Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Breaking the codes

Codification of our deepest urges and our highest hopes only insures that we feel justified in combating someone else's codification. This tragic folly proceeds from the smug nonsense that there is such a thing as a "natural order" to be imposed on any collection or grouping of humans.

I hope you won't take it amiss if I ask you to uncover the pale neck of your inner mystic and stretch it out comfortably on my chopping block but...

I gotta ask you, dear reader, if you have some sort of theory about what you are: what is your mind, how do you know its connections to your body, to your world? I am not going to answer the question, not all at once in one post anyway. Its really a question I have been asking over and over again and adding little postage stamp bits to what my intuition tells me is a billboard sized answer that would, in any case, only be my answer.

Yet having no answer, not asking the question or having a dumb answer gets us all in so much trouble. You can't stop being the animal you were born as. You add your cultural programming to that and hope you are human. Your culture is not going to stop being a coagulated constellation of verbal and relational habits that dress up our inescapable biological heritage: e.g. "multiply and be fruitful" is more Darwin than ID, or "do not lie with a man as one does with a woman" which is ignorantly oversimplified Darwin... just to pick on one culture I know. You have wiring to make you feel stongly about some things but you should not let that lead you to conclude that you know anything [a theme with which I weary any who will listen]. For instance, as I replied to Brownie:"Pain has a way of narrowing consciousness considerably and that's a biological necessity without which most of us wouldn't see our tenth birthday." From what is going on inside us, even if we were all sensitive and intelligent, it would be impractical to each rederive the best way to behave toward each other. Not that we can't or shouldn't be more fully conscious of that behavior and its origins but it could be paralysis if it weren't reflex. Since we parted from apes and apparently before, we just tend to do as those around us do. One wouldn't have to try hard to see the survival advantage of readily adopting your neighbor's tricks. By whatever route you arrive at your rules for sharing the planet, you will have gotten them, in the final analysis, mostly from the people around you and a bit of your own insanity. I observe that, rather like the DNA-encoded rules, the culturally transmitted rules don't readily change in the face of novel circumstances. What you have learned as the "right thing" to do as well as what you feel is the right thing to do CAN be or become wrong! That, [and the arrival of humans or other un-checked predators] accounts for extinctions. By being adaptive controllers or promoters of the wants and needs that our biology would have arise in our otherwise undisciplined minds, incorporation of personal urges into social orders is absolutely natural if not downright essential. But it is brittle too.

So here you are with a culturally determined set of guidelines that should square more or less with your own little inner voices [bit of a stretch there but not as much as our cynical times would suggest]. You may or may not be aware of how strongly you agree that these rules are an extension of and a protection for your own ego but trust me, its mostly the sociopath for whom that charmed cocoon of culture is not in tact. This "theory of everybody else" which I have spun out here is setting up a creature that would, without necessarily understanding why, feel threatened when significant disagreement with the rules is presented. I don't know whether to treat defensiveness re one's own culture and kin vs others as response to attacks on identity or continuity or survival but I know the feelings are primal. Historically, "workable" social frameworks with value schemes in them have little agility and our habit of hewing to the gummy conglomeration of old rules and unbending hierarchies of rulers gives an illusory comfort. The configuration of resources and acceptable misery that shape any social order sooner or later drifts apart, gets used up or wiped out but a corresponding change of the rules of the culture is much less likely than a revolutionary collision with new realities and an abrupt change of rules in a reconstructed social order.

The worst thing about the above generalization is the way it ignores the range of flexibility exhibited by real societies...some more tolerant of change, some less. To refine the generalization in hopes of salvaging its accuracy, let me hasten to add that when one of the rules of a society provides for feedback that can correct the rules themselves, you have a vastly more durable culture that will bend to changing circumstances rather than break. But thats a generalization too: if some rules are above change and others not, you only gain partial flexibility. A constitutional direct representation democracy with provisions for changing the constitution seems to me a good model of the idealized feedback. A fundamentalist theocracy seems to me a model of the non-adaptive ossification of the rules...a way to chafe the adherents and eventually founder itself. Certainly, there are more and less liberal sects of the several major religions. The liberal flavors get that way mostly by just relaxing and eventually relegating a rule that does not apply or has been morally outgrown. The written or codified core of these branchings is common and shared but, much like DNA, there are sections of regulation that have been "turned off" in one branch and kept active in another. We wind up with moral dinosaurs among us, who can still exist as long as they can insist that the world has not changed. They posit and project a mingled constancy of authority and core of external reality and fasten upon it for their survival. We can not conveniently dismiss these beings for their backwardness since they preserve their good along with their bad interpretations. There are only imagined connections between the internal reality we each experience and some constant external reality. The only world you can show me is one that is always changing. I am not willing to suffer anyone's dream that there is anything constant out there, no matter how strongly they feel it is so. Very few rules would be good for all people and for all time.

If you have one, are you satisfied that your theory of what you are paints a complete picture? How strongly do you feel that satisfaction?

OK, you can button your collar back up now.

I just had to give that a try. I will revisit to clarify my thoughts if commenting shows I have said it wrong, said what I meant but thought sloppily or just not said enough. I hope at least to be understood as tilting against rigidity in rules of socially accepted behavior, not against rules per se. Reducing all I know of the detail of our behavior to a few patterns, wanting to wield explanatory power over what seems a brutish chaos; these are my appetite and preference. Having once been a physics major, trying to map the parade route for what has looked more like a riot is just how I deal. I so wanted to go see the parade of humanity.

Monday, September 26, 2005

a bit more anger management

Anger is sometimes appropriate and natural...its just generally not productive.

At the anti-war rally in DC this week, a friend of mine was in the midst of the crowd as they moved along a street. While the demonstrators numbered around 100000, there was a counter demonstration which many hardly noticed: a few hundred scattered in pockets. My friend witnessed a confrontation between a 50-something Viet Nam vet marching against the war and a placard carrying pro-bush 20-something. The frustration of the man who had been through the whole bloody stupidity of the Viet Nam war was palpable when he could not change the mind of the idiot kid, who one assumes was doing what he supposed to be the right thing even as he was drowning in his own chauvinistic illogic. It became a 5 minute shouting match and probably no one escaped anger nor changed any minds nor felt particularly good about their behavior afterwards. My friend was struck by the futile and ironic state of working for peace while being was such a human moment.

The worst outcomes and the worst tricks an angry mind plays on us come about when we mistake the strength of our anger for the strength of our logic.

Did any old timers like me who where in college in the late 60's watch the CSPAN coverage of the anti-war protests in California? You may have had the same odd rush of, [perhaps remembered], excitement and the thrill at seeing the strength of our numbers but mixed with a sad exasperation: "did we fix nothing in the 60's? Did our nation learn nothing?".

note: the executioner has had spotty attendence and apologizes for this ... a crush of calendar and weather driven chores has kept me working late and far from my keyboard. I will beback.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


How would you know you did anything wrong if all the people you associated with did the same things as you? How would you stop to look and see if you were doing anything wrong if you never felt like you were doing something you shouldn't?

Many more politicians deserve our pity than deserve our vote.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Anger Management

If you are angry, you are too late. Your "managing" has failed and you are in damage control.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Slitting our throats with Occam's razor

In the absence of a proper question, no answer can be a "right" answer. Simplicities tend to blur into complexities when all are free to raise questions. We deserve the mess we make of our society for hankering for the simple answers that politicians and some clergy panderingly offer, for being confused by and voting down messages of any complexity or nuance. Most of what Dubya says should be met with a deliberate chorus of "Repeat the question...slowly!".

Simple answers must ignore real questions and those who offer such answers are as dangerous as they are attractive, not much better for us than drug pushers.

But there is a simplicity on the other side of complexity. You won't hear this from politicians and rarely from the kind of clergy that keep singing that they are going to give you that ol' time religion right up your...uh, constitution. No, not a peep, because it sounds like a damn bunch of hippie mumbo jumbo when they say something like "All you need is love". Simple? Yes. Easy? No. The simplicity beyond complexity is simple to say and felt by all but complex when you try to live up to it.

Only the great truths are simple and there is no simplicity in politics.

I would have to, and I am glad to, acknowledge that this idea sprang from a phrase mentioned to me in correspondence from a Lutheran pastor and friend from waaay back. This good pastor is most definitely secure enough in his faith not to need to cram his beiliefs up the constitution. He had used the notion in a sermon teaching about rewards of facing up to the inevitable complexity of life's problems. My take is the flipside: the hazard of simple answers. Google finds 80 hits in all the web for the very similar "simplicity beyond complexity". The president of Greenville College attributes that to Oliver Wendall Holmes. Richard Mouw uses that phrase in what reviewers call a gentle retrospective of the Christian fundamentalism he left for the evangelicals. The more precise quotation in Bruce Elkin's book shows they are "both right" in that Holmes was misquoated in Greenville and was on the other side of complexity, not beyond it. At the risk of bungling the paraphrase, that usage of the phrase comes from the writing of the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler who recognized that entering the heart of Christianity is not generally easy and takes real work to read your way through the complex edifice of the faith as it is embodied in doctrines and texts. At risk of furhter corrupting the notion, I find that it models many attempts to arrive at the wholeness of a discpline when you can only be presented with the facts and rudiments that are immediately teachable. It counsels me that politics too wants a patient, deliberate and broadly informed approach to yield more than seemingly expedient shortcuts to nowhere. The politicians would ignore that approach at their peril if the voters did their homework.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Bush, we told you so

I told you not to say "I told you so"...and in personal realationships its not bad advice but in the political arena, you gotta call bullshit when bullshit is pushed as a policy and if the policy reaps its crop of corpses, its time to say, time to shout:

We Told you so!

The scientific community, at least in the form of Scientific American, spelled out exactly what was going to happen in New Orleans four years ago but the bush league were busy figuring out how to sell a war against Iraq. The first line of the of the article Drowning New Orleans on page 77 of the October 2001 issue begins this way:
"A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands"
It wasn't a headline then even though it was conservatively extrapolated from tons of measurements and careful modeling of the impact of development on the Mississippi delta. It wasn't a head line because they had a much more politically useful crisis on their hands. And it wasn't a headline because it was just a bunch of science and we have repeatedly seen that once this anti-science administration believes credibility requires a scientific opinion, it'll buy the one it likes. This adminstration's irresponsibility sinks to the level of negligent homicide. As far back as 1998 the engineers, scientists and Louisiana politicians were frightened into hard fought concensus that immediate remediation of barrier island errosion and subsidance of the land under the city was the only solution. What was the response to this consensus appeal to fund a collection of engineering projects that should have protected a coastline that produces one third of the country's seafood, one fifth of its oil and one quarter of its natural gas?
"Thus far, however, Washington has turned down appeals for substantial aid."
Now perhaps readers who aren't scientists or don't keep read up on science's latest findings and best current theories, can't count themselves among the "we" who told him so. But read the article, the politicians and engineers had joined the scientists on this one...they ALL told him so.
I happen to subcribe to SciAm and the article came to mind the minute I heard the news that New Orleans had gone under. Most of what we will now hear out of New Orleans is aftermath and testimony to how desperate circumstances are .... the real plot line of the story was written some time ago but not read by the party which, unfortunately, we have entrusted with the power to avert catastrophy.

When will it be too late for real science to have a voice in setting priorities for how we prepare for the future?

--for some, NOW is too late.

By the way, Dubya, your dad wrote a book in which he described what a mess a war in Iraq would turn out to be...have you read that yet?

How to be dead without really trying

When the belief that what you do could make the world any better is taken away from you, you join the walking dead.

Not even wealth can provide those who have died the death of not seeing how they can help with anything but a way to rot faster.

When you are so desperate no to die this death that you would settle for just making things better for yourself, you join the Republican party.

When you throw away the belief that the important part was "you" and the lesser part was "making the world better", you join the free and the living.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The devil's toolkit, tool number 2.

It being almost as easy to destroy someone's heart as to change their heart, work your ways upon them by blurring the distinction between " I can't take it" and "I don't want it". That is to say, provide unpleasant associations for things they were inclined to want or prefer. Their preference will change and you needn't take the risk and expense of directly attacking or removing the desired objective itself.

Works well, doesn't it Karl?