Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Dalai Lama and the Brain Scientists

An interesting book: Consciousness at the Crossroads, edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston, and B. Allan Wallace. We got it because Brigitte chanced across an essay by Zara Houshmand a while back which very much impressed us. The book contains the discussion of a conference between the Dalai Lama and leading brain scientists. The interesting aspects of the book is the Dalai Lama’s own presentation of various differing Buddhist cosmologies—and the quite evident tension between the physicalist monism of the scientists and the subtle but very real dualism of Buddhism, never mind which branch is involved. Were it not for the Dalai Lama's own unquestioned world fame, even this attempt to “find commonalities” between the so-called Western and the Asian systems of belief would never have taken place. What we have here is a polite exchange. The radical split between these two views, however, is what makes reading the presentations fascinating.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Knick in the Bokkers

We’ve been watching The Knick on disks, a series that features what had once been the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City. This is an HBO production. What it is, above all, is an illustration of how the past is distorted by modern entertainment media. True: the main character of the piece, John Thackery, played by Clive Owen, is modeled on a actual pioneering surgeon, William Steward Halstead. Halstead was also, like Thackery, a cocaine and morphium addict—but his chief activity was at the Johns Hopkins in Maryland, not the Knickerbocker, located in Harlem, NY. The Knick features—alongside some bloody operations—a cigarette-smoking nun who doubles as an abortionist, a black surgeon to whom one of Halstead's innovations is ascribed, opium dens and naked Asian females on whom, incidentally almost (and at an hourly compensation) Thackery tries out some of his inventions. There is ample violence, graft, and slews of Irishmen presented, almost exclusively, as grafters and members of mobs. As one review had it—something for everyone. The amusing theological content (something for everyone, remember) suggests that the abortion-performing nun will get to heaven for at least some of her abortions—those where the women were pregnant on account of rape by the boss in a factory…. All this had me contrasting fondly remembered historical dramas by Granada Television. HBO, alas, is all Now! even in an historical recreation.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Albert the 1st

In a day and age in which science can even transplant a uterus, one can permit oneself to dream! My dream is that our next NASA venture will be to move the Planet Earth just enough closer to the Sun so that a year will be exactly 364 days—to the minute, nay, to the second and the nanosecond. With that we shall have made the year to last precisely 52 weeks (rather than a pesky 52.14285714). Leap years will have been abolished. The difficult we should do immediately; the impossible—getting rid of Friday the 13th—will take a little longer—unless we hit upon a genuinely creative fix and simply banish Sunday ever falling on the first of any month! No Sunday the 1st—no Friday the 13th. Logical, isn’t it. When Sunday would, under the old dispensation, falls on the 1st of the month, we would substitute Albert for it and simply shove Sunday to the 2nd of the month. Albert is for you-know-who.

The neat solution above has a little problem. It comes from the fact that when a common year (one with 365 days in our benighted times) begins on a Sunday, it also ends on a Sunday. And, surprising people like me, whom calendars generally baffle, a year beginning on Monday also ends on a Monday, and so on for all the days of the week. But if January 1 falls on Albert, what do we do with the last day of the year? Problems. Problems.

In the case of leap years, of course, a January 1st falling on Sunday, the year ends on a Monday what with that pesky February 29th pushing everything out by one. Similarly with all the other possible leap year starting days. 2015 started on a Thursday. Therefore 2016, which also happens to be is a leap year, will start on Friday.

Every common year starting on Thursday has three Fridays the 13th—in February, March, and November. Because, of course, those months start on Sunday. They ought to start on Albert. To help others carry on the future labors of getting rid of Friday the 13th, I herewith present a table for starters. We’ve got to get this whole business simplified. I think you’ll all agree.

Note please that in common years no Friday the 13th falls into July. The Leap year is also finicky: it features no Fridays the 13th in August. And also note, lest my entry title be forgotten, that in all the months shown for Friday the 13th, the first day of the month would be an Albert in my new calendar.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The New Energy

Seemingly intensifying troubles all over the globe—and just yesterday at the University of Missouri—produced the almost random thought this morning: global energy is rising—and it’s been going on for a while.

Behind that thought was the commonplace observation that uncontrolled, un-channeled energy almost always causes huge amounts of damage—as we know from tornadoes, earthquakes, and the like. Therefore what I’m observing across the world—be it in the middle-east, in Africa, and the Americas, not least a drum-beat of shootings, killings, and upheavals here—must be the consequence of extra energy.

But when I look at that, I noted that we’re in the gradual process of consuming what little is left  now of global hydrocarbon energy. By all accounts we should see the Age of Oil end by the end of this century. So where does this new energy come from?

Next it occurred to me that this New Energy is not of the fossil kind—or the candidates to replace it. Rather that it is new human energy chaotically “doing work,” and mostly destructive work, outside the old-fashioned institutional systems of family, markets, education, and government. Can we actually see it? Yes. We see its tooling almost everywhere except in the pools of swimming pools. That tooling is the cell phone. People use it taking the dog for a walk, driving, waiting for the doctor, while shopping, just before falling asleep and first thing after waking and on the toilet.

The cell phone, to be sure, is but the most visible icon of very rapid communication between individuals; it rests on digital technology and systems developed for its exploitation, most centrally the many different kinds of social media enabling people to form ad-hoc group that, when moved by some strong emotion of idea, take on the character of an institution of the old-fashioned, regular kind like a government or an army.

The difference between what I’ve been calling “old-fashioned” institutions and these new ad-hoc groups is that institutions require major investment, employees, work space, routine missions, and central administration. The ad-hoc groups have no office buildings, payrolls, or, often, recognizable leaders; but, often, they can actually function almost without titular leadership altogether. Rapid communication can gel into consensus; action then follows quite spontaneously.

The various emotions or ideas that move these groups may be quite innocent—like entertainment; but when the emotions are rebellion or opposition, they can and do become quite effectively aggressive and take over (often violently, as is the case with ISIS) all traditional institutions and come to dominate entire regions. The earliest of these groups were called flash mobs and date to the early 2000s.

The energy comes from the concerting of individual actions—individuals whom, before the cyber revolution, it would have taken monumental efforts to recruit to coordinate if they were physically close. Such efforts once took significant time to accomplish and could be relatively easily disrupted. The cyber revolution annihilates both space and time—space by being able to coordinate people at great distances and time by doing it in hours or days rather than months or years.  Open communications—on an unimaginable scale—make it almost impossible even to detect the formation and intensification of these groups until they have begun to act. There is also that first amendment guarantee of free speech and assembly to make action countering their destructive efforts difficult. At present this new energy looks like a permanent feature of modern life putting all sorts of institutions at risk. But stable institutions are necessary for order. It is order that has begun to yield—and will fill our media with chaos until a new order, after all kinds of transformations, once more takes hold.