A breakthrough in parapsychology

It is not a breakthrough in the science, but a breakthrough in its acceptance as a legitimate topic of investigation within the field of psychology.

This month, a prestigious journal housed by the American Psychological Association, is publishing a long and detailed account of parapsychological experiments. 

The results detail small presentiments about experiences that the subjects of the experiments haven’t yet experienced, but will shortly.  The subjects’ choices reveal that they have some small, statistical tendency to act as if they had this knowledge already.  The results are remarkable only to those who have discounted the field, and declined to read other well-documented and equally strange results in the past.

Psychology Today covers the topic as if there is a new standard of rigor in the present work.  But the rigor was there in the works of many other researchers for many years, and they were shunned by the academic establishment even so.

Today is the dawn of an era when the subject can be discussed freely.  A torrent of papers will follow.  Soon, we will know much more, and it will change who we are.

1 November 2010


It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

— Lisel Mueller (c/o Panhala)

2 November 2010

Ecology and Democracy: A morality play from the forest floor

Most ant species live in harmony with the forest ecosystem, scavenging food from many sources.  But occasional mutant colonies will grow too dense and too numerous, exploiting the forest unsustainably.

Robert Hammond and Richard Gill of the University of Leicester have determined that ant workers can actively choose their queen from among several candidates.  Collectively they team up to attack one queen and nurture another, asserting control over the crucial question of whose eggs will become their future comrades.

But other colonies seem to be ruled from the top down, when passive workers assert no control over the choice of a queen.

The intriguing possibility which they seek to document is that the democratic ant hills are the sustainable ones, and the passive, autocratic ant societies are the ones that become invasive menaces.

 Article in Science Daily

3 November 2010

Reason enough to try something different:

A very slight change of our habits is sufficient to destroy our sense of our daily reality, and the reality of the world around us.

George Edward Moore, born this day in 1873, was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, but I think he was utterly inconsequential.*

*An example of Moore’s paradox.

4 November 2010

Thriving under deprivation is a piece of cake;
but living with uncertainty makes us crazy.

People feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur...

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

— from an essay by Dan Gilbert that guy who studies happiness for a living.

My take on the data that Gilbert presents so compellingly would emphasize empowerment more than uncertainty.  I think that when we choose to gamble, it might even be exhilarating, but when we feel that our fate depends on circumstances  and events unfolding out of our control, that’s when we are out of sorts.  — JJM

5 November 2010

My philosophy on dieting is 1600 years old

Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.

 — St Augustine, born this day in 354 CE

“Give me chastity and temperance but not yet.”

6 November 2010

Free will

‘We have to believe in free will.  We have no choice.’
— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Maybe Singer is right, and it would make us all crazy to think that we have no control over our own actions (let alone the larger world).  Or maybe there is a transcendent peace that that comes from surrender of our individual will.  Maybe the very idea of free will is an artifact of civilization, a trick that the rulers use to manipulate their subjects’ conscience, and thereby their behavior.

I do not think it is possible to understand free will, but trying to understand what it means (and who it is that is free) is a fast track to appreciating some mysteries: the relationship of the intangible to the tangible, the collective origin of thoughts that I perceive to be my own, and what I mean by ‘I’.

If most of our actions are ruled by habit, then the most powerful way in which we can exercise free will is to shape our habits, to place ourselves in new surroundings, to throw ourselves repeatedly into challenging environments, and to chip away at anything that is dysfunctional in our routines.

— Josh Mitteldorf

7 November 2010

To sit like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives –
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early summer, feel like?

Or do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?

To enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
To lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
To leap to the air as you open your wings over
the dark acorn of your heart!

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture,
that which presents itself, continually?

Well, there is time left –
fields everywhere invite you into them.

Quickly, then, get up...

— adapted from Mary Oliver

8 November 2010


Buddhist meditation seeks the one-pointed mind.  But the Jain sage Shrimad Rajchandra, born this day in 1867, had the unique faculty of processing and tending simultaneously to one hundred different tasks!  Tasks such as performing arithmetic computations, listening to poems in different languages and repeating them in order, writing poems while doing other tasks, playing chess and cards and recalling every step in order, repeating 100 words from various languages in order, responding to a questionnaire…
Adonis blog

Rajchandra had a brief but influential relationship with the young Gandhi, who regarded him as guru, and corresponded with him, seeking spiritual counsel.

Rajchandra bequeathed to us his instructions for discovery of the soul, a poem called Atma Siddhi.  It is incomprehensible.

The pupil raises the following arguments: The soul cannot be seen, it has no form, it is not experienced, it is not same as body, senses, or breath, there is no separate sign of its existence and it cannot be seen like a pot or a cloth. Hence the pupil concludes the soul does not exists and so there is no question of bondage or liberation. The guru explains that the soul and body seem to be the same because of the embodiment of soul, but this is an illusion and the two are different, as a sword and its sheath. That which sees, recognises form and retains experience is soul. The eyes and other senses are tools, and the soul obtains knowledge from the senses. The guru explains that the body does not know, neither do the senses nor does the breath. The knowing capacity exists on account of presence of the soul. 

9 November 2010

Virtual choir

Eric Whitacre composed this piece to be sung by amateur singers from around the world, collaborating from their living rooms.  He posted the score and a video of himself conducting, so people could follow him as they sang, then submit recordings they made themselves to be blended and balanced in the final recording.

Listen to Lux Aurumque, by Eric Whitacre
Choose individual singers to watch by clicking on their location.

10 November 2010

Limits of science

It became clear to me that scientists and seekers of perfection from all walks of life have been courting the wrong muse. It is not symmetry and perfection that should be our guiding principle, as it has been for millennia. . . . The science we create is just that, our creation. Wonderful as it is, it is always limited, it is always constrained by what we know of the world. . . . We may search for unified descriptions of natural phenomena, and we may find some partial unifications along the way. But we must remember that a final unification is forever beyond our reach. . . . The human understanding of the world is forever a work in progress. That we have learned so much, speaks well of our creativity. That we want to know more, speaks well of our drive. That we think we can know all, speaks only of our folly.

[Marcelo Gleiser] argues that the belief that the universe is governed by beautiful equations is a residue of monotheism. He also suspects that the widespread belief among scientists that the universe is teeming with life is a projection of our hope that we are not alone in a vast, cold cosmos. For him, life in the universe and real insight into nature are both rare, and each is that much more precious for its rarity.
Lee Smolin, reviewing A TEAR AT THE EDGE OF CREATION: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe, by Marcelo Gleiser.

11 November 2010


It is conceit that kills us
and makes us cowards instead of gods.

Under the great Command: Know thy self, and that thou art mortal!
we have become fatally self-conscious, fatally self-important, fatally entangled in the cocoon coils of our conceit.

Now we have to admit we can’t know ourselves, we can only know about ourselves.
And I am not interested to know about myself any more,
I only entangle myself in the knowing.

Now let me be myself,
now let me be myself, and flicker forth,
now let me be myself, in the being, one of the gods.

— D H Lawrence

12 November 2010

Energy therapy

“I can’t fully express how surprised I am to find myself standing here telling you that the key to successful treatment, even with extremely tough cases, can be a mechanical, superficial, ridiculously speedy physical technique that doesn’t require a sustained therapeutic relationship, the acquisition of deep insight, or even a serious commitment to personal transformation. Yet, strange as it looks to be tapping on your skin while humming ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ it works!...

“After its rocky beginnings, the field cut its teeth by deploying treatment teams to more than a dozen countries to provide mental health services following natural and human disasters. Outcome data systematically collected in at least five of these countries, and corroborated by local healthcare authorities who had no stake in EP, were encouraging...[One] study focused on the 50 teenagers identified by the caregivers as having the greatest difficulties...Each then received a single acupoint-tapping session lasting 20 to 60 minutes, combined with approximately 6 minutes spent learning two simple relaxation techniques. Not only did the scores of 47 of the 50 adolescents fall below the PTSD range following this brief intervention, these improvements in serious conditions that had persisted for more than a decade held at a one-year follow-up...

“How does it work? How could tapping on the skin be an ingredient in producing rapid cures for severe psychological disorders? How, in fact, can any intervention reliably overcome PTSD within a few sessions?” 

from an Alternet article by David Feinstein

I have no experience with these techniques.  I can’t recommend them, but nor can I say that they are a sham or wishful thinking.  The question that intrigues me: When credible people make extraordinary claims that seem theoretically implausible, how do we decide which ones to investigate and which to dismiss?  I’m not going to follow this one to a conclusion, but if you do, I hope you’ll tell me what you find.— JJM

13 November 2010

Fill in the blank

What would I write in this space if I were wise and knew you well and could think clearly about your well-being, your liberation and your growth?

I trust that you know the answer, even if I don’t.

14 November 2010

Daydreaming breeds dissolution; focus leads to happiness.
The Buddha couldn’t have said it better.

A quick experiment. Before proceeding to the next paragraph, let your mind wander wherever it wants to go. Close your eyes for a few seconds, starting ... now. And now, welcome back for the hypothesis of our experiment: Wherever your mind went — the South Seas, your job, your lunch, your unpaid bills — that daydreaming is not likely to make you as happy as focusing intensely on the rest of this column will.

— read John Tierney in the NYTimes

15 November 2010

It looks the same on the outside

There is a wonderful story about a guru and his cranky disciple.  Both were getting on in years, and they happened to be sitting one afternoon in a cramped, dingy room waiting for someone to bring them food.

‘Why are you any different from me?’ the disciple grumbled.  ‘We’re just two old men sitting here waiting impatiently for our dinner.’

‘That’s true,’ the guru said.

‘We see the same room,’ the disciple went on.  ‘We live in the same world.  There’s no difference at all.’

The guru shook his head. ‘You say we live in the same world, but we don’t.  Your world is private; no one else can enter it.  It is made of personal memories, desires, feelings, and dreams.  My world is not private but open to all.  It is eternal and unbounded.  Nothing exists in it that I claim as my own.  Wherever I look I see love, trust, truth, eternity.’

The disciple still complained.  ‘If your world is so much better than mine, why do you even bother to be here?’

‘Because your world is only a dream,’ the guru said quietly. ‘And it gives me pleasure when someone wakes up.’

— Deepak Chopra

16 November 2010


I prefer the absurdity of writing poems  to the absurdity of not writing poems.

Wislawa Szymborska

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

17 November 2010

Carl Maria von Weber,

born this day in 1876, was a contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert and Rossini, who wrote lighter music, always easy to enjoy.

Listen to fireworks performed by Claudio Arau) from the last movement of his Konzertstuck for piano and orchestra.

18 November 2010

The Laughing Sutra

“While the sutra begins properly, noting that all delusion, and therefore all suffering, springs from our attachments to the illusory realm of the senses, it then diverges from the Path.  It suggests that spiritual disciplines are just as deluded and illusory as material attachments.  It claims that the Buddha revealed this to his most fervent disciple, who meditated constantly over seven years without result.  When he heard that, the disciple (who was very attached to his spiritual life) flung himself wholeheartedly into all sorts of depravity.  By doing so, he supposedly lost his appetite for it, like a guest at a banquet who overeats until he vomits and then no longer wishes to eat any more.  Having thus momentarily freed himself from desire, the disciple suddenly realized that his own desire for enlightenment was, in reality, no different from  a greedy man’s desire for wealth and fame.  When he understood the unity of all desire, he became enlightened and laughed very hard.

“While this anecdote sounds attractive, it cannot be true.”

Mark Salzman

19 November 2010

I think I’m going out of my head

Rachel Aviv writes in next month’s Harper’s about the border between normalcy and schizophrenia.  There is empathy and kindness in her perspective, and she draws us in with vivid glimpses into one patient’s mind.

A schizophrenic cannot distinguish reality from fantasy from hallucination.  But for months or even years before the onset of a full-blown episode, most patients become aware of strange and fantastical thoughts, from which they disengage by brave acts of logic and assertion of the will.  Psychologists can be enormously helpful to people in this stage, and usually can avert a psychotic break.  The catch is that many (most) of the people they treat will not develop schizophrenia even if left untreated.  The therapy is expensive.  The drugs have side-effects.  Is it right to treat three people because, left untreated, one of them would develop schizophrenia?  Suppose it’s one in ten or one in fifty?

[Anna] would come up with sweeping theories about the structure of reality—that time no longer existed, that the world was made entirely of gasses—and then, moments later, scold herself for allowing the experience when there was “not a shred of scientific evidence.”  She kept waiting for the particles to vanish on their own.  When they didn’t, she worried she was “addicted to an idea.”  She felt that by wondering about the properties of matter—by blowing on books to see whether they would disintegrate—she had taken some irrevocable step toward illness.

20 November 2010

Odysseus ordered his crew to stop their ears and lash him to the ship’s mast so that he could hear the irresistible song of the Sirens, but would not be drawn to destruction.

Our minds are great seas of insane fantasy and delusion, on which we (most of us, most of the time) float, head up, eyes on the world around us.  Those who hear the Siren call and are drawn into the sea become mad.  But those who remain lashed to the mast, though they hear that wondrous sound become seers and mystics.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr

21 November 2010

Poverty rate in different regions of the world

22 November 2010

Africa has finally begun to move.


’Tis the season…this time of the year we throw the word Joy around a lot. But really, what is joy? Happiness seems to be a pretty consistent lack of depression and a state of bliss is usually only achieved by yogis. Isn’t contentment really one step away from the acknowledgement that you’re actually miserable? Joy though, well joy seems to be something that is fleeting for most of us most of the time, but that is realistically attainable. Joy is that spring in your step, the gleam in your eye, the new love in your life or the pleasure of finding yourself surrounded by your loved ones and, for at least a short time, truly enjoying each others company.

I find that as a middle-aged adult, joy is something that I have to work on; if ’m lucky it sometimes comes to me unbidden, sneaking up behind me and shouting “boo!”. I’ve come to realize that, while I’m lucky to be generally happy with my life, it’s those moments of joy that are truly energizing and inspirational. Recently, I’ve tried to come to a better self-awareness of what really brings me joy and attempt to seek those things and experiences out.

— Sarah Firisen
Continue reading...

23 November 2010

Organizing to cast off the oppressor

On this day in 1978, 18 peasants in Xiaogang village, PRC, banded together secretly to divide up their communal farmland into family plots, letting each family keep the product of their own labor.  Mao was dead, but the terror that was the Cultural Revolution lived on after him for awhile.  These brave farmers were like the people who began dismantling the Berlin Wall stone by stone,

Before 1978, Xiaogang was infamous for its poverty. Almost all the local families had to roam the countryside begging after the autumn harvest. The village population was only 120 before 1958 and 67 villagers died of hunger during the Great Leap Forward from 1958-60. In Fengyang County, where Xiaogang is located, one in four people perished – 90,000 in all. ‘But no civil servant suffered from hunger in our region,’ Yan said.

‘Villagers tended collective fields in exchange for “work points” that could be redeemed for food. But we had no strength and enthusiasm to work in collective fields due to hunger. We even didn’t have time because we were always being organized by governmental work teams who taught us politics,’ Yan recalled. ‘It was then that I began to consider contracting land into individual households.’


The whole incident is puzzling to Westerners.  We’re accustomed to the idea that capitalists oppress their workers, and that the workers need to band together in unions.  But, of course, communist governments can be oppressive as well, and people need to defy the government in order to agree to compete!  The common theme is democracy—people coming together to take control of their lives.

24 November 2010


For most of human history, the only people who had leisure were kings and medicine men.  Not only recreation but art, science, philosophy and wondering about the Big Picture were all out of the question for almost everyone, simply because they didn’t have the time.

You have the time.  May it not weigh heavily upon you.

— Josh Mitteldorf

25 November 2010

A land before time

In the standard Big Bang theory of cosmology, we can’t know anything about the world “before the big bang”. It’s not just that there’s no information. Time and space came into existence at the moment of the big bang, and there’s no such thing as “before”.

Roger Penrose has an alternative idea about the Big Bang, and in his theory there is a relationship between our universe and a universe that came before it, meaning before the Big Bang there was another universe, or many.  Universes can play themselves out, and give birth to another Universe “at the end”.  This is true even though universes can expand “forever”, or infinite proper time according to clocks within our Universe.

How would we know if there was a universe that came before ours? Penrose crunched the numbers in his theory and came out with the idea that there would have been bursts of energy (from merging black holes) that got transported across the Big Bang, and that they would expand in our universe as huge spheres.

This week, he claims to have found those spheres in the Cosmic Microwave Background. The CMB is sometimes called the 3 degree Blackbody Radiation. It is a weak radio signal that comes from everywhere. We think that the Big Bang was very hot, and the glow of the big bang got cooler and weaker as the universe expanded, until today it is only 3 degrees above absolute zero.

The CMB is almost the same in all directions, but there are actually tiny fluctuations where it is a thousandth of a degree less or a thousandth of a degree more in some directions than others. In the standard theory, this is explained with a theory of randomness. The variations in the CMB are completely random.

But in Penrose’s theory there should be evidence of those expanding spheres. He predicted rings in the sky where the CMB would be subtly changed. You can’t see the rings in the top picture on the right, because the temperature in those rings isn’t any hotter or any cooler than other places. The difference is that within the rings, the temperature is more uniform. The rings have less variation in temperature than other places in the sky, and you have to do fancy statistics to find them.

That’s what Penrose claims this week that he has done. He and an Armenian colleague have analyzed the map of the sky, and they have found the rings that Penrose predicted.

Read more

26 November 2010





Shining night of star-made shadows

Sure on this shining night
Of star-made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandering far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

James Agee, born this day in 1909
Listen to Samuel Barber’s choral setting of Agee’s poem
Listen to Mort Lauridsen’s choral setting of Agee’s poem

27 November 2010

A political call to action for those of us who lead healthy lives of personal fulfillment

Most human needs and desires can be satisfied in cooperation with others. Some are explicitly communal – love, trust, family, belonging. Others are individual but neutral – the needs for food, clothing and shelter, for learning and opportunity to create. But some other very human drives are essentially inimical to the well-being of others: the need to dominate, the need for control – even the need for leadership may require that more people are followers than in fact wish to follow.

My friend Peter relates to me a joke about the Russian national character: A man is told he may have one wish, anything he wants, with the only proviso being that his neighbor will receive the same twice over. He is perplexed. He thinks long and hard before responding, “Blind me in one eye.”

Humanity has reached a historic milestone, at which, for the first time, we have the capacity to meet all our collective needs and all our individual needs simultaneously. There is enough to go around. But what of our need to dominate, our need to fight and win, to bully others and to flaunt our superiority? There will never be space enough in our world for everyone to fill these needs. Some of us have more of this drive than others.

It is a tragedy that as more and more people find satisfaction and fulfillment within themselves, in the context of a wholesome and peaceful life within a cooperative community – the more good people are removed from the struggle for dominance, the more easily will those with pathological needs to dominate rise to positions of leadership and power. Thus do the few ruthless and psychopathic persons in our midst acquire controlling positions in business and government.

Those of us who have cultured personal fulfillment, good family relations, and satisfying lives of the spirit must take time out from our pursuits of loving cooperation and peaceful self-realization to attend to this situation. We cannot leave leadership to those who are driven to pursue it. 

— Josh Mitteldorf

28 November 2010

What do we want, after we see past what we want?

Under the hard rock of wanting and not wanting there is room for the calm art of becoming.

Caroline Peterson

29 November 2010


Lifting yesterday’s body in the light:
Wide lonely circles and the head a stone,
A planet picked out in exploded night.
The clouds are clouds of stars, so calmly grown

Flower of time assumes its sudden stem.
In this heavenly surf the world is hung
Without a sound and lustrous like a gem,
The vision that is not inscribed nor sung.

—  Robert Fitzgerald

30 November 2010

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design