The initial mystery that attends any journey is, how did the traveler reach his starting point in the first place?

— Louise Bogan

1 January 2013

Between stories

Every culture has a Story of the People to give meaning to the world.  Part conscious and part unconscious, it consists of a matrix of agreements, narratives, and symbols that tell us why we are here, where we are headed, what is important, and even what is real.  I think we are entering a new phase in the dissolution of our Story of the People, and therefore, with some lag time, of the edifice of civilization built on top of it....

But the new mythos has not yet emerged.  We will abide for a time in the space between stories. Those of you who have been through it on a personal level know that it is a very precious - some might say sacred - time. Then we are in touch with the real.  Each disaster lays bare the real underneath our stories.  The terror of a child, the grief of a mother, the honesty of not knowing why.  In such moments we discover our humanity. We come to each other’s aid, human to human.  We take care of each other.  That’s what keeps happening every time there is a calamity, before the beliefs, the ideologies, the politics take over again.  Events like Sandy Hook, for at least a moment, cut through all that down to the basic human being.  In such times, we learn who we really are.

How can we prepare?  We cannot prepare.  But we are being prepared.

Charles Eisenstein.  Read more here.

2 January 2013

All ye joyful

Sing all ye joyful, now sing all together!
The wind’s in the tree-top, the wind’s in the heather;
The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower,
And bright are the windows of night in her tower.

Dance all ye joyful, now dance all together!
Soft is the grass, and let foot be like feather!
The river is silver, the shadows are fleeting;
Merry is May-time, and merry our meeting.

Sigh no more pine, till the wind of the morn!
Fall Moon! Dark be the land!
Hush! Hush! Oak, ash and thorn!
Hushed by all water, till dawn is at hand!

— Today is the eleventy-first birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien

3 January 2013

The Fabian Society

It is difficult for us to appreciate just how pervasive in 19th Century Britain were the ideas of hereditary nobility. Wealth and competence and honesty and human decency were all lumped together as necessary concomitants of birth status.

Taking a stand toward a more comprehensive appreciation of human value was the British Fabian Society. The Society promoted public education, universal health care, and a minimum wage. They considered themselves socialists, but wanted nothing to do with violent revolution. In fact, the Society drew its name from Fabius, the Roman general famous for his patience.

The Fabian Society was founded this day in 1884. Members came to include Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, G. Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and Edith Nesbit. The Society remains active today, though some of its ideals have been achieved and other have been diluted by practical politics.

4 January 2013

2012 - the best year ever

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people.

David Sunfellow, writing for The Spectator

5 January 2013

My New Year’s resolution is to give up trying to be better than other people.

— Josh Mitteldorf





now what?

6 January 2013

sculture by
Rhonda Jones

“The reward of one duty is the power to fulfill another.”

Simeon ben Azzai

7 January 2013

Given grace

Two cups,
a given grace,
afloat and white
on the mahogany pool
of table. They unclench
the mind, filling it
with themselves.
Though common ware,
these rare reflections,
coolnes of brown
so strenghthens and refines
the burning of their white
you would not wish
them other than they are –
you, who are challenged
and replenished by
those empty vessels.

Charles Tomlinson, born this day in 1927

8 January 2013

Some things to think about in your spare time

  1. How to combine general relativity and quantum field theory in a unified, self-consistent theory.

  2. Explain what quantum mechanical calculations mean, and how we may understand their relation to perceived reality?

  3. Can all known particles and forces be explained as manifestations of a single entity?

  4. Physics is based on 6 numbers that seem arbitrary. Where do they come from?

  5. Dark matter and dark energy are required by the standard theory of cosmology. If they are real, what are they? And if they are not, then what will replace the standard cosmology?

— Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics, paraphrased from Trouble with Physics, by Lee Smolin

9 January 2013

Natural Music

The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child’s; or like some girl’s breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

Robinson Jeffers, born this day in 1887

10 January 2013

Christian Riese Lassen

It’s not a matter of knowing, or even understanding more deeply...

It would be a contradiction in terms to assume that the attainment of transcendent meaning consists in comprehending a notion.  Transcendence can never be an object of possession or of comprehension.  Yet man can relate himself and be engaged to it.  He must know how to court meaning in order to be engaged in it...

Ultimate meaning is not grasped in the form of a timeless idea, acquired once and for all, securely preserved in conviction.  It is not simply given.  It comes upon us as an intimation that comes and goes.  What is left behind is a memory, and a commitment to that memory.  Our words do not describe it, our tools do not wield it.  But sometimes it seems as if our very being were its description, its secret tool. 

— Who is Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, born this day in 1907

We manipulate what is available on the surface of the world;
we must also stand in awe before the mystery of the world.

11 January 2013

When scientists have become accustomed to thinking in a certain way for a long while, they lose sight of the assumptions on which that thinking is based.

The Big Bang theory has dominated scientific understanding of the universe since the 1960s, when the cosmic microwave background was discovered. Scientists have assumed that the portion of the cosmos which we can see is representatitive, and that in some sense, the whole Universe is ‘the same everywhere’. But this has been an assumption of convenience, not a fact supported by observations. The Universe has been assumed to have structure on a smaller scale, but only uniformity on the largest scale.

Over the years, with each observational survey on larger and larger scales, structures have been found that are still safely below the whole observable universe in size. But this week, a clustering of quasars has been found that is 1/20 the size of the whole universe. There may be yet bigger structures.

This has the potential to resolve the big problems of Dark Matter and Dark Energy that have been such an embarrassment in cosmology. But it is a devil’s bargain at best, because it means that all the calculations we have done are no longer valid, and that the calculations that need to be done are so complex that we don’t know where to start.

But the idea of uniformity is so ingrained that it is hard for researchers to let go. “People are maybe understandably reluctant to give up the thing, because it will make cosmology too bloody complicated,” says Subir Sarkar of Oxford University.”

— based on anarticle in New Scientist

12 January 2013

No time at all

There are certain ‘facts’ of science that function for me like Zen koans to make any pretense of logical thinking impossible, beckoning into a state of wonder. One of them is to think about the moment when the Universe was created.  The thing I want to imagine is that there is nothing, and nothing, and then, all of a sudden, a superhot plasma of every kind of particle fills all of space and expands explosively. What the equations say, however, is even stranger. Time itself came into existence with the big bang.

Time may also stop. It’s different from “thats the end; nothing happens after that.”  Rather, time itself comes to an end. There is no “after”.

The same thing happens in a black hole. In fact, depending on how much total matter/energy there is, our Universe might be a great big black hole.

— Josh Mitteldorf

13 January 2013


In the house where I grew up, there was a bust of Albert Schweitzer over the fireplace in the den.  He was still alive, though he had long become a mythic figure for my parents.

My parents were secular Jews.  One thing I never knew at the time was that Dr Schweitzer was a Christian first, and attended medical school only as a conscious tribute to his conviction that the gospel is best preached by an example of service.

‘The laying down of the commandment to not kill and to not damage is one of the greatest events in the spiritual history of mankind. Starting from its principle, founded on world and life denial, of abstention from action, ancient Indian thought – and this is a period when in other respects ethics have not progressed very far – reaches the tremendous discovery that ethics know no bounds. So far as we know, this is for the first time clearly expressed by Jainism.’

“In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

Listen to Schweitzer perform Bach’s Fantasy and Fuge in g minor

— Albert Schweitzer, born this day in 1875

“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.”

14 January 2013

Creativity pill

If you could take a pill that changed your temperament, made you more artistic, more creative, more inventive, would you be interested?  What if it were a side-effect of treatment for Parkinson’s disease?

‘’ “”

Here is an article about researches of Dr Rivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv University

15 January 2013

From Tolstoy’s Inspirational Daily Calendar

Here’s what he says for January 16:

The purpose of a human life is to bring the irrational beginning of our life to a rational beginning. In order to succeed in this, two things are important: (1) to see all irrational, unwise things in life and direct your attention to them and study them; (2) to understand the possibility of a rational, wise life. The major purpose of all teachers of mankind was the understanding of the irrational and rational beginnings in our life.

We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind. A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor.

Henry George

Don’t think that you can find peace for your soul without faith.

16 January 2013

How to teleport

For the last ten years, theoretical physicists have shown that the intense connections generated between particles as established in the quantum law of 'entanglement' may hold the key to eventual teleportation of quantum information.

Now, for the first time, researchers have worked out how entanglement could be 'recycled' to increase the efficiency of these connections. Published in the journal Physical Review Letters, the result could conceivably take us a step closer to sci-fi style teleportation in the future, although this research is purely theoretical in nature.

— read more at Science Daily

17 January 2013

Genius is made, not born

The Genius of our life is jealous of individuals, and will not have any individual great, except through the general.  There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say, ‘I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:’ no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.  He stands where all the eyes of men look one way, and their hands all point in the direction in which he should go. The church has reared him amidst rites and pomps, and he carries out the advice which her music gave him, and builds a cathedral needed by her chants and processions. He finds a war raging: it educates him, by trumpet, in barracks, and he betters the instruction.  He finds two counties groping to bring coal, or flour, or fish, from the place of production to the place of consumption, and he hits on a railroad.  Every master has found his material collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this as an introduction to an essay on Shakespeare, in which he documents the extent to which Shakespeare borrowed from plays that had been created by everyone and by no one. This essay remained unpublished in Emersons lifetime.

The greatest genius is the most indebted man.

18 January 2013

Evolution and the Emperor’s New Clothes

I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?

The available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.

— Thomas Nagel, quoted in a NYRB book review

H. Allen Orr, the author of the book review is an evolutionary geneticist, and he finds Nagel’s claim to be strange and puzzling. In my view, his is a perspective peculiar to people who have been to grad school in evolutionary science. For the rest of us, the origin of life remains a deep mystery. Darwin, himself, felt this way.

At a conference a few years ago, a colleague remarked on the sorry state of physical/chemical theories for the origin of life, that calculating from first principles, we are not even able to calculate the order of magnitude of the order of the order of magnitude of the time we might expect to be required for a molecule to come together by chance that was capable of catalyzing its own reproduction. What he meant is that we are not even able to calculate whether this would likely take 10 years or 10 billion years or 10100 years.

19 January 2013

Is consciousness extra-physical?

Among philosophers and scientists, there are some who feel perfectly comfortable with the idea that their own personal consciousness, the vividness of sensations come alive within them, is inessential, an epiphenomenon, a thing that just naturally happens when you build a computing engine of sufficient size and sophistication. For them, the tangible, physical world is all that there is, and they see no need to postulate any other. There are others (both scientists and philosophers) for whom consciousness is a great mystery. They say that the abilities to perceive, to remember and to draw logical inference are based on neural signals, but this all explains nothing about my sense of being alive and present.

Much has been written on both sides of this divide, but I don’t think there’s any logical argument that can be made on either side that would convince someone on the other side to come over.

Are there experiences that would inspire someone to change perspective about the nature of his own consciousness? Suppose, for example, that someone who believed that physical matter and energy were the sum and substance of the Universe, and he were to have an experience of knowing something through some apparently telepathic medium, with no physical basis for transmission of the information. (UC Berkeley psychologist Elizabeth Mayer wrote about an experience like this.) Perhaps this kind of experience would open a scientist’s mind to dualism, and a separate ‘realm of the spirit’; but she might prefer to retain her view of an exclusively physical reality, and posit instead that there were purely physical fields yet-to-be discovered through which the brain can receive information not available via other channels.

And on the other side, is there an experience that would cause a dualist to change his perspective to one in which the mind is precisely a manifestation of signals in the brain? Anesthesia (or ischemia) can temporarily freeze all neural activity. If a person awakens from a long period of anesthesia with a sense that no time has passed, and that he has indeed not been alive or aware during the time he was under, that might count as evidence for the brain/mind equivalence. (In reality, many people report dreams under anesthesia, and a good number have near-death experiences that may lead them

You may have guessed by now that I am in Camp 2, and that it is difficult for me to say why. In any case, I won’t try to change your mind.

— Josh Mitteldorf

20 January 2013

Animal navigation

The Richters lost their cat 200 miles from home, and Holly found her way back to her West Palm Beach home two months later.  There are many such stories — far too many to dismiss or to ignore.  If we take this seriously, it tells us that animals are sensitive to something that we don’t know about. 

My guess is that it is akin to the telepathic abilities that have been studied in people.  That sounds like a radical hypothesis, but there really are no less radical hypotheses that fit the data. 

Science thrives on results that can be reproduced in a lab setting.  There are other phenomena, undeniably real, that occur sporadically or intermittently.  About these science is agnostic at best, dismissive at worst. 

Needless to say, this is a fascinating subject that has the potential to expand our idea of what biology is.  But it is not anyone’s bailywick, and it will require some groping in the dark just to find an experimental protocol that is reasonably convenient, reproducible and elucidates some aspect of what is going on.  The article cited below refers to one experimental protocol: Cats in a maze with many exits were more likely to leave the maze through the door in the direction of their home.  Here’s my suggestion: separate puppies from their mother, drive the mother a block away, and see if the puppies can find her.  This may be too easy because of dogs’ keen sense of smell, but certainly some clever ways could be found to make the smell unavailable or misleading.

— read more in theNYTimes Well Pets

21 January 2013

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design