Poles Apart

       OR

PEOPLE IN POLAND – AND THEIR DOGS

 

 Over the last few years I have been afflicted with a kind of wanderlust. Its impossible to really plot the origin of this need – the desire to experience, the desire to find oneself accompanied by an equal desire to lose oneself. One can endlessly speculate and never really come to a conclusion, but for one reaon and probably many others I found myself living and teaching in Poland for just under a year. And wherever I may roam, to crib a line from Metallica, there my dog comes with me. And Poland is a big country for dogs.  

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The sign reads, “Beware- Dangerous Dog”. It seems strange to say it considering the opening image alongside, but how dogs are loved here. Dogs of every breed and shape abound here. They walk day and night with owners of all ages – whether they be family members out on a Sunday afternoon get together or giant doggies strolling by distracted texting teenagers with cut off hipster jeans and piercings who have been ordered to sullenly take their family Doberman for its obligatory post prandial perambulation, or singletons out late at night with their one, two or sometimes three beautifully cared for special breeds paid for by fifty or sometimes sixty hours working in some office somewhere in Jelenia Gora.

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But not only are they loved but doggies are allowed in many places. They turn up at your beauty clinic, on buses (you can buy a ticket for your dog on all public transports in Poland), in bars or restaurants, concerts. Dogs sit underneath their owners in expensive restaurants as waiters zip by with full trays and bottles of expensive wine. Stray dogs lounge by doorways and around shops, utterly at home, appearing relaxed but actually on defence mode, continuously scanning for threats . Turn up at a coffee shop with your two giant Husky dogs and the waiter will smile, indicate a free seat and provide your pooches with a complimentary bowl of water. I once went out for dinner in a bar restaurant with my rather small sheepdog, only to find her playing tag with the biggest Alsatian dog I have ever seen. The landlord and landlady of the bed and breakfast I am staying in have three tiny aggressive Shih Tzu dogs.

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Kara waits impatiently for me to finish taking silly pictures so we can continue with walkies

Then there are pet shops. Along with the ubiquitous chemist shop (Polish TV is filled with endless ads about cold and flu remedies and vitamins to keep you healthy) and local shop selling beer, wine and rivers of spirits (the vodka is astonishingly good), one finds the giant and not so giant pet shop nestled in local areas or in big shopping malls, selling every conceivable amenity for your canine best friend.

Which makes me wonder why so many dogs, beautiful dogs, big dogs and small dogs, are just so damn mean – Alsations, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Bulldogs, Collies, Huskies. They attack our dog – for no reason. Its very strange. They bark all day and all night. They wake one up barking and keep one from sleeping at night. (I now wear ear plugs) And its not just my dog that gets attacked, by the way. Dogs attack other dogs, and yes, it happens all the time. One’s dog can be barked at snarled at or just bitten at any moment. Walk down our road here in Cieplice (a suburb of Jelena Gora, south of Poland) and yes, dear friends, you are no longer taking you beloved pet out for a charming and relaxing stroll. You are in a demilitarized zone. You are running a canine gauntlet. One takes ones dog’s life in ones hands allowing another dog to greet your hound. A seemingly innocent wag of the tail in greeting and a sniff of the collar can turn nasty and your little four-legged darling could be attacked. I have seen more unprovoked attacks by dogs here than one could shake a shaggy paw at. Again its somewhat at odds with the picture I painted in the first paragraph. Dogs are loved and needed. But then there’s the problem of how conditional is your love and the fact that your neighbour’s dog is viewed as ‘the enemy’. Dogs are used also for protection – against Everybody Else. Those Shih Tzu doggies I mentioned are little raving lunatics who attack our little collie at the drop of a paw. Then I remember something I heard on the TV program The Dog Whisperer – You can tell a lot about the owners of a dog by the dogs behaviour.

Like their pooches, folks here are, well, unpredictable. They love their own, but like their pets, they attack each other. This is partly due, I  have been told to political divides, but also a throwback to communist times. On the streets no one greets anyone. Gazes are judgemental or avoided. The human atmosphere here is frustrated, angry, depressed, hopeless. The economy is not in a good place. People work two jobs, sometimes more and live on credit. Buses run on time and the drivers are dreadful (discourteous, rude, aggressive). Wages here are outrageously low. Most of the teachers in the excellent school I teach in, work several teaching jobs to get by, and we are well paid and have great working conditions. Right now (late 2016)  one euro will fetch you four Polish Zlotys, give or take.

And then there’s the question of the EU. Europe is almost like a bad word here. Poles who have gotten out to find better jobs have done so and many loath to return. Poland’s government is obsessed with recovering its “national pride” and seem to resent defining themselves in terms of a larger European Union. Actually it is almost as if Poland never joined the European Union. The euro is not a currency one can use here. Those who criticize Poland are deemed as dishonourable, national traitors. Those who leave Poland to improve their lot are also deemed to be traitors to the cause and resented after coming back. Poland has elected a conservative regressive government with deep ties to the Catholic Church, so conservative in its views it makes the Council of Trent seem like a hippie love in. Catholicism deeply dominates and pierces the cultural worldview here, whether or not one attends Mass or even believes.  The aforementioned Government is in the process of introducing regressive social policies that are in many ways, openly anti woman and pretty undemocratic. The EU have written to the Polish Government criticising their policies and pointing out their legislation are against EU norms.

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THE VIEW FOR MILES AND MILES

And then there’s the fear people feel and the pressure for conformity. People feel afraid, afraid of the future, afraid of each other, afraid of taking risks, afraid of new ideas, afraid of public shaming and embarrassment. People are also unfriendly to each other. Many of my Polish friends here, want more than anything else, to leave Poland. And I understand. You know you are not living in a democracy. If  peoples’ minds are controlled, it is very difficult for them to freely vote and express themselves. People fear judgement, the judgement of God, but mainly the judgement of each other. I asked some of my friends here what are people afraid of and I was told “People are afraid to really live”. They fear being watched and being judged. They dress conservatively and excessively neat and clean. One cannot be openly gay or openly different or openly open-minded. Like John Cooper Clarke in his poem Evidently Chickentown “The bloody view is bloody vile for bloody miles and bloody miles”.

I see a lot of addiction all around me. As I go to work every day I pass my pals, the local alcoholics, who wave and greet me as they’re having their liquid breakfast. The amount of alcohol in shops here is simply astonishing. Tiny bottles of vodka are littered everywhere. But its not simply the consumption of alcohol. Its what’s happening to the people that arrests me. People don’t see a future. They want to escape and they can’t. They have debts, debts incurred to simply get by as wages are so low. Cars drive at insane speeds, driven by angry and dangerous drivers. People ignore each other in queues on buses and walk in or rather through each other in shopping malls. At night the streets are deathly quiet except for the dread sounds of cars speeding past. I walk my dog late at night in the dead silence only to be passed by  nervous people staring angrily and sullenly ahead. Ghosts.

More than anything Poland wrestles with its past and constant oppression. You can’t mention the war. Actually WW2 is never mentioned. Taboo. The Camps. Stalin. Death in the forest. Solidarity. Actually a new law has been enacted recently forbidding Polish Historians from implicating Poles in Hitler’s death camps here in Poland on pain of a prison sentence. So there are many things that can’t be freely discussed. The media have been effectively shut down (all dissenting voices dismissed or demoted from effective positions of expression) and Polish television is, shall we say, a little tedious. The word taboo is used often. People are polite, friendly, and superficial -when they are not ignoring each other. I have often speculated and discussed with my Polish friends, that this inner mistrust that neighbour has for the neighbour emanates from communist times when one was obliged to report on others anti party activities, thus sowing the seeds of a fundamental mistrust between the people, a kind of divide and conquer technique.

So it all looks shiny and modern in the cities and outside the cities, but down deep it is not like that, not really. The forces of conservatism are busily putting ideology and obsession above the lives and well being of the people. Education, health care and jobs are all suffering. And the people are in trouble. The fact that this present government even got into power shows how troubled the people are here. They felt bitterly let down by the so called progressives so they elected the conservatives in. And, oh boy was that a disaster.

One party seems to embody a kind of openness and reason (aside from the Greens who nobody cares about) called Razem (Together). I hope they, or someone like them, gets in sometime soon. Poland, beautiful Poland, needs a change.

Acknowledgement:

  • With thanks to Ishka for her many editorial suggestions and corrections.
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Dont Believe The Hype

You and I are being lied to. There is no war on terror. There is a war. But it is not a war against terrorists or terror. Its a war for territory. For land. And Oil. For power. People with power want more power, and they will do what is necessary to pursue their goals. There have been terrible attacks. Paris. London. Madrid. New York. But you don’t hear about the terrible attacks on the other side of our planet. Its a difficult thing to admit, but if you keep bombing people from miles above using robot planes, or invading them, there are going to be terrible events. If you keep giving them weapons while calling them terrorists, then there are going to be attacks. It is as inevitable as sunrise. And when there are terrible, horrible unconscionable attacks against civilians, there is then the justification needed to spend billions escalating that war for territory and oil, more robots killing from miles above, more unlimited surveillance, more masked military patrolling the streets with weapons, more restrictions on movement. So don’t believe the hype. Lets survive. Just keep calm and carry on. These people will eventually be voted out of power. Lets hope the new bosses aren’t as bad as the old bosses.

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Karl Marx, Stephen Hawking, and the Rise of the Robots

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The Foster Miller Talon Military Robot “The military is performing additional tests using TALON robots equipped with grenade launchers and anti-tank rocket launchers.” (http://science.howstuffworks.com/military-robot2.htm)

One of the most common themes in Science Fiction movies, from Terminator flicks to the Cylons in Battlestar Galatica to the Matrix franchise, to the more thoughtful poetic philosophical Stanley Kubrickesque 2001, is the notion of the Earth being taken over by robots ( in the movie 2001, for a time the fate of the Earth hung in the Hands of Hal) The  word ‘robot’ is Czech for slave, and its very existence implies forced labour. Robots are intelligent nonhuman slaves, in other words, machines able to perform complex tasks automatically. The takeover of the machines is a paranoid fantasy of loss of control similar to the ‘red’ scare in movies like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or Zombie flicks where mindless forces take over our nature and threaten to destroy our humanity. But to move away from paranoid Hollywood movies and back to robots , what caught my eye was how seriously the AI (artificial intelligence) ‘threat’ it was being taken in certain quarters.

For instance in the rather restrained language in an open letter from the Future of Life Institute “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence“. Artificial Intelligence research is steadily increasing and concern seems to be sufficient for the FLI to write this open letter so that we all could sign it. I did, so that the impact of the rise of AI/Robotics remain positive for life and for humanity.

I have long held a deep skepticism over what is happening in Robotics. It also seems that only technologists who aren’t bought and paid for, science fiction writers and Stephen Hawking (who signed the aforementioned document) seem to be really worried about the rise of the robots) This rather surprised me, but then I am used to being surprised. Once, according to Hawking, AI was developed it would take off and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate, and thus pose a mortal threat to any life form that would oppose it. for the full statement – see here

1. Robots are now clever, far cleverer than we imagine they are.

In some regards its absolutely fascinating what can be done now with robots. For instance Amazon, the massive corporation selling everything from shoes to silicone implants recently began testing online delivery drones for packages under 2.3 kg in a delivery time of 30 minutes or less in Canada, as it couldn’t get the license to test them in the USA. An extraordinarily clever use of airspace exactly below airline travel routes.

New Test Drone for delivery of Items by Amazon corp.

This is but one of the applications of robotics that are literally limitless, and most of them have already been written about in science fiction, technical manuals, and economic texts and are going into production from automobile production, to cleaning, to medical applications, to the health and service industries, military and agricultural, prisoner monitoring, policing, fast food industries, and road maintenance. I saw some footage today of a grape harvester that moves through the vines, and leaving them intact, harvests the grapes into giant vats. Don’t forget our every online keystroke is monitored by a vast AI system. We imagine robots as mobile. Many of them are stationary, squatting buddahesque in vast kilometer long underground supercooled rooms maintained by technicians, for instance as worked on by Google.

Few large corporations, given the size of the market and the potential revenue one can bring in via the Internet, have skimped on investing gargantuan sums in building better, faster, stronger, smarter machines. Soon your favourite piece of apple pie and coffee will be served not by a waitron, but a machine. Its not just production, what we want is creativity too from our artificial life. Robots write novels, poetry, paint portraits, and compose music. If you like the meal cooked by the local robot chef, soon you won’t have to leave a tip. AI write reports, poems, short pieces of journalism, and, as I mentioned, novels – probably a lot better than some of the fiction being written. But this is rather high brow. Think of the guy who pumps gas for you. He too will soon be made of metal. But by then you probably won’t have to pump gas. Your car will be a self-driving robot too, run on biofuel from hemp.

2. Humans are fragile: we break, die, and fall ill rather easily.

So what happens when most blue collar work is replaced by AI? What happens when the bank tellers are for instance replaced by sophisticated automated tellers and loan distributors? – Not that too many loans will be given out. There will fewer consumers. Why? Well, as we will mention, it’s expensive to raise humans. Its easier to have fewer humans and more machines running things. After all robots are robust, easier to replace and never get old. Humans require a share of the wealth. They need insurance, wages, holidays. Robots need good technicians to keep them going. For humans there is the issue of health care, housing, feeding, educating them. And humans are fragile despite their big brains. They have soft bodies that need constant maintenance. There are other health issues as humans get into adulthood in terms of the diseases that can fall prey to, new interesting diseases that one has to spend time and money developing cures for (yes drugs are a massive business, but not as massively profitable as robotics). Not to mention the panoply of psychological and psychiatric ailments that humans invariably acquire or inherit that need costly intervention.

CAA Drone operatator guidelines, Dorset, Britain - 02 Jan 2015
Pepper Spraying Drones For crowd control. About to go into limited use in India to control unruly mobs (Guardian Newspaper)

Initially robots, for instance in the last few decades primary work among others, is to monitor humans and make sure they don’t step out of line. Again that sounds a bit reactionary and paranoid, but think of the number of cameras and screens and investment in listening to just what we are doing right now. This is because of the sheer numbers of humans and the diverse nature of the population. This is not a situation that will remain. In time because the the expense of maintaining and educating people, it will probably be necessary to enact laws to cut down on the number of humans. Overpopulation is a huge issue.

In future, because of the robots, those humans who are allowed to raise families will have to be intelligent and trained and maintained and brainwashed and compliant. We cannot have divergent thinkers in a world where so much expense and investment has gone into training a human to a specific supremely complex task. Genetics are an obvious human outlet here, but there are so many others. We could possibly forbid the robots to do any genetic work while we design the next evolutionary cycle of human being, perhaps to try to keep up with whats happening with the robots evolution.

So lets focus on the humans in this imaginary world. Allow for the fact that there will be fewer of them. Many of the non-robot workers will be working on higher wages maintaining the robotic software and machinery that generates wealth and capital for those who own the robots. As most of the highly sophisticated work, in other words the intellectual capital necessary to run most of the main pillars of the economy, will be bought and owned by those who provide the populace with most of the services needed to run the economy, including the universities, hospitals, prisons, heavy industries, military and governmental, only a small proportion of the population will physically be allowed to reproduce. If they do reproduce, it implies a further division of wealth, which is bad business practice and cannot be allowed. Thus they may do so at a loss of citizenship and the possibility to advance themselves within the technologized world. In other words those who do reproduce without permission will find themselves in a severely economically disadvantaged position. Robots and humans always remain at odds. They are two competing life forms and one or the other will inevitably gain absolute control, despite the fact that for a lengthy period of history, humans might the owners of Capital.

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3. Karl Marx was a genius of historical proportions, which is partly why we don’t like him much, but he sure knew about human alienation.

Anyway the problem with all of this it does not have a kind of historical inevitability in the way I am describing the logic of robotization here. It’s probable, but not absolutely so. Moving on, to paraphrase Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and to extend it a little, if capital alienates humans from the product of their work, in other words if I work for a living wage, then the person who pays me owns my work. Anyone interested have a read of Marx’s Paris manuscript (1844). It runs to about fifty thousand words, about the size of a short novel.

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Its that man again…

You or I may not like the idea of alienation, but it’s how society works. People possess what they buy, including our time, our ideas and our creations. So I am undeniably alienated from my work through the process of my boss paying for it. My boss who paid for my time is the possessor of the capital necessary for me to get a job to earn a living wage. But what happens if I lose my job? What happens if a robot does my job, for instance the way an ATM does the job a bank teller used do? If this happens I am completely alienated. I am without any means of working in the way I was working before. Whether I am living in Greece and believe me in Greece where I write this there is serious alienation going on, or in the heart of Germany, it makes no difference. Whether the population of the Earth swells to fifteen or even twenty million, it makes no difference. This is because my skillset has been superseded by a robot and I am without an income. I can become all revolutionary and blow up all the robot factories I like, it also makes no difference. Robots are replaceable. More are being made as I blow them up. The word sabotage originates from the sabo, or shoe, weavers used to throw into the cotton mills to stop them depriving workers of a living during the first Industrial Revolution. The upshot of all of this is my company needs to hire fewer workers (human) and in the end I am turned back on myself, on my human nature. Either I upskill or I lose my income altogether. Reskilling is a short term solution unless I am on a lifelong upward learning curve. Realistically it becomes an increasingly limited option open to fewer and fewer the more robots are made, and better smarter more skilled robots, and even then we have to start assuming at a certain point an evolutionary curve in robotics. In other words some go obsolete and we build better robots to manufacture better robots.

4. Labour options.

So people have less labour options open to them. What can they do that cannot be done faster cheaper and more efficiently by AI? They might turn to crime or to black market operations, but even that has a limited lifespan. So at a certain point we enter into a period of massive population decline with huge supernormal profits being few into the coffers of multinationals and fewer and fewer being

born, or we ship off planet altogether. Let’s assume that happens and life on Earth settles down to a billion or two of us living with the robots, robots which have already in effect conquered the Earth for an elite group of industrial capitalists who own the corporations, the leaders of the ‘free’ world, and the raw materials left on the planet. Robots begin the process of rehabilitating the planet, its climate, its nuclear waste for clean energy, and the Earth becomes a nicer cleaner place to live. Soon it becomes clear, after a few hundred robotic evolutions that they are the master race. They have evolved past us. I am reminded here of Shelley’s Frankenstein. We build something that in so many ways supersedes us and it destroys those who created it. And the thing about it is this is something we have already witnessed as happening. I don’t have a solution to this scenario.

5. Isaac Asimov was also a genius, but his three laws were naive.

Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer, devised his famous three laws of robotics, and in 1942 included them in a story called ‘runaround’

  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
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The problem with Asimov’s theory is that the of the first and most obvious applications of robots is and always has been the battle field. Unmanned vehicles against humans and other robots is arguably one of the most efficient military uses of robots. It’s certainly something worth thinking about, and has me scratching my head.

No Belief Systems Remain Unharmed by These Blogs

Raif-Badawi--008I believe in blogging. I am often shocked what other bloggers endure in order to keep on blogging, in a forum wherein one supposedly can engage in some kind of free expression. The most obvious one is that of the Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi who was recently sentenced to 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for ‘cybercrime’ and ‘insulting Islam’. Word has it Raif Badawi will now be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty. I did not realize Islam was so sensitive to criticism. In point of fact, I do not think it is, that is, normally speaking. Generally speaking any belief system that inflicts this type of extreme punishment against its dissidents is somewhat doomed. History is littered with examples of failed purges.  Anyhow Islam is a rather fascinating and magnificent system. Personally I don’t believe a word of it, but some of the finest cultural artistic and scientific advances have occurred within the context of Isalm, including the glorious invention of beer (which came not from Saudi Arabia which is our topic right now, but Iraq 4000 years ago, and developed there from through Islam) But to return to Saudi Arabia, it is not a country a secular atheist writer might feel the warmest of welcomes, seeing as it thinks little or nothing of administering rather brutal punishments on those whose views it violently disagrees with. There are other examples of Islam doing such things on unbelievers, many others like this. According to Sarah Anne Hughes (communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.) She writes “Recently in Bangladesh, the government removed hundreds of online posts by seven atheist and secular bloggers who “defamed Islam and the Prophet Mohammed,” according to the AFP. The country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to punish the bloggers who spoke against Islam. So far, four bloggers – including one who openly identifies as a “militant atheist” — have been arrested and now face up to ten years in jail if convicted of violating cyber laws.” (read the article in full here : http://americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2013-04-atheist-discrimination-the-weird-and-serious-ways-no )
I of course have no personal or spiritual interest in Islam, nor any faith, aside from enjoying the Koran the few times I read it. Faiths have been rooted out and destroyed and recreated in numerous indeed hundreds of forms throughout history. But that is another issue. Its also true in my experience that not one of the Muslims I interact with have ever espoused such extremist views as what one reads about. In ways it seems almost like an exercise in Islamophobia to read so many negative stories about the faith of Islam so often in the press. That being said, it’s outrageous to see fellow writers, or indeed anyone persecuted for their basic human right to free expression as freedom is freedom to express the self without harm to another. Given the crooked and labyrinthine world of the internet, it’s inevitable too that divergent views of all kinds will emerge in even the most narrow and repressive of regimes given the rise of blogging, a medium extremely difficult to control, and largely out of the reach of governmental control. Think of how easy it is to respond to, or write about the contents of another blog or post, for good or ill.

Torture, imprisonment, lashes, and religious or political police who take your ideological and doctrinal temperature and make of you a spy upon your neighbour or family is one way of controlling the minds of a population. It is quite effective, and the more bloody and brutal and spiritually inspired, its more justified. During the middle ages, for example, the justification for such torments inflicted upon Christian schismatics and unbelievers was the blessings of confession and forgiveness and as a consequence, the glories of heaven and the joys of God’s presence in eternity. But you can’t have that in the West. Firstly that’s just not legal, unless one whisks a suspect off to a black site injected with some kind of anesthetic and hooded where he or she can be tortured far from the inconveniences of the Geneva Convention, tormented and broken in peace, that is, until they confess their sins. Outside of purely political ‘terror’ suspects you just can’t do that to the general public. People ask questions. If you have them by their minds, their hearts and wallets will inevitably follow. Anyway by an large torture doesn’t work. Torture is an instrument of power. It doesn’t change your mind. Secondly we have the problem of the internet. It doesn’t matter how many people one questions, word spreads at the speed of light. For instance this picture was posted on Facebook and received seventeen thousand views and forty nine thousand shares. Facebook, like the NSA and MI5 and all the other governments involve in the intelligence community, keep count of everything.

Not exactly a political view an establishment superstructure would want propagated through the online community. Of course this is easily dismissible as merely a witty meme filled with politically apt language, giving something of a left of center conspiracy theory on the operations of a worldwide governmental military industrially manufactured control structure, a worldwide governmental conspiracy to spy on our every online move, that and just about every aspect of our lives, generate wars, and manufacture our consent to the status quo, whatever that status quo might be at any given historical juncture. Yes I expect one could dismiss it, if it hadn’t been proven by Edward Snowden’s revelations. If we don’t believe that Big Brother is really watching us, if we don’t believe that enemies are manufactured for the purposes of waging war to increase governments market share, if we don’t believe that we are given just enough education to be controllable, then we are simply ignoring the evidence that has been presented to us. We simply have not been paying attention and the lessons of history are lost unto us.

But surely bad people should go to jail? Yes. But only after a fair publicly accountable trial, not a mafia style hit by Special Forces in the dead of night.

Which brings me back to the importance of us all keeping talking to each other. Blogs help. Online communications help. The idea is that ideas matter. We need something to change our minds, and each of us has a unique perspective and that unique perspective has the ability to open other people’s minds. The best communication of all is face to face, physical meetings and physical confrontations, not that the gift of the internet has not been a good thing. So belief systems should be harmed by these blogs. And the more the merrier. Lets keep talking.