The Passing Strange

Out of the earth to rest or range
Perpetual in perpetual change,
The unknown passing through the strange.

Water and saltness held together
To tread the dust and stand the weather,
And plough the field and stretch the tether,

To pass the wine-cup and be witty,
Water the sands and build the city,
Slaughter like devils and have pity,

Be red with rage and pale with lust,
Make beauty come, make peace, make trust,
Water and saltness mixed with dust;

Drive over earth, swim under sea,
Fly in the eagle’s secrecy,
Guess where the hidden comets be;

Know all the deathy seeds that still
Queen Helen’s beauty, Caesar’s will,
And slay them even as they kill;

Fashion an altar for a rood,
Defile a continent with blood,
And watch a brother starve for food:

Love like a madman, shaking, blind,
Till self is burnt into a kind
Possession of another mind;

Brood upon beauty, till the grace
Of beauty with the holy face
Brings peace into the bitter place;

Prove in the lifeless granites, scan
The stars for hope, for guide, for plan;
Live as a woman or a man;

Fasten to lover or to friend,
Until the heart break at the end:
The break of death that cannot mend;

Then to lie useless, helpless, still,
Down in the earth, in dark, to fill
The roots of grass or daffodil.
Down in the earth, in dark, alone,
A mockery of the ghost in bone,
The strangeness, passing the unknown.

Time will go by, that outlasts clocks,
Dawn in the thorps will rouse the cocks,
Sunset be glory on the rocks:

But it, the thing, will never heed
Even the rootling from the seed
Thrusting to suck it for its need.

Since moons decay and suns decline,
How else should end this life of mine?
Water and saltness are not wine.

But in the darkest hour of night,
When even the foxes peer for sight,
The byre-cock crows; he feels the light.

So, in this water mixed with dust,
The byre-cock spirit crows from trust
That death will change because it must;

For all things change, the darkness changes,
The wandering spirits change their ranges,
The corn is gathered to the granges.

The corn is sown again, it grows;
The stars burn out, the darkness goes;
The rhythms change, they do not close.

They change, and we, who pass like foam,
Like dust blown through the streets of Rome,
Change ever, too; we have no home,

Only a beauty, only a power,
Sad in the fruit, bright in the flower,
Endlessly erring for its hour,

But gathering, as we stray, a sense
Of Life, so lovely and intense,
It lingers when we wander hence,

That those who follow feel behind
Their backs, when all before is blind,
Our joy, a rampart to the mind.

John Masefield, born this day in 1878

1 June 2011

Many worlds

In the Copenhagen (standard) interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are probability waves that evolve through time until someone peeks at them, and then suddenly one result is chosen from all possible results, and subsequently, the probability waves evolve from this new state.

In the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI), there are alternate universes in which everything happens. When someone peeks, he places himself in one of the universes in which he sees what he sees, but other versions of himself continue on in other universes, where they see something else.

The New York Times last week featured a Science Blogs entry by Chad Orzel.  There is a page full of on-line dialog by people with a range of opinions and a range of levels of expertise. There are a lot of people in the world to whom it matters whether the unity of consciousness as we experience it is actually an illusion derived from a gazillion selves living in a gazillion universes.

The question under discussion is, assuming the MWI is true, whether anyone ever experiences his own death. The argument goes like this: the versions of you that die have no experience, and there are always many selves that don’t die, and your consciousness has been carried by these, and always will be.

Read the discussion
Read my essay on implications for consciousness of different quantum philosophies

2 June 2011

The origin of reason

‘The article,’ Haidt said, ‘is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?’

‘Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, ‘The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.’

—

3 June 2011

Renaissance man for our time

Alfred Brendel is best known as a pianist, interpreter of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart.  In college in 1967, I owned a set of Vox vinyl disks, in which Brendel played Beethoven sonatas, and it was not new.  He has recently given up concertizing, but still writes music and poetry and criticism.  He has also been a painter.

Read Michael Henderson’s tribute to Brendel in The Spectator
Listen to Brendel play Schubert Impromptu Op 90 #3

4 June 2011

No shoulds

I’ve taken on many disciplines at different times in my life: 300 sit-ups once a month; relying exclusively on a bicycle for transportation; writing my dreams every morning after waking...Presently, I meditate sitting for 45 minutes in the morning and fast one day a week. But the hardest discipline I ever took on was the “no shoulds” hour. Once a week, I tried to disregard my rule book and do whatever I wanted.

I found I couldn’t do it. I was waiting for the hour to be over. I developed the habit, after awhile, of practicing piano to fill the time.

I would like to learn to live without a rulebook. I wonder what discipline I might pursue that will lead me to freedom.  I’m highly motivated to work at it.

— Josh Mitteldorf

5 June 2011

The Ecstasy

WHAT is this reverence in extreme delight
That waits upon my kisses as they storm,
Vehemently, this height
Of steep and inaccessible delight;
And seems with newer ecstasy to warm
Their slackening ardour, and invite,
From nearer heaven, the swarm
Of hiving stars with mortal sweetness down?
Never before
Have I endured an exaltation
So exquisite in anguish, and so sore
In promise and possession of full peace.
Cease not, O nevermore
To lift my joy, as upon windy wings,
Into that infinite ascension, where,
In baths of glittering air,
It finds a heaven and like an angel sings.
Heaven waits above,
There where the clouds a fastnesses of love
Lift earth into the skies;
And I have seen the glim of the gates,
And twice or thrice
Climbed half the difficult way,
Only to say
Heaven waits,
Only to fall away from paradise.
But now, O what is this
Mysterious and uncapturable, bliss
That I have known, yet seems to be
Simple as breath, and easy as a smile,
And older than the earth?
Now but a little while
This ultimate ecstasy
Has parted from its birth,
Now but a little while been wholly mine,
Yet am I utterly possessed
By the delicious tyrant and divine
Child, this importunate guest.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945)

6 June 2011

Political Reality

To secure single payer health care here in the United States, it helps to understand how Canada did it. And to understand how Canada did it, we have to understand Tommy Douglas.  Not just that Canadians voted him The Greatest Canadian in a recent poll. We have to understand how Tommy Douglas built a political movement that toppled the two corporate parties in Saskatchewan in the mid-1940s. And what the lessons are for citizens in the USA. 

Tommy Douglas was born in Scotland in 1904. His family moved to Canada when he was six. He became a Baptist minister who supported unions and a public health insurance system. He became premier of Saskatchewan by running against Canada’s two major parties.

In a dramatic and decisive confrontation in 1962, Douglas then overcame a doctor’s strike against Medicare plan.

The Medicare for all single payer plan became law that same year in Saskatchewan.  And in 1966, his single payer program was adopted by the national government.

Ralph Nader

7 June 2011

I tell my students to try early in life to find an unattainable objective.

George Wald

8 June 2011

Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this:
the fires and the black river of loss whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning none of us will ever know.

Mary Oliver

9 June 2011

Physics works...
pretty well...most of the time

Many grand issues remain unresolved at the frontiers of physics: What is the origin of inertia? Are there extra dimensions? Can a Theory of Everything exist? But even at the undergraduate level, far back from the front lines, deep holes exist; yet the subject is presented as one of completeness while the holes—let us say abysses—are planked over in order to camouflage the danger. It seems to me that such an approach is both intellectually dishonest and fails to stimulate the habits of inquiry and skepticism that science is meant to engender.

— from an article by Tony Rothman writing in American Scientist

Physicists have indeed gone further than other scientists in describing the natural world;
they should not confuse description with understanding.

10 June 2011

Violence declining

FBI records report a long-term, continuing decline in the rate of violent crime in America.  Violent crime is at a 40-year low, despite the economic stress of the current era, and despite the burden of returning, violence-trained GIs. 

Violent crimes are 1/3 of their peak levels in 1994.  Other crime statistics are also declining.

NYTimes article
WantToKnow article

11 June 2011

The Story of Life and the Story of Man

There are two stories, and two moralities. They are utterly inconsistent and contradictory. I believe them both.

The big story is the story of life, evolving ever greater complexity, more interdependence and integration, larger communities and ecosystems. Conscious awareness arises, and creatures like us. Where will evolution take us in the next billion years?  Individual lives in this story are but winks of the eye, blips on the food chain.

The smaller story is the story of humanity, learning to treat each other with fairness and respect, to live cooperatively and in peace. In this story, every life is sacred, and every death is a tragic, irreplaceable loss.

The two pictures are irreconcilable. I believe them both.

— Josh Mitteldorf

12 June 2011

Recollections of a Dreamland

Rouse ye! torpid daylight-dreamers, cast your carking cares away!
As calm air to troubled water, so my night is to your day;
All the dreary day you labour, groping after common sense,
And your eyes ye will not open on the night’s magnificence.
Ye would scow were I to tell you how a guiding radiance gleams
On the outer world of action from my inner world of dreams.

When, with mind released from study, late I lay note down to sleep,
From the midst of facts and figures, into boundless space I leap;
For the inner world grows wider as the outer disappears,
And the soul, retiring inward, finds itself beyond the spheres.
Then, to this unbroken sameness, some fantastic dream succeeds,
Vague emotions rise and ripen into thoughts and words and deeds.
Old impressions, long forgotten, range themselves in Time and Space,
Till I recollect the features of some once familiar place.
Then from valley into valley in my dreaming course I roam,
Till the wanderings of my fancy end, where they began, at home.
Calm it lies in morning twilight, while each streamlet far and wide
Still retains its hazy mantle, borrowed from the mountain’s side;
Every knoll is now an island every wooded bank a shore,
To the lake of quiet vapour that has spread the valley o’er.
Sheep are couched on every hillock, waiting till the morning dawns,
Hares are on their early rambles, limping o’er the dewy lawns.
All within the house is silent, darkened all the chambers seem,
As with noiseless step I enter, gliding onwards in my dream.

What! has Time run out his cycle, do the years return again?
Are there treasure-caves in Dreamland where departed days remain?
I have leapt the bars of distance—left the life that late I led—
I remember years and labours as a tale that I have read;
Yet my heart is hot within me, for I feel the gentle power
Of the spirits that still love me, waiting for this sacred hour.
Yes,—I know the forms that meet me are but phantoms of the brain,
For they walk in mortal bodies, and they have not ceased from pain.
Oh! those signs of human weakness, left behind for ever now,
Dearer far to me than glories round a fancied seraph’s brow.
Oh! the old familiar voices ! Oh! the patient waiting eyes!
Let me live with them in dreamland, while the world in slumber lies!
For by bonds of sacred honour will they guard my soul in sleep
From the spells of aimless fancies, that around my senses creep.
They will link the past and present into one continuous life,
While I feel their hope, their patience, nerve me for the daily strife.
For it is not all a fancy that our lives and theirs are one,
And we know that all we see is but an endless work begun.
Part is left in Nature’s keeping, part is entered into rest,
Part remains to grow and ripen, hidden in some living breast.
What is ours we know not, either when we wake or when we sleep,
But we know that Love and Honour, day and night, are ours to keep.
What though Dreams be wandering fancies, by some lawless force entwined,
Empty bubbles, floating upwards through the current of the mind?
There are powers and thoughts within us, that we know not, till they rise
Through the stream of conscious action from where Self in secret lies.
But when Will and Sense are silent, by the thoughts that come and go,
We may trace the rocks and eddies in the hidden depths below.

Let me dream my dream till morning; let my mind run slow and clear,
Free from all the world’s distraction, feeling that the Dead are near,
Let me wake, and see my duty lie before me straight and plain.
Let me rise refreshed, and ready to begin my work again.

James Clerk Maxwell, born this day in 1831, gave us the equations that describe the interrelation of electric and magnetic fields, charge, currents and light.

13 June 2011

Thomas M. Little

The Fourth Precept

Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the
existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
— Thich Nhat Hahn

It’s Thich’s job to convey to modern sophisticates the wisdom of Buddhism and he has done that superbly. It’s my job to offer uplift and inspiration, and I’m less certain I can do that. What can be inspiring about a commitment to be present to suffering?

I could say that there is no avoiding suffering, that distraction and self-deception bend us out of shape without producing a benefit. That’s probably true, not very inspiring.

In contemplating the suffering of others head-on, we learn to distinguish suffering from pain. It may not be possible to avoid pain, but we can avoid suffering, and it may be as simple as understanding what suffering is, and how our minds work.

We learn that suffering is often triggered by pain, but that its content is fear. We can become intimate with our fears, and befriend them.

14 June 2011

The living cell

One of the great bottlenecks in the history of life on earth was the formation of the first eukaryotic cell. It’s a machine a thousand times larger and ever so much more sophisticated than a bacterium. All plants and animals are made of eukaryotic cells, and a lot of one-celled organisms like Paramecia are eukaryotes. How did they arise from bacteria and archaea, 2 billion years ago?

From a single, ancient eukaryotic progenitor cell, every plant and animal on earth today has descended.

This is a story that Nick Lane tells with all the drama of a Hitchcock mystery. He focuses on the mitochondria, little factories inside every eukaryotic cell that burn sugar and deliver energy for the cell’s use. That mitochondria were once independent bacteria has been agreed since the 1980s. But the mystery deepens when we realize that both symbionts that merged into the first eukaryote were anaerobic – neither one knew how to burn anything at all, because their metabolisms were attuned to an earlier atmosphere, devoid of free oxygen. The organelles that are so adept at burning combining fuel and oxygen evolved from a progenitor based on a very different chemistry, fueled by hydrogen and CO2.

Power, Sex, Suicide by Nick Lane

15 June 2011

Free Will

We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment. While we continually notice changes in our experience—in thought, mood, perception, behavior, etc.—we are utterly unaware of the neural events that produce these changes. In fact, by merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your internal states and motivations than you are. And yet most of us still feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.

Sam Harris

Don’t deceive yourself. Life is not governed by will or intention. Life is a question of nerves, and fibres, and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams. You may fancy yourself safe and think yourself strong. But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a forgotten poem that you had come across again, a cadence from a piece of music that you had ceased to play... it is on things like these that our lives depend.

Oscar Wilde (Picture of Dorian Gray)

I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue,
or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself!
Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.

16 June 2011

Where mankind is headed

Heaven shall no more be split
after the quadrants of altars,
the earth no more be sundered and plundered
by tyrant’s sceptres.
Bloodstained crowns, executioner’s steel
torches of thralldom and pyres of sacrifice
no more shall gleam over earth.
Through the gloom of priests, through the thunder of kings,
the dawn of freedom,
bright day of truth
shines over the sky, now the roof of a temple,
and descends on earth,
who now turns into an altar
for brotherly love.
The spirits of the earth now glow
in freshened hearts.
Freedom is the heart of the spirit, Truth the spirit’s desire.
earthly spirits all
to the soil will fall
to the eternal call:
Each in own brow wears his heavenly throne.
Each in own heart wears his altar and sacrificial vessel.
Lords are all on earth, priests are all for God.

Henrik Wergeland, born this day in 1808

17 June 2011

What shall he tell that son?

A father sees a son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum and monotony
and guide him amid sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
And left them dead years before burial:
The quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
Has twisted good enough men
Sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.

Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use amongst other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is a born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.

Carl Sandburg

18 June 2011

When we approach the world with an attitude of open-minded expectation, we are rewarded with deep insights and broad perspectives.

— Josh Mitteldorf

19 June 2011

The dawn of Quantum Biology

Quantum mechanics determines the chemical properties of individual atoms and molecules, but on macroscopic scales it rarely rears its head.  Transistors and lasers are macroscopic systems that are deliberately engineered to evince quantum properties in bulk matter.

We are seeing evidence for the first time that biological systems have evolved the ability to exploit bulk quantum properties, millions of years before there were transistors or lasers.

Bulk quantum effects seem to be enhancing the efficiency of photosynthesis in chloroplasts, and may be connected to how birds detect the earth’s magnetic field as a navigation aid. 

Do brains use bulk quantum effects in order to achieve results that man-made computers cannot emulate?  In other words, are brains quantum computers, and not just Turing machines?  Even more speculative: are persistent anomalies in the study of ESP, telepathy, and precognition evidence that the brain has evolved the ability to extract information from long-range quantum coherence?

Nature article

20 June 2011

Blithesom spirit

Fair June is here, she has not overslept,
Or dreamed too long ’neath the magnolia’s shade,
But tripping through the southland everglade,
To northern clime with blithesome spirit stepped.
With cheek of ruddy bloom her youth hath kept,
Her lips are wreathed in smiles like pearls inlaid,
She wears a garland of sweet rose-buds made,
And in her path by odorous breezes swept
The wild flowers nod, and o’er the waving grass
A welcome murmur seems to gently pass.
The wood-nymphs all in leafy bowers convene,
A happy chant the songsters swell en masse,
The hills and vales in gala robes are seen,
Glad festival for summer’s beauteous queen.

— M. J. Anderson  (more Shaker poetry)

21 June 2011

One child at a time

It was a gorgeous Himalayan village, with a river running through it. But it was also ravaged by the war. Temples had been burned down, and the girl’s home had been converted into a rebel camp. Most children couldn’t afford school. In the cities, [Maggie Doyne] had seen them working with hammers, breaking rocks into gravel to sell.

“The first little girl I met was Hema,” Doyne remembers. Then 6 or 7 years old (few children know their precise age), Hema spent her time breaking rocks and scavenging garbage and had no chance to go to school. But she was radiant and adorable and always greeted Doyne in Nepali with a warm, “Good morning, Sister!”

“Maybe I saw a piece of myself in her,” said Doyne, who decided to take Hema under her wing and pay for her education: “I knew I couldn’t do anything about a million orphans, but what if I started with this girl?” So she took Hema to school and paid $7 for the girl’s school fees and another $8 for a uniform so that she could enter kindergarten.

“It became addictive,” Doyne said. “I said, if I can help one girl, why not 5? Why not 10?" Doyne found a ramshackle telephone “booth” — actually, a mud hut — where she could place an international call and telephoned her parents with a strange and urgent request: Can you wire me the money in my savings account? Her parents sent her the money. Doyne has since raised hundreds of thousands more. With it she has built the Kopila Valley Children’s Home.

NYTimes blog

22 June 2011

The fifth precept of Thich Nhat Hahn

Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.

This can seem like a call to sacrifice for the sake of others. It is only when we embrace simplicity for our own sake that we can rise above resentment and conceit and open to relationship that is mutual and reciprocal.

23 June 2011

Can you feel that magnetism?

In the last few years it has become accepted that some insects are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it as n aid to navigation.  Can people do this, too?  Perhaps we have lost the ability through disuse, or we just don’t commonly pay attention to it, or we are confused by the sea of radio transmissions from broadcast towers and cell phones.

Dr Steven M Reppert of UMass Medical School has been experimenting with human genes that appear similar to the genes that are necessary for magnetic navigation in flies.  When he disables the magnetic-sensor genes in flies, they can’t navigate.  When he substitutes the corresponding genes from humans, their ability to navigate magnetically is rescued.

Science Times article
Journal article in Nature Communications

24 June 2011

Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.

— Alan Watts

25 June 2011

Everything I do

An act of devotion is an offering with love to someone or everyone or to God. It is a pure gift without expectation of reward or of thanks, or, for that matter, of any specific result. It is the opposite of a task which can be accomplished, or a goal that can be achieved. The act engages the whole being, in the same sense that Buber tells us the primary word I-thou can only be spoken with the whole being.

What if I were to engage today in all the same activities and endeavors as I usually do, except that I approach each one as an act of devotion?

— Josh Mitteldorf

To set a goal for myself of maintaining a more devotional
attitude toward everything I do would be exactly wrong..

26 June 2011

sand mandala

« Il faut que l’imagination prenne trop pour que la pensée ait assez. »

What could Bachelard have meant by this?

Literally, ‘Imagination must take more so that thought should have enough.’

‘Imagination must take its prerogative before thought can be functional.’

‘Imagination sets the stage for thinking.’

‘Imagination must work overtime to keep reason gainfully employed.’

‘Don’t think so much.’

Gaston Bachelard, poet, philosopher of science, born this day in 1884

27 June 2011

Reminds me of me

There is something profoundly disturbing and eerie about life at the molecular level. It is too purposive and awake to see it as inert matter – it is impossible not to anthropomorphize it or, more accurately, to attempt to make sense of its motives in the same way we do for people. And yet it is too alien to anthropomorphize in any useful way. Somehow, brute matter has figured out how to replicate itself and has exploded into a cacophony of form. Here proteins rush around cells carrying other proteins on their heads; other proteins slice and dice and reassemble yet other proteins. It is so easily seen as a parody of human ends. Looking into a microscope we are alienated from ourselves by our cells. We stare into a world of automata, a world made uncanny by the juxtaposition of its echo of and utter distance from our world. 

— Rishidev Chaudhuri, blogging at 3QuarksDaily

28 June 2011

Today the planet is the only proper “in group.”
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.

Joseph Campbell

29 June 2011


Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn't matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn't always understand.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, born 100 years ago today.

30 June 2011

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design