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Conference Report:
Mind States Costa Rica
by Lux, Erowid Staff Writer
v1 - Jul 18, 2007

Mind States VII was held in Costa Rica, a lush tropical country nestled between Panama to the south and Nicaragua to the north. Costa Rica is widely regarded as a success story for progressive reform in Latin America. Article 12 of the Costa Rican constitution abolished the country's army in 1949, and since that time Costa Rica has had no military. In the 1980s, the newly-elected President Oscar Arias refused to allow the CIA to continue using airfields in the country to supply the Contra rebels of Nicaragua, and in a moving public gesture he arranged to have schoolchildren reclaim the runways by planting seedlings in the barren earth. Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for brokering a peace agreement in the Nicaraguan civil war.

Costa Rica is also widely regarded as an ecological success story. Over 25% of the country's natural areas are protected. A combination of variable altitude and a highly-variable climate makes the small country ecologically diverse, and Costa Rica boasts an extraordinary diversity of wildlife, particularly birds and butterflies.

Costa Rica also boasts high rates of literacy, a large middle class, a life expectancy comparable to the United States, and a comparatively high standard of living for Central America. Tourism is a primary industry in the country, and the travel infrastructure is well-developed.

The conference was held in the at the Sueño Azul resort in rural Costa Rica a couple hours' drive from the capital city of San Jose. The 2000-acre resort was an absurdly beautiful location, boasting idyllic waterways, an abundance of wildlife, a private canopy zip-line rig, a small on-site rodeo run by resort staff, and its own butterfly garden. The staff were courteous, helpful, and generous and the facilities were luxurious.

Arrival and Botanical Gardens

I arrived in Costa Rica on the morning of June 12, 2007 and waited at the small San Jose airport for a couple of hours. A number of early arrivals, including some of the presenters, had scheduled a tour of La Finca El Arca de las Herbas (The Ark Herb Farm), a local herbarium near the San Jose airport ( The 20 acre herb farm is owned and operated by American expatriate Tommy Thomas, who grows over 400 species of medicinal, herbal, and psychoactive plants. The facility was named for Thomas's aspiration to collect "two of everything". Some notable specimens we viewed on our tour of the facility were Psychotria viridis, Banisteriopsis caapi, khat, Salvia divinorum, Syrian Rue, Lion's Tail, Damiana, coffee, Artemisia absinthium, and Nicotiana tabacum.

One of the particularly interesting experiences we had at the farm was sampling Miracle Berries (the fruit of the Synsepalum duclificum bush) fresh from the plant. Miracle Berries are a weakly-flavored mushy berry, remarkable for their effect of making sour foods taste sweet for about half an hour after eating. After smooshing the berry paste around our mouths for about 30 seconds we were given fresh lime halves to eat, which had lost all of their previous sourness and now tasted as sweet as a fruit sorbet.

Conference Beginning and Attendees

We arrived at Sueño Azul well after dark, so when I was awoken the next morning by the vigorous, fluting call of a tropical bird I was astonished to see the abundance of waters literally flowing by my doorstep. Wandering out into the resort I began to get to know fellow attendees in earnest. I had a remarkable feeling of being at home, and was delighted to find that the conference attendees were an intelligent, fascinating group, and most were very friendly.

That night we all formally introduced ourselves and I got a clearer sense of who they were. About 40 people came out and introduced themselves, mostly from the United States, but some Europeans as well. Some conference attendees had come for purely personal reasons, but attendees were also on hand from MAPS, and an ibogaine addiction clinic. Several psychologists were in attendance, as were students, artists, doctors, and psychedelic activists. I was there in part out of my own interest, and also as a representative of Erowid.

Presentations and Talks

Note: These talks have not been fact-checked for accuracy and are based on notes taken during the conference.

"Plants and Costa Rica", by Tommy Thomas

Tommy is an American expat residing in Costa Rica and director of the Ark Herb Farm that some of us toured. He gave the first presentation – a brief history of Costa Rica and a discussion of some of the psychoactive plants grown at his herbarium.

Because of its stability and relatively high standard of living, Costa Rica absorbs immigrant populations from other, less stable parts of the Spanish-speaking world. For that reason the current population is about 10% Nicaraguan. The Costa Ricans are primarily of Spanish decent with a tiny indigenous population – about ten thousand members of the twelve original indigenous tribes remain. The government is a two-party parliamentary system with a variety of minority parties representing various interests.

Costa Rica is ecologically diverse, with eleven of the thirteen recognized ecological zones represented in its tiny borders.

The primary industries are agriculture (especially fruits), tourism, and now Intel, which opened manufacturing facilities in the country in 1996 and now produces more export sales than coffee and bananas combined. The tourism industry is relatively new and began in the early 1990s, but is now well-developed throughout the country.

Although Costa Rica is considered prosperous, it has the greatest per capita debt of any country other than Israel.

"Coca and Cocaine", by Jonathan Ott

Jonathan Ott is author of the legendary Pharmacotheon and currently lives in Mexico where he works as an alternative energy consultant.

Coca and cocaine are widely regarded as wastral drugs – the epitome of consumer culture, despite having a history of use stretching back for millenia. Negative attitudes about the use of this plant are spreading through South and Central America, although Argentina does seem to be one exception, possibly because Argentina has a strong Arab immigrant population. Khat is chewed throughout the Arab world, so the idea of chewing stimulant plant leaves may seem more natural.

Contrary to the story popularized in W. Golden Mortimer's classic book History of Coca; Divine Plant of the Incas, coca does not come from Peru. The early Incas did not use the plant at all until the time of the Fifth Inca, when it was employed by the military as a way of bolstering troop movements to aid their war on neighboring civilizations.

Incas and Aztecs were early-model imperialists, and like all imperialists they were not particularly popular. We always hear about them in history books, partly because historians appear to be galvanized by dynastic royalty. But coca history does not properly belong to these dynasties. Coca use does not come from the Incas, but from the Imana [???].

Ott's preferred method of coca preparation is to crush the dried leaves in a blender with a concentrated mixture of bicarbonate and water, until you have a thick paste. He then puts a coffee spoon-full between his cheek and gums. The effects come on more gradually, but are comparable to the effects of insufflating pure cocaine.

Tobacco has also been demonized as a crude drug, but in the wheel of shamanic pharmacognosy, tobacco is the hub. Its use is ubiquitous and when employed properly it is most certainly entheogenic in the true sense of the word.

A brief digression on the term "ayahuasca". It is very important to look at the linguistic history of terms – it can often tell you more than archaeological evidence. In the case of ayahuasca, the word is probably post-conquest and may be misapplied – Yage is Ott's preferred term for that entheogen. The word "ayahuasca" is commonly explained as "vine of the dead" in Quechua, but the Incans did not know caapi until quite late. He went on at some length about the etymology of the word "aya", which he explained not only means "dead" in Quechua, but is also a very common term for coca throughout South America. Ott therefore understands the word "ayahuasca" in its original sense to have meant "coca liana", not "vine of the dead", and believes it was misapplied to Yage following the European invasion.

A further digression on ayahuasca - "Shamans are not Calvanists, they're dopers like I am." There is for some reason a misapplied glorification of suffering among many Americans and Europeans that holds that one should have to endure all sorts of dreadful vomiting and so forth as an integral part of the ayahuasca experience, but Ott does not understand this at all. The shamans will readily exchange ideas about how to improve or soften the experience and don't share this point of view.

Coca is regarded throughout South America as an entheogen as much as any other plant or drug, despite the fact that in America it is commonly regarded as a wastral drug. It is an entheogen in the true sense, and is even used in a form of divination. Shamans will hyper-stimulate themselves with coca and use the resultant involuntary twitching that they experience in their upper legs to make predictions. Ott considers cocaine a true entheogen that combines very well with a variety of other substances. Shamanic cultures tend to associate coca with auditory effects rather than visual effects.

In Mexico and further north we frequently find what Ott calls "low-caine" (adulterated blends with very low cocaine content) or even "no-caine". This is so common that some frequent users associate those adulterant effects with cocaine itself to such a degree that experienced users will not even recognize pure cocaine as real.

Nicotine is very much in the same situation. In industrial countries when cigarettes are manufactured, nicotine is extracted altogether from the tobacco leaves. The tobacco is then made into a pulp and pressed out into a thin paper, then cut into fine, uniform strips. Then a small amount of the nicotine is reapplied – it's sprayed back on. Most consumers of these cigarettes do not even want the true nicotine effects – tobacco smokers do not like nicotine very much.

Ott has verified this by administering doses of nicotine directly to longtime smokers and gauging their responses. He does this by unrolling a cigarette and putting the removed tobacco under a person's tongue along with a small amount of lime. This rapidly delivers the nicotine to the bloodstream, and people usually do not like it at all.

No entheogen is employed in traditional American shamanism without tobacco. It is very visionary when properly used.

Costa Rica is a transit corridor for cocaine, but there is no growing or production of coca in the country to speak of.

The US has long been attempting to use the drug war as a pretext to commandeer armies in South America. This began under the Carter administration who laid the groundwork for a plan that has been pursued by every president since, including Clinton. The first step was to convince countries to de-link the armies from politics, arguing that the civil apparatus of South American states should be completely independent from the military. The next step was to try to get the militaries under US control to help fight the war on drugs. These overtures by the US have been roundly and completely rejected, however, and so far this plan has been a failure.

Clinton was clearly involved in the Iran/Contra affair with trading cocaine for guns, by the way. He was the governor of Arkansas when its primary Air Force base was being used to transfer cocaine and arms – Ott said he has spoken personally with pilots who were involved in these missions.

Prohibition has evolved into a mainstay of the global arms industry, because cocaine in South America and opium in Asia are gold standard commodities that will allow villagers to buy arms and fight one another. This has been noticed by arms merchants.

Erik Davis writes, lectures, and teaches on technology, culture, spirituality, and psychedelics. He is the author of Techgnosis and The Visionary State.

This film is based on a dream that Linklater had when he was about the age of the film's protagonist.

Throughout the film it draws you into the film as a film – it constantly calls out its own structure by referencing crayons, cinema, dreams, and so on. In this sense you could say it's like self-aware forms of literature that we find a lot in postmodernism.

When the film was created Linklater employed a novel form of rotoscoping in which physical actors were filmed and then overlaid with animation. After all of the live footage was taken, various sections of the film were farmed out to different animators who put their own unique touches on it. You can see a great variety of styles in the animation, with some hyper-real segments, and others being highly stylzed and interestingly abstracted in various ways.

The rotoscoping reinforces the themes of the film by creating an ongoing tension between clarity and abstraction, which calls constant attention to the tension between appearance and reality that haunts the film's hero.

The core message of the film that is reiterated throughout is that beyond the shifting kaleidoscope of abstractions and existential uncertainties there is a self who can affirm, and this capacity is grounding in the midst of dramatic fluctuations.

Some questions that can be asked when viewing this film are: Who is the character who passes between the various selves? What is the nature of the information that we derive from dreams? And what is the dream other – is there a possibility of real connection with other beings?

"The Alchemy of Thought", by Jon Hanna and Earth and Fire Erowid

Jon Hanna is the organizer of the Mind States conferences. Earth and Fire Erowid are co-founders of the Erowid website, library, and center.

Jon raised questions about how members of the psychedelic community come to have beliefs on various topics, and particularly the process by which highly speculative hypotheses evolve into putative matters of scientific fact. He focused on two areas in which this unambiguously occurs – 1) revisionist religious histories that emphasize the role of entheogens in early religious cultures far beyond what is known, and 2) theories about the role of endogenous DMT in dreams, death, and meditation as posited by Rick Strassman's The Spirit Molecule. To illustrate the second point at some length, Hanna read from a number of online quotes pertaining to endogenous DMT speaking with all the authority of scientific legitimacy, yet traveling light years beyond what is known.

The Erowids then led an exercise that is thematically-related designed to encourage reflection on storytelling, and how people within the psychedelic world transmit information about their experiences to one another. The exercise involved stocktaking on the nature of visionary experiences that participants have had, where "visionary" is construed as broadly as possible.

"Natural Selection", Part 1, by Mark Pesce

[A video of this talk is available on YouTube.]

Mark Pesce is a consultant and lecturer on technology and culture, and a longtime digital anthropologist interested in the projection of human consciousness into the technological domain.

Mark introduced the concept of natural selection by discussing the case of Andrew Speaker, who was believed to be a carrier of XDR-TB (Extremely Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis). Speaker traveled throughout Europe and Canada while infected. [In July 2007 Speaker was re-diagnosed with Multi-drug-resistant tuberlculosis or MDR-TB, a less dangerous form. - ed.]

XDR-TB is a direct result of the enormous selective pressures put on tuberculosis bacteria by use of antibiotics. Natural selection occurs through a combination of random variation/mutation and selective pressures. Variations that increase the ability to survive and reproduce of an organism are favored over time.

Mark applied the idea of natural selection to the realm of culture and science, introducing the concept of memetics (though he did not use the term), which analyzes the propagation of ideas through networks following the same laws of selective adaptation that govern natural evolution.

Mark then linked the concept of memetics to emerging decentralized communication networks, arguing that in our current cultural and technological landscape the structures of information flow favor decentralized, modular networks of communication. By way of illustration he argued that Iraqi insurgents employed forms of resistance characterized by a novel combination of two factors: 1) cellular organization of decentralized individual units (instead of centralized command), and 2) internet communication that allow each cell to know in real time whether strategies used by parallel cells are effective or not.

"Identity Issues", by John Gilmore

John is co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, a board member of MAPS, and an Erowid funder.

John has long been interested in privacy issues. Several years ago he wondered about the possibility of living in the US without an ID and asked around to see if he could get anyone to try it and see how it went. He eventually found that he could literally not even pay people to live without an ID – the perceived cost was too high. So he decided to try it himself, and got rid of all his IDs except for his passport.

The place where this experiment became particularly interesting was in domestic flight. It used to be the case that you could fly anywhere in the US without giving ID. Even before 9/11 this started to change – the FAA attempted to force people to show ID to book a flight. However, they faced a legal problem – they have no jurisdiction over people, only airlines, and they could not require people to show ID. What they could do, however, is require the airlines to ask.

Despite the fact that domestic airlines post signs sounding as if you are required by law to show an ID to fly domestically, there is no such law – there are only FAA regulations. John started declining to show his ID when flying.

Post 9/11 the rules changed, and John was no longer able to fly domestically – he was refused access to the plane. When John pressed the flight agents at the airport as to what the specific regulation was that required this, they did not seem to know, and when they called Washington for clarification, they reported that the rule requiring ID was secret and could not be disclosed for security reasons, even though he was subject to the rule.

John took this case to court in a civil suit against the FAA. In the preliminary hearings the judge asked the FAA to disclose to him the rule in question that was being disputed, and the FAA would not even tell a Federal judge what the rule was, citing security concerns.

John's case was eventually thrown out on a technicality in which the judge essentially ruled that regardless of the merit of the case, his court was not the appropriate venue for the trial. John regards this dismissal as essentially constituting a judgment that he was a crackpot for pursuing it. John appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

The most disturbing issue beyond the clear circumvention of Fourth Amendment protections is the fact that the government would enact and enforce secret rules, and that even in the context of a court challenge to the rules the subjects of those rules would not be able to even know what the rules are.

"The Erowids and the Shulgins in Discussion", Sasha and Ann Shulgin, Fire and Earth Erowid

The Erowids asked the Shulgins several questions in a public Q & A session. The following is a selection of questions and answers.

Q: What is your least favorite question?

Ann: Probably "What is your favorite substance?" There's no way to answer that question.

Sasha: These days I'd probably say "A cheap Zinfandel." [laughter]

My interest has been in psychoactives, not psychedelics. In my youth I tried all kinds of things. My interest in psychedelics was driven by my first experience with mescaline in 1955. I was working with Dow Chemicals at the time and had developed an insecticide, so they figured they'd better just let me work on whatever I wanted.

Ann: I became interested in psychedelics after reading about them early on, like Wasson's Life Magazine article. Back in those days people tried things, they shared them with their friends in small groups. I don't think any of us even considered the question of whether or not these things were legal then – it was a different culture.

Q: Why did you write PiHKAL?

Sasha: I was inspired by hearing about what happened to Wilhelm Reich, who was arrested for working on his organ boxes ["organ accumulators"] and died in jail waiting for trial. After he died the police went to his house and confiscated all of his notes, and they took them to the incinerator and burned them. I didn't want my work to be lost like that.

Ann: We put the recipe section of the book and the story section of the book in part so that the combined volume would be harder to censor. Governments will have to either allow the whole book or nothing.

Q: Do you know of anywhere other than Australia where PiHKAL has been banned?

A: No, maybe China ....

Mark Pesce: PiHKAL may be banned in Australia, but it's available – I've seen it on shelves there.

Q: Are there any traditional ceremonies for using entheogens that you would like to participate in that you haven't done yet? Or any visionary experience? Like a peyote ceremony, or a sweat lodge, anything like that?

Sasha: I'm not sure ... there may be something like that that could be interesting. We've tried some things like that with mixed results. I've tried ayahuasca, and I didn't get too much out of it. I would close my eyes and see brilliant colors – red, orange, yellow. Then I'd vomit. And I'd close my eyes and see the colors again, and vomit again. Then the same thing would happen again! And again! Eventually I decided "I'm really not advancing here."

Sometimes people come to me after reading TiHKAL and they say "Oh, you should try 2C-I at this dose," or what have you, but that is not my primary interest. My main interest is not exploiting the full spectrum of drug effects – it is developing new things. The Fly and Dragonfly variations that were developed by Nichols's group at Purdue, for example – the Dragonfly is ripe for exploration. According to reports it's extremely active in the microgram level. There are so many alterations one could make to the molecule, and presumably some of them would be active in that range. There's a whole world of exploration there waiting.

Ann: The more I hear about people experimenting, the more I believe that sitters are absolutely necessary. There are a lot of people who believe that they can handle anything, who have taken things many times, but you never know what will be unexpectedly rough.

When we did ayahuasca we had two ceremonies that were nice enough, and we didn't hesitate when we were invited again to participate. It wasn't one of the South American churches, it was with people that we knew, and there was a ceremonial aspect, but not like Santo Daime.

The first evening, well, we tend to be very cautious with dose, and we took a a relatively low dose. We are very conservative with starting doses. I had an experience with a huge train that was all lights and noise, and it kept trying to run me over. It was absolutely terrifying. I heard a voice say "Don't come here again." And I could see why it said that.

The next night we were invited to participate a second time, and we thought we would try it again, a low dose, just to participate with the group. Well, the train did come again right away. It was just as bad, but of shorter duration. The voice came back and said "Didn't you hear me the first time?"

So I will not do ayahuasca again.

These experiences vary dramatically from person to person – each person's chemistry is unique. Not every substance is your ally.

Be sure to have sedatives on hand when you're journeying in case things get rough, and something on hand for cramping or nausea. And ideally you'd have a doctor available by phone who you could call, who would know what you were doing.

Q: Who are your favorite psychedelic artists?

Ann: Matti Klarwein is my favorite psychedelic artist. He has a painting of a bush with a Buddha face emerging from it. I stare at that painting and I'm at a +2.

Sasha: Martina Hoffman.

Ann: Also, Van Gogh. He was seeing the energy in trees – he couldn't have painted like that if he wasn't. It was agonizing for him, but his consciousness was different.

Q: If you could legalize any Schedule I substance, what would it be?

Sasha: I think cannabis would be a good candidate, because there's already wide acceptance and some medical use. It might break the tight lock on drug culture.

Ann: Without question, MDMA. It is so helpful in therapy, and there's nothing like it.

Sasha: But MDMA has 10 or 12 causes of death, mostly in kids aged 17 to 21. Paper after paper comes out on this in the scientific literature, and there's a wide perspective among users that there is no risk.

Jonathan described himself as "not a prophet", but someone who has been interested in the question of energy and the petroleum-based political and economic infrastructure of the industrialized world since the 1970s. He's surprised that the infrastructure has held itself together as long as it has.

Most known organisms derive their energy from the sun, which was properly regarded by many religious cultures as the origin of life.

Humans are not exempt from natural limits – they're subject to die-off if they overuse the systems in which they're embedded. Since the time of Thomas Malthus we've known that natural populations will show geometric growth until they reach limiting conditions, and then frequently experience large, precipitous die-offs. Jonathan believes that's the direction we're headed in.

The sustainable carrying capacity of the Earth for humans is about 1.5 billion, about ¼ of the planet's current population. We've sustained that surplus population largely through the use of hydrocarbon fossil fuel, which has sustained the resource development and transportation network necessary to keep that many people alive.

Humans have depended on biomass for supplemental energy throughout history, but it has primarily been based on solar power; that is, vegetative biomass.

Before the 1800s the dominant form of fuel was fuel wood, which provides about 5.5 kilowatt hours per kilogram. By 1800 the Industrial Revolution began which doubled the human population in a single century. By the 16th Century Europe had basically been deforested, so the fuel of the Industrial Revolution was coal, which was about 8 to 9 kilowatt hours per kilogram, so coal saved the day.

Coal was largely used for lighting, as was whale oil.

In 1857 we see the first perforated industrial oil well in the US. Seven years later we see the first industrial accident. Oil is about 12 kilowatt hours per kilogram, and liquids are easier to transport than solids. Oil has again saved the day.

After oil the industrial world moved to natural gas, which has an efficiency of 14 kilowatt hours per kilogram. Burning gas causes a chemical reaction that returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that had existed there in the pre-biotic cycle, which we experience as the rise in greenhouse gases.

In the last century, the population has tripled again, and we gain 250,000 new people every day. That's a gain of the entire population of Costa Rica every month.

84% of our current energy is still derived from fossil fuels, and here I'm including nuclear power as a fossil fuel, since it is based on uranium.

We don't have surplus energy or food anymore – it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. That energy goes into growing, harvesting, collecting, etc. We're effectively eating and drinking fossil fuels.

With fertilizers we're currently doubling the biotic capacity for nitrate fixing in the soil, and the process is entirely dependent on fossil fuels.

The weak point here is the global economic system, which is stressing the environmental in various ways. It is based on central banks which use the Mandrake System. The Federal Reserve Bank is neither federal, nor does it have any reserves, nor is it a bank. It is a cartel of private banks that are given a monopoly on printing money in return for promising reserves to the Congress, but those reserves are just on paper. They are dependent on interest accrued from bank loans and debt. If all the current debt were canceled then the entire system would collapse because cash is generated by interest earned on debt.

The international monetary system is therefore only sustainable with perpetual new growth, because it is the new debt that generates the interest payments that keep the whole system going. This system is one of the most brilliant creations in human history.

The world consumes 80 million barrels of oil a day, with the US consuming 20 million of those barrels.

In the 1950s a man named M. King Hubbard, then-obscure but now increasingly famous, predicted that the peak of oil production would occur between 1970 and 1974 in the US. This doesn't mean we'd run out of oil, but that the real value of oil would begin to decline as the cost of oil extraction began to rise relative to the expense of extracting it from the ground.

The US has more oil and coal than any other region in the world, but by 1972 US oil reached peak production of 10 million barrels a day, just as predicted. It has continued to decline ever since.

You reach the peak once you've extracted about 50% of the reserves, at which point no technology will be able to increase its real value again. Hubbard was laughed at in his day, but he seems to have basically been correct. His prediction for the world peak was in the 1990s, but it appears that prediction was early. Petroleum is just now beginning to peak. The biggest and oldest fields in the world are getting smaller and smaller.

The ratio of energy needed to find and extract oil has dropped from 400 to 1 – that's a return of 400 calories for every calorie expended extracting oil – to 8 to 1, over the history of oil extraction. And it's no secret that proven resources declared by oil-producing countries are routinely inflated for a variety of economic reasons.

Since 1979 the amount of energy per capita has decreased, and more people have no access to energy and water every year. We're starting over the hill and soon it will be a cliff. This is important because energy equals life, in a literal and direct equation. What Hubbard pointed out was the disparity between the natural ecology of energy and the economic system of the world.

So we start looking to alternatives to oil, coal, natural gas, and wood. Take nuclear energy – it is highly efficient in generating electrical power, but it requires a huge investment of energy to operate. Nuclear power plants must have their own power plant to run, and it may be the case that nuclear power does not even generate net energy.

Fusion reactors are too little, too late. A best-case scenario is production of fusion power in 2050, and that's way too late.

There are currently four countries that have not yet reached their peak. Jonathan predicts that within 30 years the wheels will come off the global economy. Perhaps as soon as 20, but definitely by 30.

Jonathan's response to this situation has been to create a self-sufficient solar and water power supply that powers his lights, a short-range electric car, and his basic needs. He's beginning to generate all of his own food in a sustainable little farm as well, and his hope is to live to see the day when everything comes unglued so he can see what happens.

"My Life and Art", by Joe Coleman

Painter Joe Coleman described his life in relationship to his work.

Philip K. Dick is a deeply regional writer, kind of a gnostic prophet of California. He's an interesting case, having lived in the very different cultures of northern California when he lived in Berkeley, then moving to Orange County later in life.

The basic gesture of science fiction is to ask "What if?" Dick applied that frame of mind to everything. This dovetails with his frequent theme that there is a false world, and something perhaps truer is trying to break in from beyond it.

Two of Dick's big questions are: 1) What is reality? and 2) What does it mean to be human?

A key idea is the dialectic between the forces of energy or decay and the information which can re-order the forces of chaos. Information and communication are key themes that are tied to the possibility that communication can act against the isolating power of breakdown.

Do we accept the communication from beyond, or is it a lie? Dick argues that there is no way out of this dilemma, but at the same time there is no way to know what is real. This view sets him apart from religious writers who have beliefs.

These existential and epistemological problems are played out by these Joe Shmo characters who are thrown into these questions. The characters are deeply authentic, while their worlds are inauthentic.

Dick differs deeply from postmodernists in his deep conviction that we are persons. His question then is how to persons survive in constructed realities.

The force that crosses the divide of our reality-constructions and our human core is empathy, which is for Dick the definitive human value.

Paranoia for Dick is like being back in the jungle where everything is alive and threatening. Even though we're moving away from that as our physical reality, we are returning to an artificial version of that where our devices are alive. You can see this played out in his book Maze of Death, for example.

Two of my main Dick recommendations are The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and a short story called "The Electric Ant".

"Privacy Issues", by John Gilmore (second talk)

The government routinely violates Fourth Amendment protections by requiring businesses such as banks and airlines to collect data that they wouldn't ordinarily collect on their customers, and then make that data available to the government. Banks and airlines maintain huge databases of customer information that are routinely trolled by the government – they have entire departments that do nothing but answer government queries.

This approach was recently upheld by the Supreme Court which ruled that any information a citizen provides a company is given voluntarily and is therefore not protected by the Fourth Amendment. For example if I write a check then the identity of the payee is information I have voluntarily provided my bank, and they have no obligation – no power, even – to guard this information from governmental inquiry. It is not protected.

Under current wiretap laws any Federal, State, or local government official can get your phone records merely by asking – they don't need a warrant, or even a reason. That means any small town sheriff can look through your records without a warrant. They make hundreds of thousands of such requests every month.

The government also considers the location of cell phones as reported by GPS to be information that they have access to without a warrant.

"I Spy", by Mark Pesce (second talk)

In Mark's second talk he developed memetic ideas in relationship to public visibility and accountability in the modern information age, in both its positive and negative aspects. The positive side of accountability is that public officials are often more accountable for their actions, as any casual comment can be recorded on a cell phone and uploaded to YouTube minutes later, such as the UCLA student who was tasered by campus police after not showing an ID to enter the library.

The negative side is that private individuals are also transparent to an unprecedented degree, as illustrated by a picture of Mark speaking at Entheogen Village at Burning Man being quickly uncovered by a colleague. The colleague thought it would be funny to include that image in a slide presentation before hundreds of Mark's colleagues, and while it was a truthful photo, it also could have put Mark's professional life in jeopardy. Although Mark did not say as much explicitly, the clear subtext was that any individual interested in psychedelics – say, someone who would travel to Costa Rica for a psychedelics conference – should be mindful about how they are represented, and by whom, and what the consequences might be.

"The Second Invasion", by Ann Shulgin

Ann refers to the DEA raid of the Shulgin farm described in chapter 2 of TiHKAL as "The Invasion". The first Invasion occurred about four years after the publication of PiHKAL. At the time Sasha had a DEA license to analyze Schedule I substances, and they were in essence required to return it in retaliation for publishing a book that was embarrassing to the Agency.

There was a second incident that occurred two weeks before Christmas four or five years ago [i.e. 2002-3]. Ann doesn't expect to ever write about it, but here's the story.

2 French journalists were in town to interview Sasha and Ann had set out lunch for them. They were doing a movie on psychoactives and they had airline reservations for that evening to fly to LA. They'd worked for months to arrange an interview with the Chief of Police of Los Angeles scheduled for the next day, so it was vital that they make it down. They went to the freestanding lab on their property to interview Sasha while Ann remained in the house.

As Ann was clearing off the table she saw a stranger down in the driveway opening up her car door. It was winter but he was dressed in a t-shirt and didn't have shoes on, even though it had just snowed. She went out and called to him asking what he was doing, and he stammered that he must have the wrong house and ran off.

Ann called her neighbor to warn her that this guy might show up at her house, partly out of concern that he didn't seem to be quite in his right mind. She didn't get an answer at the neighbor's, so she called the local police.

Ann had always taken it for granted that the local police would have been informed about the resolution to the last time their residence had been searched, and that they would have a memo posted somewhere saying that the Shulgins have a lab on the premises, but that it was known to law enforcement. It turned out that the local police had never heard of them or the lab.

So a sheriff showed up and Ann told him she was concerned about this guy and wanted him looked after. The sheriff asked if he could look around and Ann said "Sure."

An outer later Sasha was still in the lab with the journalists when the sheriff came back and asked if he could ask Ann some questions. He asked if she was alone there and Ann replied no, her husbasnd was with journalists in the lab. The sheriff asked if he could have a look at the lab, and she said yes, but please don't disturb my husband, who is in an interview.

A while later about 6 cars pulled up in the driveway. One man got out and asked to look at the lab. Ann asked what was going on and he said he wanted to talk to her husband. It turned out later that this man was an ex-DEA agent who was now working with the local police on drug investigations.

Ann stayed in the house and soon saw Sasha in handcuffs being led out of the house, followed by the French journalists who were talking animatedly and recording every move.

The ex-DEA agent returned to the house and asked for permission to enter and look around. Ann asked him if he had a warrant, and he replied in a hard tone, "I don't need a warrant." Ann was reminded of the bandits in the movie "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" who said "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"

The guy came in and looked around. There was absolutely nothing illegal in the lab, but there were hundreds of test tubes and vials of white crystaline solids that only Sasha could possibly identify. In California, chemical labs are often equated with meth labs, and that seemed to be what they thought they'd found.

The French journalists weren't phased at all – they were detained in the dining room and kitchen along with Ann and asked to wait. They became more excited and disgusted, muttering and continually taping. They were asked to turn off their cameras at certain times, because some of the agents on the premises were apparently undercover agents.

Sasha had been taken earlier and put in handcuffs. One of Ann's neighbors and friends saw the commotion and came to the end of the driveway, where she heard one man say to another "I think we've got a big one here."

Ann told the cops "My husband is elderly and has a history of heart problems," although the heart problem part was made up. "If he has a stroke or a heart attack there will be a lot of trouble." So the cops brought Sasha back to the house and uncuffed him.

The French journalists absolutely couldn't miss their interview in LA, so they started making calls trying to sort out the situation. They tried calling the embassy but it was Sunday and the embassy was closed. They called the airline and were able to switch to a later flight that was quite late.

As the hours went on Ann asked if she could cook a little dinner, and rustled up some meatballs and beans. Then she phoned their lawyer – a very astute guy. The lawyer asked them if there was anything that could be "embarrassing", and Ann replied no. He said he couldn't interrupt the process but that he didn't think they'd have a problem once they verified that everything was legal. Of course, there were literally hundreds of vials of crystaline solids in Sasha's lab!

At one point, unbenownst to the Shulgins at that time, someone at the raid called the DEA and ended up talking to a friend of the Shulgins. He told them that Sasha was a well-known and highly-respected scientist, and that they should be careful that they don't get egg on their face. He told them that they would probably find lots of chemicals that only Sasha could identify.

The person in charge was a small, tough woman who looked around the house. She didn't search the place though – she just glanced in each room, presumably looking for five gallon drums of solvent or something.

After this phone call they were all being friendlier – Ann didn't know that they'd spoken to their friend, but noticed the change in mood.

At 10 or 11 at night, there was a discussion by the cops outside the house and Ann overheard someone wonder aloud "I wonder how all this will look on French TV?"

The next year the journalists did in fact show Sasha being taken out of the lab in cuffs, and put in the car, and that's how their report ended. They didn't mention that the situation eventually ended amicably, and spun it as strong-arm cops arresting a famous scientist.

Around 3 AM the police woman explained to the journalists what had happened and that everything was probably okay. The cops were obviously on damage control now. The Frenchmen did make their late flight.

As the situation was wrapping up Ann sniped "Well, that's the last time I report a prowler!" knowing full well how that would land. The police immediately said "Oh, no, ma'am! You mustn't have that feeling! We will definitely make sure nothing like this happens again!"

The little lady in charge said that this would go in the report as investigating of a vagrant, most likely to cover themselves.

But now there is a sign on Sasha's lab reporting that it is known to various detectives and DEA agents, and their names and phone numbers are listed. The only other memento of the Second Invasion is on the wall in the living room. Two paintings hang there by an artist who painted a number of works while on DOB. He had never painted anything before, but then painted a whole series of marvelous paitings while on DOB, and he showed his whole catalog to Sasha and asked him to pick out two. Sasha did and we have them hanging on the wall, and between them we have a strip of police tape saying "Do Not Cross".

"The Future of Psychedelics", by Alexander Shulgin

Sasha gave an informal presentation of the history of his research varying the structure of psychoactive molecules beginning with his early interest in phenethylamines inspired by mescaline and nutmeg and continuing to the present day. Most of the information presented in the talk is described in his book PiHKAL.