It’s spring so it’s conference time and I went in neck deep. Here’s the roundup. For years I’ve gone to TED and reported back. Over time I’ve spent about 45 days at TED. Yikes! That is ee-nuf! TED is the annual conference now held in Vancouver. It is many terrific things. Great speakers, big ideas and over the years you see not only regular friends but conference friends. Sort of halfway between Facebook friends and actual friends. It has superb production value and the main stage is probably the most important of any in the world today.
So TED is many good things but it has drawbacks. One troubling aspect, being a restaurateur, is the caterer who supplies the food is shockingly bad. When it was in Long Beach Wolfgang Puck was the food magician and his work was beyond great. The one they use in Canada has a palette that can only be called bizarre. The quality and delivery are fine but the food tastes terrible. I don’t want sage in my scone!
But that’s not the real problem. The TED management has decided that there are VIPs and then all the rest of us. The folks in the front row pay more, have special badges and even have their own room where they can hang out with each other. TED has made the world better informed and through TEDx has given the world a great gift. But separating the elites from the super elites is somewhat elitist, no? Like St. Peter said to the TEDster as he arrived, disappointed, at the Pearly Gates, “This is regular heaven, you’re thinking of elite heaven.”
THE EG CONFERENCE
This article may mark the first time you have heard of EG. It isn’t a secret but it is not marketed either. You can check it out at egconf.com and just sign up. Unlike TED there is no qualifying application. EG was established 11 years ago by the original founder of TED with the aim of creating a conference that is very personal and inclusive. After the first year Michael Hawley (Michael is the kid whose test everyone tried to cheat off in high school) took it over and he’s both the owner and the master of ceremony. Jane Rosch used to produce TED and she is now producing EG. So EG owes a lot to TED just as I owe my ancestors but, for me, it was time to move on.
The production takes place at a historic Sunset Center Theater in Carmel where Ansel Adams used to teach photography. About 500 people come and many say it’s the best conference they go to. I’m sure going back. Unlike some conferences the idea isn’t to cram as much into your head as possible but rather to take it a bit easier.
There is a broad mix of culture. Some examples include the presentation by Lee-Anne Walters. She was the mother in Flint, Michigan who blew the whistle on the failure of her local government around the lead poisoning of the community’s water. It wasn’t just the mistake with the pipes but she illustrated how there was a deep pool of disregard for the health of citizens even after the problem was evident.
And how do you categorize an act that entails watching a magician do incredible card tricks without the use of hands or feet in that he was born without them. Mahdi Gilbert could stay home and watch TV but he prefers to take what life dealt him and rise up to meet the world. His next goal is to walk across America. Talk about magic!
There is serious science as well. Frank Drake is one of the godfathers of astrophysics and the Drake behind the Drake Equation. He was on stage in conversation with another legend, Paul Horowitz, discussing the mathematical computations involved in estimating the potential for life in the rest of the universe. It was Frank who establish the protocols for the SETI Project and he was part of the team that produced the Carl Sagan designed Pioneer message plaques on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, and the Voyager Golden Record on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.
And folks on stage can get deeply personal. I was privileged to interview Amber and Marcus Capone about the harrowing journey they have had through life. Marcus joined the Navy SEALs when he was a young man and through his many tours of duty in the combat zones of the Middle East he ended up in a very bad place psychologically when he retired. His family and all those around him also suffer his wounds by this most intense service. It isn’t just the SEALs of course but many service people are damaged by events that happen to them. And think about this: these men and women spend years bonding deeply with their comrades and on retirement that’s taken away as well. No one comes out unscathed. We discussed a unique treatment that Marcus went through at the Mission Within program at the Crossroads Ibogaine Clinic. This involves taking the most potent mind altering psychedelics known. The result—bordering on the miraculous—is that Marcus has been returned to life. This treatment is not yet permitted in the USA but we are surrounded by countries (Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean) where it is.
If you met Marcus today you would see a happy, self-assured (also he is 6’-5” and movie star handsome) man who, with his electrifying bad-ass wife are facing the future with joy and optimism. Like anyone’s, their life isn’t perfect but I know them well and after so many years of deployments, worry and trauma they are healing. I am helping fund raise to put more veterans through this program so please see me for more information.
Woodside’s Roger McNamee positively scorched the stage with controlled rage over the way the giant tech firms who are bringing us all these new social tools have abrogated their responsibility to make sure that their machines aren’t weaponized by bad actors intent on bringing down civil society. We’re talking primarily Facebook/Russia. This May, Facebook took down nearly 586 million fake accounts. Would they have done this without Roger and others making the problem evident? Interestingly, I’ll bet you didn’t know about this because the story wasn’t front page but the fact is over 25% of Facebook users weren’t real…and that isn’t even counting the ‘active’ accounts of the dead. There are about the same number of deceased Facebook ‘users’ as the population of Canada, 30+ million.
But EG is also about transcendence with music, photography and storytelling like Katherine Cooper and her mother Rebecca Eaton. They discussed what it was like for Katherine to grow up with her famous mother the producer of Downton Abby and Masterpiece Theater. They are best friends and everyone was enchanted to witness such a lovely, exquisite relationship.
Peter Sagal of the radio (radio, so quaint) show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me delivered a homily on the Constitution which has been percolating in his ample brain for 5 years and this was bracketed by Lawrence Lessig’s relentless and fearsome attack on the flawed fabric of our government. “There’s trouble my friends right here in River City!” A capital T indeed.
There were filmmakers like Rachael Butler who has spent some 2,000 hours undersea in Antarctica! as coproducer of Blue Planet 2 and photographers Faith d’Aluisio and Peter Menzel who documented their valiant effort to save their hilltop redoubt in Napa from the raging inferno that was closing in on their house. They had expected that someday a fire might arrive so with a combination of preparation and backfires lit by heroic firefighters they beat the Devil.
At EG the real treat is the intervals which are long and leisurely. Many folks know one another and there is room for new people if you sign up early…like now. I registered for next year even before I left town so if you want a rich serving of culture and comradery I invite you to come with us. Plus the caterer is really really excellent. Mention Buck’s as your source and they will, at some point, send you something special when we dream that item up…a pony or an Oprah car or a hat. No really, we will send you something cool.
A few days later I attended Near Future in La Jolla near San Diego. It was great to contrast this with EG and TED. Near Future is just in its 3rd year and there were about 250 attendees including several of us from EG. I give it an A+ and I’m a harsh grader (I give Burning Man a B).
This is a wave-of-the-futureish crowd and I was probably the oldest person there. However, I knew a good many folks and since I only look forward I was quite happy to be there. Near Future is more sciency than EG with a touch of Hollywood.
Zem Joaquin is the maestro behind the event. Zem was a hippy kid who grew up on a commune near Buck’s and is now elegant, influential and so very, very funny. I remember sitting next to her a few years ago coming back from TED Vancouver and she was just going public with the idea. She clearly has a hit on her hands with Near Future.
Much of the technology talk was about robotics, healthcare, flying cars –– you know how we are evermore wired into the matrix. We are willingly leading and being led by our collective culture to a future that will not look like the past with not only our cooperation but our enthusiasm. The beast has been unleashed and no amount of talk about regulation and moderated behavior will put the genie back in the lamp. I am at the extreme outside edge concerning the dangers of Artificial Intelligence. People in the business, the ‘experts’, tell me that machines can’t possibly take over (think astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who says we can just unplug the machine) and though he’s no fool I think he badly miscalculates the peril. Can we really say that the machines aren’t already in control? Try leaving your cell phone home for even one day and then ask yourself who’s in charge? If the grid goes dark and takes the internet with it how long before the food riots start? Two hours? Three? Take comfort in the fact that mine is a minority view, (of course the experts thought that Hitler would stop with Poland…[ouch])
Most startup companies are reducing the need for jobs. Most futurists believe that the future will yield more jobs and one of the biggest defenses of this position is that this has always been the case. ‘Experts’ poke me in the chest and say ‘just look at history.’ OK, let’s look at history. Some societies collapse gradually like the Roman Empire; a leisurely unwinding over a couple of centuries. But some societies fall precipitously from their peak and it can be as trivial as someone leaving a door open as happened when the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, fell May 29th 1453 at about 3pm to the Ottomans. Really, look it up.
Well we have left more than just a door open. Try this. Henry Kissinger, yes that old gourd-shaped war criminal who has famously backed the wrong horses from Nixon and Augusto Pinochet to Elizabeth Holmes, is actually not only sane but is a fellow who’s lights are on upstairs (possibly a graduate student wrote it but it has his name on it). Look up the Atlantic Magazine article: How the Enlightenment Ends. I haven’t read a more compelling dissertation on the impending end of the world as we know it.
I know, I know robots taking over the world is real scifi stuff, right? And if it happens it’s waaay in the future. The experts tell me we will install controls. Hummm, such as we have with the internet. OK maybe controls won’t work, how about if we imbue the machines with human values. People actually say this. But wait, don’t our values include gunning-up to keep the clan safe so we can pass our specific genes forward and damn everyone else. Well perhaps the machines will be nice because they like us. I wonder how much they will like us if we threaten to take their electricity?
At Near Future there were a great many compelling speakers like Dror Benshetrit an architect and city planner. His work is so lyrical I wanted to immediately tear my house down and beg him to design a new one. His work is pure bliss. As is Dustin Yellin’s art. Dustin invented a method of encapsulating tiny bits of images from magazines and books between many layers of glass and the result are 3D murals? sculptures? glass poems? His creations shock and compel and they are sooo very hard to make. Many are human size sculptures of people and others are imaginary places or statements on current conditions. He freezes whole universes in glass. Part Hieronymus Bosch, part diVinci and all Dustin. It has to be experienced to be believed. The internet will not help you very much to see his work. Dustin has also established Pioneer Works, an art and education collective in Brooklyn.
One of the breakout sessions featured Dr. Dean Ornish, a distinguished health expert in conversation with a fellow who is marketing his brand of carefully dosed marijuana in a vapor pen. Both Dr. Ornish and the vapor fellow were going on about the medical benefits of the drug as if it was only a medicine. This is no doubt true for some percentage of people. But from what I can see a small percentage – compared to folks who just want to get high. Somehow this is not mentioned by the marijuana companies because they have become so used to this health smokescreen that they just pass over the fact that their products will be in the lunch bags of 6th graders.
Immediately I hear a howl that prohibition is worse. Yes, true, but that isn’t my point. I think that many kids and adult stoners will suffer real damage from this new uptick in consumption. Many people tell me that marijuana makes them sharper and more creative. Yeah, and barrels of whiskey makes Irish writers better. Let’s face it: between ubiquitous screen time, social media and the easy use of pot many people will fall short of their potential for the highest level of happiness that they might otherwise have. Pot makes most people slower and dumber (I know not you, I’m just saying most people). Is this the best we can do? Me, I say let the machines have it. I own a bar, in fact more than one but at least I admit that alcohol is dangerous and not just a nice blood pressure medication.
Well pot seemed positively quaint compared to the topics at my next event, the Exploring Psychedelics Conference in Ashland, Oregon. My friends and I made it through 4 hours of this three-day conference. That was plenty. Not that the topic isn’t compelling but it was a bit casually produced. Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind, about psychedelics is changing the landscape more than anything since Tim Leary; and what Leary did was counterproductive. In the 1950s and 60s Psychedelics were legal but when Leary told Nixon that “kids who take LSD won’t fight your wars or join your corporations” Nixon believed him so he decreed that to possess LSD, Psilocybin, the devil weed Marijuana and Heroin would be felonies and that they have no social or medical value, henceforth they would be Schedule 1 drugs. Schedule 2 included the less dangerous drugs (according to the law) like methamphetamine and fentanyl. Whaaaaat? Yes. Meth is perhaps the most addictive and fentanyl is synthetic heroin which is about 100 times more potent than heroin. Now there is a new drug…keep up here…called carfentanil. It is 50,000 times more potent than medical morphine. Schedule 2 includes cocaine as well as Oxycodone and good ol phenobarbital (popular with the suicide set). The schedule ranking goes all the way down to Schedule 5 and trust me it’s a screwball trip down a mirror lined rabbit hole featuring many addictive, soul-killing drugs many of which have been lobbied into common use as being benign and beneficial where at the other end one finds many medicines that celebrate life and liberate the mind.
Did you know this: heroin addicts are the most harmless of drug addicts…if they can get heroin regularly? But if they can’t they become crazed lunatics. It isn’t the drug that creates criminals but the not getting. In Portugal, where there is no criminality around drugs, no one’s stealing TV’s for a fix. Drug use in Portugal over the last 14 years dropped by about 75%. I’m not advocating the use of heroin. It is a Grim Reaper for sure, but the way we are dealing with it and many of the rest of these chemicals is counterproductive.
All psychoactive drugs are not created equal. Drugs that sap your spirit or over-rev your engine often result in failed lives. Michael Pollan decided to pull back the veil on certain compounds that he says opened his mind and made him a better human being: psilocybin and MDMA.
The Ashland Psychedelic conference was mostly about compounds far rarer and much more powerful than what Michael benefited from. These included ibogaine and 5MeO. These drugs are generally referred to as medicines and are used with great caution and even reverence. This is what is being employed at the Crossroads Clinic. These are not-party-drugs and my guess is you haven’t ever heard of them. But eventually the U.S. government did and 5MeO was finally made Schedule 1 in 2011. (Yeah! I feel so much safer.) Pollan did try 5MeO and he said it was the worst experience of his life. So this can happen.
These medicines are shortcuts. Many folks are wary of shortcuts to enlightenment and make no mistake this is what we’re talking about here. In the regulated medical community today we offer the afflicted: antidepressants, endless years of talk therapy, rehab, living under a bridge and incarceration. For the healthy we have pathways like 10-day silent mediation, religion and soul cycling. The employment of certain psychedelics in the proper setting with experienced guides presents the possibility of bypassing all of that and taking one to a place of peace and serenity. They are shortcuts (anything short of chasing down a rabbit, naked, across the desert and eating it raw is a shortcut no?). So ask my friend Marcus and his wife (after all other techniques failed) if it helped them love life or not.
But it’s not all grits n’ gravy. I have met practitioners who have gone in too deep, too many times and instead of losing their ego they seem to have transitioned into somewhat demonic figures who think they are gods. This dark outcome was a big surprise to me and like my Uncle Billy said when the tornado took the brand new barn he built, “Not what I expected.”
I have been studying this subject for some time and I can see clearly that there are many paths to understanding. One realization that has emerged, for me, is that we can know almost nothing. I’m not talking about fake news but what the very fabric of reality is. I like the work of Don Hoffman (an MIT/Irvine computational psychologist) on this topic. Check out Rob Reid’s podcast, Afteron and listen to #26. It will blow your mind about the subject of what can we know.
Reality is an interesting proposition. To me reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle enlightenment. In any case if you think you have a grasp of ‘the story’ ask yourself what you know about the menu you are holding. Who printed it? Who are his family, his ancestors or the origin of man or the beginning of space and time? And take the English language this is written in. Who coined the term English? And how about the ink? Pretty soon you see that everything is questions without answers upon questions and soon you see that it’s questions all the way down.
But don’t worry, we have lots of sign posts and lots of operational frameworks to help us deal with our lives which I think are real enough.
However, if you lift the rug…if you are willing and brave enough to look underneath, it’s like the character in Kubrick’s 2001 Dave Bowman says, “My God! It’s full of stars!” I say, “The stars are only part of it, Dave.” Balance, serenity, peace, enlightenment and witnessing the fabric of eternity are within reach. In this life.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Read Michael Pollan’s book. And keep in mind he’s just getting started. His book will mark the beginning of a new journey for many. Yes, Dave. It’s full of stars!