddhist temples — a pretty dependable bet in nation with a strong Buddhist history. The company’s first temple, near Osaka, was completed in 593, and has been rebuilt six times since then (by Kongo Gumi, of course). “There’s a pattern,” William O’Hara, the author of Centuries of Success, told The Wall Street Journal in 1999. “The oldest family businesses often are involved in basic human activities: drink, shipping, construction, food, guns.”

The other reason these companies proliferate in Japan is because of how the country’s family-run businesses have been passed down through generations. Japanese business owners typically bequeathed entire companies to their eldest sons, and there’s a 10-foot-long 17th-century scroll tracing all of Kongo Gumi’s previous owners. But what fostered corporate longevity was that owners were permitted some leeway if they didn’t trust their offspring to take the helm: They could adopt a son, who would often marry into the family and go on to run the business.

Japan has recently moved away from its traditional banking culture, where banks were supposed to bail out such companies, and many traditional products have lost their allure, too.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Default Mode Network

February 23rd, 2015

When Carhart-Harris first began studying the brains of volunteers on psychedelics, neuroscientists assumed that the drugs somehow excited brain activity, which then caused the vivid hallucinations and powerful emotions:

But when Carhart-Harris looked at the results of the first set of fMRI scans — which pinpoint areas of brain activity by mapping local blood flow and oxygen consumption — he discovered that the drug appeared to substantially reduce brain activity in one particular region: the “default-mode network.”

The default-mode network was first described in 2001, in a landmark paper by Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, in St. Louis, and it has since become the focus of much discussion in neuroscience. The network comprises a critical and centrally situated hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures in the brain, such as the limbic system and the hippocampus.

The network, which consumes a significant portion of the brain’s energy, appears to be most active when we are least engaged in attending to the world or to a task. It lights up when we are daydreaming, removed from sensory processing, and engaging in higher-level “meta-cognitive” processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, rumination, and “theory of mind” — the ability to attribute mental states to others. Carhart-Harris describes the default-mode network variously as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the entire system together.” It is thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.

“The brain is a hierarchical system,” Carhart-Harris said. “The highest-level parts” — such as the default-mode network — “have an inhibitory influence on the lower-level parts, like emotion and memory.” He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.

If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder — as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.” Mental contents hidden from view (or suppressed) during normal waking consciousness come to the fore: emotions, memories, wishes and fears. Regions that don’t ordinarily communicate directly with one another strike up conversations (neuroscientists sometimes call this “crosstalk”), often with bizarre results. Carhart-Harris thinks that hallucinations occur when the visual-processing centers of the brain, left to their own devices, become more susceptible to the influence of our beliefs and emotions.

Carhart-Harris doesn’t romanticize psychedelics, and he has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” they promote. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a more “primitive style of cognition.” Following Freud, he says that the mystical experience — whatever its source — returns us to the psychological condition of the infant, who has yet to develop a sense of himself as a bounded individual. The pinnacle of human development is the achievement of the ego, which imposes order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by magical thinking. (The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has speculated that the way young children perceive the world has much in common with the psychedelic experience. As she puts it, “They’re basically tripping all the time.”) The psychoanalytic value of psychedelics, in his view, is that they allow us to bring the workings of the unconscious mind “into an observable space.”

Martin Luther Playmobil Toy is Fastest-Selling of All Time

February 22nd, 2015

The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time depicts the founding father of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Martin Luther:

The German toy manufacturer announced this week that the first edition of 34,000 pieces sold out in less than 72 hours, forcing the company to urgently request its factory in Malta to produce more of the so-called “little Luthers”. Fans have been warned that the next batch will not be available until the end of April.

Playmobil Martin Luther

The plastic toy, complete with a quill, German-language bible and cheery grin, was produced for the German and Nuremberg tourist boards and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, as Germany gears up to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Their Albrecht Dürer figure also sold well.

Playmobil Albrecht Duerer

Wonder to Banality

February 22nd, 2015

Every guided psychedelic journey is different, but a few themes recur:

Several of the cancer patients I interviewed at N.Y.U. and Hopkins described an experience of either giving birth or being born. Many also described an encounter with their cancer that had the effect of diminishing its power over them. Dinah Bazer, a shy woman in her sixties who had been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2010, screamed at the black mass of fear she encountered while peering into her rib cage: “Fuck you, I won’t be eaten alive!” Since her session, she says, she has stopped worrying about a recurrence — one of the objectives of the trial.

Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as “We are all one” or “Love is all that matters.” The usual ratio of wonder to banality in the adult mind is overturned, and such ideas acquire the force of revealed truth. The result is a kind of conversion experience, and the researchers believe that this is what is responsible for the therapeutic effect.

Subjects revelled in their sudden ability to travel seemingly at will through space and time, using it to visit Elizabethan England, the banks of the Ganges, or Wordsworthian scenes from their childhood. The impediment of a body is gone, as is one’s identity, yet, paradoxically, a perceiving and recording “I” still exists. Several volunteers used the metaphor of a camera being pulled back on the scene of their lives, to a point where matters that had once seemed daunting now appeared manageable — smoking, cancer, even death. Their accounts are reminiscent of the “overview effect” described by astronauts who have glimpsed the earth from a great distance, an experience that some of them say permanently altered their priorities. Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of “inverse P.T.S.D.” — “a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior, and presumably in the brain.”

Lord Of The Rings Illustrations by Chinese Artist Jian Guo

February 21st, 2015

Enjoy these Lord Of The Rings illustrations by Chinese artist Jian Guo:

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 09

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 08

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 07

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 06

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 05

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 04

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 03

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 02

Lord Of The Rings by Jian Guo 01

Psilocybin to Treat Smoking Addiction

February 21st, 2015

Griffiths’s lab has conducted a pilot study on the potential of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction:

The sample is tiny — fifteen smokers — but the success rate is striking. Twelve subjects, all of whom had tried to quit multiple times, using various methods, were verified as abstinent six months after treatment, a success rate of eighty per cent. (Currently, the leading cessation treatment is nicotine-replacement therapy; a recent review article in the BMJ — formerly the British Medical Journal — reported that the treatment helped smokers remain abstinent for six months in less than seven per cent of cases.) In the Hopkins study, subjects underwent two or three psilocybin sessions and a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy to help them deal with cravings. The psychedelic experience seems to allow many subjects to reframe, and then break, a lifelong habit. “Smoking seemed irrelevant, so I stopped,” one subject told me. The volunteers who reported a more complete mystical experience had greater success in breaking the habit. A larger, Phase II trial comparing psilocybin to nicotine replacement (both in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy) is getting under way at Hopkins.

“We desperately need a new treatment approach for addiction,” Herbert Kleber told me. “Done in the right hands — and I stress that, because the whole psychedelic area attracts people who often think that they know the truth before doing the science — this could be a very useful one.”

I love that last dig.

The End of South Africa

February 20th, 2015

Things are very bad in South Africa:

When the scourge of apartheid was finally smashed to pieces in 1994, the country seemed to have a bright future ahead of it. Eight years later, in 2002, 60 percent of South Africans said life had been better under apartheid. Hard to believe — but that’s how bad things were in 2002. And now they’re even worse.

When apartheid ended, the life expectancy in South Africa was 64 — the same as in Turkey and Russia. Now it’s 56, the same as in Somalia. There are 132.4 rapes per 100,000 people per year, which is by far the highest in the world: Botswana is in second with 93, Sweden in third with 64; no other country exceeds 32.

Wait, Sweden?

The Swedish police recorded the highest number of offences – about 63 per 100,000 inhabitants – of any force in Europe, in 2010. The second-highest in the world.

This was three times higher than the number of cases in the same year in Sweden’s next-door neighbour, Norway, and twice the rate in the United States and the UK. It was more than 30 times the number in India, which recorded about two offences per 100,000 people.

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries.

But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely.

There are other factors, too.

Anyway, back to South Africa:

Before the end of apartheid, South African writer Ilana Mercer moved, with her family, to Israel; her father was a vocal opponent of apartheid, and was being harassed by South African security forces. A 2013 piece on World Net Daily quotes Mercer as saying, with all her anti-apartheid chops, that “more people are murdered in one week under African rule than died under detention of the Afrikaner government over the course of roughly four decades.” The South African government estimates that there are 31 murders per 100,000 people per year. Or about 50 a day. That would make South Africa the tenth most murderous country in the world, outpacing Rwanda, Mexico, and both Sudans. And that’s using South Africa’s official estimates — outside groups put the murder rate 100 percent higher. Choosing not to trust the South African authorities is a safe bet — South Africa’s government, which has been led by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress since the end of apartheid, is outstandingly incompetent and corrupt.

Of course, de facto one-party rule doesn’t promote integrity. Unemployment is 25 percent, but President Jacob Zuma, of the ANC, recently spent $24 million of public money to add a pool and amphitheater to his private home. Not long after the story broke, he was elected to a second five-year term. Think-tank theorist Leon Louw, who helped defeat apartheid, calls the crime and corruption “a simple manifestation of the breakdown of the state. The government is just appallingly bad at everything it does: education, healthcare, infrastructure, security, everything that is a government function is in shambles.”

He adds — citing “anecdotal data” — that “most people don’t bother to report crimes.”

It appears that South Africa is about the most dangerous place you can be outside a war zone. What’s more worrying is the chance that it might become a war zone. Nelson Mandela was able to hold the “rainbow nation” together, but he’s passed on. Now, according to the human-rights organization Genocide Watch, South Africa is at pre-genocide stage 6 of 8: “Preparation.”

Genocide? Of which tribe?

With the country skidding toward anarchy, naturally, the people want to know whom they should blame. In 2010, a prominent member of the African National Congress named Julius Malema revived an old anti-apartheid song whose lyrics — says Genocide Watch — call for genocide: “Shoot the Boer, shoot, shoot.” “Boer” means “farmer” in Afrikaans; colloquially, it means “white South African.” Malema was ejected from the ANC and convicted of hate speech; he has since formed a new opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, which is currently the third largest party in parliament. Seven months after Malema’s conviction, President Zuma sang the genocide song himself, leading a crowd in a musical chant: “We are going to shoot them with machine guns, they are going to run… The cabinet will shoot them, with the machine gun… Shoot the Boer, we are going to hit them, they are going to run.” Watch the video on YouTube — it is surreal. Nelson Mandela’s successor, the president of South Africa, addresses a crowd of — according to the Guardian — tens of thousands, in a giant stadium, and calls for the murder of what amounts to about 10 percent of his constituents. Among the audience, uniformed members of the military dance.

According to Genocide Watch, the murder rate among South African white farmers is four times higher than among South Africans en masse. That rate increased every month after President Zuma sang his song, for as long as accurate records are available: The police have been ordered to stop reporting murders by race. The police have also disarmed and disbanded groups of farmer-minutemen, organized to provide mutual security. Consequently, says Genocide Watch, “their families” have been “subjected to murder, rape, mutilation and torture.” Meanwhile, “high-ranking ANC government officials… continuously refer to Whites as ‘settlers.’”

Josh Gelernter recommends that the settlers form their own Singapore-style city-state.

Spiritually Significant Experiences

February 20th, 2015

Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance, Roland Griffiths, et al. found, in 2006. Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor:

Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.

Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics. Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.

A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”

So, it’s an unalloyed good that the most important events in your life end up being the births of your children, the deaths of your parents, and that time you took mushrooms?

Occupation is the Root Cause

February 19th, 2015

The main risk factor people think is associated with suicide attack is Islamic fundamentalism, Robert Pape says:

Religion, and specifically Islamic fundamentalism, because they witness, they observe the attackers on 9/11 were Islamic fundamentalists. Many of the attackers in Iraq, ISIS is an Islamic fundamentalist group. Well what this research found, really for the first time, is that religion is not as prominent a cause of suicide terrorism as many people think. The world leader during that 24-year period was not an Islamic group. They were the Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka did more suicide attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. What over 95% of all suicide attacks have in common is not religion, but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists see as their homeland or prize. From Lebanon and the West Bank back then to Iraq and Afghanistan today, this idea of military occupation is the leading risk factor producing over 95 percent of the suicide attacks that we see even as we speak.

Professor Pape recommends two things:

First is not make the problem worse. Before the invasion of Iraq, there were about 50 suicide attacks occurring around the world in 2001 and 2002 and only a handful of those were anti-American. Then we thought we’d fix the problem of terrorism by going into Iraq and essentially wringing the Islamic fundamentalism out of the Middle East by democratizing it. Well what happened by 2007 is that there were over 500 suicide attacks that year, over 300 of them in Iraq, which had never experienced a suicide attack before. So we made the problem dramatically worse. And in fact, the roots of ISIS and as I just told you the Paris attack, go back to the American occupation, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib. These are the ingredients, the cocktail of what we’re living with today. So if we were to then respond to the terrorism that we see by putting another massive army in either Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, these are very big countries, very big populations. Many people might think that we couldn’t make the problem worse. Oh yes, we can make it much worse, very quickly, as we saw with Iraq.

The second thing is we should be focusing on especially empowering moderates in local communities to compete head-to-head with terrorists. We did this in Iraq, starting in 2000- late 2006 and 2007 and 2008 in the Sunni community when we started to foment and foster and empower the Anbar Awakening. This was essentially 100,000 Sunnis, many of them connected with local Sunni tribes, where the United States paid individuals $300 a month to do just one thing: Don’t kill us. Don’t shoot at us. Some of these had been shooting us before. This was a controversial thing when the Bush administration did it. But this had a dramatic effect in weakening suicide terrorism, the most important effect of anything that we did. We should be doing this as we go forward in Iraq. We should be doing this as we go forward in Yemen.

The ROI on terrorism is immense — if you do in fact have a zero-sum mentality:

9/11 by all estimates, including the 9/11 Commission, cost Al Qaeda less than a half million dollars and it produced many billions of dollars of damage, not just in the loss of air traffic over the next year and a half, but in launching two major wars, one of which, in Iraq, turned out to be extremely expensive, extremely costly.

Two governments understand terrorism:

One is the Basque government. So we used to have in Spain a Basque terrorism problem. That terrorism problem has essentially gone away. It was a major problem for several decades in Europe. And in the early stages like many governments, the government tries heavy-handed military force to try to deal with the issue. Publics, of course, are afraid and fearful. The publics like to see tough talk and tough action. But that just made the problem worse. And then basically through a series of education and demographic policies, the Basque separatists, basically that political movement disappeared. And it disappeared because the Spanish government stopped treating the underlying Basque community as a separate community and started to have more integrationist and assimilationist policies.

In the case of Northern Ireland with the IRA, the British had an enormous problem with the IRA that really was just awful, thousands of people dying in the early 1970’s. And the British at first tried to deal with this problem by being very tough. And Maggie Thatcher, who was a very conservative leader of Britain in the 1980’s, was known as being a very tough woman. Well she’s the one who started the secret talks with the IRA leaders, which the public didn’t know about at the time, but ended up leading to the Good Friday accords in 1998 that essentially cut a deal for a tremendous amount of political autonomy for the local communities in Northern Ireland, which effectively ended, virtually ended, I guess I would say, terrorism that had gone on for decades. So what we have see is we have seen a pattern. And we’ve seen a pattern where states who face terrorism initially want to react with very heavy-handed force — some force, of course, is necessary, I’m not saying none — but often overreact, make the problem worse, and then over time learn.