Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A zoo for refused heritage?

In the final chapter of Daniel C. Dennett's long and difficult book about evolution (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995), he reminds us that
The philosopher George Santayana was a Catholic atheist, if you can imagine such a thing. According to Bertrand Russell..., William James once denounced Santayana's ideas as "the perfection of rottenness," and one can see why some people would be offended by his brand of aestheticism: a deep appreciation for all the formulae, ceremonies, and trappings of his religious heritage, but lacking the faith. Santayana's position was aptly caricatured: "There is no God and Mary is His Mother." [pp. 514-515]
Then, Dennett confesses to somewhat the same predicament:
But how many of us are caught in that very dilemma, loving the heritage, firmly convinced of its value, yet unable to sustain any conviction at all in its truth? We are faced with a difficult choice. Because we value it, we are eager to preserve it in a rather precarious and "denatured" state—in churches and cathedrals and synagogues...keeping alive traditions, rituals, liturgies, symbols, that otherwise would fade. [p. 515]
Personally, I don't get it. I just don't feel anything for the traditions, rituals, liturgies, or symbols of religion, and I was amazed to read that Dennett doesn't feel the same way. (I wondered whether he was being disingenuous.) He even includes an Appendix with the musical score for a song that he used to sing "when I was a child, around the campfire at summer camp, at school and Sunday school, or gathered around the piano at home":
Tell me why the stars do shine,
Tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell me why the sky's so blue.
Then I will tell you just why I love you.

Because God made the stars to shine,
Because God made the ivy twine,
Because God made the sky so blue.
Because God made you, that's why I love you. [p. 523]
Dennett seems to have had an exceedingly sentimental childhood. My experience, even of Sunday school and summer Bible camp, wasn't like that, either in fact or in memory.
    I much prefer my wife's emended needlepoint:
Who plants a seed
Beneath the sod
And waits to see
Believes in DNA
    But I recognize the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea again when Dennett goes on to say:
But hasn't there been a tremendous rebirth of fundamentalist faith in all these creeds? Yes, unfortunately, there has been, and I think that there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism...Is there a conflict between science and religion here? There most certainly is.
    ...My own spirit recoils from a God Who is He or She in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage. I know, I know, the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free, it would kill me; safety demands that it be put in a cage. Safety demands that religions be put in cages, too [emphasis mine]....
    ...the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world. According to a recent poll [early 1990's], 48 percent of the people in the United States today believe that the book of Genesis is literally true. And 70 percent believe that "creation science" should be taught in school alongside evolution. Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to "opt out" of materials they didn't want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in school? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense. [pp. 515-516]
I must add that Dennett suggests a zoo for religious heritage not only to protect us from religion's dangerous elements, but also to preserve it "because it was," as we preserve all sorts of archaeological and historical artifacts. Religious and other cultural artifacts are unique and, like species of nature (which, in a way, they are too), once lost, cannot be re-created.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

From Baader to worse

The headline this morning in a local newspaper read:
Christian militia accused of plotting to kill cops
It was an Associated Press piece, by Corey Williams and Devlin Barrett. From Detroit, their first paragraph colorfully reported:
Nine alleged members of a Christian militia group that was girding for battle with the Antichrist were charged Monday with plotting to kill a police officer and slaughter scores more by bombing the funeral—all in hopes of touching off an uprising against the U.S. government.
    "Reminds me of the Baader Meinhof group," my wife said. That German terrorist organization, which became known as the Red Army Faction, operated blood (and sex) lustfully during the 1970's. Their exploits were graphically depicted in the 2008 feature film, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (but didn't win). We watched it Sunday night. That's Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin [the actors playing them] featured in the graphic.
    I'd forgotten that all of the principals had committed suicide in prison, had even told my wife before we started to watch that I thought one of them was still incarcerated. Not so, Ulrike Meinhof hanged herself first, after her estrangement from the others. The others ended their lives too (variously on the same day, in separate cells, if the impression of the film is to be believed), after it became clear that the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, chairman of the German Employers' Organization, and the hijacking of a Lufthansa aircraft, carried out by their cohorts at large, weren't going to win their release.
    Our "Christian" brethren will probably just wait for the rapture.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Taking chance

Last night we finally got around to taking the chance to watch a movie a neighbor had recommended two or three months ago, Taking Chance, directed by Ross Katz and starring Kevin Bacon as Marines Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl, who escorts the remains of fallen marine Chance Phelps to his final resting place. According to the Internet Movie Database (and also Wikipedia's article on Chance Phelps), the movie was presented by HBO for television in 2009.
    The magisterial mood the movie cast on me was powerful, and I felt inclined throughout the watching to recommend it as ExtraOrdinary (EO). The homage paid to a fallen warrior. The uniform respect shown by every American the casket comes in contact with: the Marines who clean up the body and dress it impeccably (though they recommend that the funeral be closed-casket), the movers who transfer the casket from one vehicle or airplane to another, airline attendants (including a pilot who asks Strobl for the name of the fallen Marine and says he knows the name of every KIA he's ever flown), other passengers, other drivers on the long ride from Billings to the small town in Wyoming where Phelps will be buried (they all without exception turn on their lights as they pass or follow the hearse).
    It was only after I'd finished watching and was mid-way through viewing a truly ExtraOrdinary film (Flammen and Citrone) that I realized I'd been had. Taking Chance, however we might wish that the noble world it portrays actually existed, is mostly fantasy. Chance Phelps died on April 9, 2004, in Iraq, during the first term of George W. Bush. Even "President" Bush, the main person who should have at least seemed to honor the Chance Phelpses the most, seemed to want to think about their sacrifice as little as possible. He may have regarded service people as too dumb or poorly placed in society to care about, since his "father above" seemed to have seen fit to place them where they didn't have the option, as Bush had, to avoid showing up even for all of their National Guard duties.
    Phelps's commanding officer wrote to Phelps's parents, If there were more men in the world like Chance Phelps, we might not need a Marine Corps. And we might not "need" films like Taking Chance.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Scroll back fifty-seven years....

Project Reason recently sponsored a video contest to promote critical thinking. The winning entry was "The Values We All Stand For."
    Among other things, it asks,
What if, when our Pledge of Allegiance was revised in 1953, "one nation" had become, not "one nation, under God," but "one straight nation" or "one white nation"?
But "Just a Book," the third-place winner, with its theatrical emphasis, is my personal favorite. I suspect that it placed third partly because of the theatricality, which might have struck the voters as somewhat antithetical to critical thinking.
    Pause if necessary to check out the titles of the books people stand up to read to drown out the Bible zealot.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Captain Skyhook

A skyhook, according to philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, is a source of design complexity that did not build on lower, simpler layers—in simple terms, a miracle. Dennett was apparently the first to apply the term to discuss a certain kind of retort to evolution. Writes Dennett:
The first use noted by the [Oxford English Dictionary] is from 1915: "an aeroplane pilot commanded to remain in place (aloft) for another hour, replies 'the machine is not fitted with skyhooks.'" The skyhook concept is perhaps a descendant of the deus ex machina of ancient Greek dramaturgy: when second-rate playwrights found their plots leading their heroes into inescapable difficulties, they were often tempted to crank down a god onto the scene, like Superman, to save the situation supernaturally. Or skyhooks may be an entirely independent creation of convergent folkloric evolution. Skyhooks would be wonderful things to have, great for lifting unwieldy objects out of difficult circumstances, and speeding up all sorts of construction projects. Sad to say, they are impossible. [p. 74]
Dennett uses the term extensively in his 1995 book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (there are thirty-six page citations in the index, some of them spanning several pages of text).
    The danger in Darwin's idea that evolution by means of natural selection requires no skyhooks lay in the terrible quandary into which it pushed people who needed to believe in God. The project of believers who thought that truth was relevant to their belief came to be to try to prove either that species didn't really evolve in the first place or, if they did, that natural processes weren't adequate to explain their evolution. That is, God (or some skyhook, anyway) was necessary, after all.

Not all believers think truth relevant. As my friend Xavier commented once, about people who swear by astrology:
I've come to the realization that people's brains are wired in entirely different ways such that truth is as useless a concept to some as it is useful to others.
I suppose, for "full disclosure," that I'd better provide the rest of Xavier's comment, for he was counseling me on the futility of trying to convince certain people by appealing to reason:
As such, skepticism is either a personal endeavor or an endeavor pursued with like-minded individuals.
    To put it bluntly, when it comes to certain subjects, I just bite my tongue and see the conversations as an exploration into the human psyche.
Xavier appears to have developed better tongue-biting skills than I.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thoughts on watching United 93 last night

The young hijackers [portrayed in the 9/11 film of 2006, United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass] are possibly as frightened as the passengers and crew; they continually mutter prayers to their god, just as some of the passengers begin to mutter to theirs as they realize they're about to die. The same god presumably; everyone who's praying seems to be an adherent of one of the Abrahamaic religions—the hijackers Islamic, the passengers Judaic or Christian. Isn't that ironic? What is really at issue here?
    None of the authorities has any effective means of dealing with the situation! The air controllers, suspicious of American Airlines 11 from Boston, at first think it must have been the first plane to fly into the first World Trade Tower (after they dismiss initial reports that it was a "light aircraft"), then learn that it's apparently still aloft, now presumably on its way to Washington. (It actually had crashed, into the North Tower.)
    At least one of the military commanders seems willing to shoot down a subsequent airliner presumed hijacked and on its way to Washington, but no one with the authority to approve it can be reached. Nor, apparently, can the military aircraft be "scrambled" into play. Confusion reigns, a sort of chaos.
    Chaotic on board too, emotions high and magical thinking rampant (understandably). One man is sure that everything will be all right if they just cooperate and "don't do anything." Never mind the dead pilots and the passengers lying bleeding or dead in the aisles, mostly from knife wounds to their necks. Finally, the passengers and flight attendants assemble a plan, attack the two hijackers in the cabin, and batter through the cockpit door to get at the other two, seconds before crashing into the Pennsylvania countryside.
    How might I have behaved if I had been a passenger on United 93?

Magnolia says it's spring!

About time!
    The tree is a Magnolia 'Ricki,' planted in January 2009 as a 5-gallon tree from Forest Farm Nursery in Oregon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bless his heart

"Poor Morris," I could almost hear someone on my commute van say as I walked back to my car and they closed the van door and drove off.
    As I'd left my car to board the van, I thought I'd shoved my reading spectacles into my right inside jacket pocket, and after the van was loaded and was pulling out for our trip to Chapel Hill, I was rustling about to start reading. But I wasn't finding those glasses. I was sure I'd put them in that inside pocket. Not there! Not in my canvas bag! Not on the floor of the van! Not on the seat!
    "Oh, no," I said, "I think I left my glasses back there...."
    "Back where?," the driver said. She was in the left lane on top of the overpass, about to turn onto the freeway.
    "In the parking lot."
    She kindly got out of the turn lane and made the first convenient (and legal) U-turn (a police car was behind us).
    I checked my car, even the driver's side, which I was "sure" wasn't the side where I shoved the glasses into my pocket. No glasses on either side.
    In a fidget, I got back on the van, and we started to drive out again, me once again looking all over for the glasses, even checking my jacket for the sixth or eighth time. Fellow riders were muttering helpfully. "Do you need them at work?"
    "Maybe you need to drive today, Morris," the driver suggested.
    "Yeah, I guess so," I said. "I've got to get to the bottom of this."
    She backed up and let me out again.

At home, I checked the car again and went inside and checked all over there (even though I was "sure" this shouldn't be necessary). Then I went back out to the car again, and this time when I opened the passenger door, I saw the black case, exactly the same color as the seat, except for its shininess in this better light (the sun was farther up by now).
    I went back into the house and switched the glasses to a reddish case before preparing to drive to Chapel Hill.
    About to start the car, I checked my book on tape and saw that I had less than half of Side 4 left. Better go back in for the next tape, I thought, and did. Wasn't it ironic, befuddled me listening to an intellectual book about the production of mind and morality by the blind forces of nature? [The first book currently listed under "Most Recently Read Books."]

On the van ride home yesterday, I had fallen asleep before we even left the hospital parking lot. (Almost everyone else who rides the van works in various departments connected with the hospital or the medical school.) I'd woken up only once before we got to Mebane, when Theresa on the same bench poked me to let me know that I was falling over onto her.
    When I woke up in Mebane, Theresa had moved to the bench in back. I guess I'd kept falling over in my stupor. I don't think I'd ever been so tired on the van before. It felt as though I should go to bed immediately after dinner, and I would have if dinner hadn't revived me sufficiently to watch a movie with my wife (see "Most Recently Watched [or Unwatchably Bad] Movies & TV Series").
    And now this morning, this comedy of errors. I'll look for good things that might be possible because of having driven to work.
    In the meantime, "Poor Morris, bless his heart."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care Reconciliation Bill

"Obama Plans to Sign Health Care Reconciliation Bill on Tuesday," according to Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn in today's New York Times. Why not "read it"? It's only 153 pages, of which over two pages are devoted to the table of contents:

Strike all after the enacting clause and insert the following:

2 (a) SHORT TITLE.—This Act may be cited as the
3 "Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation
4 Act of 2010."
5 (b) TABLE OF CONTENTS.—The table of contents of
6 this Act is as follows:

Sec. 1. Short title; table of contents.


Subtitle A—Coverage

Sec. 1001. Affordability.
Sec. 1002. Individual responsibility.
Sec. 1003. Employer responsibility.
Sec. 1004. Income definitions.
Sec. 1005. Implementation funding.

Subtitle B—Medicare

Sec. 1101. Closing the medicare prescription drug "donut hole."
Sec. 1102. Medicare Advantage payments.
Sec. 1103. Savings from limits on MA plan administrative costs.
Sec. 1104. Disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments.
Sec. 1105. Market basket updates.
Sec. 1106. Physician ownership-referral.
Sec. 1107. Payment for imaging services.

Subtitle C—Medicaid

Sec. 1201. Federal funding for States.
Sec. 1202. Payments to primary care physicians.
Sec. 1203. Disproportionate share hospital payments.
Sec. 1204. Funding for the territories.
Sec. 1205. Delay in Community First Choice option.
Sec. 1206. Drug rebates for new formulations of existing drugs.

Subtitle D—Reducing Fraud, Waste, and Abuse

Sec. 1301. Community mental health centers.
Sec. 1302. Medicare prepayment medical review limitations .
Sec. 1303. CMS­IRS data match to identify fraudulent providers.
Sec. 1304. Funding to fight fraud, waste, and abuse.
Sec. 1305. 90-day period of enhanced oversight for initial claims of DME suppliers.

Subtitle E—Provisions Relating to Revenue

Sec. 1401. High-cost plan excise tax.
Sec. 1402. Medicare tax.
Sec. 1403. Delay of limitation on health flexible spending arrangements under cafeteria plans.
Sec. 1404. Brand name pharmaceuticals.
Sec. 1405. Excise tax on medical device manufacturers.
Sec. 1406. Health insurance providers.
Sec. 1407. Delay of elimination of deduction for expenses allocable to medicare part D subsidy.
Sec. 1408. Elimination of unintended application of cellulosic biofuel producer credit.
Sec. 1409. Codification of economic substance doctrine and penalties.
Sec. 1410. Time for payment of corporate estimated taxes.
Sec. 1411. No impact on Social Security trust funds.

Subtitle F—Other Provisions

Sec. 1501. Community college and career training grant program.


Subtitle A—Education

Sec. 2001. Short title; references.


Sec. 2101. Federal Pell Grants.
Sec. 2102. Student financial assistance.
Sec. 2103. College access challenge grant program.
Sec. 2104. Investment in historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.


Sec. 2201. Termination of Federal Family Education Loan appropriations.
Sec. 2202. Termination of Federal loan insurance program.
Sec. 2203. Termination of applicable interest rates.
Sec. 2204. Termination of Federal payments to reduce student interest costs.
Sec. 2205. Termination of FFEL PLUS Loans.
Sec. 2206. Federal Consolidation Loans.
Sec. 2207. Termination of Unsubsidized Stafford Loans for middle-income borrowers.
Sec. 2208. Termination of special allowances.
Sec. 2209. Origination of Direct Loans at institutions outside the United States.
Sec. 2210. Conforming amendments.
Sec. 2211. Terms and conditions of loans.
Sec. 2212. Contracts; mandatory funds.
Sec. 2213. Agreements with State-owned banks.
Sec. 2214. Income-based repayment.

Subtitle B—Health

Sec. 2301. Insurance reforms.
Sec. 2302. Drugs purchased by covered entities.
Sec. 2303. Community health centers.


Yesterday I published an entry on intellectual property. This morning I read yesterday's newspaper and discovered that Ian McEwan has published a new novel, Solar, a portion of which I had read (and commented on back in December). A couple of sentences from Hephzibah Anderson's review (on Bloomberg News):
The story pivots on a freak accident that catapults a tubby physicist, Michael Beard, to the forefront of the race to find a sustainable energy source. Pursuing this worthy goal in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, the balding British boffin will clock thousands of miles and resort to intellectual property theft and worse. [my emphasis]
Isn't this just a coincidence? Or is it a Jungian synchronicity? A synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner.
    Or some emblem of divinity saying something like "God is watching over you"? In my manic excitement during Youie summer, I took all of the innumerable coincidences I was noticing as just such emblems. (There didn't seem to be anything of any more precise significance that they could possibly mean.) Coincidences have provided many a man and woman an assurance that life is not a matter simply of chance.
How could it be a coincidence [they ask themselves] that I could publish "Intellectual property" the very day that the personally most interesting book review in the local newspaper should use that phrase, and not just casually but by way of characterizing the pivot of the book! This cries out with significance!
Uh, yeah, but what significance? Remember that Carl Jung espoused the procedures of I Ching [The Book of Changes], a "system of divination" in which the adept meditates on potential meanings of chance juxtapositions.

Any juxtaposition can be used creatively to find hidden significance. We can, for example, open a book (any book, a dictionary, say, though a Christian might favor the Bible or a Muslim the Qur'an) and place our finger down at random on a verse. If we then read the verse (or the definition) with the expectation that something of personal import will be suggested, then it is highly probable that something will indeed come to mind.
    Note, though, that this works for almost any occasion. But we don't do it on just any occasion: it takes something like a striking coincidence to push us in that direction.
    Nevertheless, what might I make of this "intellectual property" coincidence? Do I have a valuable intellectual property in Moristotle that I am giving away free on Blogspot? Or should I focus on Michael Beard's theft, mentioned in the book review? Beware, Moristotle, quit including overlong quotations in your blog from the intellectual property of others!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Intellectual property

"Until now," writes Lev Grossman (author of the novels Warp, Codex, and The Magicians, a senior writer and book critic for Time Magazine),
the value of a piece of intellectual property has been defined by how few people possess it. In the future the value will be defined by how many people possess it.
    While it's difficult to know just what Mr. Grossman meant by this, or what he might say if asked what his point was, I think that the reversal from the few to the many depends on a bit of sleight of hand, for he seems to switch from one meaning of "value" to another.
    Intellectual property is a legal concept. The legally protected owners of certain artistic or commercial creations of the mind enjoy the benefits of the exclusive use of those creations (or of fees for licensing their use to others). The value of the few, in this context, refers to the size of the benefit (especially monetary) enjoyed by the legally protected owners.
    The value of the many, on the other hand, seems to refer to the practical benefit of an intellectual property to all of those who are able to apply it. The more who are enjoying such practical benefit, the greater the value of the property in that sense.
    But the two values go hand in hand. The legally protected owners can't enjoy much monetary benefit from their properties if there aren't many people who can benefit from the properties practically. That has been true in the past, and it will continue to be true in the future.
    In this case at least, Mr. Grossman's skill at prognostication seems to have been eclipsed by his skill at obfuscation. I can't speak for any of his other writings, but he may be a better novelist than a journalist.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Old and new angsts

Having just taken off on a Delta jet yesterday afternoon to return home with my wife from a business meeting in Atlanta, I was tired and my feet were hot. I wanted to take off my shoes, but something about fumbling with my shoes was bothering me. And I was still thinking about my conversation back at the airport with the young man who'd pushed my wife in a wheelchair all of the way from the curb to our departure gate almost at the very end of Concourse B. If you're not familiar with the Atlanta airport, that's a very long way to push someone in a wheelchair.
    I'd tipped the young man once at security, thinking he'd probably leave us there, then tipped him 250% more on the elevator up from the tram to Concourse B. When he finally deposited us at our gate, I joked that I was glad I'd already taken care of his tip, but it left me vulnerable to the ill opinion of people watching now and not seeing me give him anything. "Let's pretend that I'm handing you your tip, okay?" I said. He laughed.
    That was my old angst, as old as tipping and being sensitive to adverse cultural opinion if you don't.
    My new angst had to do with the prospect of reaching down to remove my shoes. Was someone across the aisle going to jump on me and yell that there was a terrorist on board trying to light the fuse to his shoe bomb? Very slowly and deliberately, I untied and removed first one then the other of my shoes. No one jumped me, no one yelled. So far as I could tell, no one even noticed.
    Of course, I'm not Arab and don't look Arab. Maybe that was it. Or was it simply that I'm old and gray, even less like the stereotype of someone who would immolate himself in order to kill a bunch of infidels? Or possibly even more likely, was everyone else tired too and maybe thinking they'd like to take off their own shoes?
    Heck, probably no one back at the gate noticed me seeming to hand a tip to the young man who had pushed my wife's wheelchair.
    Angsts old and angsts new may both be mostly our own private affair.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'm lucky, but I could be toast....

This morning, one of those rare occasions when I had toast for breakfast, I fumbled a piece and it landed butter-side-down on the floor. Then, a few minutes later, a section of my kiwi fruit jumped off the cutting board. One of those days?, I vaguely wondered.
    Of course, the day is still young and it might yet be "one of those days" (I could even die today or suffer a horrible accident), but I still feel lucky that things will generally go my way. As Bill said in his comment on yesterday's post, my luck [usually] far exceeds my embarrassment.

Karen Pryor's 2009 book, Reaching the Animal Mind, has to be one of the most eye-opening, inspirational books I've ever read. The opening of Chapter 12, "Intention":
Gerry Martone was working for the U.S. Peace Corps when he ran into a particularly dangerous situation. Gerry was assigned to a country in Africa where the political situation was becoming highly unsettled. During a sudden and bloody uprising he and some other aid workers, inadvisedly walking through the capital city, are captured by a band of militants and hauled away in a truck.
    This is not a good thing. No one is really in charge of these rebel soldiers, and there are no rules. Aid workers and other innocent bystanders in similar situations in other countries have been held for ransom, killed out of hand, or beaten and tortured and then killed for no known reason. The natural reaction of the hostages is anger and panic. Gerry's coworkers start crying, arguing that they are harmless noncombatants, and pleading for release. That natural response emphasizes their victim status. It also emphasizes the captor status of the bunch of guys in the front of the truck, who are already exhilarated, drunk, stoned, and a bit out of control.
    Gerry takes a different tack. He thanks his captors whenever they do something that is, even in the smallest way, a comfort to the hostages. He thanks them for driving smoothly through a sharp turn. He thanks them when they pass the water jug to the back. He says a thank-you for their letting the captives sit down rather than keeping them standing. As they drive through ferocious scenes of looting, fires, and wreckage, he praises and thanks the militants for having picked them up in the first place, thus protecting both the aid workers and themselves from these dangerous conditions.
    What happens? Instead of taking their captives away for malicious purposes, the renegade soldiers deliver them to the safe house of another aid worker on the outskirts of town. Then the soldiers post a guard around the house all night to keep the house safe from other armed militants. A change in the captives' own behavior led to a corresponding change in the other group's behavior, from that of predators to that of protectors.
    Crying and pleading are emotional expressions of submissiveness. Bullying and aggression are emotional expressions of dominance. We share these feelings and these kinds of social displays not just with the primates but with lots of mammals and some birds. No wonder it feels natural; it is. No wonder stopping and thinking and then deliberately doing something else feels contrived, artificial, even morally wrong.
    But using reinforcement isn't really about changing the behavior of others; it's about changing what you do yourself. And while on the surface that may seem artificial, changing your own behavior by intention is a fundamental act of survival in the natural world. [pp. 213-214]

Monday, March 15, 2010

Too embarrassing

When my wife noticed yesterday that I had emptied my wallet of its contents to let everything dry out, I told her it would be too embarrassing to tell her why.
    "You dropped it in the toilet!?"
    I replied with cunning, "I told you it would be too embarrassing to tell you."

I was fortunate that she thought I'd confirmed her toilet hypothesis, for what actually happened would have been far more embarrassing to talk about. I had left my wallet on the roof of my car Saturday afternoon and it had lain in 0.42 inches of rainfall that afternoon and night.
    I know precisely how much rain it had withstood, for I finally figured out that I must have left the wallet on top of my car at Lowe's Home Improvement Center before going home and installing our new rain gauge....
    Possibly even more embarrassing is that this was far from the first time I'd left something on top of my car, although it was the first time I'd left a wallet containing cash and IDs and credit cards....

I am so lucky that I have never removed the front-rack wind baffle that my daughter had on her Honda Accord before it passed to me about fifteen years ago. That wind baffle is great for keeping things from blowing off the top!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Not ashamed, but would be....

A Darwinian anecdote:
...[S]ome of the foes of Darwin's dangerous idea have planted themselves firmly on the isthmus [that connects our species with all the others], like Horatio at the bridge, intent on preventing the idea from crossing over. The famous first confrontation was the notorious debate in Oxford's Museum of Natural History in 1860, only a few months after the initial publication of Origin, between "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog." This is a tale told so often in so many variations that we might count it a phylum of memes, not just a species [refers to the memetic theory of culture first proposed by Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene]. Here it was that the good bishop made his famous rhetorical mistake, asking Huxley whether it was on his grandfather's side or his grandmother's side that he was descended from an ape. Tempers were running high in that meeting room; a woman had fainted, and several of Darwin's supporters were almost beside themselves with fury at the contemptuous misrepresentation of their hero's theory that was being given, so it is understandable that eyewitnesses' stories diverge at this point. In the best version—which in all likelihood has undergone some significant design improvement over the retellings—Huxley replied that he "was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth"....[pp. 335-336, Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, 1995]

Friday, March 12, 2010


Karen Pryor's wonderful book previously cited, Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about the Animal Mind, asks in Chapter 9, "Why is the click so much fun?" (She's referring to the fun manifested by animals during clicker training.)
    Her search for answers led her to several neuroscientists, finally including Jaak Panksepp, who "is interested in the positive emotions, including having fun. He is somewhat notorious for his paper on laughing rats." Watch Panksepp tickle a rat in the "Laughing Rats" video in Chapter 10 at
    Pryor writes:
One of Panksepp's primary interests is the hypothalamus, another part of the primitive brain [besides the amygdala, involved in fear responses] that is associated with basic emotions....
    Given stimulation in the same area of the hypothalamus, human medical subjects report a sense of excitement, a sort of restless eagerness, quite enjoyable really, although agitating. It seems as if something really marvelous is about to happen, if you can just figure out what it is. Panksepp identifies this phenomenon as being part of a system he calls the SEEKING circuit (this formal scientific term is spelled with capital letters)....
    There's a good evolutionary reason for searching for necessary resources, and the occasional success reinforces the process; however, there's more to it than that end goal. The urge to seek and explore needs to function not just when you are in need of food or warmth or shelter, but when you're feeling quite relaxed and happy already. That's when you have the energy and the desire to go exploring, so exploring needs to be reinforcing in itself, or we wouldn't get up and do it for "no good reason." [pp. 184-86]
Having borrowed a copy of Panksepp's 1998 textbook, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, from a UNC library, I began reading it yesterday as I waited to be seen by my neuro-ophthalmologist. Chapter 8 is about "SEEKING systems and anticipatory states of the nervous system." It begins with a striking quotation (which I only vaguely remembered) from Oliver Sacks's 1973 book, Awakenings:
"I feel saved," [Leonard L.] would say, "resurrected, reborn. I feel a sense of health amounting to Grace....I feel like a man in love. I have broken through the barriers which cut me off from love." The predominant feelings at this time were feelings of freedom, openness, and exchange with the world; of a lyrical appreciation of a real world, undistorted by fantasy, and suddenly revealed; of delight and satiety with self and the world.
    When I lay in bed this morning, creaky and reluctant to get up, I reminded myself of what I'd read in Panksepp. After only half a minute of only half-attentive "meditation" on the subject of the reading (was I stroking my own hypothalamus?), I induced in myself sufficient eagerness to arise and meet the world.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why is there something rather than nothing?

The question, Why is there something rather than nothing?, has long haunted me, as it has haunted many if not most people. Could the answer be quite simply that the eternal truths of logic, whose nonexistence is impossible, require "something" to exist for them to be about, and "something's" existence as inexorably requires that it inter-react and reform itself, even becoming, over the course of millions and billions of years, creatures capable of being haunted by such questions?
    I'm reminded of my favorite short poem, by Howard Nemerov:
The world's just mad enough to have been made
By the being whose beings into being prayed.
Whether it's relevant or not, it nevertheless evokes a similar feeling in me. Awe at the weirdness of things. The mystery of being.
    Could the story by which to exult, to dance, be written as paeans to the mystery, like some weird novel by Flann O'Brien—say, The Third Policeman, which was written between 1939 and 1940 and published posthumously. In the book's frontispiece, O'Brien "quotes" his fictional philosopher De Selby:
Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.
As a teenage philosopher, I found The Gospel of John more appealing than the other Gospels. The very first verse of John suggests that existence derived from those eternal logical truths: "In the beginning was the Word...." As Wikipedia says, "The Gospel of John identifies the Logos, through which all things are made, as divine (theos), and further identifies Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos." While most of the Jesus myth simply borrows from the various pagan and other religious mythologies of the period [something I didn't realize as a teenager], logos is borrowed from Greek philosophy. Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC) used the term for the principle of order and knowledge in the universe.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's spirituality? [What, and whose, is it?]

Despite my excitement eight days ago upon "[realizing] that spirituality might be all (or at any rate mainly) about keeping oneself in good spirits," I soon saw that that was crap. There are lots of ways we humans try to keep ourselves in good spirits, and most of them aren't spiritual. For example, there's drinking, having sex, partying, watching feel-good movies....Often our motive seems to be to keep from thinking about weightier matters. And some of those weightier matters are precisely the ones we need to deal with in order to tend to our spirituality.
    An easy and revealing research project is to google on "what is spirituality" and read a few answers1 to be found on the Internet. They vary all over the lot. Some mention transcendence and divinity; others do not. Most seem to address the question, Who am I? or Why am I here? We can think of these as the Gauguin questions; his perhaps most famous painting was titled "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

    Wikipedia conveniently lays out spirituality's traditional dimensions:
Spirituality can refer to an ultimate reality or transcendent dimension of the world; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being, or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”
    ...Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities and/or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.
The Wikipedia article also lists some spiritual practices:
Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life; such practices often lead to an experience of connectedness with a larger reality>: a more comprehensive self; other individuals or the human community; nature or the cosmos; and/or the divine realm.
A cogent statement of spirituality has to address the transcendence/divinity question, if only to deny it as based on a delusion (or to restate transcendence in terms of the evolved human desire for more). Three months ago, I defined "God" as the main true thing. To me then and now, the main true thing is that our marvelous consciousness is a product of billions of years of the blind play of material forces that on Earth developed into Mother Nature. For me, that is, the traditional "God" doesn't exist.
    My answers to the Gauguin questions would have to reflect that life revolves around God-emptiness and address how in that situation we can keep our spirits up and remain reverent for life, compassionate toward other humans and critters generally, morally good, and so on. My "good spirits" post of last week was hardly more than an affirmation that I am not cast down at being the product of blind natural forces, but am yet moral, compassionate, and grateful, though still seeking a story by which to exult in this reality as others have exulted in such dreams as that they were specially chosen creatures in some divine drama.
    Like profoundly devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims, I tend to think sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity, or from the perspective of the eternal. In fact, that perspective seems to be implicit in spirituality. What are we, in the most comprehensive sense?

March 11. Apropos the new story I am seeking by which to exult in the reality revealed to us by Charles Darwin, I was reminded today (by Daniel Dennett in his book that I'm reading) of something the physicist Richard Feynman wrote (and published in his 1988 memoir, What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?):
Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
    Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the scientific article may say, "The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks." Now, what does that mean?
    It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat—and also in mine, and yours—is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.
    So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long ago been replaced.
    To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday. [p. 244, quoted by Dennett on p. 360 of Darwin's Dangerous Idea]
    A story by which to exult is precisely a dance!
  1. For example:
    What is spirituality?
    What is spirituality (II)
    Five (no so) easy steps to happiness
    Spiritual awareness

Friday, March 5, 2010

Siegfried's dam

When Siegfried joined us a year ago, we were given a small digital photograph of each of his parents. I've "filtered" his colorful mother Blair's photo (cropped) with a few off-the-shelf Photoshop treatments:

Blair in the original photograph:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happiness is...

Adobe Photoshop. During a whale-watching expedition off Oxnard, California in January last year, I took the photograph1 here "artistically treated" in Photoshop.

  1. It's not literally the photograph I took, but a JPG compression of a version of the original (taken in "raw" format on my DSLR camera) that photo artist extraordinaire Ken Marks treated manually in Photoshop. That is, Ken didn't take artistic treatments off the shelf as I have done here, but made a number of individual changes to achieve an effect, one of which was to remove some sun glare from the lower left of the original.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Practically spiritual

It occurred to me today that I may have been having too grandiose an idea of what "spirituality" was supposed to be. Anthony de Mello's "All is well" made me realize that spirituality might be all (or at any rate mainly) about keeping oneself in good spirits. After all, can you imagine being much concerned with "spirituality" if being concerned put you in a funk?
    I immediately associated "All is well" (even though uttered in a Christian context) with what I'd written yesterday about Mother Nature's having worked out the matrix of our fundamental situation: We do as Mother Nature created us to do. And, for me, all's well with that. My encounter with "spiritual guide" de Mello seems simply to have sparked the realization, which made me feel good and produced in me a sense of spirituality as a practical, here-and-now endeavor.
    I'm spiritual, practically.

Monday, March 1, 2010

To dance

A philosophical friend of many years the other day quoted Nietzsche approvingly ("isn't this great!") as having written that
True freedom is being able to dance in your chains.
I suppose that the statement might remind us that, whatever our circumstances, we should try to make the best of them. Mother Nature has worked out the matrix of our fundamental situation, including the consciousness by which we have intentionality and choice. That is, we have some free choice within the bounds (bonds) of our various genetic hard wirings. We are "enslaved" by the same process that evolved our "freedom." But Nietzsche's motto adds nothing to that; we do as Mother Nature created us to do. Or, in the words of spiritual guide Anthony de Mello (1931-1987), "All is well."

However, we are also enslaved by our particular cultural situations, the indoctrinations of our parents and local surrogates, the ethos of our cohorts, our cliques of friends and associates. To the extent that we have bought into sentimental (and largely false) beliefs, the better alternative to "dancing" within them is to throw them off and, as Anthony de Mello also said, "Wake up to life!"
    True freedom from a false belief system comes from shattering it for one that accords with reality. Only then can we stand tall and dance truly, with spirit. To continue in the bonds of religion or cultural or political servitude is to march in lock-step. It is not to dance.