Curiosity Over Pride (FYI: To comment, send an e-mail to

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"My" sparrows

You guys did NOT respond to my invitation to read the link on Ur-languages that presented several epistemological issues worthy of interest in my book.
Since I am lazy, I am going to present part of my reflexion on reductionist science HERE, in this post, and not try to go through everything the link offers.
On my "loony" blog, I read this morning that hyenas are much more successful than chimpanzees at cooperative tasks in laboratory situations.
Which brings me to the WHOLE PROBLEM of the laboratory setting.
For me, the laboratory setting with animals is the quintessence of reductionist scientific thought.
It brings up images of white coats running around, looking important and "suffisant" as we say in French, and imagining that they are in the temple of TRUTH (all capital letters, neon flashing, and soft religious music in the background, please).
But... OBSERVING animals in THEIR natural setting, HAVING THE PATIENCE to stake them out, and wait hours to see what they do, that is NOT reductionist thought.
And WE are capable of doing it, and ARE doing it, for the benefit of viewers on programs like BBC's spring/autumn watch which are absolutely fantastic, and are going miles towards dispelling our 18th century prejudices about the animal world, back in the days when KNOWING meant... CLASSIFYING and little else...
So, my sparrows ?
I have engaged a little experiment for them.
I have stuck out roasted pumpkin seeds for them.
Now, pumpkin seeds are edible, and nutritious.
They are good for US, and they are good for sparrows too.
BUT... "MY" sparrows have never eaten pumpkin seeds before.
So... how do sparrows LEARN that pumpkin seeds are edible, and a source of energy ?
The only way for sparrows to learn this is if there is(are) ONE OR TWO individuals who TAKE THE RISK of pecking at that unknown object to find out if it's edible or not, and... finding that it is, transmitting this knowledge to 1) the group 2) their offspring.
I would say that the INDIVIDUALS who TAKE THIS RISK (sparrows, or humans, if you like...) are at the margins of the sparrow group, and my own personal prejudice dictates that these individuals have a form of intelligence that I heartily respect.
Of course, taking risks means that you risk... PERISHING from your risk taking too.
That's part of the game, isn't it ?
And... THESE are the kind of experiments we COULD be doing without resorting to white coats, temples, and hubris.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On the essential function of exclusion

Exclusion is a no-no word, isn't it ?
It is NOT politically correct these days, is it ?
I get down on it all the time, right ?

I occasionally throw out the question "is it possible to create ANY kind of identity WITHOUT resorting to exclusion" ?
This is not a purely theoretical, hypothetical question. And it ties right into what Thai and I have been discussing on zero sums.

To introduce this problem, I am going to go way back to one of the very best presentations of it : the Genesis creation story, part 2, in the garden (as seen through rabbinic eyes...)
The FIRST commandment reads : "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat (some rabbis say that this should read, thou shalt eat, not thou mayest eat...) : But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it : for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone ; I will make him an help meet for him. Genesis 2,17-18, King James Version

The commandment is "Eat of every tree of the garden EXCEPT, and it is formulated with a negation, NOT, which is the SECOND negation which appears in the creation story, the first being in Genesis 2,5, and which reads : "And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew : for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground."

The two negations are quite different : our first negation "there was not a man" does not take the form of an exclusion, the way the commandment does.

And while the commandment introduces the SECOND negation in the creation story, it introduces the first THOU.
In other words, the first time that God directly addresses man, and speaks to HIM personally, it is in the form of this commandment which presents, first a positive imperative (commandment), then a negative one. "Thou" comes into existence at the same time, simultaneously. BECAUSE God addresses man in the THOU form, he... brings him into existence in language, and while delivering the commandment(s) : eat/not eat.

THOU shalt eat/THOU shalt NOT eat.
Negation. Exclusion.
So... the exclusion has something to do with the THOU, then, doesn't it ? And the EVERY ?
And God says... the day that THOU eatest what is excluded/set apart, THOU shalt die.
So... for Judaism, there HAVE to be excluded things in order for THOU (a symbol of the interpersonal relation) to exist.
Otherwise, confusion reigns. And we get.... filthy lucre the measure of ALL things, for example ?

Freud will restate all this much later, in his own words...

(Actually, looking back on this post, I am not happy with it. The two negations are not all that different. Two words which repeat in both negations : EVERY, and... NOT.
EVERY seems to go with NOT from a formal logical viewpoint.
Like the French say... tout OU rien ?)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Empathy and Social Darwinism

By happenstance, I heard the last 45 minutes of the Diane Rehm show today on NPR. There was a professor who discussed empathy in nature. What really piqued my interest was that almost as soon as I started listening, he started discussing Social Darwinism.

You can listen to the program here (Real Audio)

or here. (Windows Media)

Here is a link to the program page.

Professor Frans de Waal starts discussing Social Darwinism at about the 10-minute mark. Diane Rehm asks again about the cognitive dissonance (not her words, but the idea) of those who advocate Social Darwinism often not believing in scientific Darwinism (see my last link) at about the 18-minute mark.

I have mentioned Social Darwinism in several of my posts:

Favoritism for the Wealthy

State of the Union Response

The New Apprentice

Health Care's Moral Argument, Part 1

Professor de Waal has a book entitled The Age of Empathy.

Another reason why I thought of this topic is because Professor de Waal discusses the need for cooperation in human relations, which is a common theme in Thai's comments.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Hello Street Rats!

Two Saturdays ago we packed up the Recreational Vehicle and headed south east to the center of Oregon. Some points of interest:

1)The John Day Fossil Beds
2)The High Desert Museum
3)Crater Lake National Park

At the first point one learns that Oregon used to be a wet jungle similar to Panama. But it seemed to get more arid every time it was repaved with lava floods (which seemed rather frequent). In short, it has lots of layers with various flora and fauna fossils stuck in between.

At the second point one learns many things about The West. A tremendous amount of timber was cut down so that mine shafts could be built. Donkeys and obsidian are useful. Eagles want to kill us (the signs didn't explicitly say this, but if you had seen those eyes....).

According to information at the park, the Klamath tribe forbid members from going up the former Mount Mazama (what with the eruptions and such), but wikipedia says they went there on "vision quests". It does have a mystic feel about it.

It was a nice trip and I hope you all were well.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Puppy love

"Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo ?"
I hope that you guys have enough anecdotal culture to realize that this quote from "Romeo and Juliet" does NOT translate into modern English as "WHERE are you Romeo ?", but as... "WHY are you Romeo ?"
Something to throw out at the cocktail parties you DON'T have the time to go to, right ?

Last week, in the course of my peregrinations, I met a miniature Doberman named "Romeo". He was initially very very hostile to me, growling suspiciously as I extended my hand for him to sniff (he smelled another dog on me, and a dog he doesn't like, to boot).
But... after about five minutes of my patient, winning seduction, Romeo was all over me. We just couldn't get enough of each other. We were madly in love with each other. He was a provocative little snippet too, just like me.
And I said to his "owner", "I bet he's a little Leo", and SURE ENOUGH, you wouldn't believe it, Romeo was another sun sign.
It was an amazing encounter. I hope I get to see the little guy again...

This little chance encounter got me to thinking about... SEX in our culture.
What a really wishy washy culture we are. You know, like the ABSOLUTE WORST we can imagine in terms of perversion these days is... pedophilia, which when you get down to it, is really rather mild as sexual perversions go. (Yeah, remember that I'm a medical examiner's daughter. Daddy used to come home with those stories about people suffocating at climax due to the plastic bags they stuck over their heads...)
Do we really think that... BESTIALITY no longer exists ? Or... what about necrophilia ?
Have they magically disappeared because WE don't think about them any more ???
Remember Pasiphaë and the bull that she "enjoyed" ?
We are really a prissy culture. Not too much sexual imagination.
(Romeo was a little... small for me by the way...)

Once to every man and nation

Over there on Hell's blog I quoted a verse from this Protestant hymn, and I'm printing it out in full over here for US :

"Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood/For the good or evil side ;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah/Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes on forever/'Twixt that darkness and the light.

Though the cause of evil prosper/Yet 'tis truth alone is strong ;
Truth forever on the scaffold/Wrong forever on the throne, --
Yet that scaffold sways the future/And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow/Keeping watch above his own.

Then to side with truth is noble/When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit/And 'tis prosperous to be just ;
Then it is the brave man chooses/While the coward stands aside
And the multitude make virtue/Of the faith they had denied.

Count me oe'er earth's chosen heroes ;/They were souls that stood alone,
Stood serene, and down the future/Saw the golden beam incline
To the side of perfect justice/Mastered by their faith divine,
By one man's plain truth to manhood/And to God's supreme design.

By the light of burning martyrs/Jesus' bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever/With the Cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.
They must upward still, and onward/Who would keep abreast of truth.

Was the Mayflower launched by cowards/Steered by men behind their time ?
Turned those tracks toward Past or Future/That make Plymouth Rock sublime ?
Lo, before us gleam truth's beacons ; We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower and steer boldly/Through the desperate winter sea."

James Russell Lowell, 1844

I like the idea of being a Pilgrim. And... in a strange way, I AM a Pilgrim : I picked up and "sailed" the ocean in the opposite direction... Looking toward the past ? Maybe. There is NO future without the past... And while I don't believe in any ABSOLUTE truth, I do believe that there is... the TRUTH of the moment, of the instant, of the meeting of two minds, if you will.

Oddly enough, perhaps only the Jews dimly perceived the ultimate trap : that God himself could become... an idol. Strange, isn't it ?
That's how I've managed to reconcile my "Christianity" with our current context, in the lines of "keeping abreast with truth".

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Ça se laisse vivre" : my daughter, lily of the valley

This little phrase cannot be translated properly.
So... instead, I will explain the context to you.

Two hours ago, I took my 19 year old daughter to register at the local "community college", a place filled with retired people, hungry for knowledge, classes in a relaxed environment, with no tests, no papers, no "evaluation".
I encouraged her to go there, because I thought (think???) that it is a place where she can escape the merciless pressure that French society applies systematically, and in foot tons, on its population in order to force us to be "productive" (from the cradle to the grave, of course...).
"Productivity" is an IDOL word here, one that triggers Pavlovian responses in all members of society. (Of course, the French are number ONE in productivity in Europe, I think, and what good has this done "us" ? Just ensuring that MORE and MORE people get laid off, as the depression worsens, and fewer and fewer of us have to do more and more work, be more and more productive, exhausted, while the others wallow daily in enforced, debilitating (to self esteem) idleness.)
She was talking to the sewing teacher, an older woman, who promptly proceeded to ask her :
Are you a student ? (no)
Are you employed ? (no)
Dramatic pause...
Now is the instant when all of a sudden, the person you are talking to is in front of an uncharted continent : HOW CAN THIS BE ???? A young, vital, woman who is... not working, not studying, just WHAT is she ? (When you think about it, this holds true at any and every age...)
That's when the verdict falls : "Ça se laisse vivre".
It's a sign of... open, unadulterated... CONTEMPT. A judgment without any appeal.
These days, I have decided to turn the world and stand it on its ear, and I encourage my daughter to do so. (I tell her that if you work, you can turn EVERY insult into a... COMPLIMENT, and this is true. Think about it... zero sums oblige, Thai.)
As it turns out... her father and I are delighted to be able to offer her one/two years with NO SOCIAL/ACADEMIC pressure, for her to just enjoy... learning how to... BE. To be... HER. To learn how to enjoy learning, far away from the concentration camp environment that the French school system surrounds its youth with.
HERE... school has to be... WORK. The school system is a training ground for that ultimate experience, along the lines of the ideology that says "but you MUST be USEFUL to society, you must suffer and work until you drop in order to earn that filthy lucre that will enable you to put bread on your table". You MUST suffer to do this ; it MUST be difficult and unpleasant.
She will meet with much resistance here when she says who she is and what she's doing.
She is a lily of the valley : she toils not, and neither does she spin.
And that makes her elders want to shout and stamp and scream.
It's really very ugly, you know. Very very ugly.
I should point out : she NO LONGER has the starry eyed expression on her face that Thai's youngest has.
She has already seen TOO MUCH...
(My apologies if I am repeating myself...)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jung and me

A brief comment on the ten page article SS stuck in a link on the upcoming publication of the Red Book, Carl Gustav Jung's diary of his spiritual life.

It is absolutely AMAZING that this article makes absolutely NO mention of probably the MOST important element of Jung's biography : the fact that he was part of an extended family of Protestant pastors, his own father being one.
I will get back to this point.
I will probably NOT read Jung's diary. For the simple reason that I consider reading OTHER PEOPLE'S spiritual diaries to be a waste of time.
Jung had his life. I have mine. And NO ONE, absolutely no one, can offer any kind of spiritual mentorship IN A BOOK.
My life "journey" greatly parallels Jung's. I too have "descended" (or risen ?) into madness. I am intimately familiar with it. Once it terrified me to contemplate this fact. No longer. Madness is a fundamental part of the human experience.
It does not weaken or destroy us. But... being afraid of it severely hampers our ability to reap as much "wealth" from it as we could.
Twenty years before Carl Gustav had his experience (1913), Daniel Paul Schreber had his (1893). And he too, wrote a diary. It's called "Denkwurdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken", loosely translated as "Memoirs of a Nevropath", (commented by Freud in "Five psychoanalytic Case Studies"). The book is a detailed, albeit almost incoherent, account of Schreber's persecution by a God with whom he has a voluptuous relationship. Schreber's madness started with a prescient dream in which he "thought" how tempting it would be to be a woman being penetrated, and during orgasm.
"The Interpretation of Dreams" by Sigmund Freud (1899) contains many highly detailed accounts by Freud of his own particularly rich dreams. Freud, too, was very worried about being or going mad. It obsessed him. The book in its own way, is Freud's diary of his spiritual search.

So... the connect with Protestant pastors ?
Jung's theories, and his way of presenting them, are a resurrection of Catholicism's unbelievable intuition about the importance of iconic thought vs. abstraction.
The Catholic Church's cult is/was filled with pictures, pictures that tell a story. Beautiful pictures. And... the very idea of transsubstantiation is an attempt to harness "pagan" magic into the Christian religious experience.
PROTESTANTISM is extremely hostile to all of this. Iconoclasm... initially refers to the breaking of images, and when the Protestants went on rampages through the European countryside, they tore apart the "idols" (i.e. pictures and statues...) in the Catholic churches.
Symbolism is a... WEAKENING, and a rationalisation of mystical experience, which can conventiently become logical and rational. But... with a definite loss of power.

I am neither Jungian nor Freudian at this point. I have my own point of view on all of this. I do not believe in the collective unconscious. What I do believe is... that our language carries within it all the seeds of our ancestor's history, and the history of their/our ideas. When we speak, and think, this history reactualizes itself and makes its influence felt. I also see the attempt to "interpret" our dreams as a dangerous tendency to extend the realm of interpretation, an ever dangerous activity, into areas that would best be left... as untouched sanctuary.

I recommend Robertson Davies "The Deptford Trilogy", book 2, "The Manticore", for a very very perspicacious attitude towards Jungian (and/or Freudian...) psychoanalysis.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sometimes we really need to pay tribute to the giants who come before us

The world lost one of its great souls on Saturday (I only just learned). I for one want to pay tribute.

Norm, I tip my stethoscope to you.

Does the Conservation of Energy Apply to Love?

... Of course some boundaries are more charming than others.

My littlest playing in our neighbor's yard after our neighbor's home was toilet papered as a playful roust by teenage swimmers the night before the big neighborhood swim championships.

“There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law; it is exact, so far we know. The law is called conservation of energy; it states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity, which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number, and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.”

—Richard Feynman

Saturday, September 12, 2009


(To the tune of , They're making 'woopie')

They've got their arms
It's open carry
We're not alarmed
Live, love and marry,

Our life goes on
It's sweet, don't tarry
We're making woopie

Our guy is black
He ain't a hack
He's six foot one
And called Barack

He isn't lazy
And we're not crazy
We're making woopie

Now on the right
There all in fright
They're dreaming reparations
Throughout the night

But we ain't worried
Not even hurried
We're making woopie

So with health care
Nothing to fear
They'll be interned
They're mentally frail
But we'll be peaceful
Our health is gleeful
We're making woopie!


Friday, September 11, 2009

Bitch, bitch, and triple bitch

It's... culture shock time again.
For the past two weeks I have been engaged in a Don Quixotic venture to recover about $70 lost to an irresponsible bed and breakfast owner who stood me up during my latest trip to the U.K. I reserved a room in a place near a London airport through an Internet hotel operator, and when I showed at the appointed time and day, there was no-one there, a cell phone number pasted to the door, and a neighbor told me that he had had it up to.. HERE with the guy's incapacity to deal correctly with clients.
I sent several mails to the English tour operator, a big business, and received warm, friendly, and personalized replies in almost all cases. (sympathetic even...)
My only contact with the French branch of this outfit was... a short, cold, impersonal form letter telling me basically, that they were IN NO WAY responsible for what had happened, and that basically, I could take my complaint and shove it where the sun never shines.
Pause for a minute to allow your imagination to run free and play with how YOU would feel if you got that kind of a letter. Or... how you would feel if every time you wanted to contact your telephone company, you only got a recorded message, and there was NO WAY to EVER get hold of even a real TELEPHONE presence. A... PERSON, with a name, maybe even a... FACE.
Let it sink in.
Then, tell yourselves that this is what I/we deal with EVERY DAY in France. Those... cold, brutal, impersonal form letters, written by no names and nobodies.
Is it any wonder that many French people turn around and commit suicide when they finally encounter the straw that breaks the camel's back ?
Whereas... in the States, for example, people in similar situations... take out their rifles, their machine guns, their grenades, head for the local McDonald's or church, or school, or whatever, and promptly proceed to take themselves out with company, at least.
Culture shock. Yeah.
Today I feel like bitching about this cold, cruel, impersonal society.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stroller Chair Jesus

This morning I hopped on the bus to go to my piano lesson, and heading to the back, I crossed the bus lady Madonna, with her stroller chair Jesus.
She looked a little tired, you know, like the mothers of small children often look, and she smelled of cigarette smoke (people are picking up smoking again these days, times are rough, it's good to be sucking on a cigarette sometimes, at least it doesn't make you fat...), but the baby in the stroller looked just like Jesus in all those Renaissance paintings (where Jesus looks like a baby, and not a small God, and where's he's alive).
That beautiful, blissful smile that we would give anything and everything to recapture, the smile of someone who has seen eternity the other night, the smile in Leonardo's mystical painting of John the Baptist where a young, satyric John leaning on his staff, points towards heaven.
And those oh so closed eyes, turned inward on... WHAT ?
Will we ever know ?
When I see the bus lady Madonnas with their stroller chair Jesuses, I smile and watch them, sometimes nodding gravely. They are timeless vignettes. The world is passing by, Obamas are getting elected, people are exploding in bombs, hurricanes are destroying everything in their paths, but the bus lady Madonnas, they just keep watch over their smiling Jesuses, eyes closed, one foot in eternity.

Sunday, September 6, 2009



Ever walk down a dark street late at night? A husky man is coming toward you his right hand thrust into his leather jacket. What do you do?
Your mind assesses all the possibilities as the two of you are converging. You can cross the street. Turn and walk in the direction you came from. Walk by him. Run in any direction away from him, prepare to shout if he accosts you. How much money do you have what is the danger to you life? You continue to walk toward him, passing to his left he says something you don't quite understand. You utter, thanks but no thanks, continue on your way, you know some how he will not harm you and your sense of bluster will confirm your confidence further disarming him.
How did you arrive at this course of action?
In less than an instant your mind assessed his height weight, potential running speed and fighting prowess compared them to your own; it assessed his face, compared than to all other faces you have known. What did it say in terms of hostility, friendliness, depravation or other emotion? You simultaneously take in his body language. It is as communicative as his face. You run the same "model" assessing this body language against all other you have experienced in terms of hostility or serenity. In split seconds as your paths converge you have assessed all these possibilities without a single postulate being explicit, a single parameter consciously determined. Yet the decision is clear and irrevocable. He does not present a danger, continue on your way, react to any intercession with friendliness but firmness. This will further disarm any bad intent which might occur to him.
The situation passes as the model predicted. What model? That of wholly intuitive thought much quicker more comprehensive, finer in its assigning of parametric weights, more rigorous and comprehensive in its comparisons.
Shine such a light on the economy and you have John Maynard Keynes or George Soros. Muddle along with explicit models and you would be stuck in your tracks waiting for the stranger to approach and shake you down in total confidence.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


(Hearaclitus, Greek circa 503 BC)

This excellent philosophical insight from the ancient greek whom Nietszche extolled as the greatest of philosophers, even though only fragments of his philosophy remain, once understood sets up the dichotomy with Plato, some centuries later, from which all that we are discussing derives.

For if you can't postulate a "river" as it is always changiing, e.g. flowing, nor tree - always growing (Nietzshe), nor human -always forgetting and experiencing anew; than by extension all things change nothing exists in and of itself, there are no first essences or eternal principles. One can contrast this with the Platonic in which idealized forms express the essence of things and exist somewhere outside of our observation for the world of observation and phenomenon is for most observers one of flux. Aristotle and Kant who dealt mightily with this problem came to the postulate of God in order for the observable to have a basis in permanent reality as opposed to flux.

It appears to me that the mathematical problem Barkley was laying out of math as an immutable system rooted in reality(classical) or a theoretical construct of our imagination - "intuitionism" is again this issue of flux or permanent discernible realities.

My impression is that belief in one or the other of these systems is a genetic pre-disposition informed only marginally by our experience. For me a tendancy in the direction of Heraclitus and the wonder of unending differences has been reinforced with age as I forget my early life ane renew my currrent interests and beliefs.

Has the belief in permanency aided economics (or medicine)? Perhaps, but any belief exercised to an extreme is exclusive and shuts out much of what should be known. This is where I believe we are in economics and I see no signs of it changing unless and until the crisis increases significantly. And it will if things are in flux.


By the way, who's going to put up the next post ???

You guys are lazy louts.
You would spend all your free time talking about health care if I let you...

Just for fun, you should head over to the Nation and check out a tribute to Wallace Stevens (American poet) by James Lovenloch (I think that's his name...)

It is really fascinating confronting poetry itself with... the glose on poetry.
It's like straddling two boats : having one foot in one, and the other in the other.
I am becoming increasingly allergic to glose in all forms it may take, because you can read/hear it... on poetry, on art, on music, on the cinema, you name it, it hangs on art like Ophelia's water logged garments, dragging it down, leaden, dull, bombastic, where the original is sparing, and austere, to use Lovenloch's term.
Haven't you noticed how our species is ... homo explanatus, or homo linguas ?
We are chattering, chattering all the time.
We have machines that chatter at us without the need for voices coming out of bodies.
The cacaphony is terrible.

A non sequitur, but I have dug out my writing books, along the lines of "the Elements of Style" by Strunk. It is an excellent work, but I no longer need it. YOU, though, might enjoy, and profit from it...
I feel that we finally write well when we have managed to find our own, idiosyncratic, particular voice.
(Possibly) everybody can do it.
(AND.... if you MUST chatter on about health care in a monomaniac fashion, let's create individual posts to chat about health care, and not lazily stick our comments down on unrelated topics...)
Now, excuse me while I get back to my piano. ;-)

The Most Fabulous Objects In The World

  • Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe trilogy
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Flight of the Conchords
  • Time Bandits