Grace takes the form of methane

Warnings that we humans are hogging more than our share of the earth’s resources and collectively making the place less livable have been in our face for decades, if not centuries.  The need for collective global action has been obvious, while we as a species have equivocated, temporized and denied.

Now comes reprieve we have not earned in the form of a little more time to get our act together.  The Marcellus Shale runs through Appalachia, from Eastern Tennessee up through mid New York State, and was surveyed last year to contain perhaps 50 trillion cu ft of recoverable natural gas, clean energy with much less CO2 per joule than coal.

Let’s use this reprieve wisely.

1 October 2009

Gandhi on Love

Fear and love are contradictory terms. Love is reckless in giving away, oblivious as to what it gets in return. Love wrestles with the world as with the self and ultimately gains mastery over all other feelings. My daily experience, as of those who are working with me, is that every problem lends itself to solution if we are determined to make the law of truth and non-violence the law of life. For truth and non-violence are, to me, faces of the same coin. The law of love will work, just as the law of gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not. 

Mahatma Gandhi turns 140 years old today

2 October 2009

Harvest moon

The Hindoos compare the moon to a saintly being who has reached the last stage of bodily existence. Great restorer of antiquity, great enchanter! In a mild night when the harvest or hunter’s moon shines unobstructedly, the houses in our village, whatever architect they may have had by day, acknowledge only a master. The village street is then as wild as the forest. New and old things are confounded. I know not whether I am sitting on the ruins of a wall, or on the material which is to compose a new one. Nature is an instructed and impartial teacher, spreading no crude opinions, and flattering none; she will be neither radical nor conservative. Consider the moonlight, so civil, yet so savage! 

— Henry David Thoreau

3 October 2009


Much of our anxiety about decisions derives from frustration that the available choices do not include what we really want – a refusal to accept the limitations of our power in the situation. The other usual source of discomfort with decision-making is uncertainty about the future: if only we knew better what was coming, it would be easy to decide how to prepare for it.

It is often helpful to go through a process of exploring these feelings aloud. Also helpful is to imagine in fantasy all the expected possibilities, how we might feel with each. Even better is to focus on possible surprise or unexpected outcomes.

The decision itself is best left up to the unconscious. Instead of asking, nervously, ‘what shall I do?’, we ask, curiously, ‘I wonder what I shall decide to do’. We step back from the decision-making process, and watch it until we no longer feel uncertainty about what that decision will be.  Accept that we will continue continue to feel ambivalence long after the decision is made.

— Josh Mitteldorf

4 October 2009


Faute de savoir ce qui est écrit là-haut, on ne sait ni ce qu’on veut ni ce qu’on fait, et qu’on suit sa fantaisie qu’on appelle raison, ou sa raison qui n’est souvent qu’une dangereuse fantaisie qui tourne tantôt bien, tantôt mal. 

Ignorant of what fate has in store for us, we cannot know what we are doing or even what we really want, so we follow that which we call ‘reason’ which often is but a dangerous fantasy, sometimes turning out well, sometimes rather badly.

Denis Diderot, born this day in 1713, was a French novelist, philosopher and author of L’Encyclopédie (1751–1772), epitomizing the spirit of Enlightenment thought.  Much more than a work of reference, L’Encyclopédie became a program for change, transferring knowledge and authority from the clerical to the secular domains; with its publication, religion and irreligion became polarized and the various shades of distinction within Deism and natural religion began to disappear.

Est-ce qu’on est maître de devenir ou de ne pas devenir amoureux?  Et quand on l’est, est-on maître d’agir comme si on ne l’était pas?

Do we have anything to say about whether we fall in love? And should we fall in love, do we have any choice but to follow? 

Both quotations are from Jacques, the Fatalist, a novel about fate that is both funny and deep.

5 October 2009

Whatever it takes

In psychological experiments conducted at UC Santa Barbara, Travis Proulx has found that reading Kafka enhances the mind’s ability to perceive new patterns, even when those patterns are unconsciously appreciated, and not articulated.  

It’s an interesting result, and convention dictates that Proulx gets first crack at telling us what it means.  Is this, as the author claims, a benefit of confronting the absurd, forcing the mind into a mode where it casts a wider net in search of reason and order?

Drawing us into paradox is a mark of great art.  We all recognize the utility of keeping our minds fresh, avoiding the dismissive response, renewing our capacity for creativity.  My take on this is that there is no formula for stimulating our creativity.  It is exciting that some correlates of creativity can be measured, but the ability to enhance creativity defies quantification and is, in fact, a mark of high art.

Article in Science Times

6 October 2009

There are the rushing waves...
mountains of molecules,
each stupidly minding its own business...
trillions apart
...yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages...
before any eyes could see...
year after year...
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?
...on a dead planet
with no life to entertain.

Never at rest...
tortured by energy...
wasted prodigiously by the sun...
poured into space.
A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea,
all molecules repeat
the patterns of another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves...
and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity...
living things,
masses of atoms,
DNA, protein...
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
onto dry land...
here it is standing...
atoms with consciousness
...matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea...
wonders at wondering... I...
a universe of atoms...
an atom in the universe.

Richard Feynman (1955)
1918-1988, Nobel Prize in physics,1965

7 October 2009

Animal talk

Perhaps it’s a conceit to imagine that language belongs exclusively to humans.  So far, we have decoded only a few of their ‘words’.  We presume that the language is limited to a few warning calls, but we really don’t know how extensive or how nuanced it is.  A few years ago, we would have said there is no language at all.  Best studied are warning cries, because we can see the behaviors that they elicit.  There is a powerful selective incentive to develop recognition of warning cries, so we shouldn’t be surprised if these are the first language that animals exhibit.  But is there more?  Are there dozens or hundreds of unique sounds in their vocabularies?  Is there a grammar that expands the range of meaning with context?

Apes and monkeys are close enough to humans that we can easily imagine a complex sociality.  But birds with their tiny brains seem, if anything, more adapted for verbalization.  And dolphins’ language is known to be rich and varied, but thus far un-decoded by man.

Olivia Judson, blogging in the NYTimes this week, tells us about animal cries.  Jungle animals are polyglots, and can understand the cries of other species:

Diana monkeys, for example, don’t use the same sounds for “eagle!” or “leopard!” as Campbell’s monkeys do. But they respond to recordings of a Campbell’s monkey shouting “eagle!” or “leopard!” just as they would to a shout from one of their own, or a sighting of the predator itself.

Judson describes the little that is known about how animal groups teach their young to talk:

Young vervet monkeys, for example, appear to have an innate tendency to shout “eagle!” — but they do it at anything that’s in the air, be it an eagle, a vulture or a falling leaf. They shout “snake!” at long, thin things on the ground — like twigs. As they get older they learn to refine their calls. This seems to be through positive reinforcement — when they make the right call, adults join in and do it too. (It’s tempting to think there may be negative reinforcement as well. One researcher reported seeing a mother run up a tree after her infant gave a “leopard!” alarm. But there was no leopard — only a harmless mongoose — and when the mother caught up with the infant, she gave it a smack.)

Link to Judson’s column

8 October 2009

Nobel Prizes for Peace

“Thinking too well of people often allows them to be better than they otherwise would be.” 

— Nelson Mandela

9 October 2009


Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

— Sameul Beckett

I shall state silences more competently than ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo.

10 October 2009

Creativity is the wild beast that gnaws at your soul.  To harness your will to the tiger, to ride it through the jungle is the very essence of what it is to be alive.

— Josh Mitteldorf

11 October 2009

Breeding for tameness is remarkably effective.  Dmitri Belyaev showed that in a small number of generations, foxes could be made as cuddly and eager for human affection as dogs. 

Perhaps we are also a product of domestication.  Over the last 30,000 years, human brain size*, tooth size, and jaw size have all been on the decrease — exactly the same kind of changes that have occurred as animals such as dogs were domesticated, says Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard.  This raises the intriguing possibility that humans have been on an evolutionary journey from aggressive chimpanzee-like ancestor to the relatively tame species we are today.  If this is the case, who did the domesticating?  The answer, suggests Wrangham, is that we did.  Humans, he argues, are ‘self-domesticated apes’, with natural selection favoring individuals that showed tame and cooperative behavior, and weeding out the more aggressive and antagonistic among us.

New Scientist article

* Surely this is a misprint, and brain size is increasing, even as teeth and jaws grow smaller. —JJM

12 October 2009

The Physics of Fate

The Large Hadron Collider failed because the Higgs Boson doesn’t wish to be discovered.

Surely this is the kind of thinking that primitive philosophers invoked in ancient times.  Banished by the Enlightenment, teleological thinking has long ago been routed out of the halls of Science.

Think again.  The phenomena of physics have led us to such a strange place that brilliant and straight-faced mainstream scientists talk about Fate.

“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” says Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

article in Science Times today

13 October 2009


Congregated in loops of dirt and hair
beneath the dresser, raining down
in shafts jabbed through vinyl slats

of shades that on closer inspection
are coated filmy enough to rub off
on the fingers, rolling from unpaved

roads in clouds, particles quivering
in the atmosphere to form nuclei
for condensing raindrops, gossamer

chaperone trailing tippet to comets,
absorbing and reddening starlight,
mote chanced to be born, like us.

Ravi Shankar (unrelated to the musician) essay by Shankar on abstraction

14 October 2009

Compassion and the Dismal Science

“We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.”

John Kenneth Galbraith was born 101 years ago today

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

15 October 2009

Half life

We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream

barely touching the ground

our eyes half open
our heart half closed.

Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.

Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.

Until the fever breaks
and the heart can not abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.

~ Stephen Levine ~
from Joe Riley at Panhala once again

16 October 2009

Man’s Place in the Universe

Over billions of years, life has transformed the chemical face of the Earth.  Over thousands of years (but accelerating in the last 100), human life has transformed both the Earth and the biosphere.  As genetic engineering continues to advance, it seems likely that man will also transform his own biology.

Will the successors of humankind go on to transform our Galaxy for their own habitation? The Universe is far larger than the Earth, but the available time is also far longer than the few decades in which technology has developed.

This slide show offers some perspective on the future of the Universe, starting with our small corner.  The premise (if I may give away the punch line in the last slide) is that our legacy may be destined to become an organized intergalactic community that takes control of the evolution of the cosmos, and that we could shoot all that to hell if we as a species don’t manage to survive the next century.

I actually find the premise that life’s progeny will someday take control of the motions of stars and galaxies more plausible than the idea that the next century on Earth is crucial.  We don’t know if intelligent life is evolving or has evolved elsewhere, and we don’t know if intelligent civilizations would evolve a second or third or hundredth time on Earth should the first few attempts prove too violent or insufficiently communal to manage an ecosystem that can support us.

Slide show:

17 October 2009

May illusion be swept aside, uncovering joy.

— Josh Mitteldorf

18 October 2009

A scientist discovers something marvelous and loses her objectivity

Irene Pepperberg is a psychologist who claims to find meaning, intention and reason in the speech of parrots.   Alex was her star pupil.

Dr Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, 7 colours, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as ‘I want X’ and ‘Wanna go Y,’ where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorise more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 year-old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.  

Article at Science Centric
Pepperblog’s memories of Alex in Discover Magazine
NYTimes review of Alex and Me
more scientific descriptions in the book The Alex Studies

19 October 2009

Among the rocks

Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
   This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
   Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.

That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
   Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
   Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

— Robert Browning

20 October 2009

Mortification of the flesh, masochism, and self-mutilation explained

‘Real pain can alone cure us of imaginary ills. We feel a thousand miseries till we are lucky enough to feel misery.’

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born this day in 1772

...through caverns measurelss to man, down to a sunless sea.

21 October 2009

Does biology exploit quantum duality?  Do our brains?

Quantum duality is part of the weirdness of quantum mechanics.  There is more information in every packet of energy than is available when that packet is absorbed or detected.  The extra information is in the form of ‘wave phase’, which can’t be measured directly, but it determines the way a quantum interacts with other quanta.

Quantum computers use this principle to process information in parallel, which can, in theory achieve efficiencies vastly greater than any classical computer could attain.

One of the great questions of philosophy of mind, in my opinion, is whether our brains are quantum computers.  If so, this could certainly explain intuition and the ability to arrive at answers without knowing where they came from.  It might even explain telepathy and precognition.  But the idea that the brain uses QM has been deeply controversial.  Roger Penrose, one of the smartest people in the universe, has argued powerfully for ‘yes’, based on detailed arguments from the structure of neurons.  Max Tegmark, a younger physics genius who may well be in Penrose’s league, argues just as forcefully for ‘no’.

Now Scientific American reports on the work of Gregory Engel (at UChicago) to the effect that green plants use quantum mechanics in absorbing light, deciding how best to use each photon before committing to how the photon will be routed and where it will be absorbed.  This makes plausible then general idea that natural selection has been smart enough to exploit QM where it can gain an advantage that way.

Scientific American article on quantum data processing in plants
Wikipedia article on Quantum Mind 

22 October 2009

My delight and thy delight

MY delight and thy delight
Walking, like two angels white,
In the gardens of the night:

My desire and thy desire
Twining to a tongue of fire,
Leaping live, and laughing higher:

Thro’ the everlasting strife
In the mystery of life.

Love, from whom the world begun,
Hath the secret of the sun.

Love can tell, and love alone,
Whence the million stars were strewn,
Why each atom knows its own,
How, in spite of woe and death,
Gay is life, and sweet is breath:

This he taught us, this we knew,
Happy in his science true,
Hand in hand as we stood
’Neath the shadows of the wood,
Heart to heart as we lay
In the dawning of the day.

Robert Bridges, born this day in 1844

23 October 2009

Brother Sun and all God’s creatures

“I am a religious Russian Orthodox person and I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word, as ‘re-ligio’, that is to say the restoration of connections, the restoration of the ‘legato’ of life. There is no more serious task for music than this.”

Sofia Gubaidulina, 78 years old today, continues to conceive some of the most interesting sounds in music.

The Canticle of the Sun, also known as the Laudes Creaturarum (‘Praise of the Creatures’), is a religious song composed by Saint Francis of Assisi. It was written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian but has since been translated into many languages. It is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

Gubaidulina created a setting of the Canticle for cello, choir, and percussion, as a birthday present for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1997.

All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Listen with headphones, undistracted to the closing movement of the Canticle, performed by Rostropovich and friends.

24 October 2009


Since virtue is its own reward, often the most virtuous thing we can do is to create an opportunity for someone to offer a kindness to ourselves, or to another.

— Josh Mitteldorf

25 October 2009

How to be happy

We do not know that all is hopeless, we just conclude it from time to time, based on our emotional state, not our knowledge. Having sufficient humility to recaognize that we do not know is a key stepping stone to improving our wellbeing.

...The first premise of this inquiry is that we improve our chances by affirmatively seeking to understand. By not becoming tired, satisfied, or complacent. This is a pursuit that does not involve a competition for resources. We all have the power to improve our understanding and improve our lives. But we must keep asking questions.

The second premise of this inquiry is that ... we must each develop our own theory of happiness, figure out what it might look like, and then test it, continuously, throughout our lives.

A third premise, perhaps most important, is that the mere fact that we have tried and failed so many times tells us nothing. It is the spirit of inquiry that matters. ... If we preserve a spirit of inquiry, this spirit itself is quite directly connected to, and a harbinger of, happiness. The spirit of inquiry requires self-doubt – not a lack of self-esteem; but, rather, the recognition that all of our understanding is provisional, and all of our understanding is susceptible to improvement.

— from Ehard’s Blog

26 October 2009

How life began

In one of the best science articles I’ve seen in many a year, Nick Lane pulls together several strands of evidence to propose some new twists in the story of the origin of life.

The major new clue is about energy metabolism.  The life with which we are familiar today depends (ultimately) on sunlight for energy; but photosynthesis is complicated, and it is clear that it developed much later in life’s history.  Lane takes a clue from the unexpected way that life stores energy, using not chemical bonds but electrochemistry.  Pumping hydrogen ions across a membrane is a process common  to all of life, from bacteria to archaea to eukaryotes (that’s us). 

Perhaps life began in a place where electrochemical energy was free and plentiful, where acid welled up from vents deep in the ocean, and where rocks were perforated with tiny pores, providing catalysis, protection and a basis for competition, before cell membranes were ‘invented’. 

Read the whole story in New Scientist magazine
Buy Nick Lane’s book on 10 greatest inventions of evolution

27 October 2009

Where were you when the Velociraptors ambushed the Diplodocus?

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into light again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man's hand;
We coiled at ease ’neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded bone
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved the fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Till our brutal tush were gone.

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

— Excerpted from Evolution by Langdon Smith

28 October 2009

You can’t have one without the other

“It was out of the rind of one apple tasted that good and evil leapt forth into the world, like two twins cleaving together.”

Paul Auster, in a fictional quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost

In my meditation this morning, I realized for the first time that I like exhaling better than inhaling.

29 October 2009

The universe began as an undifferentiated gas.  Why didn’t it stay that way?

In the Big Bang theory, the Universe started out in ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’, the state of maximum entropy, meaning that there was no physical motive for change.  Another way to say this is that there was no usable energy, and no information.  Nothing interesting could happen.

Well, a lot of interesting stuff happened after that.  How did the Universe go from a state of maximum entropy to a state of low entropy, enabling galaxies, stars and life? 

It all came from the expansion.  One way to describe what happened is that the maximum entropy of the expanding Universe got bigger faster than the actual entropy could keep up.  Another way to describe it is that gravitational collapse has the potential to release enormous amounts of energy that aren’t part of the original entropy calculation. 

The paradox just described is intimately related to another deep question in physics: why time is ‘directional’.  Left and right, forward and backward are arbitrary directions in space, but ‘before’ and ‘after’ are physically quite different.

If the Universe were contracting, would we experience time going backward, so we would say it was expanding?  Believe it or not, this is a deep question, on which physicists can disagree.

Watch Sean Carroll talk about the arrow of time, why it is mysterious, and where he thinks it comes from.
His book, From Eternity to Here

(Carroll’s view is that the arrow of time comes from cosmology and the nature of the Big Bang.  I think he’s wrong and the arrow of time comes from quantum mechanics.  Neither of us is sure.  -JJM)

30 October 2009

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, born 1795 on All Hallows Eve, lived just 25 years
entire poem

31 October 2009

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design