18 June 2006

People in distress rarely can see the path to recovery before them, but there is always an immediate irritant or antagonist, a presently-perceived need that is the person's only window, through which he or she is able to accept help; and that, of course, is the premise on which we must offer to help them, if we wish to earn their trust.

~ Josh Mitteldorf

17 June 2006

I heard a padshah giving orders to kill a prisoner. The helpless
fellow began to insult the king on that occasion of despair, with
the tongue he had, and to use foul expressions according to the

Who washes his hands of life
Says whatever he has in his heart.

When a man is in despair his tongue becomes long and he is like a
vanquished cat assailing a dog.

In time of need, when flight is no more possible,
The hand grasps the point of the sharp sword.

When the king asked what he was saying, a good-natured vizier
replied: “My lord, he says: Those who bridle their anger and forgive
men; for Allah loveth the beneficent.”
The king, moved with pity, forbore taking his life but another
vezier, the antagonist of the former, said: “Men of our rank ought
to speak nothing but the truth in the presence of padshahs. This
fellow has insulted the king and spoken unbecomingly.” The king, being
displeased with these words, said: “That lie was more acceptable to me
than this truth thou hast uttered because the former proceeded from
a conciliatory disposition and the latter from malignity; and wise men
have said: 'A falsehood resulting in conciliation is better than a
truth producing trouble.'”

He whom the shah follows in what he says,
It is a pity if he speaks anything but what is good.

The following inscription was upon the portico of the hall of

O brother, the world remains with no one.
Bind the heart to the Creator, it is enough.
Rely not upon possessions and this world
Because it has cherished many like thee and slain them.
When the pure soul is about to depart,
What boots it if one dies on a throne or on the ground?

Shaikh Sa’di Shirazi (about 1194-1292 CE)

16 June 2006

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness... Nature expects a full grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life we should not enjoy it too much. I rebel against this state of affairs. 
~ Vladimir Nobokov, Speak, Memory

Backward and forward, eternity is the same; already we have been the nothing we dread to be.
~ Herman Melville, Mardi

15 June 2006

“You wouldn't know it from reading the newspapers, but substantial and often overwhelming majorities of Americans have repeatedly endorsed governing concepts that conventional politicians dismiss as radical or unrealistic:  Universal healthcare.  A job for everyone who wants to work, guaranteed by the government.  Secure retirements.  Stronger enforcement of environmental laws.   Stronger defenses against encroaching corporate power.   Union protection for workers against exploitative employers…Imagine a political agenda that sets out to give the people what they say they want.”

~ William Greider, writing in The Nation

So, where are the newspapers?  Where is the Democratic party?  Come home, democracy!

14 June 2006

There are about 100 billion nerve cells in the brain, and on average each of these cells communicates directly with 1,000 others. A vigorous debate went on from the 1930s through the 1960s as to whether communication across the synapses between nerve cells was electrical or chemical in nature. The electrical school of thought held that the nerve impulse or action potential was propagated along the axon to the nerve ending, changed the electrical field across the plasma membrane of the postsynaptic cell, and thereby produced a physiological response. The chemical school believed that when the action potential came down the axon to the nerve terminal, it caused the fusion of neurotransmitter-containing vesicles with the presynaptic plasma membrane, releasing the neurotransmitter, which then diffused across the synaptic cleft and, through activation of a (hypothetical) receptor, produced a physiological response. The chemical school won this debate: over 99% of all synapses in the brain use chemical transmission.

~ Paul Greengard, Neurobiology of Slow Synaptic Transmission (Science, 2001)

And where is the inspiration in this? (you may ask)  I have always found the homology between my experience of thought and the firing of neurons in my cortex to be a fount of mystery.  Philosophers who relish this question call it the brain/mind problem.  But with the ubiquity of electronic computers, we have grown accustomed to the idea of intelligence emerging from the operation of billions of electrical switches.  For me, it helps to resurrect the mystery to hear that the brain speaks to itself in a language whose alphabet is primarily molecules.  

13 June 2006

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Suppression of breath;
He knows death to the bone –
Man has created death.

~ W B Yeats, born this day in 1865

12 June 2006

Symbiosis is the most relevant and enduring biological theme in the history of our planet.”
~ George Stanley

This is not hyperbole.  We would have no biosphere but for the fact that unrelated living things have evolved to work together.  Co-evolution is poorly understood in theory, but widely recognized in ecosystems around us.

Prof Stanley goes on to describe the fact that reef-building coral (a tiny animal) contain, growing within their bodies, algae cells that process light into food for the coral.  The coral provides a protected environment and nutrients, without which these algae could not live.  

We think of coral reefs in connection with clear, pure ocean waters.  Actually, the clarity indicates that the waters are nutrient-poor and therefore sterile.  The combination of coral and algae can grow there, while neither could survive separately.

Photosymbiosis--whereby photosynthetic microorganisms (symbionts) live inside an animal (host), deriving benefits, sometimes mutual--is found today among calcifying foraminifers and giant clams but is best exemplified in corals, the master builders of reefs. Photosymbiosis fosters diversity and novel adaptations. Recent studies on global change, coral degradation, and the future of coral reefs highlight the relevance of photosymbiosis to reef evolution.”
article from Science Magazine