Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Marx again (sigh)

Sometimes I have to check up on people who think a lot. These are people who don't do anything else but think (and tell everybody what they think). So, last night I thumbed through a people-who-think-a-lot magazine. This one was on the left, and was filled with opinions of people who are a) of the opinion that the US is wrong no matter what it does, and b) they could run things a lot better than anyone else. This is in strong opposition to the magazines on the right, which, in contrast, are filled with opinions by people who are a) of the opinion that the US is wrong no matter what it does and b) they could run things a lot better than anyone else.
Anyway, this one author was opining that Marx was right after all, given the economic mess we've gotten into. This pronouncement was based on the fact that Marx had said a number of things and given some analyses that have, if you squint a little, validity to the present day circumstances.
In fact, a good deal of what Marx said does make sense, and if you juggle terms a little, the Marx stance looks a lot like some of the advanced thinking of today.
But that doesn't make Marx right, or even relevant. He's still the same old grumpy fuzz face whose philosophy, put into action, resulted (and results inevitably) in death, misery, famine, economic chaos, and bondage for millions of people.
Give us a break, armchair theorists. You can revere Marx all you want, but do I have to read your cheesy thoughts? Well, I guess I do. That's why we have the constitution.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Alternatives to Taser

I noted in my last blog how some people are incensed at the police for using tasers on people. So, I've decided to come up with some alternatives. The criterion I'm working under is what the taser critics would want: The device has to immobilize a subject without doing any harm at all, without causing any discomfort, and with a due respect for environment and global warming in particular.
So here goes. First, police could be equipped with giant cans of super string. Then, when a person confronts them with a gun, they could run around the person, all the time squirting them with super string until they were wrapped up in a warm cocoon. No, wait. Super string could get in their eyes and possibly blind them, or get in their noses and possibly interfere with their breathing somewhat, or even cause them to topple over and skin a knee. Not to mention the possibility of staining clothes. So, that's out.
How about a giant, soft net -- not one of those hairy, scratchy, hemp ones, but a nice woven nylon with a flexible core. That might work. No, on second thought, it might cause the person to fall over, and they might be allergic to nylon.
So, why not just set phasers on "stun." No, because there may be some persons who will react poorly to being stunned. After all, a phaser is just a 23rd century taser (they even sound alike).
Fact is, there is no 100% sure-fire, works-every-time, never-a-hitch way of subduing someone who's gone berserk, or, as we like to say, postal.
So, instead of carping, I'd suggest we thank the police for putting themselves in harm's way for us, and suggest, oh so gently, that they are thoroughly trained in using the devices. And, oh, we can remind the manufacturers that they need to tell us where and where not to nail people.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tasering wild people

My local paper had a letter to the editor today taking the police to task for tasering an individual who subsequently died. It's a complicated story which the letter-writer simplified into something like oatmeal without raisins. A taser is one of those hand-held jobs that shoots barbs into you and then jolts you with about 750,000 volts (or something in there) so that you don't want to fight any more.
The letter writer was, fairly predictably, upset that the brutal cops had used the taser on a guy who had committed no crime except to get naked and go crazy. Some points:
1) The taser was developed as a humane way to control out-of-control people. It was seen as a much better alternative to beating the skull in with a truncheon or shooting holes in people. It serves another purpose; it keeps the cops from being kicked, punched, scratched, bitten, spit upon (or worse), bled on, or stabbed as they arrest someone totally out of control.
2) The taser has been remarkably effective in doing what it was designed to do. It has saved countless lives (both perps and cops) in tense standoffs.
3) The notion of "humane" is a moving target. That is, the definition changes, as it has for instance, with "cruel and unusual punishment." Apparently, "humane" now means, "With no adverse affects at all on the recipient," instead of "non-lethal and with no lasting harm."
So, when the letter writer blithely sanctions the police, said writer (who has almost certainly never been in a situation where a taser is necessary), is ignoring the most important aspect of the tasering -- the context in which it takes place. The writer is saying, "You must preserve law and order, and you gotta take the bad guys in, but if anybody is going to get hurt, it should be you."
If I ever go amok, I hope that the police have the kindness to taser me instead of simply shooting me out of hand.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Love that top down control

Now I'm really steamed. I read a report in the local paper that some university in Colorado instituted a "no concealed weapons on campus" policy. Now, I'm not a gun nut; don't own a single assault weapon, but the whole tenor of the thing bothers me, for a couple of reasons.
First, what is it about liberals that they don't want people to be able to defend themselves? The reasons they give are pathetic. One is, "The police are there to protect you." That's false on two counts (Oh, oh, I'm getting buried in lists here). The first reason it's false is that, legally, the police are not, in fact, there to protect you. Oh, sure, they will if it happens to be convenient, but if they were really legally required to protect us, we could sue if they don't. If you don't believe me, just ask a jurist who will be honest with you. The second reason it's false is because they just aren't there to protect you most of the time. They're out giving tickets or eating doughnuts. You're on your own.
The second reason liberals give for taking away our means of protecting us is the old, "You can't take the law into your own hands," argument. Actually, we can. The law provides that we can use even deadly force to protect ourselves and those close to us.
Second reason I'm steamed: The university is both targeting the wrong folk and exposing them to danger. A "no gun" zone is, as I've mentioned before, a huge flashing sign to nutcases that says, "C'mon in with your AK47. There's no opposition. Shoot at will for 15 or 20 minutes until the fuzz get organized." (A cop told me that one) And, the argument that regular people with guns will shoot up the place is ludicrous. In my town, every tenth person carries a concealed weapon, and no one knows who is packing and who is not. Those people who have gone to the trouble of learning the laws of weapons and have qualified at the shooting range and the least likely to fire a shot in anger.
But reality has never made much of an impact on political stances.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rethinking Darwin

This is the 200th anniversary year of Charles Darwin's birth (Feb 12, 1809). It's also the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, my candidate for the most important science treatise ever written, and certainly one of the most readable.
I read recently an interview in which the interviewee suggested that we should rethink Darwin. The reason, he opined, is that the ideas Darwin put forth have been misused. He referred to the "Social Darwinism" of early 20th Century thought, and the "survival of the fittest" mentality of some nutcase people.
The idea that we should "rethink" Darwin is pure nitwittedness at its simple-minded best. For one thing, how do you rethink what Darwin did? All he did (!) was to give a cogent explanation for the way species are born and change. How do you rethink that? It's like saying, "We have to rethink gravity, because all those people out there are falling down." This sort of thinking I've noted before. It's a sort of fuzzy, treacly belief that if something is unpleasant or harsh it must be wrong, and if something ought to be so, then it is so.
At times I get so exasperated that I wonder which is worse -- crazy kids with AK47's or people who would have us turn our backs on reality.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whom should I believe?

There is so much information and opinion out there today, that it's very difficult to know who is on the right track and who is blowing smoke. Even crackpots seem to be able to produce data to support their views ("tests show," "studies indicate," "evidence suggests").
In Pilgrim's Progress, the author creates a Slough of Despond, with the pilgrim has to go through. Well, the Slough of Despond is nothing at all when compared to the Morass of Misinformation.
So, how do we get through? I do it by borrowing a 19th Century technique: Using touchstones. Touchstones are proven principles, guides to help us understand the ambiguous. In my case, the touchstones are people. I compare ideas with those of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain. In natural science, biology, anthropology, and psychology, it's Darwin. The central question I ask of anything is, "How can this be explained in light of evolutionary theory?" In the harder sciences, I ask, "What would Al think." For everything else, there's Mark Twain. After all, wasn't it Twain who said, "Suppose you were a member of Congress, and suppose you were an idiot; but I repeat myself."

Friday, November 20, 2009


I'm reading a history of the Protestant reformation written by a Catholic priest, so I'm not too sure how even-handed it will be. However, the author does something I appreciate: He defines what the Christian religion was before the reformation. He begins by recounting the story of the Garden of Eden. God sets Adam and Eve in the garden, and they immediately break the rules.
Now, in story-telling, if there's a taboo, it must be broken, or there's no story. So, from a story-telling viewpoint, the incident with the snake and the apple has to happen.
But in a larger context, it doesn't really make sense. I mean, here's God, the creator of the universe, the most intelligent being in that universe, the one who knows all, sees all, and can foretell all, and the first thing he does is to create an intolerable situation. If he's all that smart, he should be able to do better than that. Heck, a 10th grade geography class could create a better scenario.
Of course, in Christian theology, the Adam and Eve story is necessary. No major sin, no fall, no need for a redemption. No redeemer.
This is a Christian invention, by the way. Neither Christianity's papa, Judaism, nor its uncle, Islam, needs a redeemer in the sense that the Christian tradition has it.
And that's always bothered me. The thought that I need an intercessor because of Adam's stupidity has always seemed to me an unnecessary complication. I can sin well enough on my own, thank you.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Literary sins

I just finished a book that's a historical mystery, a genre that's becoming increasingly popular, with historical figures either participating in solving crimes or being part of the cast. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are two who have been so featured.
The book I just finished was about Charles Darwin, one of my heroes. In the book, an intelligent, brave, strong, handsome man and his intelligent, brave, strong, beautiful partner unearth a succession of manuscripts that prove that Charles Darwin stole the theory of natural selection (The keystone of his whole theory) from another man and may have actually killed the other guy, the HMS Beagle's naturalist, Robert McCormick.
The novel infuriated me. I almost couldn't finish it, for two reasons. The first is that the novel is dishonest in its craftsmanship. What the author proposes is wildly improbable, so he constructs a giant, intricate god in the machine to make it all happen. The protagonists discover not one, but four manuscripts which do not so much fill in gaps as create the story of Darwin the plagiarist. Without those "discoveries" there would be no story. It's not as if the author were tinkering with history -- he's inventing it. It is part of the writer's craft to make what happens seem natural. The possibility that there would exist four manuscripts, each linked to the other, and each meshing with the others into a seamless narrative, well -- that's a little too much.
Also, so much of the novel revolves around the Beagle's surgeon, Robert McCormick, who, according to the published record, left the Beagle in 1832. In the novel, he came back on board, and died in a volcano around 1834. In reality, McCormick outlived Darwin, traveling and writing copiously until he was retired in 1865, and dying in 1890. So, the novel contradicts the available records, which is, at least, clumsy.
The second reason the novel infuriated me is that the author has basically slandered the name of one of history's greatest scientists. If there were suspicions abroad, I might (just might) understand the motives, but there's nothing around to suggest that the author's thesis is even remotely near correct. It's made up of whole cloth for one reason, to sell books.

Monday, November 2, 2009


The thing that fascinates me about beliefs like reincarnation is to speculate on how they happen. I mean, you die as a human and you're reborn as a cucumber. In between, what happens? Let's say that in your version of reincarnation, there are strict rules. You are always reborn as a human. Whether you are reborn as a king or a slave depends on how you lived this life. So, I'm say, rich merchant good in this life, and I die. What happens? Do I go to a holding pen and wait until a proper kid is ready to be born? And how do I get matched up? Is there an accountant? A gatekeeper? Some one should be there to tell my soul, 'Number twenty, it's your turn." See what I mean?
But the common response seems to be, "It just happens," or "It's all in the mind of God." But things don't just happen, and even if it's in the mind of god, there are procedures, events in time, that have to occur. I mean, with six billion people in the world, dying and being born, it's a jungle out there. Someone is awfully busy. And if you factor in the possibility that I could be reborn as an insect, they problems increase exponentially.
So, it seems to me that people who believe in reincarnation have to accept a very big deus in a very complicated machine.


I'm not against miracles, mind you. I just want to know how they happened. Even a miracle needs to go from state A, pre-miracle, to state B, post-miracle. To say, "That's what makes it a miracle" is to fudge the answer.
Consider Lazarus. He was pretty far gone by the time Jesus got there. I think the Bible says, "he stinketh." So, between the time of "Lazarus, come forth," and Lazarus walking out saying, "Can someone help me with these wrappings?" something happened.
See, the little devils that come to life when we die were busily working inside Lazarus, having a wonderful time, but Lazarus' body was already degenerating, bloating, liquefying and all that other disgusting stuff.
So, one of two things could have happened. First, Lazarus could have simply been re-animated. Made alive. I don't have too much trouble with that, because we can nearly do that in the lab now. On the other hand, Lazarus wouldn't have been all that attractive. We have a name for people like this -- Zombie.
Second, Lazarus' body could have been reconstituted. Not just firmed up, you understand, but rebuilt completely, on a cellular level. Including the brain, which, in case you forgot has 100 billion neurons and countless memory traces.
Such a process would take a tremendous amount of energy, and would probably generate a lot of heat.
"Yes, but," you say, "That's what makes it a miracle." And that's what bothers me. I'm sure that there are lots of fidgety laws any god worthy of the name can get around, but it seems to me unlikely that even a god can alter the fundamental building blocks of the universe.
At this point, people will either say, "God can do anything he wants to," or start to spout some post-modern stuff about sub-atomic physics and Schroeder's cat. In either case, they've lost me, since I don't buy either point.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fuzzy Thinking again

A few days ago I blogged about fuzzy thinking in the debates over global warming. As if on cue, there was an editorial in my local paper on the subject of global warming, and voila! fuzzy thinking. I swear that this guy was not my straight man, and that I didn't pay him to set me up for this blog.
The writer was taking a religious leader to task for denying global warming. However -- Here's what happened. The religious leader (henceforth RL) had in a speech declared that he did not believe that COtwo emissions influenced climate change. Then the writer (henceforth W) said something like, "That means RL doesn't believe in global warming."
Hold on there, W. RL, who, by the way, is a brilliant jurist and past Dean of the Law School of the University of Chicago, had said nothing of the sort. He said that he didn't believe that COtwo was responsible for climate change. Now, that statement may or may not be true. But to say that one believes that COtwo is not the culprit is not to say that one doesn't believe in climate change. And RL is certainly smart enough and well-read enough to know that climate does change.
Having set up his straw man, W goes on to knock it down. I note that he doesn't really add any data to the argument, just flails away at RL.
I have two options about this situation. I can believe that W truly can't discern the lapse in his logic, in which case he is stupid and shouldn't write editorials, or I can believe that he can discern the lapse and thinks that his readers can't in which case he is a charlatan and shouldn't write editorials.
Am I really cynical when I suggest that it might be the latter case, and that W's assumption about his readership is probably accurate?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fuzzy thinking

One thing I am sure of in this life, and that's the fact that public debate is marked by fuzzy thinking. Take (oh no) climate change, for instance.
Is the climate changing? It would be strange if the climate were not changing. After all, the history of the world is the history of climate change. If an ice age is not climate change, then I don't know what is. Yet, much of the discussion assumes that the climate, if it had any sense at all, would stay the same all the time. After all, global warming interferes with so many social activities. The reality of it is that climate will change, no matter what humans do.
So, the next question is: How much responsibility do humans have in the changing climate? The answer is, some. But then, beavers influence climate, bees influence climate, trees influence climate, a butterfly influences climate.
How about pollution? Ah, here we come into the area where fuzzy thinking kind of dominates. The air is actually cleaner today than it was 500 years ago when a cold snap in England called the "little ice age" forced people to burn more wood, generating more pollution, generating more heat, and possibly averting a real ice age.
Notice how nobody talks about the hole in the ozone layer anymore? Reason is, it doesn't seem to be doing much. The hole had its 15 minutes until hard data demonstrated that it wasn't doing the doomsday thing after all. So we passed on to something else to panic about.
So, why are so many scientists jumping on the global warming bandwagon? The cynical answer is that science today isn't about science. It's about grants, tenure, and publications. Proving that there is no appreciable human influence in global warming won't get you an NSF grant of a zillion dollars to study the effects of warming on plant lice.
What troubles me most is that the cynical view is probably the correct one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crime wave

Each Monday my university's paper publishes the weekly crime report, under the headline Police Blotter. Here are synopeses of two of the entries:
- Police responded to a call from some people in an apartment complex who were worried about their next door neighbor, an elderly person. They heard "weird noises" and "a lot of coughing" coming from next door. Turns out the "elderly person" was just singing.
- Police responded to a complaint from a person who reported that his car had been covered in peanut butter. The report did not mention whether it was smooth or chunky.
These two reports were typical. Which brings me to my general premise -- You can live in a place that's safe, or you can live in a place that's exciting. You can't have both. Life in Cache Valley, Utah is kinda dull. On the other hand, if I forget to lock my door when I leave, I don't feel like I have to rush back and lock it.
I've lived in one exciting place: West Los Angeles, and I've visited a great many more. I suppose when one is young and immortal, exciting is better. As one ages and realizes more and more that the end result of life is death, one wants to put that off as long as possible. So, safe becomes more important than exciting.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday musings

On my way to a spiritual experience this morning, I was going south on a small country road. I passed a church with a parking lot full of sincere cars and a chapel full of sincere people. Coming north was a gaggle of motorcyclists. They passed me as I passed the church. One of the bikers pointed at the church and made a circling motion near his head. His fellows raised their fists to show they got it. The biker was saying of the people in the church, "Boy those guys are dumb." Unbeknownst to them, there was someone inside the church looking out at them and thinking piously to himself, "Boy those guys are dumb."
We all need someone to look down on, don't we?
So there I am driving down the road looking at the bikers and the people in the church, thinking about their attitudes toward each other, and I think, "Boy those guys are dumb."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What good is religion

Richard Dawkins, who is pretty strongly anti-religion, says that religions get a free ride. They don't have to prove anything, or indeed, even do anything. They simply profess to have wonderful truths.
So, we might ask ourselves: What can we expect a religion to give us that we honor it, give it money, and spend sabbaths dressed uncomfortably and sitting on hard benches?
After all, the teachings of religions tend to be things that, once someone has thought of them, simply make sense. Take the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to discover that rule or to see that it's a very good way to conduct your life. Which is good, because there were no rocket scientists when the rule was formulated, there being no rockets.
Seriously, what should a religion offer that we should pay attention to it. Clearly, we don't need a religion to live a good life. All the atheists I know are honorable, decent, more than decent, people.
I've thought of three things that a religion needs. There may be more, but these will do. If any religion can offer proof for the following three, I'll sign up any day.
One: The religion has got to offer me information that humankind simply can't get on its own hook. That is, there has to be something that the religion can tell me that science can't. And, it can't be something vague, like, "There is balm in Gilead," or "The streets of heaven are paved with gold." It has to be something verifiable (Aye, there's the rub).
Second: The religion has got to predict things that actually come true. It has to be specific and (again) verifiable. I've had it to here with all the "wars and rumors of wars" that people are throwing up to me. I say, be specific. Put up or shut up.
Third: The religion has to have a real, unearthly power. For instance, in the case of a Christian religion, it would have to have the power to keep me out of Hell. And, as in the other two cases, this would have to be a verifiable power.
Notice, though, that while religions are based on claims of having one or all of the above characteristics, the onliest thing is, you have to accept it on -- you guessed it -- faith.
This irritates the Hell of Dawkins, and I'm not too pleased by it myself. But religion has a cover for that too -- "It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign." So, if I want some sort of logical confirmation, I'm wicked and an adulterer. Where's the fun in that?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stupidity is forever

The other day, I read a column in my local newspaper by Jack Krugman that I agreed with. At the moment that I realized I agreed with him, I had that "the end of the world is at hand" feeling. I mean, one of the constants of life is that Krugman is never going to say anything that I agree with.
On the other hand, think about it. Krugman is smart. He is wearing a set of blinders (just as I'm wearing a set, but mine point right, his sharply left). When he's dealing with data, he's pretty reliable. I hate to admit that.
Shortly after that, I saw a short video of a comedian who noted that we can change almost any aspect of our persons -- eyes, hair, skin tone -- except one. His comment was, "Stupid is forever." I think Krugman is remarkably askew, but I don't think he is dumb. And blinders can be adjusted.
So, how do we adjust them? Or, better yet, what are their components?
I'd like to think that ignorance is one, yet Krugman isn't ignorant either. Lack of education? Nope.
Could it be that my blinders need adjusting? No, I can't buy that either.
Could it be that people of intelligence and education simply can simply see the world in different ways? (Note the assumption that I'm intelligent and educated). More and more I'm coming to the conclusion that this is the case. People aren't stupid because they think differently from me.
Just crazy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Really Bad science

I read a report on my digital news today about what's going to happen in 2012. Seems a Mayan Calendar somewhere south of here has predicted (Maybe. The evidence is ambiguous) that the world is going to end in 2012.
I have no intention of arguing with the notion that there is a prediction. Let's, for purposes of discussion, agree that there is a Mayan codex that states, "The world will end in 2012." Somehow that doesn't give me the shivers. That's because we always have the disparity between what a document says and the reality of the situation. S.I. Hayakawa was fond of saying, "The map is not the territory." A Mayan codex can say anything it wants to. Whether it's true or not is another thing entirely.
I've been thinking of this because I am currently listening to a book on CD that is partially set in an ancient Tibetan Monastery, where the monks meditate and have discovered the secrets of the universe.
May I laugh politely up my sleeve? The secret to the universe is that there is no secret to the universe. At least, none that you can find by thinking about it, Plato to the contrary. Here's what I think happens in cases like this: Everybody thinks that there is a secret to the universe, which, if found, gives unimaginable power. They don't have it, but are convinced that somebody does, maybe the monk in the next cell who seems to know a secret.
I can't claim to have thought this up -- it's the subject of Umberto Eco's wonderful book Foucault's Pendulum, which is, among other things, the finest history of mystic thought I've ever read.
Trust me: The world will not end in 2012. Keep paying those credit card bills.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life

I happened to pass two colleagues in the hall today. One said to the other, earnestly, "Science can't solve the mystery of ..." and I walked out of earshot before that final noun phrase hit the airwaves. But I can guess-- beauty, consciousness, language, life -- you can fill in a couple more, and you may have some of your own.
In my mind, I whirled around and said, in a calm but piercing voice, "Yes it can."
Blank looks (In my mind I get to direct the entire conversation). Then, they ask, "Well, what is the answer?"
I say, "I don't know. Science doesn't know."
Puzzled looks this time. Then, "If science doesn't know, science can't explain it."
I shake my head wisely. "No," I say. "Science can explain it. It simply hasn't done it yet."
Why do people who are supposed to be capable of critical thinking make such a simple error? Hasn't is not the same as can't.
When we consider the things that, over the years, people claimed science couldn't explain and science finally did explain, we have a long list. When we consider the things that, over the years, science hasn't explained, we still have a long list. But the first list is growing and the second shrinking.
I firmly believe that, eventually, science will explain everything. This stand usually provokes one of two responses. Response A: "But that will destroy all the beauty in the world." That seems to me like one of the dumbest statements a human can make. Why should beauty be hooked into ignorance? We finally know pretty much how the northern lights work, something we didn't know when I was a kid. Yet, somehow, those northern lights are just as beautiful to me as they were when I first saw them on a frozen January night in Alaska.
Response B: "There are some things that humankind is not meant to know." Another dumbest thing. This is the driving force behind all the anti-science novels of people like what'sizname who wrote The Andromeda Strain and all those novels about science gone bad. As if ignorance were a passport to grace. Pffffft!
Beauty will remain.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bears will be bears

I read an article in the local paper today about a woman who was killed by a bear she had cared for for years. She was feeding the bear when it turned on her, mauled her, and killed her. Forgetting that the bear might have been sore about being kept in a small cage for years on end, one would ask "Why would a bear kill the person who feeds him?"
The answer is, of course, because bears are -- when you get right down to it -- bears. You can train a bear to balance a ball on its nose, but when the conditions are right, a bear acts like a bear.
From the bear story, I turned to the editorial page and found Jack Krugman rubbing his hands in glee and taking it to conservatives over what he calls "The politics of spite." I knew without reading the story what it was about. We lost the bid for the Olympic Games in spite (because of?) President Obama's efforts. Krugman was blasting Limbaugh et al for gloating.
Let's put aside the obvious fact that Krugman was practicing the very thing he was decrying, and think about bears for a moment.
Liberals will be liberals. Conservatives will be conservative. But being a Liberal today doesn't make one liberal (Note the upper case). Being a Conservative doesn't make one conservative. Liberals are just as pinch-face and purse-mouth as conservatives, and Conservatives are just as prune-face and pucker-mouth as liberals.
It's not about positions. It's about nailing the other guy. It's about getting your kicks by kicking the other side.
Even bears know better than that.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Saying and doing

Yeats said it very well -- "How do you tell the dancer from the dance?" In a more sociologically oriented direction, how do you separate what someone says from what he or she does? Does the fact that a preacher consorts with hookers invalidate his sermons on purity? Does a musician's pathological behavior make his/her music bad? Can a politician advocate reform if he or she is corrupt?
Early thinkers, the Romans, held that a good man couldn't make an evil speech, and an evil man couldn't make a noble speech. We know that isn't true, but what about the ideas in a speech or in a creed, or in a whole movement. For instance, if one looks at the tenets of National Socialism, one finds that they are, by and large, good things: honor, hard work, good health, care for the citizen, love of country. In the abstract, I note.
The goals of liberals are noble goals. The goals of conservatives are noble goals. Hell, the goals of Communism are noble goals.
The problem is that people make a hierarchy of goals, such that some noble goals have to be discarded in order to reach other, presume ably more noble goals. The protection of the country is more noble and more important than personal privacy, so the government listens in on us. In England even now, there are cameras on the streets that can track a person across town. Cameras take photos of people who run red lights, because public safety is more important than privacy. And so on.
All of which bothers me. There's always been a clash of rights, of course. And sometimes it's been worse than it is now (Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, I've been told).
I've been wondering if there is any one noble thing that tops them all. If there is one goal, one desire, one tenet of faith that always trumps everything else.
And I think I've found it. It's the desire for justice. This is more important than anything, more important than religion, than political party, than national pride, that personal safety.
I want justice. I want it for everybody and everything. In all times and all places. Except for me, of course. I want mercy for me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Death and Dying

Nobody wants to die. Well, that's not quite true. After all, lots of people take their own lives. I can't get into the mind of a suicide, but I wonder if it's simply that they want out of whatever situation they are in. They don't seek death, per se, but escape. And people who are in great pain seek death sometimes (but only sometimes).
On the whole, though, we resist death. But why? There seems to be a paradox here. If death is the way of life, why fight it? After all, we have to make room for the next generation, and someone has to feed the worms.
This paradox is most evident in religious thought. I was listening to bluegrass this morning (always makes me think on death and dying). The singer was singing about his mom and dad who were rejoicing around the throne of God. The chorus, however, went, "I'll live my life in sorrow, now that mommy and daddy are dead."
And of course Shakespeare weighed in on it. In a dialogue in, I think, The Merchant of Venice, the fool talks to one of the characters whose brother has died. The dialogue goes something like this (fuzzy quote alert):
"I think your brother is in Hell."
"I know my brother is in Heaven, fool."
"The more fool you, to grieve for your brother's being in Heaven."
If you don't believe in God or an afterlife, not wanting to die is understandable. After all, as W. E. Henley said, after life "looms the horror of the shade." Non-existence is almost too dreadful to be contemplated.
Yet, neither religious nor non-religious thought really makes any sense. Either we go to an eternal reward with angels and gold streets or we simply go out, like a light turned off. No big deal either way.
So why do thoughts of death consume us so?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Belief, the lack thereof

Kind of a depressing subject today. I've been listening to bluegrass music all morning, which means I've heard a lot about the happy hereafter, where there is no pain or sorrow. Now, that's a comforting thing, if you believe it. People who believe in the hereafter generally tend to be happier and more contented with their lives.
And who can blame them? If you believe that after your life there is nothing, that would tend to make you a little down, since all you can say is, "Soldier on anyway." The problem is that there is no way to switch. A non-believer can't just decide, "From today on, I'll be a believer." The path to non-belief is a stony one, filled with intense examinations and hard decisions. I really think that anyone who is a non-believer would sincerely rather be a believer. But it's not to be. All that would happen would be the old prayer, "I believe Lord; help thou my unbelief."

The New Racisim

I'd like to take as my text for today's sermon an item from the newspaper. Columnist Maureen Dowd was fulminating on a fairly small incident. Seems a person had shouted at President Obama during a speech, "You lie." Dowd reports that she distinctly heard, "You lie, boy." That, she says is clear evidence of racism. It's not that she's basing her tirade on a non-existent subtext which she only, like dogs with whistles I guess, can hear (No, I'm not calling her a dog. Pay attention). It's that she heard a racist slur. Now, if her mind heard the "boy," it's still a little stretch to make it racist, unless -- here's the kicker -- she is inclined to view all comments as racist.
What I get from this is that Dowd, like many people, cannot view Obama as a person. They can only see him as an African-American. Which is racist, isn't it.
I admire President Obama, and I feel for him as he gets sucked into the reality show that is Presidential Politics. On the other hand, I think he has an extra layer of protection around him that former presidents haven't had, and that's the inclination of people like Dowd to view any criticism of him as racist. I've mentioned this before. I call it the Spike Lee defense (You dare criticize my movies you racist?)
It wouldn't be so bad if Dowd were writing for Mother Jones, National Review, or some other rag that has predictable content. It's that she gets coverage for her rants in national syndication. Envy alert here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Revew Time

I'd like to make Mondays my book review day, but there are so many books and I'm so lazy that I have to do them when I can.
I'd like to recommend Christopher McGowan, The Dragon Seekers. It's a paperback, costs 17 bucks and is worth it. If you're cheap, you can probably find it in the library. My daughter bought it because of the jacket design but never read it, I found it, thought the jacket design was okay but not great, and found treasure inside.
There's a blurb on the jacket that reads, "How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin." I had known that the concept dinosaur was first formed in the early part of the 19th century, but I had not known the extent of the passions, egos, theories, and clashes with religion that went on in that time. At the beginning of the 19th century, Genesis ruled. The earth was 6,000 years old. Period. Scholarly interests in the earth sciences focused on the times before and after the flood (hence our wonderful word antediluvian).
This book details the persons, largely amateurs, who collected fossils and gradually built up a body of evidence that couldn't be denied. One of those was not an amateur, actually, but a professional bone hunter who collected and sold fossils for a living. This bone hunter worked under two heavy handicaps: low birth and the fact that she was a woman. As a result, she was frequently consulted, used as a source, and given no credit at all. Her name was Mary Anning, she was one of the most important figures in the development of paleontology as a science, and I bet you've never heard of her.
Another seminal figure, who's given less credit than he deserves is Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology is one of the most important books in the 19th century (Darwin took volume one with him on the Beagle). It may be that his influence was indirect, or that he was a geologist and not a fossil hunter, but he's one of the creators of modern science.
Readable, erudite, informing, a fascinating look at the development of a science.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Better and better

I have to make this point from time to time, even if it's only to reassure myself. Humans are making progress. Discernible, measurable progress, in all phases of life from life-span to education.
Go back a hundred years. The number one cause of death was influenza, closely followed by simple dehydration. People were old at 40. There's a story written in the 30's called "The Eighty Yard Run," about an old, washed-up man dreaming of the glory of his youth. He was 35. People lost their teeth early. If you graduated from high school, you were unusual. The number one employer of people was the farm, followed by domestic service.
I have a photo of my grandmother taken in the 30's. Her house is a one-room adobe shack with a dirt floor, no inside water, not inside toilet. She's already bent from carrying wood and hauling water. And these were not people who considered themselves poor. They were, but didn't consider themselves so. My grandfather had gone to college.
If you were a woman, your husband could beat you with impunity. If you were a child, your mother could whip you till your back was bloody. Your teacher could belt you with a paddle. If you were a citizen, you could be arrested and beaten. If you were African-American or (where I lived, Hispanic), you had almost no rights at all.
If you went to war, many of you died. The death toll from World War I and II is staggering. I believe the death toll for WWII is something around 18 million.
To be sure, we have our problems today. But what are they? Gangs. Yes, we hear a lot about gangs, but most of what I read in the local paper is gangbangers killing each other. Which is okay with me. We have drugs. To me that's just evolution in action. We have wars. How many have been killed in Afghanistan? Five thousand? About two months' highway death toll. We have cancer. A disease of older people. We have HIV and AIDS. Compared with the flu epidemic of 1913 (Was it?) it's nothing.
Naturally, we can do better. And we should do better. But in fact, we are doing better.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Violence at last

Okay, where was I?
Violence. Why do we have such a large tolerance for it, some people ask? Well, those people would at very least seem to be trapped in the present, with no sense of history. For most of human history, violence has been the norm rather than an exception. Parents beat children bloody, men were not allowed to beat their wives with a stick wider than their thumbs, police beat anybody they could find, wars were fought close enough to home that people could and did drive out to watch.
But the root causes. Ah. The why.
Well, let's go back to our origins and speculate widely.
Let's say that you're a pre-human primate. What does violence mean to you? Well, if you see a neighbor torn apart by a pack of baboons, it means that you are still alive. If you see your friends tear apart a small deer, it means that you are going to eat. If you and your friends kill the neighboring tribe, it means you will survive.
If seeing violence makes you sick, you probably won't survive. If you won't club another animal to death to protect your babies, your line will probably die out. In a world without lawsuits, disputes are settled in one of two ways: one side bluffs the other out or one side beats the other side physically.
Those who tolerated or even liked violence survived. And passed their genes down to their descendants. Us.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A digression

This is going to take a lot longer than I thought. I need to address a number of issues that have been raised by people who are nice, thoughtful, very bright, and not perhaps inclined to see things the same way I do. So --
1. There isn't any best way of having kids. I mentioned in a response to a comment that we primates have a variety of ways of getting and caring for babies. People tend to look at some primates whose ways they admire and pine softly, "Why couldn't we be like them?" Well, because if we were like them, we wouldn't be us. The criterion for a "good" way of having and caring for babies is that the species survives.
2. We are the way we are because those of our ancestors who lived had the traits we do and passed them on down the line.
3. And here I shift gears considerably, I don't trust anthropologists. It seems to me that (especially the cultural guys) go into research with two handicaps. First, they know already what they are looking for. Two, they assume that the peoples they are studying are somehow dumb as rocks. They assume that the people they are studying won't notice they are there, or won't mind if they poke and prod. But let's face it folks, the non-technical people you are studying are just like us.
Shocking as it may seem, people don't seem to want to be studied. They resent being specimens.
Put yourself in their shoes (or lack thereof). Some geezer with a notebook and strange clothes comes into town and starts asking you intimate questions about yourself, such as "Do you eat your neighbors?" or "What's your sex life like?" All with an air of detached superiority. So, what do you do? Why, you do what the Samoans did to poor old Margaret Mead. You pull her leg. You lie outrageously. You have a good time at the stranger's expense. "War? We don't have that concept at all. Don't even have a word for it?" "Sex? Yes, sex is free and open?" "Food? We share what we have with all." As soon as the people leave, everybody has a good laugh and the anthropologist gets tenure. Gary Larson has a wonderful cartoon that shows a native running in calling, "Anthropologists," and everybody is rushing to hide the TVs and microwaves.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sex and violence II

Okay, where was I? Oh, yes, sex. A couple of things first. One: If everybody does it, it's natural, no matter what everyone might say or think. Let's take a certain sexual behavior (any one, it doesn't matter). Now, if we go to societies all over the world, from the jungles of Manhattan to the jungles of Borneo, and we find people engaging in that practice, it's a natural, human, genetically determined behavior. Remember, though, that "genetically determined" means only that the tendency to the behavior is in our genes. Two: We need to differentiate between sex as evil and sex as secret behavior. The "sex is evil" concept probably comes from the late middle ages when pandemics of virulent syphilis swept Europe (the great pox, to differentiate it from the small pox).
Are we finally there? Okay, to speculate wildly on why we keep sex secret and out of the streets, other than that it frightens the horses, let's start with our closest kin, the chimps. Now, chimps are promiscuous, mating wherever, whenever, and with whomever they can. But the female chimps only ovulate when they are mating with someone they consider a suitable partner. Remember that the drives are generally the same but specifically different in males and females (in primates anyway). Both desire to leave copies of themselves. The male tends to do it by impregnating as many females as he can, while the females, who are limited to one or two at a time and hampered with the kid to boot, are more subtle. The need not only to have the child, but to have assistance during the crucial period when they are forced to care for it.
So, how does this apply to humans? Well, we aren't chimps, so our behavior patterns won't be the same. But the goals are the same. Women need A) the highest quality sperm available and B) help raising the result of the mating. Now, it doesn't matter if the person who helps raise the baby is the same one who donated the sperm. What matters is that the male thinks he is the papa. If the male knows that the female is mating with other guys, he's less likely to stick around to change the diapers. Hence the secrecy.
Sounds kinda calculating, doesn't it? Of course it is. But the stakes are the highest there are. There is no success in life greater than reproducing yourself.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sex, violence, and evolution

This is going to take quite a while, so I may have to do it in more than one blog. That's cause a blog should be fairly short, in order to suit one's electronic attention span, which is short.
Anyway, I remember a question asked in the sixties that has followed me for a long time: Why is it that sex, which is lovely, should be kept secret, and violence, which is ugly, should be out in the open?
Remember that this is a sixties question, loaded with sixties assumptions about sex, love, openness, flowers, war, and police.
Nonetheless, it's an interesting question. Why are we so secretive about sex? I remember a mock editorial by comedian Pat Paulson, who said, about sex, "It's time to come out in the open and speak forthrightly and openly about . . . you know what."
At the same time, how is it that we can tolerate extreme violence?
As always, when faced with a problem like this, I always ask, "WWDD?" That's, "What would Darwin do?" That is, can we look at this problem in an evolutionary perspective, to see if these two traits had any survival value for our ancestors.
The first thing is, of course, to determine if these two traits are in fact human, or are simply Western, American, Puritan, or somehow or another culturally determined.
And, for purposes of this blog spree, I'm going to assume that they are in fact human rather than cultural. That is, they are part of our genetic makeup. I'm going to assume this based on information gathered from, in part, Pinker's book on the way the mind works. Note, mind you, that he never said this, but it's kind of extrapolable from what he did say.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Object Glances

It's book review time. I'd like to recommend a book by James Elkins entitled The Object Stares Back. It's a treatise on perception and such like stuff. If you're thinking "Aha! A scientific analysis of vision," I can only say, "Think again buddy." Elkins is an art historian, and his viewpoint is part artist, part mystical wise man, and (possibly) part nut case (but very persuasive nut case).
The reason I am recommending it is that much of what he says has a strangely compelling quality to it. I feel as if I'm at a party and being hypnotized against my will. Some of what he says is spot on (this is mostly when he is speaking against the received wisdom of the artistic community), some is tenuous, and some is out near Pluto.
He notes for instance, that there some things we just can't look at. The sun and death are two of them. And to prove it, he has pictures of a woman being put to death. He also has some other fairly grotesque photos he uses as he makes his points, so if you're easily grossed out, you might want to pass by those.
Since this is one of those books whose viewpoint is both magnetic and strange, it tends to shake up our perception of perception, and for that reason alone you ought to read it.

Monday, August 17, 2009


The last verse of an old Ernie Ford song, "Sixteen Tons," goes as follows:

Now, man came from monkey, some folks say,
But the Good Book, brother, don't tell it that way.
If you believe that monkey tale like some folks do,
I'd rather be that monkey than you.

Sigh. There are those among us who believe that people reject all or part of the theory of evolution because they don't understand it. I used to think that. But on reconsidering, I think that people don't accept evolution because
1. It scares them
2. It offends them
3. It doesn't square with some holy document

It's true that the entire concept of evolution is somewhat difficult to get one's mind around. Why are humans so good at reading faces? Because that's the way we evolved. This is getting it backwards. We need to think of what challenges our ancestors faced such that evolving such and such a characteristic or organ helped them survive. I can read faces because those of my ancestors who could read faces survived to reproduce.

One of the best of the new books which helps people understand how evolution works is Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. It's good because it works backwards. It starts with us, then goes back to the first known split, where we and another species diverged from a root stock. So, let's say that we split from chimps about, what, 4 million years ago? Okay, so Dawkins looks at what the root stock was like, what we were like, what chimps were like, differences, similarities, drawing inferences, making hypotheses, sometimes guessing. Then he moves on to the next split, where apes split from root stock, and then to the next, working ever and ever farther back until he comes to the beginnings of life.

Doing it this way allows Dawkins to tease out the reasons we are the way we are. It's fascinating and very enlightening. Also, it's long. It may have the same problem that Darwin's Origin of Species has -- easy to read but very complete.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Finishing up

You know those little jam packets at the restaurant? I've found that one of them is too much for a half-slice of toast, too small for a full slice. So, I have three options: 1) use one packet for a whole slice and not get enough, 2) use two packets for a slice of toast and get too much, or 3) use just enough and waste some jam. I never choose 3). And, if I'm eating, say, a chicken dish of some kind and am full to bursting, I will continue, and if I simply cannot eat any more, I'll hunt through the dish for chicken chunks and eat them. I have even caught myself muttering, "If the chicken died for me, I can bloody well eat it all."
I'm wondering at the source of this. It could well be the left-over influence of my mother's "Children starving in Asia" ploy that she used as part of her "clean the plate." syndrome. Or, and I like this because it's the nobler, it could be that I am very aware of the dynamics of life and death. In order for me to live, something has to die -- fruit, chicken, lettuce, whatever. Our whole existence is built on the destruction of other things, from landforms to linguine.
This is not something to despair over, or to try to prevent. Every other species in the world does the same thing. Not only that, but the wind does it, the waves do it, the clouds do it.
There is no such thing as the "balance of nature." All there is is a flux of forces, building, tearing down, moving around, shifting, always shifting. Best to move with it.
And yet, I still can't waste half a packet of jam.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I am puzzled by a willingness that strangers show to assume that my political, religious, or social beliefs are exactly the same as mine. Total strangers will assume that I hold any one of a variety of stances. Yesterday, I was siting next to a complete stranger, who began to tell me how President Obama was trying to destroy the second amendment and take all our guns. Then he went on to property rights, health care, and all the things that you hear on the nut-case radio shows.
But I want to be even handed in this. Whenever I attend a gathering of liberals, one of them sooner or later will begin to lament the deficiencies of the "local culture" and the backwardness of the Utah legislature.
What is the point of discussion here is not that liberals think the Utah legislature consists of a bunch of Neanderthals, or that conservatives think Obama wants our guns. I mean, Duh! What is the issue is sort of twofold. First, it's that people are willing to air their opinions without asking if I am willing to hear them. In a way, this is a good move for them, because if they asked, I'd say no. Second, it's that people feel free to not only give me their opinions and to state them as facts, but they manage to get in nasty personal cracks at whomever they are unhappy with. President Obama is not only wrong, he as (put in your own slur here). The legislature is not only wrong it's (ditto the slur).
I don't like it. 'm trying to formulate a policy that doesn't involve me being as rude as they are, but I'm having trouble.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Great Books

A friend of mine challenged me to write down 15 book titles as quickly as I could, focusing on books that influenced the way I look at the world. When I was finished, I had maybe two of the "great books," the "classics" that I read in college (I was an English major). A classic, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said, is a book that everybody praises and nobody reads. The classics have two things in common for me: 1) they are boring, and 2) they are melodrama. Take The Scarlet Letter, for instance. Aside from a completely bogus first chapter, the prose is torture to wade through, and when you do, you get a mysterious stranger, a deep secret, startling revelations -- something that belongs in Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, the sort of thing that Jane Austen made fun of in Northanger Abbey.
The great books are great because we've been told they are. Here's my Shakespeare hypothesis again: Take The Beverly Hillbillies, examine every nuance, every gesture, every episode for 400 years, being sure to find deep meaning in them all, and Voila! Shakespeare all over.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crying Race at the drop of a hat

William F. Buckley once said that he'd rather be ruled by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. After the events of this last week, I'm inclined to agree with him.
Remember the incident? A black university professor was returning to his home, had a hard time with the door, and because of a neighbor's 911 call, the cops came and confronted him. The professor wouldn't give them boo. And, he was within his rights. In your house, you don't have to have anything to do with cops unless they have probably cause or a warrant. And they had neither. Trouble was, the cops didn't know it.
So the professor ranted, and he yelled, and he called people racist, and finally they cuffed him.
The irony here is that the police were there specifically to protect the home of the professor. They didn't cuff him because he was a n***** but because they thought he was a burglar.
Now, while the professor had the right of it legally, he did two things wrong: First, he lost his cool and started shouting. Second, he called "Race, Race." Think about it for a minute. Here's a clear case of mistaken identity. Wouldn't it have been better for this supposedly smart person to simply say, "I live here. Here's my ID"? But nooooo, he had to thrash around like a schoolboy caught with a cigarette out behind the gym.
The cops don't come away much better, of course. What they should have done is leave the house, stake it out, and wait for developments.
From the things I read, however, I'm beginning to think it's cops 1, professor 0, President Obama -1.

Of things past

I have been thinking and writing about my visit to the Anasazi last week. I sat in the Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins (wrong name) listening to how the kiva was dated and what happened to the inhabitants thereof. It was a cool perpetual twilight in the kiva, which represents the underworld. Four strong pillars supported the roof, and there were benches around the circular walls for people to sit on.
And it's all gone. Piles of ordered stone stand where the people lived, and piles of rubble mark where nature has taken most of it back. As Tennyson said, the clock beats out the little lives of men. So, since it's Wednesday, I wrote a poem.

Ancestral Puebloans

One tick of the cosmic clock,
Two ticks, the Anasazi came
Waxed fat on the land then
Faded into a dusty puzzle,
Their works rounded and hooded
By eight centuries of
Sand, wind, tumbleweed.

Now I sit in a shadowed kiva
Surrounded by men in shorts
And sunburned knees, women in
Floral polyester wearing fanny packs
That say "Lost in Margaritaville."

Our guide quietly and surely strips
Any mystery from their going.
They outgrew the land,
Stripped it bare, raked it clean, then
Starved themselves into emigration.

For a moment we sit, pondering
The fate off these our cousins,
Our selves, and how fragile
The spiderweb of life is.
Then we remember --
There's an art sale in Taos.
We can make it if we hurry.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On left and right

When I first set up this blog, I assumed that political stances were a spectrum, with Liberal on one side and Conservative on the other. I had further assumed that I tended to slide back and forth on this spectrum, now little pink, now baby blue, now and then no color at all.
I've come to question this. It is, after all, a very one-dimensional way of looking at things.
There's a classic treatise called Flatland, that discusses, among other things, how the world must look to two-dimensional beings. They can see left and right, but not over. Wonderful discussion, and I think it might apply to political thought.
How, for instance, can I be at the same time an environmentalist and a hunter? A conservative who wants universal health care? A man who understands why fundamentalists do the things they do but would waste the whole tribe anyway?
I have a friend who believes the earth is 6000 years old. We go outside and see clearly, the striations in the landscape, the buckling of the earth, the eons-old erosion patterns, the seashells at 7000 feet. What about them? A cosmic quiz; God did it to test our faith.
If I'm liberal, I see things as a liberal sees them, in one dimension (ditto conservative, of course).
I think in order to see things straight, we need to see them widely, rather than narrowly.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harmony in Nature

I had a mind-boggling experience today. I visited an Anasazi site in Aztec New Mexico (google Aztec Ruins New Mexico). It was mistakenly thought that the pueblo was Aztec, but it ain't. It was inhabited 1000-1200 by people that are called 'ancestral pueblo' by the Park Service, since Anasazi is a Navajo term that can be translated as "invaders."
Anyway, the question always comes up, 'Why did they leave?" And the answer can be found in Jared Diamond's book Collapse. They outbred and outpopulated their ability to sustain themselves, stripping the land for miles around them.
I mention this because of my belief that the Anasazi were pretty much the way we are. People are people, in all times and all places. If we wonder why such and such a society did something, we need only ask, "What would we do in a similar situation?"
I mention this because there are people who simply will not accept the explanation that the Anasazi ruined their environment, because they were a non-industrial people, and, living in harmony with Mother nature, couldn't possibly have done bad things to Mom. I have news for those people: They could have and did. Living in harmony with nature means being hungry, diseased, and probably eaten. The "Harmony with nature" philosophy that you hear from Native Americans is probably a modern romanticism about their ancestors, who only wanted to live a little while longer, and probably paid as much attention to their religion as we do to ours. Which is to say, almost none.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Poetry today

It's poetry day today. Relax. I'm not going to give you one of mine, but one of the great ones of the English (or any other) language. I believe in rationality. I'm not always rational, but I believe in it. Further, I believe that our future, if any, depends on us finally becoming rational beings. I think that our Linnean name, homo sapiens, is a little presumptuous at present. So, here's the poem:

The Last Word
by Matthew Arnold

Creep into thy narrow bed
Creep, and let no more be said!
Vain thy onset! All stands fast.
Thou thyself must break at last.

Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired; best be still.

They out-talked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and passed,
Hotly charged -- and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall.

Other than a slight overuse of the exclamation point, this is a wonderful poem and expresses exactly how I feel about my fellow beings.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why do people go to Hell?

I believe it was Andre Gide who said, "Hell is other people." I like that a lot. On the other hand, one must consider the flip side, "Heaven is other people," which Andre Gide did most emphatically not say.
Let's suppose there is a Hell, and let's stipulate that it's not a nice place. Dante made the lowest level of Hell a lake of ice, into which traitors were frozen.
Actually, Dante had a lot going for him. He realized that you can't just have one Hell. You've got to have several. One doesn't want to put a regular garden-variety adulterer in with biggies like Hitler and Saddam.
But I digress. The question is not where but why. And I'm going to take my clue from Gide. It's what we do to people, or rather, how we perceive ourselves in relation to other people. If you think that you are more important than a handicapped person, and deserve to park in their slot, then you are going to Hell. If you think that red lights are for other people, then you are going to Hell. If you think that you automatically belong at the front of a line, then you are going to Hell.
If you think that your waitress should ignore all the other customers, if you think that the person at the bank window has time to solve your addition problems, if you think that the store clerk should drop everyone else and help you decide between mauve and puce, if you think that it's important to shout into a cell phone in a restaurant, theater, or church, then you are most definitely going to hell.
I mean, how many of us commit really serious crimes? Among my acquaintance there are very few murderers, traitors, thieves, and the lot. It's the small things that are going to get us.

Friday, June 26, 2009


I'm trying to be a liberal; I really am. I spend as much time as I can pitying poor people, that sort of thing. But this can only go so far. The other day, I was rummaging in a liberal blog and found a definition of a liberal. As far as I can remember after the shock wore off, there were things like, "A liberal is for the weak rather than the strong, for the poor rather than the rich, for the..." you get the idea.
Gosh that sounds noble. But think about it for a moment. Let's take the weak, for instance. Now, weakness (in the political sense) is not an absolute. It's a moving target that has to be constantly re-acquired. So, who decides? Some poor fool out there may not realize that he is weak and needs help, pity, and a pat on the back.
Other questions: Who decides what to do about it? Who pays?
I am suspicious of persons who are willing to make decisions about how other people are to be classified. There is a disturbing whiff of Puritanism about the whole process. I remember reading once (And I wish I knew who said this): "There are two kinds of people, the righteous and the unrighteous. The classifying is done by the righteous."
Of course, Liberals are going to say, "We are the ones who should classify and take action." What they are not going to say, but which hangs in the air like some old ghost, is "You can do your share by paying."
And why should Liberals be the ones who decide? Because they care. They said so. Does it make your skin creep a little to know that a goodly section of the population assumes control of other people because "they care"?
I've come up with a philosophical premise that covers this. It's this: The assumption of responsibility is an assertion of superiority. If you assume responsibility for dressing Aunt Martha, it's because she can't do it herself.
So, we come to the ultimate reason that Liberals care for people: It is their responsibility as the superior beings.
Conservatives, of course, simply say, "Let them decrease the surplus population." (stolen quote)
Frankly, I don't know which is worse.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Magic, Still

We live in a universe with pretty regular laws. Oxygen is oxygen, even on Mars, and the absence or presence of oxygen can be pretty well and easily inferred from conditions on the planet. That is, if it has lots of oxygen, we can make a good hypothesis why. If we were able to travel to the center of the galaxy, we would find oxygen.
All these laws mesh together. The presence of oxygen determines what sort of life forms will evolve, whether or not things will burn, how much water there will be, and so on.
If I accept the postulates of magic, I have to assume a second set of laws, not connected to the ones we can verify. The laws of magic seemed to be based on an interesting concept: The word is the thing. If I can know the true name of a thing, I can control it. Similarly, the symbol for a thing is the thing. A doll is a person.
These laws of magic, on the other hand, seem to be spotty and not really uniform. Nor are they replicable. My best guess is that they are figments of the imagination. I will continue to think this until I am turned into a toad.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Magic Again

I saw a man do psychic surgery once. Psychic surgery is the removal of tumors and such like without anesthesia or instruments. The patient lay on a table, and I saw the surgeon, who is usually a holy man, stiffen his fingers, then push his hand into the stomach of the patient. I saw it go almost fully in, saw some blood seep from the wound, and then saw the hand withdraw with a bloody mess of tissue in it.
Then the surgeon told us how it was done. A scam, pure and simple. He'd concealed a blood-filled scrap of sponge in his hand, curled his fingers under to make it look like the hand was penetrating the stomach, and squeezed the sponge. Voila!
I think that there are two kinds of magic: Tricks and things we don't know about. About 99% of magic is tricks. Spoon bending, for instance, depends on certain tendencies of our visual system. That wonderful palm reading you got used a technique called cold reading. A friend showed me a picture of her and her aura that sure looked like clumsy PhotoShop.
But how about that 1% (assuming you believe me about the 99%). People speak in hushed tones, saying, "There are just some things that we can't explain."
That's a lapse in logic. Just because we can't explain them doesn't make them magical or spiritual. It makes them unexplained.
Take UFO's for instance. Believers admit that most UFO sightings can be explained. The rest, they say, proves the existence of UFO's. Well Duh. What do you suppose UFO stands for? Unidentified Flying Object. It does not stand for Flying Saucer or Little Green Men Who Abduct Cows and Credulous Persons.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


The human body has a remarkable ability to respond to invisible influences. For instance, let's say you stay out in the sun too long. Next day, your skin will be red, or if you're lucky, tan. Your skin, without your knowledge or consent, allows melanin to move to the surface of the skin in response to the ultraviolet invasion. Or, say, you are walking along and trip a little. Your body responds to the mysterious force of gravity in a very complicated way, starting with the movement of fluid in the inner ear, and you catch yourself.
Now, here's my point: any feelable force in the universe will be reflected in some bodily function that deals with that force. Take the magnetic flux that moves from pole to pole. Humans don't respond to it much, as far as we know, but birds do, and there are neurological indications of how they do it.
So, if there is a force, however mysterious, that acts on humans and that influences our survival, we will have developed a mechanism for dealing with it. The key word here is mechanism. We had melanin long before we learned about the ultraviolet. Much of our entire body mechanism is geared to coping with gravity (jellyfish don't have an inner ear). Bugs have a wonderful six-legged gait that keeps them on an even keel.
So, what about ki, mana, and other posited forces of nature? I believe that if they exist there is a discoverable, chartable, testable mechanism that responds to them. No mechanism; they don't exist. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chaos made orderly

I read in my local paper that a 15-year-old girl won a national texting contest. For those of you who consider the whole texting/twittering phenomenon one more sign of the decline of civilization, take heart.
It seems that texting is not random after all. Not even semi-random. Listen to this quote from the paper (which is sometimes semi-random): "[The winner] had to text three lengthy phrases without making any mistakes on the required abbreviations, capitalization or punctuation."
Texting has moved very quickly from an anarchy to a rule-governed behavior. Which means that even adults can learn it. It's simply a different way of writing, with different rules. If this seems strange, consider that it's no stranger than the very stringent (and very different from each other) rules for documentation that the MLA, University of Chicago, and the APA put out.
The fact is that humans can't interact without rules of behavior. Linguists call them things like "conversational implicatures," and other long words, but all it means is that we can't behave randomly and be comprehended. Who was it who said "To be great is to be misunderstood"? It could be, because a great person may operate from a different set of rules. However, poets take heed: the converse is not true. It doesn't hold that to be misunderstood is to be great.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Civil servants

There are two types of civil functionaries. The first is the person who is not allowed to think. You will usually find them at counter windows or at a reception desk. Now, since many situations are at least slightly ambiguous, there are times when thinking is needed.
The other day, I dropped in at my local university's record office to get a transcript for my daughter. She had filled out the form correctly, and written in a comments box, "Please allow my father to take one copy with him."
When I requested my copy, the clerk told me, in that prim voice they have, "I can't give you one. You have to have written, signed permission to take one." I pointed to the comment. "It's written, it's signed, and it's permission," said I, with some hope that this would make sense.
Taken aback, the clerk strode toward the back of the room, into an office, and I could detect agitated motion back there. She returned and said, "We have to have a specific document. It's a federal regulation." She said it in a way that put federal regulations several rungs above the ten commandments.
Here's the kicker. She told me that she couldn't give it to me, but she could mail it to me. Here the adult in me took over and I realized that was as much as I was going to get. So, I shut up and gave her my address.
The second kind of civil functionary is the one who is allowed to think but refuses to do so. These two categories are all inclusive.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

School again

So, if American schools are so great, is there anything wrong with them? Hah!
When my son was in highschool, he came to me and asked, "Is there any reason I should study geometry?" I could have said, "Well, suppose you wanted to decide if two apparently identical triangles were actually identical. The Side/angle/side theorem would help." Instead, I simply said, "Nope." Actually, there is one geometrical rule that is very useful. It's the 3-4-5 rule, and I didn't learn it from geometry; I learned if from a couple of Hopi carpenters. It goes like this: If you have a triangle that is 3 units on one side, 4 units on a second, and 5 units on a third, then one of the angles is a right angle. Builders use it all the time.
There are two kinds of classes you can take. First, there are those classes that teach you how to process and use information: Reading, writing, rhetoric. Then there are those classes that give you information: geology, history, chemistry. I think that our schools should be strong in the first area. You gotta have the tools. The rest will come easier.
What do I propose after the readin' 'ritin' 'n' rhetoric? Elementary math, certainly. History, geography, science.
I'm an English major, but I'd go easy on the "classics." I was forced to read Silas Marner as a highschooler and hated it. Much later --loved it. Though it seems to me that, like most of 19th century art and lit, it's kinda melodramatic.
The creative stuff should be adjunct. Poets will be poets, dancers will be dancers, musicians will be musicians. It doesn't need to be "taught."
Finally, I'd have kids attend school all year, with two major holidays, June and December. They'd study hard half a day, and be apprenticed out the second half. Three hours study, three hours work.


Friday, June 5, 2009


As befits my inclination to lambaste both sides of any debate, today I take up going to school.
How can I say this? The American school system may be the best in the world, in at least one aspect.
First, all those folks who say that Americans are waaaaay behind other school systems in our ability to educate people. Not!
Let me tell you why. As far as I know, all education systems in the world beside ours use the schools to filter out people. In many cases, there's an exam given about when the kids are 15. If you pass, you go on to higher ed; if not you go to work in the lumberyard (Caddyshack?). So, the system tends to emphasize studying for the test. It really messes kids up, for one thing. In Japan, it's not unknown for a kid who fails the test to kill him/her self in expiation.
America is the only country I know of whose avowed goal is to educate everyone. Everyone. Do the words "No child left behind" ring a bell? Not only can you go to school, you gotta.
So, let me paint a scenario for you. Here's a kid who can't see any worth in school, drops out in his/her sophomore year. A couple of years out, the kid discovers a passion for chemistry. In any other country, this kid would be already in life's rut. In America, the kid gets a GED, takes classes at the local community college, gets an AA, finishes the BS in a state college, gets a MS at a state university, a PhD at MIT, and voila! A chemist.
Not only that, but you can wander in and out of the educational system, wait till you're a grandmother (like my mom did), change majors frequently (like my sister did), and finish when you've found what you're looking for.
A lot of people drop by the wayside. A lot of people don't give a damn and coast. But the remarkable thing is that the most unexpected things happen. You can go from the projects to the supreme court.
It's the opportunities that make it work. Check out the Nobel Prize roster, realizing that the Swedes give an American the prize only under severe duress (They've publicly stated that the U.S. is out of the running for any lit prize.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day Doings

What is it about blogs? There are things that I wouldn't tell in confession that I send out to anyone who will read.
I have a secret Memorial Day ritual. I buy a bunch of flowers and separate it into four smaller bunches. Then I drive to a local cemetery.
Okay, first some backstory. My mother had two sons before she had me. Both died in infancy. One is buried in a cemetery in Seligman, Arizona. The location of the grave has been lost. The second is buried in a cemetery in a ghost town called Las Palomas in New Mexico. No family live anywhere nearby. So, neither grave ever gets visited.
Back to Memorial Day. I drive to a local cemetery. Then, I walk around until I find a grave with no flowers on it, one that looks a little seedy.I place one bunch of flowers on the grave and say, "This is for you," Then I place the second bunch and say, "This is for James Walk Shook."
After that, I drive to a second cemetery, 'cause the boys were buried in different places. I do the same thing, except as I place the final bunch of flowers, I say, "This is for Walter Canby Shook."
I don't try to match up dates or anything (I'm eccentric, not crazy), nor do I believe that any one of the four dead people is around to appreciate what I've done. But for some reason, I feel a small, sad, satisfaction when I am done.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Born again liberal

Steven Pinker (whom I greatly admire) indicates in his book How the Mind Works that many of our mental stances are inborn, including whether one is liberal or conservative.
Let's for a moment accept this as a working hypothesis. Now, it's clear that one isn't born with genes for liberalism, so it has to be something else, something that is not liberal or conservative but which leads in one direction or the other. I'd think it is a way of looking at the world. I've long since decided that the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is their attitude toward the present. The conservatives like things the way they are (or were), and the liberals think we need to change things.
If this is so, then the whole reason for the vicious fighting between the two thought patterns comes down to the fact that liberals are born to view the world as imperfect and conservatives are born to view the world as fine the way it is.
Now, as with all things genetic, mental, and what have you, there is a caveat necessary. What our genes give is, in many cases, is not an absolute, overwhelming mandate (You must be a conservative), but a tendency. So, we could say that some people are born to tend toward liberalism, others are born to tend toward conservatism.
Since I am somewhat of a biological determinist, this makes lots of sense to me. It also makes it easier to forgive my liberal friends, and gives me reason to doubt both ends of the spectrum.
And, darn it, the half full/half empty glass metaphor is so after all.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Apology

Earlier today I wrote some alternate lines for the movie Angels and Demons in which I suggested that a specific religion could have been responsible for more misery than any other single organization. I now realize how wrong I was. No one, save possibly all religions together, can come close to Communism for causing death, famine, and misery. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the deaths attributable to Mao and Stalin alone at close to 60,000,000. Fold in all the kindly folks in Viet Nam, Laos, Cuba, and Berkley, and you have a huge misery index. And, when you factor in the fact that Communism has, in a variety of formulas, in a variety of places, and in a variety of contexts, proven a dismal, profound, catastrophic economic failure, the total rises even higher. So, sorry religion. Got to try harder

It's Wednesday, so let's read poetry

There's a gentle, lovely blog site that features poetry every Wednesday. It's at Go there and read some good poetry.

Including, maybe, this one


In a dream
I hold you in my arms
Under a tree in a garden

I feel the slide, flex, knot and relax
Of muscles under the smooth skin,
The patient rise and fall of rib cage,
The soft sweet breath on my cheek.

A breeze comes up,
Light as a dandelion sphere,
Moves carefully over your skin,
And eiderdown cleverly
Sublimes it away to nothing.
Muscles, bones, tissue soft and hard
Vanish -- you are gone.

Yet I feel you still,
The gentle pulse in your throat,
The spring of hair on my own.
You are you, complete and fleshed,
The steady heart beating with paced

It is the heart that is the person.

Movie Logic

The problem with movies is that everything has to advance the plot. I went to see Angels and Demons last night, and was reminded again how artificial everything is in theater. That's not a criticism -- just an observation. Theater is filled with interesting people, life isn't.
In one spot, a good? bad? guy says to Tom Hanks, "My church feeds starving people. What does yours do? Oh, yes, you don't have one." (quote approximate)
Now, no one speaks to Tom Hanks like that. The appropriate response would be, oh, something in the order of, "Your church is the single largest cause of pain, misery, death, ignorance, war, and sickness in the history of the world." But because of the plot, Tom could only look faintly abashed. This movie is supposed, I think, to be a movie of ideas, of tradition versus progress, of good and evil (Angels and Demons, get it), but can't be, because if you stop to really debate ideas (think of the long digressions in Atlas Shrugged), the plot simply stops and the bad guys get away.
I have to remind myself of that and remember that it's just a movie. Nevertheless, I want to stand, fling my popcorn (never the Jujubes) at the screen and shout, "Eat rocks, idiot" or some other equally subtle riposte.
That's one reason I don't go to many "thought provoking" or "deep" movies. If they're thought provoking, it's on a visceral level, and that can't be, can it? If they're deep, they're stupefyingly dull. If I want depth I'll read. In movies, it's visual spectacle (the cinematography and landscapes in Dances With Wolves). And of course, car chases.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


A number of items in the news have caught my attention. I remember that I vowed to be less cynical in '09. After reading the news, my feeling is: fat chance.
See, a number of things have been happening, in the middle east, naturally, because that's where you want to go for high irony (Africa is the place for political farce and plain unadorned tragedy -- see South Africa). So, what set me off this time? A number of articles about that collective nutbasket, the Taliban. It seems that in their effort to root out the Taliban, Pakistan had some collateral damage (dead civilians). The news account showed, not dead soldiers, not Taliban atrocities, but an injured child. A new high in journalistic lows. Pictures are powerful; pictures of children are very powerful; pictures of hurt children kick in the parental impulses and drive logic right out of the discussion. The upshot of the whole thing is that Pakistan (can an entire government be a jerk?) comes out looking like an insensitive, cruel, devil-worshipping band of cutthroat jackals, when for once in its shoddy existence Pakistan is doing the right thing.
The other news item, one that prompted the title to this piece, is a small item that the Taliban was being mildly criticized for flogging a teen-aged girl in public. No pictures were provided.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why do we write poetry?

I've always lived life by one simple credo: happy people don't write poetry. I believe that I may have to modify that a little. Wordsworth (I think) wrote that poetry was engendered by "The spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, recollected in tranquility." That strikes me as true. I've written maybe two dozen poems, and all are connected to events powerful in emotion, usually negative. After all, the theme of all country music is "He/she done me wrong."
What I'm wondering about right now is that I am suddenly willing to share my poetry with other people. My own impression is that my poetry is refrigerator door stuff, like 5th grade drawings, but somehow, for some obscure reason, I'd like others to read it.
You've been warned.

Night Cards

Black as a the loss of hope
The cloth lay on the table
Between us.

She laid a card on the table.
A slim finger tapped
The card, once, twice.
“This is you.”

The King of Swords.
A man on a throne
Posed as for a tintype,
His eyes on the far horizon,
A sword in one hand, scales
In the other.

Another card on the table.
The same slim finger
Tapped, tapped.
“This is me.”

The Queen of Swords
A woman on a throne
Stiff and disapproving
Sword at the ready.

She moved the cards
Together, side by side,
Almost, but not quite,

In my mind
The hands, the cards,
The cloth black as despair,
Began to whirl like water
Spiraling down a drain.

I felt my heart bunch and
Explode into a bright
Red mist like sunlight
Through parchment.

Blood is life, red and hot.
It surged through the artery
Of my left arm, out the
Aristotelian ring finger,
Evaporating as it met the
Air into an evanescent
And invisible plasma.

Like fog in the streets,
It crept over the dark cloth,
Caressed the two slim hands,
Turned the two cards
Face to face, queen on top,
And wrapped them
In the dark blanket.

Thus I refute the fates.