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
       History.com, 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
       About.com, article entitled An Index of Yoga Positions


October 26, 2008

Philosophical Balance

Is the phrase philosophical balance an oxymoron?  Yes, and perhaps no.  We'll see.

But as an immediate digression, don't you just love the word oxymoron? It just rolls off your tongue and makes you feel good, and maybe a little sinister at the same time. That's it, good and sinister. Now that's an oxymoron, isn't it?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Ed., oxymoron means 'a rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence ...'  It comes from the Greek, oxy, which means 'sharp,' and moros, which means 'dull.'  I like that.  But what does that have to do with philosophy?  Maybe nothing.

Here are the names of some famous philosophers, in no particular order:

       Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Plato, Locke, Spinoza,
       Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, Schopenhauer,
       Kierkegaard, Pascal, Bacon, Russell, Descartes,
       Emerson, Camus, James, Wittengstein, Hume,
       Dewey, Pierce, Sartre

Here are the names of some famous religious writers and figures, in no particular order:

       Abraham, Lao-tzu, Karl Barth, Confucius,
       Jesus Christ, Augustine, John Wycliffe,
       Muhammad, Thomas Aquinas, Moses,
       Martin Luther, Apostle Paul, John Calvin,
       Buddha, Joseph Smith, Gandhi, Billy Graham,
       Brigham Young, John Wesley, John Knox,
       Blaise Pascal, Max Weber, Dalai Lama,
       Mother Teresa, Paul Tillich

I could make similar lists of world renowned artists (Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso), authors (Elizabeth Barret Browning, Honore' de Balzac), political figures (John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan) and scientists (Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr), but the point would always be the same:

        Great minds do not think alike.

Okay, so maybe I have thrown you a curve, here, and maybe I have not.  Maybe I have even offended you (by including the names of Jesus Christ, Muhammad or Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Moses and perhaps several others on the same list of "great minds").  If so, it is not my intention to offend here.

The point is, as you peruse the above lists of great personages, how is it possible for us to determine what the truth is ... about anything?  I mean, as John Stossel of ABC might say (and yes, I'm just speculating here as to how John Stossel might ask this question), if all these great minds can't agree on what the truth is, how are we to do it?

That's a good question.  Maybe we should give up.  After all, we, like these great personages, perceive the world around us in different ways, from different points of views, with different values and different experiences.

Yes we do. To what conclusions should that logically lead us?

        That there are no truths?
        That all truth is relative?
        That my view of truth is better than your view of truth?
        That some of the things we think of as truths are perhaps
        best categorized as beliefs, rather than as truths?
        That some of the things we think of as truths are perhaps
        only individual subjective opinions which are not based on
        any underlying universal truth?
        That some of the things we think of as truths are perhaps
        only subjective reflections of something that is in fact based
        on a universal objective truth?
        That discovering the truth about a matter is in fact at times
        a pretty difficult thing to accomplish?
        That my neighbor's view, about at least some things, may
        have as much claim to validity, or truth, as my view about
        those same things?

Philosophy, according to one definition sent to me, means 'the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.'  I determined that this definition of philosophy comes from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.  So I proceeded to check the definition of balance.  According to the third definition by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, balance means 'mental steadiness or emotional stability; habit of calm behavior, judgment.'  That works for me. So, combining these terms, philosophical balance might be defined as 'the emotionally stable and rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge and conduct.'

Maybe philosophical  balance is not an oxymoron after all.  Maybe it's something we can all endeavor to engage in together, as we try to tell the truth, as we're best able to determine the truth, about ourselves and each other, while we try to figure out where to take this planet.

As I said, or at least implied, in my previous posting, this is not something the dinosaurs were able to attempt.  I mean specifically that dinosaurs lacked the ability to determine the truth about themselves.  While we, on the other hand, possess the ability to determine the truth about some things about ourselves, right?  Even if it's only that 'great minds do not think alike.'  Learning even that much must mean something.  Yes?

October 22, 2008


The truth will out.
If the truth be told ...
Swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I am the way, the truth and the life.

Before trying to write about "truth," I want to dedicate this piece to my youngest daughter, whose birthday is today.  It's true.  I have a daughter and today is her birthday.  I want, and in fact do, dedicate this piece to her.  She knows who she is.  Good thing, these birthdays.  It's true.  Birthdays are a good thing.

But is it true that birthdays are a good thing?  If it is true "that birthdays are a good thing," then is that true in the same sense that "today is my daughter's birthday" is true?  I think the reader will fairly readily see that these are two different kinds of "truths."  One is an observed fact.  The other is a value-based proposition.

A witness on the stand, who testifies that she was present during my daughter's birth, and testifies that today is the same calendar day as that glorious day, has pretty well established that today is my daughter's birthday.  A fancy pants lawyer can cross-examine this witness and pretty quickly extract from the witness that my daughter was not actually born today.  If he does that, the jury will look at him like he is nuts, since we all know that by "birthday" we mean to include the calendar month and day, not year, on which a person was born.  In other words, by "birthday" we actually mean the anniversaries of the original day of birth.  So, clarifying the meaning of all key words in a dispute, or a debate, is important.

But the same witness on the stand, who precedes to testify, without laying out a significant basis, that "birthdays are a good thing," has not really established anything more than her personal opinion that the actual day of a person's birth, or the subsequent anniversaries of that date, are somehow "good things."  She has advanced an unsupported assertion, rather than a credible factual observation.  The fancy pants lawyer has a lot of room to cross-examine this witness as to the emotional, psychological, philosophical or religious foundation, or lack thereof, for this witness' opinion that birthdays are good things.  Unlike the first situation, this time the fancy pants lawyer has a pretty good chance of making the witness look foolish, if that is the lawyer's goal, and if the witness cannot articulate a solid philosophical or religious foundation for her proposition.  He might even be able to get the witness to break down into tears and admit that she doesn't really know if birthdays are a good thing.  Trust me, I've seen it done.  Not about birthdays, but about other issues.

So why have I turned something fairly simple and fun into something so complex?  The simple answer is that logic demands it.  We all need to distinguish carefully between factual, political, philosophical and religious "truths," and the various ways in which they can be factually verified, logically supported or logically disputed. 

The more complex answer is that I believe, in the heart of my heart, that humans are quite possibly on the verge of making some truly horrendous errors in sorting out, analyzing and correctly dealing with the "truth" of a variety of different matters, some of which are factual or political, while others are philosophical or religious, in their basis.  And no, I don't mean whether the democratic or republican party wins the White House in a couple of weeks.  I mean, instead, whether we, as the human species, can figure out how to successfully deal with global warming, world economic stability, resource depletion and population growth fast enough to reduce the hardships we are most likely presently and persistently creating for successive generations.  We may be facing decisions the consequences of which simply cannot be reversed.  We cannot solve these problems effectively by ignoring factual truths and employing patently false logic in analyzing political and philosophical truths.

I suggest, as a first step towards solving these planetary problems, that we all commit to the following two principles:

     (1)   Always tell the truth.
     (2)   Always present an honest front.

And for those of us who think more negatively, these principles can be stated in the negative as follows:

      (1')  Never lie.
      (2')  Never put on a false front.

Neither of these principles requires conformity to a specific religious or political point of view.  Nor am I aware, at this point in world history, of any major religious, philosophical or political tenet that advocates lieing and putting on false fronts.  As a result, I can see nothing that stands in the way of a potential universal endorsement to simply tell the truth and stop putting on false fronts.  I mean this to apply not just to political campaigns, but also to all other human endeavors.  If we implement these two principles, we can move forward to fairly debate the facts and the underlying logic of the hard choices we face.  A difficult problem indeed.

As best as I can tell, the dinosaurs lacked the capacity to safeguard their own survival.  That cannot be said about we humans.  If we do not survive, or survive badly, then we will have brought that condition largely upon ourselves.   And that's the truth.

 * * *

Credits -
          The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
          American Witness Oath
          The Bible, John 14:6


October 17, 2008

Charlie Rose, OMG

I promised positive, and positive ye shall have.  Charlie Rose is a hero.  He may even be a god (in the hopefully non-offensive hyperbolic sense of that word).  Yay, Charlie.  If you watch Charlie Rose, instead of many of these silly ... well, nameless ... national media sound-biters, then you will give yourself a good chance to stay connected to reality.

Wowie, wow, wow.  I could say this about many of his interviews (Warren Buffett and Antonin Scalia, to name just two), but I just finished watching his most recent interview of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  Why, oh why, does she not speak like this when the national media cameras are rolling?  It has to be something Charlie does to bring it out of people.  The hung head (Charlie's, not Nancy's).  The dry voice.  The black background.  The round table.  The facial expression that seems to expect an HONEST and DIRECT answer.  He rarely accepts one of those placid facially-scripted political-speak answers.  He gets the job done somehow.  These hide-by-day politicians usually speak out loud and clear on his program.  You can just watch as the layers of false front often seem to fall away.

Speaker Pelosi actually showed that she has a mind and a brain.  Why doesn't she do that when the AP or Reuters is filming?  Why didn't she do it when Charlie interviewed her in her office last February?  Only a few times this time did she put on that silly false smile that says, "let me tell you what I've scripted myself to tell you."  You know the look I mean.  On some politicians the whole face becomes a mask.  Other politicians are able to hold the false front to just a false smile.  Either way, when you see it, you immediately know that the words that follow (well-meaning or not) are 99% likely to be scripted.  Hard to trust a mask.  But instead, for about 85% of this interview Speaker Pelosi told us about how Washington politics actually works.  I call it telling the truth (or direct-speak rather than political-speak).  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that once the mask is gone, the truth is told.  No, no.  I'm saying that once the mask is gone and the eyes become unglazed, you have a chance to look into the politician and perhaps distinquish truth from fable.

Call it what you will, you will actually learn a lot from viewing this particular interview.  Play the October 16 interview through twice (once it is posted on Rose's home.page).   Listen carefully to the questions and the answers.   Watch the Speaker's face, her eyes, her various smiles.   I promise you will learn more about the current policy situation in Washington than you will by listening to the presidential debates or any of the current political commercials. 

I did not say you would agree with everything the Speaker said.  Just look at some of the vicious comments posted on Rose's website about her interview.  I did not say that her take on the flow of events related to the bailouts of the investment and credit markets should, or would, go unchallenged if the minority whip or George W were to give a similar interview.  Democratic and Republican perspectives are clearly going to vary and will often be at odds.  It's instructive, however, to examine what she said and how she said it, this time as compared to her interview last February.  I simply said you would learn more about the current policy situation in Washington by watching Charlie Rose's October 16 interview of Speaker Pelosi than by watching a rerun of the lastest presidential debate.

Congrats to you, Charlie Rose.


October 15, 2008

Mind Numbing Exhaustion

Do you know what I mean?  Mind numbing exhaustion.  The mind goes dark.  The body cannot move.  Or only barely move.  You lie still, usually face down or sideways, in a tucked or half-tucked position.  It's hard to remove your face from the pillow or the crevice in the couch.  Pajamas or fully dressed, it does not matter.  It's a terrible feeling.  A black as night feeling, even in broad daylight.  What can I say.  You've felt it, too.  Or maybe not.

Another $250 billion committed today by the U.S. Treasury.  Not part of the $700 billion package that Congress almost chose not to spend.  This money was barely reported on.  Used to purchase preferred stock in our biggest banks, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, CitiBank.  With smaller amounts spread among many of the other banks on the list of 110 unstable banks.  The Dow down another 733 points.  I said it before.  Cheez…  Election over, I suspect.  Sarah Palin or no Sarah Palin.  It's not Tina Fey's fault.

I'll pursue more positive images.  Sometime later.  When I can get my head out of the pillow.  After this third presidential debate.  Which is starting as we speak.  Of course, the sun also rises.  I think Hemingway said that.  In 1926.  Or was it Ecclesiastes, the Speaker?  And the two topics, mind numbing exhaustion and presidential politics, are not necessarily related.

 * * *

Credits -

      The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926.
      Ecclesiastes 1:5, circa 250 b.c.


October 9, 2008

Life is a Sound-Bite

Spartacus, One-Eyed Jacks, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica.
Need for speed, Scream, Last Picture Show, East of Tomorrow.
Jesus Christ Superstar, The Bible, Apocalypse Now.
The Birds, Psycho, Bedazzled, It's a Wonderful Life.
The Godfather, The Firm, Dog Day Afternoon, Help!
Eight Days a Week, Yellow Submarine, 2001 A Space Odyssey.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Vertigo, Twilight Zone.
Disclosure, Heat, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The Duel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Greed, Dirty Harry.
Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Billy Joel, Belgians in the Congo.
Save the Children, Planet Earth, The American Dream.


October 4, 2008

What's In a Birthday?

A day of awakening, a baby's cry, a new beginning, a starting place.  Everyone notices a newborn.  Everyone smiles at a baby.  Human, kitty, bunny.   It does not matter.  Everyone smiles at a baby.  Everyone feels good.  It becomes a time to remember, to mark progress, to take pictures, to remember the past.  To reach out for the future.  A birthday is a lovely day.


October 3, 2008

I Guess We Can Walk

Some things are accidents.  This was not.  This, in my opinion, was greed, stupidity, lack of financial leadership and political leadership, in both political parties, and faulty economic reasoning, all rolled into one.  But not an accident.

Do I mean that someone intended this to happen.  No.  But 2 + 2 is always going to equal 4, by definition.  To constantly reduce interest rates to keep the economy "stimulated" or "growing" or "on track" is inevitably going to shove the money into riskier and riskier investments.  It goes downhill, right?  And Wall Street has lots of experience creating greed-backed investment vehicles, right?  Like junk bonds.

I guess we can walk, now that there will be no free bicycles.