14 October 2007

Your mission

Find your mission not by searching more assiduously, but by eliminating from your life, one by one, concerns that are inessential or unworthy of your attention.

Identify the largest community to which you can relate. What special abilities can you develop that will facilitate your unique contribution to your community?

Focus your attention on witnessing your experience, watching yourself as if from the outside. The more you abstract yourself from doing, the more you find yourself taking on great challenges.

You may be involved in a global struggle, but you are not struggling.  You are surrounded by allies and colleagues.  There is no distinction between what they accomplish and what you accomplish.  You may receive little personal recognition for what has been achieved, but you are well-loved, happy and fulfilled; you are confident in your cause and gratified by the part you play in its realization

— Josh Mitteldorf

13 October 2007

Happiness is a state of communal relations rather than a goal that you can work toward, like learning to play tennis or speak Japanese.  Prescriptions for happiness may seem like a bromide from Reader’s Digest, but here’s a list from Leo Babuata that embodies some wisdom about self-management as well as a hint about communal relations:  30 Happiness Tips

12 October 2007

“The joy of life consists in the exercise of one’s energies, continual growth, constant change, the enjoyment of every new experience. To stop means simply to die. The eternal mistake of mankind is to set up an attainable ideal.”

“I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.”

“To read a newspaper is to refrain from reading something worthwhile. The first discipline of education must therefore be to refuse resolutely to feed the mind with canned chatter.” 

“I can imagine myself on my death-bed, spent utterly with lust to touch the next world, like a boy asking for his first kiss from a woman.”

“Aleister Crowley [born this day in 1875] was perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood personality to figure in the new era of modern day witchcraft.  Known by the popular press of his time as ‘ The Great Beast’ and ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’, Crowley was a powerful magician, poet, prophet and famed occultist.   He was also a one-time witch, though most of the elders of the craft would discredit him the title.”
— from a biography by George Knowles at Controverscial.com

11 October 2007

Roy Campbell

Though we seem merely mortal, what we are
Is clearly mirrored on a deathless flood.
We change and fade: our dust is strewn afar—
Only the ancient river of our blood,
Rising far-off in unimagined spaces,
Red with the silt and ruin of the past
And churning with the strife of savage races,
Like deep Zambezi goes on rolling past,
Swiftens through us its energies unending,
And reaches out, beneath the shades we cast,
To what vast ocean of the night descending,
Or in what sunny lake at last to sleep,
We do not know — save that it turns to foam,
Just here, for us; its currents curl and comb
And all its castalies in thunder leap,
Silvering, forth into a white resilience
Of ecstasy, whose momentary brilliance
Must compensate eternities of sleep.

Knowing these things, are not we lovers, then,
Though mortal in our nature, more than men?
Since by our senses, as by rivers, veined,
The hills of primary memory are drained,
And the dim summits of their frosty spars,
Whose tops are nibbled by the grazing stars,
Thawed by the rising noon of our desire,
And fusing into consciousness and fire,
Down through the sounding canyons of the soul
Their rich alluvium of starlight roll.

~ from The Golden Shower by Roy Campbell

10 October 2007

“Besides the noble art of getting things done there is the art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials... If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live”

Lin Yutang, born this day in 1895, translated Oriental philosophy for Western audiences in the first half of the twentieth century.  Quote is from The Importance of Living.

9 October 2007

Bach in the days when plagiarism was the sincerest form of flattery, there was no barrier to composers adapting their own music or that of others. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi composed keyboard works, concerti, sacred choral pieces and five full operas before he died of tuberculosis at age 26. Bach’s tribute to his younger contemporary was to transcribe Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater as his Cantata BWV 1083, psalm Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden.

Listen to Stabat Mater opening duet, sung by Emma Kirkby and James Bowman
Corresponding movement from Bach Cantata BWV 1083

8 October 2007

One of the central tenets of modern evolutionary theory is that mutations provide the only source of new genetic material for natural selection to test. Mutations are blind and random and overwhelmingly deleterious. Anyone trying to make quantitative sense out of evolutionary history is stuck with the problem of explaining how evolution manages to make progress at a reasonable rate with such poor quality raw material.

Lynn Margulis has been telling us for decades that horizontal gene transfer is a big part of the answer. Bacteria are known to reproduce copiously and to exchange genes promiscuously with one another. Margulis has claimed that bacteria also occasionally transfer genes to and from their hosts, providing an opportunity for genes to jump between species.

This is a rare but significant event. It provides a source of new genetic material that is not random, but pre-tested in another context.

Only in the last few years has technology been cheap and convenient enough to test Margulis's idea directly. Last week in Science Magazine, an article from Craig Venter's lab (with many collaborators) proved the point. The genome was sequenced for a bacterium that infects insects and worms. This bacterium is special because it has a symbiotic relationship with its host, and is passed from generation to generation, an endosymbiont.

The entire genome of the bacterium was found in the nuclear DNA of four insects and four worms, providing conclusive evidence for the Margulis mechanism.

Evolution may be working in ways that are more complex, more collective, and more efficient than classical evolutionary theorists have ever dared imagine.

7 October 2007

Philosophers and religious sages tell us in absolute terms that war is an abomination. Political realists tell us that war is sometimes necessary. In this case, it is the philosophers who are being realistic, while the realists’ rhetoric grows from an unspoken philosophic casuistry. There is always an implicit appeal to ideals of freedom, independence, or justice that is either disingenuous or profoundly mistaken. It is these political realists on both sides of a conflict who will manipulate the public into condoning warfare. The people are suspicious of such appeals.

It was not necessary to fight the American Revolution in order for the United States to gain independence from Great Britain. Canada amply demonstrates this. Without the Civil War, slavery might have been eradicated more slowly perhaps but more thoroughly, without the enduring legacy of racial bitterness. Nelson Mandela has shown us how. And Hitler might have been defeated in time through economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and covert support for internal dissent, just as the Cold War was won forty years later. This diplomatic and economic path was never even tried before World War II, and, in fact, some of the largest corporations and wealthiest banks in America were profitably supporting the Nazis right through The War.

Even through the cold-blooded lens of naked plunder, warfare fails the cost-benefit test. The United States will never pump enough oil from Iraqi fields to cover the $2 trillion cost incurred thus far.

Nations that eschew warfare prosper, as they focus their resources on development, research and infrastructure instead of weapons. Over time, this creates a decisive competitive advantage for countries like Switzerland, Sweden and post-war Japan.

War is built on lies. The propaganda invoked to justify a war effort subverts public discourse and undermines the credibility of the State. In the long run, it may be that the cost to society from the subversion of truth exceeds even the loss of life and limb.

War demands unthinking obedience. A population that is educated to follow its leaders blindly into war becomes, paradoxically, an easier prey for domination by a foreign conqueror. A population accustomed to vigorous independence will prove ungovernable by foreign demagogues.  It is difficult to conquer a democracy by force; and on the other side, the closer a government hews to the will of its people, the less likely it is to engage in a war of aggression.

With the rise of democracies worldwide in the last century, war is even less worthwhile, more difficult to justify pragmatically than ever before in history. Despots and demagogues may profit from war, but never their subjects. Political leaders invoke the myth of the ‘good war’ in the past, then lead their people down a slippery slope to a tragically unnecessary war in the present.

Every war is an abomination.

– Josh Mitteldorf

6 October 2007

The environmental movement has been working on driving up the price of polluting as a way to steer whole economies away from oil and especially coal.  What if we set our sights instead on driving down the cost of photovoltaics?  Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write about a new strategy for environmentalism, fully integrated with a progressive political movement for national security, jobs and health care. 

The price of solar cells was dropping exponentially until 2001.  Solar energy was on its way to becoming cost competitive with dirty technologies.  For several years after that, demand outstripped supply, because factories had not been built with this vast new customer base in mind.  Shellenberger and Nordhaus propose a $300 billion dollar government investment to create predictable new demand for solar cells, which will drive the price low enough to make tradeoffs between ‘jobs and the environment’ obsolete.

Imagining a Solar UK/a>
KKQED radio interview with Shellenberger and Nordhaus
Exercepts from the book The Death of Environmentalism

Price drop of solar panels stalled due to regressive government policies

5 October 2007

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Vaclav Havel born this day in 1936

4 October 2007

The experience of terror can be exhilarating and cathartic.  Admittedly, this works better when the experience is suffered voluntarily, but we are all free to decide in each moment to embrace our experience.  Jeffrey Hoffman recalls his first ride in the Space Shuttle:

 I always figured that launch day was not the time to be thinking about whether I really wanted to do this. That decision was made when I joined the astronaut corps years before...Suddenly we feel a huge kick in the pants, or more precisely, a sudden thump on our backs as the boosters ignite. Looking out the window, we see the ground falling away.  The noise and vibration are overpowering.  One astronaut described the feeling as ‘driving over railroad tracks in a car with no shock absorbers’.  There is not much we can do to control our flight at this point. I  find myself thinking, ‘I hope it all holds together!’  We can feel the shuttle rotate in a roll manoeuvre as soon as we clear the launch tower, to point towards our desired orbit.

About 45 seconds after lift-off, still climbing almost vertically, we break the sound barrier and the aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle reaches a maximum - ‘max Q’.  In order to minimise the stress on the vehicle, our engines throttle down to 65 per cent, and the acceleration decreases slightly, but the vibration gets much stronger as sonic shock waves play all over the outside of the vehicle.  It is hard to believe that we can shake harder than at lift-off, but we do, so much so that during my first flight I wondered if the wings were going to fall off.  I reassured myself that 15 shuttle flights had already survived lift-off with their wings intact.

Max Q is over about a minute after lift-off, the engines return to full power and we feel a surge of acceleration. At this point, the shuttle is travelling more horizontally than vertically and is flying inverted, but the sensation of forward acceleration dominates that of gravity, so I never had the feeling of being suspended upside down.

As our fuel gets used up, our mass decreases and the acceleration increases to around 2.5 g (2.5 times normal gravity). We are all waiting for the boosters to finish their job, and it is a good feeling just before 2 minutes into the flight to feel the acceleration taper off as the solid fuel is exhausted and then hear a boom as explosive bolts fire to release the boosters. The boosters fire small rockets to ensure they move clear of the shuttle, and for several seconds the cockpit is engulfed in flame, which is particularly spectacular if the launch is at night...

As our liquid fuel load dwindles, our acceleration once again increases until we reach 3 g, a tolerable if somewhat uncomfortable rate, right at the shuttle’s design limit. My triply heavy helmet makes it hard to move my head, but I strain to look out the window and see that we have left the blue sky of Earth far behind, and are now surrounded by the blackness of space, the blackest black I have ever experienced.

We watch the velocity gauge creep up to the cut-off line and then, suddenly, the acceleration ceases.  I feel myself falling forward into my seat straps, which I quickly undo.  A slight push with one finger sends me floating over to the window, where I see the Earth below, far away and moving past very quickly.

article in New Scientist last month