Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Guns Again (groan)

I've mentioned before that if someone walks into a school building with a gun and opens fire, there are two possible outcomes: 1) The person continues to shoot until he/she finishes, then is captured, killed, or commits suicide; 2) Someone inside the school intervenes. There is a third possibility, but it remains theoretical -- that the police arrive quickly enough to stop the shooter in mid-havoc.
Anyone who believes that the third possibility may become a reality anytime soon believes in the tooth fairy.
The second possibility presupposes a person already on the premises who has the wherewithal to intervene. That ponderous sentence can be translated "someone with a gun." The hierarchy of my university believe in the tooth fairy. Gun toters believe in their marksmanship. The police acknowledge that the only real way to stop a shooter is with an on-site shooter. However, they say that it would be difficult in such a situation for the police to know who is a good guy and who is a bad guy.
This is a reason for not carrying a gun? For one thing, it'll be all over by the time the cops get there, so there is no reason to worry. For another, anyone who has a license to carry a weapon knows the procedure for after a gunfight -- put up your gun and put up your hands. For a third, the police should have a procedure in place -- shoot anyone with a gun.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Witch Hunts

Newspaper columnists have a hard life. They have to find something to write about every day (or week, or whatever). If there is nothing cooking at the moment, they have to actually think of something to say (What Aristotle called "invention"). So, this morning I'm reading the Trib (Salt Lake Tribune) and see where one of my favorite apoplectics is saying that the Republicans (translation: evil people) are on a witch hunt.
Seems they are after President Obama. The writer mentions that this happened before, with President Clinton (who never, never, never did anything wrong, with or without a cigar). The Republicans (translation: evil people) hounded him, harassed him, gave him no rest.
And in between Clinton and Obama was Bush. Bush, on the other hand, was treated with deference and understanding by the media wasn't he. He wasn't hounded -- oh, no -- but given every consideration.
C'mon Krugman. Even you cannot be so blindered you don't realize that the outs always attack the ins with everything they've got. Clinton made it easy, and Obama (to my way of thinking) is making it hard, but hey, what's imagination for, if not to dream up things like faked birth certificates or hysterical newspaper columns.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Defending Dr. Laura

I never thought I'd be defending Dr. Laura. I don't like her. Her program has the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard (for you younger people, a blackboard is a primitive communication instrument).
She's under fire for using the "N word" on a program. Seems that a woman called in who was having trouble with people using the word around her (she's African American). Dr. Laura used the horrible word 11 times (count 'em) in her discussion.
So, what is Dr. Laura's crime? Did she refer to the caller as a (insert horrible word here)? No, not really. She may have done so indirectly, as "Why are you unhappy to be called a (insert horrible word here)?" She certainly used the word to refer to itself. That is, she voiced the word as an object of discussion.
Is Dr. Laura's crime that she is abrasive and insensitive? Holy Cow, Batman, who doesn't know that? I've always wondered why people call in to her when they know they're going to be abused and ridiculed. Did the caller who was worried about being called a (insert horrible word here) think that Dr. Laura was going to be all "There, there" and sympathy?
And yet people are falling all over themselves to abuse Dr. Laura. Rather than using some small portion of the 10% of their brains that actually work, people react as if the Devil him (or her, don't want to be sexist) self is amongst us. Remember, this is a society that 1) got a man fired using the word "niggardly," even though it has no connection with (insert horrible word here); 2) jumped all over a college professor who, in a historical context mentioned that illegal aliens used to be called "wetbacks"; and 3) fired a government official for a whiff of a hint of a misrepresentation of reverse racism 20 years ago.
Is it any wonder that Dr. Laura, who advises people to stop whining and get on with their lives, should be the object of a witch hunt (with apologies to all the wiccans out there)?


I've had two good friends in my life who were gay. Both came out of the closet when they were adults, married, and with children. Both formed stable relationships, in one case, a life-long one. In neither case did I suspect that they were gay until they came out.
I mention this because of one of the arguments I hear against homosexuality: It isn't natural.
I accepted this argument, more or less, for a lotta years, until I asked myself, "Who defines what's natural or not?"
Turns out it's not Mother Nature, because there are numerous examples of homosexuality throughout the animal kingdom (Heck, for all I know, there are gay plants).
It's the keepers of the moral flame who have decided it's not natural. The argument is an old one, and is found in various religious texts all over the world. It's also set down in musty law books as "The dreadful crime against nature." Reminds me of the saying (I wish I know who said it): "There are two kinds of people: The righteous and the unrighteous. The classifying is done by the righteous."
However, since nature herself doesn't seem to have any objections, I don't see why I should. In fact, I think I may even be able to see it as a good thing. For one thing, it cuts down on the competition for the girls.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The superiority of emotion

It's 4 a.m., but this hit me so hard it woke me up. I've been running the words of a song through my head. It's "Deportee," by Woody Guthrie, and if you get on youtube and choose the version from the album "Highwayman, (Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Chris) you'll get the best of the lot, IMHO.
See, Woody read an account in a newspaper in 1947 about a planeload of illegal aliens that crashed and killed 'em all. The account said they were deportees, but didn't name any of them. Guthrie got all indignant and wrote what is one of my favorite songs. One of the lines is "You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportee." Another line is, "Who are these friends who are scattered like dry leaves? The radio said they were just deportees."
But wait a minute. Think about it. Why did the paper say they were "deportees"? Because the reporters were callous brutes who didn't think the people were worth being named -- as is implied in Guthrie's song? Or perhaps -- and much more likely -- because the newsfolk didn't have any names and were under a deadline?
An emotional response is immediate, strong, and hot. A rational response takes longer, requires more data, and is cooler. It's also not nearly as much fun to stop and think about it. If Woody had considered things, we probably woudn't have such a great song.
What interests me, though, and prompted this piece, is an underlying assumption that emotion is somehow superior to logic and reason. The heart, we believe, is superior to the head. But it isn't. Ration and logic are the only real bases for decision making. Because we believe in the heart over the head, we frequently make wacko decisions that come back to haunt us, screwing up our lives and making hash of them.
The vast majority of bad decisions I've made, and that I've seen people around me make, are based on an emotional response.
Makes for good songs, though.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Phone Companies, Oh My!

I'm a AT&T customer, have been for years, since I got my first cell phone (huge honker -- remember them?). I'm currently not under contract. Recently I got a phone call making me a very nice offer if I'd re-up for two years. So, I went on line to investigate. New free phone, good; no shipping, good; and, as I started to check out and order my new new new phone, an $18.00 "Upgrade Fee." Whoa. "Why," I asked myself, "should I pay them $18.00 when I'm obligating myself to be a customer for two more years?" I decided that there was no reason, so I simply ended the transaction. Sorry AT&T, that last little grasp for my money did y'all in.
More out of curiosity than anything else, I beetled over to my local Verizon store to see what they had. Boy is that a regimented place. They have an electronic name board and they give you an incomprehensible booklet, and you get to try and understand the phone array until your sales associate notices you. First thing the guy said was, "There is a $30 sign-up fee." I told him to go no further and exited stage left, since that's where the door was. On my way out, I asked myself, you guessed it, "Why should I pay them $30 so that I can obligate myself to them for two years?"
Now, if either of those companies had said, "Welcome [your name here]. We intend to make quite a lot of money off you in the next two years, so there's no entrance fee," I'd have hopped aboard. I wonder if the phone companies have any idea at all how much business they lose because they can't resist that last gratuitous little charge?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Plato believed in reincarnation. Of course, he was living in a small, stable, population, so he could speculate about it. I've always been skeptical, because the theory (doctrine? dogma?) of reincarnation can't handle population growth very well. If humans began with Eve about 200,000 years ago, then where did the "souls" that transmigrate originally come from? And where do they come from today as population continues to grow worldwide?
But what got me thinking about the whole thing again is the question of how the concept got started in the first place. At what point did one person say, "Our souls move from person to person. When you die, your soul goes into some newborn"?
Someone had to make that hypothesis. I wonder what caused her or him to do so. If we could see into that first instant when a person had the idea, we might get an idea of what it is that makes the concept of reincarnation so persistent, despite there being absolutely no evidence for it (Forget hypnosis and "channeling." They're bogus.)
Did that first theorist see his or her mother in the eyes of a newborn? Did a young man show the characteristics of an ancestor? Did a young woman act like her dead grandmother?
Reincarnation as a doctrine gives us lots of avenues for speculation and creativity (One of my favorite novels, Ursula LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan, is based on reincarnation), but as far as it having any logical or scientific basis -- it ain't there.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Doings

Today I followed my usual Memorial Day practice of putting flowers on the graves of people who had none. I went to the older section of the Logan Cemetery and put flowers on four graves. As I did so, I'd say to each one, "This is for you, and for....." I have four names I put in the dotted section of that last sentence: Lucy Alice Smith Shook (mom); James Mitchell Shook (dad); James Walk Shook (brother. We don't know exactly where his grave is); and Walter Canby Shook (brother). None of the four are buried where I can get to them, and it's not probable that my brothers' graves get flowers at all, so it's kind of long-distance remembrance.
Today, I found myself adding things. I started looking for graves that would put the person therein interred in the same age bracket as my family member. Walter (Wally) was 11 months old when he died, so I looked for someone who was under a year when he died.
I've got to stop doing that. If I don't, pretty soon I will add other requirements regarding the age and sex of the person I'm giving flowers to, trying to match them perfectly with the family member, and so on, until what is a simple act of remembrance becomes a ritual. Add a few more flourishes and I'll get a religious ceremony.
I can do without that.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Seeing the Sea Lions

From time to time, I travel out to Oregon to see family. No, the sea lions in the title are not members of my family; they rejected me. I visited the town of Newport, which has a great beach with breakers that start waaaaay out and come foaming and crashing in all day long. My guide and daughter Sarah took us on a down and around and down and in and out route and finally ended up in a quaint, charming, tourist gotcha street bordering an actual working fish harbor.
There’s where we saw the sea lions. Some one with an eye for the comfort of the sea lions and for what tourists like had built some sea lion homes out of boards. They were boardwalks, only they were floating in the harbor just under the dock we walked out on. We could look into the sea lions’ home life from about thirty feet up. Now I know how those aliens in UFO’s must feel as they xray our bedrooms at night.
I guess there were thirty sea lions who had set up housekeeping there, which consisted mostly of lounging about and occasionally giving a loud, harsh, raspy bark, kinda like a large dog with a sore throat. Sea lions, for those of you who don’t know about such things, are just like seals, except they really need to diet. There heads aren’t much larger than a seal’s, and shaped the same, but from the neck down the body bloats so that they look like they’ve been sucking on an air hose. In the water, they are sleek and graceful, out of the water, they’re sacks of blubber. They enter the water easily but in getting out they look like a comedy skit. You try hauling 500 pounds of blubber out of the water with two hands shaped like Japanese fans and see how you look.
What kept me, and everybody else riveted to the dock was not how the sea lions looked or swam, nor the noises they made, but their social activity. Apparently, the criterion of social standing for a sea lion is space. If you have no social standing, you are crowded on the boardwalk like New Yorkers in a subway. If you have high standing, you get room to stretch out. One old guy who weighed in the neighborhood of 600 pounds had about 10 feet of boardwalk all for himself, out of a total of maybe 60 feet all together. On the other hand, there were 15 skinnier, younger, low-on-the-list sea lions in the 10 feet next to him.
The main activity of the group seemed centered around getting more space. Those who had it defended it by biting at interlopers, or simply bumping them off the board with their (I assume) hips and shoulders. Those who didn’t have space tried to get it, and having gotten it, enlarged it. One poor little sea lion spent most of his time in the water. He would furtively poke his snout onto the boards, and if not immediately repelled, slither up. He’d usually get about half way up when he’d get noticed and shunted back into the water.
My indignation was aroused. I wanted to shout down at them, “Look you knotheads. If you give everybody an equal share, then you can all use the boardwalk. There’s plenty for everybody. Why can’t you be rational, like humans?”
As I was thinking this, somebody squeezed into the gap between me and my daughter. I felt like giving him a good elbow in the ribs.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Morality and all that

I've been reading a book by Robert Wright called The Evolution of God, in which he traces the changes in the nature of God (or of how people think of God) from forces of nature to tribal deities to national gods to the idea of one God to the idea of a loving universal God. Fascinating stuff and well worth reading.
But that's not what this is about. What this blog is about is what powered the evolution of God. Now Wright doesn't say anything about this, but as he outlines the ideas and the history, a progression becomes clear. The first step in the progression is an advancement in science/technology (domesticating of grains; irrigation). From this springs an advance in civilization (rise of cities; laws). From this springs an increase in moral understanding. And finally, from the increase in moral understanding, comes a change in religious thought.
I note two things from this: First that the understanding of the nature of the world around us is the wellspring of all progress, temporal and spiritual. Second, religion is a tag-along and in no way a leader in all of this. In fact, religion is usually dragging its feet, heels dug in, kicking and screaming.
One reason I feel compelled to write this is a widespread belief that "science has failed us." I wonder at the sheer gall and massive silliness of people who can actually say such things without going into giggle fits.
In fact, science is not only what has saved us, it's the only thing that offers any hope for the future.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Finding out

I was told in all seriousness yesterday that 1) Barack Obama was born in Indonesia, 2) that he is not a citizen of the United States, 3) that he has refused to tender his birth certificate to the proper authorities to prove he's a US citizen, 4) that he is fighting 20 lawsuits to make him show his birth certificate. There were some more, including the charge that he's a chain smoker.
My reply, since I'd never heard any of these charges, was that we first have to determine that the items under discussion were factual. My motto, which I sometimes even follow, is "Let's answer questions of fact before we discuss questions of value."
When I got home after the discussion, I went to my trusted friend Google, and typed in Obama and birth certificate. Just those three words. Up came all the answers to my questions, which were: 1) Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, as I had thought, 2) he is most definitely a citizen of the United States (He had a dual citizenship but gave up the other in 1982), 3) his birth certificate is readily available -- and in fact there were several images of it, and 4) who cares? I couldn't find anything on the lawsuits but then I didn't look too hard.
What bothers me is not that people are believing things that are not true but even ridiculous (Do you honestly think that the Democratic National Committee would have let Obama run had he not had and presented a birth certificate?), but (where was I?) that people don't even check when it's the easiest thing in the world. In a world glutted with information, people still prefer ignorance over knowing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I had an epiphany (always wanted to use that word) this morning. I was taking my shower and wondering why I had such antipathy for people like Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. "It's their air of smug superiority," says I. "But," replied I, "What about Molly Ivans?" She was as smugly superior as any of them, and could raise your blood pressure 50 points. And what about Rush, Beck, and the others? You can't stand to listen to them? And aren't they smugly superior too. Yet you don't feel the downright dislike for them that you have for K&D and company."
I had to concede that I was right. It had to be something more. In a flash of inspiration and suddenly cold water, I realized that is was the fact that Krugman, Dowd, et al, were so @#$%^ solemn about what they were saying, as if they really did have the secret to the universe and were willing (just barely) to share it with me.
With that insight, the universe opened up. Now I can see why it's so hard for me to listen to any religious leader, philosopher, or politician, and why I love cartoons, comedy, and poets. Cartoons and comedy, though more serious than tragedy (true!), keep it concealed, and who takes poets seriously anyway?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Back on Track

I had my faith in the universe shaken to the core the other day when I agreed with something that columnist Paul Krugman wrote. Normally I simply think the guy is long on bile and short on the finer points of logic and reasoning. Today, though, things were in their normal place. Mr. Krugman wrote that the Bush administration (whom he blames for everything that's gone wrong since prohibition) is to blame for the banking mess because they didn't watch the bankers closely enough.
The problem with that is that it just ain't so. Mr. Krugman has made a logical connection that isn't really there. Let's suppose that I am king of the world, and I neglect to make a law against murder. So, Cain kills Abel and gets away with it. Now, I am negligent in not making a law, but that's just so that we can get away with whacking Cain for whacking Abel. The key point is that the lack of a law didn't cause Cain to kill Abel. If I remember right, it was jealousy and the desire for gain that did the trick.
So, the greedy, avaricious, unscrupulous (several other adjectives here) bankers fleeced the public and did so because there were no people standing over them with whips. Okay, we need oversight. But, and here's the point that Krugman either forgot, elided, or simply left out: the lack of supervision provided an opportunity, but didn't cause the act. A subtle point, but an important one.
I respect Mr. Krugman's intelligence -- I really do. It's just that we are at opposite ends of the elephant. I've got the trunk and he's got...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I've always thought that physicians felt that the initials MD stood for "minor deity." After reading the news today, I think I should change that. They think MD stands for "Major Deity." It seems that many states want to 1) expand the scope of practice for nurses, especially Nurse Practitioners, and 2) allow them to be called "Doctor," if they have earned the degree. The AMA, according to my source, opposes both ideas.
I really don't see why they should oppose the first of the proposals. After all, if the NP's can dispense medicine and make other decisions, then the MD's can spend more time on the golf course. And everyone will be happier, including the patients, since studies show that NP's listen to patients better than MD's and the quality of care is identical.
I've long thought that, for the overwhelming number of cases where a patient comes to see a MD, the MD is woefully overeducated. Most cases are a such that an intelligent person with a semester or two of training could diagnose and treat. MD's will moan that this is not so, but it is. The best health care I ever had was from a physician's assistant.
A good NP will listen, prescribe, treat, and if the case is serious or troublesome, kick it up to a MD.
In fact, I'd suggest that, instead of more MD's, we need fewer. There should be a cadre of highly trained MD's who deal with the tough cases. The rest of the time, NP's could do the work, do it at least as well, and for a lot less money.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Categorizing people

As humans, one thing we do is place people in categories. It's not something we can choose not to do; it's part of our cognitive makeup. Indeed, if we don't categorize, we don't perceive. But the old categories aren't any good any more. Can't use color (not because it's non-PC to use color), but because any color distinctions aren't reliable. Can't use any other ethnicity, either, for the same reason. Can't use things like body art. One of the sweetest, loveliest, kindest people on this earth has a shoulder arm liberally tattooed. Dress? It is to laugh. Again, I know a person whose dress screams "TART," but who is anything but.
So, how do we classify people? I offer the following methods:
1. How does this person treat his/her partner? Affection? Love? Tenderness? Sarcasm? Cruelty? Indifference?
2. How does this person treat his/her children? Children require infinite patience.
3. How does this person treat casual contacts? (Waitresses, bus drivers, sales clerks)
4. How does this person treat strangers?
Notice a thread here?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pack Ratting

My Dad saved stuff. All sorts of stuff. Not stuff like string or stamps, but stuff like nuts and bolts, old two by fours, chunks of metal, used spark plugs, wire, rope, cable, pipe, and, of course, every tool known to humankind. I have an old anvil/vise that was his. It weighs more than I do, and is solid iron decorated in rust and grease. It has seen probably 80 years of hard use, and is ready to go for another 80.
We used to say, apropos of Dad's penchant for keeping things, "He was raised during the depression." And that's true; he was 18 when Wall Street took the big one. We also said, "It's because of his upbringing." And that was true too. He came from a Kansas farming family that couldn't quite make a go of it.
Both those things, surely, will move a person toward saving and making do.
Today I started cleaning out my garage. Only one side, mind you. I who was raised amidst enough if not plenty, who am not a farmer and am not anywhere near a depression, have more stuff in the right side of my garage than my Dad ever did on his best day. In his best year. I have a set of delicate metal tubes that are extensions for my canoe seat -- except that I don't have that canoe any more. However, you never can tell when you might need a canoe-seat extension. I have enough tent pegs and tie downs for 16 and a fraction tents. I have three extra sets of automobile floor mats. I have enough towels, rags, and polishers to the polish the Eiffel Tower and still have enough to clean up the drips. After all, you never can tell.
So, I'm thinking that amassing piles of useless junk isn't a function of training or life experiences. It's genetic, pure and simple. I have inherited a junk gene. My first wife had a neat-freak gene.
If you are the partner of a neat freak, it's not their fault. If you're the partner of a junk junkie, it's not their fault either. Live and let live, and whatever you do, don't try to change them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sleaze will out

The local paper is full of the news. A bigshot in the state legislature has resigned. Seems that some years ago he talked a 15-year old into spending some time with him in a hot tub -- without clothes. He says there was no touching; she says there was.
Whom do we believe? He paid her $150 grand to keep her mouth shut; she talked anyway (This played out over about 15 years). He's upright and moral (except that he gets nekkid with 15-year-old girls); she has a history of drink, drugs, and strange behavior (even then).
I'm thinking that we ought to believe her. This for three reasons: first, she has no reason to lie, since just being in the tub with her is bad enough. Second, no sane man talks someone into getting into a hot tub naked with nothing more than companionship in mind. Third, who cares? Here's a guy who is not only highly churched, but an elected official. To do something as downright, upright, forthright, and birthright stupid as he did means that hanging is too good for him.
The girl, by the way, claims that finally coming clean (the $150K gone) has turned her life around. Given her history, or what I read of it, I have to be a little skeptical. It's not as if a grown man inveigled an innocent babe out of her clothes. I have a sneaking suspicion that she was willing.
The picture is, as most pictures of morality, sin, excess, and redemption are, murky tones of gray. No black and white here.
None of which is too important. The screamingly salient fact is that he was grown up; she wasn't. That makes all the difference. There's the black and white for you.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Darwin (my hero) suggested that language evolved from "rhythmic chants." I'm not too sure that I agree with him on this, but recent developments lend this idea some credibility. For instance, one might ask what the absolute essential ingredient to music is. Well, rap music (for purposes of this discussion, I will consider it music) has pared music down to two ingredients: rhythm and lyrics, and since I can't understand the lyrics (nor have any wish to), that leaves rhythm, which my musician son tells me can actually be quite sophisticated.
So, one could make a case that the one thing music has to have is rhythm. What next, then? I'm thinking melody. Then harmony? Then lyrics?
There are of course counterexamples to much of this. Gregorian chants, for instance, have lyrics but only the most basic melody and rhythms, and no harmony at all.
Which leads me to nonsense songs: those popular songs in which the lyrics are either silly ("Yummy, yummy, yummy; I've got love in my tummy"), or literally without sense (Does anybody remember the song -- spelling approximate -- "Hut sut rawl sittin' on a rilliraw"?). In these songs, what ever pleasure we get from them comes largely from the melody and rhythm.
Other songs might include "Purple People Eater," "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," "Mairzy Doats," and almost any camp song you can think of.
Certainly we get pleasure from the combination of rhythm and melody. If, though, we consider such things as sporting event cheers (rhythm and lyrics but no melody), and much of poetry (ditto rhythm, lyrics, no melody), we see that the one constant thread is rhythm.
Son of a gun. Maybe Darwin had it right all along.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Guns and roses and so on

Sigh. There's a new movement about called "open carry," which means that a person who owns a firearm can carry it openly. I've made it clear in other posts that I am in favor of being allowed to carry a concealed weapon, if a person has taken a rigorous course in gun safety, knows the law, is able to actually shoot the damned thing (you'd be surprised how hard it is to hit anything with a handgun), and has the sense to realize that using a gun is a last last last resort sort of thing.
Hence my concern with open carry. If I am carrying a concealed weapon, I might just as well be nice Mr. Everyone. A responsible concealed carry person doesn't show the weapon, doesn't mention the weapon, backs away from confrontation, and uses it only in situations described and prescribed by law.
But an open carry weapon is a confrontation itself. It sorta says, "Here I am, a macho dude and the direct descendant of all those folks who fought duels and made the west safe for democracy and schoolmarms. Don't mess with me."
It makes persons around uncomfortable. When I see a cop carrying a firearm, I know that he or she (supposedly) has spent hundreds of hours on the firing range, and knows that drawing said firearm is a last resort. If I see Slim in cowboy boots, a tall hat, and a six shooter, I don't have that same assurance.
Guns scare me. They scare me especially on someone who uses the presence of a gun to establish masculinity or to intimidate people. Y'all know what Freudians think of firearms, and in this case, I'm inclined to believe them. Never thought I'd say that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Let's Hope

I was accused of being a cynic this morning. See, we had a meeting in my department at the university, and a plan was floated whereby we would have town meetings and discuss proposals for making our college better and better. These proposals would be winnowed out in a fair and open fashion and a number of proposals given to the new dean that we are in the process of hiring.
I ventured to opine that a new dean coming into an unknown situation might balk at having a bunch of untried proposals thrust upon him/her. Hence the "cynic" label.
It would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if the rank and file could indeed gather together, come up with ideas, and have those ideas taken seriously? It's never happened in the past, though. We're asked for ideas, we give them, and they are never heard from again.
For inspiration, I always go to poets, and strangely enough, I generally choose from those who are thought to be cynical. And I was rewarded by my search today (The poems follow). What I get from them is this: A) You can't lose all hope for good things to happen, and 2) even if it's futile, keep on trucking.

The Oxen
Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel"

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

The Last Word
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!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sixth Sense

No, I don't see dead people. In fact, often I don't see live people. And sometimes I can't tell the difference.
What I'm going to be talking about is the way we sense things and don't quite know why. We tend to like to put labels on things, as if that explains them. So, for instance, we label something an instinct, as if that takes care of the problem. But it doesn't, 'cause for it to really explain, we have to have a mechanism in place that connects you and the experience. Labels are just labels.
So, let's take a look at the sixth sense. Say you're driving along the highway, daydreaming a little, and suddenly, you come alert, sensing danger. Without thinking, you swap lanes and a giant, huge, 72-wheeler, double-clutching semi runaway goes roaring by in the precise place where you were a second ago.
Saved by your sixth sense, or angels, or the influence of the second star to the left of Antares.
Can you tell I don't buy this? "Well, smart ***," you say, "what did save me?"
Enter James Gibson, whose book The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, gives us a mechanism. Mr. Gibson will tell you more than you probably want to know about how we humans (and other animals) interact (or don't --consider a jellyfish) with gravity. It's astonishing how much we use gravity as a way of interacting with the world around us.
Back to the highway and the big truck. It turns out that we are extremely sensitive to changes in ambient light (that's the kind of surrounding light that makes it so we can see things). If I'm in my car and there is a change in the ambient light caused by a huuuuge truck coming up on my rear, then I'll react to that, without (and this is the key), actually knowing what I'm reacting to.
Now, you can believe in the sixth sense if you want to, or in angels, or in astrally projected beings from another dimension (expressed as mice (that's for you Hitchhiker's Guide fans)), but I'll stick with Gibson. I think humans are more attuned to their environment than we really know. And I don't think we need posit anything outside ourselves to account for the fact that we've survived as a species lo these many years.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


I note in my local paper that one of Utah's legislators has suggested doing away with the 12th grade in school. His reasoning is suspect, but certainly we ought to look at ways of improving our school system.
Our schools, I feel, should have two responsibilities (besides keeping the kids out of sight and circulation). The first is to teach them about the world -- its history, construction, their place in it, all that jazz. The second is to teach to operate in that world. That's where we fall down.
Before I discuss my system, though, two thoughts: 1) We no longer live in a society where kids are necessary to the family during the summers. They don't need to slop the hogs and pull the plows, to pull that barge and tote that bale. Therefore, school should be year-round. 2) There is more information outside the school than inside. Therefore, schools should concentrate on things that a student needs a classroom setting to get.
My system, the Shook Universal Education Theorem (Or SUET), consists of two parts, each part taking one-half the school day (which should be eight hours long, not including lunch breaks). Part one is theory: history, writing, reading, geography, math, geology, all those things that impart information. Anything but the knowledge basics would be extra-curricular (and here I include band, choir, art, drama, literary studies, sports).
The second half of each day would be spent learning to work, either by studying a craft, practicing a trade, or being an apprentice, all done in a work setting (with pay) when possible.
It'll never happen, though, will it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Epigenetics Anyone?

The newest wrinkle in the evolution wars is epigenetics. What epigenetics proposes is that we have mechanisms which decide how strongly a genetic trait is expressed. How strongly the trait is expressed is a result of, among other things, the experiences of the parent. So, a trait which an offspring inherits can, in one generation, be dramatically changed. This in contrast to the traditional Darwinian concept that change is more or less random.
If this is so (and information is sparse but persuasive), then evolution is not necessarily the slow, plodding, blind process that we have all thought it to be. It can operate much more swiftly than we could have imagined.
Some have written that this view supersedes Darwin. Au contraire, my friends. It adds to it, but the basics of Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest, still rule. Nor can we say that the evolutionary theories of Lamarck have been vindicated. Lamarck, it will be remembered, thought that acquired characteristics could be passed on. If that were true, theorists say, Jewish males would long since have been born without foreskins.
Epigenetic theory proposes that the basic DNA doesn't change. What changes is the way it shows up in the finished product. This is exciting news indeed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Men evolving

Well, my local paper is at it again, misunderstanding current events, or at least not matching headlines to the text. The headline was "Men evolving faster," or something like that. What the text said was that the information on the Y chromosome has changed much more quickly than that on other chromosomes.
Folks, that isn't evolving. That's change. Evolution has two components: change and survival. Any change is an evolutionary change if it increases the chances of a person's surviving to reproduce. Nor is change directional. That is, if men's Y chromosomes are changing, that doesn't mean they are getting better; it simply means that they are changing. The future will decide whether the change is toward the more efficient man. Or, the changes may be utterly insignificant, since most mutations are. Nor can you say that if man is evolving, woman isn't. All you can say is that the Y chromosome in men appears to be changing. Not nearly as interesting as assuming that men are moving ahead of themselves or of women.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Choosing God

There are plenty of Gods in the world today, so in essence it's a buyer's market. So, if you're in the market for a God (and a religion to go with it), I think there are some questions that you ought to ask yourself before you choose:
1: What will my God require of me? Forget the "Broken heart and contrite spirit" stuff and get to the nitty gritty. What do I have to do for my God? Most religions have at least some, "Thou shalt worship me" component to them. So, the purpose of the religion is to glorify God. This has always struck me as a little funny. I mean, this is God we're talking about, right? The supreme being? Why does this being feel he/she/incarnation/spirit/essence needs to be reassured? Isn't He/She/It secure in His/Her/Its godhood?
How much money am I going to have to give this God, and what will it be used for? How much is my God going to micro-manage my life? Will I be told what to wear? What to eat on certain days? What thoughts to think and when to think them? Whom to hate and whom to love?
2: What do I get out of this (I mean besides salvation, or lots of virgins, or nothingness)? For instance, in many Christian religions, the reward for a good life is to hang around heaven all day singing God's praises. That doesn't strike me as being much fun. I want to be able to date all the neat chicks and I'd like a Rolls and a Rolex.
I think that some tangible evidence of God's intentions and sincerity would also be helpful.
All I'm saying is, think before you commit yourself.

Culture and cultures

When my Mother and Dad lived in Afghanistan in the late 60's, Mom spent much of her time in the bazaars searching out hand-made, one-of-a-kind items crafted from wood, brass, stone, and wool. She treasured them for the hours of labor that went into them, and I still have much of what she got. At the end of her tenure there, her house staff bought her a present (These were people with almost no money). It was a pitcher, shaped in the form of a chicken, and made of translucent, pebble-grained, clear --- plastic. It was the ugliest thing I've ever seen
My Mother thanked them graciously, and then asked, "Why did you buy me this particular piece?" "Oh Memsahib," one of them answered, "There were three of them in the bazaar, and they were all exactly alike. And, if you dent it, you can push it back out. It is easy to clean and will last a long time."
What was undesirable to us was wonderful to them. The idea that you could produce a thousand items, all alike, was mind-boggling to them. We in the west desire the unique, the irregular, the one-off, but that's because we have the luxury of things that work the same way every time, of taps that turn on and and off, of reliable hot water, of flushing toilets, of synthetic motor oil and automatic furnaces and dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and toilet paper and....
If you don't have any of those things, they are wonders to you. I visit a mountain-man encampment every year and watch all the people playing at living in 1840, when a mountain man would have killed for a down-filled sleeping bag and a 30-30.
We want traditional people to stay traditional, for the Navajo to herd sheep and weave rugs and look colorful as they stand alongside the highways. By and large, they want hi-def TV and a brand new pickup. To heck with the charm, let them get warm in the winter.