Fryderyk Chopin wrote dreamy nocturnes and lush, romantic harmonies that hang at the edge of dissonance until you can’t stand it any more, then resolve with a sigh.

Except when he didn’t.  Listen to this spare moonscape of a piece, played by an an anonymous YouTube contributor whose visual presentation and hesitations in the right hand highlight the awkwardness of the timing and harmonies.  I’ve always thought this piece could have been written by Bartok.

He was an improviser who hated having to notate his ad-libbed keyboard inventions. He was at his worst as a performer, and at his best late at night among inebriated friends, when he could use the piano to mimic the quirks of humanity and create off-the-cuff miniatures of consummate sweetness. [Georges]Sand gave him the domestic security to do this. Chopin’s art is essentially an intimate one: he wrote no symphonies, operas or quartets, and the accounts of his piano-playing quoted by Zamoyski all stress the light, nuanced touch of his playing – worlds apart from the keyboard-versus-orchestra battles so beloved of the romantic era.
— from a book review by Andrew Clark of Adam Zamoyski

Happy birthday, Fred — 200 years old today.

1 March 2010

Two measures of happiness

Memory plays tricks.  There’s a big difference between being happy in your life and being happy about your life.

If we assess how happy we are from moment to moment we get one result, and if we recollect and summarize, we get a different result.  Overlap between the two is about 50%. 

It’s the remembered happiness that feeds into our thinking about the future and our decision-making.  ‘We think of our future as anticipated memories.’

TED talk by Dan Kahneman, 2010

2 March 2010

Ancient writing

There are two claims this week that enrich our picture of what life was life for our ancestors tens of thousands of years in the past. One is graphics on egg shells from 60,000 years ago: were they mere decorations or labels or, perhaps, name ids of the people who owned them?
New Scientist article by Kate Ravilius

April Nowell and Geneviève van Petzinger have collected graphics from the walls of caves on 5 continents, and and they make the remarkable claim that some of the same symbols are used in the same way by cave-dwellers all over the world, as long ago as 30 thousand years ago.  If this is so, were they communicating across vast distances?  Or is there some genetic basis for symbolic language, so that it comes out in similar symbols?  Or was (even earlier) writing conserved over tens of thousands of years of diaspora?
more from Kate Ravilius

Here is a site with lots of pictures that claims to see evidence for ancient ships and visits from space aliens.

3 March 2010

Aurora Leigh

                    ...             Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,—
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves...

Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul
Why else do these things move him, leaf, or stone?...

No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,

How do we know there’s a black hole at the center of our galaxy?

We can’t see the black hole, but we can see stars that are close to it either orbiting around it or looping in and out like a comet.  These stars are so close to the black hole that their orbits are very rapid and the curves very tight.  Watch the movie!

Notice the scale - 0.1" on the left.  This refers to one tenth of one second of arc, the angle subtended in the sky.  At the distance to the galactic center, this corresponds to about 1/8 of one light year.  The fastest stars are moving that far in a year’s time, indicating that they are traveling about 1/8 the speed of light.  From the simple Newtonian form of the gravity equation, it is possible to calculate how big a mass is necessary to deflect the path of something traveling that fast, at that radius.

What we know is that there is a huge mass, equivalent to millions of stars, in a very small volume.  We rely on Einsten’s theory to tell us that whenever so much mass is crammed into such a small space, it must collapse into a black hole.

5 March 2010

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Michelangelo, born this day in 1475



“Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”

6 March 2010

IS there any cause which you espouse, any activity you pursue, any good that you admire that you consider so sacred as to be above laughter?

This is your opportunity to seek an outside perspective.  Another name for the Great Mystery is the Great Absurdity.

— Josh Mitteldorf

7 March 2010


THERE is a flame within me that has stood
  Unmoved, untroubled through a mist of years,
  Knowing nor love nor laughter, hope nor fears,
Nor foolish throb of ill, nor wine of good.
I feel no shadow of the winds that brood,
  I hear no whisper of a tide that veers,
  I weave no thought of passion, nor of tears,
Unfettered I of time, of habitude.
I know no birth, I know no death that chills;
  I fear no fate nor fashion, cause nor creed,
I shall outdream the slumber of the hills,
  I am the bud, the flower, I the seed:
For I do know that in whate’er I see
I am the part and it the soul of me.

John Spencer Muirhead

8 March 2010

‘A maverick romantic lyricist in a turbulent age’

If you don’t know Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, then by all means introduce yourself.  But he left us a great deal more enchanting, hypnotic music.  The Cello Sonata is a new favorite of mine: just when you are trying to decide whether the theme is meditative or just brooding, a surprise pops out of nowhere.  The Canzone of the Piano Concerto has been recast as a popular flute solo, but I think the original is even better.

Samuel Barber would have been 100 years old today.

9 March 2010

A dream within a dream
 (after Edgar Allan Poe)

Accept this promise from my heart
Your soul from mine shall never part
Exploring, venturing from the chart –
Seeking, chasing Atman’s beam
Knowing all is but a dream;
Beyond imagination’s scope
A future humbling faith and hope
Relinquish visions, open wide
To possibilities untried.
All that we may know or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand astride the ocean’s roar
Caress its wide, luxuriant shore
And I hold within my hand
A single grain of golden sand –
Ephemeral symbol of the small
Fairy dust, a crystal ball
And microcosm of the All.
In awe! as I release my grasp
And find my hands in prayerful clasp
In awe! And full surrender, brave
I join the overarching wave,
Thinking: all we know or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

— JJM*

*Searching for mystical verse this morning, I reread Poe’s masterpiece and tried to imagine what he might have written had he not had so much to drink the night before.

“It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence,
we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.”

10 March 2010

It takes only a handful of individuals to really make a difference...

In a study published in Proc Natl Acad, researchers from the UCSD and Harvard provide the first laboratory evidence that cooperative behavior is contagious and that it spreads from person to person to person. When people benefit from kindness they ‘pay it forward’ by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network.

Press release in Science Daily
Research article by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis

I don’t have much faith in these lab experiments in psychology - people behave differently from in the real world, and the sample population of people who partricipate in psych studies is not representative.  Nevertheless, in this case I think they’ve got it right.

11 March 2010

Urban farms?


  • Land is vastly more expensive—Despommier recommends highrises. 
  • Energy must be spent for lighting in lieu of the sun
  • Rainwater is forgone so all must be supplied as irrigation


  • No pests or weeds means no pesticides or herbicides
  • Perishables need not be air-freighted or trucked to market, but can be sold locally
  • No waste of water or fertilizer
  • No weather hazards
  • With 24-hour lighting and climate control, many crops can be grown each year

The claim is that the savings outweigh the costs.   ‘Vertical farming ’  may be more fuel-efficient, with less environmental impact than standard factory farming practices.  Plants can be grown hydroponically, or with very little soil.  Minerals, nitrates and phosphates are injected instead of being dumped on the ground as fertilizer.  Waste is minimized.

‘The biggest issue is where to get the energy.  As much as possible will come from solar and wind.  More comes from incinerating the parts of plants we don’t eat...the rest comes from recycling the energy from liquid municipal waste.’

Scientific American article by Dickson Despommier
     supplementary article by Mark Fischetti
     brief summary and online dialog

12 March 2010

On the resilience of joy

In November of 1755, Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake that left the city in ruins, with more than 10,000 dead. 

700 Km away in Paris, Voltaire found his philosophical tenets shaken.  How can anyone believe in an all-powerful, beneficent God?

Voltaire wrote a poem explicating his newfound pessimism.  In a preface, he wrote

The author of the poem on The Disaster of Lisbon is not an adversary of the illustrious [Alexander] Pope, whom he has always admired and loved: he thinks like him on practically all matters; but, pierced to the heart by the misfortunes of mankind, he wishes to attack the abuse that can be made of that ancient axiom ‘All is for the best’. He adopts in its place that sad and more ancient truth, recognized by all men, that ‘There is evil upon the earth’; he declares that the phrase ‘All is for the best’, taken in a strict sense and without hope of an afterlife, is merely an insult to the miseries of our existence.

Voltaire’s poem occasioned a controversy between him and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in a long ‘Reply to M. de Voltaire’, explained pessimism such as Voltaire’s as being the product of the unnatural and unhealthy life of the pampered and privileged intellectual. Ask a humble craftsman or a Swiss peasant whether evil predominated over good in human life, as Voltaire suggests, and you would get a very different answer. 
—   Read article and full text of the poem in English and in French

Ce monde, ce théâtre et d’orgueil et d’erreur
Est plein d’infortunés qui parlent de bonheur.

In this theater of hubris, amid gaunt devastation
Live many a poor soul who speaks of elation.
— Voltaire

13 March 2010

For Einsten’s birthday

Because Einstein has earned our reverence, we are willing to ponder even his simplest pronouncements, and assume that our meditations will be rewarded. We invest what he says with depth. This is always a boon, whether Einstein turns out to be right or wrong, because any deep and sustained application of our brains is likely to produce satisfying results.

Einstein once said that the most important question we can ask is, “Is the Universe friendly?” He was speaking, presumably, of basic physical laws which, against all odds, has made possible life and consciousness and brains that can reflect upon the universe which gave them birth. It was not until twenty years after Einstein’s death that specific evidence was compiled for the “friendliness” of physical law, and the Anthropic Principle was formulated. The basic idea is this: There are a handful of fundamental constants that physics takes as a starting point, things like the speed of light and the strength of gravitational attraction. These numbers appear to be completely arbitrary, even in the deepest theories of physics that we have. And yet, we notice that the Universe would be vastly different if these constants were even slightly different from the values they actually have. In all cases, it appears that the Universe with altered fundamentals would be far less interesting, far less rich in possibilities: no stars, no chemical elements, no possibilities for complexity.

Some people might see in this situation the handiwork of a beneficent God. This would not be a God who intervenes from day to day in human affairs, but a God who set the Universe in motion with a rich set of possibilities built in. Perhaps the idea is compatible with the Deistic religions born of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. In my favorite variation of the idea, God is a universal consciousness, and consciousness creates the physical Universe (and animates it with life) as a playground for its entertainment and a university for its edification.

Another idea – hardly less radical – that has captured the imaginations of astronomical theorists is that there is a multiplicity of universes, not in physical communication with each other. The different universes are characterized by different fundamental constants in all possible combinations. Only a tiny percentage of these universes support the possibility of complex phenomena, including life and consciousness, and it is no accident that we live in one such universe, because the others have no beings capable of observing them. Physicists are fond of saying that our Universe may not be typical in the set of all universes, but it is typical among the subset of universes that contain physicists. 

— Josh Mitteldorf

14 March 2010

Is the Universe Friendly? (Continuation of themes from the last two days)

Is the world governed by a beneficent hand assuring that all will turn out for the best? Or is nature cruel and violent, riddled with random and meaningless disasters that will bring us down in the end?

Most people, when they pose this philosophical query are really asking, “Is it possible for one in circumstances such as mine to be happy?” Ironically, the answer they are looking for is “no”. How much more comfortable it is to feel that we are heroic for having eked out, by our own virtue and force of character, whatever measure of happiness we have known, rather than to imagine that we have failed to benefit from the munificence that fate has bequeathed to us.

Due to twin breakthroughs in science and pure thought, I am at last able to offer you a definitive answer to the question of Optimism vs Pessimism, or the Problem of Evil, as first formulated by Epicurus in the third century B.C:

It is as you suspected. It has not been possible for you to be any happier, any more serene or more content with your life than you have been up until this moment. Indeed, you have done absolutely the best that was possible, heroically, and beyond all expectations.

But – equally remarkable – circumstances have fundamentally changed. Starting today, it is newly possible for you to experience a freedom, a joy, and a serenity you have never known in the past. What is more, this transformation may not require any fundamental alteration of your outward circumstances, although it is likely that the change in your inward state will produce ripples that gradually bear fruit in the world around you, enhancing cooperation, diffusing conflict, and ultimately supporting a better and more deeply satisfying life experience for all those within your sphere of influence, yourself included.

Also revealed is that the wisdom necessary to effect this transformation is already present within you, and that you know what to do to discern it.


15 March 2010

Turning a data explosion into a knowledge explosion

Imagine a new Library of Alexandria. Imagine an archive that contains all the natural and social sciences of the West—our source-critical, referenced, peer-reviewed data—as well as the cultural and literary heritage of the world’s civilizations, and many of the world’s most significant archives and specialist collections. Imagine that this library is electronic and in the public domain: sustainable, stable, linked, and searchable through universal semantic catalogue standards. Imagine that it has open source-ware, allowing legacy digital resources and new digital knowledge to be integrated in real time. Imagine that its Second Web capabilities allowed universal researches of the bibliome.  

— from a New Republic article by Lisbet Rausing 

The way that information is managed touches all areas of life. At the turn of the 20th century new flows of information through channels such as the telegraph and telephone supported mass production. Today the availability of abundant data enables companies to cater to small niche markets anywhere in the world. Economic production used to be based in the factory, where managers pored over every machine and process to make it more efficient. Now statisticians mine the information output of the business for new ideas.

— from an Economist article by Kenneth Cukier

16 March 2010

The Inner History of a Day

No one knew the name of this day;
Born quietly from deepest night,
It hid its face in light,
Demanded nothing for itself,
Opened out to offer each of us
A field of brightness that traveled ahead,
Providing in time, ground to hold our footsteps
And the light of thought to show the way.

The mind of the day draws no attention;
It dwells within the silence with elegance
To create a space for all our words,
Drawing us to listen inward and outward.

We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.

Somewhere in us a dignity presides
That is more gracious than the smallness
That fuels us with fear and force,
A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.

So at the end of this day, we give thanks
For being betrothed to the unknown
And for the secret work
Through which the mind of the day
And wisdom of the soul become one.

~ John O’Donohue

17 March 2010

“The power structure and its liberal apologists dismiss the rebel as impractical and see the rebel’s outsider stance as counterproductive. They condemn the rebel for expressing anger at injustice. The elites and their apologists call for calm and patience. They use the hypocritical language of spirituality, compromise, generosity and compassion to argue that the only alternative is to accept and work with the systems of power. The rebel, however, is beholden to a moral commitment that makes it impossible to stand with the power elite. The rebel refuses to be bought off with foundation grants, invitations to the White House, television appearances, book contracts, academic appointments or empty rhetoric. The rebel is not concerned with self-promotion or public opinion. The rebel knows that, as Augustine wrote, hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage--anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. The rebel is aware that virtue is not rewarded. The act of rebellion defines itself.”

Chris Hedges

18 March 2010

Anti-war protestors,
DC 1967

A woman who put hope and Gaia in the same sentence

Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize for her stories and theories of spontaneous human cooperation, un-coerced by central authority.  When people own a resource in common, there is a temptation for individuals to grab their share and more, pre-empting the next person’s selfishness.  This is the ‘tragedy of the commons’.  Ostrom shows us that human nature is pliable and can lead to cooperative outcomes just as easily as selfishness; that it is the enforced greed of capitalism that is the problem, not human biology.

‘We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.’

Elinor Ostrom in YES magazine

19 March 2010


TRUTH is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception—which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and, to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.

Robert Browning (more of the poem here)

20 March 2010

Bach had a day job

Bach struggled during his early life to find steady employment.  When, at the age of 38, he applied for a job as choir director in Leipzig, he considered his prospects remote.  Georg Philipp Telemann was clearly the leading applicant, but he had better opportunities.  The second choice was Christoph Graupner, and when he turned down the offer, the parish was ‘compelled to fall back on mediocrities’.  Bach was grateful for the stipend, and stayed in this post the rest of his life.  His duties:

He was required to teach music and other subjects, especially Latin, to the boarders at the upper school, and to give them individual tuition whenever he thought it was needed; he was to direct the choir in each of Leipzig’s four churches on alternate Sundays, often composing the music himself; he was to supervise the organists and other musicians in each place; he was to take charge of ordering and inspecting all the musical scores and parts – and all the instruments as well – for the services in all four churches . . . and those were only some of his strictly musical duties. Every fourth week it was his responsibility to get all the students up at 5-o’clock in the morning, after which, according to the school regulations,

‘He is to ensure that fifteen minutes later all are assembled for prayers in the auditorium downstairs. He is to say prayers again at 8 p.m., and to note that no one is absent and that no lights are taken into the dormitories. While supervising meals he must see that there is no boozing, that Grace is said in German before and after every meal, and that the Bible or a history book is read during the repast. It is his duty to make sure that the scholars return in full number and at the proper hour from attending funerals and weddings etc.. He must particularly satisfy himself that none comes home having drunk too much. He shall hold the key to the infirmary and visit all patients there confined. Absence from his duty during the day entails a fine of four groschen, and at night of six.’

The thought of Bach being a dormitory inspector and meal supervisor for twenty-seven years fairly boggles the mind. Hardly more so, though, than his daily routine and the range of his activities. A sixteen-hour working day was normal, and he plotted it with all the precision of a military campaign. Academic lectures were scheduled daily between 7.00 and 10.00 in the morning and from 1.00 to 3.00 in the afternoon. In addition to these were the daily singing exercises plus individual vocal and instrumental lessons. And then there were the regular services at the four churches, as well as frequent special services such as weddings and funerals. For long stretches, Bach would be composing weekly cantatas, in addition to other music, and in addition to fitting in his such demanding extra-curricular projects as the Collegium Musicum concerts at the Coffee House, his ever-more-famous organ recitals, his thriving sub-career as an instrumental teacher to the aristocracy, the various calls on his services as an assessor of organs and harpsichords, and so on. Nor should we forget, as he never did, his devotion to his wife and ever-expanding family,
Jeremy Siepmann

Johann Sebastian Bach is 325 years old today.

21 March 2010

Bach, continued...

Imagine Bach at the end of his life.  He had been a devoted head of family, who lost his much beloved first wife at a tender age, and endured, too, deaths of ten of his twenty children.  He had a sense of his legacy, though few of his peers appreciated it, and he had worked assiduously to prepare the gifts he would leave to future generations. At 65, he had weak lungs, and was completely blind.  An operation to try to recover his sight had turned out disastrously.

But his disposition remained unfailingly positive to the end.  Bach had a mathematical mind, combined with a deep and literal faith in the Christian God. He was ready to meet his Creator.

Unable to write, he dictated to his son-in-law his final creation, a contrapuntal work based on a simple chorale melody, I step before thy throne, O God.  The transparent serenity of this piece is a testament to Bach’s unwavering faith.  There is no hint of tragedy or even of drama, not a trace of self-consciousness.  Each of the four chorale phrases is developed to a conclusion which is, like death itself, both inevitable and completely unexpected.

Listen to my own performance of Bach’s last composition – JJM

22 March 2010

Commit this to memory – then tear it up

Most moral thinkers – from Socrates to Christ to Francis of Assisi – eschewed the written word. Once things are written down they become codified. Passages of sacred or philosophical texts are twisted, reinterpreted and rewritten to accommodate those in power, bolster the unassailability of religious institutions, and silence dissidents. Writing freezes speech. George Steiner calls this the ‘decay into writing.’ This is especially dangerous for ethical and moral philosophy, since, where philosophy and prescription see only virtue and vice, in reality human actions combine the two to different degrees.
— Chris Hedges (from I don’t Believe in Atheists

“Where rigid, formal obedience to law allows the adherent to avoid ethical choice, the truly moral life grapples with the inscrutable call to do what is right, to reach out to those who are reviled, labeled outcasts or enemies, and to practice compassion and tolerance, even at the cost of self-annihilation. And all ethical action begins with an acknowledgment of our sin and moral ambiguity.”

23 March 2010


As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.

Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slaves of permanence.

Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

Hermann Hesse

24 March 2010

Who was Norman Borlaug?

Before there were GM crops, the old-fashioned way to increase crop yields was to cross different strains to create varieties that resisted pests and harsh weather, while yielding larger harvests in shorter times.  In the mid-20th century, Norman Borlaug was the world’s  foremost practitioner of this art. 

Borlaug left his roots as an Iowa farm boy to work for Dupont as a chemist, then left Dupont at the end of World War II to breed wheat in Mexico.  Within a few years, he had developed a fast-maturing variety that could be grown in two crops each year, which yielded nevertheless more grain in each crop than the varieties that had been used before.

(It turns out that the key was to outcross with dwarf varieties.  Over the milennia, natural selection in grasses such as wheat had favored plants that squandered their energy growing higher so they could grab more sunlight. This is a zero sum game, however, and in a field full of short plants, the short plants did just fine.)

In the 1960s, Borlaug went to work on rice.

Biologist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.’ Ehrlich said, ‘I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971,’ and ‘India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.’

Borlaug bought the time that the developing world needed to bring down fertility rates and tame the population bomb.

Norman Borlaug, born this day in 1914, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, lived to see the maturity of the Green Revolution, and died last September at the age of 95.

25 March 2010

Crop yields have tripled in South Asia, quintupled in Mexico

Kary Mullis has a proposal for a successor to antibiotics

Antibiotics were the medical revolution of the 20th Century, slashing death rates from infectious disease.  But there are two limitations to antibiotics: (1) they don’t work for viruses, and (2) bacteria evolve resistant strains over a period of decades, then share their resistance with other bacteria through horizontal gene transfer.

In this interview at, Mullis starts from the beginning, explains to us how the immune system works, and how a very artificial trick can be used to bend a universal biological process and gain an advantage over microbes.

His idea uses the best-developed strength of modern biochemistry: our ability to determine the sequence of DNA fragments, and to synthesize new DNA strands with any desired sequence. 

All our bodies already have learned early in life to recognize and respond to some common invaders.  Our immune systems recognize characteristic chemical fragments that they wear on their cell membranes.  But when a new invader comes along, it can take weeks for our bodies to learn to recognize it, then grow enough specific antibodies to that invader to mount an effective response.

The trick which Mullis is developing is this:  We can create a DNA sequence that has the new invader’s signature at one end and the old, recognized signature at the other end.  This is a molecule that will bind tightly to the new invader, and tag it so that our immune systems are tricked into thinking that they are an old, familiar invader.  Our immune systems then have a leg up on the invader, and can arrest its growth at an earlier stage.

Here is another description of the system that Mullis calls altermune from Mullis’s web page.  If I understand it correctly, the system uses aptamers, which are RNA fragments that bind uniquely not to other RNA or DNA, but to a protein sequence found on the cell’s surface.

26 March 2010

It began in mystery and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

Diane Ackerman

27 March 2010

Humility and Humiliation

You might infer from the etymology that humiliation is the process by which a person socialized into a stance of humility.  But our psyches are less straightforward and logical than this. In reality, it seldom happens that people acquire genuine humility through an experience of humiliation. Humiliation may lead to despair and depression, or to denial, or to a chain of oppressive relationships in which each victim becomes perpetrator in the next link.  None of these outcomes is conducive to the virtue of humility.

Why is this?

Humility is about belonging and trust in the competence and goodwill of others. It is a sense of community, an appreciation of interdependence, and a warm feeling of being cared for by peers, without whom we could not thrive. In this sense, humiliation is the opposite of humility: it is an exclusion through shaming, an expulsion from community.

We adopt a stance of humility when we feel most secure.  We teach humility when our actions are trustworthy and caring.

— Josh Mitteldorf

28 March 2010

A green annuity

It took decades before solar power became cost effective for mainstream applications.  It could be more decades before consumers get the message, and a further wait until they have liquid savings that could be invested in solar retrofits.

A San Francisco company, SolarCity is diving into the gap, making solar panels available with no upfront cost, and structuring the leases so that the end user sees savings from the first month. 

Scientific American ‘World-changing ideas
NYTimes article
CBS news

Note: Solar nominally still needs government subsidies and tax incentives to be cost-effective, but that’s only because oil and nuclear are so heavily subsidized, and coal burners are not required to pay the full cycle cost, including environmental costs and global warming.

29 March 2010

Silence of the Stars

When Laurens van der Post one night in the Kalahari Desert told the Bushmen he couldn’t hear the stars singing, they didn’t believe him.  They looked at him, half-smiling.  They examined his face to see whether he was joking or deceiving them.  Then two of those small men (who plant nothing, who have almost nothing to hunt, who live on almost nothing, and with no one but themselves) led him away from the crackling thorn-scrub fire and stood with him under the night sky and listened.  One of them whispered, ‘Do you not hear them now?’ And van der Post listened, not wanting to disbelieve, but had to answer, ‘No.’  They walked him slowly, like a sick man, to the small dim circle of firelight and told him they were terribly sorry; and he felt even sorrier for himself and blamed his ancestors for their strange loss of hearing, which was his loss now. 

David Wagoner     (Traveling Light

30 March 2010

Growth of the spirit - it takes a village

Many of us sense that something is trying to emerge between us that’s more important than anything we can experience in our solitary practice. There’s something in the collective dimension that transcends what is possible in individual spirituality.
Craig Hamilton

“The next buddha will be a sangha*.” 
Thich Nhat Hahn

*A sangha is a Buddhist meditation community.  Perhaps Thich’s message is that the time when we could be inspired by individual, charismatic spiritual leaders is at an end, and that our next step is to learn closer forms of cooperation and deeper relationships of trust, in which the self dissolves into a larger entity.  Perhaps religion is following the historic path of polity, moving from monarchy to democracy.

31 March 2010

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design