Saturday, December 31, 2005

Coming soon to a universe near you

Heterodoxy will be breaking out all over the place.

And happy new year

So ends the first calendar year of my trying this blogging thing.

To those who encourage me, my heartfelt thanks.

To those who have told me I am a liar or full of crap, my heartfelt thanks...
...and BOO! I am still here.

To the bloggers in the PBA and the pros and those who went pro and all those with the marvelous prose: you have made it a year of expanding horizons for me.

It has been a good year for the truth.

See you in 2006.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A long days journey into caution

[updates may appear above the foot notes]

Sister Novena makes me smile even when she doesn't make me think. She has weighed in with her understanding of a common observation: That somewhere along the road to middle age, many who were identified and even self-identified as "liberal" in their youth, wind up voting Republican or even calling themselves "conservative".

I didn't have a good answer to Sister's riddle. And I may not yet, but her observations got me to thinking. This post will stand on two legs which may get crossed or trip over each other:
  • demonstration by citation and example that indeed this rightward drift occurs in some portion of us as we age and
  • an attempt to understand the phenomenon as a consequence of cognitive development.

Our aging American electorate and the rise in numbers of voters who identify themselves as conservative are probably not coincidence. While her observation is not isolated, mention of it in political blogging is uncommon enough to seem merely anecdotal, off the radar, so to speak. The clearest, most graphic documentation of it that I could find was buried on page 52 of this study [which is actually a mother lode for posts on gender equality, my emphasis]:
Much of the egalitarian shift in public opinion from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s resulted from more liberal recent cohorts replacing more conservative older cohorts. This cohort replacement effect continues even now to push average public opinion towards more liberal gender roles. Thus, the overall slight conservative shift seen in Figure 17 for the last decade masks a much stronger conservative shift within each cohort. Most individuals have become more conservative in the last ten years; this has been offset somewhat because younger generations have entered the public arena far more liberal than their grandparents. But after they entered, since the mid 1990s they have become more conservative as has the rest of America.
-Cotter, et. al.

I have observed that shift of focus and sympathy among a few of my own family, friends and acquaintances. It is a phenomenon worth understanding.

I have an idea for explaining Sister's observation which Churchill allegedly expressed as " Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains."
First, I offer two general observations about the nature of the maturing mind:
  1. Youthful foolhardiness: the young tend to think themselves indestructible. "NO FEAR" is good marketing here.
  2. Maturing includes surviving brushes with our mortality. "Know fear" is the hidden persuader here.
An example in my own life actually interrupted the writing of this post. Illustration helps, though nobody wants to be in this picture. We all know examples, I am certain.
My 20 year old son talked me into a Dec 26 scaling of Mt Washington. It rained on the 26th so we spent the day renting crampons and ice axes and climbing the easy half of the 1260 meters. Every damp thing having frozen solid, we got a late start on the hard climbing the next morning when temps were about 10 below freezing and winds were70 mph gusting to 100 above tree line. Just below timberline, a 300 meter ascent is, in places, practically vertical though not technical ice climbing. I balked. When I was 14 I nearly killed myself free climbing the crumbling face of a highway grade cut. I have never used crampons or ice axe and while they seemed to make an impossible climb possible, I could not imagine getting down without falling. He coaxed and coached. We kept on. We broke out of the trees and were repeatedly knocked off our feet by the wind as we alternately trudged and crawled across bare rock and drifts, ice chips blowing at us like buck shot. It was a unique and challenging experience for both of us, exhilarating for both of us but initially an ordeal for me. I did get back down. One short section was difficult enough to reignite my nervous caution but I just took it slow.
I had become the adult more fearful than the child, too sensible to not fear the new and too inclined to weigh heavily the potential risks. He was the child adventurer, not actually experienced with the ice equipment but a spider-like rock climber with a careful manner of studying and calculating just what is physically possible. I carry various healed fractures to remind me I once gave little thought to adverse outcomes. But it is also true those bones carry me, and I long considered them my better bones for the lessons they kept in my mind. Now I am not so sure about those bones. Time and my equipment were not in our favor and, within sight of the summit, we turned back. Fortunately he has a sense of when his plans are not a match to the realities and a graceful retreat from folly marks his character. The summit is not always the highest point of the climb.

I am not yet to the stage where experience of my own frailty has paralyzed me but it is a well documented condition of the elderly, reversible only by concerted effort and sheer will power.

The experience also shows me:
When I meet an older person, I may have to talk with them a while to discern whether they are living to a ripe old age or dying slowly. If that old person is me, I may not notice the difference.

Is there a link from the slightly neurotic aversions some of us learn from life's tough lessons to the emergence of conservative views in a substantial portion of us? Yes, there is. I will call it the politics of caution.

This is the weaker leg of my argument: that with age, we accumulate or learn of the harms life holds but the fear must be sublimated. I am hardly the originator of such ideas. Fear is an uncomfortable, intolerable state. The consciousness of vulnerability is quickly supplanted and covered by caution, hatreds, denial, avoidance, mistrust or combinations of those crutches. Caution is the most direct, most common and least pathological response to fear. It is often rational at its inception in the wake of experiencing something harmful. If the perceived threat is not rational, neither is the caution and even when it is due, it can be over done and with passage of time, I recon it typically is overdone.

How natural and instinctive it seems, to suppose that fear must produce some response appropriate to and protective against the perceived threat that gives rise to the fear. Fear is the great mistake. Caution and its less helpful allies are the great cover-up. If this over-learning of protective caution is our nature, are we stuck? Not entirely. I know some veer left with age, others to the right. I have seen that divergence in one house, among siblings. I have to assume we all learn different lessons from the same hardship. What nudges us to grow more conservative or more liberal could be a complex of genetics or sibling order , community and religious environment. However, those would all be factors affecting the way our minds or personalities incorporate experience into future judgments. Exact mechanisms and particular cases would fill a book and this is only a blog. I mainly sought to find if growing more conservative with age was a general trend, which it seems to be. The many factors that might play into the development of a political outlook will just be dealt with here as if they had some average when you considered a nation's voters as a whole. If I take that approach, then I give up accounting for my own drift to the left but on the other hand, I think I might not have to write a whole book [you know I like brevity] to argue that a general trend could betoken a general mechanism. A general mechanism to account for a change of attitude toward others, and about what priorities to put on threats present and presumed is basically a learning mechanism, the cognitive cogs that turn for us to acquire beliefs and learned responses. So it comes down to an argument that once burned, some people spend the rest of their life scanning the horizon for smoke and shivering on cold nights, some people resolve to learn how to juggle flaming batons but most people operate with diminished confidence, a reduced repertoire of fire handling activities and an increased preference for the company of men in firefighting uniform. The general mechanism I will suggest is simply an over reaction to threat. This might be worsened by political or religious leadership with something to gain from an alarmed constituency. Modeled as dysfunctional learning, it could be a whole range of mistakes from overgeneralization of threats to unnuanced perception of the original source of the threat. I don't find it hard to imagine making these mistakes myself.

Try these sentences on for size. Can you say them with a straight face? Where have you heard them? In whose conversations are they the subtext when they are not the text?
  • "They are out to get us. Really! They are!"
  • "Those people are going to take all my money and I won't have enough left to care for myself."
  • "Their loud music and strange's like we have been invaded."
  • "They work for peanuts...they'll take my job!"

Now these:
  • "Clearly, we need a strong military."
  • "People work hard for their money and the government should let them keep more of it."
  • "Why should the government tell bankers where they must make home loans?"
  • "Immigration quotas are the fairest way to balance everyone's interests, we can loosen up work visa programs in the future"

The point of that little thought experiment is that every fear can be turned into a plank in the political platform of the politics of caution. Is that so far fetched an exercise?

I give you three instances here, more would add little to the argument.

Though I am certain one exists, I could not find a study or poll on line that directly addressed concern about law and order and public safety in the US in general as it varied with age of those varies greatly north to south and urban to rural. I found such a study conducted in 1999 in Denmark. On page 18 it reports that 78 percent of the retirees are most worried about law and order and the number falls to 56 percent for the 30-somethings. Though the percent of US citizens who personally suffer a violent crime is a single digit number [we are talking averages here! and we are NOT saying numbers above 0 are "good"], the nightly local news usually starts with such items. Fear for ones safety escalates with age. And that translates into poll numbers.

Failing health, that doormat before the grave, addicts a population already addicted to hamburgers and barely weaned off smokes to another of our ugly national not-enough-for-everyone issues: health care. Liberal and conservative alike see both the rising costs and the rising demand like an incoming tsunami. Universal healthcare is the program wrought by those willing to share and by the fears of many who don't have money or any other qualification to afford treatment. What we have now in health care is probably the last years of a broken down or breaking scheme in which most of us are saying under our breath "thank god I have a job" and the rest of us pray under our breath "I hope I don't get sick". Caution comes out sounding like "it aint broke so don't fix it". Health delivery reforms have become essentially profit/loss improvements in a business so concentrated in the hands of HMO and insurance company boards of directors that even doctors, who mostly believe "first I heal, and then I bill", are almost out of the loop. Our fears are nearer the surface in these matters, fear by those with care that their care will be diluted, and fear by those with marginal access that they could be ruined by a single illness. Do the older voters have a more conservative voice on this issue? In 2000, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health found older voters were a distinct block focused on Medicare while the rest of us considered health care costs and the uninsured as problems.

To see as we grow old that our finances become shaky is one of the fears that has had a paradoxical effect...the same old voters who otherwise default to the Republicans, have a fear that makes them apprehensive of Dubya's money-grabbing "reforms" to social security: a stalemate of fears sets up a political doldrums. Where Dubya thought he could cut a wide swath of "conservative" improvement, he gets bubkes. This may have been a disappointment to his coach. If you consult the original draft of Rove's playbook, fear was supposed to be a great tool for forging political will. In the end, freeing yourself from fear, subtle and trying as that may be, is how you free yourself from political evil. You will not get a conservative to admit to practicing the politics of fear but they may volunteer to correct your presumption by telling you that the politics of caution is simply prudence in practice. This rejection of Dubya's raid on the social security piggy bank got support from the left but the AARP came out swinging too. On this issue the "people who don't want change" was a broader section of the population than could be conveniently labeled conservative. Resistance from older voters who were concerned that their money was in jeopardy was added to that of more liberal voters who just don't buy anything the Bush administration is selling.

UPDATES: Amanda Marcotte has done me and my hit counter a great favor by discussing this post on Pandagon. Unfortunately, Pandagon's switch-over to WordPress seems to have eaten the rather interesting commenting that went on there. I printed hardcopy of the commenting there when there were about 20 comments [I was at work and could not linger on line]...I will put up replys as I catch the time.

Foot Note: when conservatives take this quote for spin, they drive it in the ditch:
First of all, according to Wikipedia, the quote is apocryphal.

According to the Falsely Attributed Quotations page at the Churchill Centre, "there is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this." Paul Addison of Edinburgh University is quoted as stating: "Surely Churchill can't have used the words attributed to him. He'd been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! And would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?"
  1. Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
  2. Show me a young conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.

Also, just read the quotes at the Wikipedia page. They are in chronological order. They appear to demonstrate Churchill had an abiding wit but racist and chauvinist streaks to his early sentiments faded out by mid career. His quotes are among the wittiest we have but we seem to like his misquotes better.

Of course, there are young conservatives...most seem to be clicking their heels together just to scare people, espousing violence, loudly preaching things nobody wants them to practice and of course, taking the "exact quote" backwards. Who they hate is clear to them. Why they hate is not clear. Factual news in support of their opinions is scant. Their mode is a gang-like encouraging of each other's denouncing and denigrating "liberals". I don't like this form of political "thought". Not from any side of the political spectrum. The chief force at work appears to be individuals identifying with a group and the reinforcing of ego through promotion of the group with which they have identified. The last thing that I expect to see in such a forum is any questioning of the values implied or efficacy of means espoused.

Conservatism embrittles and weakens religion as thoroughly as it does politics. The fundamentalist branches of a few Christian sects do most of the muddling and mixing of politics and religion in this if their god was not as powerful as the government and so political power was needed for them to live a religious life. The religion of youth is a borrowed thing, a parroting. The religion of older folks is the garment, shabby or fine, they have made with their own life. I do not for one second dismiss a religion that produces a mind like Paul Tillich or a conscience like Martin Neimoller. But I struggle to understand how a nearly universal but vague urge to gain a sense of life's meaning ossifies into exclusionary, sometimes paranoid absolutes. Unless they can get past the unconscious death-denial that masquerades as fervent belief in afterlife and entails an obsession with what one must do and "believe" to qualify for that afterlife, I am of the opinion that most fundamentalists and others who believe a well worked out mythology of afterliving are operating on fear. The fear of death is absent in most youngsters and dawns sooner or later in most adults. Its advent may even mark, along with sexual awakening, the threshold of adulthood. As this fear more tightly grips otherwise intelligent and constructive individuals, their "faith" has to kick in more and more unless they are tough enough to face the dark emptiness that, poised to swallow, looms all around their little flickering candle of life. As an example, here is the blog of an intelligent and not completely insensitive gentleman who considers his political and religious conservatism the right and proper maturation of attitude per his misquote of Churchill....he is a likable guy with musical tastes I share to read his blogging and yet he holds on to pictures of fear and hatred. I read a few of his posts and feel sorry for the man in his confusion: he would save egg and sperm as if the mixing of DNA made a soul yet posts careful
accountings of war dead like it justified anything. I read the thoughts of this man I do not know and think:
New killings justified by old killings, "our" dead in close-up, "their" dead in abstraction and indirection...these make the tight vicious circle of history's stepping stones: a self-perpetuating futility to banish death. How many are the ways you can fail to banish death? Only fear of death keeps trying and stops noting failures.
And the fear, deeply sublimated, is not present to make account of its responses.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Valuing work #3

The person who gets the most work done is the one who has the most respect for the work of others.

Even the hardest working person who belittles the efforts of others subtracts other's work from the whole and then adds their own contribution, the net effect may not even be positive.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Left handed compliments of the season!

If this is the one time of year you contemplate peace and giving, I am glad for all of us that you have at least one occasion for that.

If this is only one of several holidays or other special times when you are able and encouraged to think of others and the gifts of life and nature we all share, I am all the happier.

If not, well then I hope you get more than presents.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Another word from our sponsor

Tis the season for commercials and Tempus Fugit Inc, proud sponsor of The Executioners Thong is not one to make war against anyone's holiday. So, in conformance with evidence broadcast by the loudest warriors for the defense in the war on Christmas as to what the spirit of the holiday is, we present our advertisement.

The maxim "use it or lose it" is true of nothing so much as it is of time.

Once in a while, the best way to use it is to do absolutely nothing.

An ironic way of becoming more the master and less the victim of time is meditation. In ceasing to do anything short of being aware in a wordless and unresisting way of time's flowing by, you can step outside time, cease being like the fish that does not know it lives in water.

The deadlines with which we mark time seem to aid our sense of accomplishment when they don't poison and oppress us but they will finally be just ribbons and bits of paper the river bears out to sea.

Tempus Fugit Inc., maker of time, suggests you try their new "contemplated second" and for that someone special, give our "moral minute".

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Culture of government.

Spying on citizens is NOT just a hobby of Dubya's. NYTimes today reports:
December 22, 2005

Police Infiltrate Protests, Videotapes Show

Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of videotapes show.

In glimpses and in glaring detail, the videotape images reveal the robust presence of disguised officers or others working with them at seven public gatherings since August 2004.

The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, "I am a shameless agitator." She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present.

Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events. At a demonstration last year during the Republican National Convention, the sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police led to a bruising confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders.

Until Sept. 11, the secret monitoring of events where people expressed their opinions was among the most tightly limited of police powers.

Provided with images from the tape, the Police Department's chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, did not dispute that they showed officers at work but said that disguised officers had always attended such gatherings - not to investigate political activities but to keep order and protect free speech. Activists, however, say that police officers masquerading as protesters and bicycle riders distort their messages and provoke trouble.

[for all the bruising their reputation as the "paper of record" has sustained, I heard it there first and it costs them to get and report the stories so I won't copy the whole article here.]

That is pretty disturbing. We aren't talking about Mississippi or Idaho here but an east coast blue state bastion. News like that might serve to nudge susceptible persons towards paranoia. What it wakes in me is the perception that we have suffered a reversion, a culture change, in our government at many levels that takes us back toward McCarthyism.

I know, given where I blog, that I am preaching to the converted but scary stuff like this calls for redoubled effort to stem this culture change: we need regime change before political freedom as I understand it erodes to mere lip service and labels pasted over state run spying, entrapment and the fostering of fear.

I should not need such reminders...I'm the one who said "our children will not live in the political climate we intended but the climate we tolerated"

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Science And Politics: Oy vey, I am still laughing!

Science And Politics: Oy vey, I am still laughing!

If you liked that then "born to Kvetch" is its darker, more psychologically profound cousin...a place to learn how and why people would develop expressions like "he was like a piece of meat with eyes".

Who am I kidding.

"Who am I kidding" is the better way to say "I am fooling myself": the one extra mental step involved in the rhetorical question is taken in humility.

"But my life is complicated, there were hard choices to make in this decision" is a transparent excuse. President Bush is now broadly criticized for ignoring a law that was written for and is entirely adequate to the national security needs which he claims. It is like Mordechai Liebling's observation about charity: The poor know from sore experience exactly what the bare necessities are and when asked how much they can spare, can and do dig deep in their pockets knowing exactly what they must leave for themselves. But the rich find the request perplexing because status purchases have taken on an air of necessity that arrogance and their tax attorney have hardened into a certainty.

Speculation about dark motives on the part of the president come naturally to those of us he may now be spying on: why would he avoid even the minimum of oversight on his spying unless he or his Svengali, the creepy VP, knew the targets of eavesdropping would be seen as personal or political domestic enemies not related to terrorists or foreign interests? FISA does not require them to publicize anything, only to endure the minimum of oversight. Self deception, I would argue, is more likely than conspiracy to be powering these horribly flawed decisions. It is against that very human and nearly universal weakness that checks and balances were designed into our system of government. This is our nation, this is and will be our way of life,

our children will not live in the political climate we intended but the climate we tolerated can not be personal and it cannot be left prey to personal weaknesses. Let me put it bluntly: checks and balances were made law to keep government above personal or clique motivations. Thus abrogating those checks and balances breaks more than law, it breaks the very backbone of American government's long claim to a greater civility than most nations enjoy.

Arrogance and self-deception are just the different faces of the same two-headed snake.

You will not cast one out of your character if you do not also cast out the other.

Though the high holiday Machzor used at my synagogue comes in for some knocks, it has one line that just pierces my smugness: "A mighty fortress is self deception"...I hardly need to read past that line. For the President, his elevation to the honor and grave responsibility of defending and upholding the constitution justify the intense spotlight of public scrutiny [and outrage] at his failure and his betrayal of trust. At what line did the President stop reading? He claims to operate from a religous world view but I know Christianity teaches a humility that would require one to weigh the good or evil of one's actions in a scope that included the least of gods creatures, not merely the good of a lobbying group or sect. He is stuck, for better or worse, with being the president of us all, not the president of the hawks, the fundamentalists or the Repulicans. At no time can he afford to fool himself as to whose benefit he must serve. Yet he has fooled himself, saying earnestly that his violation of law is somehow legal.

The rest of us may not carry the President's special burden to be fair and uphold the law but we too have to be on guard about the many guises in which our self interest hides. When we fool ourselves by proxy, we are not so much better than our agents. I like this quote that Liebling provides:
"There is no such thing to my mind… as an innocent stockholder. He may be innocent in fact, but socially he cannot be held innocent. He accepts the benefits of the system. It is his business and his obligation to see that those who represent him carry out a policy which is consistent with public welfare."
--Louis Brandeis

And it is by proxy that those who now uncritically support Bush are kidding themselves.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Putting us in our place

Recently Charlie Rose had James Watson and E. O. Wilson on his show. The topic was the importance of Darwin's ideas in our lives. At a certain point in the conversation, Watson offered without much qualification that Darwin was more important than Muhammad. Wilson, with a little hesitation said that Darwin was more important to how we view ourselves than any Abrahamic prophet. Charlie asked for an explanation. Wilson, with agreement from Watson, said that each of those prophets had put forth a vision of man's place that had built-in disparities between groups of humans, disparities which reinforced old tensions and gave names and causes for new tensions and had not at all unified humanity whereas Darwin, in one stroke put all life on a common footing and as level a playing field as could be imagined.

I like that reasoning and for the most part I agree with it but I have a slight objection. Consciousness has emerged and in humans, a verbal and self aware power for modeling ones existence that can be partly projected or communicated to others. This advent of human perception and thought threatens to float free of the individual vessels in which it works and tries constantly to get above the physical realm. In that realm a strictly reductionist view of things can, with a fair amount of comfort and consistency, see only the spinning of Darwin's genetic gears, an infinite dance of base pairs calling the tune for all that is more than mineral. But consciousness IS with us and it does not sit easily, does not, despite efforts such as Daniel Dennet's fit easily into the physical. Until some time when we may all see a comfortable fit where Dennet and others pound consciousness back down into the physical, its strikes me as practical to go with the intuitive, to see consciousness as a thing apart from the 4 [or 11? ] dimensions of physics. That destruction of the physical being destroys the consciousness proves little to me about this separation I intuit. Since this is the case for me, there is a super set to the elements of life that Darwin has so beautifully ordered. The teaching and the tools that give us means to deal with the way that mind both is and is not of physical reality and the way that sentience is a special qualifier and equalizer among all that lives are as important and universal as Darwin's insight. But unfortunatly,

Many things are universal yet without any common human or cultural awareness that they are so.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Arise! You are heeled!

Shokai is a blogger with a an extreme-of-consciousness format to his blog. And his blog is a treat for the eyes. He frequently finds or puts together some great photo essays. I just wanted a few more people to know about this post because I swear it would make a psychoanalyst wonder if Dubya didn't harbor a dream that he should be a faith would fit so well with much that is wrong about his presidency.

Something fishy about ID

In Eurkealert, I found pointers to a nice bit of work where Richard Borowsky and colleagues report in Nature Genetics that, for a particular gene, the same evolution replicated for blind cave fish in ISOLATED, INDEPENDENT populations.

Borowsky's work with others has catalogued 86 known species of troglomorphic fishes from 18 different families. As the Harvard researcher Tabin says: "The convergence in phenotype across species and the comparative simplicity of the cave environment make cave animals an interesting evolutionary system to study."

Interesting, even to this physicist/software engineer/executioner, interesting indeed. A weird and wonderful phenomenon it would be to encounter a fish that lost the organs and the facility of sight but 86 different species that all wound up the same way...because of their permanently dark environment? There is simply nothing subtle about it: this is exactly what Darwin would have predicted. I don't know of stronger evidence. I am well enough read to be unamazed by this pattern. I need no miracles but the logic of genes to see how sensible this is.

Let the IDiots turn logic and fact on its head, let them contort their thoughts until they are satisfied their magical biology has a simpler accounting for why 86 different species THAT HAD SIGHT AND PIGMENTATION AT SOME ANCESTRAL POINT have independently become congenitally blind and unpigmented. The particular advancement represented in this paper is evidence, clear as can be, that genetic change is wrought by environmentally forced selection on a particular gene. In this case it is a pigmentation gene and the same change, more or less was independently produced in isolated populations by the same special environment of subterranean waters. That it was a particular gene is important in that it eliminates a generalization about the mechanisms of evolution: it is another smoking gun, so to speak, precise and particular evidence of mechanism for a truly general and more than generally true theory published November 24th, 1859. Its a prettier than usual example of evolution working so transparently that it defies finding a better explanation.

If fundamentalists would quit bothering the people of the 21st century, I would not write a word of this post and just sit and enjoy Dr. Borowsky's paper. But I admit, I am riled by the willful ignorance of those who find no value in a stunningly simple theory that explains the complex weirdness we find on earth and who seek to shout down that simplicity. Perhaps they never heard the advice that

It is better keep quiet and have people suspect you are a fool than to speak and make them certain.

Foolishness is all this is. No need for an aphorism about the limits of what men can know or what god can do. You don't get a new saying for this...this is old crap that doesn't deserve another word or minute. We have always had people afraid of knowledge, afraid of change, desperately hopeful for power in this world while picking what color robes they will wear in the next world.
The ultra-religious could quietly part company with science, with all modernity in fact and still be held in high esteem by the rest of society for the positive values they exemplify. By beating up religious studies professors and shoving IDiocy down the throats of Kansas public school students, they make no friends for fundamentalism. I am in no position to predict a backlash against the fundamentalists [beyond my own revulsion and that of the real blogwarriors of this battle] but neither do I see much cause for alarm that American ayatollahs will force us all to publicly swear be believe in them, I mean in their goofy interpretation of, no I mean ... well, it ain't gonna come to that because a few years of fundy quacking held up beside evolution won't, IMO, make idiots out of the rest of us. It will waste our time. It will be pointlessly divisive. But I can't imagine a 12 year old offered a choice between "yeah the fish all went blind 'cause god made it that way" and "a feature that no longer confers a fitness advantage will not be maintained in a population" going with the supernatural. When I was that age, the Greek mythology they taught me in western civ class soon had me questioning all religions. Skepticism is natural...and not as fragile in a free people as one might fear.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy 100th, E=MC^2

When the centennial of the publication of Einstein's first paper on relativity came around two months ago, a crowd of three or four of the usual science journals celebrated and the ripple died out in a few days. I see a few comments to the effect that we won't see such breakthroughs again. Some comments are full of misgivings that the net effect of the material mastery our science has given us has been brutal misuse. Mostly I see a lack of comment. I am dismayed at how few Americans consider science one of mankind's greatest acheivements. To some, its a foreign language, used to cloak the ambitions of smart or at least educated people. A few say there is nothing we need to know beyond their interpretation of some scripture. And way too many vote if not voice an opinion like "thats too hard to understand, I want a simple world!"

The harms we have done nature and ourselves cannot be blamed on science, which saw those harms before any others were alarmed. The optimism of the 1950's for science as a spigot of Tommorow Land wonder products was a mix of ignorance, budding consumerism and burgeoning corporations. Currently, a more realistic view does not rule out science for a technical fix to our biggest problem. Until we can understand why we are creatures who could see tomorrow but are more likely to just try and have our cake and eat it too, no technology we develop will long go unabused.

Think of how the world looked to the nerds of 1905:
  • There were "just a few little details" to be worked out about the atom, why for instance did it radiate and how.
  • The universe was euclidian and straight lines, by god, were just straight.
  • few doubted that you could, though it would be costly, know the exact position of everything and calculate the future positions.
  • A nagging little absence of an aether, to wave for electromagnetic waves as water or air do for their waves.
But mostly, we were pretty sure we had it all but figured out.

Take heart nerds. We have ALWAYS percieved ourselves as being at that point on the great learning curve of omniscience and we probably always will...its an exciting place to hang out.

The rest of us should have a heart.

Distrust of science is only a distrust of human nature and what it might do with new knowledge and power. If science has enlarged what we may count upon as fact and shrunken what we were forced to take on faith, that is a burden lifted from those engaged in reality, not an assault on those who prefer myth. There is no shortcut to power but to do your homework.

Flawed as we are, we are in charge and should admit we need science, at the very least, to better understand ourselves. Einstein was more maturely religious on his worst days than Falwell will be if he lives as long as Methuselah.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Take it to the country!

NYTimes marks the passing of Eugene McCarthy. He ran for president in the days when I was having my first discussions of politics where I didn't just repeat things I'd heard at home. Regardless of how vehemently my folks labeled him a socialist, I doubted much harm could come from a man whose disgust at what the Viet Nam war was doing to the nation led him to say "There is only one thing to do - take it to the country!" His opposition was clear enough at least that he could be seen as an alternative.

We desperately need a real alternative to our present administration who, together with their pals in industry, operate as if their private slogan was "Hey, we can just take it from the country!"

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sitting on our own sword

A friend forwarded me the Guardian article in which George Monbiot cites Jeffrey Dukes calculation that the economies [how poorly named!] of the civilized world [how very poorly named, what ironists we are!] consume in a year what an uncontaminated, unpaved global biota could only replenish in 400 years. The man could be off by two orders of magnitude and still have said the most damning thing about the pathetic way we turn to every substitute for the fuel we are runnng out of rather than turn down the thermostat. I had missed that one. Its good to have mathematical demonstration that current satisfaction of our wants isn't really possible. Without several breakthroughs in biofuel technology, most biodiesel schemes are barely at carbon-budget break even points.

There has been a thread in some of the blogs I read, maybe for a month or two now, that plowing under the rainforests, as is now underway in Brazil and Borneo, e.g., to make plantations that produce biodiesel [from palm oil] is not even going to be the short term success for which the sponsoring governments and corporations tout it. It is going to be a long term disaster for species diversity and environmental degradation.

What I lacked in appreciating the folly of these plantations was the numeric brick wall against which these plans are hurling themselves. The attempt at current satisfaction of our wants will strip us of the means to meet our barest future needs.

Once in a great while and with sober, dire deliberation, a group of us will fall on its own swords. But now all of trading humanity, being too addicted to comfort to stand and too seduced by speed to slow down, is about to absent mindedly sit on a sword.

How to make sentences and influence no one

This post may be ignored. It is just an attempt to explain the fun I am having here.

The joy of writing arises only from our natures and skills. But it is so much the better if we apply it to a worthy subject. When the thinking is sound and begins with comprehensive facts, then the writing is worthy and not merely a pocked and wheezing invalid dressed in a fancy suit.

My nature and skill yields a middling result for doting on vocabulary and for want of time to absorb the full spectrum of pertinent information, hungry though I am for all of it. Burke's Connections, which I love more than I trust, is the model of my writing. Like a rabbit running dog, I follow wispy traces across centuries and oceans if only google will provide them. Time and will are soon exhausted and with whatever facts and notions have stuck like burrs in my brain, I concoct my skimpy thesis. The bias, I claim, only comes in the writing. The joy comes in both the digging and the writing.

There is a process implied above. Here is an example.

Kingslake was an author who reveled in his language. Read him for the fun of seeing English flex its muscles. Decades ago, I subscribed to Harper's Monthly. No place can I find the copy or any online reference, but I do recall a very short article in the magazine in which the writer apologized but then dropped a name. He once happened to be in an elevator with Sir Winston Churhill. Not entirely abashed in this presence, he got up the nerve to ask Sir Winston what his inspiration was for the considerable skill with which he mustered the language. The one word answer was "Kingslake".

Thank god for elevators...they enforce a bracing brevity better than anything else.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Does Anna Nicole Smith deserve ...

...the millions the court finally gave her from her late husband's estate? I could not possibly care less. I am not a lawyer. I have no credentials as a feminist. I am not among those who assume feminism has won all its battles or even identified all its battlegrounds, but I think I can still ask questions.

Its hard to generalize about what shapes behaviour beyond saying that it is part nature and part nurture. The academics lately have been pushing the line to include more nature as we discover more about how genes affect the mechanisms I will loosely refer to as "mind". But until and unless the unlikely day comes that somehow I am persuaded that genes alone produce all the characteristics of a person's behavior, I just have to wonder:

Though men and women who let their attraction for companions of sexual interest run unleashed on skin-deep criteria deserve to be used in return,

Did Vickie Lynn Hogan deserve to become Anna Nicole Smith?

I don't presume that she is dumb, smart or a boob-wagging gold digger but I do consider her an embarrassment and not nearly as lucky as some would assert. Would she have made more respectable choices if she had them? When, REALLY, does one have choices about who, and what kind of person, they will become?

Nurture generally means the people who attend your life and resouces they provide, particularly instruction or discipline or example. At some point, each of us becomes one of those people and we cannot get off the hook for attending our own life. Regardless of whether we complicate the picture by noting that that point arrives at a time which is itself produced by our innate personal timetable of maturation and by circumstances that, rather than supporting us, thrust responsibility on young shoulders...the point does come and it is childhood's end. Few reach that point having escaped any molding or forming by expectations.

NOTE: my dictionary defined feminism this way: "Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes." To which my response is "Belief"? Are there no absolutes about equality? No simple facts? As to equalities being simply due and right entitlements, that is axiomatic to me. In the realm of belief, I would put the notion that when women set the terms and get at least a truce in the last and most subtle of their battles, then men should study the game plan to see how they
can liberate themselves.
There are differences in nature I do agree.
But in law and custom, differences beg bias or belie claimed equalities.
They don't sit well with me.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Reinventing the ...

Reinventing the flat tire is a far more common achievement than reinventing the wheel.

And this is in spite of the fact that most flat tires are a good deal more complex and clever than a wheel. A wheel solves a problem. A flat tire salves an ego. The better a wheel works, the less it is noticed. A flat tire requires us to stop, gives us a chance to admire someone's skill with a jack and tire iron and may beget all sorts of speculation as to why it is flat. Whatever drives one to invent a wheel passes away with the invention. The flat tire must be reinvented over and over again, even by the same person, since it does not solve the problem that sets the inventor in motion.

[I will gradually fill this yawning white space with examples as they occur to my strange mind but you doubtless have a few of your own.]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ambition: my long shorter way

Somewhere a little past the apogee of your life's parabola, you might look down.
Its a good thing we begin life as children: they start to climb a tree because they don't know how scary it is going to be coming down. Ambitions still bubble up constantly in my mind but virtually none of them make it past my sketchbooks. Of the few works I now look back on with satisfaction, I see their great inaugural blessing was that I did not know it couldn't be done or was a way of thorns and hard climbing. When I see my sketch books as a black hole for ideas, I wonder if my station of the moment on the parabola is the place where you fear a full life is just a process of outgrowing everything.

No, its not that bleak. The few times I did commit to getting what I wanted turned out to be campaigns scuffed and dented but ultimately just matters of getting what I needed the hardest way possible. In the wake of these surges that I only now examine, there are newly raised citizens, houses built, bits of employment and provisions scattered all about and generally, the world a bit more worn and occupied. I was not equipped to analyse or doubt my desires back then and I would not urge anyone to develop that analytical skill prematurely. Now I look closely at desire and it vanishes like a little fog before the warm sun. Can detatchment go too far? Can the yetzer hara be held too close? Something has to turn the wheels.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A yardstick with which to beat yourself

A good measure of the extent to which you control your own life is how infrequently you feel obliged to lie.

I wince but I still apply that yardstick. It is actually measuring several things. It tells me about the level of duress, peer pressure etc. that thwarts my wishes [i.e. when people block my needs and greeds]. But also, assuming I can be honest with myself, it measures my mettle on matters of taking my medicine and what confrontations I will risk.

I hope I don't presume too much to suppose my workings are not that different from yours, dear readers. This metric works until you are so screwed up you no longer know when you are lying. It measures an aspect of what we casually refer to as character. You know, the stuff Kerry was said to lack and Dubya was said to possess. Yeah, right, character. Who couldn't use a little more character? Turns out having the courage to face consequences, the balls to earn the respect you need and the intelligence to see all the way to the second and third order consequences of a lie all add up to a personality nearly as effective as one who is utterly unconcerned with what others think, or perhaps an absolute naif who is also insensitive to pain. A liar, mind you, is desperately concerned with what others think. A simple person might always tell the truth, a stupid person often thinks just enough to suppose they would get away with a lie. I observe that being courageous is not a guarantee of being in control of your own life but is a necessary precondition more than wealth. Whether it is courage or a detachment from the opinions of others, this trait that helps put one in control seems to fit well in the personality profile Maslow describes as the reality centered self actualizer. Yes, "reality centered". The term must be nearly 50 years old. It is more than coincidence that it is echoed by the label "reality based" with which our bush league administration, oozing character as it does, has labeled some of its annoying citizens and press. The term, an unwitting gift, does emphasize a serious difference and distinction between the Bush administration and a profile of psychological health and maturity. It may only be an old theory of personality but the characteristics of Maslow's self actualizer are not well represented in the publicly visible levels of our executive branch today.

You can lose control of your life on all of Maslow's five levels. You can have control pried out of your hands or you might never have had it. It has been the executioner's experience that one almost gives away control by choosing the unknown future of a fib over the known immediate discomfort of being honest. If you were the last person on earth, would you still bend the facts from time to time? Its odd we lie to control other because I suspect that beyond lying as a measure of feeling we are not in control we might find truth telling is a tool to regain control in areas of our lives where we have an innate or earned right to be in control...but that is a topic for another post.

Given the pernicious dysfunction of the current administration in regard to getting its facts straight and giving the straight facts, I thought it worthwhile to try yet another examination of the nature of truth telling. Lying became a universally human occupation once our language faculties evolved to include "yes" and "no". On the shaky ssumption that Rummy, Rice, Rove and the rest are only human, I suggest we will understand the administration sooner by remembering human weakness is at work here and we will get them headed out of the dark woods of their self serving myths sooner if we cut them a bit of slack for being stuck trying to fill their level three and four needs. I don't know if Maslow would have agreed but I think institutions and ensembles of personalities always function a level below the level at which the constituent individuals are working. This means that lies the administration as a whole subscribes to are embraced to achieve advertised "security" needs (level 2). My hunch is that the ease and uniformity with which Whitehouse group-think descends to the lower common denominator [and the psychological hand writing on the wall "Colin will depart"] is just a symptom of how needy these people each were on their own. How this bunch ever styled themselves as Vulcans is beyond me, Ferengi would fit them a lot better. I am not the best informed examiner you could be reading but if I have reminded you that is not satisfactory to tackle honesty issues by only looking at the other guy, I hope I have helped.

Valued Words

I was going to write one of my typical essays but like quite a few others that are parked in "draft" form, it hung up in my mind over a vocabulary issue. Some of our most important words, words we must use constantly in discussing moral issues, strike me as taking on shadow meanings. And those shadows grow ever darker by little degrees. Orwell's Ministry of Truth was right about language, you know.

I may have to write more posts like this that add up to a dictionary of words we must rescue from their veering rightward into a dark ditch. That would enable me to get back to my real writing task without fequent sidetracking to explain away dubious or loaded words.

Today's word is justice.

Do not use the word "justice" if all you mean is "revenge" or even "retribution". Justice only means "fairness". As benign an assumption as I can make about the drift in usage is to suppose that a sloppiness about timing has grown in to a confusion of cause and effect:

You may deal justly in the beginning or you may deal in retribution in the end.

If you deny justice, you will reap revenge. NRA members, or any who cling in fear to the notion that law and order are all that matter and all come down to being ready and able to do more and faster harm than a criminal, should not give themselves the false luxury of assuming my point has something to do with vauge extenuation of violent crimes by victims of social injustice. Justice does not come from the barrel of a gun. Every person, presidents to prowlers, is responsible for the harm he does to others. When one deprives others of health, life or property for any theory of net benefit, it is not much better than doing so out of selfish disregard of others. If the benefit is real, a just means of accomplishing it will be found. "If you do the crime, you do the time" is not a white man's saying. It would be so nice if the most powerful people in the most powerful nation were in possession of their own saying reminding them of that basic notion of responsibility. Owning up to your responsibilities BEFORE YOU ACT could lead you to deal justly.

Do any conservatives hear my anguish that our Department of "Justice" will wind up sorting out only some of the responsibilities many in the Bush league have evaded? For the liberals, nothing but a grim grin can come from the findings of the Department of Justice-after-the-fact.

Whoever wrote Deuteronomy knew
Justice comes only from me and you
"Justice, Justice shall you pursue."

Friday, December 02, 2005


We feel much more powerful in our complaining than we do in proposing better schemes.

That asymmetry is at the heart of politics in the small. It is the snake that is in the grass of every field where leaders could emerge. And it begets a nasty feedback or perhaps it is not so much two different feelings as much as two faces of one aspect of our natures: few have innate confidence to go it alone with their ideas, everyone knows what's wrong with the other guys ideas. Politics in the large is all about changing what the crowd is saying to itself. Leadership is a better idea, which must come from some place where a person feels free to mention it and unafraid both to champion it and let it be tossed around, polished and finally carry many with it. Complaining is politics in the small. We see it conducted in barrooms and sloppy minded pandering of talk shows: complaining feels so good it need have no legitimate basis. Politics in the small offers ideas from behind closed doors. A people who can encourage each other to think are setting stone on stone but a people who regard belittling as the highest exercise of free speach are only throwing stones.

If that is my complaint, what is my proposal?