5 March 2006

How rarely we pause to consider:  We live in uniquely tumultuous times.  The pace of change is propelled by technology, social organization, international communication, and the population explosion, particularly of that sub-population which has leisure to invent and create; but at root, the motor for all these factors is technology.

Never in human history has there been a time when the world was changing so fast.  In fact, for the vast majority of human history, there was no change in global circumstances fast enough to be perceived in a single lifetime.  In contrast, you and I have already borne witness to multiple revolutions, and will see several more in our tenure on Earth.

All in one lifetime:  communicable diseases conquered, and antibiotic resistance mushrooms; global air transportation becomes widely available, and the earth’s climate changes perceptibly in a few short years; the internet morphs from a global channel for military instructions to a repository of universal knowledge with branches in every living room; DNA is decoded, and technology is developed for mixing and matching traits from different species, creating new life forms in the laboratory; manufacturing via human labor yields to manufacturing via robot; a billion years’ accumulation of petroleum is pumped from the ground and dumped in the air; physicists approach the threshold of codifying the ultimate laws of matter and energy, only to discover a Pandora's box of paradox and enigma.  

The pace of change is still accelerating, spiraling ahead without plan, none of us having a vision sufficiently broad to even tell the story.  Of course, the pace is absolutely unsustainable:  A few generations from now these revolutions will have run their course, and the world must settle again into some kind of equilibrium. 

There’s an old Chinese curse about “interesting times”; but I find the age into which I have been born to be a great privilege, bracing and bewildering as it is.  We have been cast as midwives to the future, and it is a sacred trust we hold.

~ Josh Mitteldorf

4 March 2006

I never cease to be amazed that biologists never cease to be amazed by the capacity of humans and other animals to help each other. 

Science magazine this week features two articles on altruistic behaviors in primates. Once again, the experimenters are out in front, demonstrating ways that animals help each other routinely, sometimes with no expectation of reward. Once again, the evolutionary theorists just scratch their heads, saying this must be some kind of exception or anomaly, since they know that animal and human behavior is fundamentally selfish.

Problems of the human world derive not from some inherent tendency of humans to selfishness and violence, but rather from our trusting and cooperative nature, which demagogues everywhere have learned to co-opt and turn to violent ends. there are no theories yet about this one.

New Scientist article

3 March 2006

Happy the man! whose wishes are confined
To what has been eternally designed;
Referring all to His paternal care,
To whom more dear than to ourselves we are.
The rich and poor in slipp’ry places stand.
Give us enough, but with a sparing hand!
Not ill-persuading want, nor wanton wealth,
But what proportion’d is to life and health.

Edmund Waller celebrates his 400th birthday today.
Collected poems

2 March 2006

Almost 100 years ago in Vienna, Theodor Reik asked Sigmund Freud for advice about choosing a career. Freud replied: “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.”

In psychological research from the Netherlands, subjects were offered complex tasks involving a multi-factorial decision.  Subjects who were distracted with other pursuits did better than those who tried to analyze the evidence consciously. 

Lead researcher Dr Ap Dijksterhuis said: “The take-home message is that when you have to make a decision, the first step should be to get all the information necessary for the decision.  Once you have the information, you have to decide, and this is best done with conscious thought for simple decisions, but left to unconscious thought - to ‘sleep on it’ - when the decision is complex.”

(But Freud’s unconscious mind already knew this intuitively.)

1 March 2006

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frederick Chopin, born this day in 1810, created an intensely intimate style of piano composition, a vehicle for expressing emotion. 

Here is my favorite Prelude, to which a friend introduced me many years ago as “The Crab”. It is off-balance and tonally ambiguous, and sounds like a 20th century composition. It is #2 from a set of 24 Preludes, one in each major and minor key, which he composed in an echo of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, during a month when Chopin was suffering intensely from tuberculosis.

28 February 2006

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
And we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.

~ D.H. Lawrence 

27 February 2006

I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

~ John Steinbeck, born this day in 1902