December 30, 2008

March of History

       March of history,
       flow of time,
       imbued with meaning
       oft sublime.

       Flow time will,
       as if down hill,
       to its own home,
       like a rolling stone.

       We push left,
       while we push right:
       we're Prometheus-bound
       against our might.

       Four steps forward,
       with three steps back,
       or is it three steps forward
       and four steps back?

       We work our art
       so ever smart;
       yet march our band
       on a bed of sand.

       If Zeus won't check
       or annul his hate,
       will Heracles come
       to change our fate?

       Can Pandora's hope
       avert the brunt,
       or shall we avow,
       'that pup won't hunt'?

       No intent here
       to denigrate
       the role of hope
       -'less it's too late.

       For time flows
       whether or not hope grows,
       and history may march
       under no hero's arch.


December 24, 2008

O Holy Night

The reverberating voice of the baritone floats on the night like a ribbon of silk  . . .

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

And then the voice pierces the night ......

Fall on your knees,  o, hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, o night when Christ was born,
O night divine, o night, o night divine.

Merry Christmas.
Happy Holidays.

* * *
Credits -
     Music, 'Cantique de Noël' composed by Adolphe Adam, 1847
     Poem, 'Minuit, chrétiens' by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877)
     English Lyrics, John Sullivan Dwight, 1855
     source, Wikipedia


December 22, 2008

A Comparison

Location makes a difference:

                                     USA                             Zimbabwe

population               300 million              11 million
land size                     --                                  slightly larger than Montana
arable land               18.01%                       08.24%
birth rate                  14.2 /1000               31.6 /1000
death rate                 8.3 /1000                 17.3 /1000
infant mortality     6.3 /1000 births     33.9 /1000 births
median age               36.7 years                 17.6 years
% employed             93%                             20%
rate of inflation       1.1%                            231 million%
life expectancy        78.1 years                 44.3 years

In the USA the Republican administration is currently in the process of transferring power to a Democratic administration following the November elections.

In Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is under increasing pressure to step down amidst rampant inflation and continuing repercussions following the disputed runoff election last June in which supporters of the opposition were brutalized or killed.  President Mugabe, now 84 years old, has been in power since Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980.  Last Friday Mugabe said, "I will never, never, never surrender.  Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean.  Zimbabwe belongs to us, not the British."  The country is currently facing economic collapse and a cholera epidemic.


December 18, 2008

Human Nature: Religiosity

Religiosity means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, the 'quality of being religious.'  Religion is defined, by the same dictionary, as 'a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader,' while Random House defines religion more extensively as 'a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.'

With respect to human nature, I wish to use the word religiosity in the sense of our affinity, if any, for religious belief or religious feelings.  A place to begin this short review is the World Factbook (a CIA publication), which provides the following distribution of religious and non-religious adherents:

            33.32%            Christians
            21.01%            Muslims
            13.26%            Hindus
            05.84%           Buddhists
            00.35%           Sikhs
            00.23%           Jews
            00.12%           Baha'is
            11.78%            other religions
            11.77%            non-religious
            02.32%           aetheists

Wikipedia provides similar statistics, with minor variations, along with other information about classifying modern and ancient religions.  The EMuseum at Minnesota State University offers an online introduction to the study of world religions (not a class, but a series of links), while a site named ReligionFacts (just the facts, ma'am) offers a point and click technique linking you to numerous books and references for 37 different religious belief systems.

Religion is an explosive issue, so it is not my intention, at this time, to delve into the specifics of any belief systems.  Religion versus religion is an explosive issue.  Religion versus agnosticism is an explosive issue.  Religion versus aetheism is an explosive issue.  Religion versus science is an explosive issue.  Why is that?

But it does seem that our propensity, or our affinity, for religious belief is part of our human nature.  And a deep part, at that.  Why else would humans become so aggressive, so spiritually territorial, if you will, over differences in religious beliefs?  Feelings sufficiently powerful to motivate us to kill each other over these differences, as numerous periods and numerous episodes in human history seem to show.  Conversely, religion is frequently credited for its redeeming, uplifting, saving, rescuing, redirecting and reorienting effects, as personal stories too numerous to recount also seem to show.

This seeming contradiction is reflected in Random House's two-part definition of the idiom to  'get religion' as meaning:

            a.    to acquire a deep conviction of the validity of religious
                   beliefs and practices.

            b.   to resolve to mend one's errant ways.

I might be inclined to add a third element, or part, to the definition, along the lines of 'to experience a deep spiritual or emotional connection with a spiritual power, force or entity greater than oneself.'   But perhaps that thought is already contained within part a, if not part b, of the current definition.

One other thing also seems certain.  The CIA's World Factbook could not include an analogous list, like the one above, for any other species on the planet other than humans.  Why is that?

 * * *
See previous postings in this conversation:
            - Human Nature: Selfishness
            - Human Nature: Maelstrom or Multi-threaded

December 13, 2008

Hi Ho Silver (and Gold) Away

By guest author, Brad:

Where is the Lone Ranger when you need him?  A Wall Street icon arrested for allegedly cheating investors and causing, or hiding, losses of more than $50 billion over a 40 year period.  And not just any Wall Street player:  this guy, Bernard Madoff, is a former chairman of the NASDAQ.

For you younger readers, the theme song of the Lone Ranger TV show includes the following lines:

       With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring
       and resourceful masked rider of the planes led the 
       fight for law and order in the early West.  Return with
       us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

Well, Hi Ho Silver AND GOLD Away!!   Don't get me wrong, the FBI is great.  But wasn't somebody watching sometime during those 40 years?  Accountants maybe?  The SEC?  Experts from the other funds that hired this guy?  Didn't anybody notice the disappearance of $50 billion?


December 9, 2008

Trash-Out II

By guest author, Anonymous:

Let's see how we are doing:  Democratic Governor Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested today for trying to sell President-Elect Obama's Senate seat; Congress and the White House have apparently decided to loan taxpayer money to GM and Chrysler even though 60% of the American public opposes the bailout; 500,000 more Americans lost their jobs in November; Paulson switched directions in November on how to spend the $700 billion Congress rushed into his hands in October; additional taxpayer money has been given to restructure the AIG bailout; suprisingly (or not suprisingly) few Republicans and virtually no Democrats have steadfastly opposed all this government money being used to "save" the free enterprise system; convicted Republican Senator Ted Stevens decided to run for re-election and he nearly won; the mayors of Philadelphia, Atlanta and Phoenix are requesting federal bailouts; and not to be outdone, the mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have all lined up with their requests for federal handouts.  Long time Democratic Senator Dodd called for GM CEO Wagoner to move on in exchange for the auto industry bailout.   Wagoner has been with GM since 1977.   Dodd has been in Congress since 1974.   As far as I can tell, not one member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, has voluntarily resigned since the debacle of 2008 began.  Isn't there an old teaching story about people who live in glass houses?

Is it possible that the United States of America is facing, not just an economic recession, but also a recession in leadership?             

December 6, 2008


By guest author, Anonymous:

A story called Foreclosure Alley originally aired on Sept 25 '08 on KCET (a Los Angeles public television station).  You can see the entire story by clicking on the link.  The statement in the story that 700 families a day were losing their homes was surprising enough, but what caught my ear and eye wasn't that.  It was the segment showing a company hired to empty out these houses.  They called the process a "trash-out" because they rapidly removed and dumped everything into a dumpster in the driveway.  The dumpster was then hauled, not to Goodwill or a used funiture dealer, but directly to a landfill. 

"Everything" included things like computers, big screen TVs, sofas, coffee tables, beds, clothes, china sets, wall hangings and family pictures.  These houses were less than 6 or 8 years old and had been selling, just a year or so ago for over $350,000.  A lot of the furniture looked very usable.  It all looked like a hollywood movie where families had just fled for their lives, leaving almost everything they owned behind.  The contractor emptying out the houses said that even though the families probably knew for months that foreclosure was coming, they were probably just too depressed or too broke to pack up and leave.  They just left.  Apparently hundreds or even thousands of houses are being abandoned like this.

The next story on the show was called Down But Not Out.  It was about a family with two children whose primary bread-winner had been the wife earning around $70,000 as a sales executive.  She lost her job about a year before, the husband's income was not high enough to pay the mortgage, so they lost their house.  Because her husband earns $900 a month, the family is apparently not eligible for welfare.  They are now being evicted from their apartment, which also costs $900 a month.  The woman has not been able to find any job, even at reduced rates of pay.  She and her husband live in fear of  becoming homeless.

These two stories were produced by SoCal Connected.  They put a real face on the current economic situation, at least in Southern California.


December 3, 2008

Common Sense

Common sense means, 'sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment,' according to the American Heritage Dictionary.  It's roots trace to the ancient Latin, sēnsus commūnis, or 'common feeling of humanity,' which itself is a translation from the ancient Greek, koin aísthēsis, according to Random House.  Like the word welcome, it's a phrase which is readily translated into numerous languages used today around the world.

Like the word truth, it's not clear that there is such a thing as a 'common feeling of humanity.' We face such diversity in thought, culture and personality that perhaps there is no such thing.  Or, if there is such a thing, it is not clear from whence it comes.  After all, we do not agree very much, on this planet, about religion.  We do not agree very much, on this planet, about politics.  We do not agree very much, on this planet, about the distribution of wealth, about cultural goals, about the use or effect of technology, or about any systems or sources of morality.

In American history Thomas Paine, in the early part of 1776, used Common Sense as the title to a phamplet calling for independence from England.  In his introduction he stated that 'a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.'   He proceeds to make a case, in keeping with the political philosophy of the American founding fathers, in favor of independence, offering 'nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.'

The British in 1776 did not agree that common sense supported American independence.  Nor had the Americans and the British reached a mutual understanding of 'common sense' by the time of the War of 1812.  Nonetheless, there seems to be something intuitively correct about Paine's statement that 'a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT.'  Habit and routine CAN mask a wrong, dulling our ability to reason clearly, or to use sound judgment about an important matter, can it not?

Or, are we forever going to be bound by Paine's other statement, that 'time makes more converts than reason?'  Do we, as a species, really have time for that anymore?  Given the perils we potentially face on this planet, hadn't we better at least hope that we all possess some form of common sense?

 * * *
Credit -
         The pamphlet Common Sense, by Thomas Paine (1776)


November 30, 2008

Gobble, Gobble

'Gobble, Gobble'

Diversity.  Why.  What for.
Function.  Meaning.

 * * *
Links -
         Clarity of the Question, by cemerson
         Biodiversityarticle in Wikipedia
         Speciation and Biodiversity, interview of Edward O. Wilson
         Biodiversity, by Edward O. Wilson, Frances M. Peter, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
         Convention on Biological Diversity, a U.N. accord signed in 1992 by 150 governments
         Genesis 1 & 2from the Bible on the

November 27, 2008

Happy T


Go figure




November 24, 2008

Human Nature: Selfishness

Things don't always have to make sense directly or immediately, to make sense indirectly or ultimately.  Consider these excerpts from the song, Bad Boys, released in 1987 by the reggae group, Inner Circle, and still used today as the theme song for the TV show, Cops:

       Bad boys, bad boys
       Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
       when they come for you

       When you were eight and you had bad traits
       You go to school and you learn the golden rule
       So why are you acting like a bloody fool
       If you get hot you must get cool

       Bad boys, bad boys
       Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
       when they come for you

       Why did you have to act so mean?
       Don't you know you're a human being,
       Born of a mother with the love of a father
       Reflections come and reflections go
       I know sometimes - you want to let go,

       Bad boys, bad boys
       Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
       when they come for you

The song, and the TV show, focuses primarily on street criminals, domestic situations, drunks, drugs, boys (and girls) from the hood and ordinary police encounters.  The lyrics don't focus, and may never have been intended to focus, on the selfishness of any bad boy characters on Wall Street or any bad boys or girls running our nation's banks, or Congress, or running around the halls of our automakers, but you get the point.  Selfishness, and its effects, is not limited to the poor souls running around the streets, creating havoc for our police.

Random House defines selfish to mean 'devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare ... regardless of others.'  Webster's defines selfishness to mean 'exclusive regard to one's own interest or happiness; that supreme self-love or self-preference which leads a person to direct his purposes to the advancement of his own interest, power, or happiness, without regarding those of others.'

We've all seen a 3 or 4 year old child grab a toy right out of the hands of his or her compatriot (or hit or push that compatriot to get that toy), regardless of race, creed, religion or gender.  As parents we try to train our children to resist that selfish instinct as soon as we see it, and, according to the song at least, by eight years of age each child should have learned the golden rule (or some moral equivalent of it).  Just imagine what the world would be like if we didn't teach the golden rule (or some moral equivalent of it).  O, we don't need to imagine it.  We can just look at Darfur today, or Idi Amin, or Hitler yesterday.  But we do teach the golden rule (or some moral equivalent of it), in virtually every culture.

So I don't think I need to work any harder at this time to establish that selfishness is part of our human nature.  It's one of the threads.  We all know that, right?

But there is a point, a big one, we might overlook, as we reel back in response to the violence, corruption, self-engrandisement and self-love we seem to be witnessing now on a daily basis.

For some reason, I'm reminded of an elephant.

This image of an elephant could be caused by my earlier blog piece on White Elephants.  It could also be caused the small soapstone elephant carved within a slightly larger soapstone elephant which now camps out next to my computer, a gift from a friend.  Either way, the image in my head is like a Jungian archetype, always reminding me of something.

This time I am reminded specifically of the ancient Sufi, Jainist, Buddhist or Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant, captured perhaps most recently in Western culture by John Godfrey Saxe in a poem he wrote in the mid-1800's, suitably entitled ' The Blind Men and the Elephant.'  Saxe was born in Highgate, Vermont in 1816 and died in Albany, New York in 1887.  He served as Attorney-General for the State of Vermont in 1856 and made an unsuccessful bid to be governor.  He edited newspapers in Burlington, VT and later in Albany, NY.  Excerpts of Saxe's 19th century poem follow:

     The Blind Men and the Elephant.

                A Hindoo Fable.

       It was six men of Indostan
       To learning much inclined,
       Who went to see the Elephant
       (Though all of them were blind),
       That each by observation
       Might satisfy his mind.
       The First approached the ... sturdy side ...
       very like a wall!
       The Second, feeling ... the tusk …
       very like a spear!
       The Third approached the ... squirming trunk …
       very like a snake!
       The Fourth reached … the knee …
       very like a tree!
       The Fifth … chanced to touch the ear …
       very like a fan!
       The Sixth … seizing on the swinging tail …
       very like a rope!
       And so these men of Indostan
       Disputed loud and long,
       Each in his own opinion
       Exceeding stiff and strong,
       Though each was partly in the right,
       And all were in the wrong!


       So oft in theologic wars,
       The disputants, I ween,
       Rail on in utter ignorance
       Of what each other mean,
       And prate about an Elephant
       Not one of them has seen!

I recall hearing this poem, or parable, the first time many years ago during a young adult church retreat.  Perhaps I heard it earlier than that.  Regardless, Googling the relevant phrases yields a large number of references to diverse religious, educational, literary and philosophical sources, confirming the widespread allegorical use of this parable.

As an enlightened view, the parable can be used to illustrate that reality (the elephant) can only be fully known or discovered when it is examined from a multi-faceted perspective, with each facet discovered adding to our understanding of the total.  From a skeptical view, the parable can be used to illustrate that humans can never know what is truly real because they are forever limited to their own personal perceptions of reality, which at best can only represent a small distorted part of the whole.  From an intersocial perspective, the parable can be used to illustrate that humans can be unjustifiably intolerant of each other's perspective, even though we may all be in contact with (or experiencing) some part of the same universal reality (or Godhead, spirituality or totality).

About these different interpretations and perspectives, we humans, across history, can and often have disagreed.  In fact, we humans, forming different opinions from time to time about reality, spirituality, ideology, culture, religion and economics, have also been willing to simply kill each other over these differences.

But from what condition does this fact arise?  Well, it's not from the elephant (at least not as the parable is formulated).  Instead, it arises because there are separate humans in the parable, who are individual selves, individual points of contact as it were, who are also coincidentally selfish.  Selfish enough to come to blows over our differences of opinion, about elephants, just as children might come to blows over toys.

That would seem to be the case, whether Buddha, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Gandhi or some other thinker or philosopher turns out to be correct about other aspects of reality.  It would seem to be the case, that humans are individual, physically distinct points of contact.  It would also seem to be the case, that we, individually distinct humans, are quite capable of advancing our individual interests in a selfish manner, i.e., without regard to the interests of others.

 * * *
Credits -
       lyrics:  Bad Boys, by Inner Circle (1987)
       poem:  The Blind Men and the Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe,
                     The Poetical Works of John Godfrey Saxe, p.111
                     Houghton, Mifflin and Company (1882)


November 21, 2008

Head and Shoulders

       Head, Shoulders,
       Knees and Toes,
       Knees and Toes.

       And Eyes and Ears and Mouth and Nose
       Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes!

The happy and somewhat consternated 2 and a half year old sings about her new baby brother!  The healthy newborn and proud momma and pappa are surrounded by happy and proud family members.  Wowie wow wow.  All are well.  All is good.  Is it not?

And on the near coast (that's New York to us here in Chicagoland) a young beautiful princess prepares to marry her young handsome prince.  The happy beautiful couple is surrounded by happy and proud family members.  Wowie wow wow.  All are well.  All is good.  Is it not?

No reason to worry about the bailout of the American automobile industry, for today at least.

 * * *

Credit -
     Lyrics from NIEHS


November 15, 2008

Mother and Child, While Wildfires Burn

Nature.  Humans.  One of my daughters is due to deliver a child in just a couple of days.  What an unbelievably wonderful event, the birthday of a child.  Memories of the birth of my children.  Memories of the births of my other grandchildren.  These are the days for which we live, are they not?  We hope, and we pray, for the safe and healthy entrance of the new life.  We will long remember this new life.

Nature.  The third large wildfire in the last two and a half days has now broken out in the Greater Los Angeles Area.  Southland:  the Los Angeles Metropolitan Region plus the Inland Empire.  Recipient of the Santa Ana winds, arising out of the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert and whistling down from the high desert in the northeast portion of San Bernadino County, south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The word wildfire doesn't really do justice to these fires.  They are not wildfires, they are firestorms.  They can jump interstates in a single bound.  They can ignite a 100 homes in under five minutes.  These three fires, still raging, have already consumed nearly a thousand homesteads.  But soon we will forget.


November 12, 2008

Props to Tyra, Props to all Veterans

Tyra Banks' show yesterday, on Veteran's Day, deserves a proverbial gold star.  Or, if I am permitted to say so, she deserves all the r.e.s.p.e.c.t. we can collectively muster for her.

What Tyra did was demonstrate how racial distrust and animosity is so easily engendered in humans without any substantive basis for it other than differences in mere physical appearance.  She invited four Afro-American girls, including one young lady from the audience, to discuss their feelings about other Afro-American girls who had different skin colorations (from a darker skin to a lighter skin or vice versa).  It was readily apparent that if a girl felt different in some way from the norm, then the girl experienced a sense of alienation and animosity to other girls of her own race, or racial group.  No caucasians were involved in this experiencing of alienation and animosity. 

Tyra repeated this demonstration, in several different ways, with girls from other racial groups.  A Korean girl felt distrust and animosity towards Chinese girls, while a Chinese girl felt distrust and animosity towards Korean girls.  Two girls, a causasian and a middle eastern girl, were placed behind a screen and information was given as to their likes, dislikes, appearance and style.  The majority of the audience guessed incorrectly that the caucasian girl was a black girl, and that the middle eastern girl was an hispanic or italian girl, based on stereotyping based on clothing and other surface appearances.

Tyra did a super job as the emcee, and unless you were completely asleep at the wheel, you came to realize very quickly that stereotyping based on surface appearances is unfounded and irrational.  In other words, you are CRAZY if you judge another person by the color of their skin, or by the racial group (or subgroup) to which they belong.

Yesterday was Veteran's Day, a day we salute those who have actively taken up arms to defend American values.  Well, here's a twenty-one gun salute to all veterans, and also to Tyra Banks, for defending, and when necessary, elucidating, Amercian values.  May the virtue of equality between persons soon become a recognized universal value.

November 9, 2008

'Hope Won' - Banks Close

November 5, 2008Oprah Winfrey came out excitedly onto the stage of her post-election televison show sporting a white T-shirt that stated simply, 'Hope Won.'  She referred to herself as being 'unleashed.'  To her credit, I think, she acknowledged that some of her loyal viewers might be disappointed in the results of the election.  But fair to say, Oprah and many other dignitaries and leaders have now expressed their deep-seated emotional exurberance over the election of the Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, some because Barack Obama is the first Afro-American President of the United States and some because Barack Obama represents to them a breath of fresh air from the economic and foreign policies of George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States.

November 6, 2008:  The Federal Reserve released numbers today showing that it increased lending in the 'Commercial Paper Funding Facility' from $144 billion to $243 billion during the previous week.  This is not part of the $700 billiion bailout package passed by Congress in early October as the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (which authorizes the U.S. Treasury to to purchase weak assets, such as mortgage-backed securities, from U.S. banks).  Instead, this is a separate program begun recently by the Federal Reserve to loan money to corporations for short-term operations because banks have drastically reduced their loan activity in this corporate market.

November 7, 2008President-Elect Barack Obama held his first news conference in Chicago, focused primarily on the state of the economy.  He opened the conference by acknowledging that morning's report that the U.S. economy lost another 240,000 jobs in October.  He then reminded the public that the current administration (President Bush) remains in power until January 20th.   He then tells us that after he becomes President, he will confront the economic crisis 'head-on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hardworking families and restore growth and prosperity.'  At the conference Obama is backed-up, literally, by his Transition Economic Advisory Board, a list of whose members makes for interesting reading.

November 8, 2008:  The FDIC took over two more banks Friday night.  These are the 18th and 19th banks to fail this year.  The costs related to these takeovers are also not part of the $700 billion bailout program.

No one said it was going to be easy to be the first Afro-American President of the United States, attempting to take the country, and its politics, in a new direction.  And we haven't even talked about climate change.


November 5, 2008

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident

On July 4, 1776, the original thirteen American colonies unanimously declared their independence from Great Britain, stating:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

President-Elect Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party, have every right to feel deep pride in the historic results of yesterday's election.  Whether you supported Barack Obama (52%) or instead supported John McCain (47%), whether you are happy or sad today, we should all remember this.  The above words are not the property of the Democratic Party nor are they the property of the Republican Party.  They are the words of the American People.

 * * *

Credits - 
       The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, 1776
        Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for President, 2008
        John McCain, Republican candidate for President, 2008    

November 3, 2008

Human Nature: Maelstrom or Multi-threaded

The day before the American presidential election seems as good a day as any to launch a multi-part article on Human Nature, this being the intro or overview to the whole article.

Maelstrom is defined by Random House as 'a restless, disordered, or tumultuous state of affairs: the maelstrom of early morning traffic.'  Synonyms are pandemonium, and bedlam.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word comes from the old Dutch malen, 'to grind or whirl,' and stroom, 'stream.'  Literally, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a maelstrom is a 'grinding-stream.'  Very nice imagery there, for our purposes.

From the same link, the Online Etymology Dictionary has the name Malestrand being given to a whirlpool off the northwest coast of Norway by Dutch cartographers in circa 1560.  In keeping with that imagery, Wordnet 3.0 (Princeton University) defines maelstrom as 'a powerful circular current of water (usually the result of conflicting tides).'

'Conflicting tides,' and almost anyone's imagery of the current American presidential election, would seem to coincide.  I have received multiple emails from both sides, republican and democratic, of this tumultuous conflict, written in panic-stricken language, that the world is most likely going to end if the other side of this conflicting tide has its day.  Seriously, folks, the American political scene has been built around this exact type of tug-of-war for the last 232 years.  The ebb and flow won't end tomorrow.

So get a grip.

Instead, take a step back and try to look at an even bigger picture of life, focused specifically on your own life, for a bit.  Now I'm no political expert.  Nor do I hold myself out as either a religious or philosophical expert.  But isn't it true, my friends, that from the time anyone first began writing about humans, humans have been in constant disputes with each other over something?  And we are still here ... so far.

So what's all that about?  All these disputes, I mean.

Well, have you ever been in conflict with just yourself?  I don't mean just the little annoyances of what to do next.  Those small types of annoyances are often decided by some equivalent of a coin flip.  No, I mean the really big, monstrous annoyances about what to do next, or about how to deal with something that has just happened to us that does not seem to fit our view of the world.

The 'conflicting tides' that create the maelstrom of human affairs often seem to begin in our own heads, or crash against some shoreline we've erected in our minds.

Some of us get sick enough from the conflicts that arise inside of us to physically bang our heads against a wall or a floor or against the windows of a police car.  Even toddlers will bang their heads against something if they don't get their way, or if they get overly frustrated while trying to make some toy or object work to their satisfaction.  Yes, it's true:  we don't always use our heads to do the banging.  Instead, we might just bang our fists against another object.  But sometimes that other object is our own head.  Who among us has never ever reached up and held their own temples and shut their own eyes in anger or frustration?  We all know where this type of pain is coming from.  Our brains.  Or, if you prefer, our minds.

Multitasking is defined by Random House as 'the concurrent or interleaved execution of two or more jobs by a single CPU.'   CPU stands for 'central processing unit.'

Let's dig a little deeper.

From the same link, the Free Online Dictionary of Computing defines multitasking as 'a technique used in an operating system for sharing a single processor between several independent jobs.'  Also from the same link, multithreading is referred to as a specialized kind of multitasking with 'no protection of tasks from each other,' where 'all threads share the same memory.'

Multithreading is further defined by the Free Online Dictionary of Computing as 'sharing a single CPU between multiple tasks (or "threads") in a way designed to minimise the time required to switch threads.'

How do these terms relate to the way our brains work?

A brain that can multitask can temporarily suspend one task while it contemplates and processes another task.  Preparing breakfast in one room while listening to the morning news being broadcast on a television in the next room is a good example of the advantages of multitasking.

On the other hand, a brain that is texting on a cell phone while also engaged in driving an automobile to work can cause a massive wreck in which people die.  This is a good example of a serious risk imposed on oneself and others by multitasking at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate way.

The distinction between multitasking and multithreading is perhaps too minor for our purposes to bother with.  If that is how you feel, then don't bother with the distinction.  Multitasking, as risky as it may be at times, still strikes me as being just a little bit too orderly to accurately describe Human Nature.  Maelstrom, on the other hand, while not a bad analogy, still strikes me as being just a little bit too chaotic to accurately describe Human Nature.

Multi-threaded seems just about the right way to describe Human Nature.  Not too orderly, but not too chaotic, either.

When asked how anyone can know what the truth is, I have responded in the past by saying that our understanding of the truth is like a large bowl of spaghetti.  Start pulling on one strand, or thread, and the whole bowl starts to move.  Everything is interwoven and connected.  Without getting into how many trillions of neural synapses make up the brain, I think we can all accept the fact that the human brain is an enormously complicated organ that operates on many levels at once.  It, too, is like that large bowl of spaghetti.

What conclusions, then, if any, can we draw from the sheer complexity of the processes by which our brains operate to make plans, contemplate 'truths,' reach decisions and take actions?  It may seem presumptive, but on the eve of the 2008 presidential election, let me draw at least one conclusion about the election:  neither the democratic nor the republican party have all the right answers regarding all the complex issues facing the American people.

Perhaps that conclusion does not shock you.  I sure hope it doesn't.  In fact, it is so non-shocking that I'm tempted to suggest that the conclusion is self-evident, but I won't.  Instead, I will draw another conclusion, which I think is similar in nature, and connects us back to the topic at hand:  each of us, using our own brains as skillfully as we can, probably cannot be right all of the time about all the complex issues facing ourselves, our families and our friends.


Okay, so recognizing that it is very difficult to be right all the time, and recognizing that untangling the threads of complex topics is also difficult to do, let's nonetheless take a stab at examining, if not untangling, the threads that make up Human Nature.

I've identified at least eight ways to look at Human Nature.  There are undoubtably dozens of other ways to characterize, subdivide or analyze our human behaviour patterns.  You might identify four ways, or you might identify twenty ways.  Either way, I encourage you to pursue your own analysis as you critique mine.  As of this writing, and in no particular order, here are eight ways of  'characterizing'  Human Nature:

To keep things flexible, I preserve my right to add to, subtract from, or alter my list as I write about these 'characterizations' of Human Nature in my future blog postings.  And I don't expect to write about these topics without digressions to other fun topics.   In fact, unless I'm somehow motivated otherwise, I expect to write about only one or two of these topics each month.  They are way too serious to write about on a daily basis.
And as for the presidential election tomorrow  - -  whoever wins it, it will be history in the making.  And then we will all begin the process of pointing out what the winner does wrong in the future.  That's just Human Nature.


October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween

Nothing too serious here.  Everyone pretty much knows that Halloween originates from an ancient celtic festival to celebrate the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of the new year.

The dark side is the celts believed "on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred."  Celtic priests, the druids, lit large bonfires and told fortunes, while the people would dress up in animal costumes and burn crops and animals as a sacrifice to their deities.

The light side is that first the Romans and then the Christian Church tried to co-op the celtic festival with festivals of their own.  In the early 7th century Pope Boniface IV, for the first time, converted a Roman temple into a Christian church, consecrating the church to the Virgin Mary and All the Martyrs on May 13, 609 A.D. (or perhaps 610 A.D.).  Later in the 8th century Pope Gregory III  consecrated a chapel in Rome to All the Saints, fixing the anniversary for this feast as November 1st.  Pope Gregory IV  proclaimed the November 1st celebration of All Saints as an obligation throughout the empire.  Thus, November 1, All Saints' Day, also known as All-hallowmas, became a festival to honor all the saints and martyrs.  The night before became known as All Hallows' Even, and eventually, 'Halloween.'

Now, what truths can we discern from this short tale? 

O, yuck, why does he have to spoil the story now.  We haven't even it gotten to the fun part of the story about modern costumes, tricks or treats, candy, carved pumpkins, and family funtime with mom, dad and children.

After all, which ones of us do not remember, with childish glee, the piles of candy on the livingroom floor, dumped from our decorated bags and spilling from the pockets of our bluejeans or halloween costumes.  And later, as parents, which ones of us cannot conjure multiple visions of little princesses, cowboys, ballerinas and a host of strangely decorated monsters running and jumping with sheer joy, like a bunch of little mexican jumping beans.

Okay, well, maybe that behavior also constitutes part of the truths now associated with the dates October 31 and November 1.  Ponder it.  Maybe in one of the classic Yoga positions.  But let's discuss all this later.

Have a Happy Halloween, ya'll.

 * * *

Credits -
       Wikipedia, article entitled Halloween, article entitled Halloween, Ancient Origins
       New Advent, article entitled Pope St. Boniface IV
       New Advent, article entitled Pope St. Gregory III
       New Advent, article entitled Pope Gregory IV
       New Advent, article entitled All Saints' Day
       New Advent, article entitled Obligation, article entitled An Index of Yoga Positions