Saturday, February 28, 2015

The War in 1865: Part Four

The Civil War Today app is filled with period photographs.  This one shows some of the destruction at Columbia, South Carolina following the Federal occupation of that city.
Many drawings from the period are also included in the app. This is an illustration of the burning of Columbia as depicted in Harper's Weekly.
Note:  This is a continuation of my series on the end of the War Between the States as presented in The Civil War Today app.

General William T. Sherman's concentration upon Columbia, South Carolina resulted in the virtual destruction of the city. Confederate forces assembling under the immediate command of General P. G. T. Beauregard hastened to withdraw from the city, having insufficient numbers to meet Sherman's 60,000 men.  The Civil War Today app, dated February 17, describes the resulting occurrence at Columbia this way:

"After spending a month in Savannah, Sherman headed north to tear the Confederacy into smaller pieces. The Yankee soldiers took particular delight in carrying the war to South Carolina, the symbol of the rebellion. It was the first state to secede and the home of Fort Sumter, where South Carolinians fired on the Federal garrison to spark the war in April 1861. When Confederate General Wade Hampton's cavalry evacuated Columbia early this morning, the capital was open to Sherman's men. In the predawn darkness, Iowa troops under Colonel George Stone crossed the Congaree River and drove off remaining enemy, allowing a pontoon bridge to be constructed across the river. By mid-morning, Confederates forces were gone, and Mayor T.J. Goodwyn surrendered the city to Colonel Stone. 

"Sherman's orders called for a well-disciplined occupation, including the destruction of railroads and public works, which his armies have done throughout all his marches. But some of the Yankees got drunk and started to rampage through the city. Union General Henry Slocum observed: 'A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night.' Sherman claimed that some of the raging fires were started by evacuating Confederates and fanned by high winds, but these initial fires were put out. It is clear from the Union reports that Sherman's soldiers were guilty of burning and looting during the night. Some homes were ransacked, but spared from the torch. Terrified citizens gathered in a number open spaces, including the grounds of South Carolina College. Some Union troops did follow orders and helped fight the fires, but roughly half the city is destroyed."

With the capture of Columbia, General William J. Hardee was finally forced to order the evacuation of Charleston, scene of the first shots of the war, which had held out against numerous Union naval bombardments and infantry assaults throughout the war.  Unlike Columbia, buildings were not burned at Charleston, this time thanks to disciplined Northern troops properly controlling the area.  The troops were greeted with cheers by the large slave population still inside the city. Of course, large portions of the city, especially close to the harbor, were already destroyed from a great fire in 1861 and from Union shelling which took place off and on since the war began. Hardee's troops maneuvered inland to rendezvous with other scattered Confederate elements attempting to form a new army to defy Sherman's advance. 

After a day-long river fleet bombardment of Fort Anderson along the Cape Fear River, Union troops captured the fort along with numerous Confederate prisoners.  This placed Federal forces just ten miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina.  Meanwhile, a new Northern military operation began at Eastport, Mississippi. It was commanded by General George Thomas, who transferred his headquarters from Nashville, Tennessee to Eastport.  The objective was to capture Selma, Alabama, a major transportation hub in a Confederate controlled region which had seen little attention over the previous four years of war.

In politics, a vote scheduled in the U.S. Senate to recognize the State of Louisiana as part of the Union was blocked due to Republican opposition. Many Republicans disagree with President Abraham Lincoln's terms for reconstruction of the South and did not want Louisiana recognized under those terms.  It is felt among the opposition that Lincoln is too lenient and that stronger measures of retribution are in order as a consequence of secession and the resulting national war.

The Confederate House of Representatives met in a closed-door session to consider enlisting slaves as soldiers.  This was a controversial part of an effort to raise 300,000 Southern troops to resist the numerous Union offensives taking place within the tattered Confederacy. According to the app: "Many Southerners have remained staunchly opposed to the idea of black soldiers, pointing out that it undermines their whole concept of racial inferiority. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia, now serving in the Confederate Army, famously stated that 'if slaves seem good soldiers, than our whole theory of slavery is wrong.'"  Debate would continue for several more days as cultural prejudices clashed with tangible military necessity. Note: Ironically, just as Lincoln's party blocked his desired return of Louisiana to the Union, Jefferson Davis' party was blocking his initiative to make Rebel soldiers out of slaves.

Fighting continued along the Union approach to Wilmington with Confederates stalling the Northern advance at some lesser fortifications above Fort Anderson.  Union gunships led the way with several concentrated bombardments as the infantry worked through the swamps and constructed obstacles along the roads and paths along the Cape Fear River.  The Southerners released scores of floating mines to hit the various Union gunboats, causing damage to several of them.  The Federals sent a fake gunship upstream. The ship, named 'Old Bogey,' drew heavy fire from Confederate batteries before it was discovered to be a floating decoy. 

Faced with numerous naval gunships and outnumbered by forces advancing on both sides of the Cape Fear River, the Confederates abandoned Wilmington, making a few thousand troops available for joining with reinforcements sent from all over the South to build an army to oppose Sherman.

Several more Union states ratified the 13th amendment including Ohio, Indiana, Nevada, and Minnesota.  Kentucky, like Delaware before it, did not ratify the amendment despite pleas from the Governor to do so.  A late effort to alter the amendment so that free slaves would be forced to leave the state following the end of the war also did not garner enough votes for passage.  Unionists conventions convening held in the Southern states of Louisiana and Virginia voted in favor of the abolition of slavery.  Unionist delegates in Tennessee passed a pro-Union constitution which banned slavery, but a vote is still pending in that state regarding the 13th amendment.

Heavy skirmishing occurred near Camden, South Carolina, as Sherman's advance remained opposed by scattered Confederate forces.  Columbia was abandoned by Union forces, who left 500 head of cattle behind to assist with feeding "the destitute population" including all the recently freed blacks that now gathered in that smoldering city. Reports reached Sherman that some Confederates were killing and mutilating the bodies of Northern soldiers sent to forage for supplies.  Sherman ordered retaliation against this.

Sherman wrote a letter serving notice to Confederate General Wade Hampton: "It is officially reported to me that our foraging parties are murdered after capture....I have ordered a similar number of prisoners in our hands to be disposed of in like manner....I hardly think these murders are committed with your knowledge, and would suggest you give notice to the people at large that every life taken by them simply results in the death of one of your Confederates."

In what amounted to another war of words involving Sherman, Hampton quickly replied: "It is a part of the system of the thieves whom you designate as your foragers to fire the dwellings of those citizens whom they have robbed.  To check this inhuman system...I have directed my men to shoot down all of your men who are caught burning houses.  This order shall remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings."

Robert E. Lee appointed General Joseph E. Johnston as commander of all Confederate troops in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.  Lee directed Beauregard to commit his "duty" to Johnston and ordered both officers to work toward pushing Sherman back in the Carolinas.  Ever the pessimist, Johnston rightly questioned his abilities to successfully confront Sherman given the scattered and ill-supplied nature of the forces at hand. Meanwhile, Beauregard replied to Lee that he would be honored to serve under Johnston.  The two generals began to concentrate Southern forces in an attempt to deliver a blow to Sherman should an opportunity present itself through the dispersal of Union forces on the march through the Carolinas.

Sherman's army moved upon the prisoner of war camp at Florence, South Carolina, where more than 12,000 captured Union troops were held in conditions as bad or worse than at Andersonville. About 2,500 Union prisoners died at the camp at Florence.  Few prisoners were liberated, however, as the Confederates moved the vast majority to North Carolina. Many of the prisoners died of pneumonia and almost all were malnourished.

Another Union advance began in late February. General Philip Sheridan moved south through the Shenandoah Valley from Winchester, Virginia with two solid Corps of Northern cavalry, mostly armed with modern repeater rifles.  The immediate objectives were Staunton and Lynchburg. Depending on how much resistance they encounter, if any, the cavalry planned to possibly proceed on to Petersburg from the west to aid with General Ulysses S. Grant's operations against General Lee.
Among the photos contained in the app that were taken in February 1865 is this portrait of Robert E. Lee - his last sitting photograph of the war.  For some reason he is dressed formally but not in uniform.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Remus Storms Through

I was sure hoping that we would be spared as Winter Storm Remus was forecast earlier in the week. Predictions were for as much as 7-8 inches of snow.  We didn't need that around my place.  I'd be cleaning up the broken limbs for weeks, not to mention the fact that we might lose power.  I had the house prepped and had kerosene for our heaters on hand just in case.  

Yesterday it was work as usual in the morning.  I started checking various weather radars online around noon.  I told my staff to get ready to go home about 3:30 but it turns out the radar was not completely accurate for our area.  It turned out that snow started to our east even though the storm was coming from the southwest.  I drove home in blizzard conditions, some the hardest snow I have ever been in. By the time I got home over an inch of snow had already fallen.  This was all in about 45 minutes.  

We ended up getting 5-6 inches, more than we got this time last year.  Fortunately, we did not lose power.  We were lucky, many people across the South had it worse than we did.  I was glad to see Remus go. Our entire company is working from our various homes today.  The roads might become driveable this afternoon but it is not worth the risk to drive in only for a couple of hours. It will freeze tonight so I will likely go in late sometime tomorrow.  

Jennifer and I got out around sunrise and took some photos of the winter wonderland.  It has become overcast late this morning so I don't know how soon this mess will melt away. Temperatures are currently in the high 30's.  It will probably be a day or two before we get over this one. Now I hope all these people who were wishing for snow to "play" in are satisfied. As for me, I am ready for spring. But I have to admit walking in the snow and experiencing the complete stillness of my space this morning was special.
Our house from the back yard.  The sun was just starting to hit the ridge to our west.
A couple of shots of my reading bench in our woods.  Gives you an idea of the amount of snow that fell.
Our dog, Charlie, loves the snow.  He ran all over like crazy.
Off our porch looking west over our front yard. 
My faithful Subaru still gets me around in the snowy conditions. But not today.
Some magnolias we planted in our front yard with oaks and pines in the background.
A couple of back yard pics.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reading Sam Harris: Waking Up

There are those who worship consciousness.  For them, the experience of delving into the nature of human consciousness through contemplation and/or cessation of contemplation is special, sacred, essential for "right" living.  Sam Harris classifies himself as an atheist but I would argue he worships the direct experience of consciousness, though not to the degree of many other, more influential, contemplatives, many of whom are mentioned in this post.  I have just had the opportunity and the private time to read and consider his 2014 book Waking Up.  He writes: "Investigating the nature of consciousness itself is the basis of the spiritual life." (page 51) I find this sort of thing inflated even though the benefits of the insights to be gained here are clearly numerous and profound.  Meditation is healthy in a variety of ways.  It is just that, for me, the word 'spirituality' has a broader meaning beyond human consciousness.

The trouble with much of the meditation crowd is that they believe that since meditation leads to certain experiences about consciousness then absolutely, therefore, those experiences are both completely fundamental and connected to all experience and that these insights are privileged as the basis for human living.  For me, this is myopic. What makes the very genuine experience of meditation so exceptional?  It is distinctive, it is undeniably beneficial, but this does not mean this 'it' is the big 'IT.'  For me, spirituality includes other approaches to consciousness (Art, Music, Sex, Language) and some approaches without regard to consciousness at all (evolution, the expansion of intergalactic space, the Earth's weather systems).

You do realize there is more going on than human consciousness don't you?  Those who conflate human consciousness with 'universal consciousness,' (whatever that might be) go too far with their personal experiences.  There is neither a need (there is no self to have this need, see below) nor a basis for anything like a 'universal' consciousness (the term has no known meaning). Many perfectly fine spiritual people confuse 'consciousness' with 'occurrences' in a manner akin to believing that because the tea pot roars in steaming, that steam is connected to the clouds in the sky, or we are all composed of stardust so the stars are closely related to us.  Teapot steam and clouds are as related as the dead stars of two lovers. This is, as Sam Harris argues about religion in general, 'delusional' and I find myself sympathizing with Harris in the use of that term.  Harris strongly advocates the benefits of meditation in his book but, to his credit, he makes no grandiose claims about the metaphysics of human consciousness within meditation, other than it is a basis for 'mindfulness', for 'compassion', and for a sense of 'well-being'.  He does not believe there is more to mediation than the mindful well-being and compassion we can experience.  As he puts it: "One thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it." (page 89)

He contends that meditation reveals this 'well-being' to the practitioner as "intrinsic to the nature of consciousness." (page 48 - a rather 'worshipful' perspective in my opinion) He, in fact, contextualizes: "The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds." (page 124) This certainly echoes the perspective of many other works on meditation I have in my library and the teachings I have encountered in my own meditative experience.

It is sufficient to note that Harris worships consciousness (he and I would likely disagree with my use of the term 'worship' in this sense) yet he remains a self-proclaimed 'agnostic' about the significance of consciousness to the physical world (page 175).  As an atheist, Harris poo-poos much of religious belief.  He does not believe there is an immortal soul nor does he believe in reincarnation, for example.  (Nor do I.)  He thinks the "Abrahamic religions" (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) do more to block well-being than to enhance it.  (Not so sure on this one, this is where his worship of consciousness becomes problematic in my opinion.)  He finds the claims of Hinduism are too otherworldly.  He disagrees with many Buddhist beliefs but, he argues, unlike any other religion, "One can speak of Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions." (page 23)

Harris is a scientist and that puts him in a difficult situation. As a neuroscientist he has to go on for a few pages about what he means by 'spirituality' so that he does not discredit himself as a scientist to his community of peers. He is respected.  As I mentioned, he thinks much of religion is 'delusional.'  He praises the meditative approach to spirituality above any other ritual type practice that he mentions in the book.  But he views 'eastern spirituality' as a whole with a critique. "We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts; in fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world's largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule.  Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery." (page 28)

Harris has written a surprising and level-headed book that I find useful and inspiring. Harris absolutely understands the practical, singular path of meditation when he writes regarding sabbaticals and retreats: "If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one's desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed." (page 13)

'Well-being' is, for Harris, a universal human aspiration and I cannot fault him for that. "Seeking, finding, maintaining, and safeguarding our well-being is the great project to which we are all devoted, whether or not we choose to think in these terms." (page 15) Meditation as a foundation for well-being is understood and accepted without question.  I know meditation's benefits both rationally and from intimate experience.  So, I have to agree with Harris, though there are many paths to well-being and meditation is only one flavor of well-being.

Harris deconstructs the accepted concepts of 'self' and nature of 'consciousness' and finds that the former is an illusion and the latter is a mysterious phenomenon that can be only incompletely explained through science.  Instead, the direct experience of consciousness teaches more about its nature than traditionally scientific methods.  This is a basis for Harris favoring the practice of meditation.  I agree with his perspective.  There is no self and the origin of consciousness is inexplicable.

One of the biggest surprises in the book for me was discovering how much Harris' path is similar to my own.  I don't proclaim, as Harris does, to have spent a total of two years (the sum of various shorter retreats) in silent meditation.  Nor have I met many of the great eastern teachers that Harris has so closely studied under and related with.

But I have spent four months studying yoga and meditation at an ashram in India.  I began my meditative path around 1983 by discovering Chakra meditation before I went to India.  I routinely practiced a couple of hours a day, especially on weekends. While overseas I studied the Hindu Advaitic tradition discussed by Harris in his book.  I spent time at the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who Harris mentions in some detail.  I even spent time meditating in a cave where Maharshi lived for some 17 years. When I returned from India I eventually ventured into a Buddhist style of meditation known as Shambhala.  Harris is well acquainted with this path and devotes several pages to its founder Chogyam Trungpa who I never met though I did eat at a formal lunch with his wife once, and studied this meditative approach for two or three years with several highly trained practitioners, many of whom knew Trungpa Rinpoche personally.

So, as I read this book I was surprised to find how familiar it felt.  The way the book unfolds also peaked my curiosity.  Just when I thought Harris was about to set up some sort of conclusion with the way he carefully constructed his arguments, he veered in a direction I did not expect and for that I thank him.  He articulates in an entertaining and unexpected way something rather simple yet profound and - more often than not - agreeable to my own very free-wheeling, cherry-picking approach to spirituality.

If practiced properly meditation leads the practitioner into contact with the Now.  "It is always now," Harris writes in italics.  Contact with "now" leads to the possibility of the discipline of mindfulness.  "Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience, it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves.  Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one's mind or body - thoughts, sensations, moods - without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant." (page 36, his emphasis) Harris puts forth the basic meditation tenet  of its non-rational revelation, by direct contact with how we experience.  Accordingly, Harris contends that well-being is "intrinsic to the nature of consciousness." This is an extraordinarily optimistic understanding. It is also questionable in ways Harris has not considered.

Nevertheless, when you combine the power of the mature meditative experience with the equally profound understanding that our sense of "self" is illusionary (no matter what you try you cannot ever touch or feel your sense of self, it is purely a nonphysical experience likely arising from physical processes that remain scientifically mysterious) and the fundamental nature of consciousness is virtually unapproachable from the perspective of neuroscience, you arrive where Harris wants you to arrive.  You wake up to the true nature of living.

Harris goes into some detail on all the advantages of meditation, from physical changes in the brain of long-term practitioners, to finding within your practice the basis for more compassionate and mindful living.  "Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy - while covertly hoping they will go away - and truly accepting as transitory appearances in consciousness.  Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change.  The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past.  But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves." (page 149, his emphasis)

I applaud Harris for grounding meditative practice in a very concrete, everyday types of things.  Long-time readers know that I put higher stock in examples of the mundane application of spirituality than I do in the grandiose claims of anyone who is spiritual or, more frequently, religious.  He relates the usefulness of meditation to a plumbing situation in his home, for example.  He and his wife went through a horrible stretch where the old plumbing in the ceiling of their house gradually broke down over a period of weeks. What started as an irritating leak became a periodic series of nightmare leaks throughout the house, flooding as much as 600-square feet at one point. It was stressing their relationship and driving them into an obsessive state.  But his meditative practice allowed him to effectively cope and this is the undeniable advantage of meditation (or yoga or possibly other forms of spiritual practice, in my opinion.)

"Of course, a house is a physical object beholden to the laws of nature - and it won't fix itself. From the moment my wife and I grabbed buckets and salad bowls to catch the falling water, we were responding to the ineluctable tug of physical reality.  But my suffering was entirely the product of my thoughts.  Whatever the needs of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic.  Every moment of the day - indeed every moment throughout one's life - offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily." (page 95)

This is an area I could improve upon in my own life.

He also anticipates the need to address the "So what?" crowd, people who understand meditation has certain effects and still shrug their shoulders. "It is, in fact, very difficult to deal with this 'So what?'...Unless a person has spent some time seeking self-transcendence dualistically, she is unlikely to recognize that the brief glimpse of selflessness is actually an answer to her search. Having then said, 'So what?' in the face of the highest teachings, there is nothing for her to do but persist in her confusion." (page 148)  I don't meditate anymore.  But I know intimately that there is more to it than "so what".  There is an answer to "So what?" in meditation. But it is an experience, like prayer or marksmanship or capitalism. Meditation happens.

Harris spends most of the rest of the book cautiously discussing how meditation can be a misstep and how it can manifest in religious-like ways of devotion and acceptance if we are not careful.  I find the last portion of the book to be very pragmatic.  Harris offers examples on how to meditate but he does not fix on any of these. Rather, as a scientist, he comments on how many people practice incorrectly for years without knowing it and various pitfalls to watch out for.

Of particular value is Harris' discussion of various 'gurus' he has known and the potential trouble with them in general. "Apart from parenthood, probably no human relationship offers greater scope for benevolence or abuse than that of a guru to disciple." (page 153)  Harris mentions a few positive gurus but he takes special care to discuss frauds and neurotics that have purported to bestow wisdom upon their students.  He has little respect for G. I. Gurdjieff, for example, who he refers to as a 'gifted charlatan.'  He is skeptical of Poonja-ji, Ramana Maharshi's greatest disciple who he considers 'deceitful and demeaning.'

In an extended section, Harris discusses an incident involving Chogyam Trungpa, founder of Shambhala Buddhism, who he finds 'morally flawed.'  He details an infamous meeting with his senior students where Trungpa ordered a 60 year-old woman stripped naked and carried around the meditation hall.  When two students protested and left the hall as the others carried out Trungpa's request, the guru ordered the two fugitives back to the hall. Upon refusal, he ordered his personal guards to seize the two students and, after a bloody scuffle, brought them back to the hall.

"Trungpa, who was by then quite drunk, castigated the pair for their egocentricity and demanded they take off their clothes.  When they refused, he ordered his bodyguards to strip them.  By all accounts, (one student) became hysterical and begged someone in the crowd of onlookers to call the police.  One student attempted to physically intervene. Trungpa himself punched this Samaritan in the face and ordered the guards to drag the man from the room." (page 160) Harris finds such shenanigans reprehensible.  "Judging from the effect that Trungpa's wild behavior had both upon himself (he apparently died of alcoholism) and his students, it is very difficult to view it as the product of enlightened wisdom." (page 161)

Further, Trungpa's hand chosen successor, Osel Tendzin, "was bisexual, highly promiscuous, and rather fond of pressuring his straight male devotees to have sex with him as a form of spiritual initiation.  He later contracted HIV but continued to have unprotected sex with more than a hundred men and women without telling them of his condition. Trungpa and several people of the board of his organization knew the regent was ill and did their best to keep it a secret. Once the scandal broke, Tendzin claimed that Trungpa had promised him he would do no harm as long as he continued his spiritual practice.  Apparently, the virus in his blood did not care whether he did his spiritual practice or not.  At least one of his victims later died of AIDS, having spread HIV to others." (pp. 161-162)

Harris contextualizes the Trungpa debacle and other gurus he critiques while accepting their very legitimate 'boundless compassion.' Instead, he shines light upon the alleged 'inerrancy' their authority casts upon their disciples.  "The notion that one is incapable of making mistakes poses obvious ethical concerns, no matter what one's level of realization.  Anyone who has studied the spread of Eastern spirituality in the West knows that these elephants often stumble - even stampede - injuring themselves and many others in the process." (page 163)

I remember knowing of these events at a time early in my marriage with Jennifer where I was struggling with the Shambhala tradition itself anyway.  Trungpa's death due to excessive smoking and alcohol consumption more or less ended my interest in meditation altogether.  From then on I was pretty much just a yoga practitioner.  Still, I recognize the legitimate value of meditation and so does Harris.  What I enjoy most about Waking Up is that it is an attempt at what I would call 'grounded' spirituality.  That is, a form of spirituality without magical claims or grand human hopes, based upon the science of the brain.  Harris wants us all to wake up to the possibilities of mindfulness and well-being within the practice of meditation.  But, he equally wants us to wake up to the potential pitfalls to the meditative path as well.

I am not exactly ready to trade in my Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind for Waking Up, but Harris demonstrates that his writing is informed of serious meditative practice, with its application to well-being within his own life.  It is worthy of reading and considering.  It reveals an application of meditation in the world while remaining agnostic about certain basic tenets with eastern religion regarding meditation.  If nothing else Harris proves that westerners can "get it" when it comes to meditation.

Harris is someone I will continue to observe and possibly study as I continue upon my own spiritual path.  I find far more agreeable than not within Waking Up.  Near the end of the book he writes: "Consciousness is simply the light by which the contours of mind and body are known.  It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret, amusement, and despair.  It can seem to take their shape for a time, but it is possible to recognize that it never quite does.  In fact, we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.

"As we have seen, there is no compelling reason to believe that the mind is independent of the brain. And yet the deflationary attitude toward consciousness taken by many scientists - wherein reality is considered only from outside, in third-person terms - is also unwarranted.  A middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all." (pp. 204-205)

Amen to that.

Late Note:  This article is an excellent example of what I would term an "inflated" (conflated) view of "consciousness." The Akashic Field is nonsense and a misuse of the term "consciousness."  We are made of stardust, of course, but that connection is trivial to human experience. Human consciousness invents natural seeks connection and meaning. That has a high survival value.  So, "quantum consciousness" comes along in the human dialog and suddenly everything is connected, everything is important, we are nested and home and safe as part of the Akashic Field, which levels and equalizes all forms of consciousness. This is pristine BS and bad philosophy. Delusional. I equate the elevation of human consciousness to communion with the cosmos as the worship of consciousness at its most ridiculous. This is another form of what I have termed in the past as "subtle-arrogance." (See my use of term here, here, and here.) We are not that special.

In reality, because we are human, all too human, we invent these connections, we do not discover anything in this regard. The Universe has no consciousness in terms of having a specific direction or goal or awareness.  The Universe has "occurrences" which, though following the laws of physics, are completely haphazard in terms of manifestation.  This sort of feel-good new-age crap is delusional, in my opinion. There is no "home" in the Universe.  Life is enough.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The War in 1865: Part Three

One of the many additional features to The Civil War Today app is a daily scan of some newspaper from the period.  In this case it is the Richmond Daily Dispatch, showing that, even though Southern society was highly disrupted, there was a "business as usual" aspect to it even at this late date in the war.  This issue optimistically reports on General Lee being named Command-in-Chief of all Confederate armies, the appointment of General Breckinridge to Secretary of War, the possibility of Britain still intervening on behalf of the South, and the hope of delivering General Sherman a defeat in the Carolinas.
A close-up of the section of the front page detailing (left to right) General Lee's appointment, General Breckinridge's appointment, the hope that General Sherman will meet the fate of his name-sake, and various correspondences between the Confederacy and Mexico.  It is of interest to compare the prices for newspapers in the North with those in the South during this part of the war.  Confederate newspapers were offering six-month subscriptions for $15 Confederate dollars "in advance." This reflects the near-ruinous inflation with the Southern economy late in the war.   Meanwhile, Northern newspapers were selling for one cent (in gold) or two cents (in coin) per issue, reflecting a stronger economy and more stable currency.
Note: This is the third part of my continuing series on the end of the American Civil War at it happened 150 years ago according to my iPad app, The Civil War Today.

As February began, General Robert E. Lee was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all Confederate forces by Jefferson Davis.  The appointment was quickly ratified by the Confederate senate in Richmond.  Lee took command of a dismal situation.  His Army of Northern Virginia, entrenched around Petersburg, was the only legitimate Southern military force remaining in the field.  Other forces scattered across the South were low in number and supplies, currently capable of offering only skirmishing or small battles in resistance of superior Union armies. Simultaneously with Lee's appointment, Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, resigned amidst calls for Davis and his cabinet to step down in view of the war situation.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment so that it could be put to a vote by the states.  Moving very rapidly, Lincoln's home state of Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment, doing so within hours of the President's signature.  Rhode Island and Michigan ratified it the next day.  Meanwhile, Lincoln traveled by ship to Fort Monroe in order to confer with the Confederate peace commission on the possibility of ending the war.

Heavy skirmishing continued at every point of General William T. Sherman's advance into South Carolina.  Though this considerably slowed the Union advance the Rebel forces were too weak to halt the Yankees and they were pushed back by superior Northern firepower at every instance of resistance.  As this advance proceeded, President Lincoln met with the Confederate peace commission for four hours at Hampton Roads, Virginia.  The meeting did not go well as there was little agreement upon anything involving protection of Southern property and rights in exchange for peace and Union.  The war would continue.

After weeks of random skirmishing in the trenches around Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant launched an attack upon Robert E. Lee's troops at Dabney's Mill.  The battle lasted three days and led to a combined total of about 2,600 casualties, comparatively few by the standards of previous battles, reflecting the tedious nature of this pioneering trench warfare.  Confederate General John Pegram was killed in action leading a Rebel counterattack against a Yankee advance.   The battle ended as most action around Petersburg had ended up to that point in the war - a stalemate. The Union forces failed to outflank or hold any breach in the Confederate entrenchments.  The lines of supply to Lee's besieged army remained open.  The one Northern consolation was that the battle extended the Confederate lines further to the west, thereby thinning the ranks of the Southern forces even more in order to protect their fragile flanks.

In political maneuvering, former Vice-President of the United States John C. Breckinridge was appointed as the new Confederate Secretary of War.  Breckinridge has much experience as a commander in the war, most recently servicing under General Jubal Early in the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign.  He also ran for president in 1860 as a Congressmen from Kentucky.  Meanwhile, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Maine all ratified the 13th Amendment. Delaware did not ratify it, however. Delaware remained a slave state within the Union, hoping for compensated emancipation.  The state would continue to recognize slavery until December 1865 and would not officially ratify the amendment until 1901.

In South Carolina, General Joseph Wheeler, alarmed at the behavior by some Union troops under General Sherman's command, sent a letter of entreaty to Sherman promising to cease the Confederate practice of burning all cotton prior to retreating under the condition that Sherman rein in his troops and stop burning some of the homes of the Southern population as the Yankees advance into that state.  To which Sherman shot back the prompt reply: "I hope you will burn all cotton and save us the trouble. We don't want it; and it has proven to be a curse to our country.  All you don't burn I will."

Unlike Sherman's March through Georgia where Union troops destroyed only constructions of material value such as manufacturing, cotton gins, or transportation, in South Carolina, the heart of secession, they burned everything from plantation estates down to small groups of simple family dwellings.  The Carolinian population were being driven from their homes and very little remained as the Northerners advanced, practicing a form of scorched earth policy.

General Lee continued to complain to Richmond about all manner for shortages within his beleaguered army.  Some of his troops went several days without any meat ration at all. Lack of sufficient clothing is also an issue in the wet, cold weather.  Lee wrote: "If some change is not made and the commissary department not reorganized, I apprehend dire results.  The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment."

General William Hardee, commanding at Charleston, SC, reported to Richmond that Federal troops were advancing against that city.  Union force under General Q. A. Gilmore landed upon James Island in the vicinity of Charleston. Hardee also warned of larger Northern movements by General Sherman's forces toward Columbia, SC and Augusta, Georgia. General Wheeler set a trap at Aiken, SC for General H. Judson Kilpatrick as the Union cavalry approached Augusta, Georgia.  The Confederates cut off a brigade of Federal cavalry inside the small town forcing the Northern troops to fight their way out.  There were dozens of causalities on each side and the Union advance toward Augusta was halted.

Meanwhile, separate Union commands proceeded to advance upon Charleston, SC and Wilmington, NC.  At Charleston heavy skirmishing continued on James Island with the Confederates holding on to their defensive positions. Jefferson Davis wrote General Hardee expressing hope that he would hold Charleston. This contradicted correspondence between Hardee and General P.G.T. Beauregard, now headquartered at Columbia, SC, who feared that Hardee would be isolated and recommended that he withdraw from the city and unite with Southern troops forming to oppose General Sherman further inland.  Also, Union troops and naval forces met slight resistance as they inched their way inland toward Wilmington.

Even though General Wheeler was effective in his actions against General Sherman's advance into South Carolina, General Beauregard realized that the area required for cavalry operations was beyond his capability, stretching from near Augusta, Georgia all the way to Charleston, SC. For that reason, he recommended to General Lee that General Wade Hampton be promoted to overall command of cavalry in South Carolina, Hampton's home state. Permission was granted for this on February 14.

In view of conflicting orders and requests, Hardee maintained his positions around Charleston. Rebel troops began arriving near Columbia from John Bell Hood's former command as the South attempted to organize effective resistance against both Sherman's large vengeful army and Yankee forces threatening Wilmington, NC. Sherman ordered both wings of his army to concentrate toward Columbia.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

China's Smog: Days of Future Past

A comparison of air pollution levels in China and the US.  From an excellent article in Forbes Magazine.
Let's start with what I think are three empirical facts.  First of all, the unregulated economy never factors in the environmental costs of doing business until it is too late. Secondly, there are no instances of human industrial expansion where the human beings have not rendered the air and water unhealthy in absence of environmental regulation. Finally, and most hopefully, when human beings create enough filth that their own business models start to make their citizens sick and to kill them, they will finally start to address the root causes of the issue out of necessity.  As with most aspects of human history there is no real wisdom, only necessity forces people to behave in a manner that appears to be wise.  There is no "basic wisdom" in economic development.

The environment is one area where I am a staunch big government liberal.  My libertarian leanings are always trumped by clean air and water.  As I have posted before, liberty means nothing if you can't breathe the air.


Right now, after years of unprecedented industrial expansion with no pollution controls whatsoever, China has created a world where it is unsafe to breathe the air.  Forbes recently compared the worst air pollution levels in the United States with the worst in China.  The graph will amaze you.  The article states: "China’s struggles to contain thick rolling shrouds of smog have been well documented. Despite public discontent and countless pledges from the authorities to tackle the problem, air pollution in many cities has been pushed to over twenty times the safe limit on numerous occasions." 


As bad as the smog issues are in places like Los Angeles in the US, that city's pollution levels are only a fraction of what China's cities are experiencing. When you consider that then it becomes easy to understand why China is suddenly so cooperative in Climate Change talks after years of stonewalling requests for action by the United States and Europe.  From an excellent article in Rolling Stone: "According to one study, air pollution contributed to the premature death of 1.2 million people in China in 2010. 'China today is a lot like America was in the 1960s and Seventies – the rivers are on fire, the sky polluted, and the rising middle class is not going to put up with it anymore,' says Jigar Shah, a solar-industry pioneer. For U.S. negotiators, it was important to convince the Chinese that cutting carbon pollution would not only clean up the air but also lead to more political stability for the regime. 'They will have a social revolt on their hands if they don't come up with a way of dealing with this,' U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus told me bluntly when I was in Beijing this past summer." 


US conservatives are critical of the agreement.  Of course, they are critical of any agreement that "burdens" our "job producing" industries with the necessity to keep the air breathable and the water drinkable.  There is, perhaps, no single area of politics where conservatives are more wrong-headed than on the environment.  They are a disgrace to their own name, there is nothing "conserving" about their predictable and shallow position on the environment.  


Ironically, they are pro-business to the exact degree that the Communist Chinese government is pro-business.  But, we have been down this road before. The results in our own history was the death of Lake Erie and massive toxic waste all across the country. These are historical facts of an antiquated non-regulated business model where the equation for stockholders never has anything to do with the Earth's natural resources until people start suffering and dying in sufficient numbers. This is the past legacy of the West and it is the future legacy of Asia.


The mayor of Beijing recently warned that smog is rendering that huge city unlivable (and it isn't even the worst offender in China).  Meanwhile, this short film documents what it is like to live in a typical large Chinese city, wearing face masks everyday, even cute face masks for children, because the air is unfit to breathe and the smog is so thick you often cannot see from one end of the street to the other.


It isn't just China.  India too has enormous problems with smog and air pollution.  The situation there is so bad that India is losing as much as 50% or its agricultural production due to pollution.  Last November The New York Times reported: "According to India’s Central Pollution Control Board, in 2010, particulate matter in the air of 180 Indian cities was six times higher than World Health Organization standards. More people die of asthma in India than anywhere else in the world. Indoor air pollution, mostly from cooking fires, and outdoor air pollution are the third and fifth leading causes of death in India."


Most of the headlines recently have about the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  This is serious and certainly worthy of attention. But the fact is, if you add it all up, pollution in the developing world kills more people than any other factor including deadly diseases.  Perhaps nothing demonstrates how the Earth and we as human beings are more globally interconnected than massive air pollution.  This satellite video shows how the polluted air from China and India travels all over the planet. 


Please take a moment to study this incredible real-time map of air pollution measurements across Asia, including China, India, and Japan.  Any readings other than green are considered hazardous.  Red and purple readings are considered unsafe for human beings.  Obviously, there are far more red and purple measurements in China and India than any other color on this scale in all of Asia.


Once again, I do not consider human beings to be very wise. Human beings are stupid. But, human beings have a strong survival instinct and when things get bad enough, when there is no other alternative, we will get off our lazy asses and attempt something reasonable (if it is not too late). So, we are slowly adapting to the decades long crisis of belching greenhouse gases and other pollutants into our atmosphere. 


Will we, as a species, learn anything from this? Will we begin to value environmental quality as at least an equal partner with monetary security and material gain? Will we finally recognize that it is an illusion that we dominant the Earth? I doubt it. But it seems that we are being harmed enough to finally do something besides get regulations out of the way so business is easier.


Maybe, just maybe, this time, it will dawn on us that our "control" over the Earth (a fundamental tenet of Old Testament theology, by the way, this bullshit "dominion over the Earth" found in Genesis) is an illusion.  The Earth is vast and beautiful and forgiving but it is not benevolent.  It will factor in the crap of humanity and humanity will not benefit from how the equation of the Earth changes thanks to us.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Air Power Against ISIS: The Long Debate


I devoted blog posts last year to the beginning of our air campaign in Iraq and to our air strikes against ISIL (ISIS) at Kobani, Syria.  It turns out I was watching and blogging about Kobani at what was perhaps the critical time in that urban battle. The tide has since turned against ISIS and today Kobani is 100% controlled by the Kurdish opposition.

Few, if any, military experts thought Kobani could be saved with air strikes alone combined with the rag-tag band of fighters resisting the Islamic State. Indeed, even with months of bombing, only 1% of all captured terrain has actually been retaken from ISIS to date.


The debate over the potential effectiveness of an air campaign alone to win a war or to succeed as a military operation has been going on for decades, as this article in Slate from 1999 indicates.  In 2004, Foreign Affairs published an excellent overview of the history of air power in war and reached this conclusion: "Over a decade into the precision revolution, the record points to a simple conclusion: the greater accuracy and surveillance capabilities of today's precision equipment enable air power to support ground campaigns far more effectively than in the past."


Kobani is a taste of what this "precision revolution" can do even when supported by poorly trained and equipped ground forces.  The US and coalition forces struck Kobani over 700 times, disrupting the advance by ISIS which at one point had captured over 70% of the small Syrian city.  ISIS admits that the surgical nature of the air strikes eventually drove them out of the city.  Naturally, after four-months of concentrated bombing and urban street fighting Kobani itself is in ruins.  


One fighter was quoted as saying that the strikes had gotten so targeted and accurate that they were even killing individuals on motorcycles.  It became impossible for ISIS forces, no matter how large or small in numbers, to move around in the city, let alone organize an attack.  So, they have withdrawn with the proclamation that one day they will return.


Perhaps they will.  As The Atlantic points out, this victorious use of air power does not greatly change the circumstances of the war.  ISIS fighters remain on the offensive at Kirkuk and other areas of Iraq. And there is the gnawing fact that the Iraqi army has retaken only the smallest fraction of land lost to the Islamic invaders.  The Kurds say an attempt to retake the large city of Mosul from Islamic State control will not happen for several more months.


So, in reality, the defense of Kobani is symbolic but hardly substantial.  It does show how air power can win in setting where there is no adequate defense against air strikes. But so what?  The Iraqi army remains ineffective.  The Kurds in northern Iraq lack necessary firepower against their better armed and highly-motivated ISIS adversaries.  ISIS remains a potent military threat to the region, with stated objectives for taking more territory and expanding its control.


It seems air power has only been effective at Kobani, where it was highly-concentrated.  The multi-faceted nature of ISIS aggression upon multiple fronts both in Syria and in Iraq serves to disperse the coalition's air capabilities over a wide region. Our bombing of Kobani likely taught ISIS a lesson - if you mass your forces in a contained space (such as inside a city) you will be obliterated. But such impressive firepower becomes less effective as an opponent fans out over a larger geography and limits itself to smaller, pinpoint ground tactics.  It will be interesting to see how this next phase of this war evolves.


Meanwhile ISIS is gaining strength in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, among many other areas.  The Islamic State has become the primary force of terror and aggression in the northern Africa and the Middle East. This is something US air power cannot contain or even disrupt.  So, even though the Battle for Kobani is an outstanding example of winning largely with an air strategy, it will take a more comprehensive strategy to address this new powerful force in militant Islam. As of today no such strategy exists and, unfortunately, that is good news for the imperial aspirations of the Islamic State.  And the long debate about the ability to win a war with air power continues.