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What if you could improve your social credit score by reading this entire article? Would that be motivation? Well, you would have to know what a social credit score meant. And you would have to actually have such a score.

You don’t have such a score now, but you may one day. The Social Credit System is a proposed Chinese government initiative to develop a national reputation system. Though it is still being developed, the intent is to assign a “social credit” rating to every citizen. The score would be based on government data regarding their economic and social status.

It sounds like some science-fiction horror story of the future. When I first heard about this real plan, I thought of the 2016 episode titled “Nosedive” from season three of the British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror which is shown on Netflix.

‘Black Mirror’ – Netflix

In that episode, people can rate each other from one to five stars for every interaction they have. The scores impact their socioeconomic status. The protagonist, Lacie, is obsessed with her ratings and through a series of interactions with different people and has a rapid reduction in her ratings.

In this future-that-looks-like-today society, they use eye implants and mobile devices so that everyone shares their daily activities. You can also see someone’s current average and that has significant influence on the way they are viewed.  Lacie’s 4.2 rating prevents her from getting a luxury apartment which requires a 4.5 or better rating. Lacie tries her best to game the system.

The proposed China system is not only a mass surveillance tool that uses big data analysis technology, but is also a way to rate businesses operating in the Chinese market.

A Chinese “super app” called Alipay is already assigning users a three-digit score that works as “credit for everything in your life.” This “Zhima Credit” scale of 350-950 assesses people’s worth beyond finances and is meant to serve as a “credit system that covers the whole society.”

The Chinese government’s “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014–2020)” focused on four areas: honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity and judicial credibility. The rating of individual citizens is considered to be “societal integrity.” The plans are to have credit scores for all businesses operating in China.

In news story I heard, it said that you can gain or lose points for how well you separate and recycle your trash. It was unclear how this is monitored – trash collectors, your neighbors, credit police?

Eight companies were picked by the People’s Bank of China in 2016 to develop pilots to give citizens credit scores, including the giant Alibaba Ant Financial Services, which operates Sesame Credit. Ant Financial CEO Lucy Peng has said that Zhima Credit “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”

In an example of one person who started with a 600 score and was able to rise to 722, his higher score entitled him to “favorable terms on loans and apartment rentals, as well as showcasing on several dating apps should he and his wife ever split up, and with a few dozen more points, he could get a streamlined visa to Luxembourg.”

Though scores are not visible on a person (an augmented reality vision) and you can’t currently access other people’s scores on the app, your score is nicely color coded, so a 710 sees a “calming” blue background and a 550 will be greeted by an “alarming” orange tone.

Social credit also involves looking at your friends, and if they are all high-score people, that helps you. Bad credit friends are not a good thing.  Sorry Lacie, but we can’t be friends any more. Your score is bringing me down.


credit score

An “alarming” score on Sesame credit score



I was once criticized when I was much younger for being “too sensitive.”  The criticism made me wonder: Can you be too sensitive? I decided that you can be too sensitive about certain topics. I know people who seem to me to be too sensitive about politics, for example. But can you be too sensitive about the abuse of children, women or people in general?

What is the difference between highly sensitive people and people known as empaths? An article that popped up in my reading feed was by  Judith Orloff who has also written The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

“Empath” comes from empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I don’t think anyone considers empathy to be a bad thing. But some people say that highly sensitive people can cause problems for themselves and others.

These people have a lower threshold for stimulation than most people. They have a need for alone time and an aversion to large groups. They can be physically more sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Their ability to quickly make a transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. It will take them longer to unwind from work or stressful situations.

“Empath”is a term I actually associate more with science-fiction as a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. You’ll find them in some of the writing and film versions of Philip K. Dick’s future worlds, such as Minority Report (with its “precogs”) and Blade Runner.

The two Blade Runner films ask us to empathize with artificial intelligence. That is a strange thing to ask in a time when we might question the lack of empathy many people seem to have for other people.

In HBO’s series Westworld, the ask is something very different. Set in an AI  amusement park for adults, the new series is quite different from the Michael Crichton original novel. In that book and film, the robots are clearly the bad guys and they take control of their intelligence and begin killing guests. The new version focuses much more on the growing sentience of the androids. The humans are the bad guys who wildly and gleefully mistreat the robots sexually and in the many violent scenarios.

The newest Blade Runner 2049 also brings the story into our time by making the protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), be a replicant himself, but one charged with hunting down his own kind who break the laws that control them.

Steven Spielberg took on some of these issues in his film AI Artificial Intelligence. In this future, there are already robots called Mecha that are very advanced humanoids that are capable of thoughts and emotions. One Mecha, David, is like a human child and is programmed to love his owners, a couple who want a replacement for their real son who is in suspended animation waiting for a cure for his rare disease. What happens when human treat a robot as if it is real?

The TV series HUM∀NS also explores the psychological impact of  anthropomorphic robots (called “synths”) on their human owners, and the growing sentience of the robots.

This is not to say that we should connect sensitive people to AI robots. These questions go back to Enlightenment philosophers. The point is to examine how empathy may have changed in society.

Highly sensitive people and empaths are not mutually exclusive; you can be both. There is a kind of spectrum with empaths on the far end and highly sensitive people further down, and at the other end of the spectrum are narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders.”

In researching this area, I found books on a range of related topics, including dealing with being highly sensitive, as well as enhancing these qualities and making it part of your life’s work (counseling, teaching, mental health and healing).

I would never have guessed that a query on YouTube for “empaths” would turn up 179,000 results.

Take all this another step into New Age territory and you’ll find a kind of energy (called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions) that empaths can actually absorb from other people and from environments. This is far from just being highly sensitive and enters into spiritual and intuitive experiences .

Sensitivity and empathy are qualities we should respect and encourage, but we should be aware of what areas of relationships and society can be embraced and which ones can harm us.

When I first encountered the word “soma,” it was in fiction. Soma is used to shape and control the future society in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. and again in his novel, Island.  But soma is more real than I, and probably many other readers, had assumed.

“Was and will make me ill,  I take a gram and only am.”

Brave New World is a 1932 dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. It has been a popular novel in high school and college literature classes for more than 50 years. The story is set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—”After Ford”—in the book). Huxley anticipates more than predicts a number of developments in areas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.

The novel is usually seen as a prediction of “what was to come” and often lumped in with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own thoughts about the novel have changed since I read it in high school and taught it. Huxley also had a kind of reassessment of his book in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and in Island (1962), which is his final novel.

The “deep, resonant voice” of Mustapha Mond in the novel describes soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” As part of the government, he knows soma is a very effective way of controlling its population. It sedates and calms them. It also distracts them from realizing what is happening in their society – a society where even the privileged members of the World State are enslaved.

“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”

Of course, via soma, the citizens are enslaved by happiness. John, the savage from outside society who serves as the naïve 20th-century character in the novel, realizes this when he is taken into the society and given soma. He throws the soma he is given out a window at one point, but lapses into using it later.

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” That is what Mustapha says of soma. It is “Christianity without the tears,” he says. There are no bad side effects, no guilt, no sin.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That often-quoted idea came from Karl Marx, and Mustapha seems to have read Marx. Soma, like religion, offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality.

Psilocybe cubensis

There has been speculation about what soma really might be pharmacologically. In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. This rather ordinary looking hallucinogenic mushroom (which grows naturally in cow dung in certain climates) is a species of psychedelic mushroom whose principal active compounds are psilocybin and psilocin.

In the vernacular, it can be known as shrooms, magic mushrooms, golden tops, cubes, or gold caps. It was previously known as Stropharia cubensis. It is the most well-known psilocybin mushroom due to its wide distribution and ease of cultivation. In most of the world, it is an illegal substance to possess.

Soma is a real Sanskrit word that Huxley had encountered in his own experimentation with hallucinogen. It is usually described as a Vedic ritual drink that was important in the culture of ancient India. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. In ancient texts, it is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant (not mushrooms). The identity of that plant is now unknown and debated among scholars.

Some accounts by Ayurveda and Siddha medicine practitioners and Somayajna ritualists indicate  “Somalata” (Sarcostemma acidum), but there are also other candidates.

As was often the case in Indian tradition, the plant and its juice were personified as a god, Soma.

Huxley’s soma is never described in detail and there is no mention of mushrooms. The soma pill is more like a hangoverless tranquilizer or with the effects of an opiate.

In researching this article, I also found that “Soma” is the most common brand name of the muscle-relaxant carisoprodol, and is marketed by Royce Laboratories, Inc. It was FDA-licensed in 1996. It is a Schedule IV sedative-hypnotic, an anticonvulsant and anxiolytic muscle relaxant, and was first marketed in the United States in 1955 under the brand name Miltown as an anti-anxiety agent. Sometimes called a “miracle drug” in that time, it is supposedly the drug immortalised by the Rolling Stones as “Mother’s Little Helper.”

One sensationalized 1950s pulp paperback cover

My current view on Huxley’s novel is less science-fiction prophecy about totalitarian government and more about a warning on our pursuit of happiness at all costs.

On some might disagree. One article says Brave New World  has come “to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness… any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.”

In his Brave New World Revisited  (non-fiction published in 1958), after almost thirty years Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision. He concluded that the world was becoming like his novel’s world much faster than he originally thought.

Why was that? Huxley points to overpopulation as one reason. He was also interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion on the population.

Interestingly, in those 30 years since the novel Huxley converted to Hindu Vedanta.

The book concludes with some action which could be taken to prevent a democracy from turning into the totalitarian world, and in his last novel, Island, he fictionalizes those ideas to describe a utopian, rather than dystopian, nation.

Poor savage John who falls into a “brave new world” (deep nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for all that) tries to escape that soma-ed society and return to his savage “island.”  We wish him, and all of us, well.

“Benighted fool!” shouted the man from The Fordian Science Monitor, “why don’t you take soma?”

Get away!” The Savage shook his fist.

The other retreated a few steps then turned round again. “Evil’s an unreality if you take a couple of grammes.”

“Kohakwa iyathtokyai!” The tone was menacingly derisive.

“Pain’s a delusion.”

“Oh, is it?” said the Savage and, picking up a thick hazel switch, strode forward.The man from The Fordian Science Monitor made a dash for his helicopter.”

*  *  *

It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather.

The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered-everything.“Oh, my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.”


Cross-posted at my One-Page Schoolhouse site

death dream

This past week, I had two dreams about people I know dying. Though I have been a longtime observer of my own dreams and a reader of books about dreams, I don’t believe that dreams are premonitions. And yet, dreaming of someone’s death still gives me a really uncomfortable feeling.

In general, it is said that dreams about death often indicate “the symbolic ending of something, – whether that’s a phase, a job or a relationship.” A dream about death does not always mean death. Those dreams supposedly can also indicate attempts to resolve anxiety or anger directed toward the self.

I’m sure I am not alone in feeling that dreaming of someone dying is a bad omen. It seems to me that though it may not be a premonition of the person dying in real life, it may signify an end to something like a relationship.

I had read years ago that you can’t die in your dreams. Some safety valve in your brain will wake you before that happens. But I learned more recently that you can die in your dreams.

I started reading about dream interpretation when I was in high school and read both popular books and things like Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Though a lot of Freud’s theories are out of favor now, the idea that our dreams were a way to get at secrets that we kept even from ourselves is still accepted.

If you dreamed of your spouse dying, it might mean you are afraid in real life of losing that person. But why? Are they ill? Are you having relationship issues that might lead to you losing them? Are you moving on in your career or in other ways? Is a phase of your relationship to this person ending, but perhaps moving forward in a good way?

Death dreams usually mean a change of some sort. In the symbolism of dreams, death signifies the end or a rebirth of something that you associate in some way with this person.

One person I dreamt had died is seriously ill. I probably had been thinking of him in the 48 hours prior to the dream, so the dream seems logical.

The other person I dreamt had died is someone I have not seen or communicated with for several years. I had not been thinking about her recently that I can recall. According to some dream interpretation guides, this may mean that if feel betrayed or abandoned by her in real life. Feeling sad about her death mirrors the sadness I feel in real life about how disconnected we now seem to be.

It is said that guilt feelings can lead to dreams about someone dying. As I think about that first dream, I wonder if it doesn’t stem from some guilt that I haven’t done enough to help him in real life. If I am not helping, then am I bringing him closer to death?

I also had a lucid dream recently. Unfortunately, everything about it vanished before I had time to recount it to my wife or write anything down. I have written about lucid dreaming here before and these dreams in which you know you are dreaming are very powerful.

The value in recording and trying to interpret your own dreams is in examining your life closely. I believe you can use the dream interpretation guides as a starting place, but you need to develop your own symbology for your dreams. What the ocean or  my father or standing at the edge of a cliff means to me is likely to not mean the same thing to you.

Still, those guides are if not totally accurate, interesting. One bizarre meaning for dreaming of someone dying that I read is that reports by women dreaming about seeing a person dying  seem to sometimes occur just before they got confirmation of their pregnancy. The two events seem far apart, unless you see it as a quite literal view of death as a kind of rebirth.


Man and His Symbols by Carl G. Jung

Dreamer’s Dictionary by Stearn Robinson

The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Signs, and Meanings by J.M. DeBord


Don’t be frightened. This isn’t about THAT string theory – the one from physics that replace the particles of particle physics with one-dimensional objects called strings. That is a tough one to explain. I can’t even imagine strings propagating through space and interacting with each other and all kinds of vibrational states and the graviton. Nope, no theory of quantum gravity today.

These strings are khipus (“knots”). They are made of twisted and tied cords and were once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping.

These khipus (AKA Spanish spelling quipus) are best known by archaeologists as record keeping devices of the Inca Empire. That Empire had more than 18 million people and covered 3,000 miles of South America. It existed from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest in 1532.

But what did they mean? How were they used? Was it their form of “writing?”

One older theory was that they were simple memory aids, similar to prayer beads. Current research seems to point to them being a three-dimensional writing system. Analyzing color, fiber and twist direction they found 95 unique signs. That is enough to constitute a writing system.

Those colonial-era Spaniards observed them being used never learned how they were use. But they appeared to be the way the numerical data (censuses, inventories) were recorded. But they might have also been used for narrative (phonetic) records such as letters and histories.

There are less than a thousand surviving khipus in museums and collections. Some remote mountain villages still used khipus as cultural artifacts into the 20th century, but reading them has not survived.

So far, there is no link between a quipu and Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes, which suggests that they are not a glottographic or true writing system. Perhaps, they are a system of representative symbols, more like music notation, and relay information but are not directly related to the speech sounds of a particular language.

Looking at some of those strings and knots seems as difficult to interpret as the strings supposedly floating all around us in the quantum universe.


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu in Peru is the best known religious site for Inca leaders. Their civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.

When I was in college, I wrote a short story, “The Book,” that was about a book that revealed the date of death for everyone who was living at the time it was opened. The questions the story asked were whether or not you would want to know that date, and if you did know, how would it shape your remaining life.

The story (which I overly-optimistically sent out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other out-of-reach magazines) no longer exists. It was part of a literary funeral pyre a few years ago when I returned a stack of fiction and poetry back into the universe. But those two questions have stayed with me, and I imagine with others, my entire life. The story and questions came back to me when I started reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The novel is similar to my old story because the mystical knowledge is not so much what the stories are about. Like my story, the novel is about what people do with the knowledge. (In my story, one of the three main characters chooses not to open the book.)

The novel starts in 1969 in New York City when four adolescent siblings go to psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die.

The prophecies do change their life paths, though not in always obvious ways.

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin was asked if she was given a date for her own death, would she be living her life in a different way? Her answer is the kind of cheating answer many of us would give.

“I have thought about whether I would want to know my date of death, and I always say only if it were good. It’s a paradox! But would I live it a different way? I think yes. I think it would be impossible not to, depending on what it was. Maybe I wouldn’t live it differently if it was very far in the future, because that’s sort of the supposition that we all go on, and hope for, but certainly if it were soon, I think that that would impact the decisions that I made.”

The novel’s adolescents who learn their fate go in different directions. Simon heads to San Francisco for a new liberating gay life. Klara becomes a magician where reality and fantasy can be toyed with as a career. Daniel, the oldest, becomes a doctor, perhaps hoping to  put some human control on Fate. Varya becomes a researcher specializing in longevity and comes the closest to actually testing the space between science and immortality. I won’t include any spoilers here about whether or not the prophecies hold true, but religion, free will, fate and magic do enter all their lives in some way.

It is ironic that the book is called The Immortalists because knowing their fate means they all know they are not immortal. (The title comes from the name of Klara’s magic act.)

Of course, no one reading this really believes in immortality through this life. But we do think about the possibilities of life after death. I won’t go into religious territory here, but there is lots of research into near-death experiences (NDE).

One large study I found concluded that consciousness can be preserved for a few minutes after clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia of the State University of New York spent six years examining 2060 cases of cardiac arrest patients in Europe and the USA. Only 330 of those survived as a result of a resuscitation procedure, and 40% of those reported that they had some kind of conscious awareness while being considered clinically dead.

When I was 10, my father had to have brain surgery for a tumor. This was the 1960s and a procedure like that was probably quite crude compared to today. His surgeon was writing a book about NDEs and questioned him after the surgery where he was clinically dead for a short time. My father did not have any extraordinary NDE story, but I became quite fascinated with the idea of these experiences. I read things that will well beyond my years and grasp, but the fascination remains with me.

What happens after we die? What do those who “die” and come back to life report?

Many of those people recall their resuscitation and recount details about sounds in the room or the actions of the staff. The most common reported experiences and feelings include: feeling calm and peaceful, a sense of no time passing, the now clichéd “going into a light,” and sensing or seeing yourself separated from your body. Some report seeing a person, sometimes a person they know who has died, sometimes an unknown “guide.” I found it interesting that the smell of bread baking was often noted as a smell they recalled.

What did all this mean to a ten-year old who was thinking about his father’s death and his own, and who was grappling with the things he had been taught as a Catholic by the church?

I took comfort in it at the time. All of it seemed to indicate that there was something after death – and it didn’t seem like something to fear.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That is the law of conservation of energy. I was not the only person to consider that in relationship to the human soul. If that soul, or human consciousness, is energy – and we all have seen EEG and EKG tests that measure the electrical energy in our heart and brain – that means it cannot just die or disappear.

Then, what happens to that energy after physical death? What form does it change into?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that or to whether or not there is some “life” after death.

I love science, but it treats consciousness as just a product of the human brain. Near-death experiences seem to point in another direction.

Robert Lanza, known for his Biocentrism theory, believes that consciousness moves to another universe after death. He claims that consciousness exists outside the time and space and the physical body. And that would mean that it survives physical death.

The biocentrism theory isn’t a rejection of science. Biocentrism challenges us to fully accept the implications of the latest scientific findings in fields ranging from plant biology and cosmology to quantum entanglement and consciousness. By listening to what the science is telling us, it becomes increasingly clear that life and consciousness are fundamental to any true understanding of the universe. This forces a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew about life, death, and our place in the universe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. I think Hamlet is correct.

I think next I will read Chloe Benjamin’s earlier novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.  Dreams and particularly lucid dreams are also things that I have had a lifelong interest in studying.

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