Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dawkins on tipping points

Having recently read Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, as well as currently discussing with my friend Jim Rix ways to nudge sales of his book Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out to a tipping point (and even having watched an episode of the TV program "Mad Men" last night—about Madison Avenue advertising in the 'sixties), I was fascinated this morning to come across the following passage in Richard Dawkins's book, The Blind Watchmaker (about how Darwinian evolution can produce complex organisms like the human brain):
It appears to be a fact that many people will buy a record for no better reason than that a large number of other people are buying the same record, or are likely to do so....
    To a lesser extent, the same phenomenon of popularity being popular for its own sake is well known in the worlds of book publishing, women's fashions, and advertising generally. One of the best things an advertiser can say about a product is that it is the best-selling product of its kind. Best-seller lists are published weekly, and it is undoubtedly true that as soon as a book sells enough copies to appear in one of these lists, its sales increase even more, simply by virtue of that fact. Publishers speak of a book "taking off," and those publishers with some knowledge of science even speak of a "critical mass for take-off." The analogy here is to an atomic bomb...When a book's sales "go critical," the numbers reach the point where word-of-mouth recommendations et cetera cause its sales suddenly to take off in a runaway fashion. Rates of sales suddenly become dramatically larger than they were before critical mass was reached, and there may be a period of exponential growth before the inevitable levelling out and subsequent decline. [from Chapter 8, "Explosions and Spirals," pp. 219-220]

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Theologically speaking, that is

For her light piece, "Dinner Companions," inside the back cover of the March 8, 2009 New York Times Book Review, Leanne Shapton asked some writers what authors they would take to dinner. Daniel Kehlmann replied:
Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation is the most enjoyable, and the funniest, of all the major works of philosophy, perhaps because it's the bleakest—a reminder that a world in which living beings have to survive by eating each other can hardly be called a good place [theological emphasis mine].

Friday, April 24, 2009

Neighbor Killdeer

There's a nest of killdeer eggs out behind our place, on the bank of the drainage pond.

The eggs look (without disturbing the mother to examine them closely) to be at least an inch in diameter. See how Mother Killdeer tried to distract us (predators) by feigning at a distance from her nest to be wounded (and hence easy prey, so why go after her eggs?).

I estimate I was 8-10 feet from the nest and 20-25 feet from the mother when I took the photos, using a Nikon D60.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Funny thing. I don't believe in god or heaven, but this morning I was feeling so extraordinarily buoyant that, quite spontaneously, I exclaimed to my friend Jeff, "I feel so good—as though I've been apotheosized!" [The painting shown to the right is "The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius" by Giovanni Battista Baciccio (1639-1709). Ignatius is still, I suppose, believed by some to have been literally apotheosized after being killed by one or more lions for the entertainment of the citizens of Rome.]

a⋅poth⋅e⋅o⋅sis [uh-poth-ee-oh-sis, ap-uh-thee-uh-sis]
–noun, plural -ses
1. the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god.
2. the ideal example; epitome; quintessence: This poem is the apotheosis of lyric expression.
Origin: 1570–80; < LL < Gk. See apo-, theo-, -osis
One possible contributor to my characterizing my feeling as an "apotheosis" could be the juxtaposition of two current readings, that of neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio's 1999 book about consciousness, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, and philosopher William Pennell Rock's essay, "What If Jesus Never Existed?" on his website, The Heart of Reason. Pennell, an old acquaintance from my history of art class in college, writes that
Ontology, which questions the suppositions of our suppositions about what-is, or Being, has been the deepest of all studies in the West, but as it reached closer to the subtle truths of the knower, it became so obscure that it is almost incomprehensible, as anyone who has attempted to read the works of Martin Heidegger can attest...
    To say that the truth of Christ is "merely a state" may seem an enormous comedown, compared to the epochal and miraculous events recounted in the New Testament and celebrated by Christians for centuries. But it is far more radical, intimate, and fundamental. This description as a "state" reflects the words attributed to Jesus, that the kingdom of God is within. Before we live in the world, we live in consciousness. Before we live in a circumstance, a set of facts that we call the reality of the world, we live in states of being, either going upwards towards life affirmation or going downwards towards dissolution. Living from the state of gnosis is optional consciousness. All the promises of the kingdom are figuratively present. With gnosis, in the quiet depths of your being, you know who you are, why you are here, and where you are going.
    Damasio's book lays out his theory of the biological basis of consciousness. While he says [on p. 4] that
No aspect of the human mind is easy to investigate, and for those who wish to understand the biological underpinnings of the mind, consciousness is generally regarded as the towering problem, in spite of the fact that the definition of the problem may vary considerably from investigator to investigator. If investigating the mind is the last frontier of the life sciences, consciousness often seems like the last mystery in the elucidation of mind. Some regard it as insoluble,
he nevertheless seems to me—a layman in neurological matters, even if a philosophical student of epistemology—to have a plausible theory and one that honors the full range of human experience. From Chapter Seven, "Extended Consciousness":
Extended consciousness allows human organisms to reach the very peak of their mental abilities. Consider some of those: the ability to create helpful artifacts; the ability to consider the mind of the other; the ability to sense the minds of the collective; the ability to suffer with pain as opposed to just feel pain and react to it; the ability to sense the possibility of death in the self and in the other; the ability to value life; the ability to construct a sense of good and of evil distinct from pleasure and pain; the ability to take into account the interests of the other and of the collective [emphasis mine]; the ability to sense beauty as opposed to just feeling pleasure; the ability to sense a discord of feelings and later a discord of abstract ideas, which is the source of the sense of truth. Among this remarkable collection of abilities allowed by extended consciousness, two in particular deserve to be highlighted: first, the ability to rise above the dictates of advantage and disadvantage imposed by survival-related dispositions and, second, the critical detection of discords that leads to a search for truth and a desire to build norms and ideals for behavior and for the analyses of facts. These two abilities are not only my best candidates for the pinnacle of human distinctiveness, but they are also those which permit the truly human function that is so perfectly captured by the single word conscience. [emphasis mine] I do not place consciousness, either in its core or extended levels, at the pinnacle of human qualities. Consciousness is necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the current pinnacle. [p. 230]
    Jesus and the Gnostics were all suppressed, co-opted, or made over by the official Roman church. But was the "optional consciousness" of their gnosis not the "current pinnacle" of the neuroscientists? (I take "current" to be meant in evolutionary terms, in which terms the two thousand years that has elapsed since Jesus's time is but the blink of an eye.)
    Indeed, much to think on. And it's apparently time for me to re-read Sam Harris's own Chapter 7, "Experiments in Consciousness," from his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
    It has been forty-five years since Pennell borrowed my copy of Martin Heidegger's What Is Metaphysics? I wonder whether he will write a book and what his seventh chapter will contain.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The latest Grisham cup of tea

On Monday night I reached about page 284 in John Grisham's 2009 legal thriller, The Associate. If the book was a cup of tea, it still had heat to that point. But last night, as I read the last ninety pages, the heat fled, and I was let down to realize that for all the tea's comforting warmth for three-fourths of the cup, it had little flavor or body. Just not that good a tea.
    I'm left wondering, though, whether Grisham's depiction of big law firms as using the best and brightest young law school graduates to operate a sort of billing mill is accurate. Do they really set their associates to spend long hours doing research they know will likely never be used but for the purpose of billing a client for the privilege?
    Also, since the bad guy....No, I can't go there. I might spoil whatever plot enjoyment you could otherwise slurp from Grisham's latest disappointing cup. (The ending is reminiscent of the unsatisfactory, if clever, way Nelson DeMille ended his 2004 novel, Nightfall.)
    For a much fuller bodied, more savory tea, I recommend John Le Carré's latest, A Most Wanted Man. It actually gets hotter as it goes along, up to the very last delectable sip, so apt a comment on the Bushevik foreign policy it delivers a kick to the American groin.