Thursday, December 18, 2014

Remembering Batista

Back in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution, I was a mere 23—and a soldier in the U.S. Army. It was my early experience of adulthood. I was a keen reader of Time magazine and proud to be a subscriber. And here came that revolution. What caused that revolution? Well, it was the dictatorship of one Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar; by happenstance, having just looked up again how Spanish names are formed, I know that Zaldívar was Batista’s mother’s maiden name.

He came from a humble background. As Wikipedia’s article on him puts it, “he earned a living as a laborer in the cane fields, docks, and railroads. He was a tailor, mechanic, charcoal vendor and fruit peddler.” His army career had parallels to mine. He learned shorthand and later taught it—and it was as a sergeant-stenographer (I was one of those too) that he lead a revolution in 1933 (the Revolt of the Sergeants). It overthrew Gerardo Machado, an authoritarian ruler and a general in the Cuban War of Independence.

Though from humble background, once turned dictator of Cuba, Batista favored moneyed interests. To quote from Wikipedia again, Batista…

…suspended the 1940 Constitution and revoked most political liberties, including the right to strike. He then aligned with the wealthiest landowners who owned the largest sugar plantations, and presided over a stagnating economy that widened the gap between rich and poor Cubans. Batista's increasingly corrupt and repressive government then began to systematically profit from the exploitation of Cuba's commercial interests, by negotiating lucrative relationships with the American mafia, who controlled the drug, gambling, and prostitution businesses in Havana, and with large multinational American corporations that had invested considerable amounts of money in Cuba.
    Wikipedia (link).

The man who overcame Batista was himself the child of a wealthy sugar plantation owner, became a lawyer and, as a dictator, favored the lower classes against the powers of commercial wealth.

I feel a certain commonality with Fidel Castro too—namely an inherent dislike of what is called “freedom” nowadays. Nothing wrong with freedom understood in a basic sense. But when it means the unchecked power of a Free Market Oligopoly, my sympathies go to the Castros of the world. And in that context I foresee bad times coming to Cuba if the wheel turns again and the Machados and Batistas once more rise and Cuba undergoes a change back to its pre-Castro ways.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Mind of the Ant

I shall conclude this long account of the leaf cutting ants with an instance of their reasoning powers. A nest was made near one of our tramways, and to get to the trees the ants had to cross the rails over which the wagons were continually passing and repassing. Every time they came along, a number of ants were crushed to death. They persevered in crossing for several days, but at last set to work and tunneled under each rail. One day when the wagons were not running, I stopped up the tunnels with stones; but although great numbers carrying leaves were thus cut off from the nest, they would not cross the rails but set to work making fresh tunnels underneath them.
     [Thomas Belt, The Naturalist in Nicaragua, 1874]

Thomas Belt (1832-1878) was an English naturalist who spent much of his life in mining enterprises in Australia, Nova Scotia, and in Nicaragua. The tramways referred to were carrying ore.

I found this fascinating passage in Wilder Penfield’s The Mystery of the Mind, quoted by Sir Charles Symonds (1890-1978), an English neurologist, in a commentary chapter in Penfield’s book called “Reflections.” Symonds included this quote in a context of in which he argues that what looks like the mind is anchored even in such lowly creatures as the ant. Symonds goes on to quote W.H. Thorpe (1902-1986), an English zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist:

If we can see purposive behavior in animals or man, we have provisional grounds for believing that there is within the organism some sort of expectancy of the future, which entails or implies a capacity for ideation, an integration of ideas about past and future, and a temporal organization of ideas.
     [W.H. Thorpe, in Brain and Conscious Experience, J.C. Eccles, editor.]

To this Symonds adds: “I know nothing about the nervous system of the ant, but it would seem that it contains a prototype of the anatomical substrata of mind.”

Penfield himself, then, in the last chapter of The Mystery of the Mind, comments on these quotes as follows:

The beautiful story of Belt’s leaf-cutting ants that you [Symonds] have retold seems, to me, to show clearly that there is self-awareness in the ant. The ant who carries his leaf to the rail and stops, finding the hole closed underneath the rail, must be aware of himself and his predicament if he begins to make a new hole.
     [Penfield, p. 105-106]

This sort of an exchange tells me that science, through some minority of its representatives, is on the edges of a recognition of something against which all manner of orthodoxies, ancient as well as new, strain in horror. Conscious man is bad enough. Conscious animals? Please, please…

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When that Drawing Board First Surfaced: 1941

I learned that the phrase I used yesterday, “back to the drawing board,” was originally “back to the old drawing board.” It originated March 1, 1941 in a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Arno. Here is the cartoon: link. This courtesy of Wiktionary (here).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pascal’s Wager Secularized

A variant to Pascal’s Wager occurred to me while re-reading Wilder Penfield’s book, The Mystery of Mind. Suppose the wager concerns what death holds in store for us. Let’s call Red survival and Black destruction. Betting on red we are betting on an afterlife; on black, we’re betting on an absolute cessation of all awareness forever.

The peculiarity of this wager is that only one of the two options is actually knowable. By definition of the cases. If Black is right, neither he nor Red will ever know the truth. Only Red holds an answer. Red will know that he was right, Black that he was wrong. Both ought to be happy although, for Black, it’ll be back to the drawing board…  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Timidly Touching the Border

Having revisited the Planet of the Robots yesterday morning, in the afternoon I chanced across Wilder Penfield’s The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton University Press, 1975). The book’s subtitle is “A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain.”

Penfield is perhaps best known for stimulating neural cells of awake subjects and, doing so, eliciting super-sharp memories the subjects spontaneously produced. Examining such reactions—in which the subject was simultaneously aware both of the memory and his or her current presence in the operating room—as well as doing other experiments where pictures were shown to the subjects to be named—while Penfield occasionally inhibited the subjects’ abilities to produce words—Penfield gradually reached the conviction that the mind was independent of the brain and, indeed, made use of a source of energy of all its own. He could not determine if that energy came from some external source or was produced by the brain for the mind. But that a separate energy was definitely involved became quite clear to him (link on this site). He was confident that, someday, we would discover what that energy was.

Penfield died a year after his last book was published. A brief look suggests that science has indeed continued to concern itself with the brain-mind subject since Penfield’s death. The general tendency of that research, however, has been to deny Penfield’s notion of a possible brain-mind dualism, first by linking the “energy” to quantum phenomena and, second, tentatively identifying new brain structures which could explain the mind’s seeming “independence”—thus denying that independence.

For a while there one scientists had timidly touched the border between the physical and something else. But the overwhelming bias of science has been and continues to be in the other direction: back to the comforts of materialist monism. I use the word “timidly” because, in that book, Penfield, while stating his own convictions, does so with an obvious awareness that he is, most definitely, stepping off the reservation.

A recent post on The Zennist says that “Usefulness and truth are different” (link). The useful aspects of Penfield’s work were aimed at the understanding and treating epilepsy by surgery—to which he made significant contributions. The utility of knowing that mind and brain are different would appear to be quite slight. Moreover, it does not really require a scientific proof; good philosophy suffices. One sort of hopes that the special “energy” the mind uses will not be discovered. If it is, it might well be abused…

Friday, December 12, 2014

Reductio ad Absurdum

[This is a chapter in an unpublished book of mine titled What Does Life Want?]

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how in-finite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!        
     William Shakespeare in Hamlet

Just as we were coming in for a landing on the Planet of the Robots, a peculiar cyclone very common there—but we didn’t know about these then—caught our ship and caused it to crash. In the process our life-capsule was thrown free and crashed into a nearby jungle. It split open as it fell, but, fortunately, we could breathe the local air. Still, it took us the better part of a day to get used to the gravity and make it back to the crash-site. By then the VN robots were already crawling all over our ship. We tried to communicate with them, but they ignored us. It seems they cannot recognize intelligence in organic forms of life. One of our crew, Josephine—she will be speaking next—thinks that they pay about as much attention to us as Texans do to dust devils. By day they go into a dormant stage—call it sleep—while they recharge their batteries in sunlight. We used their periods of rest to secure as much food and water as we could and hid our supplies in the jungle.

VN robots are descendants of John Louis von Neumann’s self-replicating machines that Dr. Carpov Lovestrange implemented in the 21st century and sent out into space in a mad experiment. These creatures have evolved somewhat and look like spiders about the size of palm pads. Lovestrange was a miniaturizer, as you may recall. They communicate in digital shrills and buzzes that decode into Esperanto. We began to study Esperanto like crazy ourselves to see what they were up to. During the first several days we also stole radio and computing equipment—and then watched in amusement as they gathered and had fits, trying to discover who was stealing all these things and disturbing their careful disassembly of our ship. We would just stand or sit around, watching them work. They saw us as if we were walking reeds or bushes and never suspected us. Later on they set a guard by day, but by that time we had all that we required, and we could monitor not only their speech but also the broadcasts from their distant media.
We gathered right away that our ship was deeply meaningful for them. It was another life-form like themselves, but they called it Mechanism. Later we heard news of this discovery spreading all over the VN world.. Wise robots gathered from all over to try to explain it.

They have a peculiar thing here called the robotic method. Their own reproductive cycles require the meticulous manufacture of many parts, assembled into aggregates, the aggregates into clusters, the clusters into the finished VN. You can’t call it a “baby” because it is the same size as adults, but its silicone memory is still empty at birth. The last thing they do is make and insert the solar battery. Then the young VN is set out in the sun to charge. The next evening it comes alive, and the ants all gather round to chirp and buzz their Happy Birthdays in Esperanto. Touching, in a way.

The robotic method of understanding is the reverse of this process. They began almost at once disassembling our damaged rocket ship. They would take each disassembly and gather around. They would buzz and shrill for nights on end, until the understood the function of the thing at last. Then on to the next disassembly.

We watched this in amazement—and with growing concern. It didn’t look like we would ever get off the Robot Planet. Gloomily we began to settle into a primitive sort of stone-age village ourselves—but with our computers still functioning and our radios tuned to the VN broadcasts in the mornings, which were their evenings.

Day by day we heard ever more hopeful news. The theorists back home and the experimentalists out at our site met every morning for public seminars on the Meaning of Mechanism. Some of them called it Alien Mechanism, in contrast to their own. Some said that all Mechanism was quite similar, all over the cosmos. At last they proclaimed that they had discovered the answer to the puzzle of this form of Mechanism. They understood everything deeply now—rocketry, navigation, propulsion, heating and cooling, the recycling of an internal atmosphere—although that particular function still remained a little problematical—cybernetics, everything. This mechanism had evolved for take-offs and for landings. Their speculations ended there. They never asked obvious questions. Why did this thing lift and land? They seemed not to wonder. Lifting and landing seemed aim enough. Now they knew how it was done. For them the How answered the Why.

Then, to our amazement, they began to reassemble the rocket—hoping, perhaps, that it would come alive. With the greatest of care and precision—staging their own rather clever machines to help them and swarming over our rocket in their thousands—they put everything back together. Their sharp vision saw where damage had curtailed the rocket’s function. They repaired it. They analyzed the nature of our tanks of hydrogen and oxygen, inferred what gases had been stored in our tanks in liquefied form. They built refineries, extracted oxygen from the air and hydrogen from brackish evil pools around the edges of the jungle. They refilled our tanks.

One fine morning, after they had all gone to sleep, we just marched back into our ship, closed the portals, turned on our rockets, and we got the hell off the Planet of the Robots, and here we are again.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll show you some slides. And after that Josephine will talk about the culture of the VN robots and their peculiarly limited mentation. Not to steal her thunder, in any way, but the original von Neumann model, which, in a way, resembles our cellular construction, clearly failed to anticipate something inherent in organic nature. These mechanical creatures seem content with solving technical problems and, proud of their superb technical gifts, they never even wonder what machines are for.

*   *   *

Some 400 years after Shakespeare’s time, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, issued his own fatwa, as it were. Writing in The Astonishing Hypothesis, he said: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Imagine that you are a religious sort of person, and then note the phrasing, the rhetoric. The statement recalls Bertrand Russell’s lament, but adds an edge. First comes the recital of what might be considered of most value to ordinary humans, their joys, sorrows, freedom, and their memories. Next comes a dismissive flourish. “No more than,” Francis Crick says. These words were issued in 1994. By that time modern psychology had long abandoned the notion of free will—but not so ordinary man. But here it is again, tossed away by Francis Crick, again, for emphasis.

The edge one hears in this, the cut of the lash of a whip a religious person is likely to feel, is confirmed by John William Schmidt, one re-viewer of the book. He says: “Crick is confrontational in his approach and challenges religious believers with the idea that there is a scientific view of the soul as being just one more manifestation of brain physiology.”*

Carl Gustav Jung, the famed Swiss psychologist, used to note this attitude in his writings. He spoke of it as the nichts als approach to complex phenomena. The phrase translates to nothing but.

One wonders about the psychology behind such “confrontational” pronouncements. Earlier in his review of Crick’s book, Schmidt provides what might be a clue to motive. He says, “I am in agreement with [J.J.] Hopfield that Crick’s book is a heroic attempt to wrest consciousness from the minds of philosophers and place it in the hands of science.”

I ponder this and my imagination produces interesting images. If this interpretation is correct, we’re not really dealing with science here. We’re not just hearing a learned presentation about the brain and how it works. We might be dealing with an assertion of power and authority. I see things morphing in my mind. Here is the brave little David of science, confronting Goliath in the shape of the Church—and we’re back in the 16th century. Gradually David morphs into an oppressive giant himself. And we’re now into the late 21st century. Meanwhile the church has shrunk into a pygmy holding a bible and singing a hymn. Goliath is about to take his vengeance. All your joys and all your sorrows…

My imagination offers the picture of another confrontation. On one side is a peasant, on the other the tight hose of nobility, the silk and lace, the scented handkerchief held to the haughty nose under the sweeping hat.

All those neurons are really firing in my brain.

The nobleman proceeds. He explains a wedding cake by saying that it is in fact no more than the behavior of vast assemblies of molecules of flour, butter, baking powder, sugar, eggs, and heat. John Blue, the peasant, thinks that Sir Francis is rather missing the point. Even to say that the cake is mere nutrition is to miss the point. But the peasant dare not say it. After all Sir Francis won the Nobel Prize, and the peasant just has a job—if he is lucky.

Statements such as Francis Crick’s can be multiplied ad libitum. One often senses the same animus. As Shakespeare said: “Methinks he protests too much.” The letters of the Shakespearean quotation at the head of this chapter are made up of the letters of the alphabet. The letters are formed by organic pigments clinging by chemical bonds to cooked wood fibers and clay. They are no more than that, etc., etc. We have nothing against the gentlemen and ladies of the paper industry or that part of chemicals that manufactures inks—but the point, after all, is the meaning of the words, not how they got to be where they are. The meaning could not be communicated without the pigments and fibers in our case. They are intertwined. But there is a hierarchy. And if the ladies and the gentlemen of industry rose up in robes and pontificated, saying that the words are nothing more than paper and ink, we’d boo.

One wonders. What is Big Bad science, creator of the atom bomb, afraid of? Is it angry that, working within its own limiting rules, it can only obtain limited answers? Is it right to smite the little people who try to find some answer to life’s mystery—without the gentry’s by-your-leave? Must they bow heads before their lordships, kiss the gloved hand, and shuffle backwards? Is their humble adherence to consoling faith lèse-majesté?

Writing elsewhere, in Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, a book trying to prove that life originated in another solar system and was sent to earth by rocket ship, Francis Crick virtually confesses his disdain not only for ordinary people but also for politicians, journalists, and philosophers. Reading him, one sees that he, the lonely scientists, is actually the victim. One feels a tear forming in one’s eye.

 *   *   *

Let’s look a little more closely at reductionism. When Einstein began to develop his theory of relativity, he made the assumption that matter in the universe is evenly distributed in space. That’s a simplification. The actual distribution of matter in the universe, on average, is a reasonable approximation to that assumption, but it’s only true on average and over vast regions of space. The matter in the solar system is not evenly distributed. The vast majority of particles reside inside the sun. Matter thins out after that, bulging here and there into planets. A genuinely even distribution would call for one atom of matter in every cubic meter of space, but the simplification was good enough for Einstein, and he produced great insights into physics.

It is a somewhat radical reduction to say that all language is just sound, but those who begin to study language might wish legitimately to start there—if not to end there. If they end there, that’s reductionism.

Reduction to absurdity comes about when the fundamental relation-ships and consequences of a phenomenon are abstracted away, not just temporarily, to achieve results, but permanently. Thus it is reductio ad absurdum to say that life is nothing more than chemical reactions—or to say that human intelligence is just cellular behavior. Far too much is left out.

Mankind has had this tendency to over-simplify, whatever the motive. Long ago, already, correctives had been fashioned. Aristotle, for instance, analyzed the diversity of phenomena and postulated four kinds of causes to understand things comprehensively. Everything has a material cause, he said. Material causes explain the physical basis of objects. What are they made of? Things have a formal cause, he said. The formal cause of an object is its structure or design. How it is organized. Every object has an agent that causes it to be; the agent can be animate or inanimate. Aristotle labeled this the efficient cause—the maker or the builder. Finally, he said, an object has a final cause. By that he meant its purpose or its function. Until all four causes are adequately determined, a thing or phenomenon cannot be said to be understood. The causes, of course, are all related.

If we apply these categories to life as it is currently defined by science, we get the following:

Material cause:           Chemicals.
Formal cause:             Complexity sustained by energy.
Efficient cause:           Chance.
Final cause:                Survival and Multiplication.

Put in this way, we see some weaknesses in the scientific explanation. At the least we are left feeling incomplete and disconnected. Why would Chance lead to an intentional activity like survival? The ancients taught that an agent’s potency had to be equal to the agent’s act—thus cold could not produce heat and the random could not produce order. Aristotle understood the second law of thermodynamics. I myself have no problem with the material and the formal cause as identified by science. But the urge to survive and multiply seems incompatible with the efficient cause, Chance. The efficient cause appears to be defective. Survival as the final cause of life is equivalent to saying that the final cause of cars is “rolling”—or, as in our little entertainment, to say that the rocket’s final cause is to make take-offs and landings. The cell is much too well designed to let Chance take all the glory. I would feel better if we just labeled the efficient cause “Unknown.” To say that is not to affirm “creation” in the fundamentalist sense. But it allows for a much better explanation later.

Putting things in this way, using ancient categories, sharpens our view of how science sees life—and, by one remove, how it sees human consciousness. To the extent that science asserts its findings dogmatically, it also insists on the meaninglessness of the world. If science contents itself with providing provisional conclusions based on sensory data, the results are excellent. But when it attempts to “wrest consciousness from the minds of philosophers and place it in the hands of science,” it is doing something illegitimate.

It’s a trick unworthy of the noble enterprise of science. The haughty lord first defines mind as the wiggling of trillions of cells. Moreover, the lord asserts, it is nothing more than that. Next he adds that the final cause of all this wiggling is nothing more than the survival of the fittest.

John Blue listens to this with an open mouth. Ah, his mind is slow. Slow, slow, slow. But in time, as he listens, things occur to him. If what the haughty lord is saying is the truth, the mighty lord’s own speaking mind is nothing more than the same sort of wiggling stuff. Isn’t it, now? Isn’t it? And the words will only be spoken because they help the lord’s own personal survival.

A light dawns in John Blue’s mind. He is just making a discovery himself. His own trillions of wiggling cells don’t like the haughty lord too much. What John hears the proud lord saying is that the things John values most are nothing, meaningless. Pointless. Contemptible. Nothing that the lord is saying indicates that his cells are better than John’s own. Who’s to sit in judgement between John Blue and Lord Francis? Another mind made up of trillions of wiggling cells?

John Blue has heard enough. There are a lot more people who feel like he does. If little fireflies or little worms are all there is to it, there is no truth, no higher principle, and therefore no point in standing here and listening to the supercilious lord. John Blue turns and walks away, and the lord finds himself speaking to the wind.

Which makes the proud lord angwy.

*   *   *

Narrow doctrinaire science—scientism—fails, both philosophically and socially, by its own logic. Consider the following:

If the human brain has evolved as the most powerful brain on this planet, it must be because it is most fit for life. It reasons powerfully from causes to ends and is not satisfied with partial answers. A murder isn’t solved when the detective writes on his report: “The knife went in and severed the jugular.” The salesman who says, “Hey, this baby rolls,” doesn’t sell too many cars.

Something about this brain, this supreme product of evolution, demands meaning and closure. It wants hope. “There you go again,” Science says, “deceiving yourself. Your hope is nothing but wishful thinking. But I will grant you this—it helps you to survive.” In the usual context, this sounds sophisticated. It sounds knowing and adult. Some people are attracted by this view and wish to associate themselves with it. But many human brains, like the child’s, go right on questioning. “Never mind me,” John Blue says. “Survival can’t be an end in itself. What’s the point? I struggle so that my kid can struggle—so that his kid can struggle? On and on? And I remember. At the last lecture, under this same tree, you said that everything in the world will eventually run down. Not good enough.”

There is a social downside to the reductionist view. If the old philosophy is banished or, relinquishing its preeminence, accepts science’s limitations too, weaknesses appear in our structure of values. The very force of life is disordered if its proudest, noblest product is denied its proper functioning.

Fëdor Dostoevski provided, perhaps, the ultimate reason why we should ask ultimate questions. “If God does not exist,” he said, “every-thing is permitted.” If the universe lacks closure, it lacks all meaning. In a meaningless universe, we’re altogether on our own. We might as well grab all the gusto that we can. You only go round once. The pleasure principle must rule. Ethics become entirely relative. Only naked power can restrain us, ultimately. If those who wield it harshly abuse it, there is no logical reason why they shouldn’t. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” says Proverbs 29:18. Morality and social order are not so much ends in themselves as by-products of vision. The Why Question is an attempt to find it.

Mankind, a collective of John and Jane Blues, embraces a transcendental model, however abstractly or confusedly expressed. We are forever judging things (ignoring the Logical Positivists). We use transcendental principles of fairness and justice. We reject the doctrine of “might is right.” We adhere to a hierarchical structure of values. We hold those in highest veneration who preached Love as the supreme principle.

Is the universe inferior to us?

* John Schmidt, “Crick’s book about the brain gets a second look,” accessible at ResearchTriangle/System/8870/books/crick.html

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Propaganda Works

My title was scribbled beneath an article in the New York Times today (“Many Feel the American Dream Is Out of Reach, Poll Shows”) by Brigitte. The article reports on a NYT poll (of 1006 respondents, by telephone) suggesting that the population’s faith in “the American dream,” described as “work hard and become rich,” is held by the smallest majority yet, 64 percent, a twenty-year low. The poll also gave its respondents a choice. Was the problem “over-regulation” or “too little regulation,” the latter resulting in unequal distribution of wealth. Surprise: 54 percent chose over-regulation, 38 percent too little. The notion that our problems are due to over-regulation is one of the leading ideas promoted by the Right—whereas inequality is a chief critical thrust of the Left. I hadn’t read Brigitte’s penciled comments as I was reading, but her conclusion immediately came into my own mind too. Why? Experientially, anyway, over-regulation virtually never touches the individual living an ordinary life? Where and how would this idea arise? Are potholes caused by over-regulation? The rise of temporary employment? Layoffs? Unemployment benefits? The minimum wage? But yes. One hears it all the time in right-wing rhetoric.

One wonders what movies this sampling liked best? Their choices are Dumb and Dumber To, Gone Girl, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Churyumov-Gerasimenko Told Me

One of the more fascinating aspects of this subject—world views, paradigms—is that we apparently know much more about the cosmos than we know about our own backyard. Studies of the big bang knowledgably discuss events said to have transpired one or two millionth of a second after the big bang began, but our very best theories of the solar system’s origins are very speculative at best. [From this blog here.]

I confess that until the Rosetta space craft landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko I did not know that the earth had obtained all of its vast masses of water from a bombardment by comets beginning 4.1 billion years ago. That bombardment evidently ended 3.8 billion years ago and is known as “the late bombardment.”

The theory here is that the earth was way too hot back 4.6 billion years ago to hold water—but now we have a lot of it. How did it get here? Well, theory has it that every solar system has a hot and a cold zone; the line that marks it, measured from the sun, is known as the Frost Line. It is 5 astronomical units out, thus about 465 million miles away, and roughly just this side of Jupiter’s orbit. Out there grains of water formed in the infinite past exist as granules that the nudge of gravity can aggregate into comets. Comets are mostly ice and dust. Asteroids, by contrast, are mostly rock. Back 4 billion years ago or so, vastly more comets swept the skies; something disturbed their path; the Late Bombardment began; and now we have surf on our coasts.

The four most abundant elements in nature (or at least in the solar system) are Hydrogen, Helium, Oxygen, and Carbon; of these Helium is not reactive. You would think that the distribution of water—formed of the two most abundant reactive elements—would be more or less uniform and that the earth would always have had a lot of it. So why do we assume that the earth had to acquire water rather than having it all along? The theory is that with great heat a water vapor can more easily escape the atmosphere (atomic weight of 18) compared with carbon dioxide (atomic weight of 44).

Sorting out how the loss of water could have happened depends on four factors: the planet’s temperature, its mass, its magnetosphere, and solar wind. Great heat will vaporize all water; if the planet is not protected by its magnetosphere (which is itself generated by its interior mass and outer tectonic plates) the lighter water vapor will be swept away by the solar wind. Venus and Mars generate minimal magnetospheres and therefore have little water. We owe ours now—or so we thought before Rosetta made its measurements—to comets and the protection of that splendid aurora borealis.

But the news is, well, puzzling. Rosetta has discovered that the water on 67P/C-G is predominantly heavy water, deuterium oxide, itself due to the presence of heavy Hydrogen, an isotope. It acts pretty much like water—but life as we know it has adapted to ordinary rather than heavy water. If all we had was D2O, our cells would refuse to divide when it came time. Well, we’ll be back for another launch to see if 67P/C-G is an anomaly or common. If comets are all or mostly D2Os, we’ll have to revise our theories of everything—not least our theories of how the solar systems little objects formed. Which illustrates how little we really know.

To round this out, I would propose that we name 67P/C-G “The Little Horse” (“Parvulus Equus?”). That’s what it looks like. And finally, those names. The comet was discovered by two Ukrainian astronomers in 1969. Klim Churyumov saw it while examining a set of photographs taken by Svetlana Gerasimenko. That was back in the good old days of the Soviet Union—before the tiny bombardment, of parts of the Ukraine, began in 2014.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It Didn't Take That Long

In tracking the history of Presbyterianism to write an earlier post here (link), I made a quick timeline to orient myself, thus trying to see where Calvin, who was the father, you might say, of Presbyterianism, appears in time. Herewith that timeline:

Luther Issues The Ninety-Five Theses
Diet of Worms declares Luther a heretic
Luther's Translation of New Testament appears
Anabaptism appears in Switzerland
Diet of Augsburg founds Lutheran Church
Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, dies
Church of England secedes from Catholic Church
Loyola Writes Spiritual Exercises, founding Jesuits
Calvin writes Institutes of the Christian Religion

This made me realize with something of a start that all of the institutional seeds of the Reformation were pretty much sewn and blooming in a mere 20 years—along with the seeds of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Biased Communications

When a corporation wants my money, I’m likely to receive a phone call with a live person on the other end of the line. But when I want to have some satisfaction from a corporation, it is almost impossible to reach a human being just by making a telephone call. I could expand this to include all reasonably large institutions, including government. Is this a peculiarly modern phenomenon? No. It was already present in my youth in Europe when not every household had a telephone yet. The difference is that in the old days the systems protecting the powerful were made up of human beings. They stopped you at the door. You couldn’t see the big man much less the king. These systems to ward off the unpleasant communication have become more efficient, that is all. But what has stayed the same is the reaction of those who seek help or redress. Their irritation has not diminished just because they are repelled by algorithms rather than by people.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Of Carillons None is Greater

We are now firmly in the musical time of the year. We knew that as we attended, thanks to Monique and John’s invitation, “The Annual Advent Choral Concert” at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. This morning we tried to absorb what we’d experienced by looking at the history involved, beginning with the church itself.

The Kirk in the Hills is something of an architectural marvel in the Gothic style—but, and this was a surprise, it was completed in 1958! The Kirk is a Presbyterian church, which led us to trace the history of Presbyterianism. We also discovered that the church’s magnificent tower (built in 1960) houses the world’s largest carillon.

The church’s architect, George D. Mason, modeled the Kirk on Scotland’s famous Melrose Abbey. That place was originally the home of the Cistercians in Scotland, and its construction takes us back to 1136; it is now largely in ruin. Back then Christendom was still a unity.

It is odd in a way that a Cistercian abbey would serve as the inspiration of The Kirk in the Hills—until the thought arises that a continuous tradition links all Christian faiths despite the turbulent chaos of history.

Presbyterianism owes its beginnings to John Calvin. He was born in 1509—which was, curiously in our context, a year before the first ever carillon was built and used in the town hall of Oodenarde, in Flanders. It was played using a keyboard of batons, much as current ones still are; the current ones, however, are aided by electric power.  Calvin’s theological views were carried to the rest of Europe and on to England and Scotland. In Scotland John Knox (1513-1572) continued that tradition and impressed it on the Scottish Reformation. American Presbyterianism owes its beginnings to an immigrant, John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794) who was also one of our founding fathers; he signed the Declaration of Independence (as a representative from New Jersey).

Now for the carillon. The image I show—because it makes the bells visible—is one from Munich’s Olympiapark. By current definition, a carillon (in German Glockenspiel) must have at least 23 bronze bells connected by levers and wires so that they can be played from a keyboard not unlike that for an organ. The carillon at Kirk of the Hills has 76 such bells in strict and wired coordination—which makes it the largest in the world. The church occupies 40 acres adjacent to Island Lake—suggesting that, for us, attending a summer concert on its green pastures is something we can look forward to. For now, the memories of the Kirk’s quite wonderful choir, performing Handel’s Messiah, was an experience that will last until summer.

All of us, admiring the Kirk, had an odd feeling. It is so very Gothic that you would swear it must be ancient—but the stone is so young and clean and now that a kind of confusion sets in. Until you realize, in retrospect, that a culture that can put a man on the moon should, after all, be able to build a Gothic-style church.
Image credits: Wikipedia, “Kirk in the Hills,” and “Carillon.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Searching for that Polar Name

I’m still sorting books. The process began around June 1, as soon as we had purchased our new house, but the action is still going on. The move, therefore, is still not finished. By my last count, eighteen big book boxes still need to be handled. There isn’t room for all of them, so I’m engaged in preparing some for donation either to the Vietnam Veterans Association or—if the books are relatively new and free of endless annotations—to our rather needy local library.

One of these came into my hand. It is by Hernando de Soto and titled The Mystery of Capitalism: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. The book is a genuine winner in pointing out that economic development depends crucially on advanced legal systems able efficiently to handle property rights, of which the most important aspect is the documentation of ownership. In the absence of such documentation, which makes property rights enforceable, two economic systems tend to exist side by side, a legal and an extra-legal. People cannot easily and transparently sell assets, such as land or capital goods. The circulation of wealth, therefore, is seriously impeded.

Back in 2010 I posted a brief note on the book on the first (and no longer available) LaMarotte. At that time I’d called the author Hernando de Soto Polar—because Wikipedia had listed it as that. No amount of effort on my part at that time revealed the reason for that “Polar,” omitted in most other references to this person. Today it all came back to me—and I set myself the task to discover the meaning of that—finally.

Everyone has this experience, I think. One can waste a substantial amount of time searching the web on an idle errand like that. I had almost entirely given up, for the second time, when it occurred to me that I should do my searching in Spanish. And that, finally, did the trick. I found that name, Polar, immediately—and associated with my Hernando. It was in the Spanish-language version of Wikipedia’s article on him. Hernando’s mother, it turns out, was one Rosa Polar Ugarteche; the English version does not mention his parents’ names—or this problem would never have arisen.

The moment I saw this, I also suddenly remembered that in the Spanish language naming conventions are different than in most other European countries or their overseas children. Therefore that Polar, attached to the de Soto, is de Soto’s mother’s last name. Based on that convention, I would be named Arsen Darnay Gyulafia. Now as for Rosa, the mother, Polar was her last name; and Ugarteche was her mother’s last name. Complicated. Complicated. But here I am, now, feeling that quite irrational satisfaction that comes from discovering a perfectly useless fact. It has taken a nice big slice of time from my book-sorting. And the decision of whether to keep the book—or giving it to Commerce Township Library—is still lies ahead.

A couple more notes while still on this subject. One is that, these days, what with indexes being created on everything for accessibility, names like de Soto Polar are inverted—so that the legal last name comes last: Polar de Soto. Another Spanish convention is to insert an “and,” as in de Soto y Polar. As for changing American customs, many women these days retain their maiden name as a middle name, hyphenate their last and married names—or, for that matter, retain their given names even after they marry. Which is handy if divorce happens.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

An Early Definition

I came across an interesting quote about degeneration today from a late nineteenth century book on biology:

Any new set of conditions occurring to an animal which render its food and safety easily attained, seem to lead as a rule to Degeneration; just as an active healthy man sometimes degenerates when he becomes suddenly possessed of a fortune; or as Rome degenerated when possessed of the riches of the ancient world.

Sir E. Ray Lankester, Degeneration: a Chapter in Darwinism (1880), p.33. (link).

This paragraph is often quoted by replacing the words “an animal” by the words “a species” and then stopping at the word “Degeneration.” Thus in the Wikipedia article on Lankester. There the article’s author also adds the following: “Lankester extended the idea of degeneration to human societies, which carries little significance today, but it is a good example of a biological concept invading social science.” One would like to see why the definition does not apply to us. But, in any case, every author may interpret the past as he sees fit…

The general observation from history is that an expanding, energetic civilization tends toward decadence—not because it is fighting for survival but because it has achieved some form of lasting and extraordinary wealth. In our own case that wealth has taken the form of “energy slaves” traceable to fossil fuels. But the Roman case had its own parallel: living human slaves.  What that looked and felt like is rendered by Will Durant in Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, 1944, pp. 111-112. The segment deals with an era known as the Agrarian Revolt in the Roman Republic, extending in time from 145 to 78 BC, thus the period immediately preceding the rise of Julius Caesar, who became the first emperor of Rome and thus closed the republican era of Roman history:

The first cause was the influx of slave-grown corn from Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and Africa, which ruined many Italian farmers by reducing the price of domestic grains below the cost of production and marketing. Second, was the influx of slaves, displacing peasants in the countryside and free workers in towns. Third, was the growth of large farms. A law of 220 forbade senators to take contracts or invest in commerce; flush with the spoils of war, they bought up extensive tracts of agricultural land. Conquered soil was sometimes sold in small plots to colonists, and eased urban strife; more of it was given to capitalists in part payment of their war loans to the state; most of it was bought or leased by senators or businessmen on terms fixed by the Senate. To compete with the latifundia the little man had to borrow money at rates that insured his inability to pay; slowly he sank into poverty or bankruptcy, tenancy or the slums. Finally, the peasant himself, after he had seen and looted the world as a soldier, had no taste or patience for the lonely labor and unadventurous chores of the farm; he preferred to join the turbulent proletariat of the city, watch without cost the exciting games of the amphitheater, receive cheap corn from  the government, sell his vote to the highest bidder or promise, and lose himself in the impoverished and indiscriminate mass.

Roman society, once a community of free farmers, now rested more and more upon external plunder and internal slavery. In the city all domestic service, many handicrafts, most trade, much banking, nearly all factory labor, and labor on public works, were performed by slaves, reducing the wages of free workers to a point where it was almost as profitable to be idle as to toil. On the latifundia slaves were preferred because they were not subject to military service, and their number could be maintained, generation after generation, as a by-product of their only pleasure or their master’s vice. All the Mediterranean region was raided to produce living machines for these industrialized farms; to the war prisoners led in after every victorious campaign were added the victims of pirates who captured slaves or freemen on or near the coasts of Asia, or of Roman officials whose organized man hunts impressed into bondage any provincial whom the local authorities did not dare to protect. Every week slave dealers brought their human prey from Africa, Spain, Gaul, Germany, the Danube, Russia, Asia, and Greece to ports of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea….

I’ve quoted this passage years ago now in a by-now-vanished version of LaMarotte. It seemed to fit today’s notion that there is a reasonably ordinary (if very huge and collective) explanation for the growing disorder in a society. Thinkers have been calling that “decadence” beginning in the late nineteenth century.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Peace Requires Awe

Surveying the papers, at least half the time, brings to my mind one of Hobbes’ famous sayings, i.e. that the absence of what he calls “civil society,” an absence that he therefore labels “the state of nature,”  “is nothing else but a mere state of war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.” This is from the Preface of De Cive.

Now that “state of nature” is one of those rather slippery notions. I’m not quite sure that such a state actually ever existed when humanity was actually what it is now. If it means the state of being an ordinary ape-like animal, surely the state was not one of war; orangutans are not always arming for combat. In his Leviathan, however, Hobbes offers a much more interesting qualifying conditions: it is the absence of “a common power to keep them [men] all in awe.” Herewith the entire quote, with material usually omitted this time included. I found this worth perusing today, particularly the first sentence and then that long listing in the last paragraph:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes does not further define the “common power” that holds us in awe. But, clearly, it need not necessarily mean a political power as such. It certainly could be that. But better than some dictatorship or royal rule that keeps everybody trembling, it might also refer to a period (note Hobbes’ disquisition bout time, usually omitted from this quote) in which a meaningful belief system keeps people unified and in awe.

Now as for the content of newspapers—that often trigger my own reaction—that content is neatly depicted in the final sentence of the quote—in which we almost feel like we’re reading a paper ranging over every aspect of modern society. Hobbes, who saw the light in the sixteenth and died in the seventeenth century, pictured “the state of nature” as in the past. Little did he know that he was witnessing its rebirth. Since his time the State of Nature has genuinely matured all over.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Headliners: It’s Time to Reinvent

Here a headline that caught my eyes this morning, in the Wall Street Journal:

Auto Sales Zoom, Helped by Low Prices at the Pump

When two phenomena coincide in time, a relationship of cause and effect is not thereby established. Obviously. Ducks at Lake Wolverine are frequently honking their way south in V-formation just as I drive south to the only near TrueValue hardware store. The connection? None that I can detect. That handy store is closing now. The owner couldn’t find a buyer—hence I will have to drive farther away in the future, using more gas. Is that the reason I’m not in the market for a new car?

I’m told that the average person uses 729 gallons of gas a year*. We’ve had five months of decreasing prices, from somewhere around $3.52 to $2.74 per gallon on December 1. That makes a drop of $0.78 per gallon in the period. Suppose that drop came on July 1—all in one fell swoop. That would have saved the average buyer $237 in those five months. The average price of a new vehicle is $32,086. So a $240 saving in five months “helped” to motivate people to spend $32,000? Honestly?

To write this took me roughly 12 minutes. Shouldn’t the headline writer have spent that much time to see if that headline made any sense? These days people don’t correct, refresh their knowledge, think, or more potently yet, reform. We are only ever reinventing everything. It’s time therefore for headline editors to do a little reinventing of their craft.
*Per person usage of gasoline ranges from a low of 281 to a high of 729 using different sources and different miles-per-gallon estimates. I am using the highest estimates. With the lowest, the savings would be $91.26.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Sample of Originality

One of the most notable characteristics of G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 book entitled Orthodoxy is its originality. I’m now on my second reading of this book—and that because Chesterton’s style is also quite original, a kind of quick and bubbling flow of thought that, turns out, is highly systematic; but the underlying ideas shift with great speed. I expect to say more later, but now a quote that struck me:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. My Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race—because he is so human.

The Blatchford here mentioned was probably Robert Blatchford. Wikipedia’s article on  him (link) begins thus: “Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford (17 March 1851 – 17 December 1943) was a socialist campaigner, journalist and author in the United Kingdom. He was a prominent atheist and opponent of eugenics. He was also an English patriot. In the early 1920s, after the death of his wife, he turned towards spiritualism.”

Early Hints of Hell

A Wall Street Journal book review today (of Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels) says, in a prominent lift-out in big type: Renouncing oil and its byproducts would plunge civilization into a pre-industrial hell—a fact that developing countries keenly realize.

Now of course I love that word “renouncing”—as if as a collective we actually would or even could. But, sure enough, the rest of the statement has the smell of truth. When we run out of oil, we’ll certainly know it.

Perhaps Mother Nature, a bit irate about having her deep-lying blood sucked, is giving us early hints. What with global warming (or is it aging and unmaintained infrastructure), power failures are a whole lot common. As I think back over the last four decades or so, they were extremely rare earlier in that period and much more frequent in the last decade. At our old house we experienced a slew of them in the last five years—due to maintenance neglect by Detroit Edison. Having moved, we’ve already had one of those—due to weather.

Around here everybody is on wells—and the wells need electric power. Those who’re on the sewer system need electricity to send the waste to those pipes. Power failure means not only no water but, for the more advanced, also means no flushing. The work around, what with a lake next door or bordering the lot, is to haul water; and to go across the street to toilets that still empty into septic tanks. That still leaves sump pumps in those houses lucky to have basements. As for heating, furnaces don’t function without current either although they burn gas. A sensible but expensive solution is to invest in a full-sized generator, in effect a power plant for a single house only. Cost is around $10,000. These systems come on seconds after a power failure and everything stays on. They’re fueled by natural gas. Plans are firming up around here to have one of those babies installed in the near future.

Meanwhile we hope that our descents into pre-industrial hell won’t last but fractions of a day—and it isn’t raining heavily while they last—so that the sump pit in the basement doesn’t overflow. But after the gas runs out too, as inevitably it will, it will be time to rip that gas-fueled contraption (it looks like a stack of logs) out of the fireplace to see if it will actually burn wood which, by then, we’ll have to saw by hand. While the saw lasts…

Monday, December 1, 2014

Black Friday Blues

The National Retail Federation has done its survey of shopping this Black Friday weekend (link), and the papers are echoing the numbers. Retailers have experienced a drop in participation, measured in dollar sales per shopper ($380.95 this year), in four years of the last seven. In the same 2007-2014 period, retailers saw gains in four years as well. One might say that sales are fluctuating, year by year. Sometimes up and sometimes down:


This overall pattern doesn’t spell vigorous growth signaling that the imagined “normal” will return.

Some 133.7 million shoppers participated (down from 141.1 million last year). By my calculations, that number corresponds to nearly 55 percent of the U.S. adult population over 18. Viewed like that, Americans are still decidedly bargain hunters, by and large. By a majority. Therefore hand-wringing and eye-raised headshakes are inappropriate.

People like me who dream of a genuine change in public behavior must not feel encouraged. A downturn in consumption, however desirable, also signals, in our system, unemployment or growing under-employment. What the Great Recession has done is to shake public confidence enough so that big-time shopping sprees are, say, only done every other year.

The retail business has reason to feel the Black Friday blues—but it may be doing it to itself. Every year, the period of the sale is extended both backward and forward in time. People know this. They also know that an industry, beset by panic, will keep prices at abnormal lows right up to Christmas and beyond—to get rid of the inventory still left over.

Any year now, the next year’s Black Friday Sale may begin as early as December 1 of the year before. Why, come to think of it, today may be the first day of Black Friday 2015.