A worker reads history

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in, The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
— Bertolt Brecht

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.  Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed.  Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
— Abraham Lincoln

1 September 2008

Integrity, one way or t’other

«Il faut vivre comme on pense, sinon tôt ou tard on finit par penser comme on a vécu.»

‘It is necessary to live according to one’s thoughts; if not, we end up thinking the way we have lived.’

— Paul Bourget, born this day in 1852

2 September 2008

How to give a math test to an elephant

You can try this right in your own home.  All you need is two buckets and 13 apples. 

  • Put two buckets in front of him, so he can see the outside but not the inside.
  • Drop 3 apples into the left bucket, then 4 more.
  • Drop 5 apples into the right bucket, then 1 more.
  • Allow the elephant to choose one bucket or the other.

It seems the elephant gets this one right a high percentage of the time.

New Scientist article on the research of Naoko Irie, presented this summer to the International Society for Behavioral Ecology annual meeting.

3 September 2008

Irrational fears and their antidote

“If as a citizen you would like to form well-considered views on a culturally divisive risk issue — for example, global warming, or gun control — find a knowledgeable person who shares your general cultural outlook but who disagrees with you.  You are like to give this person’s arguments a sympathetic hearing, which will help offset the natural disposition we all have to dismiss as unreliable and biased the arguments of persons whose basic outlooks are different from our own.”

Dan Kahan

4 September 2008

Morning Prayers

I have missed the guardian spirit
of the Sangre de Cristos
those mountains
against which I destroyed myself
every morning I was sick
with loving and fighting
in those small years.
In that season I looked up
to a blue conception of faith
a notion of the sacred in
the elegant border of cedar trees
becoming mountain and sky.

This is how we were born into the world:
Sky fell in love with earth, wore turquoise,
cantered in on a black horse.
Earth dressed herself fragrantly,
with regard for the aesthetics of holy romance.
Their love decorated the mountains with sunrise,
weaved valleys delicate with the edging of sunset.

This morning I look toward the east
and I am lonely for those mountains
though I’ve said good-bye to the girl
with her urgent prayers for redemption.
I used to believe in a vision
that would save the people
carry us all to the top of the mountain
during the flood
of human destruction.

I know nothing anymore
as I place my feet into the next world
except this:
the nothingness
is vast and stunning,
brims with details
of steaming, dark coffee
ashes of campfires
the bells on yaks or sheep
sirens careening through a deluge
of humans
or the dead carried through fire,
through the mist of baking sweet
bread and breathing.

This is how we will leave this world:
on horses of sunrise and sunset
from the shadow of the mountains
who witnessed every battle
every small struggle.

~ Joy Harjo ~

5 September 2008


The project of evolutionary biology is to understand the development of life based on the simple principles of random variation and natural selection.  Only in the last 12 years has some small segment of the scientific community focused on the question of evolvability - the realization that special rules are required in order for evolution to work at all.  One big requirement: the way in which genetic changes translate into changes in the organism’s metabolism (‘phenotype’) must have a special character.

Meanwhile, the community of Artificial Life scientists have been trying to create something like biological evolution inside a computer.  Their program is to create systems of evolutionary rules that lead to an open-ended progression of ever more complex structures, in ever more intricate relationships.  This project has proven to be more difficult than pioneers in the field 20 years ago had anticipated.  There are lots of computer-based evolutionary systems.  There are whole ecosystems realized as computer programs.  But the results all seem trivial and disappointing compared to the rich variety of unexpected phenomena that we find in even the simplest biological systems.

This weekend, Electronic Arts is releasing its own toy ecosystem, a computer-based evolution program for popular entertainment.  Unconstrained by the rigors of science, the programers of this game didn’t mind putting the rabbit in the hat, to make sure evolution has a fighting chance.  NYTimes Entertainment Review  and   Another, more scientific.

6 September 2008

Be out of character

Sabbaths are traditionally times for ritual, relaxation and low-stress pursuit of well-worn paths.  Familiarity is restful.

Sometimes a change is as good as a rest.  Once a week, I like to do something really different.  Not merely doing something new, but doing something that is out of character.  Not just doing out of character, but being someone other than who I usually am.

The fear arises immediately that this must violate my deep principles.  Hogwash.  There are lots of other personalities, other modes of being and thinking and experiencing that are fully compatible with all that I believe in, yet are shockingly new and fresh.

Why be comfortable?

— Josh Mitteldorf

7 September 2008


Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, reinfolding,
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers) a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now?  Listen, I was not saying anything.  It was only
something I did.  I could not choose words.  I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back.  Not to this.  Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips.  Here: never.

Jorie Graham

8 September 2008

Rachmaninoff’s Psychiatrist

I’m listening to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he dedicated to Dr. Dahl, the psychiatrist who guided him through the straits of fever, not long after Sergei had heard his own first symphony played.  Horrified by its many defects which seemed a sewage of noise, he had fled the hall, ashamed, a quagmire of self-doubt.

We cannot know all the sounds Dahl and he exchanged, but rubbing one word against another, Dahl gradually restored Sergei’s confidence. History tells that Dahl used affirmations and auto-suggestion: “You will compose again.” “You will write a piano concerto.” You will write with great facility.” Repeated until the words saturated his gift from head to fingers.

In truth, nothing can kill a gift, but it may become anemic from great shock or stress – a sprain of the emotions will do, or a traffic accident of the heart, or a failure dire as a clanging bell.

For two years, Dahl worked on Sergei’s shattered will. At last he collected up his senses in a burst of blood fury and composed his triumphant 2nd Piano Concerto, full of tenderness and yearning, beguiling melodies, raging passion, and long sensuous preludes to explosive climaxes, frenzy followed by strains of mysticism and trance.

Loaded with starry melodies, it was a map of his sensi ility, and a wilderness rarely known – the intense life of an artist seen in miniature, with rapture expressed as all-embracing sound.

Will you tell me if you know, how Dahl might have received such a gift?  I cannot imagine it.   With hugs and shared enthusiasm?  With an austere thank you?  In his private moments, did he weep at the privilege allowed him? For a time he held the exposed heart of a great artist, cupped his hands around it like a flame, blew gently, patiently, until it flared again.

For that, he earned the blessings of history, and soothed millions of hungry souls he would never meet. Listening to Rachmaninoff’s concerto today, intoxicated by its fever, I want to kiss the hands of Dahl, but he is beyond my touch or game.  Allow me to thank you in his name.

— Diane Ackerman

(In case you haven’t heard it lately, you can listen to this concerto at my favorite free classical music site, where 5+ sumptuous versions are available.  I recommend the last one, by Yuri Rozum.)

9 September 2008

The wise person acts without effort and teaches by quiet example.

He accepts things as they come, creates without possessing, nourishes without demanding, accomplishes without taking credit.

Because he constantly forgets himself, he is never forgotten.

Lao Tsze, tr Brian Walker

10 September 2008

Falling off the wagon of empiricism

“Beware of the idols of the mind, the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall. They are the real distorting prisms of human nature. Among them, idols of the tribe assume more order than exists in chaotic nature.”
Francis Bacon

“A few observation and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth.”
Alexis Carrel

Bacon hedged his empiricism with an absolute faith in Biblical revelation.  Carrel grew cell cultures in a test-tube continuously for 34 years, fudging the data to deceive himself and the scientific world into believing that individual cells don’t suffer aging.

11 September 2008

The Rose of Flame

OH, fair immaculate rose of the world, rose of my dream, my Rose!
Beyond the ultimate gates of dream I have heard thy mystical call:
It is where the rainbow of hope suspends and the river of rapture flows—
And the cool sweet dews from the wells of peace for ever fall.

And all my heart is aflame because of the rapture and peace,
And I dream, in my waking dreams and deep in the dreams of sleep,
Till the high sweet wonderful call that shall be the call of release
Shall ring in my ears as I sink from gulf to gulf and from deep to deep—

Sink deep, sink deep beyond the ultimate dreams of all desire—
Beyond the uttermost limit of all that the craving spirit knows:
Then, then, oh then I shall be as the inner flame of thy fire,
O fair immaculate rose of the world, Rose of my dream, my Rose!

William Sharp, born this day in 1856

12 September 2008

If your children think they’re smarter than you are, maybe it’s because...

Average IQ scores are rising at about 3 points per decade.  People 100 years ago scored 30 points lower compared to people taking the same tests today, and the progress continues.

‘Attempted explanations have included improved nutrition, a trend towards smaller families, better education, greater environmental complexity, and heterosis. Another proposition is greater familiarity with multiple-choice questions and experience with brain-teaser IQ problems.’  [Wikipedia article: the Flynn Effect]

(Heterosis is another name for ‘hybrid vigor’, and refers to the idea that the world’s populations are mixing and cross-breeding, resulting in new combinations of genes which usually produce advantages over inbred populations.)

13 September 2008

The be-all and end-all of epistemology

We live in an age of empiricism.  A criterion for evaluating truth that we inherited from the scientific community has become the secular religion of our age.  We regard the beliefs of many earlier societies as silly superstition, and we disdain literal, fundamentalist dogma, whether in primitive societies or among less-educated segments of our own.

Is this Enlightenment a final stage in the maturation of human intelligence, or might it be that future historians also come to see our culture as primitive and distorted in its notion of reality? Certainly, we can expect that science of the future will so far overtake us that specific theories of our era will be regarded as quaint.  But might our descendants also outgrow the methodology of science, altogether or in part?  Will they come to say of us, “There were truths in their hearts, hiding in plain sight, and they never paid them heed because they focused so much of their attention outside themselves.” ?

— Josh Mitteldorf

14 September 2008

«L’attachement ou l’indifférence que les philosophes avaient pour la vie n’était qu’un goût de leur amour-propre, dont on ne doit non plus disputer que du goût de la langue ou du choix des couleurs.»

‘Whether a philosopher finds life to be worthwhile or empty reflects the bent of his ego* rather than his thinking, for this cannot be subjected to reason any more than the preferences of his tongue or his choice of colors.’

François Duc de la Rochefoucauld, born this day in 1613

* Literally, ‘self-love’, the term amour-propre has been translated as ‘self-esteem’, but our modern idea of self-esteem as confidence that empowers was unknown in the 17th century.  Rochefoucauld’s use of the term would have suggested a conceit.

15 September 2008

How little we really know

“I am a skeptic. I accept only what I am forced to accept by reasonably reliable evidence and keep that acceptance tentative, pending the arrival of further evidence. That doesn’t make us popular.
“Where is the world in which people don’t prefer a comfortable, warm and well-worn belief, however illogical, to the chilly winds of uncertainty.”

Golan Trevize, brought to life by Isaac Asimov in Foundation

16 September 2008

On fire with the force that made the stars

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth...The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV...Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real...

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed...

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out...

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down...

There is actually no such thing as atheism...Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship...

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008
(excerpted from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College)

17 September 2008


“You commit a sin of omission if you do not utilize all the power that is within you.  All men have claims on man, and to the man with special talents, this is a very special claim.  It is required that a man take part in the actions and clashes of his time that the peril of being judged not to have lived at all.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

18 September 2008

My book is an open life

I’ve been through what my through was to be
I did what I could and couldn’t
I was never sure how I would get there

I nourished an ardor for thresholds
for stepping stones and for ladders
I discovered detour and ditch

I swam in the high tides of greed
I built sandcastles to house my dreams
I survived the sunburns of love

No longer do I hunt for targets
I’ve climbed all the summits I need to
and I’ve eaten my share of lotus

Now I give praise and thanks
for what could not be avoided
and for every foolhardy choice

I cherish my wounds and their cures
and the sweet enervations of bliss
My book is an open life

I wave goodbye to the absolutes
and send my regards to infinity
I’d rather be blithe than correct

Until something transcendent turns up
I splash in my poetry puddle
and try to keep God amused.

~ James Broughton,
Having Come This Far

19 September 2008

Knock on a million doors

The reason early humans first began organizing into groups was to raid neighbor groups’ food stores, and to resist such raids from other groups.  Ever since that time, leaders have been promoting warfare for their own aggrandizement, and it has fallen to the people to resist the call to war.

In more recent history, leaders have also used war as an excuse to quell political dissent, to justify extraordinary central powers, and to cloak their various misdeeds in secrecy.

Peace has been a multi-millennium effort of resistance by ordinary citizens.  We are winning.  The world is far less violent and more democratic than it was just 20 years ago, and immeasurable more peaceful than it was during the 19th and 20th centuries.  Read the evidence.

This time, we see through the government’s transparent propaganda campaign to scare us into war.  Today, neighbors are sharing their knowledge with other neighbors, consolidating our stories and our resolve.  We are knocking on a million doors, discussing the false threats that have been used to justify war, and organizing from the ground up to assert our democratic right to peace.

20 September 2008

Take big risks.  You have much more to gain than to lose.

The situations that come back to bite us are those we imagine are safe, the risks that we assume unawarely.  The things that scare us should be the least of our worries.

— Josh Mitteldorf

21 September 2008

Hobgoblin of little minds

There is great value in a daily saddhana, a practice that steadies your life like an anchor, no matter whether you are joyous or glum, a strict discipline for days when you relish it and days when you dread it.

There is great value in blowing off your discipline on occasion, following an impulse toward something wildly uncharacteristic, profligate, irresponsible.

— Josh Mitteldorf

22 September 2008

Call to revolution

“We have today the technical and material resources to meet man’s animal needs. We have not developed the cultural and moral resources or the democratic forms of social organization that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power. Conceivably, the classical liberal ideals as expressed and developed in their libertarian-socialist form are achievable. But if so, only by a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private. To create such a movement is a challenge we face and must meet if there is to be an escape from contemporary barbarism.”

— Noam Chomsky

23 September 2008

Who Shall Doubt


in itself

of itself carrying

‘the principle
of the actual’ being


itself ((but maybe this is a love

Mary) ) nevertheless


the power
of the self nor the racing
car nor the lilly

is sweet but this

George Oppen

24 September 2008

From ‘deeply connected’ to ‘structurally inseparable’

Feeling excluded and isolated is my chronic emotional issue. To uproot this pattern, I have used a mantra, incorporated into my meditation over many years:

“I am whole, and full in myself, and deeply connected to others.”

It has served me long and consistently, but most especially at times when I’ve played the role of the spurned lover.

It occurs to me this morning that as a statement of the human condition, this mantra is a big step up from the posture of lonely victim to which I am disposed; and yet it goes only part of the way from there toward a radical truth.

Today I am searching for images that convey essential inseparability. The model with which I am working is individual minds as different modes of vibration on a violin string. The truth is that there is no meaning to ‘me’ apart from ‘you’. Our separateness exists in the realm of mathematical abstraction, in which one may speak of fundamentals and overtones, of nodes and partials; but the larger truth is that there is but one string.

Tomorrow I will have a new mantra.

— Josh Mitteldorf

25 September 2008

Mon joug

On m’appelle abeille butineuse, quoique
Mon travail ne soit que de voler, recueillant de l’ambroisie.
Attention de garder légères les corbeilles.

Worker bee I am called,
Though my job is but to fly and sip sweet nectar.
My one craft: to keep my pollen sacs light.

— Josh Mitteldorf

26 September 2008


Listen to Scherzo from the Brahms Horn Trio,
performed by Daniel Phillips, Richard Goode and William Purvis

27 September 2008

“I’ve always never loved anything more than sitting quietly in a room by myself, imagining things,”

Jhumpa Lahiri

28 September 2008

For the artist at the start of day

May morning be astir with the harvest of night;
Your mind quickening to the eros of a new question,
Your eyes seduced by some unintended glimpse
That cut right through the surface to a source.

May this be a morning of innocent beginning,
When the gift within you slips clear
Of the sticky web of the personal
With its hurt and its hauntings,
And fixed fortress corners,

A Morning when you become a pure vessel
For what wants to ascend from silence.

May your imagination know
The grace of perfect danger.

John O’Donohue

29 September 2008

A cleric who did not bow to authority

“May slavery be banished forever together with the distinction between castes, all remaining equal, so Americans may only be distinguished by vice or virtue... In the new laws, may torture be ended once and forever.

Que la esclavitud se proscriba para siempre y lo mismo la distinción de castas, quedando todos iguales, y sólo distinguirá a un americano de otro el vicio y la virtud…Que en la nueva legislación no se admita la tortura.”

Jose Maria Morelos y Pavón, born this day in 1765, was a Mexican Roman Catholic priest and revolutionary rebel leader who led the Mexican War of Independence movement, assuming its leadership after the execution of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1811.

30 September 2008

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design